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Custer Survivors 101: Preface

The section below is the first installment in the Custer Survivors 101 series.

Preface to Custer Survivors 101: 11 Lone Survivors of the Little Bighorn

Custer was one of the most effective battlefield commanders in the Civil War. He was a successful leader in the first battle of the Civil War, featured prominently in the pivotal cavalry fight at Gettysburg, and was so esteemed at Appomattox that he was given the very table upon which General Lee surrendered. Equally legendary in his own right, his brother Tom was the only person to receive two Medals of Honor during the War Between the States.

Until about the time of the First World War, the US Army would honor Soldiers with a brevet rank similar to awards of commendation or in recognition of heroism. The Army honorary rank was a commission without a raise in pay, but it was normal practice to be addressed with one’s brevet rank and any officer could hold up to four different ranks: Regular Army brevet grade, Volunteer Army brevet grade, or regular ranks in both Armies. George Armstrong Custer held the rank of Major General in the Regular and the Volunteer Armies. Many of his Soldiers and even General Sheridan referred to Custer as General and many scholars to continue to do so as an honorific and in recognition for his gallantry in service during the Civil War. I will refer to him as “General Custer,” the highest title he was recognized with by the US Army and the government.

During the end of Reconstruction in the South, many Americans probably believed they had entered an era of heightened civility. It had been 12 years since the close of the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan had largely been shut down, due in part to General Custer’s efforts, and would stay out of the limelight for another generation. Although there were rumors of war to the West, a period of calm had entered over the North and South. That calm was shattered by the destruction of more than 200 Soldiers under General Custer’s command. Perhaps Custer’s Last Stand would have passed more quietly into history if not for the loss of many well-loved characters from the North’s victory during the recent war. Those feelings of peace, if they existed at all, were destroyed by the news. This was not a Soldier on Soldier kind of war where the enemy also has a uniform. It was not brother against brother. It was the US Army against the Plains Indians.

In the writings on Custer, there seems to be two groups of contemporaries: those who loved him and those who hated him. Much of the fallout from the battle at Little Bighorn was significantly influenced by a cult of personality which shaped reports of the battle, testimony in government inquiries, and print accounts (sometimes in deference to the sensitivities of Custer’s wife, Libby).

Popular fiction long ago embraced Custerology. In Will Henry’s No Survivors, footnotes are provided in such detail that readers are misled to believe that fiction is fact. One author has this to say:

  • Whether as Will Henry or as Clay Fisher, Allen has often made use of a simple but effective device that makes the reader believe he is reading history. In I, Tom Horn it is the discovery of Horn’s handwritten autobiography in a Wyoming cabin; in Pillars of the Sky it is a monument to a forgotten battle; and in No Survivors it is the footnote that explains that what follows is the journal of John Buell Clayton, from the papers of the Clayton family of La Grange, Georgia. In each case the reader is given enough detail to enhance the credibility of the story.1)

The work of Will Henry joins the ranks of almost 4,000 other books forming a body of highly focused historical work concentrating on just one single battle in 19th century America.2) It is arguably one of the most popular subjects for any genre available in print form throughout American history.

There is a degree of integrity given to survivor accounts when they originate from historically-confirmed veterans of the battle. Rain-in-the-Face, the Indian reputed to have been responsible for killing Captain Thomas Custer once stated:

  • One long sword escaped, though; his pony ran off with him and went past our lodges. They told me about it at Chicago. I saw the man there, and I remembered hearing the squaws tell about it after the fight.3)

One Soldier May Have Escaped, Almost

It is plain in Rain-in-the-Face’s account that “they told me about it at Chicago” and Rain saw the man, too. He also remembered the “squaws” talking about the man after the fight. With this one statement, he drew a direct link between the fleeing Soldier from the battle and the man that he and others saw in Chicago. At the onset of the attack on the village from the south, some of MAJ Reno’s cavalrymen lost control of their horses. These men were unwillingly carried far beyond their comrades, some even being swallowed up in the village itself.

But since the site is not identified by Rain-in-the-Face, it’s possible that he was referring to survivor of the Custer column.

There has never been any doubt that some Soldiers, scouts and civilians with the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The mystery enters in when stories surface involving a person who claimed they had directly participated in the Custer column fight or its immediate aftermath.

Many people claimed to have survived Custer’s Last Stand. The overwhelming majority of them are easily dismissed. Author Brian Dippie was able to give a great overview of many survivor claims in his book Custer’s Last Stand The Anatomy of an American Myth. The historian E. A Brininstool was said to have collected over 70 of these claims.

Libby Custer, the wife of General Custer, received dozens of letters from men saying they had survived. Michael Nunnally, another noted Custer historian, collected about 70 stories in his self-published book I Survived Custer’s Last Stand. In my research, I’ve been able to find over 100 unique claims.

Because of the extraordinary nature of Custer’s Last Stand extraordinary confirmation should be required of the account when assessing the validity of any claim to survivorship. If someone is able to reproduce the elements of the fight, it does not qualify them to the distinction of having lived through the event. There must be corroborating testimony, either by another person or through descriptions of an event that are undeniably accurate and largely consistent with other accounts of the battle.

Precisely defining what it means to have survived a battle seems like it should be easy. How long must a person live after some violently destructive event? Five minutes? Five years? In the case of a battle, we often consider a survivor as the person who is able to relate the events surrounding their experience. But with just a little expansion of our definition, we would probably include the wounded, even those so severely injured that they are unable to recall the events leading to their trauma.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn produced a wide array of survivors. General Custer’s part of the battlefield produced a number of men who lived from just mere moments after the shooting stopped to hours, maybe even days, later. The line between being accepted as a survivor in the public eye has to do with many factors that we’ll investigate throughout the rest of the book (such as: witness testimony, battle chronology, geographical details, pay rolls and rosters).

Wooden Leg was a Cheyenne warrior who fought against those on Custer Hill, the place of the Last Stand. After the warriors had killed all of Custer’s men on the hill, Wooden Leg says,

  • It appeared that all of the white men were dead. But there was one of them who raised himself to a support on his left elbow. He turned and looked over his left shoulder, and then I got a good view of him. His expression was wild, as if his mind was all tangled up and he was wondering what was going on here. In his right hand he held his six-shooter. Many of the Indians near him were scared by what seemed to have been a return from death to life. But a Sioux warrior jumped forward, grabbed the six-shooter and wrenched it from the soldier’s grasp. The gun was turned upon the white man and he was shot through the head. Other Indians struck him or stabbed him. I think he must have been the last man killed in this great battle where not one of the enemy got away. This last man had a big and strong body. His cheeks were plump. All over his face was a stubby black beard. His mustache was much longer than his other beard, and it was curled up at the ends. The spot where he was killed is just above the middle of the big group of white stone slabs now standing on the slope southwest from the big stone…. Some Cheyennes say now that he wore two white metal bars. 4)

Aside from the fascinating possibility that this explains the final moments in the life of General Custer, this story presents a Soldier who had, if only for moments, survived the battle. The difference between last to die and the first man to come out of the battle alive is subtle.

At least one Soldier is widely accepted as having fled the battlefield only to take his own life.

  • There was one man who might have escaped. He was a young surgeon named Lord. His body was not found until long afterwards, and it was at first supposed he was a captive. The Indians told me a strange story about Lord’s death. They said that when he saw how things were going he started off. Several young bucks followed him, but he had a good horse and kept ahead of them. Just as they were going to give up the chase and intending to let Lord escape, he drew a pistol and shot himself dead, I suppose he was crazed at the thought of becoming a prisoner.5)

Crow scouts reported “finding the remains of four soldiers six miles from the battlefield a year after the battle.”6)

One of the most important standards by which we judge an account to be historical is credibility. There is usually a witness that can verify the trustworthiness of a claim. Even if it’s the enemy, someone substantiates the story. It’s possible not to have this information and so we depend on the chronological or geographical details in a story to increase our trust in the details.

The only survivors who have stood the test of time and the criticism of their peers are those who belonged to six companies under the leadership of Major (MAJ) Marcus Reno, Captain (CPT) Thomas McDougal, and Captain (CPT) Frederick Benteen. Companies A, B, D, G, H, K, and M came out of the two-day battle with many survivors. A few Soldiers had fallen out from the Custer column for a variety of reasons, most of them likely because their horses became exhausted. They fell back to join B Company in the pack train and came up later in the afternoon to aid Reno and Benteen in their defenses on Reno Hill. About two-thirds of the 7th Cavalry survived the battle of the Little Bighorn.

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The overwhelming majority of Soldiers killed in action during the battle were with General Custer in the vicinity of Custer Hill.

The following biographical snippets unfortunately only represent a fraction of circulated accounts of people claiming to have survived the Battle at Little Bighorn. There were other battle sites from the 25th through the 27th of June, 1876 (Reno Hill or the Timber, for instance), but by using “Last Stand” it is intended here to refer to the particular place on the Little Bighorn River where General Custer’s five companies were destroyed by an overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

The sources documenting these accounts vary in degrees of reliability. Often it is hard to distinguish between the person’s testimony and the trustworthiness of the one reporting the tale, making the job of the historian much more difficult.

I have chosen to mark the names in the following with specific categories to more easily distinguish the roles of these people in the Last Stand. Some are not so simply categorized and some fit in several roles.

Survivor

Those who claimed to have survived the real battle in the Custer part of the fight will be identified with “Survivor” after their name.

The undisputed title of Sole Survivor goes to Comanche, the personal horse of CPT Keogh. He is generally considered the only real “survivor” from Custer’s command. However, he wasn’t the only horse to make it out alive.

At least thirty cavalry mounts survived the battle. Over time, many of these horses were recovered by the Army. Over fifteen surviving horses were taken from American Horse’s camp, several were recovered from Sitting Bull’s camp by the Northwest Mounted Police in Canada, and some were offered for use in trade by Indians at Fort Custer. Some accounts say one dog also survived the battle, but Custer’s dog did not make it out alive.

First on the Field

Used for anyone who says they were, truthfully or not, the first to arrive in the general area of the hilltop where General Custer fell.

The legend of First on the Field circulates in a similar class as the Survivor stories, but these tales contain accounts of those who claimed to have been the first person on the scene of the massacre. Not all of these stories are self-serving testimonies; they may just be presented as simple historical narrative. There is no doubt, however, that some notoriety was sought by people through their identification with an event attracting so much national attention.

So who was really the first on the battlefield? Three Indian scouts, Goes Ahead, Hairy Moccasin, and White Man Run Him, were the first ones to physically see the remains of the Soldiers on the hilltop and slopes of the Last Stand Battlefield. The Crow scouts peeled off from the group as they began their descent to the village, probably at Medicine Tail Coulee. These are the men who informed Lieutenant Bradley of the defeat, telling him that it was Custer’s five companies who met their end. Lieutenant Bradley and his men did a quick count of the dead (197), reporting immediately to General Terry with the information.

On 26 JUN 1876, as the scout Taylor and Bostwick were trying to find a route through the hostile native forces and make contact with Custer, LT Charles Franci Roe saw what he thought looked like buffalos lying down on the distant hill. LT Bradley would later discover that those dots on the landscape were the bodies of the five companies under Custer.

Lt Weir and CPT Benteen would also later comment on the sight when brought to the Last Stand Hill. “How white they look!” said Weir, “How white!” CPT Benteen whispered, “Stripped of everything, arms, ammunition, equipment, clothing,” Benteen sighed and continued, “Let’s get on with it.” 7)

The rather dark “honor” of being the first Soldier on the scene likely belongs to Lieutenant James H. Bradley, General Gibbon’s Chief of Scouts (killed 9 AUG 1877). As General Terry’s forces moved from the mouth of the Bighorn, LT Bradley’s Troop had been sent to scout the surrounding areas. As General Terry’s group entered the abandoned Indian village, LT Bradley returned to say that he had counted 197 bodies in the hills. He had performed a quick reconnaissance of the battlefield, but could not find the body of Custer.8)

LT Bradley explains his actions:

  • …as commander of the scouts accompanying Gen. Gibbon’s column, I was usually in the advance of all his movements, and chanced to be upon the morning of June 27th, when the column was moving upon the supposed Indian village in the Little Big Horn valley. I was scouting the hills some two or three miles to the left of the column, upon the opposite bank of the river from that traversed by the column itself, when the body of a horse attracted our attention to the field of Custer’s fight, and hastening in that direction the appalling sight was revealed to us of his entire command in the embrace of death. This was the first discovery of the field, and the first hasty count made of the slain resulted in the finding of 197 bodies reported to Gen. Terry.( Brininstool, Earl Alonzo, Troopers with Custer : Historic Incidents of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. 2nd ed. The Custer Library. 1994, Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. 258.))

Witnesses and Messengers

Witnesses claimed to have seen the events from the safety of the surrounding hills or in the confines of the village. Messengers were thought to have been the last person sent from General Custer back to Benteen or Reno. A few cases of messenger claims suggest they were on their way to Custer in an attempt to warn him of the impending doom.

The Witness or Messenger category of Last Stand stories is a little less dramatic than the narrow escape, but it is still close enough in the telling to carry with it some degree of fame. A Last Stand eyewitness story is usually told from the perspective of a person who is in the village and watches in horror as they see General Custer’s troops destroyed, but some eyewitness accounts are told from the perspective of a prisoner, Scout, Soldier, or Trapper who watches the battlefield from a distant point.

Most historians would probably say there may have indeed been Caucasians in the village. However, they likely would not have been able to see the Custer battlefield from their position in the village with so much activity going, with so much dust in the air as well as having other line of sight obstacles like trees and tepees with which to contend. Crow scouts Curly, Goes Ahead, Hairy Moccasin, and White Man Runs Him may have seen parts of the skirmish much in the same way that LT Thomas Weir could be called a witness of the Last Stand: they saw the haze of battle from distant hilltops without being able to distinguish precise details.

The last message was carried by Giovanni D. Martini. Martin (also spelled “Martino”) entered the US Army under the name of John Martin in 1874. He was assigned as a bugler to the 7th Cavalry Regiment. As a boy in Italy, he joined Garibaldi’s army as a drummer boy. Music seemed to be his special calling in serving the country in which he lived.9)

Just before Custer descended to the river in his first attack on the village, he gave an order to Martini, written by LT William W. Cooke to avoid language barriers considering Martin’s difficulty with English, to tell CPT Benteen to come quick with ammunition. Martin carried the message as ordered and is almost universally accepted as the last “white man” to see General Custer alive. In recognition of his military contribution and his significance to the Army, he was formally recognized at the Arlington National Cemetery as one of nine buglers of importance to US military history.

Daniel Kanipe carried one of the last messages Custer was to send. General Custer sent him back to Benteen and McDougall minutes before Martini dashed back with his message. Kanipe’s experiences have been transformed into a sole survivor account by unscrupulous writers (and perhaps through his own retelling). The Oxnard Daily Courier printed a story of Kanipe as “the only American survivor of the ill-fated [sic] force under the immediate command of General George A. Custer.”10)

Private Archibald McIlhargey was sent by MAJ Reno to tell General Custer of Indian movements in the valley. How this influenced the outcome of the battle is not known, since he died along with the rest of the men in the Custer fight. Some writers suggest Custer was under the impression that the Indians were fleeing the village until it was too late for him to react accordingly.

However, if McIlhargey actually did reach Custer, it would probably change the widely held views on Custer’s tactical decisions minutes before he succumbed to overwhelming force.

Spared

Those who should have, could have, or would have been in the battle except for one obstacle preventing their presence.

These are stories centering on the alleged survivor as somehow providentially saved from being a partaker of the battle. Some have insisted their horses gave out on them or that they were injured “just before” the real fighting began, but all the prevention stories have a theme of being barred by outside forces from being engaged in the final hour or so of Custer’s fight. These are evasion stories similar to the Scout Curly’s narrative: the hero would have been in the conflict if not for some pivotal providence preventing their participation. Curly, the Crow Indian scout was unique in that he claimed to be both an eyewitness and to have evaded misfortune, but many tales attributed to him are difficult to detail due to their contradictory natures, so his story may fluctuate in the details with the historian taking up the account.11)

Curly’s name is intentionally spelled here without the “-ey” ending to keep him distinct from Curley Hicks, a sole survivor claimant. This Crow scout was definitely in the presence of General Custer during the approach to the village from the bluffs. What is less clear is how he survived. Some people believe that he was never in the fight at all, while others believe he “hid out,” possibly in a ravine, until dark when he made his way down the river.12)

Rain-in-the-Face, reported to be the last living warrior from the fight, believed Curly’s horse was injured just before the fight and that he hid until danger had passed.13)

Despite the questions over how exactly Curley survived the battle with Custer’s group, there is no doubt that he was indeed assigned to Custer and was with him immediately before the fight began. Curly finally reached Terry’s command on the early morning of the 27th at about daybreak, using sign language to describe the calamity.14)

In 1923, the Department of the Interior recognized Curly’s role as being that of the only surviving member of the Last Stand contingent.

  • A controversy of almost half a century as to whether there was a survivor of the Custer massacre at Little Big Horn, Mont., June 25, 1876, has been settled officially. The Interior Department has approved the issuance of a pension certificate to Shuh-Sheg Ahsh [Ashishishe or Shishi’esh], alias Curly, a Crow Indian, for his services in the Indian campaigns of 1876 and 1877, which included participation in the famous battle which resulted in the obliteration of Custer’s cavalry. Curly, who was one of Custer’s scouts, now lives on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana. According to War Department records, he escaped death by mingling with the attacking Indians and rejoined Government forces nearby five days later.15)

According to official US government records, Curly is the sole survivor.

Village

The last of the categories used in this work to classify survivor roles is the village perspective. This is used for non-natives in the village who may have claimed being in proximity to the annihilation of Custer and his Soldiers on or near Last Stand Hill.

Captivity and “Squaw-Men” (a pejorative term) stories involve non-Natives who were part of the village; they were either held prisoner or were present in the village out of circumstance of marriage. Many of these may be actual historic accounts, some involving eyewitness statements, but they are especially difficult to identify due to the large-scale sensationalism in post-Last Stand journalism. It may not be easy to show in all accounts whether these people fought against the 7th Cavalry or merely watched and listened.

For example, it is completely possible that Frank Huston, who was believed to have been an old Confederate officer, married an Indian woman, and eventually found himself in the village at the Little Bighorn.16)

Being in the village that day and given the freedom he was offered as part of the Native family, he could have moved nearly anywhere and had access to whatever tickled his fancy.

Conclusion

Not a single survival story provides a real world case with unquestionable documentary trails, pointing the way for us, the readers, saying “Yes, he was what he said.” In the pages to come, we will see plenty of those claims, but we must be cautious for the misdirection and embellishment of well-established historical events.

But it’s the survival stories that have brought many of us to this point in our studies. We are taken in by tales of perseverance over a dominant force. The theme is surely one that goes back to the American Revolution, Texas Independence, and the War of 1812.

Read Later

Category

1) The Western Literary Association. Ed. A Literary History of the American West. For Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987 113. http://www.prs.tcu.edu/lit_west_full.pdf
2) This list tallies the number of print materials (books, dissertations and encyclopedias) published, by year, with the genre including “George Armstrong Custer.” Data sets are from http://www.worldcat.org.
3) Cited in Koster, John. Custer Survivor. New York: Chronology Books, 2009 Preface.
4) Hardorff, Richard G. The Custer Battle Casualties, Ii: The Dead, the Missing and a Few Survivors (Upton & Sons, 1999).
5) THE CUSTER MASSACRE: One Man Escaped, and he Blew His Brains Out to Avoid Capture. Atchison Daily Champion (1889, August 27), page 7, issue 128, column c.
6) Ellison, Douglas W. Sole Survivor: An Examination of the Frank Finkel Narrative. 1st ed. Lemmon, S.D.: D.W. Ellison, 1983. 68.
7) Brown, Dee Alexander, Showdown at Little Big Horn. 2004: University of Nebraska Press. 210.
8) Taylor, William O., With Custer on the Little Bighorn: A Newly Discovered First-person Account. 1996, New York, N.Y.: Viking. 104.
9) According to Solimine, “Martino” is the birth name found in Parish birth records dated December 1852 in the village of Sala Consuma, Italy. Solimine, L.. “CUSTER’S LAST MAN.” Italian America, April 1, 2009, 13,25.http://www.proquest.com.www2.lib.ku.edu:2048/ (accessed September 17, 2011).
10) CUSTER SURVIVOR LOSES HIS PLACE: Daniel A. Kanipe Was Bearer of Famous Message. The Oxnard Daily Courier (1914 May, 7), page 4. Retrieved from Google News Archive, 25 SEP 2011.
11) Dippie, Brian W. Custer’s Last Stand. 86.
12) Special Dispatch to the New-York Times.. “DETAILS OF THE BATTLE: GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF THE FIGHTING– MAJOR RENO’S COMMAND UNDER FIRE FOR TWO DAYS–EVERY MAN OF CUSTER’S DETACHMENT KILLED EXCEPT ONE SCOUT AFFECTING SCENES WHEN RELIEF ARRIVED..” New York Times (1857-1922), July 7, 1876, http://www.proquest.com.www2.lib.ku.edu:2048/ (accessed September 16, 2011).
13) Brady, Cyrus Townsend. Indian Fights and Fighters, 1863-1903. New York: Pearson’s Magazine, 1901. 61. Ugh! I know Curley. He is a liar. He never was in the fight. His pony stumbled and broke something. He stayed behind to fix it. When he heard the firing, he ran off like a whipped dog.
14) Bowen, William H. C. Custer’s Last Fight. Portland: Hill Military Academy. 1926.
15) “SOLE CUSTER SURVIVOR IS NOW RECOGNIZED: Interior Department Pensions Indian Who Escaped Little Big Horn Massacre.” New York Times (1923-Current file), April 4, 1923,http://www.proquest.com.www2.lib.ku.edu:2048/(accessed September 16, 2011).
16) Dippie, Brian W. Custer’s Last Stand. 84.

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