Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The History of Civil War Veterinarians

By James Rada

Walter Heiss may be the only person to have worn his Civil War uniform although he is not a veteran of the war.

The blue Union jacket has the gold stripes of a calvaryman. The three-up, three-down stripes identify him as a sergeant major, but in between those stripes is a horseshoe patch marking him as a veterinary surgeon.

"There isn't a record of anyone holding this position," Mr. Heiss said. And he would be one of the few people alive who would know. Mr. Heiss spent two years compiling information about Civil War veterinary medicine.

"At the beginning of the Civil War, there were 7.5 million horses in the United States and only 50 veterinarians," Mr. Heiss said. "They were all foreign born and foreign trained."

One of the few American veterinary schools, the New York College of Veterinary Surgeons, was founded in 1857. Although this is four years before the start of the war, Mr. Heiss's research found that the school's first graduating class numbered two members and didn't happen until 1867, two years after the end of the war.

This was the state of veterinary medicine at the outbreak of the Civil War. Many of the calvary battles in the war left horses with saber wounds that could have been healed if treated properly. Because no proper care existed, many of these injuries became fatalities.

Mr. Heiss, who is 80 years old, spent two years compiling everything he could find about veterinary science during the war. "I tried to chronicle all of the things I found in sequence and in context," Mr. Heiss said.

The resulting book, "Veterinary Service During the American Civil War," gathers what little was done about veterinary service during the war and puts it into context with other events during the war.

Mr. Heiss's interest in this forgotten area of Civil War history began when he and his wife moved back to Frederick from Georgia in 2000.

"I didn't know anything about the Civil War," Mr. Heiss said. "My wife and I went through the Museum (of Civil War Medicine) and as complete as it was, there was very little about veterinary medicine."

With the secession of the southern states and outbreak of war, both the Union and the Confederacy started on a massive procurement of horses. Hundreds of thousands of horses needed to be fed, sheltered, shod and equipped.

Despite the Confederacy's reputation of having superior horsemen, Mr. Heiss's research found they didn't care for their horses any better than the Union troops.

According to Fredie Steve Harris, writing in Western Horseman in 1976, the Union addressed this need and won the war. The Confederacy was unable to cope with the demand and lost.

Mr. Heiss said that, typically, a horse received 26 pounds of grain and hay a day. "At the end of the war, General Lee was writing and asking if he could just receive five pounds a day," Mr. Heiss said.

Military horses lacked good care. They were overworked and many suffered from a disease called glanders, a contagious disease that increased mucus secretions from a horse's nostrils and swelled the glands in their lower jaws.

Mr. Heiss said because of this poor care, close to 1.5 million or 20 percent of the nation's horses died during the war.

He said both the Union and Confederacy built "magnificent remount depots" that could hold up to 30,000 horses with appropriate infirmaries, haying facilities and wide open corrals.

"There were no veterinarians to work there," Mr. Heiss said. "It was like building the National Institutes of Health and not having any doctors to staff it."

He says there were people who had practical knowledge of horses, just not doctors trained in their care. Calvary units had veterinary sergeants at the beginning of the war, the position was eliminated without explanation in July 1862.

In part, the lack of veterinary surgeons was an economic one. Sergeant majors received $75 a month in pay. Farriers got $15 a month.

"So if a commanding officer could get one veterinarian or five farriers, he was well ahead to take the farriers," Mr. Heiss said. "He could get more people who could provide some medical care and do other things as well."

Mr. Heiss said that veterinary service really wasn't established in the military until 1916 when the veterinarians were first given their commissions.

Mr. Heiss's book is dedicated to the horses that died during the Civil War. While soldiers were buried in military graves, the government originally allowed salvagers to unearth the horse remains and sell the bones for a number of uses. A letter from the Quartermaster's Office in October 1865 read in part, "Having died in service he thinks they (the horses) ought to rest in peace."

"Veterinary Service During the American Civil War" can be purchased at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, 48 E. Patrick St., Frederick, and online at Amazon.com.

From: fredericknewspost.com


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