Horseshoes Win the Civil War

ECW welcomes back guest author Brian Kowell

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.

For want of a horse, the rider was lost.

For want of a rider, the battle was lost.

For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.

All for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

Benjamin Franklin quoting an old proverb in Poor Richard’s Almanac


Before 1835, all horseshoes were made by hand by blacksmiths. It was a labor-intensive process. A blacksmith could make four horseshoes in about an hour. That all changed because of Scotsman Henry Burden. “It is astonishing [Henry] Burden was one of the most inventive men of the 19th Century [and] now no one knows him,” said one historian. The fact is, Henry Burden would greatly aid the North in winning the American Civil War with his invention of a machine that mass-produced horseshoes.

Henry Burden, Library of Congress.

Born in Dunblane, Perthshire, Scotland in 1791, Henry Burden was the son of Peter Burden and Elizabeth Abercrombie. He grew up on his father’s sheep farm. Henry was a bright boy and when of age went to the University of Edinburgh to study engineering. He returned to the family farm after graduation and began making farm implements and constructing a water wheel for a power source.[1]

Having loftier ambitions, Burden sailed to America to seek his fortune. He secured from the American Minister in London a letter of introduction to Stephen Van Rensselaer, a wealthy landowner, businessman, militia officer, and politician from New York State. He began working for him at one of his factories, and his inventions, which automated the work previously done by hand, made the factory extremely profitable. Burden married Helen McQuat in 1821 and moved to Troy, New York in 1822. There he became the superintendent of the Troy Iron and Nail Factory.[2]

Burden Ironworks, Tryo, NY. Library of Congress.

Henry and Helen had eight children. To support his growing family Henry went on his own and developed the Burden Ironworks. It was there in 1835 that he applied for a patent for a machine of his invention that included three separate machines that could manufacture horseshoes. The machines could make 60 shoes an hour. By 1857, through modifications, he had one machine that could do the work of the three. It could cut, bend, and forge a shoe into a perfect shape. The nail holes were marked by the machine and hand-punched by workers. By 1860 his machines could produce one horseshoe per second. The company was worth $500,000.[3]

With the outbreak of the Civil War the demand for horseshoes dramatically rose. At its peak, Henry Burden and Sons had nine machines in two factories that were producing 3,600 horseshoes per hour in various sizes for riding horses, mules, and draft horses. At the peak of the war effort, the company employed 1,400 men.[4]

The company produced over 50 million horseshoes during the Civil War. A semi-circular building at Burden and Sons could hold 7,000 tons of horseshoes in 16 large bins for the many different patterns and sizes. The different patterns were light, medium, and heavy, and the sizes measured from 0 to 7 for the fore hooves and hind hooves for horses and 1 through 5 for mules. By 1864 the company was worth $2.3 million.[5]

All of Henry Burden’s horseshoes went to Northern forces. This gave the North a powerful advantage over the South. Ironically, Henry’s third child, Helen McQuat Burden, had married an Army officer on November 13, 1844 whom she had met when he was an instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His name was Irvin McDowell, and he became a Union general.[6]

Advertisement for Burden horseshoes. Library of Congress.

The Confederacy realized the value of Burden’s work and hired spies in an unsuccessful effort to replicate his horseshoe-making machines. The best the rebels could do was to send raiding parties to try to capture horseshoe shipments from the Yankee railroads and wagon trains or pry the shoes off the feet of dead Union animals after a battle.[7]

Henry Burden lived the rest of his life in luxury. In 1869, as a memorial to his wife, who died in 1860, he paid $75,000 to build the Woodside Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York. On January 19, 1871, at the age of 80, Henry Burden died of heart disease. His funeral service was held at Woodside Presbyterian Church, and he was laid to rest next to his wife at Albany Rural Cemetery.[8]

For want of Henry Burden, enough horseshoes would be lost. For want of enough horseshoes, the Union may have been lost. Henry Burden’s horseshoes helped win the Civil War.


[1] Sanzone, Daneille, “Horseshoes: One of Collar City’s Big Industrial Roles during the Civil War,” August 8, 2019, (Accessed May 1, 2023). Rolando, Victor, R., “The Industrial Archeology of Henry Burden & Sons Ironworks,” The Journal of Vermont Archaeology, 2007. Historian & Executive Director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway quoted was Michael P. Barrett.

[2] Schreck, Tom, “Making History in Troy,” Albany Business Review, May 7, 2001.

[3] Bainbridge, David A., “How Horseshoes Helped Win the Civil War,” July 31, 2021. (Accessed May 1, 2023).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Simione, Frank P. & Gene Schmiel, Searching for Irvin McDowell: The Civil War’s Forgotten General, California, Savas Beatie, 2023. Pp. 7-8.

[7] Bainbridge, “How Horseshoes Helped Win the Civil War.”


5 Responses to Horseshoes Win the Civil War

  1. Way to go with the great article. Thanks for the good stuff. This was something I din’t know or think of. Did his iron works contribute to manufacturing the Monitor? I knew of a couple iron works related things, like Thaddeus Stevens ironworks getting torched outside Gettysburg, and Catherine Furnace outside Chancellorsville. Dare I say you nailed it.

  2. I was so very excited to see this article! I am a member of the Burden Lake Conservation Association in Averill Park, NY where the lake is located. Understandably so, there is a great deal of interest in all things Burden in our little neck of the woods! We have members that have done amazing ( and published) research on the Ironworks, on Burden Pond and on the history and formation of Burden Lake named after that indefatigable industrialist, Henry Burden.
    I have horseshoes that we found on our lake property that I would love to know the provenance of. Our three lake associations are in the middle of a grant process to save the dam and the weir that were built from the 1830’s to the 1860’s. Burden Lake was also the site of the famed Totem Lodge that had its heyday with popular entertainment in the 30’s and 40’s. We have a lake population that is very caring about our lake and its heritage. And yes, plates for the Monitor were made at the Burden Ironworks! If anyone would like more information about Burden Lake and the ironworks, please let me know and I can pass the information on to our chief researcher. Thanks for the article… so happy to be recognized for our very special part in the effort to keep the Union as one!

  3. Glad you enjoyed the article and for clarifying that the ironworks contributed to the Monitors armor.

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