At the outset of the Civil War the United States had just five cavalry regiments, mainly scattered throughout the west, and initially there was little appetite for raising more. Much of the eastern United States was poor cavalry country, and in any case the war was expected to be short, so as it took many months to raise and fully train a cavalry regiment, there seemed no point in creating new ones, particularly as they were also very expensive. As it became apparent that the war would not be short, attitudes changed and the cavalry were a part of the rapid expansion of the Union Army, although for a long time the South were universally considered to have the better horsemen. 1863 and the Gettysburg campaign changed all that, when the US cavalry showed itself to be a match for that of the South.
The box title speaks of skirmishing, and that was a very large part of the role of the US cavalry. Of course they carried out the usual functions of reconnaissance and guarding flanks/generals/supply lines, and they were also widely used as couriers, but it was as pickets and patrols that they were most likely to see action, since by this date the old Napoleonic cavalry charge was largely obsolete thanks to the improved firepower available to infantry. Skirmishing could be mounted or on foot, though it was more common to dismount to fight, but this set gives us an array of both horsed and unhorsed poses.
When contact was made with the enemy it was very common to dismount to fight, making them more like mounted infantry, and the first seven poses here are on foot. Dismounted cavalry could rarely stand against infantry, but they could bring sufficient fire to at least delay an enemy move until their own infantry arrived. Here we find seven poses of men firing their weapons, moving or just crouching, and all of them are perfectly satisfactory. Having several crouching makes good sense, and the only pose which we thought a little odd was of the man firing his pistol while steadying his arm with his left hand. Most notable is what is lacking, for when dismounted, one man in four was charged with holding the four horses of the group while the rest went into action. Therefore it would have been very useful if such a figure, undramatic but necessary, had been included here.
The remaining poses are all mounted, and again we liked them all. By this stage cavalry charges with drawn sword were very rare (though they did happen), so we were pleased to see this set has been given the widest appeal by having no such poses (the Italeri set provides those). Instead we have men holding their pistol or carbine, and they could be either in action or simply on patrol - certainly they make sense for the ‘skirmishing’ label. There are two copies of each piece, which means you get two men with the guidon, two with bugle and two officers, making the same number of figures as the ordinary privates, which is not ideal. However you could make a passable lance with one of the guidons, which was a very rare weapon and so may never be modelled in our hobby.
Ignoring the short experiment with lances, there were three main cavalry weapons; the sabre, pistol and carbine. Although cavalrymen usually had a sabre it was rarely used, and no one here holds one. All have it, and that includes the dismounted men, which is in fact unusual as normally the sabre was detached and left with the saddle while the man went off to action (it was an encumbrance when on foot, and not much use as a weapon). However the sheathed sabres here all look reasonable. Pistols were much more useful both mounted and on foot, and many different models were used. Only a couple of poses here have one, which is fine as they were only short-range weapons so used in close quarter fighting rather than skirmishing, so again no problems. The carbine was the most important weapon. It had much better range than the pistol but could still be handled when in the saddle. A wide variety of different models were used by the US cavalry, most of which looked much like the examples in this set at this scale. However we can say with certainty that every man here is armed with the Spencer repeating carbine, because every man also has the Blakeslee Quickloader cartridge box on his left side. The Spencer was very popular and tens of thousands were used, but they were only introduced from 1863, and were never anything like universal, so it is a surprise to see every man here with one. This both limits the dates for the set (to the latter half of the War) and fails to reflect the wider range of firearms they carried, mostly notably including the Sharp carbine, which was slower but more reliable.
The men’s uniform also lacks some of the variety often actually seen in the field. Every man (apart from the officer) wears exactly the same thing, which is the short dress or shell jacket, trousers, knee-length boots and the forage cap. The shell jacket was popular and widely worn, but not by everyone, so some variety could have been introduced here. The long boots with flaps over the knees were never regulation issue, but were common private purchases by the men, so again authentic but it is wrong to suggest everyone had them. The forage cap was certainly very popular, but others such as the brimmed hat were also worn, particularly in the west. The officer too wears the shell jacket, and while he could easily have been given a frock coat the shell jacket too was widely worn when mounted. All the jackets are single-breasted and with a standing collar, so are well done. None of the mounted men wear gloves, although the man with the guidon has a pair hanging from his waist. The bugler has exactly the same clothing as the men, but there is a shallow sculpting of the extra braiding on the chest commonly associated with such musicians.
Kit includes a pistol holster on the right hip with the ammo pouch behind it, and the pouch for caps at the front. Another pouch holds the carbine ammunition, and most of the men have all these things, so no problem there. Exact locations for some of these pouches tended to vary, but we did wonder whether such men would have had the carbine pouch and the Blakeslee Quickloader cartridge box. Each man was issued a standard haversack, none of which are evident here, though it would appear they were often not worn in action so that is no problem. What is a problem is the canteen, which would either have been worn on the man or the horse, but is not on either here apart from the officer for some reason.
Speaking of the horses, we find 12 here – just enough for the mounted men, but no more. Perhaps this is why there is no man to hold the horses, but ideally the foot soldiers should have steeds patiently waiting to be called upon again. The six horse poses are of variable quality in terms of pose – some good, some poor – but for the most part are standing, walking or at best trotting, so well suited to the skirmishing role. The saddle looks very little like the McClellan saddle it should be (though the rider will hide this), and some of the blankets under the saddle look to be much too small, but the bridle is OK. Some of the animals have a pair of pistols, and a few a rolled coat or blanket across the back and pouches on the saddle for horse care tools. However this is much too meagre, and every animal should have a more complete set of kit, especially by this late stage in the war, including rolled overcoat over the pommel, rolled blanket over the cantle and smaller items such as a length of rope. The lack of kit is because the horses are taken from the Strelets set Union General Staff (2), so are not designed with the general cavalry in mind.
The sculpting of the horses leaves something to be desired, but the men are better, with fair detail and none of the exaggerated smaller items sometimes seen in earlier Strelets sets. However some elements, like the scabbards on the dismounted men, are really quite basic and not attractive, so a mixed bag. There is no flash and no unwanted plastic, but the fit of man on horse is too tight in some cases and will need work to make a convincing and enduring match.
The guidon is a good shape, but as it passes directly over the head of the bearer and is more or less flat there must be a fearsome side wind, especially if he is in motion. This set has both good and bad points, and what importance is attached to each will depend on each customer. If not a representative depiction of the whole US Cavalry, it is nevertheless a useful set of figures for a subject seldom covered before (only by IMEX and Italeri at time of writing). Any Civil War enthusiast will need plenty of dismounted cavalry, and with this set they finally have one that delivers a decent range of figures in very appropriate poses, so this is a genuinely useful expansion to the available Civil War range.
Note The final figure is of a soldier from the Streltsi of 17th century Russia. Though he is unrelated to the subject of this set, he is one of a series of 'bonus' figures which when combined will create a set of this unit for the Great Northern War. See Streltsi Bonus Figures feature for details.