Monday, November 10, 2008

What Makes A "First String" Cavalry Leader?

I've recently tried to explore on a couple of the discussion boards why the Union cavalry in the western theater was perceived to be led by the "second string". I think there are several reasons for this, among them, the fact that the theater was (and continues to be) overshadowed by the war in the east and the fact that late in the war it was where unpopular and unsuccessful cavalry leaders were sent. I have a theory or two about this, but the thought that has been pestering me all day is a working definition of what differentiates a "first string" cavalryman from the "second string."

With a few moments' thought, I can easily come up with several examples of cavalry leaders that I would consider first string: Buford, Stuart, Hampton, David Gregg, and Minty, to name a few. So what is it that characterizes these leaders?

Here are a few items for my litmus test just off the top of my head, I'm sure we can come up with others.
1. Aggressively maintain contact with the enemy
2. Keep higher headquarters informed over time
3. Ability to "read the brown" when looking at maps and visualize terrain and how it affected movement (ex: use of gaps and passes during the retreat/pursuit from Gettysburg)
4. Willingness to fight for intelligence when necessary

The Union cavalry division commanders during the Gettysburg campaign are a good example, the corps commander (Pleasonton) not so much. Minty and Wilder at Chickamauga are others, though Wilder commanded mounted infantry not cavalry. I personally don't think Sheridan is, primarily due to the Wilderness when he left his boss all but blind about the enemy to his immediate front.

I'm very curious about others' thoughts on what made first string leaders, and who you think would make the team. There is no limit on numbers other than by qualification.


Anonymous said...

I'd have to first list a grasp of the logistics of managing horse soldiers. Lets face it, without the horse, the cavalryman is simply an infantryman with the added encumbrance of a sabre. So a "first stringer" would have to understand the issues faced when moving large bodies of horses around the country - care, feeding, shoeing, etc. In other words be able to apply the old line "The horse, the saddle, the gun" on a grand scale.

There are some other points I would add, but generally agree with the aggressive spirit, keeping contact with the enemy, and an eye for the terrain. The later always brings up a question regarding the engineering disciplines. Do engineers make good cavalry officers? Don't know if I'd go that far. I could point to some examples of engineers transferring to the cavalry. But nothing to build a thesis on. For example was R.E. Lee, engineer of note, a good cavalry officer in his pre-war days? I'd submit, his engineering skills made him a good operational and combat leader regardless of what branch he served in.

Beyond that, I think there are several reasons why the Union cavalry in the western theater was "second string." The most important of which was simply that it was not consolidated until very late in the war. Leadership may have been an issue, I'd place it lower on the list.

Don said...


Thanks for stopping by. You're absolutely right, I should have listed logistics on there. It was yet another thing that Buford was extremely good at, as illustrated by the Utah Expedition.

Ironically, my first job in a cavalry unit was as a squadron logistics officer, so you'd think I would have considered that.

I would say that SOME engineers make good cavalry officers. Their understanding of the ground would certainly help them, but in those days most aggressive officers went to other disciplines. I don't know that Lee would make a good example, as most of his "cavalry time" was on paper while he was working at one headquarters or another.

What other points would you add? We're learning here, after all. God forbid we actually end up with a discussion going or something.... 8^)

Anonymous said...

Don, perhaps another point I'd add is knowledge/understanding of the employment of the other combat arms. In other words, a "first stringer" would need to know how to employ artillery (not just horse artillery) and infantry, in the context of the Civil War. Such mastery would facilitate "development of the situation" with some degree of competency.

Another great quality in a cavalry leader, which sort of goes against the whole "ego thing" is the ability to read and understand the higher commander's intent. Arguably failure to grasp the intent lead to some of the most dismal examples of cavalry employment of the war. The converse is true also.

Don said...

I agree with you concerning understanding the commander's intent, but I'm not sure I buy the understanding of other arms. I would argue that during the Civil War a decent understanding of horse artillery would suffice. Other than Stuart at Chancellorsville and Buford at Gettysburg, I can't think of too many examples where it would apply.

Anonymous said...

Don, I guess what I mean about understanding the other arms is just a general appreciation for how artillery and infantry are employed.

To expand, maybe knowing for instance what ground might serve best as an artillery position or facilitate infantry defense/advance. Knowing the methods by which infantry moved, if for nothing else to gauge the best avenues for those forces to approach the battle (and maybe when to expect them to join the engagement).

A "deadbeat" cavalry leader, conversely, would be the kind of guy who reported "I found a good patch of ground, come quick!" Then when arriving, delayed due to a prolonged river fording operation, the Army commander discovers a nice open field, with no cover and no fields of fire. And worse yet, the enemy artillery on a dominating position further afield. "But we've got plenty of room for me to maneuver my horses!"

Don said...

Granted. Assuming, of course, that the deadbeat cavalry leader bothered to send a timely report instead of saying the next day, "Oh yeah, I saw this great spot yesterday..."