It’s popularly thought that the number of legs a horse statue has in the air indicates what happened to the rider. I went to Gettysburg to find out the the truth.
The first time I heard the Gettysburg horse statue code I was a teenager on a boy scout trip. It goes like this: There are a handful of equestrian statues in Gettysburg, and the number of hooves they have on the ground indicates what happened to the rider. Four hooves, supposedly, indicates the rider in the statue survived unscathed.
So for example, here’s Oliver Howard, a Union general who survived the war and went on to participate in the founding of Howard University, which bears his name. Note that all of the horses hooves are on the ground.
The myth continues that if one of the horses hooves are in the air, the rider survived but was wounded at the battle. And finally, two hooves in the air supposedly means the rider died. For example, here’s Gen. John Reynolds, who was shot in the back of the head on July 1, 1863 — the first day of the battle. Note the two hooves in the air.
If you hear anything about visiting Gettysburg, you will probably hear about this supposed code for deciphering the statues, so naturally the first thing I did when I arrived was ask around to see if it was true.
And the answer: sort of.
Turns out there wasn’t originally any sort of code for the statues. Snopes even has a page deeming the code “false” (the Snopes page is about equestrian statues generally, but specifically mentions Gettysburg.)
However, by coincidence, its also nearly works. According to a ranger I spoke with, most of the statues with four hooves on the ground depict riders who survived, and so on. According to the park’s official blog, the “myth” of the code emerged sometime between the late 1910s and the early 1930s when guides used hoof position as an easy way to help visitors remember what happened.
So, it wasn’t an intentional code, but it was one that worked in practice. And over time, it became misconstrued as something that was intended all along.
There is, however, one exception: Confederate Gen.
Longstreet’s statue, which sits in a grove of trees just off the auto tour road, has one leg up — even though Longstreet was not wounded. More curious still, the memorial only dates back to 1998, long after the code was widely believed to be true.
In any case, the final verdict on this code is that it’s almost functionally true, but on accident. That’s a convoluted verdict, but the practical application is that it’s illuminative to visit these different statues to see fragments of an important chapter in American history.
If you go: Gettysburg is free to visit (a museum, bus tours, etc, require paid tickets). There is a visitor’s center that is open from 8 am to 6 pm in the summer. An “auto tour” road winds through the major sites and the Pennsylvania town itself, and has turnouts for hiking and picnicking.
— Jim Dalrymple II