Animals in War: Hidden Actors


My current research on the history of animals in Canadian cities has been motivated, in part, by my interest in examining overlooked aspects of the past. If nineteenth-century North American cities were replete with horses, pigs, chickens, and cattle, why do they seem so absent from urban history?

This week Cate Lineberry’s article in the New York Times “Opinionator” features the story of animals in the US civil war. However, the animals in this article aren’t the draught horses that served as soldiers in the conflict, but the companion animals that served as mascots:

Not only did these mascots provide comfort and entertainment to lonely and bored soldiers in camp and on marches, but they often became companions in battle, suffering alongside their regiments. When Union troops captured Company B of the Second Kentucky Infantry Regiment at the battle of Fort Donelson, Tenn., they also detained the company’s canine mascot, Frank. The men and the dog were imprisoned for six months at Indiana’s Camp Morton until they were exchanged for Union prisoners of war (though there’s no record of whether a captured Union dog went free in exchange for Frank).

This, I think, is an extraordinary example of the role of animals as historical actors. These companion animals, as the case of Old Abe aptly demonstrates, were not merely background features of the battlefield. As I continue my research on urban animals, I wonder what animals Canadian historians have missed in their studies of the past.

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