Sunday, August 30, 2015

Preserving the Horse Power of the Army


About one million horses died in service in both armies during the war. The wear and tear was extreme, constant, and inevitable, since Civil War armies were dependent upon horses and mules to keep armies supplied and to keep them on the move. 

The South had 1.7 million horses and the North had 3.4 million at the beginning of the war. It did not take long for generals on both sides to exhaust their equine reserves. They were unrelenting in their demands on soldiers to properly care for their animals. An equine epidemic could imperil the military efficiency of the troops, especially in the Confederacy where horses became scarce during the final two years of the war. Although soldiers on both sides were overwhelmingly from rural areas and were experienced with riding and caring for horses, the exhausting pressures of war were so urgent that often the soldier’s immediate needs—to get his own shelter, find water, and secure food—took precedence over the needs of his horse. 

During the 1865 Appomattox Campaign, for instance, Lee’s men had been living for months on a diet that lacked half of the necessary protein to maintain muscle mass as well as sufficient calories to sustain body mass. These men were suffering from night blindness, scurvy, and diarrhea, and they could barely care for themselves, let alone the animals in their army. The desperation in the ranks was felt in Confederate stables as well. One Southern cavalry officer complained that his horses received between two and a half and five pounds of feed per day. “This is insufficient to keep the horses in condition,” a Confederate inspector wrote, “they must go down.” A horse was supposed to receive fourteen pounds of hay and twelve pounds of grain every day, and in some areas of the Confederacy the countryside did not have the resources to sustain such an unending demand. 

Even though Union armies were better positioned to care for their animals, neither side had a staff of veterinary specialists to provide rudimentary medical care. Some have speculated that there were fewer than fifty veterinarians in the entire country. Out of necessity physicians often assisted in inspecting the animals, treating injuries, and finding ways to contain the spread of disease in the corral. In battle horses were inviting targets since the killing of animals virtually paralyzed artillerists who were unable to move their cannon. Shooting a mount might also injure an officer and thus imperil his ability to command in the field. 

In the end, the greatest risk to horses was the daily grind of campaigning, of being used to move the army and to scout the enemy. 

Learn more about Civil War veterinary medicine at


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