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Officer's Letters Add to the Custer Saga

Historian From Orange Publishes Correspondence From the Field, Providing a Personal Take on the Battle of Little Big Horn

March 21, 1997|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's the kind of thing a historian lives for: coming across never-published letters and postcards written in the field by an officer of the 7th Cavalry who fought at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The battle, in which Gen. George Armstrong Custer split his men into three battalions, resulted in the deaths of Custer and more than 200 of his men.

The correspondence, chronicling the battle on June 25, 1876, and the Army's monthslong campaign against the Plains Indians, was written by 2nd Lt. George D. Wallace to his friend, Dr. Charles F. Knoblauch, an Army contract surgeon in Shreveport, La.

During the battle, Wallace was with a battalion commanded by Maj. Marcus Reno, which Custer had sent forward with assurance that he would follow in support. Reno lost a third of his more than 115 men.

Wallace detailed the battle in a letter to his friend, one in a series of correspondences written from the time he left Shreveport for Dakota Territory in April 1876 until March 1877.

The surviving letters and postcards kept by Knoblauch were handed down to Knoblauch's daughter. She passed them on to her sons, one of whom lives in La Habra, upon her death in 1988.

"This material is as good as it gets," said historian and publisher Doug Westfall, 47, of Orange, who learned of the letters' existence in 1994 and has now published them in a book.

"Letters From the Field: Wallace at the Little Big Horn" (Paragon Agency; $18.76) contains transcriptions of Wallace's correspondence as well as Knoblauch's correspondence log and diary entries. Westfall has also provided a detailed glossary of names, places and arcane terminology.

Wallace's most significant letter was written while the 7th Cavalry was camped at the mouth of the Big Horn River on July 4, 1876, the nation's centennial. It was nine days after Custer and his men died and two days before news of the battle made national headlines. In the letter, the 25-year-old second lieutenant provides his friend in Shreveport with "a rough sketch of our last campaign."

Nearly 121 years later, Wallace's words remain as haunting as they must have been the day that Knoblauch first read them:

"The Indians surrounded us & poured in a deadly fire, but we had to lie still and take it. . . ."

"With less than 100 men, we were fighting the whole Sioux nation. . . ."

"During the day we moved our wounded to Gen'l Terry's Camp and got our remnant ready for moving. The next morning we moved to the scene of Gen'l Custer's fight, but the sight was too horrible to describe. We buried 204 bodies and encamped near Gen'l Terry. But the smell of dead horses forced him to move camp several miles."

Historian James Willert of Oceanside, author of "Little Big Horn Diary," which is considered the bible of the battle, said the Wallace correspondence is an impressive discovery.

Willert, who wrote the foreword to the book, said Wallace's July 4 letter, in particular, was quite a find.

"It provides additional insights and understanding of the battle as seen by one of the major officers with the command. The other letters in the collection are extremely valuable too because they touch on the human side of the campaign."

Willert, who has spent 40 years studying the Army's 1876 campaign against the Plains Indians, said letters written by soldiers at the Battle of the Little Big Horn turn up from time to time. Another recently discovered letter, written in the field by 7th Cavalry Capt. Myles Moylan on July 6, 1876, was published in the Little Big Horn Associates newsletter a year ago.

Because there were no white survivors under Custer's immediate command, the only eyewitness accounts of his part of the battle are from the point of view of the Indians who fought there. Historians say, though, that Indian accounts of the battle involving the other battalions a few miles away coincide with those provided by surviving soldiers.

"It's always nice to find material that's going to be appropriate to add to our knowledge of the campaign, especially the battle," Willert said.

Westfall first learned of the Wallace letters while preparing a lecture on California history--his specialty--for a 1994 fund-raising event at a small museum. The museum had three pieces of Wallace's correspondence pertaining to the Army's Plains Indians campaign.

"I knew immediately that they had great historic value simply because Wallace himself had been at the Little Big Horn," Westfall said.

When told that the owner of the letters, Joe Dew, possessed more of Wallace's correspondence, Westfall contacted the La Habra man.

Dew, 77, a retired Rockwell International aerospace engineer, said in an interview he was well aware of the historical value of the letters he and his brother, Clifton Dew of San Antonio, Texas, had inherited from their mother.

Dew said he had lent one letter and two postcards to the museum for an exhibit. Among the correspondence not included was Wallace's July 4 letter describing the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

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