Book Review: A Dispatch to Custer (Randy Johnson and Nancy Allan) : WW

A Dispatch to Custer: The Tragedy of Lieutenant Kidder, by Randy Johnson and Nancy Allan,Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, Mont., 1999, $15 paperback.

The mission seemed simple enough. Lieutenant Lyman Kidder, with 10 soldiers and a friendly Siouxguide, was to take a message that General William T. Sherman had received at Fort Sedgwick, Kan.,and deliver it to Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who was patrolling about 50 miles south of thefort. Lieutenant Kidder left with the dispatch on June 29, 1867, but never delivered it. Days later,Custer, at the head of his patrol column, came across a dead horse with Army markings. The troopssoon found another dead horse and then the bodies of Kidder and his men–scalped, decomposing andbristling with arrows. The incident would become known as the Kidder Massacre.

A Dispatch to Custer examines Kidder’s ill-fated ride as well as what led to it and what therepercussions were. By piecing together letters and reports and studying spent bullets and equipment,Randy Johnson and Nancy Allan re-create the tragedy in impressive fashion. The book includes manyof those letters–from Sherman, Custer and Judge Jefferson P. Kidder, Lyman’s father, who traveledfrom Minnesota to the ambush spot and returned his son’s body to St. Paul.

Because there were no survivors in Kidder’s small party, no one will ever know exactly whathappened. But from examining the letters, reports and a trail of dropped ammunition, the authorssurmise that Kidder’s men were ambushed by mounted Indians–Sioux, Cheyenne, or both–and thesoldiers fought a running battle south toward Beaver Creek before the Indians forced them to turneast toward a hill occupied by more Indians. The soldiers halted and occupied a ravine, where theymade a last stand before being overrun. The Indians then stripped the clothes from the dead men,scalped them and filled their bodies with arrows. Custer found the bodies naked and in such poorcondition that identification was nearly impossible. On one body, there was a torn piece of black andwhite flannel shirt. As it turned out, Kidder’s mother had sent him a flannel shirt, and the remnantwas determined to be from that shirt.

The book dispels the myth that Kidder was a green lieutenant who panicked at the sight of Indians.Born on August 31, 1842, in Vermont, Kidder came to St. Paul in 1858 and soon thereafter fought inthe Civil War, against Confederates in Kentucky and Tennessee and against Sioux Indians inMinnesota. After the war, it took him some time before he was appointed a second lieutenant in the2nd Cavalry. He took his oath of office on May 18, 1867.

Although the book is only 120 pages, it holds more information than one would expect to find aboutnot only Kidder’s death but also his life. Some of the same information appears in the various letters,so there is a degree of redundancy. But other than that, Dispatch to Custer delivers a good read basedon some excellent research. The text is accompanied by some helpful maps, along withblack-and-white photos, including several of artifacts that Randy Johnson found at the site of theKidder fight.

Kevin M. Hymel

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