Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
Custer’s Men Rode the Hills of North Louisiana
The story of George Armstrong Custer and the destruction of his command at the Little Bighorn in Montana is well known. The “Custer Massacre” has been immortalized in movies, books, and music, albeit often with sensational inaccuracy. But only the most ardent Custer historians know of the significance of Custer and his famed 7th Cavalry in Louisiana history.
After a distinguished military career during the Civil War in which Custer experienced a meteoric rise through the ranks to become the Union’s youngest general, the brash redhead was sent to Alexandria in 1865 by General Philip Sheridan to take command of a cavalry division. After a respite in New Orleans following the long journey from Washington, Custer, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, marched the troops from Louisiana to Hempstead, Texas, anticipating possible military action against Mexico. Elizabeth later wrote of her hardships in her book, Tenting on the Plains, published in 1887, recalling the exhilaration she experienced when the party finally departed the thick pine thickets of Louisiana for the open terrain of Texas.
In the early 1870s, the 7th Cavalry Regiment was scattered through seven Southern states, supporting United States Marshals in the difficult days of Reconstruction as Southern Democrats and Radical Republicans struggled for political control of the government. Much of north Louisiana saw more violence and bloodshed in the ten years after the Civil War than during in the conflict itself. Lynchings of freed blacks, assassination of Republican officeholders, and a host of brutal crimes were commonplace.
While the 7th Cavalry was in the South, Custer was relegated to post duty on the Great Plains. With his sympathies allied with the Democratic Party, his superiors kept him out of the struggle to wrest political control of the southern states.
Benjamin Hubert Hodgson was a lieutenant commanding a company of 7th Cavalry troopers working with U.S. Marshals in the area from Shreveport to Monroe. In October 1874, Hodgson and his cavalryman were accompanying Deputy U.S. Marshal Edgar Seleye as he arrested members of the notorious White League for various offenses against black citizens and Republican officeholders. After Seleye arrested J.G. Huey, a well-known Vienna citizen, the local judge issued a writ of habeas corpus for the marshal and troopers to deliver the prisoners to his court and explain the reason for their detention. Hodgson spurned the sheriff and continued toward Monroe to make more arrests. Along the way, Hodgson and the deputy marshal decided it prudent to cut the telegraph wires so the enraged citizens of Vienna could not alert Monroe of their approach.
The failure to heed the judge’s order and the damage to the telegraph wires led the Lincoln Parish sheriff to arrest of Hodgson and Seleye and return them to Vienna where they were jailed. Telegrams to their superiors brought a flurry of action. More cavalry and infantry from Shreveport and New Orleans were ordered to Vienna in the belief the federal men might be in danger while lawyers were dispatched to represent them before the Vienna court. Just as important as protecting the men was the need to avoid treading on local judicial authority and risk an uprising among the citizens.
After some delicate negotiations, fines were paid for contempt of court and damage to property and the lieutenant and marshal were released. The judge was a hero to the locals for standing up to the federal government. J.G. Huey eventually became one of Ruston’s first police chiefs.
Eventually the Republican administration decided to withdraw troops from Louisiana and Reconstruction came to an end. The 7th Cavalry moved to the Dakotas to deal with the Sioux Indians.
The common notion that George Custer and his entire regiment were wiped out at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 is inaccurate. Custer had divided his forces to attack a large Indian village on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. Lt. Hodgson was part of the group that broke off and rode down steep bluffs and over the river to charge the village. Custer took another force further down the bluffs to engage the Indians from the opposite direction. Both groups of soldiers were quickly swarmed and attempted to retreat to the high bluffs. Lt. Hodgson was cut down by gunfire as he recrossed the river but others managed to escape to the high ground, hold off the Indians, and survive. Custer and all the men with him in the separate force were killed.
John H. Day was a common soldier in the 7th Cavalry. As a private in Company H under the command of Captain Frederick Benteen, Day was part of the unit that separated from Custer. Day was among those who were forced to retreat up the bluffs under the Indian counterattack. Day survived the Little Bighorn and later returned to Louisiana.
Day married Eliza Eubank Parks in Monroe in 1886. Perhaps he had met her when the regiment was stationed in north Louisiana. Or perhaps he liked the country and moved back to Louisiana after his discharge. Although he survived the most well-known battle between the U.S. Army and Native Americans, Day could not avoid a violent death. After a series of arson fires that destroyed a number of Monroe residences, Day was identified as a suspect. The Lake Providence Banner-Democrat of June 23, 1894, tells the story:
JUDGE LYNCH AT MONROE
A white man by the name of J.H. Day was speedily hanged in Monroe on Wednesday of last week. It appears that several fires had occurred in Monroe lately, which were without a doubt the work of an incendiary. On Wednesday of last week two fires took place in Monroe the same evening, and both were supposed to be the work of the same incendiary; a blood-hound was put on a trail and followed it to the house of one J.H. Day, who immediately was arrested and put in the calaboose. Later on in the night unknown parties, as usual, got the keys of the jail from the policeman who had charge of it, and Day was hanged to a tree not far from the house that he was supposed to have fired.
On analyzing the evidence given against Day, as printed in the Monroe papers, we find that it was all circumstantial, and we hesitate not to stamp as murderers the unknown parties who took it upon themselves to “dispose of Day.” Why! because the dog followed a trail to Day’s house, because cobwebs and whitewash were found on Day’s clothes supposed to have gotten there by crawling under the houses to fire them, and because especially on his back gallery “were found pieces of plank which had been split for kindling, which in sap, heart and grain corresponded to the pieces of kindling used in firing the houses.” Day was taken out of jail, and made acquainted with Ouachita parish summary proceedings of justice.
The motive for the arsons is never mentioned in the various newspaper accounts. There is no indication that there was any dispute or grudge against the victims. Perhaps Day—if he was the perpetrator—was acting out post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a malady first identified in combat veterans after the Vietnam War. Perhaps the horrors at the Little Big Horn still haunted him eighteen years later. Or maybe Day was a classic pyromaniac.
Eliza Day was buried in the Old City Cemetery in Monroe in 1901, possibly beside the unmarked grave of her husband. Recently a headstone was placed nearby for John Day, a soldier who survived the signature conflict between two opposing cultures but could not avoid Louisiana vigilante justice.
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com