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100 Voices: Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Crow, Arikara and American Eye-witness accounts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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John Martin's Story of the Battle #3
A 7th Cavalry survivor's account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

From an interview with W.A. Graham in 1922. Originally published in U.S. Cavalry Journal, June 1923.
Here are a 1908 account and a 1910 account by Martin.


John Martin in 1904A LITTLE BEFORE 8 o'clock on the morning of June 25, my captain, Benteen, called me to him and ordered me to report to General Custer as orderly trumpeter. The regiment was then several miles from the Divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn. We had halted there to make coffee after a night march.

We knew, of course, that plenty of Indians were somewhere near, because we had been going through deserted villages for two days and following a heavy trail from the Rosebud, and on the 24th we had found carcasses of dead buffalo that had been killed and skinned only a short time before.

I reported to the General personally, and he just looked at me and nodded. He was talking to an Indian scout, called Bloody Knife, when I reported, and Bloody Knife was telling him about a big village in the valley, several hundred tepees and about five thousand Sioux. I sat down a little way off and heard the talk. I couldn't understand what the Indian said, but from what the General said in asking questions and his conversation with the interpreter I understood what it was about.

The General was dressed that morning in a blue-gray flannel shirt, buckskin trousers and long boots. He wore a regular company hat. His yellow hair was cut short; not very short-but it was not long and curly on his shoulders like it used to be.

Very soon the General jumped on his horse and rode bareback around the camp, talking to the officers in low tones and telling them what he wanted them to do. By 8:30 the command was ready to march and the scouts went on ahead. We followed slowly, about fifteen minutes later. I rode about two yards back of the General. We moved on at a walk until about two hours later we came to a deep ravine, where we halted. The General left us there and went away with the scouts. I didn't go with him but stayed with the Adjutant. This was when he went up to the "Crow's Nest" on the Divide, to look for the Sioux village that Bloody Knife had told him about. He was gone a long time and when he came back they told him about finding fresh pony tracks close by and that the Sioux had discovered us in the ravine. At once he ordered me to sound officers' call and I did so. This showed that he realized now that we could not surprise the Sioux, and so there was no use to keep quiet any longer. For two days before this there had been no trumpet calls and every precaution had been taken to conceal our march. But now all was changed.

The officers came quickly and they had an earnest conference with the General. None of the men were allowed to come near them, but soon they separated and went back to their companies.

Then we moved on again, and after a while, about noon, crossed the Divide. Pretty soon the General said something to the Adjutant that I could not hear, and pointed off to the left. In a few minutes Captain Benteen, with three troops, left the column and rode off in the direction that the General had pointed. I wondered where they were going because my troop was one of them.

The rest of the regiment rode on, in two columns: Colonel Reno, with three troops, on the left, and the other five troops, under General Custer, on the right. I was riding right behind the General. We followed the course of a little stream that led in the direction of the Little Big Horn River. Reno was on the left bank and we on the right.

All the time, as we rode, scouts were riding in and out, and the General would listen to them and sometimes gallop away a short distance to look around. Sometimes Reno's column was several hundred yards away and sometimes it was close to us, and then the General had motioned with his hat and they crossed over to where we were.

Soon we came to an old tepee that had a dead warrior in it. It was burning. The Indian scouts had set it afire. Just a little off from that there was a little hill, from which Girard [Fred Gerard], one of the scouts, saw some Indians between us and the river. He called to the General and pointed them out. He said they were running away. [Note: Half Yellow Face told Custer the same thing.] The General ordered the Indian scouts to follow them but they refused to go. Then the General motioned to Colonel Reno, and when he rode up the General told the Adjutant [Cooke] to order him to go down and cross the river and attack the Indian village, and that he would support him with the whole regiment. He said he would go down to the other end and drive them, and that he would have Benteen hurry up and attack them in the center.

Reno, with his three troops, left at once on a trot, going toward the river, and we followed for a few hundred yards and then swung to the right, down the river.

We went at a gallop, too. (Just stopped once to water the horses.) The General seemed to be in a big hurry. After we had gone about a mile or two we came to a big hill that overlooked the valley and we rode around the base of it and halted. Then the General took me with him and we rode to the top of the hill, where we could see the village in the valley on the other side of the river. It was a big village, but we couldn't see it all from there, though we didn't know it then; but several hundred tepees were in plain sight.

There were no bucks to be seen; all we could see was some squaws and children playing and a few dogs and ponies. The General seemed both surprised and glad, and said the Indians must be in their tents, asleep.

We did not see anything of Reno's column when we were up on the hill. I am sure the General did not see them at all, because he looked all around with his glasses, and all he said was that we had `got them this time.'

He turned in the saddle and took off his hat and waved it so the men of the command, who were halted at the base of the hill, could see him and he shouted to them, "Hurrah, boys, we've got them! We'll finish them up and then go home to our station."

Then the General and I rode back down to where the troops were, and he talked a minute with the Adjutant, telling him what he had seen. We rode on, pretty fast, until we came to a big ravine that led in the direction of the river, and the General pointed down there and then called me. This was about a mile down the river from where we went up on the hill, and we had been going at a trot and gallop all the way. It must have been about three miles from where we left Reno's trail.

The General said to me, "Orderly, I want you to take a message to Colonel Benteen. Ride as fast as you can and tell him to hurry. Tell him it's a big village and I want him to be quick, and to bring the ammunition packs." He didn't stop at all when he was telling me this and I just said, "Yes sir," and checked my horse, when the Adjutant said, "Wait, orderly, I'll give you a message," and he stopped and wrote it in a big hurry, in a little book, and then tore out the leaf and gave it to me.

And then he told me, "Now, orderly, ride as fast as you can to Colonel Benteen. Take the same trail we came down. If you have time and there is no danger, come back; but otherwise stay with your company.."

Pvt. John Martin, who carried Gen. George A. Custer's last orderMy horse was pretty tired, but I started back as fast as I could go. The last I saw of the command they were going down into the ravine. The gray horse troop was in the center and they were galloping.

The Adjutant had told me to follow our trail back, and so in a few minutes I was back on the same hill again where the General and I had looked at the village; but before I got there I heard firing back of me and I looked around and saw Indians, some waving buffalo robes and some shooting. They had been in ambush.

Just before I got to the hill I met Boston Custer. He was riding at a run, but when he saw me he checked his horse and shouted, "Where's the General?" and I answered pointing back of me, "Right behind that next ridge you'll find him." And he dashed on. That was the last time he was ever seen alive.

When I got up on the hill, I looked down and there I saw Reno's battalion in action. It had not been more than ten or fifteen minutes since the General and I were on the hill, and then we had seen no Indians. But now there were lots of them, riding around and shooting at Reno's men, who were dismounted and in skirmish line. I don't know how many Indians there were-a lot of them. I did not have time to stop and watch the fight; I had to get on to Colonel Benteen; but the last I saw of Reno's men they were fighting in the valley and the line was falling back.

Some Indians saw me because right away they commenced shooting at me. Several shots were fired at mefour or five, I think-but I was lucky and did not get hit. My horse was struck in the hip, though I did not know it until later.

It was a very warm day and my horse was hot, and I kept on as fast as I could go. I didn't know where Colonel Benteen was, nor where to look for him, but I knew I had to find him.

I followed our trail back to the place we had watered our horses and looked all around for Colonel Benteen. Pretty soon I saw his command coming. I was riding at a jog trot then. My horse was all in and I was looking everywhere for Colonel Benteen.

As soon as I saw them coming I waved my hat to them and spurred my horse, but he couldn't go any faster. But it was only a few hundred yards before I met Colonel Benteen. He was riding quite a distance in front of his troops, with his orderly trumpeter, at a fast trot. The nearest officer to him was Captain Weir, who was at the head of his troop, about two or three hundred yards back.

I saluted and handed the message to Colonel Benteen and then I told him what the General said-that it was a big village and to hurry. He said, "Where's the General now?" and I answered that the Indians we saw were running and I supposed that by this time he had charged through the village. I was going to tell him about Major Reno being in action too, but he didn't give me the chance. He said, "What's the matter with your horse?" and I said, "He's just tired out, I guess." The Colonel said, "Tired out? Look at his hip," and then I saw the blood from the wound. Colonel Benteen said, "You're lucky it was the horse and not you." By this time Captain Weir had come up to us and Colonel Benteen handed the message to him to read and told me to join my company.

He didn't give me any order to Captain McDougall, who was in command of the rear guard, or to Lieutenant Mathey, who had the packs. I told them so at Chicago in
1879 when they had the court of inquiry, but I didn't speak English so good then, and they misunderstood me and made the report of my testimony show that I took an order to Captain McDougall. But that is a mistake.

They gave me another horse and I joined my troop and rode on with them. The pack train was not very far behind them. It was in sight, maybe a mile away and the mules were coming along, some of them walking, some trotting, and others running. We moved on faster than the packs could go, and soon they were out of sight, except that we could see their dust.

I Fought With Custer: The Story of Sergeant Windolf, Last Survivor of the Little Big Horn, as told to Frazier and Robert Hunt, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1947 p. 96 - 107


As the Battle of the Little Bighorn was rushing to climax, Col. George A. Custer sent the same message to Capt. Frederick Benteen, his best battlefield commander, and Capt. Thomas McDougall, who commanded the Seventh Cavalry's extra ammunition packs, via two different couriers.

With Trumpeter Giovanni Martini [AKA John Martin] he sent Benteen the famous "come on. big village" note penned by Lt. W.W. Cooke, the regimental adjutant. [Martin's note was written because his command of English was sketchy. Here is Charles Windolf's description of Martin and Kanipe.]

And a few minutes earlier, he sent the same message in verbal form to McDougall and Benteen via Sgt. Daniel Kanipe. Both Martini and Kanipe got through, and as a result both survived the battle. Here is Benteen's account of receiving Martin's message, plus an image of the original in the hand of Lt. W.W. Cooke.

Martin and Kanipe are frequently described as the "last Seventh Cavalry troopers to see Custer alive" (or words to this effect) because they carried Custer's last order to Benteen, and thus were the last men to get out alive that day. But actually, the "last Seventh Cavalry trooper to see Custer alive" was not John Martin or Dan Kanipe. According to the eye-witness record, it was Peter Thompson.

Medal of Honor-winner Thompson's horse gave out just before the battle, and while he was trying to rejoin Reno, Thompson caught a glimpse of Custer at the river, away from his command and in the midst of some kinky business with a tethered squaw, something that American historians have not wanted to talk about for over 100 years. See Peter Thompson's account of the battle and Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-Witness Answer for more info.

* * *

This late 1922 account by Martin is more forthcoming than the earlier accounts from 1908 and 1910, perhaps because Martin was more comfortable with W.A. Graham than W.M Camp. Graham's interview gleans a couple useful notes and amplifications -- specifically that Custer thought the Indians were running, even though his scouts refused to follow the supposedly retreating Sioux, and that Custer promised to support Reno.

* * *

Here's Charles Windolf's description of meeting Martin on the trail that afternoon...

"We hadn't gone on very much farther before we saw a second figure in uniform riding towards us. He was Trumpeter Martini [Giovanni Martini, or John Martin] of my company, who had been assigned that morning as special orderly trumpeter to General Custer. I learned afterwards that he had a message from Custer to Benteen, that had been scribbled out on a field order pad and signed by Lieutenant Cooke the Adjutant. It read: "Benteen, come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. P. S. Bring pack, W. W. Cooke."

"Martini was a salty little Italian who had been a drummer boy with Garibaldi in the fight for Italian independence. Captain Keogh, an Irishman commanding Troop "I," who was riding this day with Custer, had also fought with Garibaldi.

"I knew Martini very well because he belonged to H. We used to tease him a lot but we never did after this fight. He proved that he was plenty man. His horse was spouting blood from a bullet wound in his right hip but Martini didn't know anything about it. Benteen ordered him to rejoin his company. I always figured that Benteen thought that since Sergeant Kanipe had already taken word back to Captain McDougall to bring on the pack train as fast as they could come, there was no use sending more word to him. Anyway, Martini's horse was played out and it was all that he could do to keep up with us."


Mysteries of the Little Bighorn by Bruce Brown #1

Mysteries of the Little Bighorn by Bruce Brown #2

Mysteries of the Little Bighorn by Bruce Brown #3

Mysteries of the Little Bighorn by Bruce Brown #4

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