“The very young soldier, it has been remarked, wears better in the cavalry than in the infantry brand of the service, and in that sphere he may have a chance to cope successfully with his hardier comrades. It is perhaps the exciting and healthy life he thus leads, the attachment he quickly forms for his horse, and his ambition to excel, that buoy up his spirits against contagion in its worst forms.”
Dr. De Witt C. Peters makes cavalry enlistment and service during the American Civil War sound like the perfect option. In his essay for an 1863 medical journal, Peters decries the enlistment of youthful soldiers, claiming that they did not have the mental steadiness or development to endure hardships and combat. According to his view, this resulted in increased cases of “nostalgia” and other difficulties of the mind and body and was ruining the lives of young men, eighteen or younger. Instead, he advocated for enlisting older men (implied mid-twenties and upward) who were more “sturdy.”
How realistic was Peters’s idea of the cavalry, though?
Military reports and primary sources suggest that an active cavalry unit worked just as hard—and maybe harder—than the infantry. True, they didn’t have to walk, but they could be expected to cover longer distances. They had their long hours of picketing or patrol and campaign marches. Combat experiences differed for cavalrymen, sometimes more and sometimes less intense than infantry fighting—depending on circumstances and range of the enemy. And when camp was made, cavalrymen had to look after their horses in addition to get their own food and figuring out some place to sleep. (Some Confederate cavalrymen took enslaved men with them specifically to look after the horses and do camp chores.)
The “attachment” a cavalryman supposedly felt for his horse according to the medical man is a little fuzzy in actual primary sources. Horses were tools, sometimes they were property. For Federal cavalrymen, their mounts were provided by the government and usually quickly replaced if sick, injured, or dead. Confederates usually provided their own horses, leading to much consternation and “dismounted” cavalry as the war progressed and horses were harder and more expensive to procure. Some cavalrymen did seem to have a fondness for their horses, but this rarely reached levels that the modern era would recognize as equine therapy. Nor does equine therapy seem to be what Dr. Peters had in mind. It seems more likely that he saw the “attachment” as something relying on the young soldier, bringing out the feelings of responsibility and caring for something dependent. Perhaps this would have a steadying effect on the young soldier’s mind.
Then the good doctor buys into the “glory story” of the cavalry. He proposes that ambition to excel along with the exciting life style would protect the young cavalrymen from melancholy. Their minds would be constantly occupied and perhaps their minds and physical health would not fall prey to homesickness or physical ailments as easily.
The theory is fascinating, the reality was more complicated. The life of a cavalryman – in blue or gray – was complicated. Diaries suggest there were lonely and depressed cavalrymen. The image around cavalry then and in memory may help to obscure the realities, but simply joining the cavalry instead of the infantry was not the likely cure-all that Dr. Peters theorized. Still, he raised interested thoughts in his medical essay, and ideas worth considering. Did the branch of service—or did a particular unit’s experiences—have a greater impact on the mental and physical trauma (or lack of)? Generally, primary sources suggest “yes,” but the patterns are not always immediately seen or predictable. Nor are the patterns confirmed to the “very young” enlistees.
Dr. De Witt C. Peters, “Remarks on the Evils of Youthful Enlistments and Nostalgia,” Published in The American Medical Times, February 14, 1863. Accessed through HathiTrust: American Medical Times: Being A Weekly Series of the New York Journal of Medicine, Volume 6-7, 1863. Page 75.
R. Gregory Lande, Psychological Consequences of the American Civil War (Jefferson, McFarland & Company, 2017.