Custer came to Louisiana before Little Big Horn

By Andrew Jenkins
Special to The Journal

The story of George Armstrong Custer and the destruction of his command at Little Big Horn known to most since as the "Custer Massacre" has been immortalized in movies, books, and movies, albeit often with sensational inaccuracy. But only the most ardent Custer historians know of the significance of Custer and his famed 7th Cavalry in Louisiana history.

After a distinguished miliary career during the Civil War in which Custer experienced a meteoric rise through the ranks to become the Union's youngest general, he was sent to Alexandria in 1865 by General Phillip Sheridan to take command of a cavalry division. Custer, accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth, marched the troops from Louisiana to Hempstead, Texas, anticipating possible military action against Mexico. Elizabeth later wrote of her hardships in her books, "Tenting on the Plains," published in 1887, recalling the exhilaration she experienced when the partly finally departed the pine thickets of Louisiana for the open terrain of Texas.

In the 1870s, the 7th Cavalry Regiment was moved into seven Southern states, supporting United States Marshals in the difficult days of Reconstruction as Southern Democrats and Radical Republicans struggled for political control of the government. Much of North Louisiana saw more violence and bloodshed in the ten years after the Civil War than during the conflict itself. Lynchings of freed blacks and white criminals, the assassination of Republican officeholders, and a host of brutal crimes filled newspapers. Most Louisianians saw the troopers as an occupying force.

While the 7th Cavalry patrolled the South, Custer languished on the Great Plains. With his sympathies allied with the Democratic party, his superiors kept him out of the struggle to wrest political control of the southern states and institute Reconstruction .

Lieutenant Benjamin Hubert Hodgson commanded a company of 7th Cavalry troopers working with U.S. Marshals in North Louisiana. In October 1874, Hodgson and his cavalrymen accompanied Deputy U.S. Marshal Edgar Seleye as he arrested suspected members of the notorious White League for various offenses against black citizens and Republican officeholders. After Seleye arrested James . Huey, a well known Vienna citizen and former Jackson Parish sheriff, 11th District Judge James Trimble issued a writ of habeas corpus for the marshal and troopers to deliver the prisoners to his court and explain their detention. Hodgson spurned Trimble and continued toward Monroe to make more arrests. Along the way, Hodgson and the deputy marshal decided it prudent to cut the telegraph wires so the enraged citizens of Vienna did not alert Monroe of their approach.

The failure to heed the judge's orders and the damage to the telegraph wires led the Lincoln Parish sheriff to arrest Hodgson and Seleye and return them to Vienna where they were jailed. Telegrams to their superiors brought a flurry of action. The wrong move could cause all-out war.; More cavalry and infantry from Shreveport and New Orleans were ordered to Vienna in the belief the federal men might be in danger while lawyers were dispatched to represent them before the Vienna court. Just as important as protecting the men was he need to avoid treading on the local judicial authority and risk an uprising among the citizens.

After some delicate negotiations, fines were paid for contempt of court and damage to property and the lieutenant and marshal were released. Trimble, later an editor of the Farmerville Gazette was deemed a hero for standing up to the federal government. Huey would serve later as one of Ruston's first police chiefs.

Eventually the Republican administration withdrew troops from Louisiana and the attempt at Reconstruction ended. The 7th Cavalry moved to the Dakotas to deal with the Sioux Indians.

The common notion that George Custer and his entire regiment died out at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 is inaccurate. Custer had divided his forces to attack a large Indian village on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Lt. Hodgson was part of the group that broke off and rode down steep bluffs and over the river to charge the village. Custer took another force further down the bluffs to engage the Indians from the opposite direction . Both groups of soldiers were quickly swarmed and retreated to the high bluffs. Lt. Hodgson was cut down by gunfire as he recrossed the river but others managed to escape to the high ground, hold off the Indians, and survive. Custer and the men with him in the separate force, were killed. As a private in Company H under the command of Captain Frederick Benteen, John H. Day was part of the unit that separated from Custer. Day was among those who wee forced to retreat up the bluffs under the Indian counterattack. Day survived the Little Big Horn and later returned to Louisiana.

Day married Eliza Eubank Parks in Monroe in 1887. Perhaps he had met her when his regiment was stationed in north Louisiana. Or perhaps he liked the country and moved back to Louisiana after his discharge. Although he survived the most well known battle between the U.S. Army and Native Americans, Day could not avoid a violent death. After a series of arson fires destroyed a number of Monroe residences, Day was identified as a suspect. The Lake Providence Banner-Democrat of June 23, 1894, tells the story:

Judge Lynch at Monroe
A white man by the name of J.H. Day was speedily hanged in Monroe on Wednesday of last week. It appears that several fire had occurred in Monroe lately, which were without a doubt the work of an incendiary. On Wednesday of last week two fires took placer in Monroe the same evening, and both were supposed to be the work of the same incendiary; a blood hound was put on a trail and followed it to the house of one J.H. Day, who immediately was arrested ad put in the calaboose. Later on in the night, unknown parties as usual, got the keys of the jail from the policeman who had charge of it, and Day was hanged to a tree not far from the house that he was supposed to have fired.

On analyzing the evidence given against Day, as printed in the Monroe papers, we find that it was all circumstantial, and we hesitate not to stamp as murderers the unknown parties who took it upon themselves to "dispose of Day." Why! Because the dog followed a trail to Day's house, because cobwebs and whitewash we found on Day's clothes supposed to haver gotten there by crawling under the houses to fire them, and because especially on his back gallery "were found pieces of plank which had been split for kindling used in firing the houses." Day was taken out of jail, and made acquainted with Ouachita Parish summary proceedings of justice."

The motive for the arsons is never mentioned in the various newspaper accounts. There is no indication of any dispute or grudge against the victims. Perhaps Day --if he was perpetrator--was acting out post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a malady first identified in combat veterans after the Vietnam War. Perhaps the horrors of the Little Big Horn still haunted him eighteen years later. Or Day might have been a classic pyromaniac.

Eliza Day was buried in the Old City Cemetery in Monroe in 1901, possible beside the unmarked grave of her husband. Recently, a headstone was placed nearby for John Day, a soldier who survived Louisiana's bloody Reconstruction era and the signature conflict between two opposing cultures but could not avoid Louisiana vigilante justice.