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The Unsung
of the
Civil War
By Fred McWane
all photos by author
As we recall the “heroes” of that tragic war 150 years
ago, we think of Generals Grant or Lee; Johnny Reb
or Billy Yank dying in obscure wilderness undergrowth;
or maybe Presidents Lincoln or Davis. We never hear
praise for the contribution of the horses and mules, over
a million of them, perishing under saddle or in harness….
and they were the backbone of the war.
When we think about horses in the war, the frst image
that comes to mind is that of a troop of cavalry soldiers
charging across an open feld toward some enemy target,
usually another mounted outft. As we saw last month,
this was by no means the only use of the horse in the
war but it was certainly the most glamorous. The cavalry
performed many valuable tasks in addition to open
combat against enemy troopers and infantry: mounted
patrols went on raids, reconnaissance (scouting and
spying) and protection of moving infantry and artillery
units. Dismounted units, without a full contingent of
horses had assignments not requiring mobility such
as guarding railroads, bridges and supply depots. As
the horse shortage became more severe, more units
became “dismounted” and kept this designation rather
than be reassigned as infantry because they valued that
“cavalry” (cavalier) mystique.
The Confederacy soon developed a chronic shortage
of everything: food and water; forage for the animals;
most supplies including clothing and shoes; and almost
anything manufactured in the north. Horses and mules
had to be replaced due to their high level of attrition. The
cavalry was sent out on patrols to “procure” these needs.
General Lee insisted that all acquisitions be purchased,
but Confederate script was worth so little that it was
frequently refused or the order simply ignored.
Early in the war the Confederate horsemen held the upper
hand. Most southern troopers came from family farms where
they learned to ride soon after they learned to walk. The Union
cavalry overcame this disadvantage about half way through
the confict and by spring, 1863, it surprised, embarrassed,
and almost defeated the great J.E.B. Stuart at Brandy Station,
VA, in the largest cavalry battle of the war. Both armies soon
headed towards Gettysburg, where Lee’s cavalry failed him.
Without them serving as the “eyes and ears” of the army,
feld commanders were helpless to monitor the status of the
opposing army. Flamboyant icon Stuart, who even had a banjo
player travelling with him, misinterpreted Lee’s ambiguous
marching orders and absented his recon services for the frst
two days of that important three day battle that turned the tide
of the war.
The largest cavalry contingent in the war was not southern.
It was commanded by Union General James H. Wilson.
Approaching the end of the war this striking force of over 13,000
troopers with repeating rifes moved fast, had the frepower of
an ordinary army corps, and eliminated the remaining pockets
of resistance in the Carolinas and Georgia. They defeated
legendary Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and
captured C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis in Irwinville, GA, on
May 10th, 1865, as he was trying to escape to the coast,
in his
wife’s dress
– a trick not unlike that in Mexican General Santa
Anna’s war manual (he used a dragoon private’s uniform that
did not work for him either) when Sam Houston’s Texas army
defeated him and won the Republic of Texas’s independence
in April, 1836.
This was how the cavalry contributed to the war effort, and
combined with the huge body of work by those horses and
mules in the many other roles examined earlier, how can we not
pay tribute to what they sacrifced for their owners - regardless
of the color of their uniforms. One simply cannot imagine what
that war would have been like without these brave and obedient
This was the unfortunate end of the battle for
a trooper and his mount which left the battle in
much better shape than his rider. This was not
the usual case, as the horses suffered greatly
from these confrontations
Continued on page 88