You may recall a particularly harrowing scene in “Gone With the Wind.” Rhett, Scarlett and the others make
a break for Tara from Atlanta, escaping a city thrown into chaos by the
imminent arrival of Yankees.
|Union Lt. Col. Orson Hart at Brandy Station (LOC)|
Everyone, it seems,
wants their horse and wagon. But Rhett uses his whip and fists to break
through the mob and out of the burning city.
The scene, while used
for dramatic effect, illustrates a key point: The Confederacy was desperately
short of horses.
Gen. Robert E. Lee,
relatively early in the conflict, asked for more horses, including Texas
The equine disadvantage
was clear before the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861.
|Dead mule at Gettysburg (LOC)|
David Gerleman, an
expert on horses in the Civil War, estimates Northern and loyal border states
had 4.2 million steeds, compared to 1.7 million for the Confederacy.
Horses and mules were,
in many ways, the muscle of the armies. They pulled artillery pieces, food
and other equipment. Messengers galloped through the lines and saber-swinging
cavalrymen occasionally clashed, such as the momentous Battle of Brandy Station
and the mule were the fossil fuel of that era,” says Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Ellard,
an Atlanta veterinarian and board member of the Georgia Battlefields
“A horse for military
service is as much a military supply as a barrel of gunpowder or a shotgun or
rifle,” said Union Quartermaster Montgomery C. Meigs, who worked tirelessly to
supply them to units.
|Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Ellard|
and mules were both expendable and loved by many of their riders and
Speaking of “Stonewall’ Jackson’s favorite, Henry Kyd
Douglas described Little Sorrel as "a remarkable little horse. Such
endurance I have never seen in horse flesh. We had no horse at Hd. Qrs. That
could match him. I never saw him show a sign of fatigue." Little Sorrel was captured from Union forces at Harpers Ferry, West Va.
Ellard says many soldiers felt deep grief when a horse
died or was captured. “There are touching, touching accounts from
people’s diaries saying you were the best horse I ever had.”
Lee, whose favorite horse was Traveller, wrote of the
mount’s endurance through “toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold, and the dangers
Museum of Civil War Medicine estimates about 1 million horses and mules died
during the war. Many other sources place it much higher, at about 1.5 million.
Their status also made
them primary targets, particularly horses pulling artillery. Still others were
killed instead of being allowed to fall in enemy hands.
Nathan Bedford Forrest had 29 horses shot from under him.
Most fell to
illness, starvation and exhaustion, says Ellard, who spoke this summer about
the plight of horses and mules to a military history class at Georgia Tech.
|Library of Congress|
percent died of their battle wounds.
was the disposal problem.
“Almost every account of a battlefield mentions the sight
and stench of rotting horses strewn across hills and roads. Already
overburdened with human casualties, both armies resorted to the practice of
burning the bodies of the noble animals that had sacrificed so much in this war,”
the NPS writes.
There is limited scholarship on the role of horses and veterinary care in the
Civil War, and few good books.
whose interest in horses stems from growing up in Iowa farm country, has
written articles and given talks, such as at the Illinois Horse Fair.
He spoke with
one publisher about perhaps expanding his college dissertation -- "Unchronicled Heroes: A Study of Union Cavalry Horses in the Eastern Theater -- Care, Treatment & Use, 1861-1865" -- into a book.
But Gerleman says
he was told, “'People are interested in battles and leaders, but not in
editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, has seen in his research at
the National Archives correspondence between President Abraham Lincoln and
others about horses.
inventor-businessman wanted to produce concentrated horse feed, in pellet form,
for the Union.
The dried sludge of ground oats and corn would be easier to
carry on a long campaign, he explained.
included another pitch: “Soldiers, if they run short of rations, can actually
cook it and eat it themselves,” Gerleman notes.
ordered the Army to give it a try, but a report came back declining the idea.
is active in animal welfare and sheltering issue, provided the Picket an
overview of the incredible demands on beasts of burden.
William T. Sherman, for example, had about 20,000 horses and mules for the
Atlanta Campaign. About 520 wagons were required just to feed them, let alone
troops and cavalrymen.
“were in a hopeless calculus of needs,” says Ellard, referring to the
requirements of hauling battlefield equipment and other teams to haul hay and
grain for the beasts.
horses, which the veterinarian likens to athletes, required perhaps 14 pounds
of hay and 12 pounds of grain. They usually received far less.
“Lee as early
as 1862 is telling President (Jefferson) Davis that ‘some days we get a pound
of corn per horse, sometimes more,’” according to Ellard.
has starving horses and mules. “These animals were incredibly physically
the Lincoln papers, Gerleman learned the Army of the Potomac fed 30,000 animals
“When an army
starts moving from a river or railroad depot the clock is always ticking. A lot
of wagon trains have to drag forage and hay to feed the animals to keep them
|Gen. Lee with his famous steed Traveller|
more common in the South. But it had a problem once war broke out. Many were
produced in the Midwest and border states -- and those supplies were soon cut
cultural differences, too.
the prosperous farmer or businessman did not ride a horse. He wanted to be in a
buggy and a horse pulling him,” says Ellard. Buggies and harnesses also reflected wealth and status.
In the South,
the upper class road expertly -- not to say riders in the North were not comfortable astride.
down here were worse,” Ellard says. “Both horse and rider must be adept at
handling rough terrain.”
peacetime and war, mules principally were used for pulling. They had better
endurance than a horse and required less food, but were not as fleet or known
for sheer pulling power. Plus, they generally were more skittish around
“If you have
to have quick power you are going to have a horse,” says Ellard. “To get the
cannons atop Kennesaw (Mountain), you use horses.”
wanted males, usually geldings.
|Gen. Ulysses Grant with Cincinnati|
were employing people to buy horses who did not know diddly squat about them,”
blind and pregnant horses were delivered.
only cavalrymen and officers rode horses.
like to use a horse that is 12 to 14 hands tall,” says Ellard, describing a
hand as four inches. “In the cavalry, you don’t want a really tall horse. You
don’t want to have to get up and down and up and down.”
providing enough horses to the front, when many died from poor care, was a huge
challenge to both sides.
Confederate records remain, but it is known there was a horse recruitment depot
in Lynchburg, Va., according to Gerleman.
remount depot in Maryland, just outside Washington, was a “huge complex” capable
of holding up to 30,000 horses.
Early in the
war, men provided their own horses, but only the Federal government was able
to supply new ones to the cavalry when one wore out or died.
“For a Southern cavalry trooper, if your horse
gets sick and dies, you are responsible for going out and replacing it," says Gerleman.
That could be
accomplished, ideally, by capturing one, or buying one, sometimes valued at a
steep $1,000 to $2,000, from a civilian.
|Alfred Waud sketch of a dead horse (LOC)|
In any case,
commanders and soldier alike generally considered animals to be expendable.
numerous accounts of animals being shot and sabered – either because they were
no longer of use or to keep them from the enemy.
In the first
couple years of the war, the Union might trade or turn loose a broken-down
animal. By 1863, policy called for them to be shot.
“It is better
to have them dead than helping the Confederate army keep functioning,”
according to Gerleman.
other officers sometimes chastised their men for mistreating the animals.
Meigs, Ellard says, “Officers would constantly say we would need more horses
but he would fuss back at them to take better care of what you have.”
horses and mules was rudimentary at best, and usually fell to unqualified
soldiers or teamsters. Some civilians portrayed themselves as knowledgeable about
“There is a
lot of quackery going on,” according to Ellard. “We do not have modern concepts
• Coming soon: The sorry
state of veterinary care during the Civil War