Surely, every American over 18 and possibly a few younger — I have no idea how American history is taught these days — has heard of the Battle of the Little Bighorn June 25, 1876, and of the Seventh Cavalry’s golden-haired leader, Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
The massacre of Custer’s forces and their horses and of the attacking Indians with their horses — historians say Indians won the battle even though many of them also died in the carnage — has long been the subject of books, movies, paintings and TV documentaries.
Since then, Custer’s golden image has been tarnished. Graduating last in his class at West Point when he was 21, and he is reported to have been “dashing, arrogant and an impetuous warrior who lived for the charge.”
His personality in those areas intensified in coming years.
This and the following amazing information, not about Custer, not about the battle, but about an incredible horse, who somehow managed to escape the slaughter of men and horses, is from a book, Mustang by Deanne Stillman, The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.
Those of us whose lives have been entwined with those of horses will be horrified at the cruelties and savagery of men as detailed in the pages of this book, which begins with the evolution of the horse through the many changes that brought them to the magnificent magical creatures they are now.
The book’s author likens the BLM’s persecution of today’s few wild horses left in the West to those bloody days of Cortez, Montezuma and their ilk.
Who was Comanche? Born in 1862, he arrived at Fort Hayes, Kan., in 1868 at the height of the wars with the Plains Indians, and was lucky enough to be chosen by Capt. Myles Keogh, who loved his horses almost as much as he loved his booze. He was a drunk, according to the book.
Comanche was wounded several times, recovering from each to return to his troop and partner, but over time was ill-fated to be part of the Little Bighorn saga, along with Capt. Keogh. An account of the equine carnage as seen at Last Stand Hill states, “there were 42 dead men and 39 dead horses.”
But as the rites for the fallen men, including Capt. Keogh, were being said, “From the cottonwoods there came a valiant veteran. It was Comanche, his head hung low, blood oozing from at least seven bullet wounds, his saddle upside down and hanging from his belly.”
Miraculously, he was not killed because someone begged he be spared, and thereby hangs the rest of this amazing tale.
Legend has it that he was hoisted in a sling, he was given a bran mash “liberally laced with whiskey” which was poured into a hat and thus Comanche developed a taste for hard liquor. After a year spent in the belly-band sling and drinking whiskey mashes every other day, Comanche became a free spirit — and a drunk.
“He happily visited the enlisted men’s canteen where on paydays he swilled buckets of beer. He begged sugar lumps, and to satisfying his appetite would kick over the garbage cans to select from the buffet. It is said he loved tramping across lawns and browsing in flower gardens and he especially liked sunflowers.”
Every year, on June 25, the regiment would remember the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Comanche would lead Troop 1, dressed in a black mourning net with saddle and riding boots reversed.
There is much, much more to this true story. See if your library has or can get the book, or buy it.
In the end, Comanche died at 29 on Nov. 7, 1891, and after a series of moves, his stuffed and mounted body rests in a glass cage at the University of Nebraska.
You will lose sleep over this thoughtful, beautifully written and researched and riveting book which will change your dream of how the west was won — not just by men, but by millions of horses.
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“Wherever man has left the footprints in the long ascent from barbarism to civilization, we find the hoofprint of a horse beside it.”
— John Trotwood Moore