In the popular imagination, the Confederate States Army is often given credit for having the more effective cavalry force during the American Civil War. Confederate cavalry commanders such as Jeb Stuart and Nathan Bedford Forrest are often characterized as geniuses in the saddle, while Union cavalry commanders (with the exception of Sheridan) are almost never given much credit for their leadership and tactical abilities.
Confederate cavalry forces are remembered for their exploits, such as Stuart's ride around the Union Army, Hampton's Beefsteak Raid, and the many raids of Mosby and Forrest. The Union cavalry is often remembered for its failures, such as Dahlgren's raid in Virginia, Streight's raid in Alabama, and Stoneman's Georgia raid. Are these reputations deserved?
Several of the cavalry commanders on each side had been trained at West Point before the war. Unfortunately, the changing nature of warfare meant that the training they had received had only limited applicability to the tasks they were asked to complete. It is probably no accident that two of the Confederacy's most able cavalry commanders, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Wade Hampton, had no previous military training. Often, a commander's audacity might be a distinct advantage in one situation, but a decided disadvantage in another. Jeb Stuart is a prime example of this. His willingness to take risks was beneficial to the Confederate cause whenever the army was fighting on southern soil, but it caused great harm when the army advanced northward during the Gettysburg campaign.
Troopers in the Confederate cavalry, on average, were probably better suited for life in the cavalry than their northern counterparts. A higher proportion of the southern population was rural, and probably had greater experience with horses. In addition, most of the war was fought in the southern states, so southern troopers would tend to have a greater familiarity with the territory they were riding in. Both of these aspects would provide a great advantage to the Confederate cavalry, especially early in the war.
Another key difference between the two forces was organization. In the Confederate cavalry, each trooper owned his own horse, and brought it with him into the service. Each trooper entered the cavalry as an experienced rider who was familiar with his mount. In the Union cavalry, horses were issued by the army. The trooper would need more time for training with the horse he was issued. This gave the Confederate cavalry a very distinct advantage early in the war.
As the war dragged on, horses had to be replaced because of injury or wear. In the Union cavalry this was not a huge problem, as the army would simply issue as many new horses as were available. In the Confederate cavalry, the trooper had to take a leave of absence to go home and get a new horse. What had been an asset at the beginning of the war eventually became a liability. As the war progressed, the Union cavalry gained more and more parity with its Confederate counterpart. This trend was intensified once the Union cavalry was issued Spencer repeating rifles, which greatly increased their firepower.
There is no simple answer to the question of who had the more effective cavalry during the war. Early in the war, the south's rural characteristics and organizational style gave it a distinct advantage, but organizational efficiency and technological innovation began to pay off for the Union cavalry as the war went on.