“The horses that were alive at the close of the war were, for the most part, tenderly cared for, and have long ago joined their comrades on the other side. I hope they are all grazing together in the green fields of Eden.” — Luther W. Hopkins
One-hundred twenty years ago this past March 16, a great warrior went to his reward. Stonewall Jackson’s beloved war horse, Little Sorrel, aka Old Sorrel, aka Fancy, crossed over the river to his final rest.
Other than Gen. Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, the most recognizable military horse’s name in American history is that of Jackson’s trusty steed.
Without question, no other horse in the War Between the States witnessed such fierce battle scenes — and survived — as did Jackson’s horse: First and Second Manassas, Kernstown, McDowell, Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys, Port Republic, Cedar Mountain, Harpers Ferry, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, the Seven Days Campaign and that fateful final ride at Chancellorsville.
An ‘even temper’
Jackson came by his favorite mount when Confederate forces captured a number of Union horses at Harpers Ferry in 1861. After Jackson’s army seized an eastbound Baltimore & Ohio train, it was discovered that four of the cars contained cattle, while the fifth was filled with horses. Jackson officially claimed the property for the Confederate government and would dutifully pay for the horses he ultimately would receive for his personal use.
With the assistance of his quartermaster, Maj. John Harmon, Jackson originally chose two horses: Big Sorrel for himself and Fancy for his wife, Mary Anna. Within a couple of days, however, Jackson discovered that the larger horse had a skittish disposition unsuitable for the battlefield.
The larger horse had an uneven and rough gait, which would have made Jackson’s long hours in the saddle impossible. Jackson noticed that the smaller gelding was easier to handle and “showed a smooth pace and even temper.”
The name Fancy was changed to Little Sorrel, and the smaller horse became Jackson’s mount. Little Sorrel’s pace was so smooth that Jackson often fell asleep while riding on long marches.
The relationship that often was shared between rider and horse in those days is easy for modern students of warfare to overlook. Civil War soldiers’ lives depended upon the instinct of the horse and the mutual trust each held for the other. Jackson and Little Sorrel enjoyed such trust and understanding.
Historian James Robertson, in his book “Stonewall Jackson — The Man, the Soldier, the Legend,” gives one example of this understanding: “By that stage of the war, Little Sorrel had learned his master’s embarrassment at the cheers from the soldiers. Whenever Confederates raised loud and friendly noise, the horse would break into a gallop and carry his rider speedily away.”
Such instinctive understanding was immeasurable in battle. A slight miscue by horse or rider could mean death for either or both. When an officer ordered the cavalry to “dismount, fix-saddles, and tighten girts,” both man’s and beast’s heart pumped harder, for they knew a charge was about to be ordered. If blessed by providence and experience, their great hearts became one.
Horses often performed heroic feats and remained steadfast under horrific conditions. Stories of equine bravery often go unnoticed today, but the loving memory of these faithful animals was recalled fondly by Luther Hopkins in his 1917 book “From Bull Run to Appomattox — A Boy’s View”:
“Ah! the horses — the blacks and bays, the roans and grays, the sorrels and chestnuts that pulled Lee’s army from the Rappahannock to Gettysburg and back, and all the other horses that pulled and tugged at the wagons, at the batteries of artillery; the horses that carried the men, the unstabled horses and the half-fed horses. Let my right hand forget its cunning if I forget to pay proper tribute to those noble animals that suffered so much for their masters. How often my mind goes back to that horse that I saw coming across the field from the front at Bull Run with his sides all dripping with blood. He was a hero, for he had been out ‘where the fields were shot, sown and bladed thick with steel,’ and was coming back to die.”
Little Sorrel was a Morgan horse, descended from the original Justin Morgan horse born in Springfield, Mass., in 1789. Morgan horses have the distinguishing characteristic of being smaller than thoroughbreds and are not known for their beauty. Jackson and Little Sorrel shared the mutual characteristic of not being physically impressive — until a battle began.
Morgans have sturdy but shorter legs than thoroughbreds and somewhat stocky bodies. They have the very important characteristic of being able to remain calm in the midst of battle and gunfire — another characteristic Little Sorrel shared with Jackson.
Morgans became the favorites of the U.S. Cavalry during the War Between the States and the favorite horse for Southern soldiers to commandeer whenever possible. Known for being quick and agile, they also were popular among cowboys in the American West for their excellent abilities in working cattle. Morgans also are known for their endurance. They require less feed than other breeds and have fewer foot and leg problems — a truly low-maintenance horse.
One of Jackson’s staff, Kyd Douglas, described Little Sorrel as “a remarkable little horse. Such endurance I have never seen in horse flesh. We had no horse at Headquarters that could match him. I never saw him show a sign of fatigue.” According to Douglas, Jackson’s horse could “eat a ton of hay or live on cobs.”
Little Sorrel was believed to be 11 years old when Jackson acquired him. He was gingerbread in color with no white markings. Standing just 15 hands high (5 feet at the shoulder), he was not much to see. Yet the horse made up in disposition and spirit for what he lacked in appearance.
He easily could carry Jackson 40 miles a day. His calm spirit suited him perfectly for battle, and he rarely got overexcited by exploding shells and whistling Minie balls. One noted exception was Jackson’s accidental mortal wounding at Chancellorsville. Little Sorrel bolted and carried his rider through underbrush, where an oak limb struck Jackson painfully in the face.
After Jackson’s funeral, Little Sorrel was sent by Virginia Gov. John Letcher to North Carolina to live with Mary Anna Jackson at her family’s farm. While there, the horse gained a reputation for being a “rascal.” Little Sorrel had the ability to untie latches and ropes, unlatch stable doors, and remove enough rails from a fence that he could jump into another pasture. He even was known to release other horses from a barn or field and lead them to more pleasant pastures.
A crowd favorite
Mrs. Jackson’s resources were not adequate for stabling and caring for Little Sorrel, so for a few years after the war, the horse lived at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where he was free to graze on the lush green parade ground.
Though arthritic and stiff in his final years, the old fellow never lost his love of battle. Whenever the cadets conducted artillery practice, the sound of the booming cannons would cause the horse’s ears to stand up and his nostrils to flare. He would canter around the field as if looking for his old master to do battle once again with the Yankee invaders. Cadet parades, with VMI’s band playing, also would excite the horse and cause him to prance around as if to impress spectators.
Appearing frequently at county fairs and Confederate veterans’ reunions, Jackson’s old horse never failed to draw a crowd. VMI cadets often had to be called upon to stand guard in order to prevent onlookers from plucking hair from the horse’s mane and tail for souvenirs.
At an event in Hagerstown, Md., former staff officer Henry Kyd Douglas’ nephew was leading Little Sorrel through the crowd. The band struck up a rousing rendition of “Dixie.” With that, Little Sorrel’s ears and tail stood up, and he trotted off with a “mettlesome step,” making it difficult for the young boy to keep up.
Ultimately, the horse was moved to the Confederate Soldiers Home at Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Camp, where he became the old men’s adored pet. Eventually, the horse’s arthritis became so severe that he was unable to stand. The veterans in charge of the horse fashioned a sling and hoist so that he could be brought to his feet for curious visitors to see. On one such occasion, an accident caused Little Sorrel to fall, breaking his back. Death was imminent.
Arriving in Richmond the night before Little Sorrel died, taxidermist Frederic S. Webster later wrote of Little Sorrel’s accident and injuries: “One morning the girdle or band slipped too far forward, and the animal’s heavy hind quarters broke the vertebral column near the pelvis, and he could no longer stand.”
The veterans at the home were heartbroken, and one was assigned nurse’s duty. Webster describes the final, sad scene: “An old Confederate veteran, Tom O’Connell, 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 honour.”
Little Sorrel died at 6 a.m. on March 16, 1886, at the age of 36.
Frederic Webster was well-known. He had assisted in the mounting of two other famous horses from the war — Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s horse, Rienzi, as well as Lee’s horse, Traveller. Webster would remove the skin and skeleton of Jackson’s horse after getting accurate measurements. Only the hide was used in mounting Little Sorrel, and Webster received the bones of the horse as part of his fee for the mounting.
Webster’s own comments indicate that his efforts were inspired, at least in part, by “patriotic duty”: “My sole task of removing the skin and skeleton was successfully done in rapid time; but was undertaken because of the record of having carried the famous and beloved General through the heat and blast of a desperate war; the only righteous war ever fought.”
After tanning, the hide was stretched over a framework of plaster. For a while, Webster displayed the mounted horse at his studio in Washington and made it available for viewing, once during a meeting of what Webster called “the grand army veterans.”
“A number of members visited the Studio, and we listened to many soul-stirring incidents of their fighting days, facing Old Sorrel,” Webster said.
Home at VMI
The stuffed horse eventually made its way back to the R.E. Lee Camp Home in Richmond, where it remained on display for many years. Virginia discontinued funding after the last Confederate veteran living there, Sgt. Jack Blizzard, died on Jan. 30, 1941, at the age of 105, and the home was closed. Demolition of many of the home’s buildings began that same year.
Eight years later, after “inheriting” Little Sorrel, the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy gave the stuffed hide to VMI. Little Sorrel arrived at VMI on April 1, 1949.
Little Sorrel was first placed on display at VMI’s Preston Library, where he stayed almost 20 years. Then he was moved into the basement museum of Jackson Memorial Hall, where he remains one of the main attractions at VMI.
In the early days, it was common for both cadets and tourists to pluck hair from the horse’s mane or tail. Cadets also were known to rub the horse’s withers and flank for luck before to exams. This caused undue wear on the hide. Little Sorrel today is behind protective glass in a display enclosure.
Webster eventually reassembled the bones and donated them to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1903. They remained there until, after years of efforts by patriotic Southerners, the skeleton was returned to VMI. It arrived on campus the morning of Aug. 9, 1949.
In July 1997, Little Sorrel’s bones were cremated and buried in a solemn ceremony on the parade grounds of VMI, where his spirit once again may prance about looking for Yankees and “grazing in the green fields of Eden.”
Richard G. Williams Jr. writes from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. This article is taken from a chapter in his most recent book, “Stonewall Jackson — The Black Man’s Friend: A Testimony of Faith & the Fruits of Friendship,” to be published in September by Cumberland House of Nashville. He may be contacted at email@example.com. He thanks the Virginia Military Institute’s Archives for the photo andmuch of the information regarding Little Sorrel.