Why “Stuff” A Horse?

Sheridan’s horse Winchester (Photograph by Bierle; April 2019)

I’ve been reading the book entitled Confederate Exceptionalism by Nicole Maurantonio, and it has a chapter about “relics” connected to Stonewall Jackson. The prime “relic” discussed in the chapter is Little Sorrel’s taxidermy hide which the author clearly did not relish seeing. The chapter had quite a few details about the “preservation” of the old horse hide and the burial of the beast’s bones on the parade ground at Virginia Military Institute. While I’m on the fence at the moment about some of the points put forward in the chapter, I do agree that the decisions to preserve things from the past (included dead animals) tells us something about legends, historic cultural values, and tangible memory.

It wasn’t long before good old stuffed Rienzi came to mind. I’ve recently written about the Union General Sheridan’s “preserved” war horse, but I wanted to dig a little deeper. It makes sense why Confederate veterans would venerate Jackson’s old horse and pay to have the poor thing stuffed. By why Rienzi who was later renamed Winchester? Why not let the dark horse rest in peace?

I started searching through digital archives of old newspapers and found some interesting reporting. Many of the following notices were printed and reprinted multiple times across the north, hinting at the continued popularity of Reinzi/Winchester in the minds of Union veterans and place in patriotic memory.

April 3, 1870, Buffalo Courier reported that General Sheridan was shopping in Philadelphia when he was urged to purchase an illustration of Winchester. To escape the insistent seller who had not recognized him, Sheridan told the fellow that he “owned the original animal.”

Five years later, on April 10, 1875, the Buffalo Morning Express reported:

The famous Winchester horse, renowned through the poem “Sheridan’s Ride,” is suffering from rheumatism in General Sheridan’s stables in Chicago. He has long been on the retired list, and once in a while receives a visit from the general who sees that he wants for nothing that a horse can desire.

On April 24, 1875, the Telegraph-Forum in Bucyrus, Ohio printed a key question:

Sheridan’s Winchester horse is down with rheumatism, and the question comes up, will a grateful and easily humbugged nation stand by and see this noble beast made into glue in case his disorder takes a fatal turn?

In 1876, the entertainer and exaggerator P.T. Barnum wildly claimed to have the bones of Winchester which he was sending on an exhibition tour. While it would be impossible to have a bone display of a horse that was still alive and kicking, the fact points to the popularity and fame of the horse. (See Dr. Jonathan Noyalas’s C-SPAN presentation “Sheridan’s Ride in Art, Literature and Memory” for more details.)

When Winchester actually died in 1878, Sheridan quickly announced what would happen to the horse’s body. The horse’s death made front page news across the country. For example, on October 7, 1878, The Brooklyn Union reprinted the notice from the October 3 edition of the Chicago Times:

DEATH OF WINCHESTER: The Horse Gen. Sheridan Rode in that Famous Gallop

The famous charger that carried General Sheridan to Winchester, “twenty miles away,” died in his master’s stable, on Michigan avenue, at an early hour yesterday morning. The part played by this animal in one of the bloodiest battles of the Rebellion has been respectfully recognized in books of history and in patriotic verse. Read, the poet by a few strokes of his pen, lifted the beast into a fame almost as enduring as that which has been earned by its rider.

[The article describes Winchester’s appearance and battle record and concluded with some reminiscences from the veteran general.]

Gen. Sheridan said last evening that he had ridden the horse at a full gallop, at times breaking into a run. Two staff officers, Gens. Forsyth and O’Keefe, and the escort of twenty cavalrymen rode with him, but the horse Winchester showed more spirit…than any of the other animals. The general said that the actual distance ridden was sixteen miles, the poet Read having used abut four miles of “poetical license.” He spoke feelingly of his old black steed, saying he had been unexcelled in speed, courage, docility and nobleness of nature. The general said he had not been upon Winchester’s back since the war closed. He has required his hostler to give him the tenderest attention. The horse suffered more or less from rheumatism for several years past. A boy was allowed to take him out for exercise the other day, and, as he was trotted at a pretty lively gait, became overheated, and this combined with an enfeebled constitution, caused death. The skin of old Winchester is to be prepared and preserved in the best art of the taxidermist. Prof. Ward of Rochester, N.Y. will set him up.

Winchester died eight years before Little Sorrel, so Sheridan’s choice and the previous newspaper outcry was not prompted in response to Stonewall’s stuffed horse. However, it seems that the same taxidermist might have prepared both famous Civil War horses. According to Nicole Maurantonio, “Professor Frederick S. Webster of Rochester, New York [was] recommended by the directors of the Smithsonian Institute…and had been entrusted with mounting the remains of General Sheridan’s horse, Reinzi.” It’s certainly likely that the newspapers got the professor’s name wrong in the initial reporting.

Once Winchester’s hide was mounted, the old war horse went on display and has been housed at several museums over the decades. But why? Certainly the battle of Cedar Creek and the poetry and artwork had something to do with it. Sheridan himself allowed the “preservation” process. Many Union veterans adored the old stuffed horse.

Circling back to the idea that decisions to preserve objects or places from the past tells something about legends, historic cultural values, and tangible memory, stuffed Winchester does just that. At some level, he proves that the legendary ride from Cedar Creek happened — albeit not quite the way the poetry claims. The culture of the 1870’s was looking to preserve objects connected to Civil War victories, and when Winchester died he became an object to add to the Union collection. As time passed, the old black warhorse became more entrenched by memory. Undoubtedly more people wander by Sheridan’s horse in the Smithsonian today than purposely visit Sheridan’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery on an average day. The man is gone, but the horse’s hide is enshrined and visible, ensuring that a piece of tangible memory still stands to remind generations about the Union victory day at Cedar Creek.

In an interesting contrast between the two preserved Civil War horses (ones preserved with fully intact hides), one is often framed as the horse that carried “Stonewall” Jackson on his fateful ride at Chancellorsville and the other is the horse that carried Sheridan to victory at Cedar Creek. Whether intentionally or not in its current museum display, Little Sorrel is often associated with aspects of the Lost Cause and the night the Confederacy lost Jackson as a battlefield commander. By contrast, Winchester is an icon of a Union victory. Also, both horses are connected to the Shenandoah Valley and could possibly be seen as visible representations of the 1862 and 1864 Campaigns in that region, though to my knowledge they are not generally interpreted together or in that way.

Whether you think its cool, weird, or just a mote point that Jackson and Sheridan’s famous horses were “preserved,” these “artifacts” of war do offer an opportunity to stop and ponder aspects of Civil War memory. Memory takes twists and turns as time goes on, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes just very strange. And it’s okay to wonder about or acknowledge that along the way!

5 Responses to Why “Stuff” A Horse?

  1. Circa 1985 you could touch Little Sorrel’s hide. The museum has had some upgrades since then and he’s now protected behind glass. If you go to see Little Sorrel at VMI, you’ll have the chance to view a fine display of civil war weaponry, including a compressed air gun that killed without smoke and without sound. While there, set some time aside for visiting the George Marshall museum across the parade ground. And while in Lexington, Stonewall’s old home offers tours, and he has a statue at his gravesite in the local cemetery.

  2. As ia docent at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Rienzi/Winchester is part of my highlights tour. He’s located very near the Appomattox surrender table, which was purchased by General Sheridan and gifted to Libby Custer.

  3. There’s something about preserving a horse like this that does not seem right. Thank you for the post!

  4. Roy Rogers mounted his horse, Trigger. Dale Evans did the same with her horse, Buttermilk. They even included their dog, Bullet. I used to think that was a bit macabre. But, every Army post, every Air Force base today displays tanks, Jeeps, trucks from most major wars. I think every veteran wants the opportunity to tell his/her grandkids “I rode in one just like it.”

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