How We Make a Cavalry Horse and Cat

People often wonder how we make our cats and horses. Now you can find out! Making 200 new horses for “Come On, You Wolverines!” takes a long time, but it’s also a great opportunity to shoot a video of how we make a cavalrycat and horse. We’ve uploaded the videos on our new “Making a Cavalry Horse and Cat” pages. Enjoy!

Upon watching the videos, you might conclude that Rebecca is either really good at making horses or she drinks a lot of coffee. Both are true—she does like coffee, and between the two of us, we’ve probably made over 900 horses since 1995. However, we can’t make a horse in half an hour. Actually, Rebecca recorded the videos in 4x hyperlapse, since the entire process takes about two hours.

Our horses range from ¾” to 3” tall. As with real horses, we measure to the withers, the highest point of the shoulder. The one Rebecca is making is 3” tall.

Originally, we made our cats and horses from Plastalina modeling clay, which does not harden. Now we use Sculpey polymer clay, which is bakeable. Specifically, we prefer Sculpey III and we use our toaster oven, which is great for baking small batches. (You’d be amazed at how many cats can fit on a small toaster oven tray!)

In the videos, Rebecca is using Sculpey III for the majority of the colors, beige Super Sculpey for the horse’s “pink” hooves, and white Original Sculpey. We use telephone wire inside the legs to prevent them from drooping in the oven. Silver wire of various gauges serves for bit, girth rings, and saber.

2018-09-29 ready to bake

The horse and cat are ready to be baked. Larger horses like this take 12 minutes in the oven. A ¾” horse would take 8 minutes.

After baking, we still need to add reins (telephone wire or button thread) and a lead rope (string). Once the glue dries, the horse is ready to be installed on the diorama!


2018-09-29 finished

You Can Do It: The Humble, Versatile Toothpick

School is starting up again, and chances are if you’re a student, you’ll have to make a diorama for a school project.  If you’re a parent, you’ll probably have to help with the diorama! As you’re planning it out, don’t forget to look around the house for humble but useful items, like paper clips, cardboard, or toothpicks.  Wait, toothpicks?

Of all the household items we use on our dioramas, toothpicks are probably nearest and dearest to our hearts. The other day we had quite a discussion about all the uses for (and types of) toothpicks. Don’t believe me?  Read on…

In our current repertoire, we have five basic types:

2018-09-13 Larry's II - guidon2018-09-13 Larry's II - Rosser1. the “big flat Larry’s II” toothpick:

These were the first ones we collected as kids. They came in the big club sandwiches at our grandfather’s favorite restaurant (Larry’s II) and are perfect for supporting clay horses. Since they’re wide, they don’t slide up into the horse and break through the shoulder like a skinny, pointy one would. They’re also useful for large-scale cavalry flagstaffs.


2018-09-13 long toothpick2018-09-13 long toothpick - arty2. the long toothpick:

Also great for large-scale flagstaffs, these are good for artillery sponge-staffs and rammers—or for lances, if you’re making knights!


2018-09-13 square toothpick3. the square toothpick:

2018-09-13 square toothpick - sailorWant to do a sailor on a ship’s deck? The square toothpick is just for you! Since their width and shape are uniform, they’re perfect for ships’ planks. 2018-09-13-square-toothpick-mon-2-1-turret-floor-check-21.jpgIf you’re making the whole ship, using a thin corrugated cardboard (which has enough of a ribbed look to pass as planking) would be better, but toothpicks are the way to go for individual sailors, such as those we sell in display domes, or small areas like the inside of USS Monitor’s turret.

2018-09-13 square toothpick - WagnerThe leftover tips that get chopped off are good for the spikes that the Confederates put in Battery Wagner’s moat, which the 54th Massachusetts Regiment had to navigate through.


2018-09-13 round toothpick4. the round toothpick:

These toothpicks make great balusters (posts) on railings, such as these balcony railings on our scratch-built stern of Santisima Trinidad (look up the battle of Trafalgar in 1805). They also work well for the inside of USS Monitor’s lanterns, where the natural color of the wood implies a flame inside glass.



2018-09-13 flat toothpick5. the flat toothpick:

2018-09-13-flat-toothpick-img_05461.jpgSaving the best for last! This toothpick is our workhorse. Fence rails, railroad ties, small-scale flagstaffs, picket fences, gun carriages, traverses and machicoulis galleries, even a ladder up a flagpole… The list goes on and on. Save the skinny ones for ¾” flagstaffs, the curved ones for rocking chairs, the blunt ended ones for fence rails… I’m pretty sure there’s nothing a flat toothpick can’t make—hence my buying a box of 2,500 of them (and then sorting them!).

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - The General

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - A Very Hell of Fire 032018-09-13 flat toothpick - quilter

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - Machicoulis galleries

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - dismounted columbiad carriage 22018-09-13 flat toothpick - flag pole 1


So there you go. The next time you need to make a diorama (or help your child make one), take another look at the humble toothpick. Although I should warn you—you might end up compulsively saving toothpicks from your sandwiches!

2018-09-13 flat toothpick - redoubts

Scavenger Hunt!

3rd anniversary - shadow

This Labor Day, Civil War Tails is celebrating its 3rd Anniversary!  As is our tradition, we will be offering discounted admission and having a scavenger hunt (with prizes) on Friday the 31st, Saturday the 1st, and Labor Day Monday the 3rd.

This year, the scavenger hunt will have an “Escape” theme.  Unlike traditional escape rooms, we will not be locking you in the museum!  But all of our questions will be somehow related to escapes, rescues, or adventures.  Come and discover stories of escape from predicaments, capture, death, and disaster—all found on our dioramas.

How would you escape when you’re backed up to the edge of a cliff, or fighting three enemy soldiers alone and disarmed, or held in a POW camp?  What do you do when your carriage breaks down and the enemy’s closing in?

Find the answers—and the people who really lived through these events—on our scavenger hunt!  Meet Capt. Spessard, Col. Williams, Pvt. Grine, Gen. Wheeler, and many more!  Our samurai cat will even make an appearance!

Saving Captain Bigelow

img_0093.jpgIn our February 2017 Mewsing, we talked about the 9th Massachusetts Battery at Gettysburg. Here is the rest of the story—the courage and determination of Bugler Charles Reed to save his captain’s life.

As the Union line near the Wheatfield crumbled on July 2, 1863, Capt. John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery withdrew to the Trostle farmyard. The battery had had their first taste of battle that afternoon and now hoped to reach safety before the Confederate infantry overtook them. Just then, Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery galloped up. “Captain Bigelow,” he shouted, “there is not an infantryman back of you along the whole line…you must remain where you are and hold your position at all hazards, and sacrifice your battery, if need be, until at least I can find some batteries to put in position….The enemy are coming down on you now.”

Bigelow’s six guns took up a position inside the angle of a stone wall. About fifty yards ahead of them, the ground rose, blocking their view. At first, Bigelow’s men ricocheted solid shot off the rise, but since they could not see if they hit any Confederates, they finally loaded the guns with double canister and waited. When infantry appeared over the rise, the guns opened fire and continued firing as quickly as possible.

As the two guns on the left fired, their recoil brought them closer and closer to the wall, until the crews ran out of space. Bigelow ordered them to the rear, while the other four continued to fire. The first gun’s team of horses sped through a gate and wheeled into Trostle’s Lane. But the cannon overturned, blocking the gate. The only way for the second gun to escape was to go over the wall. The artillerymen took away some of the rocks to make a gap, then galloped the horses over.  Bugler Charles Reed recalled the gun “going over with a tilt on one side and then a crash of rocks and wheels”—but it made it over successfully.

Bigelow asked his men to enlarge the gap for the remaining guns. As he watched the men work, Confederates on the battery’s flank fired and wounded him in the side and hand. He fell from the saddle, and his orderly and Bugler Reed rushed to his side. Confederates swarmed over the guns, and the artillerymen fought hand-to-hand even while they still fired the cannons. Seeing that they could delay the Confederates no longer, Bigelow finally ordered his men to retreat.

Earlier in the day, Bigelow had ordered Reed to the rear, since he was unlikely to need a bugler in the thunder of battle.  Reed obeyed…but then had second thoughts. “I…might be of some use after all so I disobeyed orders by turning round [and] going up to the battery again.”  Bigelow and Reed could never have guessed what his decision would mean.

As Bigelow ordered the withdrawal, Reed recalled, he told his orderly and Reed “to leave him and get out as best we could.”  But Reed couldn’t leave his captain.  With the orderly’s help, he lifted Bigelow onto the orderly’s horse, then proceeded to the rear, controlling both horses with his left hand and steadying Bigelow with his right hand.

As they moved at a walk because of Bigelow’s wounds, some Confederates tried to pull them down and capture them.  Reed fought them with his saber and the horses kicked.  As the Confederates were about to shoot them, Reed recalled, their own officers told them “not to murder us in cold blood.”  Reed and Bigelow continued on.

Now between the hostile lines, they were approached by an officer from the 6th Maine battery, the next in McGilvery’s line of defense.  He urged them to hurry, since the battery was ready to open fire.  Bigelow explained that they could not move faster than a walk, but to “fire away.”  The battery did so, firing shell from two guns and canister from two guns. The orderly’s horse became frightened, but Reed managed to control the animal. Bigelow remembered, “Bugler Reed did not flinch; but steadily supported me; kept the horses at a walk although between the two fires and guided them, so that we entered the Battery between two of the guns that were firing heavily.” Amazingly, neither Bigelow nor Reed were harmed.

Bigelow credited Reed with saving his life, not only from capture (where the severity of his wounds would lessen his odds of survival as a prisoner of war), but from the 6th Maine’s friendly fire.  In 1895, Bigelow recommended Reed for the Medal of Honor, and Reed received the award later that year.




Campbell, Eric. “We Saved the Line From Being Broken: Freeman McGilvery, John Bigelow, Charles Reed and the Battle of Gettysburg.” Gettysburg Seminar Papers: Unsung Heroes of Gettysburg. Last updated: 17 April 2016. Last accessed: 3 August 2018.

Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg—The Second Day. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

The Right to Life

Several times recently, while discussing prisoners of war, a child has asked me, “Why didn’t they just kill them?” One such question came while talking about prisoner exchange and Andersonville, the prisoner of war camp in Georgia. The basis for the question came from the child’s experience with a video game where, apparently, wounded enemy fighters keep coming at you until you kill them, teaching the player to always kill the enemy no matter what.

013 GrineThe second incident came while talking about Pvt. Philip Grine of the 83rd Pennsylvania. During the fighting on Little Round Top, he ventured out between the fighting lines twice to retrieve wounded Confederates. He was killed while trying to get a third. A child asked me why he did what he did. “To get their stuff?” No, to get them to the aid station for medical treatment. “Why? They’ll just start fighting him again. I would have killed them.”

Can the ideas of treating POWs humanely and of showing compassion to injured men really be so foreign to a child? As our children grow and learn what to believe and think, we need to make sure they know what is right. If we lay the right foundation, they will be able to evaluate outside ideas (from games, books, movies, etc.) and keep them in the right context.

Let me suggest that the most basic foundation for a good worldview is a respect for life. The Declaration of Independence points out that all humans have “certain unalienable rights”—rights that we have had since the beginning of time and creation, and that are not dependent on what a king or president says. The most important one is the right to life.

If humans have the right to life, then preserving that life is the right thing to do. There are times when war is necessary, but war is not a carte blanche for going out and killing all the enemy to the last man (which is why we have the Geneva Conventions). If an enemy has given up fighting, the honorable thing to do is to preserve their life and treat them as a human being again, even if five minutes ago you had “dehumanized” them to justify shooting them in battle. Yes, war is paradoxical. In his memoirs of WWII, Audie Murphy wrote about the strange paradox of gunning down attacking Germans and then, after capturing them, treating their wounds.

Without the basic respect for life—if we do not see a defeated enemy soldier as a human being—we open the door to war crimes and atrocities:

At Fort Pillow during the Civil War, African-American soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered.

During WWII, German SS troops (not to be confused with the Wehrmacht, the German army) rounded up 80 prisoners who had surrendered, herded them into a barn, and then tossed in grenades and strafed them with machine gun and rifle fire. As if that weren’t enough, they brought out some of the POWs and executed them by firing squad. Somehow, 15 prisoners in the barn survived. This was not the only time the SS killed POWs in cold blood.

In bushido, the code of the Japanese samurai, to lose is to lose your honor (respect). This is why defeated samurai would commit seppuku (ritual suicide) to die with honor. This view meant that Japanese soldiers in WWII had no respect for defeated enemy soldiers, since the latter had lost their honor. As a result, POWs were murdered, brutally mistreated, and tortured. During the Bataan Death March, Allied POWs were made to march over 80 miles, in extreme heat, without food, with little to no water, and in constant fear of random beatings or death by bullet or bayonet. Any who fell by the roadside were shot or bayoneted, but prisoners were not permitted to help their weaker buddies (prompting prisoners to come up with alternatives, like speaking encouragement). Any attempts by local Filipinos to give food or water resulted in beatings of prisoners and locals alike.

Do we want our children to have such a mindset?

But, you say, my child doesn’t think that! But the only difference between “Why didn’t they just kill the enemy soldiers (POWs)” and the SS just killing the enemy soldiers (POWs) is a matter of degree. What our children fill their minds with will shape who they become. If they cannot see the “other side” as anything but an enemy that must be destroyed, then they are at risk of losing a heart for their fellow man. And how will they know to separate the enemy on the screen from the “enemy” in their real life? How will they respond when faced with a bully, an annoying co-worker or boss, family troubles, or people with different opinions and beliefs?

027 USwA worldview of respecting your fellow man is not a view that ignores the realities of the world we live in; it is a view that works to make the real world better. Let us foster a respect for life in our children—even for the “enemy.”


Patrick, the Only Dog at Civil War Tails

PatrickCivil War Tails is a museum of cats—almost 9,000 of them! But we do have one dog. He’s not a soldier; as Rebecca says, he’s a “dog-dog.” A little black mutt with maybe a bit of bull terrier in him, he’s the regimental mascot of a group of cat-soldiers who are having their photo taken. Many regiments had dogs as mascots, some of which were bull terriers (now known as pit bulls), including Jack, perhaps the most famous dog mascot, and Sallie, who can be seen on the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry monument here at Gettysburg.

Since his arrival, our little canine has enjoyed the prestige of being the only dog in the museum, but he never had a name! He represents all the dog mascots and officers’ pets of the war, rather than portraying a specific dog, and so the little fellow has remained a generic dog. Until now.

Patrick crop2Yesterday, we welcomed “Loyalty of Dogs” to our museum, and in honor of the visit, we’ve named our only dog “Patrick” after a beloved pet who looked a bit like our little guy. It was great meeting the wonderful lady behind “Loyalty of Dogs,” and it’s an honor to name our cats’ mascot after one of her furry family members!

So, give your pup a bone and your kitty a treat, and help us celebrate our only dog finding his name! Welcome, Patrick!

The Battle of Aldie

Today we’re spotlighting one of our older mini-dioramas. On June 17, 1863, Union cavalry clashed with Jeb Stuart’s Confederates near Aldie, Virginia. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s troopers were trying to locate the Confederate army, and Gen. Stuart’s men formed a screen to mask the army’s movements northward into Pennsylvania. Over the next week, the two sides clashed several times, but the Union cavalry failed to break through and find the main army.

The Battle of Aldie 2 This mini-diorama focuses on an individual encounter during the fighting at Aldie. Gen. Hugh Kilpatrick’s brigade attacked the Confederate line piecemeal and was unable to dislodge them from their position on a ridge. Kilpatrick sent the 1st Massachusetts around the Confederate flank, but the regiment was ambushed and lost nearly half its men. During the fighting, Col. Thomas Rosser of the 5th Virginia slashed Maj. Henry Lee Higginson of the 1st Massachusetts on the right side of his face. Despite also being shot and left for dead, the major survived. He and Tom Rosser would meet again, but not on the battlefield—this time they met in peace after the war.