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

Christopher Spencer

(part six in a series)

In the previous installment of this series, we demonstrated how the advent of rifled muskets and rifled artillery made the Napoleonic cavalry charge obsolete. Now, we will examine how the evolution of the technology employed by the cavalry made the traditional role of cavalry largely obsolete and forced it to evolve into something else entirely new.

Historically, dragoons and some cavalrymen carried weapons called musketoons. Musketoons were shorter barreled versions of muskets, which meant that they typically were smooth bore muzzleloaders. They had a short effective range and were difficult to re-load because they were muzzleloaders. American dragoons carried them with some effectiveness during the Mexican War, but by the 1850’s, they were largely obsolete.

The advent of breech loading carbines hastened the process of making smoothbores obsolete. Christian Sharp patented and produced the first breech loading rifles in 1848, just as the Mexican War was ending. Known for accuracy and extended range, these breech loading weapons allowed a proficient soldier to get off six rounds per minute rather than three. The problem was that they cost three times as much as a muzzle-loading rifle to manufacture, which meant that their use was not widespread during the Civil War.

Sharp soon developed a shorter version of his rifle to be used by cavalry. Cavalry carbines featured shorter barrels that led to shorter range; the effective range of a Sharps carbine was about 500 yards. But they were highly accurate, could be fired form horseback, and could be reloaded quickly, acting as a force multiplier for the cavalry; Col. Robert H. G. Minty’s Saber Brigade, armed with carbines (including one regiment armed with Colt repeating rifles), held off nearly 6000 Confederates for most of a day with only 973 officers and men on September 18, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Chickamauga. In 1853, Capt. Richard S. Ewell of the 2nd Dragoons said that the Sharps carbine was “superior to any firearm yet provided to the dragoons.” It quickly became the workhorse for the United States cavalry.

Before long, a number of other cavalry carbines reached the market, such as the Ballard, Starr, Merrill, Burnside (invented by the future commander of the Army of the Potomac, Ambrose E. Burnside), the Lindner, and numerous others. These breech-loading carbines enabled cavalrymen to fire them either mounted or dismounted, and also enabled them to achieve a rapid rate of fire, albeit with a short effective range.

The game-changers entered the scene in 1863. Christopher Spencer invented a rifle—and later a carbine—that loaded seven bullets into a tube that could be swapped out. For the first time, a soldier could fire seven shots in a matter of less than a minute without having to reload the gun.

1865 Spencer Carbine

In September 1863, the Spencer carbine went into mass production. “The general desire of the best regiments is to be armed with the Spencer carbines,” wrote Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, head of the Cavalry Bureau, in the early spring of 1864. “By arming one or two regiments in each department with them, their old arms turned in will supply the deficiencies in other regiments.” Thus, by the spring of 1864, a large percentage of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps carried Spencer carbines, meaning that not only could a cavalryman now lay down rapid fire, he would not have to reload anywhere near as often. Thus, the Spencer carbine acted as a force multiplier, particularly when compared to the standard weapon carried by Confederate cavalry: either single-shot breech loaders, or often, muzzle loaders with all of the limitations that all muzzle-loaders had.

An even greater force multiplier came in the form of the new Henry Rifle, the first semi-automatic weapon. The Henry Rifle had a sixteen shot magazine, firing rim fire bullets with brass casings, which prompted the Confederates to refer to it as “That damned Yankee rifle that you load on Sunday and shoot all week.” Only a single Union regiment—the 1st District of Columbia Cavalry—was fully armed with the Henry Rifle, which was probably a good thing for the Confederates since they had nothing that could compete with its firepower.

Henry Repeating Rifle
Major General Philip “Little Phil” Sheridan

Also in spring of 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan assumed command of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps. Sheridan, who had formerly commanded a division of infantry in the Army of the Cumberland, where he had seen how the Spencer rifle could impact the battlefield at Hoover’s Gap during the Tullahoma Campaign and all over the Chickamauga battlefield, wanted to bring the power of the new technology to bear.

Sheridan wanted to change the mission of the Union cavalry from the traditional roles of scouting, screening and reconnaissance and convert it into a mounted strike force that would take the fight to the Confederate cavalry, preventing it from harassing the Army of the Potomac. This was how Sheridan described his theory in his memoir, which was published posthumously:

…with a mass of ten thousand mounted men, it was my belief that I could make it so lively for the enemy’s cavalry that, so far as attacks from it were concerned, the flanks and rear of the Army of the Potomac would require little or no defense, and claimed, further, that moving columns of infantry should take care of their own fronts. I also told him that it was my object to defeat the enemy’s cavalry in a general combat, if possible, and by such a result establish a feeling of confidence in my own troops that would enable us after a while to march where we pleased, for the purpose of breaking General Lee’s communications and destroying the resources from which his army was supplied.

George G. Meade

The idea as here outlined was contrary to Meade’s convictions, for though at different times since he commanded the Army of the Potomac considerable bodies of the cavalry had been massed for some special occasion, yet he had never agreed to the plan as a permanency, and could not be bent to it now. He gave little encouragement, therefore, to what I proposed, yet the conversation was immediately beneficial in one way, for when I laid before him the true condition of the cavalry, he promptly relieved it from much of the arduous and harassing picket service it was performing, thus giving me about two weeks in which to nurse the horses before the campaign opened.

The interview also disclosed the fact that the cavalry commander should be, according to General Meade’s views, at his headquarters practically as one of his staff, through whom he would give detailed directions as, in his judgment, occasion required. Meade’s ideas and mine being so widely divergent, disagreements arose between us later during the battles of the Wilderness, which lack of concord ended in some concessions on his part after the movement toward Spotsylvania Court House began, and although I doubt that his convictions were ever wholly changed, yet from that date on, in the organization of the Army of the Potomac, the cavalry corps became more of a compact body, with the same privileges and responsibilities that attached to the other corps — conditions that never actually existed before.

Sheridan put his theories to the test during the 1864 Overland Campaign. On May 8, after a titanic row with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Sheridan led the entire Cavalry Corps on a raid toward Richmond intended to draw out Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Cavalry Corps. On May 11, 1864, a trooper of Brig. Gen. George A. Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade mortally wounded Stuart in battle. At the May 28, 1864 Battle of Haw’s Shop, the Union cavalry expended 18,000 Spencer rounds in a day of savage fighting while the troopers of the 4th and 5th South Carolina Cavalry, by contrast, were armed with muzzle-loading Enfield rifles and were at a major disadvantage in terms of firepower. For much of the Overland Campaign, the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps operated independently and often far from the main body of the army, just as Sheridan wanted it to do.

When Sheridan became commander of the Middle Military District on August 8, 1864, he brought two divisions of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps with him to the Shenandoah Valley, where they joined the cavalry division already serving there. The Army of the Shenandoah’s Cavalry Corps, commanded by Brig. Gen. Alfred T. A. Torbert, delivered the decisive blows in two of the three major battles of the 1864 Valley Campaign, as mentioned in Part Five of this series. The 1864 Valley Campaign, in many ways, represents the zenith of the growing power of the Union cavalry, making the maximum use of the new weapons that they carried, multiplying the already significant manpower advantage enjoyed by Sheridan’s army.

By the fall of 1864, the Union cavalry had evolved from performing the traditional roles of scouting, screening, and reconnaissance to an independent, incredibly powerful mobile strike force. While the traditional role of cavalry remained important to an army on the march, the evolution of the technology carried by those horse soldiers in turn dramatically changed the tactics that the cavalry employed in the field. The firepower of the Spencer carbine and Henry Rifle created such a force multiplier that cavalry became a major offensive weapon that often.

10 Responses to The Evolution of Cavalry Tactics: How Technology Drove Change (Part Six)

  1. Excellent piece that taught me much, thank you for producing these. The more I learn about cavalry tactics and their implementation, from your writings, the more I have questions about the disagreements that arose @ the Wilderness in regards to the effective use of cavalry and the tactics they should employ. Can you recommend some reading on this particular piece of cavalry history, in my backyard on the Wilderness Battlefield?

  2. Wow! Information not really addressed in the many books I’ve read of the Overland Campaign including Humphreys. A mobile strike force. And finally some great background details about the difference of opinion between Meade and Sheridan. Thank you for an excellent series.

    1. Thank you, Henry. I appreciate it.

      I actually addressed the disagreement between Meade and Sheridan in great detail in my Little Phil if further detail is of interest.

      1. Eric: I strongly recommend that book to anyone who is interested in Sheridan’s role in the Virginia theater. It presents a very supportable “take” which goes against much of the conventional wisdom.

  3. Joe,

    Thanks for the kind words–I appreciate them. And I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying them. There are two more installments left, and I turned part 7 in today.

    To answer your question: unfortunately, no. At some point, I may rectify that. So far as I know, Gordon Rhea has given these topics the best treatment. You might also have a look at volume 2 of Stephen Z. Starr’s The Union Cavalry.

  4. Changes my view of Sheridan as a renegade commander who often caused major intelligence problems for Meade, which may have remained true,
    to a major positive offensive force.

  5. A couple of comments and a follow up question. The Spencer and Henry gave Union Troopers a superior cartidge that was weather proof compared to the paper cartridges of Sharps carbines. It’s obvious in the Western Theater, once armed with these “repeaters”, that Union Cavalry typically held their own, or dominated their Confederate counterparts. I’ve often wondered why some of these engagements weren’t even more one sided in favor of the Union Cavalry. Could the reason be related to the amount of smoke generated by weapons of the time? Accuracy being diminished once several rounds being fired?

  6. Eric, can you answer question above about the smoke from a rapid rate of fire from the Spencer’s? It would be an interesting observation to see several hundred soldiers firing Spencers with non-smokeless powder cartridges, to see how that might effect accuracy.

  7. Haw’s Shop is a bad example to use to demonstrate the alleged superiority of the Spencer. The Federal report notes that they were outgunned by “long range” Enfields, and the result was essentially an equal exchange (365 vs 367 casualties). In fact, one of the problems is that no battle really shows the Spencer as being superior to an Enfield, or even a smoothbore, in actual action.

    If I may quote Earl J. Hess:

    “There is no evidence that breechloaders or repeaters were consistently more deadly than other arms. The occasions on which it can be proved they mowed down the enemy were also occasions where other tactical or human factors came into play to determine the rate of fire effectiveness. Otherwise, the new weapons seem to have produced a spectacular display of pyrotechnics without necessarily a proportionality higher rate of killed or wounded. In short, it is important for historians not to take for granted the awestruck descriptions of repeaters in action that fill Civil War literature.”

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