Comanche and Custer

Today, June 25, is the anniversary of the annihilation of Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his detachment of the 7th Cavalry by Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors in the Battle of the Little Bighorn River in 1876. This is a photo of the only cavalry survivor of Custer’s detachment found on the battlefield when relief arrived two days later. It is the horse Comanche, the mount of Capt. Myles Keogh. (Any horses in good condition after the battle would have been taken by the Indians; Comanche was badly wounded. Other companies of troopers survived on other parts of the battlefield.) 

Comanche was nursed back to health. He became the cherished mascot of the 7th Cavalry. He was never ridden again and died in 1891. He was stuffed by a noted taxidermist, Lewis Dyche, at the University of Kansas. Comanche is still on display in the U of Kansas Museum of Natural History in Dyche Hall. 

People are still fascinated by Custer’s crushing defeat. Partly because neither Custer nor any of the troopers with him survived to tell their side of the story; a mystery will always remain. The scope of the disaster also fixed it in people’s minds; about one-fourth of all the cavalry troopers killed in action during the Indian wars of the late 19th century died at the Little Bighorn. The battle - and especially Custer’s actions - have been studied exhaustively, and more books, fiction and nonfiction, continue to be published. 

Since 1946 the battlefield was called the Custer Battlefield National Monument, but in 1991 the site was renamed the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in recognition of the place of the battle in the long-lasting clash of cultures between Native Americans and whites. In particular Comanche is no longer referred to as the only survivor of the battle. Obviously many Native Americans survived the battle. (The same thing applies to the Fetterman “massacre”.) There is now an Indian Memorial to warriors at the Monument, and markers on the battlefield identify where specific warriors fell just as there are markers identifying where the bodies of specific cavalrymen were found. 

To me the battle, and the flow of Western history in general, seems like an anachronism compared to what was going on in the East. Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 and the light bulb in 1879. The magnificent towers of the Brooklyn Bridge were up by 1876. (The bridge was started in 1870 and completed in 1883.) 

I think the best depiction of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was the 1991 TV movie Son of the Morning Star.  It tells the story from the perspective of two women, one white (Custer’s wife) and one Lakota and focuses on the lives of two men: George Custer and Crazy Horse. 

I have been to the battlefield several times, and the place was always jammed with tourists. The parking lot keeps getting expanded. The gift shop does a booming business in souvenirs, books, etc. 

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, south central Montana: :