Wilder's Brigade Mounted Infantry

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Mounted Infantry

For the War Between the States, Mounted Infantry was a relatively untried innovation born of necessity.  Mounted Infantry was certainly not a new idea.  Even prior to 1066 Anglo-Saxon commanders mounted infantry units for speed and mobility.  During the Battle of Hastings many of Harold's "Knights" (Huscarls and Thegns) rode to the battlefield only to dismount and join their brethren on the shield wall.  The use of this tactic quickly diminished as professional infantry realized the advantage of remaining mounted and being used as a heavy shock force against foot infantry and as a counter to other mounted knights.  However, starting with the 14th century with the longbow and even becoming more serious with the advent of gunpowder and guns, a general waning of the dominance of mounted troops began.  Soon these mounted forces (Cavalry) became involved in flanking movements and scouting and reconnaissance roles.  As the accuracy and the effectiveness of firearms increased, so decreased the role of mounted troops attacking massed infantry.  
Despite this, the United States saw the need for more heavily armed troops on horseback that would be more effective against infantry.  These troops were known as Dragoon's.  Dragoon's were usually armed with weapons of more effective range and fought much of the time dismounted.  However, at the onset of the war many of these units were disbanded or organized into Cavalry units.  
Although  the Confederate army did have specific regiments of mounted infantry, most of the Confederates in the west fought as mounted infantry.  Equipped in large part with long rifles, their style was to dismount and form a line of battle and fight as infantry.  Many a Federal infantry commander did not realize that they were up against Cavalry which were mainly despised by the infantry and not taken as an effective threat.  The Western Confederate cavalry dispelled this myth many a time.  So fearful of the threat, Federal commanders started to dispatch regular foot forces to chase down rebel cavalry.  Of course, by the time the infantry managed to come upon a Confederate Cavalry camp, all that was left was smoldering embers of dwindling campfires.  At this time in the war Federal Cavalry was spread thin and still had a reputation as being a largely ineffective and not around when you needed them (this soon would change).  Early in 1863 this crisis became a breaking point with Rosecrans.  This is evident in his messages of the time.

Murfreesboro, January 14, 1863
Major-General Halleck:
I must have cavalry or mounted infantry.  With mounted Infantry I can drive the rebel cavalry to the wall.   Not so now.  I must have some bullet-proof light-draught transports for the Cumberland.
W.S. Rosecrans,
Major-General

February 1st 1863
Major-General Halleck:
We must hurry down all the cavalry available and add to it by mounting a brigade of infantry for backing and expeditionary purposes.  If you will back me up, I am determined to command the country, instead of giving it up to the enemy.  
No economy can compare with that of furnishing revolving arms.
I am about to establish an elite battalion in each brigade, composed of the soldiers from each company, one commissioned and five non-commissioned officers from each regiment, and one field officer for the brigade, to be selected for superior and soldierly bearing in battle and on duty.
I promise them the best arms, and will mount them for rapid movement like flying artillery.
We must create military order.
W.S. Rosecrans,
Major-General

February 2nd, 1863
Major-General Halleck:
Why should the rebels command the country which, with its resources, belong to our army.
W.S. Rosecrans,
Major-General

February 2nd, 1863
Hon. E.M. Stanton:
I telegraphed the General-in-Chief that 2,000 carbines or revolving rifles were required to arm our cavalry.
He replied as though he thought it a complaint.
One rebel cavalryman takes on an average three of our infantry to watch our communications, while our progress is made slow and cautious, and we command the forage of the country only be sending large train guards.
It is of prime necessity, in every point of view, to master their cavalry.  I propose to do this, first, by so arming our cavalry as to give it its maximum strength.  Second, by having animals and saddles temporarily to mount infantry brigades for marches and enterprises.
W.S. Rosecrans,
Major-General

Dispatch of Rosecrans to Halleck:

March 29th, 1863
Genral Rosseau would undertake to raise 8,000 or 10,000 mounted infantry.  I recommend that he be charged with raising these men.

April 24, 1863
Hon. E.M. Stanton
Secretary of War:
Cavalry horses are indispensable to our success here.  We have always been without control of the country, except for a short distance beyond our infantry lines, and all the forage horses the country could furnish have thus far fallen into the hands of the enemy.
W.S. Rosecrans,
Major-General

Wilder's Brigade

The person pushing Rosecrans to mount infantry regiments was none other than the Colonel of the 17th Indiana infantry regiment, Colonel John T. Wilder.  Wilder was an engineer from Indiana who joined the army shortly after the war started.  Wilder was imaginative and forward thinking in his professional life and this transferred to his Army career as well.  The first experiment at mounting the brigade took place in October of 1862.  Already tired of chasing Morgan's Cavalry across the countryside, the brigade was placed in mule wagons.  Here the brigade nearly caught Morgan.  Only through the hesitation of the commander of the brigade at the time, Colonel Norton, were Morgan's men allowed to escape.  When the brigade was finally allowed to march into the rebel camp, they found saddles, guns, spurs, sabers, provisions, clothing and even pack horses ... but no rebels.  Although an interesting experiment, it was dropped very quickly as many men were being injured from the wagons.  The next attempt came from Colonel Wilder himself in January of 1863.  Colonel Wilder had been appointed to brigade command in December of 1862 due to reorganization of command by Rosecrans.  Probably inspired from the idea of the mule raid brigade in October of the previous year, Wilder decided on an offshoot of the plan.  Instead of having the men ride in the wagon's, Wilder decided that he would let some of the men try to ride the mules pulling the wagons.  The best description of this incident comes from an eyewitness to the event:

"On this very evening of January 1st, 1863, near night, when firing was heard north of us and the report came that Morgan was passing around our right flank , Col. Wilder, anxious to give chase, attempted to mount a lot of men on the team mules of the division.  The mules were brought out in great haste, each one shaking his tail as if he knew there was extra duty demanded.  Not more than one mule out of six had ever had a man on its back, and never wanted to have.  The order to mount was given, and the bold men and officers each leaped upon his mule; each mule gave a bray, brought his head between his fore feet as his heels flew high in the air, and each man also flew high into the air and flopped down in the mud.  The mules wiggled their tails, shook their heads, and became demure as Quakers.   The brave men picked themselves up out of the mud and each went for his mule again, and sprang upon their backs.  The mules turned a hand-spring as before, sending the men tumbling into the air.  Scarcely a man stuck except those that got on to the saddle mules.  Soon the mules seemed to understand the game and began to jump on each other's backs, some of them climbing on behind the men that bad stuck and knocking them off; some ran under the bellies of other mules and hoisted them from the ground, and in a minute they were as badly tangled as a den of snakes, braying piteously, shaking their tails and kicking up and down, right and left.  In vain those holding the bridles while others tried to mount shouted, "Who-o-oa!" with a chorus of mill dams, coffer dams, and all sorts of dams.  It was worse than a battery of grape and canister, and the mule line had to be abandoned, upon which  they untangled, shook their tails, and were soon at their respective wagons eating hay as solemnly as hypocrites.  The Seventy-Second had no part in this farce except to do the laughing.  The 17th did the swearing."*

Wilder's command was made up of the 17th, 72nd, and 75th Indiana Infantry Regiments, the 98th Illinois Infantry Regiment and the 18th Indiana Battery of Light Artillery.  On February 12th Rosecrans authorized Wilder to find horses for his brigade.  The army could not provide horses nor equipment, so Wilder had to find it on his own.  During this time the various regiments under Wilder's command were voting as to whether or not to go along with this scheme.  In many regiments  the vote was very close, but all regiments that voted to be mounted were grateful for their choice.  The 17th Indiana, Wilder's original Regiment, voted to be mounted almost immediately after the February 12th authorization.  The 72nd Indiana soon followed as did the 98th Illinois.  The 75th Indiana voted against mounting and was replaced by the 123rd Illinois.  The last regiment to be mounted was the 92nd Illinois.  The 92nd Illinois is a special case in the grand scheme of Wilder's brigade and will be explained later on.  Now that Wilder had his four Infantry regiments and the 18th Indiana Battery of Light Artillery, his next goal was to outfit his men.  
Although basically left to their own devices in finding horse and tack, the brigade was almost immediately issued cavalry uniforms.  After receiving these uniforms, the men cut the yellow piping from the pants and jackets.  Unless you understand the sentiment between infantry and cavalry, this seems like a most peculiar action.  Cavalry was much disliked by the infantry - and not just enemy cavalry either.  To the infantry men, the cavalry seemed to always be galloping in the opposite direction of the enemy.  They also seemed to disappear when a battle was to be fought.  Whether this was a deserved reputation or not, the Federal Infantry and Federal Cavalry had a certain amount of tension between them.  Wilder's men, being infantry, did not want to be mistaken for cavalry and took great pains to make the fact known that they were mounted infantry and not cavalry.  
As the brigade acquired horses from the countryside, the brigade was to see some of its first combat mounted.  Armed with their Springfields and sometimes having no saddles and tack made up from rope, belts, box slings, the brigade went into combat after being fully mounted by April 6th.

Wilder's men acquired a variety of mounts all throughout their campaigns.  In addition to horses, his men acquired mules and draft horses as replacements.  All sorts of gear was scoured from the countryside including civilian, homemade, outdated and captured equipment.

 

Mule equipped with Grimsley saddle, knapsack and civilian halter.

 

Arming the Brigade


There was one thing left to do to properly equip the brigade and that was to provide it with a superior firearm.  As can be seen from Rosecrans dispatches, he wanted his mounted forces to be equipped with a superior weapon.  Several weapons were considered by Wilder.  The first was the Colt Revolving Rifle.  This gun was built with a revolving cylinder concept like Colt's pistols.  the rifle was large, could be loaded with six shots and was the length of a normal army rifle.  Although slow to load, once loaded, the six shots could be delivered in a very short time.  However, the rifle, as with the pistol, was notorious for discharging multiple cylinders at once.  Many a soldier lost fingers and parts of his hand due to this.  The second gun considered was the Henry rifle. The Henry was a 16 shot metallic cartridge repeating rifle.  However, its size and shape made it unsuitable for the manual of arms.  The final gun to be considered was the Spencer Rifle.  Wilder had been to a demonstration given to officers by a man named Christopher Spencer.  Spencer had built a rifle that was a 7 shot metallic cartridge repeating rifle approximately 47 inches long.  It contained a tubular magazine in the butt stock that could hold the 7 rounds.  Once loaded all rounds could be fired in just under 15 seconds.  Considering that the Springfields could be fired about once every 20 seconds, this was a huge advantage.  The cartridges were also waterproof and the gun was very reliable and easy to keep in order.   After seeing the rifle and discussing it with his officers, Wilder decided to secure a bank loan through local banks in his hometown to buy every soldier in the brigade one of these rifles.  Each soldier would in turn sign a note promising to pay Wilder back for their rifle.  On May 15, much to the delight of the Brigade, their Spencer Rifles arrived. 

The Spencer Rifle was a 7-shot metallic cartridge repeating rifle.  The gun operated by working the trigger guard as a lever.  As the lever was brought forward, the old shell was ejected.  When the lever was brought back, a new shell was feed into the chamber.  Spencer ammunition was a lead bullet with a copper case.  The ammunition typically came in boxes of 42 shells.  Inside each box were six smaller cardboard boxes that contained 7 shells each.

 

     

Two views of the Spencer Rifle showing tubular follower, Spencer rounds, ammunition packets and cartridge box.  Note the knapsack blanket roll strap being used as a place to hook the cavalry sling and snap to carry the rifle on horseback.  Many guns would later have a ring placed on the side of the gun stock by regimental armorers to replace this.  

 

Training the Brigade

The next step for Wilder was to train his brigade.  Wilder's men had been trained under the infantry manual of arms.  The use of horses in formation and movements would require some cavalry drill.  However, Wilder's Brigade was unique being mounted infantry so this new branch required new methods.  The following quote describes the Brigade's method of drill:

"About this time the regiment began a system of instructions in the management of their horses in evolutions in squad, company and battalion drill, and of movements in line and skirmish drill, which perhaps had never been attempted by Federal troops before.  It is safe to say that in this drill we had learned many valuable lessons from the rebel John H. Morgan; for this was actually his system of drill that we adopted.  This system was afterwards modified and simplified a little, and adopted by all the cavalry service in the Army of the Cumberland, and is the basis of Gen. Upton's tactics now used by the United States Army, both infantry and cavalry." *

The Campaigns

Here will go the various campaigns of Wilder's fellows!

 

Although certainly the most glamorous, Wilder's Brigade was not the only Federal Mounted Infantry that existed throughout the war - in fact, it was not the only mounted infantry unit at the Battle of Chickamauga.
The following regiments were also mounted infantry regiments at Chickamauga:
39th Indiana
, Colonel Thomas J. Harrison.
28th Kentucky, Lieutenant Colonel J. Rowan Boone.

A number of examples of units can be found in the East, West and Trans-Mississippi theaters.  The following three units were mounted infantry that fought in the Red River campaign.
16th Indiana Mounted Infantry--Lt. Col. James H. Redfield
2nd Louisiana Mounted Infantry--Maj. Alfred Hodsdon
87th Illinois Mounted Infantry--Lt. Col. John M. Crebs

Read about Wilder's Brigade at the fateful battle of Chickamauga!
The Lightning Brigade Saves the Day!

 

Regimental History of the 17th Indiana

Regimental History of the 72nd Indiana

Regimental History of the 18th Indiana

Regimental History of the 123rd Illinois

Regimental History of the 98th Illinois

Regimental History of the 92nd Illinois

 
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