Wednesday, August 4, 2010

More About "Old Sorrell"

The story of “Old Sorrell”, Stonewall Jackson’s warhorse who was eventually stuffed and mounted and displayed in the dining hall of the Virginia soldiers’ home, becomes stranger and stranger (even as it veers further and further off-topic).

Here’s the rest of the story:

Taxidermist F. S. Webster was called to Old Sorrell’s deathbed (deathstall?) soon enough to do thorough measurements of the horse’s body. He chose a taxidermy process commonly used with large animals: removing the animal’s flesh and bone, then tanning the skin while stretching it over a life-size plaster framework. (That was the item that was displayed at the Camp Lee Soldiers’ Home dining hall.)

For some reason, Taxidermist Webster was allowed to retain the skeleton as partial payment for his services, and in 1903, the bones, now mounted into an articulated skeleton, were sold to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. They were displayed there with no indication that the bones had come from a beloved Confederate warhorse.

Years pass, the soldiers’ home closes, and the Old Sorrell is donated to the Richmond Museum, where generations of touring schoolchildren assume the historic horse’s bones are (naturally) inside the hide where they belong.

In the 1930s, a curator at the Carnegie Museum decides to clean house. Looking over old records, he determines that the mounted bones of equus caballus might be of interest to the people of Richmond. (“They’ve given the old battle flags back to the South,” the curator said. “Why shouldn’t we give then General Jackson’s horse’s skeleton?”)

It wasn’t until 1949, however, when Old Sorrell’s bones and hide were reunited at Virginia Military Institute. The plaster and hide horse remained on public display there; the skeleton spent its time in a biology classroom or storage area.

The Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1997 took charge of what was possibly the last burial of a Confederate veteran when they arranged for Old Sorrell’s bones to be interred on the grounds of VMI. A walnut coffin containing the bones of Old Sorrell was lowered into the red clay on July 20, 1997, 111 years after his death.

The hair-and-plaster version of Old Sorrell remains on display at VMI.

(If you haven’t read enough already about Old Sorrell, see Life Magazine, July 31, 1939; Washington Times, July 19, 1997; and The Roanoke Times, July 21, 1997.)

1 comment:

Dick Stanley said...

What a great story. Thanks for the effort. And the suspense, as well. (I was beginning to worry where those bones were going, or not going). ;-)