Union Cavalry versus Confederate Cavalry

"...here there was the glorious reality of war, the bronzed faces, the worn uniforms, the well tattered flags, the roll of the heavy guns.....while the long line of cavalry, their helmets and accouterments shining in the morning sun, brought back one's boyish dreams of joust and tournament and made the heart beat high with chivalrous enthusiasm"

From the novel; Charles O'Malley - The Irish Dragoon by Charles James Lever


In rough terms, military professionals in the 19th century thought it took two years to train a raw recruit into a cavalryman. This is harder when the man you are training doesn't know how to ride a horse to begin with. This gave the Confederate cavalryman a distinct advantage in the first year of the Civil War and even up to the time, July 31st 1862, when Captain Myles Keogh (left) and Captain John O'Keeffe were assigned to the personal staff of cavalry brigade commander, General John Buford.

In Southern states, men generally rode horses and used them in daily activity. In the North, particularly northeastern states, men normally drove wagons or buggies instead of riding horses. As a result, while Southern cavalry regiments were concentrating on turning men into soldiers, Northern ones had the extra task of teaching them to ride. The only advantage the Union horsemen had over their opponents was the centralized horse procurement organization of the Northern army, relieving troopers of any responsibility for replacing an injured horse

In practice, poor horsemanship affected cavalry regiments from the East more, and was felt in the Army of the Potomac/Army of Virginia. Union cavalry there had enough trouble just moving mounted in formation, often losing a substantial number of men to falls and mishaps in a simple change of position. Actually fighting while mounted with such troops must have sent shudders through old mounted troopers like Buford. It was only practical for them to develop an early preference for dismounted action.

Cavalry forces were composed of troops of 100 men (comparable to an infantry company). Two troops composed a squadron, although later in the war these were generally replaced by battalions of four troops. Union cavalry regiments usually contained 12 troops, with Confederate regiments containing 10 troops. By the end of the war, 272 cavalry regiments were formed in the Union army and 137 in the Confederate army.

There were four types of mounted forces prevalent in the Civil War.
  1. Cavalry were forces that fought principally on horseback, armed with carbines, pistols, and especially sabers. Only a small percentage of Civil War forces met this definition—primarily Union mounted forces in the Eastern Theater during the first half of the war. Confederate forces in the East generally carried neither carbines nor sabers. A few Confederate regiments in the Western Theater carried shotguns, especially early in the war.
  2. Mounted infantry were forces that moved on horseback but dismounted for fighting on foot, armed principally with rifles. In the second half of the war, most of the units considered to be cavalry actually fought battles using the tactics of mounted infantry. An example of this was the celebrated "Lightning Brigade" of Col. John T. Wilder (right), which used horses to quickly arrive at a battlefield such as Chickamauga, but they deployed and fought using standard infantry formations and tactics. By contrast, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Federal cavalry under John Buford also dismounted to fight Confederate infantry, but they used conventional cavalry tactics, arms, and formations.
  3. Dragoons were hybrid forces that were armed as cavalrymen but were expected to fight on foot as well. The term comes from the English Civil War, representing a cross between light cavalry and infantry. The fighting tactics of the forces deployed by Union General Philip Sheridan in 1864, and by Confederate General Wade Hampton after the Battle of Yellow Tavern, fit the dragoon model, although those units did not adopt the term.
  4. Irregular forces (partisan rangers or guerrillas) were generally mounted forces. There is little commonality as to their weapons—in general, any available were used. The Confederacy produced the most famous irregular leaders, including William Clarke Quantrill, John S. Mosby, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and John Hunt Morgan (although the latter two did employ traditional mounted infantry tactics in some campaigns)
Equipping a cavalry regiment was an expensive proposition - approximately $100,000 per year for a Union regiment - and they demanded a large logistical infrastructure to support them. (Pictured above is a blacksmith's station at Antietam, 1862) A cavalry horse ate 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of grain each day, which had to be transported behind the otherwise fast-moving force.

Weaponry varied to some degree among the two armies - some mounted forces used traditional infantry rifles whereas cavalrymen, particularly in the North, were frequently armed with three other weapons:
  • Carbines , with a shorter barrel than a rifle, were less accurate, but easier to handle on horseback. Most carbines were .52- or .56-caliber, single-shot breech-loading weapons. They were manufactured by several different companies, but the most common were the Sharps, the Burnside, and the Smith. In 1863, the seven-shot Spencer (above) repeating carbine was introduced, but it was rarely deployed. A notable exception again was Union Colonel John T. Wilder, who equipped his entire "Lightning Brigade" with repeaters (at his men's own expense of $35 apiece) in May 1863. One Confederate stated that Wilder's men could "load on Sunday and fire all week." As we shall also learn, Buford's cavalry, including Keogh, carried single-shot, breechloading carbines manufactured by Sharps, Burnside, and others into battle at Gettysburg. It is a modern myth that they were armed with multi-shot repeating carbines. Nevertheless, they were able to fire two or three times faster than a muzzle-loaded carbine or rifle.
  • Sabers were used more frequently by Northern cavalrymen. They were terror weapons, more useful for instilling fear in their opponents than as practical offensive weapons; Confederate cavalrymen often avoided them simply because they considered sabers to be outmoded, unsuitable for the modern battlefield. One Southern cavalry commander noted that the only times during the war he used a saber was to roast meat over a fire. There were instances in the war in which Union cavalrymen taunted their opponents to "Pick up your sabers and fight like gentlemen!" Despite Southern attitudes towards such weapons, there were several notable instances where the saber saw much use by both sides, including the Battle of Brandy Station and the cavalry battles on the third day of Gettysburg. The American cavalry saber was lighter than the typical European saber, the latter being similar to the older U.S. Model 1840 "wrist breaker" (right). The curved blade of the saber was generally sharpened only at the tip because it was used mostly for breaking arms and collarbones of opposing horsemen, and sometimes stabbing, rather than for slashing flesh. A notable exception to this was the saber of Nathan Bedford Forrest (CSA), which was sharpened on both edges.

  • Pistols, which Southern cavalrymen generally preferred over sabers, were usually six-shot revolvers, in .36- or .44-caliber (above), from Colt or Remington. They were useful only in close fighting since they had little accuracy. It was common for cavalrymen to carry two revolvers, for extra firepower, and John Mosby's troopers (CSA) often carried four each.
The balance between the mounted soldiers of both armies became more even as the war progressed and in August 1862, Buford's Union cavalry met the famed Rebel cavalry head on during the final stages of the Battle of the Second Bull Run or, as it was called in the South, the Second Manassas. Alongside their new general, both Keogh and O'Keeffe would be in the thick of the action...