'Born a Soldier': Myles Walter Keogh - Part 3 of 3: Riding With Custer Into Eternity

By Brian C. Pohanka

The veil which conceals the future seems to be removed, and a glance, short and fleeting as the lightning flash, is permitted us into the gloomy valley before us.
       -- From Charles Lever's 'Charles O'Malley, the Irish Dragoon' (Dublin, 1841)

The story of the 7th Cavalry and its controversial field commander, George Custer, has been so shrouded in legend that it is sometimes difficult to sort fact from fiction. For instance, it is highly unlikely that Keogh had anything to do with the rollicking Irish ballad "Garryowen" becoming the 7th Cavalry's theme song. Custer had heard that spirited march on many occasions, dating back to his tenure as a cadet at West Point, and knew that it lent itself to the prancing gait of the cavalry mounts. While some writers have portrayed Keogh as a Custer intimate, their relationship, though outwardly cordial, was at best ambivalent. On one occasion, Keogh's junior officer, Lieutenant Charles Brewster, advised Custer that Keogh was "not friendly" toward him. And for his part, Custer revealed his opinion of Keogh in a letter to his wife Libbie: "I do think him rather absurd," Custer wrote, "but would rather have him near us than many others."

Above, Capt. Myles W. Keogh, Co. I, 7th U.S. Cavalry, wearing the full dress uniform, 1872. Image courtesy of Little Bighorn Battlefield

In fact, Keogh witnessed few of Custer's exploits on the frontier. The Captain was absent on staff duty during the winter campaign of 1868 that culminated in the 7th Cavalry's attack on Black Kettle's encampment at the Washita. From 1871 to early 1873 the regiment was widely dispersed on Reconstruction Duty in the South, and Keogh rarely served at the same place as Custer. In the summer of 1873, while Custer was fighting the Sioux and Cheyennes on the Yellowstone River, Keogh's company was detached to the Canadian border as part of an Army escort to the Northern Boundary Survey. And the next summer, as Custer led his controversial expedition through the Black Hills, Keogh was enjoying a welcome seven-months leave of absence among his family in Ireland. It was the second time he had been able to return to his birthplace since joining the 7th Cavalry, and it was during this sojourn among his beloved family that Myles deeded his inheritance of the Clifden estate in Kilkenny to his sister Margaret.

Below, Keogh stands beside George Custer in a photo taken during a picnic near Fort Lincoln in the summer of 1875. Though Keogh appears shorter than Custer, he is actually leaning forward and, at just over six feet, was two inches taller than his commander. Custer's wife, Libbie, sits at center.

Courtesy of Little Bighorn Battlefield

These visits to Ireland meant a great deal to Keogh, who since his parents' deaths felt deeply the obligation of supporting his sisters, in particular, to the best of his ability. The isolation of military duty on the Western frontier often weighed heavily upon him, and when depressed he occasionally drank to excess, though he seems not to have fallen prey to the chronic alcoholism that destroyed the careers of many fellow officers of the frontier Regular Army. There was more than a tinge of melancholy in Keogh's nature, which seemed somehow at odds with his handsome, dashing persona. While he was not given to self-analysis, Keogh once noted, "A certain lack of sensitiveness is necessary to be successful. . . . This lack of sensitiveness I, unfortunately, do not inherit."

Soon after rejoining his company at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, in the summer of 1875, Keogh was bedridden with what a surgeon diagnosed as "remittent fever and severe nervous prostration." He was bothered by old injuries -- a broken ankle and torn ligaments in his knee that had never entirely mended -- and his fever was likely malaria he had contracted during his wartime imprisonment. But it may not be incorrect to assume that depression, or what was termed "melancholia" in the 19th century, played a part in Keogh's illness. Over Custer's objections, the Captain was granted another month's leave, this time to visit Louisville, Kentucky, where he stayed at the home of Dr. John Arvid Ouchterlony -- a brilliant Swedish-born physician whom Keogh had befriended during Reconstruction duty. On October 14, 1875, Keogh returned to Fort Lincoln, and from that day until his death was present for duty with Custer and the 7th Cavalry.

The scene of Keogh's death at Little Bighorn was photographed three years after the battle. By then his remains had been removed to Auburn, New York. 

Courtesy of Little Bighorn Battlefield

Myles Keogh seems to have sensed that the 1876 campaign would be his last, and death was very much on his mind in the days preceding the 7th Cavalry's departure from Fort Lincoln. He gave copies of his will to several comrades, including Lieutenant Nowlan, and took out a $10,000 life insurance policy. Keogh also left a satchel of personal papers with Mrs. Eliza Porter, the wife of Company I's Lieutenant James Porter, and instructed her to burn them should he be killed. Finally, Keogh wrote what would be his last letter to Nelly Martin, concluding:

"We leave Monday on an Indian expedition & if I ever return I will go on and see you all. I have requested to be packed up and shipped to Auburn in case I am killed, and I desire to be buried there. God bless you all, remember if I should die -- you may believe that I loved you and every member of your family -- it was a second home to me."

Perhaps the strongest testimony to Keogh's bravery and leadership ability came at Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. The senior captain among the five companies wiped out with Custer that day, and commanding one of two squadrons within the Custer detachment, Keogh died in a "last stand" of his own, surrounded by the men of Company I. When the sun-blackened and dismembered dead were buried three days later, Keogh's body was found at the center of a group of troopers that included his two sergeants, company trumpeter and guidon bearer. The slain officer was stripped but not mutilated, perhaps because of the "medicine" the Indians saw in the Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God") he wore on a chain about his neck. Keogh's left knee had been shattered by a bullet that corresponded to a wound through the chest and flank of his horse, "Comanche," indicating that horse and rider may have fallen together prior to the last rally. The badly injured animal was found on the fatal battlefield and nursed back to health as a regimental mascot.

Myles Keogh with three of the Martin girls in Auburn, New York, early 1870s. Emily and Nellie are standing, Lylie is seated. Click here for a more detailed view. (88.0KB).

Image courtesy of George Martin

No one felt Keogh's death more keenly than his surrogate family, the Martins of "Willowbrook." When the remains of Custer and his officers were exhumed in the summer of 1877, they saw to it that Keogh's remains were reinterred in the family plot at Auburn, where he had wished to be. "I trust we shall be able to carry out his desire," Evy Martin Alexander wrote, "& lay him to rest by the side of my dear little children, one of whom knew & loved 'Uncle Keogh' & was dearly loved by him."

This sentimental soldier of fortune was buried during a cold drizzle on the afternoon of October 25, 1877, followed to the grave by many who cared for him. Their thoughts were typified by Andrew Alexander, who said of his old comrade: "A hero in battle, he was as tender as a woman to those he loved. . . . Those who had the honor of his friendship will mourn his loss as long as they live." Keogh's elegant memorial stone bears the record of his military service and a fitting epitaph from the pen of poet Bayard Taylor:

Sleep soldier!
Still in honored rest
Your truth and valor wearing 
The bravest are the tenderest
The loving are the daring.

Part 1: From Carlow to America's Civil War

Part 2: Conquering The South and The Plains

About the Author

Though primarily known for his Civil War interests, as a writer and editor for Time-Life Books, consultant on several films, and Series Consultant for the A&E/History Channel Network's Civil War Journal, the late Brian Pohanka also had a longtime interest in the Battle of Little Bighorn. He wrote and lectured on the topic of "Custer's Last Stand," took part in several archaeological surveys of the battlefield, and was a member of the Little Big Horn Associates and the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association. Pohanka was also among the foremost experts on Zouaves in the American Civil War, and was the creator of the web site of Co. A, 5th New York Volunteers Infantry re-enactment unit, which he commanded.

Bibliographical Notes

Though much has been written of Myles Keogh, many of those accounts have been romanticized, poorly researched and inaccurate. The following are recommended for their depth and accuracy of research:

Berkeley, G.F.H. "The Irish Battalion in the Papal Army of 1860." Talbot Press Ltd., Dublin and Cork, 1929.

Hammer, Kenneth. "Men with Custer: Biographies of the 7th Cavalry : June 25, 1876 ." Hardin, MT, Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association, 1995.

Hayes-McCoy, G.A. "Captain Myles Walter Keogh, United States Army 1840-1876 (O'Donnell... ." National University of Ireland, Galway, 1965.

Langellier, J.P., Cox, K.H. and Pohanka, B.C., eds. "Myles Keogh: The Life and Legend of an Irish Dragoon in the Seventh Cavalry." Upton & Sons Publishers, El Segundo, CA, 1991; 2d edition, 1998.

Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood. "His Very Silence Speaks: Comanche--The Horse Who Survived Custer's ... ." Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1989.

Myres, Sandra L,, ed. "Cavalry Wife: The Diary of Eveline M. Alexander, 1866-1867 ." Texas A & M University Press, College Station and London, 1977.

Snedeker, Lenora. "Memories at Willowbrook." Oxford, NY, 1995.

Taunton, Francis B. "The Man Who Rode Comanche." The English Westerners Society, London, 1965.

Utley, Robert M., ed. "Life in Custer's Cavalry: Diaries and Letters of Albert and Jennie ... ." Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1977.


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-- Brian C. Pohanka

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