Cavalry Tactics


In the latter half of the 16th century European warfare was reaching its highest art form. The standard army consisted of four operational components: the artillery corps, the infantry corps, the cavalry corps, and the quartermaster corps. These different parts of an army each had a specific mission and special weapons, equipage and tactics to accomplish that mission.

The artillery corps had cannons, each of which was pulled by a team of four to eight horses (depending on size of gun), a caissons of ready ammunition and supply wagons. There were normally four to six pieces in a field battery and one or two batteries in support of an infantry regiment. In most European armies of this era there was also a separate corps of artillery usually consisting of heavy field guns and having as many as 35 batteries. The difference between a heavy and light field gun was the size of projectile used. This was generally measured in pounds with light guns firing a six to ten pound projectile and heavy guns firing 12 to 32 pound shot. The projectiles themselves came in several forms; the most common being: solid shot; a solid iron ball, grapeshot; usually a wooden cylinder packed with the appropriate weight of one ounce balls, canister; a tin can packed similarly to grapeshot, but with irregular shaped metal shards, the explosive shell; a hollow ball packed with gunpowder with a lighted fuse which would explode after being fired, or shrapnel; essentially a canister charge which combined the attributes of the exploding shell which caused the fragments to be dispersed over a wider area and caused a greater number of severe wounds.

The cavalry were mounted troops usually armed with two long barreled pistols and a sabre. In battle, the mission of the cavalry was to disrupt and drive the opponent from the field. This was usually accomplished by turning the flank of the opposing infantry and using the weight of their horses and the intimidating flash of their sabres to break up the formations in their path. The pistols were usually reserved for cavalry vs cavalry engagements or in the rare instance (during this era) when forced to dismount and fight a defensive action.

As the 16th century drew to a close a second type of cavalry unit was beginning to emerge, the dragoon. Like the hussar (the traditional or light cavalryman) the dragoon was armed with pistols and sabre, but in addition he also carried a short barreled musket called a dragon from which his name is derived. While the hussar nearly always fought from horseback the dragoon often dismounted and fought on foot like an infantryman with one out of every four men was detailed to horse holding duty. Due to the greater accuracy of the dragon and/or it descendant the carbine, the dragoon's were potentially a much stronger defensive formation that hussars. This weapon also made the dragoons more flexible as a fighting force. They could be used as cavalry or infantry and were in many instances a superior force than either one that they were employed to emulate to varying degrees. They had greater mobility than infantry and more firepower than light cavalry. There were limitations too, always tied to their horses. When employed as assault infantry some of the firepower advantage was offset by the need to have 25% of the manpower act was horseholders. When employed defensively the problem was where to put the horses and have them safe yet ready to hand if they were required. Unless specified as hussars or light cavalry the terms dragoons and cavalry can be understood to have the same meaning hereafter.

The largest contingent of troops in every army was the infantry. The common foot soldier was armed in the 16th century with either a smoothbore musket, bayonet, and in some cases (especially regiments of Scottish Highlanders) a broadsword, or a pike. The infantry regiment consisted of two or more battalions of approximately 1,000 men each. If artillery was queen of the battlefield, infantry was the king. Infantry could garrison towns, control vital crossroads, occupy territory and a number of other duties that were impractical for other types of units to undertake. These and other considerations such as economics dictated that infantry comprise the largest corps in the army.

It was far less expensive to provide a soldier with a uniform, musket, and other standard equipment than to outfit a cavalryman with horse, pistols, saddle, sabre and sabre and standard equipment. Horses were also not all that common and it took two to four years to replace a horse killed in battle whereas an infantryman could be impressed from the home country and trained in a few weeks.

The quartermaster corps was (and is) the rear echelon troops responsible for the main baggage train and supplying the fighting forces with their needs such as food, ammunition, and replacement parts. The medical services such as they were commonly found themselves attached to the quartermaster corps as did those departments for such functions as administration and finance.

During this era the cannon was the queen of the battlefield due to its range and killing power. From the 1790's to 1859 cannon fire was responsible for 50% of all battlefield casualties. Then from the U. S. Civil War (1861-65) onward through the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) the rifled musket/breechloading rifle became the supreme weapon, accounting for nearly 90% of casualties. The most significant technological advance in the first half of the nineteenth century was the development of the cylindo-conoidal bullet or minie ball and the rifled musket which increased the effective range of individual fire from 100 to 500 yards surpassing the effective range of the smoothbore cannon (2).


In this chapter, key terms concerning the art and principles of war have been defined and explained in detail. It is hoped that these definitions will clarify some expressions and terms frequently used throughout this work.

Tactics, or the Theory of Combat. Tactics are the ideas used by commanders to move troops in such a manner as to achieve an advantage and win an engagement. In a sense then tactics are used to employ the principles of war such as mass, ,mobility, surprise, etc. There are two general schools of tactics involved in infantry warfare: the offensive or assault and the defensive.

a. Assault Tactics. In the course of history there have been essentially four basis assault tactics they are:
1. The Mass Charge - This information has been around since the beginning of recorded history. There is no order/organization and the attacking army relies simply on the weight of numbers to achieve victory. An example of this tactical employment is the Celtic charge against the Romans during the revolt of Boudicea in 61 AD in Britain. The great flaw of this tactic is born in the description of the Battle at Camulodunum as given by Tacitus.
At first, the legion kept its position, clinging to the narrow defile as a defence; when they had exhausted their missiles, which they discharged with unerring aim on the closely approaching foe, they rushed out in a wedge-like column. Similar was the onset of the auxiliaries, while the cavalry with extended lances broke through all who offered a strong resistance. The rest turned their back in flight, and flight proved difficult, because the surrounding wagons had blocked retreat. Our soldiers spared not to slay even the women, while the very beasts of burden, transfixed by the missiles, swelled the piles of bodies. Great glory, equal to that of our old victories, was won on that day. Some indeed say that there fell little less than eighty thousand of the Britons, with a loss to our soldiers of about four hundred, and only as many wounded. Boudicea put an end to her life by poison. Poenius Postumus too, camp-prefect of the second legion, when he knew of the success of the men of the fourteenth and twentieth, feeling that he had cheated his legion out of like glory, and had contrary to all military usage disregarded the general's orders, threw himself on his sword.

2. The Line Formation - This is essentially the Greek phalanx of Alexander the Great. The first three ranks of men are armed with swords, javelins, and spears in that order. In this way the men in the rear ranks were able to support the front ranks and provide a measure of defensive strength.

3. Massed Columns - were from 20-40 men wide and 25-30 ranks deep. This is the classic attack formation of the Napoleonic Era. It is a combination of both the Mass Charge and the Line Formation that takes into account the advances in technology of approximately 2500 years.

4. Spaced Interval Line of Assault - this tactic has been in a constant state of evolution since the U. S. Civil War the spacing was about six feet between men and did not change until late in World War I. In WW - II the spacing was approximately three and five yards between men and 10 to 50 yards between units (from platoon size up to regimental size). During Vietnam and subsequent conflicts spacing has been four to seven yards between men and seven to ten yards between squads (sub-units of platoons consisting of approximately twelve men, there are usually three squads per platoon).

b. There are essentially two types of assaults: The frontal assault and the indirect or flank assault. The indirect approach is best because it offers the least risk of incurring casualties while providing the greater opportunity for victory.

c. Defensive Tactics. These tactics have always been able to keep up with and surpass assault tactics. There have been essentially five developments in defensive technique most of which have been predicated on advances in technology.

1. The first development in defensive tactics was to place the men in three ranks similarly equipped and stationed as those in the phalanx described in assault tactics.

2. The hollow square evolved during the age of gunpowder and was made feasible by the invention of the lockring bayonet.
3. Digging trenches wide enough accommodate three or four ranks of men was the next development. Usually the men in the rear two ranks acted as loaders for the men in the front two.
4. With the advent of the machine-gun trench warfare reached its zenith. The defensive army was able to disperse manpower and still maintain a completely secure front due to the greater firepower.
5. In World War II and subsequent conflicts the addition of bomb-proof strong points such as fortress Isobele at Dien Bien Phu were added to trenches and machine-guns.
Strategy. This term means the combination of individual engagements to attain the goal of the campaign or war. The general principles of strategy are summed up as follows:

1. Warfare has three main objectives:
a. To conquer and destroy the armed power of the enemy;
b. To take possession of his material and other sources of strength, and
c. To gain public opinion.
Engagement. This term does not necessarily mean a battle, but can be used to mean the employment of maneuver to force an opponent to meet an implied threat or to react to a changed situation.

J. F. C. Fuller, called by Dupuy the greatest military thinker of the 20th century, (3) sets forth eight essential Principles of War which he has extracted from von Clausewitz and which the U. S. Army has incorporated into the current edition of their Field Manual 100-1:

The Principles of War
Fuller FM 100-1
Objective Objective
Movement Mobility
Mass Mass
Offensive Offensive
Security Security
Cooperation Security
Economy of Force Economy of Force
As Dupuy points out the lists are virtually identical except that the U. S. Army adds Simplicity to the list and substitutes Unity of Command for Cooperation and Mobility for Movement. Dupuy also states a preference for the use of the term Maneuver to stand for the principle expressed by Fuller's term Movement and U. S. Army's term Mobility rather than either of the two stated terms. Maneuver is a incorporation of mobility and movement and perhaps best describes the essence of the concept.

Objective. The stated end result of a conflict (conflict will be used to define any armed endeavor from a skirmish to a war, the difference being the size of conflict and/or size of the objective). Essentially the objective is victory, however it can take on specific meaning such as capture of a fortress, town, a specific meaning such as capture of a fortress, town, a specific geographic region, etc.

Mass. Creating a superiority of organized force at either one specific point on a battlefield or more generally simply out numbering the opposition. Example - at the Battle of Waterloo the combined British-German-Belgian alliance out numbered the French army by a ratio of 3:2. With the advent of first breechloading and then automatic weapons firepower becomes a consideration when determining mass. Example - since the turn of the 20th century one three man machine-gun fire team has been capable of firing the equivalent number of rounds in one minute as a 120 man rifle company.

Offensive. The act of attacking or campaigning aggressively against the opposition to achieve the objective.

Surprise. Attacking an opponent at an unexpected place or time. Example: The German Ardennes Offensive of December 1944 came as a surprise due to the time of year, difficulty of terrain, and a lack of good intelligence on the part of the allies.

Security. The ability to maneuver in safety or secrecy. It can also be defined as limiting information to essential minimums.

Maneuver. The ability to move forces quickly to a given point on a battlefield to create a superiority of mass. The ability to move rapidly due to technological advances to achieve surprise. The ability to move in secrecy to attain mass and surprise.

Friction. Friction simply means being in contact with opposing forces. When a unit is engaged in a firefight, an assault, a defensive action or any other form of contact they are in a state of friction.

Economy of Force. Using the minimum force necessary to achieve a given objective. As pointed out in Mass, the advent of automatic weapons has had a great bearing on the number of men needed to achieve certain fire rates. At the present with each rifleman armed with a weapon capable of automatic fire, one light weapons platoon (approximately 40-45 men) is capable of as much firepower as a World War I era infantry battalion (approximately 500 men).

Unity of Command. Keeping all levels of the chain of command from the most junior platoon leader to the commanding general apprised of the objectives, situations and plans for a given conflict.

Simplicity. Keeping plans simple, objectives limited, troop dispositions uncramped and communications clear and concise.

Clearly, these essential principles of war can not necessarily stand alone, each in their own right, but must be taken in combination to fully appreciate the complexities of waging war from the smallest fire fight to the greatest battle.


From the time man first used a horse to help him wage war, until the late 18th century the cavalry was the supreme element of force in battle for destroying the combat efficiency of an opposing force. During this era, the classical battle tactic was to either use infantry to create a break in the opponent's line which the cavalry could then pour through to wreak havoc amongst the indefensible opposing infantry or employ cavalry units as hard-hitting shock troops, using the inherent advantages of speed and mobility to overwhelm opposing infantry units and break through to the rear of the opposing army. (See figure 3-1) [Figure missing]

In figure 3-1 the white army is on the defensive and the black army is attacking. The black army is concentrating mass in the center and creates gaps at two points isolating the central infantry and artillery regiments of the white army. The black cavalry now has the opportunity to charge through the gaps and disrupt the entire white battle line. Also note the position of the artillery units. Since they are placed slightly in front of the infantry line this indicates that this battle is representative of the pre-1860 era.

With the introduction of gunpowder to the European battlefield infantry units found themselves even more susceptible to the cavalry charge and infantry regiments became a mix of musketeers armed with firelocks and pikemen who held off the cavalry with their long pole-arms (some of them having shafts of 18-20 feet long) during the long interval that it took to reload and reprime the firelock. The next innovation was the flintlock and lockring bayonet combination while allowed the infantryman to present a secure and lethal front to the cavalry menace while reloading. It was at this time (late 17th to early 18th century) that the pike began to disappear from the armament of infantrymen with non-commissioned officers retaining a half-pike as a symbol of authority. This also singled the sergeants out as targets to the enemy and rallying points to their men if the line were broken.

The tactical innovation of the hollow infantry square three or four ranks deep with the regimental artillery battery anchoring the facing corners began to appear near the end of the 18th century. During the Napoleonic Era (1792-1815) the square was the chief defensive formation for infantry troops against cavalry. In the British Army in particular, it was an optimum tactical device due to the make-up of the British regiment/battalion which was the standard infantry unit. Improvements in field artillery and small arms coupled with the development of such tactics as the hollow square during and after the Napoleonic Wars began to make defensive infantry more effective against mounted troops for the first time. These innovations mark the first stages of the cavalry corps' decline in prominence, for at this time the only way to make cavalry effective was to break the square which proved to be a most difficult task to accomplish.

The last great cavalry charges of this era came in the Crimean War of 1854-55 where the British Light Brigade was decimated in their famous futile charge against Russian artillery batteries and the charge of the Russian Heavy Brigade was repulsed on the heights of Balaclava by the 93rd Southerland Highlanders (the Thin Red Line tipped with steel). At this point infantry tactics were the ascendant form on the battlefield and had surpassed both the technology and the tactics of the other corps of the army. The disastrous horse charges in the Crimea demonstrated the need for new tactical developments in cavalry employment. However, without the impetus of a large scale set-piece war the necessary evolution did not happen immediately.

In the five years following the Crimean War technological developments in firearms were making great strides. Samuel Colt was perfecting his revolver which became the chief sidearm for the remainder of the century for all American army officers and cavalrymen. More significant is the perfection of the cylindo-conoidal bullet or minie ball. As discussed in chapter two, this single development changed the face of battle and all but eliminated cavalry as an effective battlefield force.


The American Civil War, coupled with the Crimean War stands, as a key turning point in the development of tactics in general and infantry tactics in specific. By 1861 tactics had fallen behind developments in weaponry, in particular the rifled musket. The classic cavalry tactics of the Napoleonic Era and earlier times proved useless against trained infantry, and the cavalry corps in most armies saw its role reduced to screening infantry movements, scouting the enemy, and occasionally raiding deep into enemy territory to disrupt lines of supply and communication. This was the situation at the outbreak of the American Civil War. It has been argued that tactical development progressed with the aid of "American ingenuity" in the Civil War. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that the Civil War provided the venue for tactics to re-attain and again surpass the level of technology and these innovations would have occurred wherever the need arose, requiring only the impetus of a large-scale war.

It is important to understand that when technology surpasses tactics and tactical applications, casualty rates go up until commanders develop new tactics or approaches that are more appropriate to the changed situation on the battlefield. As stated in chapter two, the rifled musket increased five-fold the effectiveness of infantrymen. Not only was the effective range increased from 100 to 500 yards, but the rate of fire was slightly greater due to the development of paper cartridges, the percussion cap, and the ease of loading the minie ball which was slightly under bore size. In battle this had two major effects: first, due to the increased effective range, infantrymen could fire four to five accurate volleys at charging cavalry rather than one or two; and second, the increased firepower and range shifted the emphasis in strategy from the offensive to the defensive. (See figure 4-1)

In the above figure not the change in location of artillery units in the defensive formation as compared with figure 3-1. This example is an hypothetical situation of a Union cavalry attack on a Confederate infantry position supported by artillery. In this figure the infantry units are in battle lines expecting an infantry engagement and are surprised by the cavalry charge. The superior range and accuracy of the infantry weapon would have a telling effect on this engagement and the charge would probably be broken. Presuming this engagement to have occurred early in the war before tactical doctrine caught up with the technology this example would clearly demonstrate what was at the time (prior to mid-1862) the accepted tactical doctrine for employment of cavalry against infantry. While it is hypothetical, it is possible to study detailed battlefield maps of such battles as Antietam, Fredericksburg and even the third day of Gettysburg and see similar defensive dispositions and battlefield situations.

Again, using Gettysburg as an example, on the first day Buford's Union Cavalry, "dismounted and fought a delaying action against A. P. Hill's Corps northwest of town." This was the customary way for cavalry units to engage infantry units that were formed into columns or squares. Figure 4-2 is a crude reproduction of Buford's troop dispositions at the time that COL Harry Heth's regiment made contact with them.

The Civil War brought to the fore two major tactical innovations/concepts: trench warfare, especially in Lee's last campaigns from the Wilderness to Petersburg, and mobile infantry. If the two, the concept of mobile infantry was perhaps the far-reaching tactical development of the Civil War. The act of employing cavalry troops as mounted or mobile infantry is the essence of the concept. The commander most responsible for developing this tactic during the war was Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA, often described as '[u]ndoubtedly the greatest cavalryman in the history of this country."

Forrest, a planter at the outbreak of the war, was a man of limited education, unbounded courage and was a completely self-taught soldier. Yet, for a man with no formal military training he emerged during the war as one of the finest tactical commanders and leaders of men in either army. At Shiloh, Forrest employed the concept of using horses to march his men quickly to a line of departure, then dismounting and pressing the attack on foot. While technically a cavalry force, Forrest's troops acted more like infantry. It was not uncommon at this time for cavalry to fight dismounted, but the convention of the day dictated that one in four troopers act as horse-holders and keep the mounts safely in the rear. This reduced the effective force by 25% in battle. Forrest on the other hand had his troopers tie their mounts to trees some distance in the rear, with a small force to guard them, and then march to a line of departure. This of course allowed him to use nearly the full effective strength of his command to attack the enemy or defend a position. It is not surprising that on more than one occasion his troops were mistaken for infantry. Because they were in fact being employed as an infantry regiment. By using almost 100% of the forces available to him, rather than 75%, Forrest adheres to the principle of mass. By riding to the battlefield on horseback, the troops are capable of arriving faster than foot soldiers, are more rested, and therefore more effective as per the principle of mobility/maneuver. Because they are capable of mounting up and breaking contact with the enemy while moving to a new and supposed critical location, Forrest's troops demonstrate the application of the principles of friction and surprise.

The first commander to take note of Forrest's unique method of employing his troops was General D. H. Hill, CSA. During the Battle of Chickamaugua he praised Forrest's command for conspicuous gallantry, especially after initially mistaking it for an infantry unit. Other significant engagements that also demonstrate Forrest's abilities and initiative are Oklona and Brice's Crossroads. In both engagements, Forrest defeated superior numbers of mounted Union forces by arriving first, dismounting his entire troop, leaving his horses at a safe, but prudent distance from the battlefield and entrenching. Here we see the principles of mass and maneuver in action.

At Brice's Crossroads, after disrupting the Union advance Forrest used his mobility by mounting part of his forces and using them in pursuit, "Keeping up the skeer" as it were and not allowing the Union forces the opportunity to rally and reform. The rest of Forrest's forces used the mobility of their mounts to by-pass the fighting and attack their enemy's rear capturing huge quantities of supplies.


The American Civil War produces the paradigm shift in cavalry tactics. The Crimean War produces the foundation for the need for a paradigm shift. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Benjamin Grierson and John Buford are the Civil War personalities most responsible for creating the paradigm shift and developing new tactics to fit the new role of cavalry on the battlefield.

BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE: This bibliography is very extensive because the full text of the main document deals with a general history of warfare and the development of the concepts and tactics related to mobile infantry.

Battles and Leaders of the Civil War - Volume IV. Thomas Yoseloff, Inc.: New York, 1965.

Bartlett, Merill L. Assault From The Sea - Essays on the History of Amphibious Warfare. United States Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, MD, 1983.

Booksher, William R. and David K. Snider, "Surrender or Die," Military History Magazine's Great Battles. Vol. 1, No. 1, Empire Press, Leesburg, VA, 1986.

Catton, Bruce. Never Call Retreat. Doubleday & Company, Inc.: New York, 1965
---------- Picture History of The Civil War. American Heritage: New York, 1960.
---------- Terrible Swift Sword. Doubleday & Company, Inc.: New York, 1963.
---------- This Hallowed Ground. Doubleday & Company, Inc.: New York, 1951