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York native fought at Little Bighorn with Custer’s 7th Cavalry

F. Otto Becker’s colorful 1896 lithograph of “Custer’s Last Stand” was widely distributed at the turn of the century at saloons and bars across America by the Anheuser-Busch Company as a promotional giveaway. Copies may still be found occasionally in flea markets and on eBay.

The June 25-26, 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn evokes images of painted Indians on horseback circling around a beleaguered knot of doomed U.S. cavalrymen, with their heroic commander George Armstrong Custer standing heroically in the center near the guidon as he determines to take one more savage down with him. At times, people will remark about the 7th Cavalry being massacred.

What many casual observers do not know is that only a small part of the 7th Cavalry died with Custer on what some term Greasy Grass Ridge – less than a third of the troopers involved in the battle perished with Custer (the number varies between 208-212 in different accounts). Custer had direct control over five companies of troopers who did indeed die to a man in his ill-fated fight, but the most of the rest of the regiment survived the encounter with Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, Rain-in-the-Face, and an all-star array of Sioux, Cheyenne, and other assorted Native American leaders.

Among the survivors of Little Bighorn was Private Henry Haack, a native of York County, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of four years in the 7th Cavalry at the time of the Custer fight.

Monument to George Armstrong Custer near Hunterstown, PA. Photo taken by SLM in August 2010. Custer’s first fight as a brigadier general in the Civil War was in southwestern York County PA at the June 30, 1863, Battle of Hanover.

Little did young Henry Haack know on that humid Tuesday afternoon while Custer battled Confederates in Hanover, he would serve under “The Boy General” in another June battle thirteen years later in Montana. At the time of Custer’s martial visit to Hanover, Henry Haack was 25 years old. His extended family served in the Union Army in the 87th Pennsylvania (one of the Haacks would be killed as a lieutenant).

Born in York in 1838, Henry was a shoemaker by trade. While in Nashville, Tennessee, he enlisted on October 4, 1872, in the 7th U.S. Cavalry in the Regular Army. He had black eyes, black hair, dark complexion and was 5’7 1/2″ tall.

The average trooper in the 7th was about 5″ 7″ tall and in their twenties. Many were born in Germany; some were former Confederate soldiers. Haack was older than most of his comrades. In fact, he was a year older than his leader, Lt. Colonel Custer.

Another iconic image of Custer that I enjoyed in my youth. I had a toy Sharps carbine and often played Custer’s Last Stand with my buddies. I also had a set of 7th Cavalry toy soldiers that I enjoyed. Several soldiers in Custer’s regiment hailed from southern Ohio, including from my birthplace of Zanesville. I read every book I could find on the Little Bighorn and enjoyed the old TV show Custer of the West with Wayne Maunders as “Yellow Hair.”

Custer divided his regiment into four units before attacking the largest concentration of hostile Indians that many of his officers and scouts had ever seen. One company stayed with the pack train, while three columns converged in a pincer movement on the Indian encampment. A column under Major Marcus Reno crossed the river and attacked the southern part of the camp, but was repulsed. The firing must have been clearly heard by Henry Haack, who rode with Company H in the battalion commanded by yet another former Civil War Union officer, Captain Frederick W. Benteen.

Benteen’s column rode to assist the retreating Reno. They jointly formed a defensive perimeter on a hilltop where they battled Indians for two days before a relief column under Colonel John Gibbon, a former Union general with a statue at Gettysburg National Military Park, arrived.

They discovered Custer and his slain troopers stripped and shining white in the Montana sun. Most were horribly mutilated. The survivors of the 7th, assisted by Gibbon’s solemn infantry and cavalrymen, buried Custer’s dead in shallow graves. Almost immediately, controversy swirled as to who to blame – Custer, Reno, or Benteen. Haack left no written records that have been found, but it is likely he supported his company commander, Benteen.

As he surveyed the grotesque scene, Henry Haack himself only had a little more five years to live.

According to author Ronald H. Nichols (Men With Custer: Biographies of the 7th Cavalry), Captain Benteen recommended Haack on April 6, 1877, for a medal for distinguished gallantry in the Little Big Horn River fight. He apparently never got the medal, but he did receive a promotion and pay raise to corporal.

Haack was honorably discharged on June 24, 1877, at camp on Sunday Creek, Montana Territory, per SO 70, Dept. of Dakota, St. Paul, 1877, as a corporal “of excellent character.”

Apparently Henry missed the army life (or steady paycheck). He re-enlisted on December 17, 1878, and was assigned to Company K.

Henry Haack died on July 27, 1881, in the Asylum for the Insane, Washington, D.C. The stated cause of death was acute mania with exhaustion and cerebral congestion. His widow Mary later married a man named John Burri and resided in Sturgis, Dakota Territory.