On at least two occasions when cavalry was used in charges, it was "wiped out." These include the (in)famous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, and Marshal Ney's cavalry charge at Waterloo.

These charges did succeed after a fashion, however. The Light Brigade spiked a battery of guns, and the sacrifice of Ney's dragoons cleared the way for a (short-lived) infantry advance.

The Confederates launched "Pickett's charge" (of infantry) on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg (coincidentally or otherwise following the arrival of J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry).

Do the above, or other historical examples indicate that the Confederates would have done better to have the cavalry lead the way, e.g. to silence the Union artillery that devastated the Confederate infantry ranks? (The purpose of the cavalry was to "exploit" the infantry charge IF it broke the Union line.)

"Better" in this regard does not mean that the Confederates would have won, only that they would have "upgraded" their chances from "none" to "slim" or reduced their prospects of defeat to "a chance versus a certainty."

Confederate general James Longstreet was quoted in the Killer Angels (book and movie) as saying, "No 15,000 men could take that hill." Would 23,000 men (8,000 of them mounted) have had a better chance?

  • Another spectacular cavalry charge that Napoleon pulled off in his time was that of the Poles at Somosierra. May 1, 2013 at 9:10
  • Lee sent Stuart to the east on July 3 to a separate battlefield behind Union lines where they were defeated by the Union cavalry. They were neither behind Pickett's charge, nor able to get in front of it.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 18, 2015 at 17:57
  • Tom, Longstreet's "quote" for Killer Angels considered (and he was right), Pickett's attack needed a better/ more accurate artillery prep to have a hope in hell of succeeding, as well as a diversion/spoiling attack somewhere else. It didn't get either. (We studied that battle in detail at staff college ... ) Oct 25, 2016 at 22:09

4 Answers 4


It is common knowledge that uphill attack for cavalry is a bad idea. As usual, the common knowledge is incorrect. According to Cavalry Operations In The Ancient Greek World, the uphill cavalry attack could be very effective. So, if the cavalry attacked, the Confederates would have done better. The other question is - was it really possible to send cavalry in attack? Would they obey to that order?

  • 6
    The advent of things like stirrups and rifled firearms may have changed the equation a bit in the intervening 2000 years, no?
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 8, 2013 at 13:50
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    @T.E.D.: My "best" recollection was that the new Union rifles misfired at Gettysburg, allowing the South's Geneal Armistead to say, "Give them the steel, boys." Basically, the Northerners had to fight southern bayonets with bayonets.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 8, 2013 at 17:48
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    @Russell: That was the charge of the LIGHT brigade, referred to in question.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 28, 2013 at 13:19
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    @TomAu, there was a charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava, its just less known: classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/atennyson/…
    – Russell
    Apr 29, 2013 at 0:04
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    @MarkC.Wallace My edit merely reminds that we should not believe in the common knowledge. Alas, the posts against common knowledge causes to many downvotes.
    – Gangnus
    Oct 25, 2016 at 12:10

The role of cavalry shifted dramatically after the advent of long range infantry rifles. During the Napoleonic period, it was still somewhat common to have cavalry make charges against massed infantry formations because, at the time, the effective range of an infantry musket was less than a football field, thus the cavalry had very little distance to cover under fire.

By the time the Civil War came around the normal infantry weapon was rifled and used Minié balls which were much more accurate at range. A cavalryman on horseback makes a pretty large target, for this reason cavalry charges into massed infantry almost disappear after this point. Not to mention, after the widespread use of cavalry by Napoleon and the French, infantry weapons and tactics meant to counter cavalry charges had become much more effective. Cavalry continued to serve a number of roles due to their speed, but unless they had the element of surprise they would typically fight dismounted, as infantry.

To answer your question: Cavalry at the front of the Confederate lines, on horseback, would have likely been slaughtered. In fact, cavalry fleeing through the Confederate infantry lines could have hampered their advance and hurt the morale of the Confederate troops, actually making the charge less effective.

  • You're probably right in THEORY. But my "best" recollection was that the new Union rifles misfired at Gettysburg, allowing the South's Geneal Armistead to say, "Give them the steel, boys." Sabre-wielding cavalry would probably have done "better." Basically, the Confederates didn't have a "legitimate" chance to win. But given the actual circumstances, they might have "gotten lucky" by putting cavalry in front. I upvoted your answer for "general" usefulness, and only the apparent conflict with the actual facts (as I understand them) prevents me from accepting it.
    – Tom Au
    May 1, 2013 at 13:24
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    Interesting. The sources I've found (Wikipedia, The Battle Cry of Freedom) all mention Pickett's men coming under heavy artillery and rifle fire while making the charge, so the misfiring problem wasn't enough to silence the Union rifles. The cavalry would still be exposed to artillery fire the entire way across the field. Not to mention, by using the cavalry thusly Lee would have sacrificed his ability to properly exploit the charge. Try as I might, I still can't come up with a situation where cavalry first would have won Lee the battle.
    – Odysseus
    May 1, 2013 at 20:26

No they would not. Cavalry in the Civil War was very vulnerable to fire and was never able to attack formed infantry with success until armed with repeating rifles late in the war. Even then most of these attacks were performed dismounted, with only a small strike team charging mounted.

There was actually an incident in the battle that shows what a debacle this could be. Elon Farnsworth was ordered to attack a skirmish line of Confederate Troops: (from WIKI)

After the collapse of Pickett's Charge and the defeat of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry on July 3, the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Brig. Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, commanding the 3rd Division, ordered Farnsworth to make a charge with his brigade against Confederate positions south of the Devil's Den area of the battlefield, below Little Round Top. Farnsworth initially balked, arguing there was no hope of success, and only agreed to it when Kilpatrick allegedly accused him of cowardice. Farnsworth made the charge, against elements of John B. Hood's division, under Evander M. Law (Hood having been wounded the previous day). Farnsworth rode with the second battalion of the 1st Vermont Cavalry, alongside Maj. William Wells.

The charge was repulsed with heavy losses, and Farnsworth himself was shot five times in the chest. An account by Confederate Colonel William C. Oates claimed that Farnsworth was surrounded by Confederate soldiers and committed suicide to avoid capture, but this has been disputed by other witnesses and discounted by most historians.[2] Kilpatrick received much criticism for ordering the charge, but no official action was taken against him.

The route of the charge crossed the Emmitsburg Road, which was bordered on both sides by a tall wooden rail fence 4-6 foot high. This would have trapped the horses in a killing zone in rifle and cannister range with no way of crossing until men dismounted and destroyed the fence. Pickett's men climbed the two fences. Cavalry could not.


Lee didn't have a large body of cavalry available for such an attack, because Stuart's Cavalry was trying to get into the Union rear and disrupt it at roughly the time that Pickett was charging up that hill. That was a better use of cavalry in the first place, given the dug in position of the forces on top of Cemetery Ridge, but from Lee's perspective it was an unfortunate failure.

From the Union perspective, it was a successful engagement. It kept the cavalry from disrupting the forces engaged with Picket's division.

The East Cavalry Field fighting was an attempt by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry to get into the Federal rear and exploit any success that Pickett's Charge may have generated. Union cavalry under Brig. Gens. David McM. Gregg and George Armstrong Custer repulsed the Confederate advances.

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