30 January 2007 by Published in: General musings 15 comments

The death of Barbaro yesterday reminded me yesterday of just how fragile horses are. For all of their size and strength, horses are delicate, fragile beasts. The truth is that they were never intended to tolerate the abuse that we humans so often subject them to. And unless properly fed, watered, and cared for, they will break down.

Capt. Charles Francis Adams served in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. The grandson of one U. S. President, and the great-grandson of another, Adams possessed the family’s gift for the written word. The winter of 1863 was an especially harsh one. Adams had a chance to observe the torment of his unit’s mounts as they suffered alongside their masters:

My tent is logged up, I have a good fire-place, a pretty complete outfit and am as comfortable as I have any wish to be; but I feel for my men and dare not go and look at my horses. I know just how they look, as they huddle together at the picket-ropes and turn their shivering croups to this pelting north-easter. There they stand without shelter, fetlock deep in slush and mud, without a blanket among them, and there they must stand–poor beasts–and all I can do for them is to give them all the food I can, and that little enough. Of oats there is a sufficiency and the horses have twelve quarts a day; but hay is scant, and it is only by luck that we have a few bales just now when most we need them. I have them fed four times a day–at morning, noon, night and midnight–and if they have enough to eat, they do wonderfully well, but it comes hard on them to have to sustain hunger, as well as cold and wet. It is all over, however, with any horse that begins to fail, for after a few days he either dies at the rope, or else glanders set in and he is led out and shot. I lose in this way two or three horses per week.

Charles Francis Adams to his father, January 28, 1863. Some 1.5 million horses are estimated to have died in the American Civil War.

The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads was fought near Fayetteville, North Carolina on March 10, 1865. Pvt. William F. Sewell of the 5th Georgia Cavalry received a mortal wound in that harsh fighting. While the Battle of Bentonville raged on March 19, local blacks ventured out onto the Monroe’s Crossroads battlefield. They found Sewell’s unburied body lying on the bank of a creek where he fell and died on March 10. His large black horse, still saddled and and still carrying all of its accouterments, grazed nearby, faithfully waiting for his master to awaken and for them to get back to work. That black horse loyally stood by its dead master for nine long days.

The National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia–the heart of modern Virginia horse country–commissioned a monument to the Civil War cavalry horse. Rather than portray a hale and hearty horse, the monument shows an exhausted, malnourished cavalry horse, still faithful and still serving, even though it was clearly near the end of its rope. The scabbard to his master’s saber is empty; we don’t know what happened to his master. The monument accurately depicts the condition of Civil War cavalry horses, and shows the frightful toll that endless hours of marching and picketing took on those proud beasts.

Although Barbaro was a pampered and beloved thoroughbred, he demonstrated the same fighting spirit as those faithful cavalry horses, and I admire him. He proved that the mark of a champion is not necessarily won-lost record, but rather heart and courage. In demonstrating the heart and courage of a champion, he proved himself a worthy heir to the cavalry horses who sacrificed so much in the Civil War.

Scridb filter


  1. Tue 30th Jan 2007 at 11:21 pm

    Mr. Wittenberg:

    My son owns several horses and is a farrier. Through his interest in horses and vocation, I am somewhat familiar with the care of horses and their amazing spirit and courage. I thought you might appreciate these words from Francis Hopkins who rode with Jeb Stuart:

    “Ah! the horses—the blacks and bays, the roans and grays, the sorrels and
    chestnuts that pulled Lee’s army from the Rappahannock to Gettysburg
    and back, and all the other horses that pulled and tugged at the wagons, at
    the batteries of artillery; the horses that carried the men, the unstabled
    horses and the half-fed horses. Let my right hand forget its cunning if I forget to pay proper tribute to those noble animals that suffered so much for their masters. How often my mind goes back to that horse that I saw coming across the field from the front at Bull Run with his sides all dripping
    with blood. He was a hero, for he had been out ‘where the fields were shot,
    sown and bladed thick with steel,’ and was coming back to die.”

    The affection that Civil War soldiers had for their mounts is further expressed by Hopkins with these words:

    “The horses that were alive at the close of the war were, for the most part,
    tenderly cared for, and have long ago joined their comrades on the other
    side. I hope they are all grazing together in the green fields of Eden.”


  2. Tue 30th Jan 2007 at 11:23 pm


    That’s really fabulous, touching stuff. Thank you so much for sharing it with me.


  3. Wed 31st Jan 2007 at 12:13 pm


    Great post, really important to remember the Horse as well. Next time I am in Virginia I will go see that monument.

    You have done a great job preserving the memory of all of the Cavalry of the War Between the States.

    Charles Francis Adams words were important to show that the Trooper and his horse were far more then just a transportation method, but a team.


  4. Rick Allen
    Wed 31st Jan 2007 at 12:23 pm

    Very touching post. I often think the condition of the aninimals would have bothered me more than those of the humans.

  5. Michael Aubrecht
    Wed 31st Jan 2007 at 2:54 pm

    EXCELLENT post Eric and GREAT comments guys. Horses are the most widely forgotten participants of the War Between the States. It reminds me of a quote:

    “One thing which forcibly occurred to me was the perfect quiet which 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 his death agonies to the ground, the rest would make no effort to struggle or escape but would stand solidly by as if saying to themselves, ‘It is fate, it is useless to try to avoid it.'” – General John Gibbon U.S.A.

  6. justme
    Wed 31st Jan 2007 at 4:00 pm

    I never really cared for horses until I met my bride. For a while we had four – now we’re down to two.

    My story involves the four. Christmas eve – 2002. It was snowing here – the kind of snow you dream about on Christmas eve and day as a child. Not a biting cold, no wind. Just snow – and lots of it. My bride and I had just gottne home from the eve’s revelry, and she, the horse lover, being pregnant at the time, pretty much collapsed from fatigue. I bundles up, gathered a bag of carrots, and strolled into the middle of out pasture. Deathly quiet. The four beasts gathered around – each taking a side. They knew what was up. Normally, when carrots arrive – they pushed and shoved each other to a point I’d become fearful. Not that night. Each patiently waited his/her turn. Each got their fill.

    They know I’m not the horse person in the house. But when the bride’s away – and one of them gets tangled in their blanket – it always amazes me how quietly they stand while I try and figure out how to get the darn thing off. They could spook and run at my clumsiness, but no, they know I’m trying to help and just stand there patiently waiting. It amazes me every time.

    One more – then I’m done. We have a photograph of my son, when he was just starting to walk, pulling – and I mean pulling – on the pld mare’s ear as she tried to nibble the grass under the fence. She just stood there and let him do it. No pulling away, no snorting, no whinnying, nothing. Like she was a mom knowing he was a child……

    Something tells me I haven’t conveyed it right – or maybe I have.

    Anyway, in the end, they’re my friends.

  7. justme
    Wed 31st Jan 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Please forgive the typos…..

  8. Christ Liebegott
    Wed 31st Jan 2007 at 4:08 pm

    A great post. We too often forget many participants of the battles when concentrating on the military actions. Items like this keep reminding us that there was a lot of horrible things happening to other than the fighting men.

  9. ptrostle
    Wed 31st Jan 2007 at 4:15 pm

    Holy crow – those last two posts are mine. Don’t want to be accused of hiding out under an alias…. 🙂

  10. Thu 01st Feb 2007 at 12:07 am

    LOL, Phil – and wonderful stories. We had three horses when I was a kid, and I miss it. When I retire, I’m definitely getting a couple. They’re amazing beasts. Unless you’re close to them, you truly can’t understand what they are. I’ll never figure out how they think, but they will always amuse, confound, and exhilirate me. And that’s one of the reasons why I love studying the cavalry.


  11. Rob Wick
    Thu 01st Feb 2007 at 3:03 am

    From what I’ve gathered, Conger really loved horses as well. But the most interesting story that I’ve uncovered so far is about Conger’s wife. According to one of her granddaughters, it seems that when she lived in Washington, D.C., she rode her horse all the time…at one point even riding up the steps of THE CAPITOL! Not sure how I can authenticate that, but it is a damn good story.


  12. Charles Bowery
    Thu 01st Feb 2007 at 10:01 am

    Back when North and South got started, one of the first issues ran a superb article on both sides’ efforts to procure and maintain horseflesh. You might want to link to it, if it’s available online.

  13. Thu 01st Feb 2007 at 10:30 am


    I know. I wrote it. 🙂


  14. Bill
    Fri 02nd Feb 2007 at 1:45 pm

    Mules served, too. A good book is Essin’s recent Shavetails & Bell Sharps. It discusses mule service in America’s wars from the Mexican to the Korean. Surprisingly, the chapter on the Civil War is shorter than the rest. I got the feeling, even though he never says it outright, that Essin viewed both sides’ wastefulness and brutality re the equine family with extreme disgust and distaste, and kept the Civil War chapter short for that reason. If that is a shortcoming, it is the only one of a very good source and a good read.

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