Henry R. Porter, M. D.

Henry R. Porter, M. D., one of the most distinguished and honored citizens of Bismarck, North Dakota, and of whom a steel engraving is presented on another page, is the only surviving surgeon of the three who were with Custer's regiment on the fateful June day, in 1876, when so many gallant men perished in the never-to-be-forgotten battle on the Little Big Horn. He was born in Lee Center, Oneida County, New York, February 13, 1848, and is a son of Henry N. and Helen (Polson) Porter, the former also a native of Oneida County, New York, the latter of Scotland. The father graduated from the Geneva Medical College of New York, and for many years was engaged in practice in that state, but is now living retired in Washington, D. C. The grandfather, Norton Porter, was also a physician and surgeon and died in New York after many years of practice. Our subject has two sisters who are also living in Washington, D. C.

Dr. Porter, of this review, completed his literary education at the seminary in Whitestown, New York, in 1868, and then commenced the study of medicine with his father. In 1869 he entered the University of Michigan, where he spent one year, and the following year he passed in England and Scotland. On his return to this country he entered the Georgetown University, D. C., and was graduated from the medical department of that institution in 1872.

The same year Dr. Porter was appointed an acting assistant surgeon in the United States army and was assigned to General Crook's command, then in Arizona, where he remained for a year and a half, during which time he was in seven or eight battles with the Apaches. In general orders No. 14, issued by General Crook, and dated, Prescott, Arizona, April 9, 1873, the Doctor is mentioned for gallantry in the engagement in Superstition mountains, January 10, 1873, and again for conspicuous service and gallantry in different engagements against the Tonto Apaches in February and March, 1873.

Later during the year Dr. Porter was transferred to Bismarck, North Dakota, as post surgeon at Camp Hancock with General Custer, remaining with the command until after the death of that famous general. The most remarkable fight in the history of Indian warfare was the battle fought on the Little Big Horn River in Montana, between the command of General Custer and the allied forces of all the renegade Indians in the west under the leadership of Chiefs Gall and Sitting Bull, June 23, 1876. It was remarkable from the fact that not a single man in Custer's command escaped to tell the tale. Of this battle Dr. Porter gives the following account:

"Our expedition left Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 17, 1870, under the command of General Terry, and proceeded overland. Mrs. Custer accompanied her husband on horseback as far as Heart River, a distance of several miles, and there bid him an affectionate farewell, and returned to the garrison. We marched in easy stages to Powder River in Montana. Nothing of particular note occurred on the march except that one day we saw, with field glasses, a lone horseman at a distance of several miles. He had evidently seen us and was riding toward our command. We thought of course that he was an Indian, as it did not seem possible that any white man could be off in that wilderness, hundreds of miles from any habitation, alone. As he came nearer we discovered that it was none other than Buffalo Bill, the noted scout and Indian fighter. He was one of General Crook's scouts and was off on an expedition of his own. General Crook's command was then in the region of the Black Hills, miles away. After we had gone into camp at Powder River, Reno was ordered out on a scouting expedition. He found a wide Indian trail leading in a westerly direction toward Rosebud River. Custer was then ordered to follow the trail. The Indians bad been located by General Terry's scouts, and he told Custer to strike them on the 26th. Terry was sure that his scouts had them well located, and results demonstrated that he was correct. Generals Terry and Gibbon were to go by another route and were to strike the Indians in front and Custer was to close in on the rear. Custer started from the camp on Powder River on the morning of June 24. I was sent with him. We were on the trail all that day and night. The night was very dark and we lost the trail once, but found it again by lighting matches.

"We proceeded until four o'clock, the morning of the 25th, when we camped in a deep ravine where the Indians could not see us. We were not allowed to unsaddle or unpack. Being very tired after our long ride, we laid down and slept, each man holding his horse by the bridle reins. In about an hour the scouts reported a large camp of Indians ahead. The command was ordered to get ready for action. Custer came to me and said: 'Porter, there is a large camp of Indians ahead, and we are going to have a great killing. At six o'clock we started. It was Custer's purpose at this time to charge the Indians in a body, he supposing that our presence had not been discovered by them. In a short time the scouts reported that we had been seen by the Indians. Custer then decided to divide the command. He sent Colonel Benteen with three companies to the left; Major Reno with three companies in the center; and he took three companies and was to go to the right, his idea being to surround the Indian camp. Captain McDougal was left in charge of the pack train. It was about ten o'clock when the command was divided. Just as we were ready to start, Custer came to me and said: 'Doctor, I would like to have you go with me, as you are younger and more robust and Dr. Lord, the chief surgeon is not feeling very well.' I replied, 'All right. I would much prefer going with you.' Custer then said: 'I will see Dr. Lord and ask him to consent'. We rode over to where Dr. Lord was, and Custer spoke to him about the contemplated arrangement. The Doctor replied: 'Not much. I am going with you.' The poor fellow in those few words saved my life and sealed his own doom. I went with Reno. We had proceeded but a short distance when Captain Cook, Custer's adjutant, came up and said: 'The Indians are right ahead of you, and you are ordered to charge them as fast as possible.'

"We went forward at a lively gait. When we came to the river we discovered the Indians were on the opposite bank. We forded the river and suddenly came upon ten or fifteen redskins, and they were running. We then thought that we had already won the fight. We rode some little distance toward the Indian camp, when suddenly a swarm of red devils rose up and poured a terrific fire into us. We dismounted and formed a skirmish line. At first there were only a few, comparatively, then more and more of the savages appeared, and the ground seemed to be fairly alive with them. They were all naked and their bodies were painted hideously. They all rode their ponies bareback. The fire finally became so hot that Reno ordered his men to mount, and led them under cover of the woods. Then the Indians closed in on us, shooting through the branches, killing some of our men. A soldier was shot in the little clump of trees where I was. I dismounted and found him mortally wounded. Reno ordered the troops to mount and charge, and a running fight ensued. My horse was rearing, and plunging, and I had all I could do to hold him. The Indians, in their mad pursuit of our troops, did not notice me in the timber. They were passing within ten feet of where I was. I placed laudanum on the wound of the soldier and bandaged it as best I could, and again mounted my frightened horse. As I was leaving the poor soldier said: 'For God's sake, Doctor, don't leave me to be tortured by those fiends.' Bullets were flying thick and fast, and I turned my horse loose and caught up with our troops, who had gotten half a mile away. In that half mile ride I think I was the target of a thousand rifles, but I escaped without a scratch. We again forded the river and took a stand on the top of a steep hill. A few minutes later Benteen, with his three companies came up, as did McDougal, with the pack train. Benteen, after leaving us when the command was divided, had gone west to the river. Not seeing any Indians and hearing the firing he rushed back and joined us. We fought there the remainder of the day, surrounded by three thousand savages, while there were only three hundred of us, all told. The men dug rifle pits with their knives and tin cups. At dark the Indians stopped firing. Some of the men then crawled down to the river and secured water. We had been fighting in the broiling sun all day without a drop of water, and the wounded were begging for a drink. I had some brandy with me, but I told them that it would make them worse. They insisted on having it, anyway. Next morning the Indians again opened fire on us. Although Reno was ranking officer, Colonel Benteen was really in command, and to his coolness and bravery those of us who were saved owe our lives. With the air thick with bullets and some of them piercing his clothing, he stood calmly directing the troops. Occasionally a band of savages would dash tip to within two or three hundred yards of us, and our men would then charge them. Several Indians were killed in these charges, and finally one of the soldiers killed and scalped an Indian in plain view of the others. This frightened them) and they kept a safe distance away after that. A perfect storm of leaden hail was poured in on us all day the 26th until about four o'clock in the afternoon, when the firing gradually ceased. We were then frightened, as we thought the Indians were up to some bloodier mischief. Finally we saw them moving off in a body. That night most of the soldiers slept, and were much refreshed in the morning. After the Indians left we were able to procure water. We had all been nearly famished. During the morning of the 27th General Terry and his command came up. He and his staff were all crying, and General Terry said: 'Custer and his whole command are killed. We thought you were, too.'

"During the two days we were surrounded by the Indians the inquiry among our men for Custer was loud, and that General's court-martial was freely speculated upon. After separating from us Custer had gone through a rough country for a distance of four or five miles and attacked the Indians in the rear. As soon as we could, several of the officers and myself went over to where Custer had fought, and found what General Terry had reported to be only too true. We found Custer's body stark naked, as white and clean as a baby's. He was shot in the head and breast. The body of Captain Tom Custer, General Custer's brother, was horribly mutilated. He was disemboweled, and his head had been crushed in by a blow from a stone hammer used by the Indians. The only arrow wound I found was in his head. He had the Sioux mark of death, which was a cut from the hip to the knee, reaching to the bone. His heart was not cut out, as has been reported by Rain-in-the-face, one of the Sioux chiefs who took part in the fight. I cut a lock of hair from the head of each officer as he lay, and gave it to their families on my return home. The steamer Far West was moored at the mouth of the Little Big Horn. She was the supply boat of the expedition, and had made her way up the Big Horn farther than any other boat. After burying the dead we took the wounded on litters ten or twelve miles to the boat, and I was detailed to go down to Fort Lincoln with them. Colonel Smith, Terry's adjutant general, was sent along with the official dispatches, and he had a traveling bag full of telegrams for the Bismarck office. Captain Grant Marsch, of Bismarck, was in command of the "Far West," and the steamer performed a feat unequaled in western steam boating. Marsch put everything in the most complete order and took a large supply of fuel. His orders were to reach Bismarck as soon as possible. The steamer never received the credit due her, nor did her gallant captain. The Big Horn is full of islands, and a successful passage is not an easy feat, but the boat made it without an accident, after a thrilling voyage. At Fort Buford and Fort Stevenson we stopped a minute to tell the news, and at Fort Berthold a wounded scout was put off. Two of the wounded died, and we went ashore to bury them. We approached home with something of that feeling that always moves the human heart. It was one mixed wills sorrow and gladness. At eleven o'clock on the night of the 5th of July we readied Bismarck and Fort Lincoln, having made one thousand miles in fifty-four hours. Colonel Smith and myself hurried from the land up town, and called up Colonel Lounsberry, the editor of the "Tribune," and the telegraph operator, J. M. Carnahan, who took his seat at the key and scarcely raised himself from his chair for twenty-two hours. What he sent vibrating around the world is history."

One of the officers in Reno's command has the following to say of Dr. Porter's services during the memorable fight on Reno's Hill:

"The afternoon of the 25th, all night, throughout the 26th, the night of that date, and until the forenoon of the 27th, Dr. Porter worked as few men are ever called upon to work. He had no idea that he would get out alive, and believed every man around him was doomed. Still he was the same cool and skillful surgeon that he is today. He had a duty to perform that seldom falls to a man of twenty-six, and yet he performed it nobly. He was surrounded by the dead, dying and wounded. Men were crying for water, for help, for relief, for life. For twenty-four hours there was no water. The sun was blazing hot. The dead horses were sickening, the air heavy with a hundred smells, the bullets thick, the men falling, and bluffs for miles around black with the jubilant savages. The work of the others was not like Porter's. He must know no fear, no trembling, no rest. He had every agonizing sight before his eyes. The afternoon of the 26th, when the Indians ceased their firing and began to move off, there were around fifty dead and fifty wounded. One in every three was either killed or maimed. I know little of hospital history, but I doubt if there is much that overshadows Porter's experience upon the bluff overlooking the Little Big Horn. If I had the genius of a Buchanan Reed, I would weave it into a song more heroic than 'Sheridan's Ride.' "

Colonel Benteen said to him: "I know of no doctor in the regular corps who would have performed the work which Dr. Porter did, with his small force of assistants; don't think there was or is one in the army. There seas no nonsense, no gush about hint, only just a strict attention to duty, and as modest about it as a girl in her teens."

Dr. Porter's military service terminated in 1887, but at the opening of the war between Spain and this country he made the offer to present $30,000 to the government and either join the army as surgeon or serve in the ranks, which fact shows that the patriotic fire which once burned fervently within him has not yet died out. After leaving the service he engaged in the practice of his profession at Bismarck for some time, and for a year or so visited Washington, D. C., after a tour of the world in 1893-1894. But there was a fascination for him in the scenes in which a stirring part of his career had been laid and he returned to Bismarck, where he now resides.

In 1877 Dr. Porter was united in marriage with Miss Lottie Viets, of Oberlin, Ohio, a daughter of Henry Viets. Site died in 1888, leaving one child, Henry V. In his political views the Doctor is a Republican, but takes no active part in party affairs. Socially he is a Mason of high degree. He has been president of-the Medical Society of North Dakota; superintendent of the board of health of Burleigh County; vice-president of the board of examining surgeons for United States pensions at that point; and is now a member of the council of the Association of Acting Assistant Surgeons of the United States army, and vice-president of the Society of Veterans of the Indian Wars. He is a pleasant, genial and polished gentleman, of high social qualities and is very popular, having a most extensive circle of acquaintances who esteem him highly for his genuine worth. He has met with excellent success in life, becoming quite wealthy, and has traveled extensively, visiting all of Europe and a good part of Asia and Africa during the years of 1893 and 1894. He has climbed the Alps in Switzerland, and the Pyramids of Egypt. He rode a camel over the Nubian Desert, and shot the cataracts of the Nile. He saw the Pope in Rome, the Sultan in Constantinople, witnessed bull fights in Spain, and the gambling tables of Monte Carlo. A month of sightseeing in Paris gave him a pretty good insight into the mysteries of the gayest city in the world. Over a month in Rome, he had time to study art and ruins to a limited extent, but where a life time could be spent profitably exploring the wonders and mysteries of the Eternal city. After visiting Cairo and the two oldest cities in the world, Memphis and Thebes, he sailed from Alexandria to Joppa, then by rail to Jerusalem, and on horseback to Jericho, the Dead Sea, and the river Jordan. He visited Bethlehem and saw the place where Christ was born, the Garden of Gethsemane, up the Mount of Olives, and through the valley of Jehosophat. His trip through Palestine and Syria was made on horseback, camping at each place until everything had been seen. He camped, slept and lunched at Samaria, the plains of Jezreel, where Saul conquered the Philistines; also on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Capernaum and Damascus. He visited Cypres, Rhodes and Turkey, where he saw the sultan going to prayers, and a review of ten thousand Turkish troops. He spent a week in Greece and Athens, returning again to Naples and Rome, thence through Spain, sailing from Gibraltar for home.

Source:  Compendium of History and Biography of North Dakota 1900 Page 160

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