KALIDA — Edward Settle Godfrey was born in Putnam County in 1843 and died 88 and a half years later in Cookstown, New Jersey.
For many of the years in between he was an officer in the U.S. 7th Cavalry, serving in campaigns against the Sioux, Cheyenne and Nez Perce. He was at the Washita and Wounded Knee. He was injured at Bear Paw Mountain in a fight against Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce and received the Medal of Honor for his actions there. He often sported a spectacular mustache.
On June 25, 1876, Godfrey was with Major Marcus Reno and a group of embattled cavalrymen on a hot, dusty hilltop above the Little Big Horn River in Montana. Several miles away another group of cavalrymen and scouts led by George Armstrong Custer was being wiped out. Godfrey survived and wrote an oft-cited account of the ill-fated campaign.
When he died on April 1, 1932, more than half a century after the Little Big Horn, the newspaper headlines invariably referred to him as the “old Indian fighter.”
“General Godfrey was at the time of his death the oldest graduate of the Military academy, and the oldest surviving officer of the Little Big Horn campaign, in which Colonel George A. Custer and 277 troopers of the Seventh cavalry were killed to the man by Indians ten times their number, who were better armed with repeating rifles,” the New York Times wrote.
Godfrey was born Oct. 9, 1843, at Kalida, the son of Dr. Charles M. and Mary Chambers Godfrey. His father was born in Adams County, Pennsylvania, and settled in Putnam County in 1836. He was an early Putnam County doctor but also served as county treasurer, state senator and president of the Ottawa schools board of education.
In an 1885 address to the Putnam County Pioneer Association, Dr. R.W. Thrift claimed that “no one who has ever settled in Putnam County is better known to all classes of people, or is more highly respected than Dr. C.M. Godfrey. And as a physician, though for some time withdrawn from active service on account of advancing age (Dr. Godfrey died around 1895) and a physical infirmity, his long experience, his ripe judgment and his general knowledge entitle him to be considered the Nestor (a wise king in Greek mythology) of the profession here.”
His son would not put down roots in Putnam County. At the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Edward S. Godfrey, not yet 18 years old, received his father’s permission to enlist as a private in Company D of the 21st Ohio Infantry, comprised of recruits from Putnam, Hancock, Wood, Defiance, Ottawa and Sandusky counties.
Godfrey completed a three-month enlistment during which he experienced his first combat at Scary Creek in the Kanawha Valley of what is now West Virginia on July 17, 1861. He subsequently was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in the class of 1867. On June 17, 1867, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 7th Cavalry.
During his first decade in the 7th Cavalry, Godfrey participated in the battle of the Washita River in Oklahoma in November 1868 when the 7th Cavalry wiped out a Cheyenne village. He was part of an expedition along the Yellowstone River in the summer of 1873 surveying a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad during which the 7th clashed with Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors. The following summer, Godfrey was with Custer’s Black Hills expedition, ostensibly organized to find a suitable site for a fort. They found gold and the discovery touched off a rush to the Black Hills, further antagonizing the Indians who held the land under treaty and considered it sacred.
In mid-May 1876, Custer, Godfrey and the 7th Cavalry again marched west from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory toward Montana territory, one of three prongs advancing from different points on hostile Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho.
The plan began to unravel on June 17, 1876, when the column advancing north from Wyoming was turned back at Rosebud Creek by a large force of Indians. A week later, Custer’s scouts found the Indian encampment. Custer unwisely decided to attack immediately and, as it turned out, further unwisely divided his own command into three units for the attack. While two of the units, including the unit Godfrey was with, were turned back by Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors and forced to take defensive positions on a hill, Custer was overwhelmed.
Godfrey described the battle in a letter to his family in Putnam County a few weeks later. Excerpts from the letter were printed in the Aug. 10, 1876, edition of the Lima Times-Democrat under the headline “The Little Big Horn Fight.”
Custer, Godfrey wrote, attempted to ford the river but was turned back and forced to make a stand on a nearby hill. “Here they made a stand; here it was we found every man dead. Oh, God! the horrors of that field,” Godfrey wrote. “We heard the firing down where they were about two miles below us in the hills, after we got up, but nothing to indicate desperate fighting.”
Godfrey and the remainder of Custer’s command were in a desperate fight of their own. “Night came and it was a long and anxious one waiting for General Custer,” Godfrey wrote, although he added, “I slept well; we had slept but little since the 23rd. Sergts. Winnry and Private Heiner were killed. I was standing right over Sergt. Winnry when he was shot. I did not have any anxiety as to myself. Daylight on the 26th brought back our foes …”
About noon on June 26, Godfrey continued, the gunfire eased and “about 3 p.m. they gave us a farewell fire — except parties going after water.” Around 7 p.m., Godfrey noted, “the Indians with their village moved away. It was a glad sight to us. It looked to be about three miles long and about three quarters of a mile wide, the largest outfit I have ever seen.”
The following year, Godfrey again was battling Indians, this time Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce who were attempting to flee to Canada. On Sept. 30, 1877, the Nez Perce encountered the pursuing 7th Cavalry at Bear Paw Mountain in Montana Territory. Godfrey, although severely wounded, continued to lead his troops in what turned out to be the end of trail for the Nez Perce. In 1894, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Bear Paw Mountain.
Godfrey was commanding Company D of the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek on Dec. 29, 1890, when U.S. troops massacred more than 150 Sioux. He also served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines during an insurrection there. He was retired from the Army on Oct. 9, 1907.
Godfrey wrote several books on cavalry tactics as well as reminiscences about the battles in which he was involved, most notably “Custer’s Last Battle” about the Little Big Horn.
At the ceremonial burying of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Godfrey led two platoons of Medal of Honor recipients who took part in the ceremony. Godfrey himself was buried at Arlington after his death in April 1932. He was survived by his widow, a daughter, and a son, who had become a physician.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.