Monday, June 11, 2007

The 6th Cavalry on the Eve of the Gettysburg Campaign

After reading JD's article on the battle of Fairfield in this month's ACW, a persistent question kept nagging at me. Why were the 6th Cavalry's numbers so low at the beginning of the battle?

A cavalry regiment at full strength was authorized 1063 troopers and horses by this point in the war. The campaign year had been relatively light on the 6th up to June 1863. They hadn't participated in the battle of Kelly's Ford on March 17, 1863, and their personnel losses during Stoneman's Raid were relatively light. They were engaged at Brandy Station (total losses 67) and Aldie (total losses 9), but not Middletown (Middleburg? I'm on the road without references other than my notes, my apologies) or Upperville. So where did everybody go?

The May 1863 muster rolls, compiled and signed on June 5, 1863, just four days before Brandy Station, offer some answers and insight into the regiment's performance during the Gettysburg campaign. Personnel strength should not have been an issue. The rolls show 1072 personnel assigned to the regiment on June 5th, including a full complement of 42 officers. At full strength, even a lone Union regiment should have had a fighting chance against the Laurel Brigade at Fairfield if properly led.

The true question is actually, where did everyone's horses go? While the regiment was assigned over 1,000 soldiers, it had only 500 serviceable mounts. More telling, it had only 26 unserviceable mounts. Just over half the regiment, 546 personnel, were dismounted. They missed the June and July battles, remaining in the Reserve Brigade's "straggler camp" in Dumfries, Virginia with the rest of the dismounted troopers.

So the 6th Cavalry arrived at Fairfield with a strength of 500 mounted men, minus losses at Brandy Station, minus losses at Aldie, minus losses in stragglers and injured horses from the long march into Pennsylvania. Instead of over a thousand men, about a third of that went into battle at Fairfield.

Also, due to the same lack of healthy mounts, losses in the previous battles were more serious than they initially appear on paper. The 6th U.S. Cavalry lost only 67 personnel at Brandy Station, apparently only a small percentage of its total strength. In fact, however, those losses are from 12 officers and 254 enlisted men who marched to the battle in five squadrons, according to Captain Cram's report after the battle. The losses for the regiment were more than 25% of those engaged. Worse, four of the twelve officers present were casualties of one sort or another. Only nine personnel were lost at Aldie, but one of the severely wounded was 2nd Lt. Henry McQuiston, another officer.

I believe the availability of officers was also a factor in the battle of Fairfield. Although assigned its full complement of officers, only 17 were present with the regiment at the beginning of the campaign. Of these, four were lost at Brandy Station and one at Aldie. Two of the officers present, 2nd Lt Chaffee and 2nd Lt Irwin, were commissioned only the month before.

There were a few officer gains between Stoneman's Raid and the battle of Fairfield. Two, 1st Lt Balk and 2nd Lt Chaffee, rejoined the regiment from duty at the dismount camp. Major Starr also joined the regiment from recruiting duty.

Where are the other officers? Three were serving as generals of volunteers. Three more were leading volunteer regiments, and one, David McM. Gregg, was leading another brigade in the same division. Seven other officers were on the staffs of various general officers. Over half of the regiment's 12 companies were led by lieutenants. One of them, Company G, had no assigned officers present and was led by a lieutenant from Company A.

I can't help but feel that this absence of so many key leaders affected the regiment's performance during the campaign. M ajors who should have been present with battalions and captains who should have been present with companies weren't there. A regiment wasn't intended to be fought by captains and lieutenants.

This is not to say that those leaders present were not competent. Many performed at or even beyond the level that could reasonably be expected of them. Fortunately, many of the lieutenants had been sergeants and first sergeants of companies only months (in some cases weeks) before. But the organization of a regiment's leadership was developed that way for a reason.

I've long been curious why the Reserve Brigade was the first one sent through the Cavalry Depot at Giesboro Point when it opened in the late summer of 1863. If these numbers are any indicator, and the June returns for the 2nd Cavalry are similar, there may have been little choice.

No comments: