Join The Cavalry For Better Health?

“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. Peters (FamilySearch)

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.

9 Responses to Join The Cavalry For Better Health?

  1. One thing that I agree with the good doctor about is the suggestion that enlisting young soldiers, 18 or younger, was wrong. As a veteran from the Vietnam era, I know the trauma of being young, lacking life’s experiences, such as finding love of a woman other than their mother as just one example, further education as another example, but instead being drafted or enlisted into the military and thrown into combat, facing the possibility of death or disfigurement, and mental trauma, perhaps never seeing home and loved ones again, or never living a normal life after returning home due to mental trauma (PTSD), loss of limbs, or injuries that some would later die of. In other words, war is the one life experience that those 18 or younger should not be forced to experience. On the other hand, those of the mid-twenties and older, although more mentally equiped to deal with war, were in many cases, already married, had one or more children, a home and occupation, seems as unfair as taking yourger individuals. I know it is quite unrealistic, but I have often said that when there are disagreements between leaders of different countries, including the elected individuals that are part of the administration, should be the ones who should physically fight it out. I have no doubt that they would settle their differences very quickly, without war.
    As to the notion that being in the cavalry was better was proven to not be the case. In 1983 there was a grass fire on the Custer battlefield, which exposed a great deal of artifacts not previously found. A team of archaeologists and anthropologists were asssembled to investigate. Much was learned including the condition of the bones of many of the cavalrymen, particularly their spines. It was found that many of them had crushed vertebrae due to long rides on horseback, which meant that when they traveled on horseback, they were having to deal with sometimes intense pain. I am sure that many of them did not feel the glory of being a cavalryman when they were having to deal with constant back pain.

    J. Michael Joslin, author ot the historical novels, I Fear We Shall Never See Home Again, and Thank God for Michigan.

  2. While attending a cavalry demonstration at Antietam Battlefield a few years ago the presenter mentioned that the cavalry did not ‘ride’ as much as you might think. Often the horses were led in order to save their strength for when it was needed. I’m curious if that was an accurate statement.

    1. I do know that cavalry charges were pretty much a shock and awe thing, and quite effective, but they often fought dismounted with at least one man whose responsibility it was to remain in the rear, holding the horses, while his comrades fought the enemy. The archaeology on the Custer battlefield showed where several such skirmish lines had been. And unlike Hollywood interpretations, and that of some artists, not all of the battle was on Custer Hill, but along the route to that location, and then in several areas nearby, not to mention the Reno/Benteen site. You are correct that they often walked, but those who had been in the cavalry for quite sometime were those who had back problems.

      1. At the Antietam demonstration they had about a dozen horses. For the main event they had them gallop across the field towards the spectators. Of course they pulled up well short of the crowd and we were asked what our impression was of site charging forward us. The pretty much unanimous opinion was ‘RUN!’

      2. Did they have sabers in their hands. The cavalryman’s horse and saber were the shock and awe factor, sometimes causing their enemies to run from the field.

      3. I know I would…run, especially seeing the sun glinting off of their sabers. I grew up in the 50s and 60s. One of my favorite shows was Rin Tin Tin, which was about an orphan boy taken in by the U.S. Cavalry, along with his dog, Rin Tin Tin “Rinty”. Anyhow, I always loved it when pretty much all the cavalry soldiers in the fort headed out in column, wearing white hats. But what really thrilled me was when they charged. What I later learned about the tragic events near the Little Bighorn River, is that Custer’s troops
        had been told to leave their sabers behind. They also were armed with Spencer rifles, which were single shot. Many of the Indians had repeating rifles. In other words, they were outgunned. Had they had the sabers and repeating rifles, things might have turned out differently.
        Sorry that it took so long to respond to you but I never noticed the little black bell with a feather on it, which indicated there was a notification on my sight. I don’t have a lot of people visiting my website so I was not checking on it very often.

  3. I have read a few wartime assessments that young, thin infantry recruits sometimes proved to be tougher soldiers than physically robust men, such as loggers. Good point about cavalrymen having to care for their horses when bivouacking; the horse came first. An infantryman not assigned picket duty could drop off to sleep as soon as possible.

    1. In 1983, there had been a grass fire that swept across the entire Custer battlefield. It turned out to be a positive thing as it explosed shell casings of different calibers. They then went over the field with metal finders and everywhere they found shell casings they mariked with small flags. Once they were done with that, they were able to determine the different positions the cavalry and the indians had been in, and what firearms both sides had been using. There was one location, some distance away from the others, that the casings told the archaeologists that one soldier had tried to get away but he was chased down and killed at that location. Having learned of this, I sat down and wrote a short story for future use in some future historical novel. Here it is:
      He ran in terror, his speed fueled by fear-filled adrenalin, but he could not outrun the Indian who was in pursuit and intent on killing him. As he ran, he kept glancing backward, often stumbling. Fear gripped him further as the Indian was quickly closing the gap. His fear intensified all of his senses and he could hear the pounding of the horse’s hooves, which got louder the closer it got, along with the sound of the horse’s labored breathing, and he could hear his own breathing, but he was now gasping for air as he ran. His efforts to outrun the Indian and his horse were fruitless, and his enemy was now alongside him. The Indian used his horse to knock the soldier down, and then, in one quick motion, dismounted and only needed one step to reach his terrified quarry. He now stood over the soldier and placed a knee upon his back, pinning him to the ground. The man in blue attempted to rise up but could not under the weight of the Indian. He could smell the Indian’s sweat, could hear his breathing. The soldier, now feeling utter panic and fear, called out, “Mama! Oh God, please help me!” The Indian quickly pulled his knife from its sheaf with his right hand. With his left, he grabbed ahold of the soldier’s hair, yanked his head up, then reaching around with his knife, he slit the flesh just below the hairline, then violently pulled back, a sickening sound was made from the suction between the man’s flesh and his skull, tearing his scalp loose. The soldier let loose with an agonizing, piercing scream. The Indian roughly pushed the soldier back down and walked to his horse with his grisly trophy and swung himself up onto his horse’s back. As the soldier lie there, he screamed once more and then cried, “Oh, God, look what has happened to me!” From atop his horse, the Indian looked down upon his victim and laughed. He then took his bow, knocked an arrow, drew back, and let the arrow fly, which pierced the soldiers back, who let out another scream of pain. Not satisfied, he shot two more arrows into the man, who now fell silent in death. The Indian snorted, let out a loud yelp in celebration and then quickly road off. This poor mother’s son was now alone in death, to become carrion for the buzzards that would swarm upon that battlefield, strewn with dead soldiers, to partake in their gruesome dinner.

      J. Michael Joslin ©March 2014
      Oh, and they had also found skeletal remains and on examination they discovered that most of the cavalrymen were not all that big, and that many had spine damage due to being on horeback for long periods.

  4. My g-g-grandfather, who was in his 30s when he enlisted, loved his horse so much that he tried to get reimbursed for him all the rest of his life. The horse disappeared at Atlanta. What I think is interesting is that all throughout my family history–at least that when they came to the colonies–horses are a big part of the info. I remember being a little tad and visiting my Uncle Grover in Kansas. He had Morgan horses, and was well-known as a trainer in the area. I remember my Aunt Iva and my mom talking at the big old kitchen table about horses, and how Uncle Grover just had to have blooded stock. I am beginning to think my family was a horse family.

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