The horses…had been taxed to the utmost of their strength – Part 1

In looking for a title for this series of posts, I selected words penned by Col. John Beardsley in mid-September 1862. Beardsley, commanding the cavalry brigade attached to Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s First Corps, Army of Virginia, prefaced his campaign report by stating, on August 10, “my cavalry was sent out to patrol the different thoroughfares, examine the different fords and reconnoiter the enemy’s position, and continued a series of active operations, almost without rest, up to the time we arrived in the vicinity of the Potomac, on or about the 5th day of September… The horses of the command had been taxed to the utmost of their strength…[by]…the 18th of August. They had been almost constantly under the saddle since the battle of Cedar Mountain [August 9], having been irregularly and scantily fed upon what the barrenness of the country afforded…There was no time that my brigade was not in constant requisition, moving with rapidity wherever ordered.”

On August 17, one day before Beardsley termed his horses as “taxed to their utmost,” army commander John Pope, requested “1500 cavalry horses as soon as they can be sent. Our cavalry is much broken down, their horses not having been fit for anything from the beginning.” The next day, the commander of the 1st New Jersey, tabulated the number of horses lost on August 8 and 9 during the fighting around Cedar Mountain. In addition to 14 killed in action and 15 captured, he also listed six as having died “from fatigue.” Recalling events of August 18, a trooper in the 2nd New York stated, my horse, which had become blind from the hard marching of the night before, fell in a ditch with me.” One week later, and just three days before the armies began their climatic struggle on the plains of Manassas, Brig. Gen. George Bayard told a superior, “My horses from constant & unremitting work have become so weak that I cannot charge the enemy and I dare not receive a charge of theirs. I work now entirely with my carbines (emphasis is Bayard’s).

In 1862, carbines still represented defensive weapons for the horse-soldiers, but cavalry, especially in the early years of the war, was most effective as an offensive arm of the army. Despite heroic images from Hollywood to the contrary, firing a carbine from a standing horse was possible but difficult. The early breach-loading carbines required a trooper to retrieve a cartridge from one pouch on his belt, close the pouch, so as not to lose other cartridges, open the breach, load the cartridge and then close the breach. Most carbines then required him to reach into a second pouch, withdraw a rather miniscule percussion cap, close the pouch, and place the cap onto the nipple at the breach. When struck, the cap produced the spark which fired the weapon. Some weapons used a slightly less cumbersome roll of tape, with small amounts of powder spaced within the tape, which automatically fed over the nipple as the trooper cocked his weapon. Now consider doing all of this while holding the reins of your horse, under fire or while an enemy trooper on a thousand-pound animal is bearing down on you. Attempting the same from a moving horse was an act of desperation or simply a foolish waste of effort and ammunition.

Bayard’s comment is especially telling, because, in addition to the loss of horses within his brigade, and thus manpower, two of his five regiments, the 1st Rhode Island and the 1st Maine, had few, if any, carbines, and were thus useless in anything but an offensive action, in which the men could employ their sabers or revolvers. Though hard pressed at Brandy Station on August 20, Bayard ordered the two regiments away from the field, rather than risk them in his defensive delaying action.

Beyond “the constant and unremitting work,” several other factors, including weather, disease and a lack of proper food, contributed to the near total collapse of Pope’s three cavalry brigades (fourteen regiments) prior to the culmination of the campaign at Manassas.

Equine disease remained a constant concern to every cavalryman, Blue and Gray, and by October, several diseases, most especially the highly contagious “greased heel,” had nearly crippled both commands. Greased Heel came from spending long periods standing in dung or urine or long hours marching or standing in wet mud. Left untreated the skin affliction could lead to the affected hoof or hooves falling off. All these conditions were present during the summer of 1862 when Pope’s cavalrymen spent long hours on picket posts which horses soon fouled or on several long marches in torrential downpours.

Glanders, a highly contagious pulmonary disease which could present itself in several ways, including nasal discharge or “swollen lymph nodes beneath the jaw,” almost always proved fatal (another version of the disease known as Farcy, was generally less fatal). Long hours on a picket rope, in column on the march or manning a picket post allowed either of these two disorders to quickly ravage a cavalry command as undiagnosed infected horses nuzzled or otherwise contacted healthy horses. The deadly nature of the disease led men from both sides to suspect the other of deliberately leaving infected horses to be captured, as a means of spreading the disease among their enemies. Glanders had appeared in the 1st Maine in mid-June, even before the regiment left the Shenandoah Valley. In time, the Union Quartermaster quarantined sick horses at a special facility in Arlington, where they tried to cure them and return them to service, but quarantining horses on campaign was entirely impractical. Cavalry generally represents the tip-of-the-spear, and as such cavalrymen and their mounts are almost always at the farthest point from supply depots, railheads or hospitals. Thus, the quickest and safest means of protecting a horse herd was to shoot the infected animals.

Equine colic, an intestinal or digestive disorder which could prove fatal, may have been the most prevalent health concern for the cavalry by late-August. The daily ration for horses consisted of 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain but providing front-line troopers with adequate hay proved a special challenge for quartermasters throughout the war. Horses need a proper balance of hay for roughage. An imbalance often brought on by soldiers seeking alternatives for absent hay, such as green cornstalks, precipitated the problem.

Horses, like humans, are also susceptible to heatstroke and sunstroke and both often proved fatal. The men found little opportunity to escape the searing rays of the summer sun and the horses found even less. Long periods under a saddle resulted in open sores on a horse’s back, which drew flies in greater numbers than usually annoyed the animals. Horses, already worn down by disease, scant rations or long marches in deep mud or scorching heat, could ‘worry’ themselves to death trying to drive the flies away by constantly stamping their feet, shaking their head or swatting their tails.

Many primary sources from the Army of Virginia refer to the summer heat around Culpeper. Soldiers certainly knew when they felt especially hot, but few soldiers had any means of accurately recording temperature in the field. Soldiers also reached the area of operations at staggered intervals from other locations, where they might have enjoyed more breeze, more rain or generally cooler temperatures and their prior experience may have colored their judgements as to the weather around Culpeper. Reverend C. B. Mackee recorded the only ‘official’ data I am aware of. His information, which he recorded three times a day in Georgetown, D.C., is readily accessible in Robert K. Krick’s Civil War Weather in Virginia. William J. Miller also compiled very helpful weather information for the Peninsula Campaign, much of it gathered from U.S. Navy Ships’ Logs. This information, recorded about 90 air miles from Culpeper and about 100 air miles from D.C., offers a nice contrast to Mackee’s readings. The data from the Peninsula is, however, more observational with fewer actual temperature readings – see William J. Miller, “Climatological Notes on the Peninsula Campaign,” in The Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Volume Three, Savas Publishing, 1997, pp. 176-194).

After compiling the high and low temperature for each day between June 26 and August 28 (the date I stopped my initial activity outline in the several previous posts), and with plenty of room for error on my part, I came up with the following information. The average high and low temperatures for the last five days of June – 85/70 with a high of 88 and a low of 64. The average temperatures for July – 82/69 with a high of 95 and a low of 62 and the average temperatures for the first 28 days of August – 86/72 with a high of 98 and a low of 59. Mackee recorded 12 days when Georgetown may have received some rain. The longest sustained stretch of extreme heat fell between July 30 and August 12 with an average high of 91 and an average low of 77.

At first glance, keeping in mind the summer heat and humidity we experience in the same area today, these temperatures do not seem especially extreme. However, most of us are outside for only a small percentage of each day, spending the remainder of the day and night in air-conditioned comfort. By contrast, the soldiers and horses spent all day outside, some standing for hours at a picket post, often without any semblance of shade and certainly without the modern comforts we enjoy. Over the last few decades, our idea of what constitutes excessive heat has almost certainly changed, as we have become inured to higher temperatures. Our acclimatization means we need to keep some perspective when reading accounts from the summer of 1862 describing a day as “excessively warm,” as a resident of Warrenton did on June 29. A soldier on the Peninsula termed the heat “almost tropical,” but records place the temperature on the Peninsula to have been 86 at 2 p.m. and 83 in Washington at the same time on June 29. Experience today tells us temperatures may have risen for another couple of hours, but I suspect many of us would not raise an eyebrow at 83 or 86 anymore. We might, however, agree with the same lady in Warrenton when she wrote, on August 12, of “extreme warm weather” having set in, as records show the high temperature had been in the 90s for six days.

We also need to consider the vagaries of local weather, as Culpeper lies 60 air miles from Georgetown, closer to the mountains, while Georgetown in closer to the ocean. For example, a trooper in the 1st Michigan writing of General Hatch’s first expedition against the Virginia Central Railroad, explained, “It rained for five days every day. My clothes was wet for nearly the whole time. It would stop raining for a few hours we would have to swim a river and thereby get wet as rats again.” By contrast, Mackee recorded only two days of rain in the same span and nothing like the dangerous storms encountered by Hatch. Then, in the same letter, the trooper noted, “Its pretty warm some times here now days. We couldn’t stand it if we didn’t wear woolen clothes to keep us from burning.” Again, and by contrast, accustomed as we are to modern materials, the idea of spending a hot summer day in wool uniforms seems practically insane. During the July 30 to August 12 span, Mackee recorded a “heavy” afternoon shower which lasted one hour on July 31 and another heavy shower on August 3, though he does not record the duration of the rain, another shower on August 12 and sprinkles on August 10. Some local papers speak of a drought during this same time span, so we are left to wonder how accounts of rain in Georgetown translated to the Culpeper area.

In a report of August 12, Lieut. Col. Joseph Karge, 1st New Jersey, told General Bayard, “from the 28th of July till the 9th of August neither man nor beast had any rest. Few horses ever had their saddles removed from their backs, and the men themselves seldom experienced any sleep.” His statement overlaps the hottest stretch of the period according to Reverend Mackee’s data. Karge then enumerated several pressing concerns:

“1st That my regiment on account of hard service for the last four weeks is utterly incapable of performing any duties – the horses being mostly unshod and with sore backs

2nd The men are worn out by exposure, irregular food and want of rest

3rd The want of recruiting facilities not being afforded to me although I sent in the papers for my recruiting officers a long time ago

4th That no consideration has been taken in regard to the hard task my regiment had to undergo, and whenever any work had to be done we were sent to perform it – when other cavalry regiments were laying by nursing their men and horses and reaping laurels for their fine appearance. In view of the above mentioned facts I respectfully beg to have the proper time extended by the commanding general to recruit both the physical and numerical force of my regiment…”

Karge’s complaints and concerns may have prompted Brig. Gen. Benjamin Roberts, Pope’s inspector general and chief of cavalry, to inspect Karge’s regiment, along with the 1st Pennsylvania, a couple of days later. In his report, Roberts noted “the sad state of arms, clothing, horses, [etc.]” but as I am focused on the horses, I will save his remarks regarding the men for another day.

“The sore-backed horses are unconditioned for any service and should be sent to pasturage in the rear to recruit. The other horses, low in flesh and for the present unserviceable, would only be in the way of efficient service, and Gen’l Bayard would do well to send away for the time being some one hundred of the poorest of them. These regiments have been on very hard service the past six weeks in weather extremely hot but I cannot doubt that the unserviceable condition of the horses is consequential on culpable neglect of duty by company officers… and for such negligence there is neither palliation or excuse…”

On August 18, Montgomery Meigs, the quartermaster general, also linked the poor condition of Pope’s horses to extreme heat and lack of care. “In this hot season a cavalry regiment may be broken down by a few days’ improper use of their horses…” But Meigs also sought to blame Pope’s officers for “improper use” of their animals. Though there was, undoubtedly, truth in his statement, Meigs, I believe, is on less solid ground here. Unlike Roberts, Meigs did not have a cavalry background. He also worked in Washington and had little understanding of the demand Pope placed upon his cavalry commanders or the conditions they operated under.

Meigs would not have been aware of orders to the mounted arm, like those given by General Banks to a subordinate on July 31 (in the hottest stretch of the summer) to keep his cavalry in constant motion. “Vigorous and bold reconnaissances by our cavalry in small parties, moving in different directions without cessation, will best serve to harass our foe and develop his position and plans…Frequent change, both of position and forces on our part, will both deceive and deter. Do not allow our troops to stand for any length of time in the same condition.” Of course, Banks had been a politician before the war and had no experience with cavalry.

Banks had also ordered the Rapidan River to “be occupied by our pickets constantly.” Doing so offered the near certainty that these men would remain in constant contact with the enemy, with all the attendant concerns and wear and tear on the men and animals. The order also meant holding the men in the same positions, day after day, where the horses soon consumed the best graze, trampled and ground the remainder into dust and fouled the ground and smaller pools of water. In time, dead horses, rotting in the heat, would add to the health concerns and discomfort of the men. Further, Banks had just alerted a subordinate to the problems of holding large bodies of men and animals in the same position for long periods of time, telling him that his own men posted around bucolic Sperryville, “are suffering here from typhoid fever very much.”

Aside from the matter of disease and loss of edible grass for the animals, Pope and his senior commanders needed to know, as early as possible, when and from where Lee might attack the Union positions in Culpeper. Evidence pointed toward Orange County, but the approaches from Richmond and the Northern Neck could not be ignored and necessitated regular patrols as well. Pope’s desire to cut the Virginia Central Railroad added additional miles of wear and tear on his animals.

Cavalry critics, or skeptics, tend to measure the cavalry’s contribution to a battle or campaign by casualties sustained. By doing so, they ignore two of the tasks assigned to the mounted arm, intelligence gathering and the security of the army. Even in the age of airpower, satellites and drones, soldiers conduct patrols to seize prisoners, gather intelligence and develop enemy positions by patrolling the area between the armies, most especially the roads and other avenues of approach. Performing these tasks breaks down horses or modern mechanized equipment without necessarily incurring heavy losses of manpower.

Many of the horses may have been in poor shape at the very outset of the campaign, following the several disasters in the Shenandoah Valley during the spring. On June 30, General Sigel, commanding the First Corps, assessed his men as “Not in good condition. They are weakened and poorly” supplied. He counted but “800 effective [cavalrymen] and horses,” in a brigade of five regiments or battalions. “They are scarcely sufficient for picket and patrol duty, so that I can hardly make a reconnaissance.”

In mid-July, the quartermaster in Warrenton was told to arrange “for receiving and recruiting disabled horses,” from the Valley. Shortly thereafter a quartermaster in Alexandria received 1000 unserviceable horses from just one division returning from the Valley. “Of this number 4 or 500 will never be of service to the government,” he told his superiors. The lot certainly included artillery horses, but most of the disabled animals probably came from the 1st Maine and 1st Rhode Island Cavalry. The horses from the Valley reached Culpeper tired and hungry, but they had moved closer to Washington and closer to a railhead from Washington so the men might have assumed the supply situation would soon improve.



Documents from the National Archives

Ryder Family Letters, University of Michigan

Ted Alexander, “Antietam Horsepower,” Blue & Gray

  1. Terry Sharrer, “The Great Glanders Epizootic, 1861-1866: A Civil War Legacy,” Agricultural History, Volume 69, Number 1 (1995), Http//

The Official Records

David Gerleman, Unchronicled Heroes: A Study of Union Cavalry in the Eastern Theater, Care, Treatment and Use 1861-1865, PhD Thesis

Robert K. Krick, Civil War Weather in Virginia

Jay Luvaas and Harold Nelson, Guide to the Battle of Antietam, The Maryland Campaign of 1862

Henry Meyer, Civil War Experiences under Bayard, Gregg, Kilpatrick, Custer, Raulston, and Newberry

George Breck Letter of July 19 in Rochester in the Civil War


13 thoughts on “The horses…had been taxed to the utmost of their strength – Part 1

  1. Another great article. I enjoyed reading the detailed description of loading a breechloading percussion carbine on horseback. Having participated for a number of years in mounted Civil War Cavalry reenactment, I know myself how difficult that can be and without the added pressure of someone shooting at me while trying to do it. Fortunately, the percussion cap for the Sharps carbine is not too minuscule. That of the revolver is so small that I could never reload it on horseback.

    Tom Bookwalter


  2. Bob,Enjoyed the great article.  You had to be tough back then……not for sissies….wool uniforms…..poor animals too.AndySent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone


  3. I have always wondered about reloading any carbine while mounted. It would seem to take two hands. Could it be that the effectiveness of using a carbine while mounted is somewhat exaggerated by modern writers. Of course I have never do much as sat on a horse so this is pure speculation on my part.

    I enjoy this site very much!

    Apologies for the error in my previous posting. John


    • It definitely takes two hands to load the carbine on horseback. The reins are sewn together, so you can easily hold them in your left hand, along with the carbine itself. The carbine is held as it would be on the ground to reload. Your right hand is free to do everything else.

      The better trained your horse is to stand under gunfire, the easier it is to do. I had three different “cavalry” horses. Two I trained to stand pretty well. I was not too successful with the third.

      I have to stress that no one was shooting live ammo back at me. However much can be learned from reenactment, it is not the real thing by any means.


      • Thank you for getting back to me. So the carbine can be reloaded from a moving horse with no problem. Well that explains a lot. I wondered how they guided the horse at the same time. Now I know.

        And of course a cooperative horse is necessary. That part even I comprehend.

        As much as I have read about this stuff since chilhood, (long ago), I am totally in the dark about what is actually required to engage in combat on a horse.

        I enjoyed very much hearing from a person who actually deals with horses and does the things I only read about, like loading a carbine while mounted.

        Thank you again for your interesting comments! again



  4. Likewise, I appreciate Tom’s comments and John’s as well. I would add, though not from any experience, that Union remounts were not trained to gunfire before being sent out to the army, especially from right over their head. Some had not even been broken to the saddle before being sent to the army. So a trooper on a new remount would not have known what to expect, in terms of the horse responding well to gunfire and the chaos of battle, until they entered the fight. I have seen what happens to reenactors on borrowed horses when they fire their weapon on them for the first time. Bottom line to me – we take too much for granted when we talk about cavalry and I appreciate all the help I get.


  5. I agree that it is not difficult to reload a carbine on horseback. Mounted skirmishing would be at a walk or a stand, so one can hold the reins and the carbine in the left hand and load with the right. However, it’s not surprising that the cavalry was soon to perfect the dismounted skirmish line. Also, in the summer of 1862 probably most federal units in Virginia were only partially equipped with carbines. The 1st Pennsylvania had about 10 per company, so for a while the carbineers were combined into one carbine company. They did not receive their full complement until just before Fredericksburg. And, various units had various carbines (and revolvers), making for logistical challenges. The 1st NJ and 1st Penna served together from May 1862, but the Jersey boys had Burnside carbines and the Pennsylvanians had Sharps carbines. (And within the 1st Penna some companies had Colt .44s and some had Colt .36s.) In addition to the horses breaking down, the Troy-built saddles were condemned right after Cedar Mountain. Not sure what the defect was, or how many were withdrawn, but that was another complication in the middle of this. As for wool, yes it’s hot, but if you’re drenched in a rain or soaked with sweat it will still keep you relatively warm at night. Between archival dives and the “experiential archeology” of “living history,” we are developing an increasingly more detailed understanding of Civil War cavalry. Thanks for all your efforts Bob!


  6. Andy and Tom – thanks for the discussion. I’m always learning from those of you with real saddle time. As for the Troy-built saddles, the problem continued into the summer of 1863 as noted in the following message from Pleasonton, sent just after the Upperville fight

    “The saddles of the McClellan pattern furnished from Troy N.Y. are unfit for use. They ruin the backs of the horses. Please have saddles from other makers supplied, as it will save us many horses.”

    I need to look into this one of these days, but any surviving paperwork would be in the Ordnance files, which I’ve not gotten examined to any real extent. The QM files could keep a person busy for decades

    Liked by 1 person

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