Thursday, August 15, 2013

Grand Army of Canines; Or, Let Slip the Dogs of War

Julian Scott, Union Vanguard (1889)

This image is called “Union Vanguard.” A veteran, Julian Scott (one of my favorite Civil War artists), painted it in 1889. I like it for several reasons, but for this post, I’d like to focus on a single element, the inclusion of the dog. Certainly, this hound is no stray. He appears to be a member of the Union skirmishers, following not his master, but his commanding officer (the captain mounted on the fence). Did Julian Scott make a conscious effort to include this dog to show that it, like the soldiers, served the Union banner?

Civil War history has not done a good job describing the role played by dogs (or, for that matter, the other important army animals: mules, oxen, and horses). When dogs appear in the literature, writers relate them as a kind of “human interest story,” and nothing more. I would argue that the story of Union dogs needs to be teased out to a greater degree, largely because they held such a prominent place in the minds of Union soldiers themselves. By all accounts, dogs followed the Union army wherever it went, enduring many of the same trials as their human brothers-in-arms. It would probably be impossible to determine, with accuracy, how many dogs accompanied the army between 1861 and 1865, but my guess is that the number reached the thousands. Photographs reveal that dogs were everywhere, sitting by the tents of prominent officers or lounging with the enlisted men in camp. Some of them even got into formal portraits. Some dogs became regimental mascots and they received lavish attention. Jack, a bull terrier with the 102nd Pennsylvania, for instance, received a silver collar worth $75, the equivalent of six months’ salary for an ordinary Union private.

Jack, the mascot of the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry

Dogs also served as the especial emblems of their regiment. The 28th Pennsylvania, for instance, named its dog “28”—literally the numeric designation of the regiment—purchasing a collar with the name/number etched into it. When the 5th Connecticut published its unit history in 1889, it contained not a single image, with the exception of the frontispiece, which showed the regimental dog. The 23rd Pennsylvania brought along a small poodle named “Dash the Fire-Dog.” Dash ate so well that he became “too fat” to keep up with the regiment on the march. The soldiers of the 23rd Pennsylvania took turns carrying the overweight critter, just so it could keep up with the army during the Peninsula Campaign. After that ordeal, the regiment “discharged” Dash honorably, sending him back to his owners, a fire company in Philadelphia. (Sadly, Dash did not make it back; he went missing on the steamer that shipped him back to Philadelphia.)

Harvey, the mascot of the 104th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, did not belong to the Army of the Potomac, but I inserted him here anyway. Harvey wore a silver collar that read, "I'm Lt. D.M. Stearn's Dog. Whose dog are you?"

Unknown Union soldier with his dog.

Undoubtedly, then, dogs occupied an important place in the Army of the Potomac, one equal to the regimental standards carried aloft by the color guard. Colors and dogs were almost the same thing in the 11th Pennsylvania. Famously, that regiment’s bull terrier, Sallie, always took a position with the color guard when the regiment formed line-of-battle. Did the well-known loyalty of dogs serve as an allegory of the bluecoats’ loyalty to the Union? If so, the meaning of the Union army’s dogs might be immense indeed!

George Custer was one of the Army of the Potomac's biggest dog lovers. Here he is with one of his dogs.

Here is Custer with one of his puppies.

This is Rufus Ingalls's Dalmatian.

Additionally, I often wonder about the absence of dogs in the Confederate army. It is easy to find mention of dogs in Union accounts, but they almost never appear in Confederate accounts. (The only reference I’ve ever encountered of a Confederate dog involved one attached to the 1st Maryland Battalion. Even so, Union accounts described this dog in greater detail than their Confederate counterparts. When the unnamed dog was killed in action at Gettysburg, Union troops buried it with greater care than the human bodies of the enemy.) Unlike Union dogs, Confederate canines never served under their riddled banners. By contrast, Confederate dogs served only two purposes: chasing down runaway slaves and sniffing out escaped prisoners of war. Confederate dogs rarely, if ever, accompanied their masters into battle. Confederate dogs served a functional purpose, not a symbolic one.

This child attached to the 82nd Pennsylvania Infantry keeps his puppy close.
These thoughts are tentative at best, but they are interesting to me because of the profound conclusions they suggest. At first, I thought that studying the role of dogs in the Civil War might amount to a silly “puff piece,” but if I’m right—if the role of dogs varied from region to region, and if they served an exclusively patriotic role in the Union army only—then canine participation in the Civil War suggests deep significance. Let me put it this way: I believe you can tell plenty about a society by viewing the way it treats its pets. During a time of war, Union and Confederate dogs held markedly different roles.


  1. Of course, mascots are a larger military phenomenon. The British Army even tracks them:

    Do you perceive ACW mascots as different from mascots of other wars/armies?

    1. In the long run, I don't imagine that Union mascots are terribly different than mascots from other wars/armies, but it is interesting that the CSA had very few dog mascots, while the Union army was practically teeming with them. Certainly, that makes the ACW unique. One army put dogs to work as mascots while the other did not. As far as other species of mascots--goats, roosters, cats, eagles, squirrels, bears--I wouldn't be as confident in my reply.

    2. All sorts of animals out there. I like this one:

      "The Norwegian Royal Guard adopted a King Penguin named Nils Olav as its mascot on the occasion of a visit to Edinburgh by its regimental band. The (very large) penguin remains resident at Edinburgh Zoo and has been formally promoted by one rank on the occasion of each subsequent visit to Britain by the band or other detachments of the Guard. Regimental Sergeant Major Olav was awarded the Norwegian Army's Long Service and Good Conduct medal at a ceremony in 2005."

      There's a monograph here somewhere. Perhaps part of a study of the creation and maintenance of esprit de corps more generally.

    3. Hi Tim,

      I have found an image of at least one Confederate dog mascot. "Tinker" was a terrier (of unknown breed) that belong to the blockade runner captain John Wilkinson. He soon became assoicated with Tinker so closely that around Atlantic ports, Wilkinson became known only as "That Man with the Dog." Love the blog!

    4. Hey, Gordon. Neat find! In general, it has always seemed to me that the Navy was more saturated in mascots than the army. Perhaps it would be appropriate of me to note the differences between the use of land mascots and sea mascots as it would to note the difference between US and CS mascots.

  2. Definitely an aspect of the war often overlooked. Great post.