The Wild West of Yester-Year

Comanche, the Most Famous Cavalry Horse
By Rachel Kovaciny

Everyone knows no cavalrymen lived through the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. General George Armstrong Custer and every man he led into that fight died on the field of battle. Some of their brave mounts also perished, but many survived. The Native American victors captured more than a hundred cavalry horses after the battle. However, they didn’t catch all of them. One surviving horse, Comanche, became very famous as a result.

Comanche was a powerful bay gelding, standing over fifteen hands high and weighing 900 pounds in his prime. He had already survived many enemy encounters before Little Bighorn and was known and loved in the Seventh Cavalry before surviving the massacre. He was the personal battle mount of Captain Myles Keogh, an Irishman who loved fighting, horses, and liquor, not always in that order. The Army purchased Comanche in 1868 in St. Louis, Missouri. They shipped him off to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Keogh took a shine to him and bought him. The purchase proved to be a sound one, for Comanche served Keogh well. During a fight near Bluff Creek, Kansas, an arrow struck Comanche’s hindquarters. He did not bolt or throw his rider, but carried Keogh forward into battle, arrow and all.  Injuries such as that one left him with many scars from various battles, testifying to his courage and experience.

So why wasn’t this reliable, valuable horse captured along with so many others after the Battle of Little Bighorn?  According to the memories of a Sioux warrior called Little Soldier, who recounted the battle a few years later, Comanche could thank Keogh for that, even though his master was dead. Little Soldier remembered finding this fine bay war horse on the field of battle, injured in several places, but still standing. He wanted to take Comanche for his own, but Keogh’s dead hand still gripped Comanche’s reins. Little Soldier believed it would be dangerous to take a living animal held by a dead man. He and the other Sioux left Comanche to his fate and rode away with their other spoils of victory.

Two days later, cavalry reinforcements arrived at the scene and found many horses who remained not captured by their adversaries. They included Comanche, badly wounded by both bullets and arrows. He was not the only wounded animal, and the cavalrymen had to put down many horses that day, but they recognized Comanche and knew him to be a survivor, and they saved him instead. By the time they got Comanche back to Fort Abraham Lincoln, he could no longer walk by himself. Determined to save his life, the soldiers tenderly cared for him for almost a year. Once he recovered, they rewarded him for his brave service by retiring him from active duty. For a time, his only task was giving rides to the children who lived in the fort.


Two years after Little Bighorn, Colonel Samuel Sturgiss ordered that Comanche never be ridden again out of respect for his decade of hard service in the cavalry. For the next fifteen years, his only duty was to get led in various parades, wearing a black blanket and with a pair of cavalry boots slung over his back, their toes pointing backward to symbolize those who died at Little Bighorn. Eventually, they named Comanche an honorary “Second Commanding Officer” of the Seventh Cavalry. He lived his last years in ease, reportedly indulging his fondness for drinking beer and grazing out of garbage cans. When he died in 1891, the University of Kansas preserved his body. You can still see it on display in the university’s Natural History Museum.


Although Comanche was not the only horse to survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he became the most famous. Records indicate he sustained more wounds than any other horse that survived. He showed great stamina and toughness to recover from them. Not only have people written many articles about him over the past 144 years, he even had a highly fictionalized Walt Disney movie based on his life. I’m sure his story of survival after so much injury and suffering will continue to inspire people for many years to come.