ONE HUNDRED YEARS WITH THE SECOND CAVALRY
By Joseph I. Lambert, Major, Second Cavalry
Copyright 1939 Commanding Officer, Second Cavalry, Fort Riley, Kansas
Capper Printing Company, Inc.
On May 3rd, 1861, the President issued a proclamation increasing the regular army size, one of the additions being another regiment of cavalry. With the two regiments of Dragoons and one of mounted riflemen there were now six mounted regiments. An act of Congress of August 3rd changed the designation of the regiments so that all were known as cavalry.
In this way the First Dragoons became the First Cavalry, the Second Dragoons became the Second Cavalry, the Mounted Riflemen became the Third Cavalry, the First Cavalry became the Fourth Cavalry, the Second Cavalry became the Fifth Cavalry, and the Third Cavalry became the Sixth Cavalry. Up to this time each had its various marks and among these were the facings of the uniforms, orange for Dragoons, green for Riflemen, and yellow for Cavalry. The Dragoons were now forced to give up their beloved orange color and adopt the common color of yellow. As they were allowed to wear out uniforms now having orange for facings, it was late in 1863 before the old colors disappeared. Since all these regiments, with the exception of the Sixth, had built up a new spirit of morale through many years of campaigning, it was extremely depressing to adopt the new number and colors. The special reputation of the Second for discipline and elan had been built up by its first colonel, David E. Twiggs, while that for dash and nerve was largely due to the exploits of Captain Charles A. May, of Mexican War fame, who was long an officer of the regiment.
The old regiment had consisted of ten companies, divided into five squadrons of two companies each. The Sixth Cavalry organization called for twelve companies, and in July, 1861, the other five regiments also were given this organization. As the Civil War progressed the squadron lost its designation, and when a regiment was divided it was generally into battalions of four companies each. Early in the war the company consisted of 100 men and a captain, first lieutenant, and two second lieutenants. Each regiment was commanded by a colonel, three majors, and a staff consisting of two surgeons, an adjutant, quartermaster, commissary, and a noncommissioned staff.
After the beginning of the war the Federal authorities intended to limit the cavalry force to the six regiments of the regular army. Even General Scott gave it as his opinion that owing to the wooded nature of the field of operations, and the improvements in the cannon, the cavalry would play an unimportant role. This point of view did not last long and the cavalry was soon given a necessary place in the armies. By 1863 at Gettysburg the Union cavalry numbered about 13,000 men. At Appomattox Sheridan commanded 15,000 efficient cavalrymen.
In the South cavalry was appraised more nearly at its true value from the beginning of the war. Owing to lack of roads as good as those in the North, the Southerners rode horseback more from childhood than their northern neighbors. Since the population of the South was mostly rural, it was natural that the young men should be acquainted with horses.
The cavalry was finally armed with the carbine, saber, and pistol. During the war several kinds of carbines were issued, each supposed to be an improvement on the others. By the end of the struggle all regiments were issued a very good repeating weapon firing waterproof cartridges. At first, the sabers were the long straight pattern, but it is interesting to note that these were afterwards replaced by a light cavalry saber with a curved blade. Many of these were provided with an attachment so that they could be fitted on the end of a carbine. They were also provided with an ordinary saber handle which allowed them to be carried at the hip as a side arm. The pistol was the standard army or navy Colt’s revolver, loaded with powder and ball, and fired with percussion caps.
The saddle was the McClellan, so called after the recommendations of the general of that name after his European tour in 1860. It was a modification of the Texas or Mexican tree, and originally was covered with rawhide, which later had to be replaced with leather. This saddle was satisfactory and after seventy-seven years is still in use.
In addition to his arms the cavalryman carried a box of cartridges and percussion caps. From his shoulder hung a haversack, and sometimes a tin cup and coffee pot. He also carried a canteen, a shelter tent, a set of gun tools, saddle bags filled with extra clothing, a nose bag containing corn, a lariat and picket pin, extra horseshoes and nails, and a curry comb and brush. When to these articles were added an overcoat, extra boots, a bed blanket, and personal luxuries, the natural result was many broken-down horses.
There were many vexatious delays in organizing the cavalry of the Union Armies. Arms and saddles were not received for months after the beginning of the war, and the interim was used by employing various makeshifts, such as drilling bareback. After actually taking the field, it was obvious they were inferior to the Southern cavalry, and there are numerous instances of Northern horsemen being captured in large numbers. It was not until the third year of the war that a long period of trial and error resulted in the fine corps of cavalry we see from late in 1863 until the end of the struggle.
Colonel Philip St. G. Cooke was promoted to brigadier general November 12, 1861, after having commanded the regiment for three years. He had been also a major and lieutenant colonel in the Second during a period of very interesting service since 1847. He was now going on to high command in our armies during the struggle to save the Union. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Wood, formerly of the First Cavalry, succeeded him, but was soon made a brigadier general of volunteers and never again commanded the regiment.