Eric Wittenberg recently made a very interesting post in his series of Forgotten American Cavalrymen of Brig. Gen. Louis H. Carpenter. In the November 1888 issue of the Journal of the U.S. Cavalry Association (my readers will recall it’s one of my favorite sources) Carpenter wrote a very revealing and detailed piece about how cavalry prepares to fight dismounted. Mike Nugent passed the piece on to me, reminding me of this great description.
Most folks who have read about actions in which cavalry fought dismounted are familiar with the generalization that one cavalryman held the horses of three of his comrades in the rear, while those three comrades skirmished dismounted at the front. However, the procedure was very specific and regulated. When a column or line of cavalry came on the scene, which troopers would dismount and which troopers would be horse-holders was determined very quickly, as you’ll see below. The description, in fact, will likely remind you of your days in gym class when everyone “counted off” in, say, fours. Think of that, and you’ll be able to easily picture the scene that Carpenter paints below.
Numbers 1, 2 and 3 of each set of fours, both front and rear rank, dismounting, linked their horses,… No. 3 handing his reins to No. 4, who remained mounted, and three-fourths of the command became available for the work in hand. The men then formed quickly into line, and were deployed in extended order upon the center skirmisher or the right or left skirmisher, by each man obliquing at once to gain the interval…
In less than half a minute a troop could dismount and deploy as skirmishers. Sometimes the line would be reinforced to about one man to the yard, but never heavier, and this answered all purposes. It is surprising when we consider how much was accomplished by this long, thin, apparently weak line of carbineers. How steadily it could advance under heavy fire, or deliberately retire, flexible, bending, but rarely breaking, keeping up its continuity, and showing a wonderful power of resistance… The soldier becoming accustomed to losing the touch of his comrade, became more self-reliant and dependent upon his own resources, taking advantage of all the over and shelter possible, and more difficult to be persuaded that he was whipped… Reserves and supports were provided for, and kept in hand to render timely aid and to be sent in when necessary.
When the cavalry was dismounted, the horses were sent to the rear to take advantage of the nearest shelter from the enemy’s fire, No. 4 having no difficulty in managing the three horses entrusted to him, or in moving them from place to place at any gait. In case a retreat became necessary, portions of the dismounted men would fall back alternately, taking new positions in rear, assisted by artillery, until it was possible to mount and retire without interference; or, in other cases, some of the line would be withdrawn and mounted, and then deployed as skirmishers to cover the retreat of the remained, with mounted charges made occasionally on the flanks or front.
So whenever you read about cavalry conducting a skirmish, cover action, or fighting withdrawal dismounted, just think of this wonderful description and it will help you picture both the standard procedure and the effectiveness of the maneuvers.
(Painting by Mort Kunstler, “Hold At All Cost.” www.mortkunstler.com)