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Dogs of War

Dogs of [the Revolutionary] War

“There are three faithful friends – an old wife, an old dog, and ready money” – Benjamin Franklin, 1738

“He that lies down with dogs shall rise up with fleas.” – Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richards Almanack


George Washington was a lifelong dog lover and owned numerous dogs of many breeds.

George Washington was a lifelong dog lover and owned numerous dogs of many breeds.

During the 18thcentury in Western Europe a gradual change occurred in the relationship between people and their dogs.  Canines began to appear as characters in literary works as individuals with emotions and feelings, and increasingly they were depicted alongside their masters in portraits.  In England, George Stubbs painted likenesses of various dog breeds that vividly captured their personalities on canvas.  American colonists also began including dogs in family portraits. For example, in 1735 William Byrd II of Virginia had his daughter Anne depicted alongside her devoted canine companion.  Given this increasing interest, it should come as no surprise that references to dogs frequently show up in sources relating to the American Revolution.  Dogs enriched the lives of many leaders, beginning with George Washington.

Washington was a lifelong dog lover and owned numerous dogs of many breeds.  He gave them very interesting names such as Captain, Duchess, Drunkard, Juno, Jupiter, Pilot, Rover, Searcher, Sweet Lips, Truelove, Tippler, Taster and Vulcan.  An avid foxhunter, Washington built kennels at Mount Vernon and worked to create a new American breed of foxhound, one that would be taller and faster than its English cousins.  Washington’s fondness for dogs, as well as his keen sense of gentlemanly honor, was evident after the battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, in October 1777.  During the confusion of the fighting, British General William Howe’s dog, Lila, ended up with the Continental Army.  Identifying its owner from a tag on the collar, Washington returned Lila to General Howe under a flag of truce “with his compliments.”

Numerous advertisements taken out in the loyalist press in New York City during its occupation suggest that many lower-level British officers (or units) also kept dogs of various breeds as companions or as guard animals.  These ads for lost or found animals mention Pointers, Spaniels, Terriers, Setters and Newfoundland breeds – most are described in detail and promise a reward.  Some of these dogs seem to have been greatly loved:  “Lost, about ten Days ago, an old brown-colored Bitch, with a white Neck, white Feet, and bad Eyes, particularly her right Eye; answers to the Name of Jean.” In 1777 the Sergeant Major of the 6th Regiment promised a significant reward of ten shillings for information on this elderly dog.  Lord Cornwallis is said to have owned two Great Danes named (appropriately enough for a General) Mars and Jupiter.  Banastre Tarleton and his British Legionnaires apparently enjoyed fox hunting, since in 1778 he requisitioned a barrel of oatmeal “for the Fox Hounds.”

General Charles Lee and his Pomeranian.

General Charles Lee and his Pomeranian.

Numerous officers in the Continental Army also were attached to their canine companions – perhaps none more so than the bizarre General Charles Lee, an eccentric, British-born officer who at one time was second in command to Washington.  Lee was notorious for his “strange passion for dogs,” who accompanied him wherever he went – even on the battlefield.  One of his favorites was a Pomeranian named Spado or Spada.  In 1775 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, that at a dinner party Lee insisted she shake hands with “Mr. Spada,” who was seated in a chair!  Abigail was very fond of her own dog Juno, writing to her granddaughter, “If you love me … you must love my dog.”  Baron von Steuben was accompanied throughout the Revolution by his beloved and much indulged Italian Greyhound, Azur, a large dog with an enormous appetite.  The Marquis de Lafayette is credited with introducing Basset Hounds to America when he presented a pair to George Washington.  It seems that dogs begin to show up everywhere – but references to “Revolutionary” cats are very rare!

Finally, there is one dog story from the Revolution that is amusing and another that is disturbing.  According to Joseph Martin, an American soldier at the siege of Yorktown in 1781, there was an especially large British Bulldog that frequently chased after the cannon balls fired toward the American entrenchments.  Martin observed that “our officers wished to catch him …, but he looked too formidable for any of us to encounter.”  Another dog made the ultimate sacrifice during the winter of 1775 during Benedict Arnold’s march across the frozen wastelands of Maine to attack Quebec.  General Henry Dearborn had a large black Newfoundland.  He later wrote, “My dog was very large and a great favorite.  I gave him up to several of Capt. Goodrich’s company … they killed and divided him among those who were suffering most severely with hunger.”

Please share your stories of dogs in the American Revolution. We’d love to hear them.

Thanks to Bob Selig for his suggestions.


One thought on “Dogs of War

  1. J. L. Bell says:

    Samuel Adams had a big pet dog who, according to the politician’s descendants, learned to dislike British army uniforms.

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