During the American Civil War, Rienzi was Union General Philip Sheridan’s favorite horse. This steed’s exploits became immortalized in prose and also helped President Abraham Lincoln win reelection in 1864.
In 1862, Union cavalry forces under the command of General Philip Sheridan, a native of Ohio, passed through the town of Rienzi, Mississippi. Members of the 2nd Michigan Cavalry Regiment procured a two-year-old black gelding for the general from a local farmer. It remains unclear if the Northern soldiers seized the horse or paid cash or traded two mules for the animal. Sheridan named the horse Rienzi after the town where his men secured the animal. The horse stood five feet eight inches tall at the shoulder. Sheridan stood only five feet five inches tall, and some of the general’s detractors contended that he had to climb up his sabre to mount Rienzi.
Rienzi quickly became Sheridan’s favorite mount. While many soldiers concluded that the horse was difficult to control, the general once wrote of Rienzi, that he was:
. . .an animal of great intelligence and immense strength and endurance. He always held his head high, and by the quickness of his movements gave many persons the idea that he was exceedingly impetuous. This was not so, for I could at any time control him by a firm hand and a few words, and he was as cool and quiet under fire as one of my soldiers. I doubt if his superior as a horse for field service was ever ridden by any one.
Sheridan rode Rienzi in forty-five different engagements during the Civil War, including nineteen pitched battles. The horse received at least four wounds in the conflict, fully recovering from each one.
Rienzi became most famous for his exploits in the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864. General Jubal Early’s Confederates launched a surprise attack against Sheridan’s command, which had been forcing the Southerners from the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia during the autumn of 1864. On the day of the attack, Sheridan was at Winchester, Virginia, approximately twelve miles away from his men. Hearing cannon fire, the general mounted Rienzi and galloped for the battlefield, arriving late in the morning, after the Confederates had crushed the Union left. As Sheridan and Rienzi crested the ridge, the general later wrote, “there burst upon our view the appalling spectacle of a panic-stricken army. . .throngs of unhurt but utterly demoralized [soldiers] and baggage wagons by the score, all pressing to the rear. . . .”
Sheridan rode into the throng of fleeing men, waving his hat to rally his troopers. Several Northern soldiers rallied, while others continued to move to the rear. After briefly consulting with his junior officers, Sheridan proclaimed, “Men, by God, we'll whip them yet. We'll sleep in our old camps tonight.” One soldier, who witnessed Sheridan’s arrival on Rienzi, later wrote, “No more doubt or chance for doubt existed; we were safe, and every man knew it.”
Rienzi remained Sheridan’s preferred mount after the victory at Cedar Creek. Following this battle, the general did rename the horse “Winchester,” honoring the animal for its gallant ride from this Virginia city to the battlefield at Cedar Creek. Hearing of Rienzi’s and Sheridan’s ride to the battlefield, artist and poet Thomas Buchanan Read, a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, commemorated the trip in the poem “Sheridan’s Ride.”
Up from the South, at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste to the chieftain's door,
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.
And wider still those billows of war
Thundered along the horizon's bar;
And louder yet into Winchester rolled
The roar of that red sea uncontrolled,
Making the blood of the listener cold,
As he thought of the stake in that fiery fray,
With Sheridan twenty miles away.
But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good, broad highway leading down:
And there, through the flush of the morning light,
A steed as black as the steeds of night
Was seen to pass, as with eagle flight;
As if he knew the terrible need,
He stretched away with his utmost speed.
Hills rose and fell, but his heart was gay,
With Sheridan fifteen miles away.
Still sprang from those swift hoofs, thundering south,
The dust like smoke from the cannon's mouth,
Or the trail of a comet, sweeping faster and faster,
Foreboding to traitors the doom of disaster.
The heart of the steed and the heart of the master
Were beating like prisoners assaulting their walls,
Impatient to be where the battle-field calls;
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.
Under his spurning feet, the road
Like an arrowy Alpine river flowed,
And the landscape sped away behind
Like an ocean flying before the wind;
And the steed, like a barque fed with furnace ire,
Swept on, with his wild eye full of fire;
But, lo! he is nearing his heart's desire;
He is snuffing the smoke of the roaring fray,
With Sheridan only five miles away.
The first that the general saw were the groups
Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;
What was to be done? what to do?–a glance told him both.
Then striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line, 'mid a storm of huzzas,
And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because
The sight of the master compelled it to pause.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril's play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
"I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day."
Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier's Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general's name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright:
"Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester–twenty miles away!"
Despite a few factual errors, the poem became an immediate success. Rienzi’s ride and Sheridan’s impressive victory at Cedar Creek helped to convince many Northerners that the Civil War was coming to a conclusion and that the North would be victorious. This growing patriotic sentiment helped secure President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in November 1864.
Upon the Civil War’s conclusion, Rienzi stayed in the service with Sheridan. While the general was stationed at Chicago in 1878, Rienzi died, presumably of old age. Sheridan had the horse skinned and mounted. Rienzi’s mounted hide eventually appeared at a military museum on Governor’s Island in New York, New York. The rest of the animal’s body may have been dissected to teach veterinarian students about horse anatomy. In 1922, a fire destroyed the museum, but Rienzi’s hide survived undamaged. Museum officials then donated the item to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, where the mounted skin remains today.