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Billy Heath: The Man Who Survived Custer's Last Stand Hardcover – May 1, 2003
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"If you are interested in sole survivor accounts, you should definitely buy this book...markedly different from preceding ones..." -- Little Big Horn Association newsletter, October 2003
From the Publisher
A recurring element in the literature of any such event are the questions. Was there a survivor? Did anyone escape the debacle? Did someone live to tell the tale? To delve into this question, to follow the cold trails and puzzle over the fragmentary evidence of such a possibility, is to risk entering the world of hoaxers, hucksters, and publicity seekers--those Little Bighorn historian William A. Graham aptly termed "the fabricators of fantastic tales about Custer's Last Fight." But amidst the hoaxes, delusions, and outright lies there still remains--at least in theory--a possibility that one (or more) of Custer's men did manage to escape from the fatal battleground. . . .
Did farrier William Heath of Company L, Seventh U.S. Cavalry, survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn? Perhaps the only valid answer to that question is, Let the evidence speak for itself. -- from the foreword by Brian C. Pohanka
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This book leaves much to be desired though, due to the following:
1. The author decides to forego the use of footnotes, defending the decision on the grounds that it would bog the work down and hinder its readability. A book as ambitious as this ought to gladly bog the reader down! How else to build a solid foundation on what turns out to be a very weak claim?
2. 90% of the text is context--Custer, Indian Wars, coal mining conditions in Pennsylvania in the town where Heath came from, Gilded Age politics. This is the case since there is so very little the author can actually tell us about Heath, which isn't the author's fault as Heath is scarely documented (other than in census and tax records) and left no written accounts behind at all. The details of his life are tabla rosa. Is it necessary to devote an entire chapter of a book about Heath to Custer when the book is comprised of eight chapters, especially when what is presented is a one-sided, negative view of Custer? None of these opinions belong to Heath but are strictly the author's. Readers interested in the details of that controversial commander's life should turn to more balanced biographies by authors such as Utley, Wert, and Barnett.
3. The author states that he hasn't read any other sole survivor accounts and can't provide details on other claims. Here, he could have provided context by at least studying the Frank Finkel story that has been examined in at least three other published works. Finkel's account has been the most highly regarded of sole survivor claims but it, too, falls victim to facts. There are other source worth checking as well--Edgar Stewart, Brian Dippie, various newspaper articles on such accounts, etc.
4. Mr. Genovese does document the existence of a William Heath in Pennsylvania, his 1875 enlistment in the army and assignment to Troop L, one of the five dooomed companies that perished with Custer's command. Heath's name appears on the mass grave monument that has stood since 1881 on Last Stand Hill. The author claims that Heath returned to his wife in the spring of 1877 (note that MEN WITH CUSTER that contains biographal sketches of everyone with Custer at the Little Bighorn states that Heath was unmarried). A William Heath continues to show up on tax records. His statement that he survived the final phase of this legendary battle was passed down through the family. According to family oral tradition, he somehow left the field of carnage, and was picked up by a westward-bound family named Ennis that nursed him back to health (this "miracle rescue" is a characteritic shared with Finkel, who claimed to have somehow stumbled onto a cabin where the occupant nursed him back to health. All this occuring in the wilds of Montana). Heath died in 1891. So sparse are the details surrounding the key question of HOW he survived that the author must speculate on this key point--he "may" have made a run for safety, may have made it to the river, may have hid until dark, etc. Three different survival scenarios are presented.
Conclusions? If the author has the liberty to speculate, the reader can do so as well. Perhaps Heath was one of the members of Troop L who remained with the packtrain in the rear and thus escaped the fate of most of his fellow troopers. The "survival" account was started after his death by family members at a loss as to how he could have survived the 7th's famous battle, unaware that many did through serving under Reno and Benteen, the commands that the packtrain ended up with. His listing as killed in battle was in error and never corrected as he could have deserted in the confusion following the battle. The picture is further clouded by the author's disclosure that Heath had an alias. Most likely though, Heath may well be the unnamed deserter that Doug Ellison's recent booklet MYSTERY OF THE ROSEBUD indicates may have departed the 7th Cavalry prior to the battle, on June 22, three days before the fateful encounter. Nearly fifty years before, Edgar Stewart reached a similar conclusion in his classic CUSTER'S LUCK. Ellison was made aware of Stewart's belief only after he arrived at the same answer
just a few years ago.
One thing is for certain though, even if Heath were actually a survivor of the last stand, his survial significes nothing for history. Survivor or deserter, he totally failed to leave behind any written accounts that could in some small way begin to answer some of the questions about the fabled engagement that his family's oral tradition claims he survived. Instead, we have only one more mystery about an event that already has more than its share of such conumdrums.