14. mounting the cavalry of the Union army

Charles D. Rhodes

An orderly with an officer's mount


A thousand Federal cavalry horses: “talking it over.” Lovers of horses will appreciate, in this photograph of 1864, the characteristic friendly fashion in which the cavalry “mounts” are gathering in deep communion. The numerous groups of horses in the corrals of the great depot at Giesboro, D. C., are apparently holding a series of conferences on their prospects in the coming battles. Presently all those who are in condition will resolve themselves into a committee of the whole and go off to war, whence they will return here only for hospital treatment. The corrals at Giesboro could easily contain a thousand horses, and they were never overcrowded. It was not until the true value of cavalry was discovered, from the experience of the first two years of warfare, that this great depot was established, but it was most efficiently handled. Giesboro was a great teacher in regard to the care of horses. Cavalrymen learned what to guard against. The knowledge was acquired partly from field service, but in a great measure from the opportunity for leisurely observation, an opportunity somewhat analogous to that of a physician in a great metropolitan hospital where every kind of a physical problem has to be solved.



The mounting and remounting of the Federal cavalry

Charles D. Rhodes, Captain, General Staff, United States Army
As has been indicated in a preceding chapter, the result of organizing a great mass of untrained cavalry and putting it into the field without adequate instruction, resulted in a tremendous loss in horse-flesh to the Federal armies. During the first two years of the war, two hundred and eighty-four thousand horses were furnished the cavalry, when the maximum number of cavalrymen in the field at any one time did not exceed sixty thousand men. In February, 1865, General Halleck stated that the expenditure of cavalry horses during the preceding year had been somewhat less than one hundred and eighty thousand, while the expense of the cavalry in horses, pay, forage, rations, clothing, ordnance, equipments, and transportation, was quoted by him as having reached the enormous sum of one hundred and twenty-five million dollars for the single year alone.

The great number of casualties among the horses was due to many causes, the least of which, it may be said, was through death in battle. Ignorance of inspecting and purchasing officers, poor horsemanship by untrained men, control of tactical operations of cavalry by officers ignorant of its limit of endurance, the hardships inseparable from the great raids of the war, and last but not least, the oftentimes gross inefficiency and ignorance on the part of responsible officers as to the care of horses in sickness and in health-all cooperated toward immense financial loss and temporary military inefficiency.

As late as April, 1864, Sheridan reported the horses of [323]

Cavalry stables at Arlington.

The streets of Washington re-echoed throughout the war with the clatter of horses' hoofs. Mounted aides, couriers, the general staff, the officers of the various regiments stationed in and about the Capital all had their chargers, and Giesboro was too far away to stable them. In the left-hand corer of the first picture, the Giesboro corral shown on the following pages can be seen in the distance. A glance at the photograph will show that the corral was too far away to be convenient for horses in use in Washington. It is three and a half miles as the crow flies from Arlington to the corral. The photographer has written on the face of the lower photograph the date, “June 29, 1864.” At this moment Grant was swinging his cavalry toward Petersburg.

Cavalry stables at Arlington — the great corral in the distance, 3 1/2 miles

Interior view of cavalry stables at Arlington

[324] his command worn out by the mistaken use of mounted men to protect trains — a duty which could be as well and much more economically performed by infantry; and by the unnecessary picket-duty, encircling the great infantry and cavalry camps of the Army of the Potomac on an irregular curve of nearly sixty miles.

In October, 1862, when service in the Peninsula campaign and in that of the Army of Virginia, had brought the number of mounted cavalrymen down to less than a good-sized regiment, McClellan wrote Halleck:

It is absolutely necessary that some energetic measures be taken to supply the cavalry of this army with remount horses. The present rate of supply is 1,050 per week for the entire army here and in front of Washington. From this number the artillery draw for their batteries.

The demand for horses was so great that in many cases they were sent on active service before recovering sufficiently from the fatigue incident to a long railway journey. In one case reported, horses were left on railroad cars fifty hours without food or water, and were then taken out, issued, and used for immediate service in the field.

To such an extent had overwork and disease reduced the number of cavalry horses in the Army of the Potomac, that when the Confederate general, Stuart, made his daring raid into Pennsylvania, in October, 1862, only eight hundred Federal cavalrymen could be mounted to follow him.

Of course the original mounting of the cavalry, field-artillery, and field-and staff-officers caused a great demand for suitable chargers throughout the North. The draft animals required for transportation purposes increased the scarcity of suitable horses. Furthermore, with the unexpected losses during the first years of the war came such a dearth of animals suitable for the cavalry service, that in course of time almost any remount which conformed to the general specifications of a horse, was thankfully accepted by the Government. [325]


Thirty-two immense stables, besides hospitals and other buildings, provided shelter for six thousand horses at the big cavalry depot, District of Columbia, but most of the stock was kept in open sheds or in corrals. The stockyards alone covered forty-five acres. The stables were large, well-lighted buildings with thousands of scrupulously clean stalls. The horses were divided into serviceable and unserviceable classes. About sixty per cent. of the horses received from the field for recuperation were returned to active service. Five thousand men were employed in August, 1863, to rush this cavalry depot to completion. Its maintenance was one of the costly items which aggregated an expenditure by the Union Government of $1,000,000 a day during the entire period of the war — an expenditure running even as high as $4,000,000 a day.

Shelter for six thousand horses at Giesboro

The barracks at Giesboro


Most of the animals used by the Union cavalry were purchased by contract from dealers for a stated sum per head. Many of the mounts were not thoroughly broken, while not a few were absolutely unbroken. But no horse was so wild and unmanageable that some trooper could not be found, more than willing to undertake the animal's training. In fact, many cavalrymen took particular pride in having broken the horses which they rode in campaigns.

At the beginning of the war, when horses were being received from the West in car-load lots and shipped to the new regiments, some effort was made to organize troops of the same color — blacks, grays, bays, and sorrels — and to maintain this harmonious coloring from the remounts received from time to time. But after the regiments were fairly initiated into real campaigning and the losses in horseflesh became serious, all thought of coloring troops and regiments was abandoned, and the one idea was to secure serviceable mounts and remounts of any color, size, or description.

It is related of one cavalry colonel, whose regiment had been in several engagements and who had lost more than half his horses, that he appealed most eloquently to the quartermaster, for a supply of remounts. “Colonel,” said the quartermaster in reply, “I'll tell you frankly that we haven't five pounds of horse for each man to be mounted.” “That won't help much,” retorted the colonel, testily; “we were thinking of riding the brutes, not of eating them.”

The continual complaints as to the quality of the horses furnished, the tardiness with which remounts were supplied, and the inadequacy of conveniences for recuperating broken-down horses in the field, led to the establishment, in the year 1863, of the Cavalry Bureau, with General George Stoneman as its first chief, followed soon after by General Kenner Garrard. But it was under General James Harrison Wilson that the Cavalry Bureau reached its greatest efficiency.

This war bureau was charged with the organization and [327]

In barracks a comfortable spot for the cavalry trooper These cavalrymen of 1864 look comfortable enough in their barracks at Giesboro. When the cavalry depot was established there in 1863, it was the custom to have the troopers return to the dismounted Camp near Washington to be remounted and refitted. Some “coffee-coolers” purposely lost their equipments and neglected their horses in the field in order to be sent back for a time to the comfortable station. The order was finally given by General Meade to forward all horses, arms, and equipments to the soldiers in the field. While the men in this photograph are very much at ease and their lolling attitudes would seem to denote peace rather than war, they are probably none of them self-indulgent troopers who prefer this luxurious resting-place but are part of the garrison of the post charged with defending the valuable depot. There are many Civil War photographs of cattle on the hoof, but this picture contains the only representation of a sheep that has come to light.

[328] equipment of the cavalry forces of the army, and with the providing of mounts and remounts. The inspection of horses for the latter purpose was ordered to be made by experienced cavalry officers, while the purchasing was under the direction of officers of the Quartermaster's Department of the army.

Under the general charge of the Cavalry Bureau, six principal depots were established at Giesboro, District of Columbia; St. Louis, Missouri; Greenville, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware, for the reception, organization, and discipline of cavalry recruits, and for the collection, care, and training of horses.

The principal depot was at Giesboro, District of Columbia, on the north bank of the Potomac, below Washington, and consisted of a site of about six hundred and twenty-five acres for which the Government paid a rental of six thousand dollars per annum. Stables, stock-yards, forage-houses, storehouses, mess-houses, quarters, a grist-mill, a chapel, and wharves, were soon constructed, and within three months after taking possession (August 12, 1863) provision had been made for fifteen thousand animals; and within three months more, arrangement had been made for the care of thirty thousand animals, although twenty-one thousand was the largest number on hand at any one time. The wharves afforded facilities for three steamers of the largest class to load simultaneously; the hospitals had accommodation for two thousand six hundred and fifty horses; five thousand men were employed during the construction period, afterward reduced to fifteen hundred; while thirty-two stables, besides hospitals and other buildings, gave shelter to six thousand horses. Most of the stock was kept in open sheds or in corrals, these stock-yards alone covering forty-five acres, each yard being furnished with hay-racks and water-troughs, and having free access to the river. The estimated cost of the Giesboro Depot was $1,225,000.

The remount depot at St. Louis covered about four hundred acres, and had a force of nearly eleven hundred employees — blacksmiths, [329]

Cavalry to guard the district of Columbia. Between June and December, 1863, just at the time that the Giesboro remount depot was established, four companies of the First District of Columbia Cavalry (A, B, C, and D) were organized. These commands were assigned to special service in the District of Columbia, subject only to the orders of the War Department. The thousands of mounts at Giesboro were not many miles from the track of the Confederate raiders, and presented a tempting prize to them. But early in 1864 the “District” cavalry were ordered away to southeastern Virginia, where they served with Kautz's cavalry division in the Army of the James, during the Petersburg and Appomattox campaigns. Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, in command of this cavalry, reported an encounter with Mosby, to whose depredations their organization was chiefly due, on October 22, 1863: “Sir: This morning about ten o'clock a detachment of my battalion, under command of Major E. J. Conger, and a detachment of the California battalion, under command of Captain Eigenbrodt, encountered a squad of Mosby's men some three miles this side of Fairfax Court House and near the Little River turnpike. One of Mosby's men (named Charles Mason) was shot and instantly killed. The celebrated guerrillas, Jack Barns, Ed. Stratton, and Bill Harover, were captured and forwarded to the Old Capitol Prison. These men state that they were looking for Government horses and sutlers' wagons. None of our force were injured.” Colonel Baker was in the Federal Secret Service, and used these cavalrymen as his police. Eight additional companies were subsequently organized for the First District of Columbia Cavalry at Augusta, Maine, January to March, 1864, but after some service with Kautz's cavalry, these were consolidated into two companies and merged into the First Maine Cavalry.

[330] carpenters, wagon-makers, wheelwrights, farriers, teamsters, and laborers in many departments.

The stables were long, well-lighted buildings with thousands of scrupulously clean stalls. From five to ten thousand horses were usually present at the depot, nearly evenly divided between serviceable and unserviceable classes — the latter class being again divided into convalescents and condemned animals. The condemned horses were those declared unfit for further military service, and unless afflicted with some incurable disability, were sold at public auction.

About fifty per cent. of the horses received from the field for recuperation were returned to active service, “fit for duty.” More than half of the remainder were recuperated sufficiently to be sold as condemned animals, while less than one-fourth of the unserviceable animals received, died at the depot or were killed to prevent further suffering.

The bane of the cavalry service of the Federal armies in the field was diseases of the feet. “Hoof-rot,” “grease-heel,” or the “scratches” followed in the wake of days and nights spent in mud, rain, snow, and exposure to cold, and caused thousands of otherwise serviceable horses to become useless for the time being.

Sore backs became common with the hardships of campaigning, and one of the first lessons taught the inexperienced trooper was to take better care of his horse than he did of himself. The remedy against recurrence of sore backs on horses was invariably to order the trooper to walk and lead the disabled animal. With a few such lessons, cavalry soldiers of but short service became most scrupulous in smoothing out wrinkles in saddle-blankets, in dismounting to walk steep hills, in giving frequent rests to their jaded animals, and when opportunity offered, in unsaddling and cooling the backs of their mounts after hours in the saddle. Poor forage, sudden changes of forage, and overfeeding produced almost as much sickness and physical disability as no forage at all. [331]

A riding cob in Washington, 1865 not the sort for cavalry This skittish little cob with the civilian saddle, photographed at the headquarters of the defense of Washington south of the Potomac, in 1865, was doubtless an excellent mount upon which to ride back to the Capital and pay calls. But experience soon taught that high-strung hunters and nervous cobs were of little or no use for either fighting or campaigning. When the battle was on and the shells began to scream a small proportion of these pedigreed animals was sufficient to stampede an entire squadron. They took fright and bolted in all directions. On the other hand, they were far too sensitive for the arduous night marches, and lost in nerves what they gained in speed. A few of them were sufficient to keep a whole column of horses who would otherwise be patiently plodding, heads down, actually stumbling along in their sleep, wide awake and restive by their nervous starts and terrors. The short-barreled, wiry Virginia horses, almost as tireless as army mules, proved to be far their superiors for active service.


In its cantonment at Brandy Station, during the winter of 1864, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was nearly ruined by increasing the ration of grain to make up a deficiency in hay. During the famous Stoneman raid (March and April, 1863) an entire cavalry division was without hay for twenty-one days, in a country where but little grazing was possible. During Sheridan's last raid, in 1865, nearly three-fourths of the lameness of his horses was due to an involuntary change of forage from oats to corn.

But much of the breaking-down of cavalry horses was merely inseparable from the hardships and privations which every great war carries in its train, and which the most experienced leaders cannot foresee or prevent.

In General Sheridan's march from Winchester to Petersburg, February 27th to March 27, 1865, each trooper carried on his horse, in addition to his regular equipment, five days rations in haversacks, seventy-five rounds of ammunition, and thirty pounds of forage. On General James H. Wilson's Selma expedition, each trooper carried, besides his ordinary kit, five days rations, twenty-four pounds of grain, one hundred rounds of ammunition, and two extra horseshoes.

A remarkable case, illustrating the conditions surrounding the war service of cavalry regiments, was that of the Seventh Pennsylvania Cavalry. In April, 1864, this regiment started on a march from Nashville, Tennessee, to Blake's Mill, Georgia. It had nine hundred and nineteen horses fresh from the Nashville remount depot, and among its enlisted men were three hundred recruits, some of whom had never been on a horse before.

In a little over four months, the regiment marched nine hundred and two miles, not including fatiguing picket duty and troop scouting. During this period, the horses were without regular supplies of forage for twenty-six days, on scanty forage for twenty-seven days, and for seven consecutive days were without food of any kind. In one period of seventy-two [333]

Where the Federal cavalry was trained Giesboro, D. C., where the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was remounted after August, 1863, was also their drill and training camp.

A big responsibility--Fort Carroll, Giesboro, D. C. Millions of dollars worth of Government property was entrusted to the men who occupied these barracks at Fort Carroll, Giesboro, D. C. The original cost of the cavalry depot was estimated at a million and a quarter dollars, and there were immense stores of fodder, medicine, cavalry equipment, and supplies at the depot, besides the value of the horses themselves. The Union Government's appropriations for the purchase of horses for the period of the war mounted to $123,864,915. The average contract price per head was $150, so that approximately 825,766 horses were used in the Union armies. Giesboro was the largest of the Government's cavalry depo<*> and it must have been an anxious time for those responsible for the preservation of all this wealth when Early threatened Washington.

[334] hours, the horses remained saddled for sixty hours. During the expedition, two hundred and thirty horses were abandoned or died, and one hundred and seventy-one were killed or captured by the Confederates--a total loss of four hundred and one animals, or nearly fifty per cent. of those starting on the march. With such hardships, it is little wonder that it became necessary to send thousands of horses back to the depots for rest and recuperation.

But, of course, one of the main purposes of the great horse-depots of the Civil War period, was not to recuperate horses already in the military service, but to receive, condition, and issue thousands of animals purchased throughout the country for army use.

During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1864, the Federal Government purchased 188,718 horses in addition to 20,308 captured from the Confederates and reported; while during the first eight months of the year 1864, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, alone, was supplied with two complete remounts or nearly forty thousand horses.

The price paid to contractors by Federal purchasing agents averaged about $150 per head, and occasionally really high-class horses found their way into the lots received at the depots. More often, however, the reverse was the case, and the inspectors of horses were usually at their wits' ends detecting the many frauds and tricks of the horse trade, which dealers attempted to perpetrate on the Government. Men otherwise known to be of the staunchest integrity seem to lose all sense of the equity of things when it comes to selling or swapping horses; and this is particularly the case when the other party to the transaction is the Government, a corporate body incapable of physical suffering and devoid of sentiment.

The Giesboro depot received between January 1, 1864, and June 30, 1866--a period of two and one-half years--an aggregate of 170,654 cavalry horses. Of this number, 96,006 were issued to troops in the field, 1574 were issued to officers, [335]

Various Union mounts.

Mounts were required by staff and regimental officers, as well as for the cavalry and mounted artillery. So great was the demand that during the second year of the war any quadruped that answered to the general specifications of a horse was seized upon. These fine animals look as if they had been obtained early in the war. The second and third show a “U. S.” brand on the shoulder.

An artillery officer's mount

A quartermaster's mount

A Union mount.

[336] 48,721 were sold, and 24,321 died. In addition to this number, over 12,000 artillery horses were handled at the depot.

While the capacity of the St. Louis depot was thirty thousand animals, it was never completely filled — the serviceable remounts being promptly forwarded to regiments in the field, and the recuperating animals being held only long enough to render them serviceable or to determine whether they would not respond to further rest or veterinary treatment. The hospitals for the accommodation and treatment of disabled animals were probably the most complete of their kind existing at that time; but after it had been demonstrated that an animal could not be nursed back to the military service, it was a matter of economy to dispose of him to some enterprising bidder for the average price of thirty dollars per head.

The depot system or caring for Government stock, receiving those newly purchased and recuperating those returning sick or disabled from the field, proved a measure of the greatest economy to the Federal Government, in addition to its marked effect on the military efficiency of the mounted service. The value of the animals returned to duty with regiments from the St. Louis depot alone, in excess of what the same animals would have been worth at public auction as condemned articles of sale, was in a single year nearly two hundred thousand dollars more than the entire operating expenses of the plant.

When it is remembered that there were six large depots, all engaged in handling the mounts and remounts of the great Federal armies, and that the depots at Giesboro and St. Louis comprised but a part of this complex system of administration and supply, the tremendous responsibilities imposed upon the Cavalry Bureau of the Federal War Department may be appreciated and understood. [337]

An honor man of the regulars First-Sergeant Conrad Schmidt of the Second United States Cavalry--a fine type of the “regular” trooper. He was decorated for galloping to the assistance of his captain, whose horse had been killed in a charge, mounting the officer behind him under fire and riding off to safety, although his own horse had been wounded in five places. This was at the Opequon, September 19, 1864.

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