by jdurney on April 4, 2013

A Kildareman’s Last Stand

James Durney

On June 25 1876 Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer rode into history when he and 220 men of the 7th Cavalry were massacred at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. With the 7th Cavalry in the campaign to force all Sioux and Northern Cheyenne back to their reservations were four men born in Co. Kildare – James Martin, James P. McNally, Eugene Owens and James Lawler. James P. McNally and Eugene Owens survived the battle but Corporal James Martin, was killed by Indian warriors as he beat a hasty retreat from the valley fight ordered by his battle-confused commander Major Marcus Reno. James Lawler was not present, having being assigned elsewhere.
The 240,000 Indians who lived on the Great Plains in 1860 belonged to many tribes. Between them there was sometimes fierce enmity, usually arising from cultural differences or disputes over hunting-grounds. The Plains Indians were nomadic and warlike and had lived and hunted there for generations. The Sioux War of 1865-7 broke out on the Plains when the US Army attempted to build the ‘Powder river Road,’ which would have cut across the best hunting grounds of the western Sioux Indians in Montana. The Sioux harassed the soldiers so successfully that the road could not be built and in December 1866 they ambushed and completely wiped out a party of eighty-two soldiers under Captain W. J. Fetterman.
What became known as ‘the Fetterman Massacre’ shocked the US government into taking a fresh look at the Indian problem. In 1867 a peace Commission toured the Plains and submitted a report blaming the Sioux and Cheyenne wars mainly on whites and arguing that the subjugation of the Indians was likely to prove too slow and costly. Impressed by the report Congress endorsed a plan to concentrate all the plains Indians in two large reservations, one in the Black hills of South Dakota, the other in Indian Territory, later to become Oklahoma. But the tribesmen were reluctant to comply and more hard fighting was needed to beat them into submission. By 1875 most of the tribes had been settled on reservations but hardly had the program been completed than the Black Hills gold rush provoked a new confrontation. The Black Hills were home and sacred hunting grounds to the Lakota Sioux and other plains Indians, like the Cheyanne and Arapaho.
The U.S. government, under pressure from the newspapers, businessmen and most of the political establishment, offered to purchase the lands from the Sioux for $6 million, or lease mining rights at $400,000 a year, but the Sioux chiefs turned the offers down. After negotiations failed the government turned a blind eye as prospectors and settlers continued to flood into the Black Hills. When the prospectors were attacked by Indians they demanded protection and the U.S. government deemed that the Indians had broken the Treaty of Laramie and that the lands could therefore be purchased. All Indians were ordered to return to their allotted reservations and those who did not comply were considered to be at war with the U.S. government. On 7 February 1876 the U.S. War Department authorized General Phil Sheridan, commanding the Military Division of the Missouri, to commence operations against the ‘hostile Sioux’. The stage was set for one of the U.S. Army’s most famous defeats. Throughout the spring the U.S. Army gathered for the big campaign. Since the ending of the civil war the Army had been drastically reduced in strength and numbered about 27,000 men. The US Army was beset by poor discipline, bullying, and poor pay (a mere $13 a month for privates), and weakened by desertion, alcoholism and scurvy. Disease killed more men than the Indians. The 7th Cavalry, full of veterans, considered itself an elite unit, and was almost as good as it thought it was. Although recruiting records are not entirely accurate there were around 136 Irish-born soldiers in the 7th Cavalry at this time, of whom 102 travelled with Custer and fought at the Little Big Horn.
The 7th Cavalry was seriously understrength as it left for the Montana Territory with only 597 men instead of a nominal full-strength of 845. A sense of foreboding hung over Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory as Custer’s 7th Cavalry departed to the strains of its regimental tune ‘Garryowen.’ The 7th were expecting a hard fight and many of the men, including Custer, had their hair cropped short, so it would be harder for the Indians to scalp them. Witnesses recalled how the band strained to be heard over the sobbing of women and children.
Among the Irish in the regiment were at least four men born in Co. Kildare – James Martin, James Philip McNally, Eugene Owens and James Lawler. James Martin enlisted on 6 February 1872, at age twenty-four and was sworn in by Captain Samuel Young. His previous occupation was as a labourer, by far the most common occupation among Irish recruits to the U.S. Army. According to his military record James Martin had gray eyes, brown hair, fair complexion and was 5’5” inches tall. His military record also states that he was court-martialed in July 1875. Corporal Martin was assigned to Company G, which was commanded by 1st Lieutenant Donald McIntosh. James Martin’s date and place of birth was given as ‘1847, County Kildare, Ireland.’  Curiously the only James Martin born in Co. Kildare in 1847 was born in Kildare town to Michael and Ellen Martin, who were married in Kildare in 1846. Sponsors were Owen Kilfoyle, of Fennor, and Brigid Maher. Ellen Martin’s parents were James and Elizabeth Purcell. The Martin family seems to have disappeared from the records after this and we can assume they emigrated to America.
The year in which James Martin was born was the worst year of that great calamity which became known as the Famine, or the Great Hunger. Emigration was at its highest then and increased in the following years until over one million had left Ireland destined for the new world of America. With the end of the American Civil War the United States slipped slowly into a recession. The military, as always, was a welcome place for an unemployed Irishman and the vast majority of Irish-born soldiers in the U.S. Army at the time enlisted more by the need for employment rather than martial glory. Most of the Irish recruits to the army had been born between 1841 and 1854 and had arrived in America as part of the exodus triggered by the famine.
James P. McNally was also born in ‘Black ’47.’ He enlisted on 12 November 1872 at the age of twenty-five, in Troy, New York. He was sworn in by Captain Theodore Wint. McNally’s previous occupation was a labourer. According to his military record he had gray eyes, dark hair, ruddy complexion and was 6’ ½”  tall. McNally’s birthplace on his enlistment record was given as ‘Kildare, Ireland’ in 1847. He was assigned to Company I pack train escort. Coy. I was commanded by Carlow-born Captain Myles W. Keogh, a veteran of the Papal Army and the recent civil war.
Another Kildareman assigned to Company I pack train escort was Eugene Owens. He was born in ‘Kildare, Ireland’ in 1848 and worked as a carpenter before enlisting on 15 March 1875, aged twenty-six, in Boston. He had blue eyes, brown hair, fair complexion and was 5’7 ¾” tall. Records point to Owens being from Maynooth, but it is not certain.
James Lawler was born in Co. Kildare in 1838. He enlisted in the 7th Cavalry on 21 December 1869 and re-enlisted on 21 December 1874 after his five-year term was up. Lawler was assigned as a private to Company G but was not present for the Montana campaign as he was on detached service. He was appointed corporal effective from 1 September 1876. James Lawler’s record describes him as having brown eyes, brown hair, dark complexion and 5’5 ¾” tall.
On 25 June Custer and his 7th Cavalry reached a ridge overlooking the Little Big Horn Valley. At about noon on the Rosebud-Little Big Horn
divide, Custer halted the regiment and proceeded to assign commands. Major Marcus A. Reno received Companies A, G and M, and Captain Frederick W. Benteen, Companies D, H and K. It is probable that Captain Keogh was given Companies I, L and C, and Captain George W. Yates, Companies E and F. Captain Thomas McDougall’s Company B was assigned as pack train guard. Furthermore, a noncommissioned officer and six privates were detailed from each company to help with company pack mules. This probably saved the lives of James McNally and Eugene Owens.
Before the soldiers, but out of sight, was an Indian camp that stretched for two miles and was inhabited by at least 7,000 men, women and children. Custer was unperturbed by the size of this camp and had often said publicly that the 7th Cavalry could defeat any force of Indians. To prevent the Indians from escaping and breaking camp Custer decided to attack. It was the first of many mistakes. Without waiting for the baggage train of 120 men to catch up Custer divided his force in two ordering Captain Benteen to cover his rear. He further divided his remaining force by ordering Major Reno to attack with Companies A, E and G towards where he thought the Indians were preparing to break camp. Reno’s small force of 140 men rode into a virtual hornet’s nest. Vastly outnumbered the cavalrymen dismounted to form a skirmish line and then beat a hasty retreat as Major Reno lost all cohesion. The retreat became desperate with much of the fighting at close quarters. As the troops fled for their lives they suffered heavy casualties. Four Irishmen were killed somewhere in the course of this retreat, among them Corporal James Martin, of Kildare, who was knocked from his horse and killed. The company commander, Lt. McIntosh, was also killed in the retreat from the valley fight.
The survivors managed to reach the safety of a hill – now known as Reno’s Hill. Looking back over the line of retreat, the troopers could see their comrades, some of whom were still alive, being scalped, mutilated and stripped of their clothes. Captain Benteen’s force arrived on the hill and both groups, despite appeals, refused to make any attempt to rescue those troops or follow Custer into the village. It was just as well for George Armstrong Custer and his 220 men were massacred in the battle which has being forever known as ‘Custer’s Last Stand.’
The battle on ‘Last Stand Hill,’ took an hour, maybe less. The Sioux and Cheyenne had won an astounding victory. All five of Custer’s companies, 225 men had been killed. Reno and Benteen had lost another fifty-three men killed. Thirty-three of the dead were natives of Ireland, including Capt. Myles Keogh. Born at Orchard House, Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, Myles Walter Keogh had served with the Battalion of St. Patrick, Papal Guard, in Italy in 1860. He left Rome in 1862 and travelled to New York, where he joined the Union Army, serving throughout the civil war. Keogh’s body was the only one not mutilated by Indians. A Catholic medal he had worn in the Papal Army was still on his neck. Indians would have seen religious medals on other troopers, so perhaps Keogh had shown conspicuous bravery in facing his inevitable death. His horse, Comanche, also survived the Little Big Horn fight.
Most of the Indian warriors who told of the battle said they never saw Custer and did not know who killed him. Several warriors claimed to have personally killed Custer. An Arapaho warrior who was riding with the Cheyenne said that Custer was killed by several Indians. ‘He was dressed in buckskin, coat and pants, and was on his hands and knees. He had been shot through the side, and there was blood coming from his mouth. He seemed to be watching the Indians moving around him. Four soldiers were sitting up around him, but they were all badly wounded. All the other soldiers were down. Then the Indians closed around him, and I did not see him anymore.’ On the hill where Custer was found were dozens of bodies, at least twelve of whom were Irishmen.
Three miles south of Custer’s Last Stand the combined companies held out for another scorching day on Reno’s Hill. Reno and Benteen would have their share of blame for the debacle at Little Big Horn; Benteen, an able officer but public in his dislike for Custer, failed to respond to messages sent out by Custer to hurry to join him for the attack; Reno was indecisive, failed to keep a front at the river and failed to send Benteen, his subordinate, forward to a possible relief of Custer, whose battle he could hear.
Indian casualties were light: at least thirty-six warriors killed and around 100 wounded. Perhaps ten women and children were also killed, earlier in the battle. Late in the afternoon of 26 June the exultant Indians withdrew, leaving behind their dead warriors on burial scaffolds, surrounded by a circle of dead ponies to serve the braves in the spirit world. However, the Sioux gained little by their victory. Shortage of food and ammunition forced them to accept defeat before the end of the year.
A year after Custer led it to disaster on the Little Big Horn the 7th Cavalry was brought back up to strength and was involved in the campaign against the Nez Percé Indians in the Yellowstone Park area. James McNally was appointed sergeant from private effective from 1 July 1876 and served with Headquarters Company, 7th Cavalry, from 3 August 1876. He was involved in a skirmish with the Nez Percé Indians at Canyon Creek, Montana, on 13 September 1877. His fellow Kildareman, Cpl. James Lawler, was wounded in the same incident and died two days later. Lawler was buried on the battlefield, but was reinterred in Custer National Cemetery. By clever maneuvering the Nez Percé, under the leadership of Chief Joseph, shook loose from the 7th Cavalry and headed north for Canada. In their three-and-a-half month flight the Nez Percé fought off 2,000 troops, inflicting 180 fatalities, three of whom were born in Ireland.
James McNally was discharged on 12 November 1877 at Fort Abraham Lincoln on expiration of his five year service, as a private of excellent character. It is unknown when he died. Eugene Owens was discharged on 14 March 1880 at Fort Lincoln on expiration of his service, as a private of very good character. Like, his fellow Kildareman, James McNally, it is unknown when or where he died.
Many of the troops and scouts killed in the Battle of the Little Big Horn were buried at the battle site, which later became known as Custer National Cemetery. James Martin’s remains were never identified but Private John Foley, from Dublin, made the gruesome discovery of a severed head under a kettle in an Indian village days after the battle. Foley, who was from Company K, stated that it belonged to a corporal from Company G and as only two corporals from Company G were killed during the valley fight – Martin and a German called Otto Hagemann – it is possible that the severed head was that of James Martin.  In 1926 skeletal remains were discovered in an irrigation ditch along the line of retreat Company G took early in the battle. Workmen discovered a skeleton, minus its skull, accompanied by 7th Cavalry uniform buttons. The dead soldier appeared to be having been decapitated at death as no skull or skull fragments were ever found. The remains of this ‘unknown’ soldier, possibly James Martin or Otto Hagemann, were buried with full military honours, at Custer National Cemetery, later that year.
My thanks to Liam Healy, John and Jean McNally (USA); Mario Corrigan; Liam Kenny and Robert Doyle; and Tom Dunne (USA), for help with this article.

Postscript: In October 2012 John McNally, grandson of James P. McNally, along with his wife, Jean and historian Liam Healy visited Kildare Library and Arts Service, Newbridge Library, to try and trace the birthplace of James McNally.

On June 25 1876 Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer rode into history when he and 267 men of the 7th Cavalry were massacred at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. With the 7th Cavalry were four men born in Co. Kildare

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