Participants in the Battle of the Little Big Horn: A Biographical Dictionary of Sioux, Cheyenne and United States Military Personnel
By Frederic C. Wagner III
Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 240 pages, hardcover, $75
As someone with a biographical frame of mind I welcomed the announcement that Frederic Wagner had been persuaded to develop his extensive “series of notes” about the participants in the Battle of the Little Big Horn into a full-length book.
I was mainly interested in seeing what new material that it might bring about the men of the 7th Cavalry in the wake of Military Register of Custer’s Last Command (2009), by Roger Williams and the new expanded edition of Men With Custer (2010), edited by Ron Nichols with Dan Bird, both of which this writer has reviewed in The Dispatch.
Participants proved to be a slimmer volume than I had envisaged. The illustration on the front cover is a version of Cassilly Adams’ iconic, though historically inaccurate, painting Custer’s Last Fight, which seems strangely incongruous for a fact-based biographical dictionary.
I also found the title somewhat ambiguous as the term “participants” not only encompasses all those who served in, or associated with, the 7th Cavalry on the campaign but also every Indian (man, woman, child and even babe in arms) “known or believed” to be present in the village on the Little Big Horn River at the time of the battle.
Last but not least, a cursory look through the pages revealed several words and passages in the text that differed from the findings of my own research, predominantly from primary sources, and was an unexpected cause for concern.
The Introduction is devoted to a concise account of the battle from the division of the regiment around noon on June 25, 1876 through to the withdrawal of the Indians from the field sometime in the afternoon of the following day.
We learn that the 7th Cavalry “took 655 officers, men, scouts and civilians into the fray, and lost 268, some taking as long as four months to die” [writer’s italics]. The italicized statement, however, is contradicted by that in Section I, that of the five men correctly noted, only one trooper, Pvt. Frank Braun of M Company (who succumbed to his wounds on Oct. 4, 1876), took “as long as three months to die.”
This apparent lack of attention to detail (as well as misspelled personal and place names, incorrect dates of birth and miscellaneous facts and questionable proofreading) is an un-fortunate ever-present occurrence throughout the book.
Hopefully the following three examples, selected from a host of others that could have been cited, adequately illustrate the point being made: (1) Saddler Michael P. Madden, b. Galcony [Galway], Ireland; (2) Pvt. Felix J. Pitter, b. Alesford, Hampshire, 1850 [christened Brown Candover, near Alresford, Hants, February 10, 1845, actual date of birth not recorded]; (3) Sgt Maj. William H. Sharrow, b. York, England, 1843 [born Sheriff Hutton, present-day North Yorkshire, March 2, 1845]. Details of this writer’s research are italicized in brackets.
Admittedly, some of these errors, read in isolation, may appear relatively minor but the sheer number and diversity is the real issue here. To expand further on a specific instance is beyond the scope of this review. In any case, they can be dealt with more objectively on the CBHMA Facebook, as suggested by my letter to the editor in the Winter Battlefield Dispatch.
Section I (“The Seventh Cavalry”) gives a brief history of the origin and organization of the regiment, followed by the individual sketches (“Soldiers at the Little Big Horn”) arranged alphabetically by surname. For the sake of clarity so as to avoid possible confusion, this 94-page chapter might have benefitted from being divided as follows: (A) the 607 officers and enlisted men who actually took part in the battle; (B) the officer and 124 men detailed to the Powder River Depot; and (C) the remaining six en-listed men who were absent without leave, sick or on detached duty somewhere else in the field. (Figures are from Appendix A, p. 211.)
These sketches are generally interesting and informative but, as noted above, a high number contain factual and/or literal errors, which was very disappointing bearing in mind the background leading to the book’s publication.
For instance, Lieut. Charles De Rudio (p. 33) suffered more than most, much of the information seemingly based on generally accepted but not totally reliable secondary sources. His father’s name was almost certainly Ercole (Hercules), not Aquila. His wife Eliza Booth was born Feb. 23, 1841, not Feb. 1840. He escaped from French Guiana in Dec.1859, not the “fall of 1858.” The De Rudios had six children (two died in infancy), not four, etc., etc.
Another interesting case is that of Pvt. John S. Hiley (p. 49). The author rightly draws attention to the fact that this trooper’s real name was John Stuart Stuart Forbes but like many others fails to recognize that the second “Stuart” was the first half of an unhyphenated surname. His given full names were John Stuart with the other Stuart being added when the baronetcy of Pitsligo and Monymusk devolved to his eldest brother, William, in 1866. In 1871 Hiley rightly styled himself as “John S. Stuart Forbes, San Francisco, Broker.”
In any event, to include a “Pvt. John Stuart Forbes” on the roster of Company E (p. 205) is misleading when no one of that name is recorded as ever having been enlisted in the U.S Army. “J.S. Hiley” is, therefore, the correct inscription on the battle monument even though De Rudio had discovered Stuart Forbes’ true “civilian” identity some years earlier.
Section II (“Civilians, Quartermaster Employees, and Scouts”) has the same format as the previous chapter. The subheading “Scouts” is expanded to “Enlisted Scouts” and is further divided into Crow, Arikara, Dakota and other campaign Indians. None in the last category was at the Little Big Horn and all are considered Arikara.
Section III (“Indians Present and Estimates of Their Strength”) is introduced with a brief insight into the background of the different Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho groupings. A list of 1488 Indians “known or believed” to have been at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876 is arranged alphabetically under their most commonly recognized name in English.
The author quotes widely from the Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger (1877); Sitting Bull Surrender Census (1881); Stephen Myers, “Roster of Known Hostile Indians at the Battle of the Little Big Horn,” LBHA Research Review, June 1991; and, not least, the credible research of Ephriam Dickson III.
Other than “A List” types such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, Rain-in-the Face and a few others, I knew very little about the Indian participants in the battle and found that this section added considerably to my knowledge of this subject.
One exception is Long Wolf, a veteran performer in William F. Cody’s Wild West Show, who died of pneumonia in London in June 1892. Wagner’s source was Sam Maddra, Hostiles? The Lakota Ghost Dance and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a sketch that contains two small mistakes. It does not mention, more importantly, that this warrior’s remains were repatriated to the U.S. in 1997 and reinterred in the Wolf Creek Community Cemetery, Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Long Wolf is not positively identified as having taken part in the battle. (See Appendix G, “Indian Dispositions,” pp. 227-232.)
The sub-heading “Estimates of Indian Strength” quotes 50 different figures, the lowest being fewer than 1000 warriors, the highest (attributed to Captain Frederick W. Benteen), 8000 to 9000 and the true number somewhere in between.
Seven appendices cover a wide range of related topics.
Appendix A (“Unit Rosters and Strength Summaries”) lists by rank and name all those who actually participated in the battle, with a breakdown by company of casualties, both killed and wounded in action, assignments for the whole regiment on June 25, 1876, length of service, country of origin and number of “non-English speaking”!
One assumes that Wagner is referring to those whose first language was not English, which is not quite the same thing. There is no way of assessing each soldier’s fluency in English nor is there any indication that language caused a communication problem at the Little Big Horn.
Appendix B (“Lists of Scouts”) compares data compiled by Roger L. Williams, W.A. Graham and Walter Camp.
Appendix C deals with the demographics and length of service of the enlisted men.
Appendix D contains descriptions of Forts Abraham Lincoln and Rice and gives the posting of each of the regiment’s 12 companies between Feb. and May 1876.
Appendix E (“Horses, Uniforms, Weapons, and Tactics”) is well written and enlightening, in particular the uniforms worn by the officers the day of the battle.
Appendix F (“Indian Encampments Leading to the Little Big Horn”) traces the line of march from Powder River from around May 22, until an ever-increasing number arrived at the lower reaches of the Little Big Horn River on June 24, or possibly a day earlier.
Appendix G (“Indian Dispositions and Weapons, June 25, 1876”) deals with a list of several hundred names and attempts to place where each warrior (and a small number of women) is “believed, known or thought” to have participated in the battle.
The Indians had a veritable arsenal of firearms, both ancient and modern, including Colt revolvers and Remington, Sharps, Smith & Wesson, Spencer, Springfield and Winchester carbines and rifles, an amazing array of 34 different models.
The decision not to include a single photograph or illustration was, of course, the author’s prerogative but, I submit, there is one essential item missing, namely a map of the battlefield, an omission that might be equally levelled at Military Register and Men With Custer.
Although Participants in the Battle of the Little Big Horn is good in concept and much of its content is interesting, on the whole it fails to meet my expectations.
This failure is not least because of the cumulative effect of innumerable examples of insufficient attention being paid to important detail and the over reliance on secondary sources, which really does cast a shadow over several aspects of an innovative and an otherwise excellent publication.
Reviewed by Peter Russell