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Black Horse Troop founder recalled as quiet man who commanded respect

Tom Coyne

Black Horse Troop, Equestriennes ride through Culver to cemetery

Nov. 5, 2023

Gen. Leigh R. Gignilliat, who founded the Black Horse Troop at Culver Academies, was remembered during a graveside memorial on Sunday as a quiet, “remarkably thin” man who was able to lead because those who served under him had such great respect for him.

“Gignilliat, rather than exercising power, fear, threat of punishment, or intimidation, manifested leadership by earning the respect and trust of those who served under him,” said Jeff Kenney, archives manager at the Culver Academies Museum. “He did so by way of his character, his composure, and his having led a life of service and sacrifice.”

Kenney spoke at a ceremony where members of Culver Academies’ Black Horse Troop and Equestriennes rode from the Vaughn Equestrian Center to the Culver Masonic Cemetery on the southwest side of town to lay a wreath at Gignilliat’s grave. It is the eighth year of the ceremony, which is held on a Sunday near the date of his death on Oct. 30, 1952

Kenney said the ride is becoming a tradition that he hopes will “live up to that distinguished identity as one of Culver's great traditions.”

“As all of you know, tradition plays a powerful and central role in Culver's identity, and that's due in no small part to Gen. Gignilliat's recognition of its value in giving people, especially young people, a sense of place, purpose, pride, and perspective,” Kenney said. 


Oscar Cano ’24, squadron commander, and Jayden Hall ’24, a member of the Equestriennes, place a wreath by the grave of Gen. Leigh R. Gignilliat. (Photo by Ken Voreis)


The Rev. Dr. Sam Boys, director of spiritual life at Culver Academies, reminded members of the Black Horse Troop and the Equestriennes and others gathered for the service, including Col. Mike Squires, commandant of cadets, that this is a week of remembrance at the Academies with the Veteran Day Ceremony planned for Saturday.

“We remember those who came before us. We remember that we owe our very lives to people who we may never meet,” Boys said.

Boys told those gathered the importance Gignilliat placed on faith and read from Gignilliat’s book, “Arms and the Boy”, where he wrote “the spiritual phase of education is the most difficult, but the most important.”

“In Culver, we aim at faith rather than dogma, at inspiration rather than a code, at a spiritual atmosphere that than positive instruction,” Boys read.

Boys also reminded the students that Gignilliat started the horsemanship at Culver. Gignilliat persuaded Henry Harrison Culver, founder of the Academies, to buy 16 horses from the Cleveland Cavalry’s Black Horse Troop after reading about the horses appearing in the inauguration of President William McKinley in 1897.

Gignilliat spent 40 years at Culver, serving as commandant of cadets and later as superintendent of the school. Boys held a picture of Gignilliat as Kenney spoke, telling them how important he was “in making Culver the institution it was an is today.”


A photo of Gen. Leigh R. Gignilliat was placed on the tombstone. (Photo by Ken Voreis)


Kenney recalled a quote from Ernest Gann ’30, a renowned aviator and author, who described Gignilliat as “a delicately framed Georgia gentleman” who “symbolized a vanishing aristocracy.”

"Without compromise, without the slightest bending of his straight-backed dignity, he maintained total devotion among the 700 teenage boys, many of whom were hardly model citizens. When the general spoke to his assembled troops, as he did only on important ceremonial occasions, we sat enrapt, fearful we might miss a single word. There was not a boot scrape, a squeak of a chair, or a tinkle of accoutrements as his cultured voice told of our place in society," he wrote.

Kenney told the students that Gignilliat displayed the way leaders at Culver should conduct themselves.

“Remember how a true leader may lead,” he said.

After Kenney’s remarks, Oscar Cano ’24, squadron commander, and Jayden Hall ’24, a member of the Equestriennes, placed a wreath by Gignilliat’s grave as Matthew Nendza played taps. Boys then recited the words from taps and the Black Horse Troop and Equestriennes headed back to campus.

The first Gignilliat Ride was held in 2016 as a way to honor him while also giving Troopers and Equestriennes practice in riding about 2 miles on city streets. That is about how long the presidential inaugural parade is. Horsemanship leaders at Culver thought it would be a good rehearsal.


Equestriennes and Black Horse Troop members ride through Culver on Sunday (Photo by Ken Voreis)



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