A Tale of Two Horses: The Inspiration of “A Very Hell of Fire”

How can a broken toy horse inspire a diorama? Strange as it sounds, such is the case for our diorama of Gen. Meade’s headquarters at Gettysburg. It all started with a gift.

“Saddlebred” is one of the first four Funrise “International Show Horse Collection” horses ever given to Rebecca. (You might think that we should add “and Ruth,” but this Saddlebred is Rebecca’s. You might ask how we keep track, when we have scores of Show Horses, but we know our favorites!) We’re not sure when it happened, but in playing with him as children, we broke off his right hind leg.

Then, in 1995, Rebecca made our first Civil War cats, Generals Lee and Grant, and our interest in the Civil War began. Saddlebred, of course, joined the cavalry along with all of his friends. For a few years, he got along just fine in the Confederate cavalry—sometimes with his broken leg taped on, and sometimes not. And then…destiny knocked on his door.

2020-01-18 20200111_163250In our reading, we came across an account from New York Times correspondent Samuel Wilkeson, written shortly after the battle of Gettysburg. While it was probably difficult for any correspondent to write newspaper articles about the battles they had witnessed, this time was particularly difficult for Wilkeson, as he mourned the death of his son in the first day’s fighting. Nevertheless, he persevered. In his account, he described the massive artillery bombardment that preceded Pickett’s Charge. As Wilkeson described what he saw in the yard and vicinity of the Leister House, where Gen. Meade had his headquarters, we read these words:

Through the midst of the storm of screaming and exploding shells, an ambulance, driven by its frenzied conductor at full speed, presented to all of us the marvelous spectacle of a horse going rapidly on three legs. A hinder one had been shot off at the hock.

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Wait, shot off at the hock? We had two toy horses matching that description! Saddlebred, missing his right, and another horse, missing his left. The quote did not specify which leg it was, so we looked at the poses of the two horses and decided that Saddlebred looked more like he was galloping. Having the perfect horse, we decided we just had to make a diorama of the scene that Wilkeson had described.

2020-01-18 P1220575 ambulanceBecause Saddlebred would portray the ambulance horse, he (obviously) dictated that the scale be 2-inch-tall cats, rather than the 1-inch size that we were likely using at the time. Because the description of the ambulance horse is flanked by a description of the horses in the yard and an account of damage to the house, the ambulance was clearly galloping past the headquarters. So, we built the house and yard. Ruth likes making buildings and vehicles, so she made the Leister house and the ambulance, while Rebecca made the picket fence and garden. We based the features off of period photographs as well as current photos of the house, which still stands on Taneytown Road behind the Angle. Thanks to photos taken shortly after the battle, we were able to portray specific damage to the house, and we even found sticks that matched the shape of the trees in its yard!

Today, on an average day in Civil War Tails, Saddlebred himself might go unnoticed, but the diorama he started always presents visitors with different aspects of the battle than they might notice in our other dioramas. With few cats in sight, the focus lands on the injured horses in the yard and the damage to the house, drawing attention to the plight of the animals during the battle and the civilians who were left to pick up the pieces of their lives after the armies moved on. When a young child looks at the diorama, we like to point out the ambulance. They know what today’s ambulances look like, so this helps them relate to and understand what they are seeing. Sometimes, we even tell Saddlebred’s story—how a broken toy horse inspired the diorama and found his purpose sharing history. Not bad for a ~30-year-old model horse!

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One thought on “A Tale of Two Horses: The Inspiration of “A Very Hell of Fire”

  1. Pingback: Don’t Forget Your “Cabin Fever Emergency Kit”! | Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum – Gettysburg miniatures

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