Friday, April 29, 2011

In the Spirit of the Civil War Era...

May I introduce you to one of the most famous American Saddlebred horses in the world, Traveller.

Traveller, originally named Jeff Davis, was born near the Blue Sulphur Springs, in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia), raised by Andrew Johnston. An American Saddlebred, he was of the Gray Eagle stock, and, as a colt, took the first prize at the Lewisburg, Virginia, fairs in 1859 and 1860. As an adult gelding, he was a sturdy horse, 16 hands high and 1,100 pounds (500 kg), iron gray in color with black points, a long mane and flowing tail.

In the spring of 1861, a year before achieving fame as a Confederate general, Robert E. Lee was commanding a small force in western Virginia. The quartermaster of the 3rd Virginia Infantry, Captain Joseph M. Broun, was directed to "purchase a good serviceable horse of the best Greenbrier stock for our use during the war." Broun purchased the horse for $175 (approximately $4,000 in 2008)[1] from Andrew Johnston's son, Captain James W. Johnston, and named him Greenbrier. Major Thomas L. Broun, Joseph's brother recalled that Greenbrier

... was greatly admired in camp for his rapid, springy walk, his high spirit, bold carriage, and muscular strength. He needed neither whip nor spur, and would walk his five or six miles an hour over the rough mountain roads of Western 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 so soon as he was mounted.

– Major Thomas L. Broun

General Lee took a great fancy to the horse. He called him his "colt", and predicted to Broun that he would use it before the war was over. After Lee was transferred to South Carolina, Joseph Broun sold the horse to him for $200 in February, 1862. Lee named the horse "Traveller" (spelling the word with a double 'l' in British style).

Lee described his faithful horse in a letter in response to Mrs. Lee's cousin, Markie Williams, who wished to paint a portrait 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 gray.

– Robert E. Lee, letter to Markie Williams

Traveller was a horse of great stamina and was usually a good horse for an officer in battle because he was difficult to frighten. He could sometimes become nervous and spirited, however. At the Second Battle of Bull Run, while General Lee was at the front reconnoitering dismounted and holding Traveller by the bridle, the horse became frightened at some movement of the enemy and, plunging, pulled Lee down on a stump, breaking both of his hands. Lee went through the remainder of that campaign chiefly in an ambulance. When he rode on horseback, a courier rode in front leading his horse.

After the war, Traveller accompanied Lee to Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. He lost many hairs from his tail to admirers (veterans and college students) who wanted a souvenir of the famous horse and his general. Lee wrote to his daughter Mildred that "The boys are plucking out his tail, and he is presenting the appearance of a plucked chicken."

In 1870, during Lee's funeral procession, Traveller was led behind the caisson bearing the General's casket, his saddle and bridle draped with black crepe. Not long after Lee's death, in 1871, Traveller stepped on a nail and developed tetanus. There was no cure, and he was euthanized to relieve his suffering.

Traveller's grave at the Lee ChapelTraveller was initially buried behind the main buildings of the college, but was unearthed by persons unknown and his bones were bleached for exhibition in Rochester, New York, in 1875/1876. In 1907, Richmond journalist Joseph Bryan paid to have the bones mounted and returned to the college, named Washington and Lee University since Lee's death, and they were displayed in the Brooks Museum, in what is now Robinson Hall. The skeleton was periodically vandalized there by students who carved their initials in it for good luck. In 1929, the bones were moved to the museum in the basement of the Lee Chapel, where they stood for 30 years, deteriorating with exposure.

Finally in 1971, Traveller's remains were buried in a wooden box encased in concrete next to the Lee Chapel on the Washington & Lee campus, a few feet away from the Lee family crypt inside, where his master's body rests. The stable where he lived his last days, directly connected to the Lee House on campus, traditionally stands with its doors left open; this is said to allow his spirit to wander freely. The 24th President of Washington & Lee (and thus a recent resident of Lee House), Dr. Thomas Burish, caught strong criticism from many members of the Washington & Lee community for closing the stable gates in violation of this tradition. Burish later had the doors to the gates repainted in a dark green color, which he referred to in campus newspapers as "Traveller Green."

The base newspaper of the United States Army's Fort Lee, located in Petersburg, Virginia, is named Traveller.

Traveller remains in the hearts and minds of Washington and Lee students to this day, and is the namesake of the University's Safe Ride Program. Students are known to exclaim "Call Traveller and you will get home safely."


sidesaddle rider said...

Thank you for posting this Julie. There are many outside the Saddlebred community who only know the ASB as the "Peacock of the Showring". Traveller and so many other Saddlebreds, then known as the American Saddle Horse, were much more than the pampered equines the breed is so strongly associated with.
They were bred to be intellegent, versatile, hardy and sure-footed. Characteristics that remain in the breed today. They plowed fields and pulled wagons for most of their lives, but were displayed on Sundays outside churches and in, often spontaneous, local shows.
They caried many into battle and too many were lost. At the end of the war between states, many who had been captured by the North were returned to the South to rebuild their breeding ranks.
They are truly The Horse America Made.

Anonymous said...

Great post!!! I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I love when you post history lessons like this. I know you must do a lot of research for all the information, but I think it's great and I'm greatful that you do. Thank you, Julie!


Anonymous said...

Julie I watched a news segment about "War Horse" a new Broadway Show in NYC. Google it and see this! The horse bodies they made and the movements are amazing and the story and tribute to the horse is wonderful.

Smart Alex's Mom

cattypex said...

You MUST read Richard Adam's novel "Traveller," which tells the story of the Civil War & after from the horse's point of view. He's the author of Watership Down, and the book will make you cry.

RiderWriter said...

@Cattypex: I was just about to write the exact same thing. It was a marvelous book, one I think all horse lovers would enjoy. I'm surprised it has not received more recognition; I just stumbled upon it in the library, having never even heard of it. Yes, Julie, you have to read it!