I was reading David Evans’ excellent work Sherman’s Horsemen this morning when I started pondering the differing natures of cavalry raids between opposing sides and the different theaters over the course of the war.
During the Atlanta campaign, Sherman made excellent use of his cavalry to force the Confederate forces in front of him to extend their lines or reposition. He often had difficulties getting his subordinate cavalry leaders to do what he wanted them to, but I freely admit I hadn’t given him credit for the adept use of his mounted arm. Their immediate objectives were generally destructive in nature (bridges, railroads, factories, mills, etc), but his objectives for them was to shift enemy forces so he could maneuver his army. The differences between tactical and strategic objectives, to use the proper terminology.
Confederate raids in the western theater seem to me to have focused on destruction of supplies and infrastructure to inconvenience their opponents, but lacking this strategic focus. Forrest’s, Morgan’s, and Wheeler’s raids all caused damage, but I can’t recall their actions being tied to strategic moves by their higher headquarters. Admittedly, this is not my area of expertise. Please feel free to speak up if you think I’m in error.
The raids conducted by the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac also at first glance appear to be nearly universally destructive or combative in nature. Stoneman’s raid, Sheridan’s raids and his Valley campaign all targeted destruction of infrastructure or enemy forces. Like those of Sherman’s subordinates, they were tied to strategic objectives of the army’s commander. In Hooker’s/ Stoneman’s case, they weren’t necessarily well thought out, but they did have a strategic objective.
Grant’s use of his cavalry during the Overland Campaign of 1864 seems similar to Sherman’s, though I haven’t to date examined it from the army’s standpoint instead of the cavalry’s. (But I’d like to: any suggestions for a good single-volume source on the campaign?) Certainly Grierson’s raid earlier in the war was planned and executed with a higher purpose in mind.
The “raids” of the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, however, seem different to me. I can’t think of a single one that was not tied to strategic decisions and/or moves to be made by the army. They almost invariably seem to be focused on reconnaissance, however, and not on destruction of enemy forces or equipment. Yes, the odd supply dump was looted when encountered in the course of a raid and extra mounts were always desirable, but that generally wasn’t the object of the raid in the first place. True, later in the war they were generally fighting better-equipped, more numerous foes. I can’t help wonder, however, what might have happened had Stuart attempted earlier in the war what Sheridan did in early 1864 — seek out the enemy’s cavalry for the purpose of forcing a fight and defeating it. He didn’t, of course, so the point is moot.
I’ll stray briefly from the original purpose of this post to pursue one more thought. I wonder if a case could be made that the Union cavalry came of age because they were allowed to. I don’t think they were ever specifically targeted by Lee or Stuart. Given the perceived dominance of Stuart’s cavalry going into the winter, there would appear to have been an opportunity there, even with the rotation of some brigades to other areas for better forage. While there was a great deal of self-imposed rigor, as they were strung out over dozens of miles of pickets for the army’s main body, I don’t think they were harassed or attacked much by Confederate forces at all. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Fitzhugh Lee’s raid at Hartwood Church was so effective.
Enough fuzzy musings for now, back to research.