The Evolution of Cavalry Tactics: How Technology Drove Change (Part Five)

(part five in a series)

Having established the backdrop for the meat of this discussion, we can now examine the actual impact of technological advances upon battlefield tactics for cavalry in the Civil War.

The primary weapon employed by infantry during and before the Napoleonic era was the smoothbore musket, sometimes called blunderbusses. Smoothbore muskets were highly inaccurate and had a very short effective range of only 100 yards or so. This meant that most infantry fighting was done at very short range, and it also meant that cavalry charges against infantry in place were really only threatened in the last moments. While some units made effective use of rifled weapons during the American Revolution, the vast majority of the troops who fought in the years leading up to the Civil War were smoothbores.

The same was true of artillery. Smoothbore artillery had an effective range of less than a mile. Again, this meant that charging cavalry was safe from artillery fire until the final stages of charges. However, the advent of rifled artillery in the 1850’s, which had greater accuracy and much longer range, only added to the obstructions faced by a Napoleonic cavalry charge on a more modern battlefield.

One of the things that made smoothbore muskets obsolete was the development of rifling. Smoothbore muskets typically had an effective range of 100 yards or so, while rifled muskets were far more accurate and had a much greater effective range of 300-500 yards. Given that the standard military tactics of the Napoleonic era were for men to advance shoulder to shoulder in line of battle to within a short distance of the enemy, the advent of rifled muskets eventually made most Napoleonic infantry tactics obsolete, as the American Civil War demonstrated.

Whereas under the Napoleonic model, a cavalry charge could make it to within a couple of hundred yards of the enemy infantry without having to worry about drawing fire, the much greater range and accuracy of rifled muskets meant that cavalry making a Napoleonic charge would draw accurate enemy fire at a much longer range. The longer range also meant that the infantry could re-load and get off a second or even third volley before the cavalry arrived, while infantry armed with smoothbores had no opportunity to re-load before the charging mass of cavalry was upon them.

In the days before rifled muskets, grand Napoleonic charges by heavy cavalry, which was armored, were especially effective. And in the Napoleonic mode, lancers were particularly effective. They carried weapons that struck terror into the hearts of infantry, who were often largely defenseless against being run through by lances. All of that changed with the advent of rifled muskets and rifled artillery.

All of this should have been obvious after seeing the catastrophe that befell the British brigade of Light Cavalry at the 1854 Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War. Approximately 670 British troopers made the charge into the teeth of Russian infantry and artillery, taking heavy fire all the way. 156 were killed or missing and 122 were wounded, for total losses of 278, inspiring Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic eponymous poem. The fate that befell Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade should have served notice that the days of the Napoleonic cavalry charge were numbered, but it didn’t.


Union commanders definitely did not learn from the lessons of the Light Brigade. Three examples illustrate this. We briefly discussed one of them in part four. At Gaine’s Mill during the Seven Days’ battles of 1862, a Napoleonic charge by a battalion of the 5th US Cavalry failed miserable. Late in the afternoon of June 27, 1862, Confederate infantry, which had aggressively attacked the Army of the Potomac all day, led by Gen. John B. Hood’s Texas Brigade, punched a hole in the Union line, which caused the Union line to crumble with heavy losses. Desperate, Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke, the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, ordered a battalion of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Capt. Charles J. Whiting, to charge in an effort to slow the Confederate pursuit.

“We dashed forward with a wild cheer, in solid column of squadrons,” remembered a Regular. “Our formation was almost instantly broken by the necessity of opening to right and left to pass our guns.” The charge failed miserably, with the Regulars losing 55 out of the 237 men who made the charge. Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter, the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Fifth Corps, wrote, “All appeared to be doing well, our troops withdrawing in order…when to my great surprise, the artillery on the left was thrown into confusion by a charge of cavalry. The explanation of this is that although the cavalry had been directed…to keep below the hill and under no circumstance to appear upon the crest, but to operate, if a favorable opportunity offered, against the flank of the enemy in the bottom-land. Brig. Gen. P. St. George Cooke, doubtless misinformed, ordered it…this charge…resulted, of course in their being thrown into confusion, and the bewildered horses, regardless of the efforts of the riders, wheeled about, and dashing through the batteries, convinced the gunners were charged by the enemy. To this alone is to be attributed our failure to hold the battle-field.”


“The cavalry did much on that field to restore the fortunes of the day in charging and supporting under the most merciless fire batteries…on account of having no supports, would have been obliged to retire much earlier than they did,” wrote Wesley Merritt, who was then serving on Cooke’s staff, and who was the final commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps. Another Regular said, “so far as those of the 5th Regular Cavalry present in this charge were concerned, we certainly did our whole duty, just as we were ordered. We saved some guns, and tried to save all.” He concluded with a true statement: “A large number fell in that terrible charge, and sleep with the many heroes who on that day gave their lives for the Union.”

A few weeks later, at the August 9, 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain, after a full day of hard combat, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s infantry finally broke the line held by the men of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks late in the afternoon. By 7:45 that evening, the Union army was in full retreat. Desperate to buy time for his retreating soldiers to escape, Banks ordered two squadrons (four companies) of the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry to charge the Confederate infantry, which was protected by a fence line. A devastating volley halted the Union cavalry in its tracks, dropping about 30 out of the 116 troopers who made the charge. The regimental historian of the 1st Pennsylvania claimed, “The first battalion dashed upon the enemy, broke three successive lines of infantry, turned and fought back…The advance of the enemy was completely checked by this daring charge, and the battery saved.”


The best-known episode, of course, was the charge of three of the four regiments of the brigade of Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth on the South Cavalry Field at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. Farnsworth had been ordered to operate on the Confederate far right flank, trying to keep Lt. Gen. James Longstreet from shifting troops to support what has become known to history as Pickett’s Charge. After a protracted period of dismounted skirmishing and the repulse of Pickett’s attack, two of Farnsworth’s regiments, the 1st West Virginia and 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, were both repulsed early in the charge. The third regiment, the 1st Vermont Cavalry, led by Farnsworth himself, however, broke through the skirmish line of the 1st Texas Cavalry and charged at two batteries of artillery and Confederate infantry in place. The artillery and infantry blasted holes in the ranks of the charging cavalry, forced it to divert and flee to safety, and killed Farnsworth himself at it climax. The brave, desperate charge of Farnsworth and the Vermonters was for naught—it had no chance of success, costing the life of a brave and competent young soldier who only got to wear his general’s stars for five days before he fell while leading the charge.

There were a handful of exceptions to the rule, of course. A five brigade front charge, by more than 10,000 Union cavalrymen, proved to be the decisive blow that won the Third Battle of Winchester for Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah on September 19, 1864. This awesome charge—witnesses said that the earth shook as if an earthquake was occurring—crashed into the end of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s army, shattered his line, and sent his army “whirling through Winchester,” as a Union staff officer put. Exactly a month later, another massed Union Napoleonic cavalry charge proved to be the decisive blow at the climax of the Battle of Cedar Creek that sent Early’s army flying in a wild rout.

But those two Napoleonic charges were the exception and not the rule. The advent of rifled musketry and rifled artillery greatly extended the effective range of infantry and gave it time to inflict heavy losses on the charging cavalry. These changes in technology made the Napoleonic cavalry charge obsolete. When combined with the changes in the technology employed by the Union cavalry in particular, which we will examine in the next installment of this series, the role of cavalry changed forever.

4 Responses to The Evolution of Cavalry Tactics: How Technology Drove Change (Part Five)

  1. Eric: More solid material and I’m looking forward to the next installment. I’ve always found Porter’s finger-pointing at Gaines’ Mill annoying (to say the least). I recall that even McClellan’s friend the Comte de Paris concluded that the charge was responsible for saving some of the federal guns, and a few Confederate opponents held the same view IIRC. Porter’s implication that the charge caused him to retreat from the field was absurd at the time and remains so. ..

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