As always, Hollywood has absolutely butchered historical accuracy. Cavalry in general has taken some of the worst hits, to the point that they are commonly seen as magnificent, flawless tanks of their era. Cavalry never has had the ability to completely topple lines and lines of enemies like is seen in the Lord of the Rings movies. Nor are they able to charge infantry and stick around while fighting them without disengaging, although that was somewhat more practical in the Civil War than in ancient or Medieval times.
Due to the lack of Civil War movies, Civil War cavalry have remained somewhat true to their nature, but not quite.
For starters, cavalry in the war was very, very vital. Its function was absolutely necessary to the proper function of the army as a whole and without it, the army was handicapped. A prime example of this would be J.E.B Stuart’s absence during the Battle of Gettysburg.
But what was the role of cavalry units? For starters, an often overlooked role is reconaissance. Without this basic necessity, the army is left making blind decisions without knowing the whereabouts of the enemy, their numbers, or their entrenchments. This can be supplemented with infantry reconaissance, but it was by no means on the same level of accuracy as when cavalry did it.
Another vital yet overlooked role is foraging and raiding. The Confederates, being less fortunate in the way of factories and food supplies (a lot of land was used for non-food crops at the time), occasionally took to raiding as a means of getting needed equipment. During the Gettysburg campaign, Stuart’s raid had captured over 100 wagons to help the war effort, although this delayed him further from rendezvousing with the Army of Northern Virginia.
But raids were not only used for foraging and in fact, they were usually used to sabotage enemy actions like Stuart did after the Battle of Fredericksburg and like how Forrest did in Western Tennessee in 1862 and ’63. Raids were also used to draw enemies from other fronts like John Hunt Morgan’s raid into Indiana and Ohio did for Lee’s Gettysburg campaign. Of course, the Union put raids into great use as well, launching notorious raids into Confederate territory, usually with the intent to destroy supplies like Streight’s raid and Stoneman’s raid.
As for how cavalry fought, it was not at all like popularly envisioned. Cavalry charges rarely happened and instead cavalry would typically be used as skirmishers that could pack a lot more punch. They would fire from their horses but when able, would dismount and fight as infantry, although that cut into their numbers as a handful of soldiers had to stay back and hold the horses. Charges did happen though, and they were very powerful if done at the right time, disastrous if not. Charging infantry was even more rare for cavalry as infantry units were superior in numbers and could also use bayonets to their advantage. Still, cavalry did occasionally charge infantry and even fortified positions like the Union did at the Battle of Third Winchester.
-The great cavalry charge at Third Winchester
Cavalry charges were much more common against other cavalry units though. Unlike seen in movies or imagined in our heads, cavalrymen did not use their swords all that much. When in a mass melee they used their pistols first (of which they had multiple) and only used their swords after those pistols had been emptied. Since most melees don’t last as long as Hollywood would like us to believe, that means that a cavalryman could enter a melee and come out only having used a few barrels worth of revolver ammunition. This is not to say that swords were rarely used, they certainly were, just not as much as you would imagine.
Cavalry charges also reflected their overall functions as charges were usually hit and run attacks where the cavalry broke off after a short while of fighting. These brawls, except for a few occasions, tended to result in the cavalry either overruning their opponent or retreating after dealing or being dealt enough damage.
Of the last major roles, there is the delaying actions cavalry frequently undertook. Since they largely acted as skirmishers, they were great for this action, allowing the army to retreat and being able to catch up relatively easily. Without a masterful delaying action, the losing army could expect to be harassed until it finally made a stand again, never being allowed to break off the engagement. This would allow the winning side to, as Forrest would say, “keep the scare” on the losing side which would only mean heavier defeats. Cavalry were also used to inflict further casualties on defeated enemies meaning that after a major battle, skirmishes between cavalry units were sure to follow.
It is estimated that 409 cavalry regiments had been formed by the end of the war, making up a significant portion of the 4,000+ total units, although they were obviously heavily outnumbered by infantry units.
Understanding the role of cavalry and the way they fought is vital to understanding the Civil War. The cavalry commanders of the war, especially the Southern ones, came out of it highly romanticized as Forrest was recognized as a folk hero and Stuart was remembered as an elegant and humorous commander. Some of the best stories of the war come from such commanders and units. Cavalry may not have been the backbone of the army like infantry were, but they were a vital and necessary part of the war effort. They resembled the light tank units of Germany’s Wehrmacht in WWII, able to move fast, hit hard, and strike deep at the enemy’s most vulnerable areas. Without them, an army was much less effective and much more vulnerable as well. This shows us why the cavalry were seen as glorious compared to the infantry, not just because their life gave more benefits or was more exciting, but because they were the recipe to an army’s success if managed correctly and could not only deliver victories, but could gather all there was to be had from them.