Custer's Last Irishmen: The Irish Who Fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn Part 4: 'Big Village. Be Quick. Bring Packs'

Giovanni Martini prepares to depart with Custer's last message to Benteen in "PS, Bring Pacs" by Michael Schreck

By Robert Doyle

It was scorching hot by midafternoon that Sunday, June 25, 1876. Major Marcus Reno and his three cavalry companies, 150 troopers in all, had begun their charge up the valley of the Little Bighorn toward the southern end of an enormous Indian encampment. Watching from the high bluffs overlooking the valley, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer could see the village become a hive of activity as warriors rushed to defend their families. The noncombatants, mainly women and children, likely ran in the opposite direction, away from the sound of approaching horses, soldiers' shouts and bugle calls.

A hornets' nest had been stirred, and Custer must have assumed that his surprise attack was going to plan. He galloped back to his men, reportedly shouting, "We've caught them napping, boys. Let's finish them up and get back to our station." Emboldened by their commander's blustering confidence, the Irish troopers must have felt a surge of adrenaline as they spurred on their mounts toward the now inevitable fight.

Custer's misplaced optimism was based on tactics that had been successful eight years previous at the Washita River. Early that November morning, Custer's 7th U.S. Cavalry had carried out a three-pronged attack on Black Kettle's small encampment. The Cheyenne inhabitants were caught by surprise and routed. When later threatened by warriors arriving from surrounding villages, Custer successfully used the noncombatant prisoners as human shields to prevent further attacks on his men. Loss of life on the army side was minimal, and Custer, along with the U.S. government, deemed the battle a major victory.

'We've caught them napping, boys. Let's finish them up and get back to our station.'

In separating his forces into different "attack wings" that Sunday it seems that Custer was attempting to apply the same strategy at the Little Bighorn. However, the differences between a dawn raid on a small village in November 1868 and a daylight attack on a three-mile long encampment, containing as many as 2,000 warriors, are stark. His famous "Custer's Luck" was about to run dry.

Galloping along the heights that run almost parallel to the path of the river, Custer's five columns of cavalry, more than 200 soldiers and a handful of scouts, moved to open another front in the battle. As the officers and men rode further along the bluffs, what soon became apparent was the enormous scale of the Indian encampment below. Despite the earlier warnings from his Crow Scouts, Custer could not have envisaged such an immense gathering of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. It is likely that the initial excitement felt by many of the raw Irish recruits in the ranks must have soon turned to fear and apprehension on seeing the size of the enemy's village

West Point Military Academy
The last message from Custer.

Now realizing the task ahead, the general called for the orderly of the day, an Italian-born trumpeter called Giovanni Martini, to carry a crucial message to Captain Fred Benteen. Hastily scribbled by the regimental adjutant, William W. Cooke, the note simply stated: "Benteen, Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. PS Bring pacs." Martini took the piece of paper, turned around his horse and rode away. He would be the last white man to see Custer and his command alive.

What occurred along the slopes and bluffs of the bleak Montana landscape over the next few hours has been debated ever since and continues to hold a fascination for each generation. How the 27 Irishmen with Custer's battalion fought and died is largely unknown, but suggestions and theories, based on decades of research, can be proposed. Presume that the words, "It is thought . . . " preface any of the sentences that follow regarding Custer's final struggle.

Enraged warriors counter the incursion

After all messengers had been dispatched, Custer's column split into two wings. The right wing — Companies I, L and C — were commanded by the battalion's second in command, Captain Myles Keogh. Custer stayed with the left wing — Companies F and E — the latter dubbed the "Gray Horse Troop" as all their mounts were that color. Whether to open a second front or carry out a reconnaissance, Custer decided to move his two companies down to the river at Medicine Tail Ford, located almost opposite the center of the Indian village.

Custer National Battlefield
Sgt. Robert Hughes, from Dublin, who carried Custer's personal flag.

In this attack, as part of Company E, were eight Irishmen, including Cpl. Thomas Eagan and the wayward Tipp soldier, Private James Smith. Riding alongside his general and, undoubtedly, a likely target for Indian sharpshooters was Custer's personal flag bearer, Sergeant Robert Hughes, from Dublin.

This crossing was initially defended by only a handful of warriors such as White Cow Bull, Bobtailed Horse and White Shield. Nonetheless, their determined firepower from the opposite bank checked the cavalry's advance and likely killed one of the key officers as Indian accounts tell of a buck-skinned clad soldier being shot from his horse. Whether this was Custer or not is difficult to determine as many of the officers wore that style of jacket during the campaign. Nonetheless, this prompted the cavalry advance party to retreat from the ford back up Medicine Tail Coulee.

The five companies reunited on an area of high ground now called Calhoun Hill. The landscape was suited to forming a defensive perimeter, and it was left to Keogh and his three companies to prepare to hold off the emerging threat from the encampment and make some form of buffer for the expected arrival of Captain Benteen's reinforcements, carrying the pack train with its vital ammunition packs.

Lt. James Calhoun

Keogh ordered Lt. James Calhoun's Company L to create a skirmish line along the high ground that now bears his name. Private Thomas Kavanagh from Dublin, alongside Corkmen Bartholomew Mahoney and David O'Connell, loaded their Springfield carbines and readied themselves under the watchful eye of Sergeant William Cashan from Laois. Keogh moved Company C back along the ridge and kept his own Company I in reserve, to deploy when necessary.

While Keogh made his dispositions, Custer and the left wing continued their progress in a northerly direction, seeking a suitable river crossing and still on the offensive. At this stage in the battle, the Seventh obviously continued to believe that the day would be theirs. All was about to change as hundreds, if not thousands, of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors poured across the river now that Reno's earlier assault had been repelled.

The focus of the warriors' rally cry was the protection of their families fleeing from the gunfire. At the forefront of these was an enraged Hunkpapa leader named Gall, who had two wives and several children killed by fire from Reno's skirmish line hitting his lodge. Riding through the village in a northerly direction and gathering Oglala and Cheyenne warriors to him was the renowned Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse. The full force of the Sioux and Cheyenne fighting capabilities, possibly as many as 2,000 warriors, were soon to be engaged against Custer's 200 or so soldiers.

Myles Keogh's Last Stand

Myles Keogh from "Captain Keogh's Command" by Michael Schreck.

Calhoun's skirmish line maintained good order and kept up a steady level of fire that was enough to hold the Indian advance. However, the landscape allowed warriors to use the ridges, rocks and shrubs to stay hidden, popping up occasionally to fire at the thin blue line or launch arrows that would have had an unsettling psychological effect on the troopers. As the threat increased, Company C was deployed to charge a gathering of warriors that dug in below a ridgeline.

Tipperary-born Sergeant Jeremiah Finley, the Irishman who tailored Custer's buckskin jacket, along with Privates Patrick Griffin from Kerry and Charles Graham from Tyrone, galloped over the grassy terrain but were suddenly flanked and repulsed by a large body of warriors. The cavalry charge broke down and Company C was engulfed. Some made a stand as Finley's body was later found in this area with 12 arrows in it. Chaos ensued among many of the troopers, and they retreated back to perceived safety, now pursed by Gall and his comrades.

The panic had a ripple effect among Keogh's defenses and put pressure on the previously stable Company L skirmish line. No longer passively hiding and shooting, warriors, including a grouping called the "Suicide Boys," attacked the high ground in overwhelming numbers. The soldiers' single-shot Springfield Model 1873 .45-70 carbines were incapable of maintaining the required volume of fire, and the fight soon became hand to hand. Company L was overrun, their NCOs and commanding officers dying on the spot they had previously held in preparation for Benteen's arrival. There would be no reinforcements to rally on.

The right wing was beginning to implode and, as if Keogh did not have enough problems, there now came a threat to the cavalrymen's lifeline — their horses. Each of the men was allocated 12 rounds of pistol ammunition and 100 rounds of carbine ammunition. Apart from what they carried on their cartridge belts, most of the extra ammunition was in the saddlebags of the troopers' horses. If the horses stampeded away from the horse holders, it took away both the extra ammunition and the soldiers' means of escape. Keogh had placed many of the horses in a natural ravine, but this now came under pressure, apparently from Crazy Horse and those that followed him. Warrior accounts tell of Crazy Horse bravely galloping toward the troopers, drawing their fire. The soldiers holding the reins of three or more jittery horses were unlikely to get any clean shots at the fabled Oglala warrior, and so, unchecked, his deeds were enough to provoke his followers to attack Horse Holders Ravine in numbers.

Examples of the weapons carried by Myles Keogh into battle at the Little Bighorn - a Sharps 1874 Sporting Rifle and a Webley RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) revolver.

Keogh had never hesitated engaging an enemy when the occasion arose, so his actions at the end must be assumed to have been characteristic of his nature and reputation. Mounted, he may have rallied the available men of his Company I in an effort to prevent the army horses from being scattered. In the ensuing, and by Indian accounts, violent melee, Keogh was shot from his horse, his knee shattered by a bullet that passed into the shoulder of his horse, Comanche. This would have left Keogh immobile in his final moments but the nearby bodies of his company sergeant, James Bustard from Donegal, and many of the Irish of Company I, as discovered two days later, seem to indicate that Keogh died in a last stand of his own. Whether it was loyalty or bunching due to combat panic, the soldiers of Company I rallied around their stricken captain. Six Irish privates in Keogh's company were killed, including Connacht men John Mitchell and Patrick Kelly.

The Indians were now free to concentrate on Custer himself. WGT

Read the dramatic conclusion of "Custer's Last Irishmen" - Part 5: For Custer's Irishmen, An Seastán Deiridh

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?

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

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Old West Legends: The Battle of Little Big Horn

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