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Dogs and Horses: Loyalty and Courage in the Revolutionary War

Quadruped companions that took to battle.

Courage. Loyalty. A sense of honor in serving justice. Our Revolutionary War heroes’ qualities have been studied for more than two centuries. Farmers and fur trappers, enslaved peoples, and Native Americans – a ragtag bunch – went up against the most powerful military force in the world at the time. Outnumbered but not outsmarted, the brave rebels fought side by side with not only war horses but also war dogs.

Gen. George Washington, Paul Revere, and Army Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, to name a few, attributed their successes to the animals they rode and the companions that camped alongside the soldiers to signal the early approach of predators and Redcoats. Dogs herded livestock, carried messages and packs for their owners, and retrieved game to replenish food supplies.

But they also provided calm companionship in the worst of times.

A Statesman Could Not Tell a Lie

Washington, an avid dog lover, kept kennels of hounds for breeding and hunting. He liked to bring his favorite foxhound, Sweet Lips, into battle because she could track a three-day-old scent of the enemy. Washington was known to keep Black and Tan coonhounds — including Drunkard, Taster, Tippler, and Tipsy — around for the same reasons.

At the Battle of Germantown on Oct. 4, 1777, Washington demonstrated his respect for canine soldiers. The night was foggy and chaotic,  wrought with accidental misfires and confusion. British Gen. William Howe’s pet fox terrier, Lila, was disoriented and somehow followed Washington back to camp. Lila sported a collar with the name of her human friend and Washington’s enemy. But the leader of the revolutionary army could not see any reason to keep Lila away from Howe.

An aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, penned this missive: “General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.”


And Then Came Spado

Not so much a gentleman and a scholar but more a man of contradictions, Lee was slovenly, cursed like a modern-day sailor and a few women, and criticized his superiors. On the other hand, he was a calm and courageous leader in battle. He also had a Pomeranian named Spado who could charm even the most upper crust in society. He never went anywhere without his dogs and was well-known for saying, “If you love me, you must love my dogs.”

Founding Father John Adams once called Lee a “queer creature.” But Abigail Adams was warming to the man when Lee asked Spado to climb on a chair and present his paw to the gentlewoman at a party held at the height of the Revolutionary War. Mrs. Adams recalled the event in a letter to her husband:

“The General was determined that I should not only be acquainted with him, but with his companions too, and therefore placed a chair before me into which he ordered Mr. Sparder to mount and present his paw to me for a better acquaintance. I could not do otherways than accept.”

Lee returned correspondence with John Adams, writing, “Once I can be convinced that men are as worthy objects as dogs, I shall transfer my benevolence.” A cure for the human cur.

The Heroines and a Hero

Revere’s midnight ride on Brown Beauty inspired the famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem that memorialized “one if by land, and two if by sea.” Revere did not have a horse then and instead “borrowed” deacon John Larkin’s horse. The sure-footed Narragansett galloped more than 13 miles without much sustenance until Revere was captured by a group of British soldiers. The noble mare took her last breath early the next morning. She was asked for sacrifice and answered without hesitation. Honor.

Another stalwart horse in the Revolutionary War was Star. She was owned by a young farmgirl, Sybil Ludington, daughter of Col. Henry Ludington of Kent, NY. As the story is told, Sybil rode Star more than 40 miles in driving rain to alert her father that the British were attempting to take Danbury, Connecticut. She is credited with rallying the troops and fighting off a highwayman with her father’s musket.

Sybil Ludington has been honored by the National Rifle Association, which lauds ordinary people who rise to perform “extraordinary feats during times of adversity” to earn a place in the country’s history.

Continental Army Gen. Richard Montgomery was slain in a hail of bullets. Yet, sword in hand in a blizzard, he commanded, “Your general calls upon you!” The soldiers retreated and left Montgomery lying in the snow. Only one soldier remained, a Newfoundland named Rebel. And he covered his commander’s body throughout the storm until the man was removed from the battlefield. Loyalty.

Revolutionary War Lessons

“I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory,” wrote John Adams in a letter to wife Abigail, July 3, 1776.

The United States of America emerged during a dream for freedom from a monarchical system of gentry and peasants and promised its dreamers an opportunity to be anything they could aspire to through determination and hard work. Along the way, we have, with great purpose, used horses and dogs in the service to provide national security and defeat tyranny. They were courageous and loyal yet asked for little more in return than care and companionship. Their sacrifice should not be forgotten.

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