Don Evans






Brassey's Inc


Riding High

Years and experience improved effectiveness of horse soldiers

For the first two years of the American Civil War, Union cavalry troopers seemed to enter battle with a "kick me" sign taped to their backs. Thus the average Confederate trooper considered himself the equal of three of his blue brethren. In January 1863, even Joe Hooker, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac held his federal troopers in low regard, dismissively referring to the lack of dead cavalry troopers to indicate the combat arm's lack of aggressiveness. But all that soon changed. And Eric J. Wittenberg's The Union Cavalry Comes of Age does an excellent job of chronicling the amazing maturation of the Union cavalry during the winter and spring of the third year of the war. He thoroughly examines the training that troops went through to fight more effectively. Wittenberg's research is quite impressive. Using primary source materials including newspapers, manuscripts, letters and diaries, he recounts the Union's cavalry perilous climb from humiliation to respectability and eventually battlefield dominance. In February 1863, Hooker reorganized the cavalry, establishing a corps of several divisions under the command of career horse soldier Maj. Gen. George Stoneman. Stoneman took, as his model, a recommendation from Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton and ordered all the regiments, squadrons and troops that had been scattered throughout the Army of the Potomac be consolidated into one command. Wittenberg does a good job of depicting the wretched state of the Union cavalry. He uses the soldiers' own words and experiences to detail life in camp and out on the picket lines as well as the abysmal morale to which the mounted arm had sunk by the time of Ambrose Burnside's infamous Mud March. Picket duty, especially in the winter of '63 was miserable work that required the men to remain mounted in the face of howling winds and stinging precipitation. As one Pennsylvania cavalryman wrote, "I got in night before last from a 3 days scout and a more uncomfortable 3 days and nights I never passed." Wittenberg also provides succinct biographies of the principal commanders of the brigades and divisions in the new corps. In addition to such well-known figures as John Buford and Judson Kilpatrick, he introduces the Alabama-born Benjamin F. "Grimes" Davis, who was a cousin of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and despite his Southern roots stood firm under the flag of the United States; William Woods Averell, who believed in constant training for his troopers and balked at taking his men onto the field of battle until he believed they were ready; and David McMurtrie Gregg, a Pennsylvanian described as brave, prudent and dashing.

Don Evans is a newspaper editor and the author of Locust Alley: A Novel of the Civil War.