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First Sergeant Ryan

M Co. 7th U.S. Calvary At The Little Big Horn

On the afternoon of June 25, 1876, five companies of cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. George A. Custer were annihilated in what has become perhaps the best known and most controversial battle in American history; "The Battle of the Little Big Horn" or "Custer's Last Stand."

Although five companies (C, E, F, I, and L) were destroyed, the greater part of Custer's command survived (seven companies in all) on the bluffs above the river about four miles from the spot where Custer perished. Three of these companies (A, G, and M,) under the command of Major Marcus Reno, had forded the Little Big Horn River and attacked the Indian camp but were soon forced back across the river and up onto the bluffs in a disastrous retreat.  They were joined by Companies D, H, and K, under the command of Captain Fredrick Benteen, and Company B escorting the pack train.

First Sgt. Ryan by Ralph Heinz

For a time, the Indian forces (Sioux and Cheyenne) diverted their attack away from this hilltop position and united to repulse the threat that Custer's command represented to their villages further to the west.  After the defeat of Custer, they returned in force to press their attack upon the troops under Reno and Benteen on the bluffs for the rest of that day, and all of the next day, June 26th.

In this cramped and exposed position, the troops were very hard pressed.  They repulsed several sharp attacks on their position but it remained a tenuous one for they had no cover, no water, and only a couple spades for the entire command with which to try to dig positions.  Some men scraped away at the hard earth with their pocket knives and tin cups to try to improve their defensive position.  None of them knew or even suspected what had happened to Custer and they expected to be relieved by Custer's command at any time.  They were surrounded in this position and unable to get water though the river was only a few hundred yards away.  On the second day of the battle, some men were able to make the perilous trip down to the river and bring back a little water for the wounded.

First Sergeant John Ryan of Captain French's M Company, recorded his observations of the battle for the "Hardin, Montana Tribune" some forty-seven years later:

"We had been in this position but a short time when they advanced in great numbers from the direction in which we came."

"They made several charges upon us and we repulsed them every time.  Finally they surrounded us.  Soon the firing became general all along the line, very rapid at close range.  The company on the right of my company had a number of men killed in a few minutes.  There was a high ridge on the right of our lines and one Indian in particular I must give credit for being a good shot."

"While we were lying in this line he fired a shot and killed the forth man on my right.  Soon afterward he fired again and shot the third man.  His third shot wounded the man on my right, who jumped back from the line, and down among the rest of the wounded.  I though my turn was coming next.  I jumped up, with Captain French, and some half a dozen members of my company, and, instead of firing straight to the front, as we had been doing up to the time of this incident, we wheeled to our right and put in a deadly volley, and I think we put an end to that Indian, as there were no more men killed at that particular spot."

On the second day of the battle, the united commands of Reno and Benteen had some very anxious moments.  In the early morning, the Indians made a very determined effort to break through the lines of the surrounded troops.  Captain Benteen's company was particularly troubled and Captain French's M Company was withdrawn from their part of the line and rushed to assist Benteen's Company H.  Both companies made a charge which drove the Indians back down the hill.  First Sergeant Ryan took part in this action and recorded:

"Private James Tanner of Company M, was badly wounded in this charge, and his body lay on the side of the bluffs in an exposed position.  There was a call for volunteers to bring him down, and I grabbed a blanket with three other men, rushed to his assistance, rolled him into the blanket, and made tracks in getting him from the side of the bluffs to where our wounded lay.  Fortunately none of the rescuing party received any more than a few balls through their clothing.  After placing Tanner with the rest of the wounded, he died in a few minutes."

"Late in the day the fire of the Indians slackened, except on point of a high bluff in the direction in which it was supposed that Custer had gone.  Here the Indians put in a few well-directed shots that laid several of our men low.  I do not know what kind of gun one of those Indians used, but it made a tremendous noise, and in fact those Indians were out of range of our carbines, which were Springfields, caliber .45."

"Captain French of my company asked me if I could do anything with those Indians, as they were out of range of the carbines.  I told the captain that I would try, and as I was the owner of a 15-pound Sharps telescope rifle, caliber .45, which I had made in Bismark before the expedition started out, and which cost me $100 I fired a couple of shots until I got the range of that group of Indians.  Then I put in half a dozen shots in rapid succession, and those Indians scampered away from that point of the bluff, and that ended the firing on the part of the Indians in that memorable engagement, and the boys put up quite a cheer.

Shortly thereafter, the Indian village began leaving the Little Big Horn Valley and the encirclement of the troops on the bluffs was over.  Ryan and Captain French fired the last shots of the battle:

"When they moved, the captain of my company, Thomas H. French, and I fired into them while they remained in the range of our two guns, and those were the last shots fired in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  That was well known by every man in Reno's position."

The next day, June 27th, the besieged troops were relieved by General Gibbon's command under the General Alfred Terry and first learned from them the awful fate of their comrades and General Custer.

The battle was fought in temperatures approaching 100 degrees in extremely dusty conditions for the weather had been very dry.  The men had been wearing the same clothes for five weeks.  Because of the heat, few men wore the dark blue uniform blouse (what we would call a "coat" today) and Ryan's blouse with his First Sergeant's chevrons on the sleeve is shown draped over a box, in front of him along with a "sky blue" wool cavalry overcoat, a pair of saddlebags, and a carbine sling. 

Most men were in their shirt sleeves and the issue shirt was of gray flannel.  Some had privately purchased shirts such as the blue bib front "fireman's shirt" worn by the man on the right.  Many wore civilian hats such as the broad brimmed straw hat worn by Ryan in the picture and the felt hat worn by the wounded trooper on his right.  The issue black felt hat, the model 1872 folding campaign hat lying in the grass in the foreground, was widely disliked for it failed to hold its shape well.

As issued, the trousers worn by the troops were of heavy wool in "sky blue" color.  There was some divergence in actual color because of different dye lots.  Some were reinforced in the legs and seat with a double thickness of wool while others, like the pair worn by Ryan, were simply left over Civil War trousers.  The one inch wide yellow stripe on the outer seam denotes the rank of the Sergeant.  Officers wore a stripe one and a half inches wide and corporals wore a half inch stripe.  Privates, unlike their Hollywood counterparts, had no trouser stripe.  There was NO yellow neckerchief (which is purely a product of the western movies.)

The boots in use at the time were the model 1872 boots of black leather with a square toe and low heel which were worn either with the trousers over them or tucked into the tops at the owner's discretion.

There was as yet no issue cartridge belt (though one was approved that year) and troops wore cartridge belts that were privately made – often by a company saddler from old sabre belts or from surplus canvas.  The .45 - 55 carbine rounds were inside primed and had copper rather than brass cases.  Many soldiers carried a belt knife of some type often purchased from the post sutler's store.

Troops experienced some difficulty extracting fired cartridge cases from their Springfield carbines.  The problem arose from the fact that ammunition used by the Army throughout the 1870's had copper cases rather than brass.  These cartridges were Benet primed with an inside primer held in place by crimps around the base of the cartridge  case itself.  The rim of the shell was fairly thin and externally these cases resemble rimfires as there is no visible external primer.  Copper has less strength than brass and the extractor on the Springfield is thin and knife shaped and could easily cut through the rim of the case if it stuck in the chamber and was hard to extract for some reason.  The carbine ammunition in use at the Little Big Horn was .45 caliber, had a 2.1" case, had a 405 grain grooved bullet  and had a 55 grain charge of black powder.  It was the same size as the .45 – 70 round used in the infantry rifle.

Many troopers wore cartridge belts made of leather and the acid used in tanning leather caused a rapid build up of verdigris, a green acetate of copper, that – if not cleaned off the case before firing – could literally cement the cartridge case in the chamber upon firing.

There was no cleaning rod issued for use in the field at that time for the Springfield carbine and hence, no way to knock these stuck cases out of the breech.  Captain French used a "Long Tom," an infantry rifle rather than a carbine and used his cleaning rod (carried with the rifle) to knock stuck cases from carbines on Reno's position.

On some occasions, the entire head of the case broke off making it impossible to knock the rest of the cartridge case out of the chamber.  This experience caused the Army to adopt a three piece cleaning rod and headless shell extractor that fit in the buttstock of all carbines in 1877, a year too late to have helped Reno's besieged men.

For some cover to shield them from Indian fire from around their position, troopers improvised breastworks using dead horses, saddles, ammunition and hard tack boxes and any equipment that could be piled in front of them.  A little earth was scraped away to lower their positions as much as possible and in a few places, the spades were used to actually dig shallow trenches.  The entire area was covered with tall grasses and sage brush though this worked more to the advantage of the Indians allowing them to crawl quite close to the troop's positions.

For those interested in more information on First Sergeant John M. Ryan of Company M, 7th Cavalry, I have dug up a few more personal details.  John Ryan was born on August 25, 1845, in West Newton, Massachusetts.  His first military service came in 1861 when he enlisted in Company C of the 28th Mass. Volunteer Regiment.  He served in that regiment until 1864 when he was discharged and enlisted in company K of the 61st Mass. Regiment.  During the Civil War John Ryan was wounded four times!

In 1866 he enlisted in the newly formed 7th Cavalry and served until December of 1876.  After his service in the frontier army Ryan returned east, and was Chief of Police of West Newton, Massachusetts for nine years.  He died in 1926 at the age of 81.  Ryan's army records give his height as five feet six and one half inches.  His eyes were grey and hair auburn in color. 

Besides being the only known 7th Cavalryman with enough senses to carry Sharps, Sgt. Ryan is also known for a few other things.  For one, he buried General Custer personally after the Little Big Horn Battle.  Also, Sgt. Ryan was felt by many 7th Cavalrymen to have deserved the Medal of Honor for his services at the Little Big Horn but he was not recognized in any way after the fight.  Before the regiment marched to its famous battle, Sgt. Ryan had been ordered court marshaled and reduced to the ranks by Captain Benteen.  However, Custer himself reinstated Ryan which caused friction between Ryan and some officers.  Because of this friction with some of the 7th's surviving officers, Sgt. Ryan took his discharge in late 1876 and left the 7th Cavalry forever.  According to some sources, he was better officer material than many of the men he was serving under.

Because of his enlisted status, Sgt. Ryan has never received the fame that many of his commissioned contempories have.