Horses in the Civil War

“There is
Some indescribable communion
Between a man and horse
Who’ve shared the roughest roads,
The longest hours,
The hardest battles;
A singleness of spirit, faith unflagging.”
Jack Knox, excerpt from The General’s Mount: a Poem on General Forrest’s Horse

When discussing the Civil War, the use of animals is often left out of the dialogue because let’s face it, without PETA around, no one really cared if a horse died here or there.  The Civil War was all about marching and mobility, and so horses played a critical role in the transportation of guns, supplies, and soldiers.  Horses were not the only animal utilized, mules and oxen also bared the brunt of the war.

Mules were the best tempered for the war scene and could walk through trails of wooded areas if needed.  They could carry heavy loads, most often with pieces of howitzers through mountainous and wooded terrain.[1] The use of mules to carry howitzers and other guns was a choice based on their fitness for the task, not due to any shortage of horses. The Manual for Mountain Artillery, adopted by the U.S. Army in 1851, stated that the mountain howitzer was ‘generally transported by mules.’ The superiority of mules in rough country outweighed their notorious contrariness under fire.[2]

Horses were the animal of choice but as the war raged on, especially in the South, many were in short supply.  The generals realized the importance of horses and demanded that they be taken care of in the fullest extent so they could go into battle with the utmost strength.  Robert E. Lee and Sherman both issued orders for specific care to be given to the horses under their command, to the extent that if anyone in charge of the horses neglected them, they would be punished.  As the war waged on, both sides would steal horses from no only other soldiers but from the towns they went through as well.

In spite of the care given to artillery horses, the animals still perished at an astounding rate. Many died of disease or were put to death because of exhaustion. Many more were killed alongside their battery mates in battle.[3]

Over an estimated 1.5 million Equines; horses & mules perished during the Civil War this page is dedicated to the memory of their service.[4]  Most horses did not die from one bullet wound, many were shot up seven or eight times. Horses played a major role in moving, supporting, and being a strong arm for both sides during the Civil War.

Civil War monument dedicated to all the horses lost


[1] James R. Chostner,  “America’s Civil War: Horses and Field Artillery,”  History Net, accessed July 3, 2012, http://www.historynet.com/americas-civil-war-horses-and-field-artillery.htm.

[2] Chostner, “America’s,” July 3, 2012.

[3] Chostner, “America’s,” July 3, 2012.

[4] Michael Luca, “Civil War Horse,” High Bridge Battelfield Museum, accessed July 3, 2012, http://highbridgebattlefieldmuseum.com/civil_war_horse.

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7 comments
  1. chrisrivera1985 said:

    I just love your blog posts, Jamie! I never knew there was a monument dedicated to all the horses that died in the Civil War. That doesn’t strike so much as strange as very peaceful in a way. Animals trained in the art of carrying an individual have lost their personal identity. The statue of the horse commemoration stylizes this perfectly in my opinion. But as far as war, in a philosophical sense, horses seem so crucial victory but their but so alone in their endeavor to survive. The statistic of 1.5 million horses is astonishing. That like two horses for every man on both sides that died, and most were not cavalry and artillery but infantry solders. I’m sure they did, but I wonder if the Union and Confederacy had special breeding centers to support the need for horses. Although you did mention that horses were in shorter supply in the Confederacy, still very interesting.

    • jadams08 said:

      Well thanks Chris. To me personally, I have owned horses all my life and am somewhat attached to them. When looking at pictures of the Civil War I started looking at the background or things that maybe did not stand out at first glance, and artillery and horses seemed to stick with me. I believe I did read something about a breeding program trying to be implemented but due to hay and clean water in shortage, it was soon abandoned.

  2. bktitus17 said:

    This is such an interesting topic and you are very right, it gets left out of history a lot. I have a question for you, do you think that these points of history are vital enough to be both a part of what we learn and what we teach? History in and of itself is such a broad field (I mean, I had never even heard of memory studies until I took this class) that it would be difficult to focus on such an exact topic like the use of horses and what they went through. That being said, it makes me think that my history is often curtailed to the main overall topics as opposed to specific instances. Is that a good way to learn history or should we focus more on the fascinating subtopics that garner more interest as a whole?

    • jadams08 said:

      Oh good quetions….You know I think in history we do focus on the big, broad topics most of the time and maybe miss some of the incorporating details. To me, horses played a crucial element in the war. Not only did they help to carry supplies, artillery and the men themselves, but they also may have added a unique military fighting technique that is not often discussed. I’m not sure there is a right answer, but I do know they did have significance to the Civil War.

  3. charlesanselmo said:

    This is a very interesting article and I was aware that there were a great number of horses killed in the war. It is interesting that there is a monument dedicated to the horses that perished in the war. Much focus has been on the role that animals have played in wartime in and around the release of the film Warhorse (which I have not seen). This reminds me of an article I read in another course about General Custer’s horse Comanche touring the country after surviving the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

  4. jadams08 said:

    I have not seen the movie Warhorse either Charles, but after writing this article I would really like to. I think horses have had a major role in the entire history of the United States and have huge significance. They are that underlying character that seems to always be present yet overlooked.

  5. jmmblog said:

    The photos on you blog immediately grabbed my attention. I would never personally want own a horse, but I believe that they are incredible creatures. Horses are far to overlooked when it comes to the impact that they have had on wars and history in general. This blog has definitely spurred (pun inteded!) my curiousity!

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