Old Baldy returns to Grand Army of the Republic Museum

Posted: September 27, 2010

Old Baldy came home Sunday.

And it was a fine new home, and homecoming, for the preserved head of one of the most famous horses in the land, at the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in the city's Frankford section.

Old Baldy was no thoroughbred, just a handsome, brown horse with four white feet and a white blaze on his face. But he survived a Triple Crown of his own - shrapnel to the nose and flank at the First Battle of Bull Run, a shot through the neck at Antietam, and a musket ball to the belly at Gettysburg that finally ended his combat service.

"He was always able to come forward, despite wounds, despite illness, despite exhaustion. He was always ready to go," said Anthony Waskie, a Civil War historian, author, and Temple University professor who serves on the museum board.

"The men saw something in the horse, something we admire in people that face adversity and prevail. He became an icon."

Old Baldy was ridden by Gen. David Hunter at the first Bull Run, and sent to the Cavalry Depot in Washington to recuperate. There, Gen. George C. Meade bought him for $150, and Meade rode him faithfully through battle after battle.

"At Antietam," Waskie said, "he was shot, and seemed to be dead on the ground, flat . . . and the next day Meade sent his valet to go and get his saddle. And when the valet went into the field, the horse was up and grazing."

On July 2, 1863, the second day at Gettysburg, Meade, by then commander of all Union troops, was rallying his men on Cemetery Ridge when Old Baldy was shot out from under him.

On July 5, two days after the famous battle had ended, leaving 50,000 casualties, Meade included in a letter home, "Baldy was shot again, and I fear will not get over it."

Three days later he wrote: "I did not think he could live, but the old fellow has such a wonderful tenacity of life that I am in hopes he will."

Baldy survived the war, but saw no more combat.

After the war, Meade returned home to Philadelphia, where, among other duties, he became commissioner of Fairmount Park, and he often rode Old Baldy on the newly constructed trails that the general, trained as an engineer, helped design.

When Meade died on Nov. 11, 1872, Old Baldy marched in his funeral procession to Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Meade was not flashy, Waskie said, but he had earned the respect and affection of his men. "He wouldn't waste their lives unnecessarily, paid them on time, and fed them well," he said. "The horse became associated with the man, and it took on even more importance after Meade died."

Old Baldy lived another decade, to age 30, cared for by a friend of Meade's near Jenkintown.

When the horse could no longer stand, a veterinarian put him down with poison, as Meade had wished. The Public Spirit of Jenkintown reported on Dec. 23, 1882:

"Baldy in life was as trustful as brave, and he swallowed with all confidence the two ounces of cyanide of potash that was poured down his throat . . .. A few more struggles and the old warhorse stentorously breathed his gallant life away."

Two men who served with Meade read the news report and went on Christmas Eve to Jenkintown, where they received permission to take the horse's head and have it stuffed and mounted on an ebony shield, inscribed with a record of his service. The men presented it to Post No. 1 of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans organization of its time.

That post evolved into the museum in Frankford, but it fell into such disrepair in the 1970s that it closed temporarily, and Old Baldy was transferred to the Civil War Museum on Pine Street in Center City.

When that museum closed in 2008, a legal struggle ensued, and Sunday, to the great joy of members of the Frankford museum, Old Baldy returned to what they consider his rightful home. The museum, at 4278 Griscom St. (www.garmuslib.org), is open Tuesdays from noon to 4 p.m. and the first Sunday of every month from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

The museum prepared a special room just for Old Baldy. After a ribbon cutting, about 50 people walked through, admiringly.

"Wow, what a history!" said Jim Souder of South Jersey. "What a horse!"

Eric Schmincke, museum president, invited everyone up to the second floor for a champagne toast. Meade's favorite drink was champagne, and the general was known to drink it in the saddle.

"To Old Baldy," Schmincke said, "and all who protected the Union."

Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com.

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