When it came to military transport, a general was only as good as his horse.
To students of the Civil War, no horse is better known—or more easily recognizable— than General Robert E. Lee’s gray, Traveller. In describing him to his artist cousin, Markie Williams, Lee lyrically lists Traveller’s “fine proportions, muscular figure, deep chest, delicate ears, quick eye,” adding, “Such a picture would inspire a poet, whose genius could then depict his worth.” Not surprisingly, the troops assigned unusual, even mystical qualities to the animal. One of the more improbable—and doubtless, apocryphal—tales reappeared recently, claiming Traveller saved the general’s life at Spotsylvania, by rearing as a Union cannonball passed under his body.
Before acquiring Traveller, Lee rode a bay stallion named Richmond, presented by admirers in Virginia, and a horse known only as the Roan, or Brown Roan. In short order, Richmond—to whom Lee referred as a “troublesome fellow”—sickened and died, and the Roan went blind. In the fall of 1861, Lee was ordered to Fayette County, in western Virginia, to take command of the Wise Legion; it was here that he first saw the horse with which posterity would identify him. Traveller—known at the time as Greenbrier—was 4 years old and had reportedly been sired by the famous Kentucky racehorse and stud, Grey Eagle. He had been purchased by Major Thomas L. Broun, who was serving in the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the Wise Legion. One day, Lee saw Broun’s brother, Captain Joseph M. Broun, ride past on the gray and he was immediately smitten. Whenever he encountered Broun thereafter, he good-humoredly inquired after “my colt.” Taking the hint, the brothers eventually tried to give the horse to Lee, but the general insisted on purchasing him. He gave the Brouns $200 and renamed him Traveller, “spelling the word,” as Major Broun later wrote, “with a double L in good English style.”
Handsome though he was, Traveller proved more than a handful. According to a contemporary observer, “Traveller had no vices or tricks, but was nervous and spirited.” On one occasion, the general loaned the horse to his son Robert for the ride from Orange Court House to Fredericksburg. The younger Lee acknowledged that the loan of the horse “was a great compliment,” but noted, “Traveller would not walk a step. He took a short, high trot—a buck-trot, as compared to a buckjump—and kept it up to Fredericksburg, some thirty miles. Though young, strong, and tough, I was glad when the journey ended….I think I am safe in saying that I could have walked the distance with much less discomfort and fatigue.”
It was, in fact, the gray’s high spirits that caused the accident that led Lee to seek another, gentler mount. Lee stood in the rain watching the engagement at Second Manassas, one hand holding Traveller’s bridle. Something apparently spooked the animal, and—depending on which version one credits—Traveller either dragged the general down a slope, pulled him onto a stump or simply caused him to trip over his rain overalls and fall. The result was the same: One hand was broken, the other badly sprained. Lee spent the next weeks virtually helpless, his hands splinted and bandaged, riding in an ambulance and being led by an aide as he sat astride Traveller. “General Lee could not thereafter hold the reins in the regulation manner,” his son Custis wrote. Major General J.E.B. Stuart, seeing his commander’s pain and discomfort, acquired a more tractable mount and presented her to Lee as a gift. Her name was Lucy Long, and according to a February 13, 1891, article in the Abingdon Virginian, “She was a low, easy moving, and quiet sorrel mare.” Lee had had a predilection for mares ever since his service during the Mexican War, when he wrote a letter to his sons, stating, “I like mares for riding horses. They are more docile and intelligent.” The mild-tempered little Lucy Long remained Lee’s “back-up” war horse for the next two years—until she was found to be in foal and the general sent her to the rear.
At this time, some citizens of West Virginia presented Lee with a big sorrel—which he named Ajax—but apparently he wasn’t comfortable on so tall a horse. Traveller continued to serve as Lee’s regular mount, up to Appomattox and beyond. In his letter to his cousin, Lee lists the various battles and campaigns in which Traveller saw service: “He carried me through the seven days battle around Richmond, the Second Manassas, at Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, the last day at Chancellorsville, to Penna[.], 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 Harbour [sic], and across the James River. He was almost in daily requisition in the winter of 1864-’65 on the long line of defenses from the Chickahominy north of Richmond, to Hatcher’s run south of Appomattox…and in 1865 bore me to the final days at Appomattox Ct. House.” One story has Lee in the saddle so constantly that, upon dismounting, he was unable to stand on his own, and clung to Traveller’s neck for support.
That the horse survived the four years of constant fighting is nothing short of miraculous, especially considering the staggering number of horses that perished. It has been claimed, for example, that Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer alone had 11 horses shot out from under him. No wonder the bond between Lee and Traveller was so strong.
After the war, Lee took Traveller, Lucy Long and Ajax home with him. Ajax soon died as a result of an accident, but Traveller and Lucy Long outlived their master, who died in 1870.
There are a number of images of General Lee on or beside Traveller. It is a perfect pairing— the handsome, gray-bearded patrician soldier, flawlessly garbed in gray uniform, aboard the magnificent gray and black horse. It seems the most natural combination. Had the advent of color photography occurred during Lee’s lifetime, it would have enhanced the image not at all. “General Lee is, almost without exception, the handsomest man of his age I ever saw,” British military observer Arthur J.L. Fremantle wrote after meeting Lee in late June 1863. “Tall, broad shouldered, very well made.” Flawed though his generalship might have been, Lee certainly presented “a striking figure,” as one historian calls him—“booted and spurred and wearing his sword and field glasses, [he] looked the part of the Confederacy’s hope and idol.” He is the Gray Knight, and Traveller his charger.
Conversely, there is only one purported photograph of General Ulysses S. Grant on horseback. The image is unremarkable. Far from being dressed in his soldier’s garb, he wears a formal coat and silk top hat. Although he sits a military saddle, his image is as removed from the battlefield and parade ground as it could possibly be. If one didn’t recognize that it is Grant in the saddle, it would simply appear to be the recorded likeness of some nameless dignitary. Even when in uniform, Grant cared little for the flashier aspects of military dress. As one biographer wrote: “Grant hated war, had no illusions about it, and disliked all attempts to disguise its brutality with chivalrous concepts or fancy uniforms.” He usually dressed in a simple, long blue coat and vest, with general’s shoulder boards and regulation buttons. His mode of dress was unassuming, as was the man himself. Although rank mattered a great deal to Grant, as to any professional soldier, its trappings were meaningless. By both nature and design, Lee was the handsomer, more magnetic of the two.
And yet, appearances notwithstanding, Grant was by far the better horseman. He had a strong, lifelong affinity for horses. According to family lore, before reaching his second birthday, Ulysses prevailed upon his father to allow him to ride a circus pony in the ring. When still a toddler, he would crawl around the legs of the horses in his father’s stable. Responding to a neighbor’s alarm, Grant’s unconcerned mother supposedly replied, “Horses seem to understand Ulysses.” At 5, he could stand on the back of a trotting horse, and at 6, harness a horse for hauling brush. At 9, he bought his first horse from savings acquired from hauling. At 11, he won $5 riding an intractable mount. Before reaching his teens, he reputedly made money saddle-breaking and treating horses for neighboring farmers. There seems to be no end to the stories, but Grant’s equestrian skill is unquestionable. Union officer and Grant biographer William Conant Church called Grant “the best horseman I ever saw. He could fly on a horse, faster than a slicked bullet.”
In June 1843, shortly before graduating from West Point, Grant staged a riding exhibition, jumping a horse over a bar fixed higher than his sergeant’s head. He set a West Point record that day that wasn’t broken for another 25 years. Fellow cadet and future enemy James Longstreet recalled the short, slight-built Grant as an unexceptional classmate in all regards save one: “In horsemanship,” Longstreet wrote, “he was noted as the most proficient at the Academy. In fact, rider and horse held together like the fabled centaur.”
During the Civil War, Grant’s skill with horses was well-known in the ranks. Frederick Dent Grant, the general’s son, accompanied his father on a number of his campaigns throughout the war, and later wrote with pardonable filial pride, “My father was the best horseman in the army, he rode splendidly and always on magnificent and fiery horses when possible to obtain one. He preferred to ride the most unmanageable mount, the largest and most powerful one. Oftentimes I saw him ride a beast that none had approached.” Although Frederick Grant was quite young at the time—he had not yet turned 11 when Fort Sumter was fired upon—his observations are borne out by a number of other, more mature eyewitnesses. Union general and Medal of Honor winner Horace Porter served on Grant’s staff, and later penned Campaigning With Grant. In it, he commented, “General Grant was a great rider, simply splendid. He could ride 40 or 50 miles and come in perfectly fresh and tire out younger men.” Corporal M. Harrison Strong of the 72nd Illinois Infantry served as an adjutant on Grant’s staff, and daily observed his commander’s skill in the saddle: “He was a great horseman and sat his horse as if he were part of the horse, all one figure. There was never a movement of any description that was not masterful and graceful. No one ever saw him disturbed in any way, that is, jolted or taken unaware on horseback, whether he was going fast or slow. He was a born horseman.” Strong described his commander, who sent tens of thousands of his soldiers to their deaths, as “of kindly instincts….He never abused an animal, never.”
During the war, Grant had occasion to ride a number of horses. According to son Frederick, while Grant was serving as colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, a farmer brought him an impressive stallion named Jack. Frederick describes the horse as having a light-colored body, legs darkening toward the hooves, with white mane and tail. Jack, said Frederick, was “a noble animal, high-spirited, very intelligent, and an excellent horse in every way.” This was apparently true; later in the war, a magnanimous Grant donated Jack to the Chicago Sanitary Fair to help raise funds for the war effort, and the horse brought the stunning price of $4,000. In today’s currency, that would amount to around $200,000.
Perhaps the most interesting horse in Grant’s stable was a short, spike-maned little black that had been “liberated” from the estate of Joe Davis, Jefferson Davis’ brother, during the Siege of Vicksburg. Grant bought the animal from the Army, and gave him to Frederick. He turned out to have a “delightful” gait, and the general, who was suffering from a carbuncle at the time, rode the gentle pony regularly to visit the lines. In a rare display of wit, he named the little black Jeff Davis. The horse proved inexhaustible. “This animal exceeds in endurance any horseflesh I ever saw,” Grant told a visitor to his stables at the end of the war. “I have taken him out at daylight and kept in the saddle till dark, and he came in as fresh when I dismounted as when we started in the morning. There isn’t gold in America to buy him. He…was once on Jeff Davis’s plantation.” Since the Confederate president had not yet been captured, Grant amended this last statement: “I would exchange him for his old master, but for nothing else in the world.”
In early 1864, some citizens of Illinois gave Grant an extremely handsome stallion named Egypt. General Horace Porter had occasion to observe Grant’s unusual method of mounting Egypt, and later wrote, “when the horse was brought up, the general mounted as usual in a manner peculiar to himself. He made no perceptible effort, and used his hands but little to aid him; he put his left foot in the stirrup, grasped the horse’s mane near the withers with his left hand, and rose without making a spring by simply straightening the left leg till his body was high enough to enable him to throw the right leg over the saddle. There was no ‘climbing’ up the animal’s side, and no jerky movements. The mounting was always done in an instant and with the greatest possible ease.”
The horse most commonly associated with Grant is Cincinnati. It is the one on which he sits in the impressive Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington, D.C. Frederick Grant recalled that while his father was in St. Louis in January 1864, a bedridden citizen—coincidentally named Grant—sent word for the general to visit him in his hotel room on a matter of some personal importance. His curiosity aroused, Grant called upon the man, whose purpose it was to give the general what he claimed was the “finest horse in the world,” on the condition that Grant promise never to abuse the horse, or allow him to be abused. Grant agreed, and acquired what he would come to refer to as the finest horse he had ever seen. The 17-hands-high Cincinnati, as Grant dubbed him, was sired by the fastest four-mile thoroughbred in the country, and in addition to being fast, he was absolutely magnificent. At one point, Grant refused an offer of $10,000 in gold for the horse, and permitted no one to ride him except President Lincoln, whom he categorized as “a fine horseman,” and Admiral Daniel Ammen, a childhood friend who had once saved Grant’s life. When Grant rode to meet General Lee at Appomattox, it was upon Cincinnati. At the end of the war, Grant made a home for Cincinnati, Egypt and Jeff Davis in his stables.
Grant was absolutely fearless with horses, and he prized speed. Biographer William C. Church called him “notorious for his horse racing.” His youngest son, Jesse Root Grant, recalled a carriage ride he took with his father when Grant was president. Despite Grant’s best efforts, a butcher’s wagon repeatedly passed him, while making deliveries in between. Grant was so impressed with the animal’s speed that next day he bought the horse, naming him Butcher Boy.
Grant wanted nothing more than to raise and train horses in St. Louis when his career in politics was over. Sadly, terminal cancer and looming poverty forced him to concentrate all his efforts on the completion of his autobiography. This he accomplished, just days before he died.
Grant and Lee were as different from one another as two men could be, in nearly everything—except their fierce commitment to their respective causes, and their love for, and dedication to, the horses that carried them through the maelstrom. In our time of mechanized transport and long-distance, computerized warfare, it is impossible to truly understand an era in which the lives of our military leaders so often depended upon the steadiness, responsiveness and intelligence of their steeds.
Author and historian Ron Soodalter is a columnist for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.