The infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn occurred 132 years ago this week, from June 25-26, 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in the Montana territory. Los Angeles-based writer Deanne Stillman has offered NewWest.net readers an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Horse Latitudes: Last Stand for the Wild Horse in the American West, that focuses on Comanche, a horse in Custer’s unit that survived the battle. The book will be published by Houghton Mifflin in spring 2008, and Stillman describes it as “a narrative nonfiction of the mustang in the West, from prehistory to its reintroduction by conquistadors, role on the frontier, in Buffalo Bill shows, and Hollywood to its current plight on the Nevada range, where it’s now waging a battle for survival.” Stillman’s previous book, Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, was chosen by the L.A. Times Book Review as one of the best books of 2001, and her journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and many other publications. The excerpt from Horse Latitudes will appear in two parts, today and tomorrow. – Jenny Shank, Books & Writers Editor
If this page could sing as you read it, or if I could embed an audio file, I would ask it to play the tune called “Garryowen” as your eyes passed this way. Many of you would recognize the tune; although you might not know the name, the first few notes are so memorable, so forceful, that you would recall it as the happy fife-and-drum jig heard in countless movies in which the US cavalry marches off into the scenery, leaving a trail of dust and hoofprints.
Originally, “Garryowen” was used by various Irish regiments as their quickmarch in battles such as Waterloo and then in the 18th Century, it became the drinking song for the Royal Irish Lancers, who crooned it in pubs when they came into Limerick on pay day. As Irish immigrants arrived on American shores and enlisted in the army, the catchy quickstep was soon taken up by soldiers in the Revolutionary War and then Union troops in the Civil War. By 1867, it was adopted as the regimental air of the 7th Cavalry, the unit commanded by the Civil War hero George Custer, who would soon march into the pages of history at the Battle of the Little Bighorn – with the notes of the melody fading across the prairie grasses. Some say that on certain evenings on the prairie, you can see the cavalry ghosts riding their ghost horses past silhouettes of cottonwood and sage, into a hole in the sky at the end of a hard trail lit by a full moon, and if you get very quiet and still, you can hear the music that drove men into the arms of death and complemented the steady gallop of their partners, their steeds.
Who were these horses that appear in nearly every painting of the Western conquest, every bar-room poster of Custer gallantly fending off his mounted opponents? Many of them were once wild, living on the open range, rounded up and pressed into service by the US army. Often they were not named but given numbers – and they were enlisted by the thousands. These beleaguered four-legged troops were the great unsung heroes of that horrible firestorm in the greasy grass, and while Custer may have gone down in history as the man who was killed as he made his last stand, so too do the horses of the 7th Cavalry deserve their place for serving with him, protecting him, as he went down.
There was one horse in particular who – unlike many of the others, had a name – and whose story has been passed down through military historians, newspaper accounts of the time, and chroniclers of matters equine. His very name embodies the fateful clash of civilizations that concluded in about twenty minutes (“the time it took the sun to pass the width of one teepee pole,” according to a Native American witness); it was Comanche, assigned as a replacement for his number because of the silent courage he displayed while farriers removed an arrowhead embedded deep in his flesh following a battle with Comanche Indians. Comanche went on to become an American hero – “the lone survivor of the Little Bighorn” – a label that was glorious but not true because there were many survivors, including scores of Native Americans who wiped out Custer and his gray horse unit on June 25, 1876.
Most likely, Comanche was born around 1862, on what was once called the Great Horse Desert of Texas, a vast region that was home to hundreds of thousands of mustangs. Comanche bore the markings of the early Spanish horses – the bay or claybank horse (though often inexplicably referred to as dun or buckskin in many accounts) had the tell-tale black dorsal stripe down his back which today can still be seen on some wild horses in the high deserts of Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. He also had a small white star on his forehead. He was an odd-looking horse, with a big head and thick neck that were out of proportion for his body, and he had legs that seemed slightly too short; possibly he was the most misshapen of the foals born that year although there certainly could have been others.
No one knows how old he was when he was taken off the range; it was the era of the great plundering, when immense populations of birds and mammals were ours for the taking, and detailed records of the voracious mustang round-ups that continued for decades were not kept. These horses were rounded up by cowboys and mustangers for cattle drives, personal use, sport, profit or combinations thereof, and many of them were sold to the army. The round-ups were often cruel, frequently employing the method of “creasing,” in which a bullet was fired at the upper part of a horse’s neck, causing temporary paralysis by striking a nerve. Sometimes – many times – the shooter aimed badly and fatally wounded the mustang; other times he injured the horse permanently and left him to wander the desert until he bled to death or was attacked by a predator.
Comanche was a survivor, one of thousands of horses who lived through a creasing (at least without visible damage) and was then sold to the army. It was probably in 1868 that he and an unknown number of horses were driven north across mustang and cattle trails, most likely following the Kickapoo Trace, a rutted and dusty by-way through the unfamiliar and rough terrain of Indian territory and into Missouri, where Jesse James and other outlaws were still fighting the Civil War after it ended, ranging the state where brother had literally fought brother, carrying out raids on herds of mustangs that happened to cross their paths. The trail ended in St. Louis, where just days after running free on the open range, the horses were funneled into crowded corrals, awaiting buyers from the army.
On April 3, 1868, Comanche was sold to the army for the average price of $90. A week after his purchase, Comanche and an unknown number of horses were loaded onto railroad cars and shipped west to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they arrived around the middle of May and were each branded with the letters US on the left shoulder, the regiment number on the left thigh and the letter C for cavalry. Sometimes the letter of the company to which the horse was assigned was added to the brand. Custer’s 7th cavalry unit had been stationed in Kansas and had lost a number of horses that spring. Custer sent his brother, First Lieutenant Tom W. Custer, to buy remounts. After looking them over in the corrals, he purchased 41, including the horse that would soon be named Comanche. Once again the horses were loaded onto a train, where they stood head to tail in crowded cars and shipped the short distance to Hays City, near Ellis, Kansas where Custer and his troops were encamped. Eight years later, in the year of our centennial, more horses than cavalry soldiers would perish at the Little Bighorn.
Captain Myles Keogh – the man who rode Comanche into battle on June 25 – was a dashing Irishman whom a biographer described as “a noble-hearted gentleman, the beau ideal of a cavalry commander, and the very soul of valor.” By all accounts, his good character extended to treatment of his horses – and it would appear that they were important enough in his life for him to talk about them in letters to his family. While in Atlanta during the Civil War, he wrote to his sister about the loss of an old horse that had carried him through many charges. “I felt his loss severely,” he said. “I wise you could have seen the poor fellow how he could leap and on the 4th of July he saved my life, whilst riding on a bye road carrying an order. I suddenly rode into a heavy outlying thicket of the enemy. ‘Tom’ saw them as they rose up to deliver their fire and I jumped sideways over a rail fence into the wood skirting the road. He carried me safely out of range. I shall never have a horse like that again.”
In 1867, Keogh wrote to his brother and told him “my horses are in excellent condition. I have had some hay cutting machines sent me & I mix the oats & hay – it is very fattening,” he said, indicating a willingness to spend hard-earned money on improving the lot of his mounts. “We had eight-hundred tons of hay put up this fall.” A year later, the prideful captain sent his brother a photograph of his horse, with a letter that said “it will give you an idea what Mark looks like now.”
As with many people, his relationships with his fellow humans did not appear to go as well. He was a drunk, like a lot of military men, a “swaggering bibulous soldier of fortune,” according to a Custer biographer. Once, he so blasted that he ordered the sounding of “Boots and Saddles” at midnight and then told his company to charge across the prairie after an imaginary enemy. The charge lasted for two hours. “The tramping of the horses and noise of the sabers and carbines as they passed my tent woke me up,” one man said. “I was sure it was the Indians that had made a raid on the post, but soon found out the cause of the disturbance and went back to bed.”
Although Keogh shared an affinity for booze with many soldiers, there the similarities stopped – many of the enlisted men were criminals, fugitives, unwitting freeloaders looking for a government-subsidized trip out West, recently arrived non-English speakers with few skills and no idea of what they were getting into when army recruiters met them at the New York docks and said “sign here.” Keogh on the other hand was a war veteran, and a hero at that. Before coming to America, he had left Ireland at the age of 20 and joined the Pope’s army in Italy and then served in the Papal Guards and Zouaves against the Cossacks for two years. He was awarded a papal medal, which he was wearing years later at the Little Bighorn – and some think that when the Indians saw it after they killed him, something about it made them decide not to scalp or mutilate him as they did to all of the others except Custer, although some Native American accounts of Custer’s death are at odds from the standard version.
In 1862, the year that Comanche was born, Keogh came to the US and signed up as a cavalryman for the Union, perhaps even meeting Custer at Gettysburg where he fought and won various commendations. After the Civil War, he was commissioned a captain in the newly organized Seventh Cavalry. Who knows what draws a man to a particular horse? Was it a wild look in Comanche’s eye? Some unspoken message that passes between humans and the animals that have been placed in our service? If deciphered, might it say “I will carry you into hell and back” and might not the human emit a scent, a vibration that says, “I know and I will take care of you always”?
The writer Barry Lopez once described the “conversation of death” that happens between two animals when one agrees to let the other kill it. Could there not be an instantaneous “conversation of life,” a kind of prayer, that happens between a man and the animal that is not there by choice? At least that’s how I imagine what happened when Captain Myles Keogh, perhaps just back from an encounter with Indians, was walking among the newly acquired mustangs, spotted Comanche, looked him over and in the eye, was also sized up by the confined animal, and bought him from the army for $90. (It was not unusual for cavalrymen to either come with their own horses or reimburse the government for one or several). From that point on, Comanche joined a steed named Paddy as a favorite mount of Captain Keogh, and when it was all over, like his commander, Comanche had developed a taste for booze.
As the old saying goes, “God protects drunks and children,” and so it would seem, for a few years at least, that a higher power was with Keogh and Comanche, the innocent wild horse that had now become a beast of burden. Or, as Elizabeth Custer described it in her memoir, “The daily intercourse of horse and rider quickened the instinct of the brute, so that he seemed half-human. Indeed, I have seen an old troop-horse, from whose back a raw recruit had tumbled, go through the drill as correctly as if mounted by a well-trained soldier. Many of the soldiers love and pet their dumb beasts, and if the supply of grain gives out on a campaign they unhesitatingly steal for them, as a mother would for a starving child.”
In 1868, when Comanche received his first wound while fighting Comanche Indians on the Cimarron River near Fort Dodge, Kansas, legend has it that it was Captain Keogh who cradled his head while a farrier removed the arrow shaft that had broken off in his right hind quarter, and perhaps even suggested the horse’s name. Comanche recovered quickly and resumed his duties on the frontier. He was wounded again in 1870, when he was shot in the right leg during a skirmish in Kansas near the Saline River. He was lame for several weeks, but “came through like an old soldier,” wrote an eyewitness, “and was [soon] ready for duty, good as new.” In 1871, Comanche’s unit, Troop I, was transferred to Kentucky, where the army was dealing with post-Civil War developments such as the Ku Klux Klan, carpetbaggers, and moonshiners. While taking on a crowd at an illegal distillery, said the observer, Comanche received “a slight flesh wound in the right shoulder, but as usual he quickly recovered.” In 1873, Troop I received orders to return to Ft. Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, to rejoin the Indian wars under Custer.
By all accounts, Custer’s relationship with animals was different than Keogh’s. “He loved animals,” a biographer said, “including those he killed and stuffed.” Known for his voracious hunting expeditions, he often headed out onto the plains with his dogs to join Buffalo Bill and visiting European archdukes – (visiting royalty must share the blame for depleting the vast populations of game that roamed the wilderness at the time) – as they bagged scores of bison, antelope, elk, and bear. At the various forts where he and his wife Libbie lived, he kept a menagerie of badgers, porcupines, and bobcats, sometimes handing them over to scientific expeditions from the East for their collections.
But on November 27th, 1868, Thanksgiving, the highly decorated cavalier was involved in an episode oft ignored in accounts of the era. It had to do with Indian ponies, many of them, and it happened on the banks of the Washita River in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, where Chief Black Kettle and his tribe of Cheyennes were living. Black Kettle had led his people fled there after the Sand Creek massacre, hoping the cavalry would not be concerned with the small group that had survived that incident. For awhile, the band endured, but then came the decision to end it.
On November 26, the final assault began, with Custer leading four columns of infantrymen along with twelve companies of the Seventh Cavalry, a band of Osage scouts and a massive supply train of 450 wagons, away from Camp Supply in Kansas and into a blinding snowstorm. The band at the head of the columns urged horse and rider on with the marching tune, “The Girl I Left Behind.” The lead horses soon became fatigued by the work of plowing trails through massive snow drifts and that night, Custer decided to rest the troops under a bright moon near a tributary of the Washita that was not frozen, where the horses could water. It was about midnight and the cavalry had been on the move for fifteen hours.
At 1:30 in the morning, a scout named Little Beaver told Custer that he had spotted Black Kettle’s tribe – by way of their horses, which he had seen from a knoll above the encampment. Custer scrambled to the hilltop, along with some of his men. “Next to the river,” wrote one historian, “about half a mile below them, they sighted moving objects which they took at first to be buffalo, but the faint tinkling of bells soon assured them that they were looking upon the pony herd of an Indian village. Then a baby cried out.” Custer looked to the source of the sound and saw lodges at the river’s edge. It was time to attack, but there was a problem. Some dogs had followed Custer and his men from Camp Supply and now Custer worried that they might howl and alert the Indians. They were muzzled and then strangled or knifed. Now, with the dogs silenced and dawn breaking, Custer ordered the band to strike up “Garryowen,” and in spite of the fact that the air was so cold, and their saliva froze in the instruments, they kept playing, and the charge began.
When it was over a few minutes later, 52 lodges had been torched, a little white boy who was being held prisoner by the Indians was knifed by a squaw as he tried to run towards the cavalry and she in turn was gunned down, and most of the tribe was wiped out (100 Indians, according to Custer; 30 said the Cheyenne), including Black Kettle and his wife who were shot dead – he in the back – as they were riding a horse across the river, attempting to get away. The cavalry had routed the tribe but Custer was worried: what to do about the 875 Indian ponies? As he later wrote in his memoir, he wanted to surprise the enemy, and to “inflict deserved punishment for the many murders and other depredations committed by [the Indian] in and around the homes of the defenseless settlers on the frontier.”
And so he told his scout California Joe to round up the large herd of ponies and mules on the riverbanks nearby and drive them into the smoldering village. In a little while, about 300 ponies came trotting in, followed by two mounted Cheyenne women who had been captured by Joe and forced to bring in the horses while he rode behind twirling his lariat. Soon the remaining animals followed, and the women tried to gentle the agitated ponies, even as others were still singing their Indian death songs in the ruins, to talk to them softly as they herded them to their doom. Officers and scouts took the best ones for themselves and then Custer told Lieutenant Godfrey to take four companies and kill the rest.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the US army had carried out such a task. In 1858, Colonel George Wright ordered the massacre of 800 horses that belonged to the Palouse tribe, just east of what later became Spokane, Washington. The site is now known as Horse Slaughter Camp and has a stone marker. Nor would it be the last time the US army carried out such a task. In 1874, Colonel Ranald Mackenzie ordered the killing of 1400 Indian ponies on the Staked Plains of Texas and Oklahoma, during the Red River War against the Kiowas and Comanches, who had been joined by some Cheyennes and Arapahoes.
Now, the soldiers harried the ponies and mules to the southeast of the village and the slaughter began. Here is what Godfrey recalled:
…We tried to rope them and cut their throats, but the ponies were frantic at the approach of a white man and fought viciously. My men were getting very tired so I called for reinforcements and details from other organizations were sent to complete the destruction of about 800 ponies.
And so the rest were shot and the Cheyenne woman Moving Behind, who was fourteen at the time, would later remember that the wounded ponies passed near her hiding place, moaning loudly, just like human beings. And what of the cavalry horses that watched and heard the massacre of their own kind? Surely some responded with their own sounds and tremors, catching the fear on the wind, then bearing the soldiers away from the hideous deed.