Over the course of 3 days, between July 1 and July 3, 1863, the Battle at Gettysburg was fought. When it was over, around 3100 Union soldiers had been killed. Lee's Army lost approximately 4,000 soldiers. Less often commented upon is that between 3,000 and 5,000 horses and mules were killed in the engagement. It has been estimated that at least 1.5 million horses and mules were killed during the war, and perhaps as many as 3.5 million. For every soldier killed during the Civil War, almost 5 horses met a similar fate.
In an account of the events at Gettysbug, General Gibbons of the Union Army made this observation of the horses in Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing's 4th Artillery Brigade:
One thing which forcibly occurred to me was the perfect quiet with which the horses stood in their places. Even when a shell, striking in the midst of a team, would knock over one or two of them or hurl one struggling in its death agonies to the ground, the rest would make no effort to struggle or escape but would stand stolidly by as if saying to themselves, "It is fate, it is useless to try to avoid it."The Civil War could not have been fought as it was without all of those horses and mules. They were absolutely indispensable to both sides. And they paid dearly as a result of that indispensableness. For that matter, so, too, did many a farmer and noncombatant, whose horses were confiscated routinely over the course of the war by both Union and Confederate forces, leaving them without draft animals that they depended upon for their livelihood.
Join me, history lovers and horse lovers, for a look at an aspect of the Civil War that rarely gets much attention.
Before I begin, I wish for you all to follow this link to a google image. It is an iconic photo from the Civil War, taken near Sharpsburg, Maryland in 1862 after the battle at Antietam. In a book compiling his own letters from the Civil War, Union General Alpheus S. Williams described the scene thusly:
The number of dead horses was high. They lay, like the men, in all attitudes. One beautiful milk-white animal had died in so graceful a position that I wished for its photograph. Its legs were doubled under and its arched neck gracefully turned to one side, as if looking back to the ball-hole in its side. Until you got to it, it was hard to believe the horse was dead.http://deadconfederates.files.wordpress.com/...
One cannot overstate the vital importance of both horses and mules during the Civil War. The cavalries on both sides rode them. The materiel and supplies that each side depended upon was hauled by them. The artillery pieces and heavy guns could not be moved from battle to battle, or maneuvered during battle, without them. They carried the Generals and other high ranking officers into battle, and they transported the wounded soldiers away from battle to hospitals behind the lines. They were, truly, the backbone of the Army.
During the first year of the Civil War, the toll on horses was especially high. Neither side expected the conflict to last as long as it ultimately would, and the Union troops, especially, were filled with green recruits who were not very familiar with horses except as draft animals. The Confederate soldiers, on the other hand, were still much more likely to be adept riders, owing to the terrain and less developed infrastructure of the South. In many early battles, Union artillery units made tactical blunders by leaving their horses unprotected and exposed after positioning their cannon. Confederate sharpshooters quickly noticed their mistake, and would target the horses right out of the gate. After the skirmish, unless there were Union reinforcements close at hand, many pieces of artillery were simply abandoned due to lack of means to move them, and fell into Confederate hands.
Still, a horse isn't too terribly easy to kill with a single shot, unless it is at close range. Often, a horse could take up to five bullets before it would drop. In a letter to his brother back home, Union Lt. Haskell recounted the fate of his own horse, "Billy." He had been riding half asleep, which was common for battle weary cavalrymen, after a skirmish earlier in the day. The horse was plodding along at a slow pace, and could not be made to move any faster in spite of being spurred. Lt Haskell noted that the horse had perhaps taken a shot or two earlier in the day, but nothing to make it go lame. Coming upon an ambulance unit after dark, he borrowed a lantern to more thoroughly inspect his mount, and found that it had been shot in the chest and was bleeding profusely, with air escaping its lungs through the wound. In his letter he confesses
I begged his (Billy's) pardon mentally for my cruelty in spurring him, and should have done so in words if he could have understood me.Lt Haskell's horse died just moments later from its wounds, and he had no idea how long he had been riding him in such a state.
The horses that died from gunfire or artillery shells were the fortunate ones. Many, many more suffered a much more cruel death. Many were simply ridden to death, either due to the exigencies of battle or to poor judgement by cavalry leaders. Some were wore down over time, became sick or lame, and were either abandoned or shot. Horses were used to haul supplies without being shod, and their hooves would wear down to the quick until they could no longer walk. Towards the end of the war, when the pace became more frenetic, many horse which had been ridden hard and became ill, but weren't actually lame, were nonetheless shot and killed by rear guard troops simply because they didn't have time to wait for them to recuperate. It was deemed preferable to allowing a still serviceable horse to fall into enemy hands. And feeding them was always an issue.
The recommended feed ration for a horse was 14 lbs of hay and 12 lbs of grain. Multiply that by the hundreds of horses a large unit would typically have, and you can see how simply feeding them became a logistical challenge of its own. One Union General estimated that the forces under his command required over 800,000 lbs of feed each day to maintain their horses. A wagon could carry about one ton of feed, so the General needed 400 wagons just to transport a day's worth of feed for the horses.
Much of the fighting during the war was done on Southern soil, and as the war drug on feeding the horses became an increasingly difficult issue. Most of the horses belonging to the civilian population had already been confiscated by one side or the other. That left Southern farmers without farm animals to pull a plow, not to mention the fact that able bodied men were in short supply as well. As the farms languished, troops found it harder to even find grain or hay to steal from the local populace, so the horses went increasingly without, or with severely curtailed rations. As the horses grew more emaciated, the saddles no longer fit them properly, causing horrendous, oozing wounds to their backs.
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was an adept cavalry man, who knew the military value of the horse. He issued explicit directives to his commanders to tend to the feeding and watering of the horses in their units immediately whenever the opportunity to stop and rest presented itself. Still, on his 900 some mile march towards Atlanta, he lost fully one quarter of the horses he started off with to starvation. There are accounts by cavalrymen of horses becoming so hungry that they would eat the tails and manes of each other, and chew at the soldiers' uniforms.
When we think of the Civil War, we think of it being such a long and bloody conflict. Fiercely fought, face to face, under grueling circumstances. It was all that, and more. But the toll taken upon the horses and mules that were so key to the military forces of the day is not often considered.
Perhaps the most famous horse from the Civil War was Robert E. Lees grey mount, Traveller. He acquired the horse in 1861, for $200, and was greatly attached to it. Lee died in 1870, and Traveller walked, riderless, in the funeral parade with Lee's empty boots backwards in the stirrups. Traveller died just a year later. When one thinks of all of the miliatry campaigns that Lee and his horse Traveller lived through, and the fate so many other horses met in that war, it is almost ironic that Traveller's end came after the horse stepped on a nail and developed tetanus. Traveller had to be euthanized.
When Lee met with his adversary, Grant, to surrender at Appomattox CH, to hammer out the terms of surrender, it was not a completely unconditional surrender. While agreeing that the soldiers under his command would give up their weapons, Lee insisted upon their right to keep their horses if they had one. Grant agreed to that stipulation, understanding that if a former soldier was to return to the farm he had left behind, he'd need a horse to put the next crop in with.
Mon Oct 15, 2012 at 1:48 AM PT: For those who want to read more on the Civil War, or learn about historical sites in your area, I highly recommend the web site of the Civil War Trust: