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Celebrate 150 Years of Taps

The Life of Giovanni Martino (John Martin): Custer’s Bugler

Taps

Over 130 years later, sharp debate and controversy still surround the events of the Little Big Horn valley.  It easily remains one of America history’s most famous battles, and its allure never seems to fade.  Tactics and personalities are examined endlessly through a wide array of books, monographs, essays, movies and websites.  More recent archaeological discoveries at the sprawling battlefield have only served to enhance and fuel further studies and discussions.  Dedicated volunteer groups like the Friends of the Little Big Horn Battlefield, Little Big Horn Associates, and Little Bighorn History Alliance promote serious research of the battle, leading to more detailed studies of the individuals involved.

Our John Martin, Giovanni Martino, has not been forgotten.  Interest in Martin’s life has grown in recent years, especially in his native Italy.  Some of this appeal derives from a general European interest in the lore and legends of the American Wild West.  Much of the research regarding his birth comes from the diligent efforts of Italian professional and amateur historians: Professor Giuseppe Colliti; Dr. Michele Esposito; Pasquale Petrocelli; and, Claudio Busi.  Their research, enhanced by their proximity to primary source documents, is free of the restrictions and biases accumulated through seemingly endless and often conflicting analyses of the participants and events surrounding the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Although not directly involved with examining Martin’s life outside of his services with the Seventh Cavalry, more prominent historians and authors – Robert Utley, James Donovan and John Koster – help to keep his story alive.  Don Horn of the Little Big Horn Associates helped to provide Martin’s gravesite with a new tombstone in 1991 which bears the following inscription: “Carried Gen. Custer’s Last Message – Battle of the Little Big Horn – June 25, 1876”.

Other individuals also help to keep his life and contributions alive and relevant.  In 1999, his services were recognized and honored by the Arlington National Cemetery’s “Taps Project,” a permanent exhibit created by Jari A. Villanueva that pays tribute to nine famous buglers in U.S. Army history.  The exhibit is moving, not only with respect to Martin, but to other often forgotten buglers.  Awareness of Martin and his service to the Seventh Cavalry extends even further: John Chiarella and the Five Borough Bicycle Club of New York honored Martin during their Annual Memorial Day Ride in 2007.

His fellow veterans always referred to him as “Bugler” Martin.  The old troopers had great regard for Martin, and respected him for both his actions and demeanor.  Other accounts by family members consistently paint him as good and happy man, who loved and valued his family dearly.  He was sometimes affectionately referred to as “Dry Martini.”  Petrocelli eloquently writes that, “…we do not find a hero per se, but rather a normal man.  One with qualities both good and bad.  He very much represents the humble and rarely acknowledged aspects of the Italian immigrants of his era, who also worked and sacrificed for their adopted homeland.”

In his venerated book, The Custer Myth: A Source Book for Custeriana, Colonel W.A. Graham eloquently notes that Martin “…is a rather remarkable old soldier, who never misses an occasion to honor the Stars and Stripes, and who turns out in the old blue, his left arm literally covered to the elbow with service stripes, every time the call of patriotism sounds, whether it be to honor the dead or greet the living.”  Graham, who had interviewed Martin a few months before the latter’s death, properly adds “…he is well worthy of your respectful attention.”

Giovanni Martino lived an historical odyssey, and his experiences may likely remain unparalleled.  For most, however, his life and experiences are summed up in one untidy yet incomplete statement: The last white man to see Custer alive.

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