Union Cavalry

Editor's Note: Buford is the name used by a regular in the Civil War Chat Room. Besides his many other accomplishments, he is a Civil War Historian of some renown, and a published Civil War author. Though he has many interests in the Civil War, his favorite is Union Cavalry.

        The US Cavalry was newly integrated in 1861. There had been two dragoon regiments, two light cavalry regiments, and a regiment of mounted rifles. All were commanded by Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke, who really didn't know how to manage modern cavalry. McClellan also resented the volunteer cavalry, and didn't trust it. Instead, he would assign individual companies of volunteer cavalry to serve with infantry brigades. Instead of doing as cavalry was supposed to do, which was to scout and screen, it served primarily as messengers and orderlies. It was, overall, an extremely poor use for the cavalry. The only cohesive cavalry unit McClellan utilized were the Regulars, which served together as a Cavalry Reserve Brigade. They were generally used poorly, although a famous but ineffective mounted charge was made by the 5th U.S. at Gaines Mill. The only really effective use of cavalry by McClellan was as part of a combined force operation commanded by G. K. Warren toward Hanover Courthouse in June 1862 which led to the destruction of bridges over the North Anna and caused Jackson to be late for the opening of the 7 days' battles.
        This ineffective and ineffectual use of cavalry probably cost McClellan an opportunity to destroy Lee at Antietam. The cavalry spent the day "supporting the batteries" in the middle of the Federal line. One brigade was mildly involved, and its commander was decapitated by a cannonball. The Federal cavalry took a total of 12 casualties in the war's bloodiest single day. Tell you something? Instead, the cavalry should have been out scouting the flanks and guarding. If it had, it could have detected the approach of Hill's division from Harper's Ferry, and perhaps delayed its approach to Sharpsburg long enough to permit Burnside's attack to succeed. Instead, Hill made an unmolested approach, and saved the day.
        The ironic thing is that there were competent commanders available to McClellan. Benjamin F. "Grimes" Davis, a career horse trooper, had led the escape of a cavalry brigade from Harper's Ferry instead of surrendering, an expedition fraught with peril. He was at Antietam. Buford was McClellan's chief of cavalry. Pleasonton commanded the troops in the field. George D. Bayard, a fine cavalryman who was killed at Fredericksburg, was in command of the cavalry guarding Washington. Devin was there, commanding a regiment. So, there were competent troopers available. The problem is that McClellan was clueless as to how to use them. My opinion is that Little Mac's misuse of the cavalry cost its development at least a year and a half, and is the reason why Stuart rode rings (literally) around him until March 1863, when the Battle of Kelly's Ford was fought on March 17. So, while Little Mac did wonders for the A of P, he actually harmed the mounted arm immeasurably. The truth is that it took Joe Hooker to realize the potential, organize the cavalry corps, and use the cavalry properly.

This Page last updated 01/26/02