The Glanders Epizootic
Although the Civil War was revolutionary in its use of trains to move large numbers of troops quickly, it still required what all armies for several millennia had required – horses and mules. Horses and mules pulled wagons, ambulances, artillery, carried cavalry, provided power to erect buildings, and did all of the labors they have done seemingly since time began. On the battlefield they were just as susceptible to injury as their human masters, and the armies of both sides of the conflict required thousands of them to support the war.
In the Confederate Army it was common practice for cavalry mounts to be privately owned until 1863, when the Army began to issue mounts. Depots were established in areas near the fronts for the stabling and care of horses. One such depot, near Lynchburg Virginia, stabled more than 6800 horses over fifteen months, of which only about one thousand made it to the army. The rest died or were rendered unfit for service by glanders.
Glanders is an infectious disease, often fatal, which is transmitted via body fluid and was likely spread throughout the closely stabled horses at water troughs. Lynchburg was not the only site where glanders struck Confederate livestock. From 1861 to 1866 an epizootic of glanders wreaked havoc on Confederate mules and horses. Animals became ill, weakened and died, or were shot when symptoms displayed to prevent the spread of the disease.
When the Civil War began about 2.5 million horses and mules were available in the South, more than half of these were lost during the war. By contrast, Union troops had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh mounts and draft animals available to them throughout the war. The loss of animals had a negative impact on the mobility of the Confederate troops by the end of the war.
Glanders was experimented with as a biological weapon by German troops in the First World War. It is now known to be treatable with antibiotics, unavailable to the medical practitioners of the Civil War. There hasn’t been a case of the disease reported in the United States since the 1940s, but during the period of the Civil War it ravaged the stock of the Confederate Army.