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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.

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