05

Brown, Alexander

Place of Birth: Aberdeen

Date of enlistment: 13 December 1871

Age given at enlistment: 26

Rank: Sergeant

Company: G

Location on 25 June 1876: Pack train escort & hilltop fight

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  •           Alexander Brown of the Seventh United States Cavalry
  •        by John D. Mackintosh

The tombstone in the Old Fort Meade Cemetery is very precise in what it tells us about this trooper from Northeast Scotland: “To the Memory of Alexander Brown Late Serg’t Troop H. 7th Cav.  Born at Aberdeen, Scotland Feb 19th 1844  Died at Fort Meade,  D T  April 7th 1884.”  In actuality, Brown was most likely born around 1840 and the particulars cited here represent the best efforts of his comrades as they tried to recall these details when marking his grave.

When he initially joined the U.S. Army in 1866, Brown stated that he was 21 years-old, which would indicate a birth in 1845 rather than 1844. Peter Russell managed to contact an American member of the same Brown family who shared with him a family tree that gave 19 November 1828 as the birth date as well as disclosed that his parents were John Brown, born 1802 , and the former Margaret McKenzie, born 1804.

Rather than first encountering the young Alexander Brown in the 1831 Census of Scotland as one would expect if the 1828 birth year was accurate, he first emerges on the 1841 census as a one year-old.  In this same census, his shoemaker father and his mother live with young Alexander on Aberdeen’s Blackfriars Street along with four brothers and two sisters.  Alexander’s name appears last, which strongly implies that he was indeed the youngest family member.  By the time of the 1851 Census, they have relocated to nearby Union Terrace and “scholar” Alexander is now age ten.

Family tradition holds that the Browns moved to the town of Inverurie, about 15 miles inland from Aberdeen, and then emigrated to America in 1856, settling in De Pere, Wisconsin as affirmed by the 1860 U.S. Federal Census.  In that year, father John was working as a tanner with the 18 year-old Alexander still living with his parents.  Perhaps the laxity in records keeping where Alexander’s age was concerned typify an era in which exactitude on such matters was of less consequence than today’s world where it is crucial in determining eligibility for retirement pensions.

Alexander next emerges on public records on 13 December 1866 when he joined the U.S. Army, at a stated age of 21, being five feet, eight inches tall with hazel eyes, having a dark complexion and black hair with “shoemaker” as his occupation.  His induction took place in Chicago with the paperwork signed by Major Arthur MacArthur Jr., the American-born son of Scottish emigrants best remembered today as the father of World War II General Douglas MacArthur.  Brown was sent east to Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Barracks for basic cavalry training, and then transferred to Kansas where he joined the newly formed 7th Cavalry and its Company G at Fort Harker in early 1867.  Later that same year, he was promoted to corporal.

His service in the late 1860s was characterised by mostly fruitless and lengthy treks across the Central Plains in search of Indian foes, starting with the 1867 Hancock Expedition. The dawn hours of 27 November 1868 were full of activity as he underwent his baptism of fire at the Battle of the Washita as his company took part in the regiment’s surprise attack against Chief Black Kettle’s sleeping village of Cheyenne who were blamed for various depredations against White settlers.  This engagement in what is now present-day Oklahoma helped restore some of Custer’s faded Civil War fame as well as establish the reputation of the 7th Cavalry as a victorious fighting force. Just prior to the end of that historic year, Brown was promoted to the rank of sergeant.

The following three years were devoid of military action for Brown.  Perhaps the hard life in the field began to exacerbate the negative aspects of army life.  He emerged as a disciplinary problem, as recalled nearly thirty years later by Captain Frederick Benteen when he summed up Brown as a “good clerk…an excellent man but for the whisky [sic] habit”.  His transgression landed him in “that hell-hole of a ‘guard-house’–at or below Fort Hays, Kansas in ’69” which was an underground log-covered dugout devised by Custer.[1] Despite these problems, he retained his rank of sergeant, which spoke well of his overall contribution to Company G.  He reenlisted in 1871 for another five-year term of duty.

With the exception of two rounds of service in the Reconstruction South from 1871 to 1873 (South Carolina) and 1874 to 1876 (Louisiana), Brown would spend the remainder of his army career in the West.  In the summer of 1873, he took part in the Yellowstone Expedition in which ten of the twelve companies of the Seventh Cavalry helped protect railroad surveyors.  Due to a bout with typhoid fever, he wasn’t with Company G on the 11 August as they battled the Lakota Indians along the banks of the Yellowstone River.  After wintering at Fort Lincoln, the warmer summer months beckoned him and his regiment out of the fort as Custer began exploring the Black Hills. Their presence touched off a gold rush which in turn greatly increased tensions among the Whites and the Lakota.  In contrast to the preceding year, there weren’t any battles and Brown was in good health.

In the spring of 1876 Brown and other members of Company G arrived back in Fort Lincoln from Louisiana Reconstruction duty and marched out on 17 May.  His company left behind Sgt. Frank Lloyd to serve as acting post sergeant major and also lacked First Sergeant Edward Garlick who was on leave in England.  On the historic day of Sunday, 25 June 1876, despite this shortage of non-commissioned officers, Brown was assigned to pack train guard duty along with four enlisted men of his company.  The very nature of such service meant that he was far removed from both Reno’s initial action in the Little Big Horn valley and from the final hours of Custer’s command.  The pack train arrived at Reno Hill when the troops were returning from Weir Point and were a welcome sight as they represented additional firepower and fresh munitions.

Company G’s First Sergeant Edward Botzer had been killed near the Little Big Horn River retreat crossing and his death meant that Brown now assumed that role as his depleted company struggled to reconstitute itself.  Were there memorable words and deeds from Brown as he took part in the hilltop fight?   Unfortunately, time has deprived us of whatever he or his fellow soldiers might have committed to paper in answer to these questions. The fact that he remained first sergeant at least in the immediate aftermath of the battle is indicative of solid service at a critical time.

That Brown did write down appeared in a surviving company roster that originally belonged to the slain scout Charley Reynolds, with Brown’s entries beginning on 1 July.  The words for 25 July are devoid of any reflection on the battle of a month before but they typify his writings:  “Pvt. Lawler from duty to Det Service.  Broke and left Camp at 6 am and crossed Powder River to the East Side and Marched 12 miles and encamped on Creek at 3:30 PM Wood water and grass plenty – Blacksmith Taylors horse and horse equipments abandoned.”

Brown’s final entry helped record the regiment’s slow progress back to Fort Lincoln: “Scouted across the Country to Wolf Point on Missouri River Arrived there on the 13th distance about 95 miles.”[1]  Less than two weeks later, the battered 7th Cavalry struggled into Fort Lincoln on 26 September.  Both Brown’s enlistment as well as the year ended at roughly the same time but he did not hesitate to rejoin the army prior to then taking three months furlough. The time was mostly spent in St Paul, Minnesota but he may have also visited his family in nearby Wisconsin.

With the arrival of warmer weather, Colonel Samuel Sturgis and most of the Seventh Cavalry were moved to eastern Montana with the intent of interdicting any remaining bands of Sioux and Cheyenne.  Brown was back in the good graces of his superiors as he served as the Benteen battalion’s acting sergeant major.  By chance, Sturgis’ command, now reduced in size to six companies, was perfectly positioned to attempt to intercept Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce as they passed through the Canyon Creek area near modern-day Billings.  The resulting battle on 13 September 1877 failed to stop them and the Nez Perce continued northward but Brown was commended by Benteen along with eleven other members of Company G for “conspicuous gallantry displayed in the two separate charges made by them mounted on a concealed enemy, routing them in both instances from their well selected position”.[1]

After the Nez Perce campaign, he returned to Fort Lincoln for two years, followed by a June 1879 transfer to Fort Meade, the recently constructed 7th Cavalry headquarters post on the edge of the Black Hills.  Two years later, he and Company G were moved far south to Kansas as the sole company of the 7th Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth.  In late 1881, he again reenlisted as a sergeant, with his character described as excellent.  That positive word was soon forgotten as he faced a general court-martial for charges not specified in the Regimental Returns of April 1882, resulting in a reduction in pay of $10.00 for four months.  By autumn, he was back to full sergeant’s pay but then came an abrupt demotion to private on 1 October 1882.

In July 1883, Brown’s sixteen-year link with Company G ended when he was reassigned to Company H back at Fort Meade.  During the post-Civil War military, it was extremely rare for a non-commissioned officer or enlisted man to move from one company to another.  One can’t help but feel that the move was probably due to strained relations between Brown and one or more men in the command, possibly resulting in physical altercations that could no longer be tolerated.  Given his fondness for over-imbibing, the case is strengthened.  From late August to the later part of September, he was in the Post Hospital suffering from intermittent fever.  During that time though, there was some good news as he was promoted to corporal on 5 September and then restored to the rank of sergeant the following month.  Perhaps the colder weather of October helped bring on a long onslaught of bronchitis that sent him back to the hospital where he remained until December. undergoing treatment.

In Brown’s native country, Hogmanay rings out the old year and welcomes in the new with joy and optimism at its arrival.  Unfortunately, 1884 held quite the opposite for Brown as 14 February saw the end of his seventeen year army career upon his receiving a surgeon’s certificate of disability that cited “locomotor atoxia; partial paralysis of the lower extremities” as the cause of discharge.[1]  He retired at the rank of sergeant with his character still affirmed as excellent. Behind the words locomotor atoxia laid a malignant form of tertiary syphilis which plagued the sufferer with the inability to control bodily movements and, in Brown’s case, was accompanied by some paralysis in the lower part of his body.

Brown hoped to head back east and apply for admission to the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D.C. where he could then spend the remainder of his days. Unfortunately, the soldier who had stubbornly recovered from demotions was unable to do the same against the clutches of the disease that held him in its grip.  He passed away at Fort Meade on Monday, 7 April 1884 with his burial in the Post Cemetery two days later duly marked by “full military honors” as old comrades said good bye to this Aberdeen-born veteran of the Little Big Horn battle. [1]

  • Sturgis Weekly Record,  April 11, 1884

Alex Brown, sergeant H troop 7th cav., was buried at Meade Wednesday with full military honors. He had been twenty years in the army and was discharged about three weeks ago on the surgeon’s certificate of disability. He was soon to start for the Soldier’s Home at Washington, and apply for admission, but the “white hand” beckoned him home.

Sergeant Alexander Brown - date unknown. (Author's collection)

Alexander Brown's headstone, Fort Meade Post Cemetery, near Sturgis, South Dakota (Courtesy of Peter Russell)

Bear Butte from Fort Meade National Cemetery, SD. (Courtesy Peter Russell)

  • Peter Russell’s Genealogical Notes.

As so often happens in biographical research one can all too easily be led down a false trail: in this case two!  The first, is the family tree provided in good faith by the late John Pederson, Glendora, California and, the second, is the date on the headstone in Fort Meade National Cemetery, near Sturgis, South Dakota.

Pederson’s family tree shows an Alexander Brown [the putative Seventh Cavalryman], the second child of John Brown and Margaret McKenzie Brown, as being born on 19 November 1828, but that is at odds with the Census of Scotland (1841) which lists John Brown, a Shoemaker, age 39; his wife, Margaret, age 38; and children: Christian [aka Christina but omitted from the family tree!], age 12; William, age 10; Margaret, age 8; Charles, age 6; James, age 4; and Alexander [the actual Seventh Cavalryman], age 1 – living in Blackfriars Street, Aberdeen.  As a genealogist of over 40 years experience I am well aware of the potential unreliability of taking a census return in isolation but it is extremely rare for parents to list their children in other than the ‘correct chronological order’ of their birth.  Otherwise, what would be the point?

The Census of Scotland (1851) finds the family living ‘just around the corner’ in Union Terrace [as stated by Mackintosh] and reads as follows: John Brown, a Shoemaker, age 48, Margaret, his wife, age 47; and children: John, an Upholsterer, age 23 (?); Christina, age 22; William, an Advocate’s Clerk, age 20; Charles, an Apprentice Clerk, age 16; and Alexander, a Scholar, age 10.   

Apparently most of the family left Scotland for America in 1856, which seems to be borne out by the U.S. Federal Census of 1860 for the Town of Rockland, Brown County, Wisconsin, which reads: John Brown, a Tanner, age 50, his wife, Margaret, age 50; and children: William, age 28, Margaret, age 25; James, age 23; Alexander, age 18; Margaret, age 3.  For reasons unknown their ages, including Alexander’s, were reduced: the parents substantially.

We now come to Alexander Brown’s enlistment in the U.S. Army in Chicago on 13 December 1866, when he said he was age 21 even though I submit he was at least age 25 or even older.  Again, it was not uncommon for a first-time recruit to reduce his age, e.g. Gibbs (see below), Pitter and Pym, to fit in with his peers who, on average, would have been several years younger.  He was described as having hazel eyes,  black hair,  a dark complexion,  and standing 5′ 8 1/2″ tall.

So, this brings us to the headstone in Fort Meade National Cemetery that gives 19 February 1844 as Alexander Brown’s date of birth which, based on the above evidence, is clearly very unlikely. However, Brown is in good company as an incorrect date (or year) of birth has been inscribed on the headstones of Causby (real name Woolfitt); Garlick: Pym; Sterland; and Thompson; to name just a few.

Finally, as stated on my website, the date of Alexander Brown’s birth must remain uncertain, and I contend it was neither 1828 as intimated by the late John Pederson’s family tree nor 19 February 1844 – as given as fact in Military Register (Williams) and Participants (Wagner), though, wisely, with a ‘question mark’ in Men With Custer, 2010 edition (Nichols): the most likely year being 1840. 

Alexander Brown probably made his journey to visit his father in De Pere, Wisconsin, in early 1877, that is, not on his way to Fort Abraham Lincoln the previous spring.

Margaret Brown, Alexander’s sister, born 19 January 1830 married William Playfair, a farmer, also from Scotland, and lived in Franklin, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.  John Brown was living with them at the time of the 1880 Federal Census. William Playfair died, age 78, on 13 January 1898 and Margaret Brown Playfair, died, age 81, on 21 January 1911. Both are buried in Cato, Manitowoc County. They had a daughter, Emma, born ca. 1869, who married a Thomas O’Hearn, had several children, and lived in Franklin. John Brown died, age 82, in 1884 and Margaret McKenzie Brown, died, age 68, in 1872 – both are buried in De Pere, Brown County, Wisconsin.

  • Custer Association of Great Britain Book Review
  • CUSTER’S SOUTHERN OFFICER: Captain George D. Wallace, 7th U.S. Cavalry,
  • By John D. Mackintosh. Published by Cloud Creek Press, Lexington, South Carolina. 2002. 188pp.  Maps. Illus. Soft cover.  Price: $15.  

 

The name George D. Wallace is not one of those most familiar to students of the Custer fight. Generally, he did little that was controversial, was considered to be genial and sedate, and led an unexceptional, though creditable career. Unlike Custer, Reno, Benteen and French he was not court-martialled. He seems to have had no known vices, such as drunkenness, as did Weir. His death at Wounded Knee in December 1890, the only commissioned fatality in that now notorious engagement, brought to an end the career of an engaging, competent, conscientious, likeable officer.

Like many of the subalterns in the 7th Cavalry he was a West Point graduate. He served with the Seventh on the Yellowstone campaign in 1873; accompanied the regiment on the Black Hills Expedition in 1874; served in the Little Big Horn and Nez Perce campaigns; then led a generally uneventful career in the more peaceful days of the 1880s, until his unexpected death at a time when the only wars the United States Army was planning for involved those against a possible European adversary.

Although Wallace married and left behind a year old son, the author was unable to trace any descendants. He left few letters and apparently kept no diaries, though, like several contemporaries, he did evidently write anonymous articles for the press. Mackintosh has, therefore, had to rely essentially on much in the way of indirect evidence with regard to Wallace’s personal life; he has consulted his Appointment, Commission and personal Branch File (frequently a mine of information) and the records of several events that directly, or indirectly, impinged upon Wallace’s career. The work is as comprehensive as the material available would allow and there is no doubt that Mackintosh, a member of several specialist bodies immersed in the events in Montana of June 1876, has produced a worthwhile account of the life and career of this officer.

But why Wallace?  Well, the answer would seem to be that at a certain crucial time in the early afternoon of a June Sabbath, Wallace, as acting topographical officer attached to headquarters, happened to be riding near HIM. It may be that Wallace may have heard conversations, instructions and remarks that HE may have had. Even worse, it seems that when, two and a half years later, Wallace was called upon to testify under oath what he had heard and did that Sunday afternoon, he seems to have completely forgotten what HE had said to his subordinates, (which may, or may not, have included a comprehensive battle plan possibly promulgated, directly or indirectly to the second-in-command) and, worse still like every officer in the 7th Regiment of Cavalry committed perjury to protect the honour and reputation of (either): Major Marcus Reno; or: the 7th Regiment of Cavalry; or the United States Army!

Without dwelling too much on this particular area, it should be said that Mackintosh deals with this subject both competently and dispassionately. Wallace was an uncomfortable witness at Chicago, especially during direct examination by Recorder Lee. He clearly carefully made truthful comments, which excluded much that was relevant to the student of the battle, but probably less that was germane to the issues before the Court of Inquiry. (It might be useful to remember that the 1879 hearing was not convened for the benefit of historians.) Mackintosh is to be congratulated on tracking down the hidden story that Wallace told with tears in his eyes, which is referred to in “Varnum, Reno and the Little Big Horn.” Wallace evidently alluded to Custer’s plan of attack, involving a co-operating attack involving his own five companies and Reno’s three, to be delivered simultaneously when Custer had reached the lower end of the village. This review is not the forum to consider or weigh up the likelihood that Custer had developed such a plan before Reno was committed. But given that Custer’s order to Reno was predicated on the assumption that the Indians were “on the jump” and fleeing the village with great speed, such a plan seems unlikely. However, it is possible that Custer may have formulated a series of military options for Reno if the fluid situation developed in a manner different from that which he had originally anticipated; it may be the explanation for Reno’s decision to halt the battalion attack and go firm on the skirmish line in the face of a stationary village, the troops to remain in position until Custer’s diversionary attack was made further north.

If that is the case, why was this not disclosed at Chicago? Mackintosh does not tell us this. There are several possible reasons that, incidentally, fall a long way short of the conspiracy theories that abound this campaign.  There is a simple truth about this battle and the officers’ testimony. In many cases they realised that in protecting Reno’s reputation, they were protecting their own, and that of their colleagues.

Wallace, when detached by Custer to join Reno, did not attach himself to his own company (G) but accompanied Lieutenants Varnum and Hare with the Arikara scouts. It is a strange phenomenon but true, nevertheless, that whilst Reno’s battalion comprised nine officers and an uncertain number of enlisted men and scouts, only four officers were serving with their companies, with three more shepherding 20 Arikara scouts who, having failed to stampede the Sioux pony herd, left the valley fight, creating three surplus officers! It was not until the battalion had withdrawn to the timber that Wallace decided to attach himself to his own company.  It had entered the fight with roughly 45 officers and men; when it left the valley up to 13 of its members were dead and four wounded. Yet, when Wallace set out to join Weir and the other companies on Weir Point an hour and a half later, he could only muster seven men. By the time he returned to Reno Hill an hour and a half after that he had “no troop, only three men.” Half of his company had decided to avoid further combat that afternoon.  Mackintosh follows Kuhlman on this and concludes that the absentees were “skulking among the packs.” This would seem to suggest that Wallace had, unlike Godfrey, failed to maintain company discipline and morale – a difficult assignment for an officer with less than four years’ experience. Yet Benteen considered, years later, that Wallace should have been brevetted before any other of the three officers he originally concluded informally were worthy of such commendation. One surmises that this was a reflection on his personal conduct on the 26th.rather than the disastrous sequence of events the day before.

John Mackintosh has produced an interesting book; it is unlikely that he has put at rest the arguments and controversies surrounding the events immediately prior to the battle on 25th June, but it is possible that some readers may now conclude that there was no great conspiracy in Chicago, only a series of evasions and half-truths.

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