Between late 1874 and early 1875, a geological study – led by renowned Indian fighter and Civil War hero, Lt. Col. George A. Custer – discovered gold in the Black Hills, then considered part of the Department of Missouri. News of the find leaked out and hundreds of prospectors rushed to the area. The Black Hills, however, were considered sacred by the American Indians and existing treaties with the U.S. government forbade any settlement there. Offers to purchase the Black Hills were rejected and the U.S. Secretary of War issued an ultimatum declaring that all Indians would have to move to designated reservations within two months. While most of the Plains Indians resigned themselves to life on the government Reservations, others outraged by the incursion and encouraged by holy man and spiritual leader, Sitting Bull – banded together, determined that war was their only recourse. In response, Sitting Bull’s Lakota and Cheyenne warriors initiated hostilities against the interlopers, hoping to drive off the increasing number of white prospectors and speculators.
Black Hills Expedition
Determining that military intervention was required, troops were assembled to resolve the issue under the leadership of Brigadier General Alfred A. Terry. By the spring of 1876, an intricate three-pronged campaign was mobilized for the Little Big Horn vicinity in an effort to force the “hostiles” onto the reservations. On May 17, Custer and his Seventh Cavalry Regiment left Fort Abraham Lincoln (located near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota), riding out in columns of four. Accompanying Custer and his cavalrymen was the Regimental Band, as well as assorted Arikara and Crow Indian scouts. Some tribes like the Arikara and Crow decided that allaying themselves with the Army would provide better opportunities in reclaiming land taken by the aggressive Lakota.
Little thought was given to understanding the Plains Indians, which were composed primarily of Lakota (Sioux), Arapahos, and Cheyennes along with other contingents of Kiowas and Comanches. For their common defense, the various bands began uniting into one immense camp, totaling perhaps 10,000 men, women and children by some estimates. Subtracting non-combatants from this total still leaves approximately 5,000 warriors in the field. While Terry accompanied one column himself, Colonel John Gibbon and General George Crook commanded the other two, with the primary goal of converging on the Indian village and blocking any route of escape.
Attached to Terry’s column was Lt. Colonel George A. Custer. Impetuous, courageous and often reckless, Custer sought glory and a quick end to the Indian problem. He had earned popular acclaim as a Civil War cavalry leader and spent a few years fighting various Indian tribes. In a lengthy interview with the Washington Times (published November 4, 1906), Martin allowed the journalist to review his diary, which provides exceptional details of Custer and the troops in the period leading up to the battle. In mid-1876, Martin writes, “We are at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and it was the first time in years that Seventh Cavalry had been united. General Terry and staff arrived and the General took command about the 12th of May, 1876. General Custer came from Washington, but did not have much to say, for at that time, he was in trouble with General (then President) Grant. But he had the spirit.”
Ft Lincoln. Lt Col. George Custer third from left
On May 17, 1876, Custer and his troops prepared to leave Fort Lincoln. Martin details the brigade’s make-up and disposition, “The troops for this expedition consisted of twelve troops of the Seventh Cavalry, four companies of infantry, ten of fifteen Indian scouts, and twenty-five or thirty civilians. We took the field at 6:30 AM. “Boots and Saddles” was sounded, and at 7 AM, stand, horse and mount. Then we passed in review and bade farewell to our friends and though the band was playing ˜The Girl I Left Behind Me,” it seemed like a funeral procession. Later it played Custer’s favorite tune, “Garrion” [Garry Owen].” He continues, “After leaving the post, the march was taken up in columns of fours, route step, General Terry and staff in front, followed by General Custer and staff (Mrs. Custer rode on the left of the General). That day we made Little Heart River and camped for the night. After pitching camp assembly was sounded (I was a bugler) and we fell in for payment. It was a pretty sober crowd, everybody felt the position we were in. Some made deposits for their money, and I, for one, put $50 with the Paymaster. Next morning general call was sounded at 6:30, boots and saddles at 7, and we took up the march again. But the paymaster and poor Mrs. Lincoln went back to Fort Abraham Lincoln, and it proved to be the last farewell for her and the General.”
7th Cavalry Band at Ft Abraham Lincoln
Martin’s diary describes several days of “tireless and ceaseless marching.” Tempers flared and discipline slipped during the movement. He notes in detail one episode involving himself and Henry Voss, Custer’s Chief trumpeter. On May 29, they camped by the Little Missionary River, and Voss “detailed me as mounted orderly for headquarters; but as it was not my turn, I refused to do the duty, and after some words the chief trumpeter had me tied up on the picket line for two hours (strung up by the thumbs). I reported it to my Captain, who told General Custer. He sent for me and said he would have it investigated as soon as we got back to quarters.” The Washington Times article records that many days of “dreary, heart-breaking marches” followed, with “a hot sun and dusty plains as constant sources of discomfort to the men.” As Custer and his 647 troopers moved south to form one part of the projected envelopment, Martin noted, “We passed through many Indian camping places, in one of which we found the scalp of a white man. Here we halted, one of the scouts having reported the discovery of a large fresh camp. About this time the headquarters flag was stuck in the ground, but the wind blew it down three times and many of us believed it to be a warning of disaster.” Custer’s Indian scouts had located an enormous Indian encampment by the Little Big Horn River (in present-day Montana) in the late afternoon of June 24. The following morning, one of the Seventh Cavalry’s scouts, a half-breed named Mitch Bouyer (or Boyer), met with Custer to determine the size and strength of the Indian encampment. Bouyer purportedly related to Custer, “Well, General, if you don’t find more Indians in that valley than you ever saw together, you can hang me.” The sheer size of the village and number of Indians was unfathomable to Custer.
On the following morning, as Custer’s men moved into position for an attack planned for the next day, some troopers were spotted by a small band of Indians. This development angered Custer, who assumed it eliminated the crucial element of surprise. Neglecting his general orders to wait for General Terry’s main column and severely underestimating the Indian warriors’ numerical superiority and resolve, he opted for an immediate attack. Utilizing tactics successfully employed in earlier battles, he chose to divide his men into three smaller battalions with the intent of encircling the encampment; Indian warriors, although brave and resilient combatants, were inclined to flee with their families when attacked within their villages. At noon, Martin reported that three companies were sent off with Major Marcus Reno to “march down the Little Big Horn valley and charge everything before him” Reno and his troopers accordingly attacked from the southern end of the village, while Captain Frederick Benteen, also with three companies, rode off to the southwest with orders to “attack all he came across.” Lastly, one company was to guard the pack train of ammunition and supplies, under the command of Captain Thomas McDougall. Custer and the remaining companies would eventually head in a northwesterly direction with the aim of attacking from the east.
The Attack Begins
Custer and Reno’s columns rode together for a few miles along a creek leading to the Little Big Horn. As Reno moved off to begin his attack, Custer and his five companies climbed a bluff overlooking the valley. They continued riding east, in columns of two, eventually stopping by a narrow ravine. As the troopers checked their saddles and weapons, Custer rode to the crest of the bluff, accompanied by his adjutants and Martin. The latter, though normally assigned to Benteen’s H Company, was attached to Custer’s column on this day. Martin explained this development in his diary: “Trumpeter Vose [Voss] called back to me to report as orderly to General Custer, and although, again, it was not my turn, I did as he commanded. General Custer told me to keep close behind him, and we began the march which took up to the top of the hill, from which we saw all of Sitting Bull’s village.”Custer and Cooke scrutinized the encampment carefully, and Martin noted, “It seemed deserted as we would only see a few squaws, papooses, ponies, and dog.”According to Martin, Custer assumed the Indian warriors were away, perhaps buffalo hunting. Following a brief consultation with Cooke, Custer wheeled his horse, waved his hat and exhorted the men in his high-pitched voice: “Boys, have courage! Be brave, and as soon as we get through with these Indians we will go home to our winter station.” The troopers replied with three quick cheers.
Little Bighorn Vally from Reno Hill
It was approximately 3:35, moments before Custer launched his attack. Perhaps realizing that this would be a bigger battle than expected, Custer asked Cooke to send a dispatch to Benteen urgently requesting men and ammunition (“packs). Pulling a notepad from his pocket, the Canadian-born Cooke wrote quickly:
Come on. Big Village.
Be quick. Bring packs.
W. W. Cooke
P.S. Bring Packs.
Martin’s diary recounted the next fateful moments. General Custer perused the note before calling for an orderly to deliver it. An unidentified trooper stepped out to which Custer replied, “No, no, the other man.” Martin nudged his mount forward and tucked the dispatch into his gauntlet. Before he departed, Custer instructed, “Trumpeter, go back on our trail and see if you can discover Benteen and give him this message. If you see no danger come back to us, but if you find Indians in your way stay with Benteen and return with him and when you get back to us report.” It has been noted that Cooke penned the note to overcome concern about Martin’s broken English, but Martin does not mention it. The language issue would loom later in the day.
As Martin hurried off, Custer and his five doomed companies began their slow descent into the valley below. “Riding fast,” continued Martin in his diary, “I soon reached the crest of the hill, and looking back, I could see that the Indians had already attacked, and our boys were acting very excitedly. I rested my horse on the brow of the hill for a minute and sat watching the action in the distance. At the time, I did not think it was the last time any one of these men would ever been seen in life.” Carrying the message would not only save his life, it would be Martin’s defining moment in American history: One that would earn him the unenviable renown as “the last white man to see Custer alive.”
Martin pushed his mount hard as rounds fired by nearby Indians slammed into the ground by him. Spurring his mount, he rode out of their rifle range quickly. Within a few minutes, Martin spotted a solitary rider heading in his direction. It was Custer’s younger brother, Boston, a civilian who had accompanied the column as a guide and forager, among other duties. Boston had been with McDougall’s pack train when an earlier messenger had arrived with a request for ammunition; he immediately set out to locate Custer’s command. Seeing Martin along the way, Boston excitedly asked for his brother’s exact location and, before pressing on, told Martin that his horse was limping from a bullet wound. Boston would be one of three Custer brothers – the other, Tom – who would perish that afternoon. Ironically, this brief meeting would unite the last trooper to see Custer alive and the last man to join the doomed column.
Finally locating Benteen and his command around 4:00 p.m., a relieved Martin rode down and handed over the dispatch. Benteen scanned the note quickly, passed it to Captain Thomas Weir, and asked Martin for Custer’s location. Martin breathlessly replied that Custer and his troopers were three miles away to the north.
“Is [Custer] being attacked or not?” implored Benteen.
Martin tersely – perhaps nervously – replied, “Yes, [he] is being attacked.” Martin’s response provokes historical debate. Eyewitnesses to this encounter report that an animated Martin added in a heavy Italian accent – that the Indians were “skedaddling” (army slang for retreating). In a 1908 interview with Walter Mason Camp, Martin denies using the work “skedaddling” although it is generally acknowledged to have been part of the troopers’ lexicon in that era. There exist scant witnesses to this conversation and its veracity is questionable in light of Martin’s recollection. Benteen’s version may have been altered to justify his later actions, as many of the senior officers’ actions were questioned after the battle.
Any version of this brief meeting must be viewed in the light of that particular moment’s circumstances: The troopers, including their commanders, were under severe stress exacerbated by days of relentless riding and imminent battle with an opponent of unknown strength. This was truly the “heat of battle”and history is filled with seemingly obvious miscommunications occurring at these moments.
Martin, for his part, does not delve into the detail of this conversation. His diary, as reported by the Washington Times Magazine in a 1906 column, summarized the conversation as a quick exchange. Then, Benteen hurried forward, joined Reno [who had fallen back with the remains of his command], and we pushed to Custer’s aid. Instead of deploying immediately to support Custer’s attack, Benteen moved to a nearby saucer-shaped hill to reinforce the third battalion led by Major Marcus Reno. The latter’s column suffered a severe mauling after beginning their assault and retreated to what is now called Reno Hill. Reno and his men were almost certainly saved from destruction by Benteen’s timely arrival. These troops remained in their defensive position on the hill for another two days fending off attacks, vainly hoping for Custer to relieve them.
One can imagine what these soldiers endured during this time: Cursing and sweating soldiers frantically scraping the hard ground to create cover from the enemy fire; dust swirling about, limiting vision, and accompanied by unremitting heat; bewildered and terrified horse and mules whinnying wildly; shots plunking into the ground and unfortunate soldiers who would in turn scream from shock and pain; and, unrelenting thirst for both man and animal. As these events unfolded, great courage was evident in some of the men. Many soldiers, including Martin, would later testify that many lives were certainly saved by a cool and composed Benteen. While Reno cowered in the center of the position, Benteen repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire, even being hit in the heel of his boot. Although they occasionally ventured out to chase off snipers or obtain water, they were unable or unwilling to locate Custer’s column with the exception of one failed foray.
It would have made little difference, however, as Custer’s forces were swiftly surrounded and annihilated within an hour. Two long days passed before the main U.S. Army force arrived, led by General Terry. Their arrival, noted Martin, was “late for Custer and just in time for us – for we were about 400 against 5,000.” Gathering up Reno and Benteen’s surviving troops, Terry’s command rode to the battle site. Martin description is chilling and detailed: “When we got to the place where they had made their stand, we found everything dead except Captain Keogh’s horse. The men had been cut and mangled badly, heads all smashed in, arms and legs twisted like rope, and twenty or thirty arrows struck in each body. It was the worst sight imaginable. Toward the middle of the battleground, we found the body of Custer’s grey horse, with the general’s head resting on its stomach. There was a bullet hole in his left breast and one other in his right temple. His clothes, except hat, coat and boots, were on him, but his watch was gone.”After burying the dead where they had fallen, Terry retreated to the mouth of the Big Horn river, eventually arriving at Fort Abraham Lincoln by the Army’s river steamer, The Far West. Reinforcements were ordered and over the next few years, Federal troops streamed into the Black Hills. Recalcitrant Indians were either rounded up and shipped to government reservations, or hunted down and killed.
After the Little Big Horn
The following year, Martin, still a bugler with the now reconstituted Seventh Cavalry, took part in the campaign against Chief Joseph and the Nez Perc, including the battle of Canyon Creek in Montana (June 1877). In early 1879, Martin found himself in Chicago preparing to offer testimony in the Court of Inquiry’s proceedings concerning the events at the Little Big Horn. Specifically, the Court’s primary focus was on the conduct of both Major Reno and Captain Benteen. It should be noted that Major Reno requested the inquiry in the interest of defending his questionable actions. On March 1, 1879, the Court of Inquiry closed the proceedings and both Reno and Benteen were cleared of any wrongdoing, although intense debates continue today regarding their actions at the battle. Regardless of the Court’s decision, public opinion – swayed by Custer’s widow, Libby, and from the cumulative testimony – ensured that these officers’ reputations were forever damaged.
Martin was honorably discharged at Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 31, 1879 after completing his original five-year enlistment with the Seventh Cavalry. Less than a month later, Martin reenlisted (June 24, 1879), but this time with the Third Artillery Regiment, Battery G, for five years. Perhaps this was due to his impending marriage to Julia Higgins, a 19-year-old Irish girl living in Oswego, New York. They met while Martin was stationed at nearby Fort Schuyler and wed on October 7 at St. Raymond’s Catholic Church in Westchester County. Soon after, Martin was assigned to the shore battery duty in Baltimore. Initially, they lived in Fort McHenry, and eventually settled in a nearby home at 1410 Woodall Street in the Locust Point community of south Baltimore. Here they began to raise their family as Martin reenlisted in 1884, and again in 1889. A July 4, 1885 newspaper article from the Baltimore Sun confirms Martin’s stationing at the Fort McHenry as a musician with Battery D of the Fourth Regular Artillery. His celebrity as Custer’s bugler was growing, and although the article reports primarily on the Fort’s improved physical appearance, the byline reads “Sole Survivor of the Custer Massacre.”
According to a New York Times article dated October 21, 1886, General Philip Sheridan was visited by “a neatly dressed artilleryman named Martin, the sole white survivor of Custer’s command.” Martin traveled to Washington, D.C. in the hope of obtaining a messenger position with the War Department. General Sheridan was the Commanding General of the U.S. Army at that time, and he “promised to further his [Martin’s] application as far as it lay in his power to do so.” Since Martin remained with his Coastal Artillery unit stationed at Fort McHenry, it does not appear that Sheridan’s assistance was successful.
They lived in relative peace and stability with their growing family until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Martin was transferred to the 4th Artillery Regiment, Battery D, stationed in Tampa, Florida. Two years later, as hostilities ended, Martin re-enlisted for the final time and spent some time in Cuba, returning in May 1901. By July of that year, though, Martin transferred to the 90th Coastal Artillery Regiment stationed at Fort McHenry, serving until late September, 1903, when he was promoted to Corporal. Shortly before his mandatory retirement (age limitation) in January, 1904, he received one final promotion to Master Sergeant. His discharge document bears the statement, “Service honest and faithful,” a recurring theme in Martin’s service record. He retained a moderate level of popularity and his retirement was mentioned in a January 1904 article appearing in the National Tribune. The piece noted that he would receive “three quarters of his regular pay [roughly $30 per month].” It added that Martin, “has in his possession a handsomely engrossed certificate signed by Captain Benteen which contains the dates of the various engagements in which he fought.”
The Martins owned and operated a small confectionery shop on Fort Avenue, near the gates of Fort McHenry, until 1906. By now, they had moved into a small home on Hull Street, and their family had grown to eight children: Julia, Mary, George, May, Jane, John Joseph, Frank William and Lawrence. Three of his sons would eventually serve in the military with George – named after Custer – eventually becoming a General in the U.S. Army.
Martin moved to Brooklyn – possibly in 1906 – and lived with his daughter Mary for a short period before finding a furnished room in the neighborhood near the Manhattan Bridge with the Coico (or Coicco) family. By the 1920 census, Martin was listed as an “uncle-in-law” living with the Coicos at 168 Prospect Street in Brooklyn. A scandalous yet unproven rumor involving his move to New York emerged. It alleged that Martin had an affair with a woman of “loose” morals and may have contracted venereal disease from her. Upon Julia’s discovery, Martin moved out of their Baltimore home and left for New York. In 1908, an article appearing in the Brooklyn Eagle revealed that, at the behest of Julia Martin, the police tracked Martin to Brooklyn. He told the police that he had no ill will against his wife and was glad to hear she was doing well. “He was not going back to her, he said, and that was the end of it,” added the reporter. It must be emphasized that these rumors remain unsubstantiated. Italian researcher Pasquale Petrocelli believes Martin remained at least moderately honorable in attending to his family, adding that despite his meager pension, he sought to assist the family in other ways. Many weekends were spent traveling to Baltimore via train courtesy of the free passes provided by his daughter, Julia, an employee of a railroad company.
My correspondence with his few remaining relatives, including Patricia Ditch, seem to confirm that – regardless of his moving to Brooklyn – he remained very much loved by his immediate family. Martin’s personal history does not indicate that he possessed any tendencies to shirk his duties and obligations.
A National Tribune article, dated August 1906, notes that Martin began working that year as a “ticket chopper” in the 103rd Street Station on the recently opened New York City subway system.Â He obtained the position with the help of Major Francis M. Gibson of the New York Street Cleaning Department. Gibson had served as a First Lieutenant with Benteen’s Troop H in the Seventh Cavalry during the Sitting Bull campaign. The article stated that Martin’s Army pension was $30 per month, and that the subway job paid an additional $45 each month; it further noted, “so that he has a good living assured him, but it is monotonous work from 1 o’clock in the morning until 7 [o’clock] in the evening.”
On June 24, 1906, Martin and many former Seventh Cavalry comrades traveled to the United States Military Academy at West Point to honor Custer on the 30th Anniversary of the battle. Fondly called “Bugler” Martin by his fellow veterans, he played “Taps” over Custer’s grave as they laid garlands down in tribute. Many Seventh Calvary troopers, including Martin, revered their former commander. The following year saw Martin attend a Seventh Cavalry reunion held at Canandaigua, New York.
Martin never forgot his Indian Wars experiences, remaining very proud of his service, and particularly of his role in the Battle of Little Big Horn. He supplemented his income by appearing in New York City stage productions, often playing bugle calls between acts or telling war stories. Various newspaper accounts from the New York Times mention Martin’s appearance – as the guest of honor – at the American Theatre’s production of “Custer’s Last Fight” on May 1, 1907. Martin’s relatives and numerous newspapers articles assert Martin’s popularity during his time in New York City. It was not unusual for schoolchildren to visit, primarily to hear his retelling of the famous battle.
As the years went by, Martin happily continued to be interviewed by historians and journalists alike regarding his memories of the Little Big Horn. Perhaps thoughtlessly, Martin occasionally amended a few details of the battle and his life. Often, his intent was to correct an inaccuracy or discrepancy in the deposition taken at the 1879 Court of Inquiry. Conversely, as his command of the English language improved over the years, his memory inevitably began to fail as evidenced by the sometime contradictory information provided during interviews. A newspaper article from 1906 mentions that he had a “slight Italian accent to his English.”
The Washington Times Magazine published a detailed article about John Martin in November 1906, which provides an intriguing view into his life. At 53 years of age, Martin was “still an active clear-eyed man whose strong face and perfect poise clearly indicate the active and perfect training he has had since infancy-he is straight and sturdy as ever, and rises with a merry twinkle and a regulation military salute for every one of the many patrons of the subway who know him personally, and who never fail to stop for a minute with the old veteran of at least three active campaigns.”Martin, the author reveals, kept a detailed diary of his entire military service. Evidently, he prized the memoirs but allowed the interviewer to use it for the purposes of verification.
Martin in later years
The reporter visited with Martin at his New York apartment and on his walls hung priceless memorabilia. The bugle he used throughout his thirty year Army career hung on one wall while a “slightly tarnished cornet hangs opposite the bugle.”The cornet, Martin explained, had belonged to a Spanish bugler who gifted it to him after the truce since “Martin could play it better than its owner.” Another wall held a “slightly tarnished and battered saber” to which Martin provided a short history. He related that when the troop was mustered out in 1879, the soldiers turned in all of their equipment, but Martin was allowed to keep his bugle since it was personal property. Years later, while serving in Cuba, he was summoned to his sergeant’s tent and told, “John, you were with Custer. I have a relic from his command and I am going to give it to you.” The sergeant presented the saber to Martin who examined it carefully. To his astonishment, he “found my initials, J.D.M., with the date “June, 1876” where I had scratched them with a nail years ago. I was mighty glad to get it back” Fittingly, Martin also kept an 1874 photograph of General Custer described, as “yellow and grimy with age and exposure.”
As his small frame began to grow, he readily traded in his subway job for a better one at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he spent the rest of his working days. In a second long interview with Walter Mason Camp in May 1910, Martin recounted speaking to General Terry two days after the battle while leading the relief column to the battle site. After querying Martin on certain specifics relating to the battle, Terry closed the conversation with, “Well, you are a lucky man and I wish you good fortune.”
John Martin’s good fortune came to an end on December 18, 1922: While crossing a Brooklyn street, he was hit by a truck and hospitalized at Cumberland Hospital. Although the truck accident was enough to hospitalize him, a more devastating medical problem was discovered. Six days passed as Martin struggled with complications arising from a bronchial pulmonary issue. At 10: 15 on the morning of December 24, 1922, with only a son-in-law present, Martin lost his final battle and passed away at the age of 71. He was laid to rest in the nearby military cemetery at Cypress Hills in Brooklyn three days later; it was Bugler Martin’s final bivouac.
Shortly after his death, his widow, Julia, applied for a pension assignment. In order to validate her claim as his wife, she was required to provide proof that their separation was only that, and not a divorce. Depositions were collected from family and neighbors, and the matter was resolved in Julia’s favor on March 23, 1923. In a sidebar, as a result of her dementia, Julia spent her remaining years at Spring Grove Hospital in Catonsville, Maryland.