by Sally Colby
Two horses stand on a picket line at the entrance to the Federal Artillery Headquarters on a farm outside of Gettysburg, PA. One is Dan, a 21-year old Standardbred x Tennessee Walker gelding, and the other is a Soda, a young Quarter Horse mare. They belong to Morgan Landis, who brought the two horses to Gettysburg to participate in the 150th anniversary events. Although Landis usually takes on the persona of a Union soldier, he’s versatile and is willing to play any role.
People who watch cavalry units in reenactments often wonder how horses are trained to work so closely, lined up tightly against one another with the constant noise of gunfire and cannons. Landis says that it’s mostly a matter of how the horse is trained at home. “A lot of it is getting them used to standing tied on a picket line,” he said. “At home, I train them to a picket by tying them in the barn. That way if they get loose, they can’t go anywhere.” Landis says that it’s helpful to have Dan, the older horse, to help teach Soda who is just getting acquainted with her role as a re-enactment horse. “It’s a lot easier to train a horse with one that’s already trained,” he said. “But I took Soda out on her own for the last two events after she was with Dan for just one day, and she did everything I asked of her without a problem.”
In addition to tying quietly on a picket line and enduring cannon fire without flinching, the horses must get used to the sounds in the camp such as music, drumming, pistols and wood being chopped. “It’s usually the minor details that we overlook that bug the horses,” said Landis. “A lot of cavalry horses will flinch at the cap pistols but not the cannons. The caps are higher-pitched and it hurts their ears. The cannons are loud, but they’re more of a concussion than a ‘crack’.” Some reenactors place ear plugs in their horses’ ears to lessen the harsh sounds, but most horses participate in reenactments frequently enough that they don’t require plugs.
In addition to bringing what he needed for himself and his camp, Landis brought feed, hay and equipment for his horses. “The cavalryman would ride in an 1859 McClellan saddle,” he said. “Some also use a breast collar and a crupper, which goes behind the tail. They’d have saddle bags, a blanket roll, a poncho, a rope for the picket line, and a picket pin to tie the horse to the ground if there are no trees.”
Landis explained that his McClellan saddle was typical, constructed of rawhide stretched over a wooden tree. He says that McClellan adapted a Prussian saddle to create what would become the iconic tack for the period. Landis says that rawhide covering was used for most saddles, while finished leather was saved for officers’ saddles. A simple, period-accurate wool blanket saddle pad folded to fit under the saddle is the same as wool cavalry blanket issued to Civil War soldiers. “The layers allow the blanket to move,” said Landis. “The saddle takes some getting used to, but it’s lightweight so the soldier can carry all of his gear.”
When Landis and his fellow reenactors arrive at an event, they wait for orders regarding their roles. “At this event, we’re the federal artillery provost marshals,” he said, describing the reenactment of Culp’s Hill Counterattack Battle. “We do a mounted military-style police impression. We keep order in camp, and do what we need to do with artillery.” Landis added that although the unit wouldn’t normally see front line action, they sometimes engage in skirmishes with Confederate soldiers.
by Sally Colby