A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Horses in the Civil War

C. Kay Larson, board member of the New York Military Affairs Symposium, writes in the New York Times about the horses of the Civil War:

The Civil War is not normally called a horse’s war, but it most certainly was: cavalry and artillery horses, draft and pack horses and mules, approximately one million on the Union side alone. The seat of war was also the lap of America’s horse culture – or, rather, cultures, north and south.

He notes that in the South, “horses were signs of elite power,” whereas in the North, they were “more utilitarian, bred to work, not to race or ride to oversee the plantation.”

Larson offers interesting insight into the role that horses played  during the Civil War. The Southern cavalry was “a rich man’s undertaking,” but the Union purchased Morgans, “a uniquely American breed known for endurance, versatility, heart and courage.”

But the post loses me by romanticizing the role of the horses:

The real heroes were the horses themselves. Cavalrymen and scouts understood what their horses could do for them. … Horses frequently took bullets for their masters. The Confederate general J. O. Shelby had 24 horses shot from under him. Forrest had even more – 39.

Nonhumans are never heroes of war; they are victims – the ultimate in “collateral damage”. The human carnage of the Civil War was certainly terrible – 750,000 humans. But if you want to know who truly lost the war, it was not the South; it was the horses – more than a million of them.

The carnage, in terms of horses, has been horrific in wars throughout history. In World War One, the Germans lost two million horses; two and a half million horses were taken to veterinary hospitals in France; almost a half million horses shipped to battle by the British lay dead; and 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.

And while many humans gained from the war, nothing changed for the horses. They gained no freedom to live their lives as nature intended; no freedom from enslavement. Just a few statues, here and there, recalling how “brave” they were. But they didn’t ask to be brave. They didn’t ask to be there at all. They had no choice.

And they still don’t.

It’s easy and convenient to romanticize the role of nonhuman animals in war – horses, pigeons, dolphins, dogs, and many more. But they’re all victims, not heroes. Most of the dogs used in the Vietnam war were left behind. And then there are all the animals, especially pigs, who are “sacrificed” to the war effort by being used in research experiments to see how their bodies respond to bombs, bullets and other ways of being wounded.

No one has ever put up a statue honoring the pigs who gave their lives so that doctors could learn how best to stitch up our soldiers.

I’ve written more about horses in the Civil War here.  And a brief history of horses in war is here.