Five years ago today, through an extraordinary series of events, Roy and I found ourselves entering the heavily guarded gates of Ft. Myer, Virginia's military complex - to commemorate the death of a very special horse.
The horse was Black Jack, a black Morgan /Quarter Horse cross with a little star, who served the Army his whole life and became such a celebrity that schools brought buses full of children to meet him. He passed away, surrounded by military men who loved him dearly, way back on February 6, 1976, and here we were, 40 years later, making the trip from Maine to Washington DC to join a group of those same men to spend a day remembering him.
He must have been some horse, right? He sure was! By all accounts, he was mainly a pain in the butt! Originally bought by the army to pull a caisson (wagon) he refused to work in harness and created such a problem that they gave up the idea entirely. He also couldn't be ridden - He'd pitch a fit and pitch a rider at the same time. Even being led, he wasn't easy to handle and demanded a handler's attention every second, lest you get bitten or he break away from you. Why then, was Black Jack so famous and respected that retired servicemen flew from around the country to commemorate him with a wreath laying ceremony on the 40th anniversary of his death?
When President Kennedy was assassinated, his widow Jackie asked for him to receive a public funeral procession similar to President Lincoln's. As part of this procession, the Army needed a riderless horse: One who is led, in full dress tack, but with an empty saddle, except for riding boots thrust backward in the stirrups, symbolizing a fallen leader. They needed a black horse, one who was elegant and proud to be this "Caparisoned Horse." They chose Black Jack.
Any leader's funeral is a very solemn affair, requiring the highest level of professional appearance and focus from those taking part. JFK's funeral, which touched the whole world, brought with it a new aspect - It was the first to be broadcast live by television. Millions would watch the procession of the flag-draped casket to the church. Black Jack's tack was polished until it shone. He was groomed to perfection, gleaming in the sun. His dedicated handler, nineteen-year-old Private First Class Andy Carlson was well-instructed in his duties: Lead Black Jack for nearly nine miles in the procession, following the caisson carrying the casket. Step in perfect cadence, look only straight ahead no matter what, and provide the public with this dignified symbol of their fallen leader... How's that for pressure?
PFC Carlson knew how much this meant to his country and was determined that Black Jack would be the perfect symbol for mourning Americans. He took firm hold of his lead and stepped out onto the road that morning, ignoring his own nervousness as he focused on keeping this prancing, whirling fireball of a horse under control. Black Jack never settled down... He pranced for the entire two hour walk. About halfway to their destination, he stepped squarely on Andy's right foot, possibly breaking toes! With the utmost discipline, Andy never flinched or changed his straight-forward gaze, and he never missed a step in his cadence. With Black Jack still tugging on the lead, nipping at his arm, and dancing the rest of the way, the public never knew that anything had happened,and marveled at the proud horse and his stoic handler marching along the boulevard.
So beautiful was that dancing horse that he won the hearts of people around the world. While the country mourned, Black Jack began receiving fan mail. He went on to become the Caparisoned Horse in over one thousand funerals, including for two more Presidents and General MacArthur, always wowing the crowd with his arched neck and natural high stepping.
Black Jack had found his niche in life and became a superstar. He became beloved by the Old Guard of Ft. Myer, which operate Arlington National Cemetery. Eventually he retired from service to help keep him healthy, and was provided food, board, and the best care all his life. His handlers changed periodically as men retired from military service, but only one at a time was assigned to the horse. He was visited by famous people and school children alike, and presidents attended his birthday parties. He was never ridden.
When he eventually passed away of old age, it was with some of his favorite people surrounding him, offering him comfort as old friends. It was decided that due to his many years of service with the Army and his impact on the public, he would be given a full military funeral - One of only three horses in US history to be given such an honor. (The others were Comanche, believed to be the only survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and Sgt. Reckless.) Black Jack was given a custom-made casket with Old Guard as pall-bearers, driven to his resting place in a caisson, just like the men he Caparisoned for, and even had a Caparisoned Horse in his own procession. He was laid to rest on the parade ground of Fort Myer, with a horseshoe-shaped hedge around his grave, which is marked with a brass plaque engraved with his image.
One might think that despite the care he received, his memory would soon fade. Men come and go, new horses demand attention, the world moves on. But there was something about this horse that men didn't forget. And so, when SPC4 Phil "Flip" Godfrey, who led the Caprison Horse at Black Jack's funeral, and Black Jack's old friend Andy Carlson decided to remember him with a wreath-laying ceremony for the 40th anniversary of his passing, men came from around the country to honor him. They brought their families, showed them around the immaculate stable, reminisced about their time in the service, and always had stories about Black Jack.
[Greeting attendees and photo op in the parking area before the ceremony: Hank, Clinger, and Sgt. York with their handlers, above. Below: Old Guard wreath-laying ceremony at Black Jack's grave.]
For the wreath laying, the current Caparisoned Horses of the Old Guard came out, along with the Color Guard, for a beautiful ceremony. Carlson and Godfrey, with the current leaders of the platoon, laid the wreath while a lone trumpet played Taps. If there was a dry eye there, I didn't see one (through my own tears). You could feel the love and respect of all of these strong men for a horse who had been dead for forty years, and it was one of the most touching moments of my life.
Following the wreath laying came our part of the ceremony. We had purchased a Breyer porcelain Black Jack model from one of our consignors (whose late husband was himself an Army veteran) to present to the Old Guard in a ceremony at the Black Jack Museum on base. Nearly a hundred men squeezed into the museum area to hear speeches by the officials attending, and then see the presentation of the Breyer model, which was later placed inside the glass display case alongside Black Jack's halter and other memorabilia.
[Above: Breyer model presentation at Black Jack Museum in Ft Myer Caisson Stable. Left: Flip Godfrey, Eleda, Elizabeth, Lisa. Center: Platoon Leader Nicolosi. Right, current members of the Old Guard (in cowboy hats), Andy Carlson in back. Below: Eleda from Triple Mountain with Andy Carlson, who led Black Jack during JFK's funeral.]
It was an incredible experience to be among such men, all gathered to remember a unique horse. Following the ceremony, I collected signatures (and stories, which I treasure) from as many of the men who had worked with Black Jack as possible. I had brought along a copy of Black Jack's biography, and many of them were able to sign near their photographs in the book. I made a promise that I would send the book to the Old Guard on the 50th anniversary of Black Jack's passing in 2026, to join the statue in the museum. By then, many of the men who attended in 2016 might not be with us any longer, so in this way, they can all come back one more time, and a bit of them will be connected with Black Jack forever.
[Below, Tom Chapman, Black Jack's last handler, signs Black Jack's biography on one of the section caissons while his daughter takes a photo.]
A short tribute to Black Jack on CNN includes video footage of him and Andy Carlson in the procession as well as as some memorable quotes from Andy. See it here: The Riderless Horse: A JFK icon
Along with the horse, the event and the history here, there is another takeaway: Black Jack was a horse who did not fit in. He refused to be formed into a "regular" caisson horse. He wouldn't be ridden. He probably had a hard time for several years because of it, as people tried to mold him into something they could use. He refused to be made into something that didn't suit him, and instead eventually he became celebrated for being the one-of-a-kind horse he was born to be. And of all the horses the military owned when he joined in 1953, he is the one that people remember and celebrate to this day. It's hard to be unique in this world, with so many pressures to conform, but if you remain true to yourself, you will make a much bigger impression and come to inspire others. Be a Black Jack.
Feb. 6, 2021