A Voice from the Grave
by RANDY JOHNSON
with additional material by Richard Black & Peter Russell
with additional material by Richard Black & Peter Russell
In October of 2009 the author was contacted by an old friend, Ed Bier, who works as a volunteer retiree support officer out at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, which is located about 28 miles north of the City of Chicago and is bordered on its east by Lake Michigan. Although officially de-commissioned, this 124 year-old military post still has several active units stationed there and its cemetery is maintained by the Army. Joe Rafferty, superintendent of the fort’s cemetery, had called Ed Bier to inform him that he had received a letter from a Tony Black of Dublin, Ireland. In his letter Black was seeking information on his relative, John Hackett, who is buried at Fort Sheridan, along with three other former members of the 7th Cavalry, and had participated in Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s last campaign.
I was given Tony Black’s address because of my known research on all four of these 7th Cavalry veterans of June 1876. Ten years earlier I, along with my Veterans of Foreign Wars post 2202, was instrumental in the re-burial of Private Michael Keegan who served in Company L. Though Wexford-born Keegan had marched out of Fort Abraham Lincoln on 17 May 1876 with the rest of the regiment he remained at the Powder River Depot and therefore did not take part in the battle. He died in Chicago on 10 July 1900 and his mortal remains had lain for over 99 years in an unmarked grave. After much research, preparation, and a court order we were given permission to remove his remains from the Paupers’ section of Calvary Cemetery, Evanston, Illinois, to the military cemetery at Fort Sheridan, which took place on 11 November 1999. After the exchange of numerous emails and letters between me, Tony Black, his cousin Richard “Richie” Black of New York and Barbara Hackett of Chicago, the story of John Hackett’s life gradually unfolded to reveal so many twists and turns that it just had to be told.
John Joseph Hackett, to give him his full name, was baptised on 9 April 1851 at St.Michan’s Catholic Church, Dublin, Ireland, but his actual date of birth continues to remain elusive. His parents were John Hackett and Elizabeth Pluck Hackett. John Joseph was one of eleven children born into this large family. The Hacketts farmed a few acres on the outskirts of Dublin and sold their produce to both local traders and direct to the public. When John was ten years-old the American Civil War broke out and the Irish newspapers were filled with reports of its numerous bloody battles; many of which involved the now legendary Irish Brigade.
Late in the war, John’s older brother, Laurence, took up the cause; crossing the Atlantic where, at the age of 22, he enlisted in the 12th U.S. Infantry. While serving with that regiment he was wounded in the left leg above the knee in December of 1865, while on patrol in Richmond, Virginia. Early in 1866, after several months of convalescence in a military hospital, Laurence was discharged on the grounds of disability. Perhaps disillusioned by his military experiences and seeing America in a different light to what he had expected, he returned to Ireland two years later.
No doubt John, and another brother, Hugh, eagerly listened to Laurence Hackett’s Civil War stories and his many experiences in America. At least two Irishmen with the name of John Hackett disembarked in New York during the years 1869 and 1870 and either one of them may have been the subject of this paper, although further information is required before a positive identification can be made.
Family oral history tells the story of John and Hugh, heading west to try their luck in Chicago where they arrived shortly before the great fire of October 1871, which destroyed a large portion of the city. Hugh was fortunate to find a job in the coal business but John, like so many unemployed young men at the time took one of few jobs available and joined the army.
It was on 14 November 1872 that John Hackett walked into a Chicago recruiting office and was enlisted in the U.S. Army by Capt. Samuel Young for a five-year term in the much celebrated 7th Cavalry. He gave his age as being 21 years 6 months, previously employed as a hostler, and was described as having grey eyes, brown hair, a fair complexion, standing 5 feet 4 1/4 inches tall. Hackett was assigned to Company G and joined his new comrades at Laurensville [present-day Laurens], South Carolina, where they were engaged in Reconstruction duty. In 1873 Hackett got his first taste of the Wild West when Company G was one of the ten companies in the regiment that participated in the Yellowstone Campaign. The following year the same companies took part in the Black Hills Expedition, which proved to be little more than “an extended picnic.” Company G was under the command of Lt. Donald Mclntosh as during the expedition 2nd Lt. George D. Wallace was on detached duty commanding a detachment of Indian scouts.
The winter and spring of 1875/1876 found companies B and G back on Reconstruction duty: this time in Shreveport, Louisiana. On 15 April orders came from the Division HQ in Chicago that both two companies would join up with the rest of the regiment at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. They left by train on Wednesday, 19 April and arrived at Fort Lincoln twelve days later. The summer campaign against the hostile Indian tribes was about to begin.
Either shortly before, or after, the 7th Cavalry departed Fort Lincoln on 17 May, John Hackett was assigned to be Lt. Wallace’s orderly. On this campaign Wallace was the acting engineer officer and kept an itinerary of the trip.
After six weeks in the field they closed on the enemy: a large village of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne camped along the banks of the Little Big Horn River in Montana Territory. Lt. Charles Varnum, along with 2nd Lt. Luther Hare, was in charge of the detachment of Indian scouts and was riding close to Major Marcus Reno. Very soon after the major received his orders to attack the village with his three companies, an incident occurred that saved John Hackett’s life. Varnum had been Wallace’s room-mate at West Point and were closest of friends. Just as Major Reno and his battalion were separating from Custer’s command, Varnum shouted back to his former classmate “Come on Nick, don’t stay back with the Coffee Coolers.” Custer smiled and told Wallace, who was riding near him, that he could go with them if he wanted. No doubt Hackett was riding close to his lieutenant at the time this happened. At the Reno Court of Inquiry held three years later, Major Reno stated, “Lt Wallace rode up to him laughing and said he was going with them as a volunteer aide as he took his place on my left.” If it hadn’t been for Varnum’s flippant comment, Wallace and Hackett’s names would be listed among the dead on the monument on top of Last Stand Hill. Wallace would later testify that his Company G, along with A and M, attacked the Indian Village at about 2:30 on the afternoon of 25 June.
John Hackett made it through the skirmish in the valley and retreated to the bluffs unscathed, but was wounded twice during the hilltop fight: his most serious injury was a bullet wound to the left arm. He was very lucky as Company G took the highest number of casualties of the three, having 14 of its members killed and six wounded.
Nine days after the battle Wallace took the time to write his friend, Dr. Charles Knoblauch, an Army contract surgeon back at Camp Shreveport, and gives a first-hand account of what happened immediately after their separation from Custer.
“We moved forward at a gallop. After moving about one and one half miles, we crossed the Little Big Horn, then went up a broad valley for about three miles, our right resting on the river. The fight had now commenced between the Sioux and our scouts. The former suddenly became thicker than mosquitoes. Gen. Custer was behind, at least we left him there, but not sending us any assistance we were now in rather a hot place. The Indians were all around and bullets whizzing uncomfortably close. We got behind some trees, dismounted, and threw out skirmishers. We now discovered that just beyond the woods was a village of over a thousand lodges, and that with less than 100 men we were fighting the whole Sioux nation. Orders were given to mount and charge, and now was the terrible slaughter. If a man’s horse fell he was gone up. The Sioux crowded down behind and following poured a terrible fire in our rear. We finally reached the river. The Indians stopped at the bank and shot men and horses as they rode up the other bank. Gaining the top of the bluff we rallied. I could find but five men of G Troop. Mclntosh was missing, so was Hodgson. He had been Reno’s Adjt. Upon inquiry, I learned Mclntosh had been seen to fall on the plain and that Hodgson had been shot in the river. Capt. Benteen with H. D. &. K. Troops soon came up, and soon after, Capt. McDougall with B Troop guarding the pack train. We waited for some time to hear from Custer, Instead of coming to our support, he had taken C. E. F. I &. L Troops and gone ahead. After waiting for some time, Captain Weir was sent to communicate with him. But from the highest bluff, nothing could be seen of him and as the Indians were trying to cut him off, he rejoined us. We now selected a good position and prepared to let them come, and to wait for orders from Custer. The Indians surrounded us and poured in a deadly fire, but we had to lie still and take it. Night came on, We dug rifle pits. We could not move our wounded and had to stay. By daylight the next morning they commenced and for five hours a man hardly dared to show his head. Bullets were thicker than hail. About 12M. they let up and commenced going to their village but kept sharpshooters at work, and late in the afternoon the whole village amounting to 1900 lodges and over 3000 warriors moved off. We knew how weak we were and dared not follow. The day had been fearfully hot and suffering for water had been fearful. At 12 o’clock some volunteers had fought their way to the river and got water for the wounded but our horses had not had any for nearly 48 hours. We now changed our position so as to get water and we again prepared to see them in the morning, but they disappointed us. The sun rose bright and clear over the scene of our struggles, but still we could not leave our wounded and the number had greatly increased. We could not explain Custer’s absence. About 8 A.M. a column of dust was seen rising down the valley and a column of mounted men. Scouts were sent out and found it was Gen. Terry with 4 Troops 2nd Cavalry and 6 companies 7:h Infantry. I was sent by Major Reno to meet them and escort them to our position, and it was only then that we learned that Gen .Custer and five Troops C. E. F. &. L had been massacred. Not one man left to tell the story.”
Letters from the Field. Wallace at the Little Big Horn. Douglas P. Westfall. The Paragon Press. 1997, 2000 and 2003, pp. 41-49.
A few days after the battle Hackett boarded the riverboat Far West with the rest of his injured comrades for the long journey back to Fort Lincoln where, after a couple of months in the post hospital, he made a full recovery from his wounds. As soon as he was fit enough he continued his duties as Lt. Wallace’s orderly: performing various odd jobs for him. On 17 September 1876, Wallace wrote to his friend Dr. Knoblauch describing his duties as the newly-appointed adjutant of the Seventh Cavalry: “I have more work now than two men usually do but manage to wade through. Have just got a room, but have no time to fix it, I leave everything to Hackett, no time for sawing.” With the exception of a five-year enlistment in another regiment, this close relationship seems to have continued until a few months before Wallace’s death at Wounded Knee Creek in December 1890.
In September 1877 Wallace and Hackett fought side by side again: this time against Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce at Canyon Creek, Montana Territory. Having satisfactorily completed five action-packed years Hackett was discharged at Fort Lincoln – a private of excellent character. He was re-enlisted one month later at the same fort by Lt Ernest Garlington and assigned to his old company: although as we learn from the following four-page letter [copied as written] to his brother, Laurence, back in Dublin, this had not been his original intention!
Fort A Lincoln D.T. Jan 3th 1879
Dear brother i write you those few lines hoping that you are in good health as it leaves me at present thank God for it i hope that you spend a merry Xmas and a happy new year as for myself i can not Complain out in this wild western country away from everything and everyone i wrote to Mike a few weeks ago he was telling me about uncle James being dead the poor old man may God have mercy on his soul i suppose you will be surprised when you get this from me if it Reaches you all Right i am now going on my 7th year in the 7 Cavarly (sic) or what used to be known as the Custer horse i got wounded twice in the battle of the little big horn but they were not severe they were only flesh wounds i have got a medal and a certificate of merit for them i tell you Dear brother I have seen pretty rough times since i was in Dublin but thank God i got out of all scrapes very lucky i was laid up in the hospital for about 3 (?)* months and it was then that i thought of someone that would hand me a drink of water without growling at it but them times is past thank God and if i live to serve this term out i will be better off than where i was for i have learned a good deal in the last five or six years i have not heard from Hugh for over a year i do not know what is the trouble with him i was to go to Chicago when my time was up the last time but i did not get there as i got into a shooting scrape about 10 miles from the fort and i had to skip back there again that is the reason i had to take on again** Well Dear brother i have not more to say give my love to your wife and that bouncing boy of yours with kindest Regards to any enquiring friends i remain your Affectionate Brother John J. Hackett Troop G 7th U.S. Cavarly (sic) Fort A Lincoln D.T.
[written at the top of the last page] “Good bye and God Bless you all dont forget write soon J.J.H.”
Editor’s Notes: (*) Very difficult to read, looks more like a ‘6’ or an ‘8’. The monthly returns for the 7th Cavalry record that John Hackett was back ‘In the Field’ with his company from 21 October 1876, which suggests it should be a ‘3’. (**) Re-enlists.
It seems strange that Hackett waited well over two years to write his brother about the Battle of the Little Big Horn. His letter may have been triggered by Lt. Wallace’s recent departure to Chicago to testify at Major Reno’s Court of Inquiry, which was held there in January and February of that year. John’s brother, Hugh, was still living in Chicago and likely followed the daily proceedings of the court in the local newspapers. Knowing his brother had participated and survived this iconic battle must have filled Hugh with a great feeling of pride.
John Hackett remained in Company G until the end of his second enlistment and discharged at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on 12 December 1882, although on this occasion his character was described only as ‘fair.’ For reasons unknown he chose to transfer to the artillery to begin his third enlistment in the military on New Year’s Day 1883 at Fort Omaha, Nebraska. He served in Battery D, 5th Artillery, until he was discharged at Fort Douglas, Utah, on 31 December 1887 – a private of excellent character.
John Hackett re-enlisted in the 7th Cavalry on 17 January 1888 at Fort Meade, Dakota Territory, and was of assigned to Company L, which was commanded George Wallace, who had been promoted to captain two years before. Hackett was in confinement in October that year and sentenced by a general court martial on 21 November to forfeit $10 pay for two months: details of the offence, which would have comparatively minor, are not known. From 4 August to 24 November 1890 he was on detached service at the Army and Navy Hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with “mercurial rheumatism, not contracted in line of duty.” It was while in hospital that he was transferred to Company B, which did not take part in the confrontation with Chief Big Foot’s and his band at Wounded Knee Creek on 29 December. During the fight Wallace was struck twice: a bullet had entered his abdomen and another had hit him in the forehead, killing him instantly; his pistol was still in his hand with five chambers having been fired. George Wallace’s death may well have had a profound effect on Hackett the rest of his life.
John Hackett was discharged at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on New Year’s Eve, 1892 – a corporal of excellent character – and re-enlisted in Company K the following day by Lt. Will T. May. Twelve months later he again found himself under arrest and on 27 February 1893 he was sentenced to forfeit $10 pay for two months and be in confinement for the same period. Almost immediately after his release he was granted a six-month furlough to travel to Chicago, where he almost certainly would have spent at least some of the time with brother, Hugh, his wife, Mary, and their large family.
In February 1894, while serving with Company K, Hackett signed an affidavit he had written stating he remembered Private Theodore Goldin, of his then Company G, being a member of the water party during the second day of the Little Big Horn Battle. Goldin had applied for the Medal of Honor in 1893 claiming he was part of the group of volunteers that obtained water for the wounded and the rest of the command. The War Department wanted proof to his claim, questioning many of the officers and men that had participated in the battle and who knew of Goldin and his actions during it. It would seem many did besides Hackett, including Otto Voit a Medal of Honor recipient, who remembered Goldin as a member of his own water party. Goldin was duly awarded the Medal of Honor on 21 December 1894.
A general court martial held on 23 May 1894 found Hackett guilty of committing a second offence which resulted in him forfeiting another $10 from his pay and spending a further 15 days in confinement.
The next three years appear to have passed without incident and on 31 December 1897 he was discharged at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory – as a private of good character – and the same day he re-enlisted for three years in Company K. As the years rolled on Hackett rose quickly through the ranks – farrier (1 June 1898); corporal (6 October 1900); sergeant (1 November 1900); and 1st sergeant (11 December 1900). He was discharged at Columbia Barracks, Cuba, on 31 December 1900 – a 1st sergeant of ‘unobtainable character.’ His sixth, and final, enlistment took place on at Quemondas, Cuba, 1 January 1901, at a given age of ’45 years 9 months,’ when he was re-assigned to Company K. He retired less than two months later 23 February.
We can only imagine his thoughts on the voyage taking him back from Cuba to the mainland. After nearly thirty years as a professional soldier he no doubt was wondering what the future would hold. He soon made his way to Chicago to be re-united with his brother, Hugh. On 18 March 1901 he became a naturalised citizen of the United States, a process that Hugh had gone through twelve years before.
Restless and perhaps seeking the company of ex-soldiers like himself Hackett went on to Fort Sheridan where he had been stationed a decade earlier. He got himself a job working as a medical attendant at the hospital there and may have lived on post or rented a room in the nearby town of Highwood: its western edge bordering the fort. He also chose to wear a uniform again; not as a soldier this time but a fireman by joining the Highwood Fire Department.
Between these two duties he met the recently divorced Esther Smith, who perhaps was one of the many laundresses working at the fort? Exactly how this relationship began has been lost over time. Esther Smith, formerly Youngberg, was born at sea in August 1870, as her Swedish parents were emigrating to America. In 1893 she had married George J. Smith and over the next seven years had three children by him: Charles, Grace and Violet. George Smith abandoned his wife and children shortly after the turn of the century. In January of 1902 Esther Smith was granted a divorce by the Circuit Court of Lake County, Illinois, on the grounds of desertion Seven months later she became Mrs John Hackett. The couple exchanged vows on 2 July 1902 at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Highwood, surrounded by family and friends. It is interesting to note that John’s age on the marriage licence is listed as 45 when in reality he was 51 years-old at that time. After a long life as a bachelor, Hackett suddenly found himself a husband with three young children to support and look after. John and Esther’s relationship seems to have been a happy one, although sadly short lived. His stepson, Charles, must have really admired him because he chose to use the surname, Hackett, for the rest of his life.
John Hackett died suddenly on the morning of 25 February 1904 at the fort’s hospital where he had worked the last three years of his life. The cause of death was listed as aortic stenosis (heart disease).
The following two notices appeared in the Sheridan Road News for Saturday, 27 February 1904. “The fire department will attend the funeral of John Hackett Sunday, he was a member of the company.” Also, “John Hackett, a retired soldier who was filling a position at the fort, died suddenly at the hospital Thursday morning.” John Hackett was laid to rest in the fort’s cemetery as his widow, brother, friends and the children that were just accepting him as their father looked on.
The following November Esther Hackett applied to the Government for a widow’s pension. Her claim was rejected by the Pensions Board on the grounds that “The soldiers death was not due to service and in the line of duty.” In other words, because he had retired and was not on active duty at the time of his death. In need of money to support herself and her children she did the next best thing: get married again. In May 1905 she wed Elmer Lindholm, a fellow Swedish immigrant, and moved to Chicago. [Esther’s marriage to Elmer lasted until his death in April 1928.] That July she sat down and wrote the following letter to the Bureau of Pensions. “Is there not a new law since I applied for a pension in 1904 and was rejected? l am a widow, a pauper, so I need a pension. First Sergeant John Hackett retired in 1901 at Cuba after 30 years of service and died in 1904. He served in the Spanish American War and when a young soldier was with the 7th Cavalry at The Custer Massacre. He was across in a ravine with others of his company to guard. He came back and found General Custer and others dead and helped to bury General Custer. He had a hard service in the army. His death was not caused in the army, but I know it was caused from his hard service and he died of heart trouble. Is there no bonus or pension for me? Respectfully, Mrs. Hackett Lindholm.” Luckily, for the now Esther Lindholm, the pension laws had changed in her favour by the passing of the Widows Pension Act, 3 March 1927. She was informed by the Director of Pensions that her claim had been approved and that she would receive a monthly cheque in the amount of $30.00.
Over the years this sum had only increased to $40.00 by the time of her death in September 1944. She was buried near her last husband, Elmer Lindholm, at Wunders Cemetery, Chicago.
Back in Ireland, John’s brother, Laurence Hackett, a veteran of the American Civil War finally received some compensation for his service. After making repeated attempts [including filing for a disability pension on 4 December 1888. The US army investigated and deemed that the wound was actually a deep seated abscess!] he was granted a pension from the United States Government an incredible 41 years after being discharged from the army. Unfortunately he did not have many years left to enjoy this additional income. He was paid a meagre sum of $12.00 a month starting in 1907, which had only increased to $15.00 by the time of his death in 1915 at the age of 72. His service in the 12th U.S. Infantry is commemorated on the back of the monument illustrated.
On enlistment in New York City on 31 October 1865, Laurence Hackett, age 21, born Dublin, Ireland, a gardener, was described as having blue eyes, brown hair, a ruddy complexion, 5′ 5″ tall. He was assigned to Company C, 12th U.S. Infantry and discharged for disability at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on 27 November 1866 [Editor].
Hugh James Hackett quit the coal business and worked as a carpenter before becoming a police officer in Chicago. After serving over eleven years on the force he retired in 1914. Hugh died on 22 June 1924 and is buried in the famous Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside, on the outskirts of Chicago, which he shares with the notorious Alphonse “Al” Capone and several other gangsters from the Prohibition era.
The Registers of St. Michan’s Roman Catholic Church, Dublin, show 9 August 1847 as the date of Hugh Hackett’s baptism, whereas the records at Mount Carmel Cemetery give 17 August 1852 as his date of birth, which falls more in line with the age he always admitted to when in the United States. However, as far as the telling of John Hackett’s story goes his brother’s true age is purely academic and need not overly concern us here [Editor].
Helped Bury Custer
In June 1976 the following article appeared in The Chicago Westerners Newsletter under the titled HELPED BURY CUSTER – Invited to the Fort Sheridan meeting were members of the Civil War Round Table, a number of whom attended, among them Charles J. Shields, feature writer for the Star-Tribune publications, an association of six south suburban newspapers, including the Chicago Heights Star. Shields arrived early as he had an especial interest, locating the grave of John Hackett, a survivor of Reno’s battalion at the Little Big Horn, about whom he had written a feature article. In the course of his search Shields approached a stranger in civilian clothes, and asked if he knew anything about the post. The stranger proved to be Colonel Herbert Allen, commandant of Fort Sheridan. Of course the grave was located.
The story centered on Charles H. Hackett, 623 Travers Avenue, Chicago Heights, a retired railroad engineer, who has the discharge and other papers of his stepfather, John Hackett, the 7th Cavalry veteran. Charles was 9 years old when his widowed mother and Hackett were married in 1902. The stepfather died in 1904. John Hackett, a native of Dublin, Ireland, enlisted in Chicago, November 14th, 1872, for five years. The article gives his assignment as Company K, 7th Cavalry, but Little Big Horn rosters show John Hackett as a private in Company G, which was one of Reno’s companies as Hackett said, whereas K fought under Benteen. Here is the Hackett story:
“My stepfather said that two days after the battle when they were sure the Indians had left the area, work details were assigned to bury the dead. He said that he and a Mr. Wilson evidently another trooper, drew the task of burying the group of bodies clustered around Custer’s. There was an arc of dead horses around them. All the bodies were naked and had been mutilated by the Sioux women, as was their custom in battle.
“Because it was the heat of summer and the men had been dead several days, it was necessary to bury the bodies as soon as possible. When they came to Custer’s, my stepfather and the other man each grabbed an arm and a leg and lowered the body into a shallow grave with the others.
“Although my stepfather served nearly 30 years in the army, including the Spanish-American War, he used to say that the Custer burial was the most memorable incident in his military career. Several of his official papers in my possession make mention of his part in the massacre and in helping to bury Custer.”
John Hackett retired at Fort Sheridan in 1901 as first sergeant, and until his death three years later was employed as driver for the commanding officer. His stepson has a number of his personal belongings, including a meerschaum pipe, a horsehair watch-fob and several hand-braided bridles.
(The only Wilson found among the survivors was George A. Wilson company K, listed as left at the Power River camp and not present at the Little Big Horn).
The author would like to give a special thanks to Richard Black and Peter Russell for all their help and encouragement in the writing of this article.
Additional sources include Men With Custer, p. 156 and Military Register, pp. 145-6.
What the family says:
Tony Black, whose letter to Joe Rafferty, Superintendent at Fort Sheridan Cemetery, started the ball rolling, writes:
My name is Tony Black from Dublin. John Hackett was my great-granduncle. On behalf of all my family in Dublin I would like to express our thanks to Peter, Richard and Randy for the superb biography of John’s life. For many years John was a mythical figure in family lore. Lost in the mists of time. With the telling of John’s story we feel he is finally getting the recognition his great service to the U.S. Army deserves. One ordinary Dubliner whose extraordinary life story has finally been told. Once again many thanks to all involved.