Is a Kildare Native General Custer’s Unknown Soldier?

By Robert Doyle

The Curragh, County Kildare, Ireland – It was one of the most iconic battles in American history. On June 25, 1876, the charismatic General George Armstrong Custer (left) and almost six hundred troops of the 7th U.S. Cavalry rode into the Little Big Horn Valley determined to strike at a Sioux and Cheyenne encampment located on the banks of the nearby river. It was expected to be the regiment’s moment of glory but the attack instead led to its decimation along a three-mile field of slaughter in a battle that became known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”

(Read more about Custer's Irishmen)

Riding with Custer that day were 103 Irishmen, two of whom were natives of Kildare - Corporal James Martin from Kildare Town and Private James Philip McNally from Maynooth. Cpl. Martin died that day but McNally survived, owing his life to the poor condition of his horse which broke down before his comrades went into battle. The North Kildare man ended up away from Custer’s fatal struggle and saw out the fight in relative safety.  There is a certain irony that someone from the “Thoroughbred County” should owe his life to a nag!

In 1895, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad established a tiny station on the edge of the Custer Battlefield in Montana and called it “Garryowen,” after Seventh’s regimental marching song. By the mid 1920s, Garryowen was in private ownership but was still little more than a small market town.

In May of 1926, almost 50 years after “Custer’s Last Stand,” construction work commenced on an irrigation ditch just east of this station, along the line of retreat Major Marcus Reno's men took early in the battle. While digging, workmen discovered a near complete set of skeletal remains, accompanied by 7th Cavalry uniform buttons. The dead soldier appeared to be have been decapitated at death as no skull or skull fragments were ever found.

The remains were buried with full military honours later that year and overlain with a granite memorial, inscribed: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” But was this dead trooper American? Possibly not. It’s likely, in fact, he was a “Lilywhite.”

James Martin was born in 1847 just outside Kildare Town, possibly near Rathangan. He emigrated and enlisted in the 7th U.S. Cavalry on February 6, 1872, at age 24, and is recorded as having gray eyes, brown hair, fair complexion and stood at 5’5” tall. He met his end during Reno’s retreat when he was shot from his horse and killed by a group of warriors. His remains were never identified but Pvt. John Foley from Dublin, made the grisly discovery of the severed head of a corporal from G Company under a kettle in the Indian village days after the battle.

(Right: "The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.)

In all likelihood, Foley identified his countryman’s facial features as the other deceased corporal from Co. G was a German called Otto Hagemann. Cpl. Martin was probably killed by one or more Santee Sioux warriors who, at the time of the battle, still ritually practiced decapitation rather than scalping.

The intriguing possibility is that the skeletal remains uncovered in 1926 could, in fact, be James Martin. They were discovered near the spot of his death and the post-mortem trauma suggests that Cpl. Martin is one of only a few decapitated troopers who could be that “Unknown Soldier” buried in Garryowen, Montana.  Certainty will only be established through DNA evidence but it is probably more fitting that this soldier rests with honours near the monument to the fight in which he gave his life.

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

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

Barnes, Jeff: Forts Of The Northern Plains: Guide to Historic Military Posts of t...

Battle Of the Little Big Horn (DVD)

Donovan, James: A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - the Last Great Ba...

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1876

Old West Legends: The Battle of Little Big Horn

Video of the Springfield Model 1873 "Trapdoor" Carbine

  1. www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHicAr1-uZs

       2. www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NoNxG2z07c

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