LTC Rob Kornacki, US Army (Ret)
CPT Erin L. Fetzer, US Army
The annals of our history are filled with the names of those exceptional men and women whose exploits in the making of the nation have been so profound as to warrant special remembrance. Far fewer narratives have been written of animals in the service of man who sometimes displayed noble and uplifting qualities that were often human-like in their manifestation. One fitting example was a horse whose life revolved around the regimen that was the US Cavalry in the late 1800s. His name was Comanche.
Neither beautiful nor exceptional at first examination, he began his military career little differently than many of his human counterparts, as a confused member of a larger group marked for Army service. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1868 would provide his introduction to Army life and from where the evolutionary process from green mount to seasoned cavalry charger would begin. In the beginning he avoided men, as he moved away from the person inspecting him and his 40 contemporaries, prodded off the train at Fort Leavenworth. Just a short time earlier, he had been a wild horse running free in the vastness of the American west. Sent to transport him to central Kansas, Captain Tom Custer would be seen by him many more times over the next eight years, but at this moment, the horse wanted no part of him or any other soldier.
How he came to have an Indian name in a period of hostilities with a number of Plains Indian tribes is somewhat left to conjecture. It might best be attributed to that smug quality inherent in soldiers, then as now, where the injection of a little subtle humor or double entendre helped maintain a degree of levity in trying circumstances. Another story relates that after a particular early contact with warring Indians in southwestern Kansas, he suffered an arrow embedded in his flank. It is said as the metal arrow point was later removed, he screamed…like a Comanche.
Like his namesake, he was initially mistrusting of soldiers having been a victim of rough, insensitive handling from the time of his capture, through his train ride to Saint Louis, on to Leavenworth and ultimately to near what is now Ellis, Kansas, the temporary cantonment of the 7th Cavalry Regiment. Once there, as many before him, he could have made his displeasure known by laying back his ears, or by a shake of his unspectacular head. But the process of preparing him for cavalry service saw negative tendencies quickly wane. He was neither a remarkable physical specimen nor an impressive beauty, unlike several of the mounts of the 7th’s acting commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. But “handsome is as handsome does” and at 900 pounds, a shade over 15 hands, of claybank dun color, he was a cavalry remount, like the thousands in Army history before him. He would have ample opportunities to prove his mettle.
Before long, qualities would emerge which would establish his capacity as a cavalry horse, and beyond that, of a leader’s mount. The best mounts went to the leadership for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the influence of rank and position. Oftentimes, the officers were the mounted soldiers who would spend the least time with their horses in training, disposing of the many varied tasks that were part of garrison life on the frontier. It was imperative that their mounts be those of quality and substance, requiring the least attention and correction.
It soon became apparent that despite his quite ordinary appearance, this gelding was an exceptional animal, destined for the head of the column. He was quiet, but reacted immediately when directed. He was unflappable, yet had an appreciation for urgency that he could seemingly sense from his rider. He may not have been the fastest of the regimental mounts, but he was high in the order. Having an eye for horses and perceiving such qualities earlier, Captain Myles Keogh, the company commander of the 7th’s I company, purchased him for the considerable sum of $90 or so.
Comanche did not take long to be inured to cavalry tasks, always displaying a kind, receptive demeanor. He performed admirably during the many mounted and dismounted drills, conducted with predictable regularity. With practice, he gained an insensitivity to the crack of the carbine or the revolver near his ears and adjusted to the saber scabbard as it rattled against his flank. On the infrequent instances of his unsoundness, a restiveness seen in horses used to hard work was the predictable outcome.
He kept well on long campaigns and while traveling by rail as close to the 7th Cavalry’s business as was possible. Many such campaigns were initiated. Into the south to address the injustices of the Ku Klux Clan, east to Kentucky to chase bootleggers for the government and ultimately to Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory where the planning for a campaign against the Sioux was in advanced stages. Incident to that campaign, the movement into the southern Montana Territory had a palpable urgency from previous ones. He preferred the head of the column as a contemporary champion racehorse prefers the lead, but willingly served the immediate wish of his master who moved front to rear with regularity.
By this time, he had long proven himself in many skirmishes with the Indians, those most exceptional practitioners of horsemanship and mobile warfare. The smell of the red man or his village often had a significant effect on a horse. Some became wild with fear spinning away from the sensing with such violence as to risk unseating even the best rider, who in the US Cavalry service of the day tended to be fewer than more. Sometimes a reasonably green horse would bolt with such a panic that not even a strong man could control, and oftentimes into the very teeth of the enemy. But not Comanche. His actions demonstrated an equine understanding that the associated smells of an Indian encampment and the transmitted excitement of the men and other horses around him were often related to imminent combat. Its associated confusion, cursing, choking smoke, dust and the crack of weapons fire became known to him. If he remembered the whine of the arrow and the burning pain upon it being embedded in his side years ago, as well as other woundings, his actions in subsequent combat showed no negative tendencies. A horse often evidences high alert by eyes widened, nostrils flared, ears pricked forward at hard attention and a body trembling with nervous excitement and anticipation. So it was with Comanche, but to bolt, or to refuse to advance into the danger when directed, was simply not in his nature.
That movement that particular June morning was unusual. Excited but hushed human voices produced perceptible anticipation not only for the soldiers, but for their mounts as well. This march would not be without incident. Was the lack of a saber scabbard against his side on this campaign perceived by him, something to which he had been long accustomed? The brisk pace was faster than usual and after many miles, he began to sweat profusely, his winter coat not yet fully shed out and proving to be a liability despite the morning coolness of early summer in the territory. Near a place called the Crow’s Nest, he took Keogh quickly to a last meeting with Lieutenant Colonel Custer and stood quietly beside Custer’s Dandy, both held by a single trooper. After the meeting, he carried Keogh back to his troops with part of the regiment already moving off. Sometime thereafter, near the valley of the river, the sound of considerable gunfire erupted to the west. He now carried his rider at the head of his column at speed, along the east side of the Little Bighorn River. A gentle breeze from the northwest would have carried strange odors to his keen sense of smell. The scent of the Indian was everywhere. The pungent odor of a thousand cooking fires, of 20,000 Indian ponies and of several thousand painted men ready for war were carried by the breeze. Was he fearful as he ran to the fight? Perhaps, but run to the fight he did.
In moments, he was engulfed in the thick of battle. The impact of the heavy bullet knocked him from his feet, his mass striking the earth with a harsh swiftness. As quickly he was up, dazed as a second and a third bullet caused the dust to fly from his coat. Twice more, whining arrows embedded their wicked, sheet metal heads deep into his muscle. He became dazed and weakened by shock and loss of blood, with likely scant consciousness that Keogh had been unseated, never again to remount.
Although the battle raged and although he weakly kicked out at Indian ponies to his rear, for him the frightening din became muffled and then almost non-existent as he stood, head lowered waiting for death to take his reins. In this state he was found two days later by a relieving column coming from the north. His presence upon the battlefield, proximity to his annihilated unit and multiple wounds gave testimony to his grit. Five US Cavalry companies had followed George Armstrong Custer on this swing to the east toward an attempted crossing of the Little Bighorn River that was repulsed by overwhelming numbers. Shortly thereafter, upon withdrawing to higher ground, Custer was killed with all his men. Comanche remained close at hand, wounded but alive.
When found and under most circumstances, he would have been humanely destroyed as other horses were and such action was suggested. However emotion overruled practicality, as the full scope of Custer’s defeat became clear. A reliable account records that as several soldiers approached him, he softly nickered a weak greeting. Comanche’s presence near Last Stand Hill and the fact that he was Keogh’s horse drove the decision to attempt to save him. His wounds were cleaned and dressed and he was evacuated with some 52 men of Reno’s command to the south, which had held off multiple attacks for well-over a full day. For a difficult 15 miles he was walked along the Little Bighorn River to the confluence of the Bighorn where the steamer Far West awaited. He occupied a place of honor on a deck area stall made for him, padded with prairie grasses, along with 52 seriously wounded troopers also on board for the eventual rush back to Fort Lincoln.
That he recovered is remarkable given the year of 1876 and the science of veterinary medicine at the time, but recover he did but with a lameness in his gait that would be with him all his remaining days. Never again would he perform routine tasks as a cavalry horse and he must have appreciated the attention as many came to seek him out both at Fort Lincoln and at his new home later at Fort Riley, Kansas. He participated in many military parades over the years in which he was presented always as the guest of honor. As a measure of respect for him and the fallen, he would be draped in black on each June 25th, the anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and brought before the regiment. Upon his earlier recovery, a 7th Cavalry order directed that he never again be ridden and be given the full and unfettered access to any area of the post. At the enlisted men’s canteen he would often present himself, gladly accepting a bucket or two of beer to wash down the day’s dust. A trip to the varied manicured areas of the garrison provided a bit of variety from prairie hay. The most hardened combat veteran would find the eyes dampening during regimental formation on the parade field, when on occasion up would limp Comanche to take his position in front of his old company. He must have realized that he was special, but it was likely beyond his capacity as a horse to understand why.
Fifteen years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn his spirit rejoined his company that he had so reluctantly left on that barren Montana hillside.
Thanks to the farsighted vision of a small group of now forgotten US cavalrymen, Comanche’s taxidermy is enshrined at the University of Kansas natural history museum, where it has long been a premier exhibit. Comanche appears much as he did almost 140 years ago…an unimpressive physical specimen, neither beautiful nor exceptional upon first examination. How deceiving looks can be.
But his story still awaits closure. Despite individual cavalrymen having recorded his body’s internment at Fort Riley with full military honors in 1891, official US Army records of such have been lost, as well as the location of his burial place. While other cavalry mounts have been memorialized at Fort Riley, there is no such monument to Comanche, the greatest war horse of US Army history. A dedicated few are working to rectify that, to ensure that he is not forgotten by the Army he served so faithfully. Rest well, Comanche. We salute you!