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Dogs of War


Michael ZuccheroContributor

Long before they were trained for official duty, canines were heroes to the soldiers they loved.

The use of canines during warfare dates back to ancient times, when they often served as sentries and sometimes even escorted soldiers into dangerous battles. U.S. military forces first officially used dogs in the Seminole Wars—the three battles that took place in Florida during the first half of the 1800s between the Native Americans and Blacks that had settled there, and the U.S. Army.

Canines were important participants in the American Civil War, serving as helpers and companions to soldiers on both sides of the conflict. They marched, camped, fought, and sometimes even died alongside their masters. But unlike today’s military dogs, which have been trained for combat duty, there is no evidence that the dogs accompanying Union and Confederate soldiers fulfilled specific military purposes. The vast majority of dogs during that era seem to have been pets or mascots, often strays incidentally attached to particular units or dogs brought to the camps and battlefields by their owners, many of whom were young men away from home for the first time and coping with the dangers and demands of army life. Dogs helped fill an emotional void.

Canines were admired by all ranks—including the commander-in-chief. During a review of the Union’s 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment in April 1863, Abraham Lincoln doffed his stovepipe hat while greeting a “handsome brindled Staffordshire Bull Terrier” named Sallie as she marched past the review stand at the head of her regiment.


Confederate George B. Atkisson of Carlton's Battery recalled the commanding general of his army, Gen. Robert E. Lee, recognizing their battery dog, Charlie. When Lee held the grand review of the Army of Northern Virginia at Brandy Station, Va., prior to the Pennsylvania campaign, Charlie was given the seat of honor upon one of the caissons — and as he passed the review stand he was honored with a grave salute from the general. Charlie acknowledged the honor with a wiggle of his body (he had no tail to wag) and a loud bark.

Sallie and Charlie joined their units early in the war, before anyone had fired a shot in anger. Later, they participated in nearly every battle in which their units were engaged. Unfortunately neither dog survived. Sallie was killed Feb., 6, 1865, at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run in Virginia as the regiment was making its first advance upon the enemy on that day. She was buried where she fell, though her caretakers were still under murderous fire. Two months later (and just two days before Lee’s surrender), Charlie fell at the Battle of Cumberland Church in Virginia when a shell struck a tree near where he was standing. “His grave was dug at the foot of a tree and the body of our faithful ‘comrade’ was consigned to his last resting place,” Atkisson wrote. “I can safely write that there was not a dry eye among that group of war-worn veterans as the dirt hid from view his little body.”


Alexander M. Stewart, the respected chaplain of the 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry, recounted the exploits of dog Jack, a large black-and-white bull terrier who was the regimental mascot: A correspondent has lately written the following notice of Jack, copied into nearly all the papers in the country. “A remarkable dog” — Nearly every company, certainly every regiment, in the service, has a pet of some kind or other. It matters not whether the object of their affection be dog, cat, possum, cow or horse, whatever it be, the brute is loved by all, and woe be to the outsider who dares to insult or injure one of these pets. More personal encounters have been brought on between soldiers about some pet or animal, than in any other way. Occasionally these pets become great heroes, in their way, and then they become general favorites with the whole army.

A terrier named Tinker sailed with Michael P. Usina, who captained a Confederate ship that ran the Union blockade. Usina commended Tinker for being “a great ratter, and fond of the water. "He was my constant companion,” the captain wrote. "He seemed to know when we were approaching the enemy, and to be on the alert, and when under fire would follow me step for step.”


Tinker died just after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.“When blockade running ceased, his spirits drooped, his occupation was gone, and he soon sickened and died,” Usina wrote. Rather than surrender his command to the Union, Usina sailed for England, he wrote, along with “my faithful Tinker,” whom he dutifully buried at sea “among the icebergs of the North Atlantic, and every man on board stood with uncovered head when he was consigned to his watery grave.”

Many canine companions risked their lives to locate soldiers or simply comfort them as they lay dying. After the battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, a dog belonging to a fallen Union soldier of the 3rd Illinois Infantry, Lt. Louis Pfeiff, stayed by his side, licking his mortal wounds until he was buried. Shortly after, the lieutenant’s wife, Elizabeth, was informed that her husband had been killed in the battle and buried on the battlefield. She went to find his body to take it back to a family plot in Chicago, but when she arrived on the battlefield, no one could direct her to his grave.

After searching among the thousands of burial sites for over a day, she was about to give up when she saw a large dog running toward her. The dog led her to a distant part of the battlefield and stopped before a single grave. A soldier opened the grave and sure enough, it contained the body of Pfeif. The dog had remained by his slain master’s grave for 12 days, leaving his post only long enough to satisfy his need for food and water — a true soldier indeed.

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