by Bobbie Coalter
Photos courtesy of Courtney Leasure
Editor’s Note: This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. There will be many events honoring this time in our history, including the Pennsylvania Quarter Horse Associations Gettysburg Ride, September 13-15. The Horsemen’s Corral is honored to take part in this event. We will participate in the trail ride and Joe will be the MC and conduct Cowboy Church. Come join us for the ride, campfire,ghost stories and fellowship as we honor the many soldier, civilians and equines that lost their lives from July 1-3, 1863.
Horses have long been retired from the United States military, but back during the Civil War, a bloody and tragic time in our history, horses and other equines were as necessary to the Union and Confederate soldiers as military vehicles are to our modern day soldiers. Both armies used equines to carry equipment to the front lines, men into battle and the injured to camp hospitals. Most horses did not survive their enlistment, since shooting and killing them first during a battle meant a disadvantage to the enemy; cavalrymen ended up on foot making an easy target, and artillery could not be moved into strategic positions. General George Armstrong Custer is said to have 11 mounts shot out from under him during the war, including two in one day at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Unfortunately for these stoic equines, before the battle ever began, survival was a challenge. A days, weeks, even months long march leading up to a battle meant poor weather conditions, disease, parasites, poor quality food, and malnutrition. Minor injuries that could be easily healed with time or rest meant an early death sentence for even the most heroic of horses from the very army they served. If a horse became lame from a stone bruise minor mishap, they could not be left behind to recover. Neither army wanted this valuable asset alive to end up in the enemy’s hands, replenishing their stock and giving them an advantage for the next skirmish or battle.
It is estimated that during the Civil War, of the equines killed, including horses, mules, donkeys and even confiscated children’s ponies, over 32,600 of them belonged to the Union Army and 45,800 the Confederacy. However, there are other estimates that place the total equine loss at 1,000,000. At the Battle of Gettysburg alone, 3,000 to 5,000 horses were killed.
There are many statues of civil war heroes astride their faithful horses in town squares around the country. Some include the name of the horse along with their rider. The most famous of the civil war horses were ridden by officers from both sides of the conflict.
Little Sorrel was the fearless gelding General Stonewall Jackson rode into battle when he was wounded by friendly fire. Although General Jackson died shortly after receiving his injury, Little Sorel lived to the age of 36.
According to Ulysses S. Grant, his favorite horse, a Thoroughbred named Cincinnati, was the most magnificent horses that he had ever seen. Grant would only let a very few of his friends ride Cincinnati, one of them was President Abraham Lincoln.
General Robert E. Lee had a favorite horse also. Traveller was a gray Saddlebred gelding and was probably the most famous horse that participated in the Civil War. General Lee said he had a special bond with Traveller and often talked about him. Traveller died one year after General Lee’s death.
Considered the most important engagement of the war, the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) was fought by the Federal Army of the Potomac, (94,000 men commanded by Major General George G. Meade) and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (70,000 men commanded by General Robert E. Lee).
The battle was the bloodiest of the Civil War. Casualties included those killed, wounded, captured and deserted. When the fighting was over, the Confederate army sent a wagon train of wounded back to Virginia that was 17 miles long. There is a great study from Busey and Martin’s Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg that breaks down the total casualties for the three day battle:
There were 2,400 Gettysburg residents huddled in their homes as the two armies engaged in fierce battle all around them. Miraculously, only one civilian, Jennie Wade, was killed when she was struck by a stray bullet in her home while caring for a sick relative.
Many who are not familiar with Civil War history think Gettysburg was the end of the North South conflict. Although it was arguably the most decisive battle of the war, turning the tide in favor of the Union, it happened roughly midway through the war’s timeline. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought 26 months after the Civil War started at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and 21 months before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. The Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi did not surrender until May 26, 1865, 23 months after Gettysburg.
There are many more interesting facts about Gettysburg, including individual accountings of the battle. One of these includes a woman who finally emerged from her home after the fighting stopped to find 17 dead horses in her front yard and no one to help her dispose of the carcasses. The animals decomposed and she sold the bones to help pay for damage to her property; she received a half cent per pound.
Many of us up North were raised believing the Union won the Battle of Gettysburg, but in fact, that is in dispute and always has been. From the casualty count it’s evident that that there was no clear winner in this Battle between North and South. However, the battle was decisive because General Lee, who had been on the offensive the first half of the war, retreated back to Virginia. His failure to route the Union at Gettysburg forced him to give up his campaign to invade far into the Northern states, and for the remainder of the war he and the Confederacy were on the strategic defensive.
The Civil War is one of those times in our history we should never forget. And although it may be arguable who won the Battle of Gettysburg, from recorded accounts of those who were there, we know it wasn’t the horse.