Reporting from the SHA: Animal Studies in the Civil War Era

Animal studies in general began in the 1970s as historians became interested in the use of animals, the relationships between animals and humans, how animals were represented in culture, and the ecological effect of animals. In terms of Civil War history, interested began around 2000 with an article from Drew Gilpin Faust. As moderator Megan Kate Nelson (Writer) suggested, there are many ways to utilize animal studies to further the study of the Civil War Era, including as means of transportation, food, and on the battlefields of the war. In fact, any historians that starts to look at the logistics of the conflict automatically needs to be interested in animals. This session was set up as a roundtable with Joan E. Cashin (Ohio State University), Kenneth Noe (Auburn University), and Paula Tarankow (Indiana University) as panelists.

Joan Cashin opened her remarks by saying that animals can be useful to study war because they can be seen as acting within a particular environment and a particular place/time. Also, scientists have proven that animals can be highly developed and have relationships to people and their environment which provide new opportunities to study the Civil War. Some historians have already looked at the role of horses in the war, particularly in their roles as beasts of burden, artillery teams, and mounts for officers and cavalry. Joan’s research looks at the role of dogs in the war and how Americans perceived their dogs before and during the conflict. Before 1861, Americans usually looked at their dogs as companions and domesticated workers with the idea (taken from the Book of Genesis) that man had dominion over their pets. In some ways these ideas continued after 1861, but dogs also became legitimate targets or sacrifices for the war cause. The armies did not have official policies about dogs, but soldiers brought dogs along and used them as companions for the wounded, mascots, guard dogs, advanced pickets for both infantry and cavalry units, scouts to track down POWs or deserters, and sacrifices to gauge enemy fire or position. Stories of loyalty and compassion during the war are matched with stories of soldiers killing “enemy” dogs as legitimate targets of war or killing dogs that might give away their position. At the end of her remarks, Cashin questioned if the study of animals in the Civil War could fall under a study of the conflict as a total war; total war is the employment of all resources in a society to engage in warfare and she suggests that historians need to study the use of animals as part of that.

Kenneth Noe explained that his current research is a study on the effects of weather on the war, but in the course of his research he kept noticing descriptions of the uses and abuses of equines (mainly horses and mules). He noted that he used to read descriptions of horses drowning or dying in the mud and rain as hyperbole, but after reading hundreds of these accounts he thinks that historians need to take a better look at them. There is no agreed upon statistics among Civil War historians about how many equines were used or killed in the war, but he noted that an estimated 1.2-1.5 horses died in the conflict. This was about a fifty percent casualty rate and the life expectancy of a cavalry horse was estimated at four months. In addition to the actual use of equines, Noe suggested looking at how animals were used symbolically; for example, the whipped horse was a main symbol of abuse in the nineteenth century. Scholars of other wars have paid more attention to animal studies, but this is a hole in the Civil War literature. Animal studies can be approached as part of environmental history; for example, looking at how weather conditions such as rain or snow affected the use and health of animals as Noe noticed in his research. This research could also be considered part of the “dark turn” of Civil War history considering that animal cruelty is a pretty “dark” topic. To close his remarks, Noe suggested some questions for further research and consideration: How can the study of animals help in the study of the Civil War? What can historians in other fields teach us about animal studies? Can we study the experiences of the animals themselves, and how? What can the treatment of animals teach us about the Civil War generation? Does the consideration of animals change what we think about the war and how should we proceed with this research?

Paula Tarankow introduced her research which is on the growth of animal advocacy, such as SPCAs, across the south in the years after the Civil War. Large advocacy groups were founded in the north right after the war and many people moved into this movement from abolition. In addition to the founding and growth of advocacy groups in the south, Tarankow is interested in how a movement to prevent cruelty to animals fit into a society that had fought to uphold a system of institutional slavery, especially since many southern SPCAs were founded by former slaveholders. What she found is that southern whites transposed their ideas of paternalism from slavery onto animals in a form of “humane paternalism.” Animals provided the perfect master/pet relationship and southerners used many tropes and stereotypes from slavery in the animal advocacy movement, including messages about white kindness and black cruelty. Southern SPCAs created stories of kindness, particularly the kindness of Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee and other officers towards animals, in opposition to stories of black cruelty and criminality. This was part of the rise of southern heritage in the post-war period.

Megan Kate Nelson began the roundtable discussion with a question about methodology, particularly what types of sources can be used to study the use of animals in the Civil War. Cashin and Noe both suggested that this topic is hidden in plain sight with mentions in the sources Civil War historians usually look at, such as the ORs and soldiers’ writings. Tarankow explained that she looked at a variety of sources from the records of SPCAs and animal advocacy groups to police records that describe animal cruelty cases. Another suggestion from both the panelists and audience members was the use of paintings and photos as evidence of animals in the war. Another question posed later by Nelson is how historians can use animals at public history sites to bring visitors into the history of the war. An audience member noted that visitors seem more upset at stories of animals dying on the battlefield in comparison to the large numbers of human casualties. Chris Barr explained that this occurred often because animals are usually missing from the battlefields; visitors expect large numbers of human deaths when they come to visit a battlefield, but are less prepared to learn about animal deaths. Adding animals back into the interpretation of war is important, the panel all concluded, because it brings the war “back outside” in the words of Noe. Acknowledging the destruction of the war and placing it back into the environment gives a more accurate portrayal of the conflict and how people experienced it.

The majority of the session was a lively discussion between the panelists and audience with several interesting lines of questioning that emerged. One theme of questions was studying the impact on the larger civilian experience and environment, even when transitioning away from the war. One question from the audience asked how the armies replaced the large numbers of equines that were dying, and the panelists noted that most of the time replacement animals and food animals were taken from civilian areas. Further discussion on this point asked about the impact that then had on the civilians’ ability to survive the war and how the armies impacted the local ecology and environment in their quest for food and other natural supplies. Noe noted that with the large number of animals (not just horses) used in the war, it took years to rebuild animal populations. Another interesting question about the transition away from war came from Lorien Foote—she asked if there was a large-scale killing of dogs in the south that were trained to police and track down slaves as the south had to transition away from that institution. Logistics was also an area discussed where animal studies could add to the scholarship of the war, for example how the need to sustain horses factored into military decisions.

Another theme of questioning was how animal studies could relate to the cultural study of the Civil War era. One audience member asked if the panelists ever saw concepts of masculinity attached to dogs or horses (Nelson brought up soldiers who refused to ride mules and identified with horses instead) and another asked if there were any cases where soldiers analyzed an officer’s fitness for command based on their treatment of animals. Noe spoke of the racial and class overtones that soldiers often attached to teamsters and how soldiers interpreted their masculinity in comparison to those men who drove the teams. In the audience, Jason Phillips suggested looking at how animals were used in cultural expressions, such as animals used symbolically in political expressions and how that differed in the north and south. Joan Waugh also asked if changes in Christianity and religion in the nineteenth century had any affect on the animal welfare movement. A final question from the audience was about how soldiers used animals in dehumanizing language, either to define the enemy or to explain their own conditions (such as POWs at Andersonville).

One very interesting line of discussion was whether—particularly with Tarankow’s research—we were discovering a new thread of the Lost Cause in the post-war south. Tarankow brought this idea up in her opening remarks, but Noe voiced this question more directly during the discussion part of the session. Tarankow certainly supported this idea, especially where she sees southern animal advocates emphasizing stories of white kindness, creating stories of white kindness that focus on Confederate heroes, and claiming black cruelty and criminality. Not only that, Tarankow noted, but these stories stated that southern whites should “know better” than to abuse animals, while African-Americans would have more tendency to animal cruelty; this continued to emphasis white supremacy during and after Reconstruction. The audience members also added in the use of Confederate horses, such as Traveler and Little Sorrel, as symbols of the Lost Cause and connected them to this idea of symbols emphasizing Confederate connections to their animals. Nelson asked how access or ownership of animals appears in the Black Codes or similar Reconstruction documents; the audience agreed that animal ownership appeared at least in the Mississippi Black Code, but that this was another opening for further research.

A few other questions that were asked during the discussion were: Does the study of animals make the Civil War distinct in any way (is the Civil War experience exceptional or similar to other conflicts)? Is there any language of animal rights in the nineteenth century, or is that a more modern concept? To this question Tarankow replied that she didn’t see that in the south (there was more a focus on property rights there), but that there was more of that in the north as liberalism supported the idea of spreading rights to more people in the wake of the abolition movement. In addition, a few minutes were spent on discussion ways to flip the story around and present history from the viewpoint of the animals. From the perspectives of Cashin and Noe, animals such as dogs and horses do have the capability for fear, pain, and possibly experience traumatic memories of the war. Getting at that story would be difficult, however, since animals did not leave written records. Historians would need to find accounts by people who recorded differences in their animals before and after the war or commented on their behavior and reaction to wartime events.

There were still audience members with comments and questions when Nelson had to bring the session to a close, a good indicator that this topic will receive some attention in upcoming scholarship. The discussion brought up many ways that animal studies can be useful in the study of the Civil War and great opportunities for new research and analysis.

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and university and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse, a blog on the long Civil War.