Book review

The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863

Review by Graham Keech

 

Eric J Wittenberg Potomac Books Inc. 2003 ISBN 1574884425

 

Eschewing the conventional wisdom that it was during the 1863 Gettysburg campaign that the Union and Confederate cavalries achieved parity. Wittenberg argues the case for the building up of the Union cavalry into a successful force during the winter and spring of 1862/3.


He considers that the Union cavalry was never used as an efficient or effective force during the first two years of the war. Maj. Gen. George McClelland, commanding the Army of the Potomac, had parcelled out the volunteer units to specific c infantry brigades leaving the regular army mounted units as a cavalry reserve. A policy followed by his successor Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside who assigned cavalry forces to each of his Grand Divisions. It was only when Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker succeeded to the command of the Army that a cohesive fighting force was created. He formed a single Cavalry Corps and put Maj. Gen. George Stoneman Jr. at its head utilising a structure, suggested some months earlier by Brig. General Alfred Pleasonton. However, as Wittenberg points out there is no certainty that Hooker had read Pleasanton's paper. Stoneman, as a career saddle soldier, knew how to utilise the unique talents of the cavalry.

 

Wittenberg then takes the reader through some of the tasks allotted to the cavalry up to time of Hooker's appointment and beyond. In particular he describes the horrors for man and beast of winter picket duty in the Virginian countryside. On 24 February 1863 a party of

 

Confederate cavalry commanded by Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee defeated elements of the Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. William Averell at the Battle of Hartwood Church. Hooker was devastated to learn of yet another reverse but already the improvements consequent upon the training programme initiated by Stoneman were beginning to show and at the next engagement at Kelly's Ford 17 March there took place what Wittenberg considers to be 'the most gallant cavalry fight of the war'. The performance of the Union cavalry was here a revelation to the Confederates. Averell had been in a position to reverse his previous defeat if he had carried out Hooker's orders. Instead he opted to protect his rear and thereby cut his available numbers from 3,000 to 2,100 men.

 

Interspersed among the detailed accounts of actions are less serious moments such as the vivid description of the Union cavalry review by Abe Lincoln along with his wife and son, under the eyes of the Confederates, near Fredericksburg

 

In what is a very detailed and well-researched book and using, in the main, the words of men who were there, Wittenberg goes on to detail the actions at Chancellorsville and Brandy Station. Each part of the book is backed up by clear maps and numerous references to both primary and secondary sources. A series of appendixes give details of Orders of Battle at the actions considered.

 

This is an excellent account and is recommended to anyone wishing to look in depth at the transformation of the Union cavalry from an unreliable attachment to a powerful fighting force. However, for the average reader an excess of detail may be found offputting.