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 Posted: Fri Nov 7th, 2008 09:12 pm
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Don
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I wanted to get a few more opinions before I throw this one on the blog, and there are more western theater folks here than other places I sometimes frequent.  If there are faults in my logic, someone here will catch them.  Thanks in advance!

 

 

I've often heard and read how the Union cavalry in the west was led by the 'second string.' That it was difficult to gauge the effectiveness of Confederate cavalry leaders in the west because of this. (Note: this is not an attempt to portray Forrest as a superior leader, of cavalry or anything else)  I’m not writing of how well-known the leaders were, as few would argue that the western theater, its leaders and armies tend to be overshadowed by the eastern theater.  In my opinion the theater doesn’t get the press that it deserves.

What I'm trying to examine is why the Federal cavalry leaders in the west were the second string. Other than a few examples, I can't make an argument that many were in the first string at or above brigade level. And they should have been, since the geography of the theater alone is vastly superior to cavalry operations than the eastern theater.

The vast majority of cavalry leaders who rose to prominence during the war were regulars at some point during their careers. Certainly not all, as fellows such as Hampton and Minty leap to mind, but most. Could it be that the reason the west had generally poorer cavalry leaders was that the cavalry leadership gene pool was much smaller than that of the eastern theater?

I'm pretty convinced that the cavalry leadership gene pool was simply too small in the west to produce many great leaders. The eastern theater had leaders from four of the six regular cavalry regiments to choose from. Men such as Merritt, both Greggs, McIntyre, Averell, Stoneman, Custer, etc. They didn't stay with their regiments, but they generally stayed in the eastern theater. The few exceptions were from western states like Kentucky. Out west there was only one regular regiment to pull from during the first half of the war, the 4th US Cavalry. Once the 3rd US arrived, a few such as Gordon Granger rose to prominence, but not many. I believe this is simply because they were too late to the ball.

I'm not arguing that the 4th US Cavalry was an inferior regiment by any means. They might actually have had more general officers than any of the other regular cavalry regiments.They definitely provided their share of able leaders.  The problem is that those leaders were assigned to infantry formations and/ or to the eastern theater.  I simply believe that since there were fewer officers to choose from, many more were promoted past their ability than there were in the eastern theater because of the scarcity of professional cavalry leaders.

 

This isn't simply a Union argument, as it directly affects how Confederate cavalry leaders in the theater are perceived.  The reputations of Morgan, Shelby and Forrest have all suffered because of this issue. The problem is that military leaders are often evaluated based on their opposition.

Let's briefly examine the gene pool. The 4th was a regiment of talented cavalry leaders in 1861. It and its sister regiment the 5th was raised in 1855, and was widely considered to have more than its fair share of talented officers.  So initial quality wasn’t an issue.  There were two problems that affected the gene pool. The first is that they were the only regiment available, and there were four in the eastern theater. More leaders to choose from means it's more likely superior leaders will be found. The second problem is that the one available regiment was gutted of leadership as the war broke out.

17 of the 34 officers assigned to the regiment resigned, several to become Confederate generals. JEB Stuart was one of these. Those who stayed were quickly snatched up for other tasks of greater responsibility, often with infantry formations and often causing them to move to the eastern theater. For example:

Of the four field grade officers, one resigned and the other three were sent east (John Sedgwick, Edwin V. Sumner, and William Emory, all of whom were generals by the following March).

Five of ten captains resigned. Of the remaining five, one was selected for inspector general service and one was dropped from the rolls for absence. The other three? Thomas J. Wood and Samuel D. Sturgis became brigadier generals of volunteers. Eugene A. Carr became Colonel of the 3rd Illinois Cavalry. I don't think Wood commanded cavalry again until after the war, but here are your two most experienced cavalry leaders.

Five of ten first lieutenants resigned, Stuart among them. One of the remaining five, Frank Wheaton, went east as a lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry before First Bull Run. One of the remaining four, David S. Stanley, was a brigadier general of volunteers by the fall. All four stayed with cavalry units.

Four of ten second lieutenants resigned. Two others, George Bayard and Joseph Taylor, went back east to cavalry units. Another, Tillinghast L'Hommediu, was the regimental quartermaster until his death at the end of 1863. The other three stayed with cavalry units, including Eli Long, who was promoted to Colonel of the 4th Ohio cavalry.

This is not to belittle the regiment. A host of good leaders emerged from this group, cavalrymen and otherwise. But by and large they weren't cavalry leaders in the western theater. Out of 34 officers, zero field grades, two captains, and seven lieutenants remain with cavalry units by September of 1861. Less than a third. Not a large talent pool to grow leaders from, and not a wealth of experience to train them with.

Eastern theater cavalry commands were better led because they pulled from a larger talent pool. The same reason that large schools like Texas and USC have better football teams than small schools like Temple.  There are smaller schools who occasionally outperform larger schools (ask Michigan about Appalachian State last year), but this is an anomaly rather than the rule.



 Posted: Fri Nov 7th, 2008 10:30 pm
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ole
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At first blush, Don, you've already swallowed the camel and are working on the gnat.

There were fine cavalry commanders in the west, but they are generally overshadowed by the worship of one Nathan Bedford Forrest. He wasn't that good and they weren't that bad. Wilson and Hatch showed themselves to be better than adequate students of the art. Grierson wasn't all that shabby. And many other no-names acquitted themselves rather well -- until they are compared to the legendary, indomitable Forrest.

To make a story longer, I think you've stepped off on the wrong foot by assuming that western Union cavalry commanders were, in fact, inferior. They made their mistakes and got their butts handed to them regularly, but that don't make them inferior.

Just a thought.

ole



 Posted: Fri Nov 7th, 2008 10:58 pm
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Captain Crow
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I'd have to second the nod to Grierson for sure Ole...after all the reading I did on the Vicksburg campaign and the ancillary actions surrounding it, Grierson's raid definitely had an effect entirely out of proportion to it's size and scope. And it's success was due largely to his excellent leadership skills as a cavalry officer.



 Posted: Sat Nov 8th, 2008 12:51 am
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ole
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With much respect, Captain Crow, Grierson was more lucky than skillful.  He called some exactly right and there were times he might have guessed better. But history records his ride as heroic. I'm here only to look at things the way they actually were. His raid was remarkable, and he had to have had something to do with that.  But I'm not one to conclude that he was a sainted genius.

What he accomplished will rightfully go down in the annals as a telling smack. But I do not assign "genious" easily. He did what he was asked to do. And he did it well. His was a sacrificial mission. That he carried it out with most of his command is indeed commendable. But it remains that he ably accomplished what was asked of him. And not much more than that.



 Posted: Sat Nov 8th, 2008 01:44 am
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who said anything about genius ole? I'll go ahead and take Sherman's word for it when he expressed his opinion of Grant's appointment of Grierson to lead the raid;"He is the best cavalry officer I have had yet". During the raid Grierson constantly kept the Confederates guessing by ordering well-planned diversions. He more than met Grant's expectations and did serious damage to not only Pemberton's supply lines but also to his confidence. Grierson continued to perform well and receive promotions up to and after the end of the war and had the distinction of being one of the few civilians, lacking any formal military education, to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the regular army.

"what was asked of him, and not much more than that"?

Grant: (the raid)"has been the most successful thing of this kind since the breaking out of the rebellion. Grierson has knocked the heart out of the state." Now maybe I'm mistaken but I don't recall Grant being given to hyperbole nor one to dole out praise lightly.

Sherman:"The most brilliant expedition of the war"

So as you can see I must respectfully disagree with your assessment of Grierson as a commander and of his raid as merely doing what he was asked to do.

Terrance J. Winschel (Vicksburg chief park historian)wrote an excellent essay entitled "Playing Smash With the Railroads" in his first collection, "Triumph and Defeat-the Vicksburg campaign"

Now I concede that Grierson may have not been a household name like Forrest, Sheridan, or Stewart, but I think it's safe to allow him his place as a solid, intelligent, and successful cavalry commander in his own right.

And with respect to the original question I think he was far better than "second string".

Last edited on Sat Nov 8th, 2008 01:46 am by Captain Crow



 Posted: Sat Nov 8th, 2008 02:20 am
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The Iron Duke
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In his book Two Great Rebel Armies, Richard McMurry discusses why the Army of Northern Virginia won so many campaigns while the Army of Tennessee lost most of theirs.  He explains that since the Virginia front was the initial theatre of operations most West Point graduates went to the eastern forces and they tended to stay there.  It seems that the same seems to be true of the Union army.



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 Posted: Sat Nov 8th, 2008 03:35 am
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ole
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who said anything about genius ole? I'll go ahead and take Sherman's word for it when he expressed his opinion of Grant's appointment of Grierson to lead the raid;"He is the best cavalry officer I have had yet". During the raid Grierson constantly kept the Confederates guessing by ordering well-planned diversions. He more than met Grant's expectations and did serious damage to not only Pemberton's supply lines but also to his confidence. Grierson continued to perform well and receive promotions up to and after the end of the war and had the distinction of being one of the few civilians, lacking any formal military education, to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the regular army.Let's not butt head on this, Captain. We're'r moe or less on the same page. We're just looking at it from another direction.  Grierson was a rather fortunate choice. that he was successful was as accidental  as it it might have bee nif he had chosen another to lead thr eaid. Grierson is not important. Another might have been equally effective. I'm not taking away froim him, I'm sayin only that there might have been another who would have done as well.

"what was asked of him, and not much more than that"?

Grant: (the raid)"has been the most successful thing of this kind since the breaking out of the rebellion. Grierson has knocked the heart out of the state." Now maybe I'm mistaken but I don't recall Grant being given to hyperbole nor one to dole out praise lightly.

And here I figure that the man did what he was askedl And, as it all came about, did it well. This is not, by itself evidence of brilliance. If he went on doing brilliant things, then he gets a promoin.

I'm not arguing that he was a nobody. It's just that he gets a bit more historical credit than he has actually earned.

ole

 

 

1111
Sherman:"The most brilliant expedition of the war"

So as you can see I must respectfully disagree with your assessment of Grierson as a commander and of his raid as merely doing what he was asked to do.

Terrance J. Winschel (Vicksburg chief park historian)wrote an excellent essay entitled "Playing Smash With the Railroads" in his first collection, "Triumph and Defeat-the Vicksburg campaign"

Now I concede that Grierson may have not been a household name like Forrest, Sheridan, or Stewart, but I think it's safe to allow him his place as a solid, intelligent, and successful cavalry commander in his own right.

And with respect to the original question I think he was far better than "second string".



Last edited on Fri Nov 7th, 2008 08:46 pm by Captain Crow



 Posted: Sat Nov 8th, 2008 12:23 pm
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Don
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I do admire Grierson, but I'm not sure that he makes into the first string. Not that he didn't do a great job with Grierson's raid (which was brilliance on Grant's part that rarely receives any notice), but he didn't do a great deal other than that during the war. And got himself into a bit of hot water towards the end, if memory serves.

Ole, other than Grierson, who were these fine cavalry commanders in the west? Minty I will definitely concede. For the most part, those who started the war there weren't all that impressive, and later in the war it was where people fired in the eastern theater were sent.

I don't think there's enough proof for Wilson, since his raid happened when the war was over and the enemy's ability to resist mostly nonexistent. And his previous raid with Kautz around Petersburg was an unmitigated disaster that nearly led to the annihilation of his force.

There was some good work accomplished around Atlanta, but some blunders as well. David Evans' Sherman's Horsemen is a really good read, whether you're a cavalry afficionado or not.

Perhaps a description of the first string is in order. Good leaders who were aggressive in maintaining contact with the enemy and keeping their commanders informed over time. The Union cavalry division commanders during the Gettysburg campaign are a good example, the corps commander (Pleasonton) not so much. Minty and Wilder at Chickamauga are another, though Wilder commanded mounted infantry not cavalry. I personally don't think Sheridan is, primarily due to the Wilderness when he left his boss all but blind about the enemy to his immediate front.

On the Confederate side, definitely Stuart and Hampton, probably not Fitz Lee. Forrest no, primarily on the second half of the definition. Wheeler quite possibly. Shelby I don't know enough about to make a call.

Several of you know a lot more about the west than I do. Nominate some and let's take a look. I'm willing to be convinced, and it's a good way for me to get smarter on these guys.



 Posted: Sat Nov 8th, 2008 10:34 pm
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ole
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Sherman:"The most brilliant expedition of the war"

So as you can see I must respectfully disagree with your assessment of Grierson as a commander and of his raid as merely doing what he was asked to do.

Terrance J. Winschel (Vicksburg chief park historian)wrote an excellent essay entitled "Playing Smash With the Railroads" in his first collection, "Triumph and Defeat-the Vicksburg campaign"

Now I concede that Grierson may have not been a household name like Forrest, Sheridan, or Stewart, but I think it's safe to allow him his place as a solid, intelligent, and successful cavalry commander in his own right.

And with respect to the original question I think he was far better than "second string".

Don't  know how you managed to edit my post, but it seems that you did.

First, let's get it out of the way that I think Grierson is overrated. He was told to do something that a lesser man might have screwed up. Royally. But the ride was not something that came out from under his hat. He was directed to do it and he did it in fine style. Can't fault him for that.

But. At the end of the story, is the end of the story. That was -- essentially -- about it. He didn't get a division or a corps. Sherman didn't ask for him when he set off for Savannah. He made his ride and got his kudos. Apparently, that was the end of it.

ole



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