On Sunday, July 20, 1997, the sky was clear blue over the parade ground at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia. On that warm summer day, Little Sorrel, the war horse of General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson of the Confederate Army, was disinterred from the family plot and laid to rest in front of his master’s statue 111 years after the horse’s death. Escorting the 18-inch-tall walnut casket bearing the remains of Little Sorrel were cadets from VMI. Participating in the ceremony were mounted cavalry and infantry, a fife and drum corps, a bagpiper, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy dressed in the fashion of the period, the Pastor of the Lexington Presbyterian Church, where General Jackson and his wife worshipped during their years in Lexington, and featured speakers.
The tribute and affection for Little Sorrel began at Harpers Ferry in April 1861 when a train of horses going to Washington was captured by General Stonewall Jackson. The horses were rightful prizes, and Jackson handed the horses over to the Confederate government and paid for two he personally wanted for his use. His quartermaster, Mayor John Harmon, helped him pick out the two. Both were chestnut colored sorrels. Jackson chose the large one for himself, which he named Big Sorrel. The smaller one named Fancy, he gave to his wife.
Jackson soon learned that Big Sorrel was unreliable in battle, and his gait was rough and uncomfortable. He decided to switch horses with his wife and found Fancy to be an excellent cavalry mount; one that would stand steadfast in a hail of gunfire and walk as many as 40 miles a day.
Fancy was born in 1850 in Somers, Tolland County, Connecticut. The unimpressive looking animal was little, standing at only 15 hands high. He was a Morgan horse with shorter legs than a Thoroughbred and a stockier body. His color was ‘gingerbread’ and had no white markings. Because of his size and color, Jackson’s troops called the horse Little Sorrel; a name the general liked and kept. During battle, Jackson rode Little Sorrel along the front lines, issuing orders amid gunfire.
General Jackson was named “Stonewall” at First Manassas/Bull Run when a fellow officer said he sat on Little Sorrel “like a stone wall” during a heavy Union assault. In the face of musket balls and exploding shells that Jackson faced in battle, Little Sorrel never wavered. His service record, even for a horse, was extraordinary. Some of his milestones included the Battle of Manassas, the Seven Days Battle, the Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of Chancellorsville. As a testament to the animal's strength of will, Henry Kyd, Jackson's staff officer, once remarked that he never observed a sign of fatigue in Little Sorrel.
Stonewall Jackson became the most famous Confederate general during the war. Tragically, on May 2, 1863 during the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson, atop Little Sorrel, and his men were mistaken by Confederate troops as Union cavalry. Jackson was accidentally fired upon and fell to the ground wounded. He suffered three wounds and had an arm amputated. Robert E. Lee, General of the Confederate Army, relayed to him a message: "Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right." Jackson died eight days later of pneumonia.
When Jackson was shot and on the ground, Little Sorrel bolted away and was lost. Later he was found and sent by Governor Letcher of Virginia to Lincoln County, North Carolina, where Jackson’s wife, Mary Anna, lived after her husband’s death. The horse was pastured at Mrs. Jackson’s home. Doctor Morrison in whose home Mrs. Jackson lived, used Little Sorrel as a saddle horse to visit the several churches which Doctor Morrison served. Little Sorrel was described as a rascal that could undo latches, let down bars, and liberated every horse in the barn.
When Mrs. Jackson could no longer afford to keep Little Sorrel, the horse went to VMI where Stonewall Jackson had been a professor of artillery tactics and philosophy. Little Sorrel grazed on the VMI Parade Ground and was a favorite of cadets. Many Southern States asked VMI to have the horse appear at fairs and Confederate veterans’ reunions, which he did, and Little Sorrel became a celebrity. In 1884, he was photographed with an 85-year-old Confederate soldier named Napoleon Hull, who was reported to have been the oldest surviving veteran of Jackson's army.
When he became infirmed, Little Sorrel was moved for board and care to the Confederate Soldier’s Home at Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Camp. When he was no longer able to stand, a sling and hoist were made to raise him for visitors to see. One day the hoist broke as he was being lifted, and Little Sorrel fell, breaking his neck. A Confederate veteran stayed with the horse, sleeping next to him until Little Sorrel died at 6 a.m. on March 16, 1886. He was 36 years old.
Little Sorrel’s remains minus his hide were buried on the parade grounds at VMI. The horse’s hide was stretched over a likeness and displayed in a standing position at the Veteran’s Home until 1949 when it was finally returned to VMI. Today, it is on display in the Jackson Museum Hall at VMI with other artifacts relating to Jackson.
Little Sorrel’s remains were reburied in 1997 in front of Jackson’s statute at VMI. Dirt had been gathered from every battlefield where Jackson and Little Sorrel had fought. Spectators were allowed to throw a handful of it into the horse’s grave, which was surrounded by wreaths of apples and carrots. A memorial plaque placed at the famous horse’s grave near the statute reads:
WAR HORSE OF GENERAL T.J. JACKSON
Placed Virginia Division United Daughters Of The Confederacy
July 20, 1997
Stonewall Jackson is recognized as the greatest General of the Confederate Army and military historians consider him to be one of the most gifted tactical commanders in U.S. history. He was a Southern hero; a man loved and respected by his soldiers. The same could be said of Jackson’s beloved horse, Little Sorrel, who will always be remembered as one of the greatest war horses of the American Civil War.