Probably the most famous horse of the Civil War, at least on the Southern side, was General Robert E. Lee’s favorite mount, Traveller. The following excerpt is from my nonfiction book, Horses in Gray: Famous Confederate Warhorses. It describes Traveller’s history up until General Lee acquired him.
Behold that horse! A dappled gray!
I saw him in the month of May,
When wild flowers bloomed about his feet,
And sunshine was his mantle meet.1
Of all the horses to serve in the War Between the States, the most famous is Traveller. The magnificent steed and his owner, General Robert E. Lee, have become synonymous in history. Although Traveller was not the only horse Lee owned, he was certainly the general’s favorite. The two were constant companions.2
Born of humble beginnings, Traveller was conceived in Mason County, Kentucky in 1856. His lineage stretched back to the great foundation sires that had made English horseflesh notable: the Godolphin Barb, the Darley Arabian, and the Byerly Turk.3 Traveller’s direct line traced back from English-bred Diomed, to Sir Archy, and to the great racehorse Grey Eagle, who was Traveller’s sire.
A full-blooded thoroughbred, Gray Eagle stood sixteen hands high, was gray in color, and had a high-stepping gait. He was a champion racehorse, setting a record for two-mile heats in 1838. In 1839, he ran in a $20,000 stakes race at Oakland Race Course in Louisville. That race, a direct predecessor to the Kentucky Derby, drew 10,000 spectators and at least as many wagers. Grey Eagle, who was defeated by Wagner, broke his coffin joint during the race, which was irreparable.
The race was described by William T. Porter in the Turf Register:
By the most extraordinary exertions, Wagner got up neck and neck with “the gallant grey” as they swung round the turn into the quarter stretch. The feelings of the assembled thousands were wrought up by a pitch absolutely painful – silence, the most profound, reigned over that vast assembly, as these noble animals sped on as if life and death called forth their utmost energies.
Both jockeys had their whip hands at work, and at every stroke, each spur, with a desperate stab, was buried to the rowel-head. Grey Eagle, for the first hundred yards, was clearly gaining; but in another instant Wagner was even with him. Both were out and doing their best. It was anybody’s race yet! Now Wagner, now Grey Eagle, has the advantage. It will be a dead heat? “See! Grey Eagle’s got him!” “No, Wagner’s ahead!” A moment ensues – the people shout – hearts throb – ladies faint – a thrill of emotion, and the race is over! Wagner wins by a neck, in 7.44, the best race ever ran south of the Potomac …4
Grey Eagle was put to stud and sired many racehorses, as well as saddle horses. He was bred with native stock horses that were thought to have been natural-gaited mares descended from the Narragansett Pacer.
Besides Grey Eagle, Lexington, (who was the leading sire from 1861 to 1874) and the aforementioned Wagner contributed to the Saddlebred breed. Grey Eagle’s blood was also a factor in trotting pedigrees.5
In 1856, Andrew Johnston, the former sheriff of Greenbrier County, Virginia, purchased a half-bred grade mare named Flora, who was already in foal by Grey Eagle. The stallion was standing at stud on the farm of J.B. Pyntz near Maysville, in what is now West Virginia. Grey Eagle made two breeding seasons at the Pyntz farm before being sold and sent to Morrow County, Ohio. He died on July 4, 1863, at the age of 28.
Johnston shipped Flora to his farm near Blue Sulphur Springs via steamboat. She gave birth in the spring of 1857. Her foal was named Jeff Davis. He was named after Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, who had fought in the Mexican War and served under President Franklin Pierce as Secretary of War. Unbeknownst to Johnston, the foal’s name was a prediction of what the future held.
Andrew Johnston’s son, Jim, as well as a local slave boy, Frank Winfield Page, handled and trained the young colt. When Jeff Davis turned two, he was shown at the 1859 Greenbrier County Fair in Lewisburg and won first place. The following year, he won another blue ribbon.
Jeff Davis was a silvery-gray gelding with black points and a flowing mane and tail. He stood sixteen hands high and weighed 1,100 pounds. Robert E. Lee later described the horse as having “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.”6 The colt possessed such Saddlebred qualities as a good trot and extra gaits.
When the war broke out, Jim enlisted in Wise’s Legion, the 3rd Virginia, commanded by Virginia’s former governor, Henry Wise. Wise’s Legion, along with a brigade under John B. Floyd, former Secretary of War under President James Buchanan, was ordered to expel Federal troops from western Virginia. That fall, Major Thomas Broun, who was also enlisted with Wise’s Legion, authorized his brother, Captain Joseph Broun, the regiment’s quartermaster, to scour the countryside in search of horses to be used by the military. He came upon Jeff Davis. Thomas later renamed the colt Greenbrier. He wrote:
I authorized my brother to purchase a good serviceable horse of the best Greenbrier stock for our use during the war. After much inquiry and search, he came across the horse above mentioned, and I purchased him for $175 (gold value) in the fall of 1861 from Captain James W. Johnston, son of Mr. Johnston. When Wise’s Legion was encamped about Meadow Bluff and Big Sewell mountains, I rode this horse, which was then 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.
When General Lee took command of Wise’s Legion and Floyd’s brigade that were encamped at and near Big Sewell mountains in the fall of 1861, he first saw this horse and took a great fancy to it. He called it his colt, and said that he would use it before the war was over. Whenever the general saw my brother on this horse, he had something pleasant to say to him about my colt as he designated this horse.7
In 1926, The Charlottesville Daily Progress recorded Mrs. Louisa Cary Feamster’s eyewitness account of Lee‘s first encounter with Jeff Davis. She said that General Lee and his staff stopped at the Johnston farm to rest on their way to Sewell Mountain. The weather was warm, there had been a light afternoon rain, and soon the general dozed off. After he awakened and was conversing with the Johnston’s, including Captain James “Dick” Johnston, who was home visiting, General Lee saw the gray gelding grazing in a clover field near the house. He immediately offered to buy “the Kentucky thoroughbred,”8 as Mrs. Feamster called him. Captain Johnston, who was in the infantry and not in need of a mount, told the General that he had tentatively sold the horse to Joseph Broun.9
Generals Wise and Floyd refused to cooperate during the campaign, and the military effort to keep the western counties of Virginia in the Confederacy failed. Lee was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, and given command of the coastal defenses. The third regiment of Wise’s Legion, now the 60th Virginia, was also transferred to South Carolina. Thomas Broun had become ill, so Greenbrier went to South Carolina with his brother, Joseph. When the 60th Virginia arrived at Pocotalipo, Lee saw Greenbrier again. Captain Broun offered to give the horse to him.
Lee declined, saying, “If you will willingly sell me the horse, I will gladly use it for a week or so to learn its qualities.”10