Cover image for Lincoln's cavalrymen : a history of the mounted forces of The Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865
Lincoln's cavalrymen : a history of the mounted forces of The Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865
Longacre, Edward G., 1946-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
ix, 470 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
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E470 .L818 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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First modern study to focus solely on the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac Includes all major battles and commanders

In this first of a two-volume survey of the Union and Confederate cavalries, primary sources abound. Historian Edward G. Longacre has consulted 50 manuscript collections pertaining to general officers of cavalry as well as the unpublished letters and diaries of 200 officers and enlisted men, representing almost every mounted unit in the Army of the Potomac. Well known for interrogating "conventional wisdom," he also contributes some provocative analyses regarding the mounted army's organization, leadership, and tactics. This is an exhaustive study that no Civil War enthusiast will want to miss.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Prolific Civil War historian Longacre, biographer of Gettysburg heroes George Pickett and John Buford, aims this book at serious Civil War buffs. The cavalry of the Army of the Potomac began the war handicapped by a shortage of officers and a belief that the war would be over before newly raised volunteer horsemen would be effective. Cavalry volunteers soon came forward, however, and learned their craft quite adequately by the end of 1862. Their shortcomings against their Southern opponents were attributable less to lack of skill than to poor tactical leadership and inept strategic deployment. By 1863, the blue horsemen were peers of their gray opponents. By 1864, they were superior, and not only in numbers and the firepower of repeating firearms. Longacre persuasively argues against a number of myths, writes plainly but clearly, and provides abundant scholarly direction for those who wish to pursue further study. --Roland Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

Well known in Civil War circles, author Longacre (The Cavalry at Gettysburg, etc.) has written a major work on the Union cavalry of the North's primary field army in Virginia. Having mined more than 300 manuscript collections as well as numerous primary sources and secondary studies, Longacre has crafted a carefully written, well-researched tome. From the beginning of the war to Appomattox Court House, he examines the Regular Army's prewar mounted troops, then follows the genesis of the volunteer cavalry, a process that was painfully slow, especially given 1861 predictions that put the war's duration at three months. A perceptive chapter on arms, mounts, equipment and drill provides a fresh look at the problems inherent in raising and equipping volunteers on horseback. Included are capsule biographies and critical assessments of the cavalry's leadersÄmen like George Stoneman, John Buford, Alfred Pleasonton, George A. Custer and Phil Sheridan. Throughout, the author details the skirmishes, battles and raids conducted by Union cavalry without quite resorting to blow-by-blows. The focus is rather on the cavalry's role in the broader context of the war in the east and its many campaigns. Within this framework, Longacre succeeds brilliantly in showing us a crucial, much-tested force. Photos and maps. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In this first installment of a projected two-volume survey of the Union and Confederate cavalries, historian Longacre (Army of Amateurs) goes beyond previous works (Charles D. Rhodes's History of the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, o.p., and Stephen Z. Starr's The Union Cavalry in the Civil War, 1985) in his unabashedly sympathetic treatment of those Yankee cavaliers who fought from Yorkstown and Williamsburg to Gettysburg, Petersburg, the Shenandoah Valley, and Appomattox, declaring that Lincoln's horsemen were always capable of outriding and outfighting their adversaries. The author faults commanders-in-chief McClellan, Pope, Burnside, and Meade for underutilizing their cavalry and praises Hooker and Sheridan, respectively, for organizational reforms and leadership. This exhaustively researched tome offers fascinating insights into the Union cavalry's structure, field tactics, logistical support, equine care and diseases, kit, and weaponry, especially noting with regard to the latter the introduction of the rapid-firing Spencer carbine. Recommended for most libraries.DJohn Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Athens (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The story of war has no more thrilling periods than those which tell of the achievements, in all ages, of warriors on horseback.     --Lt. Richard S. Tuthill, U.S.A., 1883 Chapter One An Uncertain Heritage Carl Schurz--German émigré, Republican Party activist, and U.S. minister designate to Spain--was a frequent visitor to the White House. As leader and spokesman of the politically powerful German-American bloc whose support had helped elect Abraham Lincoln, Schurz had discovered that he need only state his desires and the president would do his utmost to grant them. Thus on the present occasion, two months after the formation of the Confederate States of America and less than two weeks after South Carolinians had shelled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Schurz foresaw no difficulty in gaining approval of his latest project: the raising of a regiment of troops in New York City for service in defense of the Union, with himself in command.     Lincoln appeared sympathetic to his visitor's request, but he was unusually noncommittal. Recruiting matters, he explained, had to be referred to General in Chief Winfield Scott and Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Those officials had the final word; the president would not overrule them except in unusual circumstances.     After some small talk, an unfazed Schurz bade his party's leader farewell and strolled down Pennsylvania Avenue to the War Department, where he arranged an interview with the stoop-shouldered, portly, seventy-four-year-old Scott. Afterward, his aplomb rather shaken, Schurz secured an audience with the leonine war secretary--an audience that further discomfited him. To the surprise and chagrin of the distinguished visitor, neither of his hosts seemed disposed to grant his request.     Schurz thought their rejection absurd, and he told Scott and Cameron so. In the two weeks since Sumter's surrender, prominent men from all corners of the North, whether possessing military experience or--as was far more often the case--wholly lacking it, had secured not only authority to raise regiments of volunteers, but also commissions as colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors. A few well-known civilians had even been promised appointments as general officers. Why should a Republican stalwart, a confidant of the president's, be denied an opportunity extended to such men, many of them critics of the administration?     The aged general and his civilian superior patiently explained that the authority to recruit had gone to those desiring to raise regiments of infantry. Schurz, on the other hand, wished to create something the fledgling Union Army in the East conspicuously lacked--a regiment of volunteer cavalry. Schurz politely interrupted. He was certain that cavalry material abounded among the German communities of New York and Philadelphia, which included veterans of mounted service in Prussia, Hesse-Cassel, and other militaristic states. And cavalry, a combat arm equal in value to foot soldiers and artillerymen, would be a boon to any army that invaded the South, would it not?     Schurz's hosts were unmoved by his arguments. They agreed that cavalry, as an abstract principle, was a good thing to have. But the war that was taking form as they spoke would necessarily be brief--a few weeks, a month or two at the most. Infantry and perhaps artillery could contribute to the Union's military fortunes during that period, but a well-mounted, well-armed, and well-equipped regiment of cavalry would take many months to assemble. Moreover, it was an accepted fact that due to the complexities of mounted service, two or three years were needed to properly train a horse soldier. And that timetable applied to the spit-and-polish troopers of the regular establishment, where training was rugged and discipline severe. How much longer might it take to make cavalrymen of civilians?     Scott and Cameron shuddered at the thought of volunteers on horseback. Short-term citizen-soldiers would neglect and abuse horseflesh and fail to maintain the weapons and tack entrusted to them. Moreover, volunteers would absorb the tactical lessons of their arm so slowly and imperfectly as to turn a regiment of cavalry--whose annual upkeep cost ninety thousand dollars--into a gaggle of joyriders. And even should volunteer cavalry become available through the largess of private benefactors, the anticipated battleground of the war--Virginia, which had just passed an ordinance of secession--was too densely wooded, too riven by watercourses, too lacking in cleared ground to admit the employment of horse soldiers on the scale common to the wars of Europe. No, volunteer cavalry, in any strength, was impractical.     Scott and Cameron agreed that whatever duties short of combat horsemen might perform--reconnaissance, guard duty, intelligence gathering, provost and courier service--could easily be handled by the five mounted units of the Regular Army. Therefore, the government would not supply the horses and accoutrements Schurz's troopers would need. Would he care to raise an infantry regiment instead?     Perhaps, thought a weary Schurz. Upon concluding his interviews, enlightened in the obtuse ways of the War Department, he left Washington for Philadelphia and then New York, where he sought to recruit units of all arms. The success of his efforts is instructive. The four regiments of foot soldiers in whose organization he played a role, however minor--the 7th, 8th, 11th, and 20th New York Infantries--were mustered into Federal service in the last days of April and the first week in May. They went off to war without Schurz, who, after much deliberation, accepted an appointment to Madrid. He did not return to America to accept a field command in the Army of the Potomac until February 1862. The regiment of horse that Schurz never stopped dreaming of, which later became known as the 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry, was not accepted by the War Department until late that summer, after the first land actions of the war had ended in Union defeat. No other regiment of volunteer cavalry had received government sanction, either. The 1st New York therefore ranked as the first volunteer cavalry regiment of the war. * * * If the secretary of war and the commanding general of the Army truly believed that the regular service would carry cavalry's burden in the coming war, they were either ignorant or deluded. In fact, the five mounted units available to the nation in April 1861, the youngest of which had been in existence for only six years, were too few to meet the needs of a single army in wartime, let alone the several field commands the Union would establish before year's end in various theaters of operations. Moreover, years of lax recruiting, heavy detachments to staff duty, and the resignations of dozens of officers and men of Southern birth or inclination, a trend that increased as more states joined the Confederacy, had depleted the strength and compromised the readiness of every regiment.     With the exception of European immigrants in the ranks, many of whom were educated members of the middle class, some with prior military experience, the Regulars were notorious for the poor quality of their recruits. Many troopers had enlisted to gain a livelihood they lacked the brains or talent to forge in the outside world. Only through liberal application of discipline and punishment could commissioned and noncommissioned officers hope to turn such unworthy material into professional soldiers. The Regulars were beset by other evils as well. Military appropriations sometimes fell so low that entire regiments of cavalry had been dismounted for years at a stretch.     Another handicap was the inferior quality and unreliability of the troopers' weapons and equipment. Beginning in 1833, the armywide emphasis on retrenchment had resulted in the formation of hybrid units whose soldiers were expected to serve as infantry as often as they performed cavalry functions. These "dragoons," first organized in 1832, were the direct descendants of European horsemen of the same name, a cross between the heavy and light cavalries of the Napoleonic army. Operational versatility was achieved by arming the American dragoon with weapons common to both foot soldiers and troopers: a shoulder arm (later rifled), a sword, and a pistol.     By the mid-1840s, when the dragoons saw extensive service in and outside this country, the shoulder arm was apt to be a North-Hall breechloading carbine, whose light weight enabled it to be wielded either on foot or in the saddle but whose barrel, which was shorter than that of a typical infantryman's musket, limited its accuracy at long range. Moreover, gases that escaped from the carbine's powder chamber upon firing posed a safety hazard to every shooter. The dragoon's blade was likely to be an unwieldy European-style saber, and his fragile handgun was either a single-shot percussion pistol or a 44-caliber Colt "Hartford Dragoon" revolver.     Well armed or not, the horsemen were a valuable commodity in the prewar army. By 1836 the 1st Dragoons had proved their worth to such an extent that a second hybrid outfit was organized. From its early days, the 1st had patrolled the frontier, guarding the routes of migration as far south as the Red River and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. The newly formed 2nd Dragoons saw their first service during the Seminole Wars of the late 1830s and early 1840s. Both outfits were sent below the Rio Grande to oppose the Mexican army in 1846-47; seven regiments of mounted volunteers also participated in that war.     After the United States conquered a peace in Mexico, the 1st Dragoons returned to the frontier, where the 2nd soon joined it. Both regiments saw extensive service along the trails of western settlement, battling Comanches and Apaches in Texas and the New Mexico Territory, confronting the Sioux and Cheyennes on the Central Plains and in the Dakotas, and seeking to contain the Snakes, Spokanes, Yakima, and other tribes in the Pacific Northwest. On the frontier, however, the dragoons did not serve at regimental strength, as they had in Mexico, but in widely scattered detachments. When the Civil War began, one or two companies of each regiment continued to garrison distant outposts, sometimes hundreds of miles from regimental headquarters.     The constabulary duties the dragoons performed on the frontier were not limited to Indian campaigns. In the late 1850s, as sectional discord began to divide the nation, elements of several Regular regiments, including the main body of the 2nd Dragoons under Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, were sent to keep the peace in "Bleeding Kansas." The dragoons did their job well, keeping free-state and pro-slavery settlers as far apart as possible, disarming and arresting lawless bands on both sides, and refraining from shows of favoritism toward either. It was grueling, dangerous work, with the horsemen liable at any time to become caught in a crossfire, but the troopers persevered. Perhaps their greatest asset was the familiarity they had gained with irregular warfare in their encounters with the Indians.     Keeping white men from each others' throats occupied the army for only a few months; Indian fighting was always its primary mission on the frontier. The government recognized that only horse soldiers could pursue, overtake, and fight the American Indian, the apotheosis of the light cavalryman. By 1846 territorial expansion had so increased as to require the formation of a third mounted regiment. Like its predecessors, this unit promoted mission flexibility. The so-called Regiment of Mounted Riflemen was, in effect, mounted infantry--soldiers who rode only to reach the scene of action.     Not until 1855 did the army form regiments designated as cavalry, and then it created two. Like their predecessors among the dragoons and mounted riflemen, the new outfits were composed of ten eighty-seven-man companies; unlike the older units, the 1st and 2nd United States Cavalry were armed with rifled carbines as well as with sabers and Navy Colt 36-caliber revolvers.     The newcomers, who until the Fort Sumter crisis battled American Indians from Oregon to Texas, proved popular enough to attract unusually promising young officers. As one historian has pointed out, the roster of the new outfits read "like a Civil War roll of honor," including Colonels Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John Sedgwick; Majors George H. Thomas and George Stoneman; and Captains and Lieutenants George B. McClellan, J. E. B. Stuart, William J. Hardee, Earl Van Dorn, John Bell Hood, Fitzhugh Lee, George D. Bayard, and David S. Stanley.     But such celebrities remained the exception rather than the rule in the mounted arm. Like their comrades in the several infantry outfits and artillery companies that constituted the antebellum army, the various regiments of horse continued to face the problem of poor-quality personnel. Whether on or off duty, most of these recruits could be counted on for rowdy, unruly behavior, including an inclination to loot and carouse. The 2nd Dragoons acquired an especially widespread reputation for indiscipline and unmilitary behavior. During their service in Mexico, the dragoons were responsible for what one staff officer called "disgraceful brawls and quarrels, to say nothing of drunken frolics. The dragoons have made themselves a public scandal." One of their commanders, Bvt. Maj. Gen. William J. Worth, made a disconcerting discovery during one of the battles outside Mexico City: "On my left are the Second Dragoons, an Augean stable, but I fear [with] no Hercules to cleanse it."     The cavalry was also saddled with officers of questionable ability, many of them political appointees of superannuated status whose only claim to high rank was seniority. Many of those in shoulder straps, who had begun their service as bright-eyed, energetic subalterns, had fallen victim to an institutionalized form of fossilization. One postwar military critic, formerly a Confederate general, blamed the situation on a narrowly focused education and the stultifying influence of garrison service: "Take a boy of sixteen from his mother's apron strings, shut him up under constant surveillance for four years at West Point, send him out to a two-company post upon the frontier where he does little but play seven-up and drink whiskey at the sutler's, and by the time he is forty-five ... he will furnish the most complete illustration of suppressed mental development of which nature is capable." This same observer quoted a colleague, Richard Stoddard Ewell, a prewar mounted officer and after 1861 a Confederate general, to the effect that frontier service taught him nothing of the art and science of war except how to command a single company of dragoons. The cavalry contained numerous such examples. * * * As Ewell's comment suggests, prewar mounted officers were handicapped by the small scale and narrow focus of their responsibilities. The scope and pace of their frontier constabulary mission did not prepare them for service in a nationwide war involving armies of 150,000 men, as would come into being between 1861 and 1865. Then, too, the tactics that small-unit commanders had absorbed on garrison duty were not able to sustain them during the hostilities that lay ahead.     The army of the 1840s and 1850s was hampered by an absence of tactical doctrine. For instruction, horse soldiers relied on drill manuals and a handful of tactics books whose information and advice confused as much as they enlightened. Guidance varied from text to text, and few tactical questions were answered decisively. There was not even a consensus on the basic issue of when and how a horseman should fight in the saddle and when and how he should fight on foot.     Recent history provided few unambiguous clues. In Indian fighting, the brand of warfare with which the prewar army was most familiar, tactics were largely determined by the size and intentions of the enemy. Dismounted fighting against the Indian was always a chancy undertaking, useless when on the offensive and risky on the defensive. Once troopers surrendered the advantage of mobility, they placed themselves at the mercy of the foe and often were surrounded and entrapped. On the other hand, the classic saber charge seemed out of place in the Badlands of the Dakotas and the canyons of the Southwest. Hostile bands of Indians rarely maneuvered so as to receive a mounted attack, and they rarely struck in that fashion if able to dispatch their quarry at long range with bows and arrows or captured rifles.     And yet the saber was used against hostiles just often enough to make those occasions a memorable feature of Indian campaigning. One of the most notable examples occurred in July 1857 along the Smoky Hill River in the Kansas Territory, in which 600 Cheyennes were pitted against six companies of the 1st Cavalry. In the forefront of the charge, which scattered the Indians and precipitated a several-mile pursuit, was Lieutenant Stuart of the 1st, who never forgot the success his outfit's attack achieved. He also remembered the pursuit, in which he received a wound from a pistol ball--the only battle injury he suffered until May 1864. What he seems to have forgotten was the reason for the wound: He had challenged the revolver-wielding Indian with his saber and had lost the duel.     Attacks at the gallop were uncommon on the Plains, but fast-paced pursuits such as the 1st Cavalry's were frequent, as the superior firepower of the cavalry at long range often caused its enemy to flee. Sometimes the saber could be used effectively in pursuit, such as in the rout of Chief Little Thunder's band of Sioux at Ash Hollow, Nebraska Territory, in September 1855. Springing from ambush along Blue Water Creek, Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, Lt. John Buford, and other members of the 2nd Dragoons fell upon the tribesmen, who had been chased in the horsemen's direction by an accompanying infantry force. Buford and many of his comrades were cited for their participation in the ensuing close action, which resulted in the death by saber blows of numerous Indians, at least a few of whom suffered amputations. The large number of women and children among the casualties gave Ash Hollow the appearance of a massacre, further sullying the already tarnished image of the 2d Dragoons.     Despite the effectiveness of cold steel in certain situations, pistols were the preferred weapons of pursuers, as they were more easily wielded than the heavy saber. But because many revolvers were unreliable, the troopers sometimes had to resort to other forms of combat. During a September 1858 engagement against the Pelouse Indians in the Washington Territory, Lt. William Dorsey Pender of the 1st Dragoons overtook an Indian brave. Lacking time to draw his saber, Pender reached for his pistol, only to have it jam. When the Indian turned to challenge him, Pender grabbed his opponent and hurled him onto the ground, "when a soldier behind dispatched him."     If Indian fighting taught the horse soldier to fight as best he could, using whatever maneuver and weapon suited his taste, the Mexican War gave him the impression that there was only one way for cavalry to fight. American horsemen became enamored of the mounted charge as a result of a few small but highly publicized successes on the road to Mexico City. Units of the 1st Dragoons under Capt. Philip Kearny delivered a highly effective saber charge while pursuing Mexicans fleeing from the battlefield of Churubusco. And at Resaca de la Palma, Capt. Charles A. May led a body of the 2nd Dragoons in a charge that overran a battery supported by infantry. May's men not only made the enemy's position untenable, but also captured a Mexican general and, according to some observers, helped turn the tide of battle.     Understandably, the victorious forces congratulated themselves on the spirit and boldness of their effort. In so doing, they overlooked an inconvenient truism: Retreating infantry, especially if too demoralized to rally, makes an easy target for mounted attackers. May's troopers also disregarded the fact that their charge--poorly executed and disorderly--succeeded because artillery had suppressed the Mexican battery's fire prior to the dragoons appearance on the field.     The manner in which May's charge ended--with horsemen strung out all over the field, out of supporting range of one another and vulnerable to counterattack had the enemy been capable of mounting one--illustrates the potential hazard of a mounted attack. When horses gallop en masse, they generate a momentum that is often uncontrollable. The power they wield is capable, if the conditions are right, of surmounting every obstacle. But pounding steeds can just as easily run away with their riders. They can diverge wildly from the path of advance or turn and rush to the rear with as much speed as they had shown minutes before in the opposite direction. Many Civil War cavalrymen would become all too familiar with the disruptive effects of out-of-control horses. The historian of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, who observed his regiment's rout by Confederate riflemen near Harrisonburg, Virginia, in June 1862, gave a graphic account of a saber charge gone awry: Pressing upon one another, strained to the utmost of their speed, the horses catch an infection of fear which rouses them to frenzy. The men, losing their places in the ranks, and all power of formation or hope of combined resistance, rush madly for some point of safety upon which it may be possible to rally. Each check in front makes the mass behind more dense and desperate, until horses and men are overthrown and ridden over, trampled on by others as helpless as themselves to rescue or to spare. The speed grows momentarily greater. Splashing through the pools of mire, breaking down fences, darting under trees, with clang of sabres and din of hoofs, officers wild with shame and rage, shouting themselves hoarse with unavailing curses, and the bullets of the enemy whistling shrilly overhead, the mingled mass sweeps on, until utter exhaustion stops them.     Largely due to this inherent wildness, a mounted charge was rarely decisive when directed at infantry, cannon, or fieldworks. Unless braced with infantry or artillery support, attacking troopers generated precious little staying power. New momentum almost invariably defeated old momentum, attack falling victim to counterattack. Victory usually went to the force that at battle's end retained uncommitted reserves. * * * On-scene observation should have made the prewar army conversant with the drawbacks and limitations of saber attacks. And yet most cavalrymen continued to ignore the facts, as did their instructors. By the early 1860s tacticians were still promoting the speed and power of the saber charge, some even declaring that under certain conditions foot soldiers and cannoneers as well as other horsemen were appropriate targets.     The tactics books of the time were virtually unanimous in their belief that cavalry was basically an offensive weapon, most effectively utilized in the mounted charge. This lesson hearkened back to Napoleon's campaigns of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The celebrated maxims of the Corsican's staff officer, Baron Antoine Henri Jomini, published in 1838 under the title Summary of the Art of War , could ignore the power the long-range rifle exerted on charging horsemen, for in that day such weapons were imperfectly made and in short supply. But the omission of this subject from the pages of later works by American tacticians was indefensible, for growing numbers of rifles were made available to the army in the 1840s and 1850s, and in the mid-1850s the American army adopted as its standard infantry round the cylindroconoidal minié ball, which enabled riflemen to fire accurately up to a thousand yards from their target and to do so three times or more per minute.     Cavalry tacticians, however, seemed blithely ignorant of technological progress. In his influential treatise, Advanced-Guard, Out Post and Detachment, Service of Troops ..., first published in 1847, Dennis Hart Mahan, the nation's most original military theorist, agreed with Jomini that the finest "qualities of cavalry lie in the offensive." Both experts believed that cavalry could successfully strike not only cavalry but infantry as well, especially if friendly infantry or artillery had softened up the target, In that situation, hard-riding horsemen brandishing edged weapons might have a decisive, lasting effect. At the least, attacking horsemen would force the enemy to prepare to receive their attack, perhaps by forming human squares as some textbooks taught, thus bringing the infantry's advance to a standstill.     For twenty years before the Civil War, mounted units were instructed according to a three-volume manual commissioned by Secretary of War Joel Poinsett, which went through four editions between 1841 and 1861. Poinsett's text, an adaptation of a French dragoon manual, shared Jomini's and Mahan's faith in the efficacy of a well-timed, properly executed charge. So too did a competing two-volume manual, also commissioned by the War Department, written in 1858 but not published until 1861-62. The author of the new Cavalry Tactics , now-Colonel Cooke of the 2nd Dragoons, canonized the mounted attack as "the decisive action of cavalry." Cooke devoted much detail to the manner in which a charge should be mounted, even recommending the most desirable gaits for horses to maintain: the trot as far as 200 paces from the enemy's line, the gallop "with increasing speed" until within fifty or sixty yards of the objective, the extended gallop the rest of the way.     In Cooke's view, if a saber charge could be coordinated with other elements of the army, if it was led by a commander with "a cavalry eye " for terrain and enemy dispositions, and especially if it was launched against an unsuspecting and incoherent force, it could overawe units of any arm. A mounted charge was the inevitable result of the close support cavalry should extend to infantry and artillery comrades.     This supporting mission was always dear to Cooke's heart--perhaps too much so. At the battle of Gaines's Mill in June 1862, he carded out this mission with unforeseen and tragic results. His failure on that occasion, however, largely resulted from his disregard of one of his own rubrics: A cavalry leader must strike the enemy at precisely the right time, for tactical opportunity is fleeting. Cooke's experience on that warm summer day would reveal that he lacked that all-important "cavalry eye."     Other texts that appeared on the eve of the Civil War, some of them mere syntheses of earlier works such as William Gilham's Authorized Cavalry Tactics, U.S.A . (1861) and George Patten's Cavalry Drill and Sabre Exercise (1862), more or less upheld the emphasis on offensive warfare as embodied in the charge. These manuals also ordained the saber rather than the pistol as the proper weapon in the attack and emphasized the need to maintain close-order formation that nevertheless left space in the charging column to permit horsemen to wheel to either side as conditions dictated.     About the only matter of dispute involving the charge was the number of ranks, or lines of troopers, the attack column should consist of. Older texts such as Jomini's, Poinsett's, and the European-influenced Elements of Military Art and Science , first published in 1846 by Henry Wager Halleck, a future commanding general of the U.S. Army, preferred the double-rank formation that was also prescribed for an infantry attack. These tacticians believed that the second rank increased the shock effect of the charge, while helping to close gaps that opened when the first line made contact with the enemy. Two ranks also increased the number of swordsmen involved in the melee that followed such contact.     Other theorists agreed, some heartily, others half-heartedly. George B. McClellan, another future commanding general, numbered among the latter. McClellan, who in the late 1850s studied the cavalries of Europe at the behest of the War Department and who published his findings in 1861 under the cumbersome title Regulations and Instructions for the Field Service of the U.S. Cavalry in Time of War , called for would-be troopers to be instructed in double-rank tactics. But he hedged his bet by giving conditional approval to Colonel Cooke's preference for a single-rank formation. Cooke's innovation had been prompted by his concern that a double-rank offensive promoted disorder in the ranks, horses in the rear crowding and scattering those in front. A single-rank assault would also be easier to conduct, having no need to coordinate movements between widely spaced forces.     In the double-rank formation, a regiment would deploy in lines of five companies each. Under Cooke's system, four companies, known collectively as a battalion, would form the single line. One squadron--the tactical unit for maneuver, two companies grouped under the senior captain--would cover each flank. The third battalion would be placed in a reserve position 300 to 400 paces in rear of the line. Held so far from the front and withheld from an initial attack, the rear squadrons would be shielded from the enemy's fire and thus kept intact. Nor would they be affected should the charging rank be forced to retreat or surrender.     Although Cooke's system seemed to promise obvious benefits, the War Department considered his tactics too new and their utility insufficiently proven to be taught to the cavalrymen called to duty in the Civil War. As a result, all but a few regiments serving in the eastern theater from 1861 to 1865, as well as most of those in the West, were required to adopt the double-rank formation and use it in battle.     A notable exception was the "Wolverine Brigade," four regiments of Michigan volunteers in the Army of the Potomac commanded for most of its existence by Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer. For several months after its formation in June 1863, the Wolverines hurled themselves against the enemy--often with much success--in the manner prescribed by Cooke. Early in 1864, however, the hard hand and inflexible policies of the War Office descended on the brigade, which for the remainder of the conflict used the double-rank formation. The change was made without a great deal of negative comment, although as Col. James Harvey Kidd of the 6th Michigan noted, "The utility of the change was, to say the least, an open question, and it necessitated many weeks of hard and unremitting toil on the part of both officers and men." * * * Discussions about how cavalry should form for a charge and what weaponry it should use were well and good, but their practical utility was a matter of debate. High-ranking leaders might be inclined to scrutinize Jomini and argue the value of Poinsett's tactics over those of Cooke, but the regimental officers and enlisted men who made up the Civil War cavalry had limited opportunity--and most of them a limited desire--to absorb the contents of tactics manuals; they barely had time to assimilate the most basic elements of drill. Early in the war Congress appropriated funds for the publication of tactics books for the volunteer army, but few were read by those who might have profited from them, and fewer still were adequately digested.     But even if they had memorized the contents of these texts, it seems unlikely that the average volunteer would have been prepared for what lay ahead. Dangerously outmoded, overtaken by technological progress, unable to keep pace with man's genius for finding better ways to kill one another, the manuals promoted a brand of warfare that bordered on mass suicide. Copyright © 2000 Stackpole Books. All rights reserved.