“Two-thirds of my brigade are dismounted….”: The South Carolina cavalry swap

Continuing a thread – looking at Confederate reenlistment, recruitment, and conscription in the winter of 1864.  General Robert E. Lee pointed out issues with the system as applied in South Carolina, and to some extent Georgia, in January 1864.  Perhaps the best demonstration of the problem comes from the cavalry, where both men and mounts were required to replenish the ranks of South Carolina regiments (recall, the Confederate troopers supplied their own mounts for the most part).  On this day (February 10) in 1864, Brigadier-General Pierce M.B. Young, commanding Butler’s Cavalry Brigade, wrote to Major H.B. McClellan, Major-General J.E.B. Stuart’s adjutant, to press this problem and propose a solution:

Major: I have the honor, very respectfully, to ask that this brigade be relieved with four full regiments from the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. It is impossible to recruit the brigade unless this is done. I cannot see how General Beauregard’s department would be loser by this exchange. In less than a month after the exchange, this brigade, being on the coast and near their homes, would be as full as the new regiments. Two-thirds of my brigade are dismounted, and it is impossible to mount them in Virginia. Many of the companies have become depleted by casualties in action to such a degree that they have fallen below the minimum, and these companies would be able in a short time to recruit up to the requisite number. Something must be done, and done soon, or at the beginning of the spring campaign this brigade will not put as many men in the field for duty as ought to constitute one regiment. The authorities are already too well aware that our capital has more than once been endangered and exposed to the raids of the enemy, and all for the reason that our cavalry force was too small to cope with the enemy, and scarcely sufficient to keep up the picket-line. If portions of our country are laid waste and our capital exposed for the want of cavalry, why not have it when so much is lying idle and actually in need of exercise? I respectfully propose that one full regiment be ordered on at once and permit me to send back two in its place. At the expiration of a month let three others be ordered up, and send back my remaining three. This will be giving General Beauregard five regiments for four.

Some of the back-story here is apparent to even the cursory examination of the situation that winter.  The Army of Northern Virginia came off a very active campaign season.  Attrition took a toll.  And through the first months of the winter, replacements were trickling in at an uncomfortable rate.  No matter how veteran a unit might be, it cannot perform the mission if under-manned.  The problem was, as mentioned above, more acute with the cavalry due to the re-mount cycle in the Confederacy.

On the other hand, cavalry regiments in South Carolina were operating in… well lets just call it a less stressful environment.  Being “local” with prospects of remaining in South Carolina, those regiments attracted volunteers.  With the term of service complete on six month “emergency” state regiments, the South Carolina-based units received another boost.  Not to mention the ease of remounting, or even rotating horses as needed, for even the lowest ranking trooper.  And let me make one further point about the cavalry stationed in South Carolina in regards to workload – these regiments were not hard pressed compared to those in Virginia.  (The case can be made that as a whole, the cavalry operating on the South Carolina coast was ineffective, as it was by practice road-bound.  The Federal “scouts” on the other hand, dismounted for the most part, operated with good effect.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

Eventually Young’s request found traction.  While not exactly as he proposed, there was a rotation of cavalry from South Carolina. On March 17, orders came from Richmond for General P.G.T. Beauregard:

The First South Carolina Cavalry and Second South Carolina Cavalry have been ordered to South Carolina. The Fourth South Carolina Cavalry, Colonel Rutledge, the Fifth South Carolina Cavalry, Colonel Dunovant, the Sixth South Carolina Cavalry, Colonel Aiken, the Seventh Georgia Cavalry, Colonel White, the remaining companies of Colonel Millen’s (Georgia) battalion, and the cavalry companies of Captains Tucker, Wallace, Boykin, Trenholm, and Magee have been ordered to Virginia. Prepare them for movement without delay in light marching order with their wagon trains; the heavy baggage will come by railroad. Orders sent by mail. General Hampton will superintend the movement.

I would bow to cavalry experts opinions about the quality of those units.  But at a minimum, those were fresh troops and mounts funneled into Virginia.  Though late in the season.

But with every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The transfer of troopers came down officially as part of Special Orders No. 65.  On March 26, a complaint came from the Second Military District of South Carolina (recall, this was a “slice” of the coastal country between the Edisto and Combahee Rivers).  The letter read in part:

The execution of paragraph 29, Special Orders, No. 65, from Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, leaves me in a most deplorably destitute condition. I telegraphed yesterday to you for instructions. As a military necessity, I have determined to retain 2 couriers from Davis’ company, Fifth South Carolina Cavalry, at my headquarters until some arrangement can be made by which I can communicate with my command. These will be the only mounted men I have in the entire district. [emphasis added] I also consider it vitally important to keep Saunders (my scout), as he is the only man I have acquainted with the neighboring islands.

So by pulling much needed cavalry to Virginia, a section of the South Carolina coast was left short of mounted troops (just two men if we read the complaint literally).  And there is again, a story for another day about the only man acquainted with the islands.

Oh, and who was the commander of the Second Military District?

Brigadier-General Beverly Robertson.

Some readers will contend this situation was of benefit to the Confederacy.  Would you want that general commanding mounted troops?

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 1153; Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 362, 375.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

6 thoughts on ““Two-thirds of my brigade are dismounted….”: The South Carolina cavalry swap

  1. What’s up with Robertson? I thought that all his training and prior service with the US Army had been with dragoons and cavalry, so I don’t understand the slight about wanting him commanding cavalry. Fill me in!

    1. Others will no doubt have opinions that weigh more than mine. I will simply point out that Stuart did all in his power to keep Robertson out of the ANV. And Stuart, I would submit, was a good judge of cavalrymen.

  2. I have read that both Beauregard and Jeb Stuart were opposed, for different reasons, to the swap of cavalry units you’ve described. Beauregard, of course, didn’t want to see a reduction in his coastal forces, while Stuart had concerns about relatively inexperienced cavalry troops being thrown into action against more-experienced Union troopers.

    I believe Wade Hampton was able to at least partially offset Stuart’s concerns by retaining 10 men from both the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Cavalry regiments to work to stay on as scouts and guides when the new regiments arrived from South Carolina.

  3. In my considered judgement, Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson was the most abysmal senior cavalry commander on either side–far worse indeed than Alfred Duffie..

    On June 9, 1863, for example, Robertson allowed two entire enemy cavalry divisions to pass around his right at Kelly’s Ford en route to Brandy Station and did nothing to learn the strength of their commands; nor did he whatsoever hinder or obstruct their resolute advance.

    As a result, the Confederates came within an eyelash of losing Fleetwood Hill–and the battle, itself–when Union cavalry showed up at Brandy Station–directly in Stuart’s rear. And but for a quick recovery on Stuart’s part–and terrific fighting by his command–the Federals would have triumphed at Brandy. And if that would have happened, the blame for losing the inaugural action of the Gettysburg Campaign would have been deservedly shouldered by Beverly Robertson.

    Jeb Stuart could have materially served the Confederate war effort by convening a court martial on the morning of June 10–and then hanging Beverly Robertson, “for cause,” on the afternoon of June 10. Good riddance!

    General Robertson was indeed trained as a cavalry officer, but we all well know from our own professional experiences that just because someone is trained at something does not mean he retains the disposition or capabilities to implement that training.

    And in this regard, I give you Beverly Robertson..

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