John Wilkes Booth‘s last stand was by no means the only infamous last stand. It got me thinking about a wide range of other events from the last couple of hundred years that might fall within the same general guidelines. Last stands happened in many places in many times. I selected a few from the multitude of instances available and fixated on them. Custer’s Last Stand, well, that would practically be synonymous with the definition of a last stand. In fact that was the first thing that popped into my mind as I expanded past Booth. Undoubtedly that notion would be the same for much of the Twelve Mile Circle audience. I couldn’t simply skip it — that would be a glaring omission — so George Armstrong Custer needed a closer examination.
Custer Monument in New Rumley, Ohio by Jayson Shenk on Flickr (cc)
The spot where Custer died, the place of his last stand, was considerably better known than his birthplace. I figured I’d have a difficult time finding it because I didn’t think anyone would really care except for maybe me and a handful of other people fascinated by such things. I guessed wrong. People apparently did care. In fact I even found a Custer Memorial Association in New Rumley, Ohio, at Custer’s 1839 birthplace. They operated a small museum "open the last Sunday of each month from 1:00 to 4:00pm." They also maintained a roadside park open year round on the site of the original Custer homestead, of which little remained except for the foundation of the house where he was born (map).
However Custer spent much of his childhood in Monroe, Michigan, with the family of his half-sister.
Custer by Bill Harris on Flickr (cc)
The people of Monroe erected a monument to Custer after his death (map). He probably got a monument everywhere he ever set foot, or so it seemed, although some hadn’t fared well. Even the citizens of Monroe, a place where he spent much of his childhood, relocated the monument a bunch of times including sticking it out in the woods where vegetation overgrew it, before moving the statue to a more prominent part of town. Officially it was known as the George Armstrong Custer Equestrian Monument, alternately Sighting the Enemy.
Gettysburg NBP – August 2008 by Michael Noirot on Flickr (cc)
Famously, Custer finished last in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. However it was 1861, the Civil War was just underway, and the military needed officers in a hurry so they pressed him into service anyway. He performed remarkably well once in a combat role.
Throughout the war Custer continued to distinguishing himself as fearless, aggressive, and ostentatious. His personalized uniform style, complete with a red neckerchief could be somewhat alienating, but he was successful in gaining the respect of his men with his willingness to lead attacks from the front rather than the back.
Custer quickly moved up the ranks, becoming brigadier general then brevet major general of the U.S. Army and finally major general of the U.S. Volunteers in quick succession. He was only 23 years old when he first became a general, the youngest in the army. Custer also served the entire lengthy of the conflict, from Bull Run to Appomattox. At Gettysburg, he commanded the Michigan Cavalry Brigade that was instrumental in stopping a Confederate cavalry attack on the Union army’s right flank. He got a nice monument for that too. Actually, the entire Michigan Cavalry Brigade earned the monument although Custer’s image appeared in a circular bas-relief sculpture just about half way up (map).
I mentioned all of that service because people tended to overlook his distinguished career and skip right to the ending.
The Last Stand
Custer's Grave at Little Bighorn by Jim Bowen on Flickr (cc)
Twelve Mile Circle is not a history website so I’ll only discuss the Last Stand briefly. There were plenty of other places on the Intertubes, or even entire books, where one could get a better account. Custer died on the battlefield near Montana’s Little Bighorn River in 1876 (map). The United States Army had a rule-of-thumb, naming battles for the nearest body of water during that period (e.g., the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run and Battle of Antietam) so the engagement came to be known as the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The situation leading up to it brewed for a long time. The government had been forcing Plains Indians onto reservations for awhile by that point. Various elements of the Lakota and Cheyenne resisted fiercely, sparking a whole chain of events known as the Sioux Wars. The final outrage in the eyes of native inhabitants had been a sudden incursion of settlers into the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota. The Sioux considered this a sacred area that had been promised to them in a treaty. That quickly collapsed after word leaked out about gold found in the area. Many bands, fed up with broken promises, left the reservations in an effort to fight for their ancestral lands.
The government began a protracted, coordinated campaign to crush resistance. Custer hadn’t gone out there alone, he simple commanded one force amongst several crossing the plains from late 1875 and into the first half of 1876 trying to tame the rebellion. However Custer made a huge blunder. His aggressive personality that served him well during the Civil War compelled him to rush headlong into battle without understanding the true situation at Little Bighorn.
He thought he was attacking a small encampment. Instead he led 700 men from the 7th Cavalry Regiment headlong into a force three times its size. Sitting Bull’s forces quickly turned the tables and utterly destroyed Custer and his men in less than an hour. Casualties also included Custer’s two brother, Thomas and Boston. Later historical accounts by members of the tribes expressed complete bewilderment that Custer would attack them when they were so strong.
George Armstrong Custer lived only 36 years.
This is the story of John Kennedy. No, not that John Kennedy! I’m referring to John Wright Kennedy who I guarantee you know nothing about, nor should you. It’s about how a formative event in his life resulting in the naming of a town twenty years later. He was a farmer who underwent a harrowing ordeal, lived to tell about it, who went back to a quiet agrarian life and survived to a ripe old age.
Tangentially, I suppose it’s also about the huge paper trails we leave behind since every bit of information I discovered for this story I found online in less than an hour. If I could learn this much about someone who passed away nearly a century ago, imagine how much people will find out about you and I a hundred years from now in our digital wakes.
Mr. Kennedy was born in Stamford, New York (map), on April 18, 1838, a child of Scottish immigrants as the census records describe it. This put him at a prefect age to serve in the military when the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861. Stamford straddled the line between Delaware and Schoharie Counties, and he joined many of his neighbors when they enrolled in the Union Army in nearby Schenectady to form Co. F of the 134th New York Infantry on August 22, 1862. He mustered in as a Private and worked his way up to Sergeant, then was commissioned as a Lieutenant and eventually gained a promotion to Captain.
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The regiment was attached to XI Corps of Army of the Potomac, a corps best remembered for its role in the Battles of Chancellorsville in Virginia and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, in mid-1863, and in not an entirely flattering light. The Eleventh Corps was caught unprepared at Chancellorsville and was routed on the first day of Gettysburg, retreating through the streets of the town before reaching the high ground of Cemetery Hill. They redeemed themselves somewhat on the second day with a valiant defense of the hill, although XI Corps never truly recovered its reputation and was later dismantled and spread amongst other units. The 134th New York was in the thick of the battle at Gettysburg and lost 42 killed 141 wounded and 59 missing. This put 242 of the regiment’s 400 soldiers out of action in a single battle.
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The 134th New York monument at Gettysburg in the distance. See photo.
John Kennedy never make it to Cemetery Hill. He became one of the 59 missing on July 1, 1863. It turned out he was captured by the Confederate army on the first day at Gettysburg. He became a prisoner of war and was moved to Richmond, Virginia. The story didn’t end there, however. Kennedy escaped imprisonment and rejoined his unit in Savannah, Georgia in December 1864. He then served in the Union army for the remainder of the war, finally mustering out with his company on June 10, 1865.
He relocated to South Dakota sometime after the war, establishing a home and a farm in Potter County. Others moved to the area and it was time to form a town. They needed a name for their new settlement. As Genealogy Trails explains,
The group [of Civil War veterans] sought to name the new town Meade in honor of General Meade, renowned for his leadership in the Battle of Gettysburg. When the Post Office rejected that name because it was already too popular, Captain John W. Kennedy, a member of Gen. Howard’s 11th Corps during the Battle of Gettysburg, submitted the name Gettysburg instead. That was accepted.
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Gettysburg, South Dakota has more than 1,100 residents today and is the seat of government for Potter County. In 1991, the two Gettysburg towns became "sister cities." Kennedy passed away on February 13, 1918, in Gettysburg — the one in South Dakota — and was buried there. His tombstone noted that he fought at Gettysburg.
I can’t think of any other town named explicitly to commemorate a battle, by a veteran of the battle. I hope I can discover others.
The article is a bit self-indulgent today. I’ve been fascinated for quite a while with the National Scenic Byway that has been designated the "Journey Through Hallowed Ground.". Much of my life has centered on places along this 180-mile line, and I’ve driven portions of it literally hundreds of times. I’ve also visited many but not all of the sites that are considered integral to the Hallowed Ground, as might be expected both by my physical proximity and my dual interests in history and geography.
So what do I do when I don’t find the maps on the official website satisfactory for my purposes? I create my own. They’ve developed nice enough maps but the interactive ones cover only a single county each. I wanted everything on a single map. Fortunately the website provides a convenient list of waypoints to make this a fairly simple exercise (even if a few of them weren’t entirely correct).
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Perhaps a few people on the Intertubes will also find it useful. I’ve set the map option to "public" hoping others may benefit even if I developed it primarily for personal enjoyment.
The hallowed ground covers a remarkably compact territory considering its significance during the first century of United States history. Founding fathers and early presidents including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe called this home. Hugely important Civil War battles including Gettysburg, Antietam, and First and Second Manassas, plus dozens of smaller engagements ravaged the landscape. It’s hard to move even a few miles around here without running into something of profound historical significance.
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There are some lesser-known places I’ve wanted to visit. The Graffiti House tops that list. Both Union and Confederate armies stopped here frequently as they marched along the ancient Carolina Road between various campaigns. It also served as a Confederate field hospital during the nearby Battle of Brandy Station (the largest cavalry engagement in U.S. history). Soldiers from both armies left extensive doodles and writings on the wall, which were covered-up with wallpaper after the war and forgotten about until the 1990’s. The home only recently passed into the hands of a foundation that will protect it. They’ve also made it available for limited public viewing.
There seems to be quite a divergence in the historical significance of sites included on the list. Obviously, few are going to argue that Gettysburg and Monticello aren’t historic. Some of the places, however, appear to have been added to fill out the map or drive tourism to some of the more obscure corners. The Point of Rocks bridge? Really?
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I guess I’ll always think of this bridge as an easy way across the border into nearby Maryland when I was newly of drinking age, and wanted cheap booze. That liquor store even had a drive-through window! It was quite a striking contrast to the state-run Virginia liquor stores that had all the ambiance of the old Soviet Union.
Some grounds, even among the hallowed grounds, are more hallowed than others.