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Riding the Rail, Revisited

By Robert L. Kotchian 

During my college days in Salt Lake City almost 50 years ago, I would search antique shops looking for Civil War treasures, following my classes on most Fridays.

On one such excursion, a unique carte de visite image turned up. I remember the cost—a whopping $15.00. That was a lot of money for a carte de visite in 1967, when common Civil War soldiers images were demanding one or two dollars.

My first thought was that this soldier, mounted on a improvised wooden horse, had to be one of the California Volunteers stationed in Utah Territory, perhaps at Camp Douglas, later known as Fort Douglas, or Fort Bridger.

My photo was first published in this magazine back in 1981. It appeared in other media venues during the 1980s and 1990s, including the series Image of War, Time Life’s The Civil War series, and a Ken Burns documentary, The West. (Burns’ studio, Florentine Films, had originally expressed an interest in including it in the landmark documentary film, The Civil War.)

Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Author’s collection.
Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Author’s collection.


Despite the exposure, however, no one was able to shed any light on the photograph’s origin.

While visiting Salt Lake City in 2008, I stopped by the Fort Douglas Museum. It had been established after I graduated from college. By chance, I met then museum curator Ephriam D. Dickson III. We chatted, and during our conversation I offered to provide copies of original photographs of Fort Douglas in my collection. He accepted, and soon after I sent him scanned copies. On a whim, I included a copy of my “Riding the Rail” carte de visite, and asked him if he could tell me anything about it.

Dickson replied, “The last image you ask about was taken by Charles W. Carter outside the Fort Bridger guardhouse in the winter of 1866-67.” He also noted that the original glass plate negative still exists in the archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

British-born Charles William Carter (1832-1918) had developed an interest in photography when he served as a soldier during the Crimean War, though it was not until 1862 after he left the military that he pursued a career as a photographer. Two years later, he and his wife, a Mormon, left Britain for Salt Lake City.

In 1864, he went to work for another British immigrant, Charles Roscoe Savage (1832-1909). A member of the Mormon Church at age 14, Savage was perhaps best known for his images of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Carter left the employ of Savage in 1866 or 1867, and established his own studio. He’d spend the next three decades chronicling Mormon life. One of his first business activities was a photographic trip along the Overland Trail east as far as Fort Bridger and Church Buttes. He largely recorded outdoor scenes along the way. During this same journey though, he photographed a soldier holding an impossibly large wooden saber and seated on a crude model of a horse at Fort Bridger.

“This method of punishment proved most efficient as the men soon came to dread ‘riding the horse’ a great deal more than they did spending a month in guard house.”

The wooden horse was the brainchild of Capt. Anson Mills, the post commander of Fort Bridger. A West Point cadet from 1855-1857, Mills began his military service in 1861 as a first lieutenant in the 18th U.S. Infantry, and served with distinction throughout the Civil War. By the end of hostilities, he had earned a promotion to captain and three brevets, or honorary promotions, for gallantry in the battles of Murfreesboro, Tenn., in December 1862, Chickamauga, Ga., in September 1863 and Nashville in December 1864. He went on to become a brigadier general, and lived until 1924.

In his 1918 memoirs, My Story, Mills explained the horse. “In my administration and discipline of the garrison at Fort Bridger I adopted as far as I could the moral suasion ideas of Charlie Naylor,” a New Hampshire schoolteacher who Mills had encountered during his boyhood in Indiana. Naylor preferred less violent methods in lieu of corporal punishment that were widely employed by his peers. “He was brilliant, active and industrious, and soon won the love of his sixty scholars,” Mills declared.

At Fort Bridger, Mills devised a system that he believed followed the spirit of Naylor. “Instead of punishing the men by confining them in the guard house for trial. I had the post carpenter construct a very unprepossessing wooden horse and wooden sword about six feet long, with its business end painted a bloody red. Any man reported for any disorderly conduct had to ride this horse for a certain period, dismounting occasionally to curry and water it with currycomb and water bucket. This method of punishment proved most efficient as the men soon came to dread ‘riding the horse’ a great deal more than they did spending a month in guard house.”

Mills did not reference the painted words on the side of the horse’s wood torso, “For Millersville,” followed by an unreadable word or words, appear on the back of the horse, and “Molly” on the front.

Though Mills designed his wooden horse as a less violent form of punishment, the origins of the practice suggest otherwise. Several sources trace the wooden horse to England. According to an article published in the London Graphic and reprinted in American newspapers, “Torture on a small scale continued to be practiced on military offenders down to the eighteenth century. The form most frequently resorted to was that known as the wooden horse, to ride which was the punishment accorded for petty thefts, insubordination and so on. The wooden horse was made of planks nailed together so as to form a sharp ridge or angle about eight or nine feet long. This ridge represented the back of the horse and was supported by four posts or legs about five feet high placed on a stand made movable by truckles. To complete the resemblance to the noblest animal in creation a head and tail were added.”

The article then described the actual punishment. “When a soldier was sentenced, either by court martial or by his commanding officer, to ride the horse he was placed on the brute’s back, with his hands tied behind him, and frequently enough, in order to increase the pain, muskets were fastened to his legs to weight them down or, as was jocularly said, to prevent the fiery, untamed, barebacked steed from kicking him off.”

Harper’s Weekly depicted the punishment in “Mounted Infantry.”
Harper’s Weekly depicted the punishment in “Mounted Infantry.” Military Images.

Though use of the wooden horse may have subsided in England at the end of the 1700s, evidence suggests it continued in America during the Civil War.

An engraving printed in the Nov. 26, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly depicts a Union infantryman at Petersburg, Va., who sits astride an extremely crude wooden horse—at least compared to the version at Fort Bridger. The soldier holds a wood saber and straddles a rough-hewn log that has clearly been sharpened along its top edge.

The caption that accompanied the sketch described the method as “a peculiar mode of punishing refractory soldiers who refuse duty because, having enlisted for the cavalry, they have been out in the infantry instead. The officer in command accosts one of these disappointed soldiers thus: ‘Then you want to ride a horse, do you?’ ‘Yes Sir.’ ‘Corporal, fix him a horse.’”

“Riding the ‘wooden horse’ was one of the mildest forms of torture inflicted upon the soldiers.”

The caption continued, “The horse is brought, and turns out to be a wooden one with a not very generous allowance of back. Upon this the soldier is mounted, and a wooden saber is placed in his hand. Punishment for disobedience of orders is always just: still we can only regard it as natural that a soldier enlisting as a cavalryman should object to serving in another capacity. The punishment, however, which lasts three or four hours, is usually effectual, and the ‘mounted’ infantryman leaves his horse well satisfied with his short service in the cavalry.”

One man who experienced the American wooden horse was Frederick C. Vernon-Harcourt, a British subject and journeyman soldier who claimed service in both the Union and Confederate military.   

Vernon-Harcourt recounted his experience while serving as a gunner in an artillery battery in the Army of the Potomac in his memoirs, From Stage to Cross: The Record of a Rolling Stone. “I had not long joined before I began to find that the discipline was irritatingly and unnecessarily severe, and that, moreover, it was devised and enforced by men totally unfitted by military aptitude or experience for holding the position of officers.” He added, “The brutally cruel punishments with which the most trivial of military offences were followed. Riding the ‘wooden horse’ was one of the mildest forms of torture inflicted upon the soldiers of a country which has named itself ‘The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.’”

Vernon-Harcourt also described the equine-patterned contraption in exacting detail, and his ordeal aboard the apparatus. “The ‘wooden horse’ consisted of a smoothed log of wood, into which were stuck four poles, to keep it in a horizontal position. A ladder at each end led up to the body of the wooden charger, across which the culprit had to sit straddle-legged. The upper part being beveled to a blunted edge, the position of the rider was at first irksome, then painful, and the longer the punishment continued the more frightful became the torture. It was like bestriding the edge of a razor. I had to undergo the ordeal on one occasion for two awful hours, so I am not ever likely to forget the experience. The officer who placed this indignity upon me and two other youngsters was killed the following day, and there were significant whispers going about after the engagements that it could scarcely have been a Confederate bullet that found its billet in the major’s occiput.”

The sharpened edge described by Vernon-Harcourt and depicted in the Harper’s Weekly engraving is not present in the Fort Bridger carte de visite. The lack of an edge indicates that Capt. Mills intentionally modified his wooden horse to remove the element of torture, thus correctly interpreting the practices of his teacher, Charlie Naylor.

References: Anson Mills, My Story; Nelson B. Wadsworth, Set in Stone, Fixed in Glass: The Great Mormon Temple and Its Photographers; Aberdeen-Weekly-News (Aberdeen, S.D.), Dec. 23, 1909; Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 26, 1864; Frederick C Vernon-Harcourt, From Stage to Cross: The Record of a Rolling Stone.

Robert L. Kotchian has contributed to MI since 1980. An active collector of Civil War weapons, uniforms, accouterments, artillery and dug relics since the late 1950s, Kotchian turned his attention to Civil War images in 1970. His photography interests have since expanded to include the post-Civil War period up to World War I. His current focus is photographic postcards depicting the Mexican Border conflict that involved Pancho Villa and the Punitive Expedition.

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