I’m sure we’ve all seen Hamilton or at least heard the soundtrack enough times now to feel like we know a whole lot about Revolutionary War-era history.
I love that show too—I saw it once, and I cried from the minute the house lights went down until I was halfway through dinner afterwards. But it misses some things, and not just because there were no horses.
Horses were important to military history through about World War I, depending on where you’re looking and what you mean by “important.” Much ink and paint have been spilled on George Washington’s famous horses, Old Nelson and Blueskin.
Blueskin was beautiful, a grey Arabian cross who looked great carrying a decorated officer. Old Nelson was brave, but plain—a chestnut with a blaze who faced the spook-a-minute chaos of musket fire with a stoicism that let his rider make decisions and lead his troops.
*Hits pause button*
You know what Old Nelson reminds me of? He reminds me of the horses who have been so calmly ridden by Black equestrians, fists raised, through the streets of cities across America as the Movement for Black Lives progresses to end police brutality. Now there are some horses leading the way to revolution.
There were a lot of horses in the “revolutionary” war, because the alternative was to march on foot, so officers tended to ride. Officers in the war were white men, almost exclusively of the elite class. But they weren’t the only soldiers. Although the beloved George Washington wasn’t happy about it, eventually the U.S. Army began to enlist free and enslaved Black people. The First Rhode Island Regiment, for instance, was entirely composed of Black soldiers. Some of them were freed after the war, but most were not. Back to slavery they went.
And it was enslaved people who cared for Blueskin and Old Nelson—before, during, and after the war. George Washington, first of his name, hero of the American revolution, wearer of wigs and dentures made of enslaved peoples’ teeth, was a slave owner. Mount Vernon was a plantation.
And we don’t even know the names of the people who cared for his horses, or what they thought about it, or what they did during the war. Hamilton didn’t tell us much on that score, did it? It might have been nice to have Washington on your side, but the people mucking stalls at Mount Vernon wouldn’t know.
Given that so many people fought and died for the “freedom” of the United States from Britain but would never know freedom themselves, was the Revolutionary War actually revolutionary?
Historical scholars tend to say no—not only did people remain enslaved in the United States for over 100 years after the war, but nothing else fundamentally changed either. Only property-owning white men could vote (just about the only good thing President Andrew Jackson did was “universal” suffrage—extending the vote to nearly all white men regardless of property ownership). Poor people were still poor, rich people were still rich, power was distributed accordingly.
It was absolutely a world-historical event. It’s impossible to argue otherwise. But for the people on the ground, in the moment, life proceeded largely as it always had, with the economic and social order before the war firmly in place.
If we want to think about the horses leading the way to independence, I propose we cast down our buckets where we are.
Not only can we see lots of examples of real revolutionaries—people genuinely imaging a different world—riding horses into the hearts of their cities for protests and Juneteenth celebrations, but we can see brilliant equestrians doing the real work of revolution and independence through horses every single day. Check out Saddle Up and Read, Philadelphia Urban Riding Academy, Concrete Horsemanship, CBC Therapeutic Horseback Riding Academy, Young Black Equestrians the Podcast, and Just Believe Youth, as a start.
The revolution didn’t happen in 1776, but it might happen in 2020, with a large share of the credit going to Black equestrians.