Although it is easy to see animals in war as mere tools, like tanks and Humvees, it is fascinating to remember that animals are more than mere machines, blindly following directions. Just like the soldiers they serve, they take notice of their surroundings and contribute to the world around them. Dogs of war can learn to deliver messages or search out explosive devices. One horse in Vietnam made repeated trips up and down a mountain, carrying ammunition and supplies—by herself. So, too, cavalry horses in the Civil War would learn the bugle calls and respond even before their riders did. In battle, if their riders fell, the horses would continue in the charge with their comrades, just as the mare Nelly continued with her 1st Virginia infantry regiment in Pickett’s Charge.
Even when they had no military purpose, animals played an important role in the Civil War—and undoubtedly in every war that man has waged. Many regiments and officers had mascots or pets. These animals offered a glimpse of home and innocence, a reminder of the world that still existed somewhere outside the hell of war. Many regiments had dogs, such as “Dog Jack” or the 11th Pennsylvania’s “Sallie” (immortalized on their monument at Gettysburg). One regiment’s mascot dog even learned to sit up on his haunches and hold a stick “rifle” during roll call. Other units had unusual animals, such as a camel or the famous bald eagle, “Old Abe.” Gen. Lee even had a pet hen.
Animals would grow just as attached to their soldiers as the men did to them. There are stories of dogs becoming separated from their units during a fight, only to show up again that night, having searched out the regiment, rather than high-tailing it to a more peaceful home. “Old Abe” circled above his fighting Wisconsin regiment after a bullet cut his tether, and then he returned to his bearer when the fighting was over. Sometimes, animals would even exhibit a sixth sense, as Traveller did one time when he uncharacteristically reared—and a cannonball passed under his belly rather than striking Gen. Lee.
On July 2, 1863, on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, one Confederate regiment went into battle with their black dog. After the fighting ended, the Union soldiers found the dog, dead. An officer said to give it a proper burial, as it was the only Christian on that hill. He saw the dog as the only innocent creature in that fight, the only one not intent on taking the lives of those around it.
Perhaps the innocence of animals is why there are so many stories of war animals, particularly of dogs and their bonds with the soldiers around them. Perhaps that is why we are so attached to our own pets, because when we look at them, we can see a simple life, grateful for food and shelter, happy to be with those they love, and living without any hatred, prejudice, or ill-will.