It’s not everyday that a horse is immortalized in patriotic poetry. Facts became legends when this horse and his general reached the battlefield at Cedar Creek in October 1864. Union General Philip Sheridan’s horse won lasting fame among soldiers, civilians, and veterans through a piece of publicity that guaranteed the steed a lasting place in the halls of history. Literally.
Rienzi was named for a small town in Mississippi, near the encampment of Sheridan during the early period of the Civil War, and was gifted to Sheridan by the officers of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry in 1862. The three year old horse was an excellent gift.
Rienzi was not the only horse Sheridan rode during the war, but he was definitely the most famous and seems to have been the general’s preferred battle horse.
Accounts comment on Rienzi’s impressive appearance. A black gelding with Morgan bloodlines standing about five feet eight inches at the shoulder with a large head, strong legs, and three white sock markings. Most horses have a quirk, and Rienzi had one too: he constantly twitched his tail when standing idle.
Rienzi’s height contrasted with the general’s. Sheridan measured about five feet five inches (when wearing his boots) and was known for his fiery temper. When Sheridan and Rienzi met, the officer was a colonel, still making his up through the army ranks after an unimpressive graduation from West Point and about eight years of frontier military service. Sheridan served in the western theater of the war before moving east and gaining attention in 1864 during the cavalry raids connected to the Overland Campaign.
During the Civil War, General Sheridan was involved in forty-five military engagements, including nineteen battles, and it’s safe to assume that Rienzi participated in most of these combats. Wounded several times, Rienzi proved his equestrian courage on many occasions.
In The General’s Words
General Grant order Sheridan to take charge of the two corps and control the Virginian Shenandoah Valley which was a strategic zone and major agricultural region to feed the Confederate armies. By October, Sheridan and his men had captured the northern end of the Valley. However, on October 19, 1864, the Confederates under General Jubal Early launched a counter-attack on the Union camps at Cedar Creek; initially, the blue-clad troops retreated but were eventually rallied by their officers. Sheridan heard about the fighting while in Winchester and rode Rienzi to the battlefield (and jumped at least one fence along the way), rallying troops along the way and on the fighting field – creating a patriotic moment and equestrian legend!
Later, Sheridan reminisced about his war-horse, saying:
[Rieniz was] an animal of great intelligence and immense strength and endurance. He always held his head high, and by the quickness of his movements gave many persons the idea that he was exceedingly impetuous. This was not so, for I could at any time control him by a firm hand and a few words, and he was as cool and quiet under fire as one of my soldiers. I doubt if his superior as a horse for field service was ever ridden by any one.
While historians have argued about the actual distance of Sheridan’s ride from Winchester to Cedar Creek, how quickly it was accomplished, and how much effect Sheridan actually had on the Union troops, it is an undeniable fact that the historical moment provided patriotic inspiration and enthusiasm. Sheridan’s ride was quickly immortalized in poetry which was read throughout the north to promote the Union cause, and artwork quickly followed.
But horses don’t seem to care much about poems and artwork. Rienzi stayed on the picket lines and carried General Sheridan through the rest of the war. And when the Confederate surrendered at Appomattox, Sheridan rode Rienzi to the surrender ceremony, leaving this historian to wonder if Rienzi stood by Grant’s Cincinnati and looked at Lee’s Traveller.
After the war, the nationally beloved horse undoubtedly got lots of pats, apples, and maybe sugar cubes from veterans and adoring fans. Rienzi was renamed “Winchester” to commemorate his famous gallop from that town to the battlefield. Rienzi/Winchester seemed to live contentedly and safely, actually outliving his general.
In 1878, six years after Sheridan’s death, Rienzi died. But the horse was too famous to be laid to rest quietly; a taxidermist prepared the horse and saddled and bridled the old cavalry mount with General Sheridan’s riding accouterments. Rienzi was displayed in a military museum in New York City until 1922 when the warhorse was moved to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. If you visit National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, be sure to find Rienzi and take a moment to remember this horse and his place in history and legend.
P.S. Want to read the poem that immortalized Rienzi? Here’s a link…