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Bravery and sacrifice weren’t exclusive to the two-legged soldier.

Traveller, Little Sorrel, gallant charges of plumed cavaliers: This is the legend of Southern horses. The reality, however, was half-starved plodding animals pulling tons of supplies over muddy tracks. Much has been written about a mechanized modern war where Victory Rode the Rails (as described in George E. Turner’s 1992 book), but the Civil War was primarily an old-fashioned conflict where unsung horses and mules provided what today is called the critical last mile of the communication-transportation chain.

If the Civil War was costly for humans, it was a catastrophe for horses and mules. Whereas 2 percent of all the people in the United States died in the Civil War, about 20 percent of the country’s 7.4 million horses and mules were destroyed. Southerners lost half their 2.5 million animals, and countless communities lost all they had. Horses were “used up” by hard work and malnourishment and needed to be replaced every seven months. About half were returned to civilian use, while the other half died, requiring constant replacements for both sides. The South, with one horse for every three fighting men, needed about 500,000 animals, while the North, which had one animal for every two men, had to find 1.5 million replacements. Confederate needs on the battlefield competed with farming and behind-the-lines transportation of food and materiel for a limited supply that was also reduced by Union forces bent on destroying Southern animals. Ultimately the depletion of Southern horses determined the strategies of immobilized Confederate armies, accelerated the collapse of the Southern economy and led to defeat.

Horses entered Confederate service through two paths: Officers and cavalry provided their own mounts, while the quartermaster was responsible for procuring horses for artillery and transportation. Consistent with raising a volunteer army, Confederate law provided that cavalrymen were to supply their own mounts, for which they were reimbursed 40 cents a day “for the use and risk of their horses,” and if their horses were “killed in action volunteers shall be allowed compensation according to their appraised value at the date of muster.” By March 1862, the Confederacy raised 38,000 cavalrymen or 12 percent of the total army, with Texas, Virginia and Tennessee providing more than half.

Artillery employed 12 percent of the horses. Battery horses had to pull cannons into battle and wait patiently while they fired and were fired upon. On paper, each battery required about a hundred horses to haul its six guns, six caissons, three to four wagons and a battery forge. At the start of the war, much of the Confederate field artillery was relatively light 6-pounder smoothbore guns, which with limber weighed about 3,200 pounds, and were pulled by six-horse teams. The heavier caissons carried 150 rounds of ammunition. As the war progressed, heavier 12-pounder Napoleons replaced these guns, but the number of animals did not increase, so mobility and the amount of ammunition carried into battle decreased. Mules were no substitute because, lacking the courage of horses, they often bucked and rolled, trying to escape combat. By the end of 1861, the Confederates fielded about 120 batteries of field artillery with 600 guns, requiring about 10,000 horses.

Transportation of food, forage, ammunition, camp gear and other supplies fell to the four-horse wagons. They carried about a ton over good roads and, because of their lighter wheel loading, performed adequately over rough tracks. The Union favored six-horse teams, which pulled 3,500 pounds over good roads but whose performance fell significantly over poor tracks. Wagon transport was inefficient. A wagon team operating 200 miles from its base would consume its payload. Diverse Confederate wagons obtained by purchase, impressments, capture and production struck historian H.V. Redfield as “rather slip-shod” when compared to Northern wagons.

Southern transportation, deficient from the start, deteriorated throughout the war, requiring continual reallocations and reductions of what was moved. In the winter of 1861-62, the Confederates probably had about 10,000 wagons to support a quarter million men in the field. On January 29, 1862, a Confederate congressional committee found “the wagon transportation is inadequate, and if the Army was furnished with the full amount allowed by the present Regulations, it would still be insufficient.” The report detailed how the deficiency caused soldiers to discard clothes and supplies along the line of march and how once in camp the limited wagons were unable to collect enough supplies to feed the men and animals.

Enduring these deficiencies in the spring of 1862, the Confederate Army—mustering 258,000—had an estimated 90,000 horses and mules in the field, with 44 percent in transportation, 42 percent in the cavalry, 12 percent in the artillery and the remainder carrying officers and aides. Maintaining them required adequate forage and feed, water, iron for shoes and wagon wheels, and fresh horses to replace used up animals.

Horses were to be fed 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of oats, corn or barley a day. A smaller mule received about the same hay but only nine pounds of grain. Although it was possible to graze horses, they required 21⁄2 to four acres of grassland and about seven acres of grain crops to equal the nutritional value of the prescribed 26 pounds. In the winter, when grasses grow slower, more land was needed. Given the relatively warmer climate, Southerners traditionally grazed horses, and therefore produced little hay. While this worked well on sprawling Southern farms, it provided inadequate forage for concentrated armies. An army with 25,000 animals required more than 150 square miles of good pasturage. To overcome the lack of hay, the Confederates, particularly in the winter, reduced the ration, lightened the work and dispersed the animals.

Active campaigning used up horses quickly. While rest and proper food might be possible in camp, on the march it became secondary to the mission. When infantry and artillery moved together, it was in a series of starts and stops that were seldom refreshing for the horses, which often got no water. As horses tired, they stopped pulling, leaving more work for the remaining horses in harness. When they broke down completely, the whole line of march had to stop while the offending vehicle was pulled from the column and the tired horse unhitched. If extra horses were available, which was seldom the case, they would be attached; otherwise the remaining animals had to pull the extra load, accelerating their exhaustion. An alternative was to take animals from less critical vehicles like wagons, abandon these, and use the animals to haul cannons.

Blacks—mostly slaves but also some freemen—played important roles in caring for Southern horses. Men of wealth often took slaves with them into the army to act as cooks and farriers. In addition some free blacks went to work for the army for $12 a month as teamsters to care for horses. On February 17, 1864, the Confederate Congress passed an act “to increase the efficiency of the army” by drafting all free blacks and up to 20,000 slaves to take on many roles including teamsters. Of course not all blacks supported the South, and many fled to Union armies, taking with them broken-down wagons pulled by rejected beasts.

A lack of horseshoes fatigued many horses, particularly on macadamized roads. Horseshoes were supposed to be removed every five weeks, the excess hoof pared off and a proper-fitting shoe then reapplied. Horseshoes became scarce, as their manufacturers competed with railroads, ironclads, ordnance, wagon wheels, industry and farm implements for the limited supply of Southern iron. With access to Northern iron supplies having ended at the start of the war, one supplier tripled his prices from 5 cents to 15 cents apiece, before pushing them up to $1.12 in 1863. The government fixed its price at a third of this. Despite these high prices, iron production fell as the army consumed the gunpowder needed to blast ore, horses to haul wood and ore to furnaces, and ironworkers. While besieging Knoxville, Tenn., in the winter of 1863-64, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s Confederates went out in ferryboats on the Holston River to remove shoes from dead horses and mules Federals had thrown into the river.

Exhausted by hard campaigning, horses were sometimes auctioned off for lighter civilian work, but often, without replacements available, they were worked to death. Given this level of exhaustion and the limited supply, the South had to continuously make adjustments to balance supply and demand.

After the grueling 1862 campaigns of the Seven Days, Second Manassas and Sharpsburg, General Robert E. Lee took action to resuscitate his animals and reduce his demand. Officers were made responsible for “energetic and unwearied care of their animals.” They were directed while marching to select halting places where water and food could be obtained for horses and to relinquish wearied horses to the quartermaster for recuperation. The field artillery was reduced from 72 batteries to 59, eliminating the need for 2,500 animals. But in the process Lee had about 50 of his 6-pounders recast into better 12-pounder Napoleons, which placed additional strain on the artillery’s horses.

In an effort to increase the supply, Major Archibald “Archie” H. Cole was made inspector general of field transportation for all the Confederate armies, responsible for recruiting (buying) and recuperating (healing broken-down) horses. Cole, a planter and railroad developer from Florida, had been an aide to General Joseph Johnston at First Manassas, after which he became Johnston’s inspector of transportation. With the supply shrinking east of the Mississippi, the Confederates tried to buy 1,000 horses in Texas for Lee’s army, which used about 28,000. By March 1863, only 600 to 700 had been obtained, and they were still in Louisiana. General Fitz Lee’s command had only 700 of the 2,500 horses it needed at a skirmish near Kelly’s Ford on St. Patrick’s Day.

To reduce the need for cavalry mounts, Lee wrote Secretary of War James A. Seddon in December 1862 requesting permission to transfer horseless cavalrymen to infantry units. Lee disliked the practice whereby such cavalrymen obtained furloughs to go home to acquire another horse. “Besides giving us more men for service in the field,” Lee argued, it would “make the cavalrymen more careful of their horses, and urge them to greater exertions in procuring remounts.” The practice of paying only for horses lost in battle, and then at obsolete appraisements, was unpopular. As J.E.B. Stuart’s aide, H.B McClellan, wrote, “Many a gallant fellow whose horse had been irrevocably lamed for the want of a shoe, or ridden to death at the command of his officer, or abandoned in the enemy’s country that his owner might escape capture, impoverished himself and his family in order that he might keep his place in the ranks of his comrades.”

Lacking adequate forage around Fredericksburg during the winter of 1862-63, Lee dispersed parts of his army, sending his artillery to Richmond, much of his cavalry to the Shenandoah and a significant part of Longstreet’s corps to other parts of Virginia and North Carolina. Longstreet’s men foraged using local “ox sulkies” but found barely enough for themselves. Unable to provide for his forces along the Rappahannock River, Lee deferred ordering the concentration of these men, and most missed the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Paradoxically, their absence might have contributed to Lee’s brilliant victory over Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Union army. Had they been there, Lee’s mobility might have been compromised by more animals sharing the limited forage, making his rapid flank marches impossible.

By 1863, the Union strategy toward Southern horses had shifted. Whereas in 1862, Union forces had been ordered to pay for horses and to leave enough for farming, they were now directed to destroy the animals they could not use. After Chancellorsville, Union Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs wrote Hooker: “No horses of any kind should be left in possession of residents in the rebel country. A horse is as much contraband of war as a barrel of gunpowder, and, being used by a guerrilla, a spy, or a messenger, more injurious to us. Even in the plow they relieve the men from the necessity of digging for a living, and leave them free to plot mischief.” When Union Maj. Gen.William S. Rosecrans requested 8,000 horses to mount his men in Tennessee, Meigs suggested, “Seize them in the field of your operations.” Federal forces in the West tried to do so but found a dwindling supply of animals. In a series of half a dozen raids from February to June, Union forces captured about 2,700 horses in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, but in the process they destroyed about the same number of their own. Still, this was a zero sum game, with the South losing.

In May 1863, the Confederates were pushed into a siege at Vicksburg. Confederate General Joseph Johnston called for troops and horses to relieve the defenders. Men came from as far away as Charleston, S.C., but no horses. Although many argued that Lee should have sent part of his army west, he resisted the idea. Contributing to his reluctance were the lack of horses and the inability to move them. Confederate rail movements always excluded horses, since the South lacked railroad capacity and specialized horse cars. When Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson transferred his men to Richmond in 1862, they rode the rails while the artillery and transportation marched. In the summer of 1862, when General Braxton Bragg transferred 30,000 men from Tupelo, Miss., to eastern Tennessee for his invasion of Kentucky, the men rode the trains while the wagons, cavalry and artillery plodded 260 miles across northern Mississippi and Alabama, arriving weeks late. Johnston in Mississippi lacked the animals and wagons to relieve Vicksburg; more men would not have helped.

Rather than go west, Lee invaded Pennsylvania, hoping to provision his army, draw the Union forces from Virginia and, if possible, defeat the Army of the Potomac, thereby forcing the Union to lift Vicksburg’s siege and hurry reinforcements east. Success for Lee’s 75,000 men and 28,000 animals depended on movement to allow his horses to graze and free him from a 200- mile-long supply line. At Gettysburg Lee’s movement became contested, and, despite Longstreet’s arguments that the army should fight defensively, Lee attacked for three blood-soaked days. Lee could not sit and await a Federal assault. On June 23, he wrote Jefferson Davis that although he was able to purchase what he thought was adequate food for his men, “Forage is very scarce, and we have mainly to rely on grass for the animals.”

The retreat verified the exhausted state of his horses, as wagons and cannons were abandoned due to the collapse of animals and a lack of replacements. A want of horseshoes hobbled artillery horses, with the Third Corps losing about 60 percent. Isaac Baker, a cavalryman, recalled, “Our horses’ backs were raw with ulcers one and two inches deep and full of maggots. The green flies had put up a big job on us, our blankets were full of maggots and rotten, our saddles had from a pint to a quart of maggots in them and we had to run them out with hot water and soap and it was months before the horse’s backs were cured.” Half of the cavalry’s horses were ruined by the campaign. When Lee got back to Virginia, resuscitating his horses proved difficult, as he could only get a pound a day of corn per animal.

Unable to do more than defend, Lee agreed to send part of Longstreet’s corps west in September 1863 to aide Bragg at Chattanooga. Longstreet went without his horses, and Bragg’s inability to secure horses for Longstreet in Tennessee limited the mobility of his men, contributing to their failure during the siege of Knoxville.

The Confederate Commissary Department continually begged for equipment to gather food. In August 1863, Commissary General Lucius B. Northrop requested 150 wagons to collect the Virginia wheat crop. Farmers were reluctant to deliver their crops for fear the teams would be impressed. Northrop appealed to Secretary of War Seddon, who, after investigating the matter, directed that the wagons be loaned to the Commissary Department, but still nothing happened. The failure of the secretary of war to obtain wagons confirms their paucity. Similar failed requests from commissary agents in Mississippi resulted in the abandonment of food and confirmed the lack of animals experienced by Johnston.

Horses needed across the South were disappearing into the army. The Richmond Enquirer estimated on May 13, 1862, that farmers had lost a third of their horses and mules, “thus leaving them without sufficient force to cultivate even ordinary crops.” The completion of the critical Piedmont Railroad connecting Danville, Va., to Greensboro, N.C., was delayed throughout 1863, due partially to an inability to obtain 600 mules and wagons. Refugees walked and, if they could, hauled their property in pathetic carts pulled by worn-out beasts. In October 1863, to address widespread farmers’ complaints about unauthorized acquisitions, Major Cole’s responsibilities were expanded to include impressments, and all field officers except army commanders were forbidden to confiscate horses. Impressments were resented because the government paid half the market price. The government tried to address these complaints by raising the price from $350 in December 1863 to $500 in March 1864 and $650 in May, but inflation ran faster than the increases. Even with impressment powers, Cole collected only 4,929 horses and mules in Virginia—from a state that had more than 250,000 animals at the start of the war—between December 1862 and February 1864. This was not enough to supply Lee’s artillery and transportation needs for 7,000 horses and 14,000 mules every 15 months.

To resuscitate horses, the Confederates established horse hospitals. Major James G. Paxton, who had shown an aptitude for resuscitating tired mounts in Brig. Gen. Albert G. Jenkins’ Brigade, was placed in charge of one in southwest Virginia. It employed 83 whites and 179 blacks (19 free and 160 slaves). When horses kept dying of glanders, Paxton enlisted the help of Doctors John Terrell and John Page from the Lynchburg Soldiers Hospitals. In a groundbreaking pathological veterinary study, they showed glanders was a contagious respiratory disease transferred by horses affectionately rubbing noses. There was no cure, and prevention by avoiding overcrowding and quickly destroying infected horses was the only remedy. Even with such procedures, in the 15 months preceding February 1864, Paxton was able to return only 1,057 of the 6,875 horses sent to him. A total of 2,844 perished, with 449 infected horses shot; 133 were lost or stolen; 559 were condemned and sold; 799 were transferred to infirmaries in North Carolina; and 1,483 remained unserviceable.

After Bragg’s defeat at Chattanooga, Johnston assumed command of a battered Army of Tennessee in north Georgia. He solved the artillery’s shortage of 600 horses by reducing the number of animals hauling each gun or caisson to four from six, thus reducing their speed and accelerating their exhaustion. He found no solution to a shortage of 620 mules to haul a pontoon bridge other than to limit operations to the rail line. Although 2,701 animals were sent to Johnston that winter, they barely met the losses of 2,500 due to exhaustion suffered over the same time frame.

After Cole’s investigation in April 1864 confirmed Johnston’s lack of animals, he proposed “to cover all the ground in Alabama and Georgia and get everything not needed for the plow.” Even with these efforts Cole believed the only way to get Johnston’s and Lee’s armies ready for the spring was to again reduce the transportation allowance and to transfer the stock of horses and mules from the secondary armies to the main armies in Georgia and Virginia. This did not happen. Johnston’s lack of animals tied him to the railroad, allowing Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to continually flank Johnston’s positions and push the relatively immobile Confederate army south to Atlanta.

Cole’s efforts to obtain transport animals competed with the cavalry’s efforts to buy remounts. Confederate cavalry became hated across the South for impressing horses. Despite repeated orders and an act of Congress, these deprivations continued. Confederate Captain E.H. Ewing complained that dismounted cavalry, on furloughs to find remounts, became horse traders— bringing a horse forward, which they had probably stolen, selling it at an exorbitant gain and then taking another leave to find another horse to repeat the cycle. Such operations, he said, “entirely swept” some areas “of animals, thereby taking from the people their only means of support.”

The South’s shrinking supply contrasted with huge Northern requisitions. In the year ending June 1864, Union forces acquired 9,500 wagons, 1,100 ambulances, 188,718 horses and 82,320 mules from Northern sources, and 20,308 horses and 9,013 mules bought from Southerners—not counting thousands of unreported confiscations—for a total of more than 300,000 animals. In September there were 170,000 horses, 130,000 mules and 17,478 wagons, not counting ambulances and caissons, in the Union Army, or about one animal for every two men. The Confederacy had less than 75,000.

In the last nine months of the war, Union generals waged an aggressive campaign aimed at exterminating the South’s ability to continue the fight, one part of which entailed destroying Southern horses and mules. When Sherman marched from Atlanta to Savannah he claimed to have “carried away more than 10,000 horses and mules.” At the end of each day’s march Sherman’s men gathered the captured supplies, horses, mules and wagons. The men and animals ate their fill. They compared the captured horses and wagons to their own and kept the better ones while shooting the weaker animals and burning surplus wagons and supplies to deny the South their use.

Union Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan did the same in the Shenandoah Valley, reportedly capturing at least 2,000 animals. When Sherman marched through the Carolinas in 1865, he reported taking 13,872 animals. In March and April 1865, Union Brig. Gen. James Wilson led 13,500 men and 22,000 horses on a 525-mile raid from Tennessee to Macon, Ga. At the end of this grueling ride, he reported that his men had fresh mounts. No count was kept, but most likely another 20,000 Southern animals were appropriated. In the last nine months of the war Union quartermasters reported the capture of 160,000 animals, which was understated due to unreported confiscations. This was three times what was in Confederate service. Gone were the animals, left by Southern agents, to produce the crops to feed the Confederacy.

In February 1865, Cole estimated the remaining armies needed 6,000 horses and 4,500 mules: “The number to be procured in the Confederate States east of the Mississippi by impressment depends on the decision which may be made as to the quantity of animals the farmers will be allowed to keep as essential to their operations. I estimate the supply to be obtained from all sources (provided I am furnished means) not to exceed 5,000 animals on this side of the Mississippi. This leaves a deficit of 5,500 to fill my estimate. If the horses are not supplied the military operations are checked and may be frustrated. If the farmers are stripped of a portion of the animals essential to the conduct of their agricultural operations there must be a corresponding reduction of supplies of food for man and horse.” Cole repeated his suggestion that animals might be obtained from Mexico or behind Union lines in Virginia and Mississippi for gold and cotton, but if funds could not be provided, he asked to be relieved of duty.

Cole’s superior, Quartermaster General Alexander R. Lawton, noted that even if horses were obtained, he doubted the railroads could transport adequate feed and forage to the front. The lack of horses directly contributed to the decline of rail transportation. Railroad executives complained of the lack of wood for locomotive fuel and to replace ties. This deficiency illustrates the impact of Confederate shortages. The South had lots of wood, but the wood that had been easily accessible was gone, and more horse- or mule-drawn transportation was needed to haul the wood from forests farther away. No horses meant no wood to fuel the railroads to haul forage. The interdependent parts of the Southern economy were simply exhausted.

As the war entered its fifth year, rations and transportation for rations continued to spiral downward. Lieutenant William Owen of the Washington Artillery noted in his diary on March 22: “We are really suffering now for food. Yesterday I had to order some ground corn and shucks to be taken from the horses to be distributed to the men. The distribution of rations is very irregular and unreliable.”

When Lee abandoned Richmond, his exhausted horses and men were no match for Grant’s 50,000 animals and 5,000 wagons and ambulances. Lieutenant Owen described the soggy line of retreat. “We are passing abandoned cannon and wrecked and overturned wagons and their now useless contents….Horses and mules dead or dying in the mud….Our march is lighted by the fires of burning wagons.” Surrender came at Appomattox in part because better-fed, more mobile Union armies were able to get in front of Lee’s broken-down mounts.

When Lee surrendered, Grant allowed the Confederate soldiers to take their horses home to plow their fields. Grant provided 25,000 rations for Lee’s men, but he had nothing for the horses, and as the gaunt soldiers and animals marched to the surrender, many horses fell in their tracks. They would not go home to plow the fields in peace. After the Confederates took their private horses, Grant captured only 1,700 animals and fewer than 200 vehicles.

The war was over for the Confederacy and its long-suffering horses.


Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here