In photographs, the horse’s light gray tone blends superbly with the uniform of his rider. The images of General Robert E. Lee mounted on Traveller give one the sense of a knight on his steed, and their noble appearance belies the tragedy of the Civil War.
Traveller is arguably the Civil War’s most famous horse, a beautiful animal that only added to the grace and dignity of his owner. The two are inseparable, forever linked in history.
Traveller began his life far away from bloody battlefields. His sire was Grey Eagle, a 16-hand gray racehorse that was famous for running in a $20,000 stake race in Louisville, Ky., in 1839. Grey Eagle sired numerous successful race horses and saddle horses, and James W. Johnston, an appreciator of fine horse flesh, purchased a mare named Flora that had been bred to Grey Eagle, and had her shipped to his home in Greenbrier County, Va., where the colt was born in 1857. Johnston foretold the beast’s Confederate affiliation by naming him Jeff Davis after the Mississippi senator who had gained fame in the Mexican War. It would be several years and another name before the horse was rechristened Traveller.
Traveller’s superior qualities and fine breeding were revealed when he outperformed other top quality saddle horses at the Greenbrier County Fair in Lewisburg. Johnston entered him in the show when he was 2 years old and again at age 3. Traveller took home blue ribbons in both shows.
War clouds soon descended on the United States, and ominous events would bring the steed together with his most famous owner, Robert E. Lee. Lee had resigned from the U.S. Army to join Virginia’s forces after the state seceded in 1861. He was sent to advise the former governor of Virginia, Brig. Gen. Henry Wise, after Wise’s Legion had failed to clear Federal troops from western Virginia in late August. Lee, who first saw Traveller at that time, was immediately smitten and called the animal ‘my colt.’
Traveller was then in the service of another Confederate officer, Captain Joseph M. Broun, a quartermaster of the 3rd Infantry of Wise’s Legion who had purchased the horse for military service from Legion Captain James W. Johnston, a son of the horse’s original owner. Captain Broun changed the animal’s name from Jeff Davis to Greenbrier.
The captain’s brother, Major Thomas L. Broun, also served in that organization, and recalled that his sibling enjoyed prancing about on his steed. The major praised the horse for needing ‘neither whip nor spur, and would walk his five or six miles an hour over the rough mountain road of Western Virginia…such vim and eagerness did he manifest to go right ahead so soon as he was mounted.’
Orders sent Lee to South Carolina to examine coastal defenses, however, before he had a chance to try to obtain the horse from Captain Broun. As fate would have it, the 3rd Regiment was transferred to the Palmetto State at roughly the same time. Lee once again ran across Broun riding the beautiful horse near Pocotaligo. The captain halted, and Lee inquired once again about the well-being of ‘his colt.’
Broun, aware that Lee was partial to the horse, and certainly not unconscious of their differences in rank, offered Greenbrier to Lee as a gift. The general declined, but offered to buy the beast, provided he could borrow the horse for a week or so to learn his traits and characteristics. Lee became hooked by the horse’s charm, grace and good looks, and made the offer. Broun wrote to his brother, who was home on sick leave, asking for his advice. ‘If he will not accept it, then sell it to him at what it cost’ was the major’s response. Broun had paid $175 for Greenbrier, but Lee gave him an extra $15 because of the depreciation of Confederate money.
Lee changed Greenbrier’s name for the last time, calling him Traveller because of his ability to walk at a fast pace. The general’s youngest son, Robert E. Lee Jr., left an account testifying that such a pace did not suit all riders. Robert initially served with the Rockbridge Artillery, but later gained a promotion to captain and was ordered to join the staff of the oldest Lee son, George Washington Custis, after the Battle of Sharpsburg.
Robert had to journey from the Confederate camps to Fredericksburg, Va., and he stopped by his father’s headquarters near Orange Court House along the way. The general lent Traveller to Robert for the 30-mile trek to Fredericksburg, and the young Lee recounted the trip in his 1904 book Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee:
The general had the strongest affection for Traveller, which he showed on all occasions, and his allowing me to ride him on this long march was a great compliment. Possibly he wanted to give me a good hammering before he turned me over to the cavalry. During my soldier life, so far, I had been on foot, having backed nothing more lively than a tired artillery horse; so I mounted with some misgivings, though I was very proud of my steed. My misgivings were fully realized, for Traveller would not walk a step. He took a short, high trot — a buck-trot, as compared with a buck-jump — and kept it up to Fredericksburg, some thirty miles. Though young, strong, and tough, I was glad when the journey ended. This was my first introduction to the cavalry service. I think I am safe in saying that I could have walked the distance with much less discomfort and fatigue. My father having thus given me a horse and presented me with one of his swords, also supplied my purse so that I could get myself an outfit suitable to my new position, and he sent me on to join my command, stationed not far away on the Rappahannock, southward from Fredericksburg.
Despite the strong association Lee shared with Traveller, he did not begin to regularly ride him until after the spring 1862 Peninsula campaign. From that point on, he was the general’s most-used mount, even after Traveller reared and threw his owner shortly after the Second Battle of Manassas. His hands badly damaged in the fall, Lee was unable to mount up again until the day of the Battle of Sharpsburg.
Some of the most dramatic incidents involving Lee and Traveller occurred during the Overland campaign in 1864, when soldiers literally grabbed the horse’s reins to prevent their commander from personally leading attacks on six occasions between May 6 and May 12.
The most notable incident occurred in the Wilderness on May 6, when soldiers of the Texas Brigade surrounded Traveller and shouted, ‘Lee to the rear!’ That day Traveller carried Lee until well after midnight, and when they finally returned to camp, Lee dismounted, and overcome with exhaustion, he threw his arms around Traveller’s neck to hold himself up.
After the war, one of Lee’s most cherished pastimes was taking a ride on Traveller. His daughter Mildred would accompany him on another favorite mount, Lucy Long. On one occasion, Mrs. S.P. Lee (daughter of General W. N. Pendleton, chief of artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia, and widow of Colonel Edwin Grey Lee) related this story to Lee’s son Robert:
One afternoon in July of this year, the General rode down to the canal-boat landing to put on board a young lady who had been visiting his daughters and was returning home. He dismounted, tied Traveller to a post, and was standing on the boat making his adieux, when someone called out that Traveller was loose. Sure enough, the gallant grey was making his way up the road, increasing his speed as a number of boys and men tried to stop him. General Lee immediately stepped ashore, called to the crowd to stand still, and advancing a few steps gave a peculiar low whistle. At the first sound, Traveller stopped and pricked up his ears. The General whistled a second time, and the horse with a glad whinny turned and trotted quietly back to his master, who patted and coaxed him before tying him up again. To a bystander expressing surprise at the creature’s docility the General observed that he did not see how any man could ride a horse for any length of time without a perfect understanding being established between them.
Lee spent his final years as president of Washington College in Lexington, Va., where Traveller was allowed to graze the campus. He lost numerous hairs from his mane and tail as admirers plucked them for souvenirs. At times, Lee and Traveller would ride 40 miles in one day.
Lee became ill in September 1870, and on October 12 he died at his home in Lexington. Traveller walked behind the hearse at Lee’s funeral and continued to be well cared for up until his death in June 1871. After stepping on a nail and contracting tetanus, commonly known as lockjaw, Traveller was euthanized. He was buried near Lee Chapel in Lexington, and in 1907 his bones were exhumed and displayed in the Washington and Lee Museum and later in the Lee Chapel basement until 1960. They were then reburied and remain in front of the chapel.
Before Lee’s death, the old general dictated a letter to his daughter Agnes for an artist who wished to depict his horse. No words could better express Lee’s love for his beloved Traveller:
If I were an artist like you I would draw a true picture of Traveller — representing his fine proportions, muscular figure, deep chest and 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 sufferings through which he 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 battle through which he has passed.
But I am no artist; I can only say he is a Confederate grey. I purchased him in the mountains of Virginia in the autumn of 1861, and he has been my patient follower ever since — to Georgia, the Carolinas, and back to Virginia. He carried me through the Seven Days battle around Richmond, the Second Manassas, at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, the last day at Chancellorsville, to Pennsylvania, at Gettysburg, and back to the Rappahannock. From the commencement of the campaign in 1864 at Orange, till its close around Petersburg, the saddle was scarcely off his back, as he passed through the fire of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and across the James River. He was almost in daily requisition in the winter of 1864-65 on the long line of defenses from Chickahominy, north of Richmond, to Hatcher’s Run, south of the Appomattox. In the campaign of 1865, he bore me from Petersburg to the final days at Appomattox Court House. You must know the comfort he is to me in my present retirement….Of all his companions in toil, ‘Richmond,’ ‘Brown Roan,’ ‘Ajax,’ and quiet ‘Lucy Long,’ he is the only one that retained his vigor. The first two expired under their onerous burden, the last two failed. You can, I am sure, from what I have said, paint his portrait. R.E. Lee
This article was written by Carolyn S. Kazmierczak and originally appeared in the May 2006 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!