Custer's Last Men | Letters | Chicago Reader

Custer's Last Men 

Possibly others have written to note that Harold Henderson proved himself guilty of the same know-nothingness he ascribes to others in his December 27 article headlined "Don't Know Much About History." If not, allow me to do so.

In that piece he sneers at the National Italian American News Bureau for writing that two Italian soldiers with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn survived the massacre. He correctly points out that Custer and those immediately accompanying him were wiped out.

However, the fact is that when Custer reached the Little Bighorn he divided his regiment, the Seventh Calvary, into four detachments. He kept one detachment--five troops comprising 266 soldiers--under his personal command. The other three detachments were deployed elsewhere along or near the river. It was Custer's five troops, of course, that bought the farm.

If you want to define that phase of the battle as a "massacre," then, yes, no one lived to tell the tale. But most of the men in the other detachments survived the daylong battle, though casualties were heavy. The two Italians, Lieutenant DeRudio and Trumpeter Martini, were indeed among the survivors--and thus both certainly did participate in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In fact, Martini was the last survivor to see Custer alive. When Custer saw the size of the Indian village, he sent Trumpeter Martini galloping off to bring up one of the other detachments, led by Captain Benteen. Already heavily besieged, Benteen wisely chose not to obey that summons. This decision probably saved him and his detachment from suffering the same fate as his flamboyant commander.

At any rate, those two Italians were definitely with Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the caustic Mr. Henderson may have demonstrated that he may also be among the benighted folk who "Don't Know Much About History."

Thomas Millstead

N. Wells

Harold Henderson replies:

For my article I checked out the National Italian American News Bureau's claim in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. But going beyond the encyclopedia to Page Smith's The Rise of Industrial America, it turns out that the interesting part of NIANB's claim is false, and the true part isn't very interesting. According to Smith, the Battle of Little Bighorn actually consisted of three serious engagements between U.S. Army Seventh Cavalry soldiers and Sioux and Cheyenne warriors on June 25, 1876. The skirmishes happened in different places along the Little Bighorn River, at different times of day, and under different commands. Custer was the overall commander, but--having divided the cavalry into combat units that morning--he was not present at the first engagement (Major Marcus Reno was in command) nor at the second (with Captain Frederick Benteen in command). The third encounter was the only action George Armstrong Custer saw that day, and no one who was with him at that time lived to tell the tale.

Under Reno and Benteen, roughly 200 men--including, presumably, our Italian-American friends--survived. All of them were indeed "with Custer at Little Bighorn." But they "survived the massacre" in the same uninteresting way as a New York fishmonger might have--by not being there for it.

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