The story of how Custer's men got their Medal of Honor by holding Reno Hill
MEDALS FOR CUSTER'S MEN
source: Larry Sklenar, "Medals for Custer's men". Montana: The Magazine of Western History. Winter 2000. FindArticles
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While officers might hope for brevets (honorary promotions beyond their regular army rank) for exceptional performance, the Medal of Honor was about the only way to pay tribute to enlisted men. In the case of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the process for selecting the honored few was so convoluted that one wonders whether the results were entirely fair, even though the contributions of actual honorees seem beyond question. Although only twenty-four men actually received the medal, evidence suggests that many other Seventh Cavalry soldiers either claimed to deserve the recognition or were mentioned by others as having a legitimate case.1
As envisioned by Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, commander of the Division of Missouri, the military expedition of spring and summer 1876 would be carried out against Sioux and Cheyennes by three converging columns: one under Brigadier General George Crook moving north out of Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory; another under Colonel John Gibbon heading east from Fort Ellis, Montana Territory; and a third under Brigadier General Alfred Terry traveling westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory. Custer, in command of the Seventh Cavalry, was with Terry's column. In early June, the Terry and Gibbon contingents joined forces along the Yellowstone River in Montana. Unknown to them, however, Indians had engaged Crook's column at the headwaters of Rosebud Creek on June 17 and forced it to withdraw.
Such was the situation on June 22 when Custer and his regiment separated from Terry and moved up Rosebud Creek as the primary strike force. Terry had decided to accompany the more slowly moving force under Gibbon to and up the Bighorn River. On the morning of June 25, Custer discovered the targeted Indian encampments on the Little Bighorn River, divided his regiment into two wings, then into three battle groups, and set off to engage.
Under orders from Custer, Major Reno and a force of approximately 18o soldiers and Crow, Arikara, and white scouts crossed to the west side of the Little Bighorn and attacked the Indian village from the south, while Custer and his wing of more than 2oo men passed along the ridges on the east side of the river intending to engage the Sioux and Cheyennes farther north. Declining to resist further, Reno withdrew to a stand of timber, then led his command out of the woods and east across the river, thence to high ground, losing more than 30 men in the process. Aware of Reno's retreat, Custer attempted some threatening maneuvers but was soon enveloped by hundreds of warriors. No one in his immediate command was left alive.
At about the time Reno's battalion arrived on the bluffs, Captain Frederick W. Benteen and the 125 men under his command arrived from their blocking and reconnaissance assignment to join the survivors of the brief fight in the valley. Forty-five minutes later the mule train carrying provisions and reserve ammunition trundled in, along with the one-company rear guard. Following a rather inordinate delay, these combined elements made a piecemeal advance in the direction of the volley firing that indicated Custer's location, but the effort was reversed after a short time when Indian warriors, having finished with Custer, turned and gave chase. Reno and Benteen withdrew to the point of their initial juncture and established a defensive position.
During the evening of June 25 and into the morning of the next day, the Seventh Cavalry survivors suffered terribly. Casualties mounted from the Indians' enfilading fire, which came from nearly every direction. Men who had been on the march for more than a month were as tired as human beings could get., and they were thirsty. Even for those who had filled their canteens when opportunity allowed, the battle's dust and smoke must have left scarcely enough water to satisfy themselves, let alone the wounded who wailed pitifully for more and more. Out of this extreme desperation and despair was born the primary deed that later justified awarding Medals of Honor for bravery at the Little Bighorn.
Men who had been on the march for more than a month were as tired as human beings could get., and they were thirsty. Even for those who had filled their canteens when opportunity allowed, the battle's dust and smoke must have left scarcely enough water to satisfy themselves, let alone the wounded who wailed pitifully for more and more.
According to trooper testimony, soldiers chewed the lead of bullets, gnawed on the thick leaves of prickly pear cactus, and held pebbles in their mouths to slake their thirst. Tongues were so swollen and throats so parched that soldiers could not close their mouths. "The sun seemed fairly to cook the blood in our veins," one said. Private Cornelius Cowley went insane from lack of water and "did not recover for some time," another recalled. However much the uninjured soldiers may have ached for water, it was by all accounts the pleadings of the wounded men that finally goaded the survivors to risk a trip to the river.'
About noon on June 26, Captain Benteen led a charge over the southern rim of the redoubt in hopes of clearing the area of Indian adversaries who were creeping closer to the soldiers' position. Shortly thereafter, Benteen participated in another foray to force a few warriors back from the northern side. In neither case did the troopers advance much more than twenty or thirty yards, and few soldier casualties resulted for either party. These were the last significant confrontations between soldiers and Indians. During the midday lull that followed, the enlisted men of the Seventh discussed the feasibility of going to the river for water.
According to Private Theodore W. Goldin of G Company, when Benteen heard the men talking, he indicated that if they decided to make the effort, he and Captain Thomas M. McDougall would station sharpshooters from their respective companies (H and B) along the bluff to provide covering fire. Corporal Stanislas Roy of A Company supported Goldin's story by asserting that unidentified officers finally agreed to the plan as long as the men were willing to volunteer. By Roy's reckoning, nineteen soldiers stepped forward. This seemed too large a group, however, and twelve were finally allowed to go. Although Roy noted,fifteen participants, his list included one man already dead and was significantly different from that of Goldin and others. Michael Madden of K Company was supposedly the idea's chief promoter and primary spokesman for the enlisted men. If Madden indeed led the first party, it may have surprised a few people, including Lieutenant Luther Hare, who described Madden as "an intemperate fellow whom no one had much respect for."'
In any event, the initial group of an undetermined number of people left the enclave after noon. Each man carried two canteens, and the party as a whole toted half a dozen or so two-gallon camp kettles. Racing through a gap between the McDougall and Benteen positions, the soldiers crossed about twenty-five yards of open space before reaching a drainage crevasse that would take them down to the river, perhaps a hundred feet below the bluffs. While in the coulee, which tended to deepen and widen at its base, the men were concealed. From the mouth of the ravine to the river's edge was no more than twenty yards.
the soldiers crossed about twenty-five yards of open space before reaching a drainage crevasse that would take them down to the river, perhaps a hundred feet below the bluffs. While in the coulee, which tended to deepen and widen at its base, the men were concealed. From the mouth of the ravine to the river's edge was no more than twenty yards.
The first trip for water was perilous. Private Charles Campbell of G Company was hit in the shoulder as his party reached the head of the washout near the top of the bluffs. Goldin related how "little Campbell" dropped his carbine and canteens and began to hop around after being shot. Several of the men offered to take him back to the enclave atop the bluff, but Campbell waved them off, indicating he was well enough to return alone. In two affidavits supporting Goldin's nomination for the Medal of Honor, Campbell confirmed the story of his being wounded while a member of the water party.
At that point, the soldiers were strung out down the ravine's narrow, winding recesses with Madden in the lead. As they reached the base of the bluffs, they piled up behind a mound and some brush, which shielded them from detection. Indians could be seen on the far side of the river, but thus far no warrior had noticed the troopers. According to the scheme devised by the enlisted men, each of them counted off, and as their number was called, they were free to run to the river or not, as they chose. Either alone or two at a time (sources differ), they scurried, fully exposed to Indian fire, across the sixty feet to the banks of the Little Bighorn. There they filled camp kettles and then returned to the base of the ravine to empty the contents into canteens.
That was the basic story, although versions differ. The entire enterprise occupied about an hour of scampering, filling, waiting, rushing, hesitating, dashing, dipping, and dumping. By the logic of the situation, given the limited number of receptacles, it is unlikely that all of the men in the party of twelve or fifteen actually went to the river's edge. Satisfied that they had enough water, or had taken enough chances, the men returned to the enclave. Some of the canteens were turned over to Acting Assistant Surgeon Henry R. Porter, who was caring for the wounded. At least a few of the men kept a canteen, ostensibly to share with members of their own companies.
Perhaps an hour later, by midafternoon, the enlisted men decided to attempt another foray. What prompted the proposed return trip is unknown, but the water obtained in the first trip could not have gone far. Even if the available water was equitably distributed, twelve gallons or twice that could not have quenched the thirst of more than three hundred soldiers, some sixty of whom had been wounded and were in varying degrees of pain. Nonetheless, except for Campbell's having been shot on the bluffs, the first party had done its work with almost no interference. In fact, the Indians had reduced their firing to desultory harassment, and within the next several hours they would vacate the valley of the Little Bighorn altogether Whoever suggested it, a second venture must have seemed worth the risk, which was still considerable. Some of the men who had gone with the first party signed on for the second.
To be sure, not everyone thought going to the river a good idea. Private William 0. Taylor of M Company conceded there was suffering in the ranks for lack of water, but he did not think the mission an absolute necessity, believing the idea "a foolish one and uncalled for under the circumstances." The regiment needed every man who could fire a gun and losing five or six in this way was not justified "by the exigencies of the case."8
Whatever the arguments against it, the second group did go. Whereas Indians had not seen the first party, the second was not so lucky. Probably early in the excursion, Saddler Madden was hit twice by gunfire from the far side of the river. The two wounds between the ankle and knee effectively shattered his leg. He had already filled a camp kettle and was on his way back to the base of the bluffs when the Indians fired a volley. The troopers returned fire, but for the next half hour they hunkered down and waited for the warriors, who were unwilling to press their advantage, to leave. Two of the men dragged the burly Madden into cover. He told his companions to leave him, but either at that point or later they hefted his large body up the ravine to the first-aid station, where Dr. Porter amputated his leg.
Several witnesses related the story of that operation, usually with an Irish brogue to enhance the color of Madden's bravado. To ease the pain, Porter gave Madden a shot or two of liquor before the cutting began. When it was done, Madden was said to have looked at Porter and suggested that for another drink, the doctor could cut off the other leg. Private Daniel Newell said that the description of Madden's spunky retort was just a tale, but Newell confirmed that Madden did lose a limb for his trouble."'
By all accounts, there were other water parties later in the day. Private Peter Thompson claimed that he went for water on five separate occasions, always alone by his words, but by the context of his testimony, he had the company of others. As the afternoon wore on, there was no reason men could not go to the river. The Indians broke camp in the early evening and moved their immense village toward the Bighorn Mountains, away from the scene of their great triumph and away from the approaching column under Terry and Gibbon."
For at least the first two water sorties, Benteen and McDougall supposedly had members of their companies provide covering fire from the bluffs, and Benteen's men were recognized for this support. Privates George Geiger, Henry W. B. Mechlin, Otto Voit, and Charles Windolph were awarded Medals of Honor as sharpshooters or for bravery under fire. According to Windolph, he and the other three occupied an exposed position on "the brow of the hill" for fully twenty minutes while the Indians "threw plenty of lead at us." He did not indicate which of the several parties he defended. Neither does he mention Sergeant Henry Fehler of A Company, who was credited by one source for being a sharpshooter and by another as a leader of a water party."
By any measure, the grounds for awarding Medals of Honor for meritorious service at the Little Bighorn were profoundly murky. Sergeant Richard P. Hanley performed bravely when he recovered the ammunitionladen mule named Barnum during fighting on June 25, but his citation said he carried out this feat "singlehanded and without orders." No one can doubt that he was there and that he chased the beast. Private John McGuire claimed, however, that while Hanley rode his horse in pursuit of the mule, he, McGuire, followed on foot and helped drive Barnum back into the herd. "Neither Hanley nor I got our hands on him," said McGuire. Sergeant Daniel Kanipe of their Company C agreed that McGuire helped Hanley.
Nor can one dispute that Privates Benjamin C. Criswell and Henry Holden brought ammunition to their respective companies (B and D) when it was needed, or that Private Thomas Murray (B) did yeoman's work in bringing the pack train to Reno Hill, or that Private Charles Cunningham (B) continued fighting after he was wounded. These men must have been brave, there was no one to contest the facts, and they were awarded Medals of Honor.
To be sure, the Medal of Honor was very different then from what it is today. The medal was conceived in the early 186os-first by the United States Navy, then by the army-to honor men who had displayed "gallantry in action" or had distinguished themselves by "other soldierlike qualities." The president was authorized to present the award "in the name of Congress," for which reason it is sometimes referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor. The first medal was given in 1863, the same year an amendment was enacted that made officers as well as enlisted men eligible for such recognition.
Thus, the troopers of the Seventh Cavalry were held to a somewhat more lenient standard than that presumably applied in the twentieth century. Nonetheless, although Custer's men needed only to show "gallantry in action" or the even more nebulous "other soldierlike qualities," their nominations still had to pass review by a board of officers at an intermediate level before final scrutiny by the War Department. Many may have been nominated and few chosen, but the available evidence suggests that the process was something less than exact.
Although the Battle of the Little Bighorn effectively ended on June 27, 1876, with Gibbon's arrival, the Seventh's company commanders did not submit their lists of nominees to regimental headquarters until May of the following year. By spring 1877, however, many of those who commanded companies at the Little Bighorn were dead or reassigned. The extent to which changes in assignment had an impact on the fairness of the process is unknown, but some loss of precision must have been inevitable."
At some point after May 1877, the company commander lists apparently were forwarded to the military's Department of Dakota headquarters in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Almost a full year later, in February 1878, the department commander returned the lists to the regiment for review and revision. During this phase, additional names may have been added, and some were deleted. The revised list was submitted to a board of officers, possibly headed by Major Lewis Merrill of the Seventh Cavalry. Based on the board's final report, the medals were awarded, then officially issued on October 5, 1878. More than two years elapsed between the event and the recognition. During that time, as pertinent papers were shuffled up and down the chain of command, some key personnel died or were separated from the men they represented."
Besides officer rotations, flawed memories, and a convoluted process, the awarding of medals for meritorious service at the Little Bighorn was distorted by the refusal of one company commander to nominate anyone. Captain Thomas French of M Troop reportedly took the position that "all or none" of his men should be honored, although it is hard to know whether he meant the names he submitted or the whole company. According to Private Roman Rutten, French intended that all his soldiers should be rewarded, but Private William Morris maintained that French turned in a shorter list, which included First Sergeant John Ryan. When Captain Benteen refused to endorse Ryan because of an episode involving the mistreatment of a soldier or because Ryan failed to act promptly during one of the charges from the siege on Reno Hill, French withdrew his entire list. Given the performance of M Company at the Little Bighorn, the more likely scenario is that Captain French was looking for a unit citation, as Rutten suggested, although Ryan would have been prominent among the names on such a list.
Captain Thomas French of M Troop reportedly took the position that "all or none" of his men should be honored, although it is hard to know whether he meant the names he submitted or the whole company. According to Private Roman Rutten, French intended that all his soldiers should be rewarded
Certainly Ryan thought he deserved a medal, and he believed rightly or wrongly that Benteen had denied it to him. Whether Ryan personally did anything exceptional is debatable, but by the vagaries of reassignment within the Seventh, he became de facto secondin-command of M Company, which in modern context would have received a unit citation. For years after the battle, Ryan communicated with many people (including Custer's wife Libbie) regarding the perceived injustice, but never said exactly what he had done to deserve the medal. He claimed to have fired the first and last shots in the battle, which hardly qualifies as more than an interesting aside. He admitted that for perfectly understandable reasons he was late in getting over the hill in Benteen's charge from the Reno enclave, but he was a member of a small group that clearly displayed extraordinary gallantry."
During the effort to drive infiltrating Indians from the southern edge of the siege position, Private Jacob Gebhart (aka James Tanner) was badly wounded. With three volunteers, Ryan supposedly rushed to Tanner's assistance some distance down the hill, rolled his body in a blanket, and, under heavy fire, took him to the hospital area. In a separate account that makes no mention of Ryan, Private Daniel Newell quoted himself as saying, "Poor old Tanner, they got you." Tanner replied, "No, but they will in a few minutes." Tanner, then twentyseven years old, died shortly thereafter.
Private William Slaper of Company M was more modest regarding his contributions, noting in an after-action account that he had been a member of the second water party and that the Indians had put a bullet through his camp kettle. Not only was he denied a medal, he was unaware that anyone else had received one. As improbable as that may sound, it should be noted that Slaper gave his version of events in 1920. At the time, there were other members of Custer's Seventh who had no idea that Medals of Honor had been given for individual contributions.22 As part of his story, Slaper recounted the glorious retort of twenty-two-year-old Private James Weeks, who was a comrade in the run for water. As the two men returned from their trip to the river, Captain Myles Moylan hailed them, stating that he desired a drink. Jim Weeks replied: "You go to hell and get your own water; this is for the wounded." Neither man belonged to Moylan's A Company, so it was the kind of response Weeks could get away with, especially under the circumstances and in view of Moylan's poor performance in the valley fight."
In addition, Sergeant John Pahl of H Company, whose nomination was supported by Captain Benteen, did not receive a medal for his actions despite his valor, particularly during the charges out of the enclave. "A braver man never lived," said Private Windolph. And yet Captain Benteen would later say that all of the men he recommended had been honored. In keeping with his penchant for sucking the joy (and truth) out of life, Benteen went on to say that he cared so little for such baubles that he would not give "a tinker's dam [sic]" to have a Medal of Honor for his own son.24
The failure of any member of G Company to be acknowledged in the initial review proceedings may have been for lack of an interested sponsor. Lieutenant Donald McIntosh had been killed during Reno's retreat from the valley, but his second-in-command Lieutenant George Wallace was very much alive and in 1877 served as adjutant for the regiment. At a minimum, the wounded "little Campbell" seemed a good candidate, even though he never made it to the river. Instead, the only medal awarded to a member of this company was given to Private Goldin almost twenty years after the event. His heroism was subsequently challenged, though Wallace himself thought Goldin had accompanied a water party.
In his commentaries, Goldin insisted that Private Edmond Dwyer was a water carrier and that, like others, Dwyer returned from the Little Bighorn with bullet holes in his camp kettle. In his correspondence with Benteen, Goldin also mentioned Corporal John Hammon, who in his own statements claimed to be a member of the water parties. An objective review of the evidence suggests that Goldin did in fact accompany the first two parties, whether or not he actually went to the river for water. Neither Dwyer nor Hammon received a medal.
Captain McDougall was the chief sponsor of Goldin's application for a medal. In McDougall's statement to the War Department in 1895, he said that he "covered them with the fire from my Troop on their perilous undertaking, keeping the Indians back to the best of my ability." His affidavit was supported by Campbell's and Private John Hackett's testimony, but oddly none of McDougall's sharpshoot ers received the medal. Instead, four sharpshooters from Benteen's H Company were recognized, but no one who took part in the supposedly intrepid charge over the hill was honored. The inconsistencies are striking."
Besides sponsoring Goldin's nomination in 1895, McDougall was probably instrumental in obtaining a Medal of Honor for Private Thomas Callan of his own B Company a year later, making Callan the last man who participated in the battle to be so recognized. In fact, McDougall was one of the most generous of the Seventh's company commanders. He not only obtained six of the medals for men of his own unit, he also apparently recommended a number of others, including Private William Trumble, who was out of McDougall's sight with Reno's command as an orderly for Lieutenant Benjamin Hodgson, himself killed during the retreat. McDougall also nominated Private Stephen Ryan because he had "behaved well" (those "soldierlike" qualities) during the battle and had helped to bury Hodgson's body. McDougall submitted saddler,John Bailey's name for "general gallantry," one feature of which was surrendering his secure place on the line to McDougall.
Company D did even better. Apparently with the assiduous attention of First Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey, ex-commander of K Company and by 1877 commanding D, and with support from Second Lieutenant Winfield Scott Edgerly, former second-in-command of D and in 1877 commanding C, members of D Company received eight Medals of Honor. In addition, Edgerly obtained two medals for soldiers in C Company who were either with the pack train (in the case of Sergeant Hanley) or had dropped out of Custer's advance (in the case of Private Thompson) to the last stand.
No one in Godfrey's K Company was selected, even though that unit had by all accounts performed heroically in covering the withdrawal from the attempt to reinforce Custer. Private John Foley of Company K also claimed that he and Sergeants John Rafter and Louis Rott of that company had gone for water, Foley himself filling two kettles. In the mid-1920s, unidentified members of K petitioned Godfrey for help in getting medals for Privates John Donahue and William Gibbs, also for participating in the water parties, but Godfrey could not remember them.
Of those who made late cases for the medal, perhaps the most pitiful was Private Henry Brinkerhoff of G Company. In 1926 and again the next year, Brinkerhoff wrote plaintive letters to the army's adjutant general wondering how it was that Private Goldin had received a Medal of Honor so long after the fact. "We know nothing about a plan to get a medal," Brinkerhoff said, "and did not know we was entitled to any." He noted that Private Slaper of Company M and Private Walter 0. Taylor, a blacksmith in Company G, (both probably residing near Brinkerhoff in Los Angeles) were also entitled to recognition for being members of the water parties. The Adjutant General replied that by the strictures of the 1918 act of Congress, no award could be made after three years had elapsed since the performance of the deed. As if to somehow render a bit of justice, possibly because of another entreaty from Brinkerhoff, the House of Representatives in 1928 cited him for bravery during the Sioux campaign and specifically for carrying a dispatch from Major Reno to General Terry. By the time the latter event occurred, however, the Indians in the valley of the Little Bighorn were long gone.29
According to available information, besides the twenty-four men of the Seventh Cavalry who received Medals of Honor, another thirty-five were ostensibly nominated or mentioned by themselves or someone else as deserving. If they were available, the lists submitted by the company commanders in 1877 and again the next year would surely add to the total. Such lists would presumably not contain any candidates from Captain French's M Company, and it is questionable whether they reflected any submissions on behalf of K Company, commanded by Lieutenant Godfrey at the time of the battle.30
According to the standards of the time, insofar as officers unfamiliar with particular units could discern within the limits of their nonspecific memories, the army's arcane system of nomination and recognition probably functioned about as well as it could. The men lucky enough to be selected to receive Medals of Honor were representative of all the othersliving and dead-who did their duty at the Little Bighorn.
Medal of Honor Winners (NAME, company)
NEIL BANCROFT (A) - water party*
ABRAM B. BRANT (D) - water party
THOMAS CALLAN (B) - water party
BENJAMIN C. CRISWELL (B) - brought up ammunition, recovered Hodgson's body, and encouraged men
CHARLES CUNNINGHAM (B) - continued firing after being wounded
FREDERICK DEETLINE (D) - water party*
GEORGE GEIGER (H) - sharpshooter
THEODORE W. GOLDIN (G) - water party
RICHARD P. HANLEY (C) - recovered pack mule carrying ammunition
DAVID W. HARRIS (A) - water party
WILLIAM M. HARRIS (D) - water party*
HENRY HOLDEN (D) - brought up ammunition
RuFUS HUTCHINSON (B) - water party
HENRY W. B. MECKLIN (H) - sharpshooter
THOMAS MURRAY (B) - brought up pack train and rations to wounded
JAMES PYM (B) - water party
STANISLAS RoY (A) - water party
GEORGE D. SCOTT (D) - water party*
THOMAS W. STIVERS (D) - water party*
PETER THOMPSON (C) - water party
FRANK TOLAN (D) - water party
OTTO VOIT (H) - sharpshooter
CHARLES H. WELCH (D) - water party*
CHARLES WINDOLPH (H) - sharpshooter
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