Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Was Little Sorrel a Racehorse?

April and May are the months when horse racing takes center stage (or at least moves out of the shadows) in the sports world and it’s an appropriate time to talk about one of the most intriguing aspects of the story of Stonewall Jackson’s favorite warhorse Little Sorrel. The odd-looking, undersized horse may actually have been a racehorse.

It’s unproven and, at this point in history, probably can’t ever be proven, but there is a modest amount of circumstantial evidence that places him on a racetrack before he went to war.
Here’s what we know for sure about Little Sorrel. He was purchased by a livestock broker in southern Ohio and placed aboard a Baltimore and Ohio freight train in early May 1861. He, about a dozen other horses, plus a carload of beef cattle, were destined for the gathering Union troops in the Baltimore area. On May 10 the train was stopped at Harpers Ferry. Thomas Jackson, then in command of Virginia troops at that critical place, needed a horse and chose two off the train.
Here’s what we know about the horse himself. He was a small sorrel (or chestnut) gelding, about eleven years old, a pacer, with a pacer’s conformation. He was odd-looking only to those who had never seen a pacer.

Here’s what we think we know about Little Sorrel. He was foaled (probably) in 1850 in (probably) Somers, Connecticut, a small town in the north-central part of the state, an area of extraordinary importance in the history of pacing horses in America. The last full-blooded Narragansett Pacer stallions stood at stud in the area. In the neighboring town of Stafford one of the founders of the Standardbred breed, the great Pilot, stood at stud before heading west. He’s the ancestor of most pacing racehorses today as are the Narragansett Pacers (which he may actually have been himself).
 At some point prior to the Civil War, the horse who became Little Sorrel was shipped to southern Ohio to (probably) the small town of Hillsboro. That town was the home of the brother of the man who (probably) bred him in Somers. That region of Ohio was then the center of pacing racing, at the time the less popular form of harness racing. In the 1950’s a pacing racehorse would have to ship to the Midwest to have a decent racing career. Today, the opposite is true. About 80 percent of harness racing features pacers, but in the 1850’s about 80 percent were trotters.

We will never know if he raced there because we don’t know his name when he was put aboard the livestock train. But we do know this:  William Thomas Pogue, an artillery officer under Stonewall Jackson, was a close and admiring observer of Little Sorrel. In his memoir Gunner with Stonewall Pogue remarked that Little Sorrel was a remarkably fast pacer—that he could “make a mile in about 2-40,” meaning two minutes and forty seconds. That would have been easily good enough for him to have had a successful racing career in Ohio in the 1850’s. It obviously could not have been successful enough to prevent his sale to a horse broker in 1861. Perhaps age had caught up with him.


 There is more circumstantial evidence about Little Sorrel’s pre-war history and the possibility of him having raced in my book Stonewall Jackson’s Little Sorrel.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Abner Doubleday and Stonewall Jackson

General Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the invention of baseball, even though a hand-picked commission gave him credit for it in 1907.  He did, however, have something to do with Stonewall Jackson and his horse Little Sorrel.

Doubleday was a professional soldier, a West Pointer who saw action in the Mexican War and the Seminole War in Florida. His combat experience in the Civil War began just as the conflict did when, as a major and second-in-command of Federal troops at Fort Sumter, he ordered the first shot fired in defense of the doomed fort.


He gave respectable if not spectacular service during the war, rising to Brigadier General and then to Major General. One of his most important actions took place on August 28, 1862. That was either the first day of a three-day Battle ofSecond Bull Run or, depending on how you look at it, a separate battle that took place the day before a two-day Second Bull Run. Late in the afternoon of the 28th Doubleday led his brigade east along the Warrenton Turnpike in Northern Virginia, expecting—as the rest of the Union army did—that they would soon face Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Doubleday stopped briefly on the march near a farm operated by John Brawner and noticed a scruffy man on a scruffy horse on a hillside overlooking the turnpike.

 “I at once came to the conclusion that it was a rebel officer,’ Doubleday wrote later. Another Union officer disagreed, thinking that the man looked like a poor farmer. The lone rider turned and was allowed to ride away unmolested, even though he was within easy musket range of the Union soldiers.

 Doubleday had been right. It had been a Union officer, and quite an officer at that. Later writings from both sides identified the scruffy horse and rider as Stonewall Jackson and Little Sorrel. Jackson, as he often did, wanted so see the Union troops for himself. If the Union army had known, the course of the war—but probably not its outcome—might have changed. As it was, Jackson attacked shortly after, resulting in the bloody and inconclusive Battle of Brawner’s Farm. Second Bull Run, which took place the following two days, was definitely conclusive, resulting in a resounding Confederate victory.


The marker at Doubleday’s birthplace in Ballston Spa, NY, refers to the baseball myth and his outstanding service at Gettysburg. The story of what he saw on the hillside at John Brawner’s farm is not mentioned.




Monday, October 10, 2016

Why I wrote a book about Stonewall Jackson's horse

Seven years ago, shortly before the Civil War sesquicentennial, I wrote a book that was eventually published as Connecticut’s Civil War. It was a guidebook to sites in the state related to Civil War people and events. Given the size pf the state. I initially expected it to be a booklet but quit assembling entries after about 250 pages. Even so, I had to leave some things out.

Among the people who did make the cut: Nathaniel Lyon (the first Union general killed in the war), Joseph Mansfield (the oldest Union general killed in the war), John Sedgwick (among the highest ranking generals on either side killed in the war), Alfred Howe Terry, who at the time of his retirement years after the war held the highest rank of any non-West Pointer in US Army history. Also generals Horatio Wright, Joseph Hawley, and others. The great Confederate cavalry general Joseph Wheeler was the son of two Connecticut natives and himself grew up in the state.

Other Connecticut figures of importance in the Civil War won places in the book: Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, gunmakers Eli Whitney, Samuel Colt, Tyler Henry, Christopher Spencer, Christian Sharps, even Smith and Wesson. All were either Connecticut natives or did some of all of their work in the state.

Then there were gunpowder manufacturer Augustus Hazard, projectile maker Andrew Hotchkiss, ironclad builder Cornelius Bushnell, and many more. Space ran out before I got to one of the most intriguing figures with a Connecticut history: Stonewall Jackson’s favorite warhorse, Little Sorrel.

He certainly qualified for a place in the book. But without a long look at his circumstances I decided that there was insufficient proof that he was, as legend has it, foaled in Connecticut, although the story is surely believed in tiny Somers, where his name is on a sign in front of Town Hall. I thought I would look further for a second edition of Connecticut’s Civil War.

I did look further. The result was that there’s no second edition of that book but there is instead a new book, officially published today: Stonewall Jackson’s Little Sorrel: An Unlikely Hero of the Civil War.  In looking into the little horse’s background, I found a captivating figure, an animal whose persona was so perfectly in tune with that of his rider that each helped create the legend the other enjoyed. Little Sorrel was a well-known figure during the war and became even more famous afterwards. He figures in every Jackson biography, but much of what’s been printed is simply untrue, even in the books of the best of the biographers.

The book is now available at almost all online sources and in many bookstores. It’s a full-length hardcover book but even so, there is some material that I was unable to include. Must be a habit. Over the next few months, I’ll post some of that extra information.












Thursday, September 8, 2016

In Search of Mathew Brady

As an addendum to a month in upstate New York my husband and I went in search of the birthplace of Mathew Brady, the preeminent photographer of the Civil War. We found it, since it’s well-marked and in a location that doesn’t have to compete with other monuments. Or did we?

The marker is on the south side of NY 28 in Johnsburg, Warren County, a few miles beyond Warrensburg, maybe fifteen miles from Lake George Village.  Turn left at the wax museum and you’ll find it. (I made that part up. You actually have to head north out of Lake George and turn northwest).


Brady himself was apparently confused (or untruthful) about where he was actually born. He wasn’t entirely sure of the date either. Through most of his life he claimed to have been born in Warren County, in either 1822 or 1823. A few years ago local historians located the foundation of Brady’s supposed birthplace, on private property in the woods a few hundred yards in back of the marker site.

The story took a strange turn during the summer of 2015 when the metal marker, post and all, disappeared. It required a backhoe or other heavy equipment to dislodge, so the thief must have been looking for something more than the value of the scrap metal. Perhaps it was somebody to whom photography was really, really important. Or perhaps it was an Irish nationalist.

During the campaign to raise money to replace the sign and the discussions that surrounded it, a pesky little almost-fact emerged. There was no written evidence to support the idea that Mathew Brady was born in Johnsburg, just Brady’s repeated word for it, but there was some evidence that the famous photographer was actually born in Ireland. Brady himself included his Irish origin in his draft registration in 1863. The local historians compromised by noting that the foundation was of Brady’s childhood home. There’s no longer a statement on the birthplace.


There is a growing consensus that Brady fibbed for most of his adult life and that he really was Irish-born. It’s a surprising realization about the man who described his art as the “great and truthful medium of history.”

Thursday, March 3, 2016

William T. Sherman and Connecticut's Scorched Earth

William T. Sherman was well into his Carolinas campaign 151 years ago this week as his 60,000 men neared the end of a destructive march through South Carolina. Sherman’s ultimate goal was to destroy the one significant Confederate army still in the field when he got to northern North Carolina. When Sherman met and defeated Joseph Johnston in April the war was essentially over.

Sherman’s guiding principle in the initial march through Georgia during late 1864, and to a lesser extent in the Carolinas, was to wage war on everything except the very lives of civilians. It was scorched earth and total war and it earned Sherman a reputation that survives today.

Sherman’s ancestors actually had experience with scorched earth long before the Union general began his Civil War career. His grandfather Taylor Sherman and father Charles Sherman had left their homes in Norwalk. Connecticut, to move to Ohio, primarily to work on land claims in the Firelands. This 500,000 acre area in northern Ohio was also known as the Sufferers’ Lands and was the surviving part of millions of acres of land claimed by Connecticut, thanks to a 17th century royal patent. In exchange for the federal assumption of debt run up during the Revolutionary War the new state gave up most of the claims, retaining only the Western Reserve, a part of Ohio soon sold to a land company.

Connecticut did retain the half million acres of the so-called Firelands to compensate state residents for the losses of their homes, barns, shops, and other property burned by the British in several raids during the Revolution. Connecticut was never controlled by the British but it certainly was damaged. Four separate raids, each including several towns, occurred between April 1777 and September 1781. Nearly a thousand structures, mostly houses, were burned in Norwalk, Danbury, Ridgefield, Greenwich, Fairfield, New Haven, East Haven, New London, and Groton. Benedict Arnold, having turned coat, led the attack on the last two towns, near neighbors of his birthplace in Norwich.

Arnold's birthplace in Norwich was 15 miles
from the Groton Massacre
The purpose of the earlier raids was similar to that of William T. Sherman—to destroy supplies and provisions and to break the will of the civilians supporting the army. Few civilians died. In New London, Arnold proved a little more bloodthirsty. Although he wasn’t present, his subordinate in Groton ordered the massacre of 50 Connecticut militia members who had already surrendered. The Ohio Firelands were intended as recompense for the losses from the four British raids. Taylor Sherman went west to help survey the Firelands while Charles arrived in 1810 to prove title and do other legal work to help the eligible sufferers.  As it turned out, Charles found more lucrative work further south in Ohio, and his third son William Tecumseh was born there.


William was only ten when his father died and by then his grandfather was also gone, so he probably heard few first-hand stories of the British destruction in Connecticut. He mentions the Firelands only briefly in his memoir but was aware that scorched earth was responsible for his family being in Ohio.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

New Englander Joseph Hooker


Today marks another important Civil War anniversary for a son of New England. On January 26. 1863, Joseph Hooker of Hadley, Massachusetts, became commander of the Army of the Potomac. He succeeded Ambrose Burnside, born in Indiana but better known as the Rhode Island manufacturer of the Burnside Carbine. Burnside failed as an arms manufacturer and he also failed with the Army of the Potomac. The disaster at Fredericksburg in December 1862 led to Burnside’s replacement by Hooker.

Joseph Hooker descended from two famous names of early New England and, by extension, of Colonial America. He was probably distantly related (most likely through common ancestors in England) to Rev. Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford, Connecticut, and one of the earliest settlers of that state. The general was more closely related through his mother Mary Seymour to Thomas Seymour, one of Connecticut’s governors during the 1850s. That relationship was not particularly close, and that was probably a good thing for Joseph Hooker’s reputation, particularly in the latter part of the war. Thomas Seymour thought that there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with slavery (not an unique attitude in pre-war New England) and once the war started he was just one tiny step short of being a Connecticut Copperhead.

Gen. Joseph Hooker
Thomas Seymour thought enough of himself to run for governor in 1863 against Lincoln loyalist William Buckingham and, after failing there, to try to take the Democratic nomination for President away from George McClellan in 1864, failing there as well.

Joseph Hooker didn’t last long at the head of the Army of the Potomac. He was outmaneuvered by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville three months after he took command and Chancellorsville proved to be an expensive defeat for his army. Hooker was replaced in the east but regained much of his reputation at Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga. He spent very little time in New England after the war, dividing his postwar years between Cincinnati and New York.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Connecticut's Confederate

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the death of Connecticut's own Confederate general, Joseph Wheeler. The cavalry commander had a somewhat mixed reputation in the Confederacy, having performed admirably at Chicamauga and during the defense of Atlanta but earning the wrath of civilians in Georgia and the Carolinas for the poor behavior of his troopers while unsuccessfully resisting William T. Sherman's March to the Sea in 1865.

Wheeler was born in Georgia and, when war came, decided he was a southerner, but he came from two hundred years of New England farmers, seamen, and businessmen and spent most of his formative years in Derby, Connecticut. Through his mother he was related to Revolutionary War hero General William Hull, War of 1812 hero Commodore Isaac Hull, and, more distantly, to Union Civil War hero Admiral Andrew Hull Foote.

Wheeler's family moved back to Connecticut within a few years of his birth in 1836 He became an orphan at the age of 12, moving in with relatives in Derby. His wealthy aunts enrolled him at Cheshire Academy in nearby Cheshire, Connecticut, the alma mater of many of his Hull relatives as well as of Gideon Welles, who became Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Navy. Wheeler was living with Connecticut relatives in New York City when he applied to West Point.

After the war Joe Wheeler he served a number of terms as a member of congress from Alabama and became renowned for his conciliatory politics. In 1898 he was made a major general of volunteers in the U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Philippine Insurrection. He was one of a very small number of men to serve as officers in both the Confederate and United States armies in that order. He died in 1906 in New York.

Derby is well enough convinced that Joseph Wheeler belongs to the Housatonic Valley town that Wheeler was chosen to be among the original inductees into the city's Hall of Fame in 2007, along with Isaac Hull and David Humphreys, aide-de-camp to George Washington. Joe Wheeler's parents are buried right across the street from Humphrey's still-standing house.