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The Catholic Hero of Custer's Last Stand: The Vatican Soldier at the Battle of Little Bighorn, Lt. Col. Myles Keogh

    In this post you will learn

Have you ever heard about the Catholic hero of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Lt. Col. Myles Keogh? Odds are, probably not. 

George Armstrong Custer is the hero of Little Bighorn, right? It was Custer that made the "last stand" in the massacre that became Little Bighorn ... right? 

Not according to the only surviving eyewitnesses to the battle: the Sioux. 

Custer was not the only man who wore a buckskin coat at the Battle of Little Bighorn. There was another. 

This other soldier also wore medals of valor given to him, not by the U. S. Army, but by the pope.

These medals and Keogh's courage accorded him a special honor in death. 

All of which giving rise to the ...

Legend of the Medal. 

The Decline of American Heroes

These days, we are being told that there were no American heroes, especially in the Indian Wars following the Civil War. I deeply distrust this movement to emasculate American heroes. However, I'm not going to make my "last stand" defending George Armstrong Custer. Custer had some issues.

All this revisionist history aside, there remain enduring measures of heroism ... and lesser measures. 

Custer's fame was due, in large part, to Wild West shows and beer advertisements. In the decades following Little Bighorn, barrooms across America were festooned with grand paintings of Custer's Last Stand. Budweiser literally painted the legend of Custer. 

Perhaps one of the greatest ways to measure valor in battle is the treatment accorded a soldier by his enemies. This is how we can measure Myles Keogh. More on this in a minute ...     

Lt. Col. Myles Keogh and Pope Pius IX

Lt. Col. Myles Walter Keogh is a fascinating, but relatively unknown Catholic historical figure. He was an Irish immigrant to the United States, but his path to America ran first through Italy.

In 1860, Myles Keogh was 20 years old. He volunteered, along with over one thousand of his Irish countrymen, to defend the pope. Catholic clergy in Ireland issued a call to arms to defend Pope Pius IX.

Pope Pius IX, now Blessed Pope Pius IX, is considered by both his enemies and his supporters to be the most influential pope of the 19th century. It was Pius IX who issued Ineffabilis Deus formally and finally defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854. 

At that time, the pope ruled over, not just religious matters, but an Italian kingdom of lands and people: the Papal States. 

The Papal States were under attack by Italian nationalists and Freemasons, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini. Garibaldi and Mazzini had initially pledged their loyalty to Pope Pius IX, who attempted to help unite Italy, but these Freemasons later betrayed the pope and led their armies to attack the Papal states.    

Keogh and his Irish countrymen fought in defense of these Papal States. Keogh was eventually promoted to second lieutenant of the Battalion of St. Patrick and posted at Ancona, a central port city of Italy.[1] 

The Battalion of St. Patrick! Who wouldn't want to serve in that unit? You can read more about them here

In September 1860, the papal forces at Ancona were surrounded and the pope's army was defeated in the Battle of Castelfidardo. As many as 100 Irish soldiers in the Battalion of St. Patrick were killed or wounded during those few weeks of the siege of Ancona. Despite their admirable defense of Ancona, the Battalion of St. Patrick was forced to surrender, and Keogh was imprisoned at Genoa. 

This would not be the last time Myles Keogh found himself surrounded in battle.

Keogh was soon released in a prisoner exchange, and he traveled to Rome. In Rome, he was invited to wear the bright green uniforms of the Company of St. Patrick as a member of the Vatican Guard. 

Pope Pius IX Awards Medals to Myles Keogh

During his continued service, Pope Pius IX awarded Keogh a medal (medaglia) for gallantry: the Pro Petri Sede Medal. Pius IX also knighted Keogh, giving him the Cross of a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great (Ordine di San Gregorio). 

Below are the actual medals awarded to Keogh, the Order of St. Gregory the Great Cross (left) and the Pro Petri Sede Medal (right):[2]
Don't be disturbed by the upside-down cross! That's the Pro Petri Sede Medal - the Cross of St. Peter. Remember, St. Peter asked to be crucified upside-down, because he didn't believe himself worthy to be crucified like Jesus. 

The face of the St. Peter medal is circumscribed with the words Pro Petri Sede, which means "For the seat of Peter." The front of the medal also bears the inscription "PIO*IX*P*M*A*XV," meaning "Pius IX, Pontifex Maximus, 15th year," or the "15th year of the reign of Pope Pius IX," i.e. 1860. The reverse of the medal is circumscribed with Victoria Ovae Vincit Mundum Fides Nostra, which means "The victory of our flock conquers the world with our faith." 

Myles Keogh, Civil War Hero 

The fighting was soon over, and the Vatican receded to what it is today, more or less - a city-state. Keogh's duties as a member of the Vatican Guard were too mundane for the young soldier. 

Meanwhile, civil war had broken out in America. Lincoln's Secretary of State William H. Seward was seeking experienced European officers to serve the woefully inexperienced Union Army. Seward called upon a number of prominent Catholic priests to help him. John Hughes, the Archbishop of New York, journeyed to Rome to recruit the veterans of the war of the Papal States. There, he met with Keogh and the remnants of the Battalion of St. Patrick. 

In March 1862, Keogh boarded the steamer Kangaroo for New York City along with his senior officer, Daniel J. Keily of Waterford.  

Keogh under General Shields and McClellan

Keogh, Keily, and another Papal comrade, Joseph O'Keeffe, the 19-year-old nephew of the Bishop of Cork, Ireland, were given the rank of captains on April 15 in Washington, D.C. They were assigned to the staff of Irish-born Brigadier General James Shields. 

A competent enough general, Shields was, unfortunately, about to confront a Confederate army led by a tactical genius. None other than Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. 

Shields confronted Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley at the Battle of Port Republic. The Union was defeated, but Keogh acquitted himself admirably on the battlefield. Keogh impressed no less a personage than George B. McClellan, the Commander of the Potomac Army and an extremely popular general. McClellan described the young Captain:[3] 

His record had been remarkable for the short time he had been in the army. He appeared to be a most gentlemanlike man, of soldierly appearance, and I was exceedingly glad to have him as an aide.

McClellan requested that Keogh be transferred to his personal staff. Though only with McClellan a few months, Keogh served McClellan during his most difficult trial, the Battle of Antietam. 

Unfortunately, McClellan failed to turn a technical victory into a decisive victory by refusing to pursue Robert E. Lee's retreating army. Lincoln removed the general from command, a difficult decision owing to McClellan's popularity. Based on this popularity, McClellan would later run as the Democratic nominee for President against Lincoln in 1864. Again, McClellan would be defeated.

This would not be the last time Keogh served an extremely popular, though ultimately doomed, commander.  

Keogh at Gettysburg

In November 1862, Keogh and his Papal brother-in-arms, Joseph O'Keeffe, were reassigned to General John Buford's staff. There, they would skirmish against another brilliant Confederate tactician, Lee's cavalry commander J. E. B. "Jeb" Stuart. 

Jeb Stuart's cavalier image may have inspired future cavalry leaders, like Custer, himself. Stuart wore a red-lined gray cape, the yellow waist sash of a regular cavalry officer, a hat cocked to one side plumed in ostrich feathers, and red flower in his lapel, not to mention copious amounts of cologne.

On June 30, Keogh's skirmishes with Jeb Stuart reached a climax as Buford's cavalry rode into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Buford quickly defended key strategic points, the high ground of the battlefield, which proved decisive in the Union Army's eventual victory over Lee's army on July 4, 1863.    

Though victorious at Gettysburg, Buford's constant skirmishing against Jeb Stuart took its toll. Despite Keogh never leaving his commander's side, Buford finally succumbed to typhoid. 

Keogh as a Prisoner of War

Keogh was again reassigned to serve under General George Stoneman, Chief of Cavalry, Army of the Potomac, who would say of Keogh: 

Major Keogh is one of the most superior young officers in the army and is a universal favorite with all who know him.

General Stoneman led risky cavalry raids behind enemy lines in Georgia. He was attempting to liberate Union prisoners of war in Macon and the infamous Andersonville prison. Keogh eventually became a prisoner of war, himself. 

Keogh Joins the 7th Cavalry

On July 28, 1866, Keogh was promoted to Captain and reassigned to the 7th Cavalry at Ft. Riley in Kansas. There, Keogh took command of Company I. The 7th Cavalry Regiment was commanded by Colonel Andrew Smith until Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis assumed command in 1869.[4] 

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer would become the regiment's deputy commander.[5] Pictured below are Custer (left/top) and the officers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry (right/bottom): 

Keogh, Custer, & The Indian Wars

Keogh did not serve under Custer during the Battle of Washita (1868), the Yellowstone Expedition (1873), or the Black Hills campaign (1874). While the Battle of Washita is considered the first real victory in the Southern Plains War, it was during this battle that Custer massacred women and children. Custer had adopted the total war military tactics encouraged by General Philip H. Sheridan. The quote "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" has been attributed to Sheridan. 

Maybe the Battle of Washita or the Black Hills campaign would have turned out differently had Keogh been present, maybe not. Regardless, Keogh's record is mercifully unstained by any massacre of women and children.  

As 1867 progresses, Keogh was fighting Indians almost every day while on expedition with Alfred Sully, another commander infamous for leading Indian massacres. It was in one such fight that Keogh's new horse, Comanche, received his first wound and, as the story goes, his name.[3] Comanche would remain Keogh's loyal mount even through the Battle of Little Bighorn.   

Keogh's Last Stand, the Battle of Little Bighorn

On June 25, 1876, Myles Keogh died during the Battle of Little Bighorn. Keogh was the senior captain among the five cavalry companies that were wiped out with Custer that day. Keogh commanded one of the two squadrons under Custer's command. 

While it is known as "Custer's Last Stand," it was actually Keogh's Last Stand. Evidence from the battlefield and eyewitnesses suggest that the last surviving troops under Custer's command rallied to Keogh, as Custer died much earlier in the battle.  

One of the only American survivors of Little Bighorn was actually Keogh's own mount, Comanche. More on his hero horse later ... 

Since a horse cannot provide much of an eyewitness account, the only eyewitness accounts available are from Sitting Bull's people, the victors: the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho.

One of the most vivid and thorough eyewitness accounts is not written or even a transcribed interview. It's a series of 42 "ledger art" illustrations by Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior who fought in the battle.[8] 

Caution: Red Horse depicted in vivid detail the mutilated corpses of the American soldiers killed in the battle. Even though they are just drawings, they are still very graphic: 

Red Horse, “Untitled from the Red Horse Pictographic Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn” (1881), graphite, colored pencil, and ink (08570700, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

Not to go into excruciating, gory detail, the accounts of the battle describe that the bodies of all the American soldiers were mutilated ...

Except one. 

Keogh's Last Stand - The Legend of Keogh's Medal

The precise details of Keogh's death will never be fully known, but the testimony of the Sioux agree on one fact in particular: Lt. Col. Myles Keogh was the bravest man they ever fought. Keogh died fighting and encouraging his men to make a last stand, all with Comanche by his side. 

There are differences in the historical accounts. Some even say Sitting Bull, himself, was wearing Myles Keogh's Pro Petri Sede medal around his neck when he was killed by his own Indian Police.[6] 

All the accounts agree on several facts, however. First, Myles Keogh's body was the only body not mutilated. Second, the Sioux treated Keogh's body with respect. The Sioux either did this immediately because of Keogh's great courage in the battle, or began treating Keogh's body with care, once they stripped him and discovered his Catholic medals.[7] 

Some believe the Sioux treated Keogh's body with respect because they viewed the Pro Petri Sede cross medal (sometimes referred to as an "Agnus Dei" medal) as a powerful charm. Other accounts hold that some of the Sioux were actually Catholic converts, and they understood that the medals somehow represented a mark of honor from the Church.  

Keogh died in the true "last stand" of Little Bighorn, surrounded by the men of Company I. When the remaining troops of the 7th Cavalry arrived days later, they found Keogh's body near his horse and surrounded by the dead bodies of his own company, Company I. 

All the dead were buried on the battlefield, but on the October 25, 1877, Keogh's body was re-interred with full military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York. A dignified monument keeps watch over his final, earthly resting place. 

Requiescat in Pace.

"Joe Keough [sic] of Ohio plays the bagpipes Monday commemorating the 125th anniversary of the death of Lt. Col. Myles Keogh at the Battle of Little Big Horn [sic] ..."

"America's Greatest Horse" The Survivor: Keogh's Horse, Comanche

One last amazing detail about Keogh: the sole U.S. survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn was Keogh's horse, Comanche. 

Okay ... some more amazing details: Comanche was one of only four horses in United States history to be given a military funeral with full military honors. Wow! 

Disney even made a movie about Comanche: 1958's Tonka, which was also released as A Horse Named Comanche. The Disney film starred Sal Mineo and was based on David Appel's book. 

You can read more about Comanche here and here from the University of Kansas' Natural History Museum and here

Footnotes Myles Keogh, Catholic Hero of Little Bighorn

[1] The Papal Army was under the command of General Christophe Léon Louis Juchault de Lamoricière. 

[2] The medals pictured are actually those of Myles Keogh. They were sold at auction in 2015 for over $36,000 by Morphy Auctions. Here is the description provided from Morphy Auctions:

The “Pro Petri Sede Medaglia” was taken from the body of Myles Keogh when found June 27, 1876 on the east side of the battle ridge at the Little Big Horn. Myles Keogh is seen wearing these two medals in Civil War photography and during the Indian War. The “Medaglia di Pro Petri Sede” (Pro Petri Medal) was presented to Keogh after the Papal War by Pope Pius IX 1860, he was also awarded the “Ordine di San Gregorio” (St. Gregory Medal). Vatican records confirm these two medals both given to Keogh. The Papal War of 1860 ended with the fall of Ancona where as many as 100 Irish soldiers in the Battalion of St. Patrick were killed or wounded during those few weeks in September. For their service, each officer and enlisted man was awarded the Medal for Gallantry “Pro Petri Sede Medaglia” by Pope Pius IX. The medal is a circular, silvered nickel-silver medal with hollow center with inverted Latin cross. With a circular ring in the form of a scaled mythical creature swallowing it’s own tail, on ornate swivel suspension with ribbon bar; the face circumscribed ‘PRO PETRI SEDE’ (literally ‘for the seat of Peter’, meaning for the Vatican) above and ‘PIO*IX*P*M*A*XV’ (= Pius IX Pontifex Maximus 15th year, for the 15th year of the reign of Pope Pius IX = 1860); the reverse circumscribed ‘VICTORIA OVAE VINCIT MUNDUM FIDES NOSTRA’ (The victory of our flock conquers the world with our faith). These medals were of great importance to Keogh when he lost both in a fire at the famous Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky in 1865. In 1867 Keogh obtained replacement medals. Keogh affirmed he didn’t want to take leave for home in Ireland unless he had both medals with him. The last known photograph of Keogh taken in 1872 shows both medals prominently displayed on his left breast. These two medals of Myles Keogh are extremely well provenanced from direct family descent and lastly, one of the largest historians and authorities of Custer memorabilia, Dr. Elizabeth Lawrence. There are few personal mementos documented from the Custer battlefield that have a more interesting history than Keogh’s Medal for Gallantry “Medaglia di Pro Petri Sede” given him by Pope Pius IX in 1860 while he was fighting with other Irish Catholics in the Battalion of St. Patrick in the Papal Army. There are numerous accounts concerning Keogh’s body being not mutilated due to the fact he was wearing this medal. One of the most comprehensive texts on the Custer battle is Evan Connell’s 1984 Son of the Morning Star where he summarizes several accounts of Keogh’s body and this medal “Captain Myles Keogh had not been disfigured. He lay naked except for his socks, with a Catholic medal around his neck which usually is identified as an Agnus Dei, perhaps because Agnus Dei is a familiar phrase. Romantics describe it as a cross hanging from a golden chain. Almost certainly this medal was kept in a small leather purse or sheath and Keogh most likely wore it suspended by a leather thong or length of cord. It was the Medaglia di Pro Petri Sede awarded to him by Pope Pius IX for service with the Papal Army.” In the most important biography of Keogh, written in 1939 by Edward Luce Keogh, Comanche and Custer. Luce was positive it was “the Pro Petri” medal that he wore and further claimed it was in “… a leather case attached to a cord around his neck…””. Accompanying these medals is a file of correspondence from descendants and Dr. Lawrence concerning medal. It is interesting to note that in a copy of Keogh’s will written just three days prior to his death states his $10,000 life insurance policy and all his personal affects would be given to his sister Margaret Keogh in Ireland. In an article posted online, PROVENANCE: Myles Keogh 7th US Cavalry 1860, Margaret Keogh (sister) Kil Kenny, Ireland 1876, Dr. Desmond Blanchfield Keogh,Carlow, Ireland 1947, Garret Keogh Dublin, Ireland 1988, Dr. Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence 1988, Dr. Robert P. Lawrence 2003. CONDITION: Very good overall. Minor chipping in red enamel on St. Gregory Medal. Suspension ring opened on St. Gregory cross to green enameled wreath which is chipped, missing about 60% of enamel overall. Pro Petri still exhibits some luster, however plating is worn and scratched over much of its surface with small reductions of silver plating on cross as can be seen in photographs. 4-54477 JS (30,000-50,000)

[3] The Honor of Arms: A Biography of Myles W. Keogh, Charles L. Convis, 1990.

[4] Myles Keogh: The Life and Legend of an "Irish Dragoon" in the Seventh Cavalry, John P. Langellier, Kurt Hamilton Cox, Brian C. Pohanka, 1998, ISBN 0-912783-21-4.

[5] "Lt Col George Armstrong Custer – Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument". National Park Service ( 9 May 2019. Retrieved 25 September 2019.

[6] Robert Hollow's The Last Years of Sitting Bull states that Sitting Bull's crucifix was given to him by Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, the missionary priest of the northern plains. No mention is made of the St. Peter's cross medal in this account.

Hollow, Robert C., and Herbert Theodore Hoover, The Last Years of Sitting Bull, North Dakota Heritage Center, State Historical Society of North Dakota, North Dakota Heritage Center, 1985

[7] Lt. Edward S. Godfrey, who was present at the Battle of Little Bighorn, told artist E.S. Paxson in 1896 that Koegh's medal had not been removed. Trumpeter Martini, the last man to get out, insisted Benteen took the medal. Certain historians provide Keogh with two medals: one around his neck, another in his pocket. This is conceivable because the Pope awarded him, as a mark of special favour, the Cross of the Order of St. Gregory. Whatever the exact truth most scholars agree that he had the Pope's medal, and that it kept his corpse from being abused. Another historian records that the Pro Petri Sede medal was recovered by Captain Henry J. Nowlan, 7th Cavalry.

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 or because "many of Sitting Bull's warriors" were Catholic. Keogh's left knee had been shattered by a bullet that corresponded to a wound through the chest and flank of his horse, indicating that horse and rider may have fallen together prior to the last rally.

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  1. I am not a fan of revisionist history. At 66 years of age with only a basic knowledge of what happened at the Little Big Horn including a visit to that remote location I have never considered Custer a hero. The massive loss of life that day was solely his responsibility.

    1. Agreed. Revising history to match the truth is good. Marxist approaches to history revise history based on power, not truth. That's a corruption of history.