A Ghoulish Relic from a Horse’s Death along the Valley Pike

There are weird things in American Civil War history…and then there are weird things. It’s October 31st and time to retrieve something very strange or ghoulish for discussion, so how about the preserved hoof of a horse?

That’s right. A horse’s hoof. And, no, it wasn’t preserved by accident. The thing has a decoupage label and art stuck to it. It has a story, of course. (And you thought “stuffed” Rienzi was weird?)

Turner Ashby’s horse hoof (Museum of the Confederacy Collection: Alan Thompson, photographer)

Here’s the transcription of that label:

Dr. C. C. Henkel’s Drugstore, New Market, Va.

1862, April 17

Genl Turner Ashby White Horse’s Hoof

Killed or shot & died in a few hours – Near New Market, Va, on Valley Pike

Here’s a better preserved rendition of the image stuck on the side of the horse hoof:

https://www.rarenewspapers.com/view/582456

To unravel the history of this strange war relic, we have to first pull back the layers of memory and get to the facts about Turner Ashby, his famous horse named “Tom Telegraph,” and what really happened in 1862 along the Valley Pike.

Born in 1828 in Faquier County, Virginia, Turner Ashby had been a horseman from his youth, often winning tournaments and equestrian games. He had moderate success as a farmer and businessman and he ran for political office on a Whig ticket before the break up of that party. He had also been involved in “cavalry militia” from an early age, and his devotion to the concept increased after John Brown’s Raid in 1859. In the early days of the Civil War, Ashby rallied militia cavalrymen and headed for Harpers Ferry, trying to capture the arsenal before Federal troops burned it. His brother’s mortal wounding and painful death shook Ashby and may have influenced his future actions and what he permitted his cavalrymen to do. However, 1860’s writers and legend makers had a field day with the incident, declaring that Ashby broke his brother’s sword and swore a revenge oath — adding to the drama and chivalry that grew around Ashby’s name. Ultimately, Turner Ashby commanded the 7th Virginia Cavalry until his death, and he fought in the 1862 Valley Campaign and during his lifetime was more popular among the soldiers and civilians than Stonewall Jackson.

Ashby’s first noted war horse, simply known as “The Black Charger”, died at Kelly’s Island in 1861. A civilian admirer gifted a bay horse worth $500 to Ashby, but the horse destined for fame and connected to all the famous Ashby stories was a white stallion named Tom Telegraph.

Even a Union soldier wrote something admiring about Tom Telegraph: “The horse is disciplined…to accomplish the most wonderful feats. He will drop to the ground in a flash, at the wish of his rider, and rise again as suddenly, bound through the woods like a deer, avoiding trees and branches, clearing every obstacle, jumping fences or ditches with perfect ease.”[i] The white horse image played nicely into the Confederate desire for chivalry and cavaliers both during and after the war.

However, the romance of Ashby and his white horse did not always translate to success in the operations of cavalry during the Valley Campaign. Ashby “commanded” the 7th Virginia Cavalry; nearly brigade size this unwieldy group of horsemen liked to dash off and do things their own way. They infrequently operated as effective cavalrymen in the 1860’s sense, and Stonewall Jackson was often less than pleased with Ashby’s way of doing things. While some have argued that Ashby’s genius lay in his understanding of the “independent spirit” of his horsemen and contributed to his popularity with soldiers and civilians, the lack of discipline proved constantly troublesome.

In April 1862 – after the defeat at Kernstown – the Confederate army retreated up (south) the Shenandoah Valley. About five miles north of the town of the New Market sits Rude’s Hill, a prime defensive piece of high ground overlooking almost a mile a flat ground known as Meem’s Bottom. The North Fork of the Shenandoah River borders Meem’s Bottom to the north, with a bridge allowing the Valley Pike to connect to the village of Mount Jackson beyond the river. This location and bridge were often contested during the war, and April 1862 proved no exception.

Meem’s Bottom – view from the river across the flat ground, toward Rude’s Hill. New Market Gap is visible in the background. Route 11/Old Valley Pike is at the right of the photo. This ground was the scene of Tom Telegraph’s final gallop. (Photo by author, 2018)

On April 17, “Ashby, with a small squadron of cavalry, had gone across…to watch the enemy.” Henry K. Douglas, a young officer recently appointed to Jackson’s staff, sat on Rude’s Hill with some artillery, observing the scene in the flat ground ahead of him; he later wrote about the following action.

“I had been there but a little while when I observed the Confederate cavalry return and cross the bridge. I knew the Federals were close at hand. In a few minutes a heavy dust announced their approach; a regiment of cavalry in blue, with sabres glistening, in the sun, came galloping in column of fours into view, led, apparently, by an officer on a milk-white horse.”[ii]

Quickly, the officers on Rude’s Hill recognized the officer with the white horse as Ashby. He wasn’t leading Yankees. Instead, he was closely pursued. Douglas continued his narrative:

“Relying on the speed of his noble horse, he had remained behind his squadron and kept so close to the enemy that at our distance, over a mile, he seemed to be leading the regiment that was after him. The scene became most esciting, as we saw the smoke of pistols. As they approached the bridge Ashby moved off rapidly to cross and burn it. But the two leading files of his pursuers, catching his purpose followed him in a spirited chase.

“Ashby gained the bridge, drew up his horse as if to apply fire to the prepared pile of combustibles, but the enemy were upon him with drawn sabres. One shot from a horseman at his side cut into his boot, grazed his leg, and buried itself in the side of his charger. The next moment, the avenging sword of the master came down upon the enemy and rolled him in the dust. To us, watching afar off, it was a moment of terrible anxiety…. The bridge was not burned, but where was Ashby? Instantly he was seen to emerge from the bridge and follow his troops. Centaur-like, he and his horse came sweeping over the plain. They were soon with us. Having borne his master with unabated spirit until danger was over, Ashby’s splendid stallion sank to the ground, dappled with the foam of heat and suffering; his wound was mortal. The big-hearted Cavalier bent over him, stroked his mane, stooped down and gazed affectionately into his eyes, and the excitement of the last hour was swallowed up in his sorrow for his dying companion. Thus the most splendid horseman I ever knew lost the most beautiful war-horse I ever saw.”[iii]

Tom Telegraph died somewhere on or near Rude’s Hill, and the relic-loving soldiers descended. They clipped all the hair from the horse’s mane and tail. Someone also cut off at least one hoof. So far, I have not found an explanation for hacking off the horse hoof or what – if anything – it might have symbolized. Maybe Tom Telegraph had horse shoes and there simply weren’t enough of those to go around? I honestly have no idea.

The paper plastered to the horse’s hoof connects a civilian doctor in New Market to the relic. Did he take it? Did he trade for or buy it? Or did someone else simply use the doctor’s stationery when creating the label? It’s likely that the handwritten label and sketched were added sometime after October 1862. Ashby did not promote to brigadier general until the end of May 1862, so either someone misreported his rank or reported it post-promotion. The illustration was not published until October 1862 in an edition of the Southern Illustrated, making it likely that the paper was added to the hoof in the autumn or sometime even later.

Post mortem photograph of Turner Ashby. Some sources say that relic collectors cut his beard before his burial.

While Ashby’s heroics, escape, and dead horse inspired the common soldier and prompted new legends, Stonewall Jackson had little appreciation at that moment. Ashby’s continued lack of discipline with his cavalry and failure to burn the bridge forced him to retreat further up (south) the Valley. When Jackson threatened to reduce the size of Ashby’s cavalry and required him to instill some training and discipline, Ashby threatened to resign. In a rare occurrence, Jackson backpedaled and eventually reconciled. The cavalryman stayed, but his control of his troopers did not improve, leaving Jackson to lament the lack of effective, present horsemen at the First Battle of Winchester on May 25, 1862.

Turner Ashby was killed near Harrisonburg on June 6, 1862. His death turned him into a chivalric martyr and allowed a plethora of new legends to spring up. To many, especially in the Shenandoah Valley, Ashby became the figurehead of the “gallant civilization” that “wicked Yankees” were trying to destroy. The war’s end and rise of the influence of Lost Cause-ism increased Ashby’s worth in Confederate memory…adding value to that hacked off hoof.

But it wasn’t just the hoof that made an appearance after the war. In 1865 when Valley war survivors had a ceremony to memorialize Ashby’s death and mark the location of his fall, some boys wore pins crafted “from the hair of the cavalryman’s death horse.”[iv]

People of the Civil War era were relic hunters and preservationists of material culture. Sometimes they stole, saved, collected, or otherwise obtained some pretty incredible stuff that has great meaning. They used these pieces of the past to reinforce their views and their agreed-upon stories about what happened during the war. The image of a horse and his chivalric rider fit nicely into Southern memory about the war, and Ashby frequently held the title during his life and after his death as the “Knight Errant of the Valley.”

I can understand why the stories surround Ashby and why the relic hunters wanted something of his famous horses. But cutting or sawing off a dead horse’s hoof? That is another level of devotion. And that is one strange relic which came from a pretty bloody scene with a badly wounded horse along the Valley Pike in 1862.

Let’s just hope it isn’t haunted…though, now it may be the thing that haunts your Civil War memory and relic nightmares?

Sources:

Encyclopedia Virginia: “The Hoof of Turner Ashby’s Horse” https://encyclopediavirginia.org/943hpr-7183393e945a3e2/

Peter Cozzen, Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[i] Paul Christopher Anderson, Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and the Southern Mind (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 2002). Page 65.

[ii] Henry Kyd Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall, (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1968). Pages 40-41.

[iii] Ibid., Page 41.

[iv] Peter S. Carmichael “Turner Ashby’s Appeal”, edited by Gary W. Gallagher, The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2003). Page 168.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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5 Responses to A Ghoulish Relic from a Horse’s Death along the Valley Pike

  1. Nathaniel says:

    Excellent story and interesting to read! Thank you for writing.

  2. That hunting for souvenirs or keepsakes seems to mark U.S. soldiers throughout the wars. In WW II, soldiers could capture enemy weapons and ship them home. My WW II veteran neighbor had three German weapons, all rifles, from his time in WW II. Band of Brothers, the HBO version, depicts the soldiers stealing from German homes right and left and sending the goods back home. Union soldiers often “borrowed” southern personal property to send home. In the Iraq war,we were prohibited from sending home captured weapons, but we still generally gathered our souvenirs. Don’t tell anyone, but sitting on my bookshelf is a small piece of marble from the wall of one of Saddam’s palaces. Why go to war if you cannot bring home cool stuff?
    Tom

    • Dave Bieksza says:

      This comment reminded me of an official U.S.M.C. publication I have entitled, “Securing the Surrender: Marines in the Occupation of Japan.” Here’s what it has to say about the occupation of the city of Nagasaki:

      “Their second objective was to cordon off the area devastated by the atomic bomb. As Lieutenant Colonel George L. Cooper later recalled: ‘Ground zero appeared to have been a rather large sports stadium, and all of us were categorically ordered to stay out of any place within pistol shot of this area. The result of this order was that everybody and his brother headed directly for ground zero as soon as they could, and in no time at all had picked the area clean of all moveable objects.'”

  3. cagraham says:

    The hoof is in the collection of the American Civil War Museum (0985.13.264). Someone named Dr. C.O. Miller donated it to the then-Confederate Museum in 1924. He included a note on the piece’s history…on a prescription paper from Dr. C.C. Henkel’s drugstore, noting that Henkle had “preserved this hoof and the thigh bone” the latter of which was made into crochet needles that were sold at a church fundraising fair for $50.

  4. Robert Fugate says:

    I’ve seen Victorian era hooves from a beloved, notable departed horse made into inkwells or even drinking cups. It’s not that strange to have preserved Tom Telegraph’s hoof as a relic. Great article, thanks!

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