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I may be stirring up something covered long ago, but I just watched a History Channel program about Frank Finkel and his claim to be a survivor of Custer's batallion at Little Bighorn.  (Of course we know that there were many survivors of Little Bighorn - the men under Reno and Benteen, not to mention those on the Indian side.)

 

The program featured two authors: John Koster, who wrote Custer Survivor: The End of a Myth - The Beginning of a Legend (2010), and Douglas Ellison, author of Sole Survivor: An Examination of the Frank Finkel Narrative (1983).

 

Have any recognized historians or serious students of Little Bighorn read, compared and analyzed these two books and expressed opinions about the Finkel story?

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I think history has reported on this many times, and I cant add anything to what was reported. Its been looked at from all angles both the Army side, The Civilian side, and the Indian side! As far as survivors to this, its only talked about by mostly second party reports. And they could be biased! I, myself look at it as a time in History, to be observed, and talked about. Remember; that the real story went to the grave with the ones that fought and died there! Like all remembered battles their will always be skeptics, and nay sayers. What say you?

Flinkel claimed his carbine was damaged & a splinter from the stock is what hit him between his eyes.  The carbine found next to the dead horse was undamaged, so it couldn't have been Finkel's.

The Indians claimed somebody riding a white horse got away.  Finkel easily could have said "That was me" to bolster his story.  He didn't.  He said it couldn't have been him because he was riding a roan.  The fact that it was a white horse is intriguing, tho.  Usually guidon bearers, trumpeters (which is what Cavalry called what everybody else called 'buglers') and the like rode white horses, & they were usually the only ones in the company who rode white horses.

 

They kept talking about  Custer's 'battalion.'  There wasn't a battalion-organized regiment in the US army in 1876 & there hadn't been since the reorganization of 1869.  He had 5 companies of the 7th.  Cav units were not called 'troops' until the 1890s.  Reno & Benteen had 4 companies.  The 10th company--all cavalry regiments had 10 companies, A thru K, no J--was in New Orleans.  Since it was not under Custer's direct control, it had the lowest desertion rate of any company in the 7th, & it was also the only intact company after the battle.

 

The number of enlisted men in a cav company was set, by law, at 64, so if the 5 companies were at full strength--which they weren't--there would have been 320 EM with Custer.  Actually he had only about 250, but I believe there were only about 200 bodies found.   That could mean there were survivors--like Finkel--who simply said "I've had enough" & went over the hill, some captives taken alive & tortured to death, & men who managed to quit the field but died of their wounds before they could be found & rescued.

Frank Finkel had a slug removed from his thorax by a surgeon many years after the battle and residents of Dayton say that he walked with a limp for his entire life there. John Koster.

If it were me, having taken a bullet from the most famous Indian battle of the west, that slug would have been encased as a family heirloom.  And if it were, there would be a good chance that it could be matched to one of the casings found at the battlefield.  I wonder what happened to that slug.

I also watched the program last night.  Good thing I taped it, as I fell asleep before the end.  In any event, I think I heard something that didn't sound quite right, in that I believe Mr. Finkel claimed that he was transferred to Fort Laramie where he joined the 7th Cavalry and served directly under Gen. Custer.  Um, I believe Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota was the home of the 7th Cavalry and where Custer was the base commander.  My mother was born and raised in Mandan, ND, which is about 5 miles due north of Fort Lincoln, and I spent many happy summers visiting there.  Fort Lincoln has been recreated and is well-worth a visit if anyone is in the area.

John Koster wrote an article that was published  in the June 2007 issue of Wild West Magazine.

Survivor Frank Finkel's Lasting Stand

 

Over 200 men have claimed to be a battle survivor, last messenger or viewer of the battle. The link below lists a few of them.

Survivors in Bighorn Folklore

 

A humorous account of a sole survivor convention, written by Brian W. Dippie was published in the May-June, 2001 True West Magazine.

Any program on "The History Channel" needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Sadly, since Nancy DuBuc has moved form A&E and taken over programming it much less history and much more entertainment. I'm surprised that the show didn't feature an interview with Larry the cable guy.
I don't think we'll ever know for sure who rode that white horse--not by name, anyway--but he was a trumpeter, a guidon bearer, or a messenger, because those were the folks Custer mounted on white horses. He had 5 companies with him. The Regimental HQ had a trumpeter, a guidon bearer, & probably as many as 5 or 6 messengers. In addition, each company had a trumpeter, a guidon bearer, & at least 1 messenger. That puts 20 to 21 white horses on the field. We don't know for sure if the messenger who carried the note back to Benteen returned to the field or not.

We know it wasn't the Italian regimental trumpeter, because his remains were identified. That rider could have been any one of 19 or 20 others. Whoever he was, I hope he got away. I know if I'd been there and managed to get clear, I'd have shed that blue coat as quickly as I could, changed my name, & gone somewhere else. Remember, except for the 9th & 10th Cav & the 24th & 25th Inf, by far the majority of EM in the US Reguar Army in the 19th Cent were recent immigrants from Europe. A lot of 'em spoke almost no English, or if they spoke English it was heavily accented. Custer's Italian trumpeter spoke very little English. These guys joined the Regulars for a 5-year hitch because in a lot of cases it was the only employment open to them. The few native-born EM in the Regulars were, as often as not, on the dodge. These are not guys who are going to shed blood for the Red, White, & Blue if they see a way out of doing that.
I watch the end of the program.  It is food for thought.  But I was thinking.  How did he get through all the indians?  They were moving all around killing anything wearing blue.  Also, they were stripping the dead of anything of value to them. It would seem that he would have been seen.  So when did he leave the fight?

He probably got out of the fight pretty early.  He was hit twice early on & the Indians were coming out of the coulees like you'd thrown a rock in a hornet's nest.  If he stuck around for more than the initial onslaught there's no way he would have gotten out alive.  Most of the immediate attackers were afoot & wouldn't have tried to chase him.  He was probably hit in the first few seconds of the attack, when the Indians were firing furiously to unhorse as many of the soldiers as they could. 

 

The big thing is, the Indians weren't particularly good shots.  Nelson Miles commented one time that if the Indians had known what a rear sight was for, those wars would have been a lot longer & bloodier.  They were  depending on a volume of fire--and there were enough of them that they could put out a volume of fire.  A lot of 'em had repeaters, but probably not Henrys.  There were only abt 12,000 Henrys made, the last ones in 1865.  The Winchester '66, which used the same action as the Henry & the same double-ended firing pin, had been in production nearly 10 yrs by the time of LBH.  By the time Winchester quit making 'em, they'd turned out nearly 190,000.

 

What Finkel sees before a piece of his carbine stock puts blood in his eyes is what looks like all the Indians in the world coming straight at him.  He''s hit twice in probably the first 2 or 3 seconds, then he gets hit with that piece of carbine stock & can't see.  He bogs his spurs & his horse does the rest.  It doesn't like what's coming at it, either.

All very good comments.  And I agree with Richard that there will always be people on each side of this controversy.

 

What I was wondering was whether any trained historians had commented on the Koster/Ellison theories. 

 

Personally, it seemed to me that the Finkel story hung together pretty well, except for the names and identification issue.  I'm afraid I can't agree with Koster that the F's in the two signatures are identical.  To me, they don't even look very similar!

Charley is right on the money! Finckle left at the beginning of the battle. Dr. Charles Kuhlman, originally caustically skeptical about Custer survivors, ultimately believed Finkel, as his name was then spelled, based on his description of the battlefield and the terrain to the east. Kuhlman pointed out that, because some of C Company was still firing from Finckle-Finley Ridge, Finkel would have passed through a zone where the Indians could shoot at him but couldn't body-block him for fear of being shot themselves. Rain-In-The-Face also reported that a single fugitive rode past the Hunkpapa Village and escaped. The Ohio members of the Finkel family sent me a vintage photograph of August Finckle - Frank Finkel in a cavalry uniform which the soldier sent home to Ohio. This will appear in the third edition of "Custer Survivor." John Koster.

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