War Horses Gone Astray

Primary Sources

August 2, 2018
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

The American Revolution’s armies got their horsepower from horses. These animals carried cavalrymen into battle, pulled cannons, carts and wagons of all description, hauled baggage on their backs, moved messengers swiftly over countless miles, and brought officers and gentlemen to wherever they needed to be.

And they ran off sometimes. Advertising in the era’s newspapers included notices like this one:

Twenty Dollars Reward. Strayed or Stolen out of a pasture in Upper Makefield Township, Bucks County, in the night of the 18th inst. (August) a brown Horse, about fifteen hands high, said to be nine years old, his mane is thick and bushy, and hangs to the near side, his tail has been set, and the hair at the end bob’d square off, shod before, is an imported horse, did formerly belong to the British light dragoons, and is a natural trotter. Also in the night of the 20th was stolen, or strayed, out of a pasture in Buckingham Township, Bucks County, a bright bay Horse, about eight years old, trots and canters well, and paces a small travel, is shod all round; about fourteen and a half hands high, his tail is short, which has been too close cut in docking, has a small lump on his back just above his kidneys, which is soft, it has been hurt by the saddle, but is not sore; he lately came from Maryland, and if not stolen will probably make towards that state. Any person taking up and securing the said horses so that the owner may have them again, shall be entitled to the above reward, or Ten Dollars for either, and all reasonable charges, paid by the subscriber, living in Buckingham Township, Bucks County. John Lacey, Junior. [Pennsylvania Packet, August 25, 1778]

And this one:

Strayed from the encampment of the 38th regt. on the 23d instant, a dark bay mare, black mane and tale, her head sore, about 14 hands high, in good order, and trots all. Whoever will give intelligence of the said mare to Capt. Norman, 38th regt. or to the printer hereof, so that she may be found, shall receive a guinea reward. [The New York Gazette, August 25, 1777]

Fourteen hands is on the small side by today’s standards, but based on the advertising appears to have been an average size for eighteenth century America, at least among horses used by the military:

Three Guineas Reward. Stolen or strayed from Bedford Camp, about the middle of August, a bright Bay Mare, about 14 hands and a half high, with a small blaze on her forehead, and D. 37th marked upon her left buttock, near the tail. Also a dark brown Mare, strong made near 13 hands and an half high, with a very large blaze in her forehead, both being the property of an Officer in the 37th regiment. Any person producing the above Mares, or giving information where they may be found, on applying to the Printer, shall receive the above reward. [New York Loyal Gazette, September 23, 1778]

The horse advertised above was branded to denote the regiment that its owner belonged to. A similar ad described a brand that identified the owner, Lt. Thomas Murray, as well as the regiment:

A Bay Mare Marked T. M. 35th Regiment. It is requested, that the Officer who lately was at Mr. Burrough’s, New-Town, Long-Island, with a Young Bay Mare, marked T. M. No. 35 on her back, will please to send her directly to Lieut. Murray, 35th, at Brooklyne-Ferry, as she is his property, and to prevent further trouble. [Royal Gazette (New York), 30 May 1778]

Sometimes a thief was described along with the missing horse:

Deserted from my Quarters, at Mr. Jonathan Penrose, in Front street, Philadelphia, on the 14th inst. A certain John Willson, a soldier in my regiment: He is better than six feet high, has black short hair, is somewhat lame, and is a native of Ireland. He had on when he went away, only a white blanket jacket and a pair of blue overalls, having left his uniform behind. At the same time, he stole one of my waggon Horses, a bright sorrel, about 14 hands high, switch tail, a bald face, and branded C A on the near shoulder. Whoever takes up and secures said deserter and horse, so that I may have them again, shall receive One Half Johannes, or the value thereof at the current exchange.  Francis Johnston.  Colonel 5th P. Regiment. [Pennsylvania Gazette, July 19, 1780]

Was Stolen out of the pasture of General Armstrong, near Carlisle, on the 15th of September last, a dark brown Mare, rising 6 years old, between 14 and 15 hands high, branded on the near shoulder and buttock with the letter A, a few white hairs in her forehead, a saddle mark on her off shoulder, switch mane and tail, paces and trots at times, newly shod all round, supposed to be stolen by a certain Peter McGuire and one McCormick, both deserters, and deserted at one time from Col. Butler’s battalion, in Carlisle; the first is about 5 feet 8 inches high, slim made, dark complexion, and short curled hair. Whoever takes up and secures said thieves and mare, shall have Four Pounds reward, or for the mare only Three Pounds, and reasonable charges, if delivered to General Armstrong or Jonathan Wallace, at Carlisle, or to the subscriber, in Christiana hundred, New Castle county, 7 miles from Wilmington. John Armstrong. N.B. It is thought those thieves will change their names. [Pennsylvania Gazette, March 26, 1783]

There are countless ads like these throughout the 1770s and 1780s, sometimes several in a single issue of a newspaper. They provide a rich source of data for the study on the multitude of horses that pulled and carried mankind’s burdens, reminding us that, even though usually nameless, they were individuals too.

Also of interest:






  • thank you for this article………..any idea what artist painted the two horses at the beginning of the article??? thank you……………

  • There’s a rumor that Gen Washington and officers watered their horses at a spring house (that still exists on Schwenk Rd. Perkiomenville, PA ) – en route from the Antes Farm to Pennypacker Mill in Schwenksville, PA in Sept 1777 – Oct 1777. This was the camp were the 4 column overnight attack on Germantown (Phila) was planned. That would mean Nelson and or Blue were here. Also William and Martha. Washington instructed his troops (as I’m sure you’ve read) to be humane to their animals. Awesome.

  • It strikes me that compared to the bounties for deserters published earlier, and indeed comparing some of those in this very article, many of these officers are much better at describing their horses than they are their men.

  • Excellent article about an unknown aspect of the war. James Robertson estimates that about 1,500,000 horses died in the Civil War. Probably a good number died in the Revolution. Washington’s mount died at Monmouth, as did Hamilton’s. The British tossed dead animals overboard during Howe’s approach to Philadelphia in 1777. Long sea voyages killed many others. Wagons could not move supplies to Valley Forge due to lack of teams. Burgoyne complained of a lack of teams to move his cumbersome army through the wilds of New York. Horses were stolen by both sides to equip the cavalry. Unsung heroes of the war, the horses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *