A century of cavalry horses comes to an end with Chief’s death

Time Before Now, May, 1968 – Richard Nixon was running for president, tennis star, Billy Jean King was at the top of her game and TV’s “Get Smart” (right) bested “Bewitched,” “Family Affair,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and Lucy to win the Emmy for Outstanding  Comedy Series.

  May 24, 1968

On this day, “Chief,” the last operational cavalry horse owned by the U.S. Army died at Fort Riley, Kansas, marking the end of an era stretching back to the opening salvo of the Civil War.

Chief, in retirement at Fort Riley, Kansas

Chief, the last survivor of a trio of retired cavalry mounts at Fort Riley, outlived both “Joe Louis” and “Gambler.”  Purchased from L.A. Parker in Scottsbluff, Nebraska for $163 as a five-year-old gelding, he was mustered into the Army 75 miles north at Nebraska’s historic Fort Robinson,  It was  the military’s largest remount station with hundreds of horses and a large breeding program. 

Yearlings at Fort Robinson during the Remount era.

Remount functions, first overseen by the Cavalry Bureau purchased and supplied all of the Army’s cavalry horses while the Quartermaster General’s Office oversaw draft horses and mules.  

Originally assigned to the Buffalo Soldier’s 10th Cavalry, Chief was then transferred to the 9th Cavalry Regiment.  Deemed “an all-around good cavalry horse,” athletic and even temper,  in 1942 he was promoted to  Advanced Cavalry Charger and sent to the U.S. Army Cavalry School.

At the end of WWII, however, the Army discontinued its general equestrian training program.  Horses under the age of 16 were sold at auction and about 100 older horses were retired.  Chief spent his remaining 18 years at the Fort Riley Riding Club in a double box stall and a private corral, dying at the grand age of 36.

Buried  in an upright position at the foot of Fort Riley’s “Old Trooper’s” monument (right) with full honors on June 1, his funeral was attended by some 500 mourners.

Chief was one of only of four horses ever given military funerals.  The first was Captain Myles Keogh’s Comanche, the only survivor found on the battlefield at the Little Big Horn.  He died in 1891 at Fort Riley, as well, at the age of 26. 

Comanche found at Battle of the Little Big Horn

Chief’s death was preceded just days earlier on May 13 by that of Sergeant Reckless, the only mare among the four.  A decorated pack horse during the Korean War, Reckless survived 51 solo battlefield missions in a single day, traveling without a handler to resupply the front line with ammunition and evacuate the wounded. 

Sgt. Reckless, Korean War’s decorated pack horse

She was purchased and trained as a pack horse by members of the Marine Recoilless Rifle Platoon.  Awarded two Purple Hearts, the Animals in War & Peace Medal for Bravery and a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, in all Reckless received ten military commendations.

The high spirited “Black Jack,” named in honor of Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, was also one of the Army’s last Quartermaster-issue horses.  Coal black and famous for misbehaving with his riders, he was sent to the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment at Fort Myer, Virginia,  as a “Caparisoned” or riderless horse. 

Photogenic Black Jack at LBJ funeral

In his 29-year military career, Black Jack served  in more than 1,000 full honor Armed Services funerals.   In addition he served in the state funerals of  three presidents; John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson and Five Star General Douglas MacArthur.  Retired soon after  the Johnson funeral in January of 1973, Black Jack died three years later.  His cremated remains were buried in the southeast corner of the Fort Myer parade ground.

While Black Jack may have been a more photogenic riderless horse, he was not the first to be part of a presidential funeral cortège.  Abraham Lincoln’s cart horse, “Old Bob,” draped in black was led behind the President’s hearse by  Henry Brown, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and friend of the Lincoln family.  

Abraham Lincoln’s “Old Bob” followed the hearse.

Lincoln had sold Old Bob to Springfield drayman, John Flynn, in 1860 prior to moving to Washington, D.C.   The horse was reportedly brought out of retirement for Springfield’s celebration marking the end of the Civil War in April of 1865 and again just a month later, May 4, 1865.  Old Bob’s history unfortunately ends there.  No further record appears to exist regarding his fate.

Training for the charge, circa 1890.

The era of the celebrated war horse may have passed but not forgotten.   The United States Army continues the tradition of equestrian units for ceremonial purposes and the Marines resumed equestrian combat training in 2010.

The U.S. Cavalry Museum, Fort Riley, Kansas, is home to 175 years of  the Army’s colorful horse history.  Fort Riley, founded in the early 1850s to protect the Oregon and Sante Fe Trails, is today still an active military installation.  The cavalry’s sweeping past from the Revolutionary War to the 1950s is preserved in artifacts, artwork and monuments.  It was the  last post for George Armstrong Custer before the Battle of the Little Big Horn and the epicenter of “Bleeding Kansas,” the pro-and-anti slavery conflict in a leadup to the Civil War. 

Normally open 9 to 4:30, Monday through Saturday and noon to 4:30, Sunday, visitors might want to put this on a “to do” list for the summer of 2021.  Undergoing renovations,  a temporary exhibit established at Custer House is currently closed due to Covid-19.  For the latest information on visiting Fort Riley, call the Visitor Control Center, (785) 239-2982.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.