So class, can anyone tell me from the photo below if the person riding the horse was killed in action, was wounded, or lived to ripe old age?
For those not familiar with it, the legend maintains that if the horse has two feet up, the rider died fighting; if the horse has one foot up, he (or possibly she) was wounded but survived; and if all four feet are on the ground, they lived, presumably not for ever.
Although I hear this urban legend from my customers quite often, the main culprits are, sadly, my fellow tour guides. We hand this story out as if we get a commission for every tale told.
First off, let's set the record straight: it's not at all true. Sorry. Renowned urban legend killer snopes.com even used Washington, DC as it's example to debunk this persistent myth. They found that ten out of roughly thirty equestrian statues in DC matched the story, or right about what a random spread would get you.
Just to prove I'm not a total buzz kill though, there may be a grain of truth to the story after all. Not here in DC, but a couple hours away in Gettysburg, PA, the scene of one of the greatest Civil War battles, and worthy of it's own trip. If you disregard the recent 1988 statue of James Longstreet, the rest of the statues in the park correspond to the legend if you define "killed" as "killed at Gettysburg, and not later". Coincidence? Possibly, but Gettysburg's statues were built during a much shorter time frame (later half of 19th Century) than, say, Washington, DC's and largely by sculptors who would, at the very least, been familiar with each others work, if not actively collaborating. I've not run across anything that points me to this being an actual "code", formal or informal, but I'd feel a lot more comfortable telling this tale in Gettysburg than I do in Washington.
Oh and the picture above? Despite the inability of his horse to get another hoof off the ground, Gen. James McPherson was the highest ranking Union officer to be killed in the War, at the Battle of Atlanta.