The past has taught us that the bond between horse and soldier is born of respect and recognition. Horses are an integral part of the army’s logistical support; during war, the cavalry’s horses would carry the ammunition, supplies, and food needed to keep the men fed and their mounts in good shape. During peacetime, the horses would be vital to the logistics of the nation, carrying mail to and from soldiers, supplies, baggage, and even the officer’s horse. The bond between horse and soldier developed through this mutual reliance.

The central theme of the military history is the defeat of the French and the Allied forces at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Although Britain and Spain were defeated, Prussia and Russia remained the most formidable of the European states. The defeat at Waterloo was a setback for Napoleon and a victory for the allies.

We all know that horses and humans have a long and loving history together, but how closely do we know about the bond between horses and their soldiers?. Read more about facts about horses and let us know what you think.

Fighting warriors developed unique connections with their battle horses via fire and fury.

A steamboat carrying the 67th Ohio Infantry on the Chesapeake Bay collided with another vessel at 2 a.m. on a foggy morning in 1862, sending many troops, a horse called Big Frank, and two other animals plunging into the inky-black sea. The mishap did not seem to be severe, and the men were rescued, but no one on board the ship realized the horses had vanished. A lookout saw an active figure in the wake of the ship approximately six hours later, roughly 15 miles from where the accident happened. Big Frank, with his master, 67th Ohio Lt. Col. Henry Commager, on board, was paddling to catch the vessel.

Broad Frank was huge, with flanks as big as a plow horse’s, and had a frightening demeanor, like Commager, “a guy of tremendous size.” The gray charger raced under fire into a sandy ditch outside Fort Wagner (S.C.) during a night attack months after his rescue in the bay—the only horse to make it that far. “I don’t know whether he feared God,” Commager’s son, who was also a Union commander, remembered, “but he was like his rider in one thing, he didn’t dread the devil nor gunpowder……”

Big Frank, a veteran of many important wars, died of fatigue in 1864, and Henry Commager cried.

But this was far from the first tale of a Civil War soldier’s great affection—dare we say love?—for a horse. At least one soldier had a military burial for his combat mount…in his own garden. Another ancient warhorse gained a national renown and his master’s everlasting loyalty after being named after the widow of a Confederate guerilla. The beloved horse of a renowned commander was a main attraction in postwar parades before being poisoned and buried, then unearthed and beheaded.

Love may be difficult at times. Strange, too.

The Bond Between Horse and Soldier Roderick was one of the 30 or so horses shot with Nathan Bedford Forrest on the saddle, and the fiery general recalled him fondly. This monument is located on the battlefield at Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, where Roderick was buried. (Photo credit: DTH)

According to one estimate, the armies utilized 5.9 million horses—4.2 million for the Union and 1.7 million for the Confederacy. Among their numerous responsibilities, they transported artillery and other equipment, carried troops into combat, and assisted in the delivery of communications. They, too, were affected. Hundreds of thousands of people perished. Generals’ horses became renowned, inspiring poetry and at least one book written through the eyes of the animal.

Confederate Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s favorite horse, Roderick, was wounded three times during the Battle of Thompson’s Station (Tenn.) on March 5, 1863, before being led to safety by the general’s son. Roderick, apparently anxious to reclaim his title as the “Wizard of the Saddle,” jumped over numerous fences, injuring himself again. As Roderick’s life dwindled, badass Forrest allegedly cried by the horse, despite the fact that he had several other mounts shot out from beneath him. Roderick was laid to rest on the battlefield.

Roderick’s skeleton might be buried in an upmarket subdivision named after the horse, which could lead to some strange conversations: “Honey, the workmen were excavating in our flower garden, when they discovered this enormous skull.” There’s also a statue dedicated to the chestnut gelding.

The General’s Mount, a poem about Roderick’s death, received a full page in the Nashville Banner in 1956. Many newspaper readers would have cringed at stanzas like this:

From nostrils and mouths His wounds were stung. A stinging ointment was applied. His knees, hocks, and pasterns were all bathed. Roderick is calling! The mount of the General! Bring the bucket of water to him.

Robert E. Lee may not have cried over Traveller, arguably the most famous Civil War horse of all time, but the gray American Saddlebred captured his heart. He wrote to an artist who wanted to paint the horse in a wartime letter written to his daughter:

“If I were an artist like you, I’d create a genuine portrait of Traveller, with excellent proportions, a deep chest, a short back, powerful haunches, flat legs, a tiny head, wide forehead, delicate ears, fast eye, small feet, and a black mane and tail. Such a scene would inspire a poet, whose brilliance would then be able to express his worth…”

The Bond Between Horse and Soldier Traveller was purchased by Robert E. Lee in February 1862 for 0 and remained in Lee’s possession until his death in 1870. Only a few months after his master’s death, Traveller was put down. (Dallas’ Heritage Auctions)

The horse is the main character in Richard Adams’ 1988 book Traveller, recounting tales of wartime adventures when he and Lee were enjoying retirement. The story was not well-received by everyone. “If there was useful information here, it was buried under the idea of a horse talking and in dialect, too,” a critic said on Amazon.com.

Almond Eye, the favorite horse of Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, was not as well-known as Traveller or Roderick. The flamboyant, sometimes divisive commander earned the moniker “Beast” as a result of his alleged brutal treatment of citizens while serving as military governor of New Orleans during the Federal occupation. Newspapers published a tale decades after the battle that, if accurate, may explain why Butler looked so grouchy in Civil War photographs. (In his 1,000-page autobiography, the “Beast” didn’t mention Almond Eye by name.)

Butler learned his favorite horse had perished in a ravine while commanding the Army of the James in front of Petersburg in 1864. He was so sad that he decided to fill Almond Eye. He had him skinned by an Irishman. The discussion went somewhat like this, according to postwar accounts:

“What! Is Almond Eye still alive?” inquired the Irishman.

“What does it mean to you?” Do what I say, and don’t ask any questions.”

After an hour or so, the guy reappeared.

“Where have you been all this time, Pat?”

“Your honor, I’m skinning the horse.”

“How long does it take to conduct such an operation?”

“No, your honor; however as you can see, catching him took about half an hour.”

“Snare him! Was he still alive, with all the fire and fury?”

“Yes, yer honor; and you know I couldn’t skin him alive,” I said.

“Skin him alive!” says the narrator. “Did you murder him?”

“I certainly did!” says the narrator. You know how I usually have to follow instructions without question.”

Neither beast seemed to be happy.

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was encouraged by his beloved horse’s recovery a year after it was wounded at Gettysburg. “As I am very much devoted to the old brute,” the general wrote, “I am delighted to hear the excellent news regarding Baldy.” During the battle, the animal sustained a number of wounds, perhaps as many as a dozen. Meade ordered Old Baldy home to Pennsylvania in 1864, believing the weakened, battle-scarred horse would be a “embarrassment” on future battles.

After the war, the horse, which was also adored by veterans, marched in parades and in his owner’s burial procession through Philadelphia in November 1872. Meade donated the charger to a blacksmith named John Davis before he died. The general’s rules were simple: never sell Old Baldy into slavery, and when his quality of life worsened considerably, mercifully put him out of his suffering. On December 16, 1882, a 30-year-old man named Old Baldy was despatched with two ounces of potash cyanide and a pint of vinegar poured down his neck.

A local reporter who saw Old Baldy’s death reported, “Not a word was uttered.” “True, it was only a helpless animal ready to stumble, collapse, and die as a result of the powerful drug’s lethal effects. However, the imagination conjured up a quite different scene: Baldy, gay in the garb of battle, with proudly arched neck, heaving flanks, and breathing nostrils bore amid the clashing of sabers and the fierce fire of musketry, the Hero of Gettysburg—finest Pennsylvania’s son!”

Then, ah, things with this famous horse went a bit wacky.

The Bond Between Horse and Soldier

The head of Old Baldy was kept when the horse died in 1882 and is currently on exhibit at the G.A.R. Museum in Philadelphia in a climate-control container. George Meade would nod his head in agreement. (Dallas’ Heritage Auctions)

With Davis’ permission, two soldiers from Meade Grand Army of the Republic Post No. 1 unearthed the horse’s corpse on the blacksmith’s property on Christmas Day 1882, chopping off his head. The nag’s noggin was “quite elegantly” placed on a huge plaque and exhibited at the station, with each battle wound location recorded. The front hooves of Old Baldy were turned into inkstands.

Perhaps the owner of another Civil War horse in Pennsylvania took notice. Following a fight with Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, A captured coal black charger was obtained by Benjamin Franklin Crawford of the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry early in 1864. He gave the horse the name Ned.

Crawford retired the horse to his property in Erie, Pennsylvania, after the war. Old Ned, whose coat ultimately faded to a solid gray, became a regular sight in parades and veterans’ gatherings. When the horse heard martial music, he “pranced like a foal,” and it “had a great revitalizing impact on him.” Children allegedly preferred placing flowers on Old Ned’s grave to soldiers’ graves on Decoration Days.

Crawford fed Old Ned a diet of bran and apples as he grew older. According to his owner, the horse was “always the ruler in pasture.” “He was looked after as if he were a child,” the veteran’s relative recounted. Old Ned’s skeleton was given to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia when he died in 1898 at the age of 43. Crawford, on the other hand, retained the hide, which he intended to tan.

Dixie Bill was said to be cursed by the end of 1864. The grim history of the horse in war reveals why.

On August 10, 1861, during the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (Mo. ), an Iowa soldier killed the Confederate rider on the dark bay, whose Rebel identity was unknown to the Federals. The horse was shot in the neck for the first of four combat wounds it would get throughout the war.

Following Wilson’s Creek, the horse was transported to Muscatine, Iowa, with other captured Confederate horses, where Colonel Sylvester G. Hill commanded the newly created 35th Iowa Infantry. Hill bought the battle-scarred stallion and named him “Dixie Bill,” and he soon became a favorite of his crew. Hill rode Dixie Bill all throughout the Deep South, including the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg and the 1864 Red River Campaign engagements at Pleasant Hill and Yellow Bayou in Louisiana, when his 18-year-old son was slain. Major Abraham John of the 35th Iowa was fatally wounded riding Dixie Bill in a battle at Old River Lake, Ark., on June 6, 1864, as his grieving father healed from a gunshot wound while on furlough in Iowa.

Hill was slain astride Dixie Bill during an attack on Redoubt No. 3 six months later, on December 15, 1864, during the Battle of Nashville. After that, a 33rd Missouri Infantry (Union) adjutant bought the bay, but when he heard about Dixie Bill’s terrible combat karma, he offered the horse for sale. Years later, an Iowa newspaper wrote, “With this record, three riders killed in combat, he became hoodoo, and no staff officer could be found who would ride him.”

As a result, William Bagley, a soldier who climbed through the ranks to become the 35th Iowa chaplain, gained the pariah. Bagley presented Dixie Bill to Hill’s wife when he returned to Iowa at the conclusion of the war. She told him, “Thank you, but no thanks.” Perhaps keeping a memento of a conflict that had cost her family so much was too difficult.

Dixie Bill was enthusiastically accepted by Rev. Bagley at his farm in Tipton, Iowa, a choice he never regretted. The horse was often the center of attention in parades throughout the state. Bagley relished the opportunity to tell stories of Dixie Bill’s military adventures at veteran’s gatherings. Colonel Hill sat in the saddle on the bay for his last ride, and it became a tourist attraction as well. It was given to a local Grand Army of the Republic post by his wife.

Dixie Bill, who was 29 years old at the time, was still a fiery character in 1878. “[t]he old horse broke away from Mr. Bagley while in [Wilton], and pranced around the streets like a colt, and to judge from his looks would be excellent for another campaign,” an Iowa newspaper said before a July 4 parade. 

Dixie Bill was given a magnificent military burial when he died on October 15, 1881. Bagley put the bullet-scarred charger to rest in the backyard of his home on 11th Street in Des Moines, draped in an American flag. Near Dixie Bill’s grave, a US flag fluttered. Hundreds of veterans attended the burial, and people in the neighborhood spoke about it for years.

A Muscatine newspaper stated, “[G]reater grief could not have been felt by a human person than was felt by a number of people over the loss of the loyal old steed.”

“Venerable war-horses who did valuable service during the Rebellion are as plentiful as George Washington’s body servants,” read an account in the Oakland Tribune, “but there is no occasion for caviling over the remains of ‘Dixie Bill,’ which were consigned to their final resting place in Des Moines with military honors.” Dixie Bill’s burial ceremony drew a bigger audience than any other veteran’s funeral at an 1898 reunion of the 35th Iowa, according to Bagley.

In his old age, the reverend, like his horse, stayed active. “He is still battling Satan as fiercely as he battled the rebels,” a Muscatine newspaper reported in 1906 about the 86-year-old veteran. Bagley died after a short illness almost three years later. His Civil War service was emphasized in his obituary, which included named survivors. Dixie Bill was also referenced a lot.

“A horse was one of [Bagley’s] favorite possessions,” the obituary stated.

The Bond Between Horse and Soldier Old Bally, a veteran of the Trans-Mississippi Theater, was rode by John Yokley of Jo Shelby’s Cavalry Brigade and died with many gunshots in his body. (Photo courtesy of the Audrain County Historical Society)

Dixie Bill wasn’t the first horse whose owner had to arrange for a military burial for his beloved pet.

William R. Marshall, a former Minnesota governor and 7th Minnesota Infantry veteran, grieved the loss of Don, his loyal companion of almost a quarter-century, in 1886. The 29-year-old horse’s tombstone may be seen at Roseville (Minn.) Cemetery, with the inscription “Don, My Faithful War Horse.” The horse was also draped with an American flag before being buried.

At 1895, Belle Mosby, one of many nags touted as the last surviving Civil War horse, was put to rest with military honors in Library, Pa., near Pittsburgh. What an eventful life she had.

Soldiers of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry were startled by a disturbance shortly after arriving at camp in Virginia one evening. They discovered a runaway slave astride a gorgeous black thoroughbred on the opposite side of a stream, who was “obviously scared to death.” As it turned out, the guy was kidnapped from a Confederate camp.

The troops discussed how to bring horse and rider over the stream since the banks were steep. The “snorting and trembling” horse was able to walk over a board put across the abutments of a destroyed bridge. Soldiers applauded as the duo arrived safely.

The horse was given the name “Belle Mosby” by a Union cavalryman because the “beautiful creature resembled him to some degree” of Guer[r]illa [John S.] Mosby’s “beautiful gypsylike bride…” There is no record of Pauline Mosby’s reaction to the analogy.

The bullet-scarred horse was obtained from the runaway slave in return for an overcoat by a lieutenant in the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The officer rode the horse in a battle against Rebels the following day after two other mounts were shot out from beneath him.

Joseph R. Phillips, a farrier in the Pennsylvania regiment, said, “She appeared to have a charmed life, darting and flashing about through the fight like an enchanted creature.” Several stray shots struck the horse, causing “only flesh wounds,” according to the farrier. The lieutenant handed Phillips, his buddy, the “hard as nails” horse a day or two later. Belle Mosby’s teeth were examined in 1865, and it was discovered that she was five years old.

The Bond Between Horse and Soldier A broadside advertising the Army’s need for horses. (Bridgeman Images/Don Troiani photo)

Following the war, Phillips continued to labor Belle Mosby at his farm in western Pennsylvania until she developed rheumatism in the early 1890s. According to a newspaper report, Belle Mosby had achieved national acclaim at that time, with almost every member of the Grand Army of the Republic having heard of her. Thousands of photographs of Belle Mosby were sold at the national G.A.R. encampment in Pittsburgh in 1894. However, the horse died the next year due to a severe cold spell. Belle Mosby, age 35, was buried with military honors and draped in flags in an orchard near Phillips’ farm.

“Comrade Joe Phillips…wept like a child,” a Pittsburgh newspaper said. 

In Nashville, John Banks, a regular contributor to America’s Civil War, resides. He’s also the creator of a well-read Civil War blog (john-banks.blogspot.com).

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • are horses friendly
  • facts about wild horses
  • wild horses habitat facts
  • learn about horses
  • horses in world war 1
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