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Horses With Military Honors


By Leigh Ballard

In U.S. military history, there are only two horses that have been buried with full military honors for their military service: Comanche and Black Jack.

Comanche is known as the survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 25-26, 1876. Captain Miles Keough of the U.S.  Army’s 7th Cavalry bought the gelding in 1868 for his personal mount for battle. Not long afteward, the army was fighting the Comanche in Kansas. Keough and his horse were in the fight, and the horse took an arrow in the hindquarters, but continued to carry Keough through the fight. After his display of toughness in battle, Keough named his horse “Comanche” because he had been so brave in the fight against the Comanche. Keough and Comanche continued to fight in many other battles for the next several years, with Comanche always showing the same toughness.

In 1876, Keough and Comanche were part of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Well over one thousand warriors, the combined forces of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes, fought Custer and his men. The entire detachment of more than 250 soldiers led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was killed. After the battle, the horse Comanche was found alive. In some tales of the battle, Comanche is said to be the only survivor of the Little Bighorn. This, however, is simply folklore. Several other horses survived, but either escaped the scene, were taken by the warriors, or were put down when found days later by the Army. Comanche was badly wounded with a reported seven bullet wounds, but he was transported to Fort Lincoln where he was slowly nursed back to health.
At Comanche’s official retirement in April 1878, Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis issued the following:

“Headquarters Seventh United States Cavalry, Fort A. Lincoln, D. T., April 10th, 1878. General Orders No. 7.

(1.) The horse known as ‘Comanche,’ being the only living representative of the bloody tragedy of the Little Big Horn, June 25th, 1876, his kind treatment and comfort shall be a matter of special pride and solicitude on the part of every member of the Seventh Cavalry to the end that his life be preserved to the utmost limit. Wounded and scarred as he is, his very existence speaks in terms more eloquent than words, of the desperate struggle against overwhelming numbers of the hopeless conflict and the heroic manner in which all went down on that fatal day.

(2.) The commanding officer of Company I will see that a special and comfortable stable is fitted up for him, and he will not be ridden by any person whatsoever, under any circumstances, nor will he be put to any kind of work.

(3.) Hereafter, upon all occasions of ceremony of mounted regimental formation,”Comanche’ saddled, bridled, and draped in mourning, and led by a mounted trooper of Company I, will be paraded with the regiment.
--By command of Col. Sturgis, E. A. Garlington, First Lieutenant and Adjutant, Seventh Cavalry.”

Comanche died in 1891 from colic. He was believed to have been 29 years old. He was given a military funeral with full military honors. His body was preserved and is on display at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum.
The second horse to receive full military honors was Black Jack. He was born in 1947 and was named for General John “Blackjack” Pershing. He was one of the last of the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster-issued horses, and he carried an Army brand on his shoulder and an Army serial number on his neck. He was beautiful to look at, coal black with a star, but he was a high spirited gelding who simply did not like being ridden. He needed a non-riding job, and eventually he was moved to the Caisson Platoon at Fort Myer, Va. This is where his role in history began.

Black Jack served in the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regimentfor the rest of his military career. He was the riderless, or caparisoned, horse in more than 1,000 Armed Forces Full Honors Funerals. The Caparisoned horse is the riderless horse who follows the caissons (6 horses pulling the cart which carries the casket of the fallen soldier).  The tradition of the riderless horse, or caparisoned horse, has roots to Ghengis Khan’s time when it was believed that the spirit of a warrior’s sacrificed horse would travel with its master to the afterlife.  The riderless horses are no longer sacrificed, and represent the soldier who will no longer ride in the brigade.  The caparisoned horse now symbolizes a rider’s last journey, and the backward boots in his stirrups representthat the warrior is having one last look at his family and the world.

In the United States, in order for a caparisoned horse to participate in a funeral, the person must have been an Army or Marine Corps colonel or above. Because the President of the United States is the commander-in-chief of all the armed forces, his funeral procession is entitled to a caparisoned horse.

Black Jack was the caparisoned horse in four state funerals: those of presidents John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Five-star General Douglass MacArthur. In Kennedy’s funeral procession, Black Jack was seen by millions on television showing his high-spiritedness and nervousness as he pranced and kicked throughout the long walk escorting Kennedy’s casket to the Capitol Building.

Black Jack was retired in 1973. Shortly before Black Jack’s death, President Richard Nixon wrote, “Black Jack has been a poignant symbol of our nation’s grief on many occasions over the years. Citizens in mourning felt dignity and purpose conveyed, a simpler yet deeper tribute to the memory of those heroic ‘riders’ who have given so much for our nation. Our people are grateful to Black Jack for helping us bear the burden of sorrow during difficult times.”

Black Jack was euthanized in 1976 due to problems with severe arthritis and other health issues. After 29 years of military service, he was buried with full military honors and was buried at Fort Myer.

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