Original publish date: September 24, 2020
I find myself hanging around statues all the time. On Battlefields. In Museums. Visiting cemeteries. My office. I truly love looking at statues & sculptures of every sort, heck, I even find myself admiring the old fonts on those statues and plaques. Not too crazy about the recent trend of “Cairns” (aka rock stacking) sprouting up in creeks and rivers and along trails in parks, but that’s another story. I do love statues and admire the artists that created them.
As many of you know, I spend a lot of time in Gettysburg- 2 to 3 trips a year. Part of the attraction of Gettysburg, to many, are the monuments and statues located on every part of the 6,000 acre park; some 1,300 at last count. As all devotees of the battlefield know, there is a legend that circulates around the eight equestrian statues found on the field. It has become known colloquially as the “hoof code” and until recently, solely by coincidence, it held true.
The tradition stated that the position of the horse hoofs on the statue dictated the fate of it’s rider. All four hoofs down: the rider survived the battle unscathed. One hoof up: the rider was wounded during the battle and survived. Two hoofs up: the rider was killed during the battle. According to the National Park Service, aside from the myths that the Rebels stumbled into the battle of Gettysburg while searching for shoes for footsore soldiers or that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg, the horse code legend is most enduring.
It appears that the stories were simply created by those early battlefield guides as a convenient way to get guests to remember the fates of the rider. Although harmless, it nearly drove the park brass crazy trying to explain the fallacy to guests, dignitaries and letter-writers for over a century. One letter found in the NPS archives from October of 1931, written by then superintendent E. B. Davis, addresses the issue bluntly, “The story that the posture of the horse in equestrian statues on this battlefield indicates whether the rider was killed, wounded, or unhurt seems to be one of those myths which grow up around historical places and are almost impossible to destroy. Sculptors whom I have consulted assure me there is no such convention connected with the art. This office does not countenance the story. On the contrary, invariably discourages it. It seems, however, to appeal to some imaginations among both guides and tourists. If you are in position to supply the name of your guide or the number of his cap, I can possibly stop one from further reciting the myth.” So, not only did it drive the NPS crazy, the sculptors weren’t too happy about it either.
The statues on the field represent Union Generals Meade, Reynolds, Hancock, Howard, Slocum, and Sedgwick, and Confederates, Lee, atop the Virginia Memorial, and James Longstreet. According to the NPS, “Meade and Hancock were the first on June 5, 1896. They were followed by Reynolds, July 1, 1899, Slocum, September 19, 1902, Sedgwick, June 19, 1913, and Howard, November 12, 1932. The Virginia Memorial was dedicated on June 8, 1917. Longstreet did not come along until 1998 and by this time the myth was firmly established.”
The Longstreet statue, created by artist Gary Casteel, was dedicated on July 3, 1998. Located in Pitzer Woods on West Confederate Avenue in the Gettysburg National Military Park, Gary’s statue is unique because it rests on the ground, not on a pedestal. “I wanted people to be able to walk right up to it; see it, touch it.” says the sculptor. Gary, whose studio is located near the entrance of the National Cemetery and the iconic landmark Evergreen Cemetery gatehouse in the old “Hall of Presidents” wax museum, is still busy practicing his craft within site of the Hancock monument across the Baltimore Pike.
Sculptor Frank Edwin Elwell’s larger-than-life bronze figure of Hancock astride “a horse” depicts the general extending a reassuring hand toward unseen Union soldiers. The horse “Hancock the Superb” straddles was not his own. On July 3, 1863, Gettysburg saw the greatest artillery barrage in the history of North America warfare. The earth rattling blasts of over 100 Confederate cannons and the thunderous roar of Union guns in reply, spooked Hancock’s horse, and it froze, refusing to move. Hancock dismounted, borrowed the horse of a nearby surgeon, and embarked on his ride, one of the most famous in the history of the Civil War. Hancock, fully exposed to enemy fire, rode up and down the line to bolster the morale of his troops who lay behind the stone wall. When aides begged the General to dismount, his reply was, “There are times when a Corps Commander’s life does not matter.” He was wounded grievously and his equestrian statue reflects that wound with one hoof up.
The placement of Hancock’s statue on East Cemetery Hill required the dismantling of a precarious looking wooden observation tower that stood on the hill from 1878 until 1896. But what about that horse? What was his name? Historians have studied that question for years to no avail. Every Civil War buff knows Lee’s horse at Gettysburg was “Traveller”, Meade’s horse: “Old Baldy”. We even know the name of Meade’s (he had two) and Lee’s back-up horses, “Blackie” & “Gertie” and “Lucy Long” respectively.
Reynolds horse: “Fancy”, his secondary horse was called “Prince”. Sedgwick’s horse was named “Rambler”, his two back-ups; “Cornwall” and “Handsome Joe”. General Henry Slocum’s horse was named “Charlie” and General Longstreet’s horse was “Hero”. BTW, in case you’re wondering, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s horse was named “Charlemagne” but he did not get it until the autumn of 1863, after Gettysburg. The horse, a small brown Morgan horse with scars and sores from pack-service had been captured from the Confederates. Chamberlain has no monument, equestrian or otherwise, on the field except for that of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top.
But Hancock’s horse at Gettysburg? No one knows. Likewise, General O.O. Howard’s horse remains nameless (he had at least two shot out from under him and himself was wounded twice in battle) but the sternly pious one-armed General’s nickname of “Uh Oh” survives. So named by soldiers because when the General showed up, one way or another, there was gonna be a fight (he was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions at Gettysburg). Look up at his statue the next time you’re walking the field and you’ll see the empty flap of his right arm (shot off at the Battle of Seven Pines a year earlier) pinned neatly to his coat.
Sculptor Gary Casteel and the author in Casteel’s Gettysburg shop.
Which brings me back to sculptor Gary Casteel. Gary’s statue of General Longstreet is featured on his horse with one foot raised, even though Longstreet was not wounded in that battle. However, he was seriously wounded in the Wilderness battle the following year. The hoof is depicted in an upraised position, making it the perfect place for visitors to place coins, lucky four-leaf clovers and other mementos atop it. Casteel’s equestrian statue, the most recent general officer monument on the field, may settle the “hoof code” urban legend once and for all. Should you ever find yourself in Gettysburg, stop in Gary Casteel’s studio at 789 Baltimore Street and ask him yourself. Asked for comment on the myth, Mr. Casteel answered, “The “code” only works at Gettysburg and over the years it has become “law” thus challenging those who wish to question or break it, like me!” after which he jokingly adds, “It took a Confederate to challenge Yankee rule once again!” Yes, if you find yourself in Gettysburg, a visit to Casteel Sculptures is a must see. Most visitors fail to realize the rare opportunity afforded them with just such a visit. You can walk to battlefield and gaze at statues innumerable, but you can only talk to one sculptor: Gary Casteel.
That brings me to another statuary myth, one that I have been enamored with since I was a small boy. It involves the first American “pop sculptor”, the Civil War, the Abraham Lincoln assassination and George Armstrong Custer. Next week in part II of “Statuary Myths and Urban Legends.”