- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

Despite its historical inaccuracies and the director John Ford’s penchant for exercising his artistic license, the movie “The Horse Soldiers” (1959) still is a favorite among Civil War buffs. With John Wayne as Col. Marlow, the Union brigade commander, and William Holden as the brigade surgeon, “The Horse Soldiers” is a fictional depiction of a real historical event: Col. Benjamin Grierson’s 1863 raid that took him and his Union cavalrymen on a 600-mile ride deep in Confederate territory from LaGrange, Tenn., to Baton Rouge, La.

During the 16-day raid, Grierson’s 1,700 troopers killed or wounded 100 Confederates, captured 500 more, destroyed more than 3,000 small arms and more than 50 miles of telegraph lines and railroad, and confiscated more than 1,000 horses and mules — all the while distracting Confederate cavalry and infantry units that were sorely needed to defend Vicksburg, Miss.

Grierson’s Raid was one of the most spectacular feats of arms during the entire Civil War, and it was commanded by a man who had been a music teacher before the conflict.

Raids into enemy territory were some of the more daring and spectacular types of cavalry missions during the Civil War. The cavalry also was used to screen (i.e., to watch) the flanks of their own army, to perform reconnaissance and scouting, and to fight while dismounted. Cavalry units were employed as messengers, headquarters guards and provost guards (military police). Despite popular belief, mounted charges with saber-wielding and pistol-firing troopers dashing at full gallop against enemy cavalry were rare.

Southern dominance

In the first half of the war, the Confederate cavalry enjoyed dominance over its Union counterpart, primarily because of superior leadership and better organization. Rebel cavalrymen also were required to supply their own mounts, which generally meant that Southern troopers already knew how to ride and understood the capabilities and personalities of their horses.

The quality of Confederate cavalry was demonstrated as early as the Battle of Manassas in July 1861, when Col. J.E.B. Stuart and his 1st Virginia Cavalry Regiment charged into a retreating regiment of Union infantry and routed them. Eleven months later, during the Peninsula Campaign, now Brig. Gen. Stuart and 1,200 cavalrymen from four different regiments rode completely around the Union Army of the Potomac in a daring reconnaissance while the seemingly helpless Union cavalry did nothing to stop them.

The Union cavalry at the beginning of the war consisted of only six Regular Army regiments totaling fewer than 4,000 troopers. Since the cost of outfitting a cavalry regiment was around $6,000, the Union secretary of war decided that federal money could be better spent on infantry and artillery. After the defeat at Manassas, attitudes in Washington started to change, and the Union government began accepting volunteer cavalry units into the federal service. By the end of the Civil War, the Army had fielded 258 cavalry regiments and 170 separate cavalry companies.

The weapons

Northern cavalrymen may not have been as well led or employed in battle as efficiently as their Southern counterparts early in the war, but they certainly were better armed and equipped. Yankee troopers generally carried a single-shot breech-loading carbine as their primary weapon. Although it was shorter than a rifled-musket used by infantrymen, the breech-loading carbine was easier to load and carry on horseback.

Union cavalrymen also carried six-shot, single-action revolvers, usually the .44 caliber “Army” model or the .36 caliber “Navy” model, both of which were manufactured predominantly by Colt’s or Remington arms companies. Union troopers also were armed with sabers, usually either the 1840 Dragoon Saber or the 1860 Light Cavalry Saber.

Because of the dearth of weapons manufacturing facilities in the South, Rebel cavalrymen were not as well armed as their blue-clad adversaries. Instead of breech-loading carbines, the majority of Southern horsemen were armed with sawed-off shotguns or muzzle-loading carbines. Some Southern-made breech-loaders eventually made their way to Confederate troopers, as did captured Yankee carbines.

When the war began, not even one pistol manufacturer existed anywhere in the South. As a result, Confederate cavalrymen were armed with a hodgepodge of side arms of various calibers and manufacturers, including foreign imports. The .44 caliber Kerr Revolver, made by the London Armoury Co., was a favorite of Southern troopers. As the war progressed, Rebel horse soldiers increasingly were armed with pistols procured from newly founded Southern arms manufacturers and Remingtons and Colts captured from Yankee troopers.

Saddles and straps

Of course, the most important part of a cavalryman’s “equipment” was his horse. Although Southern troopers were required initially to furnish their own horse and tack, most Union cavalry regiments were supplied with horses either by the federal government or their respective state governments.

The standard Union saddle was the 1859 model “McClellan” saddle (named after its inventor, Capt. George B. McClellan, who later would command the Union Army). In the Confederate army, the “standard” saddle was the “Jennifer” (also named after its inventor, Lt. Walter Jennifer), but since Rebel horsemen supplied their own saddles, they could use anything that they brought with them.

Besides a saddle, the well-equipped cavalry horse also would have a saddle blanket, saddlebags, stirrups, a bridle, bit, and reins, a girth strap, a breast strap, a crupper, and a martingale. The girth strap buckles onto the bottom side of a saddle, goes under the barrel of the horse and connects to the saddle on the other side. It is drawn tight to hold the saddle in place. The breast strap and crupper also assist in keeping the saddle in place, while a martingale is a tie-down strap that forces the horse to keep its head down. Also attached to the saddle was a “thimble” into which the carbine was placed when it was not in use.

Heavy load

When mounted on his horse, a trooper would wear a leather belt and pistol holster (or two), his saber and scabbard, a cartridge box, and a leather sling that would attach to his carbine. He also would wear riding boots with spurs attached. His blanket and poncho, as well as his overcoat and shelter half, would be rolled up and strapped to the pommel (front) and cantle (rear) of his saddle. In his saddlebags, he might carry a horse brush, currycomb and hoof pick. He also would have a lariat and a picket pin (a metal stake that could be hammered into the ground upon which the horse could be tied).

Finally, the horse would also need a halter and a nosebag, which would be filled with feed and strapped around the horse’s neck. This would not only prevent feed waste, but it would keep horses from fighting over feed. The soldier’s own food was carried in a haversack that he usually tied onto the saddle, and he carried his water in a canteen.

With all of this weight, a horse on campaign could quickly be worn out. Capt. Charles Francis Adams Jr. of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry wrote in 1863, “To estimate the wear and tear on horseflesh you must bear in mind that in service in this country, a cavalry horse when loaded carries an average of 225 pounds on his back. Of course, sore backs are our greatest trouble. Backs soon get feverish under the saddle and the first day’s march swells them; after that day by day the trouble grows.”

Feed and hay

Horses were “high maintenance.” They had to be properly shod, brushed and cleaned daily, fed and watered daily, and of course they had to be given adequate rest.

Certainly everyone has heard the expression, “I’m so hungry I could eat like a horse!” Well, cavalry horses could eat quite a lot, especially horses that were being ridden up to 30 miles a day. It has been estimated that an active cavalry horse required up to 12 pounds of feed (corn or oats), 14 pounds of hay and 10 gallons of water per day.

And whatever goes in must come out, which is why, if you were a property owner in 1863, you would not want a cavalry regiment camped on your property. A horse is capable of producing 15 pounds of manure and two gallons of urine per day. Multiply that by several hundred horses, and you can imagine the smell on a hot summer day. Because horses required so much food, the sheer amount of wagons dedicated to hauling feed and hay placed an added logistical burden on a cavalry regiment that the commander of infantry regiment would not have to face.

General vs. general

By 1863, Union cavalry had reached parity with Confederate cavalry, especially in the Eastern Theater of war. On May 9, 1863, Union cavalry surprised and almost beat Stuart and his cavalry division at the Battle of Brandy Station, near Culpeper, Va., during the largest cavalry fight of the war. Better leaders, more experience and a structural reorganization were the major factors.

Union cavalry generals such as John Buford, Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, Wesley Merritt, David Gregg, and George Custer were leading their troops to victory during the Gettysburg and subsequent campaigns. On July 3, 1863, Custer made a name for both himself and his Michigan Brigade when, just east of Gettysburg, he screamed to his men, “Come on, you Wolverines!” and then led them in a mounted charge against Confederate cavalry.

The Confederacy meanwhile was beginning to experience a severe shortage in horseflesh, and increasing casualties were taking their toll on Confederate cavalry leaders, including Stuart, who was mortally wounded in May 1864. By then, the Union cavalry was being led by Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, a former infantryman who had shaped his command into a mobile, aggressive fighting force and led it to victory after victory.

In the Western Theater of war, the predominant Confederate cavalry commanders were John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Morgan became famous for daring cavalry raids into Kentucky in 1862 and 1863, and for an even more audacious raid into Ohio and Indiana in summer 1863. Although he was captured during the latter expedition, he escaped from prison and made his way back to the Confederate lines.

Forrest has been hailed as the best cavalry leader on either side during the entire war. His raids on Union garrisons and supply lines in Tennessee greatly impeded the Union war effort in that region, and his continued attacks on Union expeditions in Mississippi in 1864 likewise stymied his opponents’ offensive plans.

Besides Grierson, Union cavalry Gen. James H. Wilson also made a mark in the Western Theater. In the final months of the war, Wilson and his cavalry division rode a destructive path through Alabama and captured Selma, Montgomery, and Columbus, Ga., thus hastening the demise of the Confederacy.

After Appomattox

During the final campaign in Virginia, Union cavalry continued to demonstrate its superiority at places such as Five Forks, High Bridge and Appomattox. When the Confederacy surrendered its armies, the vanquished Southern cavalrymen were allowed to keep their horses, while Yankee cavalrymen participated in the “Grand Review” of the Union armies down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital.

For some Union cavalrymen, the end of the war did not mean the end of their service. There was still a threat posed by Indians on the frontier, as well as occupation duty in a yet-to-be-reconstructed South.

And what became of the music teacher turned cavalry commander whose character was portrayed by Mr. Wayne nearly a century later? Grierson was promoted to brevet brigadier general for his daring raid. He later led another successful expedition through Mississippi in late 1864 and early 1865.

He left the service in April 1866, but returned to the Army a few months later and was given command of one of the new Regular Army cavalry regiments comprising blacks, the 10th U.S. Colored Cavalry, a regiment he would command for the next 22 years.

Grierson successfully petitioned to have “Colored” dropped from the unit’s designation, making it the “10th U.S. Cavalry.” He also showed sympathy toward the Indians that his troops were trying to subdue, which prevented him from being promoted to brigadier general in the Regular Army until three months shy of his retirement in July 1890.

Grierson lived another 21 years and died at his home in Michigan on Sept. 1, 1911.

Mark A. Snell is director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War and a faculty member of the History Department at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va. He is a retired Army officer and former assistant professor of American history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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