Horse and Mule Center

Long one-story building in the foreground with trees and additional buildings in the background during the Civil War.
Stables at Camp Nelson. The military base had enough stables to house 2,000 horses and mules.

National Archives and Records Administration

Engines of War

There are yards for the accommodation of twelve thousand animals supplied with feeding troughs, watering troughs, etc.
- Captain Theron E. Hall, Assistant-Quartermaster, US Army

During the Civil War, horses and mules were vital to the war efforts of both the US and Confederate armies, as these animals provided much of the power to move supplies, equipment, and men. Neither armies nor military bases could operate without horses and mules. Camp Nelson was no exception. All of the goods shipped to the camp by railroad or river needed to be unloaded and transported to Camp Nelson’s many warehouses and sheds by freight wagons that were pulled by mules or draft horses. Similarly, to supply military forces campaigning in East Tennessee or elsewhere, thousands of horses and mules needed to move heavily laden wagons from Camp Nelson to the frontlines. Many hundred, even well over a thousand, army wagons were in constant use at Camp Nelson.

Besides animals to pull supplies, Camp Nelson held large numbers of cavalry and artillery horses and mules on site ready to be shipped out for service with forces in the field. The Western Theater of the war was such a massive geographic area that necessitated the use of horses and mules for effective military operations. During major campaigns such as Knoxville or Atlanta, Camp Nelson would receive orders for two to four thousand horses or mules at a time. Sometimes these animals were available at the base, but at other times new ones needed to be quickly found and purchased in Kentucky and surrounding states.

In addition, 7 of the 15 white and Black regiments organized at the base were cavalry or mounted units that needed to be outfitted with horses for combat and patrol duty. Some of these units served only in Kentucky, while others participated in various operations in East Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina, battling Confederate forces and destroying industrial infrastructure that supported the enemy war effort.

With the importance of horses and mules, many of the buildings at Camp Nelson were specifically for their housing and support. Spread throughout the base were corrals for 12,000 animals and stables for another 2,000. To feed all the animals, Camp Nelson had grain (oats and corn) and hay shipped in from near and distant farms and stored in dozens of sheds. Demonstrating the sheer amount of animal feed needed, in December 1864 for example, there were nearly one million pounds of grain and 50,000 pounds of hay stored at the base. One of the reasons for the construction of the waterworks and massive reservoir at the camp was to provide the horses and mules with an abundant supply of good water.

At any given time, the number of animals at Camp Nelson varied, but it was typically in the thousands. For instance, in June 1864, more than 5,100 horses and mules were in the camp. To maintain the animals and to drive the army wagons that hauled all the supplies required the employment of hundreds of civilian workers. In June 1864, for instance, Camp Nelson employed 415 teamsters, 27 wagon and assistant wagon masters, 151 grooms, 49 stable laborers, one veterinarian, four herders, eight watchmen, and more.
Series of corrals filled with horses and trees and buildings in the background during the Civil War.
Corrals at Camp Nelson. Spread throughout the US Army base were corrals for 12,000 horses and mules.

National Archives and Records Administration

Rehabilitation Facility

The system adopted at this depot for the recruitment of Government stock, particularly horses, is respectfully and earnestly recommended to be put in practice elsewhere.
- Major Charles E. Compton, 47th US Colored Troops, June 23, 1864

Camp Nelson also had the more unique role of a model animal rehabilitation center for the US Army. Horses and mules had become so expensive to replace after they became worn-down and no longer fit for service that the army decided to implement a new rehabilitation, also known as recruitment, program. Camp Nelson was chosen as the testing ground for this program. The rehabilitation stables were located on the eastern side of Camp Nelson, surrounding a large spring fed pond. An army officer who inspected Camp Nelson in June 1864 reported:

All unserviceable stock of the district of Central Kentucky are turned in to this depot for the purpose of being recruited and rendered again fit for service and the admirable means that have been adopted – respecting the horses – has insured to the government a greater return of serviceable animals and a greater saving pecuniary, than when the animals were let out as has heretofore been the practice…Under this mode of treatment the broken down stock recuperates with remarkable rapidity. The unserviceable mules are fed by contract by parties residing and owning grazing land in the district.

In May 1865, Captain Theron E. Hall, the Assistant Quartermaster of Camp Nelson, similarly declared: "every conceivable appliance by which the Government may with economy obtain the service of stock otherwise useless is here to be found. It is confidently believed that through this system the Service has been supplied with good sound stock at a great saving to the Government." This rehabilitation system became a model for the nation and was used by the US military until World War I.

The acquisition, holding, feeding, watering, shipping, and rehabilitating of horses and mules for the US Army was a massive and complex operation that faced numerous logistical challenges, but one that was imperative to Federal victory in the war. Camp Nelson was able to successfully complete all of these different activities.

Last updated: January 28, 2023

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