Tartar was the Forrest Gump of war horses, improbably showing up in unlikely places and being witness to remarkable events. He displayed no obvious talent beyond loyalty and an extraordinary knack for survival.
He entered military service in 1857, when drafted to be part of the U.S. Army expedition to put down the Mormon rebellion in Utah. Signed on in Leavenworth, Kansas territory, to pull caissons and wagons, something about the horse's quality spoke to Sgt. James Stewart, who chose him as his mount.
The horse and rider hit it off. Soon Tartar and Stewart were charging into buffalo herds, with gun blazing. They almost always bagged a bison or two for the hard-marching, Utah-bound regiment.
Then, disaster. Tartar's promising army career was cut short when he showed signs of distemper. He was segregated from the army herd and left to fend for himself on the prairie. One can imagine a sad-eyed Tartar watching the army disappear in a cloud of dust without him. It may have been his salvation.
Winter struck early and hard, with temperatures in early November falling below zero. The trail became a moveable slaughter house of dead and dying animals as the army struggled to reach Fort Bridger in Wyoming, still well over 100 miles short of their Salt Lake City goal. Stewart's harrowing account recalls that on one night, 600 mules, oxen and horses were lost.
In spring, the depleted army offered a $30 bounty for horses. Stewart was surprised to recognize Tartar, who had wintered pulling tent poles for the Plains Indians who had found him. He was in better shape than the surviving army animals.
Returned to service, Tartar and Stewart patrolled the mail route between Salt Lake City and Carson City once the Mormon question had been peaceably settled. But the outbreak of the Civil War saw horse and man ordered to Kansas, then deployed by rail to Washington D.C., and the Army of the Potomac.
While facing off against troops under Stonewall Jackson at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Tartar was hit in the flanks by artillery fragments, which gouged his flesh and amputated his tail. Writing the wounded animal off a second time, Stewart left him in a farmyard.
Tartar was having none of it. He jumped the fence and rejoined the battery.
Later that year President Abraham Lincoln was reviewing troops in the run-up to the Battle of Fredericksburg when he was caught up short by a tail-less horse. "That reminds me of a tale," punned the President. The officers accompanying Lincoln crowded around to hear the funny story, leaving Stewart on Tartar, out of earshot and forever wondering at the punch line. However, the president's 9-year-old son, Tad Lincoln, trotted up on his pony and engaged the soldier in some high-handed bartering, insisting the horse be given to him. Stewart "had a hard time getting away from the little fellow".
Tartar was wounded once again at Fredericksburg, but this time the fearless horse developed an understandable aversion to explosions and fast-flying metal. He would never again be good for battle. Yet, Stewart was still riding Tartar on the road to Gettysburg when the valiant horse took a nail in the hoof. For a third time, Stewart sorrowfully gave up his long-suffering mount, this time to a Pennsylvania farmer.
A month later rumors led Stewart to find his horse tied up in a herd of calvary horses. This time Stewart and Tartar would remain together until the end of the war and beyond. My sources are unclear, but there is enough ambiguity in the story to allow us to imagine that Tartar, who had seen so much, was present at the Appomattox Court House when a distinguished man in gray and a dust-stained man in blue arrived to end the Civil War.
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Tribune. Some of the material for this article was found in Harold Schindler's September 1994 Salt Lake Tribune article "Tartar the War Horse."