I found this photo when I was looking through some of the Library of Congress’ American Civil War (1861-1865) glass negatives while I was working on another project, and I fell in love with it. The horse’s sleek and shiny coat contrasts with the rough homespun outfit of the young African American boy sitting on its back. The horse is alert, with his ears up, standing perfectly poised. The young boy holds the reins tight in his hands, with his shoulders raised, and the tension is visible in his elevated elbows. Yet, the boy relaxes the double reins on the horse’s mouth, leaving them loose, illustrating that while he is tense, he is comfortable on the horse.
I think the composition of the photo is really interesting, as well. What made the photographer (the image is attributed to Mathew Brady) place the horse directly in front of the two boats cruising along the river in the background? He could have positioned the horse so one was visible at the right, or vice verse at the left, or not even included the boats in the image at all. They do add an interesting characteristic to the image, even if they are blurry and don’t provide any sort of identifiable features.
A little background on the image: The horse is of General John A. Rawlins’, named “Frank Blair” after Francis Preston Blair Jr., a Union politician and general. Why Rawlins named his horse after this particular general, I am unsure, but
‘Frankie’ does seem a fitting name for such a big, beautiful boy. The image was supposedly taken at Cold Harbor on June 14, 1864.
General John A. Rawlins was a confidant of General Ulysses S. Grant both during and after the Civil War. During Grant’s tenure out on the Western Theater of the Civil War, and prior to 1863, Rawlins acted as Grant’s emissary in D.C. He was later appointed as Secretary of War during Grant’s presidency. He was a longtime sufferer of tuberculosis, and died from it in 1869, eight years after his first wife died of the same disease.
If you’re interested in learning more about Cold Harbor and the battle that took place there in 1864, check out my friend Dan Davis’ book Hurricane from the Heavens: The Battle of Cold Harbor. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the Civil War in general, check out the Emerging Civil War blog, which includes tons of articles all about the Civil War by different historians.