- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

BILLY HEATH: THE MAN WHO SURVIVED CUSTER’S LAST STAND

By Vincent J. Genovese

Prometheus,$25, 232 pages

REVIEWED BY BILL CROKE



There’s probably been as many books penned about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as have been written about such American worthies as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Now in “Billy Heath: The Man Who Survived Custer’s Last Stand” Vincent J. Genovese gives us yet another, more specifically, one to join the related list of “survivor” titles.

Most reputable Custer-Little Bighorn scholars (Robert M. Utley, Evan S. Connell, the late Stephen Ambrose, et al) agree that there were no human survivors among the five companies of Seventh Cavalry troopers that ended up with Custer atop Last Stand Hill on that hot June day.

We do have an equine survivor: Captain Myles Keogh’s horse “Comanche”. Other than that there were the remnants of Custer’s divided command under Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen some miles away, and his four noncombatant Crow scouts (Curly, White Man Runs Him, Hairy Moccasin, Goes Ahead), whom he released from duty at the start of the fight. But Vincent Genovese insists that one Billy Heath did survive and live on for 15 years after the battle. His arguments are specious.

Billy Heath hailed from the Pennsylvania coal country, where he worked as a miner. In 1875, at 27, he enlisted in the army and was assigned to the Seventh Cavalry at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory (present Bismarck, N. D.). In May, 1876 he accompanied the Seventh as part of a three pronged campaign to crush the recalcitrant Sioux and Cheyenne. The ensuing story is generally familiar even to people with no scholarly interest in the Plains Wars.

The vainglorious Custer underestimated Indian strength in the Yellowstone Valley of present Montana, and instead of waiting to coordinate strategy with his superiors (Generals Terry, Crook, and Gibbon), made the tactical blunder of dividing his command in three and on his own initiative attacked a large village on the Little Bighorn River. He was outnumbered roughly 10 to one, and in a final effort to save his immediate command, led his men to an indefensible hill above the river, where all 264 were massacred “in the time it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner”, as a Cheyenne veteran of the battle later put it.

Mr. Genovese believes that Billy Heath managed to escape the carnage —maybe wounded — and wandered the surrounding country afoot until he was rescued by a wagon train and nursed back to health. He speculates that Heath then returned to Pennsylvania, married, fathered seven children, and died in 1891. The author believes he was a deserter, and therefore sought anonymity, never joining the growing army of imposters who claimed to have survived the battle. The latter is a convenient cop-out on Mr. Genovese’s part.

He bases his further arguments on hearsay, rumor and pure speculation. He uses unverified secondhand Indian accounts about troopers who supposedly escaped, and insists Pennsylvania death records and other documents concerning Heath are credible, as if William Heath were the only William Heath of Schuylkill County. It’s odd that no other scholar in the last 127 years has brought any of this to light.

One key to the authenticity of the author’s thesis may be the host of factual errors found in the book. For instance, he calls Montana’s Wolf Mountains the “Wolfe” Mountains. He tells us that Buffalo Bill Cody was born in 1848, when it was 1846, and that the sagebrush impresario “died in 1917 on his ranch in the Bighorn Basin of northwestern Wyoming.” Cody died in Denver, and is buried at Lookout Mountain, Colo. Mr. Genovese did get the year right. The preceding also highlights the author’s rambling forays concerning contemporary figures and goings-on at the time. These multiple embedded disheveled sidebars make for a true mishmash of a book.

In a chapter entitled “Custer—Man and Myth”, Mr. Genovese speculates at length as to whether George Custer was a bipolar manic depressive. This is all very amusing, but in the end nothing more than cheap psychoanalysis by a layman. Again, the author seems to be the first scholar in a century to come to this conclusion. Though Custer was certainly a megalomaniac, as any number of actions — including his final ones — taken in life prove.

As for Billy Heath’s miraculous escape, Mr. Genovese can’t seem to do any better than laying out a half dozen mysterious scenarios as to how it could have possibly happened. Was Heath the single trooper seen by the Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg galloping frantically over a hill with a group of Indians in pursuit? Was Heath a lone survivor among a group of troopers who abandoned the hill and ran for their lives back down into the riverbottom, only to be run down and killed by mounted Indians? Etc., etc.

Mr. Genovese likes the latter scenario, where Billy Heath hides in the river brush until it is safe to slip away in the night and move southward toward the Bozeman Trail. In it, after a period of starved and ragged wandering, Heath encountered a small wagon train and the Ennis family. “Incredible as it sounds, William Heath was rescued”, the author tells us. “[Heath] Oral family history relates that a passing family of settlers … ” etc.

Mr. Genovese continues his story. After spending the winter nursing his wounds with the Ennis’, William Heath returned to his former life in Pennsylvania. It’s fascinating how Mr. Genovese knows all these intricate details of Heath’s life based on “oral” history.

In the hands of a skillful writer, “Billy Heath: The Man Who Survived Custer’s Last Stand” would have made a good novel, for good historical fiction is better than bad history.

William Heath’s name remains inscribed with all the others on the granite memorial at the Little Bighorn National Monument, and there it shall remain.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyo.

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