Washingtoniana: What's Up With Those Horse Statues?

In this week’s edition of Washingtoniana—our Thursday feature where we collect your questions about Washington and do some sleuthing to find the answers—we find out the significance of various bronze equestrian military statues scattered throughout the ar

By: Jesseka Kadylak

Photo by Flickr user dbking

“What’s the deal with the statues on horses? Is there any significance to them? I’ve heard that there’s some significance when their front leg is lifted.” - Liz Palmer

Several readers were wondering the same thing, Liz. With help from a reference librarian and good old-fashioned Internet digging, we’ve got it covered.

The equestrian statue, with a horse-mounted rider, dates back to ancient Rome, when military leaders and emperors commissioned bronze statues to emphasize their leadership roles. Eventually, they were melted down and the bronze was reused for other statues. The only remaining equestrian statue in Rome is that of Marcus Aurelius on Capitoline Hill.

There was a resurgence of equestrian statues during the Renaissance, and the style made its way to the United States in the 1850s. The art form became less popular when horses lost their status as work and war animals in the 20th century, according to Lida Churchville, reference librarian at the Historical Society of Washington.

The 1853 statue of Major General Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park is the oldest full-scale equestrian sculpture in the United States. Clark Mills sculpted it in celebration of Jackson’s triumph over the British in the Battle of New Orleans, the last battle of the War of 1812. According to Churchville, it’s the first American sculpture to have a rider on a rearing horse.

After the Civil War, equestrian statues served as memorials to battle deaths. Legend has it that if the horse has one leg raised, the rider was harmed during the battle. If the horse is standing upright on its hind legs, the rider is said to have died in battle, and if all four hooves are on the ground, the rider survived the battle unharmed.

While some statues do follow that tradition—maybe out of coincidence—many statues in the District do not:

• In Jackson’s statue, mentioned earlier, the horse has two hooves raised, but Jackson died at the Hermitage in June 1845, not in battle.

• On the Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statue in Manassas, all four hooves of the horse are on the ground, but he was injured by some of his own men when returning to his troops. He died days later, which means that the horse should have one leg raised if it were to follow tradition.

• James McPherson sits atop a horse with one raised hoof in the downtown-DC square that bears his last name. During the Civil War, he was killed during battle by the Confederates. To follow tradition, he should be seated on a rearing horse.

The handy myth-debunking Web site Snopes.com has even more statues in Washington that break with tradition.

To learn more, Churchville suggests picking up The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, DC by architectural historian James M. Goode.

Have a question about the Washington area? Send it to eleaman@washingtonian.com, and we might answer it in an upcoming column.

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