Friday, April 7, 2023

Henry Burden, Horseshoes, and the Civil War

By Michelle Shocklee

Researching genealogy can lead a person to so many fascinating things! My family has always known that my great grandfather on my mom's dad's side fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. It's with some pride that we speak of Isaiah Charles's willingness to join the Indiana volunteer army. He participated in some skirmishes and left the service after his 100 days was complete. Last week, however, a cousin posted a picture of my great-great-grandfather on my grandmother's side of the family with information that came as quite a shock. Lewis had been a farrier during the Civil War...for the Confederates!
Horses used in the Civil War; Library of Congress

Of course, being a history nerd and researcher, I had to read up on the Civil War, farriers, and such. I discovered some interesting things!

Photo of a hipposandal (Gallo-Roman horseshoe).
On display at the Musee d'Ermont, France.
Photo taken by NantonosAedui.
People have attempted to protect horse hooves for centuries. Early foot coverings were made from leather or rawhide, often shaped like a sort of boot. Some of these devices were referred to as hipposandals. In the writings of the Roman poet Catullus in the 1st century BC, he mentions a mule losing its shoe. This could mean something like a hipposandal, or it could possibly be a reference to the first type of horseshoe that we are familiar with today. Some historians don't believe it was made of iron, however, since that metal was not as plentiful as it is today. But whatever the "shoe" was made from, it was probably crafted as a single shoe by someone with farrier skills. 

Henry Burden; Public domain
Over the centuries, horseshoe making was refined and eventually became what we use today. In 1835, however, a man named Henry Burden would revolutionize the process. Mr. Burden, a Scotsman who immigrated to the United States in 1819, was an engineer, inventor, and businessman, eventually opening Burden Iron Works in Troy, New York. It was here that Burden came up with the idea to mass produce horseshoes. His invention ultimately had the ability to produce 60 horseshoes in one minute.  Like any wise businessman, Henry kept the details of his invention a secret. When the Civil War started, Burden became the main supplier of horseshoes to the Union Army. 

As you can imagine, millions of horses were used by both sides during the war, requiring millions of horseshoes. It's been said that one of the South's downfalls was its lack of industry and its reliance on Northern and foreign imports, and that included horseshoes. When Union blockades prevented shipments from reaching southern troops, the Confederates grew desperate. They sent spies to New York in the hopes of obtaining the plans for Mr. Burden's horseshoe-making machine so it could be replicated in the south. The plot failed, forcing the Confederates to send raiding parties north in efforts to steal shipments of horseshoes from Yankee railroads and wagon trains. Many people believe Mr. Burden's horseshoes played a significant role in the Union's ultimate victory. 

Farrier at work; Public domain

I don't know any details of what my great-great grandfather experienced while he served as a farrier for the Confederacy. He died in El Paso, Texas in 1862, soon after the New Mexico campaign, leaving behind a wife and a nine-year old son, my great grandpa. While I wish he had chosen to fight for the other side, I'm glad to learn more about him. 

Your turn: What surprising discoveries have you made about your ancestors? Tell me about them!


Michelle Shocklee
 is the author of several historical novels, including Count the Nights by Stars, winner of the 2023 Christianity Today Book Award, and Under the Tulip Tree, a Christy Awards and Selah Awards finalist. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at


*2023 Christianity Today Book Award Winner*

1961. After a longtime resident at Nashville’s historic Maxwell House Hotel suffers a debilitating stroke, Audrey Whitfield is tasked with cleaning out the reclusive woman’s room. There, she discovers an elaborate scrapbook filled with memorabilia from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Love notes on the backs of unmailed postcards inside capture Audrey’s imagination with hints of a forbidden romance . . . and troubling revelations about the disappearance of young women at the exposition. Audrey enlists the help of a handsome hotel guest as she tracks down clues and information about the mysterious “Peaches” and her regrets over one fateful day, nearly sixty-five years earlier.



  1. Michelle, my paternal great-grandfather fought with the 81st Indiana Regiment, Company B, in the Civil War. I have his company roster and looked for your ancestor, Isaiah Charles. He wasn't listed there, but it's fun to learn our ancestors from Indiana fought to end slavery and keep the Union together. Like you, I also had at least one ancestor who fought for the Confederacy. My father (born 1903) used to tell the story that two of his grandfathers refought the war on his parents' front porch, and his mother (my grandmother) chased them off the porch with her broom.

    1. Louise, thanks for sharing all this fascinating info! And thanks for checking on my G-grandfather. Unfortunately I don't know what regiment he was with.

  2. Should have said: do you know what Regiment your ancestor fought in?

  3. Thank you for posting today. I wish I could remember more of what my genealogy-loving cousin has dug up in her extensive research of one side of my family, but the little details always escape me. I guess something that surprised me was that my paternal grandmother, who I always thought of as a country girl through and through, actually spent time in New York City and was from a fairly well-to-do family.

  4. Michelle, my paternal g-g-grandfather served in the Civil War with his Ohio regiment called the Squirrel Hunters. I know all of that from papers that have been passed down through the generations. I've done a lot of family research over the past couple of decades and only stopped with writing my fictional stories took precedence. There is only so much time in a day, after all. I have used the process of researching family history in a few of my stories, which has been fun. Interesting that the son of one of my first cousins is a professional farrier in Ohio. I never heard of the profession until he started working as one.

    1. Pam, I can go down LOTS of rabbit trails while researching family history...when I should be researching for my current WIP. HA!!

  5. Michelle, what an interesting piece of history! Who would have thought horseshoes could play such a significant role in the North winning the Civil War? Thanks for the research and for also giving us a small window into your family's history. Donna

    1. Thank you, Donna. Yes, I was surprised to learn how important horse shoes were in the war! But it makes sense.