Unsung heroes of the Civil War

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.

Published in: on January 16, 2007 at 5:31 pm  Comments (11)  

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Having been raised on a farm with work horses I get nostalgic just thinking about your research and the article that you propose.

    I don’t think that many people realize how fragile and how much attention is needed to keep a horse healthy and working. Balancing the grain,forage and water intake was a challange on the farm where we had everything at hand. I don’t know how it was accomplished on long marches and in battle conditions.

    I am looking forward to this.

  2. Bill,

    I agree wholeheartedly – the care and condition of the animals during the war is often forgotten. No army was able to move or function without them, and yet most discussion of them is relegated to the background. You might recall that in our Stuart’s Ride book, Eric and I spent a good deal of time in the Conclusion talking about the horses on the march, and how their care and condition affected Stuart’s ride. Putting all my research together for this article will be a lot of fun, since it’ll be the first time I make an effort to combine everything into one cohesive story.


  3. JD,
    Sounds like a tremendous project, I don’t know why no one has written on it before. As you mentioned, it was definitely one of the reasons the Union cavalry began to dominate the field as the war progressed.
    Are you going to focus on Giesboro Point specifically, or the Cavalry Bureau as a whole? My understanding is that there were several depots, of which Giesboro was the primary and the largest.
    Another cavalryman of note, James Wilson was detached from the Army in early 1864 to try to fix the cavalry Bureau before the spring 1864 campaign. Longacre spent several pages on it in “Grant’s Cavalryman” which I can send you if you don’t have a copy.
    Another resource _might_ be Fort Knox. Armor Magazine is the direct descendant of the old Cavalry Journal, and is still being published as the professional journal for the Army’s current armor and cavalry leaders. As such, they should have the archives of both magazines, which I can’t imagine wouldn’t contain info on Giesboro and the Cavalry Bureau. Would you like me to look up the editor’s contact info?


  4. Hey Don,

    I think I plan to focus on Giesboro primarily (a 4000 word article doesn’t give you much room) but within the context of the whole Bureau. I have Longacre’s book on Wilson, and do plan to use that as a source. Wilson’s “Under the Old Flag” may also have some info in it. I have to re-check that.
    I have copies of most of the old Cavalry Journal, but contacting the present editor of Armor might prove helpful – especially anything they might have in their archives. If you could pass the contact information along I’d really appreciate it. Thanks Don!


  5. JD,
    The email address for Armor Magazine is ArmorMagazine@knox.army.mil. Their phone number is 502-624-2249 or -2610. The editor in chief is LTC Shane Lee and the managing editor is Christy Bourgeois. I would contact Ms Bourgeois, as she’s probably been there much longer. The officers rotate through the job every year or two.
    Their website is http://www.knox.army.mil/center/ocoa/armormag/ Back issues from 1994-2000 are available online. Anything 2001 to present isn’t readily available to the public, but I don’t remember seeing anything on it. I’ll check my back issues. Unsurprisingly, most of these issues have focused on current operations in Southwest Asia.
    The editor might be able to help with pre-’94 info, however. The magazine has been in continuous publication since 1888, I just don’t know how far back they keep stuff before sending it on to places like Carlisle and the National Archives.
    Would you shoot me an email? I received a bunch of odd emails on my blog yesterday that I’d like to talk to you about that don’t really relate to current threads here.
    Hope this helps,

  6. JD,
    Disregard the email request, I just checked Eric’s blog and see that he recieved them too!


  7. No problem, Don, and thanks for the contact info. All those comments got zipped as spam, but I did look though them and saw the website he has. Interesting stuff.

    I’ll check with the magazine to see if they can help, and I also put my researcher onto any files at the NA and LOC.


  8. Hello, Very interesting. Been working on this very subject for some time myself for publication. Posted on the Civil War Cavalry Forum. Looking into the Nashville Depot as well.

  9. […] for the Washington, D.C. Circle Forts, I ran across references to the large Cavalry Depot at Giesboro (or Giesborough) Point. The depot operated with Camp Stoneman, and was along the Potomac near the mouth of the Anacostia […]

  10. See http://civilwarwashingtondc1861-1865.blogspot.com/2011/08/geisborough-point-cavalry-depot-parking.html for some old maps of Giesboro superimposed on modern maps and some history of the site.

  11. David,
    North & South magazinealso covered the Bureau in volume 2.2 back in 1998.

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