Hope His Premium Was Paid Up!

George Armstrong Custer on 1872 hunt with Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.

I'm a student of western history. One of my favorite areas of reading growing up was the long conflict between Native Americans and Euro-Americans as the tide of white settlement moved ever westward. A particular fascination was the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. It was one of the Indians' greatest victories over the U. S. military and one the army's worst defeats.

Page 1 of Custer's letter to his life insurance agent, John B. Pirtle

George Armstrong Custer, boy general and Civil War hero, led the Seventh Cavalry to disaster that hot, dusty June day on the banks of the Greasey Grass, as the Sioux called the Little Bighorn River. Flamboyant, impetuous, and a media darling, Custer pushed his command ahead of the main body of troops apparently in hopes of scoring a major victory and getting all the glory and headlines. Headlines he got. Glory he didn't. His immediate command was wiped out. The troops he'd sent to attack another part of the Indian encampment were beseiged on their own hilltop and lucky to survive. Over two hundred soldiers lost their lives that day; a number of them Kentuckians. The only survivor of Custer's command was Comanche, the horse of Captain Myles Keogh.

Page 2 of Custer's letter.

In  the archives of The Filson, we have a letter written by Custer to his life insurance agent in Louisville, John Barbee Pirtle. Their connection most likely dated to Custer's time in Elizabethtown and Louisville after the Civil War.  Written on June 24, 1874 - almost two years to the day before Custer's famous luck would run out on June 25, 1876. Written from Fort Abraham Lincoln (near present Bismarck, ND) Custer discusses the payment of his premium and the beneficiaries of the policy. Sure hope he'd kept his policy paid up.

James J. Holmberg

3 comments on “Hope His Premium Was Paid Up!

  1. Elisabeth Kimber

    You’ll be amused to know that he didn’t. He missed out the June 1876 premium — but the insurance company stretched a point and paid up in the end, no doubt for the sake of goodwill.

    Oddly enough, he had another policy carrying this same date, June 24th 1874, taken out through a different agent, Mr. I. A. Studdart of St. Paul. That one was for $5,000, and the beneficiary was his wife. Presumably he’d kept the payments up on that one, as it seems to have been paid out without quibble (minus a 5% deduction, which some people theorise was for war risks).

    Captain Myles Keogh, who you mention above, had a particularly strong connection with Louisville: he was a close friend of the famous Dr. John Arvid Ouchterlony, and in fact spent his last leave before the battle at Dr. Ouchterlony’s Louisville home. He also entrusted some private papers to Ouchterlony in his will, made just days before the battle. Could be that the Filson archives might have something about him, too, hidden away somewhere?

  2. Jim Holmberg

    You clearly know your Custeriana! Thank you for the information regarding Custer’s life insurance policies. We don’t have any papers of Keogh’s in our collection. We wish we did. We have a small group of Dr. Ouchterlony’s papers but nothing re: his friendship with Keogh. Maybe they will turn up some day, some where.

  3. Liam Healy

    re Elisabeth Kimber post June 20th 2011

    Was Capt. Myles W Keogh’s Insurance paid out on his death? I understand that it was for the sum of $10,000.

    Liam Healy Dublin Ireland


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