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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Who Has Changed You?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is New Year’s week, so it’s time for the annual self-reflection and analysis that often leads to yet another New Year’s Resolution that may or may not…survive the month. Today, we consider a slightly different type of reflection and analysis.

Last year, we mewsed about how character is what people will remember of us. We looked at several individuals from the Civil War and how their friends remembered them, and then we encouraged you to think about yourself, and what you would need to change to become who you want to be. It’s easy to focus on superficial changes, such as weight loss, when perhaps we should consider the inner person and whether there are changes to make there.

Today, we encourage you to take some time to ponder the people who have impacted your life. We probably have many people (in real life or in books) who we would say inspire us. But we rarely take the time to ponder why they do.

Pick a person, whether a relative or a person from history, who has been a big part of your life. Then, look at why that person has affected you. How has he impacted your life? How has she inspired you? What is the root behind that person’s actions or words that you remember so well? Finding the root of an action is how we find the character trait—one facet of the inner person that they were.

Sometimes, the connection is obvious. Perhaps you remember the ready smile that was always on a dear relative’s face, showing his or her inner joy and love. But sometimes it is more obscure. Perhaps someone gave you a second chance, and it is only now, years later, that you look back and realize that that one action showed how much that person valued you and cared about you.

Reading a biography and seeing the influences in someone else’s life can help you to look for influences in your own life story. Did he or she have a motto to live by? Who inspired it or taught it to them? Who taught them their work ethic or passion? Who enabled them to pursue the education or career or interest that shaped their future? Who instilled them with a love of country (or family or helping others or…)?

We don’t become who we are in a vacuum. Little nudges from people in our lives (whether in person or in print) shape us. Finding those special people and analyzing why they had an impact on you will make you grateful to them—and inspire you to be like them as you impact others’ lives!

The Battle of Fredericksburg

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After the battle of Antietam in September of 1862, President Lincoln replaced Gen. George McClellan with Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside marched the Army of the Potomac south to the Rappahannock River opposite the town of Fredericksburg. He hoped to use pontoons to cross the river before the Confederates caught up, so he could advance on Richmond. But a delay of the pontoons forced the army to halt and wait.

Meanwhile, the Confederates reached Fredericksburg, across the river. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps took position behind a stone wall on Marye’s Heights, a ridge near the town. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps formed on Longstreet’s right.

2019-12-14 20191214_130804 cropBurnside determined to break through the Confederate line, then turn and smash the two sections, destroying the Confederate army. Several of his generals disagreed, arguing that such an attack would fail because the Confederates had a strong position with open fields in front of them, leaving the Union attackers unprotected from enemy fire as they advanced. Burnside remained unmoved. After the meeting where he outlined his plan, he asked Col. Rush Hawkins, a brigade commander, what he thought. Hawkins replied, “If you make the attack as contemplated it will be the greatest slaughter of the war; there isn’t infantry enough in our whole army to carry those heights if they are well defended.”

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Two days later, on December 13, Burnside attacked anyway. The Union lines advanced across the fields into a hail of Confederate bullets and shells coming from troops solidly entrenched behind the stone wall. One single shell killed or wounded 18 men in the Irish Brigade. Several times, the Union troops stopped under this withering fire to tear down fences that blocked their way. They continued to within 25 yards of the Confederates before the overwhelming fusillade stopped them. Units became intermingled as more and more men fell. Again and again the Union soldiers threw themselves against the Confederate line. Fourteen charges were made, and each one failed.

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In an attempt to escape the Confederate fire, many soldiers hid in small ravines or lay down behind dead horses. Many did not even try to fire at the Confederates. One bullet would cause the whole Confederate line to return fire. Some men loaded their rifles, then jumped up, fired, and fell as quickly as they could to avoid being shot. But soon the Confederates learned to watch for them in order to shoot them as soon as they rose.

On the Union left, several regiments managed to break the Confederate line. They held their positions for about an hour, until lack of ammunition forced them to retreat.

Finally, night fell, but it did not bring an end to the death and suffering. Some men tried to escape across the pontoon bridges in the darkness, but many could not leave the field. As the night dragged on, many men died from their wounds or froze to death. In all, the Union army lost over 12,500 killed, wounded, or missing at Fredericksburg. The Confederates lost a little over 5,000.

Battlefield Preservation and Why We Care

Why should we care about battlefield preservation? You might expect this Mewsing to be about reasons such as the goal of preserving the ground where our nation’s history was made, the thrill that history buffs get when standing where their heroes stood, or the understanding historians can gain from seeing the lay of the land or walking the terrain. Those are significant reasons for battlefield preservation. But as makers of historically accurate dioramas, we have come to appreciate battlefield preservation in an additional way.

Thanks to preservation, visitors to a battlefield can see features of the terrain that the soldiers had to deal with. We can get a sense of the scale involved, when we know where a particular regiment’s flanks were. Were they squeezed into a tiny spot? Were they stretched so far that they must have been in single file? Was the terrain easy or impossible to cross? Our dioramas take this one step further by helping people to interpret the ground they have just walked, what they have seen, and the facts that they are learning. But it takes accurate terrain on a diorama for visitors to recognize features such as Little Round Top or Devil’s Den. This is where battlefield preservation is so vital.

Our diorama of Little Round Top, “The Boys Are Still There,” is eleven feet long with 2,600 boulders on it. Each hand-shaped boulder is based off of hundreds of photographs of the actual boulders on the hill. If no one had had the foresight to preserve Little Round Top, the accuracy of our miniature boulders and hill would be impossible. Visitors would not be able to look at the diorama populated with soldiers and say, “Oh! We were on that rock! We were near that monument! That’s right in the middle of the action!” Just as importantly, we would not be as well-equipped to tell the stories, through our dioramas, of the men who fought and died here.

Without the preserved ground, the veterans would not have placed monuments and markers. While there is always a certain amount of human error in recalling the events of decades earlier, some monuments are specifically placed so as to mark where a beloved officer fell. The monument for the 140th New York stands where Col. Patrick O’Rorke’s soldiers believed their colonel fell on the crest of Little Round Top. Knowing this and seeing the physical location of the marker will help us to place our cat-soldier of O’Rorke precisely.

Sometimes there is no marker raised by humans, but the ground itself provides the marker. Such is the case with the Oates boulder on the spur of Little Round Top. Col. William Oates (15th Alabama) drew a map showing where his brother, Lt. John Oates, fell mortally wounded. Looking at his sketch and the actual ground, it is possible to identify the location and boulder where Col. Oates wanted—but was not permitted—to raise a marker for the 15th Alabama.


Seeing our museum visitors make connections as they look at a to-scale diorama with accurate terrain and features is one of the greatest joys of running Civil War Tails. Thanks to the historical records and faithful battlefield preservation, we can help people make those connections, see the battle in a way they never expected, and gain an appreciation for what the participants went through. We really can bring soldiers’ stories to life 156 years later.

This Giving Tuesday, consider supporting the people who make such historically-accurate projects—and through them an accurate representation of our history—possible. There are many local organizations, including the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation which has preserved trenches from the Battle of Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (which, by the way, is Ruth’s favorite battle, and the subject of a future Civil War Tails diorama!). If you would like to support preservation on a national scale, the American Battlefield Trust is an extremely successful and efficient organization. Previously known as the Civil War Preservation Trust, the ABT now preserves sites not only from the Civil War, but also the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. A recent example of their work is the restored Lee’s Headquarters, here at Gettysburg, where we can finally see the house as it stood 156 years ago.

By preserving battlefields, historical sites, and historical buildings and objects, we can have an impact on someone far in the future. The first person to think of preserving land at Gettysburg could never imagine the impact the National Military Park would have. They certainly never would have guessed that preserving the land would allow for a historically accurate diorama with several thousand clay cat-soldiers and 2,600 clay rocks depicting what happened here!

The Adventures of the Headless Horsecat

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‘Twas a dark and stormy night…. and the Headless Horsecat was spotted at Civil War Tails! He was caught on camera, climbing the rigging of USS Housatonic–but why??

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Looks like he was channeling the storm’s lightning into St. Elmo’s Fire!!

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We hope everyone had a safe and happy Halloween!

Custer’s Smoking Steeds at Cedar Creek

Today, on the anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek, we’re taking a look at Gen. George Custer’s thrilling involvement. We’ve Mewsed on his actions as a new brigade commander at Gettysburg, and today is a good opportunity to check in on him as a division commander a year and a half later.

20180910_225729Custer had been in command of the 3rd Cavalry Division of Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah for less than three weeks. Even so, his men had already adopted the red neckties that his old Wolverines had adopted after Gettysburg, and called themselves “The Red Tie Boys.”

On the morning of October 19, 1864, Sheridan’s army lay peacefully sleeping on the banks of Cedar Creek, south of Middletown, VA, in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan, returning from a meeting in Washington, was in Winchester, about twelve miles away. Around 4:00 or 4:30 a.m., firing erupted a couple miles to the west of the army as two brigades of Confederate cavalry under Gen. Tom Rosser sought to cross Cedar Creek and drive in the pickets of the 7th Michigan, some of Custer’s old Wolverines but now part of Gen. Wesley Merritt’s 1st Division. Hearing the firing, both Merritt and Custer roused their cavalrymen, but the Confederates halted and did not press the attack, content to hold the ford.

At 5:00 a.m., the Union infantry was rudely awakened as thousands of Confederates opened fire from the heavy fog that hung over the ground in the predawn darkness. Confederate major D. A. Grimsley noted that the attack “was not ushered in by a few preliminary shots, as was generally the case, but it was a prolonged roll, without cessation.” It was an ominous beginning to a disastrous morning. For the next five hours, the Union army fought, even as it ran for its life. Confederate captain Augustus Dickert recalled that “the country behind [the Union camp] was one living sea of men and horses—all fleeing for life and safety.” Union divisions fought to hold their positions but were overwhelmed, either by Confederates appearing out of the fog, or by the waves of retreating Union soldiers. It was a mix of unchecked rout and dogged delaying actions.

By 8:00 a.m., the only organized Union infantry on the field was Gen. George Getty’s division of the VI Corps. Together with their artillery and some cavalry on their left, they faced three—and soon a fourth—Confederate divisions riding the tide of wild success.

Meanwhile, the cavalry under Custer and Merritt sat motionless in their camps, mounted and ready to go but without orders. Finally, around 9:00 a.m., orders came for both divisions to head to the Union left to secure the Valley Pike. Leaving one brigade behind to keep Rosser at bay, Custer took his remaining brigade—under Col. Alexander Pennington, who had been his artillery commander at Gettysburg’s East Cavalry Field—away to the aid of Getty’s beleaguered division.

By 10:00 or so, Getty’s division formed the keystone of a semblance of a Union line. Remnants of the army’s three corps had formed on either end of his line, and the cavalry hovered on his left. Col. James Kidd, commanding the Michigan Brigade, recalled seeing his former commander Custer “chafing like a caged lion” at their inaction. The Army of the Shenandoah had been chewed to pieces, but the defeat had made them mad and determined. Now they stood awaiting the next attack.

But the Confederates did not come. Whether because of exhaustion, disorganization, or plundering the Union camps, the Confederate onslaught stalled. During that pause, the tide of battle took a sudden turn. A veteran of Getty’s division recalled, “There we stood, driven four miles already, quietly waiting for what might be further and immediate disaster, while far in the rear we heard the stragglers and hospital bummers, and the gunless artillerymen actually cheering as though a victory had been won. We could hardly believe our ears.”

Why the cheering? Sheridan had returned! His presence electrified the battered army. One of Getty’s staff officers recalled, “Hope and confidence returned at a bound. …Now we all burned to attack the enemy, to drive him back, to retrieve our honor and sleep in our old camps that night. And every man knew that Sheridan would do it.” Sheridan immediately began preparing a counterattack.

Sheridan sent Custer back to the right of the Union line. Custer found Rosser stirring, and charged the Confederate cavalry’s flank, catching the gray troopers by surprise. The line broke, but a sudden counterattack by a group of fifty halted the blue column. Rosser withdrew across Cedar Creek and, rather than pursue him and widen the gap between his cavalry and the Union line, Custer headed back to form his division alongside the XIX Corps.

It was now noon, and a lull descended for several hours. Shortly before 4:00 p.m., just as the Union army was about to begin its counterattack, Custer looked to his right and saw Rosser’s skirmishers advancing. After a day of mostly inaction, Rosser had picked a good time to be annoying. Taking some of Pennington’s brigade and a battery, Custer drove the skirmishers back. Seeing Rosser’s division beyond, he ordered Pennington to attack with his full brigade, then leave one regiment facing Rosser and rejoin Custer in the attack with the infantry. The resulting charge drove the Confederates to the creek.

Meanwhile the Union infantry began their advance, doggedly slugging away at the Confederate positions. The rightmost brigade managed to take some breastworks, only to have a Confederate brigade appear on their flank. Wheeling, the Union troops stopped them. Sheridan appeared then, telling the men, “You are doing splendidly, but don’t be in too much haste. Now lie down right where you are, and wait until you see General Custer come down over those hills, and then, by G–, I want you to push the rebels!”

Moments later, as the infantry resumed their advance, Private Herbert Hill recalled, “We caught sight for a moment of the dashing Custer, that prince of horsemen, on an opposite eminence toward the setting sun, as he started with his famous division on that fierce charge.” Custer’s cavalry came down on the Confederate skirmish line, only to find the main line already running. Between the Union infantry in front and the threat of cavalry flanking them, the weary Confederates had had enough. The line crumbled, regiments and brigades one after the other, like dominoes falling from left to right.

The Union infantry charged, driving the Confederates before them in confusion and chaos. Pvt. Hill of the 8th Vermont found his regiment “overlooking…a great, rushing, turbulent, retreating army, without line or apparent organization, hurrying and crowding on in mad retreat.” The sound of battle died away, now that the Confederate artillery was bent on escape and the infantry was too busy running to use their rifles—if they still carried them. 20191010_141642 crop zekeGen. John Gordon, struggling to stem the tide, recalled,  “As the tumult of battle died away, there came from the north side of the plain a dull, heavy, swelling sound like the roaring of a distant cyclone, the omen of additional disaster.” The Union cavalry, coming down on both flanks! At that point, “all effort at orderly retreat was abandoned.” In the 10th Vermont, the chaplain recalled, “We chased them to Cedar Creek…The infantry halted on the banks of the creek; then came the smoking steeds of Custar [sic].”

Custer’s goal was to get beyond the Confederates and take the bridge of the Valley Pike over Cedar Creek, thereby bagging the entire Army of the Valley. But the swarms of Confederates were retreating so quickly that he saw he would not make it. So, ordering the rest of his regiments to come as soon as they could, he took the 1st Vermont and the 5th New York, jumped into a ravine, and headed upstream to a ford about a quarter mile from the bridge. Crossing unseen, the two regiments formed and headed in the direction of the Pike.

Suddenly, Confederates opened fire on a squadron of the 1st Vermont from behind rough breastworks of stones and fence rails. The Union troopers could see about 5,000 Confederates trying to reform their line and knew they didn’t have much time. Col. J. W. Bennett of the 1st Vermont told Custer, “If I am to charge them it must be at once, for if they reform they will empty every saddle before I can reach them.”

“That is so,” Custer replied. “When you go, throw in every man you have, and I will take care of you.”

The Red Tie Boys charged, the 5th New York on the left and the 1st Vermont on the right. Leaping the breastworks, they slashed through the infantry and galloped on to the Pike. With Custer reaching the Pike (and Merritt’s cavalry coming down from the Union left), the pursuit of the army became, in Custer’s words, “an exciting chase after a panic-stricken, uncontrollable mob.” On the macadamized limestone pike, the pounding hooves of the galloping regiments sounded like ten thousand troopers, lending even more fear to the chaos. Only darkness ended the pursuit—although one Union artilleryman recalled hearing the shots of Custer’s cavalry until midnight.

It was around 9:00 p.m. when a jubilant Custer returned to Sheridan’s headquarters. Sheridan, known for his Irish temper and hard-headed determination, was equally ecstatic and pulled him from his horse, exclaiming, “You have done it for me this time, Custer!”

Custer grabbed his army commander around the waist, lifted him off the ground, and whirled him around and around. “By G–, Phil!” he shouted, “We’ve cleaned them out of their guns and got ours back!” His comment wasn’t far from the truth. The 1st Vermont alone had captured 161 prisoners (including a general, colonel, and lieutenant colonel), 3 flags, 23 guns, 14 caissons, 17 wagons, 6 ambulances, 83 artillery harnesses, 75 wagon harnesses, 98 horses, and 69 mules. The 5th New York captured another 22 guns.

After the spectacular victory, Sheridan recommended Getty, Merritt, and Custer for promotion.