littlebighorn_custerbattleheroes_wotw093032
Winners of the West
Vol. IX     No. 10
ST. JOSEPH, MISSOURI
SEPTEMBER 30, 1932
 
 

THE "CUSTER BATTLE" HEROES
 

How Twenty-four Troopers of the Seventh Cavalry Won the Coveted Medal of Honor in the Battle of the Little Big Horn
 

By E. A. BRINNISTOOL in "Hunter, Trader and Trapper Magazine."
 

Author: A Trooper With Custer," "With Reno at the Little Big Horn," "Why Custer Failed," "Was Reno a Coward?" etc.
 

That greatest of Indian fights on the American continent, which occured June 25-26, 1876, known variously as "Custer's last battle, " "The Custer Massacre" and the "Battle of the Little Big Horn." developed many heroes, but none to whom the title is more apropos than the twenty-four troopers of the Seventh Cavalry who won Medals of Honor for extraordinarily-hazardous duty during the two days of this remarkable and thrilling engagement.

After Major Marcus A. Reno's command had recrossed the Little Big Horn river, from the stand of timber where he had vainly but heroically, attempted, with only 112 men, to hold the Sioux hordes in check, and not receiving the promised support from Custer's command, he sought a more defensive position on the high hills on the east side of the stream. Reno's thrilling charge through about one thousand yelling savages which had surrounded his position in the timber, was a most desperate fight for life every inch of the way. But it was the only possible chance of saving his command and he gamely too it in preference to remaining longer in the timber, where certain annihilation would have been his portion had he remained twenty minutes longer.

As it was, Reno lost twenty-nine men killed and many wounded before he reached the hills, nearly one mile east. Here he was joined by Captains Benteen, and McDougall, who, with the pack-train carrying all the supplies and extra ammunition, amounting to some 24,000 rounds, had been sent by Custer off to the left at the time he separated his command into three detachments. The pack-train was some miles behind Benteen's column, and it was nearly an hour after Reno reached the hills before all the pack animals arrived. Lieut. Hare, however, had succeeded in getting some of the ammunition mules hurried forward to Reno prior to this. The Reno command was, therefore, now well supplied with ammunition.

After Reno had crossed the river, the Indians left off harrassing him for some time and swarmed down stream to concentrate their entire force against Custer who, after Reno had started to attack the upper end of the Indian camp, evidently made up his mind that Reno could cope with the situation there, and went four miles down the river, evidently looking for a ford where he could cross and attack the lower end of the great Sioux camp, containing approximately 15,000 souls - men, women and children. Although this camp was known as "Sitting Bull's village," that doughty warrior - or, to be strictly correct - great medicine man, had nothing to do with the fighting on the occasion of this great battle.

Why Custer failed to give Reno the promised support, never will be known. If he had a battle plan he kept it to himself, or it may have materialized after Reno left him. At any rate, Reno was left to do the best he could alone.

Custer was quickly repulsed, and his command wiped out to a man. The Indians, flushed with their easy victory, then once more turned their attention to Reno, who had occupied the time during the attack on Suster, to fortify as well as he was able.

After the Indians had Reno once more completely surrounded, the fighting was terrific during the balance of the afternoon of June 25th - in fact, until nine o'clock that night, as darkness came late in that seciont in June, and daylight appeared shortly after two o'clock in the morning, when the fighting again opened with redoubled fury, raging until darkness of the 26th, when the savages, noting the approach of General Terry's troops up the Big Horn river, withdrew and scattered.

But during those two days of incessant warfare against a savage and relentless foe, twenty-four men of the Seventh Cavalry proved the mettle they were made of. It is right and fitting that the names of these men should be written high on the scroll of fame - not that they were the only heroes of the battle of the Little Big Horn - but because they performed service of such a conspicuous character as to clearly distinguish them above any others service that involved extreme jeopardy of life, and the performance of extraordinarly-hazardous duty, thereby qualifying for and winning the Medal of Honor awarded by the United States government only for bravery and gallantry above their comrades.

After the ammunition mules had reached Major Reno's troops and the entire command had been served, a movement was made down stream in an attempt to either join Custer or learn his fate. Reno's men, however, were set upon and driven back to their original position on the high hills.

During this retreat, one of the ammunition mules became frightened and stampeded straight toward the hostiles. The animal carried 2000 rounds of ammunition, and it was highly important that this should not fall into the hands of the enemy.

Sergeant Richard P. Hanley, of C Troop, who had been detailed with the pack-train, thereupon dashed forward after the frightened animal, urging his horse straight toward the Indian lines on the dead run, in an effort to head off and capture the mule before the Indians could gather in both mule and ammunition. "For fully twenty minutes, and under a most galling fire," says the Medal of Honor government report, Hanley raced up and down between the two lines, with the bullets falling about him like hail, kicking up the dust around his horse's hoofs, while officers and troopers alike yelled and shouted at the intrepid and daring sergeant to "let up and come on in." But Hanley disregarded all commands and pleadings. He was determined to recapture the mule, and finally did so, escaping uninjured, and bringing the obstreperous animal back to the pack-train with the ammunition intact, to the accompaniment of whoops and cheers from his comrades. For this nervy act, Sergeant Hanley was, on October 4th, 1878, awarded the Medal of Honor.

Sergeant Thomas Murray, of B Troop, brought rations to his hungry comrades on the firing line, passing to and fro several times through the fire of the enemy. This was on the 26th. On the previous day Murray had distinguished himself by bringing the pack train within reach of the command and into a comparatively sheltered position - all this under a heavy fire from the Indians. For this gallantry Sergeant Murray was also awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor October 5th, 1878.

Corporal Charles Cunningham, also of B Troop, was shot through the neck during the fighting on the 25th. In spite of repeated orders to retire from the firing line, he pluckily refused to leave, and fought bravely during the entire engagement, saying that he "could do better on his belly with a gun in his hand on the firing line, than on his back among the helpless in the rear." For his gallantry and pluck, he, also, was awarded the Medal of Honor Oct. 5th, 1878.

Private Henry Holden, of D Troop, repeatedly went for ammunition to supply the firing line all the while exposed to a merciless fire. Again and again he brought up cartridges that the carbines might be kept belching. For this nervy act he was awarded the Medal of Honor October 5th 1878.

Lack of water for the wounded finally became a desperate question. They were begging and pleading for it, and the situation was critical in the extreme. The day was scorching hot, and by noon, on the 26th, the officers determined some heroic measures must be resorted to in order that the wounded might be supplied with the precious fluid for which they were feverishly entreating.

Nineteen men volunteered to make the attempt. Four of them - Sergeant George H. Geiger of H Troop; Blacksmith Henry W. B. Machlin, Private Charles Windolph and Saddler Otto Voit, of H Troop - all expert marksmen, were detailed by their captain to take an exposed position outside the line and protect as possible the men who went to the stream for the precious water. They were instructed to keep up an incessant firing into the brush on the opposite side of the stream where hordes of the savages were lying in wait for just such a move to be made. These marksmen naturally drew the fire of the enemy, and bullets rained around them; but these four heroes pluckily held their exposed position nearly four hours, and it was due to their vigilance, reckless exposure of person and incessant and expert marksmanship that none of the water-carriers were killed by the Indians, although one - Peter Thompson - was shot through the hand, but courageously went for water two or three times after receiving the wound. Another trooper named Campbell was also wounded, although his name is not on the list of medal winners.

The water carriers took with them several iron camp kettles, slipping singly from the right wing of Captain Benteen's line, and making a dash for the river. For some eighty yards before reaching the stream they had to traverse an exposed place, which brought them under the fire of the Sioux. At this point they were enabled to obtain the shelter of a ravine which led down to within about fifty feet of the Little Big Horn river.

Then, while the four sharpshooters, from their exposed positions above them, kept their carbines belching lead into the brush the men would rush out from the ravine, hastily dip their kettles into the stream and dash back to its shelter. The Indians were quick to divine the intent of the troopers, and the brush on the opposite side of the stream was ringed with smoke from their guns as they vainly attempted to shoot down the daring water-carriers. But for the vigilance and skill of the four sharpshooters doubtless many fo the men would have been killed. There were many narrow escapes, however, and several of the camp kettles were perforated.

The names of these courageous water carriers who thus won the Medal of Honor (the sharpshooters ere similarly honored) are as follows:

Abram B. Trant, Troop D.

Neil Bancroft, Troop A.

Thomas J. Callan, Troop B.

Frederick Deetline, Troop D.

Theodore W. Golden, Troop G.

David W. Harris, Troop A.

William M. Harris, Troop D.

Rufus D. Hutchinson, Troop B.

James Pym, Troop B.

Stanislaus Roy, Troop A.

George Scott, Troop D.

Thomas W. Stevens, Troop D.

Frank Tolan, Troop D.

Peter Thompson, Troop C.

Charles H. Welch, Troop D.
 

Sergeant Benjamin C. Criswell of B Troop also won the Medal of Honor for rescuing the body of Lieutenant Benjamin Hodgson from within the enemy's lines, bringing up ammunition under a heavy fire, and encouraging the men in the most exposed positions.

The name of one gritty trooper who, it has been asserted by members of the Seventh Cavalry, accompanied the water detail and was shot in the leg, necessating amputation, was Private Michael Madden. His name, however, does not appear in the Medal of Honor list issued by the government, although the name of Michael Madden, a private of Company K, 42nd N. Y. Infantry, is given as having been awarded a Medal of Honor for an act performed September 3rd, 1861, during the Civil War. Whether this is the same Michael Madden, the writer has no way of determining.

Madden's leg was amputated on the afternoon of the 26th. He took no anaesthetic, but just prior to the operation he was given a stiff horn of whisky to brace him up for the ordeal. After the operation he was given another liberal drink. Madden smacked his lips, and with a grin on his pale, gritty countenance, murmured weakly to the attending surgeon:

"Doctor - doctor - Um-m-m! Cut off me other leg!" Madden survived this heroic operation on one of his limbs and lived for many years afterward to relate his experiences in "Custer's last fight."