A little Michigan war horse history

This plaque denotes the Tecumseh, MI location where the prized horse once belonging to General George A. Custer is buried. Photo credit: David Ingall

With the technological advances of the 20th century, it’s hard to imagine today the prominent role horses once played in warfare. Seeing the preview last night of the soon-to-be-released movie War Horse directed by Steven Spielberg reminded me of the horse history about famous Michigan war horses we’ve included in our soon-to-be-released Civil War travel guide, Glory, Valor & Sacrifice: Southeast Michigan Sites Significant to the Civil War. 

Plug Ugly

General Alpheus Starkey Williams relied upon two horses during the Civil War. Plug Ugly was the preferred choice for grueling duty. General Williams survived the brutal war uninjured in large part due to Plug Ugly,  who  took the fall for the General and was injured numerous times. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, a Confederate shell landed under the horse and exploded, sending both rider and horse into the air. Miraculously, General Williams was uninjured and Plug Ugly sustained only minor injuries.

Don Juan

Imagine a horse upstaging the president! That’s exactly what General George Armstrong Custer’s prized horse Don Juan, who is buried in Tecumseh, did. The horse bolted forward near the review stand during the Grand Review parade in Washington, D.C. during a national celebration held at the end of the Civil War. The out-of-control horse took the spotlight momentarily off President Andrew Johnson, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant and other important dignitaries and on to the dashing young general. Custer attributed the much talked about incident to the horse being spooked by a young girl as she attempted to lay a wreath around its neck. Others claim it was a calculated move by the excellent horseman to garner attention. What do you think?


Buckskin was the horse used by First Lt. Luther Byron Baker, who assisted the Secret Service in tracking Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth to the Virginia barn where the fugitive met his demise. Buckskin became famous when he accompanied Baker on stage during the lecture circuit where Baker shared his account of the incident. A photo of Buckskin along with details of the capture became a much sought after souvenir.

When Buckskin died, the horse was preserved by a taxidermist and again Buckskin joined Lt. Baker onstage. Buckskin was later donated to the Michigan State University Museum where he is on display.

Want to know more Michigan Civil War horse history? Read about Reinzi’s ties to Michigan.  Reinzi, later named Winchester, was the celebrated black Morgan horse ridden by General Phillip Sheridan. Learn about the contributions of Old Sam and the other draft horses supplied by the Coldwater region to the Union effort. It’s all in Glory, Valor & Sacrifice: Michigan Sites Significant to the Civil War. Click here to order your copy! 


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