More than 3 million horses and mules were pressed into service during the American Civil War, with an estimated 50 percent – 1.5 million – being killed, wounded or dying of disease during the conflict.
The last surviving horse to have served in the war appears to have been an equine named “Old Ned,” a horse owned by Benjamin Franklin Crawford, a quartermaster sergeant in Company C of the 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry.
The Pennsylvania State University Libraries in University Park, Pa., contains in its records an account of the capture of Old Ned from Confederate troops and the horse’s subsequent participation in Civil War ceremonies throughout the remaining decades of the 19th century.
Old Ned, which died in 1898 at the purported age of 43, was captured by Crawford after he had lost his mount during a battle in Virginia.
After the war Crawford and Old Ned returned to the latter’s home in Pennsylvania driving a sulky. Crawford later served as a conductor on several western railroads.
The last surviving Confederate war horse was said to have been a steed named “Old Jim.”
Old Jim was said to have been the property of one Lieutenant McMahon from Sevierville, Tenn., a member of Lt. Gen. Joseph Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry. As Wheeler’s men moved into central South Carolina in early 1865, trying to hold back the forces of William T. Sherman, McMahon was mortally wounded during the Feb. 12, 1865, battle and Old Jim was shot in the neck.
The horse is said to have wandered onto the plantation of John Williams, who lived in the Aiken area, according to information on file at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, which also contains a photograph of Old Jim taken in 1880, along with a braided piece of his tail.
By 1894, Old Jim had gained a measure of fame as the last surviving Confederate war horse.
Identified long afterward by brands and saddle markings, Old Jim spent his declining years as a crowd pleaser in parades of “War for Southern Independence” veterans, according to a 1917 report in Confederate Veteran magazine.
However, confusion regarding Old Jim has cropped up in recent years.
One book, What They Didn’t Teach You in History Class, by Mike Henry, claimed Old Jim had seen action at Gettysburg as the steed of Union Col. Strong Vincent, who was mortally wounded during the battle (and died shortly after being promoted to brigadier general). A year later, according to the book, “Lieutenant McMahon,” who is never identified by first name in any report, “rode him to the Battle of Atlanta, then to Savannah, and into South Carolina.”
A quick study of National Archives’ records turns up no “Lieutenant McMahons” or “Lieutenant McMahans” from Tennessee serving the Confederacy late in the war, although Henry’s book gives the appearance of Old Jim arriving in the Palmetto State as a Union steed, given the description of him being ridden into Atlanta, then Savannah, then into South Carolina, appearing to pursue rather than retreat.
Amid many confusing and conflicting modern-day reports on Old Jim, I came a story from 1894, reprinted in several newspapers, that laid out the venerable equine’s story with a bit more detail.
The Independence (Kan.) Daily Reporter of Nov. 8, 1894 reported the following under the headline “The Oldest Equine Veteran of the Civil War”:
W.G. Chafee, the mayor of Aiken, S.C, writes that the horse Belle Mosby, whose picture appeared recently in the New York World, is not only not the only equine veteran of the war, but not the oldest. Many of the annual visitors to Aiken have seen or heard of old Jim, an old gray horse, better known to some as Wheeler. This old horse is owned by Mr. J.T. Williams of Aiken. Old Jim is 14 hands high and weighs 900 pounds when in good health. For thirty years he has done service on the plantation of Mr. Williams, his work being gradually lightened as infirmities have crept upon him. At the present time he has the run of the pasture and enjoys a well-earned rest. For ten years after the war he followed the foxhounds each winter. Old Jim came from the mountains of East Tennessee, and took part in the battle of Atlanta. Falling back before Sherman’s advance, or hanging on the flank of his army, old Jim’s coat was daily stained by the red mud from the hills of Georgia. Crossing into South Carolina, he barged through the swamps of the low country and bore his rider gallantly in the fight at Great Salkehatchie, in Barnwell County in South Carolina. From that point, accompanying Pigue’s command, under General Wheeler, he brought his master, Lieutenant McMahon of East Tennessee, on the left flank of the invading army, to Aiken. When Sherman’s army, passing through Barnwell County, reached the line of the South Carolina railway, General Kilpatrick with his cavalry made a bold dash westward for the purpose of destroying the cotton mills at Graniteville, five miles west of Aiken, and possibly the Confederates’ powder mills in Augusta, Ga., thirteen miles further west of Graniteville. At Aiken they met with the forces of General Wheeler and were repulsed after a sharp skirmish, and retired to the main body of the army. The fight determined the future fate of old Jim’s rider. Lieutenant McMahon charged with him down a road, now South Boundary Avenue, right in front of the house of Mr. Williams. They had hardly passed the front door when both horse and rider fell, the rider with a mortal wound in the breast and old Jim with a bullet in his neck. Lieutenant McMahon was taken into the house of Mr. Williams, where he died in the dining room a few hours later. The stain of his life-blood is still on the pine floor. Jim was condemned as worthless and ordered to be shot, but Mr. Williams begged for his life and nursed him back again to health and usefulness. From that day to this the old horse has never known a sick day, and the indications are that he will yet be able to show for several years the scars of battle and the brand “C.S.’ upon his shoulders. Judges of horseflesh pronounced Jim seven years old when he fell into the hands of his present master, which makes him now 36 years old.
Old Jim is said to have died that same year at age 37.
Normally, it would be easy to question the story of Old Jim as wishful thinking by post-war Southerners – particularly those living in area known for horses – as a tall tale or marketing gimmick by a shrewd planter looking to play on residents’ nostalgia.
But given that Old Jim is said to have had “C.S.” branded on his shoulders, at least one photo of him exists and there are newspaper stories from the period that report on the august equine, it becomes more difficult to wave away Old Jim’s story as mere fantasy.
If one could track down the full identify of the mysterious “Lieutenant McMahon,” or at least the location of his grave – he is said to be buried on the Williams’ plantation near in or near Aiken – it would add increased credibility to the tale of Old Jim.
(Top: Civil War horse, from photo taken during the war.)