Overland Would Buford Have Done Better Than Sheridan As Cavalry Commander In The Overland Campaign?

(Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor)

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
exactly this. Sheridan should have wiped the floor with Early but it took multiple battles and Sheridan was never eager to pursuit and finish the job which he should have done after Fishers Hill
He stripped the valley of resources close enough to the railroad to be of any use to the Confederacy. In the upper Valley he destroyed what he could not consume. Those were his orders. That was what the war had become after Atlanta fell to Sherman's army. We might not like that story, but Grant was committed to the strategy that the Confederates could starve if they wanted to continue a futile fight.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
The Cedar Creek assault was brilliantly conceived by Early and Gordon and perhaps Sheridan's absence from the field may have contributed to the initial Union rout. But there is no doubt that Sheridan's propaganda machine went into high gear and the poem "Sheridan's Ride" overshadowed in the public imagination and historical record any errors that he might have committed.
True, but the initial Union dispositions were vulnerable. And we know where the "buck stops".
He defeated Early and cleared the Valley, that's history. What he should'a, could'a or would'a done isn't.

I understand that around here we're like sports fans second guessing and rating players, and that's fun. But in the end Sheridan's accomplishments and their results stand; he was very important in the destruction of the rebellion in the east.
The "sports fan"/"second guessing" label is almost always a poor substitute for objective analysis. His army was unacceptably surprised and on its way to being routed at Cedar Creek. It doesn't require six advanced degrees in military tactics to conclude that shouldn't have happened - especially given his significant advantages against Early. In case it needs to be expressly stated, "nobody's perfect". For proof, all you need do is examine Phil's record as Grant's cavalry chief before being sent to the Valley.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I think Confederate agents were very well posted on Sheridan's movements and location most of the time in DC and the Valley. I conjecture that they knew he had gone to Washington to enjoy some personal time, or a meeting.
That makes sense. What makes less sense is his apparent - and demonstrably wrong - assumption that he could take some time off to go to D.C. because Early was finished.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
True, but the initial Union dispositions were vulnerable. And we know where the "buck stops".

The "sports fan"/"second guessing" label is almost always a poor substitute for objective analysis. His army was unacceptably surprised and on its way to being routed at Cedar Creek. It doesn't require six advanced degrees in military tactics to conclude that shouldn't have happened - especially given his significant advantages against Early. In case it needs to be expressly stated, "nobody's perfect". For proof, all you need do is examine Phil's record as Grant's cavalry chief before being sent to the Valley.
True enough. But events demonstrated that by October 1864 the Confederates could not win a battle, even when they had an enormous tactical advantage. And though Early's attack was well planned it ran into the basic physical problem that the battle does not end at 1:00 PM, it goes on until nightfall.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
True, but the initial Union dispositions were vulnerable. And we know where the "buck stops".

The "sports fan"/"second guessing" label is almost always a poor substitute for objective analysis. His army was unacceptably surprised and on its way to being routed at Cedar Creek. It doesn't require six advanced degrees in military tactics to conclude that shouldn't have happened - especially given his significant advantages against Early. In case it needs to be expressly stated, "nobody's perfect". For proof, all you need do is examine Phil's record as Grant's cavalry chief before being sent to the Valley.
How close did Early come to defeating the US army? He was up against probably the best corp in the Army of the Potomac and the superbly equipped cavalry brigades. Has his success been exaggerated?
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
How close did Early come to defeating the US army? He was up against probably the best corp in the Army of the Potomac and the superbly equipped cavalry brigades. Has his success been exaggerated?
I assume you mean at Cedar Creek. He came pretty close, routing the VIII Corps, then sending the XIX Corps into a retreat, and even pushing back elements of the VI Corps from the line they established. Had his troops not started their victory dance prematurely resulting in a halt called by Early, Sheridan's arrival may have been a moot point. Does that mean Early would ultimately win in the Valley? Not hardly - Sheridan had significant advantages. But it would have been a thorough tactical defeat.
 

67th Tigers

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 10, 2006
Perhaps the major problem with Sheridan is that he is the beau idéal of the theory espoused by the likes of Merritt that cavalry should be a completely independent arm whose job is to fight other cavalry in glorious charges. This is a popular theory, but runs counter to the observations. Whenever the Federal cavalry set off to independently fight the enemy cavalry, no real advantage was gained and usually the main army was blinded.

Yet, it is these glorious battles with their swirling sabre charges that get books. No-one wants to read a book about competent screening and piqueting.

Sheridan, like Pleasanton before him, exposed the hollowness of independent cavalry.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
I assume you mean at Cedar Creek. He came pretty close, routing the VIII Corps, then sending the XIX Corps into a retreat, and even pushing back elements of the VI Corps from the line they established. Had his troops not started their victory dance prematurely resulting in a halt called by Early, Sheridan's arrival may have been a moot point. Does that mean Early would ultimately win in the Valley? Not hardly - Sheridan had significant advantages. But it would have been a thorough tactical defeat.
That's the traditional story. However, after Warren's Vth Corp settled on the Weldon Railroad south or Petersberg, and the force assigned to drive it away could not accomplish that, the Confederates won almost no engagements. Starting about August 17, 1864, the US won at Weldon RR, at Jonesboro, Winchester III, Fisher Hill, Cedar Creek, Franklin, Nashville and on the second try at Fort Fisher. The Confederates were able to win some of the engagements around Richmond. However the offensive power of the Confederate armies was depleted and their successful sneak attacks ran into the physical limit of the soldiers to march at night and fight for a full day.
 

WScott

Private
Joined
May 6, 2021
Eventual Corps Commander Wade Hampton thought that the cavalry was to be more like mobile infantry than sword swinging horse riders. Many of his troopers were armed with long rifles to help stem an attack at longer range. The flamboyant and glorious cavalry charges of Jeb Stuart, George Custer or even Little Phil were true spectacles but the roll of cavalry eventually changed by by the end of the Civil War into WWI and beyond with those infernal machines, the tank.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
That's the traditional story. However, after Warren's Vth Corp settled on the Weldon Railroad south or Petersberg, and the force assigned to drive it away could not accomplish that, the Confederates won almost no engagements. Starting about August 17, 1864, the US won at Weldon RR, at Jonesboro, Winchester III, Fisher Hill, Cedar Creek, Franklin, Nashville and on the second try at Fort Fisher. The Confederates were able to win some of the engagements around Richmond. However the offensive power of the Confederate armies was depleted and their successful sneak attacks ran into the physical limit of the soldiers to march at night and fight for a full day.
I'm not sure how any of that relates to the real possibility of a tactical defeat at Cedar Creek. The decisive moment was the Confederate halt half-way through the fighting. To be clear, I'm referring only to that battle. And, as I stated, a tactical victory at Cedar Creek was unlikely to alter the ultimate outcome in the Valley. Maybe I'm missing your point as it relates to Cedar Creek.
 

AA484

Private
Joined
Jan 17, 2020
I'm not sure how any of that relates to the real possibility of a tactical defeat at Cedar Creek. The decisive moment was the Confederate halt half-way through the fighting. To be clear, I'm referring only to that battle. And, as I stated, a tactical victory at Cedar Creek was unlikely to alter the ultimate outcome in the Valley. Maybe I'm missing your point as it relates to Cedar Creek.
I'm not sure how much more could have been done by the Confederates on that day even if they had not halted. They were at the limits of their physical endurance and Wright had solidified his final line in a strong defensive position. The "fatal halt" presumably allowed by Early is something pushed by Gordon in his memoirs, perhaps to save face for the tired and hungry troops who had stopped to pillage the Union camps for food and supplies. This made Early a convenient scapegoat but evidence suggests that it was the troops themselves who caused the stall in action, but they could hardly be blamed considering what had been asked of them the previous 48 hours.

According to Crook, Sheridan admitted that his return had little to do with staving off the Confederates. To Sheridan's credit, however, his presence and leadership resulted in a crushing counterattack the following day. It could be confidently argued that had Sheridan not returned, Wright would have been able to stave off any additional Confederate assaults the next day, forcing them to retreat. With Sheridan's return, the Union forces were able to turn a potentially slight victory into a decisive one.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
I'm not sure how any of that relates to the real possibility of a tactical defeat at Cedar Creek. The decisive moment was the Confederate halt half-way through the fighting. To be clear, I'm referring only to that battle. And, as I stated, a tactical victory at Cedar Creek was unlikely to alter the ultimate outcome in the Valley. Maybe I'm missing your point as it relates to Cedar Creek.
I don't think the Confederates were capable of winning a battle by August 1864. Some of these battles are written up as close calls, but I don't think they were close calls. As for the political effect of Confederate victory at Cedar Creek, it would have been minimal. Fremont had withdrawn from the race and Sherman's army was safe in Georgia and furloughing soldiers back to the home states with tales of victory.
I think there is an awful lot of BS surrounding Jubal Early, who did not make into Washington, got his force whipped repeatedly in the Shenandoah Valley and ended up being simply over run by Sheridan's cavalry.
 

Eric Wittenberg

1st Lieutenant
Keeper of the Scales
Joined
Jun 2, 2013
Location
Columbus, OH
With Sheridan's return, the Union forces were able to turn a potentially slight victory into a decisive one.
I must respectfully disagree with the notion that Cedar Creek was a decisive victory.

A decisive victory is one that has a significant impact on the overall outcome of the war. Yes, Cedar Creek was a Union victory, but Early's army survived to fight another day. It was not the defeat at Cedar Creek that ultimately led to the withdrawal of the bulk of Early's command from the Valley but rather Robert E. Lee's decision that he needed those forces to defend Petersburg.

Jeff Wert characterized the 1864 Valley Campaign as a victorious campaign bereft of decision. He's precisely right about that.
 

AA484

Private
Joined
Jan 17, 2020
I must respectfully disagree with the notion that Cedar Creek was a decisive victory.

A decisive victory is one that has a significant impact on the overall outcome of the war. Yes, Cedar Creek was a Union victory, but Early's army survived to fight another day. It was not the defeat at Cedar Creek that ultimately led to the withdrawal of the bulk of Early's command from the Valley but rather Robert E. Lee's decision that he needed those forces to defend Petersburg.

Jeff Wert characterized the 1864 Valley Campaign as a victorious campaign bereft of decision. He's precisely right about that.
Maybe decisive wasn't the right word in an overall sense. I guess I meant it more along the lines of there being no debate about who the victor was.
 

wausaubob

Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
I must respectfully disagree with the notion that Cedar Creek was a decisive victory.

A decisive victory is one that has a significant impact on the overall outcome of the war. Yes, Cedar Creek was a Union victory, but Early's army survived to fight another day. It was not the defeat at Cedar Creek that ultimately led to the withdrawal of the bulk of Early's command from the Valley but rather Robert E. Lee's decision that he needed those forces to defend Petersburg.

Jeff Wert characterized the 1864 Valley Campaign as a victorious campaign bereft of decision. He's precisely right about that.
The Confederates were probably hoping for a victory that would embarrass the Lincoln administration. They may have been hoping to retain some part of the Valley's agricultural resources. It was probably too late for either objective.
Sheridan's force seems to have moved closer to Washington, as protecting the necessary logistical operation was a strain on men and livestock.
 

CaptSpook

Private
Joined
Apr 13, 2020
I just finished reading Gordon Rhea's book on the North Anna River engagements and he makes the point that, had the cavalry been present and under a competent commander, Grant would have almost certainly detected Lee's movement from Spotsylvania to the North Anna on May 21, exactly at a moment when an opportunity existed to strike Lee's left flank with two corps while the Confederate army was in motion.

Regarding Sheridan in the Valley, it certainly helped that he had the strength of personality to cut through all the red tape and establish unity of command. On the other hand, he made some serious mistakes at Third Winchester, which only the massive Union weight in numbers overcame.
I usually don't allow myself to get drawn into speculative arguments. However, after reading the various posts, I will say that the cavalry's role, like many aspects of warfare during this period, was changing from the old "mass cavalry charges" in the vainglorious style of Custer to a more adaptive multi-role including that of (1) a highly mobile and flexible strike force more in the style of Forrest and (2) as a means of gathering intelligence.

In the Overland Campaign, it was the latter of these two that was lacking, as you rightfully point out. After his experience at Gettysburg, I believe Buford would have assigned a greater part of his cavalry assets to reporting Confederate movements to Meade (or Grant).
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I don't think the Confederates were capable of winning a battle by August 1864. Some of these battles are written up as close calls, but I don't think they were close calls. As for the political effect of Confederate victory at Cedar Creek, it would have been minimal. Fremont had withdrawn from the race and Sherman's army was safe in Georgia and furloughing soldiers back to the home states with tales of victory.
I think there is an awful lot of BS surrounding Jubal Early, who did not make into Washington, got his force whipped repeatedly in the Shenandoah Valley and ended up being simply over run by Sheridan's cavalry.
We disagree on Cedar Creek, respectfully. As I've tried to make clear - and will again - I'm focused only on that battle, and not any of the others, not the political effects either way, not the ultimate outcome of the campaign, etc etc.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I'm not sure how much more could have been done by the Confederates on that day even if they had not halted. They were at the limits of their physical endurance and Wright had solidified his final line in a strong defensive position. The "fatal halt" presumably allowed by Early is something pushed by Gordon in his memoirs, perhaps to save face for the tired and hungry troops who had stopped to pillage the Union camps for food and supplies. This made Early a convenient scapegoat but evidence suggests that it was the troops themselves who caused the stall in action, but they could hardly be blamed considering what had been asked of them the previous 48 hours.

According to Crook, Sheridan admitted that his return had little to do with staving off the Confederates. To Sheridan's credit, however, his presence and leadership resulted in a crushing counterattack the following day. It could be confidently argued that had Sheridan not returned, Wright would have been able to stave off any additional Confederate assaults the next day, forcing them to retreat. With Sheridan's return, the Union forces were able to turn a potentially slight victory into a decisive one.
To be clear, I'm not relying on Gordon's opinion. I classify Gordon with Chamberlain and some others as unreliable post-war manipulators of the facts. I'm relying solely on the undisputed progress of the battle to that point and the timing of the halt. To that point, it was a clear tactical defeat. The rest involves a good deal of speculation - in either direction.
 
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