The heroes of Confederate hagiography long laid an unchallenged claim to Southern public spaces and American White imagination. However, few if any Confederates immortalized in the rebellion’s memorial landscape are still viewed as untroubled icons of honor and manhood. As monuments to neo-Confederate heroes are now rapidly being removed from public space, one of the most interesting Confederate icons is Robert E. Lee’s famed horse Traveller. Traveller is himself a symbol used to narrate the Confederate cause, and he has had the status of relic since the 19th century. The most sacred relics are the physical remain of a venerated figure’s body or the things with which their body was intimately contacted (e.g., clothing). A relic is some object or material place that is experienced as an active presence representing values that followers aspire to reproduce (see Gary Vikan’s description of relics). Traveller may seem a distinctive figure to cast as a relic, his status largely beholden to his connection to Lee. Nevertheless, Traveller’s materiality provides an illuminating story of Confederate history-making.
Perhaps the most famous of all Southern horses, Traveller was born in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1857. The horse that became known as Traveller was an 1100-pound 64-inch high American Saddlebred sired by a race horse known as Grey Eagle. Traveller’s owner J.W. Johnston originally named the horse after the Mississippi Senator “Jeff Davis,” who of course would become famous as the President of the Confederate States of America. Despite Johnson’s 1908 claim to have sold the horse to Lee, he sold Jeff Davis in 1861 to Captain Joseph M. Broun, who re-named him Greenbrier. In 1861 Broun was serving alongside Robert E. Lee, and in Traveller lore Lee reportedly took a fancy to Broun’s horse. Broun’s brother Thomas wrote in 1886 that “in the fall of 1861, he [Lee] first saw this horse and took a great fancy to it. He called it his colt, and said he would need it before the war was over. When the general saw my brother on this horse he had something pleasant to say to him about `my colt,’ as he designated this horse.” Lee resigned from the US Army on April 20, 1861 when Virginia seceded, and he would assume command of Virginia’s secessionist forces three days later. Thomas Broun indicated that his brother sold Greenbrier to Lee in February 1862. Lee renamed the horse Traveller.
Lee would ride several other horses throughout the war, but after Spring 1862 Traveller was the horse he most commonly rode. Lee’s son waxed poetic over Traveller in 1904, indicating that “Amongst the soldiers this horse was as well known as was his master. He was a handsome iron-gray with black points—mane and tail very dark—sixteen hands high, and five years old. … He was never known to tire, and, though quiet and sensible in general and afraid of nothing, yet if not regularly exercised, he fretted a good deal especially in a crowd of horses.” Lee’s son quoted a letter from his father that indicated that Traveller “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, Spottsylvania [sic], Cold Harbour, 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.”
After the war, Traveller returned with Lee to Lexington, Virginia, and the horse rapidly became a Confederate relic. Relics are part of a broad range of formal faith practice as well as popular ritual that invoke the power of venerated figures, and in that sense Traveller is perhaps a relic of Lee, the most fabled of all Confederate heroes. Nevertheless, Traveller’s own body and his remains would inspire continual veneration. By one 1948 newspaper account, Traveller lost “so much of his mane and tail to souvenir hunters that the horse grew nervous in the presence of strangers.” An 1897 Richmond Dispatch account of the holdings of the recently opened Confederate Museum indicated the museum held locks of Traveller’s mane that “bear a mute testimony of the love of the master for the animal who bore him so faithfully and suffered with him the multitudinous vicissitudes of that great struggle.” An 1898 catalog of the Confederate Museum indicated those locks were contributed by Miss Mildred Lee, Robert E. Lee’s youngest child. A 1913 Confederate Memorial Day account suggested that at the Appomattox surrender defeated rebels wept as Lee passed, and they sought solace by reaching “up to touch Traveller’s mane and pat his neck.” In 1922 one man remembered riding Traveller in the winter of 1869-70, afterward “pulling out handfuls of Traveller’s mane and tail.” Locks of Lee’s hair and Traveller’s mane are part of the collection of Arlington House, Lee’s former home and present-day memorial on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery; Traveller’s mane is likewise in the holdings of the University of Virginia Library and Galveston’s Rosenberg Library.
Lee died in October, 1870. One account of his deathbed suggested that a physician implored Lee to get up for his daily rides of Traveller, but Lee “shook his head very emphatically, as if to indicate that he did not expect to ride `Traveller’ again.” Traveller was draped in black crepe and followed Lee’s hearse rider-less in the funeral procession. The following June Traveller contracted a tetanus infection and died. He was buried along a creek adjoining the Washington and Lee campus by Lee’s oldest son Custis Lee, who conducted a modest funeral with a cortege of eight people.
In December 1875 Custis Lee had the bones of the horse exhumed. Lee had succeeded his father as President of the institution that was renamed Washington and Lee University after Robert E. Lee’s death, and in Fall 1875 Henry Augustus Ward visited Washington and Lee University to negotiate the sale of a natural science collection to the University. The preservation and display of Traveller’s bones apparently became part of the planned collection. Ward was a University of Rochester faculty member who traveled the world acquiring a massive assortment of geological and zoological specimens and taxidermy samples for museums. In 1862 Ward began to sell such specimens to universities and museums, and he would become one of the nation’s most prominent suppliers to emergent science programs and museums. In 1878, for instance, Ward purchased a German mammoth for the University of Virginia (though this specimen known as the “Stuttgart Mammoth” eventually did not end up in Virginia’s Brooks Hall collection). Ward preserved many animals for P.T. Barnum, including Jumbo the elephant in 1886, and his enterprise, Ward’s Natural Science, continues business today as Ward’s Science.
Several national newspapers reported in December 1875 that “Prof. Ward of Rochester is possessor of the skeleton of the horse `Traveler’ upon which Gen. Robert E. Lee rode during the closing campaign of the war.” Ward would preserve several Civil War horses, including the horses of Philip Sheridan and William T. Sherman. Sherman’s horse was preserved for the University of Wisconsin in 1875, and Sheridan paid to have his horse Winchester preserved and then donated to the Military Service Institution in 1878 (Winchester would go to the Smithsonian in 1922). Drew Gilpin Faust argues that the remains of these horses provided a uniquely authentic material artifact of the war, the literal body of an animal that had been in combat and in the cases of these Generals was linked with the war’s most prominent military leaders. A proposal to display Traveller at the Centennial Exposition apparently was abandoned in January, 1876, though some newspapers continued to champion the exposition display of Traveller’s remains. In 1882 a Chicago newspaper reported that Traveller was on display in Lexington, but other sources suggested that Traveller never returned from Rochester until 1907.
In 1907 Traveller’s remains were purchased by Confederate veteran and Richmond journalist Joseph Bryan. Bryan’s wife Isobel Stewart Bryan was President of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society in 1898, a circle of women who spearheaded the preservation of the former White House of the Confederacy in the 1890s. The Society opened the building as the Confederate Museum in 1896, and it would include a sample of Traveller’s mane in the initial collections. Isobel Bryan also was the first President of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, and Joseph Bryan was twice President of the Virginia Historical Society (1892-1902 and 1906-1908). The Bryans returned the skeleton to Lexington, where The Gazette reported in April, 1907 that a plan was made to mount Traveller’s skeleton for display in a proposed Lee museum in Lexington. In October the skeleton was returned to Lexington, and Traveller went on display at Washington and Lee. The skeleton apparently spent some time on display in a biology display, but in 1929 Traveller’s remains were in a glass display case in the Chapel where the Lee family was buried. A 1953 visitor to Lee’s tomb noted that the “most striking thing was the bones of Traveller. … All Traveller’s bones have been skillfully articulated and is possibly the only equine so honored.”
Embed from Getty Images
This 1880’s image was one of the many mass-produced portraits of Lee aboard Traveller (Getty Images)
Traveller began to be appear with Lee in early 20th century statuary. Perhaps the most famous statue of Lee was dedicated in Richmond, Virginia in 1890, but the horse on which Lee was depicted on Monument Avenue was not modeled on Traveller. In 1917 a statue of Lee on Traveller was erected on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg, a spot from which Lee had observed parts of the battle. In 1924 a statue of Lee astride Traveller was installed in Charlottesville, Virginia. Franklin D. Roosevelt was on hand for the 1936 dedication of a Lee monument in Dallas portraying the rebel general atop a horse assumed to be Traveller. In 1986 a memorial was placed in Berryville, Virginia to mark the place where Lee hitched Traveller and attended church as the Confederate Army was advancing toward Gettysburg. In Sharpsburg, Maryland a private landowner erected a statue of Lee atop Traveller in 2003, and two years later the property was acquired by the Antietam National Battlefield.
Traveller was firmly part of the Lee and Confederate legacy in the 20th century. For example, the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed a plaque on Traveller’s stall in October, 1930, and in 1949 the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Rockbridge Historical Society placed a marker at Traveller’s original grave. In 1963 Traveller’s bones were finally removed from display, and in May, 1971 the bones had deteriorated and Traveller was buried alongside the Lee Chapel. A 1971 article on the fabled horse’s remains indicated that they were covered with the signatures of Washington and Lee students for whom signing Traveller’s bones was considered good luck. The University buried the horse’s remains secretly “to avoid a parade atmosphere” prior to the dedication of a marker at the burial.
Traveller’s grave has a steady stream of contemporary visitors paying their respects to Lee’s famous horse, leaving offerings including carrots and apples, much as pilgrims do when they are visiting a site associated with a martyred figure. The horse risks becoming an ambiguous icon onto which a host of ideologically distorted Civil War histories can be projected, but like other horses who went to war, Traveller is a sympathetic historical figure quite distinct from the humans who were consciously waging war around him. Drew Gilpin Faust emphasizes that perhaps 1.5 million horses and mules died in the Civil War, and five million pounds of dead horses had to be removed from the battlefield at Gettysburg alone. That heritage makes the horse a distinctively tragic mechanism to narrate the wartime experience, and the effort to preserve and memorialize them confirms that their bodies were consequential relics of Civil War heritage just as battlefields, cemeteries, and Civil War artifacts.
Faust, Drew Gilpin
2000 Equine Relics of the Civil War. Southern Cultures 6 (1): 23–49. (subscription access)
2013 Finnish Narratives of the Horse in World War II. In Animals and War: Studies of Europe and North America, edited by Ryan Hediger, pp. 123-150. Koninklijke Brill, Leiden.
2016 From Servant to Therapist: The Changing Meanings of Horses in FInland. In The Meaning of Horses: Biosocial Encounters, edited by Dona Davis and Anita Maurstad, pp.54-68. Routledge, New York.
2012 From The Holy Land To Graceland: Sacred People, Places and Things In Our Lives. Rowman and Littlefield, New York.
Lee Aboard Traveller, circa 1880 image from Getty Images
Lee Statue Charlottesville 2008 image from Bill McChesney
Lee Statue Dallas 2007 image from BoNoMoJo (Wikipedia)
Lee Virginia State Monument image from Veggies