Myth #44: The Code of the Equestrian Statues

General Andrew Jackson

 

This persistent myth claims that there is a code in the positioning of the horses legs in equestrian statues that tells the fate of the rider. Supposedly, if one hoof is raised, the rider was wounded in battle. It two hooves are raised, he died in battle. If all four hooves are on the ground, he survived the battle/war. It isn’t true, but what makes it so amusing is that the myth persists, even though anyone can look around at the statues and see that there is no relationship to the “code.” Snopes has the best lengthy rebuttal at http://www.snopes.com/military/statue.asp, but I’ll summarize here.

In Washington, D.C., the American city with more statues than any other, one third of the equestrian statues follow the code. Seeing as how there are three possibilities, it seems that chance is hard at work. In Gettysburg, another location full of statues, most of the horses actually do follow the code, but not all. (General Longstreet wasn’t wounded in that battle but his horse has one leg raised.)

How did this myth get started? My opinion is that it started at Gettysburg where most of the statues actually do conform, if coincidentally, to the “code.” If you looked at three or four statues and found the pattern held true, you might conclude all the rest did too. And we are all suckers for any sort of “secret code,” so that naturally sticks in our minds.

The myth lives on in another format in Richmond, Virginia, along Monument Avenue where Confederate heroes are said to face north if they died in the war and south if they lived through it. Generals Lee and Jackson do fit the formula, but the others (Stuart, Davis, and Maury) face east, which means . . . exactly what? (Actually, if you confined the statement to Confederate generals, leaving out Davis and Maury, and used the direction that their horses faced rather than their riders, the myth would hold true for those three instances.)

The equestrian statues code seems to be an American manifestation of the European effigies-of-knights code, which is at least as old as the nineteenth century. Supposedly, the position of the legs of the knights on their tombs indicates whether or not they went on Crusade. A historian of the 1920s tried to debunk this by pointing out many examples where this is clearly wrong. We can all feel his pain as he wrote in 1923, “Surely it is time that the imaginary connection between cross-legged effigies and the Crusades should be exploded, and yet how rampant is that fiction in certain places, and how constantly it has to be contradicted!”

 

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2 Responses to Myth #44: The Code of the Equestrian Statues

  1. vyletterose says:

    A popular belief – at least in the United States and the United Kingdom – is that if the horse is rearing (both front legs in the air), the rider died in battle; one front leg up means the rider was wounded in battle or died of battle wounds; and if all four hooves are on the ground, the rider died outside battle. However, there is little evidence to support this belief.

    In the United States, the alleged rule is especially held to apply to equestrian statues commemorating the American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg,[3] but there is at least one instance where the rule does not hold for Gettysburg equestrian statues, and syndicated newspaper columnist Cecil Adams claims that any correlation between the positioning of hooves in a statue and the manner in which a Gettysburg soldier died is a coincidence.[4]

    For example, in Gettysburg, the statue of James Longstreet features his horse with one foot raised, even though Longstreet was not wounded in battle. Even the most cursory look at the statues around Washington, D.C. quickly disproves that the hoof code at all holds sway in that locale

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