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Desperate Flight From the Little Bighorn

By John Koster
6/15/2017 • Wild West Magazine

Whether anyone from Custer’s immediate command escaped the massacre is debatable, but some definitely tried to get away.

At Reno Hill on June 25–26, 1876, A Company Sergeant Stanislas Roy, according to his Medal of Honor citation, “brought water to the wounded at great danger to life and under a most galling fire of the enemy.” Two days later the sergeant helped bury two 7th U.S. Cavalry soldiers—Corporal John Foley and Sergeant James Butler—apparently killed while in flight from the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

“On June 28 a.m. we went over to Custer battlefield to bury the dead,” Sergeant Roy told Walter Mason Camp, who interviewed dozens of Little Bighorn participants in 1910. “We did not follow Dry Creek to the river but cut straight across the battlefield,” Roy continued. “The first dead body we came to was that of Corporal John Foley. I heard several say, ‘There lies Foley of C Company.’ I saw him and recognized him easily, as he had a bald head and black hair. He was of middle age, and I knew him well. Foley was at least three-fourths mile in advance of the first group of dead at C [Company].”

Foley—most likely Irish-born, who signed his enlistment with an X—is generally believed to be the soldier with stripes described by the teenage Indians who chased him from the field. Foley might have escaped, as the young warriors had run out of arrows, but the trooper panicked and shot himself in the head. Foley, who had been detailed to carry one of five regimental guidons into battle, rescued the banner and carried it off inside his blouse, where soldiers found it after the battle. The Indians are said to have left it on his body because they were superstitious about suicide. But that is unlikely. Indians are not at all superstitious about suicide— Cheyenne “suicide boys,” who vowed to fight unto death, were a factor in Custer’s defeat, and the whole Cheyenne-Arapaho Dog Soldier movement was a sort of suicide cult. The teenage Indians who pursued Foley took his cartridge belt and marked his body with arrows but simply missed the guidon, which was stained with his blood.

“The next body we came to was that of Sergeant Butler,” Roy recalled, “and from him to first group of dead at C the distance was considerable. He lay probably one-half way from Foley to C. There was no dead horse near either Foley or Butler. I helped to bury the bodies on the west slope of the ridge, and we wound up with E Troop men over near the gully. I then took sick to my stomach from the stench.”

Like Foley, L Company 1st Sgt. James Butler, an excellent soldier with 16 years service, was nowhere near the firing line when killed. Some historians suggest he was dispatched as a messenger. But Trumpeter John Martin (aka Giovanni Martino, or Martini), Custer’s last known messenger, doubted it, as Butler had no message on his body, and Custer would not have detailed an experienced first sergeant as an orderly.

French-born Medal of Honor recipient Roy had two hitches as a 7th Cavalry trooper, serving until 1880 and living until 1913. What he saw on June 28, 1876 —the bodies of the two noncommissioned officers who had tried to get out of the dire situation at the Little Bighorn and almost made it—does not jibe with the mythology of Custer’s Last Stand that demands heroes fighting shoulder to shoulder to the last man and the last bullet. Not that Butler, Foley and others necessarily fled the fierce fighting in sheer panic. It is possible at least a half-dozen troopers broke out from the ring of Indians below Calhoun Ridge in a concerted charge, perhaps led by an officer and a sergeant. There is no implication of cowardice in such an escape attempt. These men, whether in a group or not, were perhaps riding wounded and/or panicked horses.

One of the men on a wounded horse was probably Private Nathan Short of C Company, and he and his mount made it a surprising distance. Another member of C Company, Sergeant August Finckle, whose real name may have been Frank Finkel, just may have escaped the battlefield entirely after his wounded horse bolted and possibly triggered a group escape attempt.

Three or four weeks after the Battle of the Little Bighorn soldiers discovered a trooper’s body far beyond the path taken by Butler and Foley. “I saw Nathan Short,” Ferdinand Widmayer told Camp. The German-born Widmayer, who had been on detached duty at the Little Bighorn as a private with M Company, later retired as the 7th Cavalry’s color sergeant and lived in Philadelphia. Camp’s notes record Widmayer’s recollections:

[He] heard that a dead soldier was found and went to see him. Bones of man and horse and carbine were found. Sling belt still on the skeleton. Says was near the Rosebud. Body lay out in an open space near some brush but not in brush.…A good many went to see it.…Says body had been dead a long time and clothing rotted.

Short may have died a few days after the battle, his body and clothing later shredded by coyotes or buzzards. The summer heat certainly didn’t help preserve the corpse.

Other soldiers made anecdotal mention of Short’s remains. “Heard of Nathan Short,” recalled C Company Private Peter Thompson, who survived because “horse trouble” kept him from following Custer into battle. “He got good distance toward Rosebud.…Had initials on cartridge belt.” Thompson— like Roy—earned a Medal of Honor for his actions on Reno Hill, carrying water to the wounded under fire and despite having been shot. Some historians have dismissed his descriptions of Custer’s last moments as fantasy, but Thompson demonstrated unquestionable courage on Reno Hill and had no reason to make up details about Short.

“The dead trooper with his gun and dead horse still lariated to the picket pin was found a few days’ journey from Custer’s hill,” wrote C Company Sergeant Daniel Kanipe, the next-to-last white man to see Custer alive. Kanipe went into more detail in his July 1908 letter to Camp:

It was not six months before his body was found but was somewheres about three or four weeks. General Crook’s command found him. He was over in the Rosebud country. He was in the direction of about east, or southeast from the battlefield where Custer was found. I knew the man well. His name was Short, but I do not remember his given name. He belonged to C troop, my company. How I came to know it was Short of my company was that he had his stuff numbered 50, and General [George] Crook reported that the man’s number was 50. He was with the company when I left it on Reno’s Hill.

Kanipe augmented his story in a November 1909 letter to Camp:

Short wore a light hat with the cross sabres [sic] drawn on the front of it with the number 7 between the sabres. …It was a common thing for the men to mark their equipment with their initials for identification. There were very few men in the company who marked their hats as Short did, but I recall very well that he had marked his in this manner. The soldiers all had their hats marked, but usually on the inside. I heard Nathan Short’s body had been found after we marched from the mouth of the Bighorn to the Rosebud, but I did not see the remains. I only heard that the scouts had found them. I did not see anyone who had seen the body, either, but it has always been my understanding that Crook’s scouts had found the body, but I have never heard if they were Sioux or Crows who found him.

Scout George Herendeen told Camp that Crow scouts had found the body, as Camp later recounted:

Herendeen writes me that the body was found pinned under the horse, as though the horse had fallen and the man was too weak to extricate himself. The supposition is, of course, that both the man and the horse had been wounded and that both were so weak when the horse fell that neither of them could get up.…He also states that the man had a light-colored hat with crossed sabres drawn on the front of it with pen and ink, and the number 7 between the sabres.

“On our way up the Rosebud to meet Crook, a cavalryman’s hat was found near the Rosebud,” H Company Private George Glenn, a three-hitch trooper from Boston, told Camp in 1914. “I saw the hat. It was a white wool hat with brass crossed sabers and a brass letter C. It was passed around among the men to see if anyone could identify the owner of it.” Though Glenn was dishonorably discharged in 1880, he was later admitted to an old soldier’s home. He was only one of many enlisted men who heard about Short and saw the telltale hat.

I saw remnants of soldiers’ bodies as far away as Rosebud Creek, 25 miles to the eastward,” recalled Thomas Le- forge, a white man who lived with the Crows, in his memoirs years after the battle. “It was evident that many soldiers escaped from the immediate encirclement by the Sioux and Cheyennes, but it was evident also that they were pursued and killed, or some of them may have died of wounds and the hardships incident to solitary travel in that country.” Pretty Shield, a Crow matriarch, heard secondhand that five or six soldiers had been killed far outside the encirclement and that the stench of corpses persisted through the summer. H Company Private Jacob Adams saw the body of one soldier, possibly Short, far from the battlefield. “I saw a dead soldier and dead horse south of Yellowstone and within sight of Yellowstone—only a few miles from it,” Adams told Camp. “The body was then thought to be one of L troop men who had been with Custer and scalped. The carbine was with the body and all equipment, and the leather sling was still over the shoulder. We concluded that both the man and the horse had been wounded and had gotten that far and given out. This find was considered no unusual thing, and I do not suppose that one of our officers would have gone to see it if he had heard about it.” If Adams misidentified the Rosebud as the Yellowstone, and the dead man was actually from C Company, this may have been Short.

Camp also heard from Richard Thompson, an 1864 West Point graduate who was a 6th Infantry officer in 1876 and later retired as a colonel. He was on the steamer Far West, which transported the wounded following the battle. “Thompson says that he personally saw Nathan Short’s horse and carbine but not body of man,” Camp wrote in 1911. “They lay in some brush near Rosebud and Yellowstone, and at the time it was supposed that this man has escaped from the Custer fight. He cannot account for the fact that others saw the man’s body.” Perhaps the horse was not that of Short but one described by several other officers farther along the escape route. “It is possible,” Wood wrote, “that by the time Thompson saw the horse, the remains of the man had been buried.”

Camp recorded a terse description from 1st Lt. Edward S. Godfrey—later a brigadier general and a Medal of Honor recipient for his actions during the Nez Perce War. “Godfrey saw the cavalry horse near Yellowstone in August 1876,” Camp wrote after interviews in 1917 and 1918. “Bridle gone. Heard about carbine being found with it but did not see it. Horse was shot in the head. Grain sack was on the saddle.”

Godfrey had first mentioned the dead horse in an 1892 Century article, placing it at the confluence of the Rosebud and the Yellowstone. “In August [1876] we camped at the mouth of the Rosebud, where we found the carcass of a horse shot in the head; near the horse was a carbine; on the saddle was a small grain sack made of canvas and used by the 7th Cavalry only to carry oats during the march when detached from the wagons. At the time of the discovery we conjectured that some man had escaped and, on reaching the river, had killed his horse for meat and used the saddle straps to tie together a raft. An Indian would not have left the carbine, but the man may have abandoned it, either because he was out of ammunition or could not risk the extra weight on his raft.”

In 1911 Camp also interviewed 7th U.S. Infantry Lieutenant Charles Booth, who toured the field several weeks after the battle. He, too, spotted a horse carcass. “The body of the horse laid [sic] among some sagebrush, some 200 yards from a belt of cottonwood timber; saddle, blanket, and bridle were undisturbed and in order on the body,” Booth told Camp. “About the feet to the left and front a carbine (Springfield) was lying; this was in perfect working order and showed no signs of having been injured in any way and was not even rusted from exposure to weather. I have never heard of any human body being found anywhere in the vicinity.”

Godfrey’s final comment came in a May 1921 letter to historian E.A. Brininstool, in which he reported that the dead horse he inspected on the Yellowstone was either a sorrel or a light bay. Of the five companies that followed Custer down to the killing ground, only C Company rode color-matched sorrel horses. Sergeant Butler was from L Company, but Corporal Foley and Private Short were both C Company men mounted on sorrels. However, Godfrey remarked that he had heard of many survivor claims, and not one of them had mentioned a connection to this sorrel/bay left dead by the Yellowstone. The horse had been shot in the forehead.

One survivor claimant, however, did mention a sorrel horse. In April 1920, at a horseshoe game in Dayton, Wash., a prosperous white-haired farmer named Frank Finkel blurted out that he had escaped from Custer’s Last Stand on a “roan” and that he had served in C Company. This was before Godfrey had reported the horse was a sorrel/bay. Finkel’s family and a few friends in Dayton, including Orville Smith and Robert Johnson, had already heard Frank’s account of escaping the Little Bighorn with multiple wounds. Chatting with a friend at the Dreamland Theatre in Dayton during World War I, Finkel had scoffed at the popular image of the battle as a dastardly Sioux ambush. “That’s not the way it was at all,” Finkel told Robert Johnson—but then stopped. Finkel had told his in-laws in Dayton and his old family in southern Ohio that he had used the name “August Finckle” when he enlisted. Finkel later shared his story with members of the Dayton Kiwanis Club, including his congressman, Dr. John Summers, who had studied medicine in Berlin and Vienna. The men, respected professionals, believed him.

On May 20, 1921, Finkel told a somewhat more garbled version of the story to W.H. Banfill. He told Banfill he had signed up as “Frank Hall,” because he did not want his family to know he had joined the Army. (A possible reason for Finkel’s inconsistency is that if he was at the Little Bighorn, he knew he was technically a deserter, as he hadn’t reported back for duty, and his first wife may have convinced him to muddy the waters a bit to keep him out of prison. She pointedly changed the original spelling of his name to “Finkel” seven times on her last will and testament.)

On June 25, 1921, having survived a few months without being arrested for desertion, Finkel was back in the papers and said that the name “Finckle” on the 7th Cavalry roster proved his story. He claimed he had been knocked silly when an Indian bullet struck the barrel of his carbine. Another bullet had clipped his horse, one had cut his bridle, and he was shot twice when the panicked horse carried him through the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.

“One Long Sword escaped,” Lakota warrior Rain-in-the-Face told an interviewer in 1894. “His pony ran off with him and went past our lodges. They told me about it at Chicago. I saw the man there, and I remembered hearing the squaws tell about it after the fight.”

Finkel claimed his panicked horse took him past the Hunkpapa lodges on the eastern edge of the village—where the Indian woman saw him and later told Rain-in-the-Face—then out toward Tullock Creek, headed for the Yellowstone. Finkel said that the first two branches of Tullock Creek he had crossed were alkaline, the third sweet, and he described a battle that comported well with Indian accounts he had never read and archaeological evidence discovered only after his death. Finkel insisted his horse had been “a roan”—a sorrel—and while he never claimed to have shot the horse, he couldn’t recall his wanderings in full. A pair of “trappers” (perhaps outlaw whiskey traders or gunrunners) sheltered Finkel until he recovered. When he showed up in Dayton a few years later, he was still signing his name “Finckle,” with German spelling and American penmanship.

Finkel was a forensic twin for “August Finckle,” also styled “George August Finckle,” second sergeant of C Company: over 6 feet tall—at least 2 inches over the height limit for the U.S. Cavalry—with gray eyes and dark hair, and anecdotally fluent in both English and German. Finkel never tried to cash in on his claim to fame, but when his second wife learned of the story, she muddied the account into quicksand.

Canadian-born Herminie (“Hermie”) Bassett Sperry Finkel had been married before she met Frank but apparently never told him. She claimed after his death that Frank had never told his first wife, Delia, that he was a Custer survivor, even though the story had run in several local newspapers and was mentioned in Delia’s own obituary. Hermie ignored both sides of the Finkel family when they said he had enlisted as August Finckle. The Finkels shunned her in turn after she drove too hard a bargain with Frank’s other heirs. She remarried to yet another widower, her third, and moved to Oshkosh, Wis.

When Hermie learned after Frank’s death in 1930 that “August Finckle” had given his birthplace as “Berlin, Prussia” —fearsome lair of “The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin” of World War I propaganda infamy—she desperately revived the story that Frank had enlisted as “Frank Hall” and rode it into the ground, even though the real Frank Hall was 5-foot-6¾, 14 years older than Finkel and a deserter who left the 7th Cavalry a year before the Little Bighorn. To the end Hermie insisted that Frank Finkel and August Finckle had been two distinct people, even though that would have placed two bilingual, pale-eyed, dark-haired, German-speaking 6-footers with similar distinctly American handwriting in the same 50-man company. Four out of five handwriting experts concur Finckle and Finkel had the same handwriting; one thinks it dissimilar but finds the escape plausible based on other forensics.

Sergeant Kanipe did claim to have seen “Finkle,” as he spelled the name, “very badly mutilated” but that was the extent of his description. This report in turn may have influenced Lieutenant Godfrey to log discovery of Finckle’s body—though Godfrey was from K Company, he had served in the South during most of Finckle’s enlistment and would not have known Finckle by sight, especially after two days in the sun “very badly mutilated.” Kanipe’s brief mention of the corpse he thought was Finckle’s was nowhere near as detailed as either his description of the body of their mutual friend Sergeant Jeremiah Finley or even Nathan Short’s notorious white hat. Kanipe’s late-in-life remembrances—Custer shot once and not twice, 65 or 70 dead Indians in three burial teepees when other soldiers saw 11 Indians and the Lakota claim to have lost only 16 warriors—were summed up by Colonel W.A. Graham: “The many inaccuracies in Sergeant Kanipe’s story are characteristic of the accounts of most of the enlisted survivors recounted during the ’20s.” Kanipe, however, had described Finckle’s struggles to keep his winded horse with the C Company column just before Captain Tom Custer detailed Kanipe to take a message to the pack train. Private Thompson later saw Finckle on the same winded horse, trailing C Company down to the river before Thompson gave up on his own horse and walked to Reno Hill. Before riding off to find the pack train, Kanipe also saw Nathan Short with C Company. Neither Finckle nor Short fled before battle was joined. Their reported escapes were not premeditated but based on panic by man or, more probably, by wounded horse—or perhaps as part of a spontaneous group escape attempt.

H Company Private Charles Windolph, Finckle’s friend and a Medal of Honor recipient for his actions on Reno Hill, had returned to the battlefield expressly to look for Finckle’s body. “Most of the troopers had been stripped of clothing and scalped,” Windolph remembered. “Some of them had been horribly mutilated.… I tried to find the body of my German friend, trooper Finkle [sic], the tallest man in the regiment. But I could not identify him.”

“After the battle Daddy says he looked everywhere for him— as he was like a brother to him—but the bodies were so disfigured that he was unable to find him,” Windolph’s daughter told one researcher in the 1940s. “He has never forgotten him and has spoken of him through all these years.” (Contrary to rumor, Frank Finkel hadn’t turned down any chances to reunite with his buddy Windolph—neither knew the other had survived before Finkel died. Finkel did turn down chances to attend 7th Cavalry reunions, but for an obvious reason— deserters are seldom welcomed as honored veterans.)

Others further muddied the waters with claims that Finckle —not Frank, but August—had served Prussia as a captain in 1870–71. The Prussian Privy State Archives in Berlin confirm that no man named Finckle, Finkle or Finkel ever served in the Prussian officer corps.

The only other candidate who might have left a dead horse with a carbine and a bag with ample oats was C Company Private Charles Anderson, who deserted from the 7th Cavalry on June 20 and was never apprehended. The vanished Anderson would have been riding a C Company sorrel—but Custer didn’t issue the bags of oats until June 22, two days after Anderson took “the grand bounce.” No oats on Anderson’s cantle. Five other 7th Cavalry troopers deserted after the battle, and all were recaptured hungry but alive, in some cases after eating frogs. None was from C Company. Finckle’s wounded horse may have been in too much pain to eat many oats, and Godfrey said the grain bag on the dead horse he inspected “had not been disturbed,” meaning nobody stole it as they apparently stole the carbine. Since Finckle carried his carbine slung over his shoulder, he would have let it slide back around his torso when the Indian bullet thunked into its barrel at the Little Bighorn as he claimed. Only one officer said the recovered carbine was in working order— quite possible, since the soft-lead slug fired by an Indian wouldn’t have broken the barrel of a hand-held weapon. The logical time to have dumped the carbine would have been when the wounded Sergeant Finckle left the horse and had to carry the 7-pound carbine, exhausted, afoot and with an injured left shoulder and side.

The name of another soldier who likely dodged the fierce fighting on Calhoun Ridge only emerged in the 21st century—C Company 2nd Lt. Henry Moore Harrington. Tom Custer was the nominal commander of C Company— Kanipe said Captain Custer was leading C Company when he was dispatched to the pack train—but when the burial detail arrived, they found Tom Custer beaten to a pulp on Custer Hill near brothers George and Boston. Tom Custer had earned two Medals of Honor in the Civil War and had a reputation for courage, but descriptions of him “serving as his brother’s aide-de-camp” are somewhat charitable. Regardless, company commanders are expected to stay with their men once battle is joined. In Custer’s absence, 2nd Lt. Harrington was left in charge of C Company, and Harrington’s body was never found—at least not in one piece.

A year after the battle Lieutenant Robert Wilson Shufeldt, an Army surgeon, recovered a partially shattered skull and vertebrae, with remnants of a double yellow trouser stripe, well east of the battlefield and sent the remains to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. The skull was later transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. A century later Sharon Long of the Smithsonian did a facial reconstruction on the skull. It bears a resemblance to Lieutenant Harrington. Shufeldt’s discovery of the skull, beside an arrowhead in the chest cavity, suggests Harrington was a better officer than most people thought. What is clearly a trail of fugitives from C Company may have been the remnants of a responsible attempt to charge through the Indians once the overwhelming gunfire showed that the battle was hopeless. Lieutenant Harrington, Sergeant Finckle, Corporal Foley and Private Short were all from C Company. They all headed in the same direction—eastward, back toward the Yellowstone and the steamboat. The nameless bodies found by the Crows may also have been from C Company. The idea of a group escape attempt, however, flies in the face of the Custer Myth—doomed heroes fighting to the last man.

Relatives of Crazy Horse told Indian agent Valentine McGillycuddy that one trooper had escaped. Could it have been Finckle? Wooden Leg, a young Cheyenne, also saw a soldier fleeing toward the end of the battle and presumed the man was killed but never saw him die. Wooden Leg’s trooper was likely Sergeant Butler. Rain-in-the-Face may have described Finckle, who was known to have visited Chicago, as the man who rode past the Hunkpapa village and turned up in Chicago in 1893.

Overwhelmed by the unexpected discovery that a sleeping village was full of wakeful warriors, and by the gunfire from some 200 repeating rifles and another 200 breechloaders, the troopers found outside the perimeter made a break for it—possibly under Harrington’s leadership. A half-dozen of them briefly got through the Indians, though most were killed in flight or dead within days. Frank Finkel’s heavily documented case may or may not account for the sole Last Stand survivor. It remains a matter of controversy. But the case for a number of Custer men having at least temporarily escaped the heat of battle isn’t controversial. It’s fact.

 

John Koster, who writes from New Jersey, is the author of Custer Survivor: The End of a Myth, the Beginning of a Legend (2010). That book, published by History Publishing Co. in Palisades, N.Y., is recommended for further reading along with The Custer Myth, by W.A. Graham; and Custer in ’76, edited by Kenneth Hammer and based on the notes of Walter Mason Camp.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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