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Pitter, Felix J.

Place of Birth: Alesford

Date of enlistment: 4 September 1873

Age given at enlistment: 23 6/12

Rank: Private

Company: !

Location on 25 June 1876: With Custer's column

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Comments:

Pitter reduced his age at enlistment by over five years and was actually born in the village of Brown Candover, near Alresford, Hampshire, not ‘Alesford.

He Died With Keogh

Felix James Pitter was born in the village of Brown Candover, near New Alresford, Hampshire, on 30 January 1845, the third child and only son of James Pitter, a master blacksmith and iron founder employing six men, and Caroline (née Dorey), herself the daughter of a blacksmith. The birth almost certainly took place in the living quarters adjacent to the Smithy on the south-western edge of the village. Felix was baptised by the Reverend Stephen Terry at the parish church twelve days later.1

St. Peter's Church Brown Candover, Hampshire. Felix Pitter was baptised here. Author's collection.

At the age of five young Pitter attended the brand new National School in the village, which was built at the expense of William Baring, 2nd Baron Ashburton, in 1850. No-one could possibly have imagined that this young Hampshire lad’s fate would be inextricably linked with a fellow blacksmith’s son from Ohio, on the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River in distant Montana Territory, late in the afternoon of Sunday, 25 June 1876.

Parents buried in St. Peter's Churchyard

When Felix was about 12 years-old the family moved to New Alresford where his father carried on in business as a toolmaker, iron and brass founder, and blacksmith at the forge in Broad Street.3 Sadly ill health forced Pitter Snr. into early retirement and he returned to Brown Candover where he died of a ‘disease of the liver’ on 16 May 1862, aged 52.4 Did he drink himself into an early grave? A little over eight years later, on Midsummer’s Day 1870, Caroline Dorey Pitter succumbed to a “12-hour attack of apoplexy” at the home of her daughter, Mrs Elizabeth Page, in the nearby village of Bramdean.5 James and Caroline lie buried in Brown Candover, a few yards due west of the main entrance of St. Peter’s church, where a weathered, but clearly decipherable, headstone marks the spot.

Enlists in 7th U.S. Cavalry

With both parents dead and his only surviving sister, Elizabeth, married with a family of her own it seems there was little to keep Felix Pitter in this country and, at some unknown date prior to 2 April 1871,6 he followed the well-trodden path of many a young Englishman to seek his fortune in America. Records show that on 4 September 1873 he was enlisted as a private in the United States Army at St. Louis, Missouri, by Captain Charles Bendire, 1st Cavalry, when he was described as being age 23, 5′ 6 1/4″ tall, having hazel eyes, dark brown hair, a fair complexion, previously employed as a grocer. Why he should choose to reduce his true age by a full five years is yet another question that is likely to remain unanswered. He was assigned to the 7th Cavalry on 24 September and to Company I three weeks later, which was then garrisoned at Fort Totten, on Devil’s Lake, Dakota Territory, under the command of the charismatic Irishman Captain Myles W. Keogh. Fellow countryman, Edward Lloyd, from Gloucester, was also assigned to Company I and both new recruits arrived at Fort Totten on 22 October 1873.7

Companies D and I8 spent the summer of 1874 as part of the military escort, under the overall command of Major Marcus Reno, to guard the Northern Boundary Survey Commission, which was charged with completing the important task of marking the border between the United States and Canada.9 On 30 May they left for Porcupine Creek, Montana Territory and arrived one month later having covered a distance of around 430 miles. From there they continued to march a further 326 miles west until reaching their final destination, the Three Buttes, or Sweet Grass Hills – an area sacred to the Blackfeet Indians – on 31 July where they set up the cavalry base camp.10 By early August the survey party’s work was done and both companies set off on the 750-odd mile return journey to Fort Totten, via Forts Peck and Buford, which they reached on the 14 September. Pitter remained at Fort Totten until 17 April 1875 when Companies D and I were ordered to move to the regiment’s headquarters at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory.

Company I's barrack room, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, North Dakota (above). 'With Custer's Cavalry' by Katherine Gibson Fougera - from the memoirs of her late mother, Katherine Garrett Gibson, widow of Captain (First Lieutenant in June 1876) Francis Marion Gibson, 7th U.S, Cavalry, University of Nebraska Press, 1986 (left).

The Battle of the Little Big Horn

The next twelve months or so proved to be relatively uneventful for the 7th Cavalry but, as is well known to every student of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, events were about to unfold dramatically on 17 May 1876 when the regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, marched out of Fort Abraham Lincoln as part of Brigadier General Alfred Terry’s “Dakota Column” during the forthcoming Sioux campaign – around a third of this celebrated regiment had less than six weeks to live. As a member of Company I Pitter took part in the Reno Scout, which discovered the Indian trail leading towards the valley of the Little Bighorn and during the battle Companies C, I and L, under Captain Keogh, formed one of two battalions in Custer’s ill-fated column. History tells us that all five companies under Custer’s immediate command were quickly overwhelmed by a better armed and vastly superior number of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors and wiped out to a man. Pitter was most likely killed close to his company commander somewhere along Battle Ridge.11

As is the case with virtually all of the enlisted men Felix Pitter’s body was never formally identified and together with those of his comrades killed during the two-day battle his mortal remains were interred in the mass grave below the imposing monument on Custer Hill.12

He is listed as F. J. PITTER on the battle monument.

The Aftermath

  • The Final Statement of Felix James Pitter was signed by Captain Henry J. Nowlan, Commanding Company I, at Fort Abraham Lincoln on 5 December 1876.
  •  DUE SOLDIER
  •  For retained pay under act of May 15, 1872 … $9.70
  •  For clothing not drawn in kind … $34.15
  •  Proceeds of sale of effects [added April 26, 1877] … $30.00
  •  DUE UNITED STATES
  •  For tobacco … $1.71
  • [This statement does not take into account basic pay due for the period May 1 to June 25, 1876.]

Notes & Sources

  • 1. Transcript of Register of Baptisms, parish of Brown Candover, Hampshire Record Office, Winchester.  Brown Candover (Pop. 272 in 1851) lies in the picturesque Candover Valley, five miles north of the beautiful and historic Georgian town of New Alresford (pronounced Allsford), which itself is seven miles east-north-east of Winchester.
  • Note: Military Register of Custer’s Last Command, by Roger L Williams (Arthur H. Clark, 2009) and Participants in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, by Frederic C. Wagner III (McFarland, 2011) both incorrectly show Pitter as being born in Alesford in 1850. The ‘Muster Roll’ on the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield website [as at 20 May 2014] mistakenly states 10 February as being the date of birth, not baptism and Men With Custer: Biographies of the 7th Cavalry, edited by Ronald Nichols with Daniel Bird (CBHMA 2010), gives February 1845. 
  • 2. Harriett, dau. of James and Caroline Pitter, was buried at Brown Candover on 11 March 1836 – she was less than four weeks-old.
  • 3. The 47th United States Infantry Regiment had its headquarters in Broad Street, New Alresford, from 1943 to D-Day 1944.
  • 4. Register of Deaths, Alresford District, Sub-district Alresford, June Qtr 1862, Vol. 2c Page 78.
  • 5. Register of Deaths, Alresford District, Sub-district Ropley, No. 191, 1870.
  • 6. The Census of England was taken on the night of 2 April 1871; no-one fitting Felix Pitter’s description could be found in these records.
  • 7. 7th U.S. Cavalry Regimental Returns for September and October 1873.
  • 8. Keogh was on leave for seven months from 6 April 1874 and First Lieutenant James Porter took over command of Company I during his captain’s absence. Porter was reported missing, presumed killed, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn and was one of three officers whose body was never recovered or, at least, positively identified.
  • 9. In March, 1872, President Grant signed the bill authorising the remainder of the survey between the Lake-of the Woods, Minnesota, and the summit (Continental Divide) of the Rocky Mountains (49th parallel), thus completing the boundary survey between the United States and Canada.
  • 10. The Sweet Grass Hills lie close to the Canadian border about 35 miles northeast of Shelby, Montana.
  • 11. Three others from the post-1921 United Kingdom serving in Company I were also killed in the battle (25-26 June 1876), namely: Edward Lloyd (Gloucester), referred to above; Archibald McIlhargey (Antrim) who carried the first message from Reno to Custer, reporting that the Indians were in front of the command in strong force; John Parker (Birmingham).
  • Captain Myles Keogh (Carlow) was killed with his men on Battle Ridge but his remains were exhumed in July 1877 and reinterred in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, New   York.
  • 12. The revelation in the newspapers soon after the battle that half buried bodies were left strewn across the barren field inevitably caused a public outcry. High-ranking army officers demanded that Congress allocate funds for a cemetery to properly bury the fallen, which led to the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery being established on 1 August 1879 (renamed Custer National Cemetery in 1991). At the same time troopers from Fort Custer erected a log memorial on top of Last Stand Hill (aka Custer Hill) and marked the scattered shallow graves with substantial wooden stakes. In 1881, the remains of the enlisted men were re-interred in a common mass grave at the base of the white granite monument we see today.
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