Years ago, schoolchildren in Posey County, Ind., would knock on Robert Johnson's door and ask for a special family keepsake to take to their classroom for show and tell. What they asked to borrow had belonged originally to Robert's grandfather, George M. Barrett, or, more accurately, to Mr. Barrett's horse, "Fly." It was a swatch of the horse's tail, which he had kept after she died.
Fly and Barrett were both veterans of the Civil War. They served together from 1861-1864 in the 28th Regiment Volunteers of Company B, Indiana, First Cavalry. After the war, theylived on Barrett's farm. Fly's heroism in the war was widely acknowledged throughout the region.
Her remarkable story, just published in book form ("Fly Like the Wind", written and illustrated by Bridgette Z. Savage, Buckbeech Studios), had survived largely as oral history - thanks, in part, to the children who retold it at show and tell.
Many horses served in the Civil War. Several cavalry animals on both sides of the conflict won fame for their loyalty and courage under circumstances that were frightening and bewildering.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's horse, Traveller, has had a book written about him. Union Gen. GeorgeMeade's horse, Baldy, continued to serve even after being wounded. Like other mounts of Civil War generals, Little Sorrel, who carried Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson into battle, received royal treatment and enjoyed considerable fame in retirement.
Fly's fame was more localized. Her owner was not a general but a youth of 20 who enlisted in the Union Army with his horse on July 21, 1861, just after the start of the war. Fly was 6 years old.
Barrett had had Fly since she was a small filly. The two had developed a close bond as they worked together on Barrett's father's farm. It was a time before tractors or cars, when horses pulled plows, mowers, hay rakes, and wagons. Horses also carried riders where they needed to go - even to war.
The war years tested the courage of Barrett and Fly. After spendingtime in training camp, they helped the Union in its struggle for control of the Mississippi River. They battled Confederate troops and traveled over miles of rough terrain - day after day, week after week, and month after month - in all kinds of weather.
Once, surrounded by Confederate troops, Barrett and Fly narrowly escaped capture by plunging off a cliff and swimming across a river to safety.
After surviving this and many other experiences, Barrett welcomed the end of his three years of servicein July 1864. But the war continued, and the Union Army wanted to keep Fly. They wanted strong, fast horses that did not become frightened in battle, that stood by their riders while they dismounted to fire, that never panicked, and that were obedient.
Barrett, however, refused the army's offer of $150 for Fly. (That would be equal to about $3,000 today, but in those days, it was enough to buy a 75-acre farm.) Heconvinced the officers of his unit to help him take Fly back home. He wanted her to once again take up the more peaceful work of farming with him.
They traveled by steamship and train until the final few miles of their journey. That's when Barrett, atop Fly, failed for the first time to control the mare. Knowing she was close to home after being away for so long, Fly lived up to her name. She thundered past Barrett's welcoming family, straight to her old stall door in the barn.
In the years that followed, Fly worked alongside Barrett, with her same steady willingness, no doubt glad to be done with gunfire and battle. Still, she enjoyed attending reunions of Civil War veterans in Indiana and Illinois, because she liked bugles and drums and participating in parades.
Fly was an old horse - almost 39 - when she died on Barrett's farm. Because nearly everyone in southwestern Indiana knew of Fly and loved the horse, her skeleton was preserved. It is on display at the "Workingmen's Institute," a museum and library in New Harmony, Ind.
Ms. Savage, the author of "Fly Like the Wind," who is also an elementary school teacher, recently came to speak there. She explained how the horse's story had captivated her. She also thanked one of the audience members, Patricia Johnson, for helping her with her research.
It was Mrs. Johnson's husband and Barrett's grandson, Robert, who, for many years, let local schoolchildren take the family keepsake to share at school.
Mrs. Johnson brought a white box to the museum that day. Inside was the swatch of Fly's tail that the family had kept for more than 100 years. She presented it to the museum for display.
Today, this unusual keepsake resides alongside the bones of a horse, who - like Traveller, Baldy, and Little Sorrel - richly deserves to be remembered.