Being a “cavalry guy,” I’ve studied the effects of the Civil War era military on horses for many years. And that doesn’t entail just the cavalry beasts – horses and mules were necessary for the artillery, infantry, supply, and nearly every other function one can think of. A few years back, I visited Middleburg, Virginia, with fellow cavalry dudes Eric Wittenberg and Mike Nugent. We were studying the cavalry actions in the valley of June 1863, and for the first time we saw the ponderous sculpture of a horse that’s dedicated to the “unsung hero” of the war. It depicts a beautifully sculpted war horse, with head bowed and body all but worn out from service. The sculpture is the epitomy of a jaded horse. It’s evident, however, that the horse is ready to pick up its head once again to do its duty, to the death if necessary.
One of the great advantages that the Federal cavalry had over its southern counterpart during the war was the establishment of the cavalry depot at Giesboro Point (outside Washington). Two notables who ran the place were Gen. George Stoneman and Col. William Gamble. The depot supplied the Federal army with fresh horses, sometimes at the rate of thousands per month. They also attempted to rehabilitate worn-out mounts. Politics and graft riddled the place in the early days, as to be expected, along with less-than-honest horse marketers. However, without the depot and its services, the Federal cavalry would have had a nearly impossible task of keeping the cavalry supplied and in the field. The southerners had no such comparable facility, and the depot made an enormous difference in the last year and a half of the war. As Confederate cavalry general Wade Hampton once lamented, “We don’t even have time to bury our dead” as Sheridan’s cavalry ran the southerners constantly.
Even though it made such a difference in the war, the cavalry depot has received very, very little notice by historians and scholars. Seems we study the movements of the respective cavalries, but often little behind the scenes. Talking about the subject with America’s Civil War magazine editor Dana Shoaf gave me the idea to do a detailed article about the depot, its history, problems, successes, and effects. A 1960’s article in Civil War Times Illustrated addressed the depot in some detail, and there have been some mentions in writings here and there over the past couple decades, but nothing truly scholarly. Quite unintentionally, I’ve amassed an enormous amount of detail about the depot over the years, mostly through my study of both Stoneman and Gamble. I have quite a number of letters from Stoneman during his time at the facility, many of which contains interesting details about the administration of the depot and Stoneman’s constant frustration with unscrupulous suppliers, as well as the advances and changes he made there. An old pre-war Dragoon like Stoneman, Gamble knew as much about horseflesh as anyone, and was an able and efficient adminstrator as he struggled with the enormous task of keeping Sheridan’s cavalry in the field.
Shortly I’ll begin gathering my materials and writing the article. I think it will give interested students a good look behind the curtain at one of the many logistical mountains the Federal army faced and eventually worked out. If and when I know it will be published, I’ll make sure to put a notice here. And if anyone has any pertinent information that might be of use, please do contact me.