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The military of the United States of America is currently comprised of four branches: the Army, the Navy, the Marines, and the Air Force. This, of course, was not always the case. Before the era of modern vehicles and modern technologies, the grandest branch of the American militia was the cavalry. In the early period of American history, from the American Revolution and up to the Second World War, the horse was the primary source of quick transportation and the most effective method of giving and receiving information from long distances apart. The cavalry were mounted militia which was considered among the toughest and most effective branch of the military then in existence. In the present moment historically, the cavalry have been relegated to the margins of the armed forces, used primarily for formal iconography that military function. This being the case, it is quite easy to forget the importance of the cavalry in other epochs of American history, particularly in the American Civil War where the cavalry had a direct correlation to which side, North or South, won the war. At the Battle of Gettysburg, the cavalry forces were an integral part of the Union success and yet some are not even aware that these mounted military men were even present at the event. Cavalry comprises a group of fearless men who have multiple responsibilities including battle and the acquisition of information. Without their participation, it is unlikely that the Union forces could have won the Civil War and consequently the preservation of the United States can be credited at least in part to the cavalry.
Besides a fighting battalion, the cavalry was also responsible for reconnaissance and security. In his book The Cavalry at Gettysburg, author Edward Longacre (1986) says that cavalrymen held six functions:
They could participate offensively, adding their weight to that of foot soldiers and cannoneers. They could perform reconnaissance. Troopers could also engage in counterreconnaisance, preventing enemy scouts from spying on the main army. They could delay enemy advances by falling back slowly from point to point, redeploying wherever terrain permitted further resistance. They could pursue and harass a retreating opponent, consolidating gains won in battle and preventing the foe from regrouping or counterattacking. And they could raid enemy positions and communication lines either independent of or in conjunction with a movement by the main army. In noncombat roles, cavalry could also serve as messengers, escort troops, and as garrisons for posts apart from the principal strength of the army (page 23).
By serving all of these roles, the cavalrymen showed themselves to be instrumental participants in the war effort but also versatile and fully capable individual soldiers. Besides serving as a combative force in battles of the war, the U.S. cavalry also functions as a means of transporting information between regiments and thus serves an integral purpose both on and off the battlefield.
It was during the Civil War that the cavalry proved to be one of the most important forces on the side of the Union. At the start of the war, it seemed that the Southern cavalry was superior to those on the Union side. The Confederates believed that their forces led by their cavalry and officers J.E.B. Stuart and Nathan Forrest, would defeat the North within weeks. The Southern forces were reportedly better horsemen, horsemanship being an integral part of the Southern gentry. Overseers on plantations would have to ride horses in order to supervise large portions of fields at the same time. Also, given the rougher terrain of the American South than the cities of the North, men would have to ride on horseback to neighboring towns rather than take buggies. Many men in the Confederate south were also better trained marksmen, being trained to shoot at earlier ages. Young men growing up in the south had to learn to fire guns in order to protect the homestead from wild animals and intruders. Northerners lived in more urban communities and didn't have the same obstacles and perils as the relative wilderness of the South.
It is important to note that before the secession of the Southern states, the majority of the men who were officers of the cavalry originate from the South. Stephen Starr (1979) wrote: "Until the breakup came at the end of 1860, the North and the South shared the same political and military institutions and, more importantly, many of the same attitudes, prejudices, habits, and customs" (page 209). Prior to the start of the war, there were approximately 175 officers in the five original cavalry regiments. Out of those officers, 104 decided to fight on the side of the confederacy. It was said that "the best blood of the South rode in the cavalry" (Starr 1959). This schism left the Union cavalry with primarily inexperienced troops and a lack of experienced officers to train and lead the new recruits. These facts were what made it appear that the Union cavalry was in a shoddy state in comparison with their Confederate counterparts. The efficiency of the Confederate cavalry was indicated by the successful raids of Major J.E.B. Stuart which earned them both valuable information about the Union army's strengths and weaknesses and were also able to steal much-needed supplies (Stubbs 1969). Such raids against the enemy were a common element in warfare of the period. Any successful raid could serve to both provide valuable resources to troops and also to serve as a severely demoralizing episode against the enemy.
The reversal of fortune for the Northern cavalry was the direct result of the hard work of several military strategists, among them Major Generals Joseph Hooker and George Stoneman. They took heretofore untrained men, many inexperienced in any form of warfare or military action and trained them into efficient and effective horsemen. Major General Stoneman took particular responsibility for the reformation and organization of the new cavalry (Fordney 2008,-page 38). By 1863, the Union cavalry was a fighting force to be reckoned with; something that would be proved at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9 (Beattie 2008,-page 5). Though both sides (North and South) would claim victory after the battle and the Confederacy would hold the territory, it was the first time in the Civil War where it became evident that the Union cavalry had the potential to withstand the Confederate's mounted forces and become victorious in the long run.
Before this time, it was a foregone conclusion that the cavalry of the South would go untested and unmatched. However, after the Battle of Brandy Station, the Confederates had to reevaluate their position and their strategies against the enemy. It was estimated that approximately 18,000 cavalrymen fought at Brandy Station, about 9,000 soldiers on each side (Heidler 2000,-page 379). Even though the Confederates maintained control of Brandy Station, the battle proved to have a moralizing effect on Union soldiers, providing them with confidence that their cavalry was indeed strong enough to stand up to their Southern counterparts. The Union was strengthened by the cavalry's performance at Brandy Station and the south was equally distressed. A Confederate new article at the time warned that: "Vigilance, vigilance, more vigilance, is the lesson taught us by the Brandy surprise and which must not be forgotten by the victory that was wrested from defeat" (Walsh 2006,-page 170). Morality is a key component of military success or failure and the near-victory at Brandy Station spurred the Union on to their eventual defeat of Confederate forces and the reinstatement of the fully restored United States.
Another reason that the Confederates became weakened and the Union strengthened was the high cost of properly equipping the cavalry on both sides. It would cost approximately $100,000 per year to keep a cavalry regiment properly equipped. This was an extraordinarily high amount for the time period and would be equivalent to around $10 million in modern money. The makeshift government of the Confederacy had not yet equipped itself to pay for the necessary materials to properly equip their soldiers and so many of the supplies used by Southern soldiers had to come from the men themselves. The southern economy was dwindling as the years went due to the men being away from their plantations in order to combat the North. The crops were not being kept up and crops that were harvested had no way of being exported for a profit. The cost of keeping up the cavalry units became more and more of a problem and less easily solved with a growing lack of funds.
Also, the rebel cavalry had to provide their own mounts as well as their own weapons, for which they were paid forty cents a day, whereas the Northern cavalry had the support of the government to fund their needs and thus did not have to worry about affording the means to fight (Walsh 2006,-page 11). As time went on, this condition grew worse as there was a lack of fodder for the animals (Starr 1959). The horses,…[continue]
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