It was a Sunday inaugural practice parade with a special purpose – to pay respects to the man who put everything in place for another opportunity to ride down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017.
Members of the 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 the grave of Gen. Leigh Gignilliat on Nov. 13. It was the former commandant-turned-superintendent who brought horses to Culver in 1897, got the Black Horse Troop in its first Presidential Inaugural Parades in 1913 and 1917, and conducted the forerunner of the Veterans Day Ceremony at the Legion Memorial Building dedication in 1924.
At the cemetery, former commandant Col. Kelly Jordan, who is researching and writing a history on Gignilliat, said the Troopers and Equestriennes were participating in two of the general’s favorite activities: ceremonies and riding horses. Their ride happening the same weekend as the Veterans Day Ceremony on Friday would have pleased Gignilliat, he said. Plus, it is also very close to the date of his passing on Oct. 30, 1952.
While there are many well-known stories about Gignilliat, Jordan told the students one that few, if any, know about. Located in the Lilly Library at Indiana University are letters showing Gignilliat’s stature at the state, national and international levels.
He was one of the most influential individuals behind the construction of the Indiana War Memorial in Indianapolis and very active in both the American Legion and its international counterpart, the Fėdėration Interalliėe des Anciens Combattants (Interallied Federation of Veterans).
In 1928, Gignilliat was the serving as the American Vice President of FIDAC, the highest rank an American could achieve in the organization. And he was considered by many as the best candidate to take over as the National Commander of the American Legion later that year. While Gignilliat was reticent about putting his name forward for this prestigious position, others – including many Culver Military Academy alumni – were pushing his name forward.
This, to me, is perhaps the very best example I have come across of someone living by the Culver Values and upholding the true Spirit of Culver.
But, Jordan said, there was also a contingent of younger veterans opposed to Gignilliat’s election. One of those was Paul McNutt, who was a rising political star in Indiana. As State Commander, McNutt viewed the national post as a stepping stone to becoming governor, which he did in 1932.
As the vote neared, a Cincinnati, Ohio, businessman, Milton D. Campbell, wrote a letter to McNutt detailing the reasons why the younger man should withdraw. He cited the number of Culver men across the country supporting Gignilliat and detailed the many things the general had done to benefit the American Legion and veterans overall.
However, McNutt refused and eventually won the National Commander position. But, rather than be angry, Gignilliat personally extended his support to McNutt via a letter. At the same time, Gignilliat was preparing to assist Arthur Ball (as in Ball Brothers and Ball State University) of Muncie, Ind., in his transition as the American Vice President of FIDAC.
With his term running out with FIDAC and his loss in the National Commander election, Jordan said Gignilliat’s reaching out to both McNutt and Ball showed his first priority was “to help and ensure that both his successors were successful and that their respective organizations thrived. This, to me, is perhaps the very best example I have come across of someone living by the Culver Values and upholding the true Spirit of Culver.”
Jordan said he believed Sunday’s wreath laying could serve as a reminder of Gignillat’s “wonderful example” and how everyone can live up to the Culver Values and uphold the Spirit of Culver in their own lives.