Of Sabres and Horse Charges

I am pleased to welcome Dan Murphy to Small But Important Riots.  I had the pleasure of meeting Dan, along with author and historian Patrick O’Donnell, a couple months ago when I guided them over the Aldie, Middleburg and Upperville Battlefields.  Dan is an author, historian and cavalry re-enactor, in addition to his day job.  Over the course of the day on the battlefields and several follow-up discussions I have developed a better sense of just how much I still need to learn about how cavalry operated in the field.  As Dan mentions below, maps and first-hand accounts are essential tools we all rely upon, but none of these sources give a writer like myself (one with limited experience in the saddle) a practical knowledge of cavalry formations, maneuvers and combat.  I am lucky to count friends like Andrew German, historian of the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry, and Dan Murphy, both cavalry re-enactors of many years, as friends and mentors.

 

To students of the War Between The States, and cavalry in particular, we often envision horse combats by reading first hand accounts, period After Action Reports and studying maps both period and modern.  While these are our best sources of information, these traditional avenues can lead to misconceptions.  In my opinion a lot of the confusion arrives from battle maps.  Don’t get me wrong, I love maps, they are essential in studying history, but maps are far better representations of siege lines than horse charges.  While maps are great visual aids in quickly placing combat groups on known terrain, they tend to give a static, 1st phase, 2nd phase, 3rd phase, series of clear, controlled steps to mounted combat.  As an experiment drop some raisins on the ground in range of two ant mounds.  Then sit back and watch the rush of insects and the wave of attacks on the raisins.  Like the swarming ants, horse combats were fluid affairs that could quickly change course whenever a new raisin arrived.

The power of a horse charge derived from its speed and collective momentum.  As prey animals, horses are instinctually hard wired to stay together, and it is this herding instinct that makes a horse charge even plausible.  To harness this potential power, horses and riders had to be capable of moving in cohesive blocks of multiple fronts at different speeds over varying terrain.  Such discipline only came with long hours of repetitive practice of a written, consistent drill that standardized the movements.[i]  The most common, or familiar, drill in the WBTS was J. R. Poinsett’s, Cavalry Tactics, issued by the U.S. War Department before the Mexican War.  Poinsett’s utilized a two rank formation with a front rank and rear rank, and each file, or front rank trooper, had a file mate directly behind him in the rear rank.  Troopers were grouped into platoons and two platoons formed a 100-man company also known as a troop – in the field a troop usually numbered between 50 and 60 men.  Two troops, commanded by a senior captain, formed a squadron and the squadron served as the basic tactical element of the cavalry.  Two squadrons formed a battalion commanded by a major, and three battalions formed a regiment, commanded by a colonel with an assisting lieutenant colonel and regimental staff.  A brigade, commanded by a brigadier general, was formed of three or four regiments, and a division created by linking two or three brigades.  Rank rarely kept up with responsibility, battalions were at times commanded by captains while colonels sometimes led brigades.

Cavalry actions were entirely different affairs than infantry fights.  Opposing cavalry lines were fluid and constantly evolving at speed, on some occasions the enemy could be fixed, but the target of a mounted charge was often moving in kind, at times at thirty miles an hour, making timing and frontage crucial elements to leading any successful cavalry charge.  Horse charges, often referred to as sabre charges, were not just headlong gallops from start to finish.  Proper charges began at a walk, progressed to a trot, a gallop, and a final home stretch sprint wasn’t called for until the very end to maintain cohesion, preserve the horses’ stamina, and deliver the greatest shock, or weight, of the charge.  Jeb Stuart delivered the following directive to his troopers.

 “The charge will be delivered against the enemy by squadrons, the gallop being taken when within 50 yards of the enemy’s front, and the gait increased instead of diminished as the enemy is neared, so as to give the greatest possible force to the shock against the enemy’s column…  Too much importance cannot be given to the shock of the charge, the furious impact of horse against horse, for in that will consist the success of the charge.” [ii]

The average cavalry horse weighed around eight hundred pounds, with saddle, kit and rider aboard, each horse and trooper became a thousand-pound missile that closed at over thirty miles an hour.  When harnessed in squadron-sized groups the potential momentum, or shock, was staggering.  The goal of a horse charge wasn’t to necessarily kill the opponent, but rather drive the horses through the enemy ranks, physically breaking, and battering the enemy out of formation and thereby eroding the enemy’s discipline and ability to fight as a cohesive unit.[iii]  This generally created a temporary rout and when the enemy’s backs were turned the sabre was at its’ most efficient.  Despite the misleading term of a sabre charge, the trooper’s primary weapon was his horse in these affairs while the attending sabre blows were secondary. [iv]  The two went hand in hand; the short range of the sabre dictated the troopers’ need to launch their mounts in amongst the enemy and the horses arriving en masse generated the momentum that broke the enemy ranks.  Remove the horses from the equation and you have a foot charge of Norse Berserkers, a tactic long since passed by.

A horse charge could be made in either line or column front.  A line formation yielded a broad front two ranks deep, and this was the preferred formation as it brought more weapons to bear against the enemy on contact, struck with a wider impact and was therefore harder to contain.  It also spread the enemy’s fire over a greater area during a charge and potentially reduced casualties.  The inherent problem with a line charge was that it required a large patch of open ground and the broad formation was difficult to turn or maneuver once under way.  On the other hand, a charge in column generated a narrower front, and allowed far greater maneuverability for moving troops down roads, through woods and across fords and also concentrated the entire force of the column on a narrow point upon reaching the enemy.  The drawback to the column was that it attracted all opposing fire on its head and if any of the front rank horses were hit in mid charge it would necessarily retard the progress of all behind it in an accordion styled pile up that rippled back through the ranks.[v]

Switching fronts between line and column required more ground than most would imagine. As an example, let’s look at a common “meeting engagement” scenario for WBTS cavalry.  You, a cavalry captain, are leading a 120-man squadron, of two troops/four platoons, up a narrow road across an open field at a military gallop, or civilian canter.[vi]  Your squadron has been called forward in support and is traveling in the standard Column of Fours at Distance, when you top a rise and surprise a battalion of enemy infantry less than 150 yards away.

Your squadron is already well in range of the enemy’s rifled muskets and the enemy infantry instantly begins forming for a volley.  You need to charge quickly or you’ll suffer a rifle volley.  If you charge now, in column, there is a good chance your front ranks will go down in the initial volley, creating havoc throughout the succeeding ranks, wreaking the momentum of all behind and likely ending in a high casualty disaster.  The ground is open, so you could halt your column, form a standard line two ranks deep, and then charge the enemy, but time is of the essence here, the infantry has already spread and are starting to take aim.  You could simply set spurs and call for a charge in a single column of fours… By the way, in the fifteen or so seconds it took you to read this far and get a grasp on the options you have been moving forward at 15 miles an hour, or 22 feet per second, you’re almost on top of the infantry.  Did you remember to order your men to draw sabres?

The point I am trying to make here is not only the speed of a cavalry engagement, but also how much ground horses cover in time.  To arrive at the best answer in the scenario above one has to consider the dimensions of the column the moment you spied the infantry.  The column is composed of 120 troopers, moving in a column of fours and divided into 4 platoons.  120 men/4 = 30 sets of four.  Each horse is roughly 9 feet long and the head spacing between each set of fours is officially two feet: 30 x 11 = 330 feet.  Likewise, each of the 4 platoons are “at Distance” and spaced with an interval deep enough to allow the entire squadron to pivot about and form line in any direction.  In this case each platoon has 30 men and is spaced at the interval of 24 feet, 24 x 3 = 72 feet; 330’ + 72’ = 402’ so, your column is roughly 134 yards long. [vii]   Now, each trooper sitting astride his saddle is roughly 3 feet wide from knee to knee, so each set of fours, and therefore the width of your column, is 12 feet.  Forming a line with a two deep front of 60 men yields a line 180 feet wide and 20 feet deep.  Already at a military gallop, your column is moving at approximately 15 miles per hour/22 feet a second.  To change from a column front to a line front on the drill field meant the front rank of the column would break down one gait and allow the rear ranks to come up and form line.  However, at this range you can’t afford to slow down or you’ll get hit with a volley.  So if you maintain a gallop speed of 15 miles per hour/22 feet a second, the rear ranks must travel at a faster hand gallop of 27 miles per hour/39 feet per second to form into line.  The rear set of fours will have to travel 391 feet straight forward and 168 feet sideways, or approximately 426 feet to complete the formation.[viii]  The head of the column is moving 17 feet per second slower than the front 426/17 = 25 seconds; it will take 551 feet or 183 yards for your squadron to form line and the enemy is less than 150 yards away.  Therefore, your men will still be forming their line when they reach the enemy and focused on dressing their ranks rather than engaging the enemy when they make contact – not a good recipe for success.

What to do?  You don’t have 551 feet of ground, but you need to attack, and the faster the better.  Rather than form a line you could Form Platoons, in effect creating a column of platoons, where each 30-man platoon forms a line of two ranks, 15 files wide.[ix]  The rear sets of four from each platoon will only have to travel a total of 74 feet instead of 426 feet, and the four platoons are easily formed at speed.[x]  This will form a column 15 troopers wide, keep up your pace, give your men time to settle before contact and greatly diminish the accordion potential.  You might even get promoted if you’re not blown out of the saddle!

As seen above both time and terrain space played a crucial role in a horse charge, switching from column to line required a substantial piece of open ground and that was just with one squadron.  Most of the open ground fought over in the WBTS was subdivided into pastures by fences which could easily wreck the boldest charge no matter how determined the riders.  Without good ground horses simply couldn’t reach the target with any momentum and accounts abound of charges surging up and down country lanes bordered by stone walls and rail fences with men dismounting to take down the fences rather than jumping the rails.  The reason for this is because cavalry combat was far different than foxhunting.  While most any horse could jump a three-foot fence with trooper aboard, it was almost impossible to maintain martial discipline with company or squadron sized ranks when jumping an obstacle in mid charge before an enemy; if attempted in any numbers it was generally doomed to failure.  Dense woods, swamps, ditches, creeks, railroad tracks and boulder fields also created their own challenges for maneuvering mounted forces.  While dealing with these varying terrains, a horse commander also had to keep his mounts relatively fresh throughout the course of a day.  Bear in mind that the Kentucky Derby only lasts two minutes from start to finish and polo ponies only run seven-minute chukkas.  If the horses are blown by long gallops just to reach the field they will be little use in the actual fight, a squadron with blown horses is essentially out of the game and probably best off fighting on foot.

Another factor was in the timing of the charge.  We just looked at the time and space required to make the simplest of horse charges but knowing when to launch an attack was another crucial factor in making a successful horse charge.  If a commander could charge an opponent on their flank his chances of success increased exponentially.  If a surprise could be affected by catching the enemy elsewhere engaged, or in the midst of forming their ranks, success was almost guaranteed.  These moments were fleeting and passed quickly; commanders needed to recognize an opening when they saw one and charge in as quickly as possible.  A good example of this occurred at Stevensburg, VA when a Federal brigade including elements of the 1st Massachusetts, 1st Rhode Island and 6th Ohio recognized just such an opportunity.   While suffering the fire of a dismounted force, the Federals spotted the 4th Virginia Cavalry reforming their column and coming about by fours – momentarily presenting their backs to the Federals as they “ribboned” back around in a narrow road to change front.  The Northern horsemen seized the moment and charged, crashing through the 4th VA’s scrambled ranks, cutting many from the saddle and capturing fifty men.  The 4th Virginia was a solid, veteran regiment of horse soldiers but when caught out of formation they couldn’t fight effectively and were routed by the quick to pounce Federals.

There are two types of sabres listed in the 1862 US Ordnance Manual, the 1840 “Cavalry Sabre,” often called the dragoon because of its early frontier service with the 1st and 2nd Dragoons, and the later 1860 “Light Cavalry Sabre,” intended for the frontier 1st and 2nd Cavalry before the war.[xi]  The individual blades varied just slightly by manufacturer but were very similar in weight and listed respectively at 1lb 5oz and 1lb 6oz in the 1862 manual, however the 1840 had a scabbard that weighed almost a pound more for a significant difference in day to day riding and carrying.[xii]

Both the 1840 and 1860 had heavy French influences in their designs and were intended for the thrust but could still manage an efficient cut.  In addition, the curved shape of both blades greatly aided the trooper in wielding the weapon around his mount’s head, neck and shoulders in a twisting melee.  The 1840 had a sturdy, flat backed spine and a more forward point of percussion than the 1860, giving the 1840 a slightly better cutting balance – a similar feel to a long handled hammer – whereas the 1860 had a rounded spine resulting in less material overall and was an inch shorter with the balance point closer to the hilt, yielding a lighter, faster feeling point for the thrust.[xiii]  Proponents for both the point and the edge abounded; the thrust was faster as the point went in a direct line to the target as opposed to the edge which traveled in a longer arc, and the deeper ranging point was often deadlier given 19th Century medical technology.  However a pointed blade could become entangled in an opponent’s ribs or gear, whereas the cut could generate more instant knockdown power and was often preferred in the swirling melees after the lines mixed.[xiv]  If using the edge it was more effective if the user didn’t simply swing the blade like a club but actually drew the edge across the target at the same time, allowing the blade to slice down through wool uniforms, muscle and bone – a similar action to slicing a tomato with a kitchen knife rather than just pushing flat down through the fruit.  Yet even if a cut was well executed the edge could turn flat when hitting a live, reactive target and not penetrate to any depth; still many troopers found their instincts preferring the cut despite the known lethality of the point and accounts abound of troopers effectively slashing opponents over the head and knocking them out of the fight.

It should also be noted that contrary to some interpretations, sabre fighting was not fencing.  In fencing both opponents are on the ground where quick feet and balance are just as important as quick hands, and each combatant has a league of parries, thrusts, reposts, feints, lunges, slides, cuts and timing traps to employ.  A sabre fight from horseback is an entirely different event.  The combatants are no longer fencers – they’re now horsemen.  The fencer’s quick feet are spread across a saddle and encased in stirrups; the horse’s head, neck and shoulders now curtail any elaborate feints and timing traps.  If formerly trained, the fencer’s off hand, used for balance on the ground, is now employed guiding his mount with the reins.  The horse the fencer sits upon becomes his feet, and any intricate moves with the sabre are now boiled down to the simplest attacks and guards taught to first year swordsmen.  Under these circumstances the best horsemen have the best saddle balance and therefore the advantage at a gallop.  Champion ground fencers quickly became horse borne brawlers in the jostling knife fights of plunging horses darting through broken ranks of spinning horses.

Firearms were also used in horse charges and the recent advent of Samuel Colt’s revolving cylinder pistol had caused many to think the sabre was finished when the war broke out.  This wasn’t the case.  Nor was this a new thought.  In prior centuries muzzle loading pistols and carbines had been hailed as the new weapon for horse soldiers.  The problem was the loss of momentum.  Horse soldiers armed with a firearm don’t have to close inside sword range and have a strong tendency to pull their horses short and trip the hammer from five or more yards, therefore losing all the momentum of the charge.  This technique also required a broad front as only the front ranks would have clean shots at their opponents.  In earlier times, with single shot weapons, this ended in disaster, as the accuracy of anyone with a firearm riding a stressed horse in combat is limited at best and sword bearing opponents braved weak, cavalcades of fire and closed in with swords aloft to cut these early gunslingers out of the saddle.  Carbines had a longer range than pistols but required two hands to wield effectively and managing a plunging animal four times your size while streaking toward an opposing herd at thirty miles an hour requires a minimum of one hand on the reins.  Despite some great films from Hollywood, holding the reins in your teeth does not suffice!

In the WBTS the additional five shots of the revolver helped to offset this lack of momentum and the Texas Rangers won national fame with their successful revolver charges against native Comanche warriors.  There were advocates for both revolver charges and sabre charges before the war and the debate will certainly not be settled anytime soon.  The famous partisan John Mosby was a former member of the 1st Virginia Cavalry and though familiar with sabre tactics, felt a revolver was the better choice.  Mosby was a very successful partisan and in most small-scale actions, with numbers small enough that jumping fences was an option, and opponents were spread out in loose ranks, the revolver may have been the better course.  It should also be noted that Mosby encouraged his revolver bearing partisans to close with the enemy or, in his words, “I want you to go right through them” the goal being to deliver “the shock of the charge,” not pull short and lose all momentum.[xv]  If the ranks were closed up and the riders disciplined, the weight of the horses charging through the enemy often made the difference regardless of what weapons the troopers carried.

Advocates of the sabre will state that a honed blade was always loaded and worked every time, wet or dry, and rarely struck a friend.  Certainly, any trooper riding in the front ranks of a horse charge would at least be a little worried about all his eager friends spurring up behind him with cocked revolvers.  Once the melee began and the lines mixed, a missed bullet could strike down a fellow trooper as well as an enemy.  There are accounts of sabre bearing troopers at Brandy Station charging through artillery batteries and when the enemy gunners dove beneath their tubes the sabres were of little use as the riders boiled past.  That same day revolver-bearing troopers charged a battery and proceeded to shoot down the gunners, their horses, and their drivers, thereby stranding the guns until they could be taken away.  Every charge was different, and the best choice of weapons perhaps depended on what scenario the troopers might face.  Lances were popular in Europe for centuries; one reason was because of the lance’s easy ability to gig prostrated infantryman as they rode over enemy soldiers attempting to flatten out on the ground and duck a horseman’s passing sword blows.

In the end a horse charge was about speed, timing and momentum.  The best way to insure momentum was to point fresh horses over solid ground with steady troopers and charge home.  The veterans knew their reins and spurs were every bit as important as the weapons they carried.

 

Daniel Murphy is a classically trained fencer, avid equestrian and former mounted re-enactor of WBTS and AWI cavalry.  He is the author of numerous articles on mounted combat as seen in America’s Civil War, Journal of the American Cavalry Association, Military Heritage and Journal of the American Revolution, and has served as a technical adviser on two films for the National Park Service.   His first book William Washington, American Light Dragoon was published by Westholme in 2014.  He is currently researching a second book on the WBTS.

 

[i] Joel R. Poinsett’s, Cavalry Tactics, Second Part:  School of the Trooper, of the Platoon and of the Squadron, Mounted, (J and G.S. Gideon, Washington, 1841) you can find it online @ https://books.google.com/books?id=vUWpwjYNqyQC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

[ii]  The Letters of Major General James E.B. Stuart, Adele H. Mitchell ed. (U.S.A.: Stuart – Mosby Historical Society, 1990), 330-331.

[iii] Murphy, Daniel, “Slashing Sabres at the Rummel Farm,” America’s Civil War, (January 2005), 38-45

[iv] Daniel Murphy, “Shock and Awe: Mounted Combat in the Eighteenth Century” The Journal of the United States Cavalry (June 2009), 10-13.

[v] Daniel Murphy, “Swords Before Pistols” Journal of the American Revolution, (February 11, 2014) @ https://allthingsliberty.com/author/daniel-murphy/

[vi] The military terms for horse gaits were: walk, trot, gallop and charge. For clarity a military gallop is a civilian canter, or western lope, a three-beat horse pace between a trot and a civilian hand gallop. Poinsett also mentions lengthening the gallop or increasing its speed. The military charge is a civilian sprint.

[vii] Poinsett’s, Cavalry Tactics, 201.  To insure the ability to form a double ranked line at all times, the squadron marches in column with distance and positions each platoon at an interval of half the platoon’s line frontage. A platoon of 30 men in two ranks is 15 troopers wide, 15/2 = 7.5: you can’t have half a trooper, so you round this up to 8.  The width of each trooper astride his mount is 3’ x 8 troopers = 24’ so the necessary interval between each platoon is 24’.

[viii] 402 feet minus the length of one set of fours @ 9 feet, and a head spacing @ 2 feet, 402 – 11 = 391 feet; 180 feet minus the width of one set of fours @ 12 feet, 180 – 12 = 168.  A right-angled triangle where leg A is 391’ and leg B is 168’ means leg C is 425.56’ or, 426 feet.  The last sets of four will have to travel 426 feet to complete the formation.

[ix] Poinsett’s, Cavalry Tactics, 171-172, 208-209.

[x] The rear files of each platoon, or sets of four, have to travel 66 feet forward and 33 feet laterally for a total of 73.79 feet.

[xi]  The 1840 model is known today as the Wristbreaker; many collectors believe this moniker derived from the sturdier 1840 having replaced the lighter weight 1833 Model Sabre that was judged inferior and prone to folding under stress.

[xii]  T.T.S. Laidley, ed., The Ordnance Manual for the Use of the Officers of the United States Army, Third Edition, (J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, PA, 1862), 224     found online @ https://ia902606.us.archive.org/33/items/ordnancemanualfo00unitrich/ordnancemanualfo00unitrich.pdf

[xiii] The author owns one of each for quick comparisons.

[xiv] Rory Muir, Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon, (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press: 1998), 108-109; Phillip J. Haythornthwaite, Napoleonic Cavalry, (London, Cassell & Co: 2001), 30.

[xv] Williamson, James, Joseph, Mosby’s Rangers, (Sturgis and Walton, 1909, reprint, 2018), 85; O.R. Vol. 33, p. 160.

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