Every Free, Able-bodied White Male Citizen: Two Examples of Militia readiness in Antebellum America Part II

c-57 black horse cavalryVolunteer militias became popular in all areas of the country, but only two will be considered here: the Black Horse Cavalry from Fauquier County, Virginia, and the U. S. Zouave Cadets, from Chicago, Illinois. These militia companies each had a very high degree of public identity prior to the American Civil War, and were represented in their respective armies at the beginning, fighting in the Battle of First Bull Run on July 21, 1861. Their reputations, although different, have survived for over one hundred fifty years. Each group represented the area from which it came, and the causes for which its members fought.

200px-Map_of_Virginia_highlighting_Culpeper_County.svgIn 1859, the tiny, rich, horse-breeding county of Fauquier, Virginia became home to the Black Horse Cavalry. It was an independent volunteer cavalry company–a mounted militia. According to founding member John Scott, the members of the Black Horse were, “all young gentlemen of the first respectability, and were either themselves planters or the sons of planters. The rank and file were composed of young men of the same social material with the officers.” They met in the Fauquier Bar, a Warrenton, Virginia hotbed of bourbon and disunionist sentiment. In this bar, the Black Horse Cavalry as a volunteer militia was first discussed. If not related by blood, all these men were friends and neighbors, and the threads of their lives wove an organic part of their community.

They became nationally famous as the mounted volunteers who escorted John Brown to

Virginia Governor Henry Wise
Virginia Governor Henry Wise

the gallows in December, 1859. The Black Horse had barely been formed at the time Brown and his group failed in their attempt to take over the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. To protect Brown and his followers from southern outrage, Virginia Governor Henry Wise called up a number of local militia companies. The Black Horse, joined by Turner Ashby’s Mountain Rangers, escorted Brown to his execution in Charleston Virginia.

Upon their return to Warrenton, local citizens, at the urging of the women of the county, gave what was to become known as the “famous” Black Horse Ball. Although the particulars of the gala evening are lost, the men greatly appreciated the effort to demonstrate support of the community for its premier militia organization.

18R -4th VA Cavalry - Black Horse TroopOne would think that the Black Horse got its name because all riders rode black horses, but this was not the case. The men of Fauquier ardently championed the pro-slavery position. According to William “Billy” Payne, a founding member of the troop who eventually became a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army:

The purposes of the organization were well understood and the question was to give it a proper name.  I well remember the conversations between Major Scott and myself.  The first idea was that we were descendants of cavaliers.  The company was to be a cavalry troop.  I do remember that I called the Major’s attention to the fact that the first standard borne by our tribe, the Saxons, when they landed under Hengist and Horsa at Thanit, was the banner of the white horse.  It was agreed therefore that a horse especially typical and representative of Virginia should be adopted.  We were all extreme pro-slavery men, but the Major in addition, was in favor of opening the African slave trade and he suggested that the horse should be black, and hence the troop was named the Black Horse Troop.

With the semi-official secession of Virginia from the Union, the Black Horse Cavalry responded to the call into regular service. They agreed to serve, at the Governor’s request, from April 17, 1861 to April 25, 1861, “unless sooner discharged.” Lieutenant Robert Randolph mustered the Black Horse into the service of the Commonwealth of Virginia on May 7, 1861. Randolph himself went on to receive an English hunting rifle, awarded to the “bravest man in the Confederate Army,” by a British supporter of the Confederacy.

The Black Horse charge at First Bull Run
The Black Horse charge at First Bull Run

Although enrolled for only a year of service, the Black Horse Cavalry actually served for the entire war as Company H of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, from First Bull Run to Appomattox. The 4th Virginia included elite companies from Prince William, Chesterfield, Madison, Culpepper, Powhatan, Goochland, Hanover, Warren, and Buckingham counties–tidewater counties all, and wealthy enough to support these fine sons of Virginia in style. Assigned to General J. E. B. Stuart, the Black Horse performed both escort and battle duties with efficiency, skill, and courage.



9 Responses to Every Free, Able-bodied White Male Citizen: Two Examples of Militia readiness in Antebellum America Part II

  1. My great-great-grandfather, Josiah Green Low, rode with the Black Horse Cavalry during the early days of the War (and later with Mosby’s Rangers). Although you are right that the unit’s name was not derived from the color of their mounts, the troopers did by regulation ride black horses: “The men had to provide their own black boots and plumed black hats. They were expected to show up on black horses and to purchase their own sabers and pistols.” (from “Black Horse Cavalry: Defend Our Beloved Country” by Lewish Marshall Helm, page 5) Also, after First Manassas: “… the ferocious attack and appearance of the Warrenton cavaliers in their stunning black uniforms and mounted on black horses …” (page 38).

    1. Amanda–I envy you your copy of the Helm book. I have it on my wish list, but the price never goes below about $100.00. Let’s start a reprint campaign! I am all too well aware of its absence in my research, so thanks for filling in some gaps. I have this to ask: I have seen paintings, etc. of the unit, and also seen pictures of the reenact ors who portray the 4th VA, and they do not all ride black horses. I also know about the awful attrition of horses during the war. Do you think perhaps they all started out with black steeds, and then replaced them with whatever they could as the war wore on?

      1. I thought of that even as I wrote my reply. You are surely correct that they could not afford to exclude other coat colors as the war wore on. I would guess that the requirement for black horses applied mainly in the early days when they were a separate unit, and by the time they absorbed into the 4th Va. the black horses and plumes gave way to reality!

        I bought the Helm book not so long ago (2 – 3 years?) in the gift shop at the Manassas History Museum. There, browsing, I discovered my ancestor’s name in the roster. I knew he had been with Mosby but not the Black Horse Cavalry. Just the day before on a battlefield tour I heard the guide tell of the Yankees’ exaggerated dread of the Black Horse. It caught my fancy, and then there was that book. You might check the Museum; they could still have it in their store at regular price!

  2. The statement that the counties were “tidewater all” is in error. Fauquier and Madison are in the foothills of the Blueridge.

    1. Thanks so much for your diligence. I looked at a map and did a bit of digging, but I apparently did not get it correct. I will be counting on you in the future!!

  3. For those of you who post with the purpose of offering a correction in my work, I thought I should tell you exactly what happens to your efforts: I fact check both my source and your suggestions (I have been incorrect exactly 100% of the time, by the way . . .) and then I go back to my original paper and correct the error. I do not do it for the pages of ECW, because I feel that it should remain incorrect so readers can see just what is being discussed.

    I am always thankful for corrections. It means someone is reading! And caring enough to correct!

  4. Excellent article! I enjoy most of the posts on this site, especially when they are close to home. I’m certain It’s just a typo but when referring to John Brown, the town is Charlestown, Virginia. I know you know the difference, but it is often confused with Charleston, West Virginia’s state capitol which is hundreds of miles away. Maybe that’s why the town is now called Charles Town. Keep up the good work

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