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Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Horses of War

By C. Kay Larson, 2-2-13


The Civil War is not normally called a horse’s war, but it most certainly was: cavalry and artillery horses, draft and pack horses and mules, approximately one million on the Union side alone. The seat of war was also the lap of America’s horse culture – or, rather, cultures, north and south.

As the historian David Hackett Fischer points out, the First Families of Virginia, the fountain of Southern culture, were descendants of aristocracy and gentry ― Armisteads, Lees, Randolphs, Washingtons ― who largely emigrated from southwest England. This rural, manorial region supported King Charles I during the English Civil War, and owned slaves until the early Middle Ages. At least among the officers and Southern gentry, horses were signs of elite power, a symbolism that translated onto the American battlefield and, after the war, the statuary pedestals of countless Southern town squares.

In contrast, the “First Families of the North” ― Winthrops, Saltonstalls and Welleses ― were most associated with Suffolk, Essex and Cambridge, a Puritan region of yeoman farmers and artisans. Horses were more utilitarian, bred to work, not to race or ride to oversee the plantation.

Nineteenth-century romanticism enhanced the “chivalry” image. Sir Walter Scott’s novel “Ivanhoe,” set in the age of crusading knights, was a blockbuster hit in the American South. Through it, Southern planters idealized themselves as models of medieval honor, manhood, classical learning – and equestrian skills.

When hostilities began, the Confederate military was led by this dashing upper class, foremost among them Robert E. Lee. Son of the Revolutionary War general “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Robert married Mary Custis, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. He graduated second in his class at West Point and excelled in horsemanship.

Indeed, the cavalry was a sure path to glory in the Confederate Army. J. E. B. Stuart and Jubal Early were the two most famous Confederate cavalry officers, though others gained solid reputations. The legendary mounted raiders Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Hunt Morgan disrupted drives across Tennessee by the Union generals Don Carlos Buell and William S. Rosecrans.

Steeds were more than status symbols, though: when fighting was fierce or retreats had turned into routs, generals might personally rally their troops. The visual symbolism and bravery of mounted officers created an aura of élan and command on the battlefield. During the 1864 campaigns in Virginia, General Lee rode along along the breastworks encouraging the men, turned retreating troops and chased down stragglers. Once, when Lee was exposed to cannon fire, an artilleryman remembered that “Old Mas’ Bob rode out of the smoke on Traveller, amid the loud shouts of A. P. Hill’s Corps.”

The Southern cavalry was a rich man’s undertaking: members had to provide their own horses. This resulted constant shortages of both trained horses and men to ride them. During Lee’s advance to Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, his forces confiscated horses from Pennsylvania farmers. However, mounts must be trained for combat, to not react to guns and cannon, so likely they proved ineffective at first.

Despite an initial supply problem and lack of leadership and mission focus, by mid-1863 the Union cavalry was coming into its own. Union quartermasters smartly purchased many Morgans, a uniquely American breed known for endurance, versatility, heart and courage. The largest cavalry battle of the war, involving 17,000 horsemen, occurred on June 9, 1863, at Brandy Station, Va. Stuart’s forces were preparing to advance in order to screen Lee’s march north toward Gettysburg. Begun by a Union surprise attack, the Confederates finally fended off the enemy. Yet the Union soldiers’ strong stand resulted from the fact that for the first time, they had trained and been commanded as a coherent corps. After the Battle of Gettysburg, Union cavalry fought 15 battles in 16 days and captured or destroyed half of Stuart’s cavalry, as well as 4,000 or so horses and mules and 1,000 loaded wagons. The South’s food crisis also gave Union cavalry operations an edge; by early 1865 well-fed Northern cavalry mounts were able to beat malnourished Confederate horses to their own supply trains and depots in Virginia.

Union cavalry proved itself in the Western Theater, too. In General Rosecrans’s Middle Tennessee campaign that year, cavalry under David Stanley made daring attacks on rifle pits and cannons north of Shelbyville. Perhaps the most successful raiding operation of the war was conducted by a former music teacher, Benjamin Grierson, who during the 1863 Vicksburg campaign cut a 600-mile swath of destruction through Mississippi to disrupt Confederate Gen. John Pemberton’s supply lines.

But the real heroes were the horses themselves. Cavalrymen and scouts understood what their horses could do for them. Horses could sense enemy forces before they reached a rider’s earshot. Take Nellie, a 6-year-old Union horse who was first ridden in service by a soldier pursuing the Confederate general Morgan during his three-state Ohio River Valley raid in 1862 and ’63. During the Knoxville, Tenn., campaign, Nellie was ridden every day and active in every engagement from August 1863 through April 1864. In one fray, she fell and her rider was taken prisoner. Nellie, however, scrambled to her feet and escaped to swim the Tennessee River and regain Union lines. (After a few days the cavalryman tromped into camp.) Later Nellie was with Sherman’s march into Georgia. Through it all, she was always sure-footed, regardless of rocky passes or the darkest night. She knew, one observer said, “The shriek of a shell and the direction of their flight, almost as well as her owners.”

Mounts of famous generals became almost as well-known as their riders: among others, Ulysses S. Grant’s Cincinnati, Lee’s Traveller, Custer’s Custis Lee, Stonewall Jackson’s Little Sorrell, Philip Sheridan’s Rienzi and George G. Meade’s Old Baldy (wounded five times in battle).

At the 1864 battle of Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley, en route from Washington, Sheridan rode Rienzi hard to meet and regroup his fleeing forces, after General Early’s Confederates had broken their lines. As Sheridan rode among them, the men “threw up their hats, shouldered their muskets, and as I passed along turned to follow with enthusiasm and cheers.” Sheridan directed: “We must face the other way; we will go back and recover our camp.” They did.

Sources: Boston Evening Transcript, July 22, 1863 and Sept. 2, 1864; Boston Herald, June 21, 1864; Thomas Nelson Conrad, “Rebel Scout”; C. Kay Larson, “Great Necessities”; James M. McPherson, “Battle Cry of Freedom”; Jeffrey R. Morris and Richard B. Morris, eds., “Encyclopedia of American History”; National Museum of the Morgan Horse; Elizabeth Brown Pryor, “Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Letters”; Philip Sheridan, “Memoirs”; U. S., War Department, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Anthony Waskie, “Old Baldy.”

C. Kay Larson is a member of the board of the New York Military Affairs Symposium and the author of “Great Necessities: The Life, Times, and Writings of Anna Ella Carroll, 1815-1894 and “South Under a Prairie Sky: The Journal of Nell Churchill, U. S. Army Nurse and Scout.”

Image: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his war horse, Cincinnati. Library of Congress

From: opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com

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