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The Cavalry Mission in Battle

Copyright © 2001 by U.S. Cavalry School, Twisp, WA

    With his dry, flaxen hair flowing about his ears, Custer raised himself in his stirrups, held his saber outthrust, and cried to the men from Michigan, 'Come on, you Wolverines!'
      At a trot, at a gallop, the bombastic Custer, leading his Wolverines four length in front, reined his horse straight across the open land on a collision course as the ground gave off a muffled rumble where thousands of pounding hoofs were churning pasture lands into a mulch of dirt and crushed clover.
      Finally, in a great tangle of men and horses, the Yankees and Rebels smashed head-on. 'So sudden and violent was the collision,' according to an eyewitness, 'that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them.'
      The impact of Custer's troopers halted the front of the Confederate column, and in a swirl of milling and yelling, sabers twirled and hacked, turned red, and twirled again, pistols and carbines spurted at point-blank range and frantic horses, squealing with the wildest kind of terror, hit and kicked and threw their riders into a melee of grinding hoofs
      With Custer and his Wolverines chopping at the front of the Confederate column, other Yankee squadrons flailed in on the flank - in some instances the momentum of their attack carried horses and riders clear through massed Rebel troopers - and the fighting broke into a general free-for-all...,
      After a frenzy of saber slashing.,..the contestants called it a day. The Confederates retired to the woods whence they had come, leaving the field of combat to the Yankee horsemen.1

     This classical cavalry engagement took place one hundred thirty-eight years ago at the Battle of Gettysburg. It typifies the view of the hard fighting horse cavalry of old and may bring forth any number of reminiscent images for those who pause to reflect on this bygone era. Today however, the days of the horse mounted charge are over. Its demise was due to advances of weapons technology, advances that were underscored when the horse finally met its match in the trenches, barbed wire, and raking machine gun fire of World War I. And though the mission of the cavalry is still very much alive in armies around the world, the day of performing that vital combat task from the back of a horse is left in an era that has passed into history. It is wise not to forget that history, though - both as a rich part of our western culture, and as a source of lessons that remain valuable for the track, wheel, and helicopter mounted cavalry of today.

     But what is cavalry? What does it do, and how does it do it? And how has this bold mission come to us through the ages? Historically, cavalry is a combat arm that utilizes the characteristics of mobility, firepower, and shock action - employed at decisive times and places - to sway the course of battle. It's flexibility and daring also make it the force of choice for the essential tasks of reconnaissance and security. It is able to operate detached from the main force for limited periods of time and is frequently used in economy of force roles, responsible for large areas and often fighting grossly outnumbered so that main force elements may be moved or massed elsewhere.2

     Cavalry units usually exhibit speed in excess of the preponderance of the main force and are likewise able to execute a higher level of maneuver. Early cavalrymen rode horses. Later ones sit atop mechanized or wheeled vehicles, or fly in helicopters. Regardless of the mode of transportation, there are several threads common to them all. These mounted units are normally expensive to outfit and take longer to train than other forces. They can be relatively vulnerable and are difficult to replace. But when employed properly in battle, they can do their job like no other.3

      The missions associated with the cavalry are summarized in Figure 1. The list is broad; the missions demanding. But to gain some familiarity with these capabilities is to come to a level of the understanding of the essence of cavalry itself.


     -covering force
     -rear area protection
     -turning movement

figure 1

      Reconnaissance has long been a basic tenet of cavalry, and cavalry is uniquely suited to this purpose. From the earliest days, commanders have dispatched mounted forces toward their enemy to discover his strength and disposition. Examples abound, but arguably the most remarkable was the bold ride taken around the Army of the Potomic by the legendary Confederate horseman, J. E. B. "Jeb" Stuart in the spring of 1862. General Stuart led 1,200 members of his brigade on a reconnaissance covering more than one hundred miles around the Union forces commanded by General George B. McClellan then laying siege to the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Virginia. Stuart fought hard for the intelligence he collected, destroying outposts and defeating the ineffective and fragmented Union cavalry in a series of skirmishes as he went. He provided General Lee the information needed, reporting that McClellan's right flank was "in the air"; lacking the protection of natural barriers or man-made fortifications. This successful cavalry reconnaissance allowed Lee to launch the campaign known as "The Seven Day's Battles" breaking the Union siege of Richmond and driving the enemy into a retreat followed by evacuation from the Peninsula later that summer.4

       Counter-reconnaissance is a role not frequently discussed, but one that is critical. Just as it is essential for us to gain as much information as possible about the enemy, it is equally as important to deny him similar information about ourselves. A significant part of the duties of the European cavalry units engaged in World War I was to defeat German reconnaissance efforts. At Haelen in Belgium and on the Lys River in France, whole battles were prosecuted for the sole purpose of stopping enemy reconnaissance.5 Counter-reconnaissance is routinely an integral responsibility during the conduct of security operations, but is highlighted separately because of its unique importance.

      Security operations include screening, guarding, covering, and providing rear area protection.6 All security operations involve gaining and maintaining contact with enemy forces in order to give early warning to the main force as well as to deliver some level of protection to the force. The screen is only expected to rout enemy reconnaissance elements while a guard force will be relied on to defend from main force enemy units if necessary. Covering forces operate some distance from the main body and will be expected to develop the situation and shape the battlefield to facilitate subsequent engagement by the friendly main force units.7

      One of the greatest examples of a superbly successful security mission was that conducted by General John Buford with two brigades of his First Cavalry Division just outside of Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. Buford was operating in advance of the main Union force when he noted the potential military significance Gettysburg. He occupied the high ground to the northwest of the town and sent word back to the Union Army suggesting a quick move to the defensible terrain around the town. When the Confederate divisions advanced on the town, Buford's cavalry fought three times their number and held them off for over two hours; long enough for reinforcements to arrive and fight the initial Confederate assaults to a standstill, buying enough time for the Union Army to occupy and prepare defensive positions on the hills south of town. The results of the battle that followed are well known.8

      A cavalry capability often exploited in the past was the raid. The idea of the cavalry raid was to rapidly thrust deep into the enemy's rear to destroy or disrupt some high value target. The objectives of these quick and devastating strikes were often supply depots, bridges, railroad yards, or artillery concentrations. The cavalry raid was a frequent tactic during the American Civil War, but one of its greatest masters of the art was British Colonel T.E. Lawrence in his operations against Turkish forces in Arabia and Palestine during the First World War. Lawrence's mounted Arabian forces found huge success in disrupting communications along the Wejh Railway and capturing the key installations such as the port of Aqaba, or threatening the Turkish rear.9

      Attack is not frequently considered in relation to cavalry anymore, and though it is a form of combat that presents special hazards to cavalry forces, it also portends great rewards if skillfully executed. Obviously direct frontal assault is normally inadvisable, but cavalry units can frequently be successful in executing a turning movement or envelopment. The charge of the Swedish cavalry under Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War is an example of the first, and Hannibal's use of cavalry at Cannae an illustration of the second.

      The Swedish King, Gustavus Adolphus, was the first to use cavalry in a modern sense, integrating its action with that of his infantry and artillery. At the Battle of Breitenfeld in 1631, the Swedish position weakened by enemy successes on his left, Gustavus dispatched his cavalry to turn the flank of the opposing Imperial formation. He then used the enemy's own captured artillery to shift the main axis of combat ninety degrees. The enemy was defeated and broke in disarray losing 13,000 and all of its artillery and baggage train.10

      Similarly, Hannibal triumphed at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. by fighting a large portion of his cavalry through the Roman right flank and subsequently falling on his enemy's rear with a fierce cavalry attack while his infantry continued to press the front. This classic envelopment destroyed the large Roman army of some 70,000 while preserving the 26,000 man Carthaginian force to fight again.11

      Now let's move to a mission that has to rank as a premier capability, the counterattack. An immensely capable counterattacking force is cavalry. This arm can reposition rapidly anywhere on the battlefield in order to swiftly deliver a devastating blow to the flank of any successful enemy advance. The genius of Napoleon saw clearly the utility of cavalry in this role and used it extensively to reverse enemy successes. At the Battle of Marengo on 14 June 1800, Napoleon's army was vastly outnumbered by the forces of the Austrian Empire. A heavy advancing enemy column, 6.000 strong, was rolling through the French lines toward victory when the French cavalryman Kellerman, with 800 mounted soldiers, charged the exposed Austrian flank. The cavalry drove the enemy from the field, capturing 2,000 prisoners. "This great achievement won the victory for the French."12

      With the same élan and boldness, cavalry has been the consistent executor of exploitation and pursuit operations. The use of cavalry to exploit the initial successes of main element forces and then ruthlessly pursue routed enemy forces dates back to ancient times. As early as the 6th century B.C., the Persian cavalry was used primarily to pursue broken and retreating opponents. Throughout history cavalry continued to be the arm to exploit infantry success by driving hard through breaches created in enemy lines to wreak havoc and then pursue a routed enemy offering him only destruction when he sought retreat.13

      When the tables are turned, and we find ourselves in a retrograde movement with the enemy in unrelenting pursuit, it is welcome to have a force defending or delaying the enemy as he attempts to overwhelm our withdrawal. The most striking example was Marshall Ney's magnificent defensive operation behind Napoleon as he retreated from Russia in 1812. Fighting constant attack from Russian cavalry and irregular forces as well as the bitter cold of the Russian winter and the demoralization of the Grande Armee, Ney fought and maneuvered his cavalry tenaciously until the remnants of the once great French military machine were extricated from Russia.14

     A final role to contemplate is the use of cavalry in counter guerrilla operations or more comprehensibly in many aspects of what is now termed low intensity conflict. Certainly on the Great Plains of the United States, cavalry forces were effectively utilized, with varying degrees of success, in containing "the Indian problem." Here horse soldiers protected frontier settlements and scouted for free roaming bands of Indians to return them to reservations, or attacked and destroyed Indian groups deemed too difficult to deal with in any lesser fashion.15

     Likewise, in Vietnam cavalry was used in a counter guerilla role. Here the battle was against the Viet Cong irregulars as well as North Vietnamese units infiltrated from North Vietnam. The great innovation in Vietnam was the incorporation of "air cavalry" into an arsenal which included the mechanized vehicles that had replace the horse after World War I.

     So a third dimension, an air dimension, was added to cavalry operations and doctrine. Initially postulated by the tests with the 11th Air Assault at Fort Benning, Georgia, the idea was honed in battle by the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. The result was the emergence of the concept of finding an elusive enemy by aerial reconnaissance, developing the situation with the insertion of a cavalry rifle platoon, and then reinforcing as necessary with ground cavalry or infantry forces air-lifted into battle to achieve victory.16 Armored cavalry operations were also conducted with great success against enemy infantry in Vietnam.17

     Cavalry, then, has always been a critical arm of warfare. For centuries daring soldiers carried out these important missions mounted on horseback. In the 20th Century, the horse became un-survivable on the modern battlefield, yet the need for cavalry forces has not diminished. The need for the cavalry remains, and the spirit engendered by the bold horse soldiers of old, remains as well. We should not forget this proud culture as an essential ingredient of our American heritage, nor should our military forces overlook the lessons that reside in that historic experience.

1 Jack McLaughlin, Gettysburg (New York: Appleton-Century, 1963), 140-41.
2 Cavalry Combat (Fort Knox, KY: The Cavalry School, United States Army, 1937), 1-7. George T. Denison, A History of Cavalry (London: MacMillan, 1913), 415-19. FM 17-95, Cavalry Operations (Washinton: Department of the Army, 1986), 1-18, 1-19.
3 Ibid.
4 Richard Wormser, The Yellowlegs: The Story of the United States Cavalry (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 154-68.
5 Cavalry Combat, 80-97.
6 Cavalry Operations, 7-1.
7 Ibid., 7-1, 7-2.
8 James M. McPherson, Battle Cry Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 653-54.
9 Bernard Montgomery, A History of Warfare (London: Jane's Publishing, 1982), 489.
10 Ibid., 273-74.
11 Ibid., 91. Denison, A History of Cavalry, 53-55.
12 Denison, 301-02.
13 Ibid., 14.
14 Eugene Tarle, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, 1812 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942), 360, 367-395.
15 Robert M. Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 147-59. Robert Wooster, United States Indian Policy, 1865-1903 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 140.
16 Thomas J. Harvey, Jr., "Air Cavalry in Battle," Armor (May-June 1968), 5-10.
17 John C. Bahnsen,, "Attacking Dismounted Infantry with Armored Cavalry," Armor (September-October 1986), 8-15.