Adolf Hitler and the Battle of Little Bighorn

Popular depiction of 'Custer's Last Stand'

Popular depiction of ‘Custer’s Last Stand’

You may not think the words in the headline above belong in the same sentence, but history throws up some intriguing links sometimes. This one caught my eye a while back, but I think now is a fitting time to share it.

We’re fast approaching the 140th anniversary of, arguably, America’s most ignominious military defeat. It was on June 25, 1876, that a bunch of ‘savages’ under Chief Sitting Bull aninhilated the command of the charismatic, vainglorious Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

‘Custer’s Last Stand’, as it became known in the media, was portrayed as a noble fight in which over 200 men lost their lives fighting a force of approximately 2,000 Indian warriors.

The iconic image of the day was of Custer, his golden locks flowing in the wind, standing shoulder to shoulder with his men as they tried to stem the advancing horde of blood-lusting Indians.

The soldiers were portrayed as brave souls who stood their ground against overwhelming odds. As potent as that image was, it ignored evidence that the battle was a much messier affair, with several  little ‘last stands’ taking place at various points of the battlefield.

Captain Myles Keogh

Captain Myles Keogh

Captain Myles Keogh, the commander of I Company (one of five companies to be wiped out on that day), led one such ‘stand’ in which men actually fought shoulder to shoulder.

Keogh was a Carlow man who had served with distinction in the Papal wars, had been an officer of the Vatican Guard and had then gone on to fight with the Union side in the American Civil War, ending his service as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Keogh’s body was said to have been found at the centre of a group of troopers that included his two company sergeants, his trumpeter and his guidon bearer.

Like his comrades, he had been stripped of his clothing, but not mutilated, perhaps because of the religious medal he wore around his neck.

The spot where Captain Myles Keogh fell on the battlefield

The spot where Captain Myles Keogh fell on the battlefield

Keogh’s horse, Commanche, was later celebrated throughout America as being the only survivor found on the battlefield. He had been badly wounded but would survive the ordeal and live out his final years at Fort Riley, Kansas.

But what has any of this got to do with that little Austrian Corporal Adolf Hitler, I hear you ask. Well, it so happens that Myles Keogh’s grandnephew was one Michael Keogh, a man with just as interesting a military pedigree as his late relation.

Keogh, an ardent republican, had enlisted in the British Army in 1913. He became a POW during the war, joined the Irish Brigade and then later enlisted in the German Army as he felt the Germans could advance the republican cause in Ireland.

He rose to the rank of Field Lieutenant. In his regiment he met a certain Lance Corporal called Adolf Hitler. He actually saw Hitler on a stretcher when he was wounded at Ligny in 1916.

After the war, Keogh joined the Freikorps, an early fascist organisation sworn to smash Communism. He was duty officer at a Munich barracks when he was called to quell a riot that had erupted in a gym.

Michael Keogh

Michael Keogh

When he got there a crowd of some 200 soldiers were busy beating two men to a pulp.  Some of the attackers held bayonets and it seemed to Keogh that the two victims were about to die.

He ordered his men to fire a volley over the heads of the mob. The crowd dispersed and Keogh managed to drag the two victims out of the gym “cut, bleeding and in need of the doctor”.

Keogh recalled: “The fellow with the moustache gave his name as Adolf Hitler. It was the Lance Corporal of Ligny. I would not have recognised him. He was thin and emaciated from his wounds.”

After the war he’d say: “If we’d been a few minutes later or Hitler had got a few more kicks to his old wounds or he’d been shot — what would have happened if we hadn’t intervened and he’d died?”

It’s a fascinating story that would torment Keogh for the rest of his life.

In his memoirs, Keogh also refers to a time when he was undergoing military training in America before World War I while doing service with the National Guard. He tells of how he was on a mounted infantry course at Ft. Riley and that he actually rode Commanche (who was then, according to Keogh, 34 years old).

It was the image of the young Michael Keogh riding the only mount left standing on the bloody field of the Little Bighorn that got me writing this post. The notion of the grandnephew (and Hitler’s saviour) riding his granduncle’s horse was fascinating.

Unfortunately, in my research for this article I encountered one small problem with Michael Keogh’s memoir (With Casement’s Irish Brigade)  – namely that Commanche died aged 29 years in either 1890 or 1891. Michael Keogh was born in 1891.

This incongruity is not to suggest that anything else in Michael’s memoir is suspect. I think what happened was quite prosaic… Michael may have told those at Ft Riley about his illustrious relative. Possibly, somebody there spun a yarn about Commanche being still alive and let Michael ride her for ‘old time’s sake’.

It’s a pity, because it would have tied two strands of history even closer together. Even without the Commanche connection, though, it’s a remarkable thing that two members of the same Carlow family could have been involved with such famous figures during such pivotal moments from history.

History with a twist, indeed…

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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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25 Responses to Adolf Hitler and the Battle of Little Bighorn

  1. Coincidentally, my husband and I toured the Little Bighorn battlefield last week. Thirty-some years ago, when I first toured the site, the battlefield told only the government story. Now the Indian story is given its due. The result is a much more poignant tale. A peace ceremony is held there every June 25, on the anniversary of the battle.

  2. nancyhvest says:

    David, I enjoyed this story. It is unexpected that two people in the same family who be present in two important parts of history.

  3. mtsu1984 says:

    Another good story ruined by evidence, I see. At least he didn’t claim he tried to kill Hitler. Also, I hope he wasn’t one of the people who pulled tail hairs out of the stuffed Comanche at the University of Kansas. His tail was almost completely gone before they put him in a glass case. Thanks for an anecdote about how the legend almost became a fact.

  4. A great story, David. And see how close we came on several occasions to having Hitler wiped out of history before he rose to world tyranny.

  5. carolkean says:

    Reblogged this on carolkean and commented:
    What if–? “What would have happened if we hadn’t intervened and he’d died?” As C.S. Lewis’s lion told the kids in Narnia (in the last book), that’s not for us to know. It’s what makes time travel so treacherous. It “would torment Keogh for the rest of his life.”

  6. Susan Sloate says:

    Excellent post! Thank you so much! It’s amazing to me how much history tends to ‘fold in’ on itself, with extraordinary coincidences (or whatever) that tie together two important periods. And as a novelist who’s written alternative history myself (FORWARD TO CAMELOT), I love this stuff! (PS – Know the tie between I LOVE LUCY and Captain Kirk? Well–STAR TREK as a TV pilot had been turned down by most of the people at one Hollywood TV production company, but during a meeting, the president looked at it and liked it and said, “Let’s do it.” The president was Lucille Ball, who had taken over the presidency of Desilu after she and Desi Arnaz divorced. So Trekkies owe a big debt of gratitude to the redhead. Just sayin’.)

  7. Ol' Big Jim says:

    Reblogged this on olbigjim and commented:
    David Lawlor, the author of the infinitely readable TAN and THE GOLDEN GRAVE here tells us a wonderful tale from our history. If you haven’t read Lawlor’s books, check them out. You can find my reviews of both books right here on this very blog.

  8. Grace says:

    Great story – what if Hitler hadn’t been saved…

  9. Gerald says:

    War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  10. celticbrighid says:

    Great post. I loved this article. Its so interesting to learn some of the beginnings of well known people throughout history, no matter how awful the human being. As for Hitler. Sad part was some of the Irish people like a lot of others in the world had no idea what kind of man he was nor the devastation and atrocities that would be committed in his name until it was too late. There were others in Ireland who supported Hitler’s regime not knowing any better. I’m sure if they knew what we know now they never would have supported the whole party.

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