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A Kildareman missing in action … the mystery of Corporal James Martin …

County Kildare has had a long association with the profession of soldiering at home and abroad, primarily through the use of the military camp on the Curragh by British and, more recently, Irish forces. However, an interesting theory is now being proposed by  military historian Robert Doyle  regarding a Kildare man who emigrated to America in the mid-19th century, joined the U.S. Army and was killed in action during one of the most famous battles in North American history.

In late June 1876, the charismatic General George Armstrong Custer 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.”

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 and his winded horse ended up well away from his General’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 fifty 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. During the ceremony, White Bull, a Sioux Indian Chief, and General Edward Godfrey of US Army literally “buried the hatchet” when they placed a tomahawk in the grave as a sign of peace. The tomb was then 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, possibly near Rathangan, and baptised in Kildare Town. He emigrated and enlisted in the 7th U.S. Cavalry on February 6, 1872, at age 24, and is recorded as having grey 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.

Martin’s remains were never identified but Private  John Foley from Dublin, made the gruesome discovery of the severed head under a kettle in the Indian village days after the battle. Foley stated that it belonged to a corporal from G Company. As only two corporals from G Company were killed during the battle - Martin and a German called Otto Hagemann - Foley’s identification of the head probably stems from his recognition of James Martin’s facial features and his awareness that this fellow Irishman served as a corporal in G Company. 

The intriguing possibility is that the skeletal remains uncovered in 1926 and buried in Garryowen as the “soldier known but to God” could, in fact, be James Martin. The bones were discovered near the spot of his death and the lack of a skull with the skeleton further suggests that the remains could be Cpl. Martin’s, one of only a few soldiers whose severed heads were found in the abandoned Indian village. Certainty might be established by an exhumation and the use of DNA evidence but it is probably more fitting that this soldier son of Rathangan rests with honour near the monument to one of the most celebrated battles in the story of America.

* Appreciation to Robert Doyle for highlighting the story of Kildare men at Custer’s Last stand.  Robert is a frequent speaker on military history and has written for popular history periodicals including ‘History Ireland’ and ‘Military Illustrated.’ He is also a contributing editor for the Irish heritage website,www.thewildgeese.com. After years of researching ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ Robert recently discovered that Corporal William Lalor from County Laois, who served in Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry at the Little Bighorn, is the nephew of his great, great grandfather.  Series No: 287.

Liam Kenny's 287th Looking Back article explores the death of Kildareman James Martin at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Our thanks to Liam

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