In honor of the reinternments of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife last weekend, I wanted to feature this story about the general’s beloved horse, King Philip. This horse is represented in the equestrian statue that was removed from Forrest Park in Memphis and will soon be relocated atop the general’s grave. I wrote about King Philip in my nonfiction book, Horses in Gray.
ASK RUFUS: KING PHILIP, NOT FOR SALE AT ANY PRICE
By: Rufus Ward
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 Philip. In their 1866 history of Forrest’s campaigns, General Thomas Jordan and J. P. Pryor wrote of King Philip 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 horseshoes 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 warhorses in American history was General Forrest’s King Philip. Few, though, realize that King Philip was a Columbus horse.
The earliest account of where Forrest got King Philip 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 Philip”.
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 Philip, 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 Philip 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 Philip 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 horseshoes 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 warhorses.
(Article courtesy of the Jeff Davis Legion, Official Publication of the Mississippi Division Sons of Confederate Veterans, vol. 23, issue no. 8, August 2021)