By Jonathan Steffen
The Natural History Museum of the University of Kansas houses the stuffed hide of a 15-hands buckskin-colored horse with a black dorsal stripe. Wearing a United States Cavalry saddle of late 19th-century pattern and protected by a glass case, this animal was, in his day, the Second Commanding Officer of the U.S. 7th Cavalry.
On his death in 1891, he was one of only two horses in the history of the United States to be buried with full military honors.
The horse is Comanche, the battle mount of brevet Lieutenant Colonel Myles Keogh, an Irish officer in the 7th Cavalry who was well known for his great love of horses and was said by a fellow officer to ride “like a centaur”. Originally a mustang born into the Great Horse Desert of Texas and thought to have been of mixed Spanish and Morgan ancestry, the horse was subjected to a “creasing” in order to be captured – shot through the withers an inch from the spinal column to stun him, bound by the legs, and then led away tethered by the neck to a tame horse. “Creasing” was employed by mustangers as a final resort to seize particularly fine horses that had evaded capture by all other means. It had a one in fifty chance of success according to accounts of the day, for the injured horse usually died.
The horse was sold to the U.S. army in St. Louis in 1868 for US $90, the average price for such an animal; it was purchased along with 40 other mounts by First Lieutenant Tom W. Custer, the brother of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer of the 7th Cavalry. It acquired its name that year, when fighting the Comanche in Kansas: wounded in the hindquarters by an arrow, it “screamed like a Comanche” but let Colonel Keogh continue fighting from its back. The horse was to be injured many times more before gaining is unique place in history.
The Little Big Horn
That place is due to the fact that Comanche was the sole survivor found on the field of the Battle of the Little Big Horn – the fiasco in which some 200 troopers of the 7th Cavalry under Custer’s command, along with approximately 20 scouts and civilians, were annihilated by a coalition of Native American tribes led by Crazy Horse and Gall.
They were slaughtered “in the time it takes a hungry man to eat a meal”, as one of the Native American participants was later to recall.
The Battle of Little Big Horn of 25 June 1876 occupies a unique place in American history. It is the only military engagement of any size in which every single U.S. combatant has been lost. The speed of the massacre, the ritual mutilation of the slain after death and the absolute failure of Custer’s strategy were to galvanize the U.S. Government into yet more aggressive policies towards the Northern Plains Indians, who were eventually vanquished definitively at the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890. The injury inflicted on the American psyche by the defeat of Custer gapes to this day: the Little Big Horn is the one battlefield in the world where headstones mark the actual spots where individual combatants fell.
Leading “I” Company, Colonel Keogh distinguished himself in the battle, according to Native American reports – there are no accounts of the battle by white men, for no white participants survived.
Keogh fought a final last stand after Custer and his units had been wiped out, and was the last white man on the field to be slain, his hand still clutching the bridle of his horse.
The Sioux later characterized him as the bravest man they had ever fought; Keogh’s body was the only one on the battlefield not to be scalped and ritually mutilated by the Native Americans – a mark of respect for his extraordinary courage. He is said to have died with the snarl of a bear on his face.
Comanche was found two days after the battle by the first U.S. Army contingent to arrive on the scene. He was struggling to get to his feet near the Little Big Horn River, and had sustained four bullet wounds behind his fore shoulder, one through a hoof, and one in either hind leg.
Normal practice was to give such badly injured animals the coup de grâce on the spot; but as Comanche was the sole survivor of the battle – approximately a hundred army horses having been captured by the Native Americans and the rest killed – the horse was assisted from the battlefield (he actually walked from it!) and nursed back to health.
Three bullets were extracted from his body on the battlefield itself; the final one was not removed until April 1877.
Nursed back to health, Comanche was retired from active service, and in April 1878, Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis issued the following order:
“Headquarters Seventh United States Cavalry, Fort A. Lincoln, D.T., April 10th, 1878. General Orders No. 7.
- The horse known as ‘Comanche’, being the only living representative of the bloody tragedy of the Little Big Horn, June 25th, 1876, his kind treatment and comfort shall be a matter of special pride and solicitude on the part of every member of the Seventh Cavalry to the end that his life be preserved to the utmost limit. Wounded and scarred as he is, his very existence speaks in terms more eloquent than words, of the desperate struggle against overwhelming numbers of the hopeless conflict and the heroic manner in which all went down on that fatal day.
- The commanding officer of Company I will see that a special and comfortable stable is fitted up for him, and he will not be ridden by any person whatsoever, under any circumstance, nor will he be put to any kind of work.
- Hereinafter, upon all occasions of ceremony of mounted regimental formation, saddle, bridled, and draped in mourning, and led by a mounted trooper of Company I, will be paraded with the regiment.
By command of Col. Sturgis, E.A. Garlington, First Lieutenant and Adjunct, Seventh Cavalry.”
Comanche was rightly seen in his day as the heroic survivor of a crushing defeat, a symbol of all the courage and hope and pride that was extinguished on the battlefield that day in 1876. There is great tenderness in the tales of the way Comanche became inseparable from his handler, the 7th Cavalry’s farrier Gustave Korn, following him everywhere and even regularly leaving the garrison to go and fetch him when Korn had been away too long visiting a lady friend in town. Comanche, who would cheerfully take his place in line, unmounted, whenever the bugle sounded for parades, was also partial to a drink or two (just like his former owner Myles Keogh) and enjoyed sharing the troopers’ beer with them. The touching story of this remarkable horse contains bitter ironies, however.
Death of a reputation
On Custer’s express command, the 7th Cavalry were not supported by artillery and did not carry sabers. Armed with single-loader carbines and handguns, they fought most of the battle not on horseback but in skirmish lines, with one out of every four troopers holding the horses and the remaining three firing from a kneeling position some five to ten yards apart from one another. This – the standard practice of the day, and derived from tactics employed in the recent American Civil War – reduced their firepower by 25 per cent and turned their mounts into a liability rather than an asset. Indian women ran onto the battlefield and flapped blankets at the riderless animals to terrify them into running away.
Worse still, when the situation became quite hopeless, the cavalry troopers shot their remaining horses to make improvised breastworks out of them from behind which to shoot at the enemy.
Outnumbered and outgunned by the irregular cavalry of the Native Americans with their Winchester repeating rifles and bows and arrows, they fought until their ammunition was expended – and then had no hand weapons for the hand-to-hand combat at which the Indians excelled with their tomahawks and clubs.
The battalion of the U.S. 7th Cavalry which went down in Custer’s Last Stand did not even fight as cavalry: they fought as dragoons – soldiers who ride to the battlefield and then dismount to fight on foot – and when their frail discipline cracked under the overwhelming ferocity of the Native American assault, they were doomed.
It is reported by Indian survivors of the battle that some of them shot themselves to avoid being taken prisoner. Many of them were not battle-hardened veterans of the Civil War like Colonel Keogh but raw recruits – European immigrants in their late teens or early twenties who had landed in New York only months previously and enlisted for want of any other employment.
“I did not know then how much was ended”
It is ironic that Custer – the “Boy General” of the Union Army, who had won so many dashing victories against the Confederates in the Civil War – wore buckskins rather than U.S. Cavalry uniform during the campaign of 1876, and that he forbade his troopers to carry their sabers in the hope of travelling “as swift and silent as Indians” across the Great Plains. It is ironic that Comanche, created Second Commanding Officer of the U.S. 7th Cavalry following his recuperation, bore an Indian name, symbolic of the fascination which the white man felt for the Native Americans even as he was bent on their destruction. It is ironic that the bullet wound that unseated Keogh, shattering his knee, went through Comanche’s body too. But most ironic of all is the manner of Comanche’s death.
He was thought by contemporaries to have died of a broken heart when his handler Gustave Korn failed to return from battle.
Korn fell at the Massacre of Wounded Knee, in which the U.S. 7th Cavalry under Colonel James W. Forsyth massacred the Lakota in a parody of Custer’s planned attack on the great Native American village at Little Big Horn thirteen years previously. Unlike Custer, Forsyth did use artillery, in the form of M1875 Mountain Guns – light howitzers which were turned indiscriminately on women and children as well as unarmed braves. As Black Elk (1863–1950), medicine man of the Oglala Lakota, was subsequently to recall:
“I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scarred all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzards. A people’s dream died there: It was a beautiful dream… The nation’s hope is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”
Comanche suffered unimaginable violence at the hands of humans. He also experienced measureless love. He is a symbol of the worst and the best that human hands can do – a mute, all-seeing witness to everything that was the Wild West.
First published in slightly abridged form in Western Horse UK, Volume 6, Issue 4, 2014
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