Discover more from Poiema
America’s first centennial celebration on July 4, 1876 was a bit less enthusiastic than folks had hoped. It was marred by an event that happened nine days earlier in southern Montana when General George C. Custer led his Seventh Cavalry into an infamous foray at Little Big Horn.
Unbeknownst to General Custer, over 3,000 Sioux and Cheyanne warriors were lying in wait for the Federals on the banks of the Little Big Horn River, and never in the nation’s history would soldiers in navy blue be so decisively defeated by painted horsemen.
The Seventh Cavalry was all but obliterated: 268 soldiers died, compared to the 31 Indians who fell that day. Historians have told us that Custer, and all that were under his immediate command, were annihilated. But this is not completely accurate. There was one survivor.
When the relief column arrived late to the front, they were stricken with horror to find hundreds of bodies stripped and strewn across the landscape. Mutilated corpses littered the killing field in a macabre scene of violence in repose. Then one of the bodies moved.
Among the awful carnage, a singular participant raged against the dying of the light. A soldier dismounted his horse and rushed over to the survivor. It was a hellish sight. His body was riddled with bullet holes and dangling arrows. He had been shot in the neck and pretty much everywhere else. Twelve bleeding wounds in all.
A lieutenant by the name of Henry Nowland recognized the lone survivor and ordered his soldiers to his aid. They did their best to stop the bleeding, but the fight for survival would be an uphill battle.
Most didn’t believe he would live if they moved him, but that was a chance they would have to take. Surely he would die otherwise. So the men rallied, and hurried the near-lifeless body 15 miles away to a steamboat waiting at the river.
Once on board, the crew made his welfare their top priority. Immediately they set sail, breaking speed records as they steamed downstream, arriving at Fort Bismark in only 51 hours.
From there, the survivor whose life was all but gone, was transported to Fort Lincoln, the headquarters of the Seventh Cavalry. And despite his many wounds, he managed to hold on. Though it would take him nearly a year to recover, he did recover, becoming something of a celebrity in the process.
None of the shots that pierced his body had struck any vital organs. He had been lucky. If there was anyone who could have been considered a hero at the Battle of Little Big Horn, it was this one who barely escaped the end of the rest of his cohort.
He received a full pension from the Army, laced with fringe benefits. And though his presence was in constant request for military ceremonies, that was the extent of his duties to his country for the rest of his life.
He died of natural causes in November of 1891. But the lone survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn received no hero’s funeral. Instead, his body was put on display in the museum of Kansas University. The survivor's name was Comanche, a light bay cavalry horse of the United States Army.