man at the battle of Little Big Horn
Battle of Little Big Horn was one of the low points of US
Military history and but for the bravery of one Louth man
the aftermath could have been worse for the routed army.
Thomas J. Callan was still two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday
when he volunteered to be part of a daring mission to secure
fresh water supplies for wounded soldiers. Later along with
12 others was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour,
the highest award for valour in the United States of America.
The citation accompanying the award read; "for conspicuous
gallantry and intrepidity as a member of the water party
in the Little Big Horn fight. He volunteered and succeeded
in obtaining water for the wounded and he displayed conspicuous
good conduct in assisting to drive away the Indians".
Thomas Callan born on July 13, 1853 at Rathiddy, County
Louth, the youngest of four children belonging to Peter
Callan and Anne Hackett. He had one brother William and
two sisters, Mary and Jane. His father worked for the Fortescue
family, large landowners in the locality. It is not known
when his family emigrated to the United States.
Callan has enlisted in the army a little over three months
before the Battle of Little Big Horn took place on June
As a member of the 7th US Cavalry commanded by Lieutenant
General Colonel George Armstrong Custer he was assigned
to B Troop prior to the battle.
Custer divided his troops into three units led by Captains
Reno, Benteen and himself. B Troop s task was to guard the
regimental pack train and was not involved in the initial
engagement which became known as Custers Last Stand
After they annihilated Custer s group the Indians turned
their attention to Benteen s force which sought refuge on
higher ground. However, with the assistance of B Troop they
succeeded in driving the Indians away. Many soldiers were
wounded and in desperate need of fresh water.
With the nearest source about 600 yards away, 13 men volunteered
to fetch water with the available pots and pans. Captain
Benteen ordered other soldiers to provide cover for the
One Indian witness recalled, "what fun the bucks (male
Indians) had shooting at the soldiers as they ran the terrible
gauntlet down the hill to the river for water". The
operation succeeded despite the death of one volunteer,
while another was wounded.
Though the Battle of Little Big Horn turned out to be a
pyrhric victory for the Indians, the massacre was down to
gross impatience on Custers part. He was supposed
to wait for the arrival of Generals John Gibbon and James
Crook before attacking the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians in
this south-east part of Montana.
A flamboyant and controversial figure, Custer was born in
New Rumley, Ohio in 1839. He enrolled at the West Point
Academy on leaving high school, but didn t distinguish himself
there and graduated in last place in his class.
Soon after graduation he was court-martialed for failing
to stop a fight between two cadets but was saved punishment
because of the need for troops during the US Civil War.
Custer found his niche in battle and distinguished himself
in the Virginia and Gettysburg campaigns where his fearless
aggression earned him the respect of his commanding generals,
although his recklessness resulted in high casualty rates
among his soldiers.
The war ended in 1865 and the following year Custer was
promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel when still only
Controversy still dogged him and he was court-martialed
again suspended from duty for a year for being absent from
duty during the ill-fated campaign against the Southern
Cheyenne in 1867.
Custer maintained he was used as a scapegoat and his old
friend General Phillip Sheridan agreed and had him reinstated.
He was in trouble again in early 1876 when his testimony
on Indian Service corruption enraged President Ulysses S.
Grant and he was relieved of his command of the anti-Lakota
expedition. Public reaction forced the President to reverse
Rather than wait for Gibbons infantry forces, Custer
displayed his contempt for Indian military prowess and split
his troops into three units with the result that all 210
in his group were killed.
His blunder cost him his life but also gave him everlasting
fame. His widow Elizabeth Bacon Custer assisted in the process
of enhancing his reputation with laudatory accounts of his
life which portrayed him as a refined military genius, a
patron of the arts and a budding statesman.
The depiction of Custer of a gallant victim mown down by
bloodthirsty savages ignored the fact that he started the
battle by attacking an Indian village and that within a
year the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors were forced
Sitting Bull, a Lakota chief and holy man, led his people
in their struggle for survival on the Northern Plains. Born
in the early 1830s he first went to battle at the age of
14 and was widely respected for his bravery and insight.
He became head of the Lakota nation in the late 1860s.
When an expedition led by Custer confirmed the discovery
of gold in the Black Hills, the stage was set for war between
Sitting Bull and the US Army. The area was sacred to many
tribes and deemed off limits to the white man following
the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
Prospectors ignored the ban and rushed to the Black Hills
provoking the Lakota to defend their territory. After failing
in their attempt to purchase the Black Hills, the US Government
revoked the Fort Laramie Treaty and declared that all Lakota
not settled on reservations by end of January 1876 would
be considered hostile.
As federal troops moved into the area Sitting Bull summoned
Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho to his camp on Rosebud Creek.
He led them in a sun dance ritual to the Great Spirit, Wakan
Tanka, during which he slashed him arms a hundred times
as a sign of sacrifice. Sitting Bull had a vision in which
he saw soldiers falling into the Lakota camp like grasshoppers
falling from the sky.
Inspired by this another Lakota chief Crazy Horse attacked
Crook s troops and forced them to retreat at the Battle
of Rosebud Creek on June 17. To celebrate this 3,000 more
Indians left the reservations and joined the Lakota in the
valley of the Little Big Horn river where they outnumbered
Custer s troops and fulfilled Sitting Bull s vision.
Indian joy was short-lived as thousands of US Troops were
drafted into the area and relentlessly pursued their foe.
Rather than surrender, Sitting Bull escaped fled to Canada.
In July 1881, he ordered his young son to hand over his
rifle to the commanding officer at Fort Buford, Montana
stating that he hoped to teach the boy "that he has
become a friend of the Americans".
He added defiantly that "I wish it to be remembered
that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle".
In 1885 Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bills Wild West
show earning $50 a week for riding once round an arena and
charging extra for an autograph and picture.
This arrangement lasted just four months as he tired of
white society. During his stint in the show he shook hand
withPresident Grover Cleveland, which he took as evidence
that he was still regarded as a great chief.
He rejected Christianity and kept two wives but sent his
children to a local Christian school as he believed the
next generation of Lakotas would need to be able to read
Sitting Bull foresaw his own death at the hands of his own
people in a vision. Five years later in the fall of 1890
a Ghost Dance ceremony which the organisers hoped would
rid the land of white people was planned for Pine Ridge.
Fearing that Sitting Bull would join the participants the
authorities sent 43 Lakota policemen to arrest him. Before
dawn on December 15, 1890 his cabin was raided and he was
dragged outside while his followers tried to protect him.
In the gunfight that followed one of the Lakota policemen
shot him in the head.
Meanwhile Thomas Callan continued to fight in the Indian
wars for another five years before being discharged from
the army at Fort Yates, Dakota on March 9, 1881. He returned
to his home in Yonkers, New York where he died on March
6, 1906 a few months before his 53rd birthday.
Taken from Wee County 2003