One of the first suggestions Col. Leigh R. Gignilliat made after becoming the commandant at Culver Military Academy in 1897 was to start a black horse troop similar to the 1st Troop in Cleveland, Ohio.
Culver Academies Museum Achives Manager Jeff Kenney told members of the Black Horse Troop and Equestriennes that Gignilliat made the suggestion to the Culver family after seeing the Cleveland unit in action. And, Kenney added, this was shortly after his graduation from the Virginia Military Institute.
But the young commandant saw the value of establishing a cavalry unit, both as leadership experience and a promotional tool. The Culvers agreed and CMA purchased 16 horses from the Cleveland unit.
It was that kind of bold, forward thinking that set Gignilliat apart, Kenny explained, and helped promote Culver and its servant leadership model.
Kenney was the keynote speaker at the annual ceremony honoring Gignilliat. Now in its fourth year, the Troop and Equestriennes ride from the Vaughn Equestrian Center, through downtown Culver, and to Gignilliat’s gravesite in the Culver Masonic Cemetery.
The parade and brief ceremony commemorates Gen. Gignilliat’s death on Oct. 30, 1952, as well as marking Veterans Day. It was Gignilliat who started the Veterans Day ceremony as part of the Legion Memorial Building dedication in 1924.
The Black Horse Troop and the Veterans Day ceremony are two examples of Gignilliat’s forward thinking, Kenney said. After becoming the superintendent, he also did the following:
- Frequently brought Hollywood movie news cameras to campus.
- Sent CMA cadets, staff, and the crew boats to Logansport to rescue flood victims.
- Sent the Black Horse Troop to ride in the two Woodrow Wilson inaugural parades and escort other dignitaries on several occasions.
- Sent staff members to chase down and capture bank robbers after they hit the local bank.
- Invited Gen. John J. Pershing to campus in 1922, when “Black Jack” was considered the most popular man in America.
- Established a campus radio station.
- Served as the Chief Scout Executive for the Boy Scouts of America and led the U.S. delegation to the first international jamboree in London in 1920.
- Brought back the Iron Gate from a visit to Europe in 1911.
- Helped make Culver a leading school in the formation of the national ROTC program.
But, Kenney added, some of Gignilliat’s visions were a “little weird.” These included his open air barracks concept to promote health and vitality. That saw cadets wake up with snow on their blankets. There was also the cadet “car wash shower” that had them move through an assembly line to increase the efficiency of that routine.
Gignilliat’s forward vision also saw the coming of World War II. Though not documented, there are several reports that he told the cadets during one of his last speeches to the Corps that Culver had prepared them for war.
And no one can dispute his love for his students, especially his emotional connection to those who fought and died in World War I. The Gold Star portraits were “very hallowed to him,” Kenney said, and it is notable that they were not taken down in the Legion Memorial Building until after his death in 1952, even though he retired as superintendent in 1939.