I’ve often wondered if, or how, recent developments in the animal-rights movement will affect historical interpretation, including that of Civil War battlefields.
Of course, the record of humans’ passionate advocacy on behalf of animals generally is as ancient as the record of humans’ affection for–or, at the other extreme, mistreatment of–animals individually. Yet I’m still struck by the prominence of recent, animal-centered legal developments, media programming, and product- and service marketing. Lasting rights-revolutions for people, or at least marked shifts in their status, have obviously wrought profound change in the way we talk about history. Will dramatic shifts in the status of animals exert comparable influence over our understanding of the past, of those moments when their ancestors shared the stage with ours?
My preliminary thoughts include placing the existing historical portrayals of animals along a spectrum, one end anchored by images of them essentially as animated scenery for Civil War events, enjoying (in humans’ perception) minimal influence or agency. My spectrum’s other end, however, is anchored by humans’ portrayals of animals’ marked agency or activism, to the extent of their intervening decisively in human affairs. I am also fascinated by the interplay, within this spectrum, of animals-as-individuals and animals-as-symbols.
Let’s begin with portrayals of animals (again, in humans’ perception) as animated-scenery on battlefields. A Union veteran, describing events near Salem Church on May 4, 1863, wrote about a herd of cattle trapped between the opposing skirmish lines. Watching the animals, the man recalled, “it was very amusing to see them run and bellow, first to the right, then to the left, with tails straight out.”
Describing a different locale in the Chancellorsville campaign zone, another Federal remembered that whip-poor-wills seeking “to investigate the strange changes that have come over their usually quiet haunts” made the night “hideous” with their calls.
In his own recounting of Chancellorsville, Confederate veteran and novelist John Esten Cooke wrote of the whip-poor-wills in a more defining role: performing, however unwittingly, a continual, mass funeral-dirge. Their “mournful”call, he noted, was “that sound which was the last to greet the ears of so many dying soldiers.”
Several months earlier, while returning through southwestern Stafford County from an abortive advance across the Rappahannock, a Northerner observed another, indirect service rendered by animals, providing in this case a kind of rearward reconnaissance:
On the return march flocks of crows continually hovered a mile or two to the rear. They would rise in great numbers, float about for a while, move on some distance and then settle again. This they continued to do for many miles. It was the impression that…the enemy’s cavalry were maintaining a pursuit for observation, and, as they would move along from place to place, the birds, disturbed in their feeding, would rise, hover, and settle again when the interruption ceased.
Far more dramatically and directly, thousands of mules served with the Union army at Chancellorsville as part of an experiment to improve mobility. John Bigelow, who published the first, major scholarly account of the campaign in 1910, judged unfavorably General Joseph Hooker’s tenure as “the first commander of the Army of the Potomac, and the last one, to substitute pack-mules for army wagons extensively.” Note that Bigelow’s critique, below, focused in part on how mule psychology imposed changes upon the configuration and pacing of an army on campaign:
As compared with wagons, pack-mules require more men, and more animals to a given freight, take up more room on a road…. At every halt, wagon-mules can rest without being unharnessed or even unhitched–not perfectly, but far better than pack-mules can without being unpacked. To unpack a train of mules and afterward repack them, consumes so much time that it does not pay in halts of less than an hou[r]…. Pack-trains are capable of traveling faster than wagon-trains, but to do this for any length of time without hardship they must be allowed to travel their own gait; the troops must conform to the movements of the train or allow the train to travel independently… [T]he mules in this campaign were tied together in strings of two or three, and led. Thus secured, they did not stray away, but instead of rubbing against trees, they rubbed against each other, with about the same effect upon the loads, and a worse effect upon their poor bodies. This arrangement must have been a cause of many of the sore backs…. The introduction of the packtrains was unfortunate and unnecessary….
The Union veterans who published a history of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry some two decades prior to the appearance of Bigelow’s book on Chancellorsville also included a spotlight on the packtrain system during the campaign, but they used verse and a first-person voice (a mule’s), rather than Bigelow’s prose and generally impersonal narrative. The Pennsylvanians’ poem opened in lighthearted tones, with the mule-narrator recalling that, “I brought up your rations through mud and through dust” but also acknowledging that “I raided the hard-tack; I chewed up the tents.” Yet the concluding lines, including those of the stanza below, and accompanying illustrations portrayed Army of the Potomac mules as honorable soldiers–far from the inappropriate, campaign-hobbling participants in Bigelow’s telling–destined to be forgotten as veterans:
If I share not the honors with you in your pride,
Why did they put US in plain sight on my side?
Ah! The war days are over; old friends have grown cool
To the broken-down, pensionless, old army mule.
As noted in a Confederate veteran’s published recollection of artillery combat at Fredericksburg’s Prospect Hill, in December 1862, the ordeals of military animals who served alongside people could go well beyond “sore backs” and postwar neglect in severity:
Dead men between the guns and under their very mouths ; broken wheels, of which there were a multiplicity ; over-turned cais[s]ons, one of which had blown up; horses shot in every conceivable way, some dead, some plunging in the last agonies of that grim monster. One poor animal, I well remember, was walking about with all of that portion of his face below his eyes entirely carried away by a solid shot or shell.
Twice I planted our battle-flag firmly in the ground outside of our guns, and as many times it went down. A shell struck one of the pieces plumb on the top, exploded, and killed and wounded nine men.
I ran to unhook two wheel horses…. As I put my hand on the traces, a solid shot passed through the stomachs of both…. a handsome, black eyed boy ran by me, carrying ammunition; a shell took him between the shoulders, lifting him three feet from the ground, and his home was made desolate.
In this particular account the ordeal of the horses is worse even than that of the soldiers. And the carnage among the animals overall comes to define the severity of the combat, to the extent that Prospect Hill acquires an alternate name.
Some Civil War accounts even gave animals what might be termed initiative. In contrast to the victims of Dead Horse Hill, the animal described in the following published reminiscence survives the same battle–at the opposite end of the combat zone, in or near the town of Fredericksburg–and even saves a Confederate soldier:
After the battle…it fell to my duty to search a given district for any dead or wounded soldiers there might be left, and to bring relief. Near an old brick dwelling I discovered a soldier in gray who seemed to be dead. Lying by his side was a noble dog, with his head flat upon his master’s neck. As I approached, the dog raised his eyes to me good-naturedly, and began wagging his tail; but he did not change his position. The fact that the animal did not growl, that he did not move, but, more than all, the intelligent, joyful expression of his face, convinced me that the man was only wounded, which proved to be the case. A bullet had pierced his throat, and faint from the loss of blood, he had fallen down where he lay. His dog had actually stopped the bleeding from the wound by laying his head across it! Whether this was casual or not, I cannot say. But the shaggy coat of the faithful creature was completely matted with his master’s blood.
In 1866-1867, the Ladies Memorial Association of Fredericksburg established the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery on land adjoining the north side of the antebellum City Cemetery. Workmen subsequently removed the remains of more than 2,000 Southern soldiers from local battlefields and campsites to this new burial ground. The north wall of the City Cemetery was removed, leaving both cemeteries within a single enclosure. Judging from the following description by a Northern correspondent who visited in 1869, the expense of establishing one cemetery and physically joining it to another depleted the maintenance budgets of both. For a deceased Confederate, meanwhile, a dog evidently assumed much of the role that the Association sought for the soldier burials overall:
In the Confederate Cemetery we found the fence blown over, the graves of the soldiers were hardly distinguishable, while in several cases the graves were either never filled or since dug open, leaving the ends of the coffins exposed to view. In one of these graves was a large yellow dog which snapped and growled at us in a hideous way from his station on the coffin…. boys gathered on the walls and threw stones at him. A passing citizen stated that…the dog had been there for six months, keeping guard all the while on that coffin. He went away only at night to get his food and returned at once to his post.
(Note, too, that the dog’s devotion throws into even bolder relief the ingratitude towards animals that the Pennsylvanians’ poem would implicitly identify among humans who had survived the war.)
The passages quoted above have all been present in the published, public eye since before World War One. Historical portrayals of animals in the Civil War, moreover, continue to emerge, in media such as film, literature, digital exhibitions, and sculpture.
Perhaps, though, today’s ongoing shifts in animals’ status throughout society will also bring an increased frequency in their historical portrayals being viewed collectively, and less in isolation. This broadening perspective might highlight more of the interplay and subtleties among historical images, ranging, as I have discussed here, from differences in the reception of the same animal sounds, crucial shifts in the behavior of the same type of animal (mules pulling wagons vs. mules carrying cases and bundles), to perceived distinctions in the treatment of veterans. Also, a wider perspective could better illuminate animals’ roles as definers of history as well as participants in it–as collective symbols in addition to individual actors. Studying war, with all its revealing extremes, seems ideal for exploring the hazy borderland between people and animals.
Noel G. Harrison
Special thanks to Don Pfanz for the photo of the Confederate Cemetery.