By Bill Lombardi
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
Giovanni Martini, born in a little town outside Salerno, Italy, was 20 years old when he immigrated to the United States in 1873 and settled in Brooklyn, New York. Alone and in a strange country, he was unable to find work. One day, as he was walking by an Army recruiting station, he decided to go in and enlist.
At first, the recruiter refused to let Martini join because he spoke broken English and felt he would find it difficult communicating. Martini was persistent and practically begged for the opportunity to serve. The recruiter finally consented when Martini produced documents verifying that he had served as a drummer boy in Garibaldi’s army in Italy and had war experience.
He was assigned to Lt. Colonel George Custer’s 7th Cavalry at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota territory. Living in New York, Martini probably had never seen an Native American in his life.
At the fort, he became a camp orderly and performed all kinds of odd jobs - from grooming horses to running errands for Custer’s wife, Elizabeth, and other officer’s wives. With the help of his fellow troopers, Martini kept improving his English. He persuaded Custer to let him become a trumpeter and was assigned to Troop H under the command of Captain Benteen. He was happy now that he could fight Native Americans instead of being left behind at the fort.
In 1876, the government prepared a huge expeditionary force against the Native Americans, known as the Sioux Campaign, that was to be decisive. Months before, hostile members of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes were given a deadline to report to reservation, which they disregarded. Custer was ordered by General Terry to scout in advance the main forces of the tribes. They were to wait for Terry and his army, and together would attack the Native American villages in full force. The chiefs mobilized their warriors to counter-attack.
At Fort Lincoln, the soldiers knew this would be one of the most dangerous missions in which they ever engaged. They were aware some may never return and many drew up wills, preparing for their inevitable deaths. On the morning of Custer’s departure from Fort Lincoln, the 7th paraded around the grounds in grand fashion for their wives and children. Martini was detained to serve as Custer’s trumpeter. The fort doors opened and “Gary Owen,” the 7th regimental tune, blazed away as the soldiers rode out. Elizabeth Custer and the other women never stopped waving goodbye until the men were out of sight.
When Custer’s army was deep into Sioux territory he divided his troops into three separate commands. Each was assigned to strategic positions to prevent any enemy from escaping while he and his men advanced toward the main village. On June 25, observing through his binoculars, Custer could see a huge Native American village below. He saw no warriors, just women, children and dogs wandering around.
Martini, who rode behind Custer, remembered overhearing him telling his officers that he might not wait for Terry to arrive, but instead attack himself. He realized he would need more men and ammunition than he had. Lt. Cooke wrote the message: “Benteen - come on big village - be quick - bring packs.” Custer took the note and handed it to Martini. He told him to ride as fast as he could back to Benteen, and if he could make it back safely to do so, but otherwise return with Benteen. Martini doffed his hat as he rode past his fellow troopers, not knowing it was his last farewell.
It was about a three mile ride through rough terrain. After a short distance, he was pursued by Native Americans and the chase was on as they opened fire on him. Riding as fast as he could, he was able to escape. Upon arriving with the message, someone noticed blood on the back of his shirt but soon discovered it was the horse that was hit; the blood had spattered.
On the way to Custer, Benteen heard gunfire and went to the aid of another company that was being attacked. Soon, both were surrounded by Sioux and Cheyenne and pinned down. The explosive echoing sound of massive gunfire could be heard in the distance - it was obvious that Custer was also being attacked.
Benteen and the men were fighting for almost two days before General Terry arrived with his army. The Native Americans quickly dispersed. Benteen gave General Terry Custer’s message, and together they rode toward his last position. What confronted them was devastating. There were dead bodies and dead horses everywhere. Many of the troopers had been mutilated and scalped. Some were stripped naked and all of their possessions taken. The Native Americans had taken the food, tobacco and sugar. Photos that soldiers had carried of their loved ones were scattered everywhere.
Martini remembered that Custer had wounds to the head and chest and was partially naked. A lock of his hair was cut and given to his wife, Elizabeth. In their haste to dig graves, some were only three feet deep. When soldiers came back the following year to exhume some of the bodies for reburial in their hometowns, they discovered scavengers had gotten to a few of them.
General Terry asked to see the trooper who carded Custer’s last message. Martini was summoned and he and General Terry talked for quite a while. Martini remembered that as he was walking away, Terry remarked: “Martini, you are a very luck man!”
The only living survivor of the massacre was Captain Myles Keough’s horse, Comanche, which was limping around, covered with blood from its wounds. They were going to leave the horse behind, but when the army pulled out, Comanche followed along in the rear. They decided to keep it with them, and eventually, the horse recovered from his wounds.
Martini Americanized his name to John Martin. While on leave in New York, Martin met and married Julia Higgins. They settled in Baltimore, Maryland, and had eight children. The first born boy was named George in honor of Custer. After serving 30 years in the army, Martin was discharged withe rank of sergeant.
In later years, their marriage began to dissolve, but because of their religious beliefs they never divorced. After the separation, Martin returned to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he first lived when he came to the United States. On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1922, while crossing the street, he was struck down by a speeding truck and killed.
Coincidentally, living not too far away was Elizabeth Custer, who had also settled in New York. She died in 1933 at the age of 91. Custer’s decision to let Martini carry the message gave him 46 more years to live.
In memory of the 7th Calvary and being the only living survivor of the massacre, an order was passed stating that Comanche would never be ridden by anyone ever again. During military ceremonies, he was always the lead horse in the parade, draped in black with a pair of cavalry boots hanging across his saddle. He died in 1891, and today his skins and bones are mounted at the University of Kansas. The message that Martin carried is now at the West Point Museum in New York.
It's ironic that Just a short distance from where John Martin is buried in the Cypress Hills cemetery in New York are the graves of three of his fellow troopers who were killed in the Custer Massacre.
Bill Lombardi is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. He is the grandfather of Emily, Ashley and Zachary Sullivan, and Cayce and Jimmy Lombardi - all Walpole residents.