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Nursey, Frederick W.

Place of Birth: Suffolk

Date of enlistment: 23 March 1871

Age given at enlistment: 22 3/12

Rank: Sergeant

Company: F

Location on 25 June 1876: With Custer's column

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A Currier's Son from Bungay

Famous for its impressive castle ruins, Bungay is one of the most interesting places in the scenic Waveney valley. This ancient market town lies 14 miles south-east of Norwich and some 15 miles due west of Lowestoft, on the Suffolk bank of the river.

The remains of 13th century Bungay Castle

The town’s wealth of specialist shops includes Nursey & Son, who have been manufacturing top quality leather clothing since 1846 and proudly claim to have pioneered the ever popular sheepskin coat.  This successful business has been carried on through seven generations and the family includes two Town Reeves (i) and a participant in “Custer’s Last Stand” among its ancestors.

Frederick Wilkinson Nursey was born in the parish of St Mary, Bungay, on 5 December 1848, the second son and third child of James Nursey, a master currier, and Sarah Ann Parker (ii).  The family lived in the large red-brick house in Upper Olland Street, next door to the workshop and sales office from which it still trades. Nothing is known of the young Nursey’s early life other than that he appears to have received a good education and, on Boxing Day 1866, was very likely to have been the ‘Private Nursey’ in the Bungay Rifle Corps who won a wheelbarrow as a prize in a battalion shooting competition! Other prizes included a gallon of gin, a case of stuffed birds, a live goose, a couple of rabbits and a grindstone, the last of which was donated by his father. Being the second son there was little prospect of Fred taking over the family business and it was not unusual for a younger sibling to seek their fortune overseas or in the armed forces. For whatever reason, he decided to leave his native Suffolk to cross the Atlantic to North America.

Enlists in the United States Army

Bungay was the headquarters depot of the 4th Suffolk Rifle Volunteers whose brass and fife and drum bands were reputed to be among the best in the county. The distinctive green tunics of the local militia and the stirring sounds of their music may well have been in the forefront of twenty-two year-old Nursey’s mind, on 23 March 1871, as he made his way to the recruiting office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There he was enlisted in the 7th United States Cavalry by Lieutenant James M. Bell and joined the regiment on 19 April at Taylor Barracks, Kentucky. Nursey gave his previous occupation as clerk and is described as being 5 feet 5 1/2 inches tall, having blue eyes, light hair and a fair complexion. The fact that he enlisted under his real name and gave the correct year and county of birth – something of a rarity among army recruits at that time – suggests it is unlikely that he was on the run from the law or escaping family censure at home. Assignment to Company F under the command of Civil War veteran, Captain George W. M. Yates, soon followed and on 27 May he finally met up with his new comrades at nearby Louisville. Company F was known as the “Band Box Troop,” for its smart appearance.

Clearly Nursey was a cut above the average trooper who put the skills he learned in the Suffolk militia to good effect, which is evidenced by the fact that he was promoted to the rank of corporal as early as July 1872 and to sergeant less than three months later (iii). The muster rolls also show him as the company’s clerk and Acting Quartermaster Sergeant on a number of occasions. He spent much of his early career in the South on Reconstruction duty at Meriden, Mississippi, and accompanied Company F in the field during the historic Yellowstone Campaign (1873) and the Black Hills Expedition (1874) (iv).

A sergeant of excellent character, Nursey was discharged on 23 March 1876 at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, having completed five years service. Army life evidently suited him because that same day he made the fateful decision to re-enlist and no doubt Yates was happy to retain the skills and support of such an experienced NCO.  On 17 May, along with the whole regiment led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, Nursey rode out of Fort Lincoln in great style astride a fine bay horse as part of the Dakota Column under the overall command of Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry. The confrontation with the hostile Sioux and Northern Cheyenne was now less than six short weeks away.

The Battle of the Little Big Horn (or Bighorn)

It was around noon on 25 June 1876, at the divide between the Rosebud and Little Bighorn rivers, that Custer halted the column and had his adjutant, Lieutenant William W Cooke, form the regiment into battalions – Companies A, G and M (under Major Marcus A. Reno); Companies C, I and L (under Captain Myles W. Keogh); Companies D, H and K (under Captain Frederick W. Benteen); Companies E and F (under Captain Yates) and Company B – to escort the pack train  (under Captain Thomas M. McDougall). Benteen set off almost at once with orders to scout the hills to the south and then report to the main column. Lieutenant Edward G Mathey, plus a sergeant and six troopers from each of the other eleven companies, was assigned to guard the slow-moving pack train and bring up the rear.

Soon after two o’clock Reno’s three companies crossed the Little Bighorn to attack the Indian village, having been assured by Custer that “they would be supported by the whole outfit.” From this point on what happened to Sergeant Nursey is purely a matter of conjecture but it seems likely that Companies E and F, which formed the left wing of Custer’s immediate command, descended Medicine Tail Coulee down to the ford (known as Ford B) where they exchanged light fire with some unmounted Indians across the river.  This manoeuvre was regarded as a feint, not an attack, but as Yates’s men sought the safety of higher ground along the west rim of Deep Coulee they came under attack from the Sioux and had to fight their way on foot to re-unite with Keogh’s right wing near Calhoun Hill (v).

Although each of the five companies in Custer’s battalion made its “last stand,” the last stand of history and legend occurred on the western slope of the northern end of Battle Ridge, now known as Custer Hill.  Here Companies E and F and survivors of the other three companies gathered around Custer’s headquarters banner.  The bodies of Captain Yates and 14 enlisted men from Company F were later found lying close to their leader, of which allegedly only one had been scalped (vi).

Whether in an attempt to escape or a deliberate counterattack, a large contingent of enlisted men, mostly from Company E, but with some from Companies C and F, broke in the direction of the river towards the head of a deep ravine. Recent archaeological evidence, supported by Indian oral accounts, strongly suggests that the last survivors of Custer’s column were killed in this ravine (known as Deep Ravine) and not on Custer Hill as had been thought previously. According to Private Dennis Lynch, Company F, who had escaped almost certain death by reason of being assigned “to take charge of Custer’s baggage” on the steamer Far West, he saw men of the 7th Infantry carrying bodies out of Deep Ravine.  Apparently they had “got 7 men on the bank” and he remarked “There are a whole lot in there yet.” (vii)  Lynch went on to say that these men in the Deep Ravine were carried between 600 and 700 yards up to the ridge and buried near where the body of Custer was found.  He positively identified Private Timothy Donnelly, from Darlington, Co. Durham, and Corporal John Briody (by his tattoos) from Nursey’s company but made no mention of recognising the body of the sergeant himself, who would have been well known to him. This part of the battle is said to have lasted no more than “it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner” by which time all 210 men in Custer’s immediate command, including Captain Yates and 36 enlisted men from Company F, were dead.  The exact spot where Frederick Nursey fell is unlikely ever to be known.

News of the ‘Massacre’ reaches Britain

News of Custer’s defeat was transmitted to Britain on 7 July by The Times correspondent in Philadelphia, via the Anglo-American submarine cable, and the gruesome details were published in national and a few regional papers the following day.  Although the names of individual enlisted men did not appear in the British Press Nursey’s parents may have feared the worst and assumed that their son had been killed. It is known whether the shock of Frederick’s horrific death contributed to his father’s demise or that he had already been diagnosed as suffering from a terminal illness, but before the end of the month James Nursey decided to make a new will.  Eleven days later he passed away and the family business was taken over by Frederick Nursey’s elder brother, Samuel, great-grandfather of the present proprietor. James Nursey left the whole of his estate to his wife, which on her death, was to be divided equally between his numerous children (all unidentified, with the exception of married daughter Catherine) (viii).

The first monument to the fallen, a temporary cordwood structure, was erected on Custer Hill in 1877. Bones had been gathered from the battlefield and buried at this site. The present monument was cut from three blocks of Vermont granite and shipped by rail to Bismarck (present-day North Dakota), the end of the railroad, and by steamboat to Fort Custer, Montana, then by sled and oxen to the site where it was erected in 1881.

Frederick Wilkinson Nursey is listed on the battle monument as FRED’K NURSEY; his name being located on the south face, seventh from the bottom on the lower left side.

Frederick Nursey’s Final Statement

Billy Markland has kindly provided me with a copy of Frederick Nursey’s Final Statement, which was completed by Captain James M. Bell, Commanding Company F, 7th U.S. Cavalry, at Fort Abercrombie, Dakota Territory, on 17 December 1876. It states that this trooper was born in Suffolk, England; was killed in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Montana Territory, 25 & 26 1876; that his body was recovered June 28. ’76 and buried one mile from [the] field of battle. It goes on to say that Nursey was last paid by Paymaster Major William Smith to include the thirtieth day of April, eighteen hundred and seventy-six, and has pay due from that date until 25 June 1876. In addition, has three dollars and 6 cents in retained pay;  twenty-one dollars and 87 cents was due for clothing not drawn in kind, less one dollar and 71 cents for tobacco. A further $36.51 was  due to Nursey’s estate, being the proceeds of the sale of his personal effects [annotated on the first page of the statement – dated 2 May 1877].

Notes & Sources:

  1. The Town Reeves of Bungay 1725-1986, John Harris, Roseland Publishing, 1986.  The important office of ‘Town Reeve’, originally a kind of magistrate, dates from Anglo-Saxon times and is believed to be unique to Bungay.
  2. Registration of Births, Wangford District, Suffolk, Oct-Dec 1848, Folio xiii, 487.  Nursey shared a birthday with the legendary George Armstrong Custer, although he was nine years his Commander’s junior.
  3. 7th Cavalry Muster Rolls.  Promoted to Corporal per Special Order 53, HQ 7th Cavalry, July 22, 1872 and promoted to Sergeant per Special Order 86, HQ 7th Cavalry, October 17, 1872.
  4. Private Theodore Ewert’s Diary of the Black Hills Expedition of 1874edited by John M Carroll and Dr Lawrence A Frost, CRI Books, 1976.
  5. Custer’s Last CampaignJohn S Gray, University of Nebraska Press, Bison Books, 1993, p368.
  6. Custer in ’76, Walter Camp’s Notes on the Custer Fight, Edited by Kenneth Hammer, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, p139. Ibid. p139.
  7. Ibid, p.139.
  8. Court of Probate, Ipswich Registry.  Will of James Nursey, dated 26 July 1876.

 

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