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Canceled: Washington & Lee University removes plaque honoring Robert E. Lee’s horse

Traveller, the horse which served Confederate General Robert E. Lee, has long been a fixture of campus culture at Washington and Lee University, as the famous steed, known for his courage and stamina, is buried on campus.

But Traveller’s Confederate connections recently led university officials to remove two markers erected in his honor, his gravestone as well as a plaque honoring the beloved companion.

The decision prompted anger and concern from some alumni and students. Traveller served Lee both during the Civil War and afterwards, when the ex-general became president of the then-Washington College. Lee was president from 1865 until his death in 1871. Traveller died a few months later.

The university replaced one marker – Traveller’s gravestone – with a version omitting the original references to Lee and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

In a July 16 response to community concerns, university officials said they would also replace the plaque they stripped from a campus building, which had noted Traveller’s last home and was a visible part of the campus environment.

As of Aug. 7, the plaque has yet to be replaced.

The original marker stated: “The last home of Traveller. Through war and peace the faithful, devoted and beloved horse of General Robert Lee. Placed by the Virginia Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy.”

The modifications follow a June 2021 decision by the small, private liberal arts college to retain its name while further distancing itself from the Confederacy.

“We have reviewed campus symbols, names and practices, and we are making changes to remove doubt about our separation from the Confederacy and the Lost Cause,” the university’s board of trustees stated.

But the horse is a campus icon.

“Traveller was a beloved part of the campus story,” said Kamron Spivey, president of Students for Historical Preservation, in an email to The College Fix.

“People like to hear tales about animals because they do no wrong. That is how Traveller has been immortalized in campus history,” Spivey said. “He was a faithful horse whose beauty and loyalty Robert E. Lee said would inspire poets. Until this month, very few people seemed bothered by the horse.”

One campus tradition is to place apples and pennies beside Traveller’s gravestone.

The apples are “because horses like apples,” Spivey said, and the “pennies are sort of a shot at Lincoln and the Union, placing the coin tails-up so that Lincoln is essentially kissing the grave of a horse.”

Now, Spivey said, Traveller is primarily known as the name of the university’s party bus: the Traveller Safe Ride Program (colloquially “Trav”) provides students with transportation on party nights.

News of the changes was first reported by the alternate campus newspaper, the W&L Spectator, on July 12, igniting passions on social media. Comments on the Spectator’s content were generally critical of the university’s choices.

Ultimately, the university released a statement after receiving “a number of questions about the decision to relocate four historical plaques.”

W&L also removed two plaques from an academic building. One marked where Lee was sworn in as the school’s president, and the other denoted the room which served as his first office space while president.

The university said the four original plaques would be featured in a new exhibit titled “The Power of Memory: Remembering Robert E. Lee.”

The changes are “part of a carefully considered series of steps to create educational exhibits and place Confederate artifacts in those exhibits and in context,” the university said in its statement.

“Washington and Lee University is an educational institution. Its campus is neither a museum nor an appropriate repository for Confederate artifacts, and as such, the Board determined that a number of plaques on campus should be relocated to a museum to be appropriately interpreted,” it added.

In an email to The Fix, university spokesperson Drewry Sackett said the decision to relocate the plaques was made over a year ago.

But Spivey said the new developments are “yet another of the university administration’s attempt[s] to completely ignore the civil war and Robert E. Lee.”

“Due to a misappreciation of Lee’s contributions and positive legacy as an educator, university officials think any reference to the man is detracting from student enrollment. Rather than confront the issue directly, they are trying to secretly hide their history from the world,” he said.

“[T]he university should keep the original markers,” Spivey continued. “If the goal is to contextualize a historic site, there is no better place than the original location they were erected.”

MORE: Review The College Fix’s Campus Cancel Culture Database

IMAGE: Main photo by Kamron Spivey/ W&L Spectator

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About the Author
Andrew Thompson -- Washington and Lee University