I am lucky: I live surrounded by history. From my office window, I can see the John S. Mosby Highway, named for the legendary Confederate commander of Mosby’s Raiders during the Civil War. Washington commuters drive that road to and from work in downtown D.C. This is the same road that, as a young man, George Washington used to ride over the Blue Ridge on his way to survey the Western Territories for Lord Fairfax.
The gravel lane next to my farm is the same road Confederate troopers galloped down on their way to confront the Union cavalry just east of Upperville, Virginia. The Battle of Upperville was partly fought over the grounds of today’s Upperville Horse Show, which lie along Mosby Highway, modern-day U.S. Route 50. The remains of many of the men who fell that day, June 21, 1863, lie in local cemeteries, and there are gravestones and monuments to mark their passing. But the bodies of the horses and mules that died alongside their masters were dragged into a field on my neighbor’s farm and left behind. The only monument they received was the rock and rubble used to cover them.
From 1912 until 1948, U.S. horses and cavalrymen represented our country in the Olympic Games. This month, I’ve dedicated my column to remembering cavalry horses throughout the ages and from different nations, who instead of carrying us over cross-country courses, down centerline or around the stadium arena, bravely carried their riders into battle.
Always There, Always Eating
In my readings and studies of the wars that swept across the Virginia countryside and, indeed, around the world, I am continually struck by the presence of horses. The horse has been a conveyance, a partner and, unfortunately, occasionally a source of sustenance throughout mankind’s long record of armed conflict.
One of the many interesting things about our association with horses is the effect it has had on other aspects of society. For example, horses in hard service need cereal grains to produce enough energy to continue working. Grazing alone will cause them to fall into a much-reduced condition. When horses were still used in warfare, the entire countryside would have to devote much of its arable acreage to raising the corn and oats needed to sustain horses in their labors.
In wartime, this was a challenge at best. There were about 10,000 horses present on each side at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, and cavalry commanders faced enormous logistical problems in caring for their mounts. For example, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s cavalry at Gettysburg needed 90 tons of hay and 170 tons of corn every day! And, of course, they needed water—450,000 gallons daily. For a rough estimate of how much water that is, look at a medium-sized tanker truck the next time you are on an interstate highway. That tanker probably holds about 4,000 gallons and is about 25 feet long. It would have taken a convoy of more than 40 such trucks—stretching “head to tail” for about a quarter of a mile—every day to supply Lee’s horses with enough water. Obviously, such mechanized support was unavailable at the time, and dehydration was a severe problem.
To understand just how much 170 tons of corn is, imagine a row of 20 stalls. The corn would fill all 20 of those stalls approximately to the top. This amount was the guideline, but the officers were often unable to provide for their horses, and the horses suffered accordingly.
From 19th to 20th Century Warfare
During the Civil War, the U.S. Army issued 2,500 wagons and 35,000 horses and mules for every 100,000 men in uniform. Given that by April 1865, President Abraham Lincoln had nearly one million men in the armed services, the hay-, grain- and water-supply problems were staggering. Another way to picture it: At the close of the Civil War, the Union staged a Grand Review in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Army marching past the White House on May 23–24, 1865, in final salute to President Andrew Johnson (President Lincoln had recently been assassinated). There were so many mounted troopers that, riding 12 abreast, they made a column seven miles long and took well over an hour to pass.
These thousands of riders passed by without incident—except for a 26-year-old Major General of Volunteers named George A. Custer, who caused quite a stir. Someone in the throng gathered along the route threw a wreath to Custer—the closest thing to a rock star the 1860s could produce—causing his horse to spook and bolt and leave a trail of confusion in his wake. He passed by the White House so quickly that Gen. William Sherman remarked in amusement that he “was not reviewed at all.” (Getting run away with during an important parade was a fairly good means of promotion for young officers, as you shall soon see in an upcoming story.)
The numbers of horses used in war in other eras are also staggering. When people wonder today at the fact that a show or event might have several hundred horses on the grounds, I am reminded that when World War II broke out in 1939, the United States had 12 million horses and 4.5 million mules.
Similarly, for all its vaunted “Blitzkrieg” (“lightning war”), which relied heavily on tanks, planes and artillery, the German army was surprisingly horse-drawn at the outbreak of World War II. If Hitler had decided on an invasion of England in 1940, he would have had to ship 125,000 horses across the English Channel to provide his army with transport.
The U.S. still had cavalry troops in action in the Philippines in 1941–42. The commanding general of the 26th U.S. Cavalry Regiment was a tall, tough, polo-playing, whisky-drinking cavalryman, Gen. Jonathan M. “Skinny” Wainwright. A good commander never orders troops to do anything he would not do himself, and Wainwright was a good commander. Forced to retreat, he ordered the destruction of the remaining horses to deny their use to the Japanese. However he could not bring himself to shoot his own charger, Joseph Conrad. To spare Wainwright, his officers quietly arranged for Joseph Conrad and the other remaining horses to be destroyed.
Wainwright was forced to surrender the Philippines and the 26,000 men under his command, April 9, 1942. He survived the Bataan Death March, and upon his release from the POW camp was promoted to four-star rank and awarded the Medal of Honor. He was never the same man, however, and he died shortly after his retirement. It was said that the cause of death was whiskey, but those who knew him said he died of a broken heart, thinking of the men and horses he had lost. (The horses we are talking about were not the only casualties of war.)
Earlier in that conflict, the 26th U.S. Cavalry resorted to eating horseflesh to survive, but it wasn’t the only military unit through the ages to do so. When Napoleon began his disastrous retreat from Moscow in the fall and winter of 1812, his cavalry was forced to eat its horses. In the winter of 1941–42, the German army retreated from Moscow under similarly disastrous circumstances, and those men also ate their horses to survive.
Horses suffered in other ways, too. The few descriptions of the effect of weapons on horses make chilling and depressing reading; I do not recommend it. Whether it was by an arrow at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, by the cannons mentioned in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s grim poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1854 or by artillery fire in World War II, the horses suffered and died. We still have much to do in the improvement of horse care, but we can at least take small comfort that we no longer ask them to charge barbed wire and machine guns.