Custer's Last Irishmen: The Irish Who Fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn Part 3: The Road to 'Fiddler's Green'

The Seventh on the march in "The Valley of the Shadow" Michael Schreck

By Robert Doyle

In 1876, as the American nation prepared to celebrate its centenary, the U.S. government geared up for a final confrontation with a race of people they deemed a hindrance to progress and prosperity. Military officials had devised a summer campaign to force the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes back to their reservations using a significant force of infantry and cavalry. The Sioux Expedition of 1876 depended on a complicated plan, which involved the coordination of three separate commands departing from three separate locations, with all to converge at about the same time. Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry would have overall command, but Custer would command the 7th Cavalry. There was little doubt, in Custer's mind at least, that his regiment would be in the vanguard of this military strike.

On May 17, 1876, Custer and 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry, approximately 600 men, left Fort Lincoln. In the ranks were 103 Irishmen, many of whom were about to experience their first taste of combat. As they departed, Custer arranged for a parade to lift the spirits of both onlookers and soldiers and to ease the fears of the troopers' families as they watched their loved ones ride out. Rousing Irish tunes like "The Girl I Left Behind Me" and the regimental song, "Garryowen" filled the air as the blue-uniformed columns rode out from the garrison, flags and company guidons fluttering in the breeze.

This display, however, did little to soothe the troopers' wives and children. The last sight of their families that many of the married men would have was that of their tearful spouses holding children aloft for one last look at their fathers.

Custer National Battlefield Monument
Major Marcus Reno

The Seventh spent the next month seeking, and then following, the trail of a large movement of Indians proceeding along the route of the Rosebud River toward the Little Bighorn Valley in the Montana territory. Carlow-born Captain Myles Keogh was with Major Marcus Reno when a detachment of Custer's command discovered the trail and, on their return, a plan of operation was quickly formulated. Custer was to locate the Indian village, prevent its dispersal and await the arrival of the commands of Terry and Major General John Gibbon before launching a combined attack.

On June 22, the regiment marched away to fulfil their part of the army's planned pincer movement. In the 10 years since its formation, the 7th Cavalry had fought one major engagement at Washita and numerous skirmishes, experiencing casualties of over 50 dead or wounded from combat and almost as many struck down by disease. This relatively low rate of attrition was about to change.

'If I do not get my hair lifted by some Indian'

It is apparent that the soldiers knew in advance that this campaign would be dangerous. Whether he had a premonition of events or, as an experienced career soldier, realized that the fight ahead was to be a difficult one, Keogh sent a poignant letter to close friends in upstate New York outlining his burial wishes. "We leave Monday on an Indian expedition," he wrote, "if I ever return I will go on and see you all. I have requested to be packed up and shipped to Auburn in case I am killed, and I desire to be buried there."

Custer National Battlefield Monument
Corporal Thomas Eagan

Corporal Thomas Eagan from Offaly also wrote home to his sister in the weeks previous, telling her he would again be in touch, "That is if I do not get my hair lifted by some Indian ..." This throw-away comment turned out to be prophetic.

Early in the morning of June 25, Custer received reports from his Indian scouts of a large encampment ahead, stretching for over a mile in length and accompanied by an enormous herd of ponies. His initial plan was to rest and attack at first light the following day, a tactic he employed successfully at Washita eight years previous. However, the U.S. Army knew they were fighting a very mobile enemy, and Custer's constant fear was that the Indians in the village would scatter, throwing the military strategy into disarray.

When he got word later in the morning that a small band of Indians had discovered some discarded army packs, Custer changed his plans and decided to strike the village immediately to retain the element of surprise. He called his officers together around noon and divided his 600-strong force into three wings or battalions. Myles Keogh was to remain with Custer as second-in-command of that wing.

Custer talking to his scouts in "The Way to Valhalla" by Michael Schreck

The first battalion, comprising Companies D, H and K and commanded by Captain Frederick Benteen, was sent off on a reconnaissance mission flanking the encampment. With it went the regimental pack-train, under the protection of Captain Thomas McDougall's Company B. The rest of the command proceeded toward the Indian encampment, where General Custer gave the honor of commencing the attack to Major Reno's wing, consisting of Companies A, G and M.

Custer, Keogh and five companies of cavalry (Co's C, E, F, I & L), more than 200 soldiers, were last seen alive by Reno's men heading northward, presumably to open a second front or take noncombatants hostage. The stage was set for one of the most iconic battles ever to take place on American soil.

Custer nowhere to be seen

Midafternoon on that hot June day, Major Reno's 150 men splashed across the Little Bighorn River and made a charge straight at the southern end of the village. Indian warriors, although surprised by the attack, regrouped and rushed to gather their ponies from among a vast herd. As resistance grew to his front, Reno ordered a halt and set up a thin skirmish line that commenced firing volleys into the encampment. Keeping calm and order on this line were veteran Irish NCOs, Sergeants Martin Considine, 29, from Clare and 48-year old Patrick Carey from Tipperary.

National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
Red Horse's pictographic account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, possibly depicting Reno's retreat, 1881. Click on the images for a larger view.

Custer had promised to support Reno's attack but was now nowhere to be seen. The weight of Indian numbers pouring from the village was growing and, inevitably, an order was given to pull back to a wooded area on the banks of the river. Although initially giving some cover from the bullets and arrows that flew about them, the troopers soon became separated and disorganized in the timber.

Conflicting orders to mount and then dismount caused panic that in turn led to a chaotic retreat. Those that could find their horses galloped out of the woods, plunging down steep embankments into the river or riding off in all directions. Pursued by Cheyenne braves mounted on faster ponies, retreat soon became a rout.

Corporal James Martin from Rathangan in Kildare was last seen alive being shot from his horse and surrounded by warriors. Considine and Dublin-born Private John Sullivan were also killed as they scrambled to join their fleeing comrades. The rest of the Irish with Reno had lucky escapes. Private Thomas O'Neill, also from Dublin, and a wounded Sergeant Carey were left behind in the confusion but managed to hide in the tree line before rejoining the remnants of their command later in that evening. Major Reno's orderly, Private Edward Davern from Limerick, was seen engaged in a deadly hand-to-hand struggle with a warrior before killing his opponent and using the deceased's Indian pony to make good his escape.

The survivors who made it to an area of high ground nearby attempted to form some type of defense. Below them, the bodies of 32 dead troopers lay

Captain Frederick Benteen

scattered along a bloody path from the trees to the base of the hill where they had found sanctuary. Reno's men were soon joined by Captain Benteen's command and, eventually, by the pack train. Benteen was en route to join Custer, having received a note stating that a large village had been discovered and he was to bring forward his men and the pack train with haste.

The sight of Reno's exhausted troopers, many of whom were wounded, now prompted the experienced captain to halt. The significance of Benteen's decision to stay, rather than comply with Custer's written order, has been the cause of much debate ever since. Downriver, Custer's men were now engaged in a struggle to the death. Unlike the Reno fight, no Irish soldier would survive this one. WGT

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

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

Is Kildare-born, Corporal James Martin, General Custer’s Unknown Soldier?

Myles Keogh - Three Wars; Two Continents; One Irish Soldier

'Born a Soldier': Myles Walter Keogh

Hammer, Kenneth: Men with Custer: Biographies of the 7th Cavalry : June 25, 1876

Philbrick, Nathaniel: "The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little...

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