William Heath is a local man who may be
a survivor of the
A Republican newspaper article provided commentary.
The article is online at: Article
Here are emails I received about Heath:
FROM: Brian Pohanka
DATE: 10/26/2001 11:39:36 AM EST
Regarding William Heath of Company L, 7th US Cavalry -- a fellow is writing a book about
this "Lazarus of the Little Bighorn" in which he seeks to prove that Heath somehow or
other escaped death with the five companies that perished in Custer's immediate command....
Personally I do not think that this is so, but of course in everything we need to keep an
open mind. The William Heath who enlisted in the 7th Cav. was from the same part of
Bighorn was from....Was it the _same_ William Heath? Did the man who enlisted in the 7th
Cav. use an alias (as many did) and adopt the name "William Heath"?
Was it the same man, and he deserted sometime prior to the battle? And so on.....many
variables and possibilities exist. Unfortunately the purported survivor never set down his
story in print or otherwise, and his "escape" remains family lore as much as anything. The
details would certainly help in attempting to confirm or deny the story.
There have been over the years any number of purported or self claimed "survivors of
Custer's Last Stand" -- the most notable one Frank Finkel who _did_ set down his story....
but his account has generally be rejected. I just think it would have been very difficult for
anyone to have "gotten away" once the fighting started.
Now there were several men whose horses gave out or who lagged behind the five
companies as they headed north -- Thompson, Watson, Brennan and Fitzgerald, all of
Company C. They ultimately wound up with the
besieged (7 companies) and survived, though with casualties. A number of soldiers
witnessed their straggling in -- and Peter Thompson later wrote down his account & was
interviewed by Walter Camp and other early battle researchers, so I think we can readily
accept that they straggled back to the Reno/Benteen site....but this was before the
fight was joined in earnest.
Had William Heath somehow managed to ride out of the fight, would he not have tried
to make his way either to Reno & Benteen, or to the Terry/Gibbon column that was
approaching from the north? Could he possibly have wandered around in that vast & very
dangerous country, filled with hostile Indians, and eventually turned back up in
Like I say, we have to keep an open mind about all such things, but we also have to
apply cold, hard logic, and I think in the balance that the Heath saga is unproved as of yet.
FROM: Joe Bilby
Brian, you're far too kind.
mind, it sounds like poppycock to me. I find it almost incredible that the guy would, as
you have noted, not tried to rejoin the remainder of his outfit as soon as possible but
apparently gone home to Pennsylvania as a deserter and kept his mouth shut for the
rest of his life. I would say that the definite burden of proof is on the person asserting
that Mr. Heath was an LBH survivor. And, without even seeing his proof, I would
assume that he has a heavy load to carry
FROM: Brian Pohanka
DATE: 10/26/2001 12:31 PM EST
Yes, I suppose I am too kind
me to endorse his conclusions and was disappointed since I most certainly could not
do so.....There were 210 men killed with the Custer Battalion, including Custer, the
civilians, etc -- and those who buried the dead counted anywhere between 204 and
208 bodies depending on the account one reads. We know several bodies were
"missed" as bones were found over the years from men who were not initially buried,
so while those figures do not rule out the remote possibility that someone escaped,
even for a short distance, from the debacle, they do show there were no significant
numbers of missing....Of course the dead were terribly mutilated and had lain in the
hot sun for nearly 3 days before being buried, which made positive identifications
of individuals difficult to say the least.
So the fact that no one says they saw Heath's body on the field has no
significance.....He was reported as KIA, and since there were a number of
his Company L whosurvived --- because they were among those detailed to the
Pack Train escort (an NCO and 6 men from each company assigned to that duty
of keeping the mules moving) one would think that they were consulted & I would
imagine that when last seen Pvt. Heath was riding north with the contingent that
was annihilated.....As you know there were two messengers sent back from the
Custer battalion, Sgt. Daniel Kanipe and Trumpeter John Martin (Giovanni Martini),
the latter being the last soldier known to have seen Custer & his force alive....
Neither of them ever said anything about Heath, nor did those men I mentioned
earlier (Thompson, Watson, Brennan and Fitzgerald) who straggled behind the
column prior to the departure of the last messenger, Martin.
The Reno & Benteen survivors were rescued by the arrival of the Terry/Gibbon
column as you know, and after picking up the wounded & giving a hasty burial
to the dead, the column moved back down the Little Bighorn to where the
Steamboat "Far West" was moored, at the confluence with the Bighorn River....
and soldiers were then present in the field for a period of weeks following.....One
would think that Heath would have sought them out, and not, as you note,
wandered around in that dangerous and vast piece of landscape & ultimately
showing back up in Pennsylvania......I suspect that the William Heath buried in
PA was perhaps a deserter from another unit, and in some way to "save face"
claimed to have been an escapee from "Custer's Last Stand", though he does
not ever seem to have spoken to reporters or even to his own family in any detail
about his expereinces......It is also possible, as I noted earlier, that the William
Heath who perished at Little Bighorn had taken that name as an alias -- dozens
of men int he 7th Cav, as in other Regular Army units, were serving under
names other than their own.....
FROM: Bruce Trinque
DATE: 10/26/2001 7:14 PM EST
I can't say that I am familiar with this William Heath "survivor" tale, but I can
give you some particulars about the real Seventh Cavalry soldier of that name.
He was enlisted on
been born in
one of the five companies under Custer's direct command during the battle. He
apparently was also known under the name "Kiefer".
I must say I am skeptical, very skeptical.
New Comments received November 1 (Stu's words are in blue italics)
FROM: Joe Bilby
Now the interesting part of the story, (according to family) William Heath wandered
around out in the Dakota Terr. and was rescued by a family by the name of Ennis.
William was suffering from exposure and nursed back to health by Mrs. Ennis, whose
name was Livian, anyway he promised to name his daughter if he had one after her and
he did because the people met had a grandmother by the name of Livian (sp).
What evidence is there of this? "According to the family" is, unfortunately, just not
sufficient. It makes no sense that the guy would not have returned to his regiment,
especially since he could have been famous as a survivor.
Also one of the granddaughters did research the tax records of William Heath for
the time period. William was on the Tax records of Girardville for the 1874 period,
he is not there on record in 1875-1877 his time in the military BUT!!! returns in
1878 in Tamaqua, INTERESTING.
I would say meaningless more so than interesting.
Also some little tidbits according to the older family members William was always
proud of his military record but never talked about it. As a matter of fact, he got
very concerned in the late 1870's when a newspaper ad requested info on a
William Heath from the 7th cavalry, who was this asking about Heath? the
Ennis family? ( My current quest is trying to find this ad). Well, William lives
out his life up intill the 1890's and dies from a brain tumor.
How did they know he was proud if he "never talked about it?" Why would he
be proud if he was an apparent deserter. Why would there be a newspaper ad
requesting information on Heath? Where is it? Why did the family wait until
now to pronounce this guy an alleged LBH survivor.
I talked with Brian Pohanka during one of our civil War events and he did state
what he wrote Tom, but at the time he also stated it was one of the most
interesting stories he ever heard. I guess the only one who knows the true story
is old William himself. His name is on the Monument out at the Big Horn, he is
also on the list of dead soldiers collected the day after held in a midwest
university. And all the 7th cavalry muster rolls of the the time.
Brian is far kinder than I am.
may be to help out a wounded horse, was he thrown from his horse and hurt?
other scenarios, William being a farrier could have been a horse holder, he
was a member of Captain Calhoun's Company L and was one of the only
dismounted companies that day, being a horse holder would have required
Heath to ride back with three other horses and wait while his 3 dismounted
comrades fought on foot, on that day the Indians came up behind L
company waving blankets and beating drums and scared the horses,
( I know what my horse would have done in this type of situation). Anyway
did he release the horses and flee? there are many accounts of Soldiers
riding away? And did he get away and wondered around the area?
I disagree with Brian Pohanka on this subject because most of the
Indians fled away to the north after this attack.No matter how you
look at this story, William Heath would be considered a deserter, he
never returned to serve out his enlistment, he still had three years to
go. What was he hiding when he went and enlisted, what was he
hiding on never making the statement that he survived the battle,
as I said his whole company was killed to the man? Did he actually
get picked up by the Ennis family that is a fact, Was this the William
Heath that was in the Seventh Cavalry, Yes that is a fact,
did he get away from the battle? Apparently he did, but we will
never know the whole truth, but it sure is an intersting part of
What about the Ennis story is a fact -- family accounts? Did an
Ennis family actually live in that area? Why would they not have
called the local newspapers? or the army? Why would Heath
not report to his unit? Why wouldnot the story get out over the
I am certainly no expert on the LBH, but I do recall that several
of these stories of wandering survivors have cropped up over the
years, and they are simiilar in veracity to the old goats who on
their deathbed admitted to being Jesse James of John WIlkes
Tom, maybe you can relay the info to these guys, along with a
part that I forgot, the relatives have a small bank that was
Heaths, and it is a copy of a church from Staffordshire
I guess we can assume some one didn't take Heath's identity,
anyway as I always say the only one who knows the truth is
old William Heath, although there are a lot of interesting items
associated with the story.
Frankly, none of this makes any sense to me at all, and it is
based on absoltuely nothing but a highly improbable family
legend which mayu, as far as I know, be only a few years old.
There is absolutely no documentary evidence of anything
here other than a similarity of last names. Researching and
writing history require much more than the amount of
"information" available here. I doubt any serious LBH
historian would take this seriously. I used the term
"poppycock" because I didn't want to use a stronger one
on an email list.
FROM: Brian Pohanka
Well, I have been about as fair as I can with this -- leaving it
at the sort of, "Well, anything is theoretically possible, and
there is the remote chance that the family lore is true....but I
personally doubt it." Thus I don't reject it out of hand, but I
cannot bring myself to believe it.
There were "survivors" of Company L, the men detailed to
the Pack Train. There were also men of that company,
among others, left back at
supply depot. So the company was not wiped out to the
There were men who "straggled back" from the Custer column
-- four, at least, that we know of were troopers -- and also the
scouts dropped back sometime just after than (all except
Mitch Bouyer, who rode to his death with Custer) -- some
think Curley went as far as Calhoun Ridge before dropping
out, but his fellow scouts implied he dropped out about the
same time they did. And there were also the two
messengers, Kanipe and Martini.
Anyhow, Heath would have had, one would think,
opportunity to either rejoin the other elements of his
command, or the Terry/Gibbon column, rather than wander
over the territory. Frank Finkel claimed a similar experience
by the way, and in his case actually set it down, or had it
set down, on paper. He has generally been dismissed,
Finkel that is, in part because when Sgt. Windolph, an
actual veteran of the fight & Medal of Honor man, wanted
to visit with him, Finkel avoided doing so.....
As I say, I cannot bring myself to believe that William
Heath was a survivor/escapee of the "Last Stand" but
I do think there may be some sort of connection between
the _two_ "William Heaths" -- either by alias, desertion,
or some other explanation.
I won't close the door entirely on it -- we'd need a body
to do that. But I just cannot accept it enough to endorse it.
Updated: November 2001