Horses of War and Peace
by Yervand Kochar
Yervand Kochar 'Horrors of War' Yerevan, 1962 Oil on canvas, 290 x 210 cm
The first shot of the Civil War was fired at 4:30 a.m. April 12,1861 when the Confederate artillery bombarded Fort Sumter. Hours later when the fort exhausted its ammunition and surrendered both sides were astonished when they realized that no single person was killed in the heavy bombardment. The only casualty of that day and the first casualty of the war was a horse in the fort.
The Civil War was the last massive war in which cavalry played a decisive role.
The invention of an engine turned an image of a man on horseback to a museum. The horse was gone from the battlefield and with it was gone the poetry of the war. The idea of knighthood so insolubly associated with the horse glittered for the last time at the Civil War.
The attachment of the Civil War Generals to their horses was legendary. U.S. Grant, being an excellent horseman himself, loved and revered horses. Once he had a teamster tied to a tree for six hours for mistreating a horse.
General Robert Lee’s charger “Traveler” carried him throughout the war, following his master’s lengthy maneuvers with unexplainable freshness.
William T. Sherman’s half thoroughbred bay “Sam” was “as calm and steady as his brave master”. In his poem “Sheridan’s Ride” Thomas Read immortalized General Phil Sheridan’s horse “Winchester” who saved the Union Army in the Shenandoah Valley by carrying Sheridan back to his army at Cedar Creek a distance of twenty miles with a speed by far exceeding horse’s nominal physical capacities. General Albert Sidney Johnston’s horse was named “Fire-eater”. “It stood patiently like a veteran when the bullets and shells hurtled about him and his master, but when the command came to charge, he was all fire and vim, like that Sunday in April 1862 the first day of the bloody battle of Shiloh (Antietam)”.
“The horse of the commanding officer was as well known to the rank and file as the general himself, and the soldiers were as affectionately attached to the animal as was the master”.
This harmony of man and horse has been seen throughout history. “The horse inspired such awe in ancient man that he often thought of the horse as the power behind certain natural elements. In India, ancient gods drove chariots across the sky, some chariots carrying the sun. In Christianity, devastation was brought to fight evil by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A cult object from Trundholm in Denmark represents the power of the sun itself, with a horse pulling the light of day across the sky”. In the Greek mythology “the centaur was a magnificent creature that had a body which was half horse and half man. He was renowned for both extreme physical strength and great wisdom…The centaur may have evolved from people who first saw horses with men on their backs and believed them to be one creature”.
The father of Western philosophy, Plato introduced one of the most powerful images of a man as that of a chariot led by two horses. The horses were called Appetite (bodily desires) and Spirit (passions), the Charioteer was called Reason.
The same Greeks, and the Romans, associated the horse with war, and also the wind, water and thunder.
And indeed, from the time this notion was conceived in Ancient Greece up until the American Civil War, there would be conducted hardly any large or small scale war without a horse as a decisive factor on the battlefield.
In the early stages of the Civil War the Confederate cavalry was superior to the Union’s. “The lack of good highways had forced Southerners to travel by horseback from boyhood, while in the North a generation had been riding in wheeled vehicles”. “The South had been riding before the war, the North had been driven”. However, in the course of the war “the brilliant Confederate Generals such as “Jeb” Stuart, Wade Hampton and Nathan Bedford Forrest were matched by such Union Generals as Philip Sheridan and James Wilson”.
And so the horses became casualties of the war. They witnessed, fought and died with their masters. Yet, there was one difference. Horses were the only impartial creatures of the war. There was neither North nor South for horses. As numerous times in history, once again horses came to help people-anyone, everyone.
It is not in the scope of this article to pay a full tribute to these creatures that so dramatically enhanced man’s evolution in nature. Of all the animals who helped man to rise to his current status, it was the horse that was equally indispensable in agriculture, transportation, warfare, sports, entertainment and many other fields of human endeavor. It was the horse that inspired humans in arts and it was the energy and the presence of the horse that gave a birth to engine and the Industrial Revolution respectively.
These creatures, the earthbound angels, the messengers of progress, wisdom, beauty and might were worshiped by all cultures, ancient and modern alike.
“…Celts believed that after death the soul of a person was transported to the land of the dead on horseback believing them to possess special powers worthy to the task”. In the Hindu ‘Brihadaranyanka Upanishad’ the horse is a symbol of the cosmos.
According to Arthurian legend, once found, the horse with a magical bridle would turn back into a woman, having been previously transformed. This association of a horse with a woman, or a feminine beginning, is certainly not accidental as nothing is accidental in myths and legends.
“C.G. Jung claimed that the horse represents ‘the mother within us’ explaining that the animal has a power, understanding, intuition and magical side that is distinctive from anything else in nature.”
In the bloody war between brothers, in the war were masculine aggression reached the apex of horror and was about to destroy the civilization; it was the cavalry, the horse that brought some glamour.
It was the Feminine Spirit silently following men in their insanity, being their only cure, their unique link to beauty and peace.
It was the Mother, the ancient mirror maja, the eternal Virgin Sophia in the mystical form and reflection of a horse, which once again did not leave her children in the time of confusion. The horse was the only reminder of home and peace, the only redeemer of a suffering soldier, the Mother who will eventually gallop her children lost in the war with their own selves to their Real Home in Freedom!