At Government Liquidation Inc., a contractor of the US Defense Department, the bidding starts at fifty dollars. Here, items that the government no longer wants or needs are auctioned off. You can buy scrap metal, small boats, tents, or clothing. You can buy barrels of food, trucks, airplane parts, or ten-year old quarter horses. Quarter horses?! Why are they being sold as military surplus? The answer is that this is the Army’s version of retirement. In other words, these creatures were once members of the 1st Cavalry Division, based in Fort Hood, Texas. The unit’s horse detachment contains 40 humans, 40 horses, 9 mules, and a dog. Their primary purpose is to make public appearances, ride in parades and fairs, help in the recruiting effort, and promote the history of the cavalry.
From Sumerians, to Egyptians, Mongolians, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, the horse has always been there. The first cavalry dates from 900 BC in the Middle East. The chariot corps of the Egyptians were said to have brought such fear into their enemies that victories were due as much to demoralization as to military superiority. This fact was not lost upon the Spanish Conquistadors, whose use of the horse was essential to their military successes in the Western Hemisphere. Las Casas once wrote how one horseman could lance two thousand natives in just one hour. While this was probably an exaggeration, he witnessed firsthand that, more than germs, guns, or steel, it was the horse that conquered America. As the Spanish proverb speaks: “Más vale caballo que caudel.”
Horses have had a long history of service in the US military. There was the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. These creatures worked for the quartermaster delivering supplies. They were required for the use of artillery deploying the heavy ammunition and large guns. They served in the cavalry and fought in battles. Tales of bravery and horses fighting-on even with multiple bullet wounds, massive gashes, or their entrails hanging out were common. After battles ceased, the fields would quite literally be covered with the bodies of hundreds upon hundreds of mortally wounded and dying horses. In fact, their causality rates were normally double that of their human counterparts. Over the course of the Civil War, for example, some 1 million horses died, as compared to 600-700,000 humans.
Also pressed into military service was the mule. Operating primarily for the quartermaster, these creatures labored extensively from the 1830s onwards. In the 2nd Seminole War (1835-42), 1260 mules served. Ulysses S. Grant himself got his start by training mules for the Mexican-American War (1846-8). During the fourth year of the Civil War, 87,791 mules were in deployment by the Union Army. During the Spanish-American War (1898-1906), they were shipped by the thousands via San Francisco for the campaigns in the Philippines.
Even with the fading role of the cavalry, the 20th century continued to witness the importance of these equines. In 1917 during the Great War, there were over 591,000 horses and 213,000 mules fighting for the United Kingdom. Each divisional supply-train contained 450 men, 375 horses and mules, and 200 wagons. Similarly, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) employed over half a million horses and mules during the final year of the war. In World War Two, the US military maintained extensive deployments of mules–especially to the mountains of Italy and the jungles of the South Pacific. In fact, contrary to popular belief, the German blitzkrieg itself was not purely a marvel of modern technology. Over 200,000 horses were utilized for their invasion of Poland and 800,000 for France.
Mules and horses were also treated like other soldiers. They had to go through months of rigorous training to learn their respective jobs. They were subject to brutality and corporal punishment. Their rations were of low quality and quantity. For instance, during the Civil War, the Union Army set their water rations at 4 gallons per day (as opposed to the minimum 15 gallons that is needed for basic health). In the winter campaigns, they suffered from a lack of blankets. Health-care was almost non-existent. During WWI, the British and French forces were shocked and appalled that the AEF had no veterinarian branch. At the conclusion of the various wars, these veterans received few, if any, accolades. Wounded horses and mules were normally abandoned or just shot. The dead were later collected and bought by slaughter-houses and tanneries. The living were sold to farmers, livery stables, and transport companies. When the final two mule-units of the US Army were deactivated at Fort Carlson on December 15th 1956, there was a small ceremony and honors were bestowed upon two particular mules—one of which became the mascot of the West Point Academy. As for the others, though, there were no honors. They were promptly and quietly put up for sale.
Yet, horses have contributed far more to the modern world than just military service. Consider the Agriculture Revolution. Over the course of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the number and size of farms in Western Europe and America grew exponentially. But who were the ones that cleared the ground and pulled out the tree stumps? Was it just humans? Who pulled the plows? Who pulled the rakes, harrows, seed-drills, cutters, reapers, mowers, and harvesters? Horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen did. They fed the ever-growing populations. By 1910, 24 million horses and mules worked on US farms. As late as 1942, 45% of Iowa farms still depended entirely on these equine workers for power.
Consider the Commercial and Industrial Revolutions. Who mined all of that gold and silver? Who cleared the forests and hauled the timbers? Who milled all of that sugar and cotton? Who powered the early spinning frames? Who transported all of these raw and finished commodities? Mules, donkeys, and horses towed the gins of metal from the mines. They towed the tubs of coal and lead from the depths to the surface. In coal-fields of West Virginia, pit-ponies worked into 1950s and 60s. Oxen skidded the fallen trees from the forests. Teams of horses pulled the loaded wagons and sleighs to and from the mills. As late as 1950, some 35,000 “teamsters” were still employed in US and Canada. On the sugar and cotton plantations, oxen and horses turned the engines that crushed the sugar-cane and de-seeded the cotton. In the factories, they turned the mechanical mills that cleaned, pressed, carded, and spun the cotton and wool. In fact, James Watt chose the term “horse-power” as the base unit of measurement for the steam engine, because it was the horse who powered many of the industrial machines of the 18th (and then the 19th) century.
Horses bored the cannons. They ground and pumped the wort. They milled and distilled oil. They pressed the cider and wound the ore. They milled pug, bark, and powder. They threw the silk, spun the flax, and tore the rags. Then, on the docks, roads, turnpikes, and canals, they moved the carts, wagons, and barges of commodities and people. With the development of the steam-powered railroad, the need for short-distance horse-powered transportation only increased.
Consider the Urban Revolution. During the 19th century, how did most people get on and off of the island of Manhattan? Who powered all of the carriages, trams, taxis, and buses that filled the ever-growing cities? Horses powered the Hudson and East River ferries. They pulled the vehicles. In fact, for urban horses and mules, it took two years to become properly trained for this type of work. For coachmen, it took three years. Shifts lasted on average eight to fourteen hours per day. The work-week ranged from six to seven days. By the early 20th century, the number of horses and mules working in North American cities stood at approximately 35 million—an increase of six-fold from the beginning of the previous century. The modern agricultural, industrial, commercial, and urban transformations were not just human enterprises. The history of capitalism is so much more than a history of humanity. Who built America, the college textbook asks? Animals did.
At the turn of the 21st century, the horse has returned to active combat duty. In the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, it is the donkey who hauls the food, water, and other needed supplies for the Marines. It is the horse who provides reconnaissance of enemy movement. It is the horse who transports the Special Forces through the difficult terrain and into battle. The Pentagon considers these creatures to be a “counter” to technology. In others words, when technology fails, donkeys, mules, and horses are put to work. They are not living machines; they are soldiers. Indeed, the Army’s retired horses and mules deserve a fate far better than to be sold alongside auto-parts and used desks, for they have long-since earned such a right. A horse is worth more than money.