A conflict of many firsts, the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) was one of the earliest truly industrial wars. The application of improved and increasingly mechanized weaponry technologies to the battlefield, such as repeating rifles, breech-loading weapons, and the rapid fire Gatling gun, combined with outdated military strategy, contributed significantly to the war’s status as America’s most lethal. The Civil War, however, was also the first war of “industrialized animal power,” the greatest single event demanding the massive mobilization of animals and their ability to perform work in the nineteenth century. Dogs, oxen, the odd camel and eagle, and hundreds of thousands of horses and mules participated in the war as agents of work, war, and companionship. Part of the natural world, as well as one of the oldest military technologies, animals transformed the scope and speed of the war, powering the war’s supply lines, forms of attack, and army transportation. They provided solace and comfort to the soldiers closest to them, as well as became patriotic symbols of a war powered by animal service. Scholarly attention to the participation and impact of animals during the Civil War remains somewhat recent, but its diversity, from energy and technology histories to the cultural studies of the human bond with war animals (and their relics), helps reveal the multitude of ways animals were an active part of nineteenth century life. The Civil War, and its demand for animal power and comfort, required the recruitment of people and animals and their ability to work together on an unprecedented scale. In doing so, the war, despite all its industrial trappings, offers a glimpse into the ways in which animals have literally put in motion consequential historical undertakings, as well as provided sources of comfort and familiarity through which their humans imagine their own dreams, fears, and purposes.
- Gene C. Armistead, Horses and Mules in the Civil War: A Complete History with a Roster of More Than 700 War Horses (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014)
- Dane DiFebo, “Old Baldy: A Horse’s Tale,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 135, No. 4 (October 2011): 549-552
- Drew Gilpin Faust, “Equine Relics of the Civil War,” Southern Cultures 6 (Spring 2000): 22 – 49.
- Ann Norton Greene, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), particularly Chapter 4, “Civil War Horses.”
- Cate Lineberry, “The Dogs (and Bears, and Camels) of War” in The New York Times Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation, ed. Ted Widmer (New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2013): 152 – 155. This article is also available online through the New York Time’s Disunion portal.
- Charles G. Worman, Civil War Animal Heroes: Mascots, Pets and War Horses (Lynchburg, VA: Schroeder Publications, 2011).
“Behold a pale horse, and Hell followed with him”: The Horses and Mules of the Civil War
The Civil War was a war powered by equines. Rather than reduce the reliance on horses and mules, industrialization produced the methods and need for horsepower on a bigger scale than ever before. As historian Ann Norton Greene explains in her book Horses at Work, “In nineteenth-century America, horses occupied the niche of fractional power, as highly mobile, versatile prime movers complementing the role of the steam engine, which had greater power but was less versatile.” Although originating in nature, horses themselves are a form of early biotechnology, adapted for use by humans through the processes of domestication and selective breeding, which helped maximize equine strength or speed and turned horses into the “living machines” that powered Union and Confederate armies by the 1860s.
The acquisition, as well as care, of horses for the war required an enormous amount of organization and effort. Horses were one of the biggest expenditures of the war budget. Looking for serviceable horses, the Quartermaster Department wanted sound males (preferably geldings) between four and nine years old. Employed via war contracts, horse dealers and inspectors were famously corrupt or incompetent, enabled in part by the pressing demand for horses. But buying horses was just the start of the army’s investment; without training, feed, shoes, proper fitting tack, and regular maintenance, horses became spent and unusable for military service. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs had to frequently remind officers about the importance of horse maintenance: “Extraordinary care [should be] be taken of the horse, on which everything depends.”
As the biggest source of non-human labor, horses and mules were critical to the war effort in a variety of occupations. Civil War horses and mules primarily served in three sectors: cavalry, supply, and artillery. Lacking a strong cavalry tradition, the Union was outmatched in the first two years of the war by the Confederacy’s equestrian military units, which effectively and creatively mobilized their horses’ speed to scout and attack supply trains, aided by the element of surprise. Initially, Union cavalrymen were divided among infantry units; only in 1863, when the Cavalry Bureau was founded, did Union cavalry fight together as a distinct unit and improved their military effectiveness.
Although not iconic as the cavalry mounts, most military horses and mules pulled the wagons that constituted each army’s extensive supply trains. An army on the move required considerable wagon trains of food, bandages, and other supplied. Making up the supply trains, individual wagon (usually loaded with between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds) were pulled by teams of 4 horses or 6 mules, and followed the army from behind. Most of the army’s mules were put to work pulling wagons, as nineteenth century Americans believed mules were unsuitable as cavalry mounts or artillery draft. The fact that horses and mules pulled supply wagons always threatened to perpetually increase the number of wagons needed, as wagon equines “consumed forage in the process of moving forage.”Poor roads, wet weather, lack of food, and vulnerability to enemy raids often delayed supply trains critical to the army’s survival.
Artillery horses are the least generally known Civil War service equines. They required both strength and maneuverability, having to haul field guns into place while also needing to be able to reposition them during combat. Because horse power was crucial to the proper positioning of an army’s artillery fire, artillery horses were common targets of attack. As a result, the average artillery horse was expected to live only seven months.
Throughout the course of the war, horses and mules perished at rates as astonishing as the human death toll. Historians estimate 1.5 million horses and mules died during their wartime service. With an estimated 3 million equines participating in the war effort, a figure 36% greater than the number of soldiers populating the northern and southern armies, approximately 50% of the mules and horses drafted into the war did not survive it. Unfortunately, targeting the horses that pulled the enemy’s supply wagons and heavy firepower was of strategic significance. Accounts of these animals’ injury and death comprise some of the most common Civil War writings about animals. In the aftermath of Shiloh, John Cockerill (70th Ohio Infantry) recorded, “Here and there in the field, standing in the mud, were… poor wounded horses, their heads drooping, their eyes glassy and gummy, waiting for the slow coming of death.” Stories of horses “exploded” and beheaded by shells, as well as gruesome tales of brutally injured horses trying to flee the battlefield carnage vividly expressed the tragedy and destruction of the war.
Of those that survived their service, many horses suffered from old injuries and chronic lameness. The demands of the military necessity pushed horses and mules, as well as their humans, to the brink of their physical capacity. Poor nutrition, starvation, disease, and lack of general bodily and hoof care quickly wore out Union and Confederate army horse supplies. Soldiers often suffered alongside their mounts and through shared hardship forged strong bonds of affection with the horses closest to them. It was thus through the prism of human-animal relationships and the observation of shared suffering, facilitated by the necessities of war, that soldiers wrote and thought about their experiences. Writing after the death of a beloved horse, a Georgia officer mourned, “He had done no one any harm, but his faithful work for man was now to be rewarded with a grape shot from a cannon’s cruel math. His fate breathes a reproach and cries out against this inhuman war.” Simultaneously heroes and victims, the horses of the Civil War were of incredible importance to the military, psychological, and environmental impact of the conflict.
Although most individual Civil War equines quietly served the Confederate or Union armies, a few found fame and national acclaim through their military service. These famous horses were often the mounts of the war’s most famous generals and were often viewed as “extensions of their masters.” Although celebrity status made these horses some of the most well-known animals of war in American history, it also had its drawbacks. The famous human-animal relationships of the war brought generals’ horses the loving adoration of thousands of Americans, but also denied them the restful peace they deservingly earned by the very patriotic service that made them famous.
Among the most famous equestrian generals of the war was the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee. Although Lee owned and rode a number of horses during the war, his most famous and favorite mount was Traveller, a grey American Saddlebred – thoroughbred cross who survived the entire war relatively unscathed. Although a “nervous and spirited” four-year-old colt when Lee purchased him in 1862, Traveller and Lee developed “a perfect understanding” through their time together. A lucky rear “in reaction to violent artillery fire” saved both Traveller’s and General Lee’s life at Spotsylvania as “a cannon ball passed directly under the steed’s belly.” As Lee’s iconic mount, Traveller became increasingly famous after the war; even his hair was a sought after memento of the war. As President of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, Lee wrote to his daughter commenting, “The boys are plucking out his tail, and he is presenting the appearance of a plucked chicken.” Inquiring after his horse while he would travel, “How is Traveller? Tell him I miss him dreadfully,” Lee would ride his famous grey gelding for the rest of his life. Traveller outlived his master by less than a year, having to be put down after contracting tetanus (1871). Buried for only four years, Traveler was disinterred and rearticulated for exhibition, only returning to Washington College (now Washington and Lee) in 1907. Kept first in the university’s museum, then the chapel, Traveller’s skeleton was continually the subject of student pranks and graffiti scratches (the inscription of student initials on his bones was thought to provide good luck on exams) until he was reburied in 1971 near the Lee family crypt.
Union generals were not without their famous mounts as well. General Ulysses S. Grant, who personally loathed the cruel treatment of animals, rode and was depicted with several of his horses, including equines Cincinnati (the horse with whom Grant is most often associated), Jeff Davis, and Eqypt. When asked if he would trade the easy gaited pony Jeff Davis (frequently called Little Jeff) for the Confederacy’s president he reportedly replied, “I would exchange it for the rebel chief, but for nothing else under heaven.”
General George Meade’s horse Old Baldy lived a fascinating life and has continued in death to elicit Americans’ Civil War passions. During the Civil War, Old Baldy survived an amazing number of injuries (14 in total); “the horse was shot in the nose at First Bull Run, the leg at Second Bull Run, the neck at Antietam, the chest in his master’s triumph at Gettysburg, and the ribs a year later at Petersburg.” Purchased by General Meade in September 1861, Old Baldy carried his master through the majority of the Virginia campaign, even outliving him by a decade after the war (Meade died in 1872, Old Baldy in 1882). Immediately after his death, the General George Gordon Meade Post #1 had the horse’s head removed and stuffed. Old Baldy’s mounted head, today located at the Civil War Museum and Library in Philadelphia, remains the museum’s most popular exhibit.
Dogs of War
Equines were the Civil War’s largest non-human power source; as such, their archival presence is much larger compared to other animals that experienced and participated in the war. But soldiers forged relationships with animals beyond the bounds of the work of war. As loyal animals of comfort and utility, dogs were frequent and valued companions in Civil War camps and contributed significantly to military morale. Dogs often shared their masters’ rations and bedding, as well as long marches. Although most praised for their loyalty and companionship, dogs also acted as couriers during the war. It is said Confederate spy Emiline Pigott, for example, used her pet dog to ferry secret documents, concealed by a fake fur coat sewn around the canine.
Although technically against orders, soldiers acquired pets of all manner of species during the war. As explained in Richard Miller Devens’s Pictorial Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the War of the Rebellion:
Nearly every company, certainly every regiment, in the Army of the Potomac, had a pet of some kind or other. It mattered not whether the object of their affection was a dog, cat, possum, cow, or horse – of whatever name or species the brute was loved by all, and woe be to the outsider who dared to insult or injure one of these pets… Occasionally these pets became great heroes in their way, and then they became general favorites in the whole army.
Particularly heroic dogs gained a kind of celebrity status among the troops; a few were even commemorated in monument form along with their divisions after the war. Dog anecdotes were also popular newspaper material, with tales of animal heroics and devotion most enjoyed. Tales of canine loyalty from the war express common tropes of selfless sacrifice and are particularly revealing of the tender affection soldiers and their dogs expressed for one another. Civil War soldiers were right to prize their canine companions, as their bond often lasted into death. Writing to his aunt in August of 1862, a Georgia soldier recalled coming across the body of a dead Union solider and his dog: “They tried to coax her to leave her dead master but without avail. She actually seemed to weep, and when they had at one time succeeded in getting her to follow them for as much as ten steps, she ran back, whining, to the body and curled herself up again in his arms.”
Camels and Eagles and Bears, Oh My!: The Civil War’s More Unusual Animal Mascots
Horses and dogs were not the only beloved animals that accompanied men onto the battlefield and eased the traumas of war. Several Wisconsin units boasted unusual mascots: a raccoon among the men of the 12th Infantry, a badger kept by the 26th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, and a bear as part of the 12th Volunteers, brought as far as Missouri. But Wisconsin’s most famous animal mascot was the “war eagle” Old Abe, a bald eagle belonging to Company C, 8th Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers. Known as the “Yankee Buzzard” to the Confederate soldiers who tried to capture him, Old Abe “served” through 42 battles and skirmishes, often flying screeching into battle with his regiment. It is said that Confederate General Sterling Price wanted to capture the eagle so badly he would “rather have the bird than the whole brigade!” Retired in 1864, Old Abe lived in the Wisconsin state capitol building until his death in 1881.
Union soldiers were not the only men with unexpected mascots. Southerners found theirs in Old Douglas, a dromedary camel, who served along with Company B of the Confederacy’s 43rd Mississippi Infantry. But not all Civil War animal mascots enjoyed happy endings. Shot by a Union sharpshooter in the final days of the siege of Vicksburg, “he may have been eaten by starving Confederates.” Despite the love expressed for the Civil War’s animal mascots, the clear division between human and animal quickly appeared in times of hardship. Old Douglas was not the only animal whose final sacrifice kept men fed. As Captain Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island wrote of his pet sheep, Dick, who was initially taught tricks by the men of his regiment: “We took our pet sheep with us, but on reaching Washington, the field and staff officers found themselves without money, so we sacrificed our sentiment and sold poor Dick to a butcher for $5.00 and invested the proceeds of the sale in bread and Bologna sausage.”
With momentary tenderness giving way to the grim and often deadly realities of wartime service, such was the nature life for both man and animal during the Civil War.
Remembering the Civil War and its Animal Participants
The Civil War is doubtless one of the most pivotal human struggles in American history, although putting a war over the nature and scope of American freedom into motion fell mostly to animals. As a war of industrialized animal power, the conflict consumed more animals than people, producing a small cast of non-human heroes along the way. Americans are still drawn to the animals of the Civil War, seemingly “timeless, familiar in a way many other historical artifacts do not.” Civil War horses, mules, dogs, and other animals, their relics and ancestors, offer a “means of touching what [we wish to] see as an authentic past.” Despite Americans’ love for the Civil War, animals take us no closer to that past. What the centrality of animals to the war effort, as beings capable of both work and companionship, does offer is a window of understanding into the ways in which people and animals produced the nineteenth century world together and may make us mindful of the ways in which we have and continue to use animals to imagine and put into motion our hopes and desires.
One response to “Full Measure of Devotion”
Thank you for this informative and insightful article. It’s easy for modern Americans to underestimate the importance of animals in the Civil War, from the horses and mules who struggled and suffered, to the dogs, whose main contribution was moral support for the soldiers. Even though dogs have an official military role today in security and bomb-detection, the camaraderie and comfort that their presence provides is still an important benefit to military personnel. On the role of Civil War horses and the tragically short lives of those in artillery units, you might appreciate the story of Old Sam, a trolley horse who miraculously survived the war and returned home a celebrity, once again to pull the trolley: