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Traveller and Robert E. Lee

Traveller and Robert E. Lee: History site section Logo of ancient snaffle bit.


By Cheryl R. Lutring ( A Horse History article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Throughout the world many a  fine horse has gone into battle with a gallant officer in the saddle. But only a celebrated few were lucky enough to find a companionable partnership for life, among them Traveller and General Robert E. Lee.

In 1857 in West Virginia a grey colt was born and named Jeff Davis. He started out as a show horse and was never beaten in classes for two- and three-year-olds. Then in his fourth year his young owner joined the Confederate Cavalry and Jeff Davis was taken to war. Later he was sold to a  Major Thomas Broun for $175 and soon drew the attention of General Lee, who was so taken with him that he referred to him as my colt and would add that he would use him before the War was over.

Broun had said of the horse: He needed neither whip nor spur, and would walk his 5-6 mph on the rough mountain roads of West Virginia, with his rider sitting firmly in the saddle and holding him in check by a tight rein, such vim and eagerness did he manifest to go right ahead as soon as he was mounted. For reasons of his own Broun offered the horse to his General but Lee refused remarking that the horse was far too valuable to accept as a gift. His generosity rebuffed, Broun negotiated a sale price with Lee and the colt changed hands again, this time for $200. The deal done, Robert E. Lee promptly renamed the stallion Traveller (spelled the English way with the double l ).

 It is apparent that Traveller possessed the Saddlebred qualities of a good trot and the extra gaits. He was renowned for his rapid, springy walk, good spirit, bold carriage, and his high and bouncy uncomfortable trot. But it is recorded that when General Lee was in the saddle the horse offered his smooth saddle gaits. Together they faced the bloody battles in every campaign of the army of Northern Virginia from Second Bull Run to the surrender at Appomatox. Lee relied heavily on the horse s amazing courage and great stamina during the long arduous campaigning days.

At Spotsylvania, Traveller saved the general s life by rearing to let a whizzing Union cannon ball pass harmlessly under his body. After Pickett s Charge at Gettysburg, at midnight of his third day at the reins, Lee eventually was able to dismount but was so exhausted he could only fling his arms around Traveller s neck to prevent his weakened legs from buckling. Traveller remained motionless until his General recovered.

After the Battle of Antietam, Lee sat astride Traveller for hours watching the retreating Confederate Army cross the river Potomac. Even the enemy army was impressed, and the Union General Carter wrote The sight of General Lee and his splendid war horse, Traveller, was a graven image in the heart of every redblooded soldier no matter under which flag he fought.

The loss of the war by the Confederates did not detract from Lee and Traveller s reputation, and together they became a national symbol with a photograph taken in 1860 becoming the iconic picture of its time.

Thousands of horses met their end during the Civil War, and most of them were the ancestors of our Saddlebreds. It could have marked the extinction of the breed had it not been for the traditional final request of the defeated General and the understanding spirit of the victorious General. As one of the terms of surrender Lee asked Grant for the Confederate soldiers to be permitted to take home their own horses. Also indebted to the brave character of his own saddle horse Cincinnati, General Grant empathized with the request and gave his permission.

The General and Traveller remained together through the rest of Robert E. Lee s life. Whilst President of Washington College (now Washington & Lee University), Lee said, Traveller is my only companion, I may also say my pleasure. He and I, whenever practical, wander out in the mountains and enjoy sweet confidences .

Such was Traveller s fame that a cousin of Mrs. Lee s, Markie Williams, proposed to paint a portrait of him, and in a note to the artist the General described his horse as follows:  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 nightmarches 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.

Admirers traveled for miles to visit with the celebrity charger, to spend time with him and pluck mane and tail hairs as lucky charms a practice that eventually made the ageing horse a little wary of approaching strangers!

General Lee died in 1870 and was given full military funeral honors. Taking pole position in the procession behind the hearse was Traveller stepping proudly ahead of family and officials. No one thought that it should be any other way. A mere six months later Traveller succumbed to tetanus after treading on a rusty nail. The Lee family honored him by burying him near to the General s grave, but such was the public interest that he was disinterred and the skeleton exhibited at Lee Chapel. But without the hermetic encasement, the bones eventually began to crumble so in 1963 Traveller was reburied in the grounds of Washington & Lee University where to this day the memorial stone is visited by the public who, in the absence of hairs to pluck(!), leave coins for good luck. As an added tribute to a noble horse, over a century later, the British author Richard Adams wrote a best-selling novel which told the story of the war through Traveller s eyes a moving and appropriate tribute to the cherished Confederate grey.

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