I don’t remember which grade in school I read the book “Traveller,” by Richard Adams, but it left a mark. As a daughter of a history buff in general, and a Civil War buff in particular, I’ve always enjoyed learning about how our country came to be. During school years, when classmates were at Disneyland or Myrtle Beach with their families on breaks, we were taking road trips to the major battlefields of the Civil War. It never occurred to me that I was getting the short end of the vacation stick, I loved it!
A well-worn copy of that book is still in my possession, and I read it from time to time. It was one of the first examples of the horse’s point of view (apart from Black Beauty, which is heartbreaking in every version) I can recall, and continuous inspiration to me when I get the opportunity to “chat” with horses now. As Traveller recounts his tale to the barn cat, Tom, I’m always impressed by his simple and honest viewpoint. Highlighting that horses tend to take more factual impressions, rather than emotional. His feelings of solidarity to his master and his task are admirable.
In Adams’ book, Traveller (spelled by General Robert E. Lee in the traditional British fashion with two L’s, rather than the American with only one) recounts his personal history and impressions to a barn cat named Tom. Born in 1857, an American Saddlebred originally named “Greenbriar” after the county in Virginia where he was born, now West Virginia. As a colt he won prizes in the local county fair in 1859 and 1860, eventually becoming the horse recognized for his courage in battle at 16 hands high (64″ at the withers), with an iron grey coat, black points, and flowing, dark mane and tail.
In the spring of 1861 Greenbriar was purchased “as a good serviceable horse for use in the war,” for $175. General Lee took an immediate liking to him, often endearing him as “his colt,” and purchased him from the Confederate Army in February 1862 for $200. Greenbriar’s name was changed to Traveller, and the pair began their legendary, lifelong friendship.
Traveller was much admired for his gait, strength, spirit, and above all, courage. The nature of the American Saddlebred is to be spirited, and Traveller was a proud example of the breed, while still maintaining stoic bravery and intelligence under the stress of war. Mrs. Lee’s cousin, Markie Williams, had asked General Lee if she could paint a portrait of his steed, the General replied…
“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. “
After the war, Traveller went with Lee to Washington College in Lexington, Virginia. When Lee died in 1870, Traveller was draped in black crepe and led behind the funeral cassion in honor of his fallen master. The following year he stepped on a nail, and developed Tetanus. With no known cure at the time, Traveller was put down with a bullet. He was initially buried at the college, then later 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.”
Traveller’s story has been diluted through the generations sadly, kids today are taught more about how to be tested than they are about our country and it’s historical heroes. It’s my hope that he’ll continue to be recognized for his service, and I’ll continue to appreciate the impression he made on me, with the assistance of Richard Adams, when I share my equine interviews with you.