Tankers and Troopers: A Heritage of Courage

By Antal, John F. | Army, August 2010 | Go to article overview

Tankers and Troopers: A Heritage of Courage


Antal, John F., Army


COURAGE. The American soldier's legacy of courage began with the "shot heard round the world" in April 1775 at the battles of Lexington and Concord, Mass. After this initial clash of arms, the Second Continental Congress adopted the militia regiments besieging the British garrison in Boston as Continental regiments. Units of Infantry and Artillery became part of the Continental Army, but the Congress didn't see the need for Cavalry, so no cavalry units were called for. GEN George Washington took command of the Army on July 3, 1775, and, after the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, the war changed to one of maneuver. Washington quickly saw the need for mounted forces, and the first real cavalry forces of the Continental Army joined Washington in the summer of 1776. Virginia sent three troops of cavalry, one of which was commanded by a 21-year-old captain named Henry Lee. CPT Lee was destined to become a cavalry legend during the Revolutionary War and earned the nom de guerre Light-Horse Harry Lee.

The U.S. Cavalry is Born

The Congress, preferring the name dragoons to cavalry, soon authorized more dragoon units. On September 13, 1777, the Congress appointed Polish volunteer and professional cavalryman Count Casimir Pulaski to command the Corps of American Light Dragoons. Although there were never many dragoon units in the nascent American Army, they were invaluable. GEN Washington used dragoons for scouting and intelligence missions, to harass enemy forage parties and, on occasion, to fight mounted. At the Battle of Brandywine near Philadelphia, Pa., on September 11, 1777, American cavalry saved the Army by warning GEN Washington of British Gen. William Howe's flank attack, allowing Washington to withdraw in good order before Howe could block the American retreat. Later, at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina, American BG Daniel Morgan used dragoons commanded by LTC William Washington (GEN Washington's second cousin) to screen the deployment of BG Morgan's force from the observation of the advancing British. LTC Washington's cavalry then withdrew and, as the battle developed, charged, serving as the left thrust of BG Morgan's classic double envelopment that defeated British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton's legion. The Battle of Cowpens was a perfect example of American tactical genius - and a severe blow to the British. The defeat at Cowpens and the subsequent battle at Guilford Courthouse forced British Gen. Charles Cornwallis to withdraw to Yorktown, Va., and eventually surrender to GEN Washington. At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Congress disbanded the dragoon regiments.

Cavalry in the Civil War

Dragoons were reformed to fight bravely in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. It was in the Civil War, however, that the recognition of the dire need for a mobile fighting force came of age when the American Army established the Cavalry as a unique branch of equal importance to the Infantry and Artillery. In 1861, when the Civil War started, the Union Army had five regular mounted regiments: the 1st and 2nd U.S. Dragoons, the 1st Mounted Rifles, and the 1st and 2nd Cavalry. These units were redesignated as U.S. Cavalry Regiments 1 through 5, and a sixth regiment was recruited. It took time and great expense to train these cavalry regiments, and initially the Union cavalry performed poorly against Confederate cavalry forces.

The balance of quality was changing by 1863 as the Union cavalry gradually learned the bitter lessons of war and continually improved its fighting techniques. On June 9, 1863, Union cavalry fought Confederate cavalry under GEN J.E.B. Stuart to a standstill at the Battle of Brandy Station, Va., in the largest cavalry-on-cavalry fight of the Civil War. The Union cavalry was then put to the ultimate test at Gettysburg, Pa., on July 2, 1863.

The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of GEN Robert E. Lee, was on the march to end the war by invading the North. …

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