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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Who do I think was the greatest cavalry commander of the Civil War?

Warning - This post has absolutely nothing to do with New Market.

That said, I just finished up the CW Cavalry class at American Military University (7 classes down, 5 to go...) Part of the final exam was to state my preference for the war's greatest cavalryman, and also who was the most over-rated cav commander of the war. So here's Part I, completely unedited and just as it was submitted:

Whom do you consider the war’s finest cavalryman?

Cavalry carries a popular connotation of being “flashy.” Several officers immediately come to mind who fit that bill: JEB Stuart, George Custer, John Hunt Morgan. Less likely to come to mind, but no less “flashy” than those – some even considered him a “dandy” – is Earl Van Dorn. But did “flashy” equate to being a fine cavalry officer? It certainly aided in the public perception, that much is for certain. But “flashy” or “dandy” is hardly a description one would apply to Nathan Bedford Forrest , August Kautz, Wade Hampton, or John Buford. All of the above-named officers were superb commanders of mounted troops, but one stands out above all the others, both for what he did accomplish and the potential for accomplishing much more had his life not been cut short – Earl Van Dorn.

Van Dorn was a native Mississippian, West Pointer (although near the bottom of his class), Mexican War veteran, and captain (briefly major) in the elite 2nd Cavalry in the 1850s. All of these factors served to make Van Dorn appealing to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a fellow Mississippian; it was then-Secretary of War Davis who selected Van Dorn for service with the 2nd Cavalry. Van Dorn was a superb Indian fighter with the 2nd Cavalry, being severely wounded in at least one engagement with the Washita.

Once he cast his lot with the Confederacy Van Dorn was commissioned a brigadier in the Mississippi state forces, then succeeded Davis as commander of the state’s “army.” Soon thereafter commissioned a colonel in the Confederate army, Van Dorn was assigned to Texas, which he cleared of Federal troops – an action which earned him promotion to brigadier general. In the summer of 1861 he was given a second star and called to Virginia where he was given command of a division of Joe Johnston’s army at Manassas. As he did not see action with Johnston’s army, his brief time with what became the Army of Northern Virginia is not often remembered.

Then his star, which had shone so brightly at the beginning of the war, began to dim. Reassigned to the Trans-Mississippi, Van Dorn found himself in over his head, as he attacked a smaller Federal Army near Elkhorn Tavern in Arkansas, and was soundly defeated. Several weeks later Van Dorn faltered again badly at Corinth, Miss., getting lost when it was his forces who were to open the attack against the city’s defenses. He was not doing well either as an independent commander, or commanding large infantry forces.

Given command in Mississippi, Van Dorn was for a time responsible for the defense of Vicksburg. He proved rather unpopular with the local population, prompting Davis to appoint John Pemberton to supersede Van Dorn. About the time of Pemberton’s appointment, Van Dorn returned to Corinth and again failed to take the city.

Having fallen far short of expectations as both a theater and army commander, Pemberton returned Van Dorn to his roots – the cavalry. It was a move which benefit all concerned. His first operation as commander of Pemberton’s mounted troops would have far-reaching consequences.

U.S. Grant was preparing for an overland strike against Vicksburg. For this move, he had stockpiled a huge amount of supplies at Holly Springs, Miss., and was dependent upon the railroad north into Tennessee for resupply. Because of the vast territory encompassing military operations in the West, supply lines became very extenuated and exposed. Most Confederate commanders – and most Union ones as well – recognized the vulnerability of the rail lines which served as the arterial supply lines for Federal forces. Pemberton recognized it, as did Van Dorn. Several hundred miles to the east, Braxton Bragg, commander of the Army of Tennessee, recognized it as well. In December Van Dorn was dispatched to raid Grant’s over-exposed supply line and do him as much damage as possible. Van Dorn targeted the Holly Springs supply depot, which he captured and destroyed, with estimates of the monetary value of the supplies destroyed going into six figures. At the same time, Nathan Bedford Forrest, with his command from Bragg’s army, was to strike the northern end of the same supply line in western Tennessee. Between the two of them, Van Dorn and Forrest absolutely crippled Grant’s line of supply, and caused the Federal general to call off his planned campaign against Vicksburg.

Shortly thereafter Van Dorn and his command were transferred to Bragg’s army. In early March 1863, Van Dorn again showed his prowess as a cavalry commander, gobbling up an isolated Union brigade south of Nashville at Thompson’s Station. Although Van Dorn and Forrest had been semi-working in tandem on the Holly Springs-West Tennessee raids, they were operating together at Thompson’s Station, with Forrest directly under Van Dorn’s orders. Later that month, Van Dorn sent Forrest on a raid to Brentwood, which netted several hundred prisoners. Van Dorn was effectively keeping the Yankees in the vicinity of Nashville and Franklin; they were unable to send any scouting parties southward.

Although extremely different in both personality and methodology, both men shared a desire to go for the jugular. Van Dorn appreciated the value and an enemy commander’s sensitivity to his rear areas – that had been his entire battle plan at Pea Ridge, and at Thompson’s Station he dispatched Forrest to cut off the Federals’ line of retreat. However, relations between Van Dorn and Forrest soon soured (probably inevitable given Forrest’s inability to get along with his superiors). By some accounts the two men were on the verge of fighting before cooler heads prevailed.

While Van Dorn and Forrest did not come to blows, the same cannot be said for Van Dorn and Dr. James Peters. The general was murdered in early May by Dr. Peters, who claimed that Van Dorn was…having an inappropriate relationship with Mrs. Peters, thus cutting short a very promising cavalry career.

During the few months which Van Dorn was commanding Confederate cavalry he had proven himself very adept for the role. Although he had failed miserably as an independent commander early in the war, he had learned several valuable lessons – he knew the importance of the line of supply, and how much an army was dependent on logistics to stay afield – that an army literally did march on its stomach, and how an army could be immobilized by lack of knowledge of the immediate vicinity and of the enemy’s whereabouts (after all, he had gotten lost at Corinth for lack of a proper cavalry screen). At Pea Ridge he had taken his entire army around behind the Federals to cut off their supply and line of retreat, and attacked them from the rear. At Holly Springs he had taken out Grant’s forward supply depot. At Thompson’s Station and at Brentwood he kept Rosecrans nearly blind as to the force opposite him.

While his presence was felt at these engagements, his absence was equally felt by Pemberton at Vicksburg as Grant tried a new approach to the city. Grierson’s Raid, hailed by many as one of the greatest cavalry operations of the entire war (this writer would say that the Holly Springs-West Tennessee raids hold that distinction), distracted what little cavalry Pemberton had left around Vicksburg and Grierson advanced into a region almost devoid entirely of Confederate troops as Van Dorn was with Bragg initially, then was dead by the time the Vicksburg Campaign came into full swing.

Had Van Dorn not been murdered, two major possibilities exist for the path his immediate future could have followed: one, being returned to Pemberton, giving that officer both the mounted troops and the capable leadership for them that was so desperately lacking during the subsequent months; or two, being retained with Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, likely acceding to command of all of Bragg’s cavalry.

In examining these two possibilities in greater detail, in the first instance, there are too many intangibles to guess with any degree of certainty what may have transpired, but we can likely safely conjecture that Van Dorn would not have repeated his earlier success in causing Grant to abort a campaign against Vicksburg. He may however have proved enough of a nuisance to slow Grant down enough for Joe Johnston’s relief column to arrive and to have an actual effect on the Vicksburg operations. Or he may have simply wound up bottled up with the rest of Pemberton’s army in the Vicksburg fortifications, and captured with them. In that event, upon parole he likely would have been assigned to the Army of Tennessee.

In the second instance mentioned above, that of Van Dorn remaining with the Army of Tennessee, he almost certainly would have become Bragg’s cavalry chief, for he outranked both Wheeler and Forrest. Wheeler ostensibly held that role, but he had been a colonel in 1861 (as had Forrest) when Van Dorn had been a major general. (Wheeler retained the title of cavalry chief during the months that Van Dorn was with Bragg only on a technicality – Van Dorn was not permanently assigned to Bragg’s army; he was still technically part of Pemberton’s command.) Wheeler and Forrest have proven unable to work together, hence Bragg’s separation of the two. Although Forrest and Van Dorn also had their quarrel post-Brentwood, harmony may have been restored among the trio under Van Dorn.

The Army of Tennessee lacked a capable unifying commander for its mounted arm – Wheeler proved himself unable, and Forrest was both too junior and too explosive – until Wade Hampton’s arrival in the war’s last chapter. Earl Van Dorn may well have provided this leadership, and even if for some reason he did not get that role until after Bragg was replaced by Johnston for the Atlanta Campaign, someone with the ability to sniff out and destroy a vulnerable supply line, like Van Dorn was able to do, could have had a field day with William Sherman’s tenuous supply line along the Western & Atlantic back to Chattanooga, and the other lines beyond that city. Van Dorn and Forrest had demonstrated the effect that a two-pronged cavalry raid could have on a campaign once before, there is no reason to suggest they could not have repeated their Holly Springs-West Tennessee exploits against Sherman in 1864.

Van Dorn, by his earlier assignments as Departmental and Army commander, had gained insight that no other cavalryman had, except perhaps Forrest. For all his acclaim, Stuart had always been tethered to Lee. Somewhat like Albert Sidney Johnston, Earl Van Dorn remains one of the great “what if’s” of the Civil War; just enough is known of his career (regarding Van Dorn here I speak of his cavalry career) to suggest great potential.

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