By: Randy Tucker
War clouds loomed for central Europe. It’s a familiar scene over the past century for trouble to brew on the border separating France and Germany. But this was the first time, and the tension came soon after Germany unified in 1870.
Otto von Bismarck did the impossible in unifying nearly a thousand little city-states, principalities, and mini-kingdoms into what was to become modern Germany.
On paper, the French were heavily favored. The French Army was equipped with the 11mm Chassepot, the first breech loading rifle taken in military service by the French. Its rate of fire, eight to 15 rounds per minute depending on the user, was far superior to the muzzle loading rifles it replaced. With a range of 1200 yards and a muzzle velocity of 1345 feet per second (fps), it was a formidable weapon.
The Germans had a much more established, but lesser-quality weapon in the Dreyse Needle Gun, first designed by Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse in the 1820s and perfected for use by the Prussian military in 1848.
Acorn shaped in 15.4 mm, the Dreyse shot a huge bullet. Its rate of fire was only six rounds per minute, and at a muzzle velocity of 1000 fps, it was effective to just 600 yards.
Both weapons used waxed paper cartridges, ignited by a sharp “needle like” firing pin that penetrated the paper and set off a percussion cap inside.
But the small arms of the opposing armies would not settle this fight. The French troops were better equipped but Bismarck’s artillery, dominated by the Krupp three-kilogram breech loading cannon, which was the difference in a quick Prussian victory.
Not every newly unified German citizen was flushed with patriotic fervor, however. The vision of a German nation brought fear to surrounding countries and to citizens within the newly formed German state as well.
Charles Windolph was one of those frightened citizens. One of the first acts of Bismarck’s new government was to draft men for service in the Franco-Prussian Army. Windolph had no desire to serve; he was a dreamer and imagined a better life in the paradise of the American West.
In 1870, Windolph caught a ship across the Atlantic and arrived in New York City a few weeks later full of dreams and hopes for a new prosperity. The harsh reality of Gotham City inundated by millions of people just like Windolph made for a tight job market. With no money and no way West, he unsuccessfully searched for work and eventually enlisted in the American Army.
In one of those strange twists of fate, the thing Windolph had so adamantly tried to avoid found him.
June 25, 1876 brought Windolph’s foray into military service full-circle. Pinned down on a cliff above a giant village of unified Cheyenne and Sioux above a small creek in modern-day Montana, Windolph was an eyewitness to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Windolph served with Major Marcus Reno along the Greasy Grass, as Native Americans call the area. With most of Reno’s forces killed or wounded, the fate of Windolph and the remaining soldiers of the 7th Cavalry seemed inevitable. Only an assault by General George Custer on the other end of the village saved the men from impending annihilation.
Windolph spent the most harrowing night of his life listening to what he thought were war songs and victory celebrations coming from the village below. What he was actually hearing was the mourning song of Lakota and Cheyenne women over the loss of their husbands, sons, and fathers in the battle.
Reno’s command escaped early the next morning.
Windolph had upended his life to avoid firing the Dreyse and escape returning fire by the Chassepot, only to find himself carrying a Springfield model 1873 rifle for an army whose language he didn’t speak well. The Springfield was similar in performance to the Chassepot with a .45-70 cartridge, a range of 1000 yards, and with a nearly equal muzzle velocity of 1350 fps.
The officers fighting around Windolph carried the 1873 Colt Army six-shooter firing a .44 caliber rim fire cartridge with a few scattered personal Smith and Wesson Model 3 revolvers in .45 caliber.
The Sioux and Cheyenne weren’t nearly as coordinated in their armaments.
Archeologists have discovered 45 different firearms used by the Native Americans at the battle. Pistol cartridges in a wide variety of calibers tell a different story of Indian armament than the Hollywood version of the battle, and arms, spent bullets, and cartridges found after the battle indicated rifles ranging from smoothbore muskets to state-of-the-art Henry and Winchester repeating rifles.
Windolph left the army as soon as his initial enlistment expired. He lived until 1950, the oldest surviving U.S. soldier at Custer’s Last Stand.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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