Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Horses and mules: Valuable weapons of Civil War were considered expendable (part one)

Union Lt. Col. Orson Hart at Brandy Station (LOC)
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.

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 mustangs.

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 in Virginia.

“The horse 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 Association.

“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
Horses and mules were both expendable and loved by many of their riders and caretakers.

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 and sufferings.”

Sufferings indeed.

The National 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. 

The South’s 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
Only 10 percent died of their battle wounds.

According to the National Park Service, 80 out of one battery’s 88 horses died in a single battle.

Then there 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.

Gerleman, 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 horses.’”

Gerleman, assistant 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.

One 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.

David Gerleman
The inventor included another pitch: “Soldiers, if they run short of rations, can actually cook it and eat it themselves,” Gerleman notes.

Lincoln ordered the Army to give it a try, but a report came back declining the idea.

Ellard, who is active in animal welfare and sheltering issue, provided the Picket an overview of the incredible demands on beasts of burden.

Union Gen. 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.

The animals “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.

Military 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.

Even Sherman has starving horses and mules. “These animals were incredibly physically taxed.”

From reading the Lincoln papers, Gerleman learned the Army of the Potomac fed 30,000 animals daily.

“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 moving.”

Gen. Lee with his famous steed Traveller
Mules were 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 off.

There were cultural differences, too.

“Up north, 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.

“The roads down here were worse,” Ellard says. “Both horse and rider must be adept at handling rough terrain.”

Both in 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 gunfire.

“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.”

Both armies wanted males, usually geldings.

Gen. Ulysses Grant with Cincinnati
“The armies were employing people to buy horses who did not know diddly squat about them,” says Ellard.

Sometimes, blind and pregnant horses were delivered.

Generally, only cavalrymen and officers rode horses.

“Both armies 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.”

Of course, providing enough horses to the front, when many died from poor care, was a huge challenge to both sides.

Not many Confederate records remain, but it is known there was a horse recruitment depot in Lynchburg, Va., according to Gerleman.

A Union 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.

There are 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.

Generals and other officers sometimes chastised their men for mistreating the animals.

Speaking of 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.”

Care of horses and mules was rudimentary at best, and usually fell to unqualified soldiers or teamsters. Some civilians portrayed themselves as knowledgeable about equine care.

“There is a lot of quackery going on,” according to Ellard. “We do not have modern concepts of medicine.” 

• Coming soon: The sorry state of veterinary care during the Civil War

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