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.
The caissons, which were made in 1918 and carried 75-mm cannon and ammunition, are also polished and shined daily. They gleam as if new and have been refitted to carry flag-draped caskets.
The 40 soldiers in the Caisson Platoon keep all of their equipment in top form, spending countless hours spit-shining saddles and other leather tack, as well as brass.
Soldiers in the platoon serve a week on duty in the stables and two weeks assigned to funeral details. When on funeral detail, they report to duty at the stables at 4 a.m. and begin to shine and clean tack and wash horses. Starting at 9 a.m., they take part in funerals, returning to the stables at 4 p.m. and cleaning tack until 6 or 7 p.m.
Stable duty is easier, in that the soldiers report to work at 6 a.m. and are out of their saddles all day. The spotless stable underlines the work ethic of the soldiers in the platoon.
Spc. Moore, a 21-year-old Alaskan who has worked more than 200 funerals — with four or five a day — says the hours and hard labor take a toll. “It’s a non-stop job,” he says. “It’s not a job where you get a lot of breaks. You actually work the hours.”
He says that the funerals that affect him most are of those who died on active duty. “Whenever you know that the guy was just recently deployed somewhere and he died at a young age, that’s kind of memorable,” he says.
Soldiers in the platoon who participate in more than 500 funerals receive brass spurs to wear on their riding boots. Many of the members of the platoon have served in 300 or 400 funerals. They wear dress blue uniforms while on funeral duty.
Sgt. Christopher Newton, who has been in the platoon three years, has worked in more than 500 funerals.
“I like working with the horses the best in my job,” says Sgt. Newton. “It takes a lot out of you to ride the horse all day and stay in the saddle.”
When members of the platoon take a caisson to the cemetery, three of them ride on horses on the left side in front of the caisson. The three horses on the right are empty because, traditionally, those mounts carried supplies. A non-commissioned officer also rides a single horse on the left of the caisson and leads the detachment, communicating by radio as the unit moves from funeral to funeral in the cemetery.
The riderless horse, also called a caparisoned horse for its trappings — an English saddle, saber and scabbard, bridle, breast plate, ammunition pouch, and spur-fitted riding boots reversed on the saddle — follows behind the caisson if special honors are to be bestowed on the deceased.
Spc. Adam Stewart, a 21-year-old from Fort Meyers, Fla., is one of the platoon’s “cap walkers” (a phrase derived from the word “caparison”) — a high honor, which means that he leads the riderless horse behind the caisson. Spc. Stewart has completed 150 funerals in the cemetery and like all the soldiers in the platoon says it’s an honor to bury the dead at Arlington Cemetery. He says horses trained to be riderless horses are chosen for their attitude and temperament.
Perhaps the best known of the current riderless horses is Sergeant York. Named for the World War I Medal of Honor winner from Tennessee, Sergeant York is black, as are all riderless horses, and has been specially trained for his duties. All of the horses and soldiers are trained for 10 weeks at a ranch at Fort Belvoir, where platoon members also become skilled riders and knowledgeable about horses.
Spc. Jason Getz, 21, completed his training at the beginning of the year and has worked 103 funerals. Spc. Getz, who hadn’t ridden before, says the training at Fort Belvoir is demanding but enjoyable.
“You start off bareback and you fall a lot,” he says. “But you learn how to ride horses and how to take care of them. There’s a lot of honor that goes through everything that you do here. It’s a lot of hard work but it pays off.”
On the caisson, the most experienced rider is the wheel man. He has the most important job of controlling the wheel horses, which do all the braking, since caissons are brakeless. In fact, the wheel horses, which are the largest horses, are outfitted with a specially designed tack to protect them when a caisson touches them during braking.
The swing rider on the caisson has the least experience, and the lead rider at the front is more experienced and knows how to get around the cemetery well. All of the soldiers also ride at stiff military attention.
New members of the platoon work in the stable first. After they learn how to clean the tack, they gradually work their way up. The first job on the caisson is the swing position. After gaining seniority, a soldier gets the privilege of serving on details in parades and pageants like the Twilight Tattoo, performed on the Ellipse in warm weather.
Down the street from the Old Guard Stables is the Old Guard Museum. The museum, which was built in 1903 and reconfigured in the late 1980s, details the history of the Old Guard regiment from its inception in 1784. Its displays include mannequins wearing uniforms from various historical eras. Weapons that the Old Guard has used — from muskets to machine guns — are also on show, as well as flags that have been associated with the Old Guard since its beginning.
One of oldest artifacts of the Old Guard on display is the Chapultepec Baton. During the Mexican War in 1848, Brig. Gen. Persifer F. Smith, the commander of the 3rd Infantry, presented the baton to the division to commemorate the role it played in the capture of Mexico City and its successful attack upon the Chapultepec Fortress, the Mexican military academy.
Other notable items include a steel casing fired in salute at President Kennedy’s funeral. The museum also has the uniform of Sgt. Jeffrey Hojnacke, who holds the record for the most turns at guard duty (1,500) at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Also on display is the uniform of Sgt. Heather Lynn Johnsen, who in 1996 became the first woman to earn the Tomb Guard Badge. The coveted award requires six months of training and an encyclopedic knowledge of the history and lore of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Hanging on the walls of the museum are oil paintings by military artists depicting Old Guard scenes, including the colors — the flags — used in Gen. Omar Bradley’s funeral. Streamers from the Old Guard’s 51 battles are on display as well. In addition, numerous documents and photographs give a history of the unit. There are also displays of four Medal of Honor winners who were in the Old Guard, three from the Indian Wars and one from Vietnam.
Visitors find that the mannequins exhibiting various uniforms that the Old Guard wore from Colonial times, to the Indian Wars, to the Civil War, and to Vietnam are among the more interesting items in the museum. Weapons and equipment from each era are also on display, including rifles, handguns and sabers.
WHAT: The Old Guard Stables
WHERE: Fort Myer.Visitors use Hatfield Gate, at Washington Boulevard and South 2nd Street, to enter the post. Vehicles are searched upon entering.
WHEN: Noon-4 p.m. daily
INFORMATION: For tours and groups, call 703/696-3018
WHAT: The Old Guard Museum
WHERE: Building 249, Sheridan Avenue, Fort Myer
WHEN: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday
INFORMATION: Call 703/696-6670 or see www.mdw.army. mil/fs- g11.htm or www.army. mil/cmh-pg/Museums/Show case/Myer/myer-1.htm