Early in 1861, John Harman and Thomas J. Jackson inspected a small herd of horses which had been discovered in a captured railroad boxcar. Jackson turned the horses over to the Confederate government and purchased two for his military use.[i] In the following days, Jackson discovered the large horse had an uncomfortable gait and was spooky – not traits ideal for the man who would shortly receive the sobriquet “Stonewall.” The small gelding – originally purchased as a saddle horse for Mrs. Jackson – had a steady temperament and easy pace…and was never sent to Mrs. Jackson. Instead, “Fancy” (as the horse was first called) became General Jackson favorite war horse and eventually gained the simpler name “Little Sorrel.”
Though rumors and stories abound about Jackson’s poor horsemanship, he had been a skilled rider in his youth, and it seems odd that he would’ve lost his proficiency. At Jackson Mills where young Tom Jackson spent his adolescent years, his uncle owned a small racetrack; weekend entertainment included horse races, and Tom rode as a jockey.[ii]
Why the stories about this Confederate general’s hunched posture and ungainly appearance on horseback? Two hypotheses readily present themselves from historical records and logical consideration. First, if Jackson had gained his horsemanship on a racetrack, it’s not impossible that he had learned a crouching or hunched position in a saddle. Second, Jackson was often so comfortable in the saddle that he dozed as the horse plodded along. Were the critical Southern horsemen from plantations and horse farms simply not used to Jackson’s form of riding or where they observing him as he slouched and snoozed?
Accounts suggest Jackson had very few equestrian accidents during the war and was known to lead his staff officers on an occasional wild ride. Both observations point toward a conclusion: Jackson was a skilled horseman with his own methods and style.
Little Sorrel was Stonewall’s preferred and trusted horse during the general’s war years. From Manassas to Chancellorsville, Little Sorrel heard the battle orders, stood steady in combat situations, and plodded along muddy turnpikes and swampy roads. Henry K. Douglas left a description of Little Sorrel in his memoirs, describing the horse’s appearance and reliability.
General Jackson never had a handsome horse in the army, nothing to compare to General Lee’s “Traveller,” or Stuart’s “Maryland, My Maryland,” or Ashby’s white or black stallions. “Little Sorrel” was a plebeian-looking little beast, not a chestnut; he was stocky and well-made, round-barreled, …good shoulder, excellent legs and feet, not fourteen hands high, of boundless endurance, good appetite, good but heavy head and neck, and natural pacer with little action and no style… It would have been impossible to have found another horse that would have suited his owner so exactly – he was made for him… The endurance of the little animal was marvelous, and the General was apt to forget it was exceptional. He never seemed to change in looks or condition; his gait, except when the yells of the soldiers warmed him into a gallop, was always the same, an amble; he could eat a ton of hay or live on cobs…[iii]
Little Sorrel wasn’t the only horse on Jackson’s picket line during the Civil War. At least four other horses are mentioned in reminiscences or other primary sources. Gaunt Sorrel was purchased at the same time as Little Sorrel; though not the best horse under battlefield fire, Gaunt Sorrel seems to have been the preferred replacement if the favorite horse wasn’t available. During the infamous Jackson eating a lemon story at the Battle of Cold Harbor during the Seven Days’ Battles, the general was supposedly riding Gaunt Sorrel.[iv] Mrs. Jackson recalled a horse named Superior which may or may not have been the steed sent to the commander by the people of Staunton, Virginia.[v] And then there was the Trojan Horse.
During the Sharpsburg Campaign, Little Sorrel went mysteriously missing. Just after crossing into Maryland, a citizen gifted a gray mare to General Jackson. Douglas wrote about this new horse. “She could hardly be called a typical ‘war horse, that snuffed the battle from afar,’ but she was a strong-sinewed, powerful, grey mare, more suitable for artillery than the saddle.”[vi] Ever the gentleman, Jackson accepted the new horse and decided to test her the following morning. Once mounted, the general urged the mare to start moving. She didn’t budge. He applied his riding spurs gently and “then with distended nostrils and flashing eyes she rose on her hind feet into the air and went backward, horse and rider, to the ground.”[vii] While aides rushed for the wild horse, Jackson lay on the ground, dazed and suffering from a minor back injury. The general temporarily gave his command to D.H. Hill and rode in an ambulance for a day or two.[viii] Much to Jackson’s relief, Little Sorrel returned. The gray mare was dubbed a “Trojan Horse,” and the general never rode her again.
By contrast, the single account of Little Sorrel causing serious trouble for his rider was during Jackson’s last night in battlefield combat. When General Jackson encountered friendly-fire on May 2, 1863, in the dark hours after his initial flank attack, Little Sorrel bolted into the undergrowth, exacerbating the rider’s injuries. A staff officer managed to halt Little Sorrel and help the general dismount. In the next frightening moments, the usually faithful horse galloped off into the darkness – eventually captured by Union soldiers.
In the end, Little Sorrel was returned to Mrs. Jackson who resided with her family in North Carolina after her husband’s death. It seems Little Sorrel was a born-leader in a horse herd, developing a reputation on the farm for rascally behavior. The gelding learned to unfasten ropes, unlatch stable doors, and push rails off fences to lead his equestrian companions to greener pastures.[ix]
When financial circumstances forced Mrs. Jackson to relinquish her little horse, she pastured him at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. The horse became the cadets’ pet and unofficial mascot; artillery practice and the tune “Dixie” stirred distance memories in the horse’s brain, and he would gallop around the parade field, looking for victory.[x]
Little Sorrel was an equestrian celebrity at county fairs and veterans’ gatherings. As the years went by, the Confederate veterans ensured that their hero’s horse was well-loved; Little Sorrel moved to the Confederate Soldiers Home in Richmond. When the aging war-horse’s arthritis became severe, the old boys in gray rigged a sling to help him stand. On one sad day, the sling slipped, and the beloved horse died from the injuries on March 16, 1886.[xi] (If you want to see Little Sorrel, visit Virginia Military Institute’s museum; Jackson’s favorite horse was preserved by a taxidermist.)
All General Jackson’s known horses – Gaunt Sorrel, Superior, the Staunton Steed, Trojan Mare, and Little Sorrel – played a role in his military service. A horse allowed a general to command. To see troop movements, ride a battlefield, lead a campaign march, and gallop toward victory. While it’s important to acknowledge the other horses, it is fitting to remember Little Sorrel as Jackson’s war horse. The small gelding with Morgan blood and a warrior’s heart was as commonplace as his rider. Neither needed to draw attention to themselves. They let their actions tell the story, write the history.
He was probably the motionless horse on Henry House Hill in 1861. He was the horse who could journey exhausting miles in pursuit of the enemy in 1862. He was the horse who carried one of the Confederacy’s most famous generals in the victorious forward charge at Chancellorsville in 1863, and, with ears swiveling in the dark, stepped hesitatingly toward the pointed muskets. Every trotted step of the way, Little Sorrel helped create the history and legend of “Stonewall.”
[i] R.G. Williams, Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend, (2006), pages 171-172.
[ii] M.L. Williamson, The Life of General Stonewall Jackson, (1997), page 8.
[iii] H.K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall, pages 206-207.
[iv] Ibid, page 103.
[v] Ibid, pages 207, 371.
[vi] Ibid, page 147.
[vii] Ibid, page 148.
[viii] Ibid, page 148.
[ix] R.G. Williams, Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend, (2006), page 174.
[x] Ibid, page 174.
[xi] Ibid, page 175.