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.


Wainwright’s Diary, March 13, 1864: “I also heard that there were strong rumours again”

Colonel Charles S. Wainwright began his diary entry for March 13, 1864 as he often did – describing the weather:

March 13, Sunday.  We are now having real March weather, at least as to changableness; no two successive days being alike.  Still, the spring is opening.  What little grass there is about here begins to look green; the birds have commenced singing of a morning, while the frogs and tree toads keep it up all the night long.

If only spring would hurry up (be that in 1864 or 2014).

I went up to Army Headquarters on Friday. There they told me that the consolidation question was at a standstill, and that now the chances seemed to be that it will not be carried out at all; so much opposition being brought to bear by the generals who would be deprived of commands – reduced from a corps to a division, or from a division to a brigade. Could the present corps be filled up to 25,000 or 30,000 effective men, it would be wrong to sink their past history: but as they are now only some 10,000 or 15,000 strong, it is absurd to have such large staffs and such a multiplication of papers.

I could not put it better myself.

I also heard that there were strong rumours again that General Meade was to be relieved.  There is no doubt of his unpopularity at Washington, but their great trouble is to find some one to take his place. [William Farrar] “Baldy” Smith is most talked of. I know nothing of him except his laziness at the first Fredericksburg, and his insubordination on the “mud march.”

So it was fair to say W.F. Smith would not get a Christmas Card from Wainwright.  But as he might have had the measure of “Baldy,” in his next paragraph there was much wide of the mark:

General Grant spent Thursday night at Army Headquarters. He was called out West suddenly, but expects to be back in ten days. He said while here that the people of Alabama and Mississippi were in a much more subdued condition than the secessionists of Kentucky and Tennessee. Also that there really had been over 10,000 deserters from the rebel armies out there since the the battle of Chickamauga.  Supposing this to be all so, the rebellion must be pretty well put down out there. Indeed, they have never shown the pride and obstinacy at the West that has been displayed in the older Atlantic States. It is here that they will fight the longest, as they have by far the hardest.  Everything has been aimed on their part to retain Virginia – and what a noble history hers would have been had her cause only been a just one! I cannot help admiring the constancy of the “Old Dominion” in the midst of such suffering and desolation as has been totally unknown to any other part of the country. Her people have not only poured out their money and their blood without stint, but from this state have come all the greatest and best men; Lee, Sidney Johnston, and Stonewall Jackson will always figure as the greatest and purest generals on the rebel side in this war.

Maybe Albert Sidney Johnston could be a “son of Virginia” if old Kentucky were considered originally part of Virginia.  Seems a hard sell to me.  As Nevins points out in a footnote to this diary entry, Wainwright seemed to have no recognition of the hard fighting in the western theater through this point in the war.  Perhaps we see the “eastern theater bias” developing even before the war was finished?

For the remainder of the diary entry, Wainwright offers his thoughts on General George McClellan’s Report covering his time commanding the Army of the Potomac.  He had started reading the published report shortly after returning from leave and finished by March 13.  To say Wainwright felt positive of McClellan would be much an understatement.

I now think him about as near being a great general as it is possible to come without arriving at it.  Certainly none of our other generals have come nearly so near to it, so far as I am able to judge them…. The whole report shows a man confident in the purity of his intentions, and the perfect honesty of all his actions…. I am more than ever convinced that where he was not right he had good reason for being wrong….

In no single instance is there the least attempt to shift responsibility on the shoulders of his subordinates.  Through the whole report runs a care and consideration for his men, an actual love for his army, which is most beautiful. No wonder we all loved him if there is any truth in the old proverb that “love begets love.”  ….

It would be hard to say which is the most intolerably disgusting in the light they appear here by their dispatches: the obstinate conceit of the President in his own ideas of military matters, the petty spite of Halleck, or the rancorous hate of Stanton.  When calm history comes to be written, Mr. Lincoln must appear as one of the smallest of men, ever harping on trifles.  But enough of this; ‘twould be treason were it known at Washington that I did not think them demigods….

More confidently now than ever before I say that had McClellan been allowed to land 120,000 men at Altoona, we should have been in Richmond before the 4th of July, ans the close of 1862 would have seen the close of the war.  But then, where would now be the great question of emancipation; where the firm status of the Republican Union (!) party; where all the glory that other generals have earned?

A soldier’s first commander can be, in some ways, like his first love.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 329-32.)

150 Years Ago: The turning of the leaves and changes of command

After the Confederate campaigns into Maryland and Kentucky petered out in the fall of 1862, there were several changes in the lineup of Federal field commanders. I suspect most readers are familiar with the relief of George McClellan, replaced by Ambrose Burnside, which occurred this week 150 years ago. At the end of last month, I wrote about William Rosecrans moving to command the “new” Department of the Cumberland which was really the “old” Army of the Ohio.

But there was another change of command queued up for the fall of 1862, and it also occurred, on paper at least, during the early days of November:

Washington, November 8, 1862.
By direction of the President of the United States Maj. Gen. N. P. Banks is assigned to the command of the Department of the Gulf, including the State of Texas.

By order of the Secretary of War:
Assistant Adjutant-General.

And with General Banks then in charge of the Department of the Gulf, who was on the outs?

More explicit orders came the next day from General Henry Halleck:

… The President of the United States having assigned you to command of the Department of the Gulf, you will immediately proceed with the troops assembling in transports at Fort Monroe to New Orleans and relieve Major-General Butler….

McClellan, Buell, and Butler…. all going on the bench. Burnside, Rosecrans, and Banks now taking the field. And meanwhile some fellow named John McClernand was traveling west with these orders in hand:

Washington City, October 21, 1862.
Ordered, That Major-General McClernand be, and he is, directed to proceed to the States of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, to organize the troops remaining in those States and to be raised by volunteering or draft, and forward them with all dispatch to Memphis, Cairo, or such other points as may hereafter be designated by the general-in-chief, to the end that, when a sufficient force not required by the operations of General Grant’s command shall be raised, an expedition may be organized under General McClernand’s command against Vicksburg and to clear the Mississippi River and open navigation to New Orleans.
The forces so organized will remain subject to the designation of the general-in-chief, and be employed according to such exigencies as the service in his judgment may require.

Secretary of War.

On the outside, it appeared that even General U.S. Grant was also vulnerable (although through the lens of history we know better).

Were all these changes an indication of failures in the field by these generals? Or was it a change in direction, emanating from the chief strategist in the White House? Or a little of both?

(Citations above from OR, Series I, Volume 15, Serial 21, page 590 and Series I, Volume 17, Serial 25, page 282.)