Many of the generals whom 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 its owner's. This was especially true during the Civil War. In the Confederate army, Robert E. Lee's horse Traveller quickly became a Southern icon. 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 J "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, Col. 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 who were stationed there and secure the U.S. Armory and arsenal. During this time, Jackson focused on training his army, as well as the logistics required to supply and maintain it. Acquiring the horses essential for mobilization required his immediate attention.
Luckily, a few days after his arrival, an eastbound train full of livestock was seized. On board was a herd of domestic horses that was instantly recruited into the Confederacy. Obviously spooked and weary from their journey, the horses were led out of their railroad cars and taken to the nearby river for water. Jackson, without a mount at the time, approached the animals and selected two candidates with the help of Maj. John Harmon. One was a large, muscular stallion; the other was a smaller and rounder Morgan. At first, Jackson planned to present the little Morgan as a gift to his wife. But he grew frustrated with the larger animal, which proved to be difficult and ornery.
Within a day, the colonel had made his decision, as the bigger and more powerful horse remained skittish, while the smaller sorrel had an easy gait and a pleasant temperament. Although the horse was originally purchased by Jackson as a gift for his wife and initially named "Fancy," this name was short-lived. Jackson decided to keep the horse, and it was universally known as "Little Sorrel." Described as small (approximately 15 hands) and gaunt, but with remarkable powers of endurance, Little Sorrel was no aristocratic charger. "The horse's chunky lines were made awkward by an unusually large neck and an undistinguished head. His eyes were his chief beauty, being most intelligent and expressive and as soft as a gazelle's," Mary Anna Jackson wrote in the "Life and Letters of Stonewall Jackson."
But Jackson loved Little Sorrel, whom he also called Fancy, because the horse was a tireless campaigner, sometimes carrying the general 40 miles in a day, and because he was fearless in the heat of battle, rarely spooked by gunfire or the roar of cannon. For Jackson, only a fair horseman, Little Sorrel's gait was as easy "as the rocking of a cradle." Indeed, Jackson occasionally slept on the horse. Many said because of Jackson being only a fair horseman Fancy seemed to take care of his always tired, sometimes eccentric master. Leading the head of a great column of troops navigating without any pull on the reins for his rider was lost in thought.
Jackson's most famous attribute was his unflinching bravery, which won him the nickname of "Stonewall" at the Battle of Manassas (aka First Bull Run.) A devout Presbyterian, 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 God and country inspired his troops (later christened the "Stonewall Brigade") to charge with reckless abandon into 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.
For every musket ball and exploding shell that Jackson faced, his mount also stayed the course. Little Sorrel's service record, even for a horse, was extraordinary. Some of his 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 in Little Sorrel.
Throughout the war, Jackson's horse, like his men, remained cool under fire. His troops' 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 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. He suffered three wounds and had to have an arm amputated. Initially, Jackson 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.
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 33, Little Sorrel was a bona fide celebrity sideshow. In 1884, he was photographed with an 85-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 horse would also suffer a tragic demise at the hands of "his own men."
After the horse's deteriorating health became crippling, 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.
After the passing of Little Sorrel in 1886, CSA veterans had his hide mounted and preserved, where it remains on display in the VMI Museum. He is one of only two horses ever to be preserved from the Civil War. The other is Sheridan's Winchester.
On July 20, 1997, 111 years later, the animal's skeleton was finally cremated and his ashes were scattered beneath the famous bronze statue of his master at the entrance to VMI. The reburial and ceremony were 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 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 created for the event.
As Jackson would have wanted, the invocation, blessing and benediction were offered by the Rev. William Klein, pastor of Lexington Presbyterian Church, where Jackson and his wife, Mary Anna Morrison, 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 a symbol of bravery and service, not only to the cadets at VMI, but to all who pay tribute to the men who fought in battle--and the animals that carried them there.