The story of the Army of the Potomac’s Union cavalry in the Civil War is fascinating. It began the war as a poorly led force that was frequently bested by their Southern counterparts in the Army of Northern Virginia.
However, that changed as the war progressed and better leadership rose to the top of the command chain. Adolfo Ovies in The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac chronicles this transition. This book is the first in a three book series on Custer and Merritt.
Ovies does not describe every Union cavalry action, but focuses on the ones that Custer and Merritt were involved in. Ovies succinctly describes the conflicting thoughts of those in the cavalry on its use, including Custer and Merritt. Some believed in the saber and shock charges (Custer), but others believed more in the dragoon concept, fighting dismounted (Merritt). Ovies chronicles how the differences in philosophy between Custer and Merritt slowly turned the men from acquaintance to bitter rivals.
Ovies scholarship is excellent. He uses multiple primary sources, including multiple manuscripts and official government documents. He expertly weaves these sources into a compelling story that shows the changing nature of the men’s relationship. It always amazes me how quickly the two men rose in the ranks. They started the war as lieutenants and were brigadier generals by Gettysburg – Ovies touches on the disgruntlement of fellow officers by these meteoric rises.
Ovies’ writing and analysis is generally exceptional with a few awkward places. He thoroughly explains the actions of Custer and Merritt in the various battles. However, his analysis at times is confusing. For example, when describing the starting time of the battle at the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg, I was a little confused on when he thought the battle started – there is much debate among scholars when the fighting began.
Overall, this is an excellent examination of two of the Union Army’s great cavalry leaders. I look forward to the second book in the series.