Charles Windolph was last Little Big Horn survivor
At the age of 98, on March 11,
1950, the last survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn died at
Lead, South Dakota, leaving behind him a vivid first person account of
the military disaster that wiped out George Armstrong Custer and 212 of
his Seventh Cavalry troopers.
Windolph helped bury the bodies of his fallen comrades on the hill where
Custer’s luck ran out. He described the tragic scene in a book
published 71 years later.
Custer was lying a trifle to the southeast of the top of the knoll – where the monument is today. I stood six feet away holding Captain Benteen’s horse while he identified the General. His body had not been touched, save for a single bullet hole in the left temple near the ear, and a hole on his left breast. … His brother Tom lay a few feet away.
Frazier and Robert Hunt, who interviewed the elderly cavalryman so many years after his adventures, said his mind was “as clear as a bell and his memory was prodigious.” Published by the father and son writing team in 1947, the Hunt book, I Fought with Custer, is the dramatic story of Windolph’s experiences with the Seventh Cavalry.
Born in Germany, Charles A. Windolph immigrated to the United States at the age of 19 to escape compulsory military service in the Franco-Prussian war. Ironically, he found the best employment opportunity in his adopted country was with the army. Enlisting in New York, he was sworn into Company H, Seventh Cavalry, by Captain F. W. Benteen.
Stationed in Nashville, Tennessee, for his first
three years of service, the young private arrived in Yankton, Dakota
Territory, in May of 1873, just in time to experience a howling Dakota
blizzard. Custer’s regiment provided a military escort that summer for
the Yellowstone Expedition, an engineering survey across the Indian
lands of Dakota Territory.
The following year Pvt. Windolph was with Custer’s
exploratory expedition into the Black Hills when gold was discovered on
French Creek near the present town of Custer.
“And we found gold, too,” Windolph said. “We
panned out a number of tiny specks. But it was gold right enough.”
the gold discovery became known, there was no holding back the flood of
miners who flocked into the forbidden Black Hills hoping to make
their fortune, despite the government’s best efforts to keep them out
of the Indian territory. Windolph rode back into the Hills with Captain
Benteen in 1875 to escort miners out.
wintering in Louisiana, Company H again headed north to Dakota Territory
in the early spring of 1876 and joined the military expedition assigned
to either round up or destroy “hostiles” who had left the
sounded at 4 a.m. on the foggy, gloomy morning of May 17 at Fort Abraham
Lincoln near Bismarck. The regiment paraded around the fort, officers
and married men broke rank to bid goodbye to their families. When Boots
and Saddles sounded, with guidons waving in the morning breeze and
the band playing The Girl I left
Behind Me, the Seventh Cavalry marched out to their ill-fated
destiny on the Montana prairie.
Libby Custer accompanied her husband on the initial 14-mile trek to the first camp on the Heart River. Having ensured his men couldn’t go on a last spree in the saloons and bordellos of Bismarck, Custer ordered the paymaster to distribute the monthly payroll. Much of that payroll ended up in Indian hands after the Little Big Horn Battle.
A year later, in an abandoned Indian camp, Windolph found a five-dollar bill folded up and tied on a little clay pony for a blanket. “I was always sure that it had come out of the pocket of some dead trooper, who had been paid off that afternoon of May 17 on the Heart River.” he said.
By Sunday morning, June 25, the expedition was 12 miles from the huge
Indian encampment along the Little Big Horn (“Greasy Grass” to the
Sioux). After crossing the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big
Horn about noon, Custer divided up his command, assigning three
companies, including Windolph’s Company H, to Benteen, and three to
Major Reno. Company B had charge of the rear guard and pack escort;
Custer took Companies I, F, C, E and L.
in all Indian history had there been such a fight at that on the Little
Big Horn,” Windolph said. “Custer may have made a mistake to divide
his command that Sunday afternoon of June 25, but the gods themselves
were against him.”
Late that afternoon Benteen’s troops returned from a scouting mission to the south to find Reno’s command “being whipped and driven up the hill by the Indians.” H troop dug in on the southwest side of the hill.
“We’d hardly got settled down on our skirmish line, with men posted at twenty-feet intervals, when the Indians had us all but completely surrounded and the fighting began in earnest,” Windolph said.
It was a long and lonely night for the cavalrymen dug in on that dangerous hilltop. Fire from Indian sharpshooters pinned them down behind makeshift barricades. At least a dozen troopers were dead. Pleading cries for water could be heard from three dozen or more wounded men.
In the Indian encampment beside the river below the
black night was pierced by blazing camp fires, wild cries and beating
drums of victory dances. Fearful questions ran through the heads of
troopers on Reno’s Hill. Where was Custer? Why wasn’t he coming to
Just as dawn was breaking, Windolph, still
six months from his 25th birthday, sustained a slight flesh
wound from a bullet that ricocheted from the hard ground into his chest.
A direct hit from another bullet split the butt of his rifle. As the
young private described the position:
men answered Captain Benteen’s call for volunteers. Four of Company
H’s best marksmen put themselves in an exposed position on the brow of
the hill, facing the river, while a water party with buckets and
canteens scurried down the draw to the river. Several of them were
wounded, despite covering fire from the troopers above.
“After we got the water up for the wounded, Benteen told me he was making me a Sergeant – promoting me on the field of battle. I was always proud of that,” Windolph said.
Windolph was also cited for bravery under fire,
although the certificate was mislaid in the War Department for 52 years.
By the time the German immigrant received his Congressional Medal of
Honor he had been retired from his beloved Seventh Cavalry for 45 years.
years after the Little Big Horn battle, Sgt. Windolph returned to the
Black Hills with Seventh Cavalry survivors who were transferred from
Fort Lincoln to new regimental headquarters at Fort Meade. Capt. Benteen
(a man Windolph claimed was a “true friend” and “one of the
noblest soldiers who ever lived”) promoted Windolph to First Sergeant
of Company H, a rank he held he was mustered out at Fort Meade in the
Sgt.Windolph might well have continued with his military career except for an ultimatum from his old sweetheart who accompanied his parents to America.
retired cavalryman worked for the Army Quartermaster Corps for three
years, then settled in Lead where he worked as a harness maker for
Homestake Mining Company for 48 years. Just three months after his 98th
birthday Charles A. Windolph was buried with full military honors at
Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis.
last living survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn was 86 years
old when he was first interviewed by Frazier Hunt; 94 when Hunt’s son
Robert returned to Lead to record more of old trooper’s memories of
that fatal day on the Montana prairie.
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