The Cavalry Horse

Keeping the Troops Mounted

Blacksmiths Doing Their Best to Equip Horses for the Demands of War

"I can make more generals, but horses cost money."
Abraham Lincoln

The following insights into the difficulties of maintaining healthy mounts during long-running campaigns come from a letter written by Captain Charles Adams of the First Massachusetts Cavalry.

Potomac Creek, May 12, 1863

It is by no means a pleasant thought to reflect how little people at home know of the non-fighting details of the waste and suffering of war. We were in the field four weeks, and only once did I see the enemy, even at a distance. You read of Stoneman's and Grierson's cavalry raids, and of the dashing celerity of their movements and their long, rapid marches. Do you know how cavalry moves? It never goes out of walk, and four miles an hour is very rapid marching "killing to horses" as we always describe it. To cover forty miles is nearly fifteen hours march.

The suffering is trifling for the men and they are always well in the field in spite of wet and cold and heat, loss of sleep and sleeping on the ground. In the field we have no sickness; when we get into camp it begins to appear at once. But with the horses it is otherwise and you have no idea of their sufferings.

An officer of cavalry needs to be more horse-doctor than soldier, and no one who has not tried it can realize the discouragement to Company commanders in these long and continuous marches. You are a slave to your horses, you work like a dog yourself, and you exact the most extreme care from your Sergeants, and you see diseases creeping on you day by day and your horses breaking down under your eyes, and you have two resources, one to send them to the reserve camps at the rear and so strip yourself of your command, and the other to force them on until they drop and then run for luck that you will be able to steal horses to remount your men, and keep up the strength of your command. The last course is the one I adopt.

I do my best for my horses and am sorry for them; but all war is cruel and it is my business to bring every man I can into the presence of the enemy, and so make war short. So I have but one rule, a horse must go until he can't be spurred any further, and then the rider must get another horse as soon as he can seize on one. To estimate the wear and tear on horseflesh you must bear in mind that, in the service in this country, a cavalry horse when loaded carries an average of 225 lbs. on his back. His saddle, when packed without a rider in it, weighs no less than fifty pounds.

The horse is, in active campaign, saddled on an average about fifteen hours out of the twenty four. His feed is nominally ten pounds of grain a day and, in reality, he averages about eight pounds. He has no hay and only such other feed as he can pick up during halts. The usual water he drinks is brook water, so muddy by the passage of the column as to be of the color of chocolate. Of course, sore backs are our greatest trouble. Backs soon get feverish under the saddle and the first day's march swells them; after that, day by day the trouble grows. No care can stop it.

Every night after a march, no matter how late it may be, or tired or hungry I am, if permission is given to unsaddle, I examine all the horses' backs myself and see that everything is done for them that can be done, and yet with every care the marching of the last four weeks disabled ten of my horses, and put ten more on the high road to disability, and this out of sixty -- one horse in three. Imagine a horse with his withers swollen to three times the natural size, and with a volcanic, running sore pouring matter down each side, and you have a case with which every cavalry officer is daily called upon to deal, and you imagine a horse which has still to be ridden until he lays down in sheer suffering under the saddle. Then we seize the first horse we come to and put the dismounted man on his back.

The air of Virginia is literally burdened today with the stench of dead horses, federal and confederate. You pass them on every road and find them in every field, while from their carrions you can follow the march of every army that moves.

On this last raid, dying horses lined the road on which Stoneman's divisions had passed, and we marched over a road made pestilent by the dead horses of the vanished rebels. Poor brutes! How it would astonish and terrify you and all others at home with your sleek, well-fed animals, to see the weak, gaunt, rough animals, with each rib visible and hipbones starting through the flesh, on which these "dashing cavalry raids" were executed. It would knock romance out of you.

So much for my cares as a horsemaster, and they are the cares of all. For, I can safely assure you, my horses are not the worst in the regiment, and I am reputed no unsuccessful chief groom. I put 70 horses in the field on the 13th of April, and not many other Captains in the service did as much.

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