Date of Award

Summer 8-18-2023

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Mary Freeman

Second Committee Member

Liam Riordan

Third Committee Member

Charlotte Carrington-Farmer


Horses are the unsung heroes of the American Civil War. Both armies relied heavily on equines for a variety of tasks. They carried cavalry soldiers on the battlefield and pulled wagons for artillery and military supply chains. Horses could also serve as companion animals. Soldiers formed friendships with their horses as a way to heal from the trauma of combat and stave off the monotony of camp life. Writing about animals in letters to their families enabled soldiers to explain their experiences in more palatable terms to their families. As over 1.2 million horses and mules died in the conflict, they are worthy of commemoration and historical study.

Many authors have written about the practical uses for equines in the Civil War, but relatively few have researched horses and soldiers’ emotions. This thesis examines the topics of Civil War horses and emotions through the wartime letters of two Union officers, Oliver Otis Howard and Charles Francis Adams, Jr. Both men came from affluent Northern society in the antebellum era, a time when many people were reevaluating the relationship between humans and animals. The anticruelty movement, which emerged from similar roots as antislavery, prompted changes to how people viewed and treated animals. Animal cruelty became socially unacceptable and eventually criminalized, while a new generation of equestrian trainers sought to train horses with kindness and bonding instead of brute force. These new ideas also existed uneasily alongside older traditions that equated enslaved African Americans and animals.

Though Howard and Adams entered the war from similar backgrounds, they had divergent responses to animals and the war. Howard formed close attachments with the animals he met on the frontlines. One such friendship with a horse named Charlie helped him heal physically and psychologically after losing his right arm in combat. Writing about animals in letters to his family helped him explain his wartime experiences in a language that his children could understand and allowed him to remain involved in domestic life from afar. Adams, however, was constantly cynical and pessimistic about his Civil War service. His letters were full of complaints about army life and the perceived incompetence of the Union’s leadership. He also wrote extensively about his cavalry regiment’s horses, documenting the daily equine death and suffering that he witnessed in the conflict. When Adams was given command of a Black cavalry regiment late in the war, he often denigrated his soldiers and invoked the racist comparison between Black people and animals. Howard and Adams both survived the war and left their own legacies on postbellum America. Civil War horses continue to be relevant today through our conversations on memory and commemoration of the Civil War.