A Custer Survivor?

It is not unusual for "survivors" of last stands and massacres to surface once interest in such events increases. The battle of the Little Big Horn is no exception. One historian of the battle collected well over 70 such tales of "sole survivors," all of which have been later disproven. When later questioned, the Indian participants in the battle insisted that none of Custer's command escaped.

As one may recall, Custer split his command of approximately 625 men into three segments, one under Captain Benteen, one under major Reno, and one under the direct command of Custer himself. Only Custer's immediate command was wiped out. There were, indeed, many survivors from the columns under Reno and Benteen that maintained a defensive postion on Reno Hill until relieved by the troops under Generals Terry and Gibbon.

The troops in the valley fight under Major Reno last saw what they thought was Custer on one of the ridges overlooking the Little Big Horn valley, waving his hat in the air as if to encourage their attack of the lower end of the village. After that, Custer disappeared behind the bluffs, never to be seen alive again.

The last soldier to see Custer alive was probably trumpeter Martin, who bore the famous "Be quick...Bring packs" message intended for the Benteen column. Martin was an Italian immigrant with only basic English language skills who left the Custer column before it engaged the Indians. It might have been felt that Martin might not have been able to communicate the urgency of the situation, which led Lt. Cooke to hastily write the message and give it to Martin. Previously, just as Custer decided to turn to the right after leaving the Lone teepee, a Sergeant Kanipe was given a message to delier to Major Reno to encourage his effort in the valley.

Of the many claimants to being the only survivor of Custer's column, a Mr. Frank Finkel, tenaciously claimed that he was the only true survivor of the Custer Massacre, his horse having bolted when the left flank of "C" Troop was attacked by the Sioux. A bullet from one of the attackers struck the butt of his rifle and a splinter from the wood stock struck him in the face. This caused blood to run into his eyes and all but blinded him. Another bullet struck his horse in the flank making it rear and plunge and run right through the Indians. Finkel was hit twice more as the horse ran, once in the side and another in his foot. He eventually made his way to safety and returned to civilization at Ft. Benton.

There are some Indian accounts of crazed horses and soldiers bolting and running away from the battle, but all were reported to have been killed. Even though Finkel had some believers, most took him to be an entertaining old man seeking notoriety. However, Dr. Charles Kuhlman, the noted Custer Battlefield historian, made a critical analysis of Finkel's story and concluded that some of what Finkel had said could only have been known by someone who had actually participated in the battle. A careful search of the roster of the 7th Cavalry, however, shows no listing for a Frank Finkel. Kuhlman suggests that Finkel might have been using an alias(Frank Hall), as it was common on the frontier for those evading the law or for other unclear reasons to join the army under an assumed name. The records likewise fail to show a Frank Hall as a member of the 7th Cavalry in June, 1876. Troop D, which was not with Custer, had a Curtis Hall and an Edward Hall, the latter of whom is listed as not having participated in the battle. Had Finkel been using the alias of Hall, a Hall would have been listed among the killed in action. Both Halls are listed as having survived the battle. It is interesting to note that in the monograph by Kenneth Hammer entitled "Little Big Horn Biographies," there is a listing for an "August Finckle," a Sergeant in Company C, who was listed as killed in battle on June 25. He was born in Germany, had previously worked as a clerk, and had grey eyes, dark hair, and was six feet tall. Could this have been our man?

The only person accepted as the survivor of the Custer column once fighting had begun was Curly, the young Crow Indian scout. He had been one of the many scouts assigned to the Custer column. Perhaps because of his youth, or as a last attempt to get a message to Benteen, Curly was dispatched from the column. Curly described riding a short distance from the command and then stopping and turning around to actually see Custer's men engaged in heated battle. Curly did not actually participate in the fighting. Some, however, stated that Curly was actually in the fight, but when it appeared that no one would survive, he gutted a dead horse and hid inside the carcass until after the hostiles had left. Be that as it may, Curly was later heralded and wined and dined as the only true survivor of Custer's command.