Neighbours in arms – An Irishman’s Diary about two veterans of the Indian Wars

Thomas Sullivan and Thomas J Callan

Thomas J Callan: had been only a few months in the army when he accompanied the 7th Cavalry on a fateful trip to Montana

Thomas J Callan: had been only a few months in the army when he accompanied the 7th Cavalry on a fateful trip to Montana


Among the gravestones in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery at East Orange, New Jersey, are two with Irish surnames – Sullivan and Callan. They also bear the same Christian name, Thomas. And I don’t know if the men in question ever met in life, but names aside, they had many other things in common.

They were indeed from Ireland, and born in neighbouring counties: Meath in Sullivan’s case, Louth in Callan’s. They both emigrated to the US. They both became soldiers. But perhaps the most unusual coincidence of their posthumous proximity is that both had won their adopted country’s highest military accolade, the Medal of Honor.

I was writing here last week about Hugh McGinnis, a Down-born emigrant who lived long enough to be known as the last surviving soldier from the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890). But of course McGinnis was not the only Irishman involved in that event.

Awarded medals

The Meath man was one of two soldiers who volunteered to advance on them and draw fire, for which “conspicuous bravery” he was praised by his commanding officer, both at the scene and afterwards in the official citation.

But unquestionable as such courage must have been, the other events of that day cast a pall over it. Like everything about Wounded Knee, the medals awarded for the action were soon controversial, and remain so today.  

Given the massive disparity in casualties, and the slaughter of Indian women and children, the event has long been regarded as more a massacre than a battle. The number of medals handed out for it certainly seems excessive, even if such awards were more common then.  

But for some critics, one would have been too many. As recently as this year, a descendant of Chief Spotted Elk, aka Big Foot (who was killed while holding a flag of truce), called for all the Wounded Knee honours to be rescinded.

McGinnis, who was shot twice in the early moments of that day and then passed out, was ever afterwards at a loss to explain the savagery of some of his colleagues, other than the kill-or-be-killed panic he recalled feeling when the shooting started.

To enter the mindset of the soldiers, it may or may not be instructive to read some of the published words of children’s writer L Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, who was also a newspaper editor in the South Dakota of that period, when the Ghost Dance movement was causing such paranoia among settlers.

Wounded Knee

It is still debated whether Baum meant those and other similar comments, or whether he was ironically adopting an extreme position for satirical purposes, in the manner of Swift’s A Modest Proposal. If the latter then, apart from anything else, it adds to the case that there should be a special typeface for irony.

But there’s no doubt that many of the soldiers of 1890 had an exaggerated fear of what the Indians might do to them, given what had happened 14 years earlier at Little Bighorn. And that, by the way, is where our other Irishman in the Holy Sepulchre cemetery, Thomas Callan, had earned his Medal of Honor. 

Born 23 years earlier near Knockbridge in north Louth, Callan had been only a few months in the army when he accompanied the 7th Cavalry on that fateful trip to Montana. Fortunately for him, he was part of a troop left to guard the pack train, thereby avoiding the fate of Custer and everyone else who went with him on his mission to circle Sitting Bull’s encampment.

Instead, Callan lived to display great courage in fetching water for the army’s wounded elsewhere, and in driving off Indian attacks. Thus, like his cemetery neighbour, he proved himself one of the many famously brave soldiers this island has contributed to other countries’ wars; although we may wonder of both, as of so many others, if they fought on the right side.