Henry Burden’s state-of-the-art horseshoes gave the Union cavalry a critical edge during the war

For want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe a horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost
And all for want of a horseshoe-nail

Henry Burden (Library of Congress)

How this well-known proverb, dating back several centuries in several variations, applied during the Civil War is enlightening. By one estimate, the Union Army purchased 650,000 horses during the war and seized or otherwise acquired another 75,000 in the field. The number of mules supplied brought total purchases to more than 1 million animals, at an estimated cost of $95 million. Horseshoes and horseshoe nails were two additional expenses, and when one considers the durability of shoes and nails—or lack thereof—the importance of a reliable supplier of quality shoes and nails should also be obvious. Enter Henry Burden.

Burden, born in 1791 in Dunblane, Scotland, was fascinated by math, drawing, and the science of how tools and farm implements worked. He earned a degree in engineering from the University of Edinburgh, and after arriving in America in 1819, designed or improved several farm implements, including a plow. He accepted a position at the Troy Iron and Nail Factory in upstate New York, where he invented a machine to mass-produce railroad spikes and another machine to produce horseshoes. By 1849, Henry Burden owned the entire company. The Troy Iron and Nail Factory became the Burden Iron Works, and Henry soon established the corporate empire Henry Burden & Sons.

Burden began working with the Army in 1857, proclaiming to Quartermaster General Thomas Jesup, “The horse shoes we are making for you as a whole are, we are confident, far superior to any ever used in the service.” At the outset of the Civil War, Burden told new Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, “We…have a capacity for making 50,000 perfect shoes per day,” and now have “on hand over 1,000 tons of assorted sizes of the most approved form and made from a very superior quality of iron. Any one of our shoes can be bent double cold without cracking.”

As the war continued, cavalry commanders and regimental quartermasters struggled to keep their animals shod and healthy. In February 1862, Major Alfred Duffié of the 2nd New York Cavalry badgered his colonel for shoes “or my horses will be lame and unfit for service.” By the end of the year, with new mounted regiments still entering the service, Colonel Josiah Kellogg of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry begged for forges so his farriers could shoe his animals before they went lame.

Demand for horseshoes continued to rise as commanders such as Colonel Benjamin “Grimes” Davis recognized the benefit of troopers carrying additional horseshoes while in the field. “Each man will be supplied with two fitted horse shoes and a proportionate amount of nails, which will be carried in the shoe pouches,” Davis ordered. In April 1862, as the Cavalry Corps prepared for its spring campaign, Davis ordered his “blacksmiths [to] work day & night to have their horses shod up and a sufficient amount of extra shoes fitted [to be] carried in the saddle bags.” The Stoneman Raid that spring cost the Union Cavalry 6,000 horses, many lamed by a lack of shoes. Quartermasters in Alexandria, Va., loaded a supply of replacement shoes aboard a train bound for Brig. Gen. John Buford’s Reserve Brigade, but on May 30, Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby derailed the train near Warrenton Junction and burned the cars. When the Army of the Potomac began pursuit of Lee in mid-June, more than 1,000 horses waited for shoes at three remount corrals near Falmouth, Va. In the rush to evacuate those facilities, quartermasters sent all of the horses north to Alexandria to be shod, costing cavalry commander Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton the equivalent of an entire brigade during furious fighting in Virginia’s Loudoun Valley.

Savvy Scotsman Below: An undated newspaper ad for Henry Burden’s prosperous factory in Troy, N.Y. Among Burden’s many inventions was a 60-foot-tall water wheel that inspired the invention of the Ferris Wheel in 1893. (Library of Congress)

Few official Southern sources survive for the same period, but in his report of the Gettysburg Campaign, Colonel R. Lindsay Walker—Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s artillery chief—noted: “The horses of the command suffered severely…for the want of shoes….I am satisfied that most of the horses lost on the march were lost…because of their lameness in traveling over turnpikes…without shoes.” Walker believed the lack of replacement shoes cost his command alone $150,000 worth of animals.

It must be noted that horses threw even the best shoes regularly. Mounts were shod about every six weeks, according to cavalry expert Andy German, but hooves grew and wore, especially under harsh conditions, and nails would loosen. “A poorly nourished horse might have brittle hoof walls that could crack, but the inherent weakness of soft iron shoe nails was probably more significant in the loss of shoes,” German says.

Henry Burden, whose company became known as H. Burden & Sons in 1864, died on January 19, 1871. In January 1876, a company representative (possibly sons James or Townsend) wrote the following letter to a quartermaster in Philadelphia: “Our ample facilities for supplying shoes promptly were found to be of great service to the government…during the War of the Rebellion, when the supplies of this article were required almost at a moment’s notice….We have since been informed by army officers, high in position, that many important movements would have been seriously retarded had not our ample capacity for making & shipping horse shoes insured a prompt supply…”

Though likely written to help secure a new contract, the missive serves as a reminder of the impact Henry Burden had on the military in general, and the Union cavalry in particular, during the war. Eight years after their father’s death, James and Townsend began to sell off some of their facilities in Vermont in the face of a declining market. The business, last known as the Burden Iron Company, closed its doors for good in 1940.

This post appeared originally January 20, 2018, in Bob O’Neill’s blog, “Small but Important Riots” (smallbutimportantriots.com).