In March of 1865, the largest, most heavily-armed column of cavalrymen ever assembled on the North American continent set out on a campaign to pierce the hollow shell of what was left of the Southern Confederacy. Major General James Wilson led his three divisions of Yankee horse soldiers, bristling with seven-shot Spencer repeating carbines, Model 1860 light cavalry sabres and a variety of revolvers, deep into Alabama, scattering his outnumbered and undergunned opposition like chaff before the winds of victory.
Wilson's raid is often cited as a demonstration of the industrial and military might of the Union, which assured Confederate defeat. The Spencer repeater has long been touted as a symbol of that superiority. There was much more to Wilson's success than Spencers, however. The Federal troopers who trotted towards Selma in that high spring of 1865 were experienced, well-trained and superbly-led, attributes at least as important as their carbines, which, for many of them, were recent acquisitions. The confident Yankee cavalrymen of 1865 were as unlike their bumbling, poorly-armed selves of 1861 as they were soldiers from another era—another world.
When war fever swept the nation following the attack on Fort Sumter, United States government stores held 4,076 muzzle-loading and breech‐ loading carbines. Since the strength of a cavalry regiment was 1,000 or more men at muster-in, it was readily apparent that the available supply of weapons would be rapidly depleted if volunteer horse soldiers rushed to the colors.