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

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.”

Post-Army Life

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.  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 Twenty-Fifth 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 69. 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.

Original headstone

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.

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