Sabre versus Revolver: Mounted Combat in the American Civil War By Gervase Phillips On 1st April, 1865, in thick woodland near Maplesville, Alabama, two bodies of horsemen fought a short and bloody skirmish. The Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his immediate staff were outnumbered four to one by the Federal troopers who rode boldly at them, sabers drawn. Yet this hectic mêlée among the trees was dominated by the cracking reports of the Navy Colts carried by the Rebel troopers. Forrest suffered a glancing blow to the head from a saber cut, but shot his assailant from the saddle. Six of his entourage were also wounded, but, it was said, some thirty Union cavalrymen had been killed in the encounter, and a larger number still were wounded. The day belonged to the revolver. Indeed, for many civil war cavalrymen, the day of cold steel was altogether over. John S. Mosby recalled that ‘we had been furnished with sabers … but the only real use I ever heard of their being put to was to hold a piece of meat over a fire. I dragged one through the first year of war, but when I became commander I discarded it.’ The Canadian colonel George T. Denison, who talked at length with many veterans of the conflict, criticized ‘old-fashioned cavalry officers’ and urged ‘that cavalry intended for the battlefield’ should henceforth ‘rely greatly upon the revolver.’ It is, therefore, surprising to find another veteran trooper who expressed a very different opinion. Captain Frederick Whittaker, of the 6th New York Cavalry, was adamant that he ‘never remembered an instant in which the saber charge, resolutely pushed, failed to drive the pistols.’ Whittaker cannot simply be dismissed as a blimpish reactionary. A thorough survey of cavalry combat during the war confirms many instances of the triumph of saber over revolver. On 17th May 1863, in a skirmish at Bradyville Pike, Tennessee, two companies of Federal Tennessee cavalry under Major- General John Palmer charged 80 troopers of the 3rd Georgia Cavalry: ‘we came on them under a quick fire, but they broke when we got within 100 yards. We pursued them a mile, and have 18 prisoners … The enemy, after they reached the wood, rallied and fought well, but they had no sabers, and only inflicted a few slight wounds.’ After the battle of Winchester, 19th September 1864, Brigadier-General George Armstrong Custer recalled that ‘the enemy relied wholly upon the carbine and the pistol; my men preferred the saber. A short but costly struggle ensued, which resulted in the repulse of the enemy.’ For the historian of cavalry, this presents something of a puzzle. It is difficult to understand why, in one combat, the revolver should have so completely bested the saber, and yet, on another occasion, the saber proved the better weapon. The contest between the weapons was, of course, never quite that straightforward. Each encounter was shaped by a host of factors: the training and experience of the rival units; the condition of their mounts; the boldness of their leadership and the tactical circumstances in which they found themselves, from the sudden ambush of small patrols to the clash of whole brigades in set-piece engagements. A consideration of the characteristics of the rival weapons in combat leads to the conclusion that both weapons were still of considerable value; the trick was to know when to trust to fire, and when to trust to steel. There was, however, a particularly serious obstacle to the effective use of the saber during the war: the lack of training in its use. http://sipseystreetirregulars.blogspot.com/2010/07/of-civil-war-sabers-and-cavalry-tactics.html "Well, there ain't no GOOD way to charge an artillery battery." -- Nathan Bedford Forrest.