By Shapell Roster Research Team
The Battle of Little Bighorn took place 139 years ago today, on June 25, 1876. The US Army was waging a campaign to force the last of the Native American tribes around the Black Hills onto reservations. That day, Lieutenant Colonel and Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer led the 7th US Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn, preparing to stage an attack on an encampment of Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Without any knowledge of his foe’s position and number, Custer divided his overtired unit into four sections to enter the area from opposite sides, ultimately leaving himself and his command of 210 men isolated from three-quarters of the regiment—enabling Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors to surround Custer’s detachment and slaughter them to a man.
In the succeeding decades, our understanding of this engagement and its context has changed drastically. Custer is no longer the fallen hero, ushering in the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. Today we recognize that the US Government killed millions of Native Americans, and wiped out entire cultures based on narrow-minded views of what a society is and how progress works. And, we have taken a more balanced look at the life of George Custer, and the actions he took at Little Bighorn. Custer had always been a big risk taker, and that day his uninformed, arrogant ventures caught up to him and his men. But Custer was not alone in his beliefs and practices when it came to 19th century battle tactics and fighting the tribes, and there is a strong argument to be made that Custer also became a scapegoat for US Army policies in the West as a whole. Many fictionalized accounts have been written and filmed of what a court martial examining the events of Little Bighorn would have been like, had Custer survived that fateful day. But this is less of a mystery than some might believe, for Custer was tried by court martial almost nine years prior for similarly brazen, haphazard behavior.
George Custer graduated from West Point early to join the Union Army in its struggle to reunite the country. With the country’s military leaders divided on both sides of the conflict, the Civil War provided many opportunities for young officers to rise through the ranks quickly. Few managed the dynamite trajectory of Custer, however. Known for being at the very front of his men, leading spontaneous and daring charges; Custer achieved notoriety for his bravery, and his casualty count. His wild appearance and colorful character quickly made him a favorite of the press and a darling of the politicians. At 24, he was appointed Major General of the US Volunteers. At the end of the war, Custer decided to remain with the Army, and accepted a commission as Lieutenant Colonel in the Cavalry. In 1867, the US Army sent him west to handle the “Indian problem.”
Suddenly, Custer was no longer fighting large armies with standard military formations in familiar terrain. Now he was chasing small bands across the Plains, mounted on ponies with far better endurance than the Army raised horses of the Cavalry. To make matters worse, he was caught between politicians’ meager attempts at diplomacy, and his commanding officers’ orders to force the Native Americans into submission by whatever means necessary. For the first time in his career, Custer was floundering, and it didn’t suit his prideful nature. This tension led to the events of the summer of 1867—Custer’s court martial and the death of Charles Johnson.
In June of 1867, Custer scouted along the Republican and Platte Rivers with a portion of the 7th US Cavalry, looking for tribes. On June 22nd, the command, being depleted of supplies and rations, started for Fort Wallace. Custer pushed the men and horses hard; the march was “a forced one.” In the last seven days of the march to Fort Wallace, the troops covered 182 miles. The unit was losing men slowly to desertion, and as the pace increased, so did the runaways. Many desertions occurred in the dark of night on July 6th, and there was open talk amongst the enlisted men that more intended to follow. On July 7th, in broad daylight, yet another group of deserters absconded, spotted just two miles from camp. Five men were on horses, more fled on foot. Custer gave orders, intending to stop the growing rebellion:
Two parties of officers headed out to enforce Custer’s orders. Tom Custer’s group overtook Privates Tolliver, Alburger, Willis, and Johnson first. When Jackson’s party arrived, three of the men were lying on the ground, and the fourth, Alburger, was on the run, and being shot at. Tom Custer and his mounted officers captured Alburger soon after. Ultimately, three of the four were wounded—only Willis remained unscathed, having hit the ground, feigning death when the shooting began. The troop had ambulances, but a cargo wagon was sent for the captives instead.
When the wagon was brought up to the rest of the command, men rushed over to look, and many threw in overcoats to provide at least some bedding for the wounded. The whole group then traveled several hours before stopping for the night to set up camp. At that point, Dr. I. T. Coates, Acting Assistant Surgeon for the regiment, approached the wagon for the first time. As he did, Custer ordered him to stay back and not bother treating the deserters. Two hours later, however, Custer spoke to Coates in private: “Doctor my sympathies are not with those men who are wounded, but I want you to give them all necessary attention.” Coates then administered opiates and did everything he knew how to make them comfortable. Coates did not believe any of the three had been mortally wounded, and shared this opinion with Custer.
Custer and his men reached Fort Wallace on July 13th. The three wounded deserters received more sophisticated medical care once at the fort, but nevertheless, Charles Johnson died on July 17th. The men were exhausted, and the unit’s horses “were in very bad condition.” In spite of the fatigued state of the horses and men, Custer set out again two days after reaching Fort Wallace with an escort of 75 enlisted men and several officers to march to Fort Hays and then on to Fort Harker. The purpose of the journey was later proved to be for his own personal reasons.
During the march, a group was detached from the main body of the escort, following behind to pick up stragglers and deal with horses having difficulty. Along the way, several horses had to be abandoned and three shot, because they could go no further. The main command reached Downer’s Station on July 17th. About four miles away, 50-60 Native Americans attacked the detachment. Nine riders escaped with some of the assailants in hot pursuit, leaving two presumed dead behind. Despite the news, Custer and his men resumed their march, leaving Captain A. B. Carpenter, commander of the 37th Infantry and the officer in charge of Downer’s Station, to retrieve the bodies of Custer’s men. According to Carpenter, an attempt to pursue the perpetrators would have proved “fruitless.”
Upon reaching Fort Harker in the middle of the night, Custer roused General A. J. Smith from his sleep. Custer told Smith he planned to get on a soon arriving train to Fort Riley, but that he would be back the moment Smith needed him, and the General made no objection. The next day, when General Smith learned the state of the horses and men from Custer’s escort, and of the pace and events of their journey, he ordered Custer back immediately. Upon his return to Fort Harker, Custer was placed under arrest.
The US Army formally charged Custer with:
- Absence Without Leave from His Command, for his journey from Fort Wallace to Fort Riley,
- Conduct to the Prejudice of Good Order and Military Discipline, for dragging a large portion of his command out on the march again after they had just completed one harrowing trek, on horses that were largely spent, again at fast pace, “the said march being upon private business, and without proper authority or any urgency or demand of public business[,]”
- Additional Charges for “neglect[ing] to take any measures to pursue such party of Indians, or recover or bury the bodies of those of his command that had been killed[;]” and, for ordering Johnson, Tolliver, and Alburger “to be shot down as supposed deserters, but without trial”—causing the three to be “severely wounded” and, after denying the three medical care, causing Johnson to ultimately die.
Custer had no choice but to address the charges against him; but he did so without remorse.
In response to the charge of being absent without leave, Custer first explained that he had been under orders from General William T. Sherman to ride to Fort Wallace to meet with General Hancock, who would be visiting the fort. Upon arriving to said destination, and finding that Hancock had already left, Custer said he felt his duty was to try and overtake Hancock at Fort Harker, and have the meeting Sherman requested. Evidence was shown, however, that these orders did not reach Custer until long after he had already chosen to depart Fort Wallace. The orders had been in the possession of 2nd Lieutenant Lyman Kidder, who had been dispatched to meet with Custer along the Republican River. By that time, Custer had already left his camp there, and on June 29th as Kidder led his party in the direction of Fort Wallace, they were overtaken and killed by a party of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors led by Pawnee Killer. This incident became known as the Kidder Massacre. Unable to use these specific orders for a defense, Custer then pointed to the more general instructions Sherman had given him earlier in June. Custer presented testimony showing Sherman had told Custer “he would receive orders from General Augur, but not to confine himself to those orders, if his judgment led him elsewhere. That if he wished he could go to Denver City, or he could go to hell if he wanted to. That he could go to any post he wanted to.” Custer felt this directive gave him carte blanche; that he could lead his men where he pleased. Additional testimony was shown that the context of this discretion, however, was specifically in the pursuit of the tribes. Sherman wanted Custer to go wherever was needed to hunt down the Native Americans currently giving the Army trouble. Custer’s march to Fort Hays and Fort Harker was not in pursuit of any Native Americans, so the court held this exchange with Sherman afforded Custer no authority for said march.
Aside from being absent without leave, Custer did not dispute the alleged events, but provided many justifications for his choices over those several weeks. On the condition of the horses leaving Fort Wallace, Custer stated that those horses had two days rest—more than they had gotten in weeks. Yes, the horses could have been in better condition, but they were not unfit for service. He also claimed no one had informed him that some of the horses had started failing on the later march. With the attack on the detachment, Custer pointed out that he did not find out about the assault until after the fact and did not know that a Sergeant from the detachment reported that only one of the casualties was dead, the other merely wounded. He felt, at that time, nothing could be done to catch the culprits, and others could retrieve the bodies of the fallen. But, it was noted by the court that Custer was informed of the attack within an hour of its occurrence, and some of the Native Americans involved pursued members of the detachment to a mile and a half from Downer’s Station. So, perhaps the hunt would not have been so futile.
As for the shooting of the deserters, Custer believed his orders were totally justified and necessary. The rampant desertions in the midst of hostile territory, despite his previous measures of arresting deserters and placing sentries at night, left Custer concerned that his officers and loyal enlisted men would be vulnerable to attack. He claimed he did not believe his orders would be taken literally; they were mainly made for effect. Custer argued, based on the testimony of some of his loyal men, that Charles Johnson threatened his approaching captors with a carbine, and if not for that act no one would have been shot at all. In contrast, Lieutenant Jackson testified that “there were no arms near them at all” when he arrived upon the wounded men. Both sides conceded all had surrendered and were unarmed at the time of the shooting. Ultimately, Custer stood behind his actions because they achieved the desired result; the number of desertions between the acts on July 7th and their arrival at Fort Wallace was exactly zero.
While Custer was able to prove that he did secretly provide medical care to these soldiers, his case for the necessity of his orders, and the rest of his actions, fell short. The court found Custer guilty of all charges, although no criminality was attached to the denial of medical care to the three wounded men. He was sentenced “to be suspended from rank and command for one year, and forfeit his pay proper for the same time.” According to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt’s report on the case “[t]he conclusion unavoidably reached under the hands of the inquiry, [was] that Gen. Custer’s anxiety to see his family at Fort Riley overcame his appreciation of the permanent necessity to obey orders which is incumbent on every military officer; and that the excuses he offer[ed] for his act of insubordination [were] afterthoughts.”
Private Charles Johnson received “a shot in the side… making a flesh wound. He was also wounded in the head, the ball entering in the left temple and coming out below, under the jaw, and passing down into his lungs, the same ball entering again at the upper part of the chest.” He was carried wounded for 180-190 miles in an open wagon before arriving at Fort Wallace, and his wounds were not dressed for the first two days because clean enough water could not be found. Most of the officers who shot Johnson and his compatriots admitted they did not even know the men’s names at the time. These officers fired down on the men from horseback, “within 25 yards at least, and perhaps much nearer.” Of the wounded men, Dr. Coates found Johnson to be “the most cheerful at that time[,]” possibly explaining why the surgeon believed such serious wounds would not be fatal. But who was this stoic? And why of the 156 desertions from the 7th Cavalry that took place between April 18th and July 13th, 1867, was his the one that led to summary execution?
Why is Charles Johnson of any consequence to The Shapell Roster of Jews in the Service of the Union and Confederate Armies and Navies, 1861-1865? The Charles Johnson who died a deserter’s death at Fort Wallace was actually Israel Highhill, a man with a long record of previous, honorable service in the Civil War. The History of the Sixty-First Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-1865 states that Highhill was “recommended for a medal for bravery at Petersburg, Apr[il] 2, 1865” by General Getty, after he “captured one of the pieces of artillery near Lee’s headquarters.”
Highhill enlisted as a Private in the 23rd PA Infantry in September of 1861, and was then transferred to the 61st PA Infantry; re-enlisting as a Veteran Volunteer for an additional three years in 1864, then being promoted to 1st Sergeant in November of that year. He was mustered out with his regiment June 28, 1865, because the war was over, and their services were no longer needed. Following his discharge, Highhill returned to Pennsylvania and opened a dry goods business in Hazelton. Unfortunately, he found little success as a merchant, so he decided to re-enlist in the Army. In November of 1866, he enlisted in the 7th US Cavalry in Philadelphia, under the alias of Charles Johnson, “to elude his creditors.” He was then sent west to help round up the Native American tribes on to reservations. Perhaps in July 1867, he was experiencing the same struggles as Custer; failing to adapt to a new and foreign type of soldiering he neither expected nor was prepared for.
Highill’s mother Rachel applied for a pension in 1889 based on Highill’s service, stating her son served in the 61st PA Infantry, then died in 1867 while serving in the 7th US Infantry and was buried at Fort Wallace. Included with her application was her ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, establishing her marriage to Highhill’s father Asher.
The War Department had no trouble confirming the soldier’s Civil War service, but they could not find Highhill in the 7th US Cavalry. Rachel then submitted a set of affidavits from friends and neighbors explaining why Highhill’s name was missing from the Cavalry rolls. One such affidavit was authored by Powell R. Thorne, a fellow Civil War veteran and Highhill’s would be brother-in-law. Thorne identified Israel Highill to be Charles Johnson, explaining the purpose for the soldier taking an alias and stating that he corresponded with Highhill as Johnson after he went west. In 1867, Thorne learned that the soldier died under mysterious circumstances:
“I ascertained thru’ an ‘Insurance Agent’ who had been informed by the Captain of the Company ‘that Charles Johnson’ had been killed. I read the letter myself and the details of the case, as near as I can recollect were as follows: viz: A party of the soldiers among whom was Charles Johnson were grazing their horses and the report was sent to Camp that they were deserting- After this report had been received- General Custer- ordered that ‘their bodies be brought in’ and Lieutenant Custer was assigned to carry out the order of the General: and accordingly- the men were shot- and their dead bodies brought into Camp. When I heard of this, I employed Colonel William B. Mann… as counsel to investigate this outrage[.] [T]his he did – and proceeded to bring suit against the ‘Military Authorities’ and he subsequently learned that the civil authorities could not interfere, thus the case was dropped- The investigation caused a temporary relief of the command.”
It is unclear whether Thorne’s insurance agent reported to him that Highhill/Johnson was only out grazing his horse, or whether Thorne said this to help protect Rachel Highhill’s claim for a pension. Per Henry M. Frank’s affidavit, Rachel’s need was desperate; the soldier’s father had long been of “feeble health” and Highhill sent much of his pay home to support them both. Rachel “always spoke of how good and kind he treated her, and if it had not been for his contributions she would not have known how to get along.
What little we know about Israel Highhill, aka Charles Johnson, shows he was a man capable of both good and bad. He served his country with honor during the Civil War, but slipped in his later service; he was a loving, supportive son, but bailed from his business debts when his dry goods store failed. The same could be said of George Custer, although his highs and lows impacted more people and remain world-renowned.
Today in particular, so many will reflect on the Battle of Little Bighorn and Custer’s legacy. Because Israel Highhill is buried under the name “Charles Johnson,” his only legacy is that of an assumed persona, found as a footnote in Custer biographies. I hope putting this out into the world helps to broaden that story a bit, and allows history to remember Israel Highhill, a patriotic Jewish soldier, as more than a corpse.