Horses of the Civil War

The old­est photos that we have pro­vide glimpses of horses bred in the United States from a time be­fore there were any horse registries, breed clubs or “pa­pers” for non-Thor­ough­breds.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Deb Ben­nett, PhD

The old­est photos that we have pro­vide glimpses of horses bred in the United States from a time be­fore there were any horse registries, breed clubs or “pa­pers” for non-Thor­ough­breds.

Out of a shat­tered glass pho­to­graphic plate stares the hand­some face of a bearded man in a Civil War uni­form. His clear eyes con­vey an al­most in­fi­nite sad­ness, for they have wit­nessed car­nage of both man and horse on a scale that has never been seen be­fore or since. The ex­pres­sion re­veals in­tel­li­gence, but the hard, thin line of the mouth speaks of an iron will. This is the Civil War por­trait of Ulysses S. Grant, who was ap­pointed Com­mand­ing Gen­eral of the Union Army by Abra­ham Lin­coln in 1864.

Brave in bat­tle, Grant un­der­stood and liked horses. Gen. Ho­race Porter, his Chief of Staff and later am­bas­sador to France, said Grant was “a great rider, sim­ply splen­did. He could ride 40 or 50 miles and come in per­fectly fresh and tire out younger men.”

Dur­ing his ser­vice in the Mex­i­canAmer­i­can War (1846-1848), Grant be­came fa­mous as a mes­sen­ger and scout. Of course there was no ra­dio in those days, and “des­patch rid­ers” were se­lected for their abil­ity to ride fast and fear­lessly across bro­ken coun­try.

A freed slave who worked in Grant’s house­hold as a cook re­mem­bered, “Grant was al­ways fond of fast horses. He was mounted on his race horse, Nel­lie, a very fleet-footed an­i­mal when he per­formed his dar­ing ride to the camp of Gen. [Zachary] Tay­lor dur­ing the Mex­i­can war. I have heard him de­scribe the won­der­ful speed this horse ex­hib­ited when he made that per­ilous trip of two and a half miles ex­posed to show­ers of bul­lets from the ri­fles of the en­emy. He ap­peared to look upon Nel­lie’sN con­duct as more coura­geous th This ar­ti­cle is the cul­mi­na­tion of my se­ries re­con­struct­ing the ori­gin and de­vel­op­ment of the Mor­gan horse and doc­u­ment­ing the early roots of the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally

Amer­i­can horse breeds---Mor­gan, Amer­i­can Stan­dard­bred, Amer­i­can Sad­dle­bred, Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse ---as well as the Thor­ough­bred on th­ese shores. I have had to present most horses from be­fore the Civil War in paint­ings or etch­ings be­cause, as we learned in the pre­vi­ous in­stall­ment of

this se­ries, good pho­tog­ra­phy did not yet ex­ist. The Civil War is the first real opportunit­y, through the old­est set of photos that we have, to look at the con­for­ma­tion of horses bred in Amer­ica from a time be­fore there were any horse registries, breed clubs or “pa­pers” for non-Thor­ough­breds.


The splen­did 1865 paint­ing by Nor­we­gian artist Ole Peter Hansen Balling, “Grant and His Gen­er­als,” stands at the top of this ar­ti­cle as Grant him­self stood at the apogee of

horse­man­ship. The im­pov­er­ished son of an Ohio tan­ner, Grant never suc­ceeded in any en­ter­prise out­side of the Army and the Pres­i­dency. Nei­ther was his physique of the el­e­gant sort gen­er­ally ex­pected in a top-notch rider. Balling re­ports that on one oc­ca­sion when he was with the gen­eral at the front, a pack­age ar­rived con­tain­ing a pair of big leather boots, the kind with high tops that ex­tend above the knees. Grant put them on and laughed at how they made him look, for he had short legs. Once in the sad­dle, how­ever, he could get just about any horse to do just about any­thing for him. As news of Grant’s war ex­ploits and vic­to­ries spread, he earned hero sta­tus. As he rose through the ranks, his salary in­creased, and this per­mit­ted him to pur­chase some very fine horses. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions, how­ever, horses that not even a gen­eral’s salary could buy were given to him.

Through the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can and then the Civil War, Grant owned many horses, but we have photograph­s of only three. One was Egypt, a long­necked and el­e­gant 16-hand black, bred in south­ern Illi­nois. Grant used Egypt for pa­rade but also rode him in com­bat. The gen­eral’s fa­vorite charger, how­ever, was the mag­nif­i­cent brown­bay Thor­ough­bred Cincin­nati, 17 hands tall and full of fire, a wor­thy son of the fa­mous Lex­ing­ton, last of the great Amer­i­can heat-rac­ers. It is upon this horse that Grant ap­pears in the paint­ing that opens this es­say.

Both Cincin­nati and Egypt had been given to Grant by admirers, but not all of the gen­eral’s horses were gifts, for it was nor­mal for army of­fi­cers to pur­chase and train their own mounts. To­ward the end of the war when Grant be­gan to suf­fer from prostate trou­ble, he rode the 14:2 hand black “Jeff Davis,” so named be­cause he had been cap­tured

at Davis’s farm. Grant asked the Army pro­cure­ment de­part­ment to as­sess the value of the horse, and then Grant bought him for the price stated. “Jeff Davis” car­ried Grant on the long rides be­tween bat­tles be­cause he, like Egypt, pos­sessed “easy” am­bling gaits.


It is fully in char­ac­ter for Grant to have in­sisted that, if a mon­u­men­tal paint­ing were to be made, other men who were in­stru­men­tal in win­ning the war for the North be in­cluded in it with him. Twenty-seven gen­er­als, in­clud­ing Grant, are por­trayed in Balling’s paint­ing. The artist has drawn them as if all were as com­fort­able and bal­anced in a cavalry charge as in a par­lor chair. Such por­traits ide­al­ize the horses as well. It is this that makes photograph­s such valu­able sources of data---for they ro­man­ti­cize noth­ing and miss no de­tail.

Of the gen­er­als who ap­pear in Balling’s paint­ing, seven ap­pear here in photograph­s. Grant is not among them, for there is only one photograph known of him on horse­back, and that ap­pears to have been taken af­ter the war. The firm seat and kind hands of al­most all the mounted sol­diers, as well as their tack and train­ing ideals, were high­lighted in our last in­stall­ment. The pri­mary pur­pose of this ar­ti­cle is to show the var­i­ous phys­i­cal types of horse. The old “wet-plate” pho­to­graphic images form an in­deli­ble record of Amer­i­can breeds, which were at that time just be­gin­ning to be­come dif­fer­en­ti­ated.

Rel­a­tively few photos of Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers re­main; luck­ily we pos­sess images of Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral Robert E. Lee on his fa­mous horse “Trav­eller” as well as a few photos show­ing the ragged back­woods troops and mili­tias that, as South­ern re­sources dwin­dled,

in­creas­ingly fought as guer­rilla units.

The paucity of images from the South is un­for­tu­nate be­cause be­fore the Civil War, Vir­ginia, the Caroli­nas, Ten­nessee, Alabama, Mis­sis­sippi and Lou­i­si­ana were im­por­tant cen­ters of horse breeding. The num­ber of good horses killed in ac­tion was sim­ply ap­palling, and con­scrip­tion not only of men but of horses broke the back of many a South­ern breeding farm. Thus we see South­ern fight­ers mounted on any sort of horse they could lay a hand on. In horses re­cruited from Mis­souri and Kansas, we have the ear­li­est images of sol­diers on horses show­ing mus­tang and Ap­paloosa in­flu­ence. Like­wise, troops op­er­at­ing in Florida con­scripted horses show­ing ChoctawS­pan­ish in­flu­ence.

The North was hurt less than the South in terms of breeding farms, many of which sur­vived the war. By the out­break of the Civil War, how­ever, most farm­ers above the Ma­son-Dixon line did not de­lib­er­ately breed easy-gaited sad­dle horses. Al­though there were some Thor­ough­bred studs in the North, es­pe­cially in New York, the most com­mon North­ern horse was the “plump and pleas­ing” mul­ti­func­tional Mor­gan type

that served farm­ers for light plow­ing and haul­ing, driv­ing and rid­ing. Huge num­bers of the de­scen­dants of Justin Mor­gan---en­tire blood­lines and fam­i­lies---as well as the re­lated Cana­dian trot­ter/pacer were sac­ri­ficed in the Civil War. In the South, tens of thou­sands of easy-gaited part-Thor­ough­breds were lost as well as grade horses and well-bred mules.

Horses were ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary to all as­pects of army life dur­ing the Civil War. While rail­roads and river­boats were used for bulk trans­port from fac­tory to sta­tion or port, over­land trans­port---the way that food, cloth­ing and sup­plies ac­tu­ally reached sol­diers in the field---was by pack train and wagon, pow­ered by horses and mules. All di­vi­sions re­quired horses, whether cavalry, in­fantry, ar­tillery or ir­reg­u­lar “guer­rilla” fight­ers. Al­though the South prided it­self on the high qual­ity of its horses, and South­ern cavalry of­ten proved to be su­pe­rior rid­ers and fight­ers, the North’s vic­tory ul­ti­mately came be­cause it could field more mounts.

Huge num­bers were re­quired. To give some idea, records in­di­cate that the Union Army Far­ri­ers’ Corps, based out­side Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and serv­ing only the Army of the Po­tomac, in 1862 alone shod more than 120,000 horses. A group photo of this Far­rier Corps shows over 300 men---all in leather aprons with ham­mers. To re­place losses,

about 500 horses were req­ui­si­tioned ev­ery day by Union forces in the East. North­ern farm­ers sup­plied th­ese to gov­ern­ment buy­ers.


Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally Amer­i­can horse breeds orig­i­nat­ing east of the Mis­sis­sippi River are the Nar­ra­gansett Pacer, Old Cana­dian, Mor­gan, Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse, Amer­i­can Stan­dard­bred (har­ness racer) and Amer­i­can Sad­dle­bred (sad­dle horse). Th­ese later gave rise to “de­riv­a­tive” breeds, in­clud­ing the Ten­nessee Walk­ing Horse, the Mis­souri Fox­trot­ter and the Rocky Moun­tain Horse. West of the Mis­sis­sippi, the mus­tang and Ap­paloosa de­vel­oped from im­por­ta­tions from Mex­ico and Canada.

The Thor­ough­bred con­trib­uted to the de­vel­op­ment of all the Amer­i­can breeds east of the Mis­sis­sippi and north of Florida. Thor­ough­bred breeding be­gan in the Colonies, es­pe­cially New York, Vir­ginia and the Caroli­nas, and spread west­ward af­ter the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War. The route fol­lowed Daniel Boone’s peo­ple through the Cum­ber­land Gap, down the Ohio Val­ley and into Ken­tucky and the Illi­nois coun­try. The Mor­gan was de­vel­oped as a topcross of Thor­ough­bred on Cana­dian and Nar­ra­gansett Pacer. The Amer­i­can Stan­dard­bred and Amer­i­can Sad­dle­bred were de­vel­oped by topcross­ing Mor­gan, Cana­dian and oc­ca­sion­ally Hart­draaver (Friesian) mares with se­lected Thor­ough­bred stal­lions. The Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse be­gan in Vir­ginia and North Carolina in the same way, but the mares were of Hobby or Nar­ra­gansett Pacer ex­trac­tion.

All th­ese breeds can be thought of as part-Thor­ough­breds---but the reader

who wants to think of it that way would be well ad­vised never to for­get the iden­tity of the mares, whose con­tri­bu­tion is al­ways more im­por­tant than that of the stal­lions.

Un­til the 1890s, there was no registry for any Amer­i­can-bred horse ex­cept the Thor­ough­bred. Ear­lier in the 19th cen­tury, peo­ple were not think­ing about “pa­pers” when they re­ferred to horses of dif­fer­ent “breed.” In­stead, they iden­ti­fied horses by the name of the farmer or fam­ily that bred them. For ex­am­ple, some­one might re­mark, “I own a horse of Mor­gan breed,” by which he would have meant that his horse de­scended from the stal­lion owned by Mr. Justin Mor­gan. Equally a horse might be re­ferred to as “a Jones” or “a Smith.”

Al­ter­na­tively, horses were some­times iden­ti­fied by the sire’s blood­line, as in “a Janus” or “a Prin­ter” (quar­ter run­ning-horse), “a Den­mark” or “a Fearnought” (easy-gaited sad­dle horse), or “an Ethan Allen” or “a Ham­ble­to­nian” (har­ness racer).

The im­por­tant re­al­iza­tion is that all the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally Amer­i­can horse breeds came out of the same pool of horses. For this rea­son, peo­ple of other coun­tries of­ten find our breeds dif­fi­cult to tell apart, most fre­quently mix­ing up Sad­dle­bred and Stan­dard­bred. The East­ern breeds dif­fer only in the per­cent­age of Cana­dian, Hart­draaver, Nar­ra­gansett Pacer, Hobby or Thor­ough­bred that went into the mix, and in whether the Thor­ough­breds or part-Thor­ough­breds used as sires were of the older, 18th cen­tury am­b­ler­gal­loper type or of a 19th cen­tury strain with strictly di­ag­o­nal gaits (if you had not been aware that many early Thor­ough­breds were “gaited,” see “Amer­ica’s Ma­jor Horse Breeds Emerge,” EQUUS 473).

The Civil War photos pre­sented in this ar­ti­cle are of ex­treme value be­cause they clearly show the spec­trum of phys­i­cal types. Some in­di­vid­u­als

look just like mod­ern reg­is­tered Quar­ter Horses, Mor­gans or Amer­i­can Sad­dle­breds. One gets an oc­ca­sional glimpse of a horse that must have been part-mus­tang, part-Choctaw/Chickasaw, or that has roan­ing and spot­ting and the short tail, wiry build and arched head of the “old type,” pre-registry Ap­paloosa. A few horses rep­re­sent “grades”---durable and use­ful, but of lower over­all qual­ity and more or less in­dif­fer­ent ap­pear­ance.

As you thumb through this won­der­ful pic­ture gallery, use my com­men­tary as a guide to de­tails. Com­pare the range of dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal types. How many horses to­day are as sub­stan­tial, as struc­turally cor­rect in the limbs, joints and hooves, or as hand­some as those you see here? How would your own horse com­pare to those that our great­grand­fa­thers bred? Would your horse be able to stand up to weeks on the march, cov­er­ing hun­dreds of miles on roads and tracks? Could he men­tally and emo­tion­ally en­dure the stresses of gun­fire, clouds of smoke, other horses press­ing up close, the need to change speed or di­rec­tion quickly to avoid be­ing killed? Yes, as I noted in the pre­vi­ous in­stall­ment of this se­ries, our world has changed a great deal since the out­break of the Civil War in 1861.

Next: The Ad­ven­tures of Ethan Allen 50, last of the great Mor­gan har­ness rac­ers.

How many horses to­day are as sub­stan­tial, as struc­turally cor­rect in the limbs, joints and hooves, or as hand­some as those you see in th­ese photos? How would your own horse com­pare to those that our great-grand­fa­thers bred?

“Grant and His Gen­er­als,” paint­ing by Ole Peter Hansen Balling; courtesy, Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion

This 1864 im­age of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was ex­posed upon one side of a glass plate; many plates like this one from the Civil War era have sub­se­quently been bro­ken.

This im­age of Union stock­yards (1862), prob­a­bly in north­ern Vir­ginia, is one half of a stereo pair, taken in or­der to con­vey the sheer size of this huge in­stal­la­tion. Note the long shedrows with hun­dreds of stalls. Far­ri­ers at Union head­quar­ters, 1863. This im­age shows five en­listed men, one of­fi­cer and or­der­lies. The heavy-wheeled wag­ons carry por­ta­ble forges and sup­plies. There is a lot of very good horse­flesh in this photo; the an­i­mals are of mostly Thor­ough­bred ex­trac­tion and are prob­a­bly of­fi­cers’ mounts.

Ma­jor John Bow­man of Ten­nessee poses aboard a “South­ern chunk” —like Lee’s Trav­eller, this horse rep­re­sents a blend of Thor­ough­bred, Mor­gan and Hobby/ Nar­ra­gansett an­ces­try and was prob­a­bly easy-gaited. Note in both this horse and Trav­eller the slightly crooked hind legs, the long but some­what an­gu­lar and steep croup, deep shoul­der, and shapely neck.

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