One of the most serious issues facing the Regular cavalry regiments throughout the war was their numerical strength, both of horses and personnel. The Regulars were chronically short of both officers and enlisted men throughout the war, though generally due to different factors. The next several entries will focus on why personnel strength was such an issue. The 2nd Dragoons/2nd US Cavalry will be used for examples. While I plan to focus this project on all six of the regiments, the 2nd is the one that I currently have the most information on and am the most familiar with.
An additional note: for easier understanding, I will refer to the regiments by their designations following the reorganization of the regiments in August 1863.
In order to understand shortages, it is helpful to first understand what the regiments would look like at full strength. Prior to the war, each regiment was composed of ten companies. Early in the war, a company on paper consisted of 100 men and included a captain, a first lieutenant and two second lieutenants. The regiment was habitually divided into five squadrons of two companies each. A squadron consisted solely of the two companies and was assigned no additional officers assigned. It was commanded by the senior company commander. Each regiment was commanded by a colonel, and additionally contained his staff of a lieutenant colonel, three majors, two surgeons, an adjutant, quartermaster, commisary and a noncommissioned staff (sergeant major, chief bugler, etc). The 6th US was formed in 1861 with 12 companies, and the older regiments later added the two additional companies, but to keep the numbers round we’ll still call it an overall strength of 1,000. Part I of this essay will focus on enlisted shortages, officer numbers will be addressed in Part II.
At the beginning of the war, most of the regiments were already understrength. Losses from resignations to join the Confederate Army, a dearth of recruiting and losses from various fights on the frontier had depleted all the regiments to some extent. Four of the five cavalry regimental commanders at the outbreak of the war resigned their commissions to fight for the South, for example (Brackett, History of the United States Cavalry, pg 211). My attempts to find information on enlisted men leaving service to join the Confederacy have thus far been unsuccessful. I suspect there were few, however, as they were bound by the terms and period of their enlistments and didn’t have the luxury of resigning their commissions.
Recruiting was the major problem affecting enlisted strength, for two reasons. First, it is my understanding that there were no cavalry recruiting stations about the country where a young farmer from New York, for example, might go to enlist. To enlist in the 2nd Cavalry, one had to go find the 2nd Cavalry and sign up. General enlistments were handled by the Army as a whole, with recruits assigned as needed to units at the lowest strength. At the conclusion of the Peninsula Campaign, for example, “the regiment had not received a detachment of recruits in four years, and was now reduced to nine officers and 240 enlisted men present for duty. Other regiments were in a similar depleted condition,” (Lambert, One Hundred Years With The Second Cavalry, pg 65). True, these numbers only include seven companies, as C, G, and I companies were still making their way east to rejoin the regiment. If one generously assumes all three companies were at their full complement of 100 men each, that still leaves the regiment just above 50% strength. In the case of the 2nd Cavalry, this was addressed at the conclusion of the campaign by breaking up A, B, and D companies. Their privates were divided up amongst the remaining companies present for duty, and their officers, noncommissioned officers and buglers were sent on recruiting duty (Lambert, pg 65). This leads to the second issue of recruiting incentives.
There was little incentive to join Regular units during the war save their reputation. The Federal government did not attempt to compete with the lavish bonuses offered by states to fill their volunteer regiments. Let’s say a young Pennsylvania man decides to ride off to glory in the cavalry. He has two options, volunteer service or the Regulars. His first option is to join one of the regular army regiments, with a low enlistment bonus and set duration of enlistment no matter how long the war lasts. His second option is to join the company being raised in his home county, where he’ll serve with his neighbors and receive up to a $150 bonus for enlisting for a period of three years or the end of the war, which ever comes first. Which is he more likely to choose?
As if this wasn’t enough, current troopers’ enlistments were running out over the duration of the war, providing another drain on personnel. A veteran’s decision to re-enlist or join a volunteer is similar to that of our friend from Pennsylvania above, with the added consideration of a promotion in the volunteer unit due to his army experience. I haven’t seen the muster rolls for all of the regiments yet, but it is doubtful they were ever at full strength. (The only likely exception would be the 6th, raised in 1861, which may explain why they seem to have seen more action than the other regiments). This leads us to our last problem of attrition through casualties.
In my example of the 2nd Cavalry from the Peninsula Campaign, casualties were not a factor. To that point, the regiment had seen very little action, and had not sustained more than a handful of casualties. As the war progressed, however, they did see a good deal of action, and lost a number of men and horses. Numbers remained low. At Brandy Station, 225 men of the 2nd were engaged, according to Merritt in Rodenbough’s From Everglade to Canyon (pg 290). This is somewhat less than our optimum, especially considering 11 of 12 companies were now present. Worse, of the 225 engaged, 68 were killed or wounded, as well as 73 horses (Ibid). Major Robert Smith of the regiment recalls that following the battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864, “the Second Cavalry, now reduced to a skeleton regiment and without an officer to command it, was joined to the First Cavalry, under the command of Captain Baker” (Rodenbough, pg 366).