1876 : Battle of Little Bighorn
On this day in 1876, Native American forces led by Chiefs Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull defeat the U.S. Army troops of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in a bloody battle near southern Montana's Little Bighorn River.
Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, leaders of the Sioux tribe on the Great Plains, strongly resisted the mid-19th-century efforts of the U.S. government to confine their people to reservations. In 1875, after gold was discovered in South Dakota's Black Hills, the U.S. Army ignored previous treaty agreements and invaded the region. This betrayal led many Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen to leave their reservations and join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana. By the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans had gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River--which they called the Greasy Grass--in defiance of a U.S. War Department order to return to their reservations or risk being attacked.
In mid-June, three columns of U.S. soldiers lined up against the camp and prepared to march. A force of 1,200 Native Americans turned back the first column on June 17. Five days later, General Alfred Terry ordered Custer's 7th Cavalry to scout ahead for enemy troops. On the morning of June 25, Custer drew near the camp and decided to press on ahead rather than wait for reinforcements.
At mid-day, Custer's 600 men entered the Little Bighorn Valley. Among the Native Americans, word quickly spread of the impending attack. The older Sitting Bull rallied the warriors and saw to the safety of the women and children, while Crazy Horse set off with a large force to meet the attackers head on. Despite Custer's desperate attempts to regroup his men, they were quickly overwhelmed. Custer and some 200 men in his battalion were attacked by as many as 3,000 Native Americans; within an hour, Custer and every last one of his soldier were dead.
The Battle of Little Bighorn--also called Custer's Last Stand--marked the most decisive Native American victory and the worst U.S. Army defeat in the long Plains Indian War. The gruesome fate of Custer and his men outraged many white Americans and confirmed their image of the Indians as wild and bloodthirsty. Meanwhile, the U.S. government increased its efforts to subdue the tribes. Within five years, almost all of the Sioux and Cheyenne would be confined to reservations.
Irish whose luck ran out at Little Bighorn
“BOYS hold your horses, there are plenty down there for us all.” The last recorded words of General George Armstrong Custer say a lot about the man: Dashing and daring, brave and prone to snap decisions. On a hot summer’s day 123 years ago, Custer made one of those quick decisions that had earlier turned him into civil war hero. But sooner or later your luck runs out. Sunday, June 25 1876 was the day that ‘Custer’s luck’ it was a recognized phenomenon in the US military at the time ran out completely. So did the luck of the Irish dozens of Seventh Cavalry troopers, Irish-born and Irish-American, riding with Custer over the rolling plains of Montana territory on that fateful day. The battle of the Little Bighorn was not a signal collision of two massed forces as depicted in the Old Errol Flynn classic They Died With Their Boots On. It was in fact a series of running fights, standoffs and encirclements stretching over five miles from what is today known as Reno Hill to Custer’s own Last Stand Hill, both of them high points at opposite ends of a string of bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River.
Just prior to his demise, Custer had split his command into three units as he prepared to ensnare what turned out to be the largest concentration of Native American fighting power ever to face the US Army. The first assault against the joint Sioux and Cheyenne encampment was made shortly after noon by three companies, 140 officers and men, led by Major Marcus Reno. Reno’s men charged along the valley floor towards one end of the camp. They were thrown back with the survivors having to scramble for their lives to the top of the hill which still bears Reno’s name. Captain Frederick Benteen, with three companies comprising about 125 men, initially stayed to the rear of the fight. Custer, with five companies, more than 200 men, advanced along the ridgeline that dominated the river valley on its eastern side. He further divided this force into two groups, one of them led by Co Carlow-born Captain Myles Keogh. The plan, what there was of one, went badly from the start. The number of warriors in the camp was far greater than expected. In a testimony to the drawing power of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall and other prominent Sioux and Cheyenne chiefs, there were between 2000 and 3000 fighting men biding their time by the river called Greasy Grass by the Sioux. Custer was about to learn that bad tactics can be severely compounded when the enemy outnumbers you by four or five to one. The total strength of Custer’s regiment in the summer of 1876 was in the region of 840 officers and men.
By some estimates, more than 250 of them were Irish-born, Irish American or of Irish descent having been born in Britain. Many of the Irish-Americans were first generation Americans with Irish immigrant parents living in the big cities back east. In terms of the Irish-born under Custer on June 25th, the estimated figure is 128 officers, non-commissioned officers and cavalry troopers. Not all the regiment’s strength rode into the valley of the Little Bighorn that Sunday. Some were back in Fort Lincoln in what is today North Dakota. Others, the regimental band included, were camped out some distance away by the Powder River. In all, just over 600 rode behind Custer to the battle. Why so many Irishmen were out west in uniform can be traced to a variety of reasons.
Sergeant Jeremiah Finley was rumoured to be on the run having murdered someone back in Ireland. He too had served in the civil war and later in Canada. He had come south again in 1868 and joined the Seventh Cavalry. He was a tailor by training and had made the buckskin jacket that Custer wore as he galloped to his final rendezvous with death. Finley also died in the battle. He was later found beside his dead mount Carlo. Man and horse had been shot full of arrows.
Privates Patrick Golden and Richard Farrell didn’t make it either. Golden was shot while firing from a shallow rifle pit on the bluff defended by Reno, and now also by the late-arriving Benteen who was in charge of pack mules and wagons. Farrell died in a ravine at the other end of the battlefield, close to where Custer went down.
Private Thomas Downing was 20-years-old but already the father of a child back in Iowa. He fancied soldiering over fatherhood. It was a bad choice. Attached to Myles Keogh’s Company 1, Downing was killed on Calhoun Hill, a position named after Lieutenant James Calhoun, Custer’s brother-in-law.
Sergeant Robert Hughes had the ultimately dubious honour of carrying Custer’s personal flag, or guidon. As such, he was a particularly prominent target whose fate was quickly sealed.
Some of the Irish could count on a little luck though.
Trooper Thomas O’Neill was cut off in the confusion following the failed Reno charge on the village. He hid in the groves of Cottonwood trees fringing the riverbank before managing to make his way up the bluff to Reno’s hilltop position after dark.
In all however, over 30 Irish-born members of the Seventh Cavalry perished, the most prominent being Keogh, who was later buried in upstate New York. There is irony in the encounter between Irishmen who had forsaken a land not theirs literally the case in the immediate post-famine years and the tribes of the American west who were being forced off the land they didn’t recognise ownership as a concept by the rapid encroachment of the white man. But few, if any, of the Irish at the Little Bighorn had time to consider mere irony as the agents of death, painted, screaming and angry, came riding at them, fast and head-on.
Here are the names of the Irish men who fought and died either during or shortly after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Their details are displayed in the following format:
NAME - AGE - RANK - COMPANY - COUNTY - OCCUP - PERSONAL DETAILS
Atcheson, Thomas 41 Private F Antrim Unknown 5' 5¼" in height, hazel eyes, dark hair
Barry, John 27 Private I Waterford Laborer 5'7¾" in height, grey eyes, dark hair, ruddy complexion
Boyle, Owen 33 Private E Waterford Soldier 5'6" in height, grey eyes, dark hair, fair complexion
Bruce, Patrick 31 Private F Cork Unknown 5'7" in height, blue eyes, brown hair, ruddy complexion
Bustard, James 30 Sergeant I Donegal Soldier 5'6½" in height, hazel eyes, light hair, fair complexion
Carney, James 33 Private F Westmeath Unknown 5'4¼" in height, grey eyes, black hair, dark complexion
Cashan, William 31 Sergeant L Queen's County Soldier 5'9" in height, blue eyes, brown hair, fair complexion
Connor, Edward 30 Private E Clare Unknown 5'8½" in height, hazel eyes, brown hair, ruddy complexion
Considine, Martin* 28 Sergeant G Clare Unknown 5'7½" in height, blue eyes, brown hair, fair complexion
Cooney, David** 28 Private I Cork Laborer 5'5¾" in height, grey eyes, dark hair, fair complexion
(Promoted Sergeant on June 28th)
Downing, Thomas 24 Private I Limerick Laborer 5'8¼" in height, blue eyes, sandy hair, florid complexion
Drinan, James* 23 Private A Cork Laborer 5'7½" in height, grey eyes, light brown hair, dark complexion
Driscoll, Edward 25 Private I Waterford Laborer 5'6" in height, hazel eyes, light hair, light complexion
Eagan, Thomas 28 Corporal E Unknown Laborer 5'5½" in height, grey eyes, sandy hair, light complexion
Farrell, Richard 25 Private E Dublin Laborer 5'8¾" in height, grey eyes, brown hair, fair complexion
Finley, Jeremiah 35 Sergeant C Tipperary Laborer 5'7" in height, grey eyes, brown hair, light complexion
(He made Custer's buckskin jacket.)
Golden, Patrick* 26 Private D Sligo Slater 5'9¼" in height, blue eyes, brown hair, fair complexion
Graham, Charles 39 Private L Tyrone Unknown 5'6¾" in height, blue eyes, brown hair, florid complexion
Griffin, Patrick 28 Private C Kerry Unknown 5'9" in height, black eyes, dark hair, ruddy complexion
Henderson, John 37 Private E Cork Unknown 5'7¾" in height, grey eyes, light hair, fair complexion
Hughes, Robert H 36 Sergeant K Dublin Unknown 5'9" in height, blue eyes, brown hair, fair complexion
(Carried Custer's battle standard)
Kavanagh, Thomas G 31 Private L Dublin Farmer 5'11¼" in height, grey eyes, red hair, ruddy complexion
Kelly, Patrick 35 Private I Mayo Unknown 5'5" in height, grey eyes, sandy hair, fair complexion
Kenney, Michael 26 1st Sergeant F Galway Soldier 5'7¼" in height, grey eyes, brown hair, fair complexion
Keogh, Myles W 36 Captain I Carlow Soldier The only Irishborn officer, 2nd-in-command to Custer
himself in the ill-fated battalion
Mahoney, Bartholomew 30 Private L Cork Teamster 5'10" in height, hazel eyes, dark hair, sallow complexion
Martin, James* 28 Corporal G Kildare Laborer 5'5" in height, grey eyes, brown hair, fair complexion
McElroy, Thomas 31 Trumpeter E Tipperary Musician 5'5½" in height, blue eyes, dark hair, ruddy complexion
McIlhargey, Archibald 31 Private I Antrim Unknown 5'5" in height, brown eyes, black hair, dark complexion
Mitchell, John 34 Private I Galway Unknown 5'6¼" in height, blue eyes, brown hair, ruddy complexion
O'Connell, David 32 Private L Cork Unknown 5'7½" in height, dark eyes, brown hair, ruddy complexion
O'Connor, Patrick 25 Private E Longford Shoemaker 5'5½" in height, blue eyes, light hair, fair complexion
Shanahan, John* 23 Private G Unknown Laborer 5'7" in height, blue eyes, brown hair, fair complexion
Smith, James 34 Private E Tipperary Unknown 5'6" in height, hazel eyes, brown hair, ruddy complexion
Sullivan, John* 25 Private A Dublin Laborer 5'6¼" in height, grey eyes, brown hair, medium complexion
* Killed with Reno battalion
** Died later of wounds received in the battle
The Garryowen Connection
Let Bacchus' sons be not dismayed
But join with me, each jovial blade
Come, drink and sing and lend your aid
To help me with the chorus:
cho: Instead of spa, we'll drink brown ale
And pay the reckoning on the nail;
No man for debt shall go to jail
From Garryowen in glory.
We'll beat the bailiffs out of fun,
We'll make the mayor and sheriffs run
We are the boys no man dares dun
If he regards a whole skin.
Our hearts so stout have got no fame
For soon 'tis known from whence we came
Where'er we go they fear the name
Of Garryowen in glory.
Note: Official marching tune of Custer's Seventh Cavalry.
Garryowen, or Owen's Garden, is a suburb of Limerick.
Garryowen became the marching tune for the 69th Infantry Regiment, New York Militia, (the famed "Fighting 69th" ) in the mid-1800s. The "Fighting 69th" adopted Garry Owen before the Civil War and recently brought it back to combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom
It later became the marching tune for the US 7th Cavalry Regiment during the late 1800s. The tune was a favorite of General George Armstrong Custer and became the official air of the Regiment in 1867. According to legend it was the last tune played before the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The name of the tune has become a part of the regiment, the words Garry Owen are part of the regimental crest.