The plight of those animals, and the efforts of the few trained professionals to advance veterinary science during the Civil War, are the subject of Ms. Michelle Quigley’s interesting article, "Veterinary Medicine and the American Civil War," recently published in Veterinary Heritage (Nov 2001, Vol. 24. No. 2, pp. 33-37).
Michelle is a student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, in Blacksburg, Virginia. The paper was originally an assignment for her "History of Veterinary Medicine" class, but she also submitted it for consideration in the American Veterinary Medical History Association’s J.F. Smithcors Essay Contest, for which she earned second prize.
The paper begins by examining the primitive state of veterinary medicine in America in the pre-war years. In the late 1840’s there were just over a dozen graduate veterinarians in the United States, leaving the care of most livestock to the mercy two groups: self-styled "Doctors of Animals" (untrained practitioners who relied on the "3 B’s": bleeding, blistering, and burning) and "stock owners" (usually men of sound judgment with some practical experience in animal care).
The United States lagged behind the Europeans in encouraging the development of veterinary schools. Michelle speculates that veterinary medical education, especially for the military, was more advanced in Europe because of increased demand for it there. "Europe had experienced centuries of wars, and was affected by epidemics and food supply problems," she told me, adding: "In the U.S., where there was a relatively low animal density and very few animal plagues, the government had very little reason to support veterinary education."
Indeed, the earliest schools of veterinary medicine in the United States were not founded until the 1850’s, with some failing before graduating any doctors. The New York College of Veterinary Surgeons, founded in 1857, was the first successful venture in veterinary education in America.
Michelle points to General George Washington’s December 1776 directive, ordering that a farrier be included on the roster of a newly formed regiment, as the beginning of veterinary military medicine in the United States. The farrier was responsible for shoeing and other general care of the cavalry horses. Farriers, like stock owners, had some practical knowledge of animal care, but no advanced veterinary education.
After the War of 1812, farriers were released from military service, and not reinstated until the 1830’s when a 10-company regiment of Dragoons was established. Michelle’s research indicates that the term "veterinary surgeon" was used for the first time in the army’s 1834 general regulations. Still, Congressional appropriations for trained veterinarians were frugal: on the eve of the Civil War, the Quartermaster’s office spent less than $200 annually on the services of civilian veterinarians.
The start of the Civil War witnessed a remarkable expansion of the opposing forces, including the formation dozens of cavalry regiments, requiring the services of thousands of horses. A War Department General Order in May 1861 provided for one "veterinary sergeant" for every Union cavalry regiment, but said nothing about the qualifications necessary for the post. Michelle points out that qualified veterinarians, applying to the army for positions as veterinary surgeons, were turned away because the regulation did not provide for them.
As late as 1863, there were only six veterinarians in the Union army. Because of the continued decline in animal health, the War Department increased the rank given to veterinary sergeants to regimental sergeant-major, and changed the title of veterinary sergeant to "veterinary surgeon." The veterinary surgeon received $75 a month, but there were still no stipulated qualifications for the job.
As with the soldiers, the large concentration of animals in close proximity to each other provided a fertile ground for the spread of infectious disease, especially "glanders," a disease caused by the bacterium, Pseudomonas mallei, causing fever, a thick nasal discharge, and often death. Detection of the disease was complicated by a long incubation time. A seemingly healthy horse put into a corral at Giesboro could spread disease to hundreds of other horses. Michelle’s research reveals that just over 17,000 horses died at Giesboro. The highest overnight death toll occurred on January 13, 1865 when 188 horses were found dead the next morning.
The Confederate cavalry also established giant "horse infirmaries." With a smaller horse supply to draw from, the Confederacy had to emphasize the rehabilitation of disabled animals over simply purchasing new ones. Disabled animals entering the infirmary were examined closely, and the healthy animals distributed to experienced caretakers where pasture was available.
Diseased animals were assigned to hospitals particular to their disorder and were treated by practiced veterinary surgeons. A horse infirmary in Johnson County, Georgia, claimed to have cured 30 cases of glanders and to have healed 85% of the disabled and diseased animals that they took in. Still, the system did not work as well as planned because many animals were not sent to the infirmary until they were thoroughly exhausted, with no hope of recovery.
A most interesting aspect of Michelle’s paper is the description of pioneering research done at the Lynchburg, Virginia, infirmary. Drs. John Page and John Terrell conducted the first extensive clinical study of glanders in a group of nineteen horses. They recorded the full course of the disease in seven of the animals and then sacrificed and necropsied the remaining 12 horses. Noting characteristic "cheesy pus" lesions and infected lymph nodes, Page and Terrell were able to inoculate healthy horses with an isolated "virus" and reproduce the disease.
By the end of the war, the Union Quartermaster’s Department had spent more than $90,000 to hire civilian veterinarians, and each cavalry regiment had a veterinary surgeon, in name at least. Michelle notes that the lot of the military veterinarian improved greatly after the war. In 1866, when 4 new cavalry regiments were formed, each regiment was assigned a second "Senior veterinary surgeon" who earned $100 a month. A subsequent order required that all appointed veterinary surgeons must be graduates of "established and reputable veterinary school or colleges."
Writing the paper was a combination of two of Michelle’s passions: veterinary medicine and history. Why is she pursuing a career as veterinarian? Why else? "I love animals and I enjoy seeing the happiness that pets bring to their owners," Michelle told me, adding: "I find medicine to be intriguing, and I like the challenge of the problem solving that’s involved in diagnosing and treating animals."
Michelle has had an interest in history since elementary school, perhaps inspired by "very passionate history teachers." As for the Civil War, she told me: "I guess it is especially interesting to me because it happened so close to home geographically. I grew up in Maryland only minutes from Dr. Mudd’s house, and did my undergraduate work at a college near Gettysburg."
Several of Michelle’s relatives fought for the Union during the war. "My father has a cavalry sword belonging to one ancestor that has been passed down in our family for generations," she said.
Michelle concludes her paper by stating "although the Civil War was a dark period for veterinary medicine, it would also prove to be a pivotal period in the advancement of military and civilian veterinary medicine in the United States. The Civil War legacies of disease and death would be tempered by improvements in the lot of the army veterinarian, veterinary education, and veterinary science."
The mantle of military animal care has been handed to the United States Army Veterinary Command (VETCOM), a major subordinate of the U.S. Army Medical Department (MEDCOM). The primary mission of VETCOM is to ensure that all military working animals are deployed in a state of optimum health, and to deploy trained individuals in support of worldwide operations.
Their animal care responsibilities extend to all government owned animals, including military working dogs, ceremonial and working horses, service mascots, recreational stable horses, and U.S. Secret Service dogs. Interestingly, VETCOM also provides pet care for service members, their families, and retirees.
Though herds of cattle no longer follow in the army’s path as a supply of fresh beef, VETCOM is responsible for ensuring safe food supplies for deployed forces. They inspect commercial food production establishments around the world, and conduct laboratory tests for diseases and toxins.