Comanche: Horse Survivor of Little Bighorn

Comanche was a U.S. cavalry horse who participated in many battles in the West including the Battle of Little Bighorn. He achieved fame because he was the only survivor—human or animal–when reinforcements arrived at Little Bighorn.

Comanche in black-and-white photo from Fort Riley. Cavalryman to the left of him.

All 200 of George Custer’s men were killed by the Native Americans. A few other horses are thought to have survived, but the animals in decent condition were taken by the Indians.

During the battle, Comanche was hit by at least seven bullets and was not doing well.  One of the soldiers who found him insisted they take him back to Fort Abraham Lincoln. He was well taken care of and lived to be a favorite among the men.

Comanche’s Story

In the 1850s, the United States military had only a small cavalry, but it was obvious that horses were going to be needed in the West. As more settlers moved across the country, some of the tribes of Native Americans were formidable foes. Their horses were fast and agile, and their riders very skilled at shooting from a running mount.

As the Army assessed the situation, the leaders saw that they needed to add horses when they could. Most of the good steeds came from an area of Texas that was known as the Great Horse Desert. 

On occasion, men would round up some of the wild horses from there and bring them to a town to sell.  Farmers, ranchers, and the government were the main customers. A typical price on an unbroken horse in good condition was about $90.

Comanche came from the Great Horse Desert, according to Deanne Stillman’s excellent book, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. The author speculates that Comanche was probably born in the early 1860s. Based on his markings—his bay coloring and a black dorsal stripe down his back, she identifies him as having descended from Spanish horses.

The Seventh Cavalry

In 1868, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s 7th Cavalry was stationed in Kansas. The cavalry had suffered the loss of many horses in recent battles with Native Americans. Custer sent his brother, First Lieutenant Tom W. Custer to buy horses in St. Louis. Tom Custer purchased 41 horses, including the horse now known as Comanche. 

The horses were loaded on to a train and shipped to Hays City near Ellis, Kansas. Custer’s group was encamped nearby. 

Comanche was based at Fort Abraham Lincoln for a time. This is a book cover showing a postcard of what the area looked like at that time. Very open with not many trees.

The government horses bore special brands. A “U.S.” brand was burned into the left shoulder; their regiment number and the letter “C” for cavalry was marked on the left thigh. (Horses were not usually named. They were referred to by their number.)

Once the new horses were added, the cavalry moved on to Fort Hays, about 100 miles west of Salina, Kansas. At that time, their assignment was to help white settlers move further into Kansas.

Captain Notices Horse

In the United States cavalry, it was customary to permit riders to purchase a horse if they wanted to be assured that they would ride a certain mount. Well-respected horseman Captain Myles Keogh spotted the horse now called Comanche and decided he wanted that horse as his own. He paid the government the $90 fee.

Comanche was small, only 925 pounds and 15 hands high, but he was smart, reliable, and fast. 

Comanche Acquires Name

As cavalry leader, Captain Keogh met up with the Comanche tribe in battle in 1868. As the fight raged near the Salina River, Keogh’s horse was hit by an arrow in the right leg.  The animal was lame for several weeks. Over the course of his convalescence, the horse came to be called Comanche.

In this photo, Keogh is in full military dress
Captain Myles Keogh

When Captain Keogh was reassigned to Kentucky, Comanche had recovered enough to go with him.

Treaty of Fort Laramie

In April of 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Sioux nation ownership of the Black Hills via the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation in that area. This was sacred ground for the Sioux (also known as the Lakota) and Cheyenne Indians.   

A few years later (1874), General Custer and his cavalry received orders to travel through the Black Hills to choose a new location for a military fort and to evaluate the natural resources. Captain Keogh and Comanche were sent to join Custer before this departure date. 

Exploratory Trip

George Custer was then based at Fort Abraham Lincoln. With his new assignment, he mounted a huge traveling party. He took 1000 cavalry soldiers, 110 wagons, 70 Indian scouts, four news reporters, and two gold miners to check the territory for riches.

Three hundred miles into the trip, they could see the lush landscape of the Black Hills. Custer wrote to his wife (Libby Custer):

“We have discovered a rich and beautiful country.”

As they fanned out to explore the area, the miners confirmed there was gold in the region. The news soon leaked out… By August 10, The New York Tribune ran a headline: “New Gold Country.”

Thousands of Americans traveled to the area to make their fortune.

Shortly thereafter, Custer traveled back to Fort Abraham Lincoln. For the next two years, Americans travel to the Black Hills to stake gold claims. However, because the Treaty of Fort Laramie gave the land to Native Americans, the Army was supposed to attempt to keep them away. 

Frenzy Mounts

President Ulysses Grant realized the error that was made in 1851 by agreeing to the Fort Laramie Treaty. President Grant felt the reasonable course was to offer to purchase the land back. He offered Sitting Bull $6 million for it.

Sitting Bull turned down the offer immediately.

Shortly thereafter, President Grant responded by announcing that the Army would no longer protect the Black Hills. The government also set an arbitrary deadline stating that the Sioux could no longer live throughout the Black Hills. They needed to settle on the reservation.

This set off the Great Sioux War (also known as the Black Hills War) and led to the battle now known as Custer’s Last Stand.

June 1876

When Custer returned to the Black Hills in June of 1876, he arrived with about 700 cavalry men. The assignment was to locate Native Americans that were not on their reservation and force them to return to the land assigned them.

Illustration of Custer's last stand. Custer is surrounded by dying men; a dying horse is at the bottom of the illustration.
Illustration of Custer’s Last Stand

In whatever reconnaissance they did of the area, Custer remained unaware that some 2500-4000 Native Americans from several tribes (the Sioux, the Northern Cheyenne, and the Arapaho) were arriving on the west side of the Little Bighorn River for their summer gathering.

Custer thought the group he would face would be small and that the Native Americans would flee as his cavalry approached. 

Despite this confidence, he put together a plan. He divided the men into three groups so that they could attack from different directions. Captain Frederick Benteen took three companies and was to come from the southwest.  Major Marcus Reno also took three companies. Reno was to lead his men across the river and strike the encampment.

Custer’s Group

General Custer on his horse, Vic, led the largest cavalry—five companies and two hundred men. Captain Keogh and Comanche rode closely behind Custer. The cavalrymen were well-supplied. Each horse carried a rider plus 80-90 pounds of equipment, including 100 rounds of ammunition.

The equipment followed. Four horses dragged Gatling guns. A team of six mules pulled a wagon loaded with government supplies. Two smaller wagons carried other necessary items.

Battle Goes Wrong

As Custer received more information, he decided to speed up the attack. But Major Reno and Captain Benteen never received the new information. They had no idea the plan had changed, and Custer did not know they were not coming.

Custer’s entire plan revolved around ambushing the tribes from three sides. Instead, Custer’s men faced slaughter. Within 30 minutes, all the men traveling with Custer were wounded or killed. 

Some of the horses survived. Those that were in decent condition were quickly picked up by the tribes. 

Though there is interesting evidence of one unplanned event that resulted in a survivor of sorts. One of the horses traveling with Custer bolted and ran straight through what became the battlefield. He and the desperate rider—who had been readjusting the girth (cinch) when the other horses started out– finally slowed down when they met up with Major Reno’s men. The horse was wounded but the private on him—Gustave Korn—survived. Korn eventually became one of the key men assigned to look after the wounded Cherokee.  (A professor at Brigham Young University did extensive research on this topic. See the source material for more information.)

Photograph of battlefield today.  Sun breaks through dark clouds and the tombstones stand in the field in white relief.
Bighorn Battlefield with headstones marking where men fell.

Battle Continues

The Native Americans continue the battle with Reno and Benteen’s battalions, fighting where they found them. 

Finally, General Alfred Terry, military commander of the Dakota Territory at that time, and his men arrived at the scene of Custer’s battle. With the arrival of more troops, the Native Americans saw that they now were outnumbered. They fled to regroup.

The Aftermath

black and white photo of Comanche with his favorite caretaker, Gustave Korn.
Comanche with Gustave Korn; Denver Public Library

When the battlefield quieted, mule packer Private William White was one of the first on the scene.  He saw the battlefield strewn with scalped soldiers, and 39 dead horses were circled around the area where Custer died. They had tried to use the horses to protect themselves. 

As Private White surveyed the battle scene, he saw movement in a ravine by the Little Bighorn River. White approached the area and found Comanche. He had multiple wounds where he was shot, and his saddle had twisted so that the seat of it hung down from Comanche’s belly.

Some of the men felt the kind thing to do was to put him out of his misery, but one fellow said, “Don’t shoot him.” That sentiment prevailed—a slim bright spot in the midst of blood and gore. The soldiers examined his wounds and bandaged the horse for the trip back to the riverboat. He was also given water and liquor to help him withstand the pain.

The riverboat, the Far West was docked at the confluence of the Little Horn and Big Horn Rivers—about 16 miles away. A caravan of wounded men along with the wounded horse made their way to the steamer.

Comanche On Board

A black-and-white photo showing men who have arrived after the battle is over. They stand, trying to make sense of what has happened. One man in the background is painting names on markers to note who died and where they were.
Marker showing where Captain Keogh died.

Once on board the steamer, the challenge for the men with Comanche was finding a place where an unsteady, ailing horse would be comfortable. Men brought in prairie grass and fitted a stall between the stern and the rudders. The men took great pride in taking care of him.

The Captain of the Far West understood the distance was far and time was of the essence for all his wounded passengers. They traveled quickly down the Yellowstone River to the Missouri River and to Bismarck. The 950 miles were covered in 54 hours.

Later, Captain Luce wrote in his log book: “The badly wounded animal was tenderly conveyed by wagon to Fort Lincoln, the same garrison which it had left only eight weeks before.”

Overcoming the Bad News

The news about Custer and his men saddened everyone. But as July 4, 1876, neared, people at the fort became busy with how to celebrate the country’s centennial.

The fort rallied around Comanche’s survival, and news stories about the horse spread across the nation. 

Comanche’s Medical Care

At Fort Lincoln, Comanche was placed in a belly band that could be elevated so that it kept weight off his legs. Three men were also assigned to his care: Dr. C.A. Stein, the veterinarian of Fort Lincoln, Gustave Korn, the resident blacksmith, (and the fellow who may have stormed through the Indian gathering just before the battle got underway), as well as the orderly who had always taken care of all of Custer’s mounts—John Burkman.

With loving care and special mash sometimes laced with liquor, Comanche continued to improve.  By 1878, he was permitted out of his stall, and slowly he gained privileges to roam the entire fort.

Special Ceremony for Retirement

Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis decided that with Comanche’s return to better health, he deserved to be officially placed in retirement.

A photograph showing Comanche and a soldier, noting that he was the sole survivor at Little Bighorn.

On April 10, 1878, a ceremony took place. The following orders were issued from headquarters:

(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.

The order was signed by Col. Sturgis, first lieutenant and adjutant of the Seventh Cavalry.

Reporter’s Story

When a reporter from The Bismarck Tribune came to do a story about Comanche and his retirement, he spoke to John Rivers, the farrier of Company I, Keogh’s old troop. (Bismarck Tribune, May 10, 1878):

Rivers noted that Comanche had seven scars from as many bullet wounds. Four wounds were in the back of his front shoulder; another struck a hoof, and Comanche suffered one bullet wound in his hind leg. Once back at Fort Lincoln, three of the balls were extracted from his body. The final one was not removed for another year when they could do it safely.

In Retirement

Comanche found things to do on his own, but when he heard a bugle call, he always lined up with the other horses.  

Perhaps because liquor was used to help get him through his illness, or perhaps because the men didn’t mind sharing some of their drink with Comanche, he took quite a liking to alcoholic beverages. He was often found wherever men were drinking.

Even when he drifted off in search of liquor, he always came back to find his friend Gustave Korn, the blacksmith. One story goes that when Korn had a day off and went out to visit a girlfriend, Comanche followed along.  When Korn went inside, Comanche grew impatient and neighed regularly for his friend to come back out. Eventually Korn came out and led Comanche back to his stall where he then was secured for that night.

On to Fort Riley

The Seventh Cavalry, along with Comanche, moved a few times. They were sent to Fort Meade in 1878. In 1887, they were sent on to Fort Riley. 

And every January 25, the regiment remembered Little Bighorn. Comanche, draped in a mourning blanket, led Troop I. His saddle was empty but there were riding boots, reversed as is the custom to denote fallen troopers.

Fighting at Wounded Knee

The Seventh Cavalry was based at Fort Riley when they were called to the Pine Ridge Reservation.  The battle that occurred is now known as the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890). Though most of the damage was done to the Lakota tribe, some cavalrymen were wounded or killed. Gustave Korn was among them.

When Korn did not return to the base, soldiers reported that Comanche seemed to lose interest in life. Men would sometimes find him at the canteen, hoping for a drink, but he was listless about most things.

Death of Comanche

On November 7, 1891, Comanche died of colic, a digestive disorder not uncommon in elderly horses. He was 29 years old. Having led nearly every parade at the fort during his time there, he had been an important part of fort life for many years.

This is a color photograph of Comanche as has been preserved by the museum.
Comanche Preserved

The farrier in charge of him at Riley, Samuel J. Winchester, wrote:

“Fort Riley, Kansas, November 7, 1891—in memory of the old veteran horse who died 1:30 o’clock with the colic in his stall while I had my hand on his pulse and looking him in the eye—the night to long be remembered.”

He was given a funeral with full military honors. He is one of only four horses to be given that honor. One of the others is Sgt. Reckless. You can read his story here: Reckless: The Horse That Was a Marine.

The Story Continues

But Comanche’s story doesn’t end there.

Because he had been such an important part of the Seventh Cavalry, the Fort Riley administrators sent Comanche’s body off to a taxidermist at the University of Kansas so that he could be preserved. When Comanche’s form was stuffed and mounted, the administration at Fort Riley was notified.

But no one from the fort was ever sent to pick up the horse or pay the $400 bill.

Since the work was performed by the University of Kansas taxidermist, the decision was made to keep Comanche for display in their natural history museum.  Initially, Comanche was displayed in a glass case on the main floor of the museum.

He was also among the items the museum shipped to Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1933. When the collection came back to Kansas, the museum was undergoing a renovation. Comanche was stored in the basement for several years. When he was retrieved, he had become moldy and had to be repaired.

Ownership Disputed

When he was put back on display, the news headlines brought out the protests. Fort Riley and other organizations laid claim to the fact that they should have possession of Comanche.

But the University maintained that he now belonged to the museum. 

Today Comanche lives on the fourth floor of the museum near the North American mammals department. He has his own room, and many, many visitors still come to see him.

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