My friend Mike Nugent, who has written several pieces that have appeared here lately, sent me a piece he wrote concerning the old saw about what, if anything, the position of a horse’s hooves on equestrian statues might mean. You’ve all heard the stories… all four hooves on the ground means that the rider wasn’t wounded during a particular action; two hooves in the air means he was killed, etc. During the Gettysburg Anniversary weekend while Mike and I were doing living history presentations on the battlefield, we heard the same stories being told regarding the nearby equestrian of Gen. John Reynolds (we were set up at the Buford Statue along Rt. 30).
Mike has written the following whether there’s any truth to the “hoof” stories – and the next time you see one of the equestrian statues at Gettysburg or anywhere else, it’ll make you think twice about attaching any significance to the position of the horse hooves.
Dispelling a Myth about Military Equestrian Statues
There is a common belief that military equestrian statues follow a “code” that indicates the fate of the rider. The most frequently heard version of the “code” maintains that if the horse has one hoof raised, the rider was wounded in battle, two raised hooves indicates the rider died in battle and all four hooves on the ground indicate that the rider survived unharmed.Like many legends, the story of this supposed “code” has taken on a life of its own, appearing in print and being repeated as fact by tour guides, park rangers etc. However, like many other myths, the “code” of equestrian statues does not stand up to scrutiny.According to Ms. Kathy George, a park historian at Gettysburg, “Any relationship between the number of raised hooves on a horse-and-rider statue and the rider’s actual experience in battle is merely a coincidence, as reflected in equestrian statues at Gettysburg National Military Park,” Research has failed to uncover any evidence supporting the existence of the “code”. Booklets from the dedication ceremonies for equestrian statues, such as the Slocum and Sedgwick statues at Gettysburg, contain nothing about the significance of the hooves. While some of the Gettysburg statues do follow the supposed “code”, others do not. For example, the Gettysburg statue of Union Major General John F. Reynolds, (who was killed in action) does show the horse with two hooves raised, however the statue of CSA Lieutenant General James Longstreet shows the horse with one hoof raised although Longstreet was not wounded. Additionally a second statue of Reynolds in Philadelphia differs from his Gettysburg statue and depicts his horse with all four hooves on the ground.A cursory look at the statues around Washington, D.C. quickly disproves the “code.” Washington is probably home to more equestrian statues than any other city in the nation, and it’s significant that only 10 out of more than 30 follow the “code”. Some of the Washington D.C. statues that do coincide with the supposed tradition of the “code” include: Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s (7th and Pennsylvania NW), which shows one hoof raised. Hancock was in fact wounded in action. The statues of General U.S. Grant (Union Square) and General William T. Sherman (15th and Pennsylvania and Treasury Place NW), show all hooves on the ground, and both Grant and Sherman died in peacetime.Statues that don’t follow the “code” include those of: General Simon Bolivar (18th at C and Virginia NW), Major General Nathaniel Green (Stanton Square, Maryland and Massachusetts NE), Major General George B. McClellan (Connecticut Ave. and Columbia Road NW) and General George Washington (Washington Circle, 23rd and K and Pennsylvania and New Hampshire NW). All of these statues show the horse with one raised hoof although in each case the riders died unwounded, in peacetime. The horses of Major General Philip Kearny’s statue (Arlington National Cemetery), along with those of Brigadier General James B. McPherson (McPherson Square, 15th between K and I Streets NW) and Brigadier General Count Casimir Pulaski (13th and Pennsylvania NW) also all have only one hoof raised although each of these men was actually killed in battle.The statue of General Andrew Jackson (Lafayette Park) shows two raised hooves although Jackson died in peacetime and the statue of Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (Manassas) shows all four hooves on the ground despite the fact that he was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville.Like their counterparts in Washington, the equestrian statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond that don’t follow the supposed tradition outnumber those that do. General Robert E. Lee’s statue shows the horse with all four hooves on the ground, and Lee did die in peacetime. However as with his statue at Manassas, the Richmond monument to Stonewall Jackson also shows his horse with all four hooves on the ground. Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s statue shows his horse with one raised hoof although Stuart was killed in action at Yellow Tavern.“To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the position and pose of the statue do not signify anything,” according to Frances Pollard, a curator at the Virginia Historical Society.It should also be noted that this type of legend is not unique to equestrian statues. A similar type of “code” was said to exist among statues of knights sculpted hundreds of years ago. The fate of the knight could supposedly be read by how his arms were crossed and the manner in which his sword was carried. Like the legend of the horses hooves however, an examination of a few examples quickly dispels the myth.
It would seem that any connection between statuary horses hooves’ and the deaths of their riders is not an actual tradition, but an attempt to create an interesting story by finding patterns in examples that do fit the “code” and simply ignoring the far greater number of examples that don’t follow the pattern.
Ackermann, A.S.E. Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected. London: Old Westminster Press, 1923
Cady, Steven. “High on Their Horses.” The Washington Post. 23 April 1982.
Gleason, Jerry L. “Confederate General Gets Memorial at Gettysburg.” The Plain Dealer, 13 August 1997
Johnson, Ophelia. “About-Face on Monument.” The Richmond Times Dispatch, 4 February 1997
Santangelo, Denice. “For Longstreet, It’s About Time.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 14 April 1996
Stauffer, William H. “No General Rule About Position of Feet on Equestrian Statues.” Civil War Times, July 1960
The United States Army War College Archives, http://carlisle-www.army.mil/usamhi/refBibs/animals/statues.htm