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Anatomy of the Mounted Raid

the following text is excerpted from the introduction to the book “Mounted Raids of the Civil War” by Edward G. Longacre




One of the most important and most taxing assignments that devolved upon Civil War troopers was raiding. Quite often horse soldiers were ordered out in mass either to drive deep into enemy territory on a long, sustained march, or to make a quick stab in the rear of the opponents' lines.

Basically, the objectives of cavalry raiders, whether on full- or limited-scale, long- or short-range expeditions, were to strike unexpectedly and decisively at assigned targets, to avoid battle with enemy forces of equal or larger size when at all possible, to gather intelligence about opponents' positions or campaign plans, to create maximum damage to enemy re- sources in minimal time, and to return to home base while suffering as few casualties as possible.

Favorite targets of Civil War raiders included enemy communication lines (particularly railroads), supply bases, garrisons, wagon trains, and loosely defended cities of military value. Raids were conducted either as ends in themselves or as diversionary maneuvers designed to distract the enemy's attention from larger movements by the main army.

Several conditions had to exist if a mounted raid were to be conducted successfully. First of all, the officer in charge had to be bold and aggressive but also prudent, capable of exercising strict authority when necessary and allowing subordinates the discretion to launch secondary operations when desirable.

He had to be adept at meeting unexpected turns of events, at implementing contingency tactics, and at fighting on the defensive as well as on the offensive, as conditions warranted.

Likewise, his subordinate officers had to be enterprising and imaginative, as well as deeply committed to serving their commander faithfully in moments calling for unity of purpose and action.

Then, too, the common soldiers had to be adaptable and resourceful, willing to endure the hardships of a long march in any sort of weather, capable of acting with individual initiative but also as members as a unified team, and able to wield axes and crowbars with vigorous precision.

Finally, the scouts and guides needed a full, accurate comprehension of the country to be traversed, a knowledge of nearby enemy troops and hostile citizens, and a wealth of detail about back trails and blind roads to be used in event of emergency.

Military strategists have drawn up some informal rules that, if followed, would have led to a successful raid. One of the most important of these concerns the degree of value a raid might reach.

To be considered a complete and enduring success, a raid had to be linked in some way with a larger operation. Damage to enemy property, however extensive, was not deemed a sufficient feat unless it materially aided the greater designs of the general-in-chief of the army. In other words, a raid could be pronounced a full success only when it made strategic as well as tactical contributions to the fortunes of the army.

Another informal rule stated that a raiding force had to be small enough to facilitate speed and mobility (the key features of mounted campaigning) but at the same time sufficiently large to handle all of its assigned duties and, if necessary, follow contingency planning. Hence, the amount of work to be done in large part dictated the size of the force sent to accomplish it.

In raiding, the horse was used primarily as a means of transporting the soldier to the scene of duty. After reaching the target, troopers completed their work afoot and, except in rare cases when conditions favored a mounted charge, would battle pursuers or attack garrison troops in infantry style. In this sense, most raiders could be considered dragoons or mounted infantry rather than saddle-bound cavalry.

As mentioned above, members of raiding forces had to be quite familiar with the lay of land along their proposed route of march, knowing at the outset the location of hostile units as well as all communication and transportation lines of consequence. Since the greater part of the Civil War was fought in Southern territory, Confederate horsemen enjoyed a solid advantage in being familiar with matters of terrain and population.

It was also deemed desirable that raiding commanders be guided by detailed instructions, that they might achieve everything expected of them. On the other hand, high-echelon generals who authorized raids had to entrust their leaders with sufficient latitude and discretion in handling unexpected difficulties, rearranging priorities to conform to fluctuating conditions, and redirecting their routes of march in the event of heavy pursuit or the blocking of an assigned avenue of retreat.

Usually it was considered necessary that the command march in the lightest possible order, to increase speed and maneuverability when moving through hostile territory. Often this meant stripping the raiding column of supply and forage wagons-which necessitated living off the land-and carrying ammunition aboard swift-footed pack animals. A trooper was encouraged to pack a saddle load so light that he himself was the heaviest burden his horse had to carry.

It was thought best to vary the rate of march during a raid, whenever possible, to relieve the tedium occasioned by a sustained gait. Often the canter was temporarily substituted for the predominating gait, the trot, and sometimes a limited gallop would be employed for short periods. The minimal rate of travel over most terrain was slightly less than three miles per hour; any slower speed, except when riding over rough and broken land, was considered undesirable.

Usually the raiding column would halt for a ten-minute rest period every hour or two, with stops coming more frequently in unfavorable weather (unless, of course, the raiders were being closely pursued by enemy forces). Longer halts for midday and late afternoon meals were dictated by circumstances. The horsemen encamped for at least a portion of the night, for it was difficult if not impossible to sustain, a cohesive movement in total darkness.

Infrequently, and usually only for emergency reasons, would a raiding force counter-march over the same road or roads it had previously taken. Such a tactic invited local defenders and mounted pursuers to close off retreat routes or ambush the raiders.

Finally, a certain amount of secrecy during the preparatory stage of a raid was required to make such a project successful. Disaster could result if specific information regarding objectives was leaked to the enemy before the march commenced.

Though this precaution might seem a blatantly obvious necessity, more than a few Civil War raids came to ruin precisely because intemperate conversation in camp or in the high circles of authority quickly came to the ears of opponents.

A cavalry raid was more of a grueling test of endurance and skill than a highly dangerous undertaking-although some degree of danger was present during every raid. Often, troopers spent twenty hours a day in the saddle, seeking rest as best they could, especially when being tracked by hard- riding pursuers.

If wagon trains did not accompany the mounted column, the soldiers sometimes went hungry for long periods; this was particularly true when marching through a region that had been laid bare during previous months of campaigning.

Since most of the raiders would he given little or no advance information about the objectives of their operation, they were constantly plagued, to some degree, by uncertainty and doubt. Although extreme danger seldom materialized, cavalrymen in unfriendly territory could never be certain that a bushwhacker was not hiding behind the nearest tree, with his rifle cocked and aimed. To combat all of these hardships, a raider needed an enduring spirit, a high degree of adaptability, implicit faith in his commander's judgment, and, ideally, a professional soldier's stoicism.

A raiding force usually consisted of several cavalry regiments, whether parts of a single larger unit such as a brigade or a division, or individual detachments culled from an entire field army.

Since the command had to close up when marching through an enemy's country, the column or columns traveled on a single road or a limited number of roads that ran closely parallel to one another, to facilitate mutual support among the various units.

As a rule, the column marched in a particular order.

Scouts, who knew the territory well, rode far in advance of the main body, usually several miles ahead on the “point” of the column. Quite often these men were disguised as civilians or enemy soldiers, which made them liable to execution as spies if unmasked and captured, but usually enabled them to travel in relative safety.
Some cavalry leaders preferred to send their scouts into a designated territory a week or more in advance of the raiding force, if such time was available.
Confederate commanders such as John Hunt Morgan often employed this tactic, with gratifying results. These “advance men” would ascertain the state of affairs along the route to be traveled and would report to the main force at prearranged locations, to guide the raiders, at regular intervals, along their way.

Behind the scouts on point came the Advance Guard of the raiding column, which ordinarily consisted of a small band of soldiers, usually one or two companies from a single regiment. The size of the advance guard, which rode perhaps a half mile in front of the main column, would vary according to the extent of the enemy forces liable to be encountered along the way. As with the scouts, the advance guard had to consist of men who knew the lay of the land, who were capable of thinking and acting quickly under pressure, and who could speedily warn the raiding force if any trouble developed at the point. An especially observant officer was needed to take charge of the advance guard.

Following the advance guard came the Main Body of the raiding force. Usually several regiments followed one after another with narrow gaps among them. The commander of the raiding column rode in the midst or to the rear of this body, escorted by aides and couriers.
Any artillery and supply wagons present also traveled in the middle of the column; such a position made them readily available to the commander and also afforded protection to the teamsters and train guards, as well as to the gunners who rode mounted alongside their cannon.

On either side of the main body, usually a mile or less away, rode several companies of Flankers. These soldiers were directed to alert the main force to enemy units moving along perpendicular roads and to curtail stragglers from the main body; they presented the raiding leader with a wide front along which to engage any opponents who might appear ahead.

The Rear Guard, usually several companies from the last regiment in the line of march--covered the route of the entire force. Here, again, an able officer was required to oversee the fulfillment of a number of demanding duties. These included rounding up stragglers, fending off pursuers, and putting finishing touches to the destruction of bridges, rail lines and supply depots that the main column had seized. The rear guard had to be able to move in any and all directions to handle its assigned tasks. Like the point, advance guard, and flankers, the rear guard was changed often to keep such a heavy burden of responsibility from resting too long on the same shoulders.

Raiding was one of the most frequent duties required of Union and Confederate cavalry during the war.

Only during the first two years of the conflict did one army have the advantage at raiding. Southerners, many of them aristocrats bred in the gentlemanly tradition of horsemanship, adapted to the duties of mounted warfare more readily than the laborers and storekeepers who predominated in the Federal ranks.

Then, too, the bulk of purebred stock came from the Southland, affording Confederates an early advantage in quality horseflesh.

Furthermore, as noted above, the Southerners fought the war almost wholly in their native region. For these and other reasons, Confederates under such renowned leaders as J. E. B. Stuart, Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Hunt Morgan, and Turner Ashby took the early initiative at mounted raiding.

Being more daring and innovative than their counterparts in the Federal cavalry, they constantly outwitted enemy garrisons and supply-base defenders, many times infiltrating the blue ranks and after inflicting great damage while suffering few losses, quickly slipped away to safety….








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