Monday, July 26, 2021

Custer’s Indian Allies


The Lakota Sioux were an aggressive and predatory warrior nation.  Since their adoption of the horse in the 1730s, the Sioux had become the Mongols of the American Great Plains…killing and burning…driving smaller and weaker tribes before them.

This was certainly true in the case of the Arikara and Crow tribes.  The Crow once inhabited the Black Hills in what is now South Dakota, but were displaced by the invading Sioux.  The Lakota regarded the former Crow territory as theirs “by right of conquest.” 

The Crow moved farther west to the vicinity of the Little Big Horn River in present day Montana, but the Lakota continued pressing westward into the lands of the Crow, so it is not surprising that the Crow were only too willing to support the U.S. Cavalry against a long time enemy.

In 1866, President Andrew Johnson signed an “Act to increase and fix the Military Peace Establishment of the United States.” This Act had an important impact on the Crow and Arikara tribes who now had a new way of resisting the aggressive Lakota Sioux…they could serve as scouts for the powerful U.S. Cavalry.

The half-Sioux, half-Arikara scout “Bloody Knife” became George Armstrong Custer’s favorite scout.  Custer met Bloody Knife in 1873, and Bloody knife accompanied the Custer expedition in the Yellowstone that year. 

Custer occasionally gave Bloody Knife gifts, including a silver medal inscribed with Bloody Knife's name.  Bloody Knife warned Custer not to attack the overwhelming Indian village the scouts had located during the campaign against the Sioux in 1876, but to no avail. 

On June 25, 1876, Bloody Knife participated in Reno’s charge on the Indian village along the Little Big Horn River.

Bloody Knife was shot through the head, his brains splattering all over Major Marcus Reno, which may have so unhinged Reno that he ordered a disorderly “Charge to the Rear.”

Meanwhile at the other end of the field, the Crow scouts, including White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead, Curly, and Hairy Moccasin, advised Custer to wait for reinforcements.

Custer refused, believing he could whip the entire Sioux nation.  Since the scout's only duties were to find the Indian encampments, not necessarily to fight, Custer sent these Crow scouts away about an hour before engaging in the final battle.

After the battle, Curly found an army supply boat, the Far West, at the confluence of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn Rivers. He was the first to report the Custer’s annihilation, using a combination of sign language, drawings, and an interpreter. Curly did not claim to have fought in the battle, but only to have witnessed it from a distance.

When accounts of Custer's Last Stand began to circulate in the press, however, legends grew that Curly had actively participated in the battle, but had managed to escape.  According to one of these legends when Curley saw that the party with Custer was about to be overwhelmed, he begged Custer to let him show him a way to escape.  “…Custer looked at Curly, waved him away and rode back to the little group of men, to die with them.”  Or so goes the story.

Curly died of pneumonia on May 22, 1923 and is buried at the National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Secrets of Confederate Military Prisons

 Confederate military prisons in Richmond became notorious during the Civil War. 

Libby prison was for Union officers.  It was considered second only to Andersonville Prison in Georgia as hell on earth.  Prisoners suffered from disease, malnutrition and a high mortality rate. By 1863, one thousand prisoners were crowded into the prison which had been a warehouse before the war.

According to the Daily Richmond Enquirer of February 2, 1864 “Libby takes in the captured Federals by scores, but lets none out; they are huddled up and jammed into every nook and corner; at the bathing troughs, around the cooking stoves, everywhere there is a wrangling, jostling crowd; at night the floor of every room they occupy in the building is covered, every square inch of it….”

Castle Thunder

A tobacco warehouse before the war, Castle Thunder was converted into a prison to house spies, political prisoners and traitors to the Confederacy.  The prison guards had a reputation for brutality.

On April 10, 1864, Dr. Mary Walker, a female Union surgeon, was taken prisoner by Confederate soldiers and accused of being a spy.  She was imprisoned at Castle Thunder.  Mary Walker spent six months as a prisoner, during which she wrote numerous letters to the press describing the horrible conditions at the prison.  She complained that her mattress was infested with insects, rats ran throughout the prison at night and food rations were meager and inedible. 

Dr. Mary Walker

Later in life Walker complained a guard had fired at her while she stood in the doorway to her cell, just narrowly missing her head.  Both the Confederate and Union armies were desperate for physicians, and on August 12, 1864, Dr. Walker was exchanged for a male physician, a Confederate major.

Belle Isle

Richmond’s Belle Isle, lying in the James River, served as a prison for Union soldiers. The prison housed more than 30,000 prisoners during the course of the war.  Some 1,000 of these prisoners died.  Prisoners were housed in tents surrounded by a stockade.

Belle Isle prison held 10,000 Union soldiers, with tents for only 3,000. With no barracks for the prisoners, exposure to the elements was a large factor contributing to a cruel captivity.

In February 1864, Confederate authorities began to evacuate Belle Isle, sending its inmates south to Andersonville, Georgia; to relieve overcrowding in Richmond. By October 1864, all of Belle Isle’s inmates had been transferred south and the prison was closed. 

Captain Henry Wirz

The Commandant of Belle Isle, Captain Henry Wirz, became the Commandant at Andersonville and was hanged after the war for his treatment of prisoners at Andersonville.

The Commandants of Libby Prison and Castle Thunder fled abroad fearing a similar fate.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Secrets of Manassas Battlefield



Wilmer Mclean

The Civil War virtually began in Wilmer Mclean’s kitchen in Manassas on July 18, 1861, when a Union shell dropped into the chimney and exploded in a pot of stew.  Mclean moved his family to central Virginia but he remained in Northern Virginia.  From his experience as a merchant he knew that a long war would cause the price of commodities to rise higher and higher. He began to speculate in sugar and made a tidy income during the war.  Wilmer McLean left northern Virginia in March 1862 and moved to Appomattox Court House,  only to have his house chosen for the surrender of Robert E. Lee in 1865. 


The Lewis family of  “Portici” found themselves at the center of the First Battle of Manassas. Confederate officers notified the Lewis family that a battle was imminent and that their house would be exposed to fire. They evacuated, taking everything they could with them, but left valuable and heavy furniture behind.  The furniture was stored in a small room in an angle of the house, and the room securely nailed shut.  The only shot that struck the house during the battle struck this room and destroyed all of the furniture.  Furniture was a trifling matter however.  Fannie Lewis was in her ninth month of pregnancy and went into labor as they began to evacuate the house.  Servants found a nearby ravine and dug a small earthen hollow into the bank.  They covered this with greens.  It was here that Fannie Lewis delivered her first baby, John Beauregard Lewis.


The Manassas Battlefield, in Prince William County, is also home to a number of Civil War spirits.  During the Second Battle of Manassas, in 1862, the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry [Zouaves] sustained devastating losses.  One of the dead may still haunt the area.  A phantom Zouave soldier has been seen repeatedly on the battlefield’s New York Avenue Field.  The phantom beckons the onlooker to follow him into the woods.  To date, no one has taken the ghost up on the offer.

The Stone House

Near the New York Avenue Field, a structure known as the old Stone House is also said to be haunted. Originally a tavern, the house served as a field hospital during both the battles of First (1861) and Second (1862) Manassas.  Strange lights have been seen in the house at night, although it is locked every night by park rangers.  Strange sounds, like screams and groans are also said to come from the house.

Civil War ghosts, real or imagined?  Investigate more deeply, if you dare.