There were many famous generals and horses that came out of the Civil War. Among the most noted was Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his favorite horse, King Phillip. In their 1866 history of Forrest’s campaigns, General Thomas Jordan and J. P. Pryor wrote of King Phillip this; “conspicuous iron gray gelding…(was)…sluggish on ordinary occasions, became superbly excited in battle, and was as quick to detect the presence of a blue coat as any Confederate soldier, and was as ready to make battle, which he did, by laying back his ears and rushing at the offending object with open mouth.”
Growing up off of Military Road in Columbus, my grandmother told me that the horse shoes I would occasionally find were from the stables that had been located behind the old Col. T.C. Billups home which had burned during the 1880s. Little then did I realize whose shoes they might have been.
One of the more famous war horses in American history was General Forrest’s King Phillip. Few, though, realize that King Phillip was a Columbus horse. The earliest account of where Forrest got King Phillip stated that the horse was a veteran of the Vicksburg campaign and a gift from the citizens of Columbus. As a child I recall my uncle T. C. Billups IV telling me the story of how Forrest got the horse.
He related that after being wounded on one occasion Forrest was recovering at the Billups house in Columbus. While there “Forrest admired a fine saddle horse and asked to purchase the horse, ‘King Phillip”. Billups replied, ‘General, I could not sell him at any cost.’ On the day he was leaving to rejoin his troops, Forrest called for his horse to be brought around. Instead it was King Phillip, the horse he had admired, that was led to him. Col. Billups presented the horse to Forrest as a gift.” When he departed, Forrest left his crutch with his name carved in the side at the Billups home.
As my interest in history developed, I began to track the origin of many of the stories I had heard as a child. The story of King Phillip was one of them. The family still had Forrest’s crutch, however, I wondered about the story as Col. Billups had been in his late 50s during the Civil War and did not serve in the military. That raised a question about the Vicksburg Campaign connection with the horse. I soon found the answer.
One of Billups’ sons, T. C., was a lieutenant in the 6th Mississippi Cavalry and served under Forrest. Another son, John, was Captain in the 43rd Mississippi Regiment and had been captured at Vicksburg and paroled back to Columbus in July 1863. The earliest mention of Forrest riding King Phillip into battle that I found was in February 1864. That answered the Vicksburg question.
I then sought the earliest family account of the story. I found it being told by Mary Billups, John’s daughter, who was born in 1874 and recalled the story in 1936 that she would have heard from her father. Her account was the story I had been told by my uncle. In addition, I learned that at the suggestion of Forrest, the Billups family had commissioned an artist friend of Forrest, Nicola Marschall, to come to Columbus and paint portraits in the mid 1870s. Marschall painted at least nine Billups portraits while in Columbus.
Growing up I never realized that the horse shoes I found came from the stables that had once been the home of a big gelding, iron gray horse that became one of America’s most famous war horses.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]