General Robert E. Lee and Traveller
If you know me at all, you know I tend to avoid schmaltz. In the greeting card section of a store, I head straight for the funny ones—avoiding the sappy, sentimental cards like the plague. But, every now and then, something makes me sit back and enjoy a moment of misty eyed, runny nose sentimentality—not the kind that brings on an ugly cry, but the kind that comes pretty darn close! That’s how I feel about any great story about a human who loves a horse. So, at the risk of sounding schmaltzy, I want to tell you about one of the greatest human-equine partnerships of all time, that of General Robert E. Lee and his horse, Traveller.
Some partnerships are just meant to be. That’s how I think of General Robert E. Lee and his favorite horse, Traveller. They just seemed destined for each other. I mean, if there had been a matchmaking business designed to match owners with their perfect horse, Robert E. Lee would have been matched with Traveller. They were both born in Virginia. They both wore Confederate gray. And, before he belonged to Robert E. Lee, Traveller’s original name was Jeff Davis, as in Jefferson Davis. Please note. . .Traveller was born in 1857 and Jefferson Davis wouldn’t become President of the Confederacy until 1861. Ah, destiny!
Traveller’s sire was Grey Eagle, a stallion who sired multiple racehorses and saddle horses. In Greenbrier County, Virginia, young Traveller won blue ribbons at the county fair, two years in a row, when shown as a saddle horse. But there were bigger things in store for Traveller!
In early 1861, General Lee was commanding an army in western Virginia. At the same time, Traveller was in use by another Confederate officer, Captain Joseph M. Broun. Broun had purchased the 4-yr-old horse, who was at that time named Jeff Davis, for the sum of $175 and renamed him Greenbrier. When Lee first saw Captain Broun on Greenbrier, he fell head over heels. It is said that he immediately referred to the horse as “my colt”. Do you know the old saying, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”? This seems to be a case of, “If wishes were horses, a General would ride the horse of his dreams!”
War marched on and Lee had another encounter with Broun and “his horse” in South Carolina. I can’t say if Broun was just one of the nicest guys to ever live, or if he was smart enough to know that it never hurts for a Captain to promote good will where Generals are concerned, but Broun offered the horse to General Lee. General Lee refused to accept the gift, but he did offer to purchase the horse on the condition that he could sort of test-drive the horse for a week. Broun said, “Okie-dokie, General!” (Yes, I’m putting words in Broun’s mouth. But, he did agree to Lee’s proposal.)
The trial run was enough for Lee to know he REALLY wanted that horse. You know, he probably fell in love with that “new horse” smell. General Lee paid Captain Broun $190 to compensate for the depreciation of Confederate money, and Greenbrier became Traveller. Goodness! I hope that Traveller didn’t have a lot of monogrammed items!
Lee had other horses, but, from the spring of 1862 on, it was Traveller who accompanied him into every battle. Traveller was good in battle because he wasn’t easily spooked by loud noises. Even a seasoned warhorse can have a bad day, though. Following the second Battle of Manassas, Traveller reacted to a noise by rearing. General Lee had been standing beside Traveller with the reins wrapped around his hand. General Lee was pulled over a stump and both of his hands were injured. It was several weeks before General Lee was back in the saddle. There are stories of war-weary Lee coming out of battle and throwing his arms around the neck of Traveller, to support himself.
Description of a Warhorse
For a description of Traveller, we need go no further than General Lee’s own words. The following was written in response to his wife’s cousin, Markie Williams, who had requested to paint a picture of Traveller:
If I was an artist like you, I would draw a true picture of Traveller; representing his fine proportions, muscular figure, deep chest, short back, strong haunches, flat legs, small head, broad forehead, delicate ears, quick eye, small feet, and black mane and tail. Such a picture would inspire a poet, whose genius could then depict his worth, and describe his endurance of toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold; and the dangers and suffering through which he has passed. He could dilate upon his sagacity and affection, and his invariable response to every wish of his rider. He might even imagine his thoughts through the long night-marches and days of the battle through which he has passed. But I am no artist Markie, and can therefore only say he is a Confederate grey.
Those are clearly the words of a man who was more than a little smitten with his horse!
After the War
Following the war, General Lee served as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Virginia. Of course, Traveller went with him. The horse that once carried the General into battle was used to take him for long, peaceful rides into the mountains. I’ve always felt kind of sorry for General Lee . . .forced to fight against his former West Point classmates and friends. . .had to wear gray every day. . .it seems oddly fitting that he should, in the end, have such a rich reward as lazy rides in the mountains on the horse he loved most.
Traveller, who was allowed to graze the campus grounds, became a sort of unofficial mascot for the college. The trade-off was that Traveller lost a lot of hairs from his mane and tail to over-zealous admirers!
When Robert E. Lee died in 1870, a riderless Traveller walked behind the caisson that carried Lee’s body. Traveller remained well loved and well cared for until his death in 1871. Traveller is now buried near his owner, just outside the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. Here, the students have traditionally left pennies and treats for the horse. In life, Lee was known to leave the doors of Traveller’s stable open, allowing him to roam freely about the campus. Today, those stable doors still remain open to allow Traveller’s spirit free reign of the campus that still remembers General Lee and his most famous horse.
Through the Eyes of a Warhorse
If you would like to enjoy an interesting read, I suggest picking up the novel, Traveller, by Richard Adams. In it, the reader gets to see the events of the Civil War unfold through the eyes of General Lee’s equine companion, as told to a barn cat.
Happy Trails, y’all!