25 December 2012 by Published in: General musings 15 comments

Grant's_horsesThis past spring, I was asked to write a short article (about 1000 words) on horses in the Civil War for The History Channel Magazine. I had less than a week to do so, but I got it done. It was supposed to appear in the January/February 2013 issue, but there has been a regime change at the magazine, and the new editorial staff decided not to use any of the articles that it had in the hopper, including my article. Lest it go to waste, I’ve decided to run it here. Enjoy.

The photo is of U.S. Grant’s three horses, Egypt (on the left), Cincinnati (in the center) and Jeff Davis (on the right), taken at Cold Harbor, Virginia in the spring of 1864.

By: Eric J. Wittenberg

During the era of the Civil War, 1861-1865, there were no internal combustion engines fueled by gasoline, so there were only three ways to transport men, equipment and supplies: by boat, by train, or by horse. Horses were the primary means for logistics. Horses were used by artillery, by cavalry, by infantry, and by teamsters to move men and equipment. When the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, there were approximately 3.4 million horses in the Northern states, and 1.7 million in the Confederate states. The border states of Missouri and Kentucky had an additional 800,000 horses. During the Civil War, the Union used over 825,000 horses for the purposes described above.

More than 1,000,000 horses and mules were killed during the Civil War. In the early days of the conflict, more horses than men were killed. Just at the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg alone, the number of horses killed was about 1,500—881 horses and mules for the Union, and 619 for the Confederacy. The toll taken on these loyal animals—upon which both sides relied heavily—was staggering, and is all too often overlooked.

Napoleon once wrote, quite correctly, that “an army moves on its stomach,” meaning that logistics are the key to the success of an army in the field. The great Union general, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, understood this well, prompting him to write, “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.”

The artillery relied heavily on horses, which were the primary means of moving heavy cannons from place to place. In so-called “mounted artillery”, which typically served with the infantry, the men who served those cannons either walked or rode on the caissons or limber chests, while horses and mules pulled the guns. The horses involved were usually big draft animals that were capable of bearing heavy weights. Maj. Gen. John Gibbon, who wrote the standard treatise for artillerists in the Civil War, The Artillerist’s Manual, described the ideal artillery horse:

The horse for artillery service should be from fifteen to sixteen hands high … should stand erect on his legs, be strongly built, but free in his movements; his shoulders should be large enough to give support to the collar but not too heavy; his body full, but not too long; the sides well rounded; the limbs solid with rather strong shanks, and the feet in good condition. To these qualities he should unite, as much as possible, the qualities of the saddle horse; should trot and gallop easily, have even gaits and not be skittish.

When artillery served with cavalry, it was called horse artillery, and each man had his own horse, so that the artillery could keep pace with fast-moving cavalry.

Draft animals also served to move the army’s vast wagon trains of supplies. Typically six horses or mules drew each wagon, which could be full of supplies, personal baggage, or medical supplies. Draft animals and mules also pulled ambulances, which carried wounded men from battlefields. As just one example, after the Battle of Gettysburg, a seventeen-mile long wagon train of wounded men was needed to remove the most seriously injured Confederate soldiers from the battlefield. But for the horses and mules that made it possible, these men probably would not have made it back to safety.

The most obvious use of horses in the Civil War was to carry cavalry. Cavalry featured mounted men who used their horses to move from place to place, and who could fight either mounted or dismounted. A cavalryman and his horse became a team, and men often developed deep bonds with their horses. Those horses often faced stern tasks.

Capt. George Baylor of the 12th Virginia Cavalry left this description of that close bond:

The cavalryman and his horse got very close to each other, not only physically, but also heart to heart. They ate together, slept together, marched, fought and often died together. While the rider slept, the horse cropped the grass around him and got as close up to his rider’s body as he could get. The loyal steed pushed the trooper’s head gently aside with his nose to get at the grass beneath it. By the thousands, men reposed in fields fast asleep from arduous campaigns with their horses quietly grazing beside them, and nary a cavalier was trod upon or injured by his steed.

They were so faithful and unfaltering. When the bugle sounded, they were always ready to respond, for they knew all the bugle calls. If it were saddle up, or the feed, or the water call, they were as ready to answer one as the other. And they were so noble and so brave in battle. They seemed to love the sound of the guns. The cavalryman might lie low on the neck of his horse as the missiles of death hissed about him. But the horse never flinched, except when struck.

Lo! As we should, we build monuments for our dead soldiers, for those we know, and for the unknown dead. So with the ultimate sacrifice of our lamented fallen honored upon their noble deaths, is it not also just that we recall their valiant steeds? What would you think of a monument some day, somewhere in Virginia, in honor of Lee’s noble horses?

Without the horse, there could be no cavalryman.

The lore of the Civil War is replete with famous horses. Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee had his beloved Traveler. Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had his Little Sorrel. Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, who made a legendary 22-mile dash from Winchester to the battlefield at Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864, rode his warhorse Rienzi. Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had his Cincinnati. Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest had his King Philip, and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, the victor at Gettysburg, had his Old Baldy. These famous mounts carried their masters into battle and into legend.

In some ways, the horses that suffered and died during the Civil War were more important than the men who rode them. The Union certainly could not have prevailed in the Civil War without the horses that it relied upon so heavily.

horsestatjAs a student of cavalry operations, I’ve come to understand that a cavalryman is effectively two indivisible parts: man and horse. As stated above, without the horse, there could be no cavalryman. In many instances, the loyal horses did their duty until the could do more, collapsed and died. And for the cavalryman, it was akin to losing his best friend. The photo is of the cavalry horse monument in Middleburg, Virginia. It depicts a played out horse, weary and worn to a nub, still doing his duty.

It’s easy to forget about the sacrifices of the loyal steeds during the Civil War, and I hope that this brief article helps people to remember those sacrifices.

Scridb filter


  1. Chris Evans
    Wed 26th Dec 2012 at 3:00 am

    Great article.

    I remember James I. Robertson’s comments in the excellent three part Greystone documentary about Gettysburg talking about some of the photos taken at Gettysburg after the battle that moved him the most were the dead horses in front of the Trostle’s.

    That got me to thinking how many horses must have been killed in the battles. It must have been staggering.


  2. John Foskett
    Wed 26th Dec 2012 at 3:22 pm

    A nice, short piece about an unappreciated subject. People underestimate the impact of “horse problems” in the Civil War just as they do fuel and mechanical problems in WWII. For example, the amount of daily forage required by a 6-gun battery for its horses would – pardon the phrase – choke a horse. A glaring example is in Ted Alexander’s recent short but very well done book on Antietam. There was an epidemic of “greasy heel” (which from ranching experience I recall as “soft heel”) after the battle which had an obvious impact on cavalry operations.

  3. Mike Peters
    Wed 26th Dec 2012 at 4:48 pm


    A wonderful story! Would have been a great addition to the magazine.

    May our New Year be filled with preservation victories, new books, and trips to historical places with friends. Really looking forward to Second Manassas! I’m thinking maybe another small trip. What do you say?


  4. Scott Smart
    Thu 27th Dec 2012 at 10:09 pm

    I’ve always been interested in what if any provision was made for veterinarian medicine. Also for provision of day-to-day husbandry. ISTR reading somewhere that the Ordnance Corps was responsible for providing needed articles of supply.

  5. Tom Clemens
    Fri 28th Dec 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Nice article Eric. This topic is one I used to harp on when we were doing Living History programs for the NPS. Horses were critical to everything.
    Artillery didn’t use draft horses if they could avoid it; they were too slow, ate too much and required more medical attention. Standard breds were the norm, usually requiring about 1,000 lbs. for the wheel pair, 800 for the swing and lead teams.
    Joe Whitehorne pointed out in an article he wrote that for every three wagons and teams hauling supplies a fourth wagon and team was required to haul forage for all four teams. Wow!

  6. gary schoen
    Sun 30th Dec 2012 at 7:57 am

    Excellent article. I wonder how many cavalry horses saw multiple actions. How many draft animals actually travelled up and down the Winchester Pile multiple times? I bet some horses were true veterans.

  7. John Foskett
    Sun 30th Dec 2012 at 2:47 pm

    I’ll wager that not many artillery horses saw long service. The prescribed ration was 26 pounds of hay and grain. That was probably “aapirational” on a frequent basis. They were often pulling their loads on something other than hard-surfaced roads and in Virginia would have been doing so in locations where forage became relatively scarce. Artillery horses often became “exbausted” and had to be put down. Diseases like glanders also were common. So the odds against extended service were pretty long.

  8. Butch Barringer
    Sun 30th Dec 2012 at 3:40 pm


    Wonderful article on the “Faithful Steeds.” I also love the one by Bud Hall that you had on your site some time ago–now, I can’t find it of course!

  9. Clark B. Hall
    Sun 30th Dec 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Eric, if my old friend Butch Barringer is still out there–and he is!–General Rufus Barringer’s stellar memory will remain safe in his worthy hands.

    Hi, Butch!


  10. Don
    Mon 31st Dec 2012 at 10:55 pm


    Great article! I was just re-reading Glory Enough For All this morning, and even Sheridan at the beginning of his second raid walked his horses nearly the entire first two days to conserve his horses.


  11. Wed 06th Feb 2013 at 1:54 pm

    By any chance did you take a look at the article “War Horse: Union Cavalry Mounts” from North and South Magazine (January 1999)? an additional one entitled “A Blot on the Army: Veterinary Care in the Union Cavalry, 1861-1865” will be published by the Smithsonian shortly.

  12. Michael Musel
    Sun 10th Feb 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Some time ago I recall reading of the work of a Cavalry troop commander from Iowa. He said his First Sergeant took care of the men and he took care of the horses. He was justly proud of having the best record in the Regiment concerning horses available for duty. He recognized the hard work his horses performed.

  13. Tue 12th Feb 2013 at 2:45 pm

    A new book about Civil War equines will be published soon by McFarland & Co., Publishers, of Jefferson, NC>
    The title is “Horses and Mules in the Civil War: a Complete History with Roster of Over 700 War Horses.” The author is Gene C. Armistead (myself). The roster includes descriptions, masters, incidents relating to the named animals. Hippophagy, Charge of Mule Brigade, the many uses, costs, etc. are all addressed. Release probably June of 2013.

  14. Fri 15th Feb 2013 at 12:46 pm

    For anyone interested there will be three academic presentations entitled “Evolution of the Horse Doctor: Equine Health and Welfare during the American Civil War”; “Disease, Death, and Disposal”, and “To the Field! Horse Purchase, Provisioning, and Transport during the Civil War” at this year’s Illinois Horse Fair, March 1-3.

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