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Death and the Civil War … Not Counting the Horses

Benson’s Battery – horses in the American Civil War

Last week, PBS presented Death and the Civil War – a Ken Burns movie about how the Civil War changed the way we relate to death and how we treat dead people. The war drove Americans to find new ways to bury people, to transport dead people, to record and account for them.

In 12 hours, at the first major battle, outside the Virginia town of Manassas, 900 men lay dead and another 2,700 were wounded (many would die later). As the PBS website explains:

Though universally predicted to be a brief and bloodless military adventure, the Civil War dragged on for four dark years, killing an estimated 750,000 men — nearly 2.5 percent of the American population. The impact permanently altered the character of the republic, the culture of the government, and the psyche of the American people for all time.

Woefully unprepared for the monumental work of burying and accounting for the dead, northerners and southerners alike had to find a way to deal with the hundreds of thousands of bodies, many of which were unidentified, and the grieving families who sought information on loved ones who, in the end, would never be found.

In all, 750,000 men died on the battlefield or from their wounds, still the highest number of battlefield deaths per day of any war. (More stats and figures are listed on this page, along with other valuable information plus excerpts and the full movie.)

But one figure, one report, one reference is entirely missing. That would be the number of horses who died.

Horses in the cavalry

By 1865, as the war drew to a close, more than a million horses and mules had been killed. So if you ask who really lost in the Civil War, the answer would have to be that it was the horses. And in terms of why the war was fought, the horses were even bigger losers. They weren’t fighting for either side, but were simply the slaves of both, conscripted into a war they did not choose and did not understand. They entered the war as slaves, and at the end, that’s what they remained.

In the two-hour movie, the word “horse” is only actually mentioned three times. One is in reference to a race track where a celebration was held. Another is in a letter where a dying soldier leaves his horse and equipment to his family. And there’s a reference to horses who died on the battlefield – at Gettysburg:

As Robert E. Lee and the badly battered Army of Northern Virginia retreated southward from Pennsylvania, ending the second and final Confederate invasion of the North, 7,000 slain men and 3,000 dead horses lay strewn across the field in the summer heat.

… The mass burials proceeded in the summer heat. Confederates were buried in trenches containing 150 or more men; the decomposing bodies often hurled rather than laid to rest. Sometimes the rotting bodies ruptured, compelling burial parties to work elsewhere until the stench had dissipated.

Burying a horse is no small job. But there’s no mention, even here, of the horses. Nor is there any other mention of horses anywhere else.


Shipping horses from the north to the battlefield.

Horses have been engines of war since at least 2,000 BCE, when the Hyksos people were building chariots for their feud with the growing Egyptian empire. (There’s more about the history of horses in war in this post.) It’s reported that in World War One, the Germans lost two million horses; that two and a half million horses were taken to veterinary hospitals in France; that almost a half million horses shipped to battle by the British lay dead; and that millions more died in Russia, in Africa and elsewhere. Most of them were not killed by enemy fire, but from the cold, from the mud, from starvation and exhaustion, and from getting caught in barbed wire.

All of which is not to criticize  the movie Death and the Civil War. It’s worth seeing regardless. but perhaps the real takeaway is how profoundly self-centered we humans are as a species. It’s always all about us – our lives our deaths, our wars, our righteousness, our exceptionalism, our great importance. We conscript all the other animals, all of nature, all other life forms to our supposedly great purposes.

But looked at from the point of view of the horses in the Civil War, one of them might say:

“I’ve heard that this war was about bringing an end to slavery. But it certainly didn’t end slavery for us. We were conscripted into it as slaves. We rode into battle, pulled wagons and cannons, and, by the numbers, we were the losers.

Worse yet, we gained nothing for our suffering – no freedom to live our lives as nature intended; no freedom from enslavement. Just a few statues, here and there, recalling how “brave” we were. But we didn’t ask to be brave. We didn’t ask to be there at all. We had no choice.

“And we still don’t.”