Early in my career as a historian, I spent hours looking through picture files at the National Archives, Library of Congress, Virginia Historical Society and Museum of the Confederacy. One day I came across a photograph of a dead horse, alone on a battlefield. Visual images sometimes pack more punch than the printed word—and this one hit me hard. I freely confess I’ve had a lifelong love affair with four-legged animals, and the piteous spectacle of that horse provoked a number of disturbing thoughts: of innocent creatures caught in the crossfire of human destruction, how death in battle can be slow and cruel, whether the dying horse had been looking for aid that never came, if anyone had paused to mourn its passing, and what kind of burial—if any—it received. A half-century later, that disturbing image remains with me. Whenever Civil War history comes to mind, my first mental image is of that horse seemingly staring at me.
The basic facts behind the photograph are well documented. The horse’s owner was Henry B. Strong. Born in Scotland around 1821, Strong immigrated to America and was working as a clerk in New Orleans when the Civil War began. On June 5, 1861, he entered Confederate service as a captain in the 6th Louisiana Infantry. By the summer of 1862, he was the colonel of the regiment. Though not known as the most inspiring of officers, Strong was easily recognizable by his cream-colored stallion.
Wednesday, September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest day in American history. Two powerful armies fought viciously along the banks of Antietam Creek in western Maryland. When the 13 hours of carnage began, the 6th Louisiana and sister units of Brig. Gen. Harry T. Hays’ brigade were posted behind the main line to the east of the Hagerstown Pike. Heavy waves of Federals soon fought their way through a cornfield on the Confederate left flank. Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson ordered his second line forward to meet the threat.
When the Louisiana Brigade charged across David R. Miller’s farm and collided with Brig. Gen. George L. Hartsuff ’s mostly Massachusetts brigade, Hartsuff fell seriously wounded. Most of his 600 casualties that day came in the morning fight. However, a member of the 13th Massachusetts Infantry boasted to his father, “I fired between forty and fifty rounds and had a good mark to aim at every time. I did not waste my ammunition, I can assure you.”
Henry Strong was killed in one of the first exchanges of gunfire. Mortally wounded by the same blast, his creamcolored mount sank to the ground on all fours and turned his head as it fell, as if falling asleep. The Confederates were forced back. A Louisiana comrade who sought to recover valuables from Strong’s body was hit four times by bullets. Federals stripped the dying animal of its saddle and tack. The horse was ignored as battle raged until sundown brought an end to the slaughter.
For at least two days Strong’s horse lay where it had fallen, in a lifelike pose that attracted attention. Union Brig. Gen. Alpheus S. Williams wrote his daughters: “One beautiful milk-white animal had died in so graceful a position that I wished for its photograph. His legs were doubled under and its arched neck gracefully turned to one side, as if looking back to the ball-hole in its side.” Among others reportedly struck by the horse’s death pose was Lieutenant Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., a future Supreme Court jurist.
On September 19, Alexander Gardner, then serving as an assistant to pioneering photographer Mathew Brady, reached Antietam. The energetic Gardner would take some 70 pictures at Antietam, most of them near Dunker Church—including the image long seared into my own memory. Gardner likely made his photograph because of the white stallion’s unusual pose. But Strong’s mount was just one of thousands to be seen on battlefields.
Without horses, no major Civil War battle could have occurred. Horses and mules provided the bulk of transportation in the 19th century. In fact, the first casualty of the war was a horse killed during the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Four-legged beasts provided the power to transport armies that otherwise would have been stationary.
The cavalry would by definition have been nonexistent without mounts. Each rider needed three remounts yearly during the war, so demand for new horses was constant. A single six-gun artillery battery required 72 horses for full efficiency. Even the infantry, the main component of an army, was inoperable without wagon trains. The Napoleonic standard at the time called for 12 wagons per 1,000 men. Four horses lugged a wagon containing about 2,800 pounds of supplies. (A six-mule team could haul 4,000 pounds on good roads—but roads were seldom good.) At the time of Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac was utilizing 4,000 wagons and 1,100 ambulances. Rufus Ingalls, the army’s chief quartermaster, had the daunting responsibility of obtaining and maintaining more than 20,000 draft animals for that most famous campaign of the war.
How far an army traveled, as well as what it accomplished on a march or in a battle, was contingent upon the number and quality of its horses. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman emphasized consideration for the Army’s livestock, saying: “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.” Tragically, however, most participants in the Civil War assumed that horses would be readily available wherever they fought. It certainly seemed that way at the outset of hostilities. In 1861 the North had 3.4 million horses, while the Confederate states had 1.7 million steeds—an inventory deemed sufficient for the short contest that everyone initially expected. Yet what followed were four years of marches, battles, deaths, suffering, trials and tribulations never envisioned. The most unimaginable hardships fell upon army horses and mules.
Most soldiers knew little about caring for mounts and draft animals, using and abusing them with pitiless disregard. They treated the animals as if they were at least indefatigable and at most indestructible. Long-distance movements in all kinds of weather wore down thousands of animals. In the Western Theater, horses traveled across nine states. One of Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry raids involved horses pushed to cover 1,100 miles in less than a month. While cavalrymen managed to sleep in the saddle, their mounts were in continual motion.
Sheer exhaustion overcame horses on prolonged movements. Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson recalled of the Union pursuit of John Bell Hood’s Confederate army in December 1864: “It was cold and freezing during the nights, and followed by days of rain, snow, and thaw. The country…had been absolutely stripped of forage and provisions by the march of contending armies….The poor cavalry horses fared still worse than their riders. Scarcely a withered corn blade could be found for them, and thousands, exhausted by overwork, famished with hunger, or crippled so that death was a mercy, with hoofs dropping off from frost and mud, fell by the roadside never to rise again.”
An estimated 2.3 million horseshoes were annual necessities for every 60,000 animals. Yet neither shoes nor farriers were always where they were needed. Lameness was epidemic.
Worn-down animals in some cases were shot rather than allowed to recover and fall into enemy hands. Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan admitted after one retreat that he had slaughtered 500 of his mounts. The commander of the Confederate pursuit put the number at 2,000 animals.
The most constant problems were a lack of water and food. Dehydration, malnutrition and starvation were the most prevalent killers. Army regulations stipulated that each horse was to receive three pounds of oats and 14 pounds of hay daily, though those standards were seldom met. One brigadier general no doubt provoked laughter when he routinely asked for 800,000 pounds of grain and hay per day for the horses in his command. “Short rations” were worse for the animals than for the soldiers. Indeed, in the war’s later stages, hungry soldiers consumed the corn allotted for their starving horses. Finding sufficient forage was an almost hour-by-hour problem. The search for food for man and beast was certainly a factor in Lee’s 1863 decision to invade the North.
It was a crippled army that stopped the Confederate advance at Gettysburg. Federal horses had been without forage for three days, and several thousand collapsed and died in the Gettysburg–Frederick, Md., segment of Meade’s post-battle movements. Ironically, the forage those animals so badly needed comprised a large percentage of the 57 wagonloads of supplies that Lee took back to Virginia.
Insufficient attention was also paid to the content and quality of rations for the animals. When hay wasn’t available, horses would be fed only grain. Because horses are grazing animals, however, they require a considerable amount of roughage in their diet. Lack of hay could lead to either of two deadly diseases: colic, a gastrointestinal infection that was usually fatal, and laminitis, an inflammatory foot condition that can be permanently crippling. Pasturage was a poor substitute for army rations, since it has only a third of the nutritional value of oats and hay.
Photographs of long wagon trains belie their contents. Many vehicles were carrying bales of hay and sacks of grain. As official campaign dispatches repeatedly made clear, there was never enough feed for dwindling numbers of animals still struggling to keep pace.
On July 2, 1863, at the climactic moments of battles at both Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Confederate Quartermaster Department announced that the sources for acquiring horses and mules were “well-nigh exhausted.” The question then arose of “how the animals necessary for the future equipment of our armies in the field are to be obtained.” Within a year, Lee was eliminating artillery batteries because horses could not be found to pull the cannons and caissons.
The retreat to Appomattox turned into a death march. One Richmond artillerist observed, “The poor horses were giving out, and by the time Amelia Court House was reached, the teams were so broken down by hard marching and want of rest…that the caissons were abandoned and destroyed.” Lee was thus deprived of artillery for the last five days of his army’s existence.
The number of horses killed in combat will never be known. Commanding officers, even cavalry leaders, rarely mentioned equine casualties in their communiqués. Some statistics did emerge in official reports of the Battle of Gettysburg. Losses in Colonel Henry Cabell’s artillery battalion were 26 men, plus 67 horses killed and 13 disabled. At least 881 artillery horses in the Army of the Potomac were slain in the three days of fighting. The day after Gettysburg concluded, Rufus Ingalls wrote Maj. Gen. George Meade: “The loss of horses in these several battles has been great in killed, wounded and worn down by excessive march….I think I shall require 2,000 cavalry and 1,500 artillery horses as soon as possible to recruit the army.” Ingalls revised his figures the next day to 5,000 horses.
A major factor in Meade’s slow pursuit of General Robert E. Lee after Gettysburg was the poor condition of his cavalry and draft animals. Too few were on hand at the time, and they were asked to do too much. As a result, the Union army’s pursuit stalled.
Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi once declared: “You can judge a people by the way they treat their animals.” In reading thousands of soldiers’ letters, diaries and reminiscences throughout my career, I’ve – always been on the alert for their comments about army horses and mules. Horses were on hand wherever any component of an army was present, and every soldier saw them. Yet they received little attention from most Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks. Soldiers who did mention the animals generally were expressing revulsion or pity at what they had witnessed.
In mid-April 1862, a Maine adjutant stationed at Harpers Ferry classified teamsters “as a class the most depraved of any in the Army. They have no mercy for their beasts, are the very personification of selfishness and malevolence, stupidity physical and moral….They know less than the beasts they drive. Today I heard an unusual hub-bub and looking out saw a wretched abortion of humanity, pounding the noses of two mules and trying to make them back up against the railroad tracks.”
Looking at the Fredericksburg battlefield two days after the fighting ended there, George Hitchcock of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry reported that the saddest sight “was that of a wounded horse fastened to an artillery wagon, which had been shot somewhere in the hindquarters. From time to time it would raise itself up on its forward feet, look toward us in a most imploring way, appealing for help with a groan like a human being—most heart-rending; then falling back in exhaustion, slowly dying by pain, starvation and thirst.”
Sprinkled throughout Civil War accounts are reports of the bravery and endurance of individual mounts. At Gettysburg, Captain Chester Parsons of the 1st Vermont Cavalry was riding “a gentle sorrel, scarred and stiff with long service.” Yet in an open-field attack on Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry, Parsons’ horse reportedly “sprang into the charge!” bounding over fences and broken country. After a bullet struck Parsons, who slumped in the saddle, “How gently he carried me from the field, although blood spurted from his side at every step….And when I was lifted down into unconsciousness, my last recollection was of his great eyes turned upon me as in sympathy and reproof.”
A handful of mounts that belonged to generals are famous: Lee’s Traveller, Ulysses S. Grant’s Cincinnati, Jackson’s Little Sorrel and Sheridan’s Rienzi. Those horses were in a far better class than the millions of their four-legged comrades. Many commanders’ horses live on, in equestrian statues sprinkled throughout battlefields, as well as in city parks.
Whenever I visit Richmond’s North Boulevard, I habitually look at the front lawn of the Virginia Historical Society, where there stands a bronze sculpture created by Tessa Pullen and dedicated by Paul Mellon in 1997. The bronze figure depicts a broken-down, skeletal horse, head bent low, as if in the final seconds of its life. It is clearly not meant to be part of a proud army passing in review or a dramatic participant in a battle scene. Instead, it’s the silent embodiment of the phrase “faithful unto death.”
That statue, as well as Gardner’s photograph at Antietam, are inadequate tributes to all the animals that died during the war. More than 1.5 million horses and mules did not live to enjoy the pasturage that came in 1865, with the advent of peace. Not one received a decent burial. Another million horses hobbled home permanently impaired. History remembers them all only as necessary costs in a great nation-molding conflict. They deserve a better title: “The Unsung Heroes of the Civil War.”
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.