Private John Martin


The date and year of John Martin’s birth is in dispute. In a 1906 newspaper account of his life, John Martin was said to be born in Sala Conizalina, Italy, in 1847. Apricale, Liguria, and Romagna have also laid claim to that honor. I have read dates ranging from 1841 to 1853 as his year of birth. Just like my grandparents and father, who were Serbian, his name was anglicized upon arriving in the United States of America. Giovanni Martini thus became the John Martin we know.

Best known in the United States of America as the last white man to see General George Armstrong Custer alive, John Martin fought in several wars and on different continents. Martin first saw action as a drummer boy in Italy’s 1866 war against Austria. In 1873 Martin departed Italy for the United States and settled in Brooklyn, New York. Arriving during a post US Civil War depression certainly didn’t help newly arriving immigrants with poor English skills acquire a job. The US Army welcomed men like John Martin into it’s service. In 1874 John enlisted as a trumpeter and was assigned to H Company of the US 7th Cavalry.

On June 25, 1876 John Martin became forever known as a key player in the most famous battle of all Indian Wars, The Battle of The Little Big Horn. Before launching his multi-pronged attack, General George Custer sent John Martin off to locate Captain Frederick Benteen to tell him to come quickly for support and bring up the spare ammunition. Lieutenant William W. Cooke, General Custer’s adjutant, was apprehensive about Martin’s poor English and quickly scribbled a note containing General Custer’s orders for Captain Benteen. The note read:



Come on. Big Village.

Be quick. Bring packs.

W. W. Cooke

P.S. Bring Packs.


Prior to John Martin‘s departure General Custer instructed him "Trumpeter, go back on our trail and see if you can discover Benteen and give him this message. If you see no danger come back to us, but if you find Indians in your way stay with Benteen and return with him and when you get back to us report.". Thus were the last words any US Army survivor of the battle heard General Custer utter.

Indian Warriors fired at Private Martin as he made his way back to Major Marcus Reno and Captain Benteen. Private Martin escaped injury but his horse was not as lucky, being struck by gunfire. After receiving Lieutenant Cooke’s written orders Captain Benteen inquired about General Custer’s location and if General Custer was being engaged by the Indians. Private Martin informed Captain Benteen that General Custer was about three miles away and was fighting with the Indians. It’s usually reported that Private Martin stated, in a heavy Italian accent, that the Indians were ‘skedaddling’. In 1908, while being interviewed by Walter Camp, Martin denied using the work "skedaddling". Major Reno and Captain Benteen did not come on quickly nor did they bring the packs. John Martin’s alleged use of the word ‘skedaddle’ is often used to defend their inaction, the line of reasoning being that the Indians were fleeing rather than fighting. One thing is for sure, the Cavalry creed of "ride to gunfire" was ignored.

John Martin’s battlefield experiences extended beyond the US Army’s defeat at the Little Big Horn. In 1877 John participated in the Nez Perce campaign and fought in the Spanish-American War. Martin was promoted to Sergeant in 1900 and retired in 1904 completing nearly 30 years of service. In addition to his battlefield experiences, Martin testified at the January 1879 US Army court of inquiry into Major Marcus Reno’s performance at The Little Big Horn.

After retiring from the US Army, Martin worked as a ticket-taker at the 103rd Street Station for the New York City subway system. John Martin was very proud of his status as retired US Army Soldier and particularly of his role at the Battle of Little Bighorn. To supplement his income he appeared in New York City stage productions, most often playing bugle calls between acts or telling war stories. This led to his becoming a minor star in New York and he was able to acquire a better job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Unfortunately John was severely injured in an accident involving a beer truck in December 1922. On Christmas Eve 1922 John passed away at his home in Brooklyn as a result of the injuries. Retired Sergeant John Martin was buried in a nearby military cemetery, Cypress Hills National Cemetery. 1n 1999 his service was recognized and honored by being included in the Arlington National Cemetery's "Taps Project", a permanent exhibit paying tribute to nine famous buglers in the US Army’s history. Even with his inclusion into the Arlington National Cemetery project, John Martin’s fame will be forever most remembered as the last white man to see General George Armstrong Custer alive.


Sergeant John Martin

Sgt John Martin's grave at Cypress Hills National Cemetery.

The message Private Martin carried to Captain Benteen.





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