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.
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.