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Thursday, September 12, 2013

'This Sorrowful War': A Veterinary Surgeon in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Philip M. Teigen and Leon Z. Saunders


Horses and mules attended or participated in virtually all engagements of the American Civil War (1861-1865). This was the case whether the action took place in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, or anywhere else. Horses and mules served artillerymen, infantrymen, sailors, quartermasters, cavalrymen, and surgeons. After the war, horses—but not mules—then served celebratory functions, appearing in thousands of sculptures, photographs, drawings, and paintings, commemorating Union and Confederate war efforts. In spite of their ubiquity during the Civil War and in the American collective memory, however, we know little about how horses and mules actually fared. For this reason, the memoir of Gustavus Asche-Berg deserves our attention. An experienced veterinarian who served in the Union Army for about a year, Asche-Berg published a memoir of his experiences in 1863 in a Berlin veterinary journal. There it remained unnoticed until Leon Z. Saunders discovered it recently.

Trained as a veterinarian, and possibly as a physician as well, Asche-Berg practiced veterinary medicine in the Old World for thirteen years and then human medicine in the New, before joining the Union cause during the late summer or early fall of 1861. He first connected with a Pennsylvania unit as a surgeon, but soon changed his mind and joined the Fourth New York Cavalry as a veterinarian. At this time, he might have been in his late thirties or early forties.

Asche-Berg's memoir is important not only for historians of veterinary medicine but also for those of the Civil War. It illustrates some of the disasters that befell the Union Army as it tried to stop Stonewall Jackson's 1862 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. More generally, it contributes to our understanding of the Union Army's ethnic conflicts, amateurishness, and political conflicts.

This essay is an introduction to Asche-Berg's recollections. They are too long, complicated, and contradictory to publish independently, or even to summarize entirely. Moreover, much remains unknown about him, his possible origins in Prussia or Mecklenberg, his education, his emigration to the United States, and his career after leaving the Civil War in the summer of 1862. Indeed, we do not know when or where he died.

1. The Fourth New York Cavalry
Although Asche-Berg does not identify his regiment, it was almost certainly the Fourth New York Volunteer Cavalry. He describes in detail garrison life at Hunter's Chapel, Virginia, and we know from other sources that the Fourth New York was the only cavalry unit garrisoned there then. Moreover, this unit's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia closely parallels Asche-Berg's narrative. All the same, we should note we have not yet found Asche-Berg during a continuing search of the regiment's archives.

The Fourth was filled with German immigrants recruited chiefly in New York and Pennsylvania. Its organizer and commander, Christian F. Dickel, was a German immigrant like Asche-Berg. His unit was part of Louis Blenker's Division—also known as the German Division— because it, too, was organized and commanded by a German immigrant. So German was Blenker's Division that its dispatches to Dickel's regiment (and perhaps others) were written, or at least translated, into German.

During late summer and early fall of 1861, the Fourth New York Cavalry made its way from New York to Hunter's Chapel in northern Virginia, across the Potomac River from the District of Columbia . Hunter's Chapel comprised a part of the circle of defenses that Abraham Lincoln built to protect the Capitol from Southern attack. The Fourth New York Cavalry remained there for five months. During this time, it brought its ranks up to strength, trained men and horses in warfare, served as picket line for artillery emplacements protecting the Long Bridge to the Capitol (Fig. 2); and performed military ceremonies in and around Washington. [7] This last duty fell to Dickel's unit because Blenker, Dickel, and many of their men were experienced soldiers before emigrating, and therefore knew how to parade and drill. There was antipathy, however, between the immigrants and the nativists in Blenker's Division. Another memoirist of the Fourth New York, William R. Parnell, ridiculed Blenker, Dickel, and the German troops:

"Dress-parade was conducted in a manner that to the genuine American soldier will appear supremely ridiculous. . . . As soon as all the necessary preparations were made, the Great Mogul,--the division commander,--in all the splendor of gold lace, followed by his staff, together with from fifty to sixty counts, barons, dukes (hangers-on), would stride out through the open space to the centre of the square and then halt. Everybody then saluted with the hand, retaining the hand German fashion until the Great Mogul acknowledged the same by raising with magnificent dignity his gold lace cap."

Although this junior officer in the regiment scorned them, General George B. McClellan, the Commander of the Army of the Potomac, loved the German experience and military presence, using them often in parades (Fig. 3 omitted). However exaggerated and unjust Parnell's critique was, it illustrated the bitter ethnic and political infighting that marked many units during the Civil War. Later we will set out Asche-Berg's equally harsh indictment of the native-born volunteers.

In March of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Blenker's Division, including the Fourth Cavalry, to leave the Capitol's defensive perimeter, and set out for the Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln detached the German Division from George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, which was about to move on the Confederate capitol in Richmond, Virginia, and sent it to join the Mountain Department, commanded by John C. Fremont, a political ally. Fremont, in turn, was to engage Stonewall Jackson's forces then at large in the Shenandoah and a continuing threat to nearby Washington, D.C. Blenker's Division marched as far West as Franklin, Romney, and Moorefield, Virginia, (now, West Virginia) and to battles at Cross Keys and Cedar Mountain, as well as skirmishes along the way. Hindered by terrible weather, inexperienced soldiers, and inept organization and supply, Blenker's Division ineffectually pursued Jackson and his forces. Along the way, Blenker and his 9,000 or so soldiers—with artillery and hundreds of horses—lost their way and had to be located by officers sent out from the Mountain Department. So chaotic and desperate were the Division's movements that troops resorted to thievery and looting.

2. Horses at War
From October 1861 until March 1862, when the Fourth New York Cavalry left Hunter's Chapel, the regiment lost 160 of the 780 horses assigned to it, according to Asche-Berg. Some were lost by disease, others by accident, carelessness, inexperience, and actual combat. Asche-Berg notes the presence of goiter, strangles, and glanders. He became angry when glanderous horses were not destroyed, quarantined, or buried properly. His protests may have led to a regimental order which instructed that "veterinary surgeons, or sergeants, will from this date, bury dead horses in graves not less than six feet in depth."

 Although Asche-Berg understood the dangers of glanders to a cavalry regiment, he concluded that it was too rare a disease to pose a major threat to the regiment's horse herd during the 1861-62 winter. For a neighboring artillery unit, however, the disease was a serious problem,

More serious than disease was the carelessness of inexperienced riders and the fortunes of war. Reckless soldiers, overcome with what Asche-Berg called an "infectious frenzy," cost the regiment eighteen horses.
" The riding, whether uphill or downhill... in the camp, from the headquarters, over fields and streets in the cities or countryside, from house to house, private party, general, high commander, lieutenant, and quartermaster, all, all without interruption, was at a gallop. To see a trot or pace is as seldom as a black swan ... ."

This carelessness was hard to stop, although the regiment's order book describes efforts to do so. On September 22, 1861, for example, the regimental commander, Christian F. Dickel, forbad soldiers from racing horses when taking them to water. On October 18, he complained that horses were still being raced in camp. Two days later he ordered that commissioned officers accompany the enlisted men each time they watered horses. A month later, Dickel ordered soldiers confined for eight days on bread and water if they galloped horses in camp. (The same punishment was prescribed for men who struck their horses.)  By the time the regiment left Hunter's Chapel in March of 1862, such recklessness seems to have abated. The men, perhaps having acquired more training and experience during the winter, appeared to need less disciplining.

Of the 780 horses issued to the regiment in October 1861, twenty-one were stolen or lost, eighteen were destroyed after suffering accidents while performing orderly or picket duty, eleven were shot in combat (some by friendly fire), and nine died or were destroyed because of disease. Ninety-eight were unfit for service because of temporary lameness, fistulas, emaciation, and gravidity. In short, five months of garrison duty and training cost the regiment twenty percent of its horses. Of those declared unfit for service, thirty-one were taken along as pack animals and the remaining sixty-seven were abandoned. Their abandonment angered Asche-Berg because he thought he could have returned most of them to service
.
Asche-Berg left Hunter's Chapel angry and frustrated. However, the disasters of the subsequent five months in the field made garrison duty in Northern Virginia appear idyllic in retrospect. In his memoir, for example, written after the Shenandoah Campaign had ended, he spent more time reminiscing about his own horse—a Canadian pony that he talked an Irishman into giving him—than on any other subject. It captivated him on first sight, and his affection grew as he restored it to health, aided by the healing force of nature.

Leaving Northern Virginia to aid General Fremont's pursuit of Stonewall Jackson, the regiment's horses suffered even greater losses than they had while at Hunter's Chapel. Although spring seemed near when the regiment left the District of Columbia's defense perimeter on March 10, winter soon returned, and the horses and men suffered four days of cold, rain, and ice without food or shelter, and a disastrous crossing of the flooded Shenandoah River.  Then it got worse.

When the regiment approached Franklin, Virginia (now part of West Virginia), its rocky and steep mountainsides exhausted the horses. At the same time, because supply wagons could not keep up, the horses went without food for eleven days. Many died from exhaustion and malnutrition. Then, when feed finally arrived, it killed and sickened more horses. Compounding these disasters was the lack of horseshoes and nails, which were especially needed on the rocky ground around Franklin. The regiment's herd—620 on March 10—was reduced to 329 by June 10, and to 249 by the end of July 1862.

Besides the weather, the mountainous terrain, and the inadequate logistics, wounds from kicks, saddle sores, and friendly fire also reduced the number of serviceable horses still further. These three classes of injuries incapacitated 142 horses. Thirty-two others were captured or killed by the enemy, including the pony Asche-Berg had become so attached to at Hunter's Chapel. Diseases such as scabies, lice, and rheumatic lameness laid low more. Five months after leaving Hunter's Chapel, none of the regiment's horses were fit for cavalry service and all were relegated to "permanent orderly duty.".

3. A German Immigrant's Opinion of the American Civil War
Asche-Berg held strong opinions about the conflict between the North and the South, which he called "this sorrowful war", as well as about American military culture in particular and American culture in general. Corruption offended him. Although competent officers recruited some regiments, in many others swindle, humbug and speculation turned recruiting into a "cash cow." Entrepreneurs who recruited 100 men were named regimental commanders, while those who could collect only 30 or 40 became company-grade officers. Speculators would pay men out of their own pockets, in the hopes that the salaries and expenses of their unit would eventually be picked up by the President and the Secretary of War. This method of recruitment lead to motley units of volunteers who, motivated chiefly by poverty, looked more like carnival workers or gypsies than soldiers.

The wastefulness of the soldiers—encouraged by the enormous wealth of the Northern states — also offended Asche-Berg. He remarked on how Uncle Sam was spending $1.5 million a day to prosecute the war and later notes how the phrase "Uncle Sam" came to signify the "immeasurable coffers" of the federal government. For too many Union soldiers the war was just business where "everyone works toward pulling down as much as possible from which an advantage could accrue directly or indirectly.... everything at the cost of the good-natured uncle of the states".

Asche-Berg felt veterinarians were poorly treated. In particular, he objected to the fact that they were not commissioned officers, but only sergeants. As a result, they were subjected to low status and pay. This did not apply to Asche-Berg himself, however, because he never actually enlisted. He was careful not to swear the oath of allegiance to the United States required at enlistment. Hence, he supplemented his salary (if he had one) by charging fees for caring for officers' horses. He thus assured himself of an income equal to what he had as a civilian.

Finally, Asche-Berg disliked the amateurishness of the soldiers. They could not take the time to learn how to wage war. It was forward or perish for them all (p. 21). It was this amateurishness— comprised of inadequate training and insufficient discipline—that led these cavalrymen—officers and enlisted men alike—to loot Southern farms.

Asche-Berg ended his memoir late in July 1862, about a month after the Shenandoah campaign ended with battles at Cross Keys and Port Republic, Virginia.. During the summer of 1862, then, or shortly thereafter, he walked away from the Fourth New York Cavalry. His initial commitment to soldiering for Uncle Sam was minimal, as he had joined as much out of curiosity as out of commitment to a cause. Within a year of leaving the Union Army, he published his memoir in Berlin, and by July of 1863, he was practicing veterinary medicine as a civilian in Baltimore. He then disappears from the historical record.

Epilogue
Besides leaving posterity an important narrative of the Civil War, Asche-Berg's account of his experiences at Hunter's Chapel and in the Shenandoah Valley is notable for two reasons. Because his memoir was published in 1863, a year or less after he had experienced them, it is among the earliest narratives published about the Civil War. Furthermore, his memoir is one of disillusionment, placing him among the memoirists who remembered its deadly destructiveness. Civil War reminiscences written after it was over tended toward sentimentality, recounting the comradery, adventure, and glory of warfare rather than its horrors.  Asche-berg's disenchantment and subsequent abandonment of the Fourth New York Cavalry parallels the Civil War experience of the great novelist and journalist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910). Although his memoir is not comparable to Twain's recollections in terms of the quality of its writing, Asche-Berg's account bears a greater similarity to Twain anti-war feelings than to the romanticized recollections of most other veterans. Twain, like Asche-Berg, was among the thousands who "entered the war, got just a taste of it, and then stepped out again, permanently."

 Incompetence, senseless suffering, and killing led both Asche-Berg and Twain to "step out" of the ranks. "I could have become a soldier myself if I had waited," Twain wrote. "I had got part of it learned; I knew more about retreating than the man that invented retreating."  This could be Asche-Berg's epigraph, also.
The millions of horses and mules that suffered and died during the Civil War left no epigraphs. They do have a monument now, however, in Middleton, Virginia, on the road to the Shenandoah Valley, where so many fought and died during the spring and summer of 1862.

From: New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center
Courtesy of Veterinary Heritage, Fred Smithcors, Editor.

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