05 June 2012

Why Southerners Were Better Horsemen

Vengeance at Okolona by John Paul Strain

The following is an unedited excerpt from a book titled, Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers, by Philip Alexander Bruce, published in 1916.


The universal love of the horse in the South, and  its constant use for recreation or display, was also promotive of the military spirit. As from childhood almost every boy knew how to shoot a gun, so from the time he had the length of leg to bestride a saddle, he was able to ride. While still a little fellow, he would perch up behind the negro stable-man when the horses were taken to water in the morning or at night; and he soon acquired sufficient confidence to ride his own pony, the first step to mounting a larger animal.

Before the Civil War, most of the Southern boys obtained the rudiments of their education in what was known as the old field school because situated in some retired spot equally distant from the different homes in the neighborhood. Very often, the only way of reaching this school was by a narrow bridle path through the woods. Hither came the boys on horseback five mornings of the week in all sorts of weather, at every season of the year; nor were they always content to let their steeds walk or jog quietly along — many a race was run under the bower of forest leaves, in which skill was necessary to avoid the trunks of trees that sprang up along either side of the way.

There were numerous other opportunities of becoming proficient in the art of riding; every Saturday was a holiday, and from morning until darkness came on, the boys were using their horses either in hunting in the fields and forests or in travelling to some distant mill-pond famous far and wide for perch and mullet. Every one of them looked upon himself as fully able to break in a young colt however raw and fractious it may have come from the pasture; and many a young fellow was seriously injured by his reckless indifference to the dangers of mounting such a wild beast before its spirit had been even partially broken.

This knowledge of horseflesh, this love of equestrian exercise, was never lost by the Southerner, however old he might grow. Though he might be poor in a property sense, it was not often that he did not own at least one horse, which served both as his helper in working the tobacco lots and cotton fields, and as his carrier in visiting neighbors, attending church, or moving about the countryside on business. He rode to the distant county seat to be present at the sessions of court; and it was on horseback too that he travelled to political barbecues and religious camp meetings. There was no publicoccasion in his life, indeed, which did not permit of this means of locomotion; in fact, at certain seasons of the year, the roads were hardly passable with ease except by persons on horseback; and this custom led many women to acquire the like skill so that they might not be impeded in getting about their neighborhoods.

The planters took great pride in the pure blood of their horses; skilled attention was everywhere given to horse breeding; and universal interest was felt in racing. Many large estates possessed a private course laid off with more or less exactness; there was a public track in nearly every county, where trials of speed came off each year, with crowds of people in attendance; while one of the principal features of every agricultural fair was the succession of heats run by horses that enjoyed a reputation for fleetness throughout that part of the South.

With all this knowledge of horseflesh and skill in horsemanship, was it strange that the Southern States should have produced so many brilliant cavalry leaders during the Civil War? The fact had been noted from the first years of the West Point Military Academy that the cadets appointed from the districts between the Potomac and the Rio Grande were especially proficient in horsemanship as a part of their course of study; and they were thus accomplished because they had been brought up to love horses and had become expert long before they were leaping the hurdles in the riding school on the Hudson. The cavalry was the favorite arm of the Confederate service; the arm which all would have preferred to join; the one arm for which even the soldiers in the infantry had been trained in the first great essential by constant previous exercise at their own homes. Wheeler, Fitzhugh Lee, Hampton, Forrest, and Stuart were the most famous officers of the cavalry corps, but behind those gallant cavaliers, there rode thousands of men, not only fully as gallant as they were, but also from their earliest boyhood just as deeply versed in horsemanship. Again and again, in the midst of flying bullets, while the musketry was crackling and the cannon reverberating to the sky, the song rang out gaily from many "If you wish to have a good time, Come jine the cavalry, come jine the cavalry."

That song was the favorite air of Stuart, who summed up in his dashing and chivalrous personality, not only the finest qualities of the fearless and stainless soldier, but also the boldest characteristics of a horseman who has passed almost his entire life in the saddle.


Michael Bradley said...

The picture is Forrest and his Escort Company. Notice that Forrest is left handed.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Professor Bradley. Yes, I did notice the lefty. BTW, if you'll send me a copy of your latest book, I'll be happy to review it here.

13thBama said...

Since this would relate to some of your previous posts also, I would like to point out Forrest's anti-academic standing. He had no formal military training, and one would think the trained cavalry of the day (before learning their error) would scoff at Forrest as a cavalry leader.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

13B - all true. He's a fascinating man down to his late life conversion. The story of his all night panther hunt and kill as a 13 year old showed the future man in the boy.