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I am a lifelong student of military history with particular interest in the Battle of Antietam. I work for the federal government in Washington DC and have two teenagers who I love very much. I currently volunteer at the battlefield and devote much time to the study of this battle and the Maryland Campaign. I enjoy collecting notable contemporary quotations by and about the men of Antietam. These words often add a degree of color and character not found elsewhere in their stories. A feature of this blog is the presentation of some of these quotes. My perspective comes from a 28 year career in the U.S. Army. Travels took me to World War II battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where American valor ended the tyranny of Nazism and Empire. But our country faced its own greatest challenge 80 years earlier during the Civil War. And it was the critical late summer of 1862, when Robert E. Lee launched the Maryland Campaign that fortune could have gone either way. It is an incredible story of drama, carnage, bravery, and missed opportunities that culminated around the fields and woodlots of peaceful Sharpsburg MD. So join me as I make this journey South from the North Woods.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

From the Antietam to the Little Bighorn


Last weekend, I picked up Nathaniel Philbrick's new book The Last Stand - Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (New York: Viking 2010). I received the book as part of the Treasury Executive Institute's program. My casual scan through the book quickly turned serious as I realized how great it was. I usually don't have trouble putting a book down after an hour or two but I spent all of last weekend devouring this one. It is that good. Mr. Philbrick's research is very thorough. His portrayal of all the characters, both Native American and United States is tremendous. Mr. Philbrick's vivid narrative gave me a very clear understanding of Captain Frederick Benteen and Major Marcus Reno, Custer's principle lieutenants for the first time. Benteen is a fascinating character. Read the book and see why. The maps that accompany the narrative are first class. For the first time, I could clearly understand the geography of the Little Bighorn Valley and the movements of the various columns. Needless to say, I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested not just in this particular campaign but in this period of American history as well.

But why do I mention this book in a blog dedicated to the Maryland Campaign? In reading the book, you will discover a number of soldiers at or near the Little Bighorn who also fought at Antietam. Obviously, George Custer is one of them. Custer was, in 1862, a young brash second lieutenant fresh out of West Point. Assigned to General McClellan's staff, it was Custer who requisitioned Phillip Pry's house for McClellan's headquarters. As the Little Bighorn Campaign of 1876 unfolds, Custer is now second in command (but acting commander in the field) of the Seventh Cavalry. The Seventh is part of a column moving westward from the Dakotas and part of an effort to trap the Sioux between three converging columns approaching them from the east, west, and south. General Alfred Terry commands this west bound force known as the "Dakota" column.

John Gibbon, commander of the Iron Brigade at Antietam, leads the so called "Montana" column, moving eastward from Montana. Like Custer who in 1876 is back to his regular army rank of lieutenant colonel, Gibbon too had reverted to his regular rank of colonel after the Civil War. As their columns separate and Custer and the Seventh Cavalry depart to meet their destiny Gibbon tells the young officer, "Now, Custer, don't be greedy, but wait for us." To which Custer ambiguously replies"No, I will not."

The third column moving up from the south is the Wyoming column commanded by George Crook. It is Crook's brigade at Antietam that launches the first attack against the Rohrbach bridge on the southern part of the line. In the Little Bighorn campaign, Crook's force will be prevented from linking up with the other two columns when the Sioux defeat him at the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876. Forced to retreat, Crook's force will not be in any position to assist Custer when the Seventh Cavalry is overwhelmed at the Little Bighorn.

When the bloody battle of the Little Bighorn is over and Gibbon's force at last reaches the battlefield, they will find only the battered remnants of Reno and Benteen's battalions. Along the Little Bighorn Gibbon will discover Custer and his men dead to the last man. Among the fallen will be one other with a connection to Antietam. Second Lieutenant James "Jack" Sturgis, age 22 and fresh out of West Point is an officer of E Troop known as the Gray Horse Troop.

As Philbrick relates in the narrative: "While his body is never officially identified, several decapitated corpses were found near the river at the mouth of a deep ravine. One soldier later claimed he recognized Sturgis's scorched head along with several others in a Sioux fire pit. Out of respect for Sturgis's mother who visited the battlefield several years later, a grave marker was placed in the vicinity of Last Stand Hill. The possibility exists that the young lieutenant came as close as anyone in the Gray Horse Troop to reaching Sitting Bull's village."

James Sturgis is the son of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment's commander Samuel Sturgis. Sturgis commanded a division of Ambrose Burnside's Ninth Corps at the Battle of Antietam. It was men from Ferraro's brigade of Sturgis's division who captured the Rohrbach bridge on September 17, 1862. During the Little Bighorn campaign in 1876, Sturgis was on detached service in St Louis when the battle occurred. Sturgis and Custer did not get along. Sturgis said this about Custer after the battle. "That he was overreached by Indian tactics, and hundreds of valuable lives sacrificed thereby, will astonish those alone who may have read his writings-not those who were best acquainted with him and knew the peculiarities of his character."

[Note: All quotes here are from Nathaniel Philbrick's book The Last Stand - Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (New York: Viking 2010)]

3 comments:

  1. Jim,
    And Capt. Marcus Reno commanded four companies of the 1st US Cav Regiment at the Battle of the Antietam!!! This "battalion" of cavalry served as McClellan's Quartermaster Guard. Amazing how the main characters involved at the Little Big Horn were present at Antietam.
    Ron Dickey

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  2. Ron,
    Funny you should mention that. I just came across that fact in Tom Clemen's new Carmen book. The book says that Reno participated in a skirmish near Hyattstown with a squadron of the First Cavalry. on September 10, 1862. Hope to see you around the park again soon.
    Regards
    Jim

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  3. 2nd Lt. James Sturgis was not 'identified' as such, but his bloody undershirt and a coat were found on the battlefield. Some Indians say a man on a gray horse rode right through their lines and escaped near the top of Custer hill. A dead 7th cavalry horse was found months later at the mouth of the Rosebud. Did Sturgis survive?

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