Army Horses: An Overview of Markings

Hardtack, muskets, and haversacks are synonymous with the 19th century U.S. Army.  Aside from being used by soldiers, what do these articles have in common?  Army horses and mules transported all three items, and hundreds more like them.  All government property included some form of labeling and unique identification.  Packages of provisions had the contents, and often the name of the supplier, stenciled on the outside.  Muskets included arsenal marks.  Rifles, which replaced muskets, were stamped with unique serial numbers.  Some soldiers labeled their haversacks with indelible ink.  Later versions often had unit information (company and regiment) stenciled on the outer flap.

As previously discussed, horses and mules represented a substantial financial investment and required more thorough tracking.  How were the army horses and mules identified and described?  The Old Army used several methods to characterize those important assets.

A Wide Color Spectrum
examples of leggings markings found on army horses.
Examples of horse and mule leg markings. Top (left-right):
stocking, sock, fetlock. Bottom (left-right): pastern, coronet, partial pastern. Illustration prepared by Sara Sander and courtesy wikimedia commons.

Army horses and mules came in a wide range of colors and color combinations.  Color, therefore, was the basic descriptor, of government livestock.  Hues included chestnut, bay, gray, flea-bitten gray, buckskin, strawberry roan, dun, and black, just to name a few.  Animals often had distinctive body markings with patterns on the face and leg markings being most prevalent.

Early in the 19th century, U.S. Army regulations stipulated that units maintain descriptive books for horses.  The 1821 regulations stated that the books should include the age, height, and color of the animals.  The registers provided a ready reference for animals lost, injured, or sold.  For example, in July 1868, Lieutenant Ephraim Tillotson desired to buy a public horse.  Department of Platte headquarters consented to sell the animal once a board of survey convened to determine the purchase price.  The three-member panel valued the light bay horse with black feet, mane and tail and “no other marks upon him” at $61.66⅔.  More often, colors and markings were used in conjunction with brands.

Hisroric photo, from the Civil War,  of a U.S, Army soldier holding an army horse. This animal has a star on its face.
Old Army horses often had unique descriptive markings. The horse shown in this frequently used photo has a star on its face. Photo from Francis Miller’s The photographic history of the Civil War (1911) and courtesy wikimedia commons.
Army Horse and Mule Brands

In addition to requiring units to maintain descriptive books of public horses, the 1821 Army Regulation also required that “horses and draft cattle, in the use of a regiment, or of individual officers, will each be branded with the letters “U. S.” on some conspicuous part.

Example of brand placement for army horses in the Department of the Platte.
Regulations detailed the size and placement of brands on army horses and mules. In 1867, for example, the Department of the Platte provided the following illustration for horse brands.  The top characters represented the regiment and branch ( cavalry or artillery). The bottom letter denoted the company or battery.

The 1895 edition of army regulations further specified that horses for cavalry and light artillery “will be branded ‘U. S.’ on the hoof of the left fore foot, other animals on the left shoulder. Cavalry and light artillery horses will also be branded under the mane with the number of regiment and letter of troop or battery [emphasis added by author].”  The War Department clarified the branding further in 1897 by issuing General Order No. 62.  The order provided detailed instructions of the size and placement of brands provided by the Quartermaster’s Department.  For example, soldiers branded the fore foot 1” below the coronet.  The fore foot marking also included the regiment and troop or battery.  Regulations called for the ” U. S.” brand to be 2 inches high.

Brands provided ready identification of government stock.  More importantly, brands identified former horses and mules deemed unworthy of federal service.  For example, an “I.C.” brand showed that an animal was inspected and condemned.  A “C” brand simply meant condemned while an “S” indicated that the animal was either sold or destined for sale.  Together, the three brands were meant to prevent unscrupulous horse contractors from reselling unserviceable livestock to the government.

Descriptions of Army Horses and Mules Direct From Old Army Records

Unfortunately, few descriptive books of army horses and mules are extant, for the eighty-year period ending in 1900.  However, Old Army Records recently found a record kept at Fort Custer from 1887 – 1896.  It includes about 1,200 animals, many with names assigned to the horses and mules.  We also found descriptive data of public animals in other, seemingly, unrelated record sets.  Here are few examples of animals described in the records.

Take, for instance, “Signal” a 15-year-old black cavalry horse stationed at Fort Custer, Montana Territory.  In addition to a blaze on the face and small patch of white on his right hind foot, Signal had an “S” branded on the right hip.  “Fox”, a 15-year old sorrel mule driven by a man named Archer at Fort Custer, had a white spot on the left side of his neck.  Descriptive data also listed scars and physical deformities.  For example, a black mule driven by a H. Brown was blind in its right eye.  A quartermaster employee or soldier sarcastically named her “Blinky”.

Scanned image of a portion of a page from "Company C, Indian Scouts, Animal Descriptive Book (1882)"  showing private brands used on army horses and mules.
Horses and mules used by Co. C, Indian Scouts in 1882 had several different brands. Does anyone recognize them?

In 1882, Company C, Indian Scouts served in Arizona.  The unit assembled an extensive herd of saddle horses and pack mules.  The small herd consisted of animals with wide-range of colors and private brands (see photo at left).  Does anyone recognize the marks?  Several of the Scouts’ animals also had distinctive marks left by collars and aparejos.

Interested in learning more about horses and any other 19th U.S. military topic?  Drop us a line to learn how you can connect with the Old Army.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Company C, Indian Scouts, Animal Descriptive Book (1882)
Fort Custer, M.T., Animal Descriptive Book
Proceedings of Boards of Survey, Fort Phil Kearny, D.T.

Army Regulations
General Regulations for the Army (1821)
Military Laws and Rules and Regulations for the Army of the United States (1814)
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895, appended 1899)

Old Army Numbers: 19th Century Cavalry Costs

Defense spending is a major part of the Federal budget.  In the 2019 fiscal budget, for example, defense spending is projected to represent 22% of national expenditures.  Surprisingly, current defense spending pales compared to Federal funds spent on national protection in the 19th century.  In 1810 defense accounted for 47% of the Federal budget, 1830 (55%), 1850 (43%), 1870 (32%), and 1890 (45%).  In addition to paying and arming soldiers, expenditures covered day-to-day operational and maintenance costs.  The cavalry was one of the most expensive branches to maintain.  A short letter sent by the Chief of Ordnance to the Adjutant General, just two years after the Civil War, illustrates the point.

On July 11, 1867, Brigadier General Alexander B. Dyer, Chief of Ordnance, sent an estimate to fellow brigadier Thomas M. Vincent, Assistant Adjutant General for the cost of arming and equipping a regiment of cavalry (1200 strong) for one year.  The estimate came on the heels of the addition of four new cavalry units (7th-10th) organized in late 1866.  In mid-1867 these new regiments were still fitting out and completing organization.  Dyer’s estimates therefore provide insightful information on the costs of maintaining not only the new units, but the six older cavalry regiments.

Weapons and Ammunition

The Spencer Carbine is the only firearm specified in the estimate.  Senior military leadership made issuing the repeating weapon a priority to all cavalry regiments.   By 1867, the new .50 caliber model of the weapon was being issued.  Unfortunately, the estimate does not specify the manufacturer or model of revolver.  Numerous percussion pistols were available then.  However, various documents, contemporary with the period, suggest that the prevalent sidearms were manufactured by Colt and Remington (.44 caliber).

Cavalry Horse Equipment

Per the 1862 Ordnance Manual, the complete set of cavalry horse equipment consisted of:

Bridle                                      Spurs (pair)

Watering Bridle                     Curry Comb

Halter                                      Horse Brush

Saddle                                     Link

Saddle Bags (pair)                 Picket Pin

Saddle Blanket                       Lariat

Surcingle                                 Nose Bag

Cavalry Accouterments

The Ordnance Department also provided the accouterments carried by the cavalryman including; cartridge boxes (one each for carbine and revolver), a saber belt, saber belt plate, sword knot (attached to the saber hilt), and carbine sling.  If issued percussion firearms the cavalryman also carried a cap pouch and cone pick.

A mounted cavalry regiment made an impressive display. Fully equipped, a regiment in 1867 probably looked similar to this drawing made by Waud, Alfred R. in 1863.

Maintenance Costs

About 18% of the budget estimated by Dyer went towards maintaining arms and equipment.  Not surprisingly, the upkeep costs of the horse equipment alone was nearly the same as keeping firearms operational.  Leather constituted the material used most in horse equipment.  The 1862 Ordnance Manual stipulated that harness alone should be inspected and cleaned at least four times a year.  This included the application of grease, such as neat’s-foot oil, to keep the leather supple.  Day-to-day wear and tear left leather equipment in need of constant upkeep.

19th Century Cavalry Costs

Dyer’s costs of arming and equipping a cavalry regiment for one year are eye-opening.  However, the estimate just covers the expenses associated with his bureau.  Obviously, cavalry required horses and forage (supplied by the Quartermaster Department) and cavalrymen needed to be paid (Paymaster Department) and fed (Subsistence Department).

In an earlier article in the Old Army Numbers series, I discussed the cost of the purchase and feeding of Old Army horses.  On average, the Quartermaster Department spent $508,500/ year to provide horses and forage in the late 1860s.  In 1867, the annual payroll for the enlisted men of a cavalry regiment totaled $184,848.  It cost, on average, an additional $100,740 to feed those men.  These costs do not include the cost of transporting supplies, officer’s salaries and allowances, and replacement costs of horses, arms, and equipment.  In 1867, a U.S. Cavalry regiment cost around 1 million dollars to arm, equip, staff, and maintain.  That equals 17 million in today’s dollars.  Keep checking back for updates on our exploration of all facets of Old Army life.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance, Letters, Endorsements, and Circulars Sent (1867).

Government Documents (from the digital library of Old Army Records)
Annual Report of the Secretary of War (1867)

The Army Paymaster’s Manual or Collection of Official Rules, for the Information and Guidance of Officers of the Pay Department of the United States Army by J.H. Eaton (Revised to include June 30, 1867).

The Ordnance Manual for the Use of the Officers of the United States Army (3rd Edition, 1862).

Internet Resource (Current and historic Federal budget numbers)