A tale of two horses.


It is a fancy of mine that these two famous horses stood flank to flank, hitched to a post outside the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Courthouse on this day in history,  April 9th  1865.

The Civil war began with the Battle of First Bull Run in 1861 on the McLean farm so Wilmer McLean said that the Civil War started in his backyard in 1861 and ended in his parlor in 1865.  In the photo on the left is Ulysses S. Grant with Cincinnati, his most famous mount of the Civil War, a giant at 17 hands.  On the right is Robery E. Lee mounted on Traveller, his most famous mount of the war.  These were the horses ridden by the two Generals on that fateful day.

By the etiquette of the time Lee should have presented his sword and horse to the victor and walked back to his soldiers following the surrender of his Army of Northern Virginia.  Instead Grant began the long slow process of reconciliation by allowing Lee to retire with full honours.  Lee rode back to his troops on Traveller, armed with his sword.  He also rode back with the good news that the Union army were arranging to deliver food to his starving troops.  Food exchanged for rifle muskets.

Traveller (originally named Greenbriar), a grey colt of 16 hands, was purchased by Major Thomas L. Broun, who sold him to Lee.  Greenbriar “was 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.”

Their sleepless, bloodshot eyes were turned to me.
Their flags hung black against the pelting sky.
Their jests and curses echoed whisperingly,
as though from long-lost years of sorrow – Why,
You’re weeping! What, then? What more did you see?
A gray man on a gray horse rode by.

Passage from Traveller, a novel by Richard Adams


From Frederick Dent Grant’s notes on his fathers horses:

After the battle of Chattanooga, General Grant went to St. Louis, where I was at the time, critically ill with dysentery contracted during the siege of Vicksburg. During the time of his visit to the city he received a letter from a gentleman who signed his name “S. S. Grant,” the initials being the same as those of a brother of my father’s, who had died in the summer of 1861.  S. S. Grant wrote to the effect that he was very desirous of seeing General Grant but that he was ill and confined to his room at the Lindell Hotel and begged him to call, as he had something important to say which my father might be gratified to hear.

The name excited my father’s curiosity and he called at the hotel to meet the gentleman who told him that he had, he thought, the finest horse in the world, and knowing General Grant’s great liking for horses he had concluded, inasmuch as he would never be able to ride again, that he would like to give his horse to him; that he desired that the horse should have a good home and tender care and that the only condition that he would make in parting with him would be that the person receiving him would see that he was never ill-treated, and should never fall into the hands of a person that would ill-treat him. The promise was given and General Grant accepted the horse and called him Cincinnati.







In 1862 on the 6th and 7th of April the Northern Armies of Tennessee and the Ohio led by Ulysses S Grant and Don Carlos Buell met the Southern Army of the Mississippi commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston and General PGT Beauregard.  The battle that ensued was the bloodiest battle in the History of the USA to that point.  It is known in the North as the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing and in the South as Shiloh.

It was a battle of fog and confusion fought in a swampy hell of forest, brush and wetland.  Nobody on either side had a clear picture of what was going on.

The battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg landing, has been perhaps less understood, or to state the case more accurately, more persistently misunderstood, than any other engagement between National and Confederate troops during the entire rebellion. Correct reports of the battle have been published, notably by Sherman, Badeau and, in a speech before a meeting of veterans, by General Prentiss; but all of these appeared long subsequent to the close of the rebellion and after public opinion had been most erroneously formed  — Ulysses S. Grant

I am not going to give a big history of the Battle of Shiloh in this post, there are many books written on the subject.  For me there are a few important lessons.

  1.  Shiloh is in microcosm a prediction of the outcome of the Civil War.  The South fought on passion and secured some victories with bravery and élan.  The North assessed the larger picture, assembled its greater strength and won in the end.
  2. The action at the Hornets Nest/Sunken Road demonstrated that the rifle musket with the minié ball , the most common weapon of both sides, favoured the defender.  The war was characterised by the trench, and should have served as a lesson to Generals of the Great War.
  3. Like Napoleon at Marengo Grant had the ability to see through a defeat and assess the potential for a reversal. Sometime after midnight in the early hours of 7th April, Sherman encountered Grant standing under a tree, sheltering himself from the pouring rain and smoking one of his cigars. Sherman remarked, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant looked up. “Yes,” he replied, followed by a puff. “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”
  4. War is hell.  “I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.”  — Ulysses S. Grant

As a side note from Shiloh I always liked this story told by General Grant’s son, Frederick Dent Grant :

At the battle of Shiloh the Confederates left on the field a rawboned horse, very ugly and apparently good for nothing. As a joke, the officer who found this animal on the field, sent it with his compliments, to Colonel Lagow, one of my father’s aides-de-camp, who always kept a very excellent mount and was a man of means. The other officers of the staff “jollied” the colonel about this gift. When my father saw him, he told the colonel that the animal was a thoroughbred and a valuable mount and that if he, Lagow, did not wish to keep the horse he would be glad to have him. Because of his appearance he was named “Kangaroo,” and after a short period of rest and feeding and care he turned out to be a magnificent animal and was used by my father during the Vicksburg campaign.

And now a poem by a fellow blogger on WordPress:

Shiloh; by Tim Shey
Brutal deathdance;
my eyes weep blood.
Pharisees smile like vipers,
they laugh and mock their venom:
Blind snakes leading
the deaf and dumb multitude.
Where are my friends?
The landscape is dry and desolate.
They have stretched my shredded body
on this humiliating tree.
The hands that healed
and the feet that brought good news
they have pierced
with their fierce hatred.
The man-made whip
that opened up my back
preaches from a proper pulpit.
They sit in comfort:
That vacant-eyed congregation.
The respected, demon-possessed reverend
forks his tongue
scratching itchy ears
while Cain bludgeons
Abel into silence.
My flesh in tattered pieces
clots red and cold and sticks
to the rough-hewn timber
that props up my limp, vertical carcase
between heaven and earth.
My life drips and puddles
below my feet,
as I gaze down dizzily
on merciless eyes and dagger teeth.
The chapter-and-versed wolves
jeer and taunt me.
Their sheepwool clothing
is stained black with the furious violence
of their heart of stone.
They worship me in lip service,
but I confess,
I never knew them
(though they are my creation).
My tongue tastes like ashes:
It sticks to the roof of my mouth.
I am so thirsty.
This famine is too much for me.
The bulls of Bashan have bled me white.
Papa, into your hands
I commend my Spirit.
Published in Ethos
February/March 1997
Iowa State University
Genesis 49:10 : “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.”