Saturday, September 14, 2013

Veterinary care during the Civil War: Quacks and a few good men (part 2)

Edwin Forbes sketch of a "played-out mule" (Library of Congress)
Overworked. Underfed. Bad shoes. Unclean.

Those attributes of the typical Civil War soldier were shared by the horses and mules that hauled the supplies and were the quick mounts necessary to sustain a campaign.

Modern medicine was decades away and only a few schools trained veterinarians – and none of those professionals were in the U.S. Army when war broke out.

Horse and cattle “doctors” who cared for military animals generally had no formal training.

“He was almost like a used car salesman. There is an air they are quacks, and often they were,” says David Gerleman, an author and speaker on the topic of horses and the Civil War.

They did more harm than good, in most cases, Gerleman contends.

Solicitation to provide horse care**
The challenge of providing adequate care for horses and mules was enormous. While some infirmaries were set up by each side, hundreds of thousands of animals died of starvation, disease and exhaustion. An estimated 1.5 million animals died, a small fraction of that total perished on the battlefield.

Veterinarians used poultices, linaments and other remedies to stave the losses – but they had no antibiotics.

Animals often were beset by highly contagious Glanders, a disease that causes respiratory and skin lesions. It could spread quickly when horses shared water and feed troughs.

Glanders, which today is under control in the United States, was generally a death sentence.

Harsh conditions and weakened immune systems made the animals susceptible to a variety of ailments, says Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Ellard, an Atlanta veterinarian who has studied the care of horses during the War of Rebellion.

Lameness and worn hooves were particularly a problem for the South, because horseshoes were at such a premium. Horseshoes were essential for the well-being and performance of horses.

“No horse in the wild has to walk on asphalt or pull a heavy object,” says Ellard.

Farriers, who specialized in hoof care, were considered the primary caregivers for horses.

Mary-Elizabeth Ellard
“Much of what (horses) faced are foot problems,” says Ellard. “A competent farrier can do a lot with a simple knife to help that horse.”

The belief was that farriers “were veterinarians in disguise,” says Gerleman. That idea holds true through the Civil War. “The U.S. Army didn’t need (veterinarians) because there wasn’t much respect for them or they were not deemed necessary.”

Grooming of horses and mules was necessary, but often overlooked. Ellard likens the wearing of saddles and yokes to a person carrying a 50-pound backpack around the clock.

Mules and horses developed sores, and skin lesions were common.

The North had a better saddle – the McClellan – named for the general who traveled to Europe before the war and learned about how those units cared for horses. Veterinary surgeons in European armies were treated with respect, according to Gerleman.

The McClellan saddle was “designed for the comfort of the animal and not the rider,” says Ellard.

Confederate cavalry and other units typically used the Jenifer saddle style, but it would create sores when an animal lost weight or was overworked.

A rebel horseman prized a saddle taken from a captured or killed Union animal.

Of course, most horses and mules were used to pull wagons and artillery pieces and caissons. Those pulling cannons into battle were fortunate to endure 18 months of service.

“It was a life of exhaustion. It depended on the quality of your teamster. Some cared and some didn’t,” says Ellard. “If he was lucky, he survived the war.”

Eventually, Union cavalry had veterinary medicine chests.

Union farriers in Virginia (Library of Congress)
“You have to have some knowledge of these various drugs in order to make them effective,” says Gerleman, citing the case of a Pennsylvania unit that mixed some and unwittingly killed most of the treated horses.

Cavalry units brought on veterinary sergeants, but most federal monies went to pay for civilian veterinarians – such as they were.

One unit, the 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry, had the benefit of a surgeon who had professional veterinary schooling. George F. Parry kept diaries during his service.

“February 16 inspected the horses and classified according to orders from the War Department in four classes…. March 2 horses in bad condition from poor feed – musty corn. Suffering from diarrhea, colic and indigestion,” he wrote in one entry. 

Prescriptions included expectorants, salves, nerve stimulants, diuretics and sedatives.

Parry may have been the very first U.S.-trained veterinarian to enter the service of the United States.

He often wrote about starving horses and the lack of feed.

David Gerleman
What is now known as the American Veterinary Medical Association was founded in 1863, during the middle of the war.

In March of that year, Congress authorized for each cavalry regiment a veterinary surgeon with the increased rank of sergeant major and vastly increased pay of $75 per month.

But Gerleman argues “very little change came out of the war” in regard to military equine care. The impetus to make improvements went away for decades as the country settled into peacetime. It is not until 1916 that the Army creates a formal veterinary corps, with officers.

“It is a long process and often a sad one,” Gerleman tells the Picket.

(**McClure letter comes from the National Archives, Record Group 92, Records of the Quartermaster General, Entry 301, letters received by the secretary of war and transferred to the Quartermaster General, 1861-1862). 

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