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'This Sorrowful War': A Veterinary Surgeon in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
Philip M. Teigen and Leon Z. Saunders [1]
Courtesy of Veterinary Heritage, Fred Smithcors, Editor.

1. The Fourth New York Cavalry

Although Asche-Berg does not identify his regiment, it was almost certainly the Fourth New York Volunteer Cavalry. He describes in detail garrison life at Hunter's Chapel, Virginia, and we know from other sources that the Fourth New York was the only cavalry unit garrisoned there then. Moreover, this unit's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia closely parallels Asche-Berg's narrative. All the same, we should note we have not yet found Asche-Berg during a continuing search of the regiment's archives. [4]

2. Horses at War

From October 1861 until March 1862, when the Fourth New York Cavalry left Hunter's Chapel, the regiment lost 160 of the 780 horses assigned to it, according to Asche-Berg. Some were lost by disease, others by accident, carelessness, inexperience, and actual combat. Asche-Berg notes the presence of goiter, strangles, and glanders. He became angry when glanderous horses were not destroyed, quarantined, or buried properly. His protests may have led to a regimental order which instructed that "veterinary surgeons, or sergeants, will from this date, bury dead horses in graves not less than six feet in depth." 10] Although Asche-Berg understood the dangers of glanders to a cavalry regiment, he concluded that it was too rare a disease to pose a major threat to the regiment's horse herd during the 1861-62 winter. For a neighboring artillery unit, however, the disease was a serious problem, (pp. 39-41). [11]

3. A German Immigrant's Opinion of the American Civil War

Asche-Berg held strong opinions about the conflict between the North and the South, which he called "this sorrowful war" (p. 17), as well as about American military culture in particular and American culture in general. Corruption offended him. Although competent officers recruited some regiments, in many others swindle, humbug and speculation turned recruiting into a "cash cow." Entrepreneurs who recruited 100 men were named regimental commanders, while those who could collect only 30 or 40 became company-grade officers. Speculators would pay men out of their own pockets, in the hopes that the salaries and expenses of their unit would eventually be picked up by the President and the Secretary of War. This method of recruitment lead to motley units of volunteers who, motivated chiefly by poverty, looked more like carnival workers or gypsies than soldiers (pp. 21-22, 27).


Besides leaving posterity an important narrative of the Civil War, Asche-Berg's account of his experiences at Hunter's Chapel and in the Shenandoah Valley is notable for two reasons. Because his memoir was published in 1863, a year or less after he had experienced them, it is among the earliest narratives published about the Civil War. Furthermore, his memoir is one of disillusionment, placing him among the memoirists who remembered its deadly destructiveness. Civil War reminiscences written after it was over tended toward sentimentality, recounting the comradery, adventure, and glory of warfare rather than its horrors. [18] Asche-berg's disenchantment and subsequent abandonment of the Fourth New York Cavalry parallels the Civil War experience of the great novelist and journalist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910). Although his memoir is not comparable to Twain's recollections in terms of the quality of its writing, Asche-Berg's account bears a greater similarity to Twain anti-war feelings than to the romanticized recollections of most other veterans. Twain, like Asche-Berg, was among the thousands who "entered the war, got just a taste of it, and then stepped out again, permanently." [19] Incompetence, senseless suffering, and killing led both Asche-Berg and Twain to "step out" of the ranks. "I could have become a soldier myself if I had waited," Twain wrote. "I had got part of it learned; I knew more about retreating than the man that invented retreating." [20] This could be Asche-Berg's epigraph, also.



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New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History
Last modified: March 15, 2006

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