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Horses and Mules-They Often Paid The Price

In the June 2015 issue of Civil War Times Magazine is an article by the noted historian James I. Robertson entitled A Dead Horse at Antietam wherein he discusses the roll and fate of the noble horse.

Robertson’s opening thought was about a photograph taken by Alexander Gardner after the battle of a dead stallion in an eerie pose. The animal was the beautiful and recognized mount of Col. Henry B. Strong of the 6th Louisiana Infantry. Several wrote in letters about the horse and its final pose including Union Brigadier Altheus Williams and Lieutenant Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Trivia junkie that I am I tried to determine the animal’s name but to no avail. If anyone knows the name I would appreciate your sending it to me as I am sure this noble stead did have a special name.

The article proceeds to detail numerous statistics regarding the roll of horse-power in the war. Some notable examples are the equine requirement for a single six-gun field battery is 72 horses for full efficiency. It should be noted that these horses had to be larger than cavalry mounts and were specified as such. And the standard of the day for infantry supply wagons was 12 wagons per 1000 men. Four horses pulled a wagon with 2800 pounds of supplies. A similar hitch of mules could pull a load of 4000 pounds over good roads. Few roads qualified as good. The supply train also carried oats and hay for the livestock and as in the case of Grant’s “Cracker Line” at Chattanooga they almost consumed so much they could not bring adequate supply to their destination.

At the time of the Pennsylvania Campaign into Gettysburg, Meade’s army used 4000 wagons and 1100 ambulances. Assuming the ambulance uses four animals that is an estimated total of 26,400 hay burners. Considering the number of animals that were killed or injured it is understandable how Meade had a problem with pursuit as Lee retreated. It also gives an interesting perspective on the 125 wagon train and 900 mules captured by JEB Stuart at Rockville, Maryland. These brand new wagons and teams plus the supplies they contained were a prize no Confederate could easily discount.

As the Civil War began in 1861 no one expected it would last as long as it did. No one ever thought that the 3.4 million horses in the North and the 1.7 million in the Confederacy would not be enough to support the war. The supply of mules was also considered plentiful. The war cost 1.5 million horses and mules their lives and a million more were returned home lame and broken down from over use. Some officers were relentless in their efforts and brutally abused the men and animals in their commands. General “Kill Cavalry” Kilpatrick was well known for pushing his command and horses with abandon. Morgan’s Raiders covered 1100 miles in July 1862 and while the cavalrymen could sleep in the saddle the horses had to keep moving. Stuart’s ride from Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania to join Lee at Gettysburg was a similarly taxing ride for the horses, so much so that Lee ordered Stuart out of action to rest his command prior to the cavalry action on 3 July. A detailed account of the condition of his horses might explain the outcome of the day’s action. Numerous other cavalry raids occurred with comparative equine punishment.

Gen. Sherman was aware of the need to care for his livestock on his “March to the Sea”. He required taking “every opportunity at a halt during a march should be taken advantage of to cut grass, wheat, or oats and extraordinary care be taken of the horses upon which everything depends”. Sherman’s previous army experience as a logistician served him well.

During the early period of the war the North suffered from poor cavalry stock due to a faulty procurement system rife with graft. General Joe Hooker corrected this during his brief period as Commanding General where he established an effective depot and procurement system. This began to have telling effect as the quality of Federal horseman improved as the quality of Southern horses began to decline.

Severe weather conditions affected battlefield performance as forage became scarce and cold and freezing weather followed by the following thaw and muddy conditions plagued the livestock. Thomas’ delay at Nashville was a classic example of such delay and almost cost him his command. McClellan complained of the condition of his horses causing President Lincoln to question what he had done to tire his animals. The Civil War was the last war where muscle power was so heavily depended upon. Later conflicts began the ever increasing use of mechanical devices for movement and mobility.

The fall of Vicksburg is often cited as the last obstacle restricting the free movement of the Mississippi to the sea. What is not often understood is that once the last stretch of the river was controlled by the Union movement of replacement horses and mules from Arkansas and Texas was ended. This shortage of horseflesh caused Lee eventually to reduce the number of his artillery batteries as the required replacement horses were not available.

Horses were deliberately slaughtered at times to keep them out of enemy hands. A lame or disabled horse was regularly killed rather than let it be recovered and returned to health by the enemy. Farriers were in great demand and were paid a higher rate because of the need to keep the stock shod. 2.3 million horse and mule shoes were required annually for every 60,000 animals. Again, having the supply and talent at the right place and time was a clear challenge and failure caused the stock to suffer and eventually break down.

Horses and mules require considerable roughage in their diet. Feeding only grain causes diseases like colic and other ailments. Grains are easier to transport and hay is so bulky that often the stock consumes more than they can carry. When there is a shortfall again the animals suffer. Water is also a necessity for man and animal and the logistics of water supply is complicated even for today’s army.

All this deals with the health and well being of the horses and mules. Combat conditions like the one involving Col. Strong’s horse led to large numbers of losses. The Army of the Potomac lost about 881 artillery horses during the three days of combat at Gettysburg. Rufus Ingals, the Army quartermaster eventually estimated he would need 5000 replacement horses for the cavalry and artillery. Such losses must have seemed daunting. Then there is the question of disposal of the carcasses. Burning was the only reasonable method and in some cases, such as after the Battle of Perryville, this horrible chore was left to the civilian population as the armies withdrew.

Maybe the next time you see a Civil War movie and are thrilled by the fire of the cannon and the brash charge of the cavalry a brief consideration of the sacrifice and dedication of the horses and mules, which cannot be economically portrayed, should be remembered…and applauded.

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