Custer's Last Standard Bearer
The University of Kansas barely had completed its tenth academic year when General George Armstrong Custer led a detachment of troops from the US Army’s 7th Cavalry to their deaths at Greasy Grass Creek in an engagement now known as the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. Over 200 US cavalrymen were killed that day as well as several dozen Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho men, women, and children. For the Indians, it was their last and biggest victory of the Great Plains wars. For the United States, it was a defeat that immediately assumed mythic proportions.
When the approximately 12,000 Indians camped on the Greasy Grass departed two days later, they took with them all the horses that had not been seriously wounded. The only living thing – two-legged or four-legged – that remained at the scene of the engagement was a severely injured bay horse named Comanche that had belonged to US Army Captain Myles Keogh.
Under most conditions, the first US soldiers to arrive on the scene would have dispatched Comanche with a bullet to the brain. But the Battle of Little Big Horn was not just another skirmish. Comanche was recognized as more than a horse. He was – and remains – a symbol. And thanks to the taxidermy talents and negotiating skills of KU’s Lewis Lindsay Dyche, Comanche’s remains were preserved and have been on display in Lawrence for more than 100 years.
It is believed that Comanche was born to a mustang mare somewhere in the southwestern Great Plains around 1862. “Mustangers,” or wild horse hunters, captured Comanche and the other mustangs in his herd in 1868. The mustangs were taken to St. Louis to be sold to the army, and on April 3 of that year that the Cavalry purchased Comanche for $90. Skirmishes with the Indians in 1868 had left the Cavalry short of ponies, and Lt. Tom Custer, brother of the ill-fated general, was sent to Fort Leavenworth for new mounts. The Lieutenant returned to the 7th Cavalry’s camp near Fort Hays with 41 new horses, including the one soon to be known as Comanche.
Captain Myles Keogh, an officer in the 7th Cavalry, was an experienced soldier who had served with valor in the Civil War, receiving the brevet ranks of Major and Lt. Colonel. Soon after the new shipment of horses arrived, Captain Keogh took a liking to one of the bays and began to ride it regularly in battle. On September 13, 1868, as the story goes, an arrow struck Captain Keogh’s favorite mount after a skirmish with a band of Comanches. A soldier who had witnessed the incident told Keogh that the horse had screamed “like a Comanche” when the arrow struck. Captain Keogh began calling the horse “Comanche.”
Keogh and Comanche performed a wide variety of duties for the 7th Cavalry. These included a tour of duty in Kentucky during Reconstruction against the Ku Klux Klan and moonshiners. During a skirmish with the whiskey-runners in 1873, Comanche was wounded in the right shoulder, accounting for one of his scars. The army then assigned Keogh and Comanche to the Black Hills of South Dakota to eject miners from lands off limits according to the second Treaty of Fort Laramie. And in May of 1876, the 7th Cavalry, with Comanche and Keogh joined a large offensive against the Sioux Indians in the northern plains. This fateful assignment put them on the road to the Little Big Horn.
During the battle, Comanche suffered at least seven wounds, three of which were severe. Afterwards, as the only survivor of five companies of soldiers under General Custer, it was determined that every effort should be made to save his life. At that point, the farrier (blacksmith) Gustave Korn took over as Comanche’s caretaker, walking him 15 miles to the steamer Far West, which took Comanche and 52 soldiers who had been under the command of Major Marcus Reno and wounded in a related engagement, down the Missouri River to Fort Lincoln.
In April of 1878, after Comanche had made a full recovery, Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis issued General Order No. 7, which declared that no would ever again ride Comanche, and that he would never be used to do work of any kind. The only exception was to be on the occasion of a parade, when Comanche would be outfitted with a saddle and would march riderless with the 7th Cavalry.
Gustave Korn took care of Comanche at Fort Riley Kansas until 1890, when they were ordered to the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota. On December 29, 1890, Korn was killed at the massacre of Wounded Knee with 30 other whites and over 200 Sioux men, women, and children. After Wounded Knee, Comanche was returned to Fort Riley, where farrier Samuel J. Winchester looked after him. Winchester was with Comanche when he died of colic the next year on November 7, 1891, at 29 years of age.
Upon Comanche’s death, the officers of the 7th Cavalry determined to preserve his remains. KU naturalist Lewis Lindsay Dyche, a well-known taxidermist, was summoned to do the job. Dyche agreed to waive his fee of $400 if the Army would let KU keep Comanche, an arrangement that appears to have been agreed to, although no official records of the deal currently exist. Two years after his death, the stuffed and mounted Comanche made the trip to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was exhibited in the Kansas pavilion along with Professor Dyche’s unique Panorama of North American Mammals.
A number of people from locations around the country have attempted to beg, borrow, or buy Comanche over the years, all to no avail. The horse – once thought of as the only US survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn and now more accurately considered the only remaining living thing found at the site of the clash – continues on display at the KU Museum of Natural History in Dyche Hall.
Department of History
University of Kansas