Local Ties to Custer’s Last Stand
If you had driven by local historian and businessman Dale G. Niewoehner’s funeral home last week you would have seen a replica of the Union Civil War flag carried by units of the U.S. Cavalry. The actual one the one that was found at the Little Big-Horn, “The Culbertson Guidon” (aka as the flag) sold for $2.2 million in 2010.
The other flag Dale flew was the crossed sabers flag, which was Custer’s personal flag. Libby Custer made and designed the last two that he had. He also used his personal flags in his Civil War campaigns; they are swallow-tailed flags, which were used to cut down on wind noise while in battle. Dale flew Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s battle flags this past week in honor of all the brave men who lost their lives 139 years ago.
The day was June 25, 1876. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (1839-76) who had left from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory on May 17, 1876 to lead his men into what is known today as the most lopsided defeat by the U.S. Army in its history. While many of us have heard of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, many have forgotten why the battle occurred in the first place, and even fewer know there is a local connection to that unfortunate event.
There are many reasons why the Plains Indian War occurred, but there is really only one word to sum it up: gold. During the mid-19th-century, the U.S. government was attempting to confine Native Americans to reservations. Needless to say most Native Americans, including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, were opposed to that idea. Things took a drastic change for the worse in 1875, when the U.S. government ignored a previously signed treaty and invaded the Black Hills of South Dakota because they found gold. When the Army invaded, most Native Americans, including the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes decided to leave their reservations and join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana at a place they knew as the Greasy Grass, but we know today as Little Bighorn. By the late spring of 1876, there were more than 10,000 Native Americans gathered at this location.
In mid-June, General Alfred Terry ordered George Custer’s 7th Cavalry to scout ahead for enemy troops. On the morning of June 25, Custer with his five companies C, E, F, I and L, drew near the Native American camp and decided to press on ahead rather than wait for reinforcements. More than 3,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors quickly overwhelmed his approximately 268 men. One of Custer’s 268 men who lost his life that day was named Sgt. Jeremiah Finley, whose great-great-granddaughter Pam Sattler lives in Rugby today.
Under Lt. Col. George Custer’s command at the Battle of the Little Big Horn were a number of refugees who fled Europe to avoid prosecution or retaliation, including Sgt. Finley who participated in the Irish Republican Brotherhood that was active in rebellion around his hometown, Tipperary. When his cousin was killed, Finley sought revenge and killed the alleged perpetrator. Fearing retaliation, Finley fled to England, joined the British Army and was sent to Canada. When his service requirement was over, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was eventually assigned to the 7th Cavalry under the command of Custer. While stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln, George Custer quickly became aware of the craftsmanship of Sgt. Finley as a tailor and requested that he make him a buckskin jacket. Finley agreed and these coats became the colonel’s favorites,
Finley was killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and near his body were 20 spent shell casings, as well as many arrows, indicating that he bravely stood his ground; as attested by Native Americans as they retold the tale. In his honor, this place is now called “Finley’s Ridge.” One of the coats he made for the colonel is now on display with other Custer artifacts at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Five months after Finley was killed, his wife gave birth to Jeremiah Jr. She later married John Donahgue of Company K, and they moved to Oberon.
This article was written by Jordan Wright with contributions from Joseph T. Pelt, Editor, and Dale G. Niewoehner.
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