Breckinridge’s Old Sorrel

Recently, we’ve noted how horses built a commander’s reputation. For Confederate General John C. Breckinridge, his reputation as a battlefield commander in Virginia was enhanced by his horse – or more specifically by the color of his horse.

It’s quite a story, and today we’ll share some facts about Breckinridge’s horse: Old Sorrel.

The Name

Old Sorrel. It’s not a flashy name, but it gives us a few hints about the horse. First, he was a sorrel color – which is usually just a fancy name for chestnut. “Old” might imply that the horse was advanced in years, though that doesn’t exactly add up with all of General Breckinridge’s galloping on battlefields; more probable it was a sort of endearment, like “my good old horse.”

Sorrel horses were already part of a victor’s image during the Civil War, especially in the Virginian Shenandoah Valley. Why? General “Stonewall” Jackson’s favorite warhorse was also a sorrel. After Jackson’s death in 1863, that region had spent months longing for a successor would defend The Valley with a Jackson-like skill. When General Breckinridge rode Old Sorrel across New Market battlefield in May 1864, veterans recognized it as a positive omen…and the Confederates did win that battle.

Mort Kunstler’s “Thunder In The Valley” depicts Breckinridge and Old Sorrel at New Market. (http://www.mortkunstler.com/html/store-limited-edition-prints.asp?action=view&ID=283&cat=136)

The Horse

The biographies I’ve studied about John C. Breckinridge aren’t specific where and when Old Sorrel met the commander. Some other accounts suggest that Breckinridge got his warhorses from a famous breeder, and he preferred an Arabian/Thoroughbred breed which would have been fast horses. Originally from Kentucky and forced to flee South, Breckinridge probably judged horses well and would have wanted a fast, steady, and reliable horse.

General J.C. Breckinridge

Old Sorrel’s rider had served in the U.S. Congress and as vice president for James Buchanan prior to the war. During the beginning years of the war, Breckinridge commanded Kentucky units and served in the western theater, rallying troops, holding positions, and galloping across fighting fields like Shiloh, Baton Rogue, Port Hudson, Perryville, Stones River, Vicksburg Campaign, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga before he was moved to the eastern theater’s Trans-Allegheny Department, setting the stage for an iconic moment in the Virginian Shenandoah Valley in 1864.

In The General’s Words

“My horse! My noble horse; poor old Sorrel, he had carried me so gallantly through so many battles and through such dangers, that I had even fancied he bore a charmed life, and would survive the war…”

From Breckinridge’s remembrance of Old Sorrel, it’s a reasonable conclusion that this was his primary horse throughout the war. We do know that when Breckinridge took the assignment to defend the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1864, Old Sorrel was his horse that inspired some of the comparisons to Jackson. At the Battle of New Market (May 15, 1864), Breckinridge ordered his brigade and regimental commanders to dismount and stay with their units, leaving the general, his staff, and one VMI cadet mounted on the field. This battle was a Confederate victory and effectively drove Union General Franz Sigel’s advancing columns back. After the battle, Breckinridge obeyed orders to go east across the Blue Ridge Mountains and joined Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Overland Campaign against Union General U.S. Grant. We know Old Sorrel went east with his general because…

Old Sorrel’s Fate

At the Battle of Cold Harbor during the Overland Campaign, General Breckinridge led his men, driving back yet another Union charge. In the evening dark, a shot cannon ball struck Old Sorrel directly in the chest, tearing through the rest of his body and killing the horse almost instantly. Old Sorrel’s body collapsed to the ground, pinning the general underneath it, leading Breckinridge’s men to assume their commanding officer had also been killed.

Sketch of a fallen horse by Civil War artist Alfred Waud – found in Library of Congress digital archives.

The general’s leg was badly injured, but when several soldiers had shifted Old Sorrel’s body, Breckridge managed to stand. The injury created bad bruising on Breckinridge’s leg – preventing him from riding another horse for awhile – but he refused to go to the hospital.

Although much of Old Sorrel’s history is not clearly recorded, we have enough details from observers in 1864 to conclude that this horse boosted General Breckinridge’s influence and image in the Shenandoah Valley and among Virginia troops and civilians. The horse’s coloring and steadiness in battle won the steed a small piece in history and in his rider’s story. When Old Sorrel’s “charmed life” ended, General John C. Breckinridge lamented the animal’s death, remembering his horse’s “gallantry” on so many Civil War battlefields.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Which general’s horse was your favorite this year? Sheridan’s Rienzi, Ashby’s Tom Telegraph, Sherman’s Duke, or Breckinridge’s Old Sorrel? Let us know in a comment…

And don’t forget you can find the entire series The Generals’ Horses (8 blog posts) here.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to Breckinridge’s Old Sorrel

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    In my work on Colonel Elmer Ellsworth I have come across two horses of note. One was a simple farm horse, a horse-of-all trades, as he pulled wagons and buggies, let children ride hum, and was gentle with Phebe Ellsworth, Elmer’s mom. His name was Mink, and he was spoken of affectionately in several letters. The other horse was a black war horse–male, but I do not know if he was stallion or gelding. There is only one drawing of Ellsworth mounted, and he is on a large black horse. The horse belonged to the army, not EE. After his death, Ellsworth’s father came to Washington to purchase the animal. It cost him–in today’s money–over a thousand dollars. The horse lived out the rest of his life in Mechanicville, New York. This was a much better fate than if he had been left in the army horse pool, I think. I love this series, and hope it continues as more information gets uncovered.I have no faves–I love them all.

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