The story of Black Bess
Not to toot my own horn, but, in 1973 when I was editor of The Thoroughbred Record, I was invited to Panama for the Clasico Internacional del Caribe, because the organizers wanted a “distinguished journalist” to cover the event for an international publication.
In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t think I’ve ever been referred to in those glowing terms before or since, and I should also probably reveal that my journalistic presence in that particular period of life was more akin to having Hunter S. Thompson at the festival surrounding the Clasico than William Faulkner. In short, over the four-day celebration which surrounded the race, I made the ugly American look like Raquel Welch – up to and including mistaking the President of Panama for the trainer of Montecarlo, the horse who won the race.
Still, in all my days as a journalist, distinguished or otherwise, I don’t believe I’ve ever received such a positive reaction to any article I’ve written as I got for the one about Sgt. Reckless in the last issue of North American Trainer.
So in an effort to duplicate the good feeling engendered by the Sgt. Reckless piece, this column is also going to be about another mare who became famous for her exploits on the battlefield but is now more famous for other reasons.
Black Bess was the name of a fine mare who was ridden by John Hunt Morgan, the Civil War General, leader of Morgan’s Raiders, who gained fame on a thousand-mile foray in 1863 which took them from Tennessee through Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio – farther behind enemy lines than any other uniformed Confederate company went – where they captured and paroled an estimated several thousand Union troops, before they were captured themselves, trying to cross the Ohio River into West Virginia.
The Union troops had no intention of paroling Morgan or his troops, but he and six of his officers escaped from the Ohio Penitentiary and began raiding again in the area until September 4, 1864, when he was captured and killed near Greeneville, Tennessee.
Now, as Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story...
Black Bess is already memorialized in the form of a bronze statue, while the Sgt. Reckless Fund is still trying to raise money to place a bronze statue of the little mare at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. [Sgt. Reckless Memorial Fund, P. O. Box 1125, Moorpark, CA 93020].
In 1911, with the assistance of a number of local Thoroughbred breeders, many of whose antecedents had been forced to ransom some of the finest bloodstock in the state from Morgan’s Raiders, the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned a sculptor named Pompeo Coppini to create an heroic statue of Morgan astride Black Bess to stand, as it still does today, on the front lawn of what was then the Fayette County Courthouse. It was the only one of 60 memorials created during those days where the honored hero was portrayed astride his horse.
There was one slight problem, though. Signor Coppini was of the belief that “No hero should bestride a mare!” and, when the statue was unveiled, it was revealed that Black Bess had been endowed with equipment which, even today, would be the envy of any stallion standing in Kentucky.
So now a tradition has grown up around Black Bess at the University of Kentucky and most of their opponents in athletic endeavors wherein fraternity pledges on both sides of the athletic fields are sent prior to games to paint poor Bess’ balls, prompting an anonymous author, generally believed to have been historian William Townsend, to write The Ballad of Black Bess, which concludes:
To truth is all our homage due
But scholars must confess,
That art o’er fact hath won the day
With the balls of good Black Bess.
What saddens every Bluegrass heart
Is a continuing tradition
For students in their annual pranks
To alter Bess’s condition.
Now every year the faithful mare
Must suffer violation.
Her balls are painted every hue
Known to imagination.