Warhorses of the American Civil War

Historians have often stressed the modernity of America’s Civil War. Yet Gervase Phillips argues that the dependence on often weary, sickly horses on both sides in the war had a significant impact on the development, and final outcome of, the struggle.

On September 17th, 1862, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under General Robert E. Lee, was fought to a bloody standstill by the Federal Army of the Potomac, at Antietam, Maryland. Over 20,000 men, more than a quarter of those engaged, fell, killed or wounded, on that fatal field. In the aftermath, Lee withdrew back into Virginia, his hopes of rallying Maryland to the South’s cause frustrated. Yet he escaped pursuit. The Federal commander, George B. McClellan, allowed his enemy to slip away. President Lincoln chided and cajoled his reluctant general to action, but ‘Little Mac’ would not be hurried. Indeed, a month after the battle, he claimed he still could not move. His army’s horses were too exhausted. Notwithstanding McClellan’s reputation for over-caution, this was not an empty excuse. For, although largely unheralded in conventional accounts of the  struggle, the conduct of the war was shaped at every level, tactical, operational and strategic, by the capabilities of the American warhorse.

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