Knockbridge man at the battle of Little Big Horn

The 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 25, 1876.

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 Custer’s 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 brave volunteers.
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 Custer’s 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 27.

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 his decision.

Rather than wait for Gibbon’s 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 to surrender.

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 Bill’s 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 and write.

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