Little Bighorn of a dilemma – Frank McNally on a mystery Monaghan man who followed Custer to Montana

Among the more than 100 Irish soldiers who marched with Custer was a “Sergeant Thomas Murray, born in Co Monaghan”

Luckily for Sgt Thomas Murray, he was not part of the group that accompanied Custer at the Last Stand

Long-time readers of this column may recall that the Diarist’s namesake grandfather was once, among other things, a deputy sheriff in Montana, back when that was the Wild West or nearly.

This fascinating – to the Diarist anyway – detail might have been lost to history except that it was forced out of my father, under heavy questioning, late in life.

A man of few words, he had never considered it interesting enough to bring up until, vaguely aware that his old man had spent time in America, I finally made a point of asking what he did there.

Frank McNally Snr later returned to his native Monaghan.


He married, was widowed, and married again, all in his 40s. Aged 50, he became a Sinn Féin councillor in the revolutionary local elections of 1920, before opposing the Treaty and losing his seat.

After that, he was a founding or early member of Fianna Fáil, running the Mile River cumann out of a disused railway carriage.

When I wrote about all this in 2007, my grandfather’s Montana-to-Monaghan trajectory led one waggish letter writer to wonder if he was “the first cowboy to have joined Fianna Fáil”.

But alas, those scant highlights are most of what I know about his life, because he died (aged nearly 90) before I was born.

When visiting Montana 20 years ago in search of a paper trail, I found little. Unlike sheriffs, mere deputies didn’t have to run for election. They only made the headlines if they were shot.

Fathers of few words aside, another impediment to research was a severe lack of relatives on the paternal side of the family. My grandfather’s marriages yielded a mere two children.

Although his only son struggled heroically to redress the imbalance, fathering seven of us, there were very few McNally cousins who might have inherited family lore.

By contrast, there was no shortage of relations on my (also Monaghan-born) mother’s side, the Murrays.

Like James Joyce, I had Murray cousins everywhere I looked. Indeed, in the traditional allocation of dominant genetic inheritance, I grew up being told I was a Murray myself.

Which brings me back to Montana and the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Because after listening The Rest is History podcast’s epic, eight-part series on that subject recently – the co-hosts took longer to reach the Bighorn river than the 7th Cavalry had, although the journey was never less than entertaining – I started reading up on it again.

And now I find that – lo! – among the more than 100 Irish soldiers who marched to Montana with General Custer was a “Sergeant Thomas Murray, born in Co Monaghan”.

Luckily for him, he was not part of the group that accompanied Custer at the Last Stand.

That’s if there was a last stand.

As the podcast reminded us, Lakota-Cheyenne accounts of the episode are conflicting and there were no cavalry survivors except Myles Keogh’s horse (who never talked about it afterwards).

But Murray was an official hero of the larger theatre of war that late June day, awarded a Medal of Honour for relief efforts on behalf of the parts of the regiment that survived.

The official citation spoke of his “extraordinary heroism on 25 June 1876, while serving with Company B, 7th U.S. Cavalry, in action at Little Big Horn, Montana”.

In a one-sentence summary, it explained: “Sergeant Murray brought up the pack train, and on the second day the rations, under a heavy fire from the enemy.”

Murray is often mentioned alongside another Medal of Honour recipient, Thomas Callan from Louth, who led a party to fetch water from the Bighorn for the wounded.

But then almost every county in Ireland was represented among Custer’s ranks. Armagh and Wicklow, I think, were the only exceptions.

If that Sergeant Murray was one of my maternal ancestors, I would surely have heard of it by now. And of course, there are also pockets of the surname elsewhere in Monaghan than where I grew up.

Those include two well-known GAA brothers from Clones, whose heroics under fire from the notoriously hostile Kerry tribesman in a drawn All-Ireland semi-final of 1985 would suggest their forebears were more likely material for medals of honour.

But Thomas Murray’s exact place of birth in 1836 does not seem to be recorded anywhere – at least where I can find it. As for his grave, in Washington DC, that’s a tight-lipped, military affair – recording only his name, regiment, receipt of the MOH, and date of death: August 4th, 1888.

The archives of this newspaper confirm I’m not the first person to be curious about him in these pages.

Back in 1998, one Gabriel Donohoe from Dundalk wrote a Letter to the Editor seeking information about two Irish survivors of Little Bighorn, Murray and Callan. I wonder if he ever had a reply.