Dogs in the Civil War
Mention “war dog” and you will evoke various mental images but few will think of Civil War dogs and how they served both North and South.
Editor's note: photo of Fred posing as a Southern Rebel, appropriate for his column.
The younger military veterans will tell you of the War Dogs, German Shepherds, used in Vietnam. Those of my generation will remember the War Department’s drive during the early 1940s to secure canine donations—many excellent dogs were “volunteered” for the war effort and served with distinction in both the European and Pacific theatres. In World War I the Germans perfected the ambulance dog, the courier dog, and other specially trained canine combatants.
But the history of the war dog goes back a lot further than that. Even before Hannibal crossed the Alps with his Roman Rottweilers and other varieties, dogs were sporadically used to herd the armies’ suppers-on-the-hoof, pull carts, guard supplies, and sometimes attack or intimidate the enemy. Less formally, the association of soldier and dog has existed for as long as soldiering has, for one simple reason: the soldier is a man, and man and dog have been together from the time they stepped off the Ark together, if not before.
Part of my research for this article involved visiting Civil War battlefields and museums from Pennsylvania to Mississippi and the Carolinas, and I found many accounts of soldiers’ dogs accompanying them into battles, and the long marches and lonely nights and retreats. With the tremendous number of human casualties depriving them of their masters, many dogs who avoided the grape shot and Minie balls simply and tragically starved to death. Mascots had a better time of it, since they were adopted by whole companies, battalions, or regiments. Not all mascots were dogs, however. When the Eighth Wisconsin Infantry encamped, an Indian gave an eagle to the soldiers as a gift for President Lincoln. It was named “Old Abe,” and was carried on a staff as a high symbol of courage, when the men marched. Confederate soldiers tried to shoot it down, but never did more than “wing” it.
One day before the war, a stray Bulldog wandered into the firehouse of the Niagara Volunteer Company on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh. Although mistreated by some of the firemen at first, “Jack” won the hearts of all those rough men when he whipped a much larger stray dog in a fight to the finish. He went on to answer every fire call and was given a very expensive ($75) silver collar. When Lincoln’s call for volunteers went out, he “enlisted,” along with most of the company in the 102nd Pennsylvania Volunteers Regiment, Washington Infantry. Jack remained with the regiment from 1861 through 1864, except for six months as a prisoner of war, which incarceration ended when he was exchanged for a Confederate soldier. While in prison in Virginia, he gave great cheer to his fellow Union prisoners. Jack was in the thick of many, many battles and skirmishes, was captured again but escaped in six hours; at Malvern Hill he was severely wounded, and suffered lesser wounds elsewhere. He reportedly understood the bugle calls, searched out his fallen comrades on the field, and would follow only the men of the 102nd. On December 23, 1864 at Frederick City, MD, Jack disappeared forever, the probable victim of some greedy low-life who coveted the silver collar he had always worn and could see no other way to get it than to kill the bearer, something no enemy soldier had been able to do in years of conflict.
The other most famous war dog of the 1860s was also described as a sort of Bulldog or Bull Terrier, a short and broad brindle bitch a little smaller than today’s English Bulldog in weight but not height. She had small ears slightly more Terrier-like than rose-shaped. She looked a little like the French Bulldog and the Boston Terrier, though both of those breeds developed after the Civil War.
In May 1861, the Eleventh Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers was organized under the command of Colonel P. Jarrett for what they thought would be a short three months to put down the rebellion. One morning a civilian presented the four-week-old pup to the captain of Company I, and she was soon named Sallie Ann Jarrett, after both the commander and a certain young lady of the nearby town. Sallie thus became the official regimental mascot of what was to be The Civil War. She learned the various drum rolls and bugle calls in the months that followed. During her first winter, while quartered at Annapolis for the winter, Sallie sallied forth and became pregnant, delivering nine pups on March 7, 1862. Four more times during her career she found herself in this state, but always gave priority to her military duties, nursing her pups only after drills or marches. In April, the regiment proceeded south to engage the rebels, and was active in the bloody struggles of the next three years. Sallie went everywhere with her men and inspired them with her remarkable endurance. She never was confused about who was in “her” regiment and who wasn’t, recognizing her own even when they were out of uniform.
One year after entering the active phase of the war, the regiment—while encamped across the Rappahannock River from the battle field at Fredericksburg, VA—passed with others in review, Sallie as usual at the head of her column. A tall man in a long black coat occasionally raised his hand in a half-salute of recognition to some officer in the preceding regiment. When he saw Sallie, he doffed his stovepipe hat as a special tribute, possibly thinking of his own beloved dog, Fido. The little “bu1ldog” seemed as proud as her men to be thus honored by their commander-in-chief. (Guess who!)
True to the traditions of man’s best friend, Sallie never deserted her companions, even when the fields were crowded with fallen soldiers. She licked the hand of those victims who still moved and guarded those who didn’t. On May 8, 1864, Sallie was shot in the neck and had to be taken to the hospital. As if she were an officer or enlisted man, the head surgeon inspected and treated her, but determined the bullet (a Minie ball) could not be safely removed. A few days later, she returned to active duty—so active, in fact, that her first performance “was to tear the seat out of the pants of a young conscript from another regiment” who ran from battle and tried to retreat through the ranks of the Eleventh Regiment. Several months later, the wound in her neck, which had developed into a cyst the size of an egg, began to fester and ooze as the ball worked its way out. When the cyst broke and released the foreign object, the wound began to heal, in time leaving a noticeable and honorable battle scar.
By the start of 1865, it was obvious to many that the South could not hold out much longer. On the night of February 5, Sallie kept the men in her tent from much sleep by mournful cries like omens of doom. In the morning, with Sallie at the head, the troops marched to a position near Petersburg, VA, where they immediately encountered fierce opposition. Among the dead of the Eleventh were the sergeant and one of the privates, while the other two men who had shared her tent were badly wounded. In the middle of this group lay a medium-sized brindle Bull Terrier bitch, shot through the head. Sallie had served faithfully, from the beginning of the terrible war which was to end barely two months later. For her and so many of her friends the war had an earlier end.
Most of the mascots and the incidental dogs of the Civil War are not remembered, but Jack’s photo and painting can be seen at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall Museum at Fifth and Bigelow in Pittsburgh, while Sallie is memorialized on a bronze and granite monument in Gettysburg National Military Park in south-central Pennsylvania.
Try to visit and remember how dogs have been and always will be the friends of man. Inspiring symbols. Although most of the soldiers’ four-footed boyhood pals stayed home, dogs remained close to the hearts of these lonely, homesick young men. They asked about their pets when they wrote home, and were comforted some when they received news about them.
The 83rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment was recruited from Hamilton and Butler Counties late in the summer of 1862, and found early action resisting Kirby Smith’s advance on Cincinnati. It soon moved southward to become attached to the First Brigade, Army of the Tennessee, under Generals Burbridge and A. J. Smith. Advancing to Louisville, they went from there to Memphis, and on December 20 embarked to proceed down the Mississippi River under the command of General Sherman. The plan included destroying the railroad bridge over the Tensas River in Arkansas, and capturing Vicksburg, which would give Sherman his opportunity to cut the South in two and advance to Atlanta and Savannah.
The 83rd Ohio became known for its ability to move rapidly and earned the nickname, “The Greyhounds.” They were also commended several times for their bravery and effectiveness. After losing a fifth of their numbers in a successful bid to plant the colors on the enemy’s battlements at Arkansas Post, and more from disease at Young’s Point, they had a brief respite while supplies were renewed. In April and May of 1863, they fought their way from the mighty muddy river through the Mississippi countryside around and toward Vicksburg by way of Raymond (near the capital). By the 20th of May the regiment was confronting the Rebel works, and on the 22nd lost 23 men in an assault. The Confederates were well protected by high bluffs over the river on one side and a similarly high position on the east, and they kept their ground in a siege that lasted until the surrender of the city on July 4, 1863.
Today, at the National Military Cemetery at Vicksburg, there is a monument to the Ohio 83rd, bearing the bas relief of a Greyhound. It is ironic that the siege was so terrible that the desperate holdouts were driven to the point of eating their dogs to ward off starvation while waiting for the Southern forces which never arrived. I have not only visited the park at Vicksburg, but have also been to most of the places where the 83rd Ohio had served: southern Mississippi, Arkansas, northern Louisiana, New Orleans, the bayou country of southern Louisiana, Pensacola, Mobile, and Selma, as well as the routes from Cincinnati through Louisville and Paris, TN, to Memphis. In each of these areas, I frequently think of Greyhounds, not because I judge them in shows, but because a swift and efficient regiment was named after this noble animal.
A dog of another, though related, sort is memorialized in Gettysburg’s National Military Park: the Irish Wolfhound. The brigade officially organized as the First Division, II Corps, Army of the Potomac, was immediately dubbed “The Irish Brigade”. They were largely recruited from New York City, where many recent immigrants lived. It has been said that no “foreign” group on either side won greater renown than the Irish. Composed of the 88th, 69th, and 63rd New York Infantries and a few others, each regiment carried a green flag in addition to the national colors, and at the major campaign of Fredericksburg each soldier went into action with a sprig of green boxwood in his cap. It was here even more than elsewhere that this brigade covered itself with glory—and blood—earning the comment from General Robert E. Lee, “Never were men so brave.” When the Confederate soldiers inspected the field after one great battle, most of the corpses nearest their impregnable stone wall position had those green sprigs in their caps. From 1,200 men, the brigade was reduced to 280, ending the existence of the original unit. Five months later the remnant, with some reinforcements, entered the fray at another major battle: Gettysburg. Their bravery was no less noteworthy here, where the finish was put to the brigade by another slaughter; a third of their number fell this time.
Today, if you walk in the woods west of the Wheatfield, near the “Rocky Knoll”, you will come upon the bronze reclining figure of an Irish Wolfhound on a pedestal beneath an ornately carved, tall stone cross. The Wolfhound is a fitting symbol for these fierce, loyal, fast, strong, and quintessentially Irish Americans. Some distance away is the bronze sculpture of Sallie, facing the west from where the rebel forces had approached. One ear is cocked as if listening for the rustle of leaves that would call her to action again.
I’d like to thank the friendly and helpful rangers of the National Park Service, and Carolyn Mackey of Gettysburg, for helping with some photographs.
Courtesy Dog World Magazine, April 1984
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