Note: This story first appeared in the March-April 2016 Gypsy Journal.
It seems only fitting that a place as steeped in Western history as Tucson, Arizona would be home to the Museum of the Horse Soldier, which has to be one of the most interesting museums we have visited anywhere.
The museum is the brainchild of director Rae Whitley, a very nice man who is a walking, talking history encyclopedia, especially military history. Since we are history nuts ourselves, the three of us really hit it off. And what Whitley has accomplished at the Museum in a relatively short period of time and with limited funds is simply amazing. He has assembled one of the finest collections of military memorabilia and artifacts related to mounted warfare that you will find anywhere in the country.
Most of us think of the Cavalry attacking enemy positions in the Civil War or battling Indians on the Great Plains when we think about the role that equines played in the military. But in reality, horses and mules were used from the American Revolution all the way up until World War II, when the last American Cavalry charge was made in the Philippines in 1942. Displays at the museum cover our nation’s military history from the Revolution through the Korean War with a focus on the role of mounted troops.
The role of horses and mules in the military is actually two intertwined stories, that of the animals themselves and also that of those charged with their care.
During the Revolutionary War most horses were brought in by the soldiers themselves when they volunteered for service. There was no formal program to supply animals for the military for much of our earliest history. The Civil War created a huge demand for animals and demonstrated the need for centralized procurement of them. By the end of the war the Army Quartermaster was charged with finding draft horses and mules for pulling wagons and transporting goods, while the Cavalry Bureau secured riding horses.
Caring for the mounts was of the utmost importance. A horse or mule cost more than what a soldier was paid on a monthly basis, and punishment was harsh for anyone who neglected or abused their animal. Personnel, and even entire units from the cavalry were transferred to the infantry if inspectors found evidence that they were not taking proper care of their animals.
The Army instituted a program of securing mounts by providing ranchers and farmers with good breeding stock. The military had the right of first choice on the offspring, which provided a steady remount service and was also beneficial to the civilians who were paid a stipend and got to keep any animals the military did not accept. In 1908, Congress authorized a system of three military breeding stations under the Quartermaster Corps at Fort Royal, Virginia; Fort Reno, Oklahoma; and Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The program was later expanded and continued until 1948.
In 1792, Congress passed legislation to allow the Army four farriers to care for its horses and mules. By 1798, there were 10 farriers in the Army, who were paid $10 per month. After the War of 1812, Congress cut funding to the military and the Army would find themselves without farriers until 1833.
Veterinary medicine was still in its infancy and a few civilian veterinarians were hired to support the Army during the Mexican War. The rank of Veterinary Surgeon existed briefly at the start of the Civil War, but the position was dropped in 1862. A year later, each regiment of cavalry was authorized a regimental veterinary surgeon with a rank equal to Regimental Sergeant Major, and civilian veterinarians were hired once again.
After the Civil War the Army increased its standards of veterinary care. Its six existing cavalry regiments were still authorized one veterinary surgeon, and the four newly created cavalry regiments formed to meet the needs of fighting the Indian Wars were authorized two veterinary surgeons. In 1881, regulations were amended to require that all appointed veterinary surgeons be graduates of established veterinary schools or colleges.
Due to the huge need for pack animals for transportation during World War I, there was an increased need for veterinarians. Besides caring for livestock, they were also charged with food inspection and camp sanitation. By the time World War II rolled around, trucks and jeeps had replaced many of the pack animals used, and 90% of the veterinarians’ job involved food inspection. Between 1940 and 1945, 142 billion pounds of meat and dairy products were inspected before they were fed to the troops.
Within weeks of the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in June of 1950, veterinary service units were arriving in the war zone to handle food inspection and care for livestock and working military dogs.
The Army wasn’t the only military branch that used horses and mules. A small group of Marines led by Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon crossed the deserts of Libya on camels and mules to lead the assault on the city of Derna during the Barbary wars in 1805. This action was immortalized in the Marine Corps anthem line “…to the shores of Tripoli.” In the summer of 1915, US Marines landed in Haiti with horses, and mounted Marines saw duty in the Banana Wars of the 1920s and 30s, where roads were few in the jungles of Honduras, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.
The most famous Horse Marines were in China. They formed the Legation Guards at the American Embassy in Peking (now Beijing) and in the international settlement in Shanghai from 1909 to 1938. During that time, up to 1,500 men, mainly of the 4th Marines, used Mongolian ponies. The last mounted unit of China Marines was retired in March of 1938. Several Marine Corps legends served as China Marines, including Lieutenant General Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, Major General William Henry Rupertus, and General Harry B. Liversedge. During World War II, General Liversedge was respectfully nicknamed “Harry the Horse” because of his years as a Horse Marine in China.
Even today, in the age of rockets and computer guided missile systems, horses and mules still play a role in the military, though mostly ceremonial. The US Military Academy at West Point has a few mules on hand because they are the Army mascot, and we are all familiar with the riderless horse used at military funerals. And though I never rode a horse in the Army, I was proud of the symbolic horse on my unit’s shoulder patch, the 1st Cavalry Division.
The Museum of the Horse has an impressive collection of saddles, military uniforms and equipment, weapons, and the only Civil War flag in the State of Arizona, which bears bloodstains from the Battle of Gettysburg. And director Rae Whitley does an excellent job of telling the stories of all of these items in a manner that engages every visitor, from small children to the elderly, that brings them into the story. It has become popular for school field trips, or for the history buff who wants to take his time to admire each display at length. It is well worth a visit if you’re anywhere near Tucson.
The Museum of the Horse Soldier is located at 6541 East Tanque Verde Road at Trail Dust Town in Tucson, and is open Wednesday – Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children over age 6. Kids under 6 are admitted free. For more information, call (520) 722-2706 or visit the museum’s website at http://museumofthehorsesoldier.com/.
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