Thomas F. O'Neill's Story of the Battle
THE STORY OF PRIVATE THOMAS F. O'NEILL
[AFTER SENDING Reno's troops charging into the huge Indian village], O'Neill says Custer came within 300 or 400 yards of river before he turned up to the right. He remembers the ford where Reno crossed as at a high bank. The trail split and went around a little rise of ground on which some of the Rees were sitting holding a council and discussing the numbers of the Sioux. One of these was picking up handfuls of grass and dropping it and pointing to the Sioux, who could be seen down and across the river, indicating that the Sioux were as thick as the grass. He [O'Neill] went to left of this knoll and down to the river through a dry ravine. On other side of river there were timber and fallen logs and took some time to get through. When about half way down to where skirmish line was formed he saw Custer and his whole command on the bluffs across the river, over to the east, at a point which he would think was about where Reno afterward fortified, or perhaps a little south of this. Custer's command were then going at a trot.
He says that on the skirmish line there was no very hard fighting and thinks that but few effective shots could have been fired. The skirmish line could not have stood to exceed 20 min. The men were in good spirits, talking and laughing and not apprehensive of being defeated, and the Sioux, toward the village, were riding around kicking up a big dust but keeping pretty well out of range.
Presently they saw the Sioux going around the left flank, which extended to a point about half way to the hills to the west. The men then ran to their horses and from behind the little rise of ground between timber and open plain they lay and fired at Indians for some time, Lieut. Hare occasionally borrowing a gun from Lieut. Wallace to try his marksmanship on the Indians as they would circle around.
About this time there was a cry that the Indians were getting at the horses over toward the left flank and he [O'Neill] went with McIntosh and whole troop to investigate. They found the river at their back and no Indians in that direction. Reno was in the timber and apparently not excited. They then returned and found hot fire in front and men calling to hurry up as the Indians were pressing. In about 10 minutes Capt. Moylan ordered Troop A to mount. Hodgson inquired "Where you going Moylan?" and Moylan said he was going to charge. Lieut. Varnum remonstrated and said: "For God's sake men let's don't leave the line. There are enough of us here to whip the whole Sioux nation." Nevertheless the stampede was started and could not be stopped.
As he (O'Neill) was mounting, his horse was shot, and seeing a horse without a rider, he mounted it; but immediately Trooper Martin came up and claimed the horse and so he gave him up to Martin, who was killed on the retreat. He then, with some others, followed on after the retreating column on foot. The Indians were riding on the right flank of the mounted men firing into them, and the first he knew he saw them behind coming for him. He then decided to get back to the timber and met Indians pursuing the column. When they would get too close he would take aim, and the Indian aimed and would hang over on opposite side of pony and pass on and in this way he stood off those inclined to get too close until he got to timber without being ridden down. One large Indian, however, rode right up onto him from behind, but he turned and shot him through with his carbine and Indian fell off. One dismounted soldier with him was killed getting to timber.
He quickly reached the south side of the timber and as he ran in he saw De Rudio [Lt. Charles deRudio] 2 and soon joined. O'Neill going back to timber passed McIntosh coming out on McCormick's horse. McIntosh asked O'Neill where the command was. He next passed Rapp, the last man out who was leading McIntosh horse. Rapp inquired for "Tosh." The Indians soon came up and killed Rapp. Scouts Billy (probably Bob) Jackson, half-breed, and Gerard with their horses tied some distance away. De Rudio's horse had gotten away from him. Jackson and De Rudio were in a buffalo wallow. Here they lay and watched the Indians passing back and forth out in the open. They immediately prepared to resist, but waited some time and no Indians came in.
Gerard's horse began to whinny, and Jackson pulled a large bunch of grass, stuffed it into the horse's mouth, and tied it fast to keep the horse still. They could hear Indians all around and moved very cautiously, not going any considerable distance until after dark. During the afternoon they heard firing in direction of Custer, at one time three volleys, and O'Neill thinks all firing in direction over about 5:00 p.m. as nearly as he can estimate.
About 10:00 p.m. the four men and two horses cautiously crept through and out of timber and started up the river, De Rudio and O'Neill hanging to horses' tails. They soon began to find dead men and recognized Lieut. McIntosh in the hazy moonlight. They soon met a small party of mounted Sioux who turned to the right and evaded them. They had heard the firing on Reno during the afternoon and evening, but as all was quiet after dark did not know whether the command had perished on the bluff or retreated. They looked at bluffs on east side and thought them too high and thought best thing would be to go back to Ford A. On the way up the river O'Neill requested Gerard to ride his horse into the water at one point to discover how deep it might be, but Gerard refused to do this and so O'Neill waded in and suddenly stepped into a hole up to his neck.
He floundered out and they went farther up the river. All took drink of water and crossed to the island and at the north end of the island ran into a picket party of Indians with their ponies, about 10 Indians, who called out in Sioux. Here Gerard and Jackson wheeled horses and went back north the way they came and this was last seen of them. The Indians 15 yards away were frightened and jumped horses into river.
De Rudio was behind, and O'Neill squatted, drew his pistol, and prepared for the worst. He heard footsteps and when he saw the cap he recognized De Rudio who said, "O'Neill, they're all gone." They wandered about island looking for place to cross main stream when they became tired and worn out and sat down and rested. Boots full water and clothing wet, he [O'Neill] stripped and wrung out clothing. Now startled by clatter of hoofs and sound of voices. They now waded over to the island but found deep water on east side of it.
Just as it was coming day they heard voices coming up the river on the east bank, and De Rudio ran out exclaiming "Tom Custer!" "Tom Custer!" O'Neill ran out but immediately warned De Rudio that the men were Indians and not soldiers, and straightway the Sioux began firing at them. At this De Rudio and O'Neill retreated back through the timber on the island in great haste, making for a big clump of bushes only to find seven or eight mounted Indians looking for them. O'Neill, seeing that they were discovered, discharged his carbine into the bunch of redskins, and De Rudio fired two revolver shots, whereupon the Indians were surprised, thinking they were being charged upon by some body of troops. The Indians' ponies were also thrown into fright and were jumping against one another. Turning behind clump of brush and keeping out of sight now to the eastward 150 yards nearly to main river bank, they found trees washed up in a flood against stumps enclosing a triangular space and into this they jumped and decided to try to stand. The Indians saw the direction they went and fired about fifty shots into the brush in that direction, bullets striking the logs all about them. O'Neill now thought they were as good as gone and took off his cartridge belt in which he had, as he remembers, about 25 carbine and 12 revolver shots left. He was resigned to stand here to the last and shook hands with De Rudio thinking that the last would soon be "wound up."
Fortunately the Sioux did not follow them up, probably thinking they had escaped, and at this point they lay all day. Soon the fight against Reno on the bluff started up, and some of Benteen's firing came right down over their heads. Some of the Indians being between them and Benteen, they could hear the Sioux talking quite plainly. O'Neill says this was the longest day he ever experienced, as they were eagerly waiting for night to come so they could get out. At last darkness came and they made their way up the river, thinking to cross at Ford A and go back on the trail toward the Rosebud. They were very hungry, having had only 3 pieces of hardtack since the morning of the day before -- the 25th. O'Neill said he was so thirsty his mouth could make no saliva, and the hardtack was so dry that he could not swallow it and had to blow it out of his mouth as dry as so much flour. As soon as they got into the water they drank to their fill and were greatly relieved. He thinks they must have missed the ford and gone on past it, but they waded across with the intention of going to the deserted village at the burning tepee, where they hoped they might perchance find some piece of dried meat or unpicked bone left by the Sioux two days before. On their way up Benteen creek, when about a mile from the river, O'Neill heard the braying of a mule away off to his left, whereupon he nudged De Rudio in the ribs and asked him if he also had heard it. De Rudio had heard nothing (being hard of hearing) and was skeptical of O'Neill's opinion that the command might be up there. O'Neill, however, was determined to try and so they started off in that direction. Eventually they heard voices but were too far off to be sure whether it was English or Sioux. They were determined to find out, so they crept stealthily on, listening awhile and then creeping nearer. Finally a voice he could recognize (Serg. McVey, Troop A) loudly cried out:3 "Hello, Mac," and a number of voices answered back: "Who's there?" and received the reply: "Lieutenant De Rudio and Tom O'Neill." De Rudio was now no longer in doubt, confidence so genuine that he outran O'Neill and got to the command some distance ahead of him. O'Neill helped bury the dead on June 28. He and Hammon 4 personally dug the hole in which Genl. Custer was buried and lay the body in it.
Lieut. Wallace wrote the General's name on a piece of paper, rolled it up and inserted it in an empty cartridge shell and put it by a little stake driven by Custer's head. Before he was covered, Dr. Porter took locks of hair of all the officers.5 His description of Custer's wounds tallies well with Hammon's. Says was shot clear through head back of both temples and through the chest. Tom Custer was disemboweled but breast not cut open. He recognized him by looking at his face.
Walter Mason Camp's Notes:
1. Walter Camp field notes, folder 83, BYU Library. Thomas F. O'Neill, born in Dublin, Ireland, was a private in Company G. He enlisted for the second time on January 17, 1872. He was cook for Lieutenant Donald McIntosh on the Sioux campaign until June 25. He retired as a first sergeant and died on March 23, 1914. His account is also in The Pacific Monthly, July 1908, p. 109. A copy of a three-page letter from Sergeant Thomas O'Neill to Brigadier General E. S. Godfrey with his account of the fight is in the Manuscript Room, New York Public Library.
5. Editor's note: In those days people made hair pictures (many of these are on exhibit in local museums), watch chains, and other things from hair. Human hair had a cultural significance then that no longer exists today. Per haps Dr. Porter intended to give the locks of hair to the families of the deceased.
Custer in '76: Walter Camp's Notes on the Custer Fight, edited by Kenneth Hammer, Brigham Young University Press 1976 p 106 - 110
Pvt. Thomas F. O'Neill's account makes a fascinating counterpoint to Lt. Charles DeRudio's account of the experierence they had together behind Sioux lines after becoming separated from the rest of their commrades in Reno's command during Reno's retreat to the river. Here is another, later account by O'Neill.
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