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Dead Horses at Fredericksburg, May 1863, Mathew Brady, National Archives
Dead Horses at Fredericksburg, May 1863, Mathew Brady, National Archives

By Douglas Coleman




We tend to think of the Civil War in human terms – we write the history books. But we did not fight alone. Hundreds of thousands of horses and mules moved the army wagons, ambulances and artillery. They made the cavalry mobile. Commanders commanded from horseback and messengers rode them on the battle fields. And these horses suffered horribly – an estimated 1.5 million died in the conflict, roughly two horses for every human casualty.

Horses on the battlefield faced the same bullets and shell bursts as the soldiers and suffered disproportionately for being larger targets who could not take cover. So, they stood stoically in their traces and died. Typically horses were burned rather than buried. One exception was the campsite on Shuter’s Hill here in Alexandria, where an incoming regiment dragged stinking carcasses into a pit to render the camp habitable again. Those dying on the roads were left by the wayside to rot. The crows and buzzards are probably still telling stories about the glory years.

Cavalry genius Nathan Bedford Forrest had 29 horses shot out from under him; having himself shot 30 Yankees, Forrest liked to say he came out of the war one Yankee ahead. Custer did not hesitate to kill the supply mules he captured at Appomattox Station. At Gettysburg, a Mississippi regiment overwhelmed a Union battery at the Trostle farm, and then prevented withdrawal of the guns by shooting about 100 of the battery’s horses.

Most horses perished of disease, short rations or simply being ridden to death, as explained by Captain Charles Adams of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.   Writing just before the Gettysburg campaign in 1863, his candor is compelling:

Potomac Creek, May 12, 1863

It is by no means a pleasant thought to reflect how little people at home know of the non-fighting details of the waste and suffering of war. We were in the field four weeks, and only once did I see the enemy, even at a distance. You read of Stoneman’s and Grierson’s cavalry raids, and of the dashing celerity of their movements and their long, rapid marches. Do you know how cavalry moves? It never goes out of walk, and four miles an hour is very rapid marching “killing to horses” as we always describe it. To cover forty miles is nearly fifteen hours march.

The suffering is trifling for the men and they are always well in the field in spite of wet and cold and heat, loss of sleep and sleeping on the ground. In the field we have no sickness; when we get into camp it begins to appear at once. But with the horses it is otherwise and you have no idea of their sufferings.

An officer of cavalry needs to be more horse-doctor than soldier, and no one who has not tried it can realize the discouragement to Company commanders in these long and continuous marches. You are a slave to your horses, you work like a dog yourself, and you exact the most extreme care from your Sergeants, and you see diseases creeping on you day by day and your horses breaking down under your eyes, and you have two resources, one to send them to the reserve camps at the rear and so strip yourself of your command, and the other to force them on until they drop and then run for luck that you will be able to steal horses to remount your men, and keep up the strength of your command. The last course is the one I adopt.

I do my best for my horses and am sorry for them; but all war is cruel and it is my business to bring every man I can into the presence of the enemy, and so make war short. So I have but one rule, a horse must go until he can’t be spurred any further, and then the rider must get another horse as soon as he can seize on one. To estimate the wear and tear on horseflesh you must bear in mind that, in the service in this country, a cavalry horse when loaded carries an average of 225 lbs. on his back. His saddle, when packed without a rider in it, weighs no less than fifty pounds.

The horse is, in active campaign, saddled on an average about fifteen hours out of the twenty four. His feed is nominally ten pounds of grain a day and, in reality, he averages about eight pounds. He has no hay and only such other feed as he can pick up during halts. The usual water he drinks is brook water, so muddy by the passage of the column as to be of the color of chocolate. Of course, sore backs are our greatest trouble. Backs soon get feverish under the saddle and the first day’s march swells them; after that, day by day the trouble grows. No care can stop it.

Every night after a march, no matter how late it may be, or tired or hungry I am, if permission is given to unsaddle, I examine all the horses’ backs myself and see that everything is done for them that can be done, and yet with every care the marching of the last four weeks disabled ten of my horses, and put ten more on the high road to disability, and this out of sixty — one horse in three. Imagine a horse with his withers swollen to three times the natural size, and with a volcanic, running sore pouring matter down each side, and you have a case with which every cavalry officer is daily called upon to deal, and you imagine a horse which has still to be ridden until he lays down in sheer suffering under the saddle. Then we seize the first horse we come to and put the dismounted man on his back.

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.

On this last raid, dying horses lined the road on which Stoneman’s divisions had passed, and we marched over a road made pestilent by the dead horses of the vanished rebels. Poor brutes! How it would astonish and terrify you and all others at home with your sleek, well-fed animals, to see the weak, gaunt, rough animals, with each rib visible and hipbones starting through the flesh, on which these “dashing cavalry raids” were executed. It would knock romance out of you.

So much for my cares as a horsemaster, and they are the cares of all. For, I can safely assure you, my horses are not the worst in the regiment, and I am reputed no unsuccessful chief groom. I put 70 horses in the field on the 13th of April, and not many other Captains in the service did as much.


Confederate horses fared a little better, at least in the cavalry. Confederate troopers were expected to provide their own mounts and replace them at their own expense within 30 days if they became unserviceable. The government would pay if they were killed in action.   Southern cavalry had better mounts and generally better riders than their opponents, accounting for its dominance early in the war. But, as Adams’ letter hints, the Yankees were beginning to get the hang of it by 1863. The Southern supply of premium horseflesh and elite horsemen was not inexhaustible. After Gettysburg, the Federal cavalry with more men, more horses and plenty of Spencer carbines was unstoppable.

A few horses became famous in the war.   Lee had Traveller, who is buried near him in Lexington. Jackson’s Little Sorrel is stuffed and displayed at VMI; his bones are buried at the feet of Jackson’s statue there. Grant had Jeff Davis, so named because he liberated the animal from Jefferson Davis’ plantation near Vicksburg. Sheridan’s Rienzi, renamed Winchester, carried him on his famous ride from Winchester to the front at Opequon.  Today, Rienzi is displayed at the Smithsonian. Paul Mellon commissioned a gaunt-ribbed statue to commemorate less famous comrades, displayed outside the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond.   As Veterans Day approaches, let us also remember all the patient, long-suffering beasts that have died serving us in our wars.

Civil War Horses, http://www.thomaslegion.net/americancivilwar/civilwarhorses.html; The Cavalry Horse: Keeping the Troops Mounted, http://www.scriptoriumnovum.com/c/p/horse.html

Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.

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