Horseshoes Win the Civil War

By Brian D. Kowell
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in November 2023 and was subsequently published on the Emerging Civil War website.

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the 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 the want of a horseshoe nail.”

Benjamin Franklin quoting an old proverb in Poor Richard’s Almanac

Before 1835 all horseshoes were made by hand by blacksmiths. It was a labor-intensive process. A blacksmith could make four horseshoes in about an hour. That all changed because of one man, Scotsman Henry Burden. “It was astonishing. [Henry] Burden was one of the most inventive men of the 19th century…Now, no one knows who he is,” said one historian. The fact is Henry Burden greatly aided the North in winning the American Civil War with his invention of a machine that mass-produced horseshoes.

Born in Dunblane, Perthshire, Scotland in 1791, Henry Burden was the son of Peter Burden and Elizabeth Abercrombie. He grew up on his father’s sheep farm. Henry was a bright boy and when of age went off to the University of Edinburgh to study engineering. He returned to the family farm after graduation and began making farm implements and constructed a water wheel for a power source.1

Henry Burden

Having loftier ambitions, Burden sailed to America to seek his fortune. He secured from the American minister in London a letter of introduction to Stephen Van Rensselaer, a wealthy landowner, businessman, militia officer, and politician from New York State. He began working for Van Rensselaer at one of his factories, and Burden’s inventions, which automated the work previously done by hand, made the factory extremely profitable. Burden married Helen McQuat in 1821 and moved to Troy, New York in 1822. There he became the superintendent of the Troy Iron and Nail Factory.2

Henry and Helen had eight children. To support his growing family Henry went on his own and developed the Burden Ironworks. It was there in 1835 that he applied for a patent for a device of his invention that included three separate machines that could manufacture horseshoes. The machines could make 60 shoes an hour. By 1857, through modifications, he had one machine that could do the work of the three. It could cut, bend, and forge a shoe into a perfect shape. The nail holes were marked by the machine and hand-punched by workers. By 1860 his machine could produce one horseshoe per second. The company was worth $500,000.3

Burden’s horseshoe-making machine

With the outbreak of the Civil War the demand for horseshoes dramatically rose. At its peak, Henry Burden and Sons had nine machines in two factories that were producing 3,600 horseshoes per hour in various sizes for draft horses, riding horses, and mules. At the peak of the war effort, the company employed 1,400 men.4

The company produced over 50 million horseshoes during the Civil War. A semi-circular building at Burden and Sons could hold 7,000 tons of horseshoes in 16 large bins for the many different patterns and sizes. The different patterns were light, medium, and heavy, and the sizes measured from 0 to 7 for the forefeet and hindfeet of horses, and 1 through 5 for mules. By 1864 the company was worth $2.3 million.5

The building in which horseshoes were stored

All of Henry Burden’s horseshoes went to the forces of the North. This gave the North a powerful advantage over the South. Ironically, Henry’s third child, Helen McQuat Burden, married a future Union officer on November 13, 1844 whom she had met when he was an instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His name was Irvin McDowell, and he became a Union general.6

The Confederacy realized the value of Burden’s work and hired spies in an unsuccessful effort to replicate his horseshoe-making machines. The best the rebels could do was to send raiding parties to try to capture horseshoe shipments from the Yankee railroads and wagon trains or pry the shoes off the feet of dead Union animals after a battle.7

Henry Burden lived the rest of his life in luxury. In 1869, as a memorial to his wife, who died in 1860, he paid $75,000 for the construction of the Woodside Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York. On January 19, 1871, at the age of 80, Henry Burden died of heart disease. His funeral service was held at Woodside Presbyterian Church, and he was laid to rest next to his wife at Albany Rural Cemetery.8

For want of Henry Burden, enough horseshoes would be lost. For want of enough horseshoes, the Union would be lost. Henry Burden’s horseshoes helped win the Civil War.

Footnotes (Click on the book title below to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

1. Sanzone, Danielle, “Horseshoes: One of the Collar City’s Big Industrial Roles during Civil War,” August 8, 2019, (, accessed May 1, 2023. Rolando, Victor, R., “The Industrial Archeology of Henry Burden & Sons Ironworks,” The Journal of Vermont Archaeology, 2007 ( Historian & Executive Director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway quoted was Michael P. Barrett.

2. Schreck, Tom, “Making History: Industry in Troy,” Albany Business Review, May 7, 2001 (

3. Bainbridge, David A., “How Horseshoes Helped Win the Civil War,” July 31, 2021, (, accessed May 1, 2023. Find a Grave: Henry Burden (

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Simione, Frank P. & Gene Schmiel, Searching for Irvin McDowell: The Civil War’s Forgotten General, California, Savas Beatie, 2023. Pp. 7-8.

7. Bainbridge, “How Horseshoes Helped Win the Civil War.”

8. Find a Grave: Henry Burden.