Little Sorrel on display at V.M.I.

"One thing which forcibly occurred to me was the perfect quiet which horses stood in their places. Even when a shell, striking in the midst of a team, would knock over one or two of them or hurl one struggling in his death agonies to the ground, the rest would make no effort to struggle or escape but would stand solidly by as if saying to themselves, 'It is fate, it is useless to try to avoid it.'" - General John Gibbon U.S.A.

Little Sorrel - A Tribute To Stonewall's Steed
by Michael Aubrecht, Copyright 2005

Also online at: Riders and Reapers

Throughout the course of military history, generals have always relied on the faithful obedience and service of their troops. The fulfillment of one's duty is the prime directive of every disciplined soldier and executing orders under fire is crucial in achieving victory on the battlefield. Members of the armed forces are often called upon to follow their commanders blindly into desperate and dangerous situations without question - and without hesitation. Thus is the nature of man in war.

Another loyal servant to the high command, whose contributions are overlooked, is the horse. Completely unaware of the politics, protocol and hypocrisy of war, this animal is more than just a mount. It is a faithful friend and follower who carries its commander into battle with the same bravery and patriotism as the humans around it.

Many of the generals that we study today enjoyed the companionship of one of these steeds and in many cases the horse's name has become almost as famous as their owners. This was especially true during the Civil War. In the Confederate army, Robert E. Lee's horse Traveller quickly became a Southern icon and in the Union army, it was Philip Sheridan's mount Winchester, who captured the hearts and minds of the North.

Another horse that ultimately became as beloved as its rider was Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's mount, Little Sorrel. No other horse it seems has been honored with such grace and dignity as this undersized steed. Like his commander, the story of Little Sorrel is one of both triumph and tragedy.

In 1861, then Colonel Thomas J. Jackson, was deployed to the most northern point of the Confederate States at Harper's Ferry. His orders were to take command of troops from the Valley district that were stationed there and secure the U.S. armory and arsenal. During this time Jackson focused on both the training of his army as well as the logistics required to supply and maintain them. One item that required immediate attention was the acquisition of horses that were essential for mobilization.

Luckily, a few days after his arrival, an eastbound train full of livestock was seized. On board was a pack of domestic horses that were instantly recruited into the Confederacy. Obviously spooked and weary from their journey, they were led out of their railroad cars and taken to the nearby river for water. Jackson, who was without a mount at the time, approached the animals and selected two candidates with the assistance of Major John Harmon. One was a large, muscular stallion and the other was a much smaller and rounder Morgan.

Within one day, the colonel had made his decision, as the larger and more powerful horse remained skittish, while the smaller sorrel maintained an easy gait and a pleasant temperament. Appropriately, Jackson named the horse "Little Sorrel" and thus began one of the most recognizable duos of the Civil War.

General Jackson's most famous attribute was his unflinching bravery that won him the nickname of "Stonewall" at the Battle of Manassas, (a.k.a. First Bull Run.) A devout Presbyterian man, Jackson believed that the time of his death had already been determined, thus no space on the battlefield was any safer than the next. He said, "My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to always be ready, no matter when it may overtake me."

His unwavering faith and dedication to both God and country inspired his troops (later christened the "Stonewall Brigade") to charge with reckless abandon onto victory over the most dire of circumstances. It is often forgotten, but important to remember that every time Jackson entered the battlefield, he was atop his faithful horse.

Therefore, for every musket ball and exploding shell that Jackson faced, his mount also stayed the course. His service record, even for a horse, was extraordinary. Some of Little Sorrel's milestones included the Battle of Manassas, the Seven Days Battle, the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the tragic Battle of Chancellorsville. As a testament to the animal's strength of will, Henry Kyd, Jackson's staff officer once remarked that he never observed a sign of fatigue from Little Sorrel.

Throughout the war, Jackson's horse, like his men, remained cool under fire. Their loyalty to their commander was second to none and his bravery became infectious throughout the ranks. Due to a successful defensive campaign on Southern soil, the Confederacy seemed well on its way to acquiring accepted independence. All that changed however after the sudden and accidental death of the man they called "Stonewall."

On May 2, 1863, during the battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson's own men accidentally fired upon him resulting in three wounds and an amputated arm. Initially, he looked to make a full recovery, but he later developed an incurable case of pneumonia. In the end, he clearly accepted his fate as part of God's Divine Plan and resolved to spend his last hours before delirium set in, reading from the Bible.

Following the death of his master, Little Sorrel became a symbol of Southern pride and survived to a ripe, old age. Jackson's widow, Mary Anna, cared for the horse until dwindling finances forced her to send him to the Virginia Military Institute where the cadets looked after their ex-instructor's mount until he relocated once again to the Confederate veterans' home in Richmond.

Often he toured as an attraction at country fairs and attended many reunions for Civil War veterans. It has also been written that Southern ladies would sometimes clip hairs from his mane and tail to make wristlets and rings. At the tender age of thirty-three, Little Sorrel was a bonafide celebrity sideshow. In 1884, he was photographed with an eighty-five year-old Confederate soldier named Napoleon Hull who was said to have been the oldest surviving veteran of Jackson's army.

Unfortunately, like "Stonewall", the retired mount would also suffer a tragic demise at the hands of his "own men." After the horse's deteriorating health became crippling, the Confederate veterans rigged a makeshift sling to hoist him to his feet whenever visitors arrived. One day, the sling accidentally slipped off and the poor horse fell to the floor, breaking his back. Death came shortly thereafter.

Following the passing of Little Sorrel in 1886, the CSA veterans had his hide mounted and preserved where it remains on display in the V.M.I. Museum. He is one of only two horses ever to be preserved from the Civil War. The other is Sheridan's Winchester.

One hundred and eleven years later (on July 20th, 1997), the animal's skeleton was finally cremated and his ashes were scattered beneath the famous bronze statue of his master at the entrance to V.M.I. The reburial and subsequent ceremony was due to the efforts of the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and echoed the pageantry of days gone by.

Complete with (re-enacting) mounted cavalry and infantry, a fife and drum corps, a bagpiper, and ladies in period dress, Little Sorrel's bones were escorted to his grave in a special 18-inch-tall walnut casket that was created for the event.

As Jackson would have wanted, the invocation, blessing, and benediction was offered by the Reverend William Klein, pastor of the Lexington Presbyterian Church, where General Jackson and his wife had worshipped. Other prominent speakers included Dr. James I. Robertson, author of the recently published definitive biography of Little Sorrel's master, and Col. Keith Gibson, director of the school's museum.

To this day, Little Sorrel remains as a symbol of bravery and service, not only to the cadets at V.M.I., but to all that pay tribute to the men who fought in battle, as well as the animals that carried them there.




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