Little Big (Irish)man

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2005), News, Volume 13

Little Big (Irish)man  1KEOGH, Myles Walter (1840–76), soldier, was born 25 March 1840 at Orchard House, Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, son of John Keogh, farmer, and Margaret Keogh (née Blancheville). Educated at the local school in Leighlinbridge, he left Ireland in 1860 to serve in the papal army. Commissioned second lieutenant in the Irish battalion in August 1860, he fought with distinction at the siege of Ancona. He left the papal service in February 1862 and was awarded the Medaglia di Pro Petri Sede and the Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope Pius IX for his war service.
He then travelled to America, where the civil war was raging, hoping to obtain a commission in the Union army. Armed with letters of introduction from Irish-American friends, Keogh and several other Irish ex-papal officers petitioned officials at the War Department. Commissioned captain in April 1862, he was made ADC to Dungannon-born Brig.-Gen. James Shields, and subsequently served as ADC to Generals McClellan, Buford and Stoneman. He was present at over 80 engagements, including the battle of Gettysburg (1–3 July 1863), when he fought with Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division. Captured in July 1864 with Stoneman while on a raid to Atlanta, he was imprisoned in Charleston, SC. He was later exchanged and served until the end of the war.
Brevetted lieutenant colonel in April 1866, he was demobilised but succeeded in gaining a regular army commission as a second lieutenant in the 4th US Cavalry. In July 1866 he transferred into the newly formed 7th Cavalry with the rank of captain. This élite regiment, commanded by Gen. George Armstrong Custer, served in frontier stations throughout the late 1860s and early 1870s. In March 1870 Keogh was given command of I Troop. Keogh’s career remains inextricably linked with that of Custer, and he served with him during his last campaign in the summer of 1876. He was with Custer’s battalion at the Little Big Horn River in the Montana Territory on 25 June 1876 and, as the second most senior officer present, commanded the right-wing column of three troops. There has been much debate as to what occurred when Custer engaged the Indian forces just after 3pm that day, and, as he and all his men were killed, some doubt must remain. Modern research and archaeological evidence suggest that Keogh and his men fought tenaciously and were killed while trying to reach Custer’s final position after the right wing collapsed.
On 27 June 1876 members of Gen. Terry’s column reached the Little Big Horn battlefield and began identifying bodies. Keogh was found with a small group of his men, surrounded by the evidence of a fierce fight. His was one of the few bodies that had not been mutilated, apparently owing to a papal or religious medal that he wore about his neck. Irish-born Lt James Henry Nowlan, a close friend, found Keogh’s horse, Comanche, standing near the body. Comanche, the only army survivor of the battle, was retired and kept with the regiment until his death in 1891; his body was stuffed and is on display at the University of Kansas. Initially buried on the battlefield, Keogh’s remains were disinterred in October 1877 and buried with full military honours in the Throop Martin plot at Auburn cemetery.
He is commemorated on the Little Big Horn battlefield monument and by a monument at Leighlinbridge and a stained-glass window in St Joseph’s Chapel, Tinryland, Co. Carlow. Orchard House is still occupied by members of the Keogh family, and items relating to him, including a dress uniform, are on display in Carlow town museum. Keogh was apparently responsible for introducing the tune ‘Garryowen’ to the 7th Cavalry, and it is still used as a regimental march.

David Murphy is a research assistant with the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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