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 second part of the excerpt from Horse Latitudes follows. – Jenny Shank, Books & Writers Editor
Sometimes on the Great Plains there comes a moment of grace, in the mornings, just after daybreak, when the snows have vanished and the rivers and streams that feed them are running free and at the banks the water is warm to the touch and neither beast nor human appears to want for anything, when all of nature itself is a kind of prayer – the meadowlark trills a quick symphony of notes and the wind that is always moving across this land caresses the leaves on the cottonwood trees, a taste of the sturdy breeze that blows in the rest of the day, prairie dogs pop up from their subterranean cities and chatter across the grasses and paintbrush and sage. Such was the morning that greeted George and Elizabeth Custer when reveille sounded on May 17, 1876 and once again, as the wide open space that is the American promise obliterates all memory of bad news, it was time for the dashing cavalier to march off to war.
Gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, land that did not belong to the white man. So it was appropriated and the Indians who had not yet agreed to live on reservations continued their raids on settlers. General Sheridan came up with a plan – “obliterate” the red man. From Fort Abraham Lincoln, Custer would join General Terry’s column, leading the Seventh Cavalry and head west and then south towards the encampments of “hostile” Sioux and Cheyennes led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Once in Montana Territory, they would hook up with General Crook’s column from the south and General Gibbon’s column from the west – and form a three-pronged attack. Custer’s departure was characteristically glorious, and there was a headiness about the forthcoming action. As Sgt. Charles Windolph would later write in his memoir, I Fought with Custer:
You felt like you were somebody when you were on a good horse, with a carbine dangling from its small leather ring socket on your McClelland saddle, and a Colt army revolver strapped on your hip; and a hundred rounds of ammunition in your web belt and in your saddle pockets. You were a cavalryman of the Seventh Regiment. You were a part of a proud outfit that had a fighting reputation, and you were ready for a fight or a frolic.
The guidons of each regiment snapped in the morning breeze as the column departed. Custer was riding Vic, one of his favorite horses, and he was dressed in his signature buckskin pants and jacket (this time, the one he wore at the Battle of the Washita), a light wool shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons, trimmed with white ribbon and bearing silver embroidery of crossed cavalry sabers on his collar. Of course he wore his trademark red silk cravat, which many men in his outfit also sported in imitation. At his waist he wore a cartridge belt, knife in a beaded scabbard, and a holstered revolver with white handles.
Mrs. Custer joined her husband on horseback at the head of the column. When they passed the Indian quarters, where their allies from the Crow tribe were living, the squaws, old men, and children sang death songs, the red man equivalent of “Garryowen.” The Crow scouts also sang and beat their drums – long after the parade had left the garrison. When the column passed Laundress Row, wives and children of soldiers lined the road, and mothers held their babies aloft for a last look at their departing fathers. Some of the younger children made a column of their own, mimicking the pomp by marching back and forth with handkerchiefs tied to sticks as guidons and beating old tin pans for drums.
After fourteen miles, the column separated from camp followers and Custer leaned down from his horse to embrace his wife. “Watch for our return,” he said, but for now she stopped and watched the departure, “a scene of wonder and beauty,” she later wrote. But leave it to mules to suggest that all was not right – as the parade had passed General Terry’s reviewing stand, a few in the train had broken formation and thrown their packs and a little while later on that fine spring morning, just five weeks before the most famous cavalry and Indian battle in American history would unfold, Libbie Custer had an omen. Just as Sitting Bull would soon dream of soldiers falling upside down from the sky, a good omen for the Sioux, the wife of the warrior with the golden hair saw something that disturbed her as she watched the line of pack mules, ponies, cavalry, artillery, infantry, soldiers, orderlies, cooks, Indian scouts, veterinarians, and surgeons that stretched for over two miles march off into the morning mist. As it vanished, Mrs. Custer later recounted, there appeared a mirror image of the procession in mid-air, halfway between heaven and Earth – a ghost train of horses and riders, swallowed by the sky.
The march from Dakota to Montana Territory took the Seventh Cavalry through the landscape spectacle that is in our DNA, the geographic and geologic thrills that we as Americans all know, even if we have never seen them – across Miocene cliffs and down banks of sandstone and granite and through vast bajadas of rock and slate, over hills and down into the gulleys of time; past caves where Ice Age rituals had been performed with deadly obsidian points, past walls of ancient petroglyphs that perhaps served as portals to another dimension, over fossil quarries of prehistoric plants and horse bones, through starry nights where the constellations shimmered close and it seemed like you could touch the ceiling of the universe and bears and wolves hunkered on outcroppings and licked their chops at the moonlit sight of a faltering mule, and then the cavalry marched on, through valleys of Pleistocene kills and frontier echoes of pagan warrior rituals – “we passed a sundance lodge,” a soldier later wrote, “and inside there was a white scalp.”
Comanche and the other horses might have sensed surrounding danger as the troops pressed on; horses with their satellite ears that face outward – evolved in this manner because they are animals of prey – would hear sounds that the men would not hear until it was too late, so it is very likely that Capt. Keogh, out in front of the I unit, would watch Comanche’s ears for tell-tale twitches, noting in what direction they turned, and perhaps he might look to his right or left accordingly to see if anything or body lurked, and his men, their hands on their guns, would look too, warned by a horse to stay alert.
But the march was not easy on the animals, starting with the four condemned cavalry horses who hauled the Gatling guns on the first leg and were probably treated accordingly. By many accounts, a number of horses and mules fatigued or broke down en route – some were not in great shape when they began. Sometimes the river water where the cavalry stopped for rest was too alkaline to drink, and towards the end, the rations of feed were not equal to the task at hand, which was not just carrying a rider, but other weight as well.
As Captain Godfrey reported in Custer’s Last Battle, in addition to the rider, each horse carried between 80 and 90 pounds of equipment, including 100 rounds of ammunition. The two-horse wagons in the pack train, hired by contract, each hauled about 1500 to 2000 pounds. The six-mule government wagons each carried from 3-five thousand pounds, depending on the size and condition of the mules. In addition to tents, food for men and animals, kitchen gear, farrier equipment such as horseshoes and nails, the pack train also carried axes, shovels, pick-axes, pine boards and scantling in order to make bridges along the way. Sometimes such crossings would delay the train for several hours.
“During this time,” Godfrey wrote, “the cavalry horses were unbitted and grazed, the men holding the reins…the officers usually collected near the crossing to watch progress, and passed the time in conversation and playing practical jokes.” Custer’s staghounds – Bleuch, Tuck, and Lady – had followed him out of Fort Lincoln and caught up with him hours after the column had left in May. They ran along with the horses and at noon when the haversacks were opened and the men had lunch, the horses would stop grazing, “put their noses near their riders’ faces and ask very plainly to share the hardtack,” Godfrey wrote, and look on as the dogs gnawed on the bloody flesh of a fresh bison kill. If the men would not share their meals with their mounts, “they would paw the ground and even strike their riders,” the lieutenant remembered, at which point “the old soldier was generally willing to share with the beast.”
There are no records of Comanche on the march but from Godfrey’s account, we know that when stable call was sounded about an hour after sunset, the men would march to the herds just outside camp limits where Comanche and the other horses were kept in corrals. There they would remount, assemble, and march to a watering place, “usually selected,” Godfrey said, “with great care because of the boggy banks and miry beds of the prairie streams.” After watering, the horses were tied up closer to camp, and the men got their currycombs, brushes, and nosebags, and went to the troop wagon, where the quartermaster-sergeant and farrier took tin cups and measured forage to each man. Then the soldiers would return to the line of horses, and feed and groom them as an officer examined each one’s back and feet.
When a horse’s back was sore and its rider was to blame, the man would have to march on foot and lead his horse until the sore healed. After the horses were fed and groomed, they were unsaddled and returned to the area outside the camp until the sun set and retreat was sounded, at which point most were brought inside and picketed in front of the men’s tents to protect them from animals and Indian raids.
Comanche would spend the evening outside Capt. Keogh’s tent, and it’s not inconceivable that Keogh would have a few words for his mount before he retired, as would many of the men, and perhaps even utter a nightly prayer for both of them, for he was a religious sort, and always wore a medal given to him by the Pope after his service against the Cossacks; under a starry night on the plains, as the last of the campfires flickered out, he might have opened the “Key of Heaven,” a popular Catholic prayer manual at the time (one would be found in a saddlebag on the field of death), perhaps selecting the incantation for the time of conflict. “O God, who puttest an end to wars,” he may have said, standing at Comanche’s withers as a fleet of owls ripped through the night air and wolves howled from the ridges nearby, “and by the power of thy protection, vanquishest the opposers of such as trust in thee, help they servants, who earnestly crave thy mercy; that the evil designs of our enemies being defeated, we may praise thee with incessant gratitude…”
On June 16, the Seventh began to encounter what some would later view as portents. They passed an Indian burial ground – an orchard of corpses on scaffolds in trees, including the body of an infant whose face was painted red and whose body was covered “with what appeared to be a salt of lime,” wrote Lt. Edward Maguire. Three days later, at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone River, the Dakota column spent the night at an abandoned Indian camp. The driftwood pony shelters were still there, and troops used the wood for fires. Again, there was an airborne cemetery, and some of Custer’s men stole beaded trinkets from the bodies in the cottonwoods and as the Seventh resumed its march the following day, they brandished the souvenirs from their saddles, not just whistling past a graveyard but taunting the dead to come and get them.
On June 21, Custer arrived in Montana Territory, at the confluence of the Yellowstone River and Rosebud Creek. The unit stopped there and spent the night, during which Custer and Gibbon, arriving with his Montana column, met with General Terry on board the steamer Far West for a final strategy conference. It was here that Custer got the orders that would send the Seventh to their doom:
…As soon as your regiment can be made ready for the march, you will proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians…It is of course, impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and were it not impossible to do so the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy, and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action…
Now completely unfettered (as many have interpreted the phrase “orders which might hamper your action”), Custer began to plan the charge and ordered the bugler to sound “Officers’ call” as soon as the conference was over. Late that night, the officers gathered outside his tent and as he laid out his plan, commanders were immediately struck by how hard it was going to be on animals: the pack-mules would carry fifteen days’ rations of hard bread, coffee,and sugar, Custer said; 12 days’ rations of bacon, and fifty rounds of ammunition per man. Each man would carry additional rounds on himself and in his saddle-bags, as well as 12 pounds of oats on his horse.
Although the pack-mules sent up the trail on an earlier scouting expedition had been badly used up, Custer suggested that they now carry more weight in the form of extra forage. Warned that the mules would break down, he became agitated, according to Godfrey, and said, “Well, gentleman, you may carry what you please; you will be held responsible for your companies. The extra forage was only a suggestion, but this fact bear in mind, we will follow the trail for 15 days unless we catch them before that time expires, no matter how far it may take us from our base of supplies; we may not see the supply steamer again.” Then it was off into his tent for the evening, but not before wheeling around with one more order. “You better carry along an extra supply of salt,” he said, “We may have to live on horse meat before we get through.”
That night, with Comanche picketed outside his tent, Captain Myles Keogh made out his will.
On noon of the following day, June 22, “Forward” was sounded and the Seventh marched out of camp in a column of fours, with each troop followed by its pack-mules. Custer appeared to be stripping down to essentials. The condemned horses and the Gatling guns they carried had been left behind at the Powder River depot – on the upcoming march through rough terrain, Custer feared they would hamper troop movements. So too was Custer’s beloved regiment band jettisoned – there was no music accompanying this departure, at least not music of a man-made nature, but perhaps the parade found comfort or urging in the calls of hawks or eagles, and surely they were encouraged by the steady clip-clop of hooves on the hard dusty trail, and then the reassuring thunder of the gallop as the parade picked up steam and began its southerly and fateful move along Rosebud Creek, in tandem with the long-gone parades of Scythians and Greeks and Romans who all rode their nameless steeds to glory and death, and all for the same reasons.
Trouble came early: the mules straggled badly on that first afternoon, losing boxes of cargo, and that night, Custer started acting strangely, outlining his concerns for the march instead of his customary show of bravado. The pace of the marches would increase, from 12 to 25 to 35 miles a day, he said, lest the Indians who were thought to be in the vicinity break up into small bands and escape. Officers were warned to trim down their rations for themselves and the horses and mules because they might be out longer than expected. “His manner and tone,” Godfrey wrote, “usually brusque and aggressive, or somewhat rasping, was on this occasion conciliating and subdued. There was something akin to an appeal, as if depressed, that made a deep impression on all present.”
As several lieutenants walked to their bivouac in the dark, one of them said he thought Custer was going to be killed. The Crow scouts – Mitch Bouyer, Bloody Knife, and Half-Yellow-Face – also had a bad feeling. Godfrey checked on the horses one last time before he retired and Bouyer asked if he thought they could beat the Sioux. “Oh, yes, I guess so,” Godfrey said. “Well,” Bouyer said, “I can tell you we are going to have a big fight.”
The next morning the cavalry hit the trail and pressed on, amid clouds of choking dust. Unbeknownst to Custer, thousands of Indians had been assembling in the valley of the Little Bighorn, coming together as they often did in the summer, now preparing for the fulfillment of Sitting Bull’s vision when American soldiers would fall upside down from the sky. Several horses broke down and their riders proceeded on foot.
By nightfall on the 24th, the Crow scouts gave Custer some new intelligence –they had been following the tracks of Indian ponies and travois poles; the tracks veered to the west of Custer’s encampment and then climbed up a divide between the Rosebud and Little Bighorn Rivers. Facing into the setting sun, they couldn’t see what lay beyond. Custer decided to speed up the attack. Over a flickering candle in his tent, he told his officers it would happen in two days. The cavalry would have to move right now, at midnight.
The troops were rousted in the dark and the men and horses – already fatigued from a relentless trek over the previous 48 hours – waged a six-mile march up rough and rocky terrain until they reached a place now known as the Crow’s Nest, in the mountains looking down into the valley of the Little Bighorn. The next day at dawn, Custer asked his orderly to saddle Vic. “Take good care of the horses,” he said, referring to the animals being left behind, tipping his hat and signaling to his men to fall in line. “We may need them before morning.”
Keogh, perhaps uttering another prayer as he gripped his Papal medal – “O Holy Angel, I conjure thee…to protect me in the hour of my death” – mounted Comanche, along with all the men of the Seventh Cavalry who hoisted themselves up and over their horses, into the well-worn saddles, adjusting their stirrups, and then they all, as one, marched on their dancing steeds into the valley below. As the cowboy poet Jeff Streeby has written in “John Sivertsen the Farrier’s Horse” –
…John Sivertsen the farrier’s horse watched Custer split his force
And send Major Reno off the bluff and up the water course.
The salt-rime caked his quarters and the saddle chafed his back
As he bore mute, reluctant witness to the prelude of attack
John Sivertsen the farrier’s horse at the river drank his fill
And that much restored his vigor and renewed his flagging will.
He heard the Major’s orders and he heard his rider sigh
And bore mute, reluctant witness as the men prepared to die.
As for Crazy Horse, it is said that on the way to the Little Bighorn, on a wall of sandstone near Ash Creek just a few miles southeast of the battlefield, he stopped to carve a petroglyph. It is of a horse – undecorated and on the move – with a snake hovering above. We do not know which of his prized horses he was riding – the bay or the sorrel. Nor do we know how long he lingered at this site, but somewhere en route, closer to the battlefield, we can imagine him preparing for the task at hand, anointing himself and his animal with dust and paint as per his warrior vision, and as always, wearing his special stone pendant over his heart.
When General Terry and his battalion arrived two days later, the field was baking in the summer furnace and strewn with bodies – the dead, mutilated, and scalped bodies of men and the bodies of dead and dying animals. The service of the men in this battle has been recounted in many places, from every point of view, but to find out about the service of the horses, one must search within the broader accounts. Mule packer Private William H. White was one of the first on the scene after the battle. While the entrance to Custer’s tent was marked by Dante’s famous warning to abandon hope, all ye who enter here, what White walked into was a modern echo of the inferno: all of Custer’s men were dead – naked, gashed, and dismembered, a screaming echo of the Sand Creek massacre and all the others that had played out on the American frontier. Private White noted that one trooper had died under the belly of a horse, his hand gripped to the handle of a tin cup: thirsty, he had sliced open a haunch, holding the cup to catch the animal’s blood. His knife was next to his right hand. In another wrenching episode, Captain Walter Clifford spotted an Indian pony with a shattered leg. “It was swinging hideously each time the little animal moved,” wrote Evan S. Connell in Son of the Morning Star. “Flies swarmed on the wound. The pony came hobbling over and rested its head against the flank of Clifford’s horse. Clifford pulled away because nothing could be done, but when he looked around he saw the pony trying to follow. He rode back and again the pony approached, ‘this time laying his head on my horse’s rump, looking straight at me, as if pleading for help.’ Clifford held his pistol against the pony’s head and fired.”
The equine carnage grew worse as men approached what came to be known as Custer or Last Stand Hill. On top of it, observed Lieutenant Godfrey, “There were 42 men and 39 dead horses.” They were in a circle with a 30-foot diameter, reported General Edward J. McClernand, and the circle was not badly formed. “Around Custer,” he said, “some 30 or 40 men had fallen, some of whom had evidently used their horses as breastworks.” Col. John Gibbon noted that there were “numerous dead horses lying along the southwestern slope… On the very top were found four or five dead horses which were swollen, putrid, and offensive, their stiffened legs sticking straight out from the bodies. Close under the brow of the hill several horses are lying together, and by the side of one of these Custer was found.”
In fact, it would appear that Custer himself was not only protected by a ring of horses before he went down, but also in death could not be separated: When found, according to one account, his left leg was extended across the grass, and his right leg lay across a dead soldier who had fallen next to a dead horse on which Custer’s heel rested – able to spur him no longer.
Down below, the horses were shot in the jaw, the shoulder, the flank, the knee, the leg, the tail, the head, with arrows, with bullets, sometimes two or three times but they kept going until they gave out; they served as life rafts, sometimes carrying two out at once, and some of them were spooked and took off on their own and then there were many which were run off by Indian women who waved buffalo hides at the horses being held by handlers in ravines while their riders fought on foot.
The horse cavalry had become a horse calvary, the fate of the equines sealed long ago in the moment nail was driven to hoof, brand burned to flank. But out of the carnage, as last rites were being said for the fallen men, along the banks of the Little Bighorn River under the shade of a cottonwood tree, there came a valiant war veteran, a horse with a big heart and a will to live. It was Comanche, his head hung low, blood oozing from his seven bullet wounds – or perhaps it was ten or even twelve, the record varies – and his saddle now upside down and hanging from his belly.
“Better cut his throat,” someone said, for it appeared as if the horse was well beyond the point of return and if the bullets hadn’t yet killed him, his broken heart would – according to one soldier, he kept looking for someone and was disappointed when it turned out that none of them was that person. Where’s my rider? Comanche seemed to say, plodding the killing fields. The man Comanche had carried into battle was dead, his body now stiff and putrefying in the prairie grass, and later it was determined that Keogh and Comanche had been shot together.
“Don’t kill the horse,” someone said, and then what happened next is a matter of myth: Some say he was given a drink of water, others say that a doctor “sacrificed the larger part of a bottle of Hennessy” to make a mash and poured it into a hat, from which Comanche took a mighty swig, thereby beginning a taste for the hard stuff that would last for the rest of his life. From that point on, the various stories are in general agreement: his wounds were dressed, probably with a zinc wash, and he was led for many hours across the 15 or 16 miles to the Far West at the confluence of the Little Horn and Bighorn Rivers, joining a caravan of wounded men carried on stretchers by mules and horses.
On board the steamer, an area in the stern between the rudders had been turned into a stall for Comanche – the men had bedded it with prairie grass. The Far West made the 950-mile journey up the Bighorn River, down the Yellowstone, and then down the Missouri to Bismarck in the Dakota Territory in the record-breaking time of 54 hours, and then the badly wounded animal was conveyed by wagon to Fort Lincoln, the same garrison which he had left only eight weeks before.
It was almost July 4th, the country’s centennial. As word of the Custer disaster filtered back east, the celebrations would take on a somber tone. But the country found hope in Comanche, who was literally hanging by a thread – a “belly-band” sling, actually, where he would remain for nearly a year. By the time his sling was removed, he was a drunk: he had been given a whiskey bran mash like the one he got when he was found on the field every other day for his one-year convalescent period. Retired with full honors and free to roam at will, he became a regular at the enlisted men’s canteen, where men treated him on pay days to buckets of beer.
He loved tramping across lawns and browsing in flower gardens, and he especially liked sun flowers. On summer evenings when the regimental band performed a concert, he would nibble grass around the band stand, and he would often answer the bugler’s call, taking his former position at the head of his old troop and going through the different drill positions, as though Captain Keogh was leading him. On June 25th of every year the regiment remembered the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Comanche would lead “I” troop, dressed in a black mourning net with saddle and riding boots reversed, in honor of the fallen troopers and his rider, the man who picked him out of the herd of mustangs that day in the corrals of St. Louis.
In 1890, after a transfer to Ft. Riley in Kansas, Comanche accompanied Korn to Wounded Knee as part of the pack train. Korn was killed, along with scores of Indians in the terrible episode that put out the last flame of Native American hope.
Comanche may have viewed the attack from a distance, would have once again heard the cries of people and horses, may even have seen Korn go down. When he returned to Ft. Riley in early 1891, he had lost interest in life. He visited the canteen so often that he became known as a panhandler. After these sprees, he would lie in his stall or mud wallows for hours.
By June of that year, First Lieutenant Henry J. Nowlan, who had been among those who found Comanche in the greasy grass, said, “I fear the famous horse will not last much longer.” Farrier Samuel J. Winchester had vowed to take care of him until the end and finally, on November 6, 1891, Comanche died at the age of 29. He was stuffed and mounted by specialists at the
University of Kansas and sent to the 1893 world expo in Chicago for his first post-mortem appearance. Tearful throngs flocked to the natural history hall, where they paid homage to the beloved war veteran. Outside, Lakota survivors of the battle danced on the midway and across the fairgrounds at the Buffalo Bill show, cowboys and Indians re-enacted it. The army never picked up the $400 taxidermy tab for Comanche, so instead of being returned to Ft. Riley when the fair closed, he was sent back to the university’s natural history museum, where he still resides. He has been refurbished many times, surviving basement floods and souvenir hunters who have plucked hairs from his mane and tail – as always, bearing his plight in silence.