Monday, May 27, 2019

Heroes on the Hoof: Remembering military farriers who lost their lives

Every Memorial Day, I resolve to put together all my scraps of research and tally up some statistics on fallen farriers--the ones who were killed in action in US wars. I guess we all have to start somewhere, so today's fragmented salute may be the start of something much more worthwhile, one of these years.

In the meantime, this is a personal salute to some fascinating farriers who suffered tragic deaths. I met them in the small print of dusty old books and quirky Internet databases. Their names should be known and their stories should be told. Let's get started, and add to it. 

This article is by no means complete. Do you have more information? A snapshot of a gravestone? Please send any additional information you may have about farriers who died in wars, whether from disease or in action or as collateral damage.

Finding farriers in US military and public archives is a tough assignment. Even within the US Army, there were farriers and horseshoers and blacksmiths who were also farriers. Fort Riley, Kansas offered courses to instruct recruits to do any of the wartime jobs working with horses to the expected military standard; many of them passed through there and the Fort's history is rich.

Farriers were technically not combat troops on the front lines. But in World War I, the supply camps and horse depots where farriers worked were the target of shelling designed to disrupt the supply lines of horse-drawn ammunition and supply wagons to the front.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy's desperate need for horseshoes made the Union Army's Quartermaster supply wagons high-priority targets for ambush. They were loaded with precious machinemade horseshoes and nails that the Confederacy lacked.

This short list comprises names of farriers and horseshoers verified to date as killed in action or dead from wounds. Record-keeping and publication of military records in some wars is handled by individual states, who have different methods of publishing the data about war dead.

Once a record of someone's death during war is found, the next task is to find out if the fallen individual was killed in action, died of wounds, or died from other causes. That's not always easy.

Of course there is more -- much more -- to these men's stories, and many more names that should be -- and will be -- mourned. For instance, there were 15 World War I farriers listed as simply "died in service". Most of these men died in hospitals from disease. The diseases were serious: Frank Murphy and Joseph Ahern, two young Irish farriers from lower Manhattan in New York, joined the 102nd F. Signal Battalion of the US Army to work on the supply train as horseshoers; they died within three days of each other from pneumonia and influenza in the devastating Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1919.

Horseshoer Charles Costello of Penn Yan, New York died of meningitis during basic training for World War I. A Brooklyn farrier was hospitalized for six months with measles, but survived. Two other Brooklyn farriers died from pneumonia.

A makeshift infirmary for flu patients at Fort Riley, Kansas, where the first case of flu in the United States occurred. Fort Riley was the home of the US Army Horseshoeing School, as well as a large horse training center. Photo: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health & Medicine, via Wikimedia.

The flu epidemic first appeared in the United States at Fort Riley, Kansas, the site of the leading military horseshoeing school in the country. On March 4, 1918 a cook on the base became the first recorded case in the United States. Within days, more than 500 men were sick. The base was training hundreds of young recruits, including farriers and horseshoers, among others who would handle the horses as the US entered the war. Troops were shipping in and out all the time and the flu soon spread to Europe. Before the epidemic ended, somewhere between 50 to 100 million people all over the world died.

Another New York farrier with a tragic story is Thomas J. Clicknor, from near Rochester, who had the misfortune to be taken prisoner. He spent ten months in the Confederacy's notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. The prison was filled with 45,000 Union prisoners of war; almost one in three died during imprisonment after contracting dysentery and other disorders related to unsanitary conditions and starvation.

But Thomas Clicknor survived and made it home to New York, although he died shortly after arrival. Military records attribute his death to "Sickness Acquired In The Service, Caused By Starvation When A Prisoner". He was 23 years old.

John Lapsley was a farrier for the Confederacy from Missouri. He died in a hospital. Before the war, he had been a celebrated baseball player for the St Louis Cyclones, the city's first team.

The death certificate of Confederate farrier John Lapsley doesn't have much information,  but his death was recorded and the record survives. Lapsley is remembered in Missouri as an accomplished baseball player, rather than as a farrier. (Missouri Historical Society)

Two Michigan Civil War farriers are certainly the most quoted farriers in war reports, and as dire as their story is, I could find no record of either of them among the dead. Here's their story, which may have been embellished for propaganda purposes:

Alexander Griggs and John Dunn of the Tenth Michigan Cavalry were far from their anvils, with no horses in sight on August 20, 1861. The war had only started in April. They were assigned to sit on a riverbank with five others and do sniper duty to prevent the advancing Confederates from crossing the Holston River at a convenient fording place. They defended the riverbank for three and a half hours, and shot or wounded an estimated 50 Confederates trying to cross.

Eventually their enemy went up- or downstream and swam across. Both Griggs and Dunn were wounded, and surrendered to the Confederacy's General "Fighting Joe" Wheeler, who praised them for the losses they had caused his unit, even as he made them his prisoners. He assigned a soldier to guard them and care for Griggs, who was badly wounded.

He said that Griggs was too brave a man to be allowed to die.

As he stood over the wounded farrier, the following dialogue is said to have taken place.
General Wheeler: "Well, my man, how many men had you at this ford?"

Griggs: "Seven, sir."

Wheeler: "My poor fellow, don't you know that you are badly wounded?  You might as well tell me the truth; you may not live long."
Griggs (indignantly): "I am telling you the truth, sir. We only had seven men."
Wheeler (laughing):"Well, what did you expect to do?"

Griggs: "To keep you from crossing, sir."

Wheeler (greatly amused and laughing): "Well, why didn't you do it?"
Griggs: "Why you see we did until you hit me, and that weakened our forces so much that you were too much for us."

Wheeler was greatly amused, and turned to another prisoner (who happened also to be a farrier--John Dunn, of Company I).

The general asked, "Are all the Tenth Michigan Cavalry like you?" 

"Oh, no," said Dunn, "we are the poorest of the lot.  We are mostly horse farriers and blacksmiths and special duty men, and not much accustomed to fighting."

"Well," said the general, "if I had 300 such men as you, I could march straight through h--l."

This story appears in A brief history of the Tenth Michigan Cavalry by General L. S. Trowbridge, prepared at the request of the Adjutant-General of Michigan, as well as countless Civil War history websites.

General Wheeler, with beard in front in this group, took an interest in the sharpshooter farrier prisoners of war from Michigan. Later in his career, he served as a general serving with Colonel Theodore Roosevelt's volunteer "Rough Riders" unit destined for an assault on San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. A glitch in plans meant that most of their horses (and farriers) stayed behind in Florida. The Rough Riders had to charge on foot. (US National Archives image)

General Wheeler, who was actually from Connecticut, had 16 horses shot out from underneath him and was wounded three times. After the war, he represented Alabama in Congress and became a general in the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War under then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.

Wheeler helped Roosevelt strategize the Rough Riders' campaign in Cuba. Thanks to poor planning, most of the unit's horses were unable to be shipped from Tampa, Florida, and presumably the farriers--whose names are well documented--would have stayed with them. So that exploit of American war history has no  farriers killed in battle.

In keeping with the other wars, the farriers did, however, suffer on the medical front: about one quarter of the Rough Riders died of malaria or yellow fever.

Memorial Day is designed so that we will honor those who were killed during wars, so this article refers to those who did die, with the possible exception of Griggs and Dunn, whose fate is still unknown. Of course I am interested in the service of all farrier veterans, but for Memorial Day, it's about the ultimate sacrifice. It seems that more farriers died from disease than from bullets or grenades or artillery fire. I think it is safe and within reason to give them respect and recognition for their suffering today, as well.

Likewise, I'd like to remember Sergeant Kenneth L. Ridgely, a farrier back at home in Illinois, but not in the military. Ken died in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005 when he was shot in a surprise attack in Mosul. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, DC.

Thank you for reading about these men on this day, and for respecting the memories of them, too.

• • • • •

If you like this article, you might also enjoy last year's Memorial Day article on The Hoof BlogRemembering the Dead: Custer's farriers at Little Big Horn.

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