Thursday, June 30, 2016


[The Cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland by Dennis W. Belcher (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2016). Softcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:303/353. ISBN:9780786494804. $45]

Until recent decades, accounts of the exploits of eastern theater Confederate generals like J.E.B. Stuart and western raiders Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan fairly dominated the subject of Civil War cavalry in the publishing world. Thankfully, numerous studies have now documented the mid-war emergence of Union cavalry in the eastern theater, and that arm of the Army of the Potomac can finally be regarded as having received its proper due. However, their western counterparts in blue remain neglected by comparison. By examining in depth the officers and units of the Union cavalry attached to the North's primary heartland army and their contributions to several critically important western campaigns, Dennis Belcher's The Cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland shines needed light on an overlooked group.

The book is a deeply researched, finely focused, and richly detailed leadership, organization, and operations study of a formation that emerged from humble origins in November 1862 to grow to four full divisions by October 1864 (when the parent Army of the Cumberland was broken apart and dispersed). In addition to combing through more than 100 unpublished document collections from archives located all across the country, Belcher consulted a large body of unit histories, newspapers, government documents, and other publications. Using this material, the author was able to assemble valuable insights into a host of unsung Union cavalry officers like Robert Minty, Eli Long, Edward McCook, Lewis Zahm, and many others. The study's unit discussion also profiles individual regiments (the good and the bad).

The key figure in Belcher's volume is David Stanley, the general officer responsible during the latter stages of 1862 for taking the badly understrength and disorganized group of mounted forces attached to the newly created Army of the Cumberland and quickly reorganizing, training, equipping, and expanding them. This impressively rapid turnaround ensured that the cavalry arm had the ability to turn in at least a creditable performance that winter during the Stones River Campaign. Key support for Stanley's reforms was provided by army commander William S. Rosecrans, whose incessant demands for horses, men, and the latest weaponry eventually taxed the patience of his superiors in Washington. Both men overcame administrative resistance to the creation of mounted infantry, a bureaucratic victory that would pay off in spades in ensuing campaigns, when the combat power of the mounted infantry proved decisive on multiple occasions.

Belcher marks the 1863 Tullahoma Campaign as the moment when the Union army's western cavalry would finally match and frequently best their opponents. This same time period is often regarded as the eastern cavalry's turning point, as well. The book goes on to recount in great detail the mounted operations that accompanied the Chickamauga, East Tennessee, Chattanooga, and 1864 Georgia campaigns, but it also discusses a myriad of smaller raids and skirmishes that have generally escaped notice in the wider literature.

The cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland was never formally organized into a corps, though with multiple divisions it certainly became one in all but name. Two other generals, Robert Mitchell (very briefly in a temporary capacity) and Washington Elliot, followed Stanley as Chief of Cavalry but neither had much impact. The informal nature of the command arrangement often led army commanders to micromanage the affairs of the cavalry and interact directly with subordinates without going through their chief, both situations proving in several instances to be detrimental to the cavalry's effectiveness and well being.

The bringing in of outside leadership at the divisional level, rather than promoting from within, also proved disruptive to the Army of the Cumberland's cavalry, with Robert Mitchell, John Basil Turchin, and eastern theater reject Judson Kilpatrick all proving to be significant downgrades from existing possibilities. Belcher ponders with good reason how much more the Cumberland divisions might have achieved under the command of talented and proven leaders like Robert Minty or Eli Long.

Though the cavalry divisions generally performed well in their traditional role (guarding the flanks, screening the advance, and gathering information) during the 1863-64 campaigns, the book astutely documents their misuse, as well. While Stanley urged concentration and direct support of the infantry, Rosecrans favored dispersal and constant movement, the resultant wearing down of men and mounts credited by Belcher for being behind the army's critical failure to keep tabs on the enemy during the Chickamauga Campaign. The Army of the Cumberland cavalry has also been criticized for its performance during the 1864 campaign in Georgia, but Belcher's careful recounting of mounted operations between Dalton and Atlanta presents a different picture. Regarding the later stages of the campaign, the author persuasively argues that blame for the loss of a third of the cavalry strength of the army group during deep raids conducted south of Atlanta should primarily land at the feet of Sherman, who regularly misunderstood and mishandled his cavalry.

In number and quality, the study's visual aids comprise a valuable supplement to the narrative. Along with an abundance of photographs, numerous original maps chart the activities of the cavalry during the many campaigns fought (there are some tactical scale maps, as well). In addition to strength numbers and casualty tables, the author also very helpfully inserts complete cavalry orders of battle at regular intervals throughout the book. A very useful combined order of battle is included as an appendix, too.

With the release of The Cavalry of the Army of the Cumberland, Civil War readers finally have a well researched and comprehensive record of the cavalry's contributions to Union victory along the western theater's central corridor. Belcher's study is both a freshly original narrative history and a beneficial reference tool.

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