The Horse in the Civil War
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Written by Deborah Grace

Although few people realize it, the horse was the backbone of the Civil War. Horses moved guns and ambulances, carried generals and messages, and usually gave all they had. An instruction from Major General William T. Sherman to his troops shows the value of the horse to the army:

"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 total number of horses and mules killed in the Civil War mounts up to more than one million. In the beginning of the war, more horses were being killed than men. The number killed at the Battle of Gettysburg totaled around 1,500. The Union lost 881 horses and mules, and the Confederacy lost 619.

It is the great misfortune of horses that they can be saddle-broken and tamed. If the horse was more like an ox, not suited for riding, the war would have been drastically different. But no matter what the horses were put through, they soldiered on. Whether plodding through choking dust, struggling through mud, rushing up to a position at a gallop, or creeping backward in a fighting withdrawal, the horses always did what they had to do. They served their masters.


At the start of the war, the Northern states held approximately 3.4 million horses, while there were 1.7 million in the Confederate states. The border states of Missouri and Kentucky had an extra 800,000 horses. In addition, there were 100,000 mules in the North, 800,000 in the seceding states and 200,000 in Kentucky and Missouri. During the war, the Union used over 825,000 horses. The average price of a horse was $150.00 a head. Occasionally, high-class horses were found, but the reverse was commonly true.

The South furnished - involuntarily - many horses to the North. Most of the fighting was done on Southern soil, and the local horses were easily seized by Northern troops. While Confederates had opportunities to take Northern horses during Robert E. Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania and upon the occasional raids into Northern territory, the number taken was small compared to the thousands commandeered by Union troops, who occupied large areas of the South for several years.

The Northerners were not the only ones to make off with horses. Both the North and the South soon began to take horses that belonged to enemy allies. This was often done not out of necessity but simply to deprive the enemy of horses.

Early in the war, the Confederate cavalry was superior. The theory was that in the South the lack of good roads had forced Southerners to travel by horseback from boyhood, while in the North a generation had been riding in carriages and other wheeled vehicles. Although this may have been true, rural young men in the North were also horsemen by necessity, but unlike many of the Southern boys, they had to bear the tedious burden of caring for their animals after plowing behind them all day. Young Northerners who knew horses seemed to have little desire to assume the responsibility of taking them to war, and instead joined the infantry.

In the South, long before the war, young men organized themselves into mounted militia companies, often with passionate names. Although these may have been more social than military, the men learned how to drill, ride daringly, and charge with the saber.

Southern cavalry horses were also superior to Northern horses, largely because of the Southern penchant for racing. Nearly every Southern town had a track, and the sport developed a superior stock of pure-blooded, fleet-footed animals. In the North, the stocky, strong draft horses were preferred because of their ability and willingness to work long hours.

It is difficult to determine the dominance of any breed in the war. It is probable that breeds native to and developed in the South - the Tennessee Walker, the American Saddlebred - were most widely used because their gaits were smooth and comfortable to ride and they had tremendous endurance. The horses used by the North were most likely ordinary carriage and riding horses, since no particular breed has ever originated from the North. Morgans may have been widely used on both sides. They were small and compact, and good endurance resulted from these qualities. Pictures portray horses that look much like Morgans and Arabians. Arabians may have been scattered here and there, but they were not yet prominent in the U. S. The small Arabian is noted for being fiery, courageous, and having remarkable stamina; perhaps they might have served to slightly change the battle and march patterns of the Civil War.


Needless to say, the horses selected for military service needed to fit the requirements for artillery horses and were highly scrutinized for as close to the desired qualities as they could possibly come. The qualities most valued in a horse intended for artillery were described in John Gibbon's diary:

"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." 

Horses that were between the ages of five and seven years old were usually selected. John Gibbon carefully portrayed what was wanted, but horses with these qualities were not always available. Horses became scarce and stayed in short supply in areas of continuing conflict.

Regardless of the shortage, the horses still had to prove they were fit for battle. Supposedly, the horses went to what would now be called a boot camp where they were taught to react to various commands and cues from the rider. They were also taught how to react appropriately to certain situations they might encounter on the battlefield. One training exercise included incoming machine gun fire at body level. At a physical and verbal command from the rider, the horse was supposed to lie down and stay down, thereby eluding bullets and creating a breastwork for its rider.

At the conclusion of the training, the horses had to pass one final test that determined if they would become army horses. On a signal, the riders dismounted and directed their horses to lie down. Machine gunners at the other end of the field would open fire, scattering bullets over the prone men and animals. The horses that panicked and jumped up were killed promptly and released from duty.

Artillery and saddle horses had to endure ample danger in battle. An effective tactic used when attacking a battery was to shoot the horses harnessed to it. If the horses were killed or disabled, moving the guns was impossible. Unfortunately for the horses, they could take much punishment. They were difficult to bring down and keep down, even with the impact of large-caliber Minie bullets.

An example of this tactic was brutally shown at Ream's Station in August 1864. The Tenth Massachusetts Battery was fighting from behind a makeshift barricade with the horses fully exposed. There were six guns, and five soon came under fire. In minutes, only two of the thirty horses were still standing; both animals bore wounds. One horse was shot seven times before it went down. Others were hit, went down, and struggled back up only to be hit again. The average number of wounds each horse suffered was five.

Despite the thousands of horses killed or wounded in battle, the highest number were lost to disease or exhaustion. The Tenth Massachusetts Battery lost 157 horses between October 18, 1862, and April 9, 1865. Out of these horses, 112 died from disease. Forty-five of these succumbed to glanders. Glanders, a highly contagious disease that affects the skin, nasal passages, and respiratory tracts of a horse, was most widespread. Another forty-five horses from the same battery were lost to fatigue; they simply became too exhausted to work and were put to death.

The capacity of a healthy horse to pull a load was affected by a number of factors. Chief among these was the nature of the surface over which the load was being hauled. A single horse could pull 3,000 pounds 20 to 23 miles a day over a hard-paved road. The weight dropped to 1,900 pounds over a macadamized road, and went down to 1,100 pounds over rough ground. The pulling ability was further reduced by one-half if a horse carried a rider on its back. Finally, as the number of horses in a team increased, the pulling capacity of each horse was further reduced. A horse in a team of six had only seven-ninths the pulling capacity it would have had in a team of two. The goal was that each horse's share of the load should be no more than 700 pounds. This was less than what a healthy horse, even carrying a rider and hitched into a team of six, could pull, but it furnished a safety factor that allowed for fatigue and losses.

Mules were commonly used in the Civil War to pull the guns outside of battle, but when the time came for the guns to go into action, horses were usually substituted for mules. The danger of using mules in battle is vividly depicted in Confederate Brigadier General John D. Imboden's account of his seriocomic experience at the Battle of Port Republic in June 1862. In that engagement, the aforementioned colonel commanded a band of cavalry with a battery of mountain howitzers carried on mules. At Port Republic, General "Stonewall" Jackson ordered Imboden to place his battery in a sheltered area and be ready, upon the enemy's withdrawal, to advance to a point where his guns would have a clear field of fire. Imboden took his men and the mules, carrying the guns and ammunition, into a shallow ravine about 100 yards behind Captain William Poague's Virginia battery, which was hotly engaged.

Within a few minutes, Union artillery shells were shrieking across the ravine well above the sheltered men and mules. Imboden's account of the action recalls the following:

"The mules became frantic. They kicked, plunged and squealed. It was impossible to quiet them, and it took three or four men to hold one mule from breaking away. Each mule had about three hundred pounds weight on him, so securely fastened that the load could not be dislodged by any of his capers. Several of them lay down and tried to wallow their loads off. The men held these down and that suggested the idea of throwing them all to the ground and holding them there. The ravine sheltered us so we were in no danger from shot or shell which passed over us."

The use of mules to carry mountain howitzers 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.

Although mules were usually a nuisance under fire, there was one recorded occasion when mules actually helped win a battle. In a battle at Chattanooga, a Union general's teamsters became scared and deserted their mule teams. The mules stampeded at the sound of battle and broke from their wagons. They started toward the enemy with trace-chains rattling and wiffletrees snapping over tree stumps as they bolted pell-mell toward the bewildered Confederates. The enemy believed it to be an impetuous cavalry charge; the line broke and fled.

In most cases, generals rode horses and didn't walk. This was partly because they were considered better than the ordinary soldier and deserved better treatment. Additionally, the horse gave them added height, enabling them to see their men on the battlefield easier. Because of their height, their voices could carry over battlefield noise, helping them to be heard better, thus letting them command their troops as well as possible. Obviously, the men could see their general without the confusion of having to find him on the ground. The sight of their commander majestically poised on his horse may have strengthened them. However, there was a definite drawback to the height and superiority: not only was the general more visible to his men, but the other troops could fix him as a target with ease.


An artillery horse's prescribed ration was 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain, usually oats, corn or barley. The amount of grain and hay needed by any particular battery depended on the number of horses that battery had at the time. It varied almost from day to day, but it was always enormous. All horses in the battery had to be fed daily, even if the battery stayed in one spot. Throughout the war, an artillery battery might sit in the same place for weeks at a time, and yet consume thousands of pounds of hay and grain each day.

Artillery horses represented only a small number of the animals that had to be fed by the military. In addition to the horses with the artillery, cavalry, and horses and mules used to pull supply wagons and ambulances, there were thousands of saddle horses carrying officers and couriers. A brigadier general reported that 800,000 pounds of forage and grain were needed daily to feed the horses and mules. Since a wagon ordinarily carried 1 ton, the animals' daily food allowance required 400 wagon loads each day.

The customary rations were not always available. Sometimes, especially as the war went on and areas were picked clean by the opposing armies, severe shortages of grain and hay developed. At other times, there was available grain and hay but they could not be delivered to the batteries needing them. In May 1864, the artillery horses of the Union V corps existed on a daily ration of five pounds of grain. The meager rations were the result of a shortage of wagons, not a lack of grain. After the wagons had delivered the grain and hay to the batteries, the infantry units had seized them to use as ambulances.

Pasturage was sometimes available, but green grass and field plants were not efficient foods. Eighty pounds of pasturage was needed to match the nutritional value of 26 pounds of dry hay and grain, the prescribed daily ration. In addition, green pasturage increased the likelihood that a horse might founder, a disease that causes lameness. Nevertheless, pasturage was used widely, either as a supplement to the regular ration or as the primary source of nutrition for short periods, if hay and grain were not available.

Water for the horses was a dilemma that required a plentiful solution every day. While in camp, a battery would set out to discover the nearest creek or pond and routinely water the horses there. On the march, water needed to be located at the end of each day. If the water was any distance from camp, as it often was, the timing of the watering was critical. Without the horses, the guns were immobile. Half of the horses were usually sent to water at one time. This meant that in an emergency some movement might be achieved, but with only half the horses present, the battery was at a definite disadvantage.


Six years before the start of the Civil War, Captain George B. McClellan sailed to Europe as part of a military commission to study the latest developments in European tactics, weaponry, and logistics, basically looking at the form of engineer troops and cavalry. After the tour, which lasted a year and included observing battles of the Crimean War, McClellan returned with almost 100 books and manuals. Before writing his report that concluded with his suggested manual for American cavalry troops, he read all 100 manuals and books. The manual was adapted from Russian cavalry regulations. The cavalry saddle he designed was an adaptation of a Hungarian model.

In 1859, the U.S. War Department adopted the McClellan saddle. It continued to be standard issue for the cavalry horse's remaining history. It is interesting that the saddle, which became standard issue, and the cavalry manual were developed by a man who never served a day in the cavalry. The saddle was cheaper than existing saddles, light enough not to burden the horse, yet sturdy enough to support the rider and his gear. It upheld a rawhide-covered open seat, a thick leather skirt, wooden stirrups, and a girth strap constructed of woolen yarn. Additional accessories often included a nose bag for feeding, a curry comb to groom the horse, a lariat and picket pin to secure the horse while grazing, saddlebags, and a "thimble" that held the muzzle of the cavalryman's carbine. The McClellan saddle was set on top of a shabrack, saddlecloth, or saddle blanket. It is estimated that half a million McClellan saddles were produced between 1861 and 1865.

In the South, many cavalrymen joined with their own horses and regular saddles. Eventually, the Confederacy issued the Jenifer saddle. However, when Southerners' horses grew thin because of the inadequate food supply, the Jenifer saddle grew painful on the horses' bony withers. The McClellan was issued in 1863. Due to the shortage of leather in the South during the war, many of the McClellan saddles had skirts of painted canvas.


The horse Thomas Jackson bought in the spring of 1861 was intended for his wife. However, it was Jackson instead of his wife who was soon riding the gelding. The sorrel was rather thin and unimpressive. Although "Stonewall" Jackson was only a mediocre rider, the small horse suited him well. The horse was renamed Little Sorrel, and Jackson came to depend upon him. Little Sorrel was strong and almost tireless. He was not easily spooked - an important trait in a battle mount. General Jackson rode Little Sorrel throughout the war. He was riding him when he was mortally injured by fire in May of 1863. After the war, Little Sorrel was returned to Mrs. Jackson until she was no longer able to care for him. Ultimately, the horse wound up at the Virginia Military Institute, where General Jackson had been a professor of artillery tactics and philosophy. The horse was sent to VMI by train and many veterans stood along side the tracks to salute the horse as the train passed. Little Sorrel was sort of a mascot to the cadets at VMI until his death in 1886. The renowned horse had lived to the ripe old age of thirty-six. Little Sorrel's hide is on display at the VMI museum, but his bones are buried at VMI near a statue of General Jackson.

Rienzi, another famous horse of the Civil War, was given to General Philip Sheridan shortly before he raided Rienzi, Mississippi; hence the horse's name. Rienzi was black except for three white ankles, and was strong and fast. His speed would be key in the fate of his master's troops. In October of 1864, General Sheridan was in Washington for a staff meeting when Confederate forces launched a surprise attack on his troops at Cedar Creek, Virginia. On the way back to his men, Sheridan learned of the attack - twelve miles from his location in Winchester, Virginia. Rienzi was able to get the general to his troops in time to lead them to victory. From then on, Rienzi was known as Winchester. He and General Sheridan were together for the rest of the war. Winchester died in 1878 at the age of twenty. Winchester is on display at the National Museum of History in Washington.

Although General Ulysses S. Grant had many horses, the most famous was probably Cincinnati. When the general was visiting his ill son in St. Louis, he received the horse from a man named S. S. Grant. This man was very ill himself, and no longer able to ride the horse. He thought the general would give his cherished horse a good home and wanted Grant to accept the horse as a gift. There was one stipulation: General Grant must promise that neither he nor anyone else would ever mistreat the horse. General Grant accepted the offer and named the horse Cincinnati.

Grant stated that Cincinnati was "the finest horse that I have ever seen." Cincinnati was eighteen hands high and descended from Lexington, a record-breaking Thoroughbred. Supposedly, Grant once was offered $10,000 in gold for the horse. The offer was declined. The number of people Grant allowed to ride Cincinnati was small, but an exception was made for President Lincoln, who reportedly enjoyed riding the horse very much. Cincinnati went to the White House with Grant after he was elected president.

The most famous horse of the Civil War belonged to the most famous general. This horse was Traveller, ridden by General Robert E. Lee. The general had several other horses, but Traveller was his favorite. The well-known horse was a gray sixteen-hand Saddlebred gelding with black points. He was strong and quick, not unusual horse in looks or stature, but exceptional in endurance. His name came from his ability to travel.

Traveller was born in Virginia in 1857. General Lee purchased him for $200 in 1861; they were together from that point on. General Lee greatly respected animals, and he forged a strong bond with Traveller. The two completely trusted one another. Of Traveller, General Lee wrote:

"Such a picture could inspire a poet, whose genius could then depict his worth and describe his endurance of toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold, and the dangers and sufferings through which he has passed. He could dilate upon his sagacity and affection and his invariable response to every wish of his rider. He might even imagine his thoughts through the long night?marches and days of battle through which he has passed."

After the war, Traveller accompanied Lee to his post at Washington College. The horse lost many hairs from his tail to admirers who wanted a souvenir of the famous horse and his general. When General Lee died in 1870, Traveller marched in his funeral with reversed boots in his stirrups. The faithful horse did not outlive his master by long. In 1871, Traveller stepped on a nail and developed lockjaw, a condition also known as tetanus that causes muscle spasms of the head, making it difficult to take food into the mouth and chew. The veteran was euthanized to end his suffering. His bones were displayed at Washington College until the 1970's when Traveller's remains were buried at the college, not far from General Lee's final resting place.


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