On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while traveling through Dallas, Texas, in his motorcade. America’s grief over their fallen president was accentuated by the sight of Black Jack, the coal black, riderless horse that participated in Kennedy’s funeral procession with his boots reversed in his stirrups, a poignant symbol of our country’s fallen hero.
The last of the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster-issued horses, Black Jack was born on Jan. 19, 1947, and was named in honor of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing. He was branded with the Army’s U.S. brand on his left shoulder, and his Army serial number, 2V56, on the left side of his neck. According to Black Jack: America’s Famous Riderless Horse by Robert Knuckle, he made it pretty clear that he didn’t like to be ridden from the start. He threw rider after rider into the dirt of the training corral at Fort Reno (Okla.), and though over time they managed to find some control, he never lost his fiery spirit.
Despite his somewhat ornery attitude, he was admired for his good looks. He grew to 15.1 hands and weighed almost 1,200 pounds. He was well built with a beautiful head, his black coat complimented by a small white star. His appearance, combined with his spirit, made him a favorite at Fort Reno. The administration was hesitant to sell Black Jack and wanted to find a special placement for him. When the Army needed horses for the Caisson Platoon at Fort Myer (Va.), they decided to move Black Jack. No one on either side was all that concerned with Black Jack’s move, and certainly no one had any idea that the black gelding would make such a contribution to the United States.
Black Jack arrived at Fort Myer on Nov. 22, 1952, and again, it was clear that he wasn’t suited to be a riding horse. He served in the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) and was the riderless horse in more than 1,000 Armed Forces Full Honors Funerals. The Old Guard is the Army’s oldest active duty infantry regiment, dating back to 1784. The horses and soldiers that make up The Old Guard participate in an average of six funerals per day.
The Caisson Platoon itself has been a tradition for many years. The first caissons were built in 1918 and used for 75mm cannons. The caissons also carried ammunition, spare parts and tools for the cannons. Today, those items have been removed in exchange for the flat platform on which the casket sits. Six horses pull the flag-draped casket. The horses are matched blacks or grays and are paired into three teams. The lead team is in front, the swing team follows, and the wheel team is closest to the caisson. All six horses are saddled, but only the horses on the left have mounted riders. This tradition has carried over from the days of horse-drawn artillery, when one horse carried the soldier, and the other horse carried extra supplies.
The riderless horse, or caparisoned horse, has roots back to Ghengis Khan’s time. The Mongols and Tartars believed that the spirit of a sacrificed horse would travel with its master to the afterlife. While the riderless horses are no longer sacrificed, they still represent a powerful tradition that the deceased will be accompanied by his horse after death.
In the United States, in order for a caparisoned horse to participate, the person must have achieved the rank of colonel in the Army or Marines or above.
The caparisoned horse came to symbolize a rider’s last journey, and the backward boots in his stirrups imply that the warrior is having one last look at his family.
Abraham Lincoln, who was killed in 1865, was the first U.S. president to have a caparisoned horse at his funeral. Tobias Lear, George Washington’s personal secretary, also recorded that Washington’s horse was a part of his funeral, and Zachary Taylor’s personal horse, Old Whitey, was in his funeral procession.
Black Jack participated in many funerals, and one of the concerns of the staff at The Old Guard was finding the appropriate handler to walk with him. Black Jack’s handlers changed every 18 months, and it was normally a challenge to find a suitable partner for the spicy gelding. Pete Duda was one of Black Jack’s favorites, and the pair walked together in more than 200 funerals. Duda was reluctant to ride Black Jack, but he was completely dedicated to the horse’s care. He wouldn’t let anyone else near him or his equipment.
The Old Guard transports the flag-draped casket of the second Sergeant Major of the Army George W. Dunaway who was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. J.D. Leipold photo.
Black Jack was always high-spirited, and he didn’t mellow as he aged. He seemed to be fine when he was walking, though he often pranced beside his walker, but when the procession halted he kicked and circled, displaying his impatience. While he eventually got used to the typical noises of a funeral, he never was able to deal with the cannon salute.
Even though Duda was Black Jack’s favorite, it was Arthur Carlson who would lead Black Jack in Kennedy’s funeral. On Sunday, Nov. 24, he led Black Jack behind the caisson on the three-mile walk through the cemetery, over the Memorial Bridge, and through the city to Pennsylvania Avenue. The only trouble the unit had was pausing every so often for Black Jack to catch up. When the group reached the Treasury Building, the right rear wheel of the caisson became stuck in a gutter grate. The wheel was so stuck that the caisson dragged the grate a number of yards, which unnerved all the horses, including Black Jack.
When the unit finally arrived at the White House, Black Jack was nervous and wouldn’t stand still. He danced and fidgeted all the way to the Capitol. Because of protocol, Arthur wasn’t able to speak to the horse. After escorting Kennedy’s coffin to the Capitol Building, the caisson unit returned to the stables for the night.
On Monday, they headed back to the Capitol Building to escort Kennedy’s casket again. Black Jack was wild during the procession to the White House, and Arthur was afraid he was going to lose hold of him. At one point, Black Jack stomped down on Arthur’s toe so hard he was sure it was broken, but he couldn’t even bend down to rub it, or show any emotion at all due to the television cameras and witnesses.
Despite his antics, the media carried his image all over the world, and the beauty of his role in Kennedy’s funeral, as well as his display of spirit, touched the American people. Jacqueline Kennedy herself was one of many who became admirers of Black Jack.
On Nov. 27, Jacqueline informed the Secretary of the Army that she wanted to buy Black Jack when he was retired. Her request was acknowledged, and she later received Black Jack’s caparison, which included his saddle, bridle, saddle blanket, sword, boots and spurs.
The media coverage of Kennedy’s funeral brought hordes of school children to Fort Myer after their teachers realized that Black Jack was a national treasure. At first they came in small groups, but eventually hundreds of children visited the barns so they could see the horses and pet Black Jack. He seemed to love the children. Visitors often asked for one of Black Jack’s horseshoes as souvenirs.
Nancy Schado, who became interested in Black Jack after the funeral, began visiting him fairly regularly. She was quickly dubbed “Black Jack’s Mother” and always brought a cake for the soldiers in the unit. When she discovered that Black Jack loved butter pecan the most, she would make no other kind of cake for her friend.
Black Jack retired on June 1, 1973, after serving in the funerals of presidents Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson and Kennedy, as well as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s funeral.
As Black Jack aged, he developed arthritis and other problems. After marching on black top for the majority of his life, he began to experience issues with his front feet.
His health deteriorated badly in his final year, and he went steadily downhill. His arthritis worsened and his kidneys and liver began to fail. Because Black Jack held a prominent position in the Army, the veterinarian, Capt. John Burns, had to go up the chain of command to the Department of the Army to receive official permission for Black Jack’s euthanasia.
He died after 29 years of military service on Feb. 6, 1976, and was laid to rest at Fort Myer. He was buried with full military honors, only the second horse (the other was Comanche) in U.S. history to receive such an honor.
On Black Jack’s 29th birthday, President Richard Nixon wrote, “Black Jack has been a poignant symbol of our nation’s grief on many occasions over the years. Citizens in mourning felt dignity and purpose conveyed, a simpler yet deeper tribute to the memory of those heroic ‘riders’ who have given so much for our nation. Our people are grateful to Black Jack for helping us bear the burden of sorrow during difficult times.”
One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it's occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: "History was written on the back of a horse," she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.