This is an edited version of a post first appearing in September 2010 on our sister blog, Fredericksburg Remembered. A revision and reposting here seemed timely on the eve of Chancellorsville’s sesquicentennial.
I’ve often wondered how developments in the animal-rights movement will affect historical interpretation, including that of Civil War events. I’m thinking today of places related to the Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg campaigns, and eyewitness portrayals of animals there.
Of course, the record of humans’ advocacy on behalf of animals is as ancient as the record of their affection for or, at the other extreme, mistreatment of animals. 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 have obviously wrought profound change in the way we talk about history. Will today’s ongoing, 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 and with equal visibility?
My preliminary thoughts include placing historical portrayals of animals along a spectrum. Anchoring one end are images of animals essentially as animated scenery for military events, with animals (in humans’ perception) granted only minimal influence or agency. My spectrum’s other end, however, is anchored by humans’ portrayals of animals’ agency or utility, sometimes 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.”
Recalling a different moment and place in the Chancellorsville campaign zone, another Federal remembered that whip-poor-wills responded to “the strange changes that have come over their usually quiet haunts” by making the night “hideous” with their calls.
In his own recounting of Chancellorsville, Confederate veteran and writer John Esten Cooke described the whip-poor-wills in a more interactive role: performing, however unwittingly, a funeral dirge. Their “mournful” call, he noted, was “that sound which was the last to greet the ears of so many dying soldiers.”
For the Eleventh Corps soldiers forming the Union army’s ill-fated right flank at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, wildlife provided an unintentional—and unheeded—reconnaissance or alert, not entirely unlike the conscious but equally unheeded human efforts at warning of Confederates massing in the woods just beyond. An Ohioan in the Eleventh, W.S. Wickham, recalled an “open field in our front across which scampered wild animals of the country,” herded forward by “Stonewall” Jackson’s approaching but still-invisible troops.
More consciously, some 2,000 mules served 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 particularly that Bigelow’s critique, here, focuses 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…. [W]agon-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 Bigelow’s book 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 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 destined to be forgotten as veterans, far from the inappropriate, campaign-hobbling participants in Bigelow’s telling:
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 by Confederate artillerist William Hill Carter, writing after the war of the fighting at Fredericksburg’s Prospect Hill in December 1862, the ordeals of military animals who served alongside people had gone 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.
The sulphurous smoke was dense…the shrieking of the shell and shot as they tore through the branches of the wooded knoll, was appalling.
In a very short time the big [Union] guns over the river began to growl and grumble for more blood. Their infantry made a terrific burst, their light guns opened…Pandemonium broke loose again on “Dead Horse Hill.”
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 even worse 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 recorded initiative among animals in their partnerships with people. In contrast to many occupants of Dead Horse Hill, the dog described in the following reminiscence survives the same battle–at the opposite end of the combat zone, in or near the town of Fredericksburg–and saves a Confederate soldier. The passage appeared in 1871 in a brief article entitled “Reason and Instinct,” which asserted that dogs, horses, and some of the other “higher animals” are gifted with the “dawn of reason, so extraordinary are some of their acts”:
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.
Historical portrayals of animals in the Civil War have continued to emerge in film, digital exhibitions, and sculpture, as well as literature. 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 using Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg examples, 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 D.P. Newton and Donnie Shelton of the White Oak Museum for research assistance, and to National Park Service volunteer Alan Zirkle–the other Lumiere Brother–for meeting my request for an animation with his usual patience and precision.