Cavalry Tactics: Evolution of drill regulations

Going back to my “archives” to a post from the old days, let me mention Captain Alonzo Gray’s “Cavalry Tactics as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion.”  That work has flaws, particularly from the stance of military professional reading (as in he completely missed a lot of important factors which would preclude the use of traditional cavalry just years after the work’s publication).  But considered as history, Gray was among the first to examine in detail the use of cavalry during the Civil War.  So “Cavalry Tactics” is an important waypoint in the historiography of the subject.

Such is a polite way of saying that you might not agree with Gray, but you have to consider his writings for any study of cavalry tactics.  As a long time student of cavalry actions during the war, I keep a photocopy of the book on my reference desk (dating to a time well before Google Books had a digital copy).  As part of my post-sesquicentennial threads to pick up, I’m going to pull out selected portions of Gray’s “Cavalry Tactics” for examination and interpretation – using some of those sesquicentennial themed posts for reference.

Before getting knee deep in cavalry stuff (bring your tall boots, by the way), let us consider the history of cavalry tactics, as they applied to the American practice.   And as we step off, we must explain “tactics” in context.  In the classic sense of the word, tactics are the actions and activities taken to achieve an objective.  Tactics embodies the “practices” of a military unit, or formation, as it approaches those objectives.  You see, tactics is a practical application towards an objective, while strategy involves planning, thus more abstract, to use those tactics in pursuit of the larger goal.

A significant subset of tactics is drill.  Drill defines the practices for forming and moving a military formation.  Often, with respect to the Civil War, historians overlook that drill was a subset, and not the whole of tactics.   This is prefectly understandable, as the regulations were often titled “Cavalry Tactics.” However there is a lot that fell outside the “drill regulations” which factored into tactics as practiced during 1861-65.  But, because those regulations were written, published, and widely used, the manuals receive a good bit of attention in our analysis 150 years later.

As there were variations among the drill regulations, both due to evolution of the arm and differences of opinion about the arm, there were several options available to the commander seeking to drill his cavalry.  And those differences translated, as an output of drill, to the flexibility of the unit of cavalry.  In his introduction, Gray briefly discussed the evolution of cavalry tactics in the American experience.

The earliest regulations cited by Gray dated to The War of 1812.  A publisher from Philadelphia offered “Colonel Harries’ Instructions for a Volunteer Corps of Cavalry” in 1811.  More substantial was Colonel William Duane’s “Hand Book for Cavalry,” which appeared in 1814.  As Duane was the Army’s Adjutant General, his carried a bit more weight.  Still, the Army lacked an “official” cavalry drill regulation.

A product of a moderate era of military reforms, a board of officers met in 1826 and drafted just such a manual, known as “A Complete System of Cavalry Tactics.”  These were published in 1834, as simply “A System of Tactics: Rules for the Exercises and Maneuvers of the Cavalry and Light Infantry and Riflemen of the United States.”  Since that is a mouthful, the manual was often attributed to the president of the board … Major-General Winfield Scott… as simply “Scott’s Tactics.”  (Keep in mind there were a similar set of “Scott’s Tactics” for the infantry.)  For the most part, the board patterned these drills on European standards. But this brought a much needed standard for reference.  Scott’s tactics introduced a double-rank system.  The manual also set the organization with two troops per squadron; and four squadrons per regiment.  While this organization would change just a few years later, Scott’s brought into use many common terms and phrases used in later manuals (and reflected even today in armored cavalry tactics, BTW).

Even more aggressive military reforms came during the tenure of Secretary of War Joel Roberts Poinsett.  The “Tactics of 1841” were largely a translation of French manuals.  Philip Kearny received credit for the organization, but the results were known to most as “Poinsett’s Tactics.”  These retained the double-rank system, but increased the number of squadrons per regiment to five (for a total of ten troops).  The extent of this set of tactics was so complete as to require issue in parts.  Part One was the “School of the Trooper, of the Platoon and of the Squadron – Dismounted.” Part Two covered mounted drill at the same levels.  (And note the links for those first two are for 1855 editions of the manuals.)  Last was Part Three – “Evolutions of a Regiment (1841 edition).”  (Here’s a link to the 1862 edition, if you wish to compare.) Poinsett’s became the standard for most cavalry drill during the Civil War.  The set received little revision right through the war and were republished in 1864 by order of the War Department as a single volume.

The ascendency of Poinsett’s Tactics was not complete.  In 1857, Captain George B. McClellan returned from his tour of Europe with some ideas about cavalry drill.  Those were later published, when McClellan had a much higher station in the Army hierarchy (in 1862), as “Regulations and Instructions for the Field Service of the U.S. Cavalry in Time of War.”  However, McClellan’s main influence was upon Colonel Philip St. George Cooke. The chief deviation from Poinsett’s was the use of a single-rank formation. And from that came variations in the arraying of the regiment in movement and while in position.  Not until November 1861 did Cooke receive approval for these revisions, and even then the revisions did not eclipse Poinsett’s during the war.  Cooke had Volume I covering the “School of the Trooper, of the Platoon, and of the Squadron” along with Volume II addressing drill at the regimental level.

With the need to create a large cavalry force from scratch, the Federals had no time to implement a new drill manual.  And at the same time, Poinsett’s was deemed too complicated for the rapid training of volunteer regiments.  To satisfy the need, George Washington Patten included “Cavalry Drill and Sabre Exercise” in the set of manuals he offered, starting in 1861.  Representing a “watered down” Poinsett’s, Patten’s were of little influence on further evolutions.

And those were not the only variations produced during the war.  Major James Congdon, of the 12th Pennsylvania Cavalry, authored “Congdon’s Cavalry Compendium” in 1864. On the opposite side of the lines, Major-General Joseph Wheeler authored his own set of cavalry tactics, which used the single-rank formation.  The Confederates also issued instructions for single-rank formations for use by partisan troops, sometimes also attributed as “Maury’s skirmish tactics for cavalry.” These were but a few of the variations seen during the war.

After the Civil War, wider adoption of Cooke’s ran afoul of reforms pushed by (then) Lieutenant-Colonel Emory Upton and a push towards combined arms tactics.  After Upton’s death, Cooke published a revised version of his drill regulations, incorporating wartime experience.  This work, becoming the standard for the last decades of the 19th century, came out in 1883.

Well beyond that point, the Army continued to revise drill regulations (as they were formally called after Cooke’s) well into the 20th century.  A new drill regulation came out in 1902, saw some tentative revisions in 1913, and finally were reissued on the eve of American involvement in World War I.   As late as 1944, the Army saw the need to update its manuals for horse cavalry drill.

And keep in mind the focus of my post here has been upon the drill regulations – just a part of the larger topic of cavalry tactics.  As Eric Wittenberg discussed a year ago on Emerging Civil War, there are many other facets to the topic beyond just drill.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “Cavalry Tactics: Evolution of drill regulations

  1. Thanks for bringing P St. G Cooke’s name back into the conversation. I am always a bit surprised that he gets such short shrift in the NoVa CW discussions, since he is a Leesburg native. I keep hoping that you will have an active thread about him at some point. IMHO, his is a story that needs to be told more widely, although he is unlikely ever to attain the “personal branding” that his son-in-law achieved.

  2. Regarding General Cooke.. If you have not already reviewed it, there is an exceptionally flattering (and good) profile of Philip St. George Cooke crafted by Carolyn Thomas Foreman. A digital copy of this is on-line at Oklahoma State.
    We often hear what Jeb thought of his father-in-law; alternatively, we are seldom informed of the general’s opinion of his son-in-law. I have often heard his family’s home still stands outside of Leesburg, btw, and perhaps someone can educate us on this point.

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