Summary Statement, 2nd Quarter, 1863 – 3rd New York Cavalry, Allis’s… NOT Allee’s… Howitzers!

Sometimes, even Frederick H. Dyer stands need of correction.  Or at least a small adjustment.

Just below the 3rd New York Artillery’s battery summaries for the second quarter, 1863, there is a lonely line:


  • Section, Attached to 3rd Cavalry: At New Berne, North Carolina with two 12-pdr mountain howitzers.

If we consult Dyer’s Compendium we find a listing:

Allee’s Howitzer Battery

Attached to 3rd New York Cavalry (which see)

Consulting the entry for the 3rd New York Cavalry, we see no mention of the howitzer battery.  And that is normal where a section (or battery) served as an integral component of the parent unit.

In the past, I’ve normally just accepted Dyer’s designation.  You’ll see that in entries for the summaries of fourth quarter, 1862 and first quarter, 1863.  But since this entry stands alone for the second quarter, I thought it convenient to pause and provide a more detailed study of this particular unit.

So who was this Allee that commanded this howitzer battery?

Well… the roster of the 3rd New York Cavalry has no record of an officer named Allee.  In fact, there was no soldier in the regiment by that name.  And there are no references, primary or secondary, that would reconcile the name “Allee” to the regiment.  Rather hard for a person to command a battery if there were not IN the unit!

So who should we be looking for?  Consulting New York State Military Museum’s website (an excellent on-line resource that should be in your bookmarks), specifically a collection of newspaper clippings that reference the 3rd New York Cavalry, we find this entry, discussing Brigadier-General Edward Potter’s July 1863 raid on Greenville, Tarboro, and Rocky Mount (emphasis mine):

We had a most delightful passage from New York and arrived at Newbern on Tuesday evening, 21st inst. I found the city of Newbern quiet and pleasant as ever, although … had gone out early Saturday morning, under the command of that most efficient and gallant officer, Brigadier General Potter, Chief of Staff to General Foster. The troops for the expedition comprised two battalions of the 3d N. Y. cavalry, commanded by Majors Cole and Jacobs; one company of the 1st N. C. cavalry, Lieut. Graham, and one battalion of the 12th N. Y. cavalry, Major Clarkston; two sections of 12 pound howitzers, Lieut. Allis, and one section of flying artillery from the 3d N. Y. regiment, commanded by Lieut. Clark. The cavalry was all under the command of Lieut. Col. Lewis, of the 3d N. Y. cavalry.

And there WAS a Lieutenant James A. Allis with the 3rd New York Cavalry.  And he was detached to artillery service, according to his state muster records:


Note the the remarks.  “… On detached service comd’g artillery detachment since Jan 1/63…” THIS is the commander, and the name, that we need to close the loop.  Very possible that Dyer transcribed the name incorrectly.  However, my wife pointed out that “Allis” is likely a name of Norman-French origin.  If that is the case, it would be pronounced somewhat like “Alee” or such.  So Dyer might have worked from a source that spelled Allis as it sounded.  At any rate, I am pretty sure we can match “Allee’s Battery” to “Allis’s Section” in this case.  Those are the howitzers were are talking about!

James A. Allis was born in Cazenovia, New York (Madison County), on September 17, 1840 to Elijah and Diantha Allis.  His family moved to Syracuse, as he appears there in the 1855 state census, aged 14.  The 1860 census has a 19 year-old James A. Allis, from New York, as a teacher in Joliet, Illinois.  Not for sure this is the same person, but certainly matches with some particulars.

Turning to his muster records:


Allis enlisted in what would be come the 3rd New York Volunteer Cavalry on August 3, 1861 in Syracuse as a sergeant in Company I. The remarks indicate he was born in Syracuse (vice Cazenovia), was 5 foot, 7 ½ inches tall, black eyes (!), and brown hair.

He was promoted to First Sergeant on October 8.  And then this “fast mover” was promoted to First Lieutenant on December 31st to close out the year.   (And a side note, the 3rd New York Cavalry was involved through that time in operations on the upper Potomac, to include Balls Bluff and Edwards Ferry in October … thus he was in my neck of the woods for a while.)

In April 1862, the 3rd New York transferred to the Department of North Carolina.  On May 30,  Allis led a detail of 15 men out of Washington, North Carolina on a reconnaissance mission.  At Trantor’s Creek, about eight miles out of the perimeter, the detail encountered a Confederate patrol.  Allis left a detail to secure the bridge at the creek and took up pursuit.  “Finding himself surrounded by a large body of infantry concealed in the woods,” Captain George Jocknick, commanding Company I reported, “Lieutenant Allis gallantly cut his way through the crowd, and returned here with his command about noon, with only one man–Private Ogden Harrison–badly wounded and 2 horses killed.”   In short, Allis got himself into trouble, but smartly… and aggressively…  extracted himself.   On the heels of that action, Allis received promotion to First Lieutenant. Clearly an officer held in high regard.

I’m not sure when the 3rd New York Cavalry came into possession of the mountain howitzers.  In December, that section was associated with Allis as part of the expedition to Goldsborough.  Captain Newton Hall, commanding the troops from the 3rd New York on that operation, wrote “I must not neglect to mention Lieutenant Allis and his howitzer, which was always ready when wanted, and did us good service at White Hall.”  In March the section supported another expedition out of New Bern.   On May 20-23, the section was involved with a demonstration towards Kinston.   June 17-18, Allis’s section was taken along for a scout to Core Creek.  The section was again called upon in the first week of July to support a raid on the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad.  Later in the month, the battery was part of the expedition toward Rocky Mount mentioned above.

In December 1863, the 3rd New York Cavalry transferred to Newport News, where they became involved with operations against Richmond and Petersburg.  And around that time, Allis appears to have left the howitzers (either the section was turned in, or at least Allis was given other duties).  Allis continued as a lieutenant for Company F and later Company G.  With his initial enlistment complete in the summer of 1864, Allis reenlisted as a captain, in Company C, in July 1864.  However, by that time Allis was working as an aide and staff officer.  In correspondence with Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant, Major General E.O.C. Ord describes Allis as “the best [cavalry] officer I have…” … though it is hard to ascertain the full context, as Ord was speaking from a position of want in regard to proper cavalry!  Still a high accolade, when mentioned between such very high ranking officers.

After the war, Allis returned to Syracuse.  In the 1875 state census, Allis lived with his brother, practicing law.  Around that time, James Allis married Ellen Moore.  The couple had one boy child die in infancy.  But then were blessed with three girls – Olive, Mable, and Ida.  The 1910 census indicated James, still in Syracuse, worked as an equipment clerk.  His three daughters, by then aged 34 to 25, were living with their parents.  All three employed as teachers.  James A. Allis died in Syracuse on October 30, 1920, and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse.

Circling back to the summary statement, the section did not report any ammunition on hand for the quarter.  Though there were ample implements and other supplies.  Perhaps the cavalrymen were just not accustomed to the artillery reporting forms.

The important take-away from examining that lonely line on the summaries is not the need to correct the spelling of Allis’s name in Dyer’s Compendium.  Rather, that the line allows us to be introduced to James A. Allis and the duties he performed during the war.  He was, as they say, mentioned in dispatches.





“Thar’ ain’t no good way to charge a battery.” But that is not to say it cannot be done

Basil Duke was among the most prolific ex-Confederates writing during the decades after the Civil War.  He is most known for his work regarding General John Hunt Morgan’s operations.  I call attention to a passage from Morgan’s Cavalry today, detailing an incident from the battle of Shiloh involving the Kentucky troopers in Morgan’s command.  From Duke’s recollections:

The Federal troops at this point were posted on an eminence, covered with underbrush, and in front of which was a ravine.  Eighteen or twenty pieces of artillery, strongly supported, were planted on this hill, and were playing furiously.  For perhaps an hour Hardee’s efforts to advance were foiled….

We had never seen anything like that before.  We had occasionally been fired upon by a single piece of artillery, when we had closely approached the enemy’s encampments on Green river; and we used to think that hardly fair.  Now the blaze and “volleyed thunder” of the guns on that hill seemed to our excited imaginations like the output of a volcano in active operation. An hour or two previously, a young fellow, belonging to some Confederate battery which had been disabled, had asked permission to serve with us for the rest of the day.  He was riding an artillery horse and had picked up a rifle and a cartridge box on the field, so I put him in the ranks.  While we were expecting the order to charge, my eye happened to fall on this youngster, and it occurred to me that I might get from him valuable information germane to the business on hand.  I therefore took him aside, and remarked: “You say you have served in the artillery for a year and you ought to know a good deal about it.  Now, General Hardee is going to order us to charge that Yankee battery yonder, and I want you to post me about the way to charge a battery.”

“Why, good Lord, Lieutenant!” he exclaimed with much emphasis.  “I wouldn’t do it, if I was you.  Why your blamed little cavalry won’t be a duce high agin’ them guns.”

I became angry, because I was not feeling hopeful or comfortable, and his prediction “mingled strangely with my fears.”

“Haven’t I told you,” I said, “that General Hardee will order us to take those guns?  Now, don’t express any opinion, but answer my question, ‘What’s the best way to charge a battery?'”

He looked me squarely in the eye for a few seconds, and then said very earnestly: “Lieutenant, to tell you the God’s truth, thar’ ain’t no good way to charge a battery.”

The order to charge was not given: I will confess, greatly to our relief….

While the drafted artilleryman felt otherwise, cavalry was capable of charging a battery.  And we have many episodes of such from the Civil War.  If a commander was deliberate about the matter, there was indeed a “good way” for cavalry to charge a battery.  The commander had to take stock of several factors – time and distance being foremost.  And, as always, tactical formation came into play.

Time and distance?  An example from fifty years after the Civil War comes to mind:

(Citation from Basil W. Duke, Morgan’s Cavalry, New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1906, pages 84-5.)

“The most important hand-to-hand contest” of the war on Fleetwood Hill: Shock action of cavalry at Brandy Station

In previous installments about cavalry tactics, we’ve looked at the use of the saber and revolver.  Observers such as Alonzo Gray specifically cited these weapons for use in “shock action”.  We might say that shock attacks, delivered with either the saber or, less often in Gray’s assessment, revolver, were the most important offensive component to the mounted arm.  One might use the carbine to skirmish or develop an enemy position.  But it was with saber and/or revolver in hand that the cavalry would deliver its weight against an enemy battle line.

As we’ve seen, the revolver had some advantages in close combat, but the saber remained the preferred weapon from the American perspective.  Discussing the shock action, Gray wrote:

It will be noticed that the saber was the only weapon used for shock action except when the ground was unfavorable, such as a close or wooded country.  Under such conditions the revolver was substituted for the saber.  To secure favorable and decisive results a cavalry commander must make a quick decision and quickly take the initiative.  A timid cavalry leader will usually fail where a bold one will succeed.  In many cases a bold and sudden attack will result in small losses, and boldness will take the place of numbers.

We can apply this sage wisdom to a large number of battlefields from the Civil War.  Of those many battles to consider, Gray offered numerous examples from the fields of Culpeper County… of which no small number occurred on Fleetwood Hill.

Gray returned to Major Henry B. McClellan and The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart (page 277) for one vignette, specifically an account from Captain James F. Hart, commanding Hart’s South Carolina Battery:

The battery I commanded moved abreast of Hampton’s column in its gallop toward this new foe; and as we came near Fleetwood Hill, its summit, as also the whole plateau east of the hill and beyond the railroad, was covered with Federal cavalry. Hampton, diverging towards his left, passed the eastern terminus of the ridge, and, crossing the railroad, struck the enemy in column just beyond it.  This charge was as gallantly made and gallantly met as any the writer ever witnessed during nearly four years of active service on the outposts. Taking into estimation the number of men that crossed sabres in this single charge (being nearly a brigade on each side), it was by far the most important hand-to-hand contest between the cavalry of the two armies.  As the blue and gray riders mixed in the smoke and dust of that eventful charge, minutes seemed to elapse before its effect was determined.  At last the intermixed and disorganized mass began to recede, and we saw that the field was won to the Confederates.

An excellent quote selection by McClellan and later by Gray to illustrate the nature of the fighting.  For those who are not familiar with the flow of battle at Brandy Station, June 9, 1863, the charge Hart described was part of the action to drive Brigadier-General David M. Gregg’s division off Fleetwood Hill.  Such was the crescendo of combat for the day.  And what we see here, in terms of shock action by cavalry, is a textbook case.  The charge hit the Federals on the hill and drove them off by close, hand-to-hand action.

McClellan prefaced his presentation of Hart’s words with some clarification, “I transcribe the following from Major J.F. Hart’s narrative, premising only that the charge which he so graphically describes was made… by the 1st North Carolina Cavalry, supported by the Jeff Davis Legion….”  However, that is not to say those two formations from Brigadier-General Wade Hampton’s brigade were the only ones involved with that “gallantly made” charge.  Gray also cites the report of Colonel Pierce M.B. Young, commanding Cobb’s Legion, also part of Hampton’s Brigade:

About 12 a.m. I received information through one of General Stuart’s aides, that his headquarters were in great danger of being captured by a large body of the enemy, which had gotten in the rear. I immediately moved up in the direction of General Stuart’s headquarters, when General Hampton ordered me to move forward at a gallop, and engage the enemy to his front and right. After moving about a mile at almost a full run, I began to ascend the hill upon which were General Stuart’s headquarters. The general sent me the second aide, saying that his headquarters were in possession of the enemy, and desired that I should clear the hill.

About this time a regiment of the enemy, which was supporting one of their batteries near General Stuart’s headquarters, swept down the hill, charging my front. I immediately ordered the charge in close columns of squadrons, and I swept the hill clear of the enemy, he being scattered and entirely routed. I do claim that this was the turning point of the day in this portion of the field, for in less than a minute’s time the battery would have been upon the hill, and I leave it to those whose province it is to judge to say what would have been the result had the battery gained its destination. We killed and captured 60 of the enemy, utterly routing him, with but little loss to ourselves. Among the captured were several commissioned officers, including the lieutenant-colonel.

Examining the nature of shock action of cavalry, we see another account describing the same charge.  Gray did note that Young’s account implied the use of Poinsett’s 1841 drill – close column of squadrons in the charge.

Of course, there is a Federal side to this also.  And they were likewise delivering their shock action to the Confederates on Fleetwood Hill.  Gregg reported:

The country about Brandy Station is open, and on the south side extensive level fields, particularly suitable for a cavalry engagement. Coming thus upon the enemy, and having at hand only the Third Division (total strength 2,400), I either had to decline the fight in the face of the enemy or throw upon him at once the entire division. Not doubting but that the Second Division was near, and delay not being admissible, I directed the commanders of my advance brigade to charge the enemy, formed in columns about Brandy House. The whole brigade charged with drawn sabers, fell upon the masses of the enemy, and, after a brief but severe contest, drove them back, killing and wounding many and taking a large number of prisoners. Other columns of the enemy coming up, charged this brigade before it could reform, and it was driven back. Seeing this, I ordered the First Brigade to charge the enemy upon the right. This brigade came forward gallantly through the open fields, dashed upon the enemy, drove him away, and occupied the hill. Now that my entire division was engaged, the fight was everywhere most fierce. Fresh columns of the enemy arriving upon the ground received the vigorous charges of my regiments, and, under the heavy blows of our sabers, were in every instance driven back.

We see from reading accounts from both sides of the line that on June 9, 1863 Fleetwood Hill witnessed some of the most important “shock action” charges of the war.  That’s not my hyperbole.  It is derived from the words of the men who were there, mind you.  Indeed, we should study the action on Fleetwood Hill with this importance in mind.

And how best to study that action?  From the very ground it was fought across.


And you and I can walk that ground and consider the actions… thanks to the successful acquisition of Fleetwood Hill by Civil War Trust and partners in 2013.  In fact, on next Monday, October 26, the Trust officially “cuts the ribbon” on Fleetwood Hill and will show off the new interpretive trail over that most historic topographic prominence.

(Citations from Alonzo Gray, Cavalry Tactics, as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Cavalry Association, 1910, pages 34-35;  Henry B. McClellan, The Life and Campaigns of Major General JEB Stuart, Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1885, pages 276-7; OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part I, Serial 43, page 950; and Part II, Serial 44, page 732.)

“By fours, right about wheel” and a landscape lost: Loss of Hansbrough Ridge – 1863 and 2015

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working up to what Alonzo Gray called the “shock action” of cavalry when using the saber, and occasionally the revolver.  Before breaking down this shock action, as described by Gray, in more detail, allow me to pull up one of his examples… as it is timely to events occurring this very day in regard to preservation.

Readers know well the events of June 9, 1863.  Often our focus is, for good reason, on the fighting that took place from Beverly’s Ford to Fleetwood Hill.  That is the heart of the battlefield.  But the fighting around Stevensburg was no less violent or deadly.   On the morning of the battle, Colonel Alfred Duffié led the Second Cavalry Division, about 2,000 strong, from Kelly’s Ford towards Stevensburg. His orders were to cover the flank of Brigadier-General David M. Gregg’s main force.

Contesting Duffié’s advance was Colonel Mathew C. Butler, with the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry.  To protect the road to Culpeper (and hold the screen in front of Confederate infantry), Butler initially placed one squadron on Hansbrough Ridge.  When Duffié’s force arrived at the ridge, Butler rushed forward Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Hampton, brother of Brigadier-General Wade Hampton, and a detachment of troopers.  When arriving at Stevensburg, Frank Hampton pushed out and posted dismounted troopers across the ridge in front of Salubria, a colonial era plantation house which still stands today.

The presence of this dismounted line, reinforced later by the 4th Virginia Cavalry, under Colonel Williams Wickham, caused some delay of Duffié’s already painfully slow advance. In spite of the cautious stance, the troopers in Duffié’s First Brigade gained a lodgement on the ridge.  (This occuring about the same time that Gregg’s column was closing on Fleetwood Hill.)  To blunt this push, the Confederates were about to reset their lines.   However, just as a column was wheeling to form, the Federals charged down the road and over the ridge with devastating affect.  Major Henry B. McClellan later wrote, in The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart:

Lieutenant Broughton informed Adjutant Moore that he delivered a message from Colonel Hampton to Colonel Wickham to the effect that he (Hampton) would close back upon the 4th [Virginia] regiment so as to make a charge in solid column.  At this moment the rear of the 4th regiment was emerging upon the road from the woods, and the order “By fours, right about wheel,” was heard.  Whether this command was given by Colonel Hampton to execute the movement contemplated in the message delivered by Lieutenant Broughton, or whether it was given by some officer of the 4th regiment so as to bring the faces of his men toward the enemy, is entirely uncertain.  The result was most unfortunate.  Captain Chestnut and Lieutenant Rhett, at the head of Hamtpon’s men, remained facing the enemy, to conceal, if possible, a movement which they felt must bring an attack upon them at once. But the enemy saw the wheel, and instantly ordered the charge.  Colonel Hampton again ordered the right about wheel, and placed himself at the head of his men; but it was of no avail.  In a moment they were swept to the side of the road, and the full force of the charge fell upon the 4th Virginia.  Colonel Hampton, while engaging one of the enemy with his sabre, was shot through the body by another, and was mortally wounded.  He succeeded in reaching the house of John S. Barbour, west of Stevensburg, where he died that night.

I would submit this as the “vetted” Confederate version of events, carefully reconstructed by McClellan after the war.  Though I would point out that others, particularly Wade Hampton, had more pointed views of the actions that took place along the road over Hansbrough Ridge.

However, let us set aside for another day the blame for Frank Hampton’s death.  Instead, for our purposes of discussing cavalry tactics, let us take this as an example submitted by Alonzo Gray of “shock action” by cavalry.  In this case, a charge by the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry landed squarely upon the Confederates and opened the road to Stevensburg.  Such offered a great opportunity for Duffié, which he never picked up.  Duffié might have uncovered the presence of Confederate infantry.  Or he might have rushed to support the attacks on Fleetwood Hill.  Or both!  The battle… if not an entire military operation, which we would later know as “The Gettysburg Campaign”…  might have turned on actions taken at that moment at that ground where the road to Culpeper passed over Hansbrough Ridge.

But it didn’t.

And for us to really take into consideration the particulars – the opportunities and beyond to why those opportunities were left on the ground – we need to head to that ground.  Unfortunately, this is what we have to consider today:

VA3 widening1

This view looks down Virginia Highway 3, to the west towards Stevensburg, as it passes over Hansbrough Ridge.  The area where Frank Hampton was mortally wounded is just past the telephone pole.  The exposed earth is the result of widening efforts by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).  I’ve mentioned (and complained) about this in earlier posts.  The widening was, unfortunately, pushed through.

And there is a serious problem with this operation.  Under a Memorandum of Agreement, of which I retain an unsigned copy, VDOT operates this project with several stipulations in place.  One of which is:

In the event that a previously unidentified archaeological resource is discovered during ground-disturbing activities associated with the construction of the Project, the VDOT, in accordance with Section 107.16(d) of the VDOT’s Road and Bridge Specifications, shall require the construction contractor to halt immediately all construction work involving subsurface disturbance in the area of the resource and in the surrounding areas where additional subsurface remains can be reasonably expected to occur.  Work in all other areas of the Project may continue.

I’ve visited this site a couple times in the last few weeks.  Others I know have visited the site.  And each of us have made the same comment – there are artifacts being exposed, dug-up, and disrupted by the work.  I also hear that now “relic hunters” are now scavenging the work area when the contractor is not on site.  For that reason, I’m not going to pass along details of what I’ve seen.

You might counter that neither myself or the “relic hunters” are authorities in regard to archaeological findings.  Well that’s my point.  Implied with the MOA there is supposed to be an authority to determine what, if anything, is being uncovered.  This road has seen human activity since colonial times (and likely even before then).  Significant activity, in addition to what I’ve mentioned for June 9, 1863, occurred at this spot during the Civil War.  Indeed, it would be impossible for no artifacts lay by this road.  It’s even possible that human remains lay beside this road.

So why isn’t there an observer on site during work hours to determine what exactly the spades and shovels are uncovering?

Cavalry tactics: What of the lance? “Americans do not take kindly to the lance.”

Many years ago, when comparing the 19th century American cavalry experience with that of the European powers, a Anglophile friend remarked that, “Americans just didn’t seem to understand the usefulness of the lance.”   From the European perspective, the lance was frequently issued and employed.  The narratives of post-Napoleonic battles and campaigns include frequent mention of lancers employed to great shock effect at key points of the field.  So we have images such as this one, depicting the charge of Polish Uhlans at the city of Poznań during the November Uprising 1831, showing the Europeans’ use of the lance.

On this side of the Atlantic, we have scant few contemporary illustrations of the lancers in action.  In the manuals of the era, American writers gave space to the lance – as part of both dismounted and mounted drill.


But that was, as one might say, the long and the short of it.  A few pages devoted to drill instructions, and not a lot said about tactical employment.  The American experience with the lance is mostly on the receiving end rather than being one employing it.  In his Cavalry Tactics, Alonzo Gray cited Major Albert G. Brackett’s History of the U.S. Cavalry in that regard, speaking of the battle of Buena Vista, February 23, 1847:

The cavalry made one most gallant charge against the enemy on the 23d of February, and cut their way through them; but the Mexican lancers were far from being a contemptible enemy, and many of them were admirable horsemen. Our people had the advantage of larger horses and heavier men as a general thing, but the Mexicans were much more agile, and could handle their horses as well perhaps as any people on earth.  With the lance they were greatly our superiors, and used that weapon with great effect both at Buena Vista and at San Pascual.

Gray might also have mentioned the actions of the Californios at Los Angeles during the same war.  In that case, a less well-trained and organized force of lancers drove back US Marines acting as infantry.

The Mexican lancers were perhaps the closest to those colorful European lancers that the Americans ever faced.  But on the opposite end of the spectrum, the U.S. cavalry frequently encountered the lance in operations against the natives on the plains.  So the American focus on the lance tended to be how best to counter the lance.  Philip St. George Cooke made note of this in his Cavalry Tactics manual of 1861:

The attack or defense against the lance (it is the common weapon of the mounted Indians) depends much upon horsemanship, and judgement of the rider.  It is parried like the sword; and you must press in at your opportunity to close upon the antagonist. You must invariably endeavor to gain his right rear when he is least able to attack or defend; the left rear and left, weakest for the sabre, are the strongest positions for the lance; the same may be said of the bow and arrow; in pursuit always approach at the right rear.

Reading that section, I get the impression Cooke was writing with some knowledge on how best to run down a “lancer.”

Moving forward to the Civil War, Gray mentioned the use of the lance by the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, known as Rush’s Lancers.  That unit’s wartime story is well documented.  Although carrying the lances into 1863, by the Battle of Brandy Station and their famous charge upon Confederate positions on St. James Plateau the regiment was “conventionally” armed… in the sense of conventional American cavalry.

There were other lesser known lance equipped units during the war on both sides.  But none of these had a battlefield impact.  Instead, Federal and Confederate cavalry went into action with saber, pistol, and some form of long weapon – chiefly the carbine.  Gray cites Brackett’s conclusion in this regard:

We have yet to make good lancers in the United States, as experiments, even on a small scale have proved failures among the Americans.

Gray adds in his notes, “Americans do not take kindly to the lance.”

Why would the lance be so useful for the Europeans (and Mexicans and Native Americans), yet be totally useless in the hands of American troopers?  Addressing that, Gray first pointed out differences in terrain, “The lance cannot be used to advantage in a close wooded country such as is found everywhere along the Atlantic coast.”  That might easily be countered by pointing out that most battles in the Eastern Theater, outside of Spotsylvania County, Virginia, were fought in open, farmed terrain.  One must assume Gray was voicing the underlying reasons why earlier generations of American cavarlymen had not taken to the lance, and not limiting his response to the Civil War.

From there, Gray offers what I think is the practical response to the question – the growing obsolescence of the lance when opposed by rifled carbines:

In meeting an enemy armed with the lance it would be necessary to first break the continuity of his lines before the saber could gain a superiority.  In these extracts there can be found many examples where cavalry charges have been broken by magazine fire by holding it till the charging line is within very close range.  The traditions of our cavalry and its training are such that we can dismount and fight on foot in a very short time.  This dismounted fire should be supported by mounted troops, which should deliver the charge as soon as the lancer line is broken.

Thus Gray felt the American emphasis on dismounted fighting played to advantage over the lance.   He offered two other responses, given scenarios with more demanding details:

If it were necessary to meet lancers, whose lines were unbroken by fire action, with shock action of troops armed with the saber, I would endeavor to strike the weakest point of their line with a mass formation of some kind, either by squadrons in column of troops or in line of troops in columns of fours. Thin lines fleeing in front of lancers would soon cause their lines to become so broken that other troops held in reserve could meet them with a fair chance of success.

In other words, the power of the lancer formation was in close order mass.  Anything done to break up the formation, even be that the sacrifice of a troop or squadron, would reduce the impact of the lancer formation.

The obvious point, to turn a pun, about the lance was the inadequacy of the weapon when employed on a battlefield with rapid firing (relatively speaking) firearms.  Yet, 100 years ago cavalry of all the great powers of Europe carried steel lances into the first campaigns of World War I.  The Polish cavalry, descendants of those Uhlans of 1831, were still training with the lance on the eve of World War II.  Once a military formation picked up the lance, it seemed hard to put it down.

(Citations from Alonzo Gray, Cavalry Tactics, as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Cavalry Association, 1910, pages 26-28; Albert G. Brackett, History of the U.S. Cavalry, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1865, pages 83-4; Philip St. George Cooke, Cavalry Tactics or Regulations for the Instruction, Formations, and Movements of the Cavalry, Volume 1, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1861, pages 64-5.)

More cold steel: “just so much he trusts to his sword, his morale will be raised”

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.)

Cold steel or hot lead? Saber and revolver for the cavalry in close combat

NOTEThis post was badly edited upon first publication.  The error was due to cutting and pasting of portions for serialized postings.  I’ve revised the post to provide the desired sequencing of Gray’s conclusions instead of Whittaker’s, which were intended for the follow up post.  Sorry for the confusion caused by the clean up.

Going into combat, the infantryman had his musket and bayonet.  One weapon with two different modes of use.

The artilleryman had his cannon.  One weapon with several types of projectiles for different purposes.

But the cavalryman might, if he was properly equipped, go into battle with a carbine, a revolver, and a saber.  (Let’s not go crazy and mention the lances, however).

This array of weapons was due to the varying roles the cavalry was called upon to perform.  A carbine was preferred for picket duty or skirmishing.  But for up close fighting, the revolver and saber were preferred.  Though I would point out the commander’s preference tended to play into the selection of saber and revolver.

Each of these weapons (fine throw in the lance too) had a different set of drills. And by extension, each had a particular set of tactics that a commander might employ those drills against.  From the non-cavalryman’s view, I would argue this made the cavalry seem disorderly at some level.  Again, the infantry, with their one basic weapon, had a common set of drills.  How many ways can you load a cannon?  But the cavalry trooper had all those “schools” to learn about sabers, pistols, and carbines.  So some perceptions, well-founded or not, took hold:


Even today, you mention cavalry and images of gleaming sabers come to the mind’s eye.   After all, doesn’t everyone want to be on the horse at full gallop swinging that big edged weapon around?

But we read, in most discussions centered on tactics, that the saber was used less during the Civil War compared with earlier wars.  However, examining the source material we find the saber was still often employed in the melee.  In his study of Cavalry Tactics, Captain Alonzo Gray opened Chapter I with a discussion of the revolver and saber when used for close combat.  He took up the question as to when should each be used.  Quite number of the actions Gray called upon occurred on June 9, 1863 around Brandy Station, Virginia.

Gray starts with mention of Colonel Williams Wickham and actions near Stevensburg:

Colonel Wickham and a few of his men threw themselves into a field on the roadside, and by the fire of their pistols checked further pursuit.

I’m less inclined to call this a successful use of pistols in the close melee, as we know this occurred at a time after the 4th Virginia Cavalry broke, and which General Wade Hampton blamed the loss of his brother Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Hampton.  The Federals didn’t press this to advantage, so it’s hard to say the selection of the revolver made much difference.  And I’d argue that Wickham’s “stand” really was not much of a stand to begin with, being more of a fleeting rally.

Further into the discussion, Gray offered examples of individual combat between those armed with sabers and others armed with revolvers.  Staying at the Stevensburg sector:

Colonel [Frank] Hampton, while engaging one of the enemy with his saber, was shot through the body by another, and mortally wounded.

And one, from another sector of the battlefield that had immediate and important implications on the fight (and I’d argue also on the campaign which followed):

Perceiving his danger, Colonel [B.F.] Davis turned upon Allen with a cut of his saber, which [Lieutenant R.O.] Allen avoided by throwing himself on the side of his horse; at the same moment he fired and Colonel Davis fell.

In that instance, along Beverly’s Ford Road, the initiative slipped out of the hands of the Federals. All by way of a single pistol shot.

But back from the historical implications here, what does this say about the tactics, drill, and weapons employed?  Wryly, do we say “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight?”  Well it is not that clean a cut… if I may turn a pun.

Further along in the discussion, after turning to other actions on other battlefields, Gray cited instances where the saber’s shock effect was of great value in the melee.  Among those cited vignettes, Gray circles back to Brandy Station.  This time, we go to Fleetwood Hill with the attack of General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s brigade, singling out the 1st Maine Cavalry:

They outnumbered us three to one, but could not withstand the heavy saber blows of the sturdy men of Maine, who rode through them and over them, gained the hill, captured a battle-flag and many prisoners, among them the rebel General Stuart’s adjutant-general. From this moment the fight was one series of charges, every regiment of the brigade charging, rallying, and again charging until ordered to retire.

Granted, we must take Kilpatrick’s report with salt.  But in defense of Gray’s selection, the other quotes used for Brandy Station came from Major H.B. McClellan’s Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart, written after the war.  I get the impression Gray was reaching for some account from what one can argue was the largest cavalry melee of the war, and came up with but Kilpatrick’s account to use for his point.  What we can agree upon, having access to a wider range of source materials than Gray had in 1910, is that the saber was used to good effect by both sides on Fleetwood Hill that day.  Indeed, both sides mounted saber charges and counter charges… with ultimately the victory going to the side that charged last.

At the end of his discussion of sabers and pistols, Gray concluded:

It will be seen from the next chapter that during the War of the Rebellion, the same as for centuries past, the saber was essentially a weapon for shock action. During the thick of the melee it was still to be preferred; but when the melee began to dissolve into individual combats the saber was or should have been exchanged for the revolver…. In the individual combat the revolver will be the winner in almost every case.  If the trooper is expert in its use, he has nothing to fear from an individual enemy armed with a saber.

In the end, Gray did not claim the saber was obsolete.  Rather that each weapon had a role and place… and should be retained.

Put this in context.  Those words were published in 1910, just years before the trenches of the Western Front with their barbed wire and machine guns.  Now we might wave that aside as backwards thinking at a time when technology had eclipsed the tactics of old.  Maybe cast a few jokes at Gray’s expense….

But, the cavalry and their sabers remained on the battlefield… and in some cases were employed with effect.

March 30, 1918.  Cited as the last saber charge of World War I, Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew’s C Squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse “moved” the Germans at Moreuil Wood with their sabers.  They payed a steep price to blunt a German offensive.  Nobody, including Gray, ever said cavalry charges were cheap, bloodless affairs.

(Citations from Alonzo Gray, Cavalry Tactics, as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Cavalry Association, 1910, pages 16-22, 25.)