Book Review: Horse Soldiers at Gettysburg: The Cavalryman’s View of the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign

Horse Soldiers at Gettysburg: The Cavalryman’s View of the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign. By Daniel Murphy. Essex, CT: Stackpole Books, 2023. Hardcover, 448 pp. $27.66.

Reviewed by Daniel Davis

In early June 1863, with the strategic initiative firmly in hand following the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee launched his second invasion of the North. Naturally, as the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia moved away from the Rappahannock River, their mounted forces would come to play an important role in the weeks ahead.

Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart and his Confederate horsemen entered the summer months with a competitive edge over their Federal counterparts. Stuart’s primary objective during the campaign’s opening was to screen Lee’s infantry on the march north. On the other side, a reorganization of the Union cavalry led to some recent success at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford back in March. During the Battle of Chancellorsville, an expedition led by Brig. Gen. George Stoneman, and known as “Stoneman’s Raid,” provided more experience for operating in the field. Building on this momentum, the Federals began the campaign hoping for additional chances to prove their mettle.

Their first opportunity came on June 9, 1863. After detecting Stuart’s presence in Culpeper County, the Federals, under Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, splashed across the Rappahannock and struck the Confederates near Brandy Station. In what became the largest cavalry battle ever fought in North America, the Union horsemen held their own in the day-long engagement. Although Stuart controlled the field at sunset, the Union cavalry gained additional confidence, and in doing so, raised their competency to equal level with the Confederates.

Stuart and Pleasonton clashed again a little over a week later in the Loudoun Valley. Over the course of four days, the adversaries fought three engagements at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, as Stuart skillfully kept the prying eyes of the Federals at a distance.

The fighting continued at Hanover, Pennsylvania, as the armies made their way into Maryland and the Keystone State. It finally reached its crescendo in southeastern Pennsylvania at the crossroads of Gettysburg. While Lee engaged the Union infantry under Maj. Gen. George G. Meade in the fields around and through the town, cavalry fighting erupted at Hunterstown, near Gettysburg, at Brinkerhoff’s Ridge, and on what is now East Cavalry Field. On the final day of the battle, the horsemen fought at Fairfield, southwest of Gettysburg.

After suffering a defeat at the hands of Meade, Lee began the long retreat back to Virginia. During the withdrawal, Stuart and Pleasonton continued to spar, at times with opposing infantry at Monterey Pass, Williamsport, Smithsburg, Boonsborough, Hagerstown, Funkstown, Greencastle, and Falling Waters.

With his new book, Horse Soldiers at Gettysburg: The Cavalryman’s View of the Civil War’s Pivotal Campaign, Daniel Murphy puts readers right in the saddle alongside the mounted soldiers in Blue and Gray. Utilizing a wide array of primary and secondary sources, Murphy weaves together a unique, fast-paced, and highly readable narrative.

While Murphy certainly covers well-studied personalities such as Stuart, John Buford, and George Armstrong Custer, he does not forget the experiences of the lowly “common troopers” riding in the ranks. Murphy does a masterful job of weaving Stuart’s famous ride seamlessly into the galloping narrative. Additionally, he thoroughly explains the cavalry tactics of the conflict, providing careful analysis that both the novice as well as those well-versed in cavalry operations will appreciate.

This work is highly recommended for students of Civil War cavalry operations and the Gettysburg Campaign. Horse Soldiers at Gettysburg also serves a fine follow up to Murphy’s previous publication about an earlier era of horsemen, William Washington, American Light Dragoon: A Continental Cavalry Leader in the War of Independence.

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