One myth that is commonly retold is that the portrayal of a horse in an equestrian statue tells the circumstances of how the soldier who sits atop the horse lost his life. The myth is commonly repeated by tourist guides across the globe but this information is inaccurate. This tall tale is not unlike how many tour guides working in countries close to the equator will tell tourists that the direction water moves while going down the drain is dependent on what hemisphere you are in.
The Hands of Chicago, first produced in 1987, is one example of a guidebook for tourists that perpetuates the myth of the equestrian statue. The guidebook explains that a horse that provided the transportation for General Sheridan, named Winchester, is depicted in a statue with one of its legs lifted from the ground. This depiction implies that Winchester was injured in a battle. Conversely, a statue depicting General Grant was crafted with all four of the horse’s legs on the ground. This pose means that General Grant was not injured in battle.
The third part of this myth was not mentioned in the book but maintains that a horse with both legs in the air means the rider died in a battle.
The United States Army Military History Center assures us that no version of this myth is factual. The fact that multiple equestrian statues exist depicting the same horse and rider in different poses would seem to back the position of the U.S. Army. But for anyone not convinced, other evidence to debunk this myth does exist.
Washington D.C. boasts of more equestrian statues than any other city on the planet. One of the first things you will notice if you take a stroll around D.C. is that only about 30 percent of the equestrian statues in the city follow the rules for the equestrian statue tradition. For example, The statue of Andrew Jackson is the oldest of the equestrian statues in the city. The statue depicts a horse with both forelegs lifted in the air and was made to celebrate Jackson’s Battle of New Orleans victory. It is a well-known fact to both professional and amateur historians that Jackson lost his life to a bout with tuberculosis and not as the result of a battle.
Clark Mills is the sculptor responsible for the Jackson equestrian statue in D.C. and is the first sculptor to cast a horse with legs in the air while carrying a rider. The intent for Mills was to demonstrate his own skill as a sculptor. He had no thoughts of giving hints to future generations of how Andrew Jackson died.
There are also examples of multiple equestrian statues of the same person that include a horse that was captured in different poses. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a well-known Irish sculptor, made a statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman that included a horse with a single front leg raised from the ground. It is common knowledge that Sherman had been injured in battle so this sculptor would seem to fit the rule. However, another statue of Sherman in the city shows all four legs of his horse on the ground.
The equestrian statue tradition is believed by many to have started with the six equestrian statues among the 500 total statues that were cast to commemorate the battle of Gettysburg. Five of the six statues conform perfectly to the rules of the tradition. However, the sixth statue is of General John Sedgwick and shows the horse ridden by Sedgwick with all four of its hooves firmly on the ground. However, history shows Sedgwick died in battle.
One would think that with the many equestrian statues that have been crafted throughout history, there would be some written evidence of a uniform code used by sculptors if one existed. Not so surprisingly, there is no record of such a code.
The truth is probably something much less exciting. Equestrian statue sculptors performed their work to demonstrate their skill as artists. And some of them may have even gone a step further and attempted to use their artistic ability to capture the feel and personality of some of the most important moments in United States history.