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Topic Eighty-two:  The Cavalry in the Civil War


The Cavalry played a pivotal role in the successes of Union and Confederate forces 



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Conferate States Cavalry Rosette

A Cavalry Unit

       The principal item of equipment for a cavalryman was the horse and one of the reasons both North and South initially hesitated in forming mounted units was because of financial considerations; each cavalry regiment cost $300,000 for initial organization with annual upkeep expenses tallying over $100,000.

Who Pays for the Cavalry Horse?

Both cavalries originally required recruits or local communities to provide horses, a policy that lasted briefly in the North, while the South maintained it throughout the war even though Richmond leaders recognized its serious drawbacks. While Confederate troopers bore the monetary cost of keeping themselves mounted.

Union cavalrymen rode quartermaster issued animals obtained though public contracts (although officers had to reimburse the cost of their mounts to the government). While open to fraud early in the war, once tightened regulations and stringent inspections were enforced, the contract system yielded an estimated 650,000 horses for Union armies during the war exclusive of an additional 75,000 confiscated in Confederate territory. 

Guidelines for a Cavalry Horse

Union army guidelines for cavalry horse selection mandated animals be at least 15 hands high, weighing minimally 950 pounds and aged between 4 and 10 years old, and be well-broken to bridle and saddle. Animals were to be dark colors and free from defects such as shallow breathing, deformed hooves, spavin or ringbone. Geldings were preferred for cavalry horses with the purchase of mares strictly prohibited outside absolute military emergency and stallions' volatility and aggressiveness made them generally unsuitable for service.

In the Confederacy, limited horse numbers did not permit such selectivity in trying to keep their armies horsed. Cavalry horse prices varied throughout the war; in 1861 the maximum government price for cavalry horses was $119. However, relentless military demand caused prices to continually increase and by 1865 prices hovered near $190 per head. In the Confederacy horse prices rapidly spiraled upward due to animal scarcity and inflation costing over $3,000 by war's end.

Care and Maintenance of the Horse

The daily feed ration for Union cavalry horses was ten pounds of hay and fourteen pounds of grain which were ample and fulfilled the animals' nutritional needs if of good quality, however, the vagaries of the army supply system did not always insure prescribed forage amounts were delivered where most needed. 

Laxity in Care of Horses Common

On both sides volunteer officers often proved notably lax in promoting strict animal welfare, a shortcoming exacerbated by the absence of a trained and organized veterinary corps which allowed serious maladies like strangles, grease heel, farcy, and glanders to spread among army stock.   The U.S. Congress finally created the rank of veterinary sergeant in March 1863, but the meager pay and rank held no inducement for qualified candidates to join the army. Repeated calls to establish a professional military veterinary service failed, and widespread waste, suffering, and destruction among army horses resulted; not until 1916 was an official U.S. army veterinary corps founded.

Importance and Excesses in Horse Usage; Appropriating Horses

from Citizens

Horses gave the cavalry forces significant mobility. In some operations, forces were pushed to the limit (such as Jeb Stuart's raid on Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in 1862, where his troopers marched 80 miles (130 km) in 27 hours). Such excesses were extremely damaging to the readiness of the units and extensive recovery periods were required. Stuart, during the Gettysburg Campaign the following year, resorted to procuring replacement horses from local farmers and townspeople during his grueling trek northward around the Union army. In York County, Pennsylvania, following the Battle of Hanover, his men appropriated well over 1,000 horses from the region. Many of these untrained new mounts proved a hindrance during the subsequent fighting at East Cavalry Field during the battle of Gettysburg.

Calvary Soldier Weaponry

Some mounted forces used traditional infantry rifles. However, 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.
  • Late in 1863, the seven-shot Spencer repeating carbine was introduced, but it was rarely deployed. A notable exception was Union Colonel John T. Wilder, who equipped an entire brigade with repeaters (purchasing these himself and intending to deduct payment from the men's wages embarrassed the Government into paying Wilder for the weapons at $35 apiece) in May 1863, the first unit so equipped. His mounted infantry gained fame as the "Lightning Brigade" for their swift movements. One Confederate stated that Wilder's men could "load on Sunday and fire all week." (Confederate forces were able to use captured breechloaders but were unable to duplicate the metallic cartridges needed by the Spencer.)
  • Light Calvary 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 Pattern of 1860 Light Cavalry Saber was lighter than the typical European saber, the latter being similar to the older U.S. Model 1840 Heavy Dragoon "wrist breaker". 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, which was sharpened on both edges.)
  • Pistols, which Southern cavalrymen generally preferred over sabers, were usually six-shot revolvers, in .36- or .44-caliber, 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 often carried four each.


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