Originally posted: 9/21/12
(Some information for this article came from MUSTANG: THE SAGA OF THE WILD HORSE IN THE AMERICAN WEST ” copyright Deanne Stillman 2008.” website, www.deannestillman.com. )
THE FAMOUS WARHORSE, COMANCHE!
Have you heard of this horse, Comanche? I had, somewhere in the back of my mind. I mean, I had heard the name but really had no idea about him or why he was famous. So, I decided to dig a bit…
The most widely claimed fact about Comanche is that he was the only survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn. This however, is not true. He was one of the only survivors of this awful event, but it has been reported that at least 100 other horses made it as well. His special notoriety and fame probably came from his previous heroic battle acts (he was known as a very stoic horse who could have arrows and bullets pulled out of him without sedation) as well as being the mount of Captain Keogh at Little Big Horn.
This was written so well, I’m cutting and pasting it for you.
By Deanne Stillman
“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.
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.”
HOW HE GOT HIS NAME
He was bought by the U.S. Army in 1868 in St. Louis, Missouri and sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His ancestry and date of birth were both uncertain, but he was thought to be part Mustang and part Morgan. Captain Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry liked the 15 hand bay gelding and bought him for his own personal mount, to be ridden only in battle. In 1868, while fighting the Comanche in Kansas, the horse was wounded in the hindquarters by an arrow, but continued to let Keogh fight from his back. Thus the horse was named “Comanche” to honor his bravery. Comanche was wounded many more times, always exhibiting the same toughness.
LITTLE BIG HORN
On June 25, 1876, Captain Keogh rode Comanche at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, led by Lt Col. George Armstrong Custer. The battle became famous when their entire detachment was killed. Comanche was found two days after the battle, badly wounded.
This excerpt is taken directly from a record of that time:
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…
A DESCRIPTION OF HOW THEY FOUND COMANCHE
This is another direct excerpt I found fascinating… not just for the battle information, but I didn’t realize that the battle casualties were shipped back. Of course! But, I had never thought about it.
As they walked among the bloating, decaying bodies of their fallen comrades, all was still. As the cavalrymen bowed their heads in silent prayer before beginning the odious task of burying the dead, the silence was abruptly broken by the faint whinny of a horse. As the men looked up and searched the broken terrain with weary, tearful eyes, down by the river a horse was struggling to get to its feet. Several of the men recognized the horse because of its peculiar buckskin-like color. It was Comanche, the favorite mount of Capt. Myles Keogh, who had valiantly rallied the men of “I” Company right up to the end, when they were overwhelmed by the charge of warriors under Crazy Horse and Gall. The horse was on its haunches, seemingly too weak to move any further. He had apparently sustained at least seven wounds, and his coat was matted with dried blood and soil. CPT Nowlan ordered the men to get water for the horse from the river. Several other troopers coaxed the horse onto its feet and led it away. The farrier field dressed the wounds. Comanche marched with the command to the junction of the Little Bighorn and Bighorn Rivers, and was loaded aboard the steamer “Far West” with the battle casualties, heading home to Fort Lincoln. Comanche never again was to charge to the sound of the bugle.
I found this excerpt about his rider, Captain Keogh. I wanted to include it because I thought it was a nice aside… perhaps the reason Comanche was such a great mount for the Captain… I also think it is interesting that he named his horses with human names like “Tom” and “Mark”.
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.”
AFTER LITTLE BIG HORN
I thought this was very wonderful. Here are the orders that came down for Comanche:
After a lengthy convalescence, Comanche was retired. In April, 1878, Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis issued the following humane order:
“Headquarters Seventh United States Cavalry, Fort 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, 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.” 
I love this comment about Comanche at the time:
As an honor, he was made “Second Commanding Officer” of the 7th Cavalry. At Fort Riley, he became something of a pet, occasionally leading parades and indulging in a fondness for beer.
COMANCHE’S DISPATCH DESCRIPTION
On July 25, 1887, 2LT James D. Thomas, Acting Adjutant of 7th Cavalry at Ft. Meade, Dakota Territory, certified a description of Comanche prior to transferring his care to CPT Henry J. Nowlan, 7th Cavalry:
Age: 6 years(25 years at time of transfer)
Height: 15 hands
Weight: 925 pounds
Condition: Unserviceable ?Date of Purchase: April 3, 1868 ?By Whom: (left blank) ?Cost: $90.00 ?Purchased: St. Louis, Missouri ?Remarks: excused from all duties per G.O. No. 7 April 10, 1878. Ridden by CPT Keogh in Battle of Little Bighorn River, M.T. June 25, 1876
HIS CARETAKER AND RETIREMENT
Comanche’s initial keeper at Fort Lincoln was a farrier with Keogh’s troop named, John Rivers. The farrier loved Comanche and cared for his wounds. He also became the spokesperson for the famous horse… Whenever a newspaper wanted an interview with the horse, they called John Rivers. Eventually, however, when Comanche was declared retired, he was cared for by farrier, Gustave Korn.
Here is a description of Comanche’s retirement:
From that point on, Comanche led a free and peaceful life. he was allowed the freedom of the Post, the only living thing that wandered at will over the parade grounds at the fort without a reprimand from a commanding officer. When the bugle sounded “formation,” Comanche would trot out to his place in front of the line of Troop I. He would be given sugar cubes on demand at the door of the officers’ quarters and then saunter on down to the enlisted men’s canteen where a specially placed bucket of beer awaited him. Gustave Korn and Comanche became inseparable. Comanche would follow Korn everywhere. When the unit returned to Ft. Riley, Kansas, it is stated that Korn was visiting a lady friend in the nearby town of Junction City. When Korn did not return to the base to feed and groom Comanche for the evening, that the horse looked all over the base for Korn, finally going directly to the house of the girlfriend to escort Korn back to the Post. When Korn was killed at Wounded Knee in 1890, Comanche’s health began to slowly deteriorate. He died on November 7, 1891.
It is widely believed that Comanche died of a broken heart when Korn did not return from battle. Comanche died shortly thereafter.
He is one of only two horses in United States history to be buried with full military honors, the other being Black Jack.
The officers and men of the 7th Cavalry were heartbroken. One of them suggested that Comanche be preserved forever by being mounted and kept with the unit. A famous professor at the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History was summoned to the Fort. He agreed to preserve Comanche for $400 and the right to display the horse at the upcoming Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Later, when for reasons still not clear, the bill was not paid and Dyche agreed to keep Comanche in lieu of payment. Comanche still stands there today for all to see.
A REMARK MADE ABOUT CAVALRY MEN AND THEIR MOUNTS
I thought this was interesting…
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.”
SOME MORE OBSERVATIONS FROM THE MUSEUM
A person who wrote about going to see Comanche in the museum said:
• The original tack was sent along with Comanche to Prof. Dyche. It is not known, only assumed, that the saddle, blanket and bridle are original. Some checking at the museum yield some answers.
• I stayed with Comanche over two hours, observing every detail. I was unable to discern any of the bullet wound sites. Presumably these were over sewn and covered during taxidermy.
• From all appearances, Comanche was a buckskin, dunn, since Atwood states that he had and still has black stripe extending from the withers to the base of the tail.
• The most authoritative book on Comanche: HIS VERY SILENCE SPEAKS-Comanche, the horse who survived Custer’s Last Stand. Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence, Wayne State University Press, 1989
A VIDEO FOR COMANCHE
Who knew there was a video for Comanche?! It is filled with Civil War photos, painting and memories. Here is the link. The music is by Johnny Horton.
In fact, the saddle in the first photo is a type of light racing saddle common in that time, called a Kilgore. The one in the photo with Gustave Korn is a Whitman officers saddle, as it the one that is on the mount today.
Nathaniel Philbrick’s “The Last Stand, Custer, Sitting Bull, and The Battle of The Little Bighorn” is a wonderful source for all things [the above, including Comanchie!] My great uncle John Meagher’s brother-in-law was the son of Maj. Thomas Fitzpatrick & a “white scout” for Custer, fascinating! Named Andrew Jackson [Jack] Fitzpatrick. In their extreme ignorance [Libbie Custer says] [ mocked his name saying, ‘why don’t Indians stick to their real names…’ they didn’t know they were standing in the presence of the son of the famous Mountain Man & Indian Agent who brought the Plains tribes to the Ft. Laramie ‘Peace Treatiy’!
Enjoyed this very much!
I believe Comanche died of colic. His heart seems to have been intact at the time.
I have always been totally been fasinated by Comanche. There are two movies made by Disney about a horse that was raised by the indians then captured and sold to the calvary. One is Tonka, it can be found on EBay. The other is Spirit. I dont know how true these stories are but they are so interesting. There is also a song by Johnny Horton, Comanche, the Brave horse!! This song has brought tears to my eyes for 40 years! This is what put the love for horses in my heart!! I have a Morgan gelding who is 28 years old, They are very bonded to there owners, Im sure Comanche finally gave up when his last owner never came home.
Thanks for making my day reminding me of Comanche.
The saddle is a McClellan Calvary saddle. I own one original and a knock off.It is as light as a english saddle, but has a deep seat,you can attach any thing to it including panniers as it can also double as a pack saddle. it sits well behind the withers and has a center fire girth rigging that can pretty much be moved any where you are comfortable with it. I use mine on horses or my mammoth donkey with either breaching or a crupper and breast collar. It is a super comfy saddle for those extra long rides such as doing endurance, CMO’s, or for those who belong to the long riders guild and want some thing lighter.
This was an interesting article. The bridle on the preserved Comanche is incorrect if you look back at the other pictures of him you can see that they used a double rein set up. They possibly sent the gag bit without the curb or the professor didn’t know what to do with what looked like 2 bridles to him.
I noticed in the photo just after the horse that their are a couple of dead horses in the background. The horse looks in too good of shape to be just getting over the battle. Also, the horse is not standing over a monument. A hole was cut in the photo and something was inserted to look like a monument. Not finding fault, just an observation.
I’m not sure what you mean by animation, but all of my material is copyrighted. So, if you’d like to use it, please let me know all the details. Thank you!
Great story, excellent detail and with so much soul … I’m currently researching / developing an animation, inspired by a quote, “The history of mankind is carried on the back of the horse.”
This will be a compelling addition. Thank you!
My husband loves this one so much that he’s stolen mine even though he’s 6ft 2in.
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Great piece! Well taught and presented. Love the related facts and features. Thank you very much for putting this on line. Probably would not have know about Comanche’s place in history otherwise.
I don’t think he was so ugly! Nor do his legs look too short. But I did wonder if there was some Morgan going on there…
Anyway, that is a McClellan saddle, developed by a general of the same name before the Civil War. I have never sat in one, but my ex-mother-in-law had one (by the time I came around it was hanging on her wall, but she had used it on her Morgan — and there is another story…) and she said it was extremely comfortable. They don’t have the cavalry anymore, of course, but they still use these saddles in the ceremonial mounted units of the armed services! And they are still manufactured — 150 years on! There is an article in Wikipedia that supplied me with the last two facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McClellan_saddle
The bit, though, that is a puzzle.
Please do update us about Norma — I hope she is better!
Awesome story. Thanks for sharing it! I have an old paper book that is filled with stories that are supposed to be true of animals. There was one about a pony express horse that was simply amazing. I’ll try to find the book and see if I can reference the horse online.
Wow, Thank you so much for that , tears in my eye, seriously!!! What fabulous reading. Hope Norma is feeling better, Kepp up the great blogs