Confederate Cavalry in the Civil War

During the American Civil War new and old battlefield tactics were utilized at engagements across the nation from Virginia to Arkansas. Napoleonic tactics that dated back to the early 19th century were adopted by both Union and Confederate armies, involving masses of ranked companies that clashed with deadly results. A standard function of the cavalry was to support the infantry with flanking maneuvers around the enemy or with full frontal assaults. These up front cavalry engagements with infantry lines would soon prove detrimental to the horsed units very early in the war. The Southern cavalry proved to be the more adaptive of the two sides. Having to adjust to superior Union numbers and the deprivation of supplies, Confederate cavalry evolved with war time necessity.

Because the Civil War was primarily fought in the Southern United States, Confederate cavalry was essential to armies that needed to defend a vast swath of territory. Were as the Union cavalry unites were spaced out across the nation on into the western territories, rebel cavalrymen were already in the region at stack. This allowed for quick unit formations early in the war even if southern cavalry had to bring their own horses.[1]  Confederate cavalry was equipped well as could be, with carbines being the prized weapons of riders. Pistols and shotguns were also utilized with great effect in skirmishes and raids.[2] With improvements in weapons designs, like the rifling of barrels, cavalry could be picked off by infantry easier than in earlier decades   and at greater distances.[3] A   man on a horse silhouetted against the sky or back drop was a clear target, resulting in high officer deaths on either side.

As unconventional gruella warfare became a staple of southern strategy in deterring Union forces headed south, the further one went West the more gruella warfare was used. Because of the distance from Richmond cavalry units in the Trans-Mississippi region helped make up for the lack of support from the Confederate capital. Raiding convoys moving to supply Union forces, cavalry killed two birds with one stone; by preventing supplies reaching northern hands the southern raiders replenished their own stores.[4] On September 19, 1864 in the Indian Territories an Indian Brigade under the command of Brig. Gen. Stand Watie hooked up with Col. Richard Gano’s cavalry from Texas that then proceeded to attack and take 250 wagons of supplies bound for the Union Fort Gibson. This take alone was worth one and a half million dollars.[5] Beyond raiding, scouting, honor guards, and picket duty were all tools in the cavalry’s toolbox.

Scouting was an essential operation that allowed for an army to locate an enemy force or to remain hidden from its prying eyes. Being fast and maneuverable a man and a horse could run circles around a foot soldier given the terrain was not to rough. When an area needed to be defended or taken before an opposing company could, cavalry could form picket lines very rapidly. A quick example of this would actually be from the Northern cavalry that held up General Robert E. Lee’s forces at the Battle of Gettysburg’s start.[6]

As the war drove on and bodies were stacked high, Southern cavalry found itself facing over whelming Northern numbers. After the fall of Vicksburg on the 4th of July, 1863 rebel horsemen in the Trans-Mississippi region of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and the Indian Territories found themselves alone  cut off from the rest of the Confederacy.[7]  As the war went on in the Eastern theater, the southern leaders in the West turned to more gruella warfare to support the southern cause.

[1] Katcher, Philip. 1986. American Civil War Armies (I): Confederate Artillery, Cavalry and Infantry. London: Osprey Publishing Ltd. P.35

[2] Katcher, p. 37-40

[3] Miller, David.2001. The Illustrated Directory of Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment of the Civil War.  London: Published by Salamander Books

[4] Bailey, Anne; Sutherland, Daniel. Civil War Arkansas: Beyond the Battles and Leaders. University of Arkansas Press Fayetteville, 2000

[5] Steele, Phillip; Cottrell., Steve. 2000: Civil War in the Ozarks. Published by Pelican Publishing Company, Grena, Loisiana

[6] Foote, Shelby. 1986. The Civil War a Narrative vol.s. I-III. New York, published by A Division of Random House



6 thoughts on “Confederate Cavalry in the Civil War

  1. jmccloud1993 says:

    This was a very interesting post. Like you mentioned, the Confederate cavalry was vital due to the importance of defending their lands from Northern invasion. Also, the horses allowed them to deliver messages, scout Union forces, and move to new locations more efficiently. One thing that really caught my attention was when you mentioned that the Union soldiers were able to easily pick off individuals in the Confederate cavalry due to the advancements in weaponry. Did this lead to less officers riding on horses towards the end of the Civil War? You also mentioned that cavalry units were vital to guerilla warfare, especially on the western front. These raids allowed the Confederates to capture many supplies. For further discussion, why did the Confederates not emphasize this type of guerilla warfare on the eastern front like they did on the western front? Please let me know. Good post.


  2. dberry20 says:

    I found this post to be very interesting. I didn’t realize the importance of the Confederate calvary. Without the calvary, the Confederacy probably would’ve faced even more struggles in trying to defend against the Union. My question to you is why didn’t the Confederates incorparate this type of guerilla warfare in other places and in different times during the war?


  3. Great post. Cavalry isn’t well thought of these days, considering it is outdated, but back then it was crucial. They would have faced a losing battle without it. The Confederates were already outclassed in many ways, Cavalry helped them to even the odds.


  4. mpthomas10 says:

    Even with the advancements in weapons technology, the cavalry was a very important piece to any tactic because it could so quickly turn the tide of a battle. The Confederate cavalry’s adoption of raiding was vital to prolonging the rebellion. If the Northern troops had received those supplies then they would have been better equipped to end the war at an earlier date, and the extra supplies helped to bolster the Confederate troops.


  5. Terra Lain Votaw says:

    Guerrilla warfare was essential to the civil war, and the Calvary was a large part of that. I think it is interesting how the South was able to stretch out the course of the world by broadening their defenses.


  6. jacobaloweryuca says:

    This was an interesting post! I, like our classmates, enjoyed that you discussed the importance of the calvary to the Confederate cause. Some of the comments above ask why Confederates didn’t implement this type of guerilla warfare earlier in the war effort or in other theaters. I feel the guerilla war tactics and motivations took shape due to multiple factors. The regiments in the Western theater such as in Arkansas or Louisiana (and even further west) lacked a solidified leadership at times. They were so far away from the centralized leadership of the Confederate army and relied more upon local leadership and militia style organization. Also, it appeared to me through many of our readings that the later stages of the war facilitated this guerilla style for the South. The Confederacy was suffering from high desertion rates low morale, and eventually Robert E. Lee wanted to enlist African Americans, which did not go over well with many of the Confederacy’s soldiers. The battlefront and the home-front were often synonymous realities for those who were on the verge of losing everything. The South was seeing their economic, social, political hierarchies as well as their culture and traditions crumble due to Union ascension in the fight for victory. I really enjoyed this post, good job!


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