The American Civil War (1861-1865) soldier preferred to shoot and kill horses rather than enemy combatants, because without horses, artillery became passive objects of heavy metal and without mounts the swift cavalryman was reduced to a plodding foot soldier now powerless to rapidly scout, locate and strike the enemy and its supplies. Take away the horse, and the triune army was stripped of two of its three major components, cavalry and artillery, leaving only disadvantaged infantrymen to carry the brunt. While cavalry, consisting of the finest mounts and chargers, was considered the eyes and ears of the army, the artillery branch, appreciating the brute strength of the solid-hoofed animals, consisted of mammoth bronze and iron weapons that were capable of eliminating an overwhelming advancing army.
During the conflict it is estimated that between 1,000,000 and 3,000,000 equines died, including horses, mules, donkeys and even confiscated children’s ponies. It is estimated that the horse casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg alone, July 1 and July 3, 1863, exceeded 3,000. Diaries and letters of soldiers often mentioned the stench of dead steeds rising up from the fields of battle.
In an account of the events at Gettysburg, General Gibbons of the Union Army made this observation of the horses in Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing's 4th Artillery Brigade: One thing which forcibly occurred to me was the perfect quiet with which the horses stood in their places. Even when a shell, striking in the midst of a team, would knock over one or two of them or hurl one struggling in its death agonies to the ground, the rest would make no effort to struggle or escape but would stand stolidly by as if saying to themselves, "It is fate, it is useless to try to avoid it."
Horse and mule casualties far surpassed the total number of soldiers that died during the conflict. And was the fate of soldiers, more equines perished from disease or exhaustion than from being hit by bullets. Many died of glanders, which is a highly infectious disease that affects a horse’s nasal passages, respiration and skin. Besides battle causalities, horses had difficulty maintaining the four miles per hour pace regularly achieved by the cavalry. Horses also ate little and drank from muddied streams, and they often became gaunt and sickly.
Union General William Sherman believed in the welfare and wellness of horses and said 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.” Horses were ridden by generals and cavalry, but also pulled cannons and supply wagons. They were the targets of fire, because if you killed the horses, you halted the artillery movement or the cavalry charge.
Without mounts and mules, the Civil War would have been quite different because the animals were absolutely indispensable to both sides. And they paid dearly as a result of that indispensableness, as did many farmers and noncombatants, whose horses were confiscated routinely over the course of the war by both Union and Confederate forces, leaving them without draft animals that they depended upon for their livelihood.
One cannot overstate the vital importance of both steeds and mules during the Civil War. The cavalries on both sides rode them. The materiel and supplies that each side depended upon was hauled by them. The artillery pieces and heavy guns could not be moved from battle to battle, or maneuvered during the fight, without them. While horses carried the generals and other high ranking officers into the fray, they also transported the wounded soldiers from the battlefield to the hospitals behind the lines. Whether referred to as work horses or war horses, they were, truly, the backbone of the Army.
On Sept. 19, 1862, just two days after the Battle of Antietam, Alexander Gardner, an employee of the photographer Mathew Brady, began documenting the battle’s grim aftermath. One of Gardner’s photographs, titled “Dead Horse of Confederate Colonel; both killed at Battle of Antietam,” depicted a milky-white steed lying on the field in an eerily peaceful repose. Another showed a line of bloated Confederate bodies along the Hagerstown Pike.
One who lost his horse at Antietam said, "The third shell struck and killed my horse and bursting, blew him to pieces, knocked me down, of course, and tore off my right arm..." Pvt. Ezra E. Stickley, Company A, 5th Virginia Infantry
Although by 1864 the sight of one dead horse was common place, the handsome mount was difficult and costly to replace. It was also much easier to replace a soldier than a horse. As the conflict progressed, the Union Army struggled to acquire the 500 horses it needed daily to sustain its army in the field. Sheridan himself required 150 additional steeds each day during the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. The army therefore bought and captured nearly 210,000 horses in 1864 in order to offset the mounts that had died. If the soldiers had died at that rate, plus wounded, it would have necessitated approximately 1,000,000 replacements, new recruits to be precise, to negate the shortfall for said year. A daunting if not impossible task. More than 1,000,000 horses died in the Civil War
(About) Dead Horse of Confederate Colonel; both killed at Battle of Antietam. Retouched by the writer for clarity. View center mass of the mount, and you will see a very visible circular entry wound indicating a large caliber, likely a canister ball (from cannon of course), that entered the gut of the horse killing it instantly and therefore dropping him where he once stood. A horse in battle could generally withstand several shots from small arms, but during the process it would run, unless it was tied, which was the practice of horse artillery, and as it died, including the secured horse, it would merely collapse on its side or in an otherwise unnatural position. The belief that it was canister shot is because of caliber, the immediate collapse and position of the horse, and the rider, the colonel, appears to have been hit simultaneously with his stead. September 1862 at Antietam Battlefield. Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress.
One witness at the awkward scene stated that "The number of dead horses was high. They lay, like the men, in all attitudes. One beautiful milk-white animal had died in so graceful a position that I wished for its photograph. Its legs were doubled under and its arched neck gracefully turned to one side, as if looking back to the ball-hole in its side. Until you got to it, it was hard to believe the horse was dead." - Union General Alpheus Williams, Antietam, September 22, 1862