Last week, I discussed the use of the cavalry’s melee weapons – the pistol and the saber. (And I do apologize, as that post from last Monday was botched! I’d not paid sufficient attention while editing, so have revised it with the correct quoted passages.) Writing almost fifty years after the Civil War and but a handful of years before Flanders Fields, Alonzo Gray contended the mounted arm, with sabers in hand, still had a place on the battlefield. One of the sources Gray used to frame his conclusions were the words of Frederick Whittaker’s Volunteer Cavalry:
So far as the author’s observation goes, he never remembers an instance which the saber charge, resolutely pushed, failed to drive the pistols. But the individual fancy of the colonel seemed to regulate the matter for his regiment. If he were an enthusiastic swordsman he always managed to infuse the same spirit into his men, and such men depended upon their sabers with just confidence. The saber is a weapon that requires constant practice to keep one’s hand in, and our cavalry officers as a class are entirely deficient in the practice.
In all the instances during the war in which the saber proved ineffective it may be safely asserted that it was owning to two things – want of fencing practice and blunt sabers.
In Whittaker’s view, the saber was one area in which the American mounted arm should have improved. While lauding the performance of the American cavalry, to the point of alleging superiority over European powers in its application as a raiding force, Whittaker took a dim view of the results when limited to edged weapons. He predicted:
Had one of our cavalry regiments been put on a level plain with no arms but sabres, opposed to like force of European heavy cavalry, especially cuirassiers, they would in all probability have been routed.
Why such a dire prediction?
The reason was that our men had little or no confidence with the sabre. The reason of that again was that they were never taught to use it properly. The ultimate reason of all – our system of sabre exercise, as laid down in the tactics, is radically bad, and our men never fenced together.
And Whittaker offered refinements and emphasis on drill as a remedy. Such would install confidence in the weapon while ensuring leaders were well acquainted with the means to employ the weapon.
But there was one other aspect of the saber (or, as Whittaker preferred, sabre) which needed attention – the edge.
It is a strange fact, that after all that has been said and written about sharp sabres, by every one who has written on the subject of cavalry they still remain, in every service known, as blunt as ever….
Sabres are issued blunt enough to ride on to San Francisco. The steel is hard. Grindstones are not to be found. The soldiers lose confidence in the weapon, and prefer the revolver.
So Whittaker suggested that all new saber contracts carry the requirement that the weapon be “sharp enough to cut a sheet of paper, by striking the paper on the sword lightly….” Speaking from personal experience:
The writer has stood at a grindstone turned by steam, and tried to grind an Ames sabre for over an hour. He can testify that it is hard, the hardest kind of work. But if ground while soft in temper, at the factory, the hardening temper subsequently received would leave them sharp still, and easily kept so.
To ensure that edge was maintained, each trooper should have a whetstone. Whittaker felt such would go a long way to instill confidence:
Soldiers are fond and proud of good weapons, and take good care of them. All men are apt to be vain of bodily strength and skill. It gives a man a braver feeling to cut down an adversary than to shoot him, and by just so much he trusts to his sword, his morale will be raised.
Morale! Morale! Confidence in the weapons always translated to higher morale in the ranks. And this greatly increased the impact of the weapon.
Now the moral effect of a charge is tremendous. The fierce charging yell, rising and swelling higher and higher till it overtops the sound of musketry, frightens more men than the bullets. Very, very few troops will stand up against a charge unsupported by works; we might say none. One side or the other is sure to give way, not from the force of weapons, but simply because they’re afraid. And anything which encourages men to charge home doubles their morale, and morale is everything.
Whittaker’s conclusion was, as with Gray’s, that the saber’s value lay in the positive morale instilled within the ranks of those wielding the “three-foot razors” and in the shock effect on the enemy.
There are two perspectives we should take from Whittaker and Gray in regard to the saber. Both men were writing about how the saber was used during the Civil War. As such both provide context to the tactical actions the student of the war will study. Yet, considering that both authors offered these “lessons” to be applied to what would be future conflicts (as of 1871 and 1910, respectively), we need to apply these as opinions of the time in regard to tactical employment. We gain some perspective as to what the military mind thought at those places in time.
(Citations from Frederick Whittaker, Volunteer Cavalry: The Lessons of the Decade, New York: printed for the author, 1871, pages 5-7, 10-12.)