Among the most indelible images of American history is the caisson bearing President Kennedy’s body during his funeral on Nov. 25, 1963. Black Jack, the Army’s riderless horse, pranced restlessly and majestically behind the military carriage bearing the fallen president’s casket as it was being taken to Arlington National Cemetery for burial.
Black Jack and the four soldiers and seven horses that led the caisson came from the Caisson Platoon of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment, also known as the Old Guard, the oldest active infantry unit in the Army. The Caisson Platoon, which has been stationed at Fort Meyer Army Post in Arlington since 1948, takes part in some 1,500 full honor military funerals each year at Arlington Cemetery and participates in parades, ceremonies and pageants in the Washington area.
Black Jack and the Caisson Platoon became national icons after Kennedy’s funeral. In fact, after Black Jack died in 1976, his ashes were placed in a memorial at Summerall Field at Fort Meyer, just blocks from the stable where the horse was kept during its 21 years of service as a riderless horse. Black Jack was famous enough to visitors who toured the post that the Army created a special museum inside the John C. McKinney Memorial Stables in memory of him.
People who come to the stables still ask about Black Jack.
“Visitors usually ask what Black Jack did and when he died, whether he was the one in the Kennedy funeral,” says Alan Bogan, director of the Old Guard Museum. “He’s still the most famous horse. I doubt if anyone can name any other one.”
More than 10,000 people visit the Caisson Platoon’s stables each year to see the caissons and horses and where Black Jack resided. The Old Guard Museum down the street also houses artifacts and memorabilia from the full regiment, which provides sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns, demonstrations by its U.S. Army Drill Team, performances by its Fife and Drum Corps, and presentations of the colors by its Continental Color Guard.
Visitors who come to the John C. McKinney Memorial Stables, where the Caisson Platoon keeps many of it 44 horses — three of them “riderless” horses like Black Jack — can receive a guided tour from a soldier or explore the premises on their own. The stable, which was built in 1908, consists of tack rooms, a farrier room, caisson rooms and the Black Jack Museum in honor of the famous riderless horse that took part in President Kennedy’s funeral march.
“Black Jack was the last horse that was bred and issued by the Army,” says Spc. Matthew Moore, who has been in the Old Guard for 13 months. “The horses that we get now are either donated to us or purchased.”
Although all funerals the Caisson Platoon takes part in are full honor funerals, the ones with a riderless horse are a special honor, usually reserved for soldiers or Marines who have the rank of colonel or above, and for enlisted men ranked sergeant major or above, or heads of state. The reversed boots in stirrups on a riderless horse symbolize a fallen military leader.
Black Jack the horse served as a riderless mount for more than 20 years in the platoon, taking part in the funerals of Presidents Hoover and Johnson and General Douglas MacArthur until the horse was retired in 1973.
Black Jack was named after General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. Ironically, the riderless horse at the Kennedy funeral bore the same name as the nickname of the president’s father-in-law, John “Black Jack” Bouvier III.
Inside the Black Jack Museum at the stable, visitors will see numerous photographs of Black Jack, several caissons, a display case with cavalry memorabilia and a model of a life-sized cavalry horse in full gear.
Even the floor of the room has a special significance. It was made from posts that Civil War troops used to tether their horses. The posts were driven straight down into the ground and have been polished to a thick, shiny veneer.