On June 25, 1876, LTC George Armstrong Custer led the U.S. 7th Cavalry into an action against a vastly superior force of Native American tribes consisting of combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes at the Little Big Horn in the Montana Territory. Custer’s Cavalry consisted of 12 companies with 45 officers and 718 enlisted men.
Custer vastly underestimated the strength of the Native American tribes and his immediate thoughts were on how to stop them from fleeing. He split his command into three columns and he took five companies to attack the Indian village, completely unaware that his 212 men were facing thousands of battle-hardened Native American warriors.
The Native Americans were given the land as a reservation after signing a treaty with the United States. But gold was found in the Black Hills and the government, with no true legal standing was going to take it by force. The Indian tribes weren’t going to go quietly.
It was a slaughter. In less than 30 minutes, his entire command of the five companies was wiped out. Among the dead were his two brothers, a nephew and dozens of horses. After Custer and his men were killed the Indian warriors attacked the other two split units where hard fighting between the two sides raged until the Cavalrymen got reinforcements and the Indians withdrew.
There was, however, one survivor, from the carnage of the “Last Stand”. Comanche, the horse of Captain Myles Keough, who was killed along with Custer, survived the battle with no less than seven bullet wounds. Although it is believed that many other horses survived the battle including a yellow bulldog, the Native American warriors took them for their own use and perhaps believed that Comanche would perish due to the wounds he suffered during the battle.
Comanche was found by U.S.troops on the battlefield and transported back to Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory where he was treated for his wounds and nursed back to health.
Comanche was officially retired from the United States Army and active service in April of 1878. During his retirement ceremony, the unit generated special orders for him.
Headquarters Seventh United States Cavalry, Ft A. Lincoln, D. T., April 10th, 1878. General Orders No. 7.
(1.) 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.
(2.) 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 circumstances, nor will he be put to any kind of work.
(3.) Hereafter, upon all occasions of ceremony of mounted regimental formation, ‘Comanche,’ saddled, 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 Adjutant, Seventh Cavalry.”
Comanche was then bestowed with the honorary title of “second-in-command” of the 7th Cavalry, and he lived out the rest of his days as the unit’s mascot. He reportedly developed a taste for beer like any good trooper. His keeper and farrier wrote this about him:
Comanche was a veteran, 21 years old, and had been with the 7th Cavalry since its Organization in ’66…. He was found by Sergeant [Milton J.] DeLacey [Co. I] in a ravine where he had crawled, there to die and feed the Crows. He was raised up and tenderly cared for. His wounds were serious, but not necessarily fatal if properly looked after…He carries seven scars from as many bullet wounds. There are four back of the foreshoulder, one through a hoof, and one on either hind leg. On the Custer battlefield (actually Fort Abraham Lincoln) three of the balls were extracted from his body and the last one was not taken out until April ’77…Comanche is not a great horse, physically talking; he is of medium size, neatly put up, but quite noble looking. He is very gentle. His color is ‘claybank’ He would make a handsome carriage horse…
Comanche lived a full life until 1891 when he passed away from colic. He was believed to be about 29 years old. He was given a funeral with full military honors. He is one of only four horses in the United States to be granted that honor. The others being Sgt Reckless who fought with the Marines in Korea, Chief, from Ft. Riley, KS and the Army’s last horse-mounted cavalry regiment and Black Jack. Black Jack was a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard). He took part in thousands of funerals for veterans and dignitaries in Arlington National Cemetery. Black Jack was always the riderless horse, with boots turned backward in the stirrups to signify a fallen leader. Black Jack took part in the funerals for JFK, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Douglas MacArthur among others.
But Comanche wasn’t buried. He was brought to the University of Kansas to be stuffed by a taxidermist. He now resides permanently there in the Natural History Museum.
So in essence, Comanche is indeed, the sole survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. Everyone else is long gone and buried. But he still stands in the museum in Kansas, a reminder of a sorry part of our history for our nation.
Photos: US Archives