Custer's Last Irishmen: The Irish Who Fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn Part 2: For 'Garryowen' and Glory

(Above: "The Silenced War Whoop" by Charles Schreyvogel)

By Robert Doyle

As the men of the 7th Cavalry rode toward their destiny in June 1876 and into the pages of history, the regiment's muster rolls listed Irishmen from 30 of Ireland's 32 counties. There were no troopers recorded as originating from Counties Wicklow or Armagh, although 12 men stated they were born in Ireland without further elaboration.

In any event, this gathering of Erin's sons from all parts of the island is indicative of how intertwined Ireland was with this famed cavalry regiment. Similarly, the tunes most closely associated with the 7th Cavalry and played by the regimental band were "Garryowen" and "The Girl I Left Behind Me," both set to Irish melodies. Despite the comfort of this familiar and distinct identity, the 10 years from the formation of the Seventh to the Battle of the Little Bighorn would expose the regiment's Irishmen to the Western frontier in its most elemental form.

During the final months of 1866 and into 1867, the various companies of the 7th Cavalry moved toward their new posts and forts, having departed from the regiment's new headquarters at Fort Riley, Kansas. In November, Carlow-born Captain Myles Keogh left Fort Riley with his command, Company I, en route to Fort Wallace, located near the Smoky Hill River in western Kansas.

Harper's Weekly Magazine, July 27, 1867
Illustration of 7th Cavalry on parade in Fort Wallace, Kansas. Click on image for a larger view.

Keogh's company reflected the diversity of the ethnic backgrounds present in the 7th Cavalry, having a mixture of Irish, German, American, Canadians and English in its ranks. He later wrote home of his happiness in having men who were talented in areas other than soldiering, as Fort Wallace was in a dishevelled condition when Company I arrived. The Irish who had previously plied their trades as carpenters and builders were now put to work constructing and refurbishing their new home, as were troopers posted at the newly formed outposts scattered about the plains.

Inclement weather was just one reason for making haste in the construction of these forts. As crucial was the need for protection against the ever increasing threat of attacks from Sioux, Cheyenne and Comanche raiding parties. The first few years of the 7th Cavalry's existence established its legacy as an "Indian fighting unit."

The troop's reputation, whether deserved or not, was also due to Custer's desire to maintain the high public-profile he earned with his Civil War exploits. Custer wrote about many of the skirmishes the 7th Cavalry had with the Plains Indians and these tales transferred easily to the columns of the Eastern newspapers.

Baptism of fire at Washita

Nonetheless, aside from periodic clashes with warriors intent on stealing cattle or horses, the 7th fought its first large-scale battle on the banks of the Washita River, Oklahoma, on November 27, 1868. For the Irish immigrants not already veterans of the War Between the States, 


. . . The Army's meat 'was frequently spoiled and infested with worms and insects.'

this would their first experience of close-quarter conflict. That it came while attacking and evicting a native population, women and children included, is a cruel irony that may not have been lost on the Irishmen, who had fled their own country and a similar fate at British hands.

Another deadly threat to the Irish trooper in those initial years was disease. Typhoid, dysentery and cholera would cause many fatalities, the last being particularly virulent when it struck the 7th Cavalry outposts during 1867. Frontier life did not lend itself easily to good standards of hygiene.

According to Jeff Barnes, the author of "Forts of the Northern Plains" (Stackpole Books, 2008), the food available to the average trooper also left much to be desired. Hash, stew, baked beans, hardtack, salt bacon, coffee, and coarse bread were the usual fare.

"If the soldiers were fortunate," said Barnes in a recent interview, "they were stationed in an area that had wild game: Fresh buffalo, antelope, and turkey were always preferable to the meat provided by the Army, as that meat was frequently spoiled and infested with worms and insects."

Harper's Weekly Magazine, February 2, 1889
"Hunting the Prong Horn Antelope in California" by Frederick Remington.

According to his letters, Myles Keogh apparently became very adept at hunting game in the Kansas countryside. He wrote home to Carlow of how he had once provided a Christmas treat for the men of Company I when he presented two antelope for dinner and gave his soldiers a taste of "some Scotch brew, much to the satisfaction of the Irish in (the company)."

Aside from these infrequent seasonal treats, the hardships endured by the men were reflected in widespread desertions during the initial years of the 7th Cavalry. "French leave," as it was dubbed, was not confined to one particular ethnic group, and the officers struggled to stem the tide of troopers who simply ran away whenever the occasion presented itself.

Lt. Col. Custer took a hard line on desertion, and on one occasion deprived medical attention to deserters shot during capture. One private, a soldier called Cooper, died as a result of this. Myles Keogh, along with other like-minded officers in the regiment, were similarly intolerant of desertion, but took a different approach. They offered a reward of $30 (more than three months salary for a private) for every deserter captured and Company I became quite adept at catching these men as a result.

The astounding career of one Tipp trooper

However, by the early 1870s, many of the Irish had settled into a life of soldiering, and military records indicate the men were reenlisting, thereby extending their service in the regiment. Privates Thomas Atcheson and Archibald McIlhargey, both from the county of Antrim, in northern Ireland, originally joined the army in 1866 and 1867, respectively.

By 1872, both Atcheson and McIlhargey decided to continue their service in the 7th Cavalry. Similarly, John Mitchell from Galway and Patrick Kelly from Mayo joined in 1866 and reenlisted in 1871. It is likely they were pals from the west of Ireland, as their enlistment dates coincide and both served in Company I for the duration of their service.

Alexander Gardner Photograph, Kansas State Historical Society
The U.S. Express Overland Stage in Kansas, seen here, under the protection of colored troopers. This stagecoach station was similar to the ones protected by the 7th Cavalry along the Smoky Hill Trail. Click on image for a larger view.

Tipperary native, James Smith, was another original member of the regiment who joined in 1866 but given his checkered military career, it's astonishing that he was still with the Seventh a decade later. Discharged on July 31, 1869, Smith re-enlisted the next day only to be discharged the following year after a court-martial.

Private Smith then disappeared for four years but again re-enlisted in May 1874. Within eight months, he was up to his old tricks, assaulting one sergeant and swearing at 1st Sgt. James Butler for which Smith was duly court-martialled again, reduced from sergeant to private and thrown in jail.

Upon his release, Smith clashed again with Butler, an Irish-American from New York, and was once more charged with threatening and swearing at a superior officer and circulating a malicious rumor about him.

Remarkably, Pvt. Smith still rode out of Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1876 behind Custer as a trooper in Company E. Unfortunately, for all these men, their perseverance with the 7th Cavalry would ultimately seal their fate.

Custer Battlefield National Monument
Medal of Honor recipient, Pvt. Thomas Callan from County Louth.

Many other Irishmen only arrived into the ranks of Custer's command within 12 months of Little Bighorn. Privates John Barry from Waterford, Patrick Bruce from Cork, Thomas Callan from Louth and Richard Farrell from Dublin were all recent additions to the regiment.

With little time for drilling in horsemanship and marksmanship, they and a handful other new Irish recruits were about to experience a terrifying baptism of fire. One can only imagine the thoughts of these men as hordes of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors galloped up the slopes toward them, as arrows fell around them or plunged into their exposed limbs, as their comrades were pulled from their mounts and killed in front of them. For 34 Irish soldiers in the 7th Cavalry, far from the shores of their native Ireland, this next fight would their last.

Part 3: The Road to 'Fiddler's Green'

Related Resources:

Part 1: The 'Greening' of the 7th Cavalry

Part 2: For 'Garryowen' and Glory

Part 3: The Road to 'Fiddler's Green'

Part 4: 'Big Village. Be Quick. Bring Packs'

Part 5: For Custer's Irishmen, An Seastán Deiridh

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