The Legend of “Old Bill”

Posted on August 18, 2012

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From time to time I try to give history of the US Cavalry. This is one of those times. The story about “Old Bill” is a true story.

*Old Bill

Symbol of Mobile Warfare

Of the many fine artists who turned their talents to portraying the great American West, Frederic Remington came perhaps closest to being the United States Cavalry’s own. The noted artist contributed materially to the enduring historical record of our western frontier and the Cavalry was a major subject of his pen and brush. This facet of his work brought Remington single recognition from the mounted fraternity during the 1890’s when the United States Cavalry Association, a professional society of the mobile arm, and the publishers of the famous Cavalry journal awarded him a life membership.

Several years later, Remington took occasion to show his appreciation of this honor. In his gesture lies the story spanning half a century and holding elements of genuine interest for the collector, the historian, the artist, and the soldier.

In 1898 Remington visited the camp of the 3rd Cavalry at Tampa, Florida where the regiment was staging for the Santiago campaign . The artist, on his way to cover the war in Cuba for Harper’s Weekly, was a close friend of Captain Francis H. Hardie, Commanding G Troop of the 3rd Cavalry at the time.

During his visit, Remington’s attention was drawn to one of the troops noncommissioned officers, Sergeant John Lannen. A superb rider and an imposing figure, Lannen impressed Remington as the epitome of the cavalryman. With Hardie’s approval, the artist made several rough sketches of the white-haired, white-mustached noncommissioned officer in front of the troop commander’s tent.

From these roughs Remington later executed the now famous drawing portraying a cavalryman mounted on his horse and with a carbine cradled in his arms. This he presented to the Cavalry Association in 1902. In January 1903, this drawing first appeared on the cover of the Cavalry Journal. And there it stayed for forty years.

Always a branch of great esprit, and highly conscious of history and tradition, the Cavalry took the Remington masterpiece to its heart. Somewhere through the years it picked up the label “Old Bill” and became a sort of symbol, so that, although it was shouldered off the front cover of the Cavalry Journal in mid 1942, and was displaced in turn from the back cover of the successor Armored Cavalry Journal in late 1948, it appears to this day on the masthead page of ARMOR- continuation magazine of the mounted arm- as a trademark of mobility in war.

What of the man who served as model for the Remington sketch? At the time he posed, Sergeant John Lannen was approaching thirty years of service and anticipating retirement. The blue-eyed, ruddy-complicated soldier was held in high esteem by his officers as an outstanding noncommissioned officer-loyal, a stern disciplinarian, but with unfailing good humor under trying conditions. Hardie pictured him a “strikingly handsome soldier, a gallant man and a non-commissioned officer of the old-fashioned kind whose orders were always obeyed.”

Frederic Remington certainly has captured all of this in “Old Bill” and the result is an effective personification of the mounted soldier. Fate was not to grant Sergeant Lannen the opportunity to enjoy a well deserved retirement, nor would it be his destiny, when his time arrived, to fall gloriously on the field of battle. At the end of a campaign and of the eve of his retirement, he succumbed in Cuba , along with many of his comrades, to yellow fever.

But if the manner of the veteran non-commissioned officer’s passing was something of less that heroic, he left a legacy in compensation. Everything he represented a man, a soldier, a service-lives on after him, immortalized in the work of Frederic Remington.

The information below was obtained from http://www.cubanbattlefields.unl.edu/imagery

**Description: San Juan Hill – US Army in camp, reverse. Text reads: San Juan Hill, where the Spanish army met its final defeat, is situated between Santiago and El Caney, Cuba. This view show the American army in camp after the Rough Riders’ memorable charge. The scene is thus described by one who took part in the battle: ‘On the 1st and 2nd of July, 1898, the Rough Riders were commanded to take San Juan Hill, and with the 1st, 3rd, 9th and 10th Cavalry we took it, but with great loss. Col. Roosevelt led our charge. Shells fell thickly among us, and the air seemed thick with Spanish bullets. Men were falling all around, but we kept up the rush, going steadily forward. The Spanish were very strongly entrenched and were aided by their artillery in the rear. The firing from the Spanish guns was terrific, but still we pressed on, yelling like fiends incarnate, and when we got within about fifty feet of the [unclear]niards they began to desert their trenches. It was then [unclear] poured our bullets into them, and the slaughter was terrible. It was a most desperate battle, and too much credit cannot be given to Col. Roosevelt, who led us.’

Source:

Peter Bleed Personal Collection

* This information and the photo of Old Bill was extracted from: 1cda.org

**This information was extracted from www.cubanbattlefields.unl.edu/imagery. For more information about battles leading up to the Battle of San Juan Hill go to this website. There you will even find after action reports by several officers and many photographs.

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