All Civil War aficionados are familiar with Lee's horse Traveler, Stonewall's Little Sorrel, Grant's Cincinnati and Sheridan's Rienzi, but who knows about Plug Ugly? If Alpheus Williams was an unsung hero, then so was his battle mount Plug Ugly. Partly because Plug Ugly's story, which is metaphoric of the frequent fate of living beings in war, and partly because his name describes the American Civil War more closely than his more famous equine cousin's, I have named this project in his honor.
While I have yet to find a picture of "old Plug", I have come to know about him through William's incidental mention of him, particularly when he was essential in saving William's life. That Williams' somehow managed to go through the war unwounded was due in no small part to Plug. Unlike Williams, Plug would not survive the war. Yet, Williams' endearing descriptions of him present us with another unsung hero.
The first mentions of Plug is in Williams' description of the Union defeat at Winchester in May 1862 as quoted below. Plug is not mentioned by name, but it may be implied from later writings that it is him.
"As we reached the brow of the hill a most terrific fire of infantry was opened upon us from a long line which extended beyond my extreme right. The air seemed literally to be full of whizzing bullets, which stirred up currents of wind as if the atmosphere had suddenly been filled with some invisible cooling process. The cavalry could do nothing before such an overwhelming force and it went down with great rapidity. I stopped just long enough to know that I could see nothing of value through the smoke in front, and looking to the left I saw the whole line of the brigade retiring in order and yet rapidly to the rear. I put spurs to my horse, descended partly down the hill and was beginning to think I should spend a time in Richmond if I did not hurry, especially as I was penned in by a heavy stone wall. I dashed my horse at a point where two or three stones appeared to have been knocked off the top and although he is a pretty heavy beast (not my favorite gift horse) I think he appreciated the occasion for he cleared the wall most gallantly and carried me safely over into a narrow lane." [CM p. 81]
Plug was not his only horse. He had a favorite show horse named Yorkshire, but when it came to crunch time Williams would be found atop Plug. During the muddy winter quarters at Stafford in 1863 he writes:
"I rode yesterday my "Yorkshire." I have not been on his back for over a month, preferring to ride "Plug Ugly" over these rough and muddy roads. "Yorkshire" never looked so well as now. He has grown large and muscular since we left Detroit. Considering his thin skin and soft hair he stands exposure wonderfully, though Charley is as careful of him as a mother of a baby. The horse is admired by everybody and pronounced by all as the finest animal in the army." [CM/ p.166]
At the height of the desperate night battle at Chancellorsville, Williams was riding to rally a regiment of Berry's division, which, with his division, was astride the Orange Plank Road forming the Union last line of defense.
"I was passing through a low, muddy spot, when a shell struck in the mud directly under my horse and exploded, throwing up the mud like a volcano. I felt as if I was lifted ten feet in the air, and supposed, of course, my horse (old Plug Ugly) was clean gone in all his under-works. I dismounted in haste and found he was bleeding pretty freely, but, strange to say, not seriously wounded and only in three or four places. It was probably a percussion shell which buried itself below the mud so deep till it reached the hard earth, that the superincumbent pressure gave a low direction to the pieces, and thus saved both horse and myself." [CM/ p. 197]
Plug's rough life continued during the post Gettysburg days when following Lee through Maryland's Pleasant Valley in July of 1863 Williams writes:
"I forgot also to tell you of a narrow escape I had on the road. I was passing a column of our soldiers and endeavored to take the side of the road, passing along a deep roadside or ditch on a narrow strip between a stone wall on one side and the deep ditch on the other. I finally came to the end of the wall where a rail fence had been partly thrown down. Here I tried to jump my horse over, but in turning him on the narrow ledge he slipped and tumbling down the bank landed flat on his back in the bottom of the ditch. Fortunately, as he slipped I jumped from the saddle and landed safely on the bank. Old Plug Ugly must have fallen eight or ten feet and as he groaned hugely I supposed he was finished at last, after passing through diverse battles and one heavy fall into the pontoon boats. The men got his saddle off while he lay as quiet as a lamb and turning him round, with a big grunt he got to his feet and was led to the upper end of the ditch to terra firma, apparently as sound as ever. My saddle, which I supposed was crushed beyond repair, came out scarcely injured, saved I supposed by the overcoats and blankets strapped before and behind. Altogether, it was a lucky escape for man, beast, and saddle."
Plug's long suffering then brings out Williams' warm sentiments toward his companion in hardship.
"Old Plug was somewhat stiff the next day, but I rode him every day. He is a regular old soldier, however, and takes great advantage of my indulgence and his long service and five or six wounds. As we march along he grabs at every knot of grass, corn, shrub, or any vegetable substance that presents itself on his way. No amount of spurring or whipping can break him of this habit of laying in a supply against short rations. He is an odd, lazy old fellow, sometimes pretending to be very scary, especially after every battle, at other time apparently afraid of nothing. For a year and a half we have been daily companions. We get up a great love for even brutes under such circumstances. I should grieve to part with old Plug Ugly, with all his faults." [CM/ PP. 236-7]
The war begin to take its toll on Plug and his rail transfer to the Western Army with Williams did not help.
"My horses arrived yesterday. Old Plug Ugly has lost pretty much all his tail. His length is so great that he rubbed at both ends of the car and has bared the bones of his head and his tail, besides having had his neck badly bitten by some indignant horse. He looks worse than after the shell exploded under him at eyes on our first meeting. The stallion looks better, though he is badly rubbed on both hips by his two weeks railroad voyage. Non of the horses are badly injured, however." [CM/ p. 267]
Plug apparently gave out during the grueling campaign against Atlanta and Williams, on the move, sorrowfully released him. Writing from Savannah on January 23, 1865 Williams gives the following epilogue.
"My horses got a good feed. The venerable Yorkshire, who is generally carefully attended to, looked supreme disgust, as he was obliged to stand in the rain all night unblanketed, and for thirty-six hours unfed. Major, the chestnut horse I have generally rode since last spring, as tough as a knot, looked quite resigned. The worthy and war-worn old Plug Ugly, I believe I have told you before, gave out last summer beyond even strength to be led, and was ignominiously sold for $50. I would cheerfully pay more for his bullet-bored skin, if I had it at home. I hear that he died soon after I disposed of him." [CM/ p. 372]