Holden, Henry

Place of Birth: London

Date of enlistment: 9 January 1872

Age given at enlistment: 33

Rank: Private

Company: D

Location on 25 June 1876: In hilltop fight



Clearly the place and date of his birth remain uncertain. See full biography below.

The Elusive Henry Holden

  • Several earlier accounts of Henry Holden’s eventful life have appeared in print, each one portraying a somewhat different version of the ‘facts’ from the others.

Was Holden born in London, Brighton or somewhere else?

St Paul's Cathedral, London.

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton.

  • A major contributor to this legacy of confusion was Holden himself. Not only did he separately give both London and Brighton as his place of birth, he was equally cavalier about his age. All that can be said about his nativity is he was most likely born somewhere in England during the period from 1835 to 1843.


  • The first verifiable reference to this elusive Englishman is the fact that he joined Captain Albert Cook’s Company C, 59th Massachusetts Infantry Volunteers, at Boston, on 5 January 1864. The regiment  had been organised just a few weeks earlier and on the 20 April moved to Rappahannock Station, via Washington, D.C., to join the Army of the Potomac, where it was attached to the 1st Brigade, 1st Division of the 9th Army Corps under General Ambrose Burnside.


A Grand Army of the Republic (1861-1865) veteran's grave marker. Author's photograph.

  • The 59th fought in virtually every major engagement from the Battle of the Wilderness, 5-7 May 1864, to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on 9 April 1865 and, other than reputedly receiving a minor wound at Totopotomoy Creek, Holden survived the War between the States unscathed. He was transferred to Company C, 57th Massachusetts Volunteers on 1 June 1865 and mustered out at Delaney House, Washington, D.C., two months later.
  • In Baltimore, Maryland on 23 November 1865 Holden was subsequently enlisted in the 8th Infantry by Lieut. Philip H. Remington and assigned to its Company E, then stationed at the city’s Hancock Barracks. The following April Companies E, G and I were sent to Charleston, South Carolina, and remained in the state on Reconstruction duty for several years. He was discharged as a “Private of Good Character,” in Columbia, South Carolina on 23 November 1868.   One month later Holden was re-enlisted in the same regiment by Lieut. Thomas Wilhelm and re-assigned to his old company. His enlistment papers show him as being 5 feet 5 inches in height; with grey eyes, light hair, a fair complexion, born in London, England and 30 years of age.
  • In 1870 the 8th Infantry was transferred to David’s Island, New York Harbor, on stand-by in readiness to proceed at short notice to San Domingo should they be required to safeguard the interests of the United States. In the event the troops were not deployed and remained in their barracks, waiting further orders.
  • Holden was subsequently dispatched to Chicago, Illinois, as part of a four-company strong detachment of his regiment in support of the civil authorities in the wake of the calamitous fire that broke out in the city late in the evening of 8 October 1871. Holden’s second period of service with the 8th Infantry terminated while he was still in the ‘Windy City’ and he was duly discharged on 23 December 1871, thus enabling him to celebrate his first Christmas out of uniform in seven years.

Captain Thomas B. Weir [1838-1876].


  • The winter of 1871-1872 was a period of severe economic recession but it is not known if it was Holden’s inability to find employment or enjoyed a military life that persuaded him to re-enlist once again. Whatever the reason, on 9 January 1872 he was sworn into the United States Army, in Chicago, by Captain Samuel Young, and for a third time gave London, [he later claimed to be born in Brighton] England, as his place of birth. He was assigned to the 7th Cavalry’s Company D, under the command of Captain Thomas B. Weir.
  • On the 2 February 1872, along with a detachment of other new recruits, Holden was sent to Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Missouri, to be kitted out before being transferred to Chester, South Carolina, eleven days later where he joined company which was then engaged on Reconstruction duty.
  • Within a few weeks Company D was sent to Opelika, Alabama, and remained in the state for the rest of year. His company finally left Livingston, Alabama, by rail, on 13 March 1873, and arrived at Memphis, Tennessee, the following day. They remained in camp there for the next three weeks before setting out for Fort Snelling, Minnesota where they arrived on the 11th of April. Accompanied by the Seventh’s Company I, under the command of Captain Myles W. Keogh, the combined detachment subsequently left Fort Snelling by rail and reached Fort Breckinridge, Dakota Territory, present-day Minnesota, two days later.
  • From there the two companies marched 190 miles due north, via Fort Abercrombie, to Fort Pembina, on the Canadian border. They arrived on 22 June and left the fort ten days later as escort to the [International] Northern Boundary Survey Commission. The Survey party was engaged in marking the border between the United States and Canada along the 49th parallel. The Seventh Cavalry’s contingent was under the overall command of Major Marcus A. Reno, who had arrived at Fort Pembina several weeks earlier. Captain James M. Bell, Company D, acted as Reno’s adjutant.

Major Marcus A. Reno [1834-1889]

  • The Expedition’s base camp, named Terry, was established on the Souris (or Mouse) River in Dakota Territory, some 250 miles west of Fort Pembina. For the next two months Reno’s detachment was involved on guard and general duties, never actually encountering any hostile Indians. On October 10, they marched to Fort Stevenson, a distance of 119 miles, which they reached four days later. From Fort Stevenson they set off for Fort Totten, a further 250 miles east, where they arrived late in the evening of 12 October 1873. Both companies were to remain at Fort Totten, by Devil’s Lake, until the following spring.
  • On 30 May 1874 Companies D and I left Fort Totten for a second stint of duty with the Boundary Survey and commenced on an epic journey of over 1400 miles to as far as the Sweet Grass Hills, Montana Territory before the ‘saddle-sore’ column finally arrived back at the post on 14 September.
  • The two companies remained at Fort Totten until 17 April 1876 when they marched out heading for Fort Abraham Lincoln to join the rest of the regiment, as part of General Terry’s Dakota Column, for that summer’s campaign.At the Battle of the Little Big Horn which subsequently ensued that June Company D formed part of Captain Frederick W. Benteen’s battalion.
  • Holden was awarded the Medal of Honor for his extreme bravery on the second day of the battle during the action on Reno Hill. He repeatedly volunteered to retrieve ammunition from the pack mules that were concentrated in a shallow depression in the centre of the defence site, and as Lieut. Winfield S. Edgerly later explained in the citation for Holden’s medal, the fearless Englishman ‘brought up ammunition under a galling fire from the enemy’ on numerous occasions.
  • Henry Holden was most fortunate to survive the engagement unharmed. His name can be found among those of 235 enlisted men alleged to have signed a petition addressed to the President and Congress of the United States, written on 4 July 1876. The petition, drawn up whilst the survivors of the regiment were in camp near the mouth of the Bighorn River, asked that Major Reno be promoted to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Custer, and that Captain Benteen be promoted to fill the vacancy caused by the requested promotion of Reno. Like much associated with the battle and its aftermath, the authenticity of this document remains in doubt and the finger of suspicion for ‘this devious scheme’ points at First Sergeant Joseph McCurry, of Benteen’s Company H, and, by association, his company commander.
  • Although the petition received a great deal of publicity in the Press and was endorsed by General William T. Sherman, it never reached the President or Congress. However, it may have achieved its original objective of deflecting, if only temporarily, any potential criticism of the conduct of the two senior surviving officers during a crucial stage of the battle on 25 June.
  • Twelve days later Holden was promoted to Corporal, to date from 1 July 1876, the only time he ever held a non-commissioned rank in over 15 years of service in the United States Army. Other than the wounded, which were transported in record-breaking time to Fort Abraham Lincoln aboard the steamer Far West, the regiment remained in the field for the rest of the summer and did not arrive back at Fort Abraham Lincoln until the 26th of September. Shortly after which, Company D was posted to Fort Rice where Holden was discharged as a “Corporal of Good Character” on 9 January 1877, having completed five years service.
  • For the next eighteen months his whereabouts remain unknown but on 10 July 1878 he presented himself at the recruiting office in Washington, D.C., when he was enlisted by Capt. Henry C. Corbin into the 2nd Artillery Regiment and, once more, said he was from London, not Brighton or even Sussex, England.  He was assigned to the regiment’s Battery A, then garrisoned at Fort McHenry, Baltimore.
  • At his discharge from the 7th Cavalry, Holden had left no forwarding address with the military authorities. Consequently, when the award of his Medal of Honor came through on 5 October 1878, he was unable to be traced and his medal was retained by the Adjutant General’s Office. A few months later, however, he finally received the award and was presented with the decoration by his new commanding officer, Colonel William F. Barry, during a full dress parade at Fort McHenry on 10 April 1879.

Colonel [Brevet Major General] William F. Barry [1818-1879].

  • Barry died on 18 July 1879. “He had been suffering a long while from disease of the kidneys, and recently obtained leave of absence, and was preparing to leave his post for the springs. A few days since General Barry accompanied Collector Thomas, Mayor Latrobe and a party of distinguished gentlemen down the bay on the revenue cutter Ewing, and on his return was seized with an attack of dysentery, which becoming complicated with malarial fever, caused his death.”  See The Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 July 1879.
  • Holden’s active service with the 2nd Artillery ended extremely painfully on 10 February 1882 when he received a serious injury to his lower right leg from a kick by a horse during a routine exercise at Washington Barracks. The tibia was broken and the leg very badly crushed, which resulted in Holden requiring treatment in the Post Hospital where he remained until he was discharged for “total disability” on 28 November 1882.
  • The wound never totally healed and perhaps he would have suffered less if the lower part of the limb had been amputated. As it was, the leg was left permanently deformed and shortened, necessitating the use of crutches or a cane, and Holden was reduced to walking with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life. He took up residence at the National Soldiers’ Home, Washington, D.C., and was immediately granted a pension of $18 a month, which commenced on 4 December 1882. Three months later this was increased to $24, equivalent to approximately £5 sterling.
  • Holden was still at the National Soldiers’ Home as late as June 1883 but again sank into obscurity for the next four years until resurfacing at 36 White Hawk Road in the Kemp Town district of Brighton. When, or why, he returned to England and decided to settle in this fashionable seaside resort are just two further questions about Holden that have never been satisfactorily answered. One further point that is worthy of serious consideration. IF, for whatever reason, Henry Holden was the personal name he assumed in America to conceal his true identity and, as we know, he was still in receipt of a U.S. Army Disability Pension on returning to England he would have been left little choice other than to continue with this deception.
  • Bearing in mind his constant need for medical attention, White Hawk Road’s close proximity to a major surgical hospital was undoubtedly a most suitable place to live. Over the next 18 years he was an inpatient at the Sussex County Hospital, in Eastern Road, Kemp Town, on at least four separate occasions and had several pieces of bone removed from his injured limb. Not surprisingly this had a detrimental effect on his general health and, according to his doctor; it also aggravated the diabetes that would ultimately be the cause of his demise. Early in 1890 the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Pensions wrote to Dr. Joseph Ewart of Brighton asking him to examine Holden to ascertain whether the extent of his disability ‘… is equal to the loss of a leg or foot’ and asking if he walked with the aid of ‘artificial means’? Dr. Ewart replied, ‘I have carefully examined Henry Holden … who is suffering from the effects of Fracture of the right leg, which, in my opinion, totally incapacitates him from the performance of manual labour, and is, therefore, equivalent to the loss of a limb or foot.’ Accordingly, Holden’s pension continued to be paid.

30 Whitehawk Road. Brighton - now a fast food takeaway - June 2013. Author's photograph.

35 and 36 Whitehawk Road, Brighton, now a fish & chip shop - June 2013. Author's photograph.

  • Although Brighton had flourished for over a century, since the patronage of the Prince Regent its outward success disguised an underlying problem of deprivation and crime. Wealth was by no means evenly spread and by the time Holden arrived in the town poverty was approaching crisis levels. In common with many of his neighbours he took in a lodger to help make ends meet.
  • In the census of England and Wales, taken on the night of 5 April 1891 Holden, or perhaps it was his wife, a ‘local’ girl known only as Eleanor, claimed that he was 53-years-old and born in Brighton – and not London as previously indicated. Curiously perhaps there is no evidence of such a marriage ever having taken place in the United Kingdom.

Advertising poster for Colonel W. F. Cody's "Wild West" Show (1891).

  • William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s ‘Wild West’ Show arrived in Brighton in October 1891 and it can only be wondered what effect this might have had on someone who had so recently participated in a real battle at the Little Big Horn. against some of Cody’s Indian performers. Did Holden even attend the show and introduce himself to Mr. Cody? Did he arrive appropriately ‘suited and booted’ with his Medal of Honor proudly pinned on his chest? What did he make of his former foes? Did he tell all those around him what ‘really happened‘ on the bluffs above the Little Big Horn River? Sadly we are unlikely ever to know.
  • Legally married or not, in 1892 the Holdens moved a few doors away to number 30 White Hawk Road, where Eleanor died of phthisis on 7 April 1894, aged 55; having suffered from the disease for at least the previous 12 months. She was interred in the Brighton & Preston Cemetery, Hartington Road, a privately owned burial ground which had opened less than eight years earlier. However as no records of interments from its early history have survived it has not been possible to locate her grave. To add to the mystery in 1898, when Holden was asked to provide details of his first wife to the U.S. Bureau of Pensions, he guardedly avoided divulging her maiden name and simply referred to her as ‘Mrs Eleanor Holden.’ rather than, for example, Eleanor ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’ as one might more reasonably expect. The identity of Eleanor has never been established.
  • It would appear that Holden had become accustomed to having a woman around the house as on 17 November1894, less than eight months from the time of Eleanor’s death, he married Frances Ann Little (née Saunders): a 45-year-old widow and mother of two young sons. The Littles had moved into 35 White Hawk Road, next door to Henry and Eleanor, sometime around 1890. Having no children of their own, it is quite likely that the Holdens befriended their new young neighbours. Frances Little may well have nursed Eleanor Holden during the last few months of her life and, in turn, was on hand to console a grieving widower at his time of loss.
  • The parish curate, the Rev. H. Forster Morris, at St. Mark’s Church, Eastern Road, Brighton, performed the wedding ceremony of Henry Holden and Frances Little and the marriage certificate describes Holden as an Army Pensioner, aged 58, and the son of Henry Holden (deceased).

St. Mark's Church, Eastern Road, Brighton [now no longer used for religious purposes] - June 2013. Author's photograph.

  • The witnesses to the marriage were a near neighbour, Martha Emma Newman (née Bayley), originally from Birmingham, Warwickshire, the 57-year-old widow of John Newman, a railway engine driver, and Frances’ sons, William, aged twelve and Alfred, aged ten. The fact that no-one from Holden’s family was a witness may add credence to the argument that Holden was not a local man.
  • Note: Custer’s English Soldier (Rowland), p.18, leads the reader to believe that Martha Newman was Holden’s sister, an assumption which is not supported by the facts.

45 Rugby Place, Brighton [centre] - June 2013. Author's photograph.

  • Soon after the wedding the family moved house, just round the corner to 45 Rugby Place, a larger and better property.
  • The Census for Kemp Town, taken on the night of 3 April 1901, shows Holden a patient in the Sussex County Hospital at a stated age of 62. He died at 45 Rugby Place on 14 December 1905, having lapsed into a diabetic coma from which he never recovered. The death was registered by Holden’s sister-in-law, Harriet Saunders, and the certificate states he died aged ’69 years,’ no doubt calculated from the age that appears on his wedding certificate.
  • Henry Holden was buried at a cost of £1 5s 0d in unconsecrated ground (plot U-25) in the Brighton & Preston Cemetery, Harrington Road, Brighton. No headstone was erected but his widow did pay an extra 17s-0d to purchase the right for the grave to be opened to accommodate a subsequent interment.

Entrance gate to Brighton & Preston Cemetery, Hartington Road, Brighton, East Sussex

  • Why he should be buried in unconsecrated ground is yet one more riddle about Holden that is highly unlikely ever to be answered. One thing, however, is almost certain: he was not given a military funeral as is stated in a previous account of his life.
  • On the seventh of February, following Henry’s death, Frances Holden applied to the United States Pension Office for a widow’s pension but, being ineligible, her claim was not approved. However, under the provisions of a subsequent Act of May 1, 1920, ‘the widow of any person who served in the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps during the Civil War for ninety days or more, and was honourably discharged ….. may be entitled to pension, … provided she was married to him prior to June 27, 1905. The rate of pension being $30 per month, and $6 additional for each of his children under the age of 16 years. Pension commences from the date of filing a valid declaration in the bureau.’ Quite how Frances Holden, who by this time had moved across the road to 20 Rugby Place, got to hear of this legislation is not known but on 10 August 1923 she completed the appropriate documentation in which she stated that her late husband ‘was born in England, 1838 at Brighton (probably).’ The fact that even after 11 years of marriage Frances Holden was uncertain of her late husband’s place of birth, adds further weight to the speculation that Brighton was not his hometown. On this occasion her application was successful and she was granted a pension of $30 a month with effect from 24 February 1924, backdated to the previous August, which was increased to $40 per month on 4 June 1928.

Frances Holden (extreme left) with William Saunders Little (extreme right) and his wife Ellen (Appleby) and three children. Photograph taken in 1916. Courtesy David Butchers.

  • Frances Ann Holden died aged 89, on 25 May 1938, at 39 Elder Street, Brighton, and, as she had wished, was laid to rest with her second husband. At the time of her interment the grave site was draped with grass matting and subsequently re-turfed at ten-yearly intervals for a modest sum payable to the cemetery company. Letters of Administration were granted to her elder son, William Saunders Little, an Insurance Agent, for the disposal of her personal effects which amounted to the sum of £304-16s-5d. A month after her death, her solicitor wrote to the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., advising them of the situation and refunding a cheque for $40 that had been received from them.
  • Alfred Saunders Little, the younger brother, then aged 60, and living at nearby 41 Bennett Road, Brighton, was killed on 23 February 1944 during one of the last major German bombing raids on the town. His brother, William, a widower for over 23 years, died on New Year’s Day, 1957. Both are buried in consecrated ground in the Brighton & Preston Cemetery, not far from their mother and step-father.
  • Sometime around 1960, Alfred C. Little of Southwick, near Brighton, the son of Holden’s step-son Alfred, inherited Holden’s papers and Medal of Honor. Realising their historical importance, Little presented them to the Hove Museum on the strict understanding that the medal would be put on public display. For whatever reason, this turned out not to be the case and it was subsequently retrieved. In 1965, Little generously offered to donate the medal to the United States Army and a letter from the Army Attaché in London, dated 28 July, advised him that the matter would be referred to the Chief of Military History, ‘who is best able to determine a suitable final disposition.’ Not surprisingly the offer aroused great interest in the United States, particularly by the 7th Cavalry, then stationed in Vietnam, and a number of military posts associated with the regiment at the time of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. A decision was finally reached in October 1967 when it was deemed most appropriate to place the award in the Medal of Honor Grove at the Freedoms Foundation, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where it remains on show to the public.
  • In July 1987, the late John Carroll wrote to Lowell Smith, the editor of the Little Big Horn Associates Newsletter: ‘Some months ago I discovered one of the men from the Custer Battle who had been a recipient of a Medal of Honor who was buried there [Brighton] in an unmarked grave. I petitioned the Veterans Administration for a proper stone and the L.B.H.A. paid for the setting of the stone.’

Peter Russell standing by Henry Holden's headstone in Brighton and Preston Cemetery.

  • The belated provision of a white marble headstone, specifically designed for holders of the prestigious Medal of Honor, is a most fitting end to the remarkable story of service, courage, suffering and indubitable fortitude of Henry Holden, whoever he was, a decorated veteran of both the American Civil War and Plains Indian Wars.
  • The search for Henry Holden’s true identity continues.
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