Friday, December 04, 2020

The remarkable life of bullet-scarred warhorse Dixie Bill

In an enlargement of a Harper's Weekly illustration, Colonel Sylvester Hill tumbles
backward astride Dixie Bill after he was struck by a sharpshooter's bullet. 
(See full illustration below | Click on images to enlarge.)

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One of the more intriguing depictions of the Battle of Nashville is a sketch by artist George H. Ellsbury of the U.S. Army's overwhelming victory at Redoubt No. 3 on a hill in the mud-caked countryside south of the city.

Sylvester Hill was killed on
 Day 1 of the Battle of Nashville.
In the somewhat fanciful illustration of fighting on Dec. 15, 1864 -- published in January 1865 by Harper's Weekly, a popular newspaper -- the artist drew Union troops rushing forward as a Confederate cannon belches smoke and death. A national flag flutters steps from enemy works. Stretcher bearers carry a wounded soldier past prone figures. And yards behind the swarming Yankees, a Federal officer clutching a bridle tumbles backward on his horse after a sharpshooter’s bullet crashed into his head. (The battlefield site long ago was virtually obliterated by developers.)

The officer was Colonel Sylvester Hill, the 44-year-old commander of the III Brigade, I Division, XVI Army Corps. The Iowan, who fathered 11 children with his wife, Martha, was the highest-ranking Union officer killed during the two-day battle. 

The horse was Dixie Bill, a bay who survived four Civil War bullet wounds; was considered a jinx by some; connected with the regimental chaplain, who adopted him; and outlived his Battle of Nashville master by nearly two decades. (And you’ll never guess where he was buried.) 

What a crazy life.
The meager remains of Redoubt No. 3 -- one of five redoubts John Bell Hood's army
 constructed in countryside south of Nashville -- may be found near the parking lot
of Calvary United Methodist Church on Hillsboro Pike. Colonel Sylvester Hill
was killed during the attack here on the afternoon of Dec. 15, 1864.
ABOVE AND BELOW: The Union III Brigade advanced up this slope near Redoubt No. 3.
 It's now in a residential area that includes a church.

There’s just something about horses and Civil War officers. Wikipedia even has a lengthy entry online for famous (and semi-famous) war-time mounts. 

Robert E. Lee raved about his
famous horse, Traveller. 
(Photographic History of the Civil War)
Stonewall Jackson rode Little Sorrel, a Connecticut steed he gave to his wife as a gift but took back when he soured on Big Sorrel. George Meade’s favorite horse, Old Baldy, was wounded in battle at least a dozen times. After his death in mid-December 1882, two Union veterans had the horse's head stuffed and mounted on an ebony shield that was inscribed with his service record. (Old Baldy's front hoofs were made into inkstands.)

In a letter to his wife’s cousin, Robert E. Lee glowingly described his beloved Traveller, a gray American Saddlebred: 

“If I was an artist like you, I would draw a true picture of Traveller -- representing his fine proportions, muscular figure, deep chest, short back, strong haunches, flat legs, small head, broad forehead, delicate ears, quick eye, small feet, and black mane and tail. Such a picture would inspire a poet, whose genius could then depict his worth …”

Coins left by visitors and others atop
Travellers'  grave  at Washington and
 Lee University in Lexington, Va.
In 1971, a little more than a century after Lee’s death, Traveller’s bleached bones – trust me -- were buried near his master’s crypt at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. (To honor Traveller, visitors and others place coins on his large grave marker.) 

Nathan Bedford Forrest, “The Wizard of the Saddle,” had more than two dozen horses shot from under him. At the Battle of Thompson’s Station (Tenn.) in March 1863, Roderick, one of the Confederate cavalry commander’s favorites, was shot three times before the animal was guided to safety. But the horse jumped fences to return to his master’s side, where he suffered a fourth, and fatal, wound. Forrest supposedly wept beside the dying animal.

A 1956 poem, “The General’s Mount,” memorializes Roderick, and Thompson’s Station put up a statue honoring the heroic steed in 2008 near where he fell. Shoot, even a modern residential development there is named for the noble nag.

         GOOGLE STREET VIEW: The battle scene today. Redoubt No. 3 was behind the
  Calvary United Methodist Church in distance. The church was built in the 20th century.

The uncropped Harper's Weekly illustration shows the Union attack 
at Redoubt No. 3 on Dec. 15, 1864 -- the first day of the Battle of Nashville.

Dixie Bill’s birthdate, original name and favorite food (oats? carrots? sugar cubes?) are probably lost to history. He first shows up -- name unknown, of course -- at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (Mo.) on Aug. 10, 1861. His rider – either a Tennessee cavalryman or a 2nd Louisiana colonel -- was shot and killed by 1st Iowa Private Jesse Lucas of Company A during either a charge on a hospital train or a Union battery. Dixie Bill, meanwhile, suffered a bullet wound in the neck -- the first of four battle wounds the hearty animal suffered during the war. (One missile passed through his buttock.)

Sylvester Hill purchased Dixie Bill
in Muscatine, Iowa, his hometown.
(Photographic History of
the Civil War
After Wilson’s Creek, Dixie Bill and other captured Confederate horses were sent to Muscatine, Iowa, where Hill led the recently formed 35th Iowa. A staunch Republican, the colonel was “a man of superior mental attainments,” according to a town history, with “rare traits of character and strong individuality.” As a young man in Ohio, Hill worked in the lumber business, and in 1849, he sought his fortune out west during the California Gold Rush. When that didn’t pan out, he settled in Muscatine, where he married Martha Dyer and became one of the town’s leading citizens.

In Muscatine, Hill purchased the wounded Wilson’s Creek horse, dubbing him “Dixie Bill” -- the steed quickly became a favorite of the colonel’s staff. Hill rode the large bay throughout the Deep South – at the Siege of Vicksburg and during Red River Campaign battles in Louisiana at Pleasant Hill and Yellow Bayou, where his 18-year-old son, Fred, was killed. 

An orderly on his father's staff, Fred Hill rode near the colonel  as Rebels were spotted in the distance on the brutally hot day. The date was May 18, 1864. "See father; see them run!" he said, according to a post-war account. But Confederates filled the air with lead, and Fred was shot through the head. He died almost instantly. 

Colonel Hill dismounted from Dixie Bill and examined his son. "Take the body back, and see that his mother gets it," he said to an aide. Hill remounted his horse, and fought on that day, suffering a slight wound in the foot. While the heartbroken father recovered during a furlough in Iowa, Major Abraham John of the 35th Iowa was mortally wounded astride Dixie Bill in a skirmish at Old River Lake, Ark., on June 6, 1864.

During the attack at Nashville, Hill was such a conspicuous target on Dixie Bill that Union officers begged him to dismount. “But thinking such an act might be attributed to a motive of fear,” 35th Iowa veteran Herman Schmidt recalled decades later, “he refused to listen to their remonstrations …” There’s a fine line between bravery and foolhardiness.

As Confederates hastily abandoned the redoubt, Schmidt and 35th Iowa Private Adam Hartman found the grievously wounded Hill nearby, taking his last breaths. The enemy's bullet had exited at the back of the colonel’s head.

On Oct. 17, 1906, the Muscatine Journal
published a remembrance of Dixie Bill.

“The fact that the course of the bullet was upward,” Schmidt wrote, “proves that it must have been fired at short range and from a point below the Colonel.” After putting Hill on a stretcher, Hartman and Schmidt rushed away as a shower of Rebel lead poured in from Redoubt No. 2 across the pike. 

After Nashville, Dixie Bill’s reputation became, well, largely horsefeathers/horse poop/horse&*&* among officers. He was purchased by a 33rd Missouri adjutant, but when he learned about the steed’s bad battlefield karma, Dixie Bill was put up for sale. “With this record, three riders killed in action, he became hoodoo,” an Iowa newspaper reported years later, “and no staff officer could be found who would ride him.”

And so William Bagley, who rose from private to captain to chaplain of the 35th Iowa, acquired the outcast. When he returned to Iowa before the end of the war, Bagley offered Dixie Bill to Hill's 42-year-old widow. But Martha refused the offer, saying she didn’t have room to keep the animal. Perhaps Widow Hill was simply eager to forget a war that had brought her family so much heartache. 

Reverend Bagley eagerly took in Dixie Bill at his farm in Tipton, Iowa -- a decision he never regretted. In parades throughout the state, the horse often was a star attraction. At veterans’ events, Bagley enjoyed talking about Dixie Bill and his war-time exploits. The bay’s saddle -- the one in which Major John and Colonel Hill sat during their death rides – became an attraction, too. It was donated by Widow Hill to a Grand Army of the Republic Hall.

Even as late as 1878, Dixie Bill – purportedly 29 years old at the time -- remained feisty. Before a July 4 parade, “[t]he old horse broke away from Mr. Bagley while in [Wilton],” an Iowa newspaper reported, “and pranced through the streets like a colt, and to judge from his appearance would be good for another campaign.”

        GOOGLE STREET VIEW: William Bagley buried Dixie Bill in the back yard of his
                house at 1514 11th Street in Des Moines, Iowa. Here's that address today.

When Dixie Bill died on Oct. 15, 1881, he received a grand, military funeral. Covered with an American flag, the bullet-scarred charger was laid to rest by Bagley in the back yard of his house on 11th Street in Des Moines. A U.S. flag flew near Dixie Bill’s grave. Scores of veterans were among the hundreds who attended the service, and area residents talked about the funeral for years. 

 “… greater sorrow could not have been felt from a human being than was felt by a number of people over the death of the faithful old steed,” a Muscatine newspaper wrote.

William Bagley's gravestone
in Woodland Cemetery
in Des Moines, Iowa
(Find a Grave)
Dixie Bill's funeral story was picked up by newspapers throughout the country: "Venerable war-horses who did valuable service during the Rebellion are as plentiful as George Washington's body servants," read an account in the Oakland Tribune, "but there is no occasion for cavilling over the remains of 'Dixie Bill,' which were cosigned to their final resting place in Des Moines with military honors in the presence of many mourners."

At an 1898 reunion of the 35th Iowa, a speaker said a larger crowd attended Dixie Bill’s graveside service than would attend the funeral of any veteran in the room.

Like his prized horse, Bagley remained vigorous in his old age.“He is still fighting Satan,” a Muscatine newspaper wrote in 1906 about the 86-year-old veteran, “as hard as he fought the rebels.”

After a brief illness, Reverend Bagley died nearly three years later in Des Moines. An obituary highlighted his Civil War service, listed survivors, and noted the reverend “highly prized” a silver handled cane. Dixie Bill, the warhorse who survived battles at Nashville and elsewhere, was mentioned prominently, too.

“One of [Bagley’s] dearest possessions,” the obituary noted, “was a horse.”

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-- Des Moines (Iowa) Register, July 1, 1909.
-- History of Muscatine County Iowa, Volume II, Biographical, 1911, page 354.
-- Muscatine (Iowa) Weekly Journal, April 25, 1879.
-- Muscatine (Iowa) Journal, May 20, 1904, Oct. 16, 1906, April 6, 1909.
-- Muscatine (Iowa) News-Tribune, Sept. 30, 1898, June 9, 1913.
-- Muscatine (Iowa) Weekly, July 14, 1878.
-- Lee, Robert E. Jr., Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee, New York: Doubleday, Page & Co, 1904. 
-- Oakland Tribune, Oct. 27, 1881.
-- Quad Cities Times, Davenport, Iowa, Sept. 29, 1881.


  1. That is VERY interesting. I liked it, good job.

  2. Fascinating story John. Superstitions and love for our faithful animals are powerful emotions, no less so during wartime.