|"With Their Boots On: Battle of Little Big Horn" by Michael Schreck.|
By Robert Doyle
By this stage, General Custer had retreated to a high point and likely resigned to the fact that Benteen and the reinforcements were not coming. He ordered some of the horses were to be shot to form a barricade. Presuming he was still alive, 1st Sgt. Michael Kenney from Galway would have ensured such a catastrophic order was carried out. The barricades would offer brief refuge for stragglers from the right wing that might reach their general, but the soldiers were doomed and likely knew it.
In one final and desperate attempt to escape, the men released some of the gray horses toward the advancing Indians as a ruse, while they attempted to flee on foot. The plan ended in disaster as the troopers ran into a deep ravine, trapping themselves and becoming easy targets for the pursuing enemy. Finger marks that remained days later were scraped into the sides of the gully, a testament to the terrifying final moments that these soldiers may have had.
Eight men in Company E, the "Gray Horse Troop,"were from Ireland. Among those from the cohort killed were Trumpeter Thomas McElroy from Tipperary, Pvt. John Henderson from Cork, and Longford native Pvt. Patrick O'Connor, who had been a shoemaker before joining the Army. Also killed and scalped was Cpl. Thomas Eagan, just as he had prophesied to his sister in Ireland. James Smith, the troublesome soldier from Tipperary, died with Custer as did his perceived nemesis, 1st Sgt. James Butler. The New York-born, American Irish sergeant was found on his own, a good distance from Last Stand Hill. His distance from Custer's last position suggests he served as Custer's last messenger. In any event, it appears he sold his life dearly, as the dozen of empty cartridge shells found under his remains seemed to testify.
Scattered along a three-mile field of slaughter lay the dead, skin blackened after two days' exposure to the summer sun, most mutilated beyond recognition.
Those who remained on the hill perished soon after, including Custer himself, his brothers Tom and Boston, and his nephew Autie Reed. Whether Custer's Irish flag bearer, Sgt. Robert Hughes, died alongside his commander on Last Stand Hill is unclear, but the scarlet-and-blue banner with its white crossed swords would have been a much sought-after trophy. With all the soldiers now dead, their possessions were plundered and their remains mutilated by warriors and the squaws who now began arriving on the battlefield.
Three miles to the south, after a belated but failed attempt to come to Custer's aid, the troopers of Major Reno and Captain Benteen fell back to the first area of high ground and created a stable defensive perimeter. There were many wounded, and Dr. Henry Porter established a makeshift hospital. In the heat, the desire for water was overwhelming among the patients. Their moans and cries prompted some of their comrades to volunteer to run the gauntlet of bullets and arrows to fill canteens at the river below. There were a few Irish among the group of water carriers, including County Louth native Thomas Callan and Michael Madden from Galway.
|Photo by Melani Van Petton Little Bighorn National Monument, looking down towards the valley where the vast Indian encampment would have been.The markers are supposed to indicate where the remains of the troopers were found. The marker with the blackened surface, center picture, belongs to Custer. Click on the image for a larger view.|
Madden, a regimental saddler, was wounded in the leg as he returned from one of the hazardous trips. His wound was deemed so serious that Porter had to amputate the limb, a good swig of whiskey being Madden's only respite from the agony of the procedure. Legend has it that once his leg was removed, Madden quipped that the doctor could take his other leg if he could have another gulp! Callan received the Medal of Honor for his actions although, strangely, Madden did not, despite being promoted to sergeant for his gallantry. Monaghan-born Sgt. Thomas Murray, of Company B, also received the nation's highest military decoration. His citation reads, "Brought up the pack train, and on the second day the rations, under a heavy fire from the enemy."
The only thing worse than a battle won is a battle lost
Two days later, on June 27, General Terry and his command arrived on the battlefield to a sight of utter carnage and horror. The Indian village had broken up and departed the previous day, a vast area of disturbed ground, leaving little doubt as to its enormous size. Scattered along a three-mile field of slaughter lay the dead, skin blackened after two days' exposure to the summer sun, most mutilated beyond recognition.
|Courtesy of Little Bighorn Battlefield
The Keogh Memorial on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 1879. Click on image for a larger view.
After relieving the troopers on Reno Hill, the army set about burying the slain as best they could. Digging implements were in short supply, and the soldiers used knives and cooking utensils to give the dead as decent a burial as they could. Extra care was taken with the officers, their names placed inside empty bullet cartridge and rammed into stakes to mark their makeshift graves. Responsibility for coordinating this grim task was given to Lt. Henry Nowlan, a long-time friend of Myles Keogh, who was born to Irish parents on the Greek island of Corfu and served in the British army during the Crimean War.
Although no soldier survived, the relief party did find many badly wounded Army horses, unwanted by the departing Indians. All were put out of their misery bar one - Comanche, the long-time mount of Myles Keogh. It appears that Comanche's association with Keogh may have led Keogh's comrades to spare the badly injured animal. The Army and Navy Journal later wrote on Comanche's rescue: "There were those present who had a tenderness for anything associated with Keogh."Comanche survived his wounds and became the regimental mascot, garnering fame for being the apparent "sole survivor."
Courtesy of the Museum of the American West, Autry National Center of the American West, Los Angeles.
In total, 34 Irish-born men in the 7th Cavalry were killed in action at "Custer's Last Stand,"including Sgt. David Cooney from Cork, who died days later from his wounds. The irony is that these men, and the other Irish in the 7th Cavalry, played a key role in the eventual removal of a race of people from their native lands, much as their own race had suffered at English hands through the centuries. However, most of the Irish troopers fought not for a cause, but for their comrades-in-arms -- their buddies or "bunkies"(their barracks had upper and lower bunk beds). Many had joined the Army, initially, for food and clothing, yet their efforts helped dramatize the role that the Irish played in "winning the West."To this day, the motto and regimental march of the 7th Cavalry is that very Irish tune "Garryowen."
The sad tale of the displacement of the Native American tribes can be told by their historians. In this instance, we pay tribute to the 103 natives of Ireland who fought in Custer's famed 7th Cavalry, 34 of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice, only days before their adopted homeland celebrated its centenary as a nation.
Those Irishmen, who fought with the 7th Cavalry and died either during, or shortly after, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and, with their commander, have ridden into history, and into legend, in "Custer's Last Stand"
Roster of Those Irish Who Died at Little Bighorn:
Listed by: NAME - AGE - RANK - COMPANY - COUNTY - OCCUP - PERSONAL DETAILS
* Killed with Reno battalion
Is Kildare-born, Corporal James Martin, General Custer’s Unknown Soldier?
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...
Video of the Springfield Model 1873 "Trapdoor" Carbine
MORE ON THE IRISH IN THE AMERICAN WEST
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'Born a Soldier': Myles Walter Keogh - Part 1 of 3: From Carlow to America's Civil War By Brian C. Pohanka
Custer's Last Irishmen: The Irish who fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn