Confederate Horse in Camp & Field



                                                                       By Ken R Knopp

This article was published in several periodicals over the years and has been the basis for a similar “talk” I often give to historical groups. 


The legendary and often over-romanticized image of the Southern cavalier is one of a dashing mounted Knight boldly and tenaciously fighting with chivalrous good humor until finally exhausted and over come by the sheer weight of the numerically superior Yankee hoards. Unquestionably, the reality was far different. Yet, while even today’s revisionists still uphold the bravery, fortitude and remarkable cavalry campaigns of the men that rode under Stuart, Mosby, Morgan, Forrest, Shelby and others, what about the noble steed that carried them across the sacred field of honor and into legend. How did the horse figure in the Southern war effort? Moreover, what was the reality of war for them?

In the mid-19th century with the notable exception of the Thoroughbred, there were no established breeds or associations in America as we know them today. Although common horses were loosely categorized with names such as American, Morgan, Arab, Kentucky Saddle horses, Normans, Canadians and Spanish the fact is, the horseman of the period sought to breed or procure size, confirmation and mind-set in their animals for practical, everyday applications such as hunter, plantation, roadster, pacer, charger, draught, hack, etc. For them, the goal was function rather than form as is found in the classical sense of today’s blood lines.

Due to their value for racing, the American Thoroughbred had the only recorded breed documentation at the time of the war. All other horses were in fact, “Grade” with varying degrees of other classes yet most having some of the “blooded” Thoroughbred or Arab running through their veins. Nevertheless, quite often horses were given assumed titles during the period such as Morgan, Virginia Roadster, Kentucky Saddler, Texas Pony, etc. While modern identities were to later emerge from some of them, at that time these monikers were more vague types, regional distinctions or used for sales exploitation rather than as a true breed. 1.

Horses, like people have personalties and peculiarities. Some are calm, some nervous, some fast or slow, weak or strong, healthy or habitually sick or even accident prone. Some horses are brave while others are cowardly. In war, there were those that were slow and lazy until they sensed the excitement of a fight and others turned entirely uncontrollable and prone to panic in battle. Horses like the men that rode them could be trained in the art of war but were similarly flesh and blood with feelings, character and a mind of their own. In any event, when the typical Southerner left the farm, town or plantation astride his gelding, mare or on rare occasions a stallion, it was upon the above christened and sometimes fickle equines that he rode to war.

According to the Provisional Congress Act of March 6, 1861 volunteer cavalrymen were required to furnish their own horses and early in the war, their horse equipment. All other horses such as artillery and transportation animals were to be provided (and branded “CS”) by the quartermaster department. Cavalry trooper’s were to receive feed, forage, forty cents a day as remuneration and repayment of its value should the horse be killed in action. 2. This measure adopted in the belief the volunteer would take better care of his own property than a government issued one. Unfortunately, rather quickly it had the undesirable effect of severely limiting the effectiveness of the Confederate cavalry. The unlucky cavalryman that lost his horse in service but not killed in action was soon rendered useless until he could find another.

At muster, the volunteer trooper’s horse and horse equipments were valued by at least two company or regimental level officers. This information was normally kept with the other company papers. In effect, the horses and equipment became government property. Later, when possible, the equipments were replaced by Confederate issue or Federal capture. The used but useful horse equipments were then turned over to the ordnance officer for reissue, sent back to the depots for repair or destroyed.

As for their horses, in theory the forty cents a day accumulated and was paid to the trooper when he received his monthly pay. When a horse was killed in action a trooper was entitled to be paid the established value of his horse. However, trooper’s were not compensated for horses that died from disease, malnutrition or exhaustion nor for inflation. Payment was made by the Quartermaster usually the next time he came around to pay the men. In practice however, given that any pay to troopers was often many months if not a year or more in arrears, this money was often lagging. Moreover, Confederate money was increasingly worthless at the same time horses only grew more expensive.

The valuations placed upon a horse were at pre war prices which with the high inflation of the fast devaluing Confederate dollar were rather quickly rendered obsolete. By 1863, the cost to replace a horse was such that only the wealthiest trooper’s could afford to purchase another. A summary of multiple sources, diaries and reminiscences finds the average horse in 1861 valued at from $150 to $200 and a good one at about $400. By the end of the war to purchase a poor, below average horse required $1,200 to $1,800 and a first rate horse could be as much as $7000 or more. The effect was devastating. Horses were not only unaffordable to most everyone but often, the bravest and best troopers were forever lost to the service. In subsequent years there were many attempts to address this inadequacy but the Confederate Congress was never able to remedy the injustice. 3.

Early in the war and until May 1863, when a horse needed replacing the trooper was given leave (usually twenty days) to obtain another. Later, it became common practice that only reliable men were given leave to remount themselves. There was not much difficulty in procuring horses or mules in the first year of the war but by the summer of 1862 with the loss of the substantial breeding regions of Missouri, Kentucky, west and middle Tennessee and western Virginia, the South soon lost access to its most critical areas for replacement animals. Unfortunately, the high cost and difficulty a trooper had in finding another horse caused many soldiers to be absent from their commands for extended periods. Their subsequent failure to return to service precipitated General Orders #67 in May 1863 that proclaimed that when a cavalryman fails to keep himself with a horse he was to be transferred to the infantry or artillery “as he selects”. On the other hand, the same order allowed infantry or artillery men who can get a horse be allowed to transfer to the cavalry. 4. As a result many men changed service at this time. Unfortunately others, particularly in the west, absented themselves from their commands so as to avoid service altogether. For example, these men were no small part of the conscripts Nathan Bedford Forrest rounded up in his west Tennessee raids. Sadly, this ill-conceived order resulted in the loss to the ranks of a lot of otherwise good men. Increasingly, only the most stouthearted, patriotic or men of means that could afford to, remained with the cavalry. 5.

The practical employment of the cavalry horse in the field is an interesting and largely untold story. As a result of the above order, horses became in effect both the property of the soldier and the government. Yet, they were often sold and swapped amongst the men. A natural practice that was sometimes abused by the men and eventually condemned by the government authorities. In fact, in November 1864 an official order was finally issued stating that horses were to be treated as public property and disallowing all sales or exchanges without official permission. Still, with little real control over this issue the practice continued throughout the war. 6.

In the field, when a trooper was in the hospital or otherwise absent from the command his horse was considered his property and normally kept in camp, with the wagons or, more often due to shortages, sold to or used by another trooper in his company or mess. Sometimes special arrangements were made to send the horse to a rear area such as a local farmer friend of the trooper or sent home. The practical arrangements varied greatly depending upon the trooper’s circumstances, the time of the war and the needs of the command. 7.

Officer’s horses were exclusively private not public property. Whether in quarters or in the field an officer’s horses were often cared for by their servants or at least the servants of some other officer in his company or mess. It was common for an officer to have two or three horses if they had the means. Again, cared for and ridden by the servants usually in the rear with the regimental wagons or other wagon trains and often loaned to brother officers that were without.

One very fruitful but imprecise source of new mounts were captured horses. When horses were taken from the Federal’s they were supposed to be treated as captured property and sent to the rear. However, more often they were treated as “booty”. For example, scouts were often allowed the privilege to sell the horses they brought out from behind enemy lines. Captures made by individual troopers apparently varied among cavalry commands. In most units they were allowed to keep what they captured but in others they were not. In Forrest’s command his officers and Escort Company got “pick of the litter” in captured horses, arms and equipments. As can be imagined, this sometimes caused a bit of friction with the private that had captured a fine animal sometimes at risk of his own life. In most cases, excess captured horses were scattered among the command as needed or to the dismounted brigade. 8.

No doubt, the single most important issue for horses in the Confederacy was feed or rather, the lack of it. According to regulations the full ration per horse per day was fourteen pounds of forage (hay) and twelve pounds of oats, corn or barley. Despite their mounts being private property officers were also given a feed ration in war time. Generals could feed up to four horses at government expense; majors, colonels, captains and staff officers three each and lieutenants two horses. Public horses (artillery and transportation) were also provided rations at the public expense. 9.

Although anecdotal evidence suggest officer’s horses in the field fared slightly better (often at personal expense) than a trooper’s horse it is doubtful the average Confederate horse saw very many days of full rations in his short and sad career in the cavalry. In fact, less than half rations were the norm if the poor beast got any at all. There is plentiful official and incidental evidence of horses on campaign going without feed for extended periods. In camp they often fared but little better. The larger issue for the South was not a shortage of feed and forage but rather the lack of sufficient transportation. Grazing the animal, while inadequate was sometimes the predominant or only source of food. Quite often this had a profound effect on military strategy too. In both 1863 and 1864 early spring raids or campaigns by the Federal’s in Virginia caught the Confederate cavalry thinly picketing critical areas or slow to respond and offer resistence due to the fact they were so widely scattered in order to be fed. 10.

It is a sad but often overlooked fact, that in addition to battlefield death, the war exposed horses and mules to unbelievable suffering and hardship. For these pitiable beasts of burden, the large, mobile armies often meant inadequate feed, exposure to extreme weather, exhaustive work, bottomless mud, filthy stable conditions and epidemic diseases that had never before been seen in this country in such proportions. Tragically, countless thousands perished, or were rendered unserviceable, by common maladies such as “scratches” or “grease-heel”, “sore-tongue”, hoof-rot, chapped hock, founder, “fistula”, saddle sores, lameness and sheer exhaustion. In the winter of 1862-63, then again in the winter of 1863-64 Stuart’s horses were severely afflicted with an epidemic of sore tongue, glanders and grease heel which killed some and rendered many more unfit for service.11. Throughout the war these ailments routinely affected other commands as well. Yet, death by disease was sometimes the more merciful.

In May 1863 Capt. Charles F Adams, 1st Mass. (Federal) Cavalry wrote a letter home to his mother describing horrors that were probably common to both sides. “Do you know how cavalry moves? It never goes out of a walk, and four miles an hour is very rapid marching “killing to horses” as we describe it. To cover forty miles is nearly fifteen hours march. The suffering is trifling for the men…but with the horses it is otherwise and you have no idea of their sufferings….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 one. The horse is, in active campaign, saddled on an average about fifteen hours out of twenty four. 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. 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. 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, ….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.” 12. If war is hell on humans it is ever more cruel to horses.

Apparently beginning about 1863, horses were routinely inspected by the Confederate government or by regimental officers and graded as “serviceable” or unserviceable”. The unserviceable animals that could be recruited back to health were often sent to convalescent camps in the rear. To the respectable trooper this was abhorrent. Often called names such as the “sick, lame and lazy camp” these camps were often made up of slightly disabled troopers, men with disabled horses or no horse at all. 13.

Invariably, the now dismounted troopers were formed into units in the rear and marched with the cavalry as infantry or (as “wagon-dogs”) with the wagons. Again, to the proud Southern trooper, a disdainful, ignoble place to be found. In extreme cases, the worst horses were condemned and turned over to the Quartermaster for sale which caused no small amount of dissatisfaction among the troops as they knew that meant being sent to the dismounted brigade or permanent transfer to the infantry.

Battlefield death, wounds, disease and exhaustion claimed incredible numbers of horses during the war. It was rare indeed for a man to ride only one horse during his service. Most cavalrymen went through several. So to stay in the fight the undaunted trooper had to keep mounted. As the war continued this often necessitated the use of less than desirable animals such as unbroken colts, brood mares and even stallions. Impressment both “official” and “unofficial” became the norm. The practice of illegal impressment of horses from private citizens was abused to the extent that in March 1863 a Congressional Law was passed stating that only unit commanders could seize horses and then only after obtaining legal authority from the district commanders and paying for them in script, “according to the prices established by district boards”. 14. Notwithstanding, impressment not only continued the rest of the war but became increasingly abusive as desperation grew and, law and order broke down.

By mid 1863, the lack of serviceable horses had fallen to such a low point that urgent options were considered in the attempt to remedy the situation. Quartermaster General Myers speculated that 8-10,000 horses and mules were immediately needed in the service. 15. General R E Lee, President Davis and others had been discussing obtaining horses from the Trans Mississippi where they were plentiful. Some were apparently gathered for that purpose on the Louisiana side of the river during the winter of 1862-1863 and some were still there as late as July. It is not clear if any ever made it across however, the talk was too little, too late and rendered mute with the fall of Vicksburg and the reality of an isolated Trans Mississippi. Other ideas were adopted to eke out the horse supply. In May 1863, General Orders #60 required that all public horses found in the transportation service but suitable for the artillery service were to be turned over to the Chief Quartermaster and replaced with mules. 16.

In the fall of 1863 another good idea considered and apparently adopted was to divide the Confederacy into four Field Transportation districts under the Inspector General’s Office. The distinctive feature of this was the establishment of horse infirmaries or convalescent camps as noted above, under special officers whereby sick, lame and exhausted horses were sent for recruitment.16. Unfortunately, few records of these depots have survived but of those that do they suggest that while helpful these infirmaries would prove to be only partially successful.

In a late war report of the district that included Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the armies in the Carolinas Major J.G. Paxton reported that of the whole period of fifteen months in existence he had received 6,875 artillery and cavalry horses of which only a pitiful fifteen percent had been returned to service. The remainder had died, been lost, stolen or condemned and sold. In general, the major reason for this disappointing failure was disease, a lack of forage and that many were sent to the rear far too exhausted to recover. The mortality rate among cavalry horses was apparently the worst followed by the artillery horses then the transportation animals. Interestingly, mules for the transportation service not only fared much better with a 57% recovery rate but were considered five times more durable than a horse. No details appear for the cavalry horses but Paxton estimated that the average life of a horse in the artillery and transportation service was only seven and one half months. 17. One can only imagine how the poor cavalry horse must have fared.

As the war continued, the issue of Confederate horse supply grew increasingly desperate. Out west, N.B. Forrest routinely had a brigade of dismounted troopers marching as infantry in his command and twice ordered raids into Kentucky for nothing more than to capture horses. Around Atlanta, despite shrinking, interior lines of defense Wheeler’s outnumbered and dwindling horseman struggled to counter Sherman’s cavalry operations. The summer of 1864 also found Robert E Lee locked in a debilitating, defensive struggle behind the trenches around Petersburg. The lack of horses in his Army of Northern Virginia had by this time become so devastating that many field artillery batteries had been reduced in mobility, whole brigades of infantry were without wagon teams for provisions and of Lee’s severely depleted but still available cavalry over one-quarter were dismounted. About that time in a private letter General Lee prophetically told President Davis that “Obtaining an increase in supply of horses, and recruiting our cavalry….I believe, depends the issue of the campaign in Va.”. 18.

As the end drew near the grave need for cavalry finally forced the Confederate Congress to act. In a law passed in mid-February 1865 and approved by Davis on the 23rd (in the Congressional Journals but never printed) required that the Quartermaster was to provide horses to dismounted cavalrymen. 19. Sadly again, too little too late. By this time, with the Confederacy showing the gaunt, exhausted pale of death, there were simply no horses to be had.

There can be no doubt the collapse of the Confederacy was in no small part a result of the lack of horses. Beginning in 1863, a growing deficiency in horses crippled Southern military operations in the east and elsewhere and therefore shortened the life of the Confederacy. Still, despite the huge impact on the effectiveness of the cavalry and the war effort from the loss of horses, the government response was too often slow, inadequate or entirely counterproductive.

Despite little official support, adequate food, extreme exposure and dangerous, exhausting work the brave, resolute trooper and his horse suffered together. To some men the horse was just transportation, a tool with no more emotional attachment than any other necessary instrument of war such as his gun or cartridge box. However, surrounded by cruelty, hardship, constant danger and death for most trooper’s his horse was his partner, his daily companion and life line. Each needed the other. So just as with the human members of his company from these shared experiences a strong but distinctive emotional bond often developed between man and horse that was rarely expressed and is not easily understood in today’s motorized, technology driven society.

In a short, insignificant skirmish early in the morning of November 1st 1862, Lt. George Baylor of the 12th Virginia and his horse were both wounded. Baylor’s wound to the leg was slight but the wound to his horse proved fatal. “I led the noble animal, which I dearly loved, and whose very life seemed bound to mine by dangers shared and daily companionship, to the roadside, where she laid down on the green turf. Her breathing too plainly indicated that death was near. As her eyes rested on me in fondness and affection, human nature could not resist, and, kneeling down by her side, and clasping my arms about her neck, I wept. When I arose she was dead. She died, and with her life passed away my hopes and aspirations for her….The dream of my young life vanished, and the hopes of the future were dissipated.” 20.

Clearly, the romantic dream of the Knightly Southern cavalier and his noble war horse are long gone, shattered by the cruel realities of war but thankfully their story and the legend remains alive and well.

At the Battle of Antietam, this horse probably suffered blood-letting wounds that forced him to simply lie down and await death. The look of resigned fate in his face tells the dutiful but pitiful story of so many horses and mules in the war.

General George A Custer’s favorite horses, Vic & Dandy. Although a post war photo taken during service on the Plains, the white hair on their backs indicates places where deep saddle galls and painful skin sores once were. The horse at left pointing his foot forward may also suggest signs of Navicular disease- a common lameness issue affecting the coffin bone inside the hoof and attributed to overwork. Thus illustrating the inherent hard service life for equines in the military.

A shattered battery of the Confederate Washington Artillery at Fredericksburg, Va. Battlefield death was not the only fate awaiting horses in the war. Malnutrition, disease and sheer exhaustion claimed far more horses than combat.




Official orders, government actions and correspondence are duly footnoted. However, the bulk of the insights that reference the reality of the horse in the day to day life of Confederate service come from the diaries, journals, war time letters, post war reminiscences and recollections of the actual participants themselves. Quite literally, hundreds were consulted and therefore too numerous to list here however, when practical and relevant a few sources are noted as representative of common practice.

1. An accurate history of the Morgan Horse bloodline is a debatable issue. In 1857 Daniel Chipman Linsley published a book called The Morgan Horse, A Premium Essay on the Origins, History and Characteristics of the Remarkable American Breed of Horse.” It includes a section on origins, pedigrees and provides lineage.

However, it is somewhat dubious and not considered by historians or the Morgan Horse Association as a true recording of their modern bloodlines.

Although pre-war American Thoroughbred bloodlines are also a bit fuzzy they have been traced back into the 1700’s. Accurate recordings began to appear in 1865 in the newspaper, “The Turf, Field and Farm” under Col. S.D. Bruce. The official record of the American Jockey Club was first published in book form in 1868 again by Bruce.

2. March 1, 1861, Sec. 7, No. 48. March 6, 1861 Act of Provisional Congress. OR’s., Ser IV, Vol. 1, Pgs 126-127.

Regulations of the Army of the Confederate States, Pg 93.

3. Dozens of various diaries, journals and reminiscences of Confederate soldiers.

Reminiscences of Four Years as a Private Solder in the Confederate Army, 1861-1865, By John Gill, Baltimore Sun Printing Office, 1904, Reprinted Cornell University Library, Pgs. 95 and 118.

Autobiography of Arab, By E. Prioleau Henderson, 1907, Reprinted 1991 by Guild Bindery Press, Oxford, Miss.

General Robert E Lee’s Horse Supply, 1862-1865, By Charles Ramsdell, American Historical Review, Vol. 35, 1929-1930, Pg 771.

4. May 25, 1863, General Orders #67, Samuel Cooper, Adj & Insp Gen. Copy of original on file with author. OR’s, Ser. III, Vol. II, Pg 568.

5. General Robert E Lee’s Horse Supply, 1862-1865, By Charles Ramsdell, American Historical Review, Vol. 35, 1929-1930, Pg 761-763, 776 and 778.

6. Gen. Orders #83, Adj. Insp. Gen. Office, Copy of original on file with author.

7. Dozens of various diaries, journals and reminiscences of Confederate soldiers.

Yours Till Death, The Civil War Letters of John W Cotton, Tuscaloosa, Ala., University of Alabama Press, 1951, pgs. 9,15,53 -54,62-63,81,99,79.

8. Reminiscences of Four Years as a Private Soldier in the Confederate Army, 1861-1865, By John Gill, Baltimore Sun Printing Office, 1904, Reprinted Cornell University Library, pg. 85.

Dozens of various diaries, journals and reminiscences of Confederate soldiers.

9. Regulations For the Army of the Confederate States, J. W. Randolph, Richmond Va. 1863, Reprinted by the National Historical Society, Harrisburg, Pa 1980, pg 103.

10. Dozens of various diaries, journals and reminiscences of Confederate soldiers.

General Robert E Lee’s Horse Supply, 1862-1865, By Charles Ramsdell, American Historical Review, Vol. 35, 1929-1930.

11. IBID.

Reminiscences of Four Years as a Private Solder in the Confederate Army, 1861-1865, By John Gill, Baltimore Sun Printing Office, 1904, Reprinted Cornell University Library, Pg 79.

12. May 12, 1863, Potomac Creek, Capt Charles F Adams, 1st Mass. Cavalry to his Mother. A Cycle of Adams’ Letters. Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston and New York, 1920.

It is estimated by historians that over 1.4 million pitiable horses and mules died on both sides during the war.

13. Dozens of various diaries, journals and reminiscences of Confederate soldiers.

Reminiscences of a Mississippian, By Col. Frank A. Montgomery, Robert Clarke Co. Press, Cincinnati, 1901. Pg. 332-343.

Yours till Death, Civil War Letters of John W Cotton, Lucille Griffith- Editor, Birmingham, Ala., Univ. of Ala. Press, 1951, Pg 63.

Lone Star Defenders, A Chronicle of the Third Texas Cavalry, Ross Brigade, By S. B Barro, Neale Publishing Com. 1908, Pg 67.

14. May 2, 1864, General Orders, No. 45, Adj and Insp Gen. Office. OR’s. Ser. V, Vol. III, Pg. 369.

15. July 4, 1863, Myers to Seddon, OR’s, Ser. IV, Vol. II, Pg. 616.

16. Throughout the war there was a constant chatter among field commanders, at the War Department and in the President’s office concerning the growing scarcity of horses and its impact on field operations. Several ideas were adopted and others considered including purchasing horses and mules from Texas, Mexico and the Trans-Mississippi but little if anything ever came of it. March 4, 1863, Myers to Davis, OR’s Ser. V, Vol, II, pg 417.

April 13, 1864, Bragg to Johnston, OR’s, Serv. IV, Vol. III, Pg 293.

May 13, 1863, General Orders, No. 60, Adj Insp. Gen. Office. Copy of original on file with author.

July 5, 1864, Lee’s Confidential Dispatches to Davis, Douglas S. Freeman, New York, 1915, Pg 273.

17. General Robert E Lee’s Horse Supply, 1862-1865, By Charles Ramsdell, American Historical Review, Vol. 35, 1929-1930, Pgs. 765, 772-773.

As a rule most mules are not good under saddle and generally make a poor substitute for a cavalry horse. When necessary, some troopers would reluctantly resort to a mule as a temporary replacement for his horse.

18. A Battle From the Start, By Brian Steel Wills, Harper Collins, New York, NY. 1992, Pg 178-179.

Sherman’s Horsemen, By David Evans, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, Ind. 1996.

General Robert E Lee’s Horse Supply, 1862-1865, By Charles Ramsdell, American Historical Review, Vol. 35, 1929-1930, Pg. 768.

Lee’s Confidential Dispatches to Davis, Douglas S. Freeman, New York, 1915, Pg 273.

August 1, 1865, Lee to Wade Hampton, Address on the Life and Character of Gen. Robert E. Lee, By Wade Hampton, Baltimore, 1872, Pg 45.

19. General Robert E Lee’s Horse Supply, 1862-1865, By Charles Ramsdell, American Historical Review, Vol. 35, 1929-1930. Pg 768.

20. From Bull Run to Bull Run, By George Baylor, B.F. Publishing Company, Richmond Va., 1900, pg 62.