Deliverance from the Little Big Horn: Doctor Henry Porter and Custer's Seventh Cavalryby Joan Nabseth Stevenson
Of the three surgeons who accompanied Custer’s Seventh Cavalry on June 25, 1876, only the youngest, twenty-eight-year-old Henry Porter, survived that day’s ordeal, riding through a gauntlet of Indian attackers and up the steep bluffs to Major Marcus Reno’s hilltop position. But the story of Dr. Porter’s wartime exploits goes far beyond the
Of the three surgeons who accompanied Custer’s Seventh Cavalry on June 25, 1876, only the youngest, twenty-eight-year-old Henry Porter, survived that day’s ordeal, riding through a gauntlet of Indian attackers and up the steep bluffs to Major Marcus Reno’s hilltop position. But the story of Dr. Porter’s wartime exploits goes far beyond the battle itself. In this compelling narrative of military endurance and medical ingenuity, Joan Nabseth Stevenson opens a new window on the Battle of the Little Big Horn by re-creating the desperate struggle for survival during the fight and in its wake.
As Stevenson recounts in gripping detail, Porter’s life-saving work on the battlefield began immediately, as he assumed the care of nearly sixty soldiers and two Indian scouts, attending to wounds and performing surgeries and amputations. He evacuated the critically wounded soldiers on mules and hand litters, embarking on a hazardous trek of fifteen miles that required two river crossings, the scaling of a steep cliff, and a treacherous descent into the safety of the steamboat Far West, waiting at the mouth of the Little Big Horn River. There began a harrowing 700-mile journey along the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers to the post hospital at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, Dakota Territory.
With its new insights into the role and function of the army medical corps and the evolution of battlefield medicine, this unusual book will take its place both as a contribution to the history of the Great Sioux War and alongside such vivid historical novels as Son of the Morning Star and Little Big Man. It will also ensure that the selfless deeds of a lone “contract” surgeon—unrecognized to this day by the U.S. government—will never be forgotten.
“A gripping account of medical care in the Indian-fighting army. Often grim but always insightful, Stevenson’s examination of doctoring in the 1870s is an exceptional contribution to Custer and Little Big Horn literature and to the woeful saga of medicine in the Old Army.” —Paul L. Hedren, author of After Custer: Loss and Transformation in Sioux Country and Great Sioux War Orders of Battle
"Joan Stevenson explores an important and often overlooked dimension of the Battle of the Little Big Horn: the intricate medical aspects. Told largely through the life and experiences of the only surgeon with Custer’s command to survive that bloody day, Deliverance from the Little Big Horn offers a stirring tale that will readily appeal to readers enamored not only of that engagement but of other army-Indian conflicts throughout the West."—Jerome A. Greene, author of Yellowstone Command: Colonel Nelson A. Miles and the Great Sioux War and editor of Lakota and Cheyenne: Indian Views of the Great Sioux War, 1876–1877
This is a book that needed to be written. In Deliverance from the Little Big Horn, Joan Nabseth Stevenson has tackled a complicated, unfortunately somewhat obscure topic with a level of expertise and credibility that places her among the finest Old West medical writers around.
She re-polishes the sometimes weary and dull recounting of the Custer battle with the grit and gory detail it deserves. She has accurately depicted the challenges, limitations and delivery of medical trauma care of the day. To tell the tale of Maj. Marcus Reno’s perspective of the battle, withdrawal and “deliverance” from the point of view of the Old West contract army physician Dr. Henry Porter is brilliant. I highly recommend the book to all True West readers.
—James P. Kornberg, M.D., Sc.D, “Frontier Doc” True West contributing editor
Custer’s Seventh Cavalry had three surgeons among its ranks before the Battle of Little Big Horn. When it was over only one, 28-year-old Henry Porter, was still alive. John Nabseth Stevenson’s evocative account of Porter’s battlefield heroics in the face of overwhelming odds is a wonderful addition to the existing literature on this seminal battle.
Following the attack, and the frontier surgeries he performed on more than 60 soldiers, Porter was instrumental in evacuating survivors and keeping them alive over a rough 15-mile journey to a steamboat, followed by a 700-mile journey to the nearest hospital in Bismarck. Stevenson reveals that the U.S. government has still not acknowledged Porter’s deeds. Perhaps this book will change that.—Cowboys & Indians
“Stevenson’s medical perspective on Little Big Horn is revelatory, written with an eye for striking details.”—Publishers Weekly
This is a mesmerizing story, masterfully researched and excellently written” Johnny D. Boggs in Roundup Magazine
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Deliverance from the Little Big Horn
Doctor Henry Porter and Custer's Seventh Cavalry
By Joan Nabseth Stevenson
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
The Seventh Regiment of U.S. Cavalry, all twelve companies together for the first time since the unit's formation after the Civil War, advanced during a march lasting from just after midnight to daylight. On June 25, 1876, daylight arrived at that eastern Montana latitude as early as 2:30 in the morning. In the initial darkness, men, horses, and pack mules filed along, guided only by the soft clanking of metallic gear ahead and behind. These accouterments did not include the cavalrymen's trademark sabers: Lieutenant Colonel Custer had ordered them left behind at the camp near the mouth of the Powder River. The famous Seventh Cavalry band also remained behind on June 22 after it played the regimental song, "Garry Owen," for the thirty-one officers, 566 enlisted men, thirty-five Indian scouts, thirteen quartermaster employees, two civilians, and 140-mule pack train, all departing under Custer's personal command. Some enlisted men and civilian admirers still referred to their commander as General Custer—he had earned the rank of major general by brevet and appointment during the Civil War. The lieutenant colonel had ordered the march in the dark, quiet early hours of June 25, moving along Davis Creek and up the hilly divide that separated his regiment from the valley of the Little Big Horn River. The plan was to summit the Wolf Mountains quickly and then rest on the other side.
Stealth also guided 2nd Lieutenant Charles Varnum, Chief Scout Charlie "Lonesome" Reynolds, and nearly a dozen Arikara or Ree Indian scouts on a separate night ride to a high spur called the Crow's Nest, a vantage point known by the Crow Indians, who conveniently hid there after they had stolen horses from their mortal enemies, the Sioux. The scouts hoped that in the clarity of the cool morning air, the view from the Crow's Nest would reveal wisps of smoke rising from the Sioux village they suspected to find in the Little Big Horn Valley. As dawn approached, every man strained to locate the anticipated village some fifteen miles away. While Lieutenant Varnum had difficulty seeing far distances in the dim early morning light, his Indian scouts were able to recognize a very large herd of ponies. Varnum's skepticism that any living thing could be detected at such a distance prompted the Rees to adjust his sights, telling him to "look for worms" in the grass instead of horses on a hillside.
When Varnum's messengers found Custer shortly afterward, the regiment had halted along the trail for a four-to-five-hour rest and a soldier's breakfast of raw bacon, hardtack, and canteen water. A few fires were started for coffee. Custer himself reached the Crow's Nest at around 9:00 A.M., when the more moisture-laden midmorning air made it impossible to see the "worms" in the distant grass. Even using Lieutenant Charles DeRudio's Austrian-made field glasses, the lieutenant colonel never saw the huge pony herd that the scouts insisted was a sign of an immense enemy village. The Ree had understood the importance of the pony numbers. Bloody Knife, Custer's favorite scout, predicted that a fight with such a large number of Sioux in the valley could last three days; Charlie Reynolds warned that below them was the greatest encampment of hostiles that he had ever seen on the Upper Missouri; and Mitch Boyer, a mixed-blood Sioux, personalized the odds: "If you don't find more Indians in that valley than you ever saw together before," he declared, "you can hang me." But the genuine concern of the scouts seemed to fall on deaf ears. While Custer accepted the reports of the village location, he dismissed the warnings about its size. He even berated several scouts as cowards.
The regiment continued to march up Davis Creek until just after 10:00 A.M., when Custer, Varnum, and the scouts rejoined the command. Now armed with the knowledge of the Sioux village's location, Custer considered moving his troops even closer to ready them for an attack in the early morning of June 26. This plan was still consistent with the strategy outlined several days earlier by Brigadier General Alfred Terry, commander of the expedition. He had ordered the Seventh Cavalry to ride south, scouting upriver on Rosebud Creek; traverse to the Little Big Horn River; and then move north, pushing downriver on June 25. In so doing, Custer would act as the southern pincer in coordination with the northern pincer, soldiers under Terry and Colonel John Gibbon—commanding officer of the Montana column—marching south from the Yellowstone River and advancing up the Little Big Horn. Together they would squeeze the encamped Sioux into submission and eventual relocation onto their designated reservation. But for the second time that morning, Custer received some unwelcome news: the detection of his column by roving Sioux scouts. Stripped of the element of surprise, the early morning attack planned for the next day was stillborn. Custer had to reconsider his options. Most men in the command, though still unaware of their commander's rapidly changing plans, abruptly learned that he had reached some decision. More precisely, they heard the decision in the form of a bugle sounding officers' call: the first bugle call since they had departed from their Yellowstone River camp three days earlier.
As the sound of the bugle pierced the enforced quiet of the military camp, all officers hurried to receive orders. Among them was thirty-year-old assistant surgeon George Edwin Lord. An 1871 graduate of the Chicago Medical College, Lord was initially appointed acting assistant, or contract surgeon, by the U.S. Army in the same year. As such, he joined the group of civilian doctors hired under specific, temporary "contracts": as noncommissioned medical officers, they had no permanent military rank or authority. But Lord had ambition exceeding this status, so he took the highly rigorous Army Medical Board examination in 1875. Of the four candidates before the board's examiners, two withdrew and one failed: only George Lord passed the grueling weeklong test, for which the general failure rate was well over 50 percent. Lord was commissioned into the army in June 1875 and appointed assistant surgeon with the rank of first lieutenant. After three years of service, he would automatically be promoted to captain and thereafter achieve the rank of major if a vacancy occurred due to resignation or death. Significant pay increases and eligibility for a pension accompanied all promotions. A decidedly handsome career lay ahead of him.
Lord had served as post surgeon at Fort Buford before the onset of this campaign and was detailed to the Seventh Cavalry on June 15. But on the morning of the twenty-fifth, his service was jeopardized by a physical condition not uncommon to military men serving in the field—"trail colic." The senior captain of the regiment, Frederick Benteen, took note of Lord's condition just two days earlier, when the surgeon straggled into camp very late, completely tired out from the march and refusing any food and water. The infection causing the characteristic bowel cramps and diarrhea was also known as "summer cholera," or dysentery. Most likely his condition resulted from drinking the often acrid-tasting water tainted by the runoff of salts from the soils. The purgative effect was debilitating and often excruciating. It was not uncommon for horses to refuse to drink such alkaline water, which even fouled a pot of strong coffee. Assistant Surgeon Lord would have treated himself with tincture of opium, paregoric, or the widely accepted favorite palliative of whiskey.
Custer was well aware of the doctor's condition. Despite the fact that Lord held an officer's rank while the other two surgeons accompanying the regiment were noncommissioned and technically without any rank, he nevertheless suggested that Lord remain with the rear guard when the cavalry advanced into battle. Custer favored another surgeon, one he considered to be an excellent rider, as Lord's replacement in his fighting column. Acting Assistant Surgeon Henry Porter thus was summoned and presented with an unforeseen opportunity. But Lord never wavered in military discipline and commitment to his post—it was unthinkable not to ride with the famed commander of the Seventh Cavalry. Whatever physical discomfort he experienced on the morning of June 25, Lord willed it away convincingly enough, standing his ground opposite Porter, his junior in age, and, more importantly, as a contract surgeon, his lesser in status. Custer acquiesced, assigning Lord to ride with him and Porter to serve with Major Reno's battalion.
At 11:45 in the morning, the entire regiment moved out, halting once more just after crossing the mountainous divide between Rosebud Creek and the Little Big Horn. It was 12:07 P.M. according to the watches set to Chicago time, the standard officers observed even in eastern Montana since regional time zones had not yet been established; the actual time of day was almost ninety minutes earlier. Custer had reached the critical decision to launch an immediate attack on the Sioux village: waiting until the next morning—a more conventional time for a surprise attack—risked finding the Indians no longer camped in that location. But this meant that his soldiers would fight without the originally planned aid of the Terry and Gibbon column pressing down from the north. Supremely confident, the lieutenant colonel ordered his regiment divided into four fighting battalions under the commands of Captain Myles Keogh, Captain George Yates, Captain Benteen, and Major Reno. Captain Thomas McDougall and Company B took charge of the 140-mule pack train. Assistant Surgeon Lord lined up with the five companies under Keogh and Yates when Custer announced that he would ride with them. Contract surgeons Porter and James DeWolf received orders to serve with Reno's battalion of three companies. Benteen's battalion, also composed of three companies, did not merit an accompanying surgeon.
Custer made these fateful decisions without the benefit of sufficient military intelligence. He was not convinced of the enormous size of the village below as presaged by his scouts. Experience had shown that Indians would rather scatter and retreat prudently than fight and suffer the loss of hard-to-replace warriors. It was the prospect of Indians scattering, not fighting, that caused him anxiety. The resolve of the tribes encamped in the Little Big Horn Valley—perhaps the most important piece of intelligence—was still entirely unknown to Custer, Terry, and Gibbon alike. News that many of the warriors, Sioux and Cheyenne, had already clashed with Brigadier General George Crook's soldiers on June 17 at the Rosebud Creek had not yet reached the other two military columns. That engagement and an earlier battle on March 17 had put the tribes on notice and resulted in a powerful alliance between the Northern Cheyenne and the Sioux. The Battle of the Rosebud, which had occurred only about thirty miles southeast of Custer's present position, had at best ended in a draw. Crook insisted on calling it a victory, while more than 800 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors rode off to enjoy their own victory feast, convinced that they had outbattled an army force of 1,000 men or more. The Indians then carried their jubilation and confidence to the Little Big Horn, where that ardor fueled their fierce determination to resist all forces threatening their centuries-old way of life. Although he was about to descend upon and attack a village teeming with families, Custer could not have anticipated the unwavering ferocity of the protective warriors that his Seventh Cavalry would shortly confront.
In the ninety-degree heat of that June day, the Seventh Cavalry sat momentarily poised on the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn. Nearly seventy years earlier, Lewis and Clark first named these waters, which flow from south to north and empty into the larger Yellowstone River. On this same Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Centennial Exhibition commanded the attention of large crowds in Philadelphia, celebrating the declaration of the nation's independence one hundred years earlier. This historic and joyous anniversary enamoring crowds in the East was the occasion for a historic confrontation on the western plains, where two incompatible cultures were about to collide. The desire for freedom—interpreted differently by each culture and regarded by each as tantamount to its own survival—forged nearly every decision made from the moment the Seventh Cavalry left that hilly divide at 12:12 P.M. on June 25, 1876.CHAPTER 2
"The Starting of a Young M.D."
More than 5,000 civilian contract surgeons—designated as acting assistant surgeons—served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, supplementing the services of the 6,000 or more regular, or commissioned, army surgeons. When the war ended, contract surgeons returned to their civilian practices. The postwar Congress, determined to reduce the size and cost of the peacetime army, practiced a fiscal austerity that included curtailing the practice of hiring or contracting with civilian surgeons. Consequently, contract surgeons could not rely on steady work and were obliged to apply annually for new agreements. As defined by the Association for Acting Assistant Surgeons, these men had no rank, no uniform, and no claim to a pension or final resting place in a national cemetery.
None of this bothered twenty-four-year-old Henry Porter in 1872, when he graduated from the two-year program at Georgetown Medical School. He and his twenty classmates faced a shortage of opportunities to practice their art among the many already established civilian surgeons—synonymously referred to as physicians at that time since surgery as a separate medical specialty had not yet been established. Competition for patients even dissuaded Porter from trying to practice with his own physician father, Henry Norton Porter, in New York Mills, a town in central New York. Many young doctors thus looked to the West for opportunities. The increasing flow of settlers westward and the building of the railroads demanded greater protective service from the army, fracturing its forces across a geographically disparate array of posts and camps. By 1874 the army had been reduced to just over 25,000 men. Its medical department reflected equally sharp reductions. Despite the hiring limitations dictated by Congress, the army could not avoid contracting with civilian surgeons for service at its nearly two hundred military posts and with all military detachments sent out into the field. But the numbers of these hired surgeons continued to drop sharply, from 2,000 in 1865 to 262 in 1866, 187 in 1870, and finally to a quota of only 75 in 1874.
Within three months of receiving his medical degree, luck favored Henry Porter, who signed his first contract with the U.S. Army on June 26, 1872, for $125 a month and including rations, transportation, and accommodations. While the commissioned army surgeons were often sent to relatively desirable locations for duty, noncommissioned contract surgeons more commonly were dispatched to remote areas with harsh climates. Porter headed by train across the country to the Presidio of San Francisco, headquarters of the Division of the Pacific, early in July 1872. It was his first stop en route to his ordered destination: Fort Whipple, near the town of Prescott, Arizona Territory. At every planned stopover along the way, Porter confirmed his orders in formal letters to J. K. Barnes, surgeon general, U.S. Army. He opened each letter conventionally with the phrase, "I have the honor to report ...," and closed each one with equal courtesy: "Very respectfully, Your Obedient servant, H. R. Porter, Acting Assistant Surgeon, U.S. Army." The young man, exuding pride in his appointment, likely anticipated little else ahead but professional opportunity and personal adventure.
At Fort Whipple, Porter received specific orders to accompany a detachment of the Fifth Cavalry into the field near Camp Walapai, located forty miles northeast of Prescott. These orders came by command of Brigadier General Crook, appointed head of the Department of Arizona in 1871. Crook had devised a campaign against the Apache Indians that drove them to higher, colder, and often snow-covered elevations under the persistent pursuit of soldiers from the Fifth Cavalry in an effort to demoralize them into accepting life on appointed reservations. Apaches traveled fast, carrying little and often wearing less, and had adapted to Arizona living. The assignment to accompany the column was well timed for Acting Assistant Surgeon Porter, who began to confess a sense of discouragement in a letter to his family: "I am heartily sick of Arizona and homesick as I have never been before. I have no chance to read or improve my medical knowledge and I wish I had never seen Arizona." In fact, he questioned the need for the very presence of the army in the territory, which he judged "as out of the way and as far from a railroad and civilization as a person can get in the United States." Nothing in the scenery—spiny cactus, thorny mesquite, or endless dust—appealed to Porter. And without a railroad, the territory was indeed isolated. Unendurable heat from a sun that, as Lieutenant John G. Bourke described it, "shone not to warm and enlighten, but to enervate and kill," drained the young doctor's enthusiasm for his army assignment. "I can't see any use in the government sending troops here to protect so miserable a country at such an enormous expense," he wrote to his parents, "better let the Indians have it."
Excerpted from Deliverance from the Little Big Horn by Joan Nabseth Stevenson. Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Joan Nabseth Stevenson an independent scholar, holds a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature from Stanford University. The daughter of a vascular surgeon, she lives with her husband, a neonatologist, in Los Altos Hills, California.
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