Thursday, December 31, 2009

George Washington's War Horses

From a life spent with animals, George Washington realized that non-human animals have feelings just like humans, and that they suffer physical and emotional pain if mistreated or abused. As a Stoic, Washington believed that God dwells within everything, and that it is wrong to inflict pain on any living being. Therefore, animals must be treated humanely, even those belonging to the enemy. At the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777, a particularly brutal battle with much carnage on both sides, a fox terrier got lost between the lines. The little dog was captured by the Americans, who saw inscribed in his collar: “Property of General Howe.” Washington made sure the little dog was fed, cleaned and treated well. Under a flag of truce, Alexander Hamilton delivered the dog to General Howe, who had suffered great mental anguish thinking his little terrier had been lost to him forever.

Washington had been passionately fond of horses from early boyhood, and owned his first horse at 17. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, was a skilled horsewoman who taught young George how to train horses using only the gentlest of methods, and to never resort to any cruelty. Washington learned that harsh training methods were counter-productive, because horses treated with respect are eager to please their riders. 

The Marquis de Chastellus, a Frenchman who had come over to help the Americans win the fight for freedom, commented on Washington's training skills: 
The weather being fair, on the 26th, I got on horseback, after breakfasting with the General. He was so attentive as to give me the horse he rode on the day of my arrival, which I had greatly commended. I found him as good as he is handsome, but above all, perfectly well broke and well trained having a good mouth, easy in hand, and stopping short in a gallop without bearing the bit. I mention these minute particulars, because it is the General himself who breaks all his own horses, and his is a very excellent and bold horseman, leaping the highest fences, and going extremely quick, without standing upon his stirrups, bearing on the bridle, or letting his horse run wild.
Washington believed horses must be given proper care and exercise, and that it was wrong to beat a horse, deny him proper food or water, or to over-work him. Early in Washington's pubic career as a 21-year-old diplomat, he had to make an arduous mid-winter trip to the French commander at what is now Erie, Pennsylvania. Upon returning to Virginia from this parley in early January 1753, his horses grew weak from struggling through deep snow and a lack of fodder. Realizing that riding the horses farther would cause them pain and might even kill them, Washington gave them to a tribe of local Indians. He and his companions then continued the journey on foot.  

During the Revolutionary War, two of Washington's war-horses were Nelson and Blueskin. These horses had been out on the front lines with the general, and were known for their bravery and steadfastness under fire.

At the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777, Washington positioned the great charger, Nelson, on the bridge over which his retreating soldiers had to cross. British cannon shells were bursting all around, but neither Washington nor Nelson showed any fear. A soldier wrote home later that the two standing there bravely were a symbol of strength to him. He wrote, “As I crossed the bridge crowded with fellow soldiers, I brushed up against the boot of the man and flank of the horse. Both seemed to exude courage.”  

At the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, Washington was at the front of the action. Waving his hat and seated upon Nelson, he rode between the two opposing lines of British and American soldiers. When the British cannons fired, Washington was no more than thirty yards from their maws. American Colonel Richard Fitzgerald remarked later: "I covered my face with my hat for fear of seeing my general hit. But upon replacing my hat, I saw many men dead or dying but miraculously the General was still astride his horse and unharmed.” Washington’s extraordinary bravery set the tone of this engagement. His presence rallied the Americans, and they began charging toward the British. It was the first time in open combat during the war that the Americans had made a British line break and run. Urging his men on in vigorous pursuit, Washington shouted, “Come on boys, its a fine day for a fox hunt!"

At the battle of Monmouth in June 1778, the treacherous General Charles Lee, in charge of the attacking first wave of Americans, had called for a retreat in direct violation of his orders. Washington, to his utter dismay, saw his soldiers coming back toward the rear. He stormed forward cursing Lee and summarily dismissed him to the rear. Washington then rode Nelson in the line of fire back and forth before his men, blocking their retreat and redirecting toward the British yelling, “Rally around me, Boys!” The Continental Army then drove the British completely out of New Jersey and into New York. 

Many years later, Washington resigned his commission before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland. He hurried home to Mt. Vernon, where he arrived on December 24, 1783. As a reward for their loyal  service, and possibly as a Christmas present, Washington retired Nelson and Blueskin to pasture. Nelson had been his main mount, but both horses had served him well during the 8 1/2 years of the Revolutionary War.  John Hunter, in a visit to Mount Vernon in 1785, wrote that he went 
to see Washington’s famous race-horse Magnolia--a most beautiful creature... I afterwards went to his stables, where among an amazing number of horses, I saw old Nelson, now 22 years of age, that carried the General almost always during the war; Blueskin, another fine old horse next to him, now and then had that honor. Shaw also showed me his old servant, that was reported to have been taken, with a number of the General's papers about him. They have heard the roaring of many a cannon in their time. Blueskin was not the favorite, on account of his not standing fire so well as venerable old Nelson.
The horses' pasture was the one nearest to the Washington’s Mansion House at Mt. Vernon. The close proximity made it easy for the throngs of visitors to meet the horses. Each one brought tasty treats for the horses, such as apples, carrots and sugar, which pleased both the horses and Washington.


James Hodges, Ph.D. and Cynthia Hodges, JD, LLM, MA

Copyright 2019 James P. Hodges 2019

James P. Hodges, Ph.D.

Winner of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge Medal of Honor
Member: National Speakers Association, American Society for Training and Development

For more on horse training, please see Classical Dressagearticles and a translation of a horse-training treatise by Louis Seeger, a 19th century cavalry and dressage horse trainer.    


  1. Thank you for this. I found it fascinating and linked to it from my own blog. I would love to know even more about his history with horses. Do you have suggestions?

  2. Blueskin was a gift from Elizabeth (French) Dulany, daughter of Daniel French of Rose Hill and wife of Benjamin Dulany. A photocopy of Gen. Washington's thank you note is on the French Family Association website (Google FFA/Charts/Chart036, click on Hugh French, then click Generation 4 and scroll down).

  3. Blueskin was a gift from Mrs. Elizabeth (French) Dulany, wife of Benjamin Dulany and daughter of Daniel French of Rose Hill. A photocopy of the General's 'thank you note' (written by an aide) can be found on the French Family Association's website. It reads:

    "General Washington presents his best respects to Mrs. Dulany with the horse Blueskin, which he wishes was better worth her acceptance.

    "Marks of antiquity have supplied the place of those beauties with which this horse abounded in his better days. Nothing but the recollection of which, of his having been the favourite of Mr. Dulany in the days of his courtship, can reconcile her to the meager appearance he now makes.

    "Mrs. Washington presents her compliments and thanks Mrs. Dulany for the Roots of Scarcity.

    Friday, past 2 O'clock
    Mrs. Dulany"

  4. Horse trivia: There seems to be an error in the pp above about the Second Battle of Trenton - According the the Mount Vernon website, "Nelson" was not a grey (a color often mistaken for white), but a sorrel, or chestnut (a copper color). "After the Revolutionary War, Mount Vernon’s extensive stables were home to Washington’s favorite wartime horses, Nelson, a sorrel, and Blueskin, named for his bluish gray color." You can see Nelson at their museum - Washintgon had him stuffed after he died, and is still there for all to see. The caption explains that he was the quieter of the two, and therefore the one Gen. Washington preferred to ride into battle, although painters preferred to paint the grey, because he was more flashy-looking.

    1. that horse in gw museum is a horse that died of natural causes and was donated to mt vernon for the use in the museum. read the history or story of the building of the museum

  5. The horse at Mt. Vernon is not the original but rather a horse they located when they built the exhibit. If you google it, you'll find the description of how and where they acquired the horse on display.

  6. Thanks for this. I eat at a sandwich shop called "Old Nelson" at 7th & Chestnut Streets in Philly (just down the street from Independence Hall and Washington Square. I never knew how it got its name but I will never forget now.

  7. I really enjoyed this. In modern times, it seems greed so often overcomes respect for life, especially in politics. To read about how different it used to be for some of our great leaders, that George Washington himself treated animals with such care is a good 'antidote' for all the negativity these days.

  8. Thanks for the information, didn't know about the whole story of Washington, or even a piece of it, nice article including his horses.

  9. Mr. Hodges, love the info about George and his horses. You didn't provide and sources though, and I haven't been able to corroborate - would you mind sharing your sources? Would appreciate it - thanks.


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