Horse News

Memorial Day Remembrance: Horses of War

“Please remember to join myself and other fellow Americans in taking a moment of silence at 3 PM today in honor of all the heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we can live free and unfettered in the greatest country in the world, the United States of American!” ~ R.T.

From George Washington’s beloved sorrel to a little mare who braved the front lines of the Korean War, here are five unsung equine heroes.

Horses have performed multiple roles throughout military history; they’ve been used for transportation, reconnaissance missions, cavalry charges, packing supplies, and communications. And—when taught to kick, strike, and bite—they became weapons nearly as deadly as those their riders were wielding. War horses also had a potent psychological impact on men in battle—their powerful presence could boost morale and courage, or instill uncontrollable fear in enemy troops.

Though the heyday of the cavalry is over, the impact of the horse’s role in the military is still felt today. Largely motivated by increasing the battlefield efficiency of their cavalries, militaries have made tremendous advancements in horsemanship, breeding, husbandry, and gear. Horses were selectively bred to be taller, stronger, and faster, and many foundation bloodlines were established thanks to martial breeding programs. And riders developed more efficient means of controlling their mounts through better tack technology. The invention of the solid-treed saddle and paired stirrups allowed soldiers to have increased mobility and stability. The importance of leg and seat aids also became more understood, freeing up the rider’s hands and allowing them to use their weapons more accurately.

Many of today’s riding disciplines have roots in military training and conditioning: The standardization of battlefield maneuvers became the foundation of dressage; three-day eventing came from cavalry exercises to develop more versatile animals; and mounted shooting is an obvious descendant.

Although war horses played a crucial role in the advancement of Western Civilization, they are largely unsung heroes who have faded from public consciousness. The following animals are horses who played a critical role in American military history.


Nelson (1763–1790)


“…a favorite and splendid charger named Nelson, a light sorrel, 16 hands high, with white face and legs, and remarkable as being the first nicked horse seen in America.” —George Washington Parke Custis, President George Washington’s adopted son

Considered “the best horseman of his age” by Thomas Jefferson, President George Washington was widely renowned for his incredible riding prowess, as well as being a fine judge of horseflesh. One of his favorite mounts was a tall sorrel named Nelson, gifted to him in 1778 by Governor Thomas Nelson of Virginia. Washington had been looking for a new horse to see him through the Revolution and in gratitude, named his new warhorse after the governor.

Although it was another of Washington’s horses, Blueskin, who was most often memorialized by artists thanks to his striking grey coloring, Nelson was Washington’s favored mount during battle as he was far less likely than the jumpy grey to startle at the sound of canon fire. Indeed, Nelson carried Washington through much of the Revolutionary War. In fact, Washington chose to ride Nelson during the history-changing surrender of Lord Cornwallis and the British Army in 1781.

After his retirement from the battlefield, Nelson spent the rest of his days being affectionately pampered at Washington’s Mansion House Farm. In a collection of remembrances, Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, wrote that as the president toured his grounds, he would make a point to stop by Nelson’s paddock, where “the old warhorse would run, neighing, to the fence, proud to be caressed by the great master’s hands.”


Traveller (1857–1871) 

Credit: AGE Fotostock

Credit: AGE Fotostock

“If I was an artist… I would draw a true picture of Traveller… Such a picture would inspire a poet, whose genius could then depict his worth, and describe his endurance of toil, hunger, thirst, heat and cold; and the dangers and suffering through which he has passed.” —Robert E. Lee, in a letter to Markie Williams

A true horse of the Confederacy, Traveller was a Virginia-born Saddlebred originally named Jeff Davis after the President of the Confederate States of America. In 1862, General Robert E. Lee purchased the grey from Captain Joseph M. Broun, and rode him throughout the duration of the Civil War.

Traveller’s name change was inspired by his unusually quick pace and incredible stamina. It was remarked that the horse was often ridden over 40 miles a day, and Lee’s son had this to say about the animal’s punishing pace:

“The general had the strongest affection for Traveller…and his allowing me to ride him on this long march [to Fredericksburg] was a great compliment. …I think I am safe in saying that I could have walked the distance with much less discomfort and fatigue.”

It is stated that Traveller went into battle more than any other horse of the Civil War, and his bravery on the battlefield—along with that of his rider—was remarkable.

During the Overland Campaign of 1864, soldiers literally had to grab at the horse’s bridle to prevent the powerful animal from galloping their commander to the dangerous front lines.

Following the war, Traveller accompanied Lee to Washington College (since named Washington and Lee University) in Lexington, Va., where Lee served as the school’s president for his remaining years. Traveller lived out the end of his days there, dying a year after Lee.

In 1971, after years of being constantly relocated and vandalized, Traveller’s remains were finally buried in a wooden box encased in concrete, just a few feet away from the Lee family crypt, so that he may be forever close to his master. In a touching tribute to the warhorse, the stable on campus, where he lived his last days, traditionally leaves its doors open so that the spirit of Traveller may roam freely.


Comanche (c. 1868–1891)

Credit: AGE Fotostock

Credit: AGE Fotostock

“He carries seven scars from as many bullet wounds. There are four back of the foreshoulder, one through a hoof, and one on either hind leg… Comanche is not a great horse, physically talking; he is of medium size, neatly put up, but quite noble looking.” —from the Bismarck Tribune, 1878

Sometime around 1868, a little “claybank” colored colt of indeterminate breeding was sold with a group of mustangs to the cavalry unit, to be used in the Indian Wars. The horse was assigned to Captain Walter Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry and proved to be an indestructible animal, carrying his rider successfully through multiple skirmishes, despite arrow and bullet wounds. Keogh named his brave little horse Comanche, after the fighting spirit and courage of the Comanche Indians.

In June of 1876, General George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry—with Captain Keogh and Comanche—to one of the most botched and bloody military battles, the Battle of Little Big Horn. When the melee was over, Comanche was one of the only survivors on the battlefield, and just barely. His state was so grievous that the Sioux, who usually took enemy mounts as spoils of war, left the gelding to die.

But he didn’t. Two days after the battle, a U.S. soldier found the little horse and transported him to Fort Lincoln, N.D., where he was slowly nursed back to health and retired, with honors.

In 1878, Colonel Samuel Sturgis commanded that in honor of “being the only living representative of the bloody tragedy of the Little Big Horn,” that Comanche would “not be ridden by any person whatsoever, under any circumstances, nor [would] he be put to any kind of work.”

Comanche was eventually moved to Fort Riley, Kan., where he was made Second Commanding Officer of the 7th Cavalry, allowed to wander the grounds, and often found enjoying beer and biscuits begged off the officers and their wives.

After his death in 1891, Comanche was given full military honors, one of only two horses to be given a full military funeral for their service.


Black Jack (1947–1976)

Credit: AP Photo/Virginian-Pilot

Credit: AP Photo/Virginian-Pilot

“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.” —President Richard Nixon

A powerful military tradition since the time of Genghis Khan, the riderless horse symbolizes a rider’s last journey; the boots face backwards in the stirrups to represent the fallen solider having one last look at his loved ones.

Black Jack, who served as the riderless horse for more than 1,000 Armed Forces funerals, was a member of the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment. Known as the Old Guard, the regiment is the Army’s oldest active duty infantry regiment, dating back to 1784. Though Black Jack never saw a battlefield, his is a major contribution to America’s military traditions.

From the start, it was clear that Black Jack was not meant to be a riding horse—he threw off rider after rider while being started at Fort Reno, Okla. His black coloring, animation, and striking good looks, however, made him ideal for the position of the riderless horse.

Black Jack performed the role for many notable figures, including Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, and General Douglas MacArthur, but it was his participation in President John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession that made him a national treasure. The striking image of the coal black horse with boots backwards in the stirrups was a poignant and stirring symbol of the beloved fallen president. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was so moved by the sight that she bought Black Jack after his retirement in 1973.

After 29 years of military service, Black Jack was laid to rest at Fort Meyer, Va. Along with Comanche, he is one of two horses in U.S. history to be receive full military honors in recognition of his service.


Sergeant Reckless (1948-1968) 

Credit: USMC

“I was surprised at her beauty and intelligence, and believe it or not, her esprit de corps. Like any other Marine, she was enjoying a bottle of beer with her comrades.” —Lieutenant General Randolph McC. Pate

The plucky little mare that became a beacon of hope for embattled soldiers during the Korean War was bought for $250 from a young boy at the Seoul racetrack. Trained to be a packhorse for the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti-Tank Company, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, she soon became a unit mascot. A notorious eater, Reckless was known to eat everything from scrambled eggs to chocolate to poker chips (at least $30 worth).

Her military role was to carry supplies and ammunition to combat zones and, if necessary, evacuate the wounded. She knew the routes from the base to the front lines so well that she was often able to travel them without a handler. The pinnacle of her military contribution occurred in March of 1953, during desperate fighting at the Battle of Outpost Vegas. On March 27, Reckless made an incredible 51 trips to frontline units, carrying 386 rounds of ammunition—nearly five tons—through enemy fire.

Her true service, however, was bringing hope and happiness to war-weary soldiers with her indomitable spirit. Sergeant Major James E. Bobbitt recalled, “It’s difficult to describe the elation and the boost in morale that little white-faced mare gave Marines as she outfoxed the enemy bringing vitally needed ammunition up the mountain.”

For her service, Reckless was promoted to the rank of corporal in 1953 and sergeant in 1954. She was decorated with two Purple Hearts, a Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation with star, a National Defense Service Medal, a Korean Service Medal, a United Nations Service Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation, and a Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, all of which she proudly wore on her regal red and gold blanket.

The war hero was retired on Nov. 10, 1960, with full military honors, and lived out her days at the stables at Camp Pendleton in California.

Source: American Cowboy

To view additional SFTHH articles on our Equine War Heroes please click (HERE)

8 replies »

  1. Thanks for this important reminder of our horse heroes on this day.

    A couple of things — it is widely understood that Commanche was a Mustang, and he surely looks the part, though this is rarely mentioned. It’s also often stated he was “one of the only survivors” but it is obvious most of the Native Americans and their mounts of course survived.

    Many sources indicate that Commanche’s rider, Myles Keogh, was treated with respect by the victors and his body was not desecrated, as these actions were intended to interfere with their afterlife. Some of his papal regimental decorations were later confiscated from the Indians.

    A tip o’ the hat for both on this day.

    “The full details of the battle of the Little Big Horn may never be known; even eyewitness testimony of Native Americans at the battle was taken years after the events of June 25, 1876 and is often contradictory. However, there is evidence that Myles Keogh died as he had lived, with honor and courage. When a burial party arrived three days after the battle, Keogh’s body was found at the center of a group of troopers that included his two sergeants, the company trumpeter and guidon bearer, indicating that Keogh and his men had died as part of their own “Last Stand”. Also noted was that Keoghs body alone had not been mutilated, perhaps because the Native Americans were intimidated by the “medicine” they saw in the Agnus Dei he wore on a chain about his neck, or because of his bravery in his final moments, most likely a combination of both. The only survivor of the 7th Cavalry found at the Little Big Horn was Keogh’s badly wounded horse, Comanche, wounds that indicated that he and his rider had been in the thick of the action. Comanche would be nursed back to health and adopted as a revered regimental mascot. The animal’s fame as “the sole survivor of the 7th” quickly spread and ensured that the name of his rider, Myles Keogh, would be remembered.”

    “Most likely, Comanche was born around 1862, on what was once called the Great Horse Desert of Texas, a vast region that was home to hundreds of thousands of mustangs. Comanche bore the markings of the early Spanish horses – the bay or claybank horse (though often inexplicably referred to as dun or buckskin in many accounts) had the tell-tale black dorsal stripe down his back which today can still be seen on some wild horses in the high deserts of Nevada, Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana. He also had a small white star on his forehead. He was an odd-looking horse, with a big head and thick neck that were out of proportion for his body, and he had legs that seemed slightly too short …

    No one knows how old he was when he was taken off the range; it was the era of the great plundering, when immense populations of birds and mammals were ours for the taking, and detailed records of the voracious mustang round-ups that continued for decades were not kept. These horses were rounded up by cowboys and mustangers for cattle drives, personal use, sport, profit or combinations thereof, and many of them were sold to the army. The round-ups were often cruel, frequently employing the method of “creasing,” in which a bullet was fired at the upper part of a horse’s neck, causing temporary paralysis by striking a nerve. Sometimes – many times – the shooter aimed badly and fatally wounded the mustang; other times he injured the horse permanently and left him to wander the desert until he bled to death or was attacked by a predator.

    It was probably in 1868 that he and an unknown number of horses were driven north across mustang and cattle trails, most likely following the Kickapoo Trace, a rutted and dusty by-way through the unfamiliar and rough terrain of Indian territory and into Missouri, … The trail ended in St. Louis, where just days after running free on the open range, the horses were funneled into crowded corrals, awaiting buyers from the army.

    On April 3, 1868, Comanche was sold to the army for the average price of $90. A week after his purchase, Comanche and an unknown number of horses were loaded onto railroad cars and shipped west to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they arrived around the middle of May and were each branded with the letters US on the left shoulder, the regiment number on the left thigh and the letter C for cavalry. Sometimes the letter of the company to which the horse was assigned was added to the brand. Custer’s 7th cavalry unit had been stationed in Kansas and had lost a number of horses that spring. Custer sent his brother, First Lieutenant Tom W. Custer, to buy remounts. After looking them over in the corrals, he purchased 41, including the horse that would soon be named Comanche. Once again the horses were loaded onto a train, where they stood head to tail in crowded cars and shipped the short distance to Hays City, near Ellis, Kansas where Custer and his troops were encamped. Eight years later, in the year of our centennial, more horses than cavalry soldiers would perish at the Little Bighorn. …

    Captain Myles Keogh, perhaps just back from an encounter with Indians, was walking among the newly acquired mustangs, spotted Comanche, looked him over and in the eye, was also sized up by the confined animal, and bought him from the army for $90. (It was not unusual for cavalrymen to either come with their own horses or reimburse the government for one or several). From that point on, Comanche joined a steed named Paddy as a favorite mount of Captain Keogh, and when it was all over, like his commander, Comanche had developed a taste for booze.”


  2. We owe so much to all of our veterans.
    It’s our sacred responsibility to make certain that their sacrifices were not in vain.
    The debt that we owe them is Peace and Prosperity for their progeny and a government that represents and is responsive to the wishes of the People

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much.for telling their stories again. The Rag Heads in Washington, DC and the low life’s of the BLM need to be educated.about the role US horses played in this country. I loved your comment regarding the Fox interview. The comments on the fb page just showed how ignorant and uneducated some.Americans are. Send this to FOX and educate the commentator! Again, thank you for the recap I want to add this to our under a category Did You Know! And some of the Dressage people forget that these maneuvers were really war training maneuvers. So basically they are learning different levels of war maneuvers without the realization.


  4. You do such a good job with this column year in and year out. I do have a comment about Traveler that may differ from the details in your story. In A History of Greenbrier County by Otis K Rice published by the Greenbrier Historical Society in 1986, there is a picture (photograph) of Gen. Lee atop Traveler with the notation that Traveler was born on the Johnston family farm near Blue Springs and was sold in 1862. For most of my elementary school days, my parents dropped my brother and me off for a couple of hours every Saturday morning at the library. I had a special place on a stairwell landing sitting under a wooden saddle tree that had once belonged to Traveler. Another variation from the story, not mentioned here, but I have read before is that Traveler was an a grey Arab. And in this photograph (p.265) he appears much smaller with a mane and tail carriage more similar to an Arab than a Saddlebred. These are small things, and your source may be more accurate than others I’ve seen. The point is that there was an amazing bond between Geneal Lee and his horse, and Traveler carried him successfully through many battles. My county was in Virginia in 1962, but seceded from Virginia in 1863. West Virginia was not a slave state, but we are on the Virginian southwestern border.

    Liked by 1 person

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