Friday, August 5, 2011

Military Veterinary Medicine in America Through the Civil War

by Dr. John Moss /

Between June 1775 and June 1916—or until Congress created a commissioned Officers Corps of Veterinarians--much of the history of Military Veterinary Medicine must be surmised from the histories of the mounted combat branches, medical and supply services. These histories include references to veterinary affairs which present a chronological picture of the development of military services. The elaborate and modern Veterinary Corps of today’s Army bears little or no resemblance to the Veterinarians’ humble beginnings and trial and error evolution in the military structure of this country.

The birth of Veterinary Military Medicine took place after the formation of the dragoons or cavalry. In 1777 the Continental Army formed the cavalry, but it was not until 1792 that the birth of military veterinarians took place. Congressional legislation of 1792 provided that each of the four units of light dragoons would have one farrier to care for the ailments of horses. The first military veterinarians, therefore, were horseshoers who acted as nurses for the animals. In 1798 the number of farriers in the Army had increased from four to a total of ten. Wages also increased from eight to ten dollars monthly. The cavalry, and hence, farriers, were not a part of the Army from 1802 to 1808. However, in 1808 Congress provided funding for a regiment of cavalry which called for eight farriers. By the year 1812 farriers were included as part of the horse artillery. With the reduction on the mounted troops after the War of 1812, farriers disappeared again from the military until 1833. At this time a Cavalry Regiment was formed which included farriers. In 1836 ten more farriers were added with the addition of a second cavalry regiment.

General regulations for the Army in 1834 and 1835 included a discussion of the Veterinary Department of Cavalry. For the first time the term “Veterinary Surgeon” was used. This term, however, was probably used interchangeably with “farrier” during this era.

In the early 1800’s, throughout the United States, there was a recognized need for better veterinary training. This urge came mainly from prominent physicians like Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. James Mease, who saw veterinary medicine as a scientific branch of medicine. It is believed that many human surgeons practiced veterinary surgery concomitantly since the medicines and principles were basically the same. It has not been established if there were any formally trained veterinarians in the Army at this time. No pay scales listed a veterinary surgeon. But there is evidence that the Quartermaster Department considered hiring civilian veterinarians as early as 1837. However, Congress did not appropriate funds for the use of civilian veterinarians until 1849. The U.S. Census of 1850 showed evidence that there were very few veterinarians available at that time. In that census only 46 veterinary surgeons were listed. How many practiced veterinary medicine but listed their occupation as “physician” is unknown. By the eighth Census of 1860, only 392 veterinary surgeons were listed. Regardless of this increase in the fiscal year ending 1861, the Quartermaster’s Department had expended only $168.50 for civilian veterinarians. It is believed that few Military or Civilian contract veterinarians were used until the Civil War had gotten well underway.

The first actual mention of American Military Veterinarians appeared with the beginning of our Civil War. In July 1861, a law was passed which authorized the Union regular Third Cavalry Regiment to be assigned a Veterinary Surgeon to each of the Regimental Battalions. It is presumed that the Veterinary Surgeon supervised farriers with the companies of the battalions. The pay for one surgeon was $17.50 monthly and he ranked as a sergeant in the Cavalry.

The death and morbidity rate of cavalry horses was abominable early in the war. It became evident that a new system and a better level of competence was needed for the care of military animals. An effort to increase the quality of care was made in late 1862. The grade of Veterinary Sergeant was dropped in March 1863, each cavalry regiment was authorized a Regimental Veterinary Surgeon with the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major and was paid $75.00 monthly, equal to that of a Lieutenant. The Secretary of War made the appointments of Veterinary surgeons after the selection by the Chief of the Cavalry Bureau upon the nominations of the regimental commanders. It was believed that the grade and pay increase would provide better-qualified personnel. It probably did little to help.

In spite of the attempts to improve veterinary medical care for the Army there were no fixed standards of education or competence. It is believed that very few graduate veterinarians applied for or received appointments. The Quartermaster’s Department, however, spent $93,666.47 for the hire of Civilian Veterinarians by the end of 1864. These veterinarians were used as contract veterinarians much as the human medical corps used contract surgeons.

It was not until requirements set forth by the Army Regulations of 1861 that all appointed veterinary surgeons with the cavalry were to be graduates of an established and reputable veterinary school or college.

From its meager organization in the Civil War, the Veterinary Corps slowly evolved into an important branch of the Medical Corps. Eventually the Veterinary Corps became elaborately organized in 1916 and blossomed into the extremely valuable branch of medicine we benefit from today.

Dr. John Moss is a veterinarian in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He has been a Civil War reenactor for 20 years, portraying a Civil War surgeon or scout. Dr. Moss has been a board member of the Society of Civil War Surgeons for 12 years and is a regular speaker at their annual convention. He is an experienced researcher of the history of medical and veterinary medicine in the 1860’s.


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