Besides the myth that the Confederates blundered into battle at Gettysburg because they were looking for shoes, there is no more enduring Gettysburg legend than the one about the position of the horse hooves on the battlefield’s equestrian monuments. The story goes that if all four hooves of the rider’s horse are on the ground he came through the battle unscathed; one hoof raised, he was wounded; two hooves raised, he was killed.
There are essentially eight equestrian monuments on the battlefield. They are Union generals Meade, Reynolds, Hancock, Howard, Slocum, and Sedgwick, and Confederates, Lee, atop the Virginia Memorial, and Longstreet. When these monuments were placed on the battlefield can help us identify when this myth that the position of the rider’s horse’s hooves conveyed his fate in the battle originated. 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.
Based on the correspondence we have in the park archives the myth began before the Howard monument and after the Virginia Memorial, so after 1917 and before 1932. It appears to have gathered steam in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s because our files contain several letters from then superintendent, E. B. Davis, responding to questions about it. On October 19, 1931 Davis received a letter from a Mr. Wayman A. Holland, who related he had recently visited Gettysburg and toured the field with an “authorized guide” who told him that equestrian statues on the field followed the “’standard convention’ where the position of the horse’s feet indicated whether the subject was wounded or died in battle.” Holland explained that he had tried to verify this statement by inquiring at the New York Public Library, the Sculptors and Artists League, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and had uncovered no evidence of a “standard convention” regarding equestrians. Now, Holland wished to know the source of the guides’ information.
Davis’s response was that of a man clearly exasperated by a myth that had persisted despite the best efforts of he and his staff to disprove it. His reply is so delightful that I include the full text here:
Your letter of October 19, 1931 is received and noted.
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.
Very truly yours,
E. E. Davis,
Whether Davis ever tracked down that guide or not is unknown. That the myth originated with the early battlefield guides is very likely. For visitors unfamiliar with the battle and its generals, as they led visitors on tours of the field, pointing out the position of the horse hooves on an equestrian monument was a simple way to have people remember the general’s fate. The more the story was told the deeper it took root in Gettysburg’s historical mythology until, as Holland’s guide reflects, myth had transformed itself into “a standard convention” even though there was no such thing with the Gettysburg equestrians.
Despite Davis’s efforts the myth never died. We have letters in our files from the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s, and no doubt the 90’s and the first decade of the 21st Century, on the same question with responses similar to what Davis wrote in 1931. Even the placement of the Longstreet monument whose horse has one hoof raised although the rider emerged unscathed from the battle has failed to dislodge the legend. It is a stubborn thing because it is one of those easy to remember stories that as Superintendent Davis pointed out “grow up around historical places and are almost impossible to destroy.” I have no illusions that the blog post will amount to any more than a puny effort to unseat the Goliath of Gettysburg myths and that it will continue to endure into the future.
D. Scott Hartwig
Heck, I heard that “myth” (in the last 3years) from one of the current rangers and he said nothing about it only being a myth.
Wow, we clearly have our work cut out for us.
Always fascinating to hear the real stories behind those we’ve “learned” about Gettysburg. Until reading this blog post, I believed the horses’ hooves story too. What other Gettysburg myths need debunking?
Thanks for writing this piece and clearing the air Scott. I enjoyed the read.
You forgot to disclose that if all four of the horses hoofs are raised, the rider was in the air force !! Go Intrepid !!
Thanks for shedding light on this enduring
Curious how it got started, because I have heard this same myth involving statues beyond Gettysburg. The statue of Sherman in New York has the right hoof up, that was artist choice to add strength to the statue. It’s amazing how something like this can take on a life of it’s own.
I seem to recall reading somewhere (in a discussion of this myth) that the “how many hooves are in the air” myth had it’s origins in the Equestrian monuments of Europe . . .
Any thoughts on that, Staff?
I just came from a Campfire Talk where the ranger said that just because it wasn’t written that the hooves had meaning down doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. I don’t know if there is dissention among the ranks of the Park Rangers, or they don’t want to tow the party line but the myth appears to hanging on pretty strong even among those at the National Park Service.
Myths are uncommonly hard things to dispel. There is no party line at the park on this question, there is only historical evidence, which sometimes can be murky, but it is not in this particular case. What I did not mention in my blog post on this subject was the War Department contacted the living sculptors of the equestrians and asked them if had deliberately posed the rider’s horse to reflect his fate and they all responded no. Yet, the myth persisted. I think it did so because until the Longstreet equestrian went up, even if the sculptors had not intended the horse’s stance to reflect the rider’s fate it did happen to work out that way.
I have contacted our rangers who gave campfires this week and asked them to read the blog post if they had not already. Thanks for the comment.
Let us not lose sight of the fact that the “myth” happens to be true. The 7 pedestal equestrians conform to the KIA-WIA legend. It is a good way for visitors to understand who is on the statue and what happened to them. Some visitors may be misunderstanding what some of the guides and rangers are telling them. The myth is only that the hoof configuration was done by the sculptors on purpose. But it does by coincidence happen to be true.
I dont wish to sound like a flip….. Has anyone ever pondered how the horses fared? I understand that some 5,000 were killed at Gettysburg. I also dont know the exact details, but I understand that a Goverment contract paid somthing like two dollars a body for burial. That presumebly did not include the horse carcasses which were significantly more of a endeavor? I would guess that they were burned on the spot? The stench must have been overwhelming. No disrespect intended to the soldiers, but I think the horses were fighting to. Just wondering what became of them….. My flip answer would be…. I f the Generals right arm is raised, than the horse he was riding lived…. Just saying.
I remember going to Gettysburg several times as a kid in the 90s and heard this explanation every single time. I feel like part of my childhood is a lie.
I am in agreement – I am also in agreement with Ralph Siegel above you. This myth has become more than a myth.
One place where I saw it explained years ago in Gettysburg was on a placemat in the “Avenue” Restaurant at the Taneytown / Emmitsburg Road fork in town.
Whoops! I was just there and told my wife all about the tour I took when I was a kid and they told me that one. Then when we get to Longstreet, she looks at it and says “oh, so he got wounded?” I had no idea what to say to that one, but I guess I do now!
I remember an authorized guide telling my family that very myth when we visited Gettysburg in 1994. To be honest, I’m sad it’s not true. It would indeed be an excellent way to decipher a man’s fate during the battle. As I recall, our guide told us that 4 hooves down, the rider was unscathed, 3 hooves down, the rider was injured during the war, 2 hooves down, he was injured at Gettysburg and one hoof down, he died at Gettysburg. Clearly, he took the myth farther than most. Thanks for clarifying!
Cara: I hear the same story –
When my husband and I went on the Battlefield tour, the guide told us about the horses’ hooves. We went a few weeks’ ago and the Battlefield tour guide told us it was a myth. A shame that guides working the Battlefield tours from the Battlefield Visitors’ Center are giving eroneous information to the tourists.
Again, as I noted above, the KIA-WIA configuration of the horses hoofs on the PEDESTAL equestrians does happen to be true. The only myth is that the sculptors did it in purpose. It is pure coincidence, yet it is also true. The guides may not have given you erroneous information, they might have understood your question differently. (As per Longstreet, which is an equestrian that is NOT on a pedestal, I tell my guests the horse has one hoof up because his image was permanently disabled at Gettysburg.)
I heard the same story about British monuments while living in the UK!
Maybe the reason the “myth” persists is the mathematical unlikelihood of this just happening coincidentally. Assuming an equal chance of a horse being sculpted with 2 hooves down, 3 hooves down, or 4 hooves down (and assuming my math is correct – 1/3 to the 7th power), the chances of this just happening coincidentally for the first 7 statues would be 1 in 2,187. Makes you wonder…
Unfortunately, the equal-chance theory does not apply. The vast majority of equestrian statues in the US are created four-hooves-down. There is a strong tendency toward four-hooves-down that offsets the probability, and two-hooves-down introduces a massive degree of difficulty in engineering, so there is no equal chance between the hoof selections. (Four hooves in the air means the general was in the Air Force.)