War horses. It is a great, and tragic, fact that nearly as long as men have warred, they have done so with animals by their sides. For thousands of years, horses have carried men and women who loved them to war. Alexander the Great had his Bucephalus. The Lippizaners started out as war horses. Their remarkable maneuvers were for battle.
The Civil War was no different. Everyone thinks of Lee and Traveller when they think of famous Civil War horses, but there were outstanding animals on both sides.
General Grant’s Cincinnati
Grant may have been nondescript at West Point in many areas and collected a healthy stack of demerits, but he did acquire a love of reading literature and painting. Other students, however, noted, he was a superb horseman. They remarked in diaries and letters about watching Grant ride. He was like a centaur so completely bonded was he with the horse. Later, he was largely unsuccessful in life prior to the war
Once the war started, we returned to service. His favorite horse was a 17-hand son of Thoroughbred racing legend Lexington Grant named Cincinnati. A man, S.S. Grant, summoned Grant to his hotel room to visit with him on important business when Grant was in St. Louis visiting his son who was critically ill. The man gave him the horse on promise he would never treat the horse ill or allow him to go to anyone who did. Grant kept his promise. He held him until he died and only allowed two other people to ride him, Abraham Lincoln and Admiral Ammen who had once saved his life.
Though he had been offered $10,000 gold for the horse and died in poverty, Grant refused to part with the horse.
Grant had several other war horses, but his second favorite was a little black horse, a pony really that was taken from Joe Davis’ plantation. Joe Davis was Jeff Davis’ brother. Grant’s men thought he might like the pony for his son. Grant was in severe pain with a carbuncle and his horse was restless, causing even more pain, so he decided to ride the pony to go check troops. The pony’s gait was so smooth, he decided to keep him. He asked the quarter master to have him added to property, appraise him and let him buy him. He named the pony Jeff Davis and kept him many years after the war.
Unrelated to the war, but pointing to Grant’s love for fast horses, as president, he was arrested three times for speeding and taken to the police station. His horses and carriage were confiscated and he was allowed to pay a fine and walk back to the white house.
One of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s favorite horses was a large dapple gray gelding named King Philip. It’s a miracle this horse survived the war considering 29 other horses did not. It’s small wonder this was dangerous duty as Sherman said, Forrest was a “devil that needed to be hunted down and killed if it costs 10,000 lives and bankrupts the treasury.”
The horse hated Yankees. He laid back his ears and charged them, mouth open, like a man-eating dragon.
A sutler with the unfortunate fashion sense to wear a dark blue frock coat came to camp and King Philip broke his tether to came after the man. He latched onto his shoulder and shook him like a ragdoll. The men finally got the man away from the horse, but not before the horse broke his shoulder. Even after the war, they had to keep an eye on the horse. They kept him pastured away from the road because he reacted violently to the blue mail carriers’ uniforms.
After the war some friendly Unionists stopped by to visit him wearing their uniforms. The horse attacked them. Someone rushed out the save the men who were trying to fight the horse off. One of the dismayed victims said he now understood how Forrest achieved his impressive war record.
“Your negroes fight for you and your horses fight for you.”
Bedford’s black cavalry is another story.
Mosby had a horse who would sniff out other horses like a bloodhound. He’d put his nose to the ground and follow the scent until they tracked down horses in hiding. This was a useful trick for a scout’s horse.
Confederates captured a Union train that was carrying a load of horses, which promptly became Confederate horses. Jackson bought two horses, a big, unruly stallion he named Big Sorrel and a little sorrel gelding he named Fancy. The gelding was supposed to go to his wife. No one every really figured out why he named a remarkably plain little horse whose most redeeming feature was a large, kind eye Fancy. He discovered the little gelding had the better disposition for battle and a silky smooth gait, so he renamed him Little Sorrel and kept him. Jackson had a way with names.
He also had a good eye for a horse. The rugged little gelding probably saw more action than any other war horse, participating in: First and Second Manassas, Kernstown, McDowell, Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys, Port Republic, Cedar Mountain, Harper’s Ferry, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Seven Days Campaign, Chancellorsville. Jackson was riding him when he was shot by his own troops at Chancellorsville.
Little Sorrel was so smooth Jackson often fell asleep while riding and the horse could go 40 miles a day without waning.
One of Jackson’s aides said the horse was even of temperament and an easy keeper who would consume bales of hay or go on cobs and never stop. When the troops stopped to rest, Little Sorrel lay down like a dog to sleep and soldiers often fed him apples when they could find them.
After the war, Mrs. Jackson couldn’t afford to keep him, so he lived at the Virginia Military Institute where he grazed on the parade grounds. His ears perked and he ran around the field as if looking for Jackson when the cadets fired the cannons. He was ready to go to war, where was Jackson?
In later years, the Confederate Soldier’s Home at Richmond College took him, where he was treated like a pet by the Old Veterans. But they always had. They made a sling to help him stand when he had trouble getting up. Once they were lifting the horse, the sling broke and Little Sorrel’s back broke when he fell.
Taxidermist Frederic S. Webster wrote, “An old Confederate Veteran, Tom O’Donnell, stood by during the day, and at night slept beside his charge until he went over the green fields of some animal heaven to rest in peace and honor.” Old Sorrel was 36.
Gen. George G. Meade’s Old Baldy seems to have been known more for his ability to survive than anything else. He was reported to have been wounded between five and fourteen times, many of them seemingly mortal wounds.
He was wounded at the first battle of Manassas in July 1861. Meade bought him from the government in September for $150 and named him Baldy for his bald face. Despite an unusual, and very uncomfortable, gait Meade became devoted to the horse. Old Baldy was his go to battle horse. Baldy was wounded again at the second Battle of Manassas. At Antietam, he was shot through the neck and left for dead. They found him up grazing later. He was treated and put back in service.
At Gettysburg, a bullet went through Meade’s trouser leg and into Baldy’s stomach. The horse staggered and, for the first time, refused to move while under saddle. A heart-broken Meade remarked, “Baldy is done for this time. This is the first time he has refused to go forward under fire.”
They gathered the horse after the battle and sent him to the rear to recuperate. He returned for duty at the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg in 1864 where he was struck in the ribs by an artillery shell. Meade decided Baldy might have used up his nine lives and retired him.
Meade often rode him in parades, but Baldy’s last parade was in Meade’s funeral procession as the riderless horse. Baldy lived another ten years until 1882 when he was put down because he was too feeble to stand.
There were many more, of course, but for the sake of brevity that’s it for today. Maybe we’ll do an in depth look at these horses and more down the road.