Sharrow, William H.
Place of Birth: At sea
Date of enlistment: 10 September 1874
Age given at enlistment: 29
Rank: Sergeant Major
Location on 25 June 1876: With Custer's column
Place of Birth: At sea
Date of enlistment: 10 September 1874
Age given at enlistment: 29
Rank: Sergeant Major
Location on 25 June 1876: With Custer's column
It is an interesting fact that all five non-commissioned officers on the Headquarters Staff and Band of the 7th United States Cavalry Regiment at the time of the Battle of the Little Big Horn were immigrants from Europe.1 The most senior in rank was William H. Sharrow, the subject of this paper, who was born in Sheriff Hutton, an ancient village with strong royal connections situated some 12 or so miles northeast of the city of York, England.
Early Years in Sheriff Hutton
Sharrow was the only child of William Sharrow, a bread baker and confectioner, from Slingsby, near Malton, and his second wife, Elizabeth Hunter, an innkeeper’s daughter, from South Cave, near Beverley.2 He was born on Sunday, 2 March 18453 and baptised “William Hunter” in the 12th century church of St. Helen and the Holy Cross on the twenty-ninth day of the same month. Neither civil nor parish registers give a specific place of birth beyond it was in Sheriff Hutton, where he attended school and, in common with countless generations of spirited boys, he almost certainly would have sought adventure in the jagged and brooding ruins of the castle, which in the 15th and 16th centuries was a favorite residence of two of the most charismatic monarchs in English history: Richard III and Henry VIII.
Family moves to London
In the 1 December 1860 edition of The York Herald,* under the heading ‘TO BAKERS,’ William Sharrow invited applications to rent his Sheriff Hutton house and bakehouse – with a good business – which included a stable, a small paddock and an orchard; the successful tenant to take possession before the end of the year. Sometime shortly after, the village baker and his family exchanged life in near-idyllic rural Yorkshire for the hustle and bustle of Islington, an inner suburb of London, which lies just two miles north from the centre of the capital. In early April 1861 they they are found residing at 1b Pulteney Terrace when William Sharrow Sr. was employed as a ‘grocer and cheesemonger’ and William Jr. a ‘bounty clerk’ with the Admiralty in the London Docks.4 The precise duties of a bounty clerk are somewhat obscure but it would seem that from a relative early age the future cavalryman’s talents lay with the pen rather than the sword.
*Note: Also in this edition, the All The Year Round magazine, price 2d, owned by Charles Dickens, advertised that his new work Great Expectations would be serialised with effect from 1 December 1860 and continued from week to week until August 1861. No doubt both William Sharrows would have had ‘great expectations’ of their own!
Enlists in 2nd Cavalry
Young Sharrow temporarily disappears from the historical record until he presents himself at a recruiting office in New York City on 21 March 1865, where he was enlisted in the United States Army by Captain Tattnall Paulding, 6th Cavalry,5 and assigned to Company C, 2nd Cavalry. The 20 year-old actually increased his age by one year – presumably to meet the minimum requirements to join the army without parental consent – and was described as having blue eyes, light brown hair, a fair complexion, standing 5 feet 7 inches tall, previously employed as a clerk who was born in York, England.6 A Local Bounty of $600 was paid, which is a considerable sum for ‘a raw recruit’ particularly when we bear in mind he did not actually join his company at Winchester, Virginia, until April 24: more than two weeks after Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House and the war was all but over.
Virtually the whole of Sharrow’s time in the 2nd Cavalry was spent on detached duty or detached service as a clerk; initially with the regimental Quarter Master Department from May 1865 to February 1866. It was during this period he was transferred to Company E. Six months of detached duty followed at Fort Riley, Kansas where, on 1 April 1866, he was promoted to corporal. The remainder of this enlistment was covered by a stint of detached service at the Headquarters of the Department of the Platte in Omaha, Nebraska, from where he was discharged on 21 March 1868 as a “Corporal of Excellent Character.”7
A fugitive from justice
It is fairly safe to assume that Sharrow remained in Omaha and found civilian employment in the office of Major Robert D. Clarke,8 Paymaster there, who 16 months later would be the author of a most extraordinary dispatch. Dated 11 August 1869, and written to Brevet Major General Benjamin W. Brice, Paymaster General in Washington, D.C., it cast a shadow over the Yorkshireman’s previously unblemished reputation. Clarke wrote:
Enlists in 7th Cavalry
The major’s letter does not state the actual date of Sharrow’s departure or the mode of transport he chose to make his getaway, e.g. stage line, Missouri River steamboat or the newly-opened Kansas City, St. Joseph & Council Bluffs RR. By whatever route he traveled the former clerk managed to complete the 175-mile journey to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas within a few days as it was there, on 12 August 1869, that he was enlisted as a private in the 7th Cavalry by 2nd Lt. William W. Wood, 21st Infantry.10
Born “At Sea”
Bearing in mind the adverse content of Major Clarke’s letter, it comes as something of a surprise to find that Sharrow made no attempt to conceal his true identity other than to say he was born “At Sea.”11 But what prompted him to make such a bizarre claim? One possible justification could be attributed to the widely-held view that relations between Great Britain and the United States had been at a low point since Grant assumed the presidency in March 1869, owing to Britain’s perceived sympathies with the Confederate States during the Civil War. Sharrow was perhaps mindful of the Oath of Enlistment and Allegiance he was about to solemnly swear – that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whomsoever – and wanted to conceal his English heritage: presumably having lost a distinctive Yorkshire or even a London accent. Pure speculation maybe, but is there a more rational explanation?
From September 1869 to March 1870 Sharrow was engaged in a general recruiting role at Fort Leavenworth before being transferred to the 7th Cavalry at the same post. Although he was assigned to Company B on 10 March 1870 five days later finds him on detached service as a clerk in the regimental headquarters, which moved to Taylor Barracks, Louisville, Kentucky in March 1871.
Sharrow remained on detached service in HQ at Taylor Barracks until 17 April 1872, when, within less than three years of joining this much-celebrated regiment, and at barely 27 years of age, he had the rare distinction of being promoted directly from private to sergeant major [illustration]: replacing Joseph B. Ferguson, who had been discharged two months before on expiration of five years service. Clearly Sharrow’s administrative and organisational skills had not gone unnoticed by Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis, the Seventh’s commanding officer.
On 2 April 1873 the regimental Headquarters departed from Louisville on board the steamer Richmond for Cairo, Illinois, from where they travelled on the Illinois Central RR to Sioux City, Iowa. They continued their journey to St. Paul, Minnesota, on the Sioux City and St. Paul RR. and arrived there on 11 April.
A dubious past catches up with him
Sharrow enjoyed a good position in St. Paul as the only others in HQ there were Sturgis, Lt. William W. Cooke and fellow countryman Lt. Henry J. Nowlan. Shortly after arriving at St. Paul, however, Sharrow would undoubtedly have been dismayed to receive correspondence from an Edward Benjamin,the victim of his fraudulent act at Omaha almost four years before. Benjamin, an African-American, who had been a body servant to General Nathaniel Banks during the Red River Campaign of 1864, sent two letters to Sharrow, dated 8 and 19 May 1873 respectively, “requesting him to make some arrangements to pay this old indebtedness,” both of which were to go unanswered. In desperation, Benjamin sought redress by writing to Brigadier General Edward D. Townsend, Adjutant General U.S. Army.
Benjamin’s letter14 was received at the Adjutant General’s Office on 19 June 1873 which deemed it had “no jurisdiction in the premises and that he [Benjamin] must look to the civil Courts for relief.” A reply to this effect was sent to Benjamin eight days later. History does not record either the reason for the loan or the outcome of this unsatisfactory state of affairs but it is sincerely hoped that Sharrow did honor his debt and the former body servant was eventually repaid in full, plus interest!
Sharrow did not take part in the Yellowstone Campaign (1873), the Black Hills Expedition (1874) nor was he on duty with the Northern Boundary Commission Survey escort during either of those years. Throughout this time he remained in St. Paul until his discharge in that city on August 12, 1874. After taking four weeks leave of absence to attend to personal business he was re-enlisted in the same city on 10 September 1874, by Lt. Cooke, and retained the rank of sergeant major.15 For a second time he stated he was born “At Sea” but on this occasion gave his correct age. He had also grown an inch in height since his first enlistment. His re-assignment to the Non-Commissioned Staff was personally signed by none other than Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer himself, the regiment’s de facto commanding officer in the absence of Colonel Sturgis who was shortly to take over as Superintendent of the General Mounted Recruiting Service at St. Louis, Missouri.
Regimental Headquarters moves to Fort Abraham Lincoln
In compliance with Special Order No. 213, dated 29 September 1874, and issued from the Headquarters of the Department of Dakota at St. Paul, the HQ of the 7th Cavalry was to be relocated at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. Nine days later Sharrow, along with other members of the Headquarters Staff, duly arrived at the fort where they joined the six companies of the regiment that had been garrisoned there since the previous fall. The next eighteen months appears to have passed without any major incident but all that was to about change on the bluffs above the Little Big Horn River in Montana Territory.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn
It is well known that around noon on 25 June 1876, at the divide between the Little Big Horn River and Rosebud Creek, that Custer organised the 7th Cavalry into four battalions (as well as the pack train and its escort), one of which, comprising Companies D, H and K, was under the command of Frederick W. Benteen, the regiment’s senior captain. Benteen was ordered to move to the left to a line of bluffs about two miles away, with additional instructions to “pitch into anything he came across, and notify Custer at once.” Almost immediately he received two further orders from Custer, the first, delivered by Chief Trumpeter Henry Voss, and the second by Sharrow. According to Benteen the order received via Sergeant Major Sharrow, which came 15 to 20 minutes after that of the chief trumpeter, continued in the same vein and said, “If nothing could be seen from the second line of bluffs, then, to go on until he came to a valley, to ‘pitch in,’ and to notify Custer at once.” Sharrow then returned to re-join the main column.
After leaving the divide 2nd Lt. Luther R. Hare, who was with the detachment of Indian Scouts under the command of Lt. Charles A. Varnum, pulled out and rode ahead of the column. He was following orders from Custer to keep a look out and report back should he discover any hostile Indians. However Hare and his scouts were in danger of being caught up by the main column and, at least temporarily, increased their gait but before reaching the Lone Tepee were overtaken by Sharrow who was “in a great rush” to contact Hare as Custer had not heard anything from the young subaltern. This meeting with Hare took place around 1.45 PM and is the last account of Sharrow being seen alive. As every student of the battle knows, neither Custer nor a single one the 209 men under his immediate command survived to tell the tale.
Second Lieutenant Charles A. Woodruff, 7th Infantry, claimed that Sharrow’s remains were found, lying near an unidentified soldier, farthest north on the battlefield, although the exact spot continues to be a matter of debate. Two markers are situated just north of Last Stand Hill (aka Custer Hill) adjacent to the walking trail for the Indian Memorial, one of which may be for Sharrow. However, others say that his arrow-riddled body was discovered well over a mile away, beyond the Custer Battlefield Trading Post but north of the river,16 which begs the question: “Was Sharrow carrying a message from Custer to General Terry?”
The news of Custer’s catastrophic defeat was announced in the British press on the morning of 7 July, when The Times carried the story that shocked the whole nation. Although the report included the number killed and wounded their individual names were not published in England. Yet, judging by a short paragraph in both the Northern Echo and York Herald, Friday, 4 August 1876, Sharrow’s claim to have been born at sea had evidently not deceived everyone. It reads:
On 8 October 1876 Wallace compiled an inventory of the effects found in Sharrow’s quarters, which is worth listing the articles in full.18
The photograph of Sharrow portrays an intelligent-looking, dapper man who took pride in his appearance, a notion supported by an extensive wardrobe and a small, but impressive, collection of books. Lt. Charles C. De Rudio was appointed recorder of the board of survey which was charged to make an inventory of the property of the men killed. It is assumed that Sharrow’s personal belongings remained unclaimed and were sold along with the effects of other soldiers, which apparently raised in the region of $5,500. However, unlike in the majority of other cases, no figure is annotated on the first page of his Final Statement regarding the value, if any, of any items sold.
The Cavalry Monument
The revelation in the newspapers 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 cordwood memorial on top of Last Stand Hill and marked the scattered shallow graves with substantial wooden stakes. In 1881, the remains of the enlisted men were re-interred in a mass grave near the base of the impressive, white granite monument we see today.
The name W. H. SHARROW is inscribed on the west face, in the left-hand column, facing the Little Bighorn River, appropriately the first of the enlisted men immediately below that of “Bvt. Maj. Gen’l G.A. Custer” and other officers of the regiment.
Back in Sheriff Hutton
Sharrow’s parents returned to Sheriff Hutton sometime between 1863 and 1871, the latter being the year in which the Census recorded the couple living at a house in Finkle Street in the village.20 His father, now styled a yeoman, died on 16 September 1875, age 75, in the nearby hamlet of Lilling, leaving his widow as sole executrix to administer his will: his effects being assessed as worth “Under £100. No Leaseholds.” He was buried in the same grave as his first wife, Ann Spofforth, in the grounds of St. Helen’s, the parish church.
Elizabeth Hunter Sharrow died, age 76, in Sheriff Hutton on 30 December 1883, having outlived her son by more than seven years. Her mortal remains were buried with those of her late husband and his first wife where a much-weathered headstone marks the spot.21
In his keynote presentation on ‘The Importance of Local Distinctiveness,’ at the Castleford Conference 2005, while referring to Sheriff Hutton, conservationist Keith Emerick told the assembled throng: “When an ‘expert’ arrives, local people first show them all their Listed, Scheduled and categorized structures [the church, the castle and an 18th coaching century inn]. When asked what makes the village special to them, however, they show the headstone of William Sharrow, whose son was staff (sic) sergeant to General Custer, and fought and died at the Battle of Little Big Horn. This story and its international connections are as important as the physical object in this case.”22 A fitting tribute to a brave and adventurous Yorkshireman who paid the ultimate price in arguably the most iconic event in the annals of America’s westward expansion.
Based on a paper written by Peter Russell and presented by Ronald H. Nichols at The Brian Pohanka 27th Annual Symposium of the Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association., Inc. held at Hardin Montana on 21 June 2013. Reproduced here with kind permission of Jon Custer, President.
Although William Sharrow gave his place of birth on both post-Civil War enlistments as “at sea” one trooper, namely Martin McCue, was actually born on board an emigrant ship from Europe to the United States.
McCue was enlisted into the United States Army on 28 October 1872 at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by Captain Samuel Whitside, transferred to the 7th Cavalry on 22 November and joined Company K at Yorkville, South Carolina, on 9 December. Described as having grey eyes, brown hair, a ruddy complexion and standing 5′ 6 1/2″ tall, previously employed as a ‘card stripper in a woolen mill’ [Military Register, p. 199. Williams], he was with his company on the Yellowstone Campaign (1873), the Black Hills Expedition (1874), the Battle of the Little Big Horn – hilltop fight (1876) and the Nez Perce Campaign (1877).
He served no less than four other enlistments in the United States Army – 1st Cavalry (two), 2nd Cavalry and 10th Infantry. Was discharged on 7 July 1893 at Fort Marcy, New Mexico Territory, on a surgeon’s certificate following “the loss of one eye from an incised wound by broken glass during a row in a cafe at Santa Fe, New Mexico, not in the line of duty.” [Military Register, p. 200]
McCue was admitted to the Soldiers’ Home, Washington, D.C., on 19 August 1893 where he lived until his death (cause – cerebral haemorrhage, broncho-pneumonia and arteriosclerosis) age 72, on 6 December 1923. Buried on 10 December in the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, Section 1, Grave 8631. [Men With Custer, 2010, p. 255. Nichols]. He never married.