Army Combat Branches: Cavalry

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Army Combat Branches: Cavalry. Starting with the colonial militias, the cavalry has always had an elite status in the American military. Despite its prestige, however, this branch has played a secondary role to the artillery and infantry in combat operations. Traditionally, there were several utilizations of the mounted warrior in combat. Heavy cavalry could charge enemy positions in force or pursue retreating units, using pistols, swords, lance, and the intimidating power of massed horses to overwhelm soldiers on foot. Light cavalry units were used for picket duty, reconnaissance, and raiding.

Cavalry units were elite organizations in colonial times, partly because of the financial costs involved in acquiring, feeding, and housing the horses, but also because of traditional images of aristocratic daring. George Washington has been criticized for making little effort to employ cavalry during the Revolutionary War, even though the terrain of most battle sites was appropriate for its use. Washington's indifference stemmed largely from his early military experience as an officer in the French and Indian War, when he commanded units in wooded, hilly terrain, where the cavalry had limited utility. During the Revolution, in the southern colonies (outside Washington's area), American partisans used the horse as mounted infantry. These so‐called dragoons would ride into combat, and then dismount and fight on foot.

Building on this heritage, the U.S. Army later utilized horse soldiers in combat as dragoons during the period of the early republic. Between 1802 and 1808, however, the army briefly did away with horse units altogether. This represented partly a Jeffersonian reaction against the social and economic elite status of the cavalry, but to a larger extent it was a cost‐cutting measure that eliminated an element of the military that then had little utility. The main mission of the U.S. Army during this period was Indian fighting. The heavily wooded terrain of the western frontier was not appropriate for cavalry units. Nevertheless, the army published Col. Pierce Darrow's Cavalry Tactics in 1822, the first official tactical manual for the cavalry. Cavalry was little used in the Mexican War.

During the Civil War, both the Union army and the Confederate army used cavalry, mainly in reconnaissance and raiding roles. Technological innovations limited the utility of heavy cavalry. The rifled musket allowed infantrymen to direct accurate fire at large targets long before the cavalry closed in, preventing the shock and force of massed cavalry. The light firepower of cavalry units, armed with carbines and pistols, also made it difficult for a mounted force to hold positions against infantry attack or counterattack. Commanders on each side, however, like J. E. B. Stuart and George Armstrong Custer, made a name for themselves leading or directing units performing the functions of light cavalry.

The Plains Indians Wars were unique. Cavalry was of fundamental military importance in these conflicts. Once they moved to the plains, the Indians adopted the horse, which had been brought to the Americas by Europeans, and made it central to their culture. These nomadic peoples used the horse to travel across the plains in search of the American bison, which provided the material underpinning of their societies. The warriors of the plains fought primarily on horseback, performing functions similar to light cavalry. The U.S. Army used a similar force organized into cavalry regiments to fight the Plains Indians, and conducted many of the campaigns in the winter months when the lack of foliage available for grazing would weaken Indian ponies. Although the cavalry played a key military role in these conflicts, the force of demographics and the destruction of the “buffalo” herds played a larger role in the ultimate conquest of the Indians.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, technological innovations again made the future of cavalry questionable. Machine guns allowed infantry soldiers to direct heavy fire at an opponent, making direct cavalry charges futile. Indeed, no U.S. units fought as cavalry in Europe during World War I. Instead, tanks and armored vehicles, which were developed during the war, assumed the ability to perform many of the cavalry functions. Armored units could act with the speed and shock of cavalry, and the staying power of infantry. Armored vehicles could perform wide ranging reconnaissance.

During the interwar period, the chiefs of the cavalry branch of the U.S. Army fought innovation, seeing the advocates of the tank as individuals who sought mainly to destroy the cavalry. The National Defense Act of 1920 created the position of branch chief, and made the officer serving in that position responsible for tactical doctrine for each combat branch. This authority allowed the proponents of the horse cavalry to reject the new weapon, the tank. By the late 1930s, some cavalrymen, such as George S. Patton, supported armored warfare. In 1940, the success of German Panzer units in France, and the inadequacy of horse units against armor units, overcame even the most dedicated cavalryman's resistance. During World War II, the First Cavalry Division (1st Cav), still technically a mounted force in matters of structure, was the only cavalry unit to see combat in the war but fought as an armored unit without its horses. The horse cavalry and the cavalry branch were formally abolished with the reorganization following the National Security Act of 1947, although the First Cavalry Division, first with armor and then air mobile via helicopters, retained the insignia and designation.
[See also Army, U.S.: 1866–99; National Defense Acts.]


Russell F. Weigley , History of the United States Army, 1967.
Lucian K. Truscott, Jr. , The Twilight of the U.S. Cavalry: Life in the Old Army, 1917–1942, 1989.

Nicholas Evan Sarantakes

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Army Combat Branches: Cavalry

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