On a bright, sunny, January day, we made a short pilgrimage to the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The battle site will be celebrating its 150th anniversary of the fight this July. I have always had a bit of an interest in the Civil War battlefield, especially the lunacy of the famous Pickett’s Charge. Wow! You talk about hallowed ground! All of the words that are used to describe human carnage: buzz saw, meat grinder, and slaughter house don’t even come close to the human blood-letting that took place between the North and the South during that three day battle—51,000 casualties. (As a comparison, the D-Day Invasion had 6,600 U.S. casualties, Iwo Jima suffered 25,000 in 35 days, Pearl Harbor, 3,600). But that’s not what I’m going to talk about.
One thing that most people don’t think much about, however, were the 72,000 horses and mules that served at Gettysburg as well. Used for everything from hauling ammunition to the fight to pulling ambulances full of wounded combatants away to field hospitals, it is estimated that over 28,000 were killed in the three days of fighting. One unit, the 9th Massachusetts Battery, while defending the Union’s left flank in the vicinity of the infamous Wheatfield and Peach Orchard, began their skirmish with 88 horses (officer’s mounts and cannon haulers.) Only 8 animals surviving to fight another day!
There are more equestrian style monuments at Gettysburg than you can count. Two of the most important are located on opposite sides of the three-quarter-mile wide patch of open ground upon which 12,500 Southern soldiers, participating in the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge, rushed to their final glory. On Seminary Ridge, where the Army of Northern Virginia began this charge, is a huge imposing statue of their commander, General Robert E. Lee atop his faithful mount, Traveller. An American saddlebred, Traveller was Lee’s favorite horse all through the war. However, in none of the researches that I did for this story, could I see where he was injured even one time. After the war, the horse went with the Lee family to Lexington, VA, where the former general became dean of Washington College (Washington and Lee University today.) Traveller’s last duty for his master was to escort Lee’s caisson to the general’s burial site on the university’s campus. Upon his death in 1871, Traveller—after a long stint as a tourist attraction—was interred a few feet away from his former owner.
On the opposite side of that bloody field of battle, on the “good ground” of Cemetery Ridge, is another monument featuring Major General George Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, upon his favorite horse, Old Baldy. The general purchased Old Baldy, a chestnut-colored calvary mount, in 1861. A large white blaze down the front of the horse’s face gave him his name. Already a wounded, battle-hardened survivor of the First Battle of Bull Run when he purchased the horse, General Meade and Old Baldy would end up fighting together in nearly every major Civil War battle up to Gettysburg—including those at Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. The amazing horse was shot and wounded by musket and cannon fire eleven times prior to his last fight at Gettysburg. Here, on the second day of the battle, a bullet passed through the right pant leg of General Meade, through the saddle strap, and into Old Baldy’s abdomen. Even though he still stood upright, the general knew something was wrong because for the first time in their history together, the horse would not advance. Meade then had Old Baldy taken to the rear of the battle where the gravely wounded mount was expected to die.
And although he didn’t die, General Meade didn’t want to risk an unlucky 13th wound for his trusted friend, and instead retired the horse to the farm of a friend near Philadelphia. Just like Traveller and General Lee, Old Baldy’s last military duty was to escort the general to his grave as well. After his death ten years later, the horse’s head was mounted by a taxidermist, and can still be seen at the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in Philadelphia.