Infantry vs. Cavalry

Thought to be a 19th century sketch for a lithograph of the Waxhaw battle. Source: Wikipedia
Throughout the War for American Independence, infantry reigned as the primary martial arm of the conflict. Their principle weapon was the smoothbore musket, followed with the bayonet. A musket had an effective range of approximately eighty yards – meaning a fired musket ball would typically land somewhere on a man sized target at eighty yards.[1]  A musket ball was slightly undersized so that during combat it would still easily fit down the barrel to facilitate quick loading, this was necessary because the barrels would quickly foul with black powder residue after multiple shots were fired. This meant the unpatched ball literally bounced and scraped its way down the barrel when fired: that last bounce would determine the ball’s course to target. However, this under sizing allowed for quick reloading, a crucial element in single shot musket warfare, and a trained infantryman could fire three to four rounds a minute. Opposing forces of infantry would generally trade volleys with one another until one side or the other gained an advantage through attrition, terrain, frontage, or some other turn of event.  Whichever side was at a disadvantage, would then typically withdraw, or suffer a bayonet charge. But, what would infantry do if charged by cavalry?The key to a cavalry charge was its momentum, derived through the speed of its horses. An average light dragoon horse weighed eight hundred pounds, and with trooper and kit aboard became a thousand pound missile that closed at over thirty miles an hour.  However, a company, or battalion, of muskets was a fearfully destructive engine. They were essentially mobile artillery batteries spitting out land borne broadsides of one ounce lead round balls, with a muzzle velocity of around 1,500 feet per second.[2]  When in proper range, any living thing on this planet would be cut down by the collective power of a formed infantry volley: which is why infantry fought in what we view today as stiff, mechanical formations.

Yet these “linear” styled tactics, best exploited the range, speed, and destructive power of the musket. When musket volleys were properly directed at charging cavalry they cut through the horses like a scythe, disrupted the discipline of the cavalry’s ranks, broke their momentum, and scattered the charging horses before they ever reached the infantry. However, if the volley was fired too soon, accuracy was lost and the volley had a feeble effect on the charging horses. If the volley was fired too late, it wouldn’t arrest the horses’ momentum and divert the charge. With the horses coming on at a hard gallop of thirty miles an hour or better there was not time to fire, reload and fire a second time.

At thirty three feet per second; a charging body of horses would cover 110 yards every ten seconds. If two volleys were to be fired by a single body of infantry, one must first determine where the second, closer volley was to be fired. The infantry needed to fire at a great enough distance to break the momentum of the charging horses before they closed, and still harness the collective power of the muskets: somewhere between fifty and one hundred yards. Fifty yards was optimal. At this range nearly all shots fired landed in the killing zone of a man sized target, and at fifty yards this gave enough distance to break up the horses’ momentum, disrupt and scatter the charging ranks, and wreck the momentum of the charge. In the twenty seconds it would take to reload and fire, the horses would have traveled 220 yards, add fifty yards and you get a distance 270 yards, well beyond a muskets’ capability for an effective first volley.

However, if enough muskets were available; the infantry could fire by section of battalions, companies, platoons or even ranks, and stagger their fires at a faster pace to fire a volley at 120 yards, then 100 yards, then eighty yards, and then sixty yards, whatever the infantry officers directed. Such a high rate of multiple volleys nearly guaranteed success.

This was no tactical secret back in the day, and the reason why cavalry rarely attacked prepared infantry in a frontal charge. Cavalry was far better served to hit the infantry when it was broken and retreating, could be taken in flank, or its focus was directed elsewhere.  Such was the case at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse; the British Foot Guards had just collapsed the left flank of General Greene’s third and final line and were in the act of engaging the 1st Maryland Infantry when they were struck from behind by William Washington’s light dragoons. The Foot Guards had entered open ground and were entirely fixated on the fire fight to their front when Washington’s men rode over their rear flank at a gallop. Washington had just witnessed the Foot Guards’ flank attack on Greene’s line, and then followed with one of his own: gambling that the Foot Guards would be distracted and focused elsewhere.  It worked, however, this was the exception and Washington’s charge is now recognized as one of the better mounted achievements of the war.

A more typical encounter occurred at New Rochelle, New York, British Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe’s, Queen’s Ranger Hussars were in hot pursuit of a combined raiding force of one hundred Continental infantrymen from General John Glover’s Brigade, and cavalry under Lt. Col. Anthony Walton White of the 4th Light Dragoons.[3] The infantry of White’s rear guard crossed a bridge spanning a creek and took positions behind a stone fence on the far side. Simcoe either didn’t see the infantry behind the wall, or misjudged their readiness and resolve, as he waved his men forward. When the British Hussars charged across the bridge they were cut down by the Continental muskets and fifteen were killed outright and a number more wounded.[4] The charge was shattered by the fire of the muskets on the funneling bridge, the horses’ momentum was wrecked, and the result was a clear victory for the infantry under Col. White.

Thought to be a 19th century sketch for a lithograph of the Waxhaw battle. Source: Wikipedia
Thought to be a 19th century sketch for a lithograph of the Waxhaw battle. The original is in the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

Perhaps the best example of what NOT TO DO when charged by cavalry was exhibited by Colonel Abraham Buford at the Waxhaws.  In May of 1780, Buford’s command of Virginia Continental Infantry was being pursued by Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s legion of infantry and cavalry, plus a mounted troop of British regulars, the 17th Light Dragoons. Tarleton called for the Continentals to surrender, but Buford refused and instead chose to deploy his four hundred infantrymen on open ground. Tarleton countered with a complex attack; he sent his troop of 17th light Dragoons up the middle and set flanking parties of his Legion cavalry and dragoons forward on either flank.[5] On command, the 17th attacked Buford’s waiting infantry. Most of the 17th likely doubted they would ever see another Christmas as they pulled swords, brought their spurs back and charged at Buford’s line of Continentals. But for some reason, Buford’s men held their fire until the 17th was but ten to twenty yards away before they unleashed their volley.[6] If Buford’s men had fired earlier they may have won the day, instead the result was a disaster.

At full charge a musket ball simply wouldn’t not stop a charging horse on a dime; the result was a wave of dying horses that came skidding, kicking and thrashing into the Continental line to blow it wide open.  Tarleton later wrote that he suffered thirty-one horses killed and wounded, Buford’s tardy volley likely killed every horse in the 17th’s front rank: but the momentum of the horses carried them into Buford’s line, destroyed their order, and cost Buford the victory.[7] The lesson here – fire BEFORE you see the whites of a horse’s eyes!

Five months later, Tarleton again rolled the dice and ordered a frontal charge against prepared infantry at the battle of Blackstock’s Farm.  This time he was facing various groups of South Carolina Militia under General Thomas Sumter who were deployed behind a long “fence not made with common rails but with small trees notched one on the other,”[8] and various buildings scattered about the farm. Tarleton’s attached infantry was soon pinned down by the combined fire, front and flank, from Sumter’s Militia. Tarleton ordered a charge to alleviate this pressure on his infantry:

Though the undertaking appeared hazardous … Tarleton determined to charge the enemy’s center with a column of dragoons… The attack was conducted with great celerity and was attended with immediate success.[9]

That was Tarleton’s version from his memoirs. The reality was far different as Sumter’s men opened fire on the charging dragoons and is best described by Colonel William Hill of the South Carolina Militia:

before they [Tarleton’s charging dragoons] got through the Lane their front both men and horses fell so fast that the way was nearly stopt up-a retreat was then ordered which was a pleasing sight for the Americans to behold-so many falling either by wounds or stumbling over the dead horses or men.[10]

Tarleton then withdrew his entire force and returned the next day with more support. Sumter’s men were long gone by that point and Tarleton claimed a victory.

Tarleton’s charge at Blackstock’s Farm was made in column and differed from the main charge at the Waxhaws made in the preferred and wider line frontage. But the key to either assault was the combined fire of the infantry. Buford fired late and the result was victory for the cavalry. Sumter’s men fired at the proper distance(s) and the result was a victory gained through the correct application of tactics.

[1] Authors own results with a .69 caliber Charleville musket .

[2] Hugh T. Harrington, Roundball Ballistics in the Revolutionary War; What Caused Rifle Shots to Go Over the Heads of the Enemy, Southern Campaign of the American Revolution, May 2006, ,p. 12.

[3] Cavalry of the American Revolution, Jim Piecuch, ed. Anthony Walton White, A Revolutionary Dragoon, Scott A. Miskimon, (Westholme Publishing, Yardley, Pennsylvania, 2012)  p 114.

[4] Piecuch, Cavalry, p. 114.

[5]  Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 (T. Cadell, London,) p 28-29., accessed 2/17/2014.

[6] Tarleton, History, p. 28-29.

[7] Tarleton, History, p 30.

[8] Colonel William Hill, Memoirs of the Revolution,  A. S. Salley, Jr. ed., Columbia SC: The Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1921 p 15. accessed 2/2/2014.

[9]  Tarleton, Campaigns,  p. 178

[10] Hill, Memoirs of the Revolution, p15 Bracketed words by author.

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  • There is nothing in this article regarding the “square” formation. I believe the British Army ( and other European armies, if to a lesser extent) often used this formation during the Napoleonic wars on the Peninsula. I assume the Continental army was aware of this formation. Did they never use this formation, and if so, why not? Based upon my understanding, the square was an extremely effective formation against cavalry especially when infantry was caught in open ground.

  • While you raise a good question about ‘squares’ they were most effective when deployed on level terrain,at supporting (i.e. interspersed) positions of fire and with at least two ranks of infantry per side. In answer to a previous question of mine, Bob Hoskins provided an answer that, I think, would answer yours: the terrain did not lend itself to large scale cavalry charges and, hence, the effective tactic of squares. I’d also add that a lack of manpower in general reduced the possibility of squares. Even if there were squares, those infantry facing down a cavalry charge, a fearsome event, would need a level of discipline and experience that was not in large supply among American militia who might be manning portions of a square.

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