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Obsolete weapons...the cavalry lance

Discussion in 'Civil War Weapons and Ammunition' started by Red Harvest, May 26, 2012.

  1. Red Harvest

    Red Harvest 2nd Lieutenant Trivia Game Winner

    Apr 10, 2012
    I started to post on this topic recently, but another distinguished poster sort of beat me to it in the sabre vs. revolver thread... Anyway, I probably won't have much time to respond, but this is what I've gathered in some brief study of the subject. I admit to not being well versed in Napoleonic warfare, but hope that I won't mislead anyone with this summary.

    The lance was an important facet of mounted warfare for millennia, but improving firearms made it increasingly obsolete and anachronistic on the pre-Civil War battlefield. Still, a few regiments and/or companies employed these ancient weapons early in the war. Two of the better-known examples are the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (“Rush’s Lancers”) and some companies of the 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers.

    The cavalry lance used during the Civil War consisted of a 9 ft lance tipped with an 11-12 inch triple blade and a red pennant. The lance, like the saber, was a shock combat weapon. Period cavalry manuals still illustrated parrying the lance with saber. While superior in the shock of the charge (beware, NBF), the lance was far less effective than the saber in the resulting close combat for which it was distinctly unsuitable. Against infantry the lance had one key advantage: reach. A saber could be successfully countered by bayonet-equipped infantry, while the lance could strike down an infantryman without coming within range of the bayonet. (This happened on occasion in Napoleonic warfare.) Unfortunately, the lance also had the disadvantage of being cumbersome, particularly in wooded terrain. It was really only suitable for open field combat.

    Standard Napoleonic infantry tactics for countering a cavalry charge utilized a hollow square creating a fortress of bayonets. From their square the infantry could hold the cavalry at bay while firing upon them periodically. However, the formation created vulnerabilities since any adjacent enemy infantry or artillery could punish the square severely with relative impunity.

    Occasionally Napoleonic lancers could break up a square when the infantry were unable to fire (during rain against flintlocks for example.) They could pick at the square until it was penetrated and disrupted. However, the adoption of percussion caps made such opportunities highly unlikely by the time of the Civil War.

    While there was little interest in the lance by Union or Confederate cavalry in general, Mexican War experiences with Mexican lancers had fostered respect for the weapon. This seems to have been the case with 5th Texas’ lancer companies. There was also the matter of arms shortages early in the war--pistols and sabers were in short supply. The supply issue and a personal affinity for Napoleonic lancers led General George McClellan to suggest the 6th Pennsylvania be equipped with lances in Nov. 1861. They would retain these weapons until they were re-armed with sharps carbines in May of 1863 and continue in service all the way to Five Forks.

    The lancers of the 5th Texas suffered the misfortune of a textbook infantry counter at the Battle of Valverde, New Mexico on Feb. 21, 1862. Here Captain Willis Lang’s company of troopers attempted a cavalry charge against an equal sized infantry command of Colorado volunteers under Captain Theodore Dodd. The other company of lancers did not participate in the charge—the order may have been rescinded, but not in time. The Coloradans formed an infantry square and delivered a volley of buck and ball into the cavalry, then a second volley before the lancers could close the range. The mounted men were stopped cold with a disproportionate number of killed to wounded (12 to 8) and many mounts lost. Dodd’s men suffered no casualties. Following the battle, the Texans piled and burned their lances.

    Note that I have some questions about the account of the lance charge and the hollow square. Too few volleys were reported for the casualties sustained. The primary problem is that even with buck and ball, the hit rate, particularly since many horses went down, seems improbably high if the infantry were in hollow square the whole time. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding/misjudging how the square was employed/oriented. By some rough calcs the lancer formation would be several times the width of the small square allowing 3 sides to fire at close range with effect. Neither side disputes the futility of the charge, or how devastating the response was, so the tactical considerations are largely academic.

    The 6th Pennsylvania was more fortunate. Eric Wittenberg has written the definitive history of the regiment, which I do not have. But his website provides some of the background, including a summary of the regimental history as recorded by Samuel P. Bates.

    Other than some skirmishing/picketing the 6th did not engage in heavy combat while using the lance. A dozen men per company were armed with carbines for picket duty. A squadron chased off some opposing pickets at Hanover Courthouse with a lance charge and the regiment captured fleeing troops a few days later. However, in many cases they were used to threaten a flank or in reserve--taking casualties, but not inflicting many. On the Civil War battlefield there were few opportunities to close the range and charge with the lance. It seems a waste of good men and horseflesh to use a weapon so limited in scope.

    There were other attempts at forming lancers. A primarily Canadian regiment from Michigan was planned, but it collapsed for reason of international relations.

    Primary sources for the topic were Eric Wittenberg’s website about Rush’s Lancers, John Taylor’s Bloody Valverde, and the 1862 Cavalry Tactics Manual.

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  3. prroh

    prroh Captain

    Oct 1, 2009
    There were lancers at the start of the First World War in 1914. The machine gun made the lance obsolete.
  4. tmh10

    tmh10 Major

    Mar 2, 2012
    Great post Red Harvest. You answered a lot of questions I had on the subject. Thanks Ted.
  5. Bob Owen

    Bob Owen Captain Trivia Game Winner

    Jun 24, 2011
    Middle Tennessee
    They went the same way as the Georgia pike.
  6. Jobe Holiday

    Jobe Holiday First Sergeant

    Mar 1, 2010
    The Perpetually Frozen North
    An advanced arms collector friend of mine has an original Rush's Lance, complete with the red pennant and the original owners name carved into the shaft. The carving, on two sides of the shaft, is "R. Ash". The short story is that Robert Ash was supposedly carrying this lance at the Burnside Bridge when he was shot across the face. He subsequently went blind in both eyes as a result of his wound, and is buried in an unmarked plot in a private cemetary in Gettysburg. That lance is a terrific piece of ACW history!

    Red Harvest and FourLeafClover like this.
  7. keith herring

    keith herring Private

    Feb 13, 2012
    I think one of the last cavalry charges with the lance occured during the German invasion of Poland. The cavalry regament may have been brave and proud but the mg-34 with 88mm field guns relagated the lance to history.
  8. keith herring

    keith herring Private

    Feb 13, 2012
    Nope, re-read it. The Polish cavalry actually fought as mobile reserves with modern weapons covering the withdrawl of their infantry. Sorry.
  9. Carronade

    Carronade 2nd Lieutenant

    Aug 4, 2011
    Strange as it seems, there was a significant expansion of lancer units in European armies in the late 1800s, just when you'd think improving firearms were making them completely obsolete.
  10. reading48

    reading48 Captain

    Apr 27, 2011
    N.E. Pa. 100 miles N. of gettysburg
    Rush's Lancers 6th Penna at Gettysburg..Deemed obsolete in Northern Va. woods, Lances were discarded By July 1863.

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