In our local church, St. Joseph’s, Tinryland, County Carlow, there is a beautiful stained glass window of the Holy Family. It is a memorial to ‘Thomas Keogh of Park, his wife Alice Keogh, and his brother, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Myles W. Keogh, Capt 7th US Cavalry, killed in action June 25, 1876’.
Myles Walter Keogh
Myles Walter Keogh was a Carlow man, born at Orchard House, near Leighlinbridge, on March 25, 1840. Into a short life of thirty-six years he packed a military career in three wars. He left behind him a tradition, which still lives in the U.S. Army.
The Keoghs are a prominent Catholic family of Carlow and Kilkenny. A great-nephew, Myles Keogh, lives in Orchard House where Myles was born. Other relatives occupy the lands and dwelling of Clifden Castle, County Kilkenny. At one time Colonel Myles W. Keogh himself owned these lands. But Myles found his career far from Orchard and Clifden.
The Pope’s Army.
In 1860 Myles went to Italy and enlisted in the Papal Army, which was getting ready to defend the Papal States. He was commissioned second lieutenant in the Battalion of Saint Patrick, a unit of Irish volunteers that was commanded by a foxhunting Louth Justice of the Peace, who was also a Major in Queen Victoria’s Irish militia. Many of the NCOs had served in the Irish regiments of the British Army; others were members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, who lost all their pension rights by enlisting in the Pope’s army. One of the company commanders rejoiced in an unlikely name for a papal soldier - he was Captain Martin Luther.
The Irish battalion never received its full issue of equipment. Some of the Papal units had the Minie rifle, which later became famous in the American Civil War but the Irish made do with muzzle-loaders of Napoleonic vintage. The battalion received little training before being committed to battle. Further, it was broken up and companies of it fought in different sectors. Myles’ company took part in the defence of Ancona on the Adriatic coast. The city was attacked from the sea by a steam-driven fleet of warships, equipped with rifled artillery, and from the land by an army fitted out with the latest weapons. The Irish gave a good account of themselves but eventually, out-gunned and outnumbered, the papal force surrendered. The Irishmen were repatriated after being held for a few months as prisoners of war.
Myles Keogh and a few others, however, elected to stay on as regulars, in the reduced forces of the Pope. Keogh had distinguished himself during the Ancona siege, and received two papal decorations.
American Civil War
Myles had been a papal regular only a few months, when civil war broke out in the United States. The six-foot, ruddy-faced Irish soldier applied for a commission in the U.S. Army. Within weeks he was in America, and promoted Captain in a cavalry regiment. The American Civil War was the first mass-production ‘modern’ war. Matthew Brady, the photographer, covered the battles with a thoroughness the likes of which was never again seen until World War II. From his pictures we can see the awful carnage that resulted from a combination of high firepower and desperate hand-to-hand fighting. By the end of the war, some Union troops were using the Gatling gun, the first machine gun. Artillery fire was being corrected from high-flying, captive balloons, and the signallers were using the electric telegraph. Casualties were terribly high, and medical services never caught up with the problems they faced.
After the dreadful war was over, Myles applied for a commission in the regular U.S. Army. He states that he took part in over eighty engagements. At one time he commanded a brigade of cavalry. On another occasion, when a staff officer, he took part in a raid deep into Confederate territory. He was captured, and after some time as a prisoner of war, was exchanged. The raid on which he was captured penetrated hundreds of miles into the Confederacy, and was possibly the historical foundation of a film called The Horse Soldiers.
The Boy Wonder
Keogh’s application was successful, and he became a captain in the newly formed 7th U.S. Cavalry, whose task was to keep order in the West, the greatest undeveloped area left on the globe. The Regiment was commanded by former Brigadier-General George Armstrong Custer, the boy wonder of the American Civil War, now reverted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The other officers were also ex-Civil War senior officers who had come down many ranks - Majors Reno and Benteen had also been brigadiers.
‘No Good Indian...'
The job of the U.S. Army was to protect the white settlers who were pushing farms, railroad, telegraph lines and mining out into the prairies and mountains. They had to protect the white men from the Indians, but they also had to protect the Indians from the whites, and on many occasions did so. Some Americans were in favour of a ‘no good Indian, but a dead Indian’ policy, while others in the Army and the Indian Departments took a more humane view. Custer's s officers favoured the humane view, but their Colonel did not.
Custer’s first western battle would nowadays be classed as unwarranted aggression. In the first-ever winter campaign against Indians, Custer marched his command across the Great Plains in sub-zero weather. In November 1868, the regiment attacked the sleeping and unguarded camp of Black Kettle, chief of a big band of the Cheyenne tribe. The soldiers slaughtered the pony herd, and captured fifty women and children, and set fire to the Indians’ buffalo-hide tents. Custer, however, not for the first time, had committed a military blunder, and overlooked another camp of Indians about a mile away. These Indians counter-attacked and cut-off and killed Major Elliott and fourteen of his men. The rest of the regiment rode away in safety. There were no more major battles for the regiment for some years. They patrolled the West, protecting Indians from the settlers and more than once rescuing the Indians from the settlers. The men mostly fairly newly arrived immigrants from Germany or Ireland, got sixteen dollars a month pay, and seem to have spent most of it on drink. The officers went on hunting trips. There is a photograph of Custer, his officers and their ladies on a picnic, taken only a few weeks before their last battle in June 1876.
About 1870 Myles Keogh broke his leg in a fall from his horse. He went home to Ireland, for what proved to be his last visit. He stayed with his brother Tom at Park House, (now the home of Mr & Mrs Jimmy Walshe and family) a couple of miles from Carlow town. In one of his letters to Tom he mentions his farewell at Carlow station. Myles became engaged to a Miss Martin, of Auburn, New York.
Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse
In 1876 Custer was 37, and Myles Keogh was 36. A big campaign was launched against the Indians in the Black Hills in what are now Montana and North and South Dakota. The Indians had managed to organize their scattered bands and tribes into a great confederation led by Sitting Bull, who was an organizer - a sort of primitive prime minister, and Crazy Horse, who was more of a fighting commander.
Battle of the Little Bighorn
Custer’s 7th Cavalry was part of a force, which came up the Yellowstone River by steamboat, with the intention of striking south into the Indian Territory. Another contingent was to come up from the south. The idea was to pinch the Indians between the two advancing armies. The cavalry unit was to scout ahead of the southbound force and try and make contact with the Indians. Attack was not their job, although they were offered Gatling guns to take with them. Custer refused the heavy machine guns, although he had evidently already determined to attack the Indians if he could find them. Due to personal difficulties he was badly in need of a spectacular victory, which would make it impossible for the U.S. government to proceed with a possible court-martial.
With their leader in this state of mind, the 7th U.S. Cavalry pressed south through the hills. The track of large bands of Indians was found, heading westwards, and the cavalry turned right to follow it. After a long night march through the hills of Montana, Custer located a large Indian camp about ten miles to the northwest, in the valley of a stream called The Little Bighorn.
He divided his force into three battle groups. The largest group he retained under his own command, with Myles Keogh as group second-in-command as well as commander of ‘I’ troop. Major Benteen’s group was to swing out far to the left, to come in on the village from the southwest. Captain Reno’s group was to come up from the south, and Custer himself would ride in from the northeast. The three groups separated but shortly after, Custer sent back Trumpeter Martini with a message to send on some extra ammunition packhorses. Martini reported that Custer could see the smoke of the Indians’ camp, had swung his ten gallon hat against his thigh, with a cry of ‘Custer’s luck!’ and had led his two hundred or so men off to attack their prey. Martini was the last white man to see Custer or his men alive.
Benteen’s command ran into heavy opposition from Indians in trees soon after they separated. Reno was ambushed in woods and was lucky to get half his men out alive. Reno made it ahead of the Indians to a high bluff, where he was soon joined by Benteen’s force. The two groups suffered casualties as they held the position against the fire of Indians armed with repeating rifles. Suddenly, about three o’clock in the afternoon, the Indians disappeared. The hard-pressed soldiers were relieved - until they heard heavy firing from the northeast. It was realized that this was Custer’s force engaging the enemy, and an attempt was made to send ‘D’ Company to make contact. After going forward about a mile and a half, the men of ‘D’ Company could see Indians milling about on high ground some miles away, but all firing had stopped. They withdrew and reported to Benteen and Reno.
Custer’s Last Stand
They didn’t know it, but the firing was the battle later to become famous as Custer’s Last Stand. The firing ceased when all Custer’s command, including a medical officer, a war correspondent and a nephew of Custer’s, who had come along on holiday, had been killed. The survivors of the 7th Cavalry - Benteen’s and Reno’s men held out on the bluff all night, suffering from thirst, and losing men who attempted to get water for their comrades. In the morning other troops from the main body of the force caught up with them.
But where was Custer? Soon the Americans got a grim answer. A cavalry lieutenant took a party forward to the Indian village, which was now deserted. Across the Little Bighorn on the hillside, the officer saw white objects, scattered in the buffalo grass. He rode over and found the bodies of Custer’s command scattered, dead and scalped all over the hillside. All the bodies had been scalped and mutilated but two - those of Brevet Brigadier General Custer, Lieutenant-Colonel, 7th U. S. Cavalry, and Myles Walter Keogh. Perhaps Keogh escaped mutilation because the Indians, curious about what “medicine” this brave man had brought into battle, found his “Medaglia Pro Petri Sede”, the decoration conferred on him by the Pope. Keogh carried his medal in a leather pouch, which was a common practice with the Plains Indians who were known to save precious relics of medicine in pouches. More than likely they had decided out of respect to leave Keogh’s body and powerful medicine unmolested.
The only living survivor of the battle was found nearby - a buckskin horse, named Comanche, which had been owned by Captain Myles Keogh. The horse was made the subject of a special army order - he was never to be ridden again, he was to be kept as a living memorial to the disaster. Comanche survived the battle for twenty years, and every year took the salute of the regiment on the anniversary of the battle. When he died he was skinned and stuffed, and is now on exhibition in the museum of the University of Kansas. The dead men 206 of all ranks were hastily buried on the hillside. The troops had marched not only without their Gatling guns but also without shovels, and mess tins were used to scrape shallow graves. Later, when the area was pacified, Myles Keogh’s body was disinterred, and shipped east to Auburn, New York, where he was re-buried in the private plot of the family of Miss Martin his fiancée. Miss Martin never married after she lost her Myles, and she laid flowers on his grave every June 25 until 1927, when she died at an advanced age.
What Really Happened
No white man really knows what happened to Custer and the 213 men with him (seven bodies were never found). The fate of the battle group has been reconstructed from Indian accounts, from where the bodies were found, and from what little was seen by the men of ‘D’ Company. Reno and Benteen were much criticized for not going to Custer’s rescue, and a series of court-martials followed the action.
A big factor in the American disaster, aside from Custer’s rashness and incompetence, was the superior firepower as well as vastly greater numbers of the Indians. One of the greatest concentrations of Indians ever gathered on the North American continent was in the Little Bighorn Valley. Some authorities believe there were as many as 12,000 Indians including more than 2,000 warriors in the area. The Sioux and their allies had many repeating rifles, which far outranged the single-shot carbines and .45 revolvers carried by the soldiers. The carbine had a very bad feature - it was hard to extract the cartridge after firing, and the soldier had to use his jack-knife to prise out the empty case. Although a brewery published a famous print, showing the Indians galloping around the Americans on the hill, this is not accurate. They surrounded them, and crawled up under cover, firing as they came. Only when all the soldiers were killed or wounded did they rush forward and finish them off.
Eyewitness testimony by several Indians suggest that Custer might have been killed or severely wounded on the charge down Medicine Tail Coulee and carried to the ridge. Had that been true Keogh as senior Captain would have assumed command. The Indians have immortalized Myles Keogh in their tradition of oral history. In the ensuing years, a number of battle participants related their personal observations of the exploits of this soldier of fortune. The Northern Cheyenne Two Moon said of Keogh “We circled all around them - swirling like water round a stone. We shoot, we ride fast, we shoot again. Soldiers drop, but one man rides up and down the line - all the time shouting. He was a brave man”. And in 1881, the respected Sioux chief of the Great Council Lodge, Red Horse, offered his praise when he said: “The Sioux for a long time fought many brave men of different people, but the Sioux say that this officer was the bravest man that they ever fought. This officer wore a large brimmed hat and a deerskin coat. This officer saved the lives of many soldiers by turning his horse and covering their retreat”. The officer was Myles Keogh.
In 1877, Fort Keogh was established in honour of Myles Keogh on the south bank of the Yellowstone River just west of Miles City, Montana. It was from this fort that General Nelson Miles compelled the Sioux and Cheyenne to finally surrender, and from where he marched to engage Chief Joseph in the Battle of Bear Paw Mountain.
So there you are - that’s the story behind the stained glass window in Tinryland. It is also the story behind the regimental march of the modern 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, which is ‘Garryowen’. There is a strong tradition that the tune was suggested to Custer by the Carlow-born Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Captain Myles W. Keogh.
This feature by Liam Byrne and Maureen Byrne was compiled from the following sources:
"Myles Walter Keogh" by John Monahan, late husband of Amy Monahan of Castletown;
"The Bravest Man the Sioux Ever Fought" by Thom Hatch, (published in True West 1999);
Comanche by David Dary - (The University of Kansas Museum of Natural History).