October 29, 2022 | Last updated Jun 14, 2023

The Army’s Achilles’ Heel in the Civil War Plains Campaigns of 1864-65

On August 18, 1864, after hastily re-mustering at Omaha from their veteran furloughs, the men of the First Nebraska Volunteer Cavalry left for Fort Kearny. Instead of returning to Arkansas where it had spent the first half of 1864, the regiment’s new mission was to help defend the Platte Valley freighting, stagecoach, and telegraph route from an onslaught of Indian raids that had recently broken out. Having been issued only sixty horses for three hundred men, the mostly dismounted cavalrymen probably appreciated the irony of being sent off on foot to chase down an elusive foe known for its horsemanship. A month later the First Nebraska’s Lt. Col. William Baumer notified District of Nebraska headquarters in Omaha that five companies of the regiment at Fort Kearny and at Plum Creek Station, thirty-five miles to the west, were still without horses.
Over the next several months, horses were gradually issued, but never enough to mount all the men. What’s more, many of the horses the regiment did receive were mediocre at best, poorly fed, and could not perform the duty expected of them, a problem that persisted. On May 19, 1865, First Nebraska Col. Robert R. Livingston told District of the Plains commander Patrick Connor what Connor already knew: “Our horses cannot run an Indian down, too poor.”

The First Nebraska’s plight was a common experience for the volunteer cavalry on the Plains during the Civil War. The rebellion placed enormous demands on the country’s equine resources at a time when animals also furnished the principal motive power in the civilian world. Armies in the field equipped with artillery, cavalry, and supply trains required one horse or mule, on average, for every two men. Some 284,000 horses were consumed by the Union cavalry alone during the first two years of the war and Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck rated the Union’s 1864 expenditure of cavalry horses at slightly fewer than 180,000 animals, an average of about five hundred per day. Between January 1864 and February 1865 the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry arm had twice been remounted.
From January 1, 1864, until purchases ceased on May 9, 1865, the quartermaster general’s department bought approximately 193,000 cavalry horses. Only a relative handful of these made their way to the Plains. Although Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton claimed in his postwar report, “The supply of horses and mules for the army has been regular and sufficient,” apparently the secretary had not paid attention to letters coming from commanders in the West. In late February 1864 Department of Kansas commander Samuel R. Curtis wrote Stanton from Fort Leavenworth recommending the purchase of Indian ponies for government use because “better horses are now becoming very scarce.”

Regulations provided that the ideal cavalry horse was from 15 to 16 hands high at the withers (5 feet to 5 feet, 4 inches), five to nine years old, weighing from 750 to 1100 pounds, and “sound in all particulars . . . in full flesh and good condition.” As the war with its tremendous consumption of horseflesh dragged on, the “ideal” cavalry horse became little more than an abstraction. Union cavalryman Charles Francis Adams, Jr. described how the service ruined horses. Even a walking pace of four miles an hour was “killing to horses” carrying the average load of 225 pounds comprising the soldier and his equipment. During active campaigns, said Adams, the horse remained saddled an average of fifteen hours per day. “His feed is nominally ten pounds of grain a day and, in reality, he averages about eight pounds. He has no hay and only such other feed as he can pick up during halts. The usual water he drinks is brook water, so muddy by the passage of the column as to be of the color of chocolate. Of course sore backs are our greatest trouble.” Nonetheless, the horse “still has to be ridden until he lays down in sheer suffering under the saddle.” Adams was describing conditions in northern Virginia in 1863, not those facing the cavalry on the distant Plains, with even fewer resources to call upon.

Not only were there too few horses to mount the Plains cavalry in 1864 and 1865, they broke down quickly from overwork and a shortage of grain. The full forage ration for an army horse was 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain daily, which Adams noted was not regularly provided even in the war’s eastern theater. And unlike the Indian pony that ethnologist John Ewers described as “a tough, sturdy, and long-winded beast that possessed great powers of endurance” and which was acclimated to the Plains environment, American horses could not maintain their stamina by grazing alone. This was no secret to military men with Plains experience. Capt. Randolph B. Marcy’s 1859 guidebook, The Prairie Traveler, advised “for prairie service, horses which have been raised exclusively upon grass and never been fed on grain . . . are decidedly the best and will perform more hard labor than those that have been stabled and groomed.” Overland emigrants also noted the contrast. John M. Shively, who went to Oregon in 1843, authored a guidebook that admonished emigrants to “Swap your horses for Indian horses and be not too particular, for the shabbiest Shawnee pony . . . will answer your purpose better than the finest horse you can take from the stables.”

The entire essay written by James E. Potter appears in the Winter 2011 issue.

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