During the early days of July 1863, the tranquil, rolling hills of Gettysburg, Pa., exploded with gunfire and battle cries between the Union and Confederate armies. While most people are aware of the human loss during those three days of fighting, many are unaware of the equine loss which totaled in the thousands. In fact, it”s written that some 5,000 horses and mules were lost during the Battle of Gettysburg.
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The story of the estimated 72,000 horses and mules used in battle has not been told in full, until now. Today and tomorrow, the feature-length documentary film, “Horses of Gettysburg,” will debut nationally on PBS High Definition television.
Narrated by Ronald F. Maxwell — director of “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals” — and produced and directed by Mark Bussler, this fourth film in the “Civil War Minutes” documentary series, celebrates the honor and courage of these animals and the unwavering bond between a horse and its rider.
If you”ve ever been through the Gettysburg National Military Park, you”ve undoubtedly noticed the hundreds of monuments paying tribute to the brave soldiers, the most magnificent ones honoring the men on horseback. The idea to highlight these courageous animals came to Bussler while filming “Gettysburg” and “Stories of Valor.”
“It occurred to me that the horses were featured quite prominently in the statues around Gettysburg,” says Bussler. “We started looking into the stories behind the soldiers and their mounts. We asked questions like how many horses were involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, who fed them, how were they trained and what happened to them during the battle? What Civil War historians and writers Michael Kraus and David Neville came up with was a tremendous number of cool stories.”
Thanks to the writers and remarkable Civil War knowledge of Maxwell, Bussler and his team took the next year and a half to research, write, film and edit the movie, which was first released on DVD in 2006. “I happen to be a dog person,” says Bussler. “But after working with the horses and their riders, I came away wishing I could be a horse person.”
The bond between a horse and rider can be something close to extraordinary. Often, there is a silent conversation that takes place between the pair. When there is trust, that t?te–t?te becomes a dance that can only then be seen by others. In this film, Bussler worked closely with the horsepeople to make this happen.
“This was the first time I worked with horses. Working with the re-enactors and these animals live was cool, because I had the opportunity to see how the riders communicated what I wanted. No matter what was asked of the horses, whether it was multiple charges, passes by the camera or turns and stops, they performed flawlessly.”
Between the use of old photography and the 12 to 15 horses used over two days of filming, the documentary re-creates the trust between the soldiers and their horses. In segments of the film, such as Farnsworth”s Charge and Pickett”s Charge, the horses” bravery is paramount as they carried their riders straight into battle. And, while the men received well-deserved accolades for their valor, they would often give credit to their horses.
Throughout the Civil War, horses and mules were a vital part of everyday life. The sheer number used throughout the war exemplifies this. “The numbers were staggering. The entire society relied on them,” says Bussler. It is said that up to 2 million horses were used throughout the war, of which 1 million were killed or injured between 1861 and 1865. America”s horse supply took a devastating hit. As the war progressed and horses were lost, many soldiers either had to use their own horses for battle or acquire their mounts from local farms. Many civilians would hide their horses in fear of losing them to battle.
Bussler believes his film gives people a firm understanding of how important the horses were to people and what life was like before Humvees and tanks. “One of the segments I like best shows how horses were trained and procured for the war. Today we build trucks and that”s it. Back then you had to care for the animals.”
Filmed in chronological order, starting with cavalry on the first day”s fight and ending with Pickett”s Charge and the equestrian monuments at the Gettysburg National Military Park, viewers learn about the three-day battle as well as the cavalry and artillery horses” roles in it.
“This was one of my favorite films,” comments Bussler. “Maxwell”s passion for the Civil War came through and the high-definition cinematography allowed for more action and better sound. I hope “Horses of Gettysburg” lets viewers take away an appreciation for what horses did in the Civil War and encourages them to learn more.”
When the film came out in 2006, the first viewing was held in Leesburg, Va. “Leesburg is home to many talented horsepeople and they were all in the audience,” remembers Bussler. “When the film was over, they loved it. That made me feel really good.”
To watch “Horses of Gettysburg,” tune into PBS HD on July 1 at 7 p.m. and again on July 2 at 4 a.m., 8 and 11 p.m. For more information regarding viewing times or on the making of the film, visit www.inecom.com.
By Kate McDermott for The Hand Center at the Mid-Maryland Musculoskeletal Institute of the Centers for Advanced Orthopedics
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