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Union & Confederate Horse Doctors of the Civil War by Trevor Steinbach

Posted on Friday, September 29, 2017 at 11:30 am

The first known people to use veterinary medicine began around 9000 BC in Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Iraq. Sheepherders had a basic understanding of medical skills that they used to treat their dogs and sheep. From 4000 to 3000 BC, Egyptians made further advancements. Egyptian hieroglyphs recorded their use of herbs to treat domesticated animals.

Archaeologists have found fragments of a papyrus that was a medical textbook from somewhere around 1850 BC, indicating that Egyptians were familiar with the anatomy of animals, could recognize early warning signs of certain diseases in dogs, birds, fish, and cattle, and used specific treatments. A man named Urlugaledinna, who lived in Mesopotamia in 3000 BC, was considered an expert in his ability to heal animals. Around 500 BC, a Greek scientist named Alcmaeon was already dissecting animals to study them.

During the Middle Ages, farriers combined their trade of horseshoeing with general horse medical treatments. The first veterinary school was founded in Lyon, France in 1761 by Claude Bourgelat. The profession of veterinary medicine had officially begun. The Lyon school focused on studying the anatomy and diseases of sheep, horses, and cattle in an effort to combat cattle deaths from a plague. The first vaccinations for cattle were developed by 1712 and used to eradicate a plague in Europe. The veterinary profession was focused on the horse for many years, influenced by the needs of the Army.  Over time, the interests of the profession spread to cattle and other livestock, then to dogs and now today to companion and exotic animals.

The first veterinary school established in the United States was the Veterinary College of Philadelphia in 1852, which operated until 1866. In 1883, the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania was established and is the oldest accredited veterinary school still in operation. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) was established in 1863,

Military veterinary medicine began with the start of the U.S. Army. Between June, 1775 and June, 1916, much of the history of military veterinary medicine must be derived from the histories of both the mounted combat arms and medical/supply services. The cavalry combat arm was formed in 1777. This became the birthplace of military veterinary medicine in 1792. Congressional legislation of 1792 provided that each of the four troops of light dragoons (cavalry) would have one farrier to care for the ailments of horses.

The heritage of the Veterinary Corps officer is initially traced to horseshoes and farriers who acted as animal “nurses” in the Army. In 1798, the number of farriers had increased from 4 to a total of 10, and the original pay of $8 had been increased to $10 per month. Cavalry and farriers were not a part of the Army from 1802 to 1808, but in the latter year Congress provided for a regiment of cavalry for which eight farriers were authorized.

In 1806, the Philadelphia Society offered a gold medal for “the best essay and plan for promoting veterinary knowledge.” In reply to the offer, Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), introduced a series of lectures to his medical students at the University of Pennsylvania, on Studying Diseases of Domestic Animals.

Farriers were first included in horse artillery in 1812. Due to reduction in the horsed combat arms following the War of 1812, the farrier then disappeared from the military scene until 1833, when a regiment of cavalry was formed with a complement of 10 farriers. Ten additional farriers appeared when a second cavalry regiment was organized in 1836.

During the War with Mexico and through the period of fighting Native American tribes before the Civil War, the number of farriers varied with the number of mounted units authorized, but their general status remained more or less unchanged.

With the beginning of the Civil War, a veterinary sergeant was authorized for each of the three battalions in a cavalry regiment. We presume from the fragmentary records that he had the duty of supervising farriers with companies of the battalion. He received $17 per month and ranked with a sergeant of cavalry. Because they were not officers but NCO’s it seems from the records that there were only 5 graduates from veterinarian medical schools who applied for or received an Army veterinary appointment.

This grade of veterinary sergeant was dropped in 1862, but under the act of March, 1863, each regiment of cavalry was authorized a regimental veterinary surgeon with the rank of regimental sergeant major and pay of $75 per month. Army General Order #259 in 1863 finally clarified the specific duties/requirements of an appointed veterinary surgeon as: (1) care and cure of sick and disabled horses, (2) knowledge of horse anatomy and physiology, (3) knowledge of chemistry and medicines to treat horses, and (4) practical knowledge and experience in diseases of horses.

Appointments to this position were made by the Secretary of War following selection by the Chief of the Cavalry Bureau upon nomination by regimental commanders. The increased grade and pay was provided as a result of the Army’s terrific animal loss due to disease in an effort to obtain better qualified personnel to provide veterinary services. There were apparently no fixed standards of education and experience for this appointed position. During the Civil War, the Quartermaster’s Department did spent $93,666.47 for the hire of civilian veterinarians.

To establish a system to collect, control, and distribute horses, the 1863 orders also established six huge Cavalry Depots at St Louis, MO, and Greenville, LA for the Missouri & Gulf Departments; Nashville, TN, for the Tennessee Department; and Harrisburg, PA, Wilmington, DE, and Giesboro Point (District of Columbia) for the Army of the Potomac. Each of these locations was to supply the armies with mounts. The largest was Giesboro Point with over 625 acres. Over 6,000 stalls, an infirmary that could treat 2,650 horses, and had a total capacity for 30,000 mounts. At this site 210 tons of hay and 180 tons of grain was consumed per day. 700 tons of manure was generated per day at this facility. Operating costs varied between 1 and 4 million dollars per day. 1,500 people worked at this facility alone.

Today’s military officers would marvel at the thought of having to provide 26 pounds of fuel per day to their “modes of transportation” but that was the reality of the 1860s. Horses needed 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain each day. When instructing his troops during the march through Georgia, Major General William T. Sherman said: “Every opportunity at a halt during a march should be taken advantage of to cut grass, wheat, or oats and extraordinary care should be taken of the horses upon which everything depends.”

Horses on the battlefield were important to soldiers for both attacking and escaping. Those that were trained for battle were taught to lie down and stay down on command. This lessened the chances of them being hit but also created cover for the soldier.

New ammunition in the form of the minié ball was now in use. These bullets were much more damaging to the human body but still could not bring down a horse. It often took five to seven shots before a horse was killed, but any individual shot could inflict a serious, if not fatal, wound.

At the start of any skirmish, horses were often targeted first. Both sides understood that picking off horses left the opposing side with no way to move artillery and supplies. Both north and south built reserve camps behind their lines, and these served as infirmaries for the horses. Though the animals could be fed and become rested there, the lack of veterinarians and the lack of medical knowledge by farriers and soldiers meant that there was not much that could be done for horses with serious wounds except a quick death from a revolver.

The viral illness known as glanders spread through the horse population during the war. Symptoms involved an increase in mucus and swelling of the glands. The disease was highly contagious, so once one horse was sick, it was a real problem for the army. At one point in January, 1864, 188 horses were destroyed in one day at Giesboro Point when they were found to have glanders.

It is estimated that between 1.2 and 1.5 million horses and mules died in service. While the loss of soldiers was 2 out of 3 to illness, mounts are estimated to be 9 out of 10 to disease and sickness. Battle wounds are estimated to be only about 10% but actual data will never be known because of the lack of records.

General Order #36 in 1879, finally established the requirement for diploma veterinarians in the Army. It stated: “Hereafter appointments as veterinary surgeons will be confined to the graduates of established and reputable veterinary medicine schools and colleges.” The Army

Reorganization Act of 1901 made further improvement in the status of the Army veterinarian by providing that all veterinarians (two for each regiment of cavalry and one for each regiment of artillery) would have the pay and allowances of a second lieutenant. The act also provided that veterinarians employed as civilians by the Quartermaster should receive pay of $100 per month.

The Quartermaster’s Department became the Army’s largest user of veterinarians. The pay of veterinarians employed as civilians (contract veterinarians) remained at the $1,200 per year level in spite of repeated efforts of the Quartermaster General to obtain a pay status more nearly comparable with that of Army veterinarians with Cavalry and Field Artillery. The pay of veterinarians of Cavalry and Field Artillery was increased in 1908 from the previous $1,500 to $1,700 per year (pay of second lieutenant, mounted). It was not until 1916 that the establishment of the Army Veterinary Corps provided commissioned veterinary officers for the animals of the US Army.

At the beginning of the war, the Provisional Confederate Congress provided that all mounted officers and volunteers were to provide their own horses.

They would be paid 40 cents per day in compensation. If the horse was killed in combat they would be reimbursed the value of the horse. If it died of disease, they were not compensated. The cavalry of the Regular army was organized into two regiments with one farrier per company (10 per regiment). This system was also extended to volunteer cavalry regiments. There was no remount system. Troopers were responsible to find replacement horses and were granted furloughs to obtain new mounts. While the Confederacy began the war with a reserve of 2.8 million mounts, as the war progressed, most of its new mounts were in Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Texas. In the case of three of those states, they were cut off by occupying Union forces. Unlike Union cavalry, Confederate cavalry did not have specific legislation providing for either a veterinary sergeant or veterinary surgeon position.

Finally in October of 1863, the Confederate War Department established a system of giant horse infirmaries. These were put under the control of the Quartermaster General’s office. Thus the Quartermaster was now in charge of mounts. Not until the end of February, 1865 was a law passed by the Confederate Congress requiring the Quartermaster General to provide horses to both dismounted cavalry and cavalry soldiers. The problem was that farmers were, by now, reluctant to sell their plow animals for the impressment price of $500 when the open market was between $1,500 and $2,500 per mount. Mounts that did arrive at the four horse infirmaries many times had glanders and were far too worn out for any hope of future use by the military. Porter Alexander (General Longstreet’s Artillery Chief) stated at one point it got so bad that they were forced to strip the nails and horse shoes from the hooves of both Confederate and Union dead mounts to provide for those mounts that could move on their four feet. Money finally came to hire veterinary surgeons after January 1, 1865 – too little and too late for the Confederacy.
Perhaps the biggest impact for veterinary medicine in the Civil War was not the war itself, but the Morrill Act passed on July 2, 1862 in Washington City. This provided to the states accepting the act to sell land and convert the proceeds into the establishment of colleges in mechanical arts, agriculture, and military tactics. By the end of 1863 fourteen states had adopted the law. Several of the new colleges introduced veterinary subjects, then studies in veterinary science and finally, schools of veterinary medicine, educating a whole new generation of veterinary doctors as the US settled the west.


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