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Horsepower Moves the Guns - March '96 America's Civil War Feature

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1996 
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Horsepower moves the guns- 2.3 K

Working side by side with soldiers, horses labored
to pull artillery pieces into battle.Without them, field artillery
could not have been used to such deadly effect.
By James R. Cotner

The field artillery of the Civil War was designed to be mobile. When Union or Confederate troops marched across country, the guns moved with them. During battle, the guns were moved to assigned positions and then were switched from place to place, pulled back or sent forward as fortune demanded. The field batteries went galloping off to support an advance or repel an attack. When they withdrew, they contested the field as they went. Movement was everything. The guns could fulfill their essential function only when they could be moved where they were most needed.

At the time of the Civil War, such movement required draft animals–horses, mules or oxen. Mules were excellent at pulling heavy loads, but they were not used in pulling the guns and caissons of the field artillery. No animal liked to stand under fire. In the fury of battle, horses would shy and rear and flash their hooves; but mules carried their protests to the outer limits. When exposed to fire, mules would buck and kick and roll on the ground, entangling harnesses and becoming impossible to control.

An exception to the rule against using mules was their role in carrying small mountain howitzers. These guns were light enough to be broken down, with the component parts carried on the backs of pack animals. They had been developed for use in country that was mountainous and heavily wooded, with only trails or wretched roads. Strong, surefooted animals were needed, and mules were the obvious choice.

The danger of using mules in battle is vividly depicted in Confederate Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden's account of his seriocomic experience at the Battle of Port Republic in June 1862. In that engagement, Imboden, a colonel at the time, commanded a band of cavalry with a battery of mountain howitzers, carried on mules, in the army of Maj. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. At Port Republic, Jackson ordered Imboden to put his battery in a sheltered place and be ready, upon the enemy's withdrawal, to advance to a point where his guns would have a clear field of fire. Imboden took his men and the mules, carrying the guns and ammunition, into a shallow ravine about 100 yards behind Captain William Poague's Virginia battery, which was hotly engaged.

Within a few minutes, Union artillery shells were screaming across the ravine well above the sheltered men and mules. Imboden, in his account of the action, recalled: "The mules became frantic. They kicked, plunged and squealed. It was impossible to quiet them, and it took three or four men to hold one mule from breaking away. Each mule had about three hundred pounds weight on him, so securely fastened that the load could not be dislodged by any of his capers. Several of them lay down and tried to wallow their loads off. The men held these down and that suggested the idea of throwing them all to the ground and holding them there. The ravine sheltered us so we were in no danger from the shot or shell which passed over us."

The use of mules to carry mountain howitzers was a choice based on their fitness for the task, not due to any shortage of horses. The Manual for Mountain Artillery, adopted by the U.S. Army in 1851, stated that the mountain howitzer was "generally transported by mules." The superiority of mules in rough country outweighed their notorious contrariness under fire.

Plodding oxen obviously were not well suited for hauling field artillery, since rapid movement was often needed. Oxen were strong–their name is synonymous with strength and endurance–but they were too slow. Nevertheless, oxen were sometimes pressed into service during the Civil War.

In November 1863, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's force was detached from the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg, then besieging Chattanooga. Longstreet's troops moved north through eastern Tennessee to confront Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's Federal force at Knoxville. It was a long, harsh journey for the Confederate artillery. As the Southern army neared Knoxville, the Confederate caissons carrying ammunition for the field artillery were being pulled by oxen, a choice dictated by the scarcity of horses in the region.

All movement of field artillery was done with limbers. Guns, caissons, battery forges and wagons were all fastened to a lim-
ber. None, under ordinary circumstances, moved independent-
ly. A limber was an ammunition box mounted on an axle between two wheels, with a forward projecting pole, to which the team was hitched. Underneath and at the rear of the limber was a bent iron piece called the pintle. At the end of the gun trail or at the tip of a short pole on the caisson was an iron piece, pierced through, called the lunette. The gun trail was lifted and the hole in the lunette dropped over the pintle, making the piece and the limber a four-wheeled unit. The piece was joined to the limber at a pivot, giving the unit a short turning radius.

The capacity of a healthy horse to pull a load was affected by a number of factors. Chief among these was the nature of the surface over which the load was being hauled. A single horse could pull 3,000 pounds 20 to 23 miles a day over a hard-paved road. The weight dropped to 1,900 pounds over a macadamized road, and went down to 1,100 pounds over rough ground. The pulling ability was further reduced by one-half if a horse carried a rider on its back. Finally, as the number of horses in a team increased, the pulling capacity of each horse was further reduced. A horse in a team of six had only seven-ninths the pulling capacity it would have had in a team of two. The goal was that each horse's share of the load should be no more than 700 pounds. This was less than what a healthy horse, even carrying a rider and hitched into a team of six, could pull, but it furnished a safety factor that allowed for fatigue and losses.

John Gibbon finished the war as a major general in the Union Army. Before the war, he had served as an instructor at West Point and had written a textbook called The Artillerist's Manual that was used by cadets at the academy. In his textbook, Gibbon described what was desired in an artillery horse: "The horse for artillery service should be from fifteen to sixteen hands high….should stand erect on his legs, be strongly built, but free in his movements; his shoulders should be large enough to give support to the collar but not too heavy; his body full, but not too long; the sides well rounded; the limbs solid with rather strong shanks, and the feet in good condition. To these qualities he should unite, as much as possible, the qualities of the saddle horse; should trot and gallop easily, have even gaits and not be skittish."

Gibbon carefully described what was wanted, but horses with these qualities were not always available. Horses became scarce and stayed in short supply in areas of continuing conflict. Both North and South soon began to take horses that belonged to enemy sympathizers. This was often done not out of necessity but simply to deprive the enemy of horses.

In April 1862, Union Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs was called upon to furnish a great number of horses for the Federal Army to use on the Virginia Peninsula. Meigs wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, telling him that there were horses for the taking from Southern sympathizers in the Shenandoah Valley and seeking authority to seize the animals. The authority was promptly given, with the stipulation that no horse needed for agricultural work was to be taken, even from an enemy sympathizer. In his request Meigs pointed out, "A horse for military service is as much a military supply as a barrel of gunpowder or a shotgun or rifle."

At the start of the war, the Northern states held approximately 3.4 million horses, while there were 1.7 million in the Confederate states. The border states of Missouri and Kentucky had an additional 800,000 horses. In addition, there were 100,000 mules in the North, 800,000 in the seceding states and 200,000 in Kentucky and Missouri. The disparity in the distribution of the mule population somewhat evened out the number of draft animals available for all purposes. The South furnished–involuntarily–many horses to the North. Most of the fighting was done on Southern soil, and the local horses were easily seized by Northern troops. While Confederates had opportunities to take Northern horses during Robert E. Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania and upon the occasional raids into Northern territory, the number taken was small compared to the thousands commandeered by Union troops, who occupied large areas of the South for several years.

In May 1863, the Federal brigade of Colonel John T. Wilder swept the country east and north of Murfreesboro, Tenn. Northern troops had been in the area for months, yet in five days the brigade took another 196 horses from the people of the region, despite attempts to hide the horses in woods, ravines and caves. One horse was found tied to a bedpost in a lady's back parlor.

Proper and adequate care of artillery horses was essential. If they were weakened by neglect, they could not long survive the rigors of active campaigning. Good commanders were aware of this and issued orders aimed at improving the animals' care.

On October 1, 1862, shortly after the Antietam campaign, Robert E. Lee issued Order No. 115, addressing the care to be given to all horses of the army and fixing responsibility upon specific officers for the care of the horses in the artillery reserve. Those guilty of neglect of battery horses were to be punished. No artillery horses were to be ridden except by designated artillerymen. The chief of artillery was empowered to arrest and bring to trial any man using a horse other than in battery service.

Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, while still a divisional commander, issued a similar order to the artillery officers attached to his division. After outlining the many tasks to be performed when a battery came to a halt during a march, Sherman directed that "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."

Feeding, of course, was a critical part of the horses' care. The daily ration prescribed for an artillery horse was 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain, usually oats, corn or barley. The amount of grain and hay needed by any particular battery depended on the number of horses that battery had at the time. It varied almost from day to day, but it was always enormous. The horses of the battery had to be fed each day, whether the battery moved or not. During the Civil War, an artillery battery might sit in the same place for weeks at a time, and yet consume thousands of pounds of hay and grain each day.

Artillery horses represented only a small number of the animals that had to be fed by the military. Besides the horses with the artillery, horses used by the cavalry, and horses and mules used to pull supply wagons and ambulances, there were also thousands of saddle horses carrying officers and couriers. Brigadier General Stewart Van Vliet, chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac during its campaign on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862, reported that 800,000 pounds of forage and grain were needed daily to feed the horses and mules. Since a wagon ordinarily carried 1 ton, the animals' daily food allowance required 400 wagonloads each day.

The prescribed rations were not always available. Sometimes, especially as the war went on and areas were picked clean by the opposing armies, severe shortages of grain and hay developed. At other times, there was available grain and hay but they could not be delivered to the batteries needing them. The artillery horses of the Union V Corps subsisted on a daily ration of five pounds of grain as Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant pushed south in May 1864. The meager rations were the result of a shortage of wagons, not a lack of grain. After the artillery wagons had delivered hay and grain to the batteries, infantry units seized them and used them as makeshift ambulances to carry the thousands of wounded back from the Wilderness and Spotsylvania.

Pasturage was sometimes available, but green grass and field plants were not efficient foods. Eighty pounds of pasturage was needed to match the nutritional value of 26 pounds of dry hay and grain, the prescribed daily ration. In addition, green pasturage increased the likelihood that a horse might founder. Nevertheless, pasturage was used, either as a supplement to the regular ration or as the primary source of nutrition for short periods, if hay and grain were not available.

In January 1865, the men in Kirkpatrick's Battery, serving with the Confederate army of Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early in the Shenandoah Valley, were granted "horse furloughs." A hot, dry summer had greatly reduced the crops in the area, and there was little food for the men and none for the horses. To meet this crisis, artillerymen whose homes were nearby were allowed to return home if each took a horse with him. The furloughed soldier was expected to feed and care for the horse; when spring arrived, he was to return to the battery with the horse. Admittedly, this was a risky business considering the Confederacy's situation that January. Apparently, it was worth the risk of losing a veteran to save a horse.

Water for the horses was a problem that demanded an adequate solution every day. While in camp, a battery would discover the nearest creek or pond and routinely water the horses there. On the march, water had to be found at the end of each day. If the water was any distance, as it often was, the timing of the watering was critical. The guns were immobile if the horses were absent. Usually, only half the horses would be sent to water at any one time. This meant that in an emergency some movement might be achieved, but with only half the horses present, the battery was at a distinct disadvantage.

At the Battle of Stones River in December 1862, Battery E of the 1st Ohio Artillery was stationed on the right of the Union line, facing the mist-filled cedar thickets out of which the Confederates would come screaming at dawn. Just before the attack began, half the battery horses were taken to a small stream some 500 yards to the rear. In the debacle that followed the initial attack, all the battery guns were lost. Some accounts of the battle mention the absence of the horses and hint that it was a factor in the loss of the guns. The battery did fight valiantly where it stood, pouring canister fire into the advancing Rebels, until the entire Union brigade was smashed and sent careening back. Troops assigned to support the battery abandoned it. It is difficult to believe that the outcome would have been different even if all the horses had been present.

Another incident where the watering of artillery horses caused a delay and perhaps thwarted an attack occurred at Petersburg, Va., on June 15, 1864. Brigadier General William F. "Baldy" Smith and the Federal XVIII Corps stood before the city, then defended by only 2,200 men, many of whom were untried militia with little if any fighting experience. The intended Federal assault was delayed for more than an hour when it was discovered that the artillery horses had all been unhitched and taken to water. The attack did not begin until 7 p.m., when it was beaten back. Some accounts blame the failure on the absent artillery horses. Veteran reinforcements arrived to bolster the defense just as the Confederate lines broke. Some have speculated that without the delay Petersburg might have been taken nine full months before it finally fell.

In spite of the care given to artillery horses, the animals still perished at an astounding rate. Many died of disease or were put to death because of exhaustion. Many more were killed alongside their battery mates in battle.

When a battery unlimbered and took its place in line, the horses were ordinarily moved to a place sheltered from direct enemy fire–behind a building or hill, in a copse of trees or in a ravine. Such precautions, however, did not always protect the animals from hostile fire.

On the third day at Gettysburg in July 1863, many of the Union artillery horses were placed on the eastern slope of Cemetery Ridge, behind and below the crest. In the great barrage that preceded Pickett's Charge, the position inadvertently became a death trap. Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery for the Federal forces, reported that fire from the Confederate guns was high. It passed over the crest and exploded or fell among the horses on the eastern slope. As Hunt reported, "This cost us a great many horses and the explosion of an unusually large number of caissons and limbers." The Union artillery lost 881 horses at Gettysburg. All of those animals were not killed on the eastern slope of Cemetery Ridge, but it may be assumed from Hunt's remarks that many were.

Horses suffered not only from artillery fire but also from the fire of advancing infantry. The capture of a piece of artillery was a great exploit, bringing with it honor and recognition. Confederate regiments in the Western theater were allowed to place crossed cannons on their regimental battle flags after they had taken a Federal gun.

One tactic used in attacking a battery was to shoot down the horses attached to it. If the battery horses were killed or disabled, moving the guns back to safety was an impossible task. But horses could take much punishment. They were difficult to bring down, and once down were difficult to keep down, even with the impact of the large-caliber Minie bullets.

At Ream's Station in August 1864, the 10th Massachusetts Battery fought from behind a low makeshift barricade, with its horses fully exposed only a few yards behind the guns. The battery was fighting with five guns, and in a short time the five teams of six horses came under fire. Within minutes only two of the 30 animals were still standing, and these all bore wounds. One horse was shot seven times before it went down. Other horses were hit, went down, and struggled back up, only to be hit again. The average number of wounds suffered by each horse was five. The Confederates were firing from a cornfield approximately 300 yards away.

By far the greatest number of horses were lost to disease and exhaustion. Again referring to the 10th Massachusetts Battery, reports reveal a dismal trail of horses dying from disease or being put to death because of exhaustion. Between October 18, 1862, when its service began, and April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered, the battery lost a total of 157 horses from causes other than combat. Of these, 112 died from disease. The most prevalent disease in the battery was glanders, which claimed 45 horses. Glanders, a highly contagious disease that affects the skin, nasal passages and respiratory tract of horses and mules, was also called farcy or nasal gleet in wartime reports.

Forty-five of the battery's horses were lost to fatigue when they simply became worn out and unable to work, and so were put to death. The losses to exhaustion can be keyed to specific events. In June 1864, 13 battery horses were lost to exhaustion, reflecting the crushing pace of Grant's advance after leaving the Wilderness. In the days after the fall of Richmond, 14 horses went down as a result of the hard pursuit of Lee's retreating army. Even when the surrender came, the killing chase continued to take its toll, with an additional 22 horses being put to death due to exhaustion between April 10 and April 15.

The horses were worked hard and long, but it had to be so. A battery racing to catch up with a retreating enemy or to gain a position of advantage had no room for gentle treatment. The stakes were high, and the horses paid the price. The alternative might be defeat. A man on a long, hot march, pushed beyond what his body could bear, might drop out temporarily and catch up with his company later. Horses had no such choice. Harnessed to the limbers, they pulled until they fell or, as happened in most instances, until they harmed their bodies beyond healing, and then were shot.

Mud or dust seemed to plague every movement of troops. Of the two, mud was the greater problem for the artillery. Dust created great discomfort, but little more. While an artilleryman might find it difficult to breathe and intolerably itchy in the suffocating dust, the guns and caissons could still be moved. Mud, on the other hand, often made movement impossible. Sinking below their axles in holes full of clinging muck, guns and caissons could be moved only with superhuman effort, the men pushing at the wheels and extra horses pulling on the traces. Sometimes guns were simply abandoned to the mud.

A battery moved at the same speed and covered the same distance as did the troops to which it was attached. This distance could be anywhere from a few miles to 20 or 30 miles a day. When a battery moved independently, it was not limited by the movement of the troops and was thus free to cover as much ground as it could. All in all, there was not a great deal of difference in the distance traveled. Such gains as there were resulted from the absence of thousands of marching infantrymen, supply trains and other units cluttering up the roads. The battery was then able to travel without long delays due to the inevitable traffic jams caused by jostling troops.

Five days were needed for Knap's Pennsylvania Battery to travel from Leesburg, Va., to Littletown, Pa., a distance of 80 miles. The battery marched with the XII Corps. The longest distance traveled in one day was 21 miles, while the shortest was 12. The same battery, when it was unattached and moving independently in September 1863, covered the 59 miles from Brandy Station to Alexandria in only 11ž2 days, traveling 37 miles the first day and 22 the second.

Brigadier General E.P. Alexander, chief of artillery in Lt. Gen. James P. Longstreet's Confederate corps, reported that on July 3, 1863, the reserve artillery of Lee's army, consisting of 89 guns, moved from Greenwood, Pa., to a point one mile west of Gettysburg in only six hours. The march of 17 miles began at 1 a.m. and was completed by 7 a.m.

One way or another, at Gettysburg and dozens of other Civil War battles, the humble horse and his human masters soldiered on. Whether plodding through the dry, stifling dust, struggling in clinging mud, rushing up to a position at a jolting gallop or creeping backward in a fighting withdrawal, the men–and the horses–always did what had to be done. They moved the guns.



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