Animal care during the Civil Was was vital but far from simple.
Horses, mules, and oxen were the main forms of transportation during the Civil War. In addition to carrying riders, these animals pulled supply wagons, ambulances, artillery pieces, and anything else that needed to be moved.
“Extraordinary care should be taken of the horses upon which everything depends,” General William T. Sherman was known to have said.
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Horses on the Battlefield
At the start of the war, the North had about 3.4 million horses; the Confederacy had about 1.7 million. 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 had better animals for building a cavalry.
Horses on the battlefield were important to soldiers for both attacking and escaping. Those horses that were trained for battle were taught to lie down and stay down on command. This lessened the chances of them being hit. The men also sometimes used them for cover though they tried not to position the horses in harm’s way.
If the time came when a regiment needed to retreat, horses were vital for helping to salvage what equipment and supplies they could.
Military Faced Many Challenges
The feeding, maintenance, and care of these animals required monumental work and forethought in maintaining supplies for them. Enormous amounts of food were required for feeding the animals, and time had to be set aside for things like repairing a thrown shoe or taking the animals to water if troops were stopped in a dry area.
Just as human casualties during the War were high, so, too, were animal fatalities. 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.
More than one million horses and mules died during the course of the war.
Veterinary Medicine In Its Infancy
In the mid-19th century, veterinary medicine was in its infancy. There were thought to be fifty veterinarians in the U.S. at the start of the Civil War. 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 horseshoes to whatever medical care they learned from working around animals,” says Walter Heiss, author of the book, Veterinary Service during the American Civil War.
In theory, the military would have welcomed the expertise of more veterinarians, in actual practice, the officers often didn’t want to know what the proper thing to do was. It often involved pulling an animal out of service, and that could be devastating for a regiment.
Generally, horses were simply ridden until they could go no farther.
Feeding the Animals
Today’s military would marvel at the thought of how much food was necessary to feed the horses and mules. Horses needed 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain each day.
Because very little of that could be carried with them, the troops were instructed to spend any “down” time, cutting grass, or locating wheat or oats that they could buy (or take). As General Sherman noted: “If soldiers were halted for a time, it provided more opportunity to gather food for the animals.”
The truth was that the armies frequently picked an area clean, to the point that the food just wasn’t there. 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.
At the start of any skirmish, horses were often targeted first. Both armies understood that picking off horses left the opposing cavalry mount-less. And if the pack animals were targets and could be taken out, this prevented opposing forces from moving artillery and supplies in retreat.
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.
New ammunition in the form of the minié ball was being used. These soft lead bullets were very damaging to the human body. They traveled with enough velocity that they easily penetrated the skin. Once in the body, they shattered bone and ripped through tissue.
To bring down a horse with a minié ball required more power. Horses offered a bigger target, but 5-7 shots were generally necessary to kill a horse. As the men soon saw, however, even one shot could still inflict serious harm.
“Both North and South built reserve camps for the horses behind their lines, and these served as infirmaries,” says Robert A. Burton, former 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.
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 infected animals needed to be destroyed as the disease was terminal. With the war ongoing, that was the best way to reduce exposure.
The Confederate Quartermaster at Lynchburg was concerned about the spread of glanders. He asked two physicians to investigate. John Jay Terrell and John R. Page established a stable where the horses could be separated—healthy from those that were ailing. As a result of their work, the two doctors saw that good ventilation, proper diet, and clean water made a difference in a horse’s ability to resist disease. These were advanced concepts for a time when little was fully understood about the spread of any type of illness.
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.
For other stories about the Civil War, see Elizabeth Thorn: Six Months Pregnant and Burying the Dead or The Little-Known Story of the Gettysburg Address.