The taxidermist set Winchester's head slightly lifted, ears cocked and a forehoof poised — the picture of the old campaigner listening for the rumble of a distant fight. Winchester is magnificent; 16 hands high, jet black and wearing a general's saddle trappings, he stands in the Hall of Armed Forces History at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
He was a big gelding who caught the eye of a Union colonel, a swarthy Irishman from rural Ohio with long arms, short legs and an unforgettable bullet-shaped head. Phil Sheridan named the horse Rienzi, after the Mississippi town in which Sheridan's troops had been encamped, and rode him over the next three years through 45 engagements including 19 pitched battles and two cavalry raids. Along the way, Rienzi became so famous that he was briefly a factor in the Presidential election of 1864 and a staple of patriotic entertainment for veterans, Republicans and schoolchildren for a half-century.
A poem, "Sheridan's Ride," was written by a minor painter and versifier named Thomas Buchanan Read. It was used shamelessly to promote the Northern war effort. Whatever its literary flaws, Read's poem captured one image indelibly — a powerful horse carrying a determined man into battle.
They must have been a sight, the horse who measured 5 feet 8 at the shoulder and his master who stood 5 feet 5 in his boots. Soldiers snickered that "Little Phil" shinnied up his saber to Rienzi's saddle, but there were no snickers on October 19, 1864, when horse and rider appeared through the smoke at Cedar Creek to stem certain defeat in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan's army had been surprised at dawn and driven from their camp by Jubal Early's Confederate veterans. Returning from Washington, Sheridan had spent the night up the valley in Winchester and awoke to distant gunfire. The Confederate assault had smashed the Union left, sending survivors pelting up the valley turnpike toward Winchester. The Union center made a brief stand, then fell back, nervously awaiting Early's next charge.
Sheridan and Rienzi, meanwhile, were heading south from Winchester, toward the sound of the guns. After cresting a ridge, Sheridan recalled, "there burst upon our view the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army . . . throngs of unhurt but utterly demoralized [men] and baggage wagons by the score, all pressing to the rear. . . ."
Sheridan dashed forward, waving his hat so the troops would see him. Some cheered and found new heart. Some kept running. But the rolling sound of cheering followed Sheridan and the well-lathered Rienzi as the general rode up to a rise where a few rattled Union commanders had gathered.
He quickly took verbal reports. Then wheeling Rienzi, he jumped a rail barricade, rode forward and turned to face the men behind him. "Men, by God, we'll whip them yet," he bellowed. "We'll sleep in our old camps tonight." The troops jumped forward, roaring. A private who saw Sheridan ride into sight remembered thinking, "No more doubt or chance for doubt existed; we were safe, and every man knew it."
Twelve days later in Cincinnati, Tom Read was talking with James Murdoch, a matinee idol scheduled to read patriotic verse at a war benefit that evening. Read's brother-in-law walked in, carrying Harper's Weekly with a battlefield sketch by Thomas Nast of Sheridan riding Rienzi toward Cedar Creek. "Buck, there's a poem in that picture," he said.
Read regarded poetry as a sideline to painting. On a visit to Boston he had met Longfellow and was inspired to add versifying to his repertoire. In 1853 Read left for Italy to crank out portraits and allegorical paintings, as well as a 276-page verse narration about the American Revolution.
The outbreak of the Civil War saw him hurrying back to Cincinnati to offer his rhetorical services to a local general, Lew Wallace, of subsequent Ben Hur fame. As a staff volunteer, recruiter and anti-Copperhead propagandist, Read sometimes also helped James Murdoch with his inspirational platform work. Looking at Sheridan's picture in Harper's, the actor wondered if Read might attempt something topical for that evening's performance.