During the Civil War, Some Heroes Had Hooves
If you have a pet, then you are well aware that Americans spend a great amount of money on their animals. In addition to food, most pets go to the veterinarian at least once a year; many are on daily medicines. Pets also have to be boarded while the family is away. These costs add up. A recent study done by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reveals that the average per-pet amount spent by Americans each year is about $1500; that’s probably a low figure in many communities.
With this in mind, Americans would be quite amazed to look back 150 years at the state of animal care during the Civil War.
In what was a simply fascinating visit to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland earlier this month, I was particularly struck by information cited at the museum about animal care during the war–something I had never thought of. Horses and mules were the lifeblood of the military, yet the very act of feeding and caring for these animals was a monumental task.
At the start of the war, the North had about 3.4 million horses; the Confederacy had about 1.7 million, and there were distinctions in their suitability for service. The horses in the North were primarily farm animals and were better suited for moving equipment; those in the South were bred for riding and racing, so the Confederacy was better prepared to build a cavalry.
The horses and mules were a vital part of all military operations, and as a result, more than one million horses and mules died during the course of the war. Like their human counterparts, battle wounds were only part of the problem. Lack of food, illness, and actual war injuries all contributed to the death toll of the animals.
Care was far from ideal. Veterinary medicine was in its infancy. There were thought to be fifty veterinarians in the U.S., and only six veterinarians were in the military.
“Most of the animal care was either performed by the soldiers themselves or by farriers who provided everything from horse shoes to whatever medical care they learned from working around animals,” says Walter Heiss, author of Veterinary Service during the American Civil War.
Feeding the Animals
Today’s military officers would marvel at the thought of having to provide 26 pounds of fuel per day to their “modes of transportation” but that was the reality of the 1860s. Horses needed 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain each day.
When instructing his troops. Major General William T. Sherman said: “Every opportunity at a halt during a march should be taken advantage of to cut grass, wheat, or oats and extraordinary care should be taken of the horses upon which everything depends.”
While staying in one location might have provided the soldiers with the time to gather food for the animals, the truth was that the armies frequently picked an area clean, and wagons that should have been traveling back and forth carrying additional provisions were frequently seized to be used for other purposes. By 1864, Union artillery horses in some locations were living on only five pounds of grain per day.
Something as simple as providing water for the animals also took planning. If there was no source of water nearby, the soldiers would take half the horses to a river or stream, leaving the other half available to help move the army in case of a surprise attack.
Horses on the battlefield were important to soldiers for both attacking and escaping. Those that were trained for battle were taught to lie down and stay down on command. This lessened the chances of them being hit but also created cover for the soldier.
New ammunition in the form of the minié ball was beginning to be used, and these bullets were much more damaging to the human body but still could not bring down a horse. It often took five to seven shots before a horse was killed, but any shot could inflict a serious, if not fatal, wound.
At the start of any skirmish, horses were often targeted first. Both sides understood that picking off horses left the opposing side with no way to move artillery and supplies. At Ream’s Station (Virginia) in August 1864, the Tenth Massachusetts Battery had positioned themselves behind a temporary barricade, but they left their thirty horses exposed. Within moments, only two of these horses were still standing.
“Both north and south built reserve camps behind their lines, and these served as infirmaries for the horses,” says Robert A. Burton, director of education at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Though the animals could be fed and become rested there, the dearth of veterinarians and the lack of medical knowledge of farriers and soldiers meant that there was not much that could do be done for horses with serious wounds.
Fatigue and Illness
Horses were frequently ridden until they could go no further; the reality was that without a mount, a courier or a cavalry member was useless.
In addition, a viral illness known as glanders spread through the horse population. Symptoms involved an increase in mucus and swelling of the glands. The disease was highly contagious, so once one horse was sick, it was a real problem for the army.
The Confederate Quartermaster at Lynchburg was concerned about the spread of glanders, and asked two physicians to investigate. John Jay Terrell and John R. Page established a stable where the horses could be quarantined, and as a result of their work, the two doctors saw that good ventilation, proper diet, and clean water made a difference in resistance to disease. Infected animals needed to be destroyed as the disease was terminal so that was the best way to reduce exposure. These were advanced concepts for a time when little was fully understood about the spread of any type of disease.
Tragedy for Both Man and Beast
In a discussion with Robert Burton at the museum, Burton cited a letter written by Massachusetts soldier Charles Francis Adams to his mother on May 12, 1863. It describes the magnitude of what was happening to the animals:
“The air of Virginia is literally burdened today with the stench of dead horses, federal and confederate. You pass them on every road and find them in every field, while from their carrions you can follow the march of every army that moves.”
While the care we lavish on our house pets today may be excessive, the “work horses” of 150 years ago deserved much better care than they got, and they should be remembered along with their human counterparts for their contributions to both sides of the War Between the States.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be reporting more from my trip visiting some of the sites along the Journey through Hallowed Ground.
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