THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY

SEPTEMBER 2015 BOOK REVIEW

This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Spring 2014, Volume 60, Number 3)

FIRST TO ARRIVE ON CUSTER’S BATTLEFIELD WITH THE MONTANA COLUMN: Frederick E. Server, Montana Pioneer, Soldier and Explorer - His 1876- 1877 Journal Of Exploration Of The Snake River And Pursuit Of The Nez Perce.

By Rickard A. Ross. Upton & Sons 2010. Large format. 214pp. Maps. Illus. Appendices. $55 

Although this volume has been published as part of the Battle of the Little Big Horn Series [Volume 9] it should be stated at the outset that most of the text does not relate to this battle or indeed to the 1876 campaign. Frederick Server was a Sergeant attached to Company G, 2nd Cavalry, part of the four-company battalion that was stationed at Fort Ellis, Montana, at that post. In that capacity he accompanied the battalion as part of Colonel Gibbon’s Montana Column in its marches along the Yellowstone and then up the Big Horn and its famous tributary in June 1876. Server was detailed as a ‘left flank guide’ moving ahead of the column under the bluffs on the eastern side of the Little Big Horn River on June 27 and while doing so noticed the dead body of a white man and sent back a message to General Terry. Terry despatched his adjutant to join Server who, by this time had found seven more bodies. It seems that word of Server’s discoveries reached Terry before Bradley’s report of the discovery of most of Custer’s command reached Terry. Hence the title of the volume.

This, then, is Server’s claim to fame. His name will not be totally unfamiliar to serious students of the engagement. His interviews by Walter M. Camp and Eli S. Ricker are already in print. Extracts from those interviews have been reproduced in this volume, together with the accounts of other participants. The coverage of the burials of the 7ths men is reasonably comprehensive but it should be stated that only 36 pages of the book relate to the 1876 campaign and only 16 pages to the period June 21-28. It should also be noted that his journal does not contain any entries relating to the 1876 campaign. The first entry is dated October 11, 1876 when Server was directed to accompany Lieutenant Gustavus Doane in an exploration of Yellowstone National Park and then down the Snake River, past Jackson Lake and the Teton range of mountains, and then as far as Fort Hall, Idaho, a journey that would encompass some of the most majestic scenery in Western America. The expedition ran into considerable difficulty and suffered hardship having covered 750 miles. And their reception nearing Fort Hall was to be mistaken for deserters. He stayed at Fort Hall for only a day before commencing the 300 mile journey back to Fort Ellis, arriving there in early February 1877.

Server’s itinerary is succinct, rather than descriptive. The problem with this kind of narrative is that it is heavy in detail, but somehow loses the overall perspective. Illustrations of the outstanding geographical features, preferably taken during the winter, would have given the reader a much better insight into the scale of the obstacles that Doane, Server and their tiny escort had to face. 

On his return to Fort Ellis, Server might have expected a period of respite, but this was not to be.  At the beginning of March, Miles ordered out the Montana battalion of the Second Cavalry to join the forces he was assembling in the expectation of confronting the Sioux in another summer campaign. However, Server would not see service against the Sioux. Miles ordered Doane to enlist Crows to assist him in the forthcoming campaign and Doane took Server and three privates as escort. However, Doane’s efforts to recruit the Crows were not particularly successful and he was reduced to accompanying them on their leisurely summer buffalo hunt and any assistance he obtained was by persuasion and cajolement. Server’s association with Custer’s defeat was renewed when he encountered Nowlan’s burial party but otherwise the summer was spent accompanying the Crows’ across central Montana in search of the elusive Lakota. The book gives a full description of this period but none of it seems to be based on Server’s accounts. By late August, Doane, with Server, had joined Sturgis in search of the Nez Perces in the Judith Basin area, but on returning to Fort Ellis he was to accompany Doane in unsuccessfully assisting Gibbons’ second in command in trying to overtake General Howard who was pursuing Joseph. There is a great deal of background about the pursuit of the Nez Perce.  And one can only admire the stamina of the troops stationed in Montana who covered vast distances over difficult terrain, sometimes facing dangerous adversaries. Server was awarded the Indian Wars Medal for his service in 1876 and 1877. Server was discharged from the Army in 1883 when stationed at Fort Custer, and apart from the 1878 campaign against the Bannocks he was not to see active service in those final years.  The remainder of the book is devoted to his post service life with his family.

In essence, there is very little about Server personally other than that he was clearly a competent NCO, enjoying the confidence of Doane. We know little about his personality. Although there are references to Custer’s battlefield throughout the volume this cannot really be considered an essential work for those only interested in that engagement. But is a very interesting and informative volume about some of the lesser known activities of the Army and provides a useful insight into the lives of the soldiers stationed on the frontier and the lives of settlers in Montana. For those wishing to explore a wider canvas this work is very interesting. 

And like all of Dick Upton’s publications it is well presented. No bad news? Rather disconcertingly the review copy was accompanied by a page of errata and this did not pick up all of the mistakes. (Lieutenant John Wallace 7th Cavalry!). This is a broad brush work and specific statements may need to be considered with some caution. As commented earlier, photographs of the region would probably have enhanced its value, but the volume is a worthy addition to one’s library.

Francis B. Taunton 

 

 

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