Military conflicts have, I suspect, brought out the entrepreneurial spirit in people for eons. The American Civil War was certainly no different. Hundreds, if not thousands, of would be entrepreneurs inundated the governments and war departments of both sides with offers to provide services and products of all kinds. Most of the folks meant well and made legitimate offers. Others were certainly quacks. The conflict presented opportunities in many fields of enterprise and industry. The war also presented the armies with a myriad number of jobs, beyond the obvious of one of trying to win the war by prevailing on the battlefield. Many of these secondary tasks would have been unpleasant in the extreme, including the disposal of thousands of dead horses and mules, as well as the offal left around the yards where the thousands of cattle were slaughtered to feed the soldiers. The troops resented and avoided the burden of burying or otherwise disposing of the carcasses. When compelled to bury the animals, the grim, malodorous task was usually completed in a most cursory manner.
By way of example, in mid-April, and with the armies setting in for a siege around Yorktown, Maj. Gen. Samuel Heintzelman, commanding the Union Third Corps sent the following to Col. William Averell, 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry:
The General Commanding directs that all offal in and around the camps be buried immediately, also all dead horses.
Four months later, and shortly before the Army of the Potomac abandoned the Peninsula Campaign, a surgeon complained to Averell, now a brigadier commanding a brigade:
Just beyond the limits of this camp a large number of dead horses have been buried or rather covered over lightly with earth the feet remaining in many cases uncovered. My hospital is close to the limits of the camp and the stench of decomposing matter is over-powering…Under these circumstances I would request that no more horses be buried near this spot…These horses I am told belong to several of the regiments under your command.
At least two entrepreneurial men approached the Union War Department offering to relieve the soldiers of the job of burying, burning or otherwise disposing of the dead animals.
In April 1863, an unknown person, living in Georgetown, near the nation’s capital, approached Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, head of the Union Quartermaster Department, with an offer to buy dead horses for $1 each, deliverable at any wharf in Washington or Georgetown, or $1.15 at Arlington.
No reply from Meigs or Stanton has been found
In February 1864, Joseph Burnett, of Philadelphia, addressed the following letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton:
I understand from persons coming from at Brandy Station that the stench from the Dead Animals is very grate what from them and the offal of the Army it is very sickly. I understand there is no person attending to them. If that is so I take this opportunity to offer you my service to go down and remove and put out of site all that I can as quick as possible, providing you will furnish me with pass to remove all from Brandy Station to the city of Alexandria VA with transportation from Brandy Station to Alexandria or Washington. This should be attended to as soon as possible for the good of our army…
Burnett did not provide Stanton with any guidance as to what remuneration he sought for the task, and no reply from Stanton has been found. Burnett may have only sought free transportation in exchange for removing the animals, but hauling them back to Alexandria or Washington?
Documents found in the National Archives