Civil War Cavalry Battles and Charges
Photographic History of the Civil War Volume 2
Captain Charles D. Rhodes, USA
During the first two years of the Civil War, the Federal cavalry was subordinated in every way to its true role, and one of the common mistakes in those early days of the war was to use cavalry with infantry support, so that the latter used to shout derisively: "There's going to be a fight, boys! The cavalry's coming back!"
One of the early cavalry actions which excited attention, took place during the Peninsula campaign, at the close of the battle of Gaines' Mill, June 27, 1862. General Fitz John Porter with his Fifth Corps was covering the communications of the Army of the Potomac on the Chickahominy line with the base at White House Landing on the Pamunkey. The Confederate army had made four desperate assaults on the Union lines, and every available infantryman had been brought into action, so that there was not a single reserve in rear of the line of battle, save the cavalry and some artillery.
The day was fast drawing to a close, when the Confederates made a final effort to force Porter's left flank and cut it off from the bridge. The cavalry commander, General P. St. George Cooke, directed the artillery to hold its precarious position, add ordered Captain Whiting, commanding the Fifth United States Cavalry, to charge the advancing infantry.
Numbering but two hundred and twenty sabers, the little force moved out under heavy fire, and striking the foe intact with a portion of its line, the charging troopers were only stopped by the woods at the bottom of the slope. The casualties of the charging force were fifty-five, with twenty-four horses killed--a sacrifice well worth the results attained. Of this action, the Comte de Paris wrote fifteen years later: "The sacrifice of some of the bravest of the cavalry certainly saved a part of the artillery, as did, on a larger scale, the Austrian cavalry on the evening of Sadowa."
General Wesley Merritt, the ablest cavalry officers of his time, who was present at Gaines' Mill as an aide-de-camp to General Cooke, thus described this affair:
"During the early part of this battle the Union army held its ground and gained from time to time some material success. But it was only temporary. In the afternoon the writer of this, by General Cooke's direction, reported at the headquarters of the commanding general on the field, Fitz John Porter, and during his attendance there heard read a despatch from General McClellan congratulating Porter on his success. It closed with directions to drive the rebels off the field, and to take from them their artillery. At the time this despatch was being read, the enemy were forcing our troops to the rear. Hasty preparations were made for the retreat of the headquarters, and everything was in the most wretched confusion. No orders could be obtained, and I returned to my chief reporting the condition of affairs. It was apparent from movements in our front that the Confederates would make a supreme effort to force the left flank of Fitz John Porter's command, and cutting it off from the bridge over the Chickahominy, sever it from McClellan's army, and capture or disperse it.
It was growing late. Both armies were exhausted by the exertions of the day. But the prize at hand was well worth the effort, and the Confederates with renewed strength were fighting to make their victory complete. The Union cavalry commander seized the situation at a glance. The cavalry had been posted behind a plateau on the left bank of the Chickahominy, with ground to its front free of obstacles and suitable for cavalry action. To the right front of the cavalry the batteries of the reserve artillery were stationed ....
The events of that day at Gaines' Mill are pictured on the mind of the writer of this imperfect sketch as on a never fading photograph. The details of the battle are as vivid as if they bad occurred yesterday. As the Confederates came rushing across the open in front of the batteries, bent on their capture, one battery nearest our position was seen to limber up with a view to retreating I rode hurriedly, by direction of General Cooke, to its captain, Robinson, and ordered him to unlimber and commence firing at short range, canister. He complied willingly, and said, as if in extenuation of his intended withdrawal, that he had no support. I told him the cavalry were there, and would support his and the other batteries. The rapid fire at short range of the artillery, and the daring charge of the cavalry in the face of an exhausted foe, prevented, without doubt, the enemy seizing the Chickahominy bridge and the capture or dispersion of Fitz John Porter's command. No farther advance was made by the Confederates, and the tired and beaten forces of Porter withdrew to the farther side of the Chickahominy and joined the Army of the Potomac in front of Richmond. The cavalry withdrew last as a rear guard, after having furnished torch and litter bearers to the surgeons of our army, who did what was possible to care for our wounded left on the field."
But it was not until a year later (March 17, 1863), at Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock, that the Union cavalry first gained real confidence in itself and in its leaders.
In this engagement, following the forcing of the river crossing, two regiments of cavalry dismounted, with a section of artillery, and held the foe in front, while mounted regiments rolled up the Confederate flanks; their entire line was thrown into confusion and finally driven from the field.
The decisive cavalry battle at Brandy Station, or Beverly Ford, on June 9th, following, having for its object a reconnaissance in force of the Confederate troops on the Culpeper-Fredericksburg road, was the first great cavalry combat of the war. It virtually "made" the Union cavalry.
Buford's division of the Federal cavalry corps accompanied by Ames' infantry brigade, had been directed to cross the Rappahannock at Beverly Ford, and move by way of St. James' Church to Brandy Station. A second column composed of Gregg's and Duffie's divisions, with Russell's infantry brigade, was to cross the river at Kelly's Ford--Gregg to push on by way of Mount Dumpling to Brandy Station, and Duffie to proceed to Stevensburg. By a strange coincidence, that brilliant cavalry leader, Stuart, planned on the same day to cross the Rappahannock at Beverly and the upper fords, for the purpose of diverting the attention of the Army of the Potomac from General Lee's northward dash into Maryland.
Under cover of a heavy fog, Buford's column crossed the river at four o'clock in the morning, surprising the Southern outposts and nearly capturing the Confederate artillery. Here, in spite of superior numbers, the Union commander, General Pleasonton, formed his cavalry in line of battle, covering the ford in less than an hour, but he could make no perceptible movement forward until Gregg's guns on the extreme left had made a general advance possible.
The Confederates fell rapidly back, and the headquarters of Stuart's chief of artillery, with all his papers and Lee's order for the intended movement, were captured. A junction was soon formed with Gregg, and with heavy losses on both sides, the foe was pushed back to Fleetwood Ridge. Of this part of the action General Stuart's biographer says:
A part of the First New Jersey Cavalry came thundering down the narrow ridge, striking McGregor's and Hart's unsupported batteries in the flank, and riding through and between guns and caissons from right to left, but were met by a determined hand-to-hand contest from the cannoneers with pistols, sponge-staffs, and whatever else came handy to fight with The charge was repulsed by artillerists alone, not a single friendly trooper being within reach of us.
On Fleetwood Ridge the Confederate infantry rallied to the support of Stuart's cavalry, and the object of the reconnaissance having been gained, a general withdrawal of the Union cavalry was ordered, Gregg by way of the ford at Rappahannock Bridge, and Buford by Beverly Ford. But as the order was about to be executed, the Confederates fiercely attacked the Union right, and the most serious fighting of the day resulted. At four o'clock in the afternoon, a large Confederate infantry force being reported at Brandy Station, General Pleasonton began a general withdrawal of the Union cavalry, a movement which was executed in good order and completed by seven o'clock in the evening without molestation by the Confederates.
This great cavalry battle lasted for over ten hours, and was preeminently a mounted combat, the charges and countercharges of the opposing horsemen being of the most desperate character. During the day, the First New Jersey Cavalry, alone, made six regimental charges, besides a number of smaller ones; the fighting and charging of the regular and Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry was kept up for over twelve hours; and the other regiments were almost equally engaged through the eventful day.
Commenting on this defeat of the Confederate cavalry at Brandy Station, the Richmond Examiner of that period said:
"The surprise of this occasion was the most complete that has occurred. the Confederate cavalry was carelessly strewn over the country, with the Rappahannock only between it and an enemy who has already proven his enterprise to our cost. It is said that their camp was supposed to be secure because the Rappahannock was not supposed to be fordable at the point where it actually was forded. What! Do the Yankees then know more about this river than our own soldiers, who have done nothing but ride up and down its banks for the past six months?"
Brandy Station was really the turning-point in the evolution of the Federal cavalry, which had heretofore been dominated by a sense of its own inferiority to Stuart's bold horsemen. Even the Confederate writer, McClellan, has this to say of Brandy Station and its effect on the morale of the Union cavalry:
Up to this time, confessedly inferior to the Southern horsemen, they gained on this day that confidence in themselves and their commanders which enabled them to contest so fiercely the subsequent battlefields of June, July, and October.
Passing by without comment the splendid stand of Buford's dismounted troops covering the approaches to the town of Gettysburg, in which less than three thousand cavalrymen and Calef's battery made possible the occupation by the delayed Union army of the dominating position along Cemetery Ridge and the Round Tops, the desperate battles of the cavalry on the right and left flanks at Gettysburg, are history.
On the Union left flank, Pleasonton had ordered Kilpatrick to move from Emmittsburg with his entire force to prevent a Confederate turning movement on the Round Tops, and, if practicable, to attack the Confederate flank and rear. Late on July 3, 1863, the reserve cavalry brigade under Merritt moved up and took position to the left of Kilpatrick. Custer's brigade had been detached to report to Gregg on the Union right. The fight which ensued on this third and last day of the great battle, was severe in the extreme.
Merritt's position on the left caused the Confederate general, Law, to detach a large force from his main line to protect his flank and rear. This so weakened the Confederate line in front of General Farnsworth, that Kilpatrick ordered the latter to charge the center of Law's line of infantry. The ground was most unfavorable for a mounted charge, being broken, covered with stone, and intersected by fences and stone walls.
Writing of this charge in "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," Captain H.C. Parsons of the First Vermont Cavalry, says:
"I was near Kilpatrick when he impetuously gave the order to Farnsworth to make the last charge. Farnsworth spoke with emotion: "General, do you mean it? Shall I throw my handful of men over rough ground, through timber, against a brigade of infantry? The First Vermont has already been fought half to pieces; these are too good men to kill." Kilpatrick said: "Do you refuse to obey my orders ? If you are afraid to lead this charge, I will lead it."
Farnsworth rose in his stirrups--he looked magnificent in his passion-and cried, "Take that back!" Kilpatrick returned this defiance, but, soon repenting, said, "I did not mean it; forget it."
For a moment there was silence, when Farnsworth spoke calmly, "General, if you order the charge, I will lead it, but you must take the responsibility." I did not hear the low conversation that followed, but as Farnsworth turned away, he said, "I will obey your order." Kilpatrtick said earnestly, "I take the responsibility."
The charge was a daring and spectacular one. The First West Virginia, and Eighteenth Pennsylvania moved through the woods first, closely followed by the First Vermont and Fifth New York Cavalry, all mounted, and drove the foe before them until heavy stone walls and fences were reached. Two regiments cleared the obstacles, charged a second line of infantry, and were stopped by another stone wall, covering a third line of infantry. The First West Virginia was for a time entirely surrounded, but succeeded in cutting its way hack with a loss of but five killed and four wounded, bringing with it a number of prisoners. When the body of Farnsworth was afterwards recovered, it was found to have received five mortal wounds.
General W. M. Graham, U.S.A. (Retired), says:
"The following is the account of Farnsworth's death as seen by a (Confederate officer and by him related to me in the winter of 1876-77 at Columbia, South Carolina: I was introduced to Captain Bachman, who commanded the 'Hampton Legion Battery,' with which I was engaged (Battery K, First United States Artillery), at Gettysburg on July 3d. Naturally our conversation drifted to the war, and he remarked: "One of the most gallant incidents of the war witnessed by me was a cavalry charge at the battle of Gettysburg, on July 3d., made by a General Farnsworth of the Yankee army. He led his brigade, riding well ahead of his men, in a charge against my battery and the infantry supports; we were so filled with admiration of his bravery that we were reluctant to kill him, and so called out to him to "surrender," as his position was hopeless. He replied by emptying his revolver and then hurling it at us and drawing his saber, when we shot him through the body, killing him. His men were nearly all killed, wounded, or captured, very few escaping to their own lines."
General Graham adds, "Bachman was a fine fellow who, like all those who fought on each side, had buried all bitterness of feeling."
All things considered, it seems wonderful that these four regiments did not suffer more severely (sixty-five casualties out of three hundred men in the charge). This fact can best be accounted for by the moral effect of the charge, the fearless troopers leaping the obstacles and sabering many of the Confederate infantry in their positions. The Confederate general, Law, said of this:
It was impossible to use our artillery to any advantage, Owing to the close quarters of the attacking cavalry with our own men, the leading squadrons forcing their horses up to the very muzzles of the rifles of our infantry.
But while this was taking place on the Federal left flank, a great cavalry battle, fraught with tremendous responsibilities, was being waged on the right flank.
On July 3d., the Second Cavalry Division, under Gregg, had been ordered to the right of the line with orders to make a demonstration against the Confederates. About noon, a despatch reached Gregg that a large body of the Southern cavalry was observed from Cemetery Hill, moving against the right of the Union line. In consequence of this important information, Custer's brigade, which had been ordered back to Kilpatrick's command, was held by Gregg.
This Confederate column moving to the attack was Stuart's cavalry, which, belated by many obstacles, was advancing toward the lines of Ewell's corps. Stuart took position on a ridge, which commanded a wide area of open ground, and his plan of attack was to engage the Federal troops in his front with sharpshooters, while he moved the Confederate brigades of Jenkins and W.F.H. Lee secretly through the woods in an effort to reach the Union rear. Stuart hoped to strike at the psychological moment when Pickett's famous infantry charge, on the center of the Union line of battle, would engage the entire attention of the Army of the Potomac.
The cavalry combat which followed was probably as desperate and as stubbornly contested as any in which the cavalry took part during the entire period of the war. A mounted charge by a regiment of W.F.H. Lee's brigade, was met by a countercharge of the Seventh Michigan Cavalry, the two regiments meeting face to face on opposite sides of a stone wall, and discharging their carbines point blank. The First Michigan Cavalry, aided by Chester's battery made a charge which, followed by a hand-to-hand fight, drove the Confederate lines back in confusion. Then followed charges and countercharges by each opponent, until a large part of both commands was involved in a general melee.
In this terrible cavalry combat every possible weapon was utilized, and after it was over, men were found interlocked in each other's arms, with fingers so firmly imbedded in the flesh as to require force to remove them. The casualties were heavy for both Stuart and Gregg, but the latter was able to stop the Confederate cavalry leader's critical turning movement. Had Stuart with his veteran cavalry been able to strike the rear of the Federal army simultaneously with Pickett's infantry charge in front, the result of this decisive battle of the war might have been different.
On April 4, 1864, General Sheridan assumed command of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, and thereafter a new order of things was inaugurated for the Union cavalry in the Eastern theater of operations.
Sheridan insisted that his cavalry should not be separated into fragments, but should be concentrated "to fight the enemy's cavalry," and in deference to Sheridan's wishes, General Meade promptly relieved the cavalry from much of the arduous picket duty which it was performing at the time. But he gave little encouragement as yet to Sheridan's plans for an independent cavalry corps--a corps in fact as well as in name. By the end of July, the Cavalry Corps had succeeded in almost annihilating the Confederate cavalry and had accomplished the destruction of millions of dollars' worth of property useful to the Confederate Government. In all the important movements of the Army of the Potomac, the cavalry had acted as a screen, and by its hostile demonstrations against the Southern flanks and rear, had more than once forced General Lee to detach much-needed troops from his hard-pressed front.
On May 11th, at Yellow Tavern, Sheridan had fought an engagement which gave him complete control of the road to Richmond and resulted in the loss to the Confederates of Generals Stuart and James B. Gordon. Merritt's brigade first entered Yellow Tavern and secured possession of the turnpike. The other Union divisions being brought up, Custer with his own brigade, supported by Chapman's brigade of Wilson's division, made a mounted charge which was brilliantly executed, followed by a dash at the Southern line which received the charge in a stationary position. This charge resulted in the capture of two guns. Then, while Gibbs and Devin forced the Confederate right and center, Gregg charged in the rear and the battle was won.
At Deep Bottom, too, July 28th, occurred a brilliant fight which is worthy of more than passing notice.
The Second United States Cavalry led the advance on the 27th and took the New Market road in the direction of Richmond. When close to the Confederate pickets a dashing charge was made, forcing the foe back rapidly. On the afternoon of the following day the Union cavalry pickets were furiously attacked, and before the leading troops could dismount and conduct the led horses to the rear, an entire brigade of Confederate infantry broke from the woods, and with colors flying advanced in splendid alignment across an open field. So closely were the advanced Union troops pressed, that despite the destruction wrought in the Southern ranks by the breech-loading carbines, there was danger of losing the led horses.
The following is quoted from the graphic description of this fight by Lieutenant (afterwards Colonel U.S.V.) William H. Harrison, Second United States Cavalry:
"With a cheer which makes our hearts hound, the First New York Dragoons, the First United States, and the Sixth Pennsylvania on the run, dismount, and form themselves on the shattered lines of the Second and Fifth. A few volleys from our carbines make the line of the enemy's infantry waver, and in an instant the cry is heard along our entire line, "Charge! Charge!" We rush forward, firing as we advance; the Confederate colors fall, and so furious is our charge that the North Carolina brigade breaks in complete rout, leaving three stands of colors, all their killed and wounded, and many prisoners in our hands. The enemy did not renew the fight, and we remained in possession of the field until relieved by our infantry."
It was, however, in the fail of the year (1864) that under Sheridan's brilliant leadership the Union cavalry won its greatest laurels. On September 19th, at Opequon Creek, Sheridan's infantry and cavalry achieved a victory which sent the Confederates under Early "whirling through Winchester," as Sheridan tersely stated in a telegram which electrified the people of the North.
While essentially a battle participated in by all arms, the brilliant part taken by Wilson's division in a mounted charge which gained possession of the Winchester-Berryville turnpike, and the subsequent demoralizing attack of Averell's and Merritt's cavalry divisions on the Confederate rear, had much to do with the Union victory.
The most severe fighting on the part of the cavalry took place in the afternoon. Breckinridge's Confederate corps had fallen back on Winchester, leaving General Early's flank protected by his cavalry, which was successfully attacked by General Devin's Second Brigade and driven in confusion toward Winchester. Then within easy supporting distance of each other, the First Brigade, the Second Brigade, and the Reserve Brigade moved forward without opposition until the open fields near Winchester were reached.
What followed is well described in Lieutenant Harrison's recollections:
"While awaiting in suspense our next movement the enemy's infantry was distinctly seen attempting to change front to meet our anticipated charge. Instantly, and while in the confusion incident to their maneuver, the Second Brigade burst upon them, the enemy's infantry breaking into complete rout and falling back a confused and broken mass."
Immediately after, the Union reserve brigade under the gallant Lowell, formed to the left of the position from which the Second Brigade, under Devin, had just charged. They rode out fearlessly within five hundred yards of the Confederate line of battle, on the left of which, resting on an old earthwork was a two-gun battery. The order was to charge the line and get the guns. Lieutenant Harrison continues:
"At the sound of the bugle we took the trot, the gallop, and then the charge. As we neared their line we were welcomed by a fearful musketry fire, which temporarily confused the leading squadron, and caused the entire brigade to oblique slightly to the right. Instantly, officers cried out, "Forward! Forward!" The men raised their sabers, and responded to the command with deafening cheers. Within a hundred yards of the enemy's line we struck a blind ditch, but crossed it without breaking our front. In a moment we were face to face with the enemy. They stood as if awed by the heroism of the brigade, and in an instant broke in complete rout, our men sabering them as they vainly sought safety in flight."
The charging force emerged from the fight with two guns, three stands of colors, and over three hundred Confederate prisoners. Altogether there had been six distinct charges by parts of the First Cavalry Division--two by the Second Brigade and one by the First Brigade; one by the Second Brigade and one by the Reserve Brigade against Early's infantry; and one, the final charge, in which all three of the brigades joined. General Custer describes the scene in graphic language:
At this time five brigades of cavalry were moving on parallel lines; most, if not all, of the brigades moved by brigade front, regiments being in parallel columns of squadrons. One continuous and heavy line of skirmishers covered the advance, using only the carbine, while the line of brigades, as they advanced across the country, the bands playing the national airs, presented in the sunlight one moving mass of glittering sabers. This, combined with the various and bright-colored banners and battle-flags, intermingled here and there with the plain blue uniforms of the troops, furnished one of the most inspiring as well as imposing scenes of martial grandeur ever witnessed upon a battlefield.
The Union victory at Opequon came at a time when its moral effect was most needed in the North, and restored the fertile Shenandoah valley to the Union armies, after a long series of humiliating reverses in that granary of the Confederacy.
A month later Custer encountered three brigades of Confederate cavalry under Rosser near Tom's Brook Crossing. Merrit at about the same time struck the cavalry of Lomax and Johnson on the Valley pike, the Federal line of battle extending across the Valley. The fighting was desperate on both sides, being essentially a saber contest. For two hours charges were given and received in solid masses, boot-to-boot, the honors being almost equally divided--the Confederates successfully holding the center while the Federal cavalry pushed back the flanks.
This finally weakened the Confederates, and as both their flanks gave way, Merritt and Custer ordered a charge along their entire line. The retreat of Rosser's force became a panic stricken rout, which continued for twenty-six miles up the Shenandoah valley. Eleven pieces of artillery, three hundred and thirty prisoners, ambulances, caissons, and even the headquarters' wagons of the Confederate commanders were captured by the Federal troops.
Early ascribed his defeat to Sheridan's superiority in numbers and equipment, and to the fact that Lomax's cavalry was armed entirely with rifles and had no sabers; that as a consequence they could not fight on horseback, and in open country could not successfully fight on foot with large bodies of well-trained cavalry.
In the brilliant part taken by Sheridan's cavalry in retrieving the misfortunes of the morning Of October 19,1864, when the Union camp at Cedar Creek was surprised and routed- with "Sheridan only twenty miles away "--resulting in the final defeat and pursuit of the Confederate army, the Federal cavalry alone captured 45 pieces of artillery, 32 caissons, 46 army wagons, 672 prisoners, and an enormous quantity of other property.
This battle, which Sheridan's magnetic presence turned into a great victory, was followed by a number of small but highly successful cavalry movements, culminating on March 27, 1865, in Sheridan's veteran cavalry corps joining the Army of the Potomac in front of Petersburg for the final campaign against Lee.
In the Valley campaign Sheridan's cavalry captured 2556 prisoners, 71 guns, 29 battle-flags, 52 caissons, 105 army wagons, 2557 horses, 1000 horse equipments, and 7152 beef cattle. It destroyed, among other things, 420,742 bushels of wheat, 780 barns, and over 700,000 rounds of ammunition.
Meanwhile, during the years of vicissitudes which marked the evolution of the cavalry of the East, from a multitude of weak detachments lacking organization, equipment, and training to a veteran army, filled with confidence in itself and in its commanders, the cavalry of the West had been equally unfortunate in its slow and discouraging development of fighting efficiency.
Under General Rosecrans, as early as 1862, the cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland was organized into three brigades under General David S. Stanley, but the mounted force actually at the disposal of its commander was but four thousand effective men. Although actively engaged, particularly in curbing the depredations of the Confederate cavalry under Forrest, its operations were not especially important. Nevertheless, at Stone's River, at Knoxville, at Chickamauga, and at other important battles, the cavalry of the West did desperate fighting and, considering its numbers, was not lacking in efficiency.
The cavalry which General Sherman assembled for his Atlanta campaign numbered about fifteen thousand sabers, organized into four divisions, and it participated with credit in all the celebrated movements and engagements of Sherman's army between May and August, 1864. Protecting the rear and preventing the destruction of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad by Wheeler's enterprising cavalry, some Union cavalry under Rousseau remained at Decatur until by a rapid and circuitous march around Johnston's Confederate army, in which he destroyed immense quantities of stores and damaged several railroads, Rousseau joined Sherman near Atlanta. After the fall of the latter city, a cavalry division of over five thousand men under Kilpatrick, accompanied Sherman on his famous march to the sea.
Up to this time the activities of the Union cavalry in the Southwest, while noted for boldness and celerity of movement, for endurance, and for accomplishment of results, though hampered by many drawbacks, were not yet distinguished by any of those great cavalry combats which marked the development of the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac.
Towards the close of October, 1864, however, General James H. Wilson, who had commanded a cavalry division in Sheridan's Army of the Shenandoah, and who had been instrumental in raising the efficiency of the cavalry service through the Cavalry Bureau, reported to Sherman, in Alabama, and began a thorough reorganization, a remounting and re-equipping of the cavalry corps of Sherman's army.
Wilson's cavalry corps speedily made itself felt as an integral part of the army, taking a prominent part in the battle of Franklin, scoring a decisive victory over Forrest's cavalry under Chalmers, and pressing the foe so closely that the Confederate troopers were actually driven into the Harpeth River. This decisive action of the Union cavalry prevented Forrest from turning Schofield's left flank and cutting his line of retreat.
In the battle of Nashville, which followed (December 15-16, 1864), Wilson's dismounted cavalry gallantly stormed the strong Confederate earthworks side by side with their comrades of the infantry. General Thomas mentions the part taken by this cavalry as follows:
"Whilst slightly swinging to the left, [the cavalry] came upon a redoubt containing four guns, which was splendidly carried by assault, at 1 p.m., by a portion of Hatch's division, dismounted, and the captured guns turned upon the enemy. A second redoubt, stronger than the first, was next assailed and carried by the same troops that carried the first position, taking four more guns and about three hundred prisoners. The infantry, McArthur's division, on the left of the cavalry, . . . participated in both of the assaults; and, indeed, the dismounted cavalry seemed to vie with the infantry who should first gain the works; as they reached the position nearly simultaneously, both lay claim to the artillery and prisoners captured."
But the gallant part taken by Wilson's cavalry in these operations is best exemplified by the spoils of war. During and after the battle of Nashville, and including prisoners taken in the hospitals at Franklin, the Union cavalry captured 2 strong redoubts, 32 field guns, 11 caissons, 12 colors, 3,232 prisoners (including 1 general officer), 1 bridge train of 80 pontoons, and 125 wagons. Its own losses were 122 officers and men killed, 1 field-gun, 521 wounded, and 259 missing.
The following spring, while Wilson and his horsemen were sapping the very life blood of the Confederacy, Sheridan and his cavalry of the Army of the Potomac had been playing a most important part in the grand operations of that remarkable army, now under the direction of the inexorable Grant.
After joining Grant in front of Petersburg on March 27, 1865, Sheridan received instruction from his chief to move with his three cavalry divisions of nine thousand men near or through Dinwiddie, reaching the right and rear of the Confederate army, without attempting to attack the Confederates in position. Should the latter remain entrenched, Sheridan was to destroy the Danville and South Side railroads, Lee's only avenues of supply; and then either return to the Army of the Potomac, or to join Sherman in North Carolina. History shows that two of the Confederate infantry divisions and all of Lee's cavalry failed to push back five brigades of Sheridan's cavalry, fighting dismounted, in an effort to cut off the Confederate retreat.
In the desperate fighting which took place in the days following, it was the same splendid cavalry at Five Forks, which dashed dismounted over the Southern entrenchments, carrying all before them.
And finally, on April 6th, at Sailor's Creek, after desperate and exhausting fighting by Custer's and Devin's divisions, it was Crook with his cavalry which intercepted the Confederate line of retreat, cut off three of Lee's hard-pressed infantry divisions, and made possible the surrender at Appomattox of the gallant but exhausted Army of Northern Virginia.