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Trumpeter Giovanni Martini was the last white man to see Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer alive. He also became the first enlisted man to serve as a scapegoat for the catastrophe at the Little Bighorn.

There was plenty of blame to go around after five companies of the 7th Cavalry were virtually exterminated on June 25, 1876, and most of it fell on Custer’s two top subordinates: Major Marcus Reno, accused by Custer’s partisans of cowardice in the face of the enemy; and Captain Frederick Benteen, who earned the Medal of Honor for heroism on the periphery of Custer’s Last Stand but failed to break through the Indians with the remaining seven companies of the 7th Cavalry, some of whom lived into the 1920s, or in one case into the 1950s. Benteen, in particular, shifted the blame onto trumpeter John Martin—born in Italy as Giovanni Martini.

If Private Martini had not garbled the message Colonel Custer sent back to Benteen, the irascible captain argued, the rescue attempt by Benteen’s and Reno’s seven companies might have proceeded with greater urgency. Subsequently, members of the antiCuster faction in the polarized world of Custer historians have seen the bugler as a bungler and wondered why Custer entrusted a vital message to an Italian immigrant who couldn’t speak English. Martini’s real message—the one he told Indian wars researcher Walter Mason Camp in 1917—got lost in the shuffle and was only revealed in the 1980s through the battlefield archaeology of Richard Allan Fox. The man accused of contributing to the disaster through confused communications actually made what really happened all clear for the first time. As cited by Fox, Martini brought back word to his buddies (but perhaps not to Benteen) that the Indian village was bare of warriors and was targeted by Custer for a roundup of women and children.

The basic facts are clear: On June 25 Custer had split the 7th Cavalry into four elements, hoping to surround the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians he was trailing and bring them back to their agencies. The sight of the biggest Indian village any of the soldiers had ever seen on the Little Bighorn prompted Custer to send his trumpeter, Martini, back to inform Captain Benteen and his three companies of the size of the village and the need for speed at about 2:45 p.m. Custer’s adjutant, Canadian-born Lieutenant William W. Cooke, put the message in writing:

Benteen. Come on. Big Village. Be quick. Bring Packs. P.S. Bring Packs.

Martini took off on his tired horse; met “forage master” Boston Custer, who passed him going the other way at a run to join his two older brothers, George and Tom Custer; and reached Benteen and his three companies just as firing was breaking out in the distance. “What’s the matter with your horse?” the crusty Benteen demanded. “He’s just tired out, I guess,” the trumpeter said. “Tired out!” Benteen snapped. “Look at his hip! You’re lucky it wasn’t you!”

Martini looked and saw that his horse had been shot and that blood had splattered onto his own back. Benteen—who later reported that Martini had told him the Indians were “skedaddling”—stopped to water his own companies’ horses before he advanced toward the insistent sound of gunfire. As Benteen reached the hills overlooking the Little Bighorn, he saw Reno’s troopers fleeing from the timber and up the side of what came to be called Reno Hill. Benteen quickly diverted to assist Reno, but stopped in the drive to reach Custer as ordered in writing.

Martini was immediately advanced to the role of scapegoat as Benteen reflexively blamed the misleading news on the messenger, “a thick-headed, dull-witted Italian, just about as much cut out for a cavalryman as he was for a king. He in formed me that the Indians were ‘skidaddling’…we saw going on what was obviously not skedaddling on the part of the Indians, as there were 12 or 14 men on the river bottom and they were being ridden down and shot by 800 or 900 Indian warriors….We concluded that the lay of the land had better be investigated a bit, as so much of the Italian trumpeter’s story hadn’t panned out.”

Benteen rescued what was left of Reno’s command, and his courage in the fight on Reno Hill won him the admiration of the enlisted survivors. Martini joined Reno and Benteen in the defense of Reno Hill, and his trumpet call was the first contact with General Alfred Terry, who arrived on June 27 to rescue Reno and Benteen’s seven companies and find out that Custer’s five companies had been wiped out. Benteen’s foot-dragging response when other officers wanted to ride to Custer’s rescue—given his hatred of Custer and coupled with the visible panic of Major Reno—led to a court of inquiry in Chicago in 1879 to try to fix blame for the defeat. Benteen advanced one possible candidate: Martini. Benteen implied that if the Italian trumpeter hadn’t confused the message, Benteen would have shown more haste in his ride to Custer’s relief. Martini, who also testified briefly, denied that he had ever used the term “skedaddle” to describe the response of the Indians—and may not have known at that time what the Civil War slang term meant. He also told Camp later that he didn’t think anybody at the court of inquiry wanted to know the truth.

History has not been kind to Benteen’s attempt to deflect the blame onto Martini. Louise Barnett, author of Touched By Fire, said that Benteen’s testimony must have been a lie. She debunked Benteen’s statement that Martini’s “language conveyed the impression to me that they were in possession of the village, that the Indians were all skedaddling, to use his own words.” Martini had been sent back by Custer before Custer’s five companies were anywhere near the village, and the words in Cooke’s penciled notes are an explicit request for support. “Benteen failed Custer and the regiment,” Custer biographer Jeffry Wert concluded, though he added that Custer himself was primarily to blame for the debacle. Charles M. Robinson III pointed out in A Good Year To Die that Martini, to qualify as an orderly, would have to have shown that he could repeat a 20-word order verbatim. Martini was treated as a buffoon by some of the revisionists who blamed Custer not only for the disaster but also for the nation’s Indian policy. The fact of the matter is that Martini delivered a clear message, and blame has to fall elsewhere.

Martini’s most crucial message to history, however, wasn’t made clear until Fox incorporated it to explain his findings when he analyzed the spent slugs and cartridge cases of the Little Bighorn battlefield in the 1980s. Fox cited Martini and several Indians to show that Custer did not get near the village before warriors with repeaters rallied to attack him. Camp had interviewed Martini in 1908 and paraphrased his understanding of the situation: “Custer halted command on the high ridge about 10 minutes, and officers looked at the village through glasses. Saw children and dogs playing among the tepees but no warriors or horses….There was then a discussion among the officers as to where the men might be and someone suggested they might be buffalo hunting….Custer now made a speech to his men saying, ‘We will go down and make a crossing and capture the village.’ The whole command pulled off their hats and cheered. And the consensus of opinion seemed to be among the officers that if this could be done the Indians would have to surrender when they would return in order not to fire on their women and children.”

The warriors, however, were not hunting buffalo but sleeping off an all-night dance—either a victory celebration after the defeat of General George S. Crook on the Rosebud on June 17; or, as plausible Lakota sources told Mildred Fielder many years later, a courtship dance where young men gyrated to attract young women, and the fathers and mothers stayed up to drum and chaperone. When the warriors exploded out of the tepees armed with more than 200 repeating rifles, Custer was overwhelmed by superior firepower—suggesting that Benteen and Reno couldn’t have done much good even if they had arrived in time. As Fox confirmed: The Little Bighorn was not a clash of races for control of the continent, but an attempt at a hostage situation that went sour because the potential victims had too many guns.

Martini, however, was not a culprit— nor was he unable to speak English in 1876. His account of Custer’s speech, confirmed by Fox’s archaeology and the best Indian accounts, revealed what actually happened. He was also a good soldier. Born in Rome in 1851, Giovanni Martini was a 14-year-old drummer boy with the Italian freedom fighters of Guiseppe Garibaldi. Later on, in the American West, he served in the Nez Perce campaign with the 7th Cavalry, reenlisted in the 3rd Artillery, transferred to the 4th Artillery and was finally promoted to trumpeter sergeant in 1900. He retired from the Army in 1904, raised two sons who also enlisted— one was named after Custer—and died in December 1922, respected by people who knew him personally.

“A fine old soldier, who has deserved well both of his own and his adopted country, for besides his long and honorable service, Martin has given two stalwart sons to the American Army,” Colonel W.A. Graham wrote in The Custer Myth.

“Martini was a salty little Italian who had been a drummer boy with Garibaldi in the fight for Italian independence,” the German-born Charles Windolph, a Medal of Honor recipient at the Little Bighorn, wrote. “We used to tease him a lot but we never did after this fight. He proved he was plenty man.”

John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor, due out in 2008. Minjae Kim assisted on research for the Martini story.

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here