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Exploring Gettysburg’s ‘Hoof Code’

Have you heard of this urban legend?

A popular urban legend claims the number of hooves in the air on Gettysburg’s equestrian monuments will tell the rider’s fate in battle. In honor of Memorial Day, we delve a little deeper to uncover the truth.

Equestrian statues are often erected as memorials to great war leaders, letting the heroes of our history books ride on forever as a testament to their sacrifice and courage in war. Life-size or sometimes larger than life, these monuments are really cool just to look at — the amount of detail captured by the sculptors is impressive, let alone the story of the man the statue commemorates. (This might be my adult way of coping with the fact that I may not have been listening to the teacher on a class trip back in eighth grade — I was really just staring at these awesome metal horses.)

Lore states the number of hooves off the ground on each statue states how the rider died: two hooves off the ground means the rider died in battle, one hoof off the ground means the rider was wounded in battle or died of his wounds, and all four hooves on the ground mean the rider died outside of battle.

It sounds like a cool piece of history, but as it turns out, this bit of legend is merely a coincidence, thanks in large part to the battlefield at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, home to one of the bloodiest conflicts in the American Civil War.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of the famous equestrian statues of Gettysburg:

General Meade
Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

The leader of the Union forces at Gettysburg, General Meade took over as commander of the army just days before the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. Despite being new to command, Meade rose to the occasion and made good use of his forces, repelling three days of Confederate advances in what is now called the pivotal battle of the war. Meade made it through the battle unscathed and his horse here in his memorial statue at the battlefield was sculpted standing on all four feet.

General Reynolds
Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

General Reynolds commanded three corps of the Union army as well as John Buford’s cavalry division, Buford and his division essentially starting the entire battle of Gettysburg by accidentally coming across two Confederate brigades outside of town. Buford held off the Confederates to give Reynolds’ infantry time to move in; Reynolds himself rode ahead to confer with Buford and found himself in a bigger conflict than he had predicted. As he urged his men forward, he was shot in the back of the neck and died almost instantly. His horse here is shown with two feet off the ground.

General Longstreet
Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

General Longstreet’s choices and actions at Gettysburg make him one of the more fascinating figures of the Confederate army — his apparent failure to attack the Union position as ordered by General Lee has been the source of controversy between his duties as a soldier and his ethics as a leader. Regardless of where you may stand on the historical debate, Longstreet did make it through the Battle of Gettysburg without being wounded, despite his equestrian statue here shown with one leg raised.

Longstreet’s statue proves a sticking point in the “hoof code” — though believers in the urban legend will state that because this statue is not on a pedestal it doesn’t count. Critics of the hoof code claim that the six Union equestrian monuments are just coincidences. There is no such “rule” in sculpture; the Gettysburg statues are merely a coincidence that makes for a good bit of storytelling as well as a convenient way to remember the fate of most of the leaders based on the way they are portrayed around the battlefield.

Regardless of the facts about the eventual demise of each great leader, the equestrian statues of Gettysburg are beautiful and dramatic pieces of sculpture and represent truly fascinating aspects of history.

Go Riding.

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