The opening months of 1863 marked the beginning of a season of change for the Army of the Potomac. Major General Ambrose Burnside, who had directed the disastrous Fredericksburg Campaign and subsequent “Mud March”, had been replaced by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. With a profound appreciation of his command’s condition, Hooker instituted a series of reforms to help improve the army’s morale and restore it to fighting condition. A system of furloughs was implemented, rations improved and corps insignia adopted. But on February 5, 1863, 155 years ago today, Hooker issued General Orders Number 6. This directive would have a lasting impact on the army in the months and years to come.
Paragraph 3 of the order stated: “The cavalry of the army will be consolidated into one corps, under the command of Brigadier-General Stoneman, who will make the necessary assignments for detached duty.”
Under previous commanders, the Union horsemen had been parceled out to the various corps and later grand divisions. Although Burnside and his predecessor, George McClellan, had maintained separate brigades, reserves and divisions throughout their tenures, the troopers lacked overarching cohesion. Under General Orders Number 6, for the first time, the mounted arm would operate under the direction of one commander who reported directly to army headquarters.
The commanding general’s choice to lead the corps was a logical one. A West Point graduate, George Stoneman brought experience with cavalry and at the command level to the post. Prior to the war he had been assigned to the 1st U.S. Dragoons and 2nd U.S. Cavalry. During his time with the dragoons, he had served as Acting Assistant Quartermaster and Adjutant, positions that would improve his administrative skills, a trait that was invaluable to a corps commander. Stoneman had also been McClellan’s cavalry chief, a position he held for over a year and more recently, the head of the III Corps in the Army of the Potomac.
Hooker’s directive had finally placed his horsemen under a similar organizational structure as their Confederate counterparts. The order marked a new chapter in the history the Federal mounted arm. It was the genesis of the Union cavalry’s ascendance to superiority in the Eastern Theater.