Cavalry Raids –A Uniquely American Tactic

Okay… the main reason for this post is that I was looking for an opportunity to post the intro to John Ford and John Wayne‘s Horse Soldiers –which I like as much as the movie.  That said….
The cavalry raid, as a tactic, in its modern form (since the early modern period –16th Century) seems to be almost exclusively an operational tool of the American cavalry of the American Civil War.  European armies, despite huge cavalry components and many very capable cavalry leaders, do not seem to have been inclined to take advantage of the mobility and physiological effects of bold independent mounted operations.
There are precedents for cavalry raids in European military history.  The Europeans had the experience, the decidedly negative experience, with the cavalry raids of the Mongols in the 13th Century.  Mongol armies, especially the offensive strike forces, were fast moving mounted organizations that could hit hard and then seemingly disappear in the oceans of the steppe.  In the winter of 1240-41, two Mongol tumen numbering 10,000 warriors each, roamed through what is modern day Poland for several months, avoiding decisive battle and destroying villages, towns, and even defended cities. 
The European’s own experience in the medieval period included the extensive use of the chavauchee –or raid.  Virtually all medieval European armies conducted chavauchee and they were a feature of warfare in all regions throughout the period.  The English were perhaps the most notorious and successful practitioners of the tactic.  The chavauchee had numerous purposes.  One of the most common uses of the tactic was to subjugate an area to extract tribute and taxes to support local military forces.  Chavauchee terrorized and pillaged a region belonging to an adversary in order to deny those resources and the support of the people to the adversary.  A chavauchee could also serve as a means of forcing the enemy army into an open battle.  Finally, it was a means of obtaining loot and booty for the coffers of the raiding force.  More than one of these justifications and sometimes all of them could be present in a single mission.  This type of operation, the mounted raid, disappears from European warfare after the medieval period and never returns. 

Stuarts Cavalry Raid, from Harpers Weekly

Stuart's Cavalry Raid, from Harper's Weekly

Some might argue that the American cavalry achieved only mixed results with their raids.  Famously, General Robert E. Lee desperately missed General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry who were on an inconclusive raid, during his 1863 offensive into Pennsylvania.  Many blame the mishandling of Stuart’s cavalry for the decisive defeat of the Confederate forces at Gettysburg.  Still, Stuart’s earlier raids, and Union Generals Phil Sheridan and James H. Wilson successful operations in the last year of the war, point to the potential for decisive operational effects from cavalry raids.

Where did the concept of raiding come from?  American generals were students of the Napoleonic wars but there was no precedent in the Napoleonic period for large cavalry raids.  The idea that purely romantic notions of chivalry inspired by Southern antebellum culture may have inspired the idea begs the question of why decidedly unromantic Union commanders like Phil Sheridan copied the idea.  Other historians believe that their association with plains Indians in the years before the Civil War inspired American cavalry commanders  Regardless of the origin of the idea, there was enough success associated with it that it should have become a lesson for European cavalry.European cavalry also modeled themselves on the Napoleonic period.  This, combined with their strict conservativism, made them reluctant to try anything new.  European cavalry spent the period from the end of the Napoleonic period until World War I perfecting their ability to execute the massed mounted charge in the tradition of cavalry employment at Waterloo.  They especially were reluctant to learn anything from the American Civil War.  Therefore, they not only unwilling to consider cavalry raiding but also such other uniquely American mounted innovations as the pistol charge and dismounted combat with breech-loading carbines.  Because of the unwillingness to learn, European cavalry never attempted to emulate the independant mounted operations of the Stuart, Sheridan and Wilson, and the modern mounted cavalry raid remained a uniquely American tactic.



Published in: on March 29, 2009 at 8:34 am  Comments (9)  
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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Lou, what about the Russians and Soviets? Can the case be made that the Russians conducted protracted raids as early as WWI (if not earlier), and as late as WWII?

  2. Pat,
    Good point. If someone may have attempted raids in the same manner as the American cavalry of the Civil War it probably would be the Russians.

    I’m not sure the effects the Soviets were trying to achieve in WWII were on the same order of magnitude –specifically, the cavalry raids of WWII were designed to harass the Germans, in the same manner as Partisans, rather than achieve anything really decisive.

    In WWI, I know the Russians were not able to achieve anything like a cavalry raid against the Germans. However, they had offensive success against the Austrians –but I am not familiar enough with those operations –were they pure or mostly cavalry operations or not?

    Do you have a speific example in mind?

  3. I think the Russians actually conducted several extended raids early in WWI. Littauer recounts one (I think) in Russian Hussar.

    I also don’t think the one I have in mind was universally successful. If I recall correctly (and again, I might be confused on it), they ran out of steam during it and began to take excessive casualties. I’ll have to look up the details on that.

    I wonder if the Russians might have conducted some raid like actions during the Russian Civil War?

  4. Good points Pat. Definately worth researching –when I get a chance there might be something in the cav journal from 1914-15. Now I’m wondering to what extent the American Civil War influenced Russian cavalry leaders?

  5. Here’s a contemporary account of a Russian cavalry raid early in the war:

  6. […] with the Randy Steffen classic series of reference books by the same name –not to mention the John Ford movie mentioned in a previous […]

  7. Lou,

    I think that you make some good points.

    You site that U.S Cavalry leaders studied Napoleonic leaders and their tatics, which did not use cavalry as “raiders” in the sense that we think of today and go on to ask where the “raiding” tactic may have developed. I believe you are correct when you site the British.

    The case can certainly be made that the raiding missions and use of cavalry mobility as a “shock weapon” was used very effectively by Banastre Tarleton and his Dragoons of the British Military during the Revolutionary War.

    By many accounts, Tarleton was a leader that instinctively understood the use of cavalry in the role of “raider” and that his use of cavalry in this way was considered innovative at the time (which brought him much success and promotion).

    It is interesting that Tarleton (a Brit) used those tactics here in North America, and that the use of cavalry raids tends to be thought of as an American phenomenon. Was this a development of the war as Tarleton matched wits with colonial cavalry leaders like “Light Horse Harry Lee”, each borrowing tactics from the other’s sucesses and improving on them in their own actions? Did we learn from him or him from us or both?

    Facinating to ponder.

  8. There were 4 British cavalry raids in NY:and NJ during ARW. See forthcoming book “Cavalry in the American Revolution” See Amazon listing.

  9. Russians performed nice cavalry raids into Eastern Prussia in 1914, but decisive battles were fought by infantry (e.g. Tannenberg).
    But during Russian Civil War Red Army fielded entire Horse Army (Budyonny’s Konarmya) which was decisive in defeating Wrangel and pushing back Poles during Polish-Bolshevic war 1920-21

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