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The Life of Giovanni Martino (John Martin): Custer’s Bugler

The Other John Martin

At various points during research on John Martin’s life, another John Martin surfaces.  The similarity of their names combined with the fact that both served in the U.S. Cavalry during the same period often results in conflicting accounts of their lives.  Although some earlier journalists assumed John Martin to be one person, more recent scholarship effectively refutes this theory.

John Albert Martin – the other John Martin – was born in England in 1849.  While crossing the Atlantic a few years later, he was orphaned when the steamer sank and eventually placed in a Cleveland orphanage.  He joined the U.S. Army while in Arizona in 1872, and was assigned to General George Crook’s Fifth Cavalry; he mustered out in 1877 after completing his five year enlistment.  Army records indicate that he had light-colored hair, a fair complexion, blue eyes, stood 5Ft 5, and weighed approximately 150 pounds.  According to John A. Martin himself, as well as other accounts, he became a mail carrier with the Pony Express until 1882.  One year later, John A. Martin moved to Indiana and, at age 39, married the much younger Virtue Cole.  Martin died in 1928 and was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Plymouth, Indiana.  Cliff and Yvonne Haines, residents and local historians living in Plymouth, confirmed through a series of censuses that John A. Martin’s family resided in Marshall County (Indiana) from 1900 through 1930; they also found that the 1900 census states that John and Virtue had been married 11 years.

Other glaring discrepancies and inaccuracies – often overlooked by zealous researchers – abound regarding Martin’s assertions. Colonel Rodney Thomas of the Little Big Horn Associates points out that, contrary to popular belief, the Pony Express only operated from April 1860 until November 1861.  He adds that the names of all riders and station operators were recorded, and the only Martin listed is named Robert.  This egregious error was compounded by later researchers, as evidenced from an article (“John A. Martin: Custer’s Last Courier”) in the April 1967 edition of The West magazine.  The article claims that John Martin “was a pony express rider and peace officer in several Midwest towns including Dodge City but he always referred proudly to his legacy [as Custer’s last courier].”In a June 1926 article in the Plymouth Daily Democrat, John A. Martin claimed to have carried messages to Custer from General Crook’s Fifth Cavalry, adding, “and while I was there, the fight took place.”  The article further states, “Mr. Martin has a nationwide distinction in that he was the last man to speak with General Custer before he went into his fatal battle with the Indians.”  Kristine Withers, historian and archivist for the U.S. Cavalry Association, notes, “it is possible that Martin’s story could have been mistaken by his neighbors over the years.”  She adds that, with the absence of today’s intrusive media coverage, coupled with the general knowledge that a John Martin carried the last message, his descendants and relatives may have assumed him to be the true last messenger.

Colonel Thomas verifies that the U.S. Fifth Cavalry was ordered to the Northern Plains after the Little Big Horn battle.  Assuming John A. Martin was with the Fifth Cavalry in June 1876, he and the Regiment would have been in at least 250 miles away on the day of battle.  “Coupled with these facts demonstrating rather convincingly that Private John Albert Martin was in Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas at the time of the Little Big Horn,” writes Colonel Thomas, “is the simple fact that the vast majority of the Seventh Regiment all knew Martini [Martino] carried the last message.” Throughout the years, surviving Seventh Cavalry officers uniformly agreed that Trumpeter John D. Martin carried the famous “come quick” message.  Thomas adds that noted researcher Walter M. Camp confirmed this fact on numerous occasions.  John D. Martin’s original language was Italian, and there seems to be no reference to this fact in any John A. Martin’s accounts or interviews.

The Marshall County Historical Museum in Plymouth recently confirmed – through the courtesy of Cliff and Yvonne Haines – that a plaque placed on Martin’s tombstone many years ago was an error, and the Museum no longer believes that John A. Martin was Custer’s bugler that day.  The plaque reads: Bearer of Custer’s Last Message: Battle of the Little Big Horn.  In light of the many inconsistencies with John A. Martin’s claims, author Michael Nunnally succinctly notes, “He wasn’t.”

The Early Years

Little is know of Giovan Martino during his early years in Sala, although a tantalizing episode has been related by a dedicated Martin/Martino researcher based in Italy, Pasquale Petrocelli.  In 1860, as his men marched north to Naples (Expedition of the 1,000), General Giuseppe Garibaldi made a triumphant entrance into Sala.  An Italian patriot and devout republican, Garibaldi had assembled a small force of 1,000 men, more commonly known as the Corpo Volontari Italiani (Italian Corps of Volunteers), in Sicily; they started north with the intention of overthrowing the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies, which was based in Naples.  The march – and eventual victory – greatly furthered the movement for Italian unification (commonly acknowledged as the Risorgimento).  Already celebrated as a hero in Sicily and other parts of southern Italy, Garibaldi’s arrival in Sala was obviously a momentous occasion.  As the festivities ended, Garibaldi was invited to dine with a leading citizen, Giuseppe De Petrinis.

Giuseppe Garibaldi

One can only imagine the excitement felt by 8-year-old Giovanni.  The impression left on him by Garibaldi’s visit remained, enhanced over the next few years by news of Garibaldi’s victories.  By age 14, Martino left Sala to join Garibaldi’s forces in the north as volunteers from all parts of Italy gathered in the northern towns of Varese, Como and Bergamo.  Led by Garibaldi, these men were formed into the Cacciatori delle Alpi (Hunters of the Alps) brigade with the aim of liberating the northern Italian regions of Veneto and Trentino from Austrian rule.  Serving as a drummer boy, Martino participated in the Trentino campaign of 1866-67, and possibly the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (the Italian Army supported the newly declared French Republic).  This entire period, however, is difficult to confirm primarily due to the scarcity of documents verifying Martin’s experiences; much of this information comes from Martino himself.

When Martino was approximately 20 years old, he apparently had returned to Sala Consilina and met his natural father.  Poring through Sala’s Registry of Births, Petrocelli located an appendix dated 1872 listing the names of Sala’s residents who had emigrated abroad.  In this section, he discovered a short transcription relating the event.  The Notary of Salerno, Giuseppe Arcieri de Sanza, recorded on October 24, 1872 that a 50-year-old peasant named Giuseppe Perrone formally acknowledged Giovan Crisostimo Martino as his son.  While it is difficult to speculate what effect this may have had on Giovanni emotionally, he neither adopted Perrone as his surname nor ever mentioned it publicly during his lifetime; he continued to list Francesco and Mariantonia (or Maria) Botta as his parents on each of his of many five-year re-enlistment documents.

Arriving in America

In March of 1873, Martino chose to leave Italy, likely hoping to find a better life in America, and boarded the Anchor Line of Glasgow’s S.S. Tyrian in Naples.  Petrocelli notes in his book, John Martin: Un Salese a Little Big Horn, that during this period, most of the shipping companies carrying passengers to America rarely traveled directly from Italy.  The large vessels used to cross the Atlantic infrequently sailed into the Mediterranean Sea, preferring to conduct their business at the Atlantic ports.  Brief stops in the ports of Marseilles and Glasgow preceded a nearly month long voyage across the Atlantic.  Martino, along with a number of other immigrants from Sala, disembarked at Castle Garden (now Castle Clinton) in the Battery Park section of lower Manhattan.  As previously mentioned, it was at this time that Giovan Crisostimo Martino anglicized his name to John Martin.

Soon after his arrival, Martino – now Martin – moved to Brooklyn, a New York City borough filled with Italians.  His arrival coincided with a severe national recession, also known as the Panic of 1873.  Immigrants to America had few employment choices in the late 19th century, and Martin worked a variety of low-paying manual labor jobs.  Italians faced many difficulties in their new country, beginning with language.  Other broader and more complex issues surfaced as Americans, in general, preferred their immigrants to be of similar ethnic and religious backgrounds.  In general, northern Europeans – mostly Protestant and often from Germany and various Scandinavian countries – met less resistance than their darker-skinned counterparts from southern Europe. Although manual labor opportunities existed, work like this only ensured more poverty.

Immigrants looked for alternatives and the U.S. Army opened its arms to recent arrivals in search of employment.  Italy, in particular, endured decades of revolutionary activity and intermittent war in the period preceding unification.  The almost constant strife produced battle-hardened men anxious to prove their worth and earn a living in their new country.  Martino was no different. While passing an Army enlistment center in New York, he was approached by Army recruiter Lieutenant Edward Hunter with promises of a steady job and superior wages.  With few options left, he enlisted on June 1, 1874 as a trumpeter and received an assignment to Company H of the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry.  He was not alone, however, and other Italian-Americans serving in the U.S. Army included Charles Camillus DeRudio (born Count Carlo Camillo Di Rudio), John James (Giovanni Casella), Frank Lombardy (Francesco Lombardi), and Felix Vinatieri (Felice Villiet Vinatieri). DeRudio, in fact, was attached to one of Custer’s battalions, and he survives the battle after a harrowing night hiding in a copse of trees.
Army life for troops stationed on the frontier, while preferable to living in poverty, was difficult and deadly, at best.  Food and sanitation were equally atrocious, and rampant alcoholism was a byproduct of the endless tedium endured by the troopers.  Training in horsemanship to recruits often unaccustomed to horses was inadequate, while drill and marksmanship practice were nearly non-existent; troopers were limited  to only 15 rounds of ammunition per month.  Martin’s Seventh Cavalry Regiment was comprised of equal parts immigrant and American-born troopers; although Italians accounted for a significant number, most of the foreigners hailed from Ireland and Germany.  Many of the officers were Civil War veterans trained and experienced in combat.  It was a polyglot force that Custer led onto the western plains, and this lack of cohesion coupled with poor training certainly contributed to the disaster ahead.

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