Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, served 2 terms as President and worked with President Lincoln to help eradicate slavery and support the rights of African-Americans. He served in both the Mexican-American and Civil War in the United States Army and distinguished himself so well that Lincoln promoted him to Lieutenant General and made Grant answerable only to Lincoln himself.
Being a military man, Grant’s love of horses is not surprising. During wartime, Grant acquired Jeff Davis, a black “pony”. According to Frederick Grant, Ulysses’ son, the horse was taken from the plantation of a man named Joe Davis by a raiding party during the battle of Vicksburg. The pony was handed off to Frederick who said: “The animal was worn out when it reached headquarters but was a very easy riding horse and I used him once or twice. With care he began to pick up and soon carried himself in fine shape.” Ulysses had the opportunity to ride the horse one day and found the horse’s gait to be “delightful” and moved to purchase him from the army.
Grant named the pony “Jeff Davis” for the plantation from which it was taken. Jeff was 14 hands (56 inches) tall, smallish for a horse which is likely why he is often referred to as a pony. While Grant was often seen on Cincinnati, another horse, Jeff Davis was the horse that he used most often when there was changing terrain or long journeys to contend with due to Jeff’s surefootedness and ability to stay fresh even after a long day.
Jeff had some peculiarities that made it difficult for him to wear a traditional saddle. He had very flat withers (the ridge between the shoulder blades) which would have made a regular saddle uncomfortable for him to wear and difficult for his rider to contend with. He also had shorter but powerful hind legs. In From Cincinnati to the Colorado Ranger: The Horsemanship of Ulysses S. Grant, author Denise M. Dowdall describes the little horse: “Photographs taken of Jeff in the field at Cold Harbor in 1864 reveal a very compact little horse with a naughty pony face, a forelock like a cow’s lick, large eyes (what commentators described as “hawk-like”), and alert ears.
Jeff Davis was often used for reconnoitering but he also saw some active battle situations. One mission had Grant and Jeff Davis riding in full view of enemy cannons, which of course shot off. When a shell exploded right in front of Jeff, he reared and became tangled in telegraph wires. The more the little horse fought, the more tangled he became. Under heavy fire, an aide named Orville Babcock jumped off his own horse and managed to cut Jeff free. Amazingly, Jeff only suffered from superficial injuries.
But Jeff wasn’t always the easiest horse to handle. “In fact, Jeff’s character was far from gentle,” said Dowdall. “Although he was euphemistically referred to as “spirited”, he was in reality a notorious kicker and biter. Many of the stable staff in the White House were afraid to approach him and would give him his feed from the stall next door.”
Despite Jeff Davis’ rather ornery nature, Grant appreciated the sturdy little horse and valued him greatly. Jeff remained with Grant after the war ended and went along with him for the President’s terms of office (where he routinely terrified White House staffers.) Grant kept Jeff Davis until the horse’s death a few years later.