Largest Cavalry Battle of the Civil War

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Largest Cavalry Battle of the Civil War

Battle of Brandy Station Civil War History: June 9, 1863

The Battle of Brandy Station was the largest cavalry battle ever fought on the North American continent. Of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers involved, approximately 17,000 were cavalry. The Battle of Brandy Station was also the first battle of the Gettysburg Campaign.

The Confederates had planned for June 9, 1863, to be a day of maneuver rather than of battle. Two of the army's three infantry corps were near Culpeper, six miles southwest of Brandy Station, poised to move into the Shenandoah Valley and thence up to Pennsylvania. Major General J.E.B. Stuart, at Brandy Station, was to screen this movement with his 9,500-man cavalry division, while the remaining infantry corps held the attention of the Union Army at Fredericksburg, 35 miles southeast of Brandy Station.

The Federals knew that Confederate cavalry was around Culpeper, but its intelligence had not gathered information of the sizeable infantry force behind the horsemen. Army of the Potomac commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, interpreted the enemy's cavalry presence around Culpeper to be indicative of preparations for a raid of his army's supply lines. Accordingly, he ordered his Cavalry Corps commander, Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton, to "break up Stuart's raid in its incipiency."

The Confederates apparently did not expect any harassment from the enemy cavalry. The day before the important screening mission, the Southern troops conducted a grand review for General Robert E. Lee at Inlet Station, just two miles southwest of Brandy Station. Concurrently, 8,000 Federal cavalry organized into three divisions, while an additional 3,000 Northern infantry prepared to disrupt the Confederate plans.

Approximately 4:30 a.m. on June 9th, Brigadier General John Buford's column of 5,500 soldiers splashed across the fog-shrouded Rappahannock River surprising the Confederate pickets at Beverly's Ford. Nearby Southern horsemen from Brigadier General William "Grumble" Jones' brigade, awakened by the sound of gunfire, "rode into the fray partially dressed and often riding bareback." They struck Buford's leading brigade, commanded by Colonel Benjamin F. "Grimes" Davis, near a bend in the Beverly's Ford Road and temporarily checked its progress. Davis was also killed in the fight ("Grumble" Jones was killed at the Battle of Piedmont on June 5, 1864).

Davis' brigade had been halted just shy of where the Confederate artillery was camped. Cannoneers swung one or two guns into position and fired down the road at Buford's men, enabling the other pieces to escape and establish the foundation for the subsequent Confederate line. The artillery unlimbered at the Gee House and at St. James Church -- structures located on two knolls on either side of the Beverly's Ford Road.

Most of Jones' command rallied to the left of this Confederate artillery line, while Brigadier General Wade Hampton's brigade formed to the right. The 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry suffered the greatest casualties of any regiment participating in the battle, when it unsuccessfully charged across a field and into the very muzzles of the guns located at St. James Church.

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Battle of Brandy Station

Largest Cavalry Battle of the Civil War Map
Largest Cavalry Battle of the Civil War Map.jpg
Battle of Brandy Station, Virginia, Map : Largest Cavalry Battle of the Civil War Battlefield Map

Realizing that the Southern artillery blocking the direct route to Brandy Station was a force to be dislodged, Buford determined to anchor his right on the Hazel River and try to turn the Confederate left. But he found Brigade General W.H.F. "Rooney" Lee's brigade blocking his advance with some troops on a piece of high ground called Yew Ridge; there were dismounted troopers positioned along a stone wall in front ("Rooney" Lee is General Robert E. Lee's son). The Federals sustained heavy losses; however, they repulsed the Confederates and secured the stone wall. Buford's troops, expected a counterassault, but were amazed at the Confederates' withdrawal.

The Southerners were shifting to meet a new threat, adjusting to their second surprise of the day. Brigadier General David M. Gregg's Union division of about 2,800 men had orders to cross the Rappahannock at Kelly's Ford and proceed on roads leading directly into Brandy Station, but discovered his way blocked by Brigadier General Beverly Robertson's brigade. Gregg, however, realized that there were unguarded roads leading to the battlefield by a more circuitous route. Following these roads, his lead brigade under Colonel Percy Wyndham arrived in Brandy Station at about 11 a.m. Between Buford and Stuart was a prominent ridge called Fleetwood Hill. The eminence had been Stuart's headquarters, but the general was at the front. When Gregg arrived, the only force on Fleetwood was a 6-pounder howitzer, which had been sent to the rear for want of reliable ammunition. Major Henry B. McClellan of Stuart's staff pressed this gun into service and sent a desperate plea to his chief for reinforcements. Wyndham, meanwhile, formed his men into line and charged up the western slope of Fleetwood. As he neared the crest, the lead elements of Jones' brigade, which had just withdrawn from St. James Church, rode over the crown.

Gregg's next brigade, led by Colonel Judson Kilpatrick, swung around east of Brandy Station and attacked up the southern end and the eastern slope of Fleetwood Hill, only to discover that their appearance coincided with the arrival of Hampton's Confederates. A series of confusing charges and countercharges swept back and forth across the hill. The Confederates finally cleared the hill and captured three guns and inflicted 30 casualties among the 36 men of the 6th New York Light Artillery, which had attempted to give close-range support to the Federal cavalry

Colonel Alfred Duffie, with a small division, was delayed by two Confederate regiments in the vicinity of Stevensburg and arrived on the field too late to participate in the action.

While Jones and Hampton withdrew from their initial positions to fight at Fleetwood Hill, "Rooney" Lee continued to assault Buford. Reinforced by Colonel Thomas Munford, commanding the brigade of the ailing Fitzhugh Lee (General Robert Lee's nephew), "Rooney" Lee launched a counterattack against Buford. Concurrently, Pleasonton had called for a general withdrawal. The battle was over.

Despite being surprised by his adversary twice in the same day, Stuart was able to retain the field. Union losses numbered approximately 900; Confederate casualties were approximately 500. But the overwhelming superiority that the Confederate cavalry once enjoyed was gone. See also Civil War Cavalry and Mounted Forces: Union and Confederate Weapons, Battles, Uniforms, Roles, Tactics, and Organization.

(See also related reading below.)

Sources: National Park Service; Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

Recommended Reading: Brandy Station, Virginia, June 9, 1863: The Largest Cavalry Battle of the Civil War (Hardcover). Description: The winter of 1862-1863 found Robert Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac at a standoff along the Rappahannock River in Virginia. In December 1862, outnumbered Confederate forces had dealt the Union army a handy defeat in the Battle of Fredericksburg. A demoralized Union army was waiting for spring and revitalization. The latter came in late January 1863 in the form of Major General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker. Relieving the disgraced and outmatched Burnside, Hooker reorganized his troops, establishing regular drills, procuring adequate rations and instituting company colors, thereby giving his soldiers back their fighting spirit. Lee, also with his eye on the spring campaign, concentrated on maintaining his strength and fortifications while struggling with the ever-increasing problem of adequate supplies. Continued below…

As the spring campaign--and Hooker’s new fighting approach--began, cavalry units from both sides took on an increased importance. This culminated in the largest cavalry battle of the war, fought near Brandy Station, Virginia on June 9, 1863. Compiled from various contemporary sources, this volume details the contributions of cavalry units during the spring campaign of 1863. Although the work discusses early encounters such as the Battle of Chancellorsville, the main focus is the Battle of Brandy Station, which marked the opening of the Gettysburg campaign and Lee’s last offensive into the North. Here, forces commanded by J.E.B. Stuart and Alfred Pleasanton fought a battle which ranged over 70 square miles but left no decisive victor. At the end of the day, Confederate troops were still in possession of the territory and counted fewer casualties, yet Union forces had definitely taken the offensive. While historians still debate the significance of the battle, many now view it as a harbinger of change, signifying the beginning of dominance of Union horse soldiers and the corresponding decline of Stuart’s Confederate command. Appendices contain information on individual units with recorded casualties and a list of West Pointers who took part in the battle. Photographs and an index are also included.

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Recommended Reading: The Mutiny at Brandy Station: The Last Battle of the Hooker Brigade (Hardcover). Description: THE MUTINY AT BRANDY STATION presents, in microcosm, the character and actions of men who served the United States Army of the Potomac in 1864. The story follows key players through the reorganization, the courts martial, and into the Wilderness using direct quotes from their diaries, memoirs, and reports as well as original transcripts of the trials. 78 black and white illustrations.

 

Recommended Reading: The Union Cavalry Comes of Age: Hartwood Church to Brandy Station, 1863. Description: In The Union Cavalry Comes of Age, award-winning cavalry historian Eric J. Wittenberg provides a long-overdue challenge to the persistent myths that have unfairly elevated the reputations of the Confederate cavalry’s “cavaliers” and sets the record straight regarding the evolution of the Union cavalry corps. He highlights the careers of renowned Federal officers, including George Stoneman, William W. Averell, Alfred Pleasonton, John Buford, and Wesley Merritt, as well as such lesser-known characters as Col. Alfred Duffie, a French expatriate who hid an ugly secret. Continued below…

Wittenberg writes a lively, detailed account of a saber-slashing era in which men fought for duty, honor, and bragging rights. Indeed, a taunting note left behind by Confederate Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee on a raid at Hartwood Church, Virginia, in 1863 sparked Northern retaliation at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford. The Federal cavalry then evolved during the trials of Stoneman’s Raid, with their hard work culminating in the Battle of Brandy Station, where they nearly broke the unsuspecting Confederates in a fourteen-hour maelstrom that is considered the greatest cavalry battle ever fought in North America. A skillfully woven overview, this unforgettable story also depicts the strategic and administrative tasks that occupied officers and politicians as well as the day-to-day existence of the typical trooper in the field. The Union Cavalry Comes of Age shows that Northern troopers began turning the tide of the war much earlier than is generally acknowledged and became the largest, best-mounted, and best-equipped force of horse soldiers the world had ever seen.

 

Recommended Reading: The Cavalry at Gettysburg: A Tactical Study of Mounted Operations during the Civil War's Pivotal Campaign, 9 June-14 July 1863. Description: "For cavalry and/or Gettysburg enthusiasts, this book is a must; for other Civil War buffs, it possesses the qualities sought by students of the conflict. . . . [It] bristles with analysis, details, judgments, personality profiles, and evaluations and combat descriptions, even down to the squadron and company levels. The mounted operations of the campaign from organizational, strategic, and tactical viewpoints are examined thoroughly. The author's graphic recountings of the Virginia fights at Brandy Station, Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, the Pennsylvania encounters at Hanover, Hunterstown, Gettysburg, and Fairfield, and finally the retreat to Virginia, are the finest this reviewer has read under a single cover. Continued below...

For those who enjoy the thunder of hoofbeats, the clang of sabers, and the crack of pistols and carbines, this book has all of it. Generals and privates share the pages, as the mounted opponents parry and thrust across hundreds of miles of territory from June 9 to July 14, 1863."-Civil War Times Illustrated (Civil War Times Illustrated).

 

Recommended Reading: Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg (Hardcover). Description: In June 1863, the Gettysburg Campaign is in its opening hours. Harness jingles and hoofs pound as Confederate cavalryman James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart leads his three brigades of veteran troopers on a ride that triggers one of the Civil War's most bitter and enduring controversies. Instead of finding glory and victory-two objectives with which he was intimately familiar-Stuart reaped stinging criticism and substantial blame for one of the Confederacy's most stunning and unexpected battlefield defeats. In Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi objectively investigate the role Stuart's horsemen played in the disastrous campaign. It is the first book ever written on this important and endlessly fascinating subject. Continued below…

Stuart left Virginia under acting on General Robert E. Lee's discretionary orders to advance into Maryland and Pennsylvania, where he was to screen Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell's marching infantry corps and report on enemy activity. The mission jumped off its tracks from virtually the moment it began when one unexpected event after another unfolded across Stuart's path. For days, neither Lee nor Stuart had any idea where the other was, and the enemy blocked the horseman's direct route back to the Confederate army, which was advancing nearly blind north into Pennsylvania. By the time Stuart reached Lee on the afternoon of July 2, the armies had unexpectedly collided at Gettysburg, the second day's fighting was underway, and one of the campaign's greatest controversies was born. Did the plumed cavalier disobey Lee's orders by stripping the army of its "eyes and ears?" Was Stuart to blame for the unexpected combat the broke out at Gettysburg on July 1? Authors Wittenberg and Petruzzi, widely recognized for their study and expertise of Civil War cavalry operations, have drawn upon a massive array of primary sources, many heretofore untapped, to fully explore Stuart's ride, its consequences, and the intense debate among participants shortly after the battle, through early post-war commentators, and among modern scholars. The result is a richly detailed study jammed with incisive tactical commentary, new perspectives on the strategic role of the Southern cavalry, and fresh insights on every horse engagement, large and small, fought during the campaign. About the author: Eric J. Wittenberg has written widely on Civil War cavalry operations. His books include Glory Enough for All (2002), The Union Cavalry Comes of Age (2003), and The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign (2005). He lives in Columbus, Ohio.

 
Recommended Reading: Gettysburg, by Stephen W. Sears (640 pages) (November 3, 2004). Description: Sears delivers another masterpiece with this comprehensive study of America’s most studied Civil War battle. Beginning with Lee's meeting with Davis in May 1863, where he argued in favor of marching north, to take pressure off both Vicksburg and Confederate logistics. It ends with the battered Army of Northern Virginia re-crossing the Potomac just two months later and with Meade unwilling to drive his equally battered Army of the Potomac into a desperate pursuit. In between is the balanced, clear and detailed story of how tens-of-thousands of men became casualties, and how Confederate independence on that battlefield was put forever out of reach. The author is fair and balanced. Continued below...

He discusses the shortcomings of Dan Sickles, who advanced against orders on the second day; Oliver Howard, whose Corps broke and was routed on the first day; and Richard Ewell, who decided not to take Culp's Hill on the first night, when that might have been decisive. Sears also makes a strong argument that Lee was not fully in control of his army on the march or in the battle, a view conceived in his gripping narrative of Pickett's Charge, which makes many aspects of that nightmare much clearer than previous studies. A must have for the Civil War buff and anyone remotely interested in American history.

 

Recommended Reading: ONE CONTINUOUS FIGHT: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 (Hardcover). Description: The titanic three-day battle of Gettysburg left 50,000 casualties in its wake, a battered Southern army far from its base of supplies, and a rich historiographic legacy. Thousands of books and articles cover nearly every aspect of the battle, but not a single volume focuses on the military aspects of the monumentally important movements of the armies to and across the Potomac River. One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863 is the first detailed military history of Lee's retreat and the Union effort to catch and destroy the wounded Army of Northern Virginia. Against steep odds and encumbered with thousands of casualties, Confederate commander Robert E. Lee's post-battle task was to successfully withdraw his army across the Potomac River. Continued below...
Union commander George G. Meade's equally difficult assignment was to intercept the effort and destroy his enemy. The responsibility for defending the exposed Southern columns belonged to cavalry chieftain James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart. If Stuart fumbled his famous ride north to Gettysburg, his generalship during the retreat more than redeemed his flagging reputation. The ten days of retreat triggered nearly two dozen skirmishes and major engagements, including fighting at Granite Hill, Monterey Pass, Hagerstown, Williamsport, Funkstown, Boonsboro, and Falling Waters.

President Abraham Lincoln was thankful for the early July battlefield victory, but disappointed that General Meade was unable to surround and crush the Confederates before they found safety on the far side of the Potomac. Exactly what Meade did to try to intercept the fleeing Confederates, and how the Southerners managed to defend their army and ponderous 17-mile long wagon train of wounded until crossing into western Virginia on the early morning of July 14, is the subject of this study. One Continuous Fight draws upon a massive array of documents, letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and published primary and secondary sources. These long-ignored foundational sources allow the authors, each widely known for their expertise in Civil War cavalry operations, to describe carefully each engagement. The result is a rich and comprehensive study loaded with incisive tactical commentary, new perspectives on the strategic role of the Southern and Northern cavalry, and fresh insights on every engagement, large and small, fought during the retreat. The retreat from Gettysburg was so punctuated with fighting that a soldier felt compelled to describe it as "One Continuous Fight." Until now, few students fully realized the accuracy of that description. Complimented with 18 original maps, dozens of photos, and a complete driving tour with GPS coordinates of the entire retreat, One Continuous Fight is an essential book for every student of the American Civil War in general, and for the student of Gettysburg in particular. About the Authors: Eric J. Wittenberg has written widely on Civil War cavalry operations. His books include Glory Enough for All (2002), The Union Cavalry Comes of Age (2003), and The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and the Civil War's Final Campaign (2005). He lives in Columbus, Ohio. J. David Petruzzi is the author of several magazine articles on Eastern Theater cavalry operations, conducts tours of cavalry sites of the Gettysburg Campaign, and is the author of the popular "Buford's Boys." A long time student of the Gettysburg Campaign, Michael Nugent is a retired US Army Armored Cavalry Officer and the descendant of a Civil War Cavalry soldier. He has previously written for several military publications. Nugent lives in Wells, Maine.

 

Recommended Reading: The Maps of Gettysburg: The Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 - July 13, 1863 (Hardcover). Description: More academic and photographic accounts on the battle of Gettysburg exist than for all other battles of the Civil War combined-and for good reason. The three-days of maneuver, attack, and counterattack consisted of literally scores of encounters, from corps-size actions to small unit engagements. Despite all its coverage, Gettysburg remains one of the most complex and difficult to understand battles of the war. Author Bradley Gottfried offers a unique approach to the study of this multifaceted engagement. The Maps of Gettysburg plows new ground in the study of the campaign by breaking down the entire campaign in 140 detailed original maps. These cartographic originals bore down to the regimental level, and offer Civil Warriors a unique and fascinating approach to studying the always climactic battle of the war. Continued below…

The Maps of Gettysburg offers thirty "action-sections" comprising the entire campaign. These include the march to and from the battlefield, and virtually every significant event in between. Gottfried's original maps further enrich each "action-section." Keyed to each piece of cartography is detailed text that includes hundreds of soldiers' quotes that make the Gettysburg story come alive. This presentation allows readers to easily and quickly find a map and text on virtually any portion of the campaign, from the great cavalry clash at Brandy Station on June 9, to the last Confederate withdrawal of troops across the Potomac River on July 15, 1863. Serious students of the battle will appreciate the extensive and authoritative endnotes. They will also want to bring the book along on their trips to the battlefield… Perfect for the easy chair or for stomping the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, The Maps of Gettysburg promises to be a seminal work that belongs on the bookshelf of every serious and casual student of the battle.

 
Recommended Reading: Cemetery Hill: The Struggle For The High Ground, July 1-3, 1863. Description: Cemetery Hill was critical to the Battle of Gettysburg. Controversy has ensued to the present day about the Confederacy's failure to attempt to capture this high ground on July 1, 1863, following its victory over two Corps of the Union Army to the North and West of town. Subsequent events during the Battle, such as Pickett's charge, the fighting on Little Round Top, and the fight for the Wheatfield, have received more attention than General Early's attack on Cemetery Hill during the evening of July 2. Yet, the fighting for Cemetery Hill was critical and may have constituted the South's best possibility of winning the Battle of Gettysburg. Terry Jones's "Cemetery Hill: The Struggle for the High Ground, July 1 -- 3, 1863" (2003) is part of a series called "Battleground America Guides" published by Da Capo Press. Each volume in the series attempts to highlight a small American battlefield or portion of a large battlefield and to explain its significance in a clear and brief narrative. Jones's study admirably meets the stated goals of the series. Continued below...

The book opens with a brief setting of the stage for the Battle of Gettysburg. This is followed by chapters describing the Union and Confederate armies and the leaders who would play crucial roles in the fight for Cemetery Hill. There is a short discussion of the fighting on the opening day of the battle, July 1, 1863, which focuses on the failure of the South to attempt to take Cemetery Hill and the adjacent Culp's Hill following its victory of that day. The chief subject of the book, however, is the fighting for Cemetery Hill late on July 2. Jones explains Cemetery Hill's role in Robert E. Lee's overall battle plan. He discusses the opening artillery duel on the Union right followed by the fierce attack by the Louisiana Tigers and North Carolina troops under the leadership of Hays and Avery on East Cemetery Hill. This attack reached the Union batteries defending Cemetery Hill and may have come within an ace of success given the depletion of the Union defense on the Hill to meet threats on the Union left. Elements of the Union 11th Corps and 2nd Corps reinforced the position and drove back the attack. Southern general Robert Rodes was to have supported this attack on the west but failed to reach his position in time to do so. General John Gordon's position was in reserve behind the troops of Hays and Avery but these troops were not ordered forward. The book deals briefly with the third day of the Battle -- the day of Pickett's charge -- in which the Southern troops did not renew their efforts against Cemetery Hill -- such an attempt would have had scant chance of success in daylight. The final chapter of the book consists of Jones's views on the events of the battle, particularly the failure of the Lieutenant General Richard Ewell of the Second Corps of Lee's Army to attack Cemetery Hill on July 1, a decision Jones finds was correct, and the causes of the failure of the July 2 attack (poor coordination among Ewell, Rodes, Gordon, and A.P Hill of the Southern Third Corps.) There is a brief but highly useful discussion to the prospective visitor to Gettysburg of touring the Cemetery Hill portion of the Battlefield. The book is clearly, crisply and succinctly written. It includes outstanding maps and many interesting photographs and paintings. The reader with some overall knowledge of Gettysburg will find this book more accessible that the two volumes of Harry Pfanz's outstandingly detailed trilogy that deal with the first day of the battle and with the fighting for Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Serious students of the Battle of Gettysburg can get a good, clear overview of the fighting for Cemetery Hill from this volume.

 

Recommended Reading: Shock Troops of the Confederacy (Hardcover: 432 pages). Description: Fred Ray's Shock Troops of the Confederacy is primarily focused on the "sharpshooter battalions" of the Army of Northern Virginia. In a Civil War context, "sharpshooter" was usually more akin to "skirmisher" than "sniper," although these specialized battalions also used innovative open order assault techniques, especially late in the war. Continued below...

Ray includes, however, a detailed study of Union sharpshooter battalions and Confederate sharpshooters in the West. Remarkably, little has been published about such organizations in the past, so Fred Ray's book offers a unique study of the evolution of Civil War infantry tactics, revealing a more complex, sophisticated approach to the battlefield than is usually understood.

 

Recommended Reading: Arms and Equipment of the Civil War. Description: Enhanced with marvelous illustrations, the text describes what materiel was available to the armies and navies of both sides — from iron-clad gunboats, submarine torpedoes, and military balloons to pontoon bridges, percussion grenades, and siege artillery — with on-the-scene comments by Union and Confederate soldiers about equipment and camp life. Includes more than 500 black-and-white illustrations. RATED 5 STARS. Continued...

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