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At the Civil War battle of Brandy Station, the attacking Union cavalry general Alfred Pleasanton brought along some 3,000 infantry to even the odds, because his cavalry was outnumbered 9,500 to 8,000 by that of Confederate commander J.E.B. Stuart. During the battle, both sides were forced to dismount (with one quarter of the cavalrymen holding the horses of three others), so the 3,000 infantry was actually worth 4,000 cavalry when this happened. (The Confederates won a tactical victory, but the Union troops gained valuable fighting experience.)

Brandy Station showed what infantry could do against cavalry in an era of "repeating" weapons such as Colt revolvers and breech-loading rifles. But did it make sense for a qualitatively and quantitatively inferior cavalry force to reinforce itself in this way using infantry to increase your numbers in attacking enemy cavalry before the introduction of fireams? That is to say, in the ancient period or Middle Ages, when your infantry was likely to be inferior to your cavalry in fighting enemy cavalry? I'm not talking about situations in say the 100 Years' war at Crecy or Poitiers when English infantry and cavalry fought on the defensive, while archers did the damage. A better example would be at Alesia: Should Vercingetorix have sent infantry along with his cavalry to try to disrupt the Roman circumvallation process (which was fended off by Caesar's German cavalry)?

Some other potential applications: Are there times when attacking cavalry can use infantry to defend key points such as passes? Can infantry be used profitably to "flush out" enemy cavalry from defensive ground such as trees and bushes, and into the open field? Can infantry be used as a rear guard against enemy cavalry while your cavalry regroups for a counterattack?

Or were the disadvantages of infantry against cavalry before the days of firearms so great as to preclude such uses?

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This left me kinda confused. Your example is one of an essentially infantry-type battle where horses were just used for faster transport to the front lines. Your question seems to be about what help infantry might provide to purely mounted (and pre-gunpowder) actions. Do I have that right? –  T.E.D. Oct 10 '13 at 22:01
Fire arms are much older than the Civil War. What question are you really trying to ask, and does my answer below address the correct issue(s)? –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 10 '13 at 22:41
The context if Brandy Station seems to have nothing to do with the question at all, and just makes people (including me) confused. I'd suggest you just remove it. –  Lennart Regebro Oct 11 '13 at 4:45
@T.E.D.: You are right, except that my reference was really to "repeating weapons" as opposed to merely firearms. I edited the question to make that clear. –  Tom Au Oct 11 '13 at 12:34
It seems you are inferring that a body of infantry can't stand against a cavalry charge. While this certainly could be the case, it was seen at several important battles during the hundred years war that footmen could stand against a charge of large bodies of cavalry. Why wouldn't you bring infantry along to help prevent enemy pursuit in the event of a defeat? –  Seth Oct 11 '13 at 16:55

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes. This is called "combined arms" and occurred all the time; providing you could afford the cost of horses and the delay of infantry.

While the range and reach of pole-arms had some uses before the arrival of set-piece battles involving horses (a/k/a The Cavalry); pole-arms exploded in popularity once horses were common enough and cheap enough - especially the Halberd as you could hook the uppity noble off his horse and then stab repeatedly with a dagger.

So unless you had a mass of archers (horseback or otherwise); a pre-firearm land battle would need infantry as soon as you were bottled up in terrain that limited manoeuvrability. Though one could argue that a desire to destroy the enemy head-on and an aristocrat distaste of guerrilla warfare induced more set-piece battles than would otherwise occur.

Conscripted soldiers often had no say on whether to pursue asymmetric warfare, hence battles such as the "Battle of Hamburger Hill" in Vietnam or the Battle of Towton in the War of the Roses.

Elaborating on the nature of cavalry*: Fighting from horseback essentially added extra manoeuvrability to combat - a way of increasing your options of engagement and decreasing the enemy's as per Sun Tzu's chapter on movement. Cultures we consider did very well without massed infantry (Mongol Golden Horde, Parthian Horse Archers, Polish Winged Hussars) made sure to avoid meat-grinding close-quarter combat. Extensive use of weapons with asymmetric reach (archery, thrown spears, really long disposable lances) plus the rider's elevated field of vision (improved battle awareness) also helped evade the enemy's projection of force and enhance your own.

Infantry wasn't stupid; their aim was to either restrict the horses (selection of terrain) or kill the horse and rider at a distance (massed archery). Selection of terrain limited range of environments cavalry could fight in (swampland, mountains, cities, etc) and completely ruled out holding on to hostile territory without infantry as the local populace could re-shape/the/terrain to be unsafe for cavalry. Cultures famed for cavalry either had infantry (Poland, Parthia) or were nomads with few fixed settlements (Mongols**).

* A Military Stack Exchange is still in the Area 51 staging zone.
** The Mongol "Empire" dissolved quickly. In so far as its fragments had internal cohesion, this was because they were simply the original nations under new management - with local culture, laws and infantry.

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I include the Battle of Towton because the ruling class explicitly chose to treat this battle as a set-piece battle instead of the usual skirmishes common to the Wars of the Roses: "In previous encounters, efforts had been made to spare rank-and-file soldiers. At Towton, orders went out that no quarter be given. This was to be winner-takes-all, a brutal fight to the death." –  LateralFractal Oct 10 '13 at 23:04
Yet the Mongols and Parthians fought almost exclusively from horseback, with great success including at sieges. Your thesis seems to be incomplete on this point. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 11 '13 at 2:10
A combined-arms thesis is condensed rather than incomplete per se and exceptions will exist. Still, the Mongols and Partians focused primarily on horse archery (i.e. asymmetric weapons) and hence the archer caveat in my answer. They also strove maintain the manoeuvrability I mentioned. The Mongol Empire for example couldn't keep it together because holding onto land in hostile territory requires infantry. –  LateralFractal Oct 11 '13 at 2:41
Work some of this into your answer, and you are approaching an up-vote from me. However, I dispute the claim at the very end; The Mongols held Genghis' empire for a few generations, and then it fell apart for different reason than you state, primarily splintering amongst the various branches of Genghis' descendants. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 11 '13 at 2:49
Ah ha! I knew you'd reply with that :-) However, consider this: The fragments of the Mongol Empire were simply the original nations with new management; a new ruling class that got pretty much subsumed by the local culture and laws and hence no longer a "hostile occupation" as such - so the "empire" had natural fractures from the outset. Each of Genghis' descendants simply picked which fragment to rule. If their territory had remained hostile and they didn't simply kill or eject everyone and own empty land (a/k/a ethnic cleansing), they would have needed infantry as horses don't have hands. –  LateralFractal Oct 11 '13 at 2:59

Both Union and Confederate cavalry in the civil war fought almost exclusively as dragoons, using their mounts only as transportation, except in pursuit, while scouting and while engaging against enemy cavalry.

See here:

When charged by Union cavalry, a Southern general said his men would respond with the cry; "Boys, here are those fools coming again with their sabers; give it to them."

Also this comment by Baron Du Pire, in his correspondence of 14th April, 1809, to General Friant (my own translation, from Saski Vol. II, page 157):

You will also note from my report, my General, the disadvantage of a regiment which arrives after a long and difficult march; one is sadly obliged to withdraw in the middle of an affair due to the exhaustion of the horses. I thank you for the bayonets, the combination of two arms has always been recognized as a precious one by better advance-guard officers, since it is the infantry that allows the horses to rest, so they can perform a better charge the next day.

Update 2:
To sensibly address this question it is important to recognize the key distinguishing features of cavalry and infantry relative to each other.

Cavalry is distinguished by its speed and mobility on the battlefield, and its battlefield effectiveness stems directly from an ability to convert that mobility into increased shock at the point of contact with an enemy, causing a morale failure by the opponent. In this sense, cavalry that is stationary increases its vulnerability, and loses its effectiveness.

Infantry is distinguished by its ability to dig-in and fortify on the battlefield, whether by stone, spade, sarissa, shield-wall, or some combination of these. Its effectiveness stems from an ability to induce a morale failure in the opponent by its very immobility. In this sense infantry that is moving increases its vulnerability and loses its effectiveness.

A combined-arms team of infantry and cavalry - whether Roman shield-wall with Germanic tribesman mounted on Gaulic horse; sarissa-armed phalanx with mounted immortals; or modern firebase with Blackhawk-mounted assault teams and tank support - is designed to crush an opponent between the hammer and the anvil.

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After the question's latest edit, I think this is a better answer. Dragoons seem to be exactly what the OQ is asking about. I've added a link, but please consider fleshing this out with more content about the history and use of Dragoons prior to the USCW. –  T.E.D. Oct 11 '13 at 13:31
@T.E.D.: I am waiting to see if LateralFractal improves his answer, before deciding whether to follow up on improving this one. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 11 '13 at 16:32
I like that comment by Baron Du Pire. Makes me wonder if he had read Sun Tzu's Art of War. –  LateralFractal Oct 12 '13 at 2:49
@LateralFractal: Read it! Half of Napoleon's decorated generals could have written parts of it! –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 12 '13 at 5:25

If you are considering a combination of infantry and cavalry against other cavalry, look at the Battle of Crecy during the Middle Ages, England against France.

The French had a total numerical advantage and also a numerical advantage in cavalry numbers. And the French lost, because the English cavalry all dismounted, helped bog down French cavalry. While English archers with longbows effectively and decisively ended the battle. (As long as you consider archers with longbows to be non-firearm carrying infantry.)


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At Crecy, and even more at Agincourt, the English, through careful selection of terrain, made themselves the anvil and allowed the French knights to be their own hammer. –  Pieter Geerkens Oct 13 '13 at 14:08

It depends on the circumstances. Equipment, training, tactics, situation (e.g. pitched battle or raiding), terrain and weather. It also depends on what you mean. I think tactically there is a significant difference in the situation with armored knights as opposed to light cavalry. For the strategic decision of what forces to bring to a major set-piece battle, generally one would and did bring whomever one practically could. Even so, common infantry would not generally become equivalent to heavy elite cavalry, as they did in a 19th Century situation when they dismounted and fought with rifles or carbines.

So I would tend to say mostly yes, particularly for most examples where a major battle was occurring. In that case, having more men and more types of forces is likely to be an advantage. In particular, with most ancient cavalry which usually dismounts to fight like infantry anyway, there is a clear tactical parallel.

I would tend to say no for a force of mounted medieval knights operating independently for raids and smaller-scale operations, because they do fight while mounted, generally have superior armor, training, and are considered by both sides to be the strongest type of combatant, and aren't generally countered by most foot units. Trying to coordinate with a foot unit outside a major battle would mean the cavalry need to forfeit most of their mobility advantage. However, your example of using infantry to block a pass would in some situations be a great complement to an independent cavalry force, since they would not need to move together and places with restricted access could be defended by the foot units, particularly against forces which might pursue of flee the cavalry unit.

At Alesia, I definitely think an infantry assault was called for, due to the extensive walls and earthworks encircling the city. Superior numbers of infantry could in theory have overwhelmed the walls and been too much for the German Cavalry to stop.

Can infantry be used profitably to "flush out" enemy cavalry from defensive ground such as trees and bushes, and into the open field?

Yes, if your infantry can out-fight the cavalry, say due to superior numbers and being a match for the cavalry. If the cavalry is similar in numbers or better individually, they may just stay and defeat the infantry. I'm not sure why cavalry would tend to choose to stay in trees / bush terrain though, as it's not generally not good mounted terrain and staying put removes their mobility.

Can infantry be used as a rear guard against enemy cavalry while your cavalry regroups for a counterattack?

Yes. Generally foot have the advantages of tending to be more numerous, requiring less supplies, and so being good to win pitched battles, hold ground and protect supply trains. The combat advantage infantry have over cavalry tends to be because there tend to be significantly more of them.

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At the Battle of Pharsalus, Caesar used infantry to support his cavalry when faced with superior numbers:

Caesar himself took his post opposite Pompey. At the same time, fearing, from the disposition of the enemy which we have previously mentioned, lest his right wing might be surrounded by their numerous cavalry, he rapidly drafted a single cohort from each of the legions composing the third line, formed of them a fourth line, and opposed them to Pompey's cavalry, and, acquainting them with his wishes, admonished them that the success of that day depended on their courage.

Pompey tried to delay the infantry clash to give time for the cavalry to work. This worked somewhat, but Caesar's tactic took them by surprise.

At the same time Pompey's cavalry, according to their orders, rushed out at once from his left wing, and his whole host of archers poured after them. Our cavalry did not withstand their charge, but gave ground a little, upon which Pompey's horse pressed them more vigorously, and began to file off in troops, and flank our army.

When Caesar perceived this, he gave the signal to his fourth line, which he had formed of the six cohorts.note They instantly rushed forward and charged Pompey's horse with such fury, that not a man of them stood; but all wheeling about, not only quitted their post, but galloped forward to seek a refuge in the highest mountains. By their retreat the archers and slingers, being left destitute and defenseless, were all cut to pieces. The cohorts, pursuing their success, wheeled about upon Pompey's left wing, while his infantry still continued to make battle, and attacked them in the rear.

Once this happened, the superior Caesarian Infantry made short work of their opponents.

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Normally, you always have infantry and cavalry combined if you can. For example, even in the time of Alexander the Great the phalanx was always used in combination with cavalry units.

In modern times infantry always accompanies tanks. If you advance tanks without supporting infantry they will be vulnerable to various kinds of attacks.

The same was true in the Civil War. You could, of course, always raid with cavalry on its own, but that was a risky move because if they got trapped or scattered they could suffer serious losses. Cavalry charges were rare in the Civil War because the wide availability of nails and iron shovels allowed infantry to build up horse-proof defenses and rifles on the ground are more powerful than sabers in the saddle. For this reason, cavalry units often dismounted and got out their rifles before attacking.

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