Deadwood Magazine

Charles Windolph was last Little Big Horn survivor

Charles WindolphAt 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.

Charles 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.

 It doesn’t seem possible that it was seventy years ago this June 25, 1946, that I last saw General Custer.  No, that isn’t quite exact; that was the last time I saw him alive, for two days later I looked down on him lying white in the Montana sun. That would have been June 27, 1876. And the following day, I helped bury him and his brother, Captain Tom Custer. … It was hard digging there on that high ridge that bordered the Little Big Horn.

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.”

Once 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.

After 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 reservations.

Reveille 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.

“Never 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 their support?

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:  

There was a draw than ran down the west side of the hill to the river. It was rough and exposed and it looked like a dead cinch that any one who tried to work his way down that draw to the river would be killed. Indians concealed in bushes across the river were firing up at us, and they had every foot of this draw and the river bank covered. But we had to do something for those men who were wounded and crying for water.

Seventeen 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.

Three 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 late 1800s.

Sgt.Windolph might well have continued with his military career except for an ultimatum from his old sweetheart who accompanied his parents to America.

       I asked her to marry me and I remember as if it was yesterday how she pointed to my First Sergeant’s chevrons and said, “Charlie, you must choose between the army and me.” I chose her and I never regretted my choice.

The 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.

The 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.

 Seventy years is a long time. It’s a long time to remember details and little things. But when you’ve been thinking back on them all those years, they don’t fade away as easily as you might think. They’re like cockleburs; they stick in your mind. 

3rd Annual Cavalry Days

             The history and characters associated with the “Peace Keeper Post” established on the western Dakota frontier in 1878 are celebrated at Sturgis and Fort Meade during Cavalry Days, the second weekend in June.

            Opening ceremonies at the Fort Meade parade grounds at 1 p.m. Friday, June 9, start the action-packed three days that include a parade, military ball, storytelling sessions, shooting exhibitions, re-enactors scenarios, the “Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer” and a Main Street “bank robbery.”  Other activities will be a craft show, art show and vintage fashion show, cowboy stew cookoff and musical entertainment, a wild horse adoption, volksmarch, kids fishing derby and trail rides.

            Postulated on the premise Custer might have faced a military inquiry if he had survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the “court martial” gives spectators an opportunity to see history as it might have been. It will take place at the City Auditorium at 5 p.m. Saturday, followed by a military ball at Fort Meade at 7:30 that evening. The Calvary Days parade on Main Street will be at 10 a.m. Saturday.

            Shooting exhibitions by the Black Hills Mounted Shooters are scheduled at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Barry Stadium, followed by re-enactment scenarios staged at 1:30, 3 and 4 p.m.

            For more information on the 3rd annual Cavalry Days call 605-347-2556 or e-mail [email protected]. A free South Dakota travel packet is available by calling 1-800-732-5682.


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