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Hero, the Confederate Prison Dog

This "Russian Bloodhound" (or maybe "Bavarian Boar Hound") was once considered the biggest dog in the world

Back before the Internet made us a global village, extremes were very much a local phenomenon: A huge dog in England might very well be dwarfed by a larger one in Kazakhstan, but who would know?

Today, Guinness World Records catalogs and verifies such claims. The longest and heaviest dog ever recorded by Guinness was Aicama Zorba of La-Susa, an English Mastiff living in London in the 1980s. Zorba clocked in at 343 pounds and measured 8 feet 3 inches long.


Zorba the Mastiff, the world's biggest dog, according to Guinness World Records.


(As an aside, the tallest dog on record was a merle male Great Dane named, appropriately, Zeus. Hailing from Otsego, Michigan, Zeus measured an eye-popping 44 inches at the withers. Currently, the tallest living dog is another merle Dane also named Zeus from the Dallas area. I can’t help but wonder if either or both were neutered early, which would result in their growth plates staying open longer than intended, leading to elongation of the long bones of the legs, which in turn predisposes dogs to osteosarcoma. Perhaps tellingly, the Midwestern Zeus died at age 5 of bone cancer.)


Zeus, a merle Dane from Dallas, is currently the world's tallest dog.


To compare Zorba the Mastiff’s scale-busting modern record to a celebrated big dog of the past, let’s turn the clock back to more than a century and a half, when the nation was in the heat of a war between its states.

At the time, the world’s largest dog — self-proclaimed by his admirers, and with no official confirmation — was a Southern dog named Hero (sometimes referred to as Nero).

So famous was he in later years, Hero had his own carte d’visite, or calling card, with all his vital statistics: 198 pounds, three feet two inches tall, seven and a half feet long from nose to tip of tail.


Hero's carte de visite, or calling card, a collectible popular in the years immediately following the Civil War.


Large-sized dogs like Hero were conscripted during the Civil War to help guard Union soldiers at Confederate prisons, some of which were converted warehouses. There was an abundance of man-trailing dogs in the South, as they were used to track and immobilize runaway slaves. But unlike those dogs, Hero himself was not homegrown, and appeared to have more Molosser than Scenthound ancestry.

Not unexpectedly, the temperaments of these dogs were less than cordial. The commander of Andersonville Prison in Georgia, Captain Henry Wirz, called his prison-patrolling dogs “the Hounds of Hell.” One was reportedly 198 pounds, 38 inches tall and seven feet long — curiously, almost the exact measurements of Hero, who was also nicknamed “Hell Hound.” Wirz was later hanged for atrocities committed at Andersonville, where his hounds were fed with bread intended for his starved Union prisoners.

For his part, Hero had conflicting stories about his origins. According to the back of his carte de visite, he was a Russian Bloodhound, “imported by a Southern gentleman, for sports of the arena” — in other words, bear baiting. Apparently undefeated in that blood sport, he was then conscripted into the Confederate cause.

In her book "George W. Alexander and Castle Thunder," author Frances Casstevens provides an alternate history: Hero was a “Bavarian Boar Hound puppy” that arrived in Richmond on a Bavarian ship in 1859 or 1860. (Germany’s boar hound was of course the Great Dane, and photos of Hero do show a dog who arguably could carry some Dane blood, from his head type to his black color. Then again, land-locked Bavaria is not known for its naval accomplishments.) Hero changed hands a couple of times before landing with Richmond mayor Joseph Mayo, who used him to guard the local jail. It was there that Hero caught the notice of Confederate Captain Alexander, who took him to Castle Thunder prison, where he stayed until war’s end.


Union soldiers stand in front of the Castle Thunder prison shortly after the fall of Richmond, the Confederate capital, to their forces in 1865. The men visible in the barred third-floor windows may be former Confederate soldiers who themselves were now incarcerated. Photo Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.


Reports of Hero’s temperament were just as contradictory.

In May 1865, The Richmond Whig wrote that Hero had the “faithfulness” of his Russian Bloodhound ancestors and the “ferocity” of the Bulldog, which it said Hero also had in his pedigree.

“We have seen him seize little dogs that came around his heels, shake them and cast them twenty feet from him,” the article continued. “The stoutest man he would bring to the ground by one gripe on the throat, and it was always a difficult matter to get him off if he had once tasted or smelled blood."

Size, however, isn’t always correlated with courage: The aforementioned world's tallest dog, Zeus from Dallas, is afraid of rain, according to his owner. And some Civil War-era reports indicate Hero wasn’t exactly a four-footed terror, either.

"There was absolutely nothing formidable about the dog but his size, which was immense. He was one of the best natured hounds whose head I ever patted, and one of the most cowardly,” recalled Rev. J.L. Burrows, D.D., who saw Hero at work. “If a fise [likely a reference to a ‘feist,’ or small terrier-derived hunting dog — Ed.] or a black and tan terrier barked at him as he stood majestic in the office door, he would tuck his tail between his legs and skulk for a safer place. I never heard that he bit anything but the bones that were thrown him, and he was quite a playfellow with the prisoners when permitted to stalk among them."

Hero was apparently good-natured enough to leave his post at the prison to play himself in a local production of a play called “Virginia Cavalier.”

After the war, Union troops exacted their own revenge, capturing Confederate prison dogs and bringing them north to be exhibited.

A June 1862 edition of the Boston Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture covered “Barnum’s Dog Show,” noting that “Mrs. H.G. Otis has contributed a rebel dog, captured by the 24th Massachusetts regiment. Another dog-gish rebel was taken at Newbern by the 9th New Jersey.”

Not surprisingly, Hero too found himself on the postwar Confederate-dog tour circuit, owned by Sidney Munn of the 140th New York. Just how Munn came into possession of Hero is unclear: A New York Times report in 1865 says Hero’s Confederate owner, Captain Alexander, “repeatedly refused $700 in gold for him, and matched him on one occasion in a bear fight for $12,000.” According to the Cleveland Leader, that same year Munn acquired Hero for $1,000 — and subsequently turned down an offer by the famous P.T. Barnum for double that — although the Richmond Whig noted that “Hero has several claimants in this city, who talk of suing out a writ of habeus corpus for the possession of his dogship.”


Advertisement in the Eastern Argus in Portland, Maine, announcing the exhibition of Hero and another Confederate prison dog at the city's old city hall in October 1865.


But possession, as they say, is nine-tenths of the law, and Munn wasted no time promoting Hero all over the country, from metropolises like Detroit, Chicago and Washington, D.C., to smaller cities like Portland, Maine. Making $150 per exhibition — equivalent to a little less than $3,000 today — Munn reprtedly made thousands on his canine companion.

The New York Times, at least, was suitably impressed.

“The hound is probably one of finest specimens of the canine tribe that has ever been seen in this city,” wrote the nation’s paper of record in 1865. “Jet black, standing over three feet in height, with a huge but well proportioned head and body, and thews and sinews that might belong to a small bullock, he presents a very formidable appearance, and was doubtless an efficient guard to the rebel prison.”




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