In October 1863, the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac were severely hindered, not by JEB Stuart's men, but by a disease that afflicted a large portion of their horses. Dubbed "Rotten Hoof" by some officers, it drove most of the key cavalry commanders to write to HQ in Washington regarding the poor condition of their horses.
On October 25, Judson Kilpatrick (left), Brigadier General of Vols., Commanding Third Division, wrote:
"The men had their arms and equipments and were in every way ready for duty, but their horses, having been affected with the hoof disease and swelled tongue, were totally unserviceable. This disease made its appearance for the first time in my command on the morning of the 20th, and I have now over 200 horses rendered unserviceable from its effects."Myles Keogh's First Division were similarly afflicted as General Buford reported on October 24:
"I have the honor to report that I have equipped and available for duty 2,000 men and horses. One-half of these, in my opinion, are not fit for arduous duty, being poor in flesh and leg-weary. It is impossible to ascertain the number of diseased horses, for the disease is on the increase daily, and to feed them here with grain alone is impossible with my present means of transportation...The Third Brigade, which crossed at Germanna Mills with 1,488 men to-day, can only turn out 850 men mounted."The implications of such a virulent disease among the cavalry equine stock were obvious. Aside from hundreds of dismounted, inactive troops, Pleasonton made a very keen military observation when he wrote --
"In such service as the troops are called upon to perform in a raid or in covering a retreat, every man who is dismounted by his horse giving out falls into the hands of the enemy and swells the list of our losses."As an indication of the high rate of attrition among mounts in the Federal cavalry, Major General George Stoneman, Chief of Cavalry in the Union Army, reported that in October 1863 alone, 7,036 horses were issued to the thirty-six regiments of the Army of the Potomac. Astonishingly, Stoneman continued in his summation that:
"At the rate horses are used up in that army, it would require 435,000 [horses] per year to keep the cavalry in the army up, and then, according to the inclosed papers, that would be inefficient."
While the diseased horses were unfit for service, their cavalrymen also found themselves unavailable for active service. The solution, devised by Washington, added another phrase to the vocabulary of the Federal horse-soldier -- 'The Dismounted Camp'. Around October of '63, the Dismounted Camp for the Army of the Potomac cavalry was at or near Washington. The attraction of weeks off the front line in the capital city was obvious - the licentious soldiery let loose in Washington with nothing to do but enjoy themselves. Certainly, some of the commanding officers felt this was the case:
"Within the last three days I have been obliged to send into the Dismounted Camp 265 men and horses...Many accounted for as missing are known to be stragglers, and are now at the Dismounted Camp. The men of my command have learned to appreciate the easy life offered them at the Dismounted Camp, and take every opportunity to get there. They neglect their horses, lose their equipments, knowing in either case that they will be sent in to refit."
Brigadier General J. Kilpatrick
"I would earnestly request that hereafter all the dismounted men may be retained in their commands and not to be allowed to go to the Dismounted Camp at Washington, but that the dismounted men be remounted in the field. The sending of dismounted men to the Dismounted Camp at Washington has a very demoralizing influence over the men, and also destroys the discipline of the men."
Major General A. Pleasonton
Most tellingly was the opinion of the Commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George Meade:
"I concur with the commander of the Cavalry Corps in the opinion that the practice of sending the dismounted men to the camp at Washington to be refitted has a most injurious and demoralizing effect upon the service, and I earnestly request that it be discontinued."
One solution proposed by Alfred Pleasonton (above), Major-General, Commanding Cavalry Corps was the transfer of responsibility for these 'half-way houses' from Washington to his own personal command:
"I would therefore respectfully suggest that the entire business of fitting out the cavalry of this army be placed under the orders and control of the commanding general; that depots be established (within the actual limits of the army where practicable) where men who have lost horses or equipments can be rapidly re-equipped for the field instead of, as at present, lying sometimes for months together in a Dismounted Camp over which he has no control, where it is reputed there is no discipline or order, and which both officers and soldiers have learned to look to as a comfortable escape from the performance of duty in the field."But the humorous part of the tale comes from George Stoneman's reply to Pleasonton, on behalf of Washington HQ. Stoneman is of the opinion that Pleasonton may be using this opportunity to do a bit of empire building and retorts, with no small amount of sarcasm:
"General Pleasonton's opinions in regard to the discipline of the Dismounted Camp, and also in regard to the quality of the horses issued by the Cavalry Bureau, might possibly have more weight had they been founded in either case upon personal observation and inspection. The plan he proposes of having his own depots under his own supervision and within the actual limits of the army necessarily indicates that he contemplates that in future the Army of the Potomac shall remain stationary to protect them from Stuart, or that his depots shall be of a portable character and capable of being transported and taken with the army in its various and uncertain movements."Also included in this retort, issued from the Office of the Cavalry Bureau, Washington, D. C., November 12, 1863, Stoneman offers a suggestion to combat the equine disease:
"One remedy, and that used at the depot with success, is the chloride of antimony for sore feet, and a decoction of white-oak bark for the mouth; another is borax and alum, half and half, pulverized and mixed with sweet oil, and applied with a swab to the tongue, and still another is common salt (chloride of sodium) crisped on a hot shovel and applied to the feet and mouth. A good prevention is to give horses as much salt as they will eat."There appears to have been little further in the way of correspondence of the matter of "rotten hoof" and "the dismounted camp" from this point on. Whether it was Stoneman's suggested remedy or his cutting dismissal of Pleasonton's "offer" that made these matters less of a priority is unclear. Certainly, Buford's cavalry, Keogh included, were occupied by an ongoing series of engagements with the enemy from September to November of 1863 and fought with admirable tenacity...