George Washington’s valiant Revoluntiary War steed Nelson

George Washington statue, Washington Circle, Washington DC.
George Washington statue, Washington Circle, Washington DC.

George Washington was a noted horseman of his time, an exceptional rider with a rich appreciation of the horses who graced his life and served him.

During the American Revolutionary War, there were two horses prominently connected to him. One was Blueskin, a dashing stallion “of a dark iron-gray color, approaching to blue”; the other a horse called Nelson, a horse of a different color.

Mary V. Thompson, Research Historian for the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, writes:

    Of the many horses that Washington owned, one of his favorites was a horse he called “Nelson,” who is said to have “carried the General almost always during the war [American Revolution].” Described as a “splendid charger,” the animal stood sixteen hands high, and was a light sorrel or chestnut (reddish-brown) in color, with white face and legs.

    The horse who would become known as Nelson was born around 1763 and would have been a mature fifteen years old by the time he and George Washington met. In 1778, Thomas Nelson of Virginia, learned that Washington was having trouble finding a replacement for a horse he had been riding. As a result, Nelson sent the horse to General Washington in New York as a gift. Washington, in turn, then named the horse for his generous friend.

    One contemporary explained that Washington preferred to ride Nelson during the war over his other horse, Blueskin, because Nelson was less skittish during cannon fire and the startling sounds of battle. In addition, Washington chose to ride Nelson on the day the British army under the direction of Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781. [1]

Both horses served Washington well during the 8-1/2 years of the American Revolutionary War. Nelson and Blueskin survived intact and were retired to Washington’s stables.

Thompson tells us:

    According to two sources, Nelson was no longer ridden after the war, but lived out his days at the stable and paddock at the Mansion House Farm as something of a pampered celebrity. Only two years after the close of the war, a foreign visitor commented that Nelson and Blueskin “feed away at their ease for their past services.”

    Washington’s affection for the horse was reciprocated. It was reported that George Washington would walk around the grounds of the estate, where he would stop at Nelson’s paddock, “when the old war-horse would run, neighing, to the fence, proud to be caressed by the great master’s hands.” Nelson died at Mount Vernon “many years after the Revolution, at a very advanced age.” His death was reported to George Washington during the Christmas season of 1790, when the old horse would have been twenty-seven years old. [2]

Dr James Hodges, PhD, one of America’s foremost authorities on Revolutionary War history and the life of George Washington, writes:

    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. [3]

And this note:

    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.” [4]

Notably depictions in artwork from the period show George Washington with Blueskin, who is often mistaken for Nelson.

Michael Zitz, writing for Fredericksburg.com, states:

    A First in War Gallery will show the Revolutionary War general mounted on Blueskin, a white stallion that artists over history have generally regarded a more studly horse than Nelson. But it was Nelson whom Washington himself credited with carrying him through most of the British fire he encountered during the Revolutionary War.

    There’s some debate over which horse Washington rode at Valley Forge, the moment in time portrayed in the gallery. There’s no debate, however, that Nelson was the more noteworthy steed, even if his coat was dull. [5]

Well, I would not go so far as to say that Nelson’s coat was dull, but it is obvious Blueskin’s strikingly steely white coat dazzled the artists of the day more and the reason for his prominence in paintings, it appears to the exclusion of Nelson.

As a footnote to the remembrances of Washington’s two “war horses”, I found the following about the Virginia planter, military man and first President of the United States, particularly inspiring.

    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.

    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. [6]


NOTES
1. Nelson; Mary V. Thompson; MountVernon.org; Undated
2. Ibid
3. George Washington’s War Horses; James Hodges, PhD; Leadership by George Washington; December 31, 2009
4 Ibid
5. Horse of a Different Color; Michael Zitz; Fredericksburg.com; July 23, 2006
6. See 3

10 thoughts on “George Washington’s valiant Revoluntiary War steed Nelson”

  1. I knew a little about Washington’s high regard for his horses, and for animals in general, but, this post was a real treat and chock full of fascinating information. Thank you so much!

  2. Absolutely brilliant post…..as I have said all day long, how could I possibly consider celebrating our Independence when we have so many horses (and burros) that fought along with our generals, soldiers, etc., yet are treated so inhumanely? Every town has a statute of a hero that gave us this independence, but yet, we still consider horses and burros as non-participants in this “Great Experiment”. I say until every horse and burro is free from bondage, either domestic or wild, that we no longer celebrate this important holiday until they are as free as we are.

  3. So very thoughtful to bring this information to us. Thank you. I have been to Mt. Vernon and know exactly where these horses were kept. It is a beautiful peaceful place and must have been even more so back when it was busy and productive. It is reassuring to hear that our first President honored and cared for his horses.

  4. “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.”

    If only our leaders and those who abuse our animals would follow his example what a better world this would be!!

  5. This is a perfect story to read about George’s love for his horses and animals. It’s interesting that Washington was a Stoic. Happy 4th to you and everyone.

  6. Great post! Thank you for this brief intermission to educate us on these two great war heros. It was a great day to recognize these two veterans. They were truly one of a kind. General Washington was a great war stragetist. Coincendently, I share my birthday with him, sadly, our horrid government does not celebrate his birthday on the proper day :(

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