Alonzo Gray’s Cavalry Tactics

While cleaning out some of the trappings accumulated through many PCS moves, I cleared the dust off an old photocopy of Alonzo Gray’s Cavalry Tactics as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion.   Gray was a Captain in the 14th US Cavalry when this work was published in 1910 (apparently serving in the Philippines).  For anyone interested in cavalry operations in the Civil War, this book is to say the least interesting.  I personally consider it a rather important document in the historiography of Civil War cavalry.   Very much a look at how those cavalry officers of the post-war generation saw their profession in light of the War.

Gray’s intent is, in the spirit of the cavalry charge, blunt and up front:

In pursuing the subject of cavalry tactics I found that, while certain principles were accepted as correct, I was not familiar with the battles which these principles were applied.  I believe it to be true that there is no modern principle of cavalry tactics, which is accepted today as correct by any first-class military power, which was not fully illustrated during the War of the Rebellion.

In other words, here Capt. Gray sought to provide a tactics primer, if you will, using citations and vignettes from the Civil War. Gray continues, however, and the wheels sort of come off:

I give it as my humble opinion that increased range of firearms and the addition of machine guns, increase the sphere of action of, and necessity for, well-organized cavalry; that bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles will prove to be only valuable auxiliaries to cavalry in transporting information back to the rear, and thus saving an unnecessary expenditure of horse flesh; and that while flying machines may bring information, by so doing they will widen the sphere of action of good cavalry;  and, more than ever before, as a result of such information, it will be necessary to have good cavalry ready to move on extremely short notice.

Well keep in mind the date of publication, before the “Great War” and at a time when “flying machines” were not much better off than curiosities.   Then again, it was not Gray intent to forecast the future, but rather interpret the past.   In doing so, he would draw mostly on examples of Federal actions after 1863, a surprising number of which are from the Western Theater.

Gray prefaced his discussions with a brief history of the U.S. mounted forces, including organization, armament, drill manuals, and an assessment of the major Confederate commanders.  But at that point, barely a few pages in, the readability of this work drops.  Gray opted to illustrate points, not in a narrative fashion, but rather by a series of examples, abbreviated “Ext.” in the text.  In each section, Gray presented a point for discussion, then provided a series of examples from the Official Records (R.R. for Records of the Rebellion), memoirs, or other first hand sources.   At the end of each section, the Captain offered his own summary and conclusions.  While logical, clearly such presentation is difficult for cover to cover readers.  Gray provided an topic index at the back of the book to alleviate some of the pains.  This references the “Ext.” number with the page.

Once one is familiar with the “style,” Gray’s work is rather useful.   After the introduction, Gray turned to topics of weapons use, tactics, and logistics:

Chapter I:  Arms and Their Uses – Revolver vs. Saber.  (Including a section on the use of lances.)

Chapter II: Shock Action and the Use of the Saber.  (Provides examples of the use of the saber charge as a tactic against cavalry, infantry, artillery, and even fixed fortifications.)

Chapter III:  Fire Action.  (Documents use of carbine fire in mounted or dismounted operations.  Additional discussion of revolver use.)

Chapter IV:  Combined Action – Mounted and Dismounted.  (Further expands to deal with cavalry operations with infantry and artillery.)

Chapter V:  Delaying Actions and Attack and Defense of River Crossings.

Chapter VI:  Miscellaneous Tactics.  (Detailed discussion of the Battle of Boonville, MS, fought July 1, 1862.  Gray states “It is well worth the study….  As it was the first fight where Sheridan commanded independent cavalry, and is so full of good cavalry tactics….”)

Chapter VII:  Security and Information.  (I feel this chapter devolves much into a “principles of war” discussion.)

Chapter VIII:  Miscellaneous Use of Cavalry.  (Bridge construction, provost-type duties, raiding, and pursuit.)

Chapter IX: Trains, Transportation, and Supplies.  (Especially discussing the strategic movement of cavalry by rail.  References to Wilson’s 1865 campaign.)

Chapter X:  Animals – Endurance, Care and Disease.

Chapter XI:  Miscellaneous Interesting Facts.  (Numerous references to the final campaigns in both east and west.)

Reading through Gray’s selected citations, it is clear he regarded Sheridan, Wilson, and Stuart highly.  Some historians today might fault him for such.  We can furthermore see, with the benefit of nearly 100 years of history since Gray’s writing, that the cavalry tactics of saber charges and even dismounted operations were obsolete even as the ink dried on his pages.

However, the main reason I have kept a hold on Gray’s Cavalry Tactics is the very useful indexing.  Once one has picked up on Gray’s system, its is not hard to track down quick examples of a given topic.

3 thoughts on “Alonzo Gray’s Cavalry Tactics

  1. Alonzo Gray was my great grandfather. He kept extensive paperwork regarding his service including journals, hand drawn maps etc. He was quite the quintessential military man as was my grandfather (Alonzo’s son-in-law) Gen. R.B. Woodruff.
    Mary Poole

    • COL Gray briefly commanded a regiment in the 35th division after the Armistice. He wrote about the division’s war-time experience, which he was able to do somewhat objectively, not actually serving with the unit in combat. His insights here were historicaly significant. He appears to have been a thoughtful and prolific writer.

  2. Mary Poole is my (long-suffering) sister; she has been most industrious in organizing and preserving the personal papers of our forebears. Their writings, given the times in which they served, necessarily reflect the professional thoughts and actual personal experiences, providing us with a unique window in American military history.
    My son, Ryan Woodruff Daniels of Hingham MA, has (then) Captain Gray’s authors’ copy of Cavalry Tactics. The fly leaf of this book is inscribed “Captain Alonzo Gray, 14th Cavalry, Camp Stotsenburg P.I. 1910”.
    Robert Brooking Daniels
    Major U.S. Army, retired

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