The US Seventh Cavalry will always be remembered for its arrogant and vainglorious leader, Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Once a wunderkind of the American Civil War, Custer would eventually go down in history for his doomed attack against Chief Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn.
The Seventh’s commander, with his flowing locks and buckskin clothes, certainly was a character but he wasn’t the only one to be found in and around the ranks of the regiment… there was Mrs Nash, too.
Mrs Nash joined the Seventh in Kentucky as a laundress and followed the regiment to Fort Lincoln in Dakota. She was an intriguing creature, usually seen wearing a veil or shawl pinned under her chin. People commented on her coarse and stubborn beard, angular shape and awkward gait.
Odd looking or not, she was a good worker – a nurse and a good midwife who was in high demand. When she wasn’t delivering babies, Mrs Nash baked cakes and adjusted uniforms for the officers.
They obviously appreciated her, too, because she was married no less than four times, all but the last being unhappy unions. On one occasion, Nash told Custer’s wife, Libbie, that her first two husbands had abandoned her and taken all her money. She also claimed that she was from Mexico and had two children, and that prior to moving to Kentucky she had earned a living driving teams of oxen.
All this seemed to be accepted by the women of Fort Lincoln and life was looking up for Mrs Nash, particularly when she wed her fourth husband, a Private Noonan. They lived happily together on Suds Row, close by Fort Lincoln’s parade grounds. However, things took a turn for the worse when Mrs Nash became ill while her husband was away on duty.
Her condition deteriorated drastically. As reported in the Bismarck Tribune in 1879, she asked her friends to see that she was buried without any cleaning and dressing of her body. The friends flatly refused the request and upon the poor woman’s demise soon discovered the reason for their friend’s modesty: Nash was a mister not a missus.
When he returned from his expedition, Private Noonan is said to have lost some of his colour on hearing the news of his wife’s passing. He took to avoiding the other men, the regular games of poker he had once enjoyed were now forgotten as he went on long walks alone.
When one day he entered the fort’s blacksmith’s shop and was accosted by a trooper who loudly wondered why it was that Noonan and his late wife never had children, well that was the final straw for the widower.
The whispers and the nudges had become too much and Noonan decided to put an end to it all. He did so with the help of a pistol and a bullet to his own heart.
The Seventh’s commanding officers breathed a sigh of relief at the news. The regiment had spared itself the ignominy of a lurid scandal. The last thing they wanted was for their soldiers to become a laughing stock.
No, a lowly private could never be allowed tarnish the good name of the regiment in such a way, history saw to it that the only scandal the Seventh were known for was the one caused by their fine, glamorous Colonel’s disastrous leadership at the Battle of Little Bighorn.