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Ellsworth woman is the last living child of a Little Bighorn survivor

Sunday, September 19, 1999

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Minnie Grace Mechling Carey describes her father's exploits in battle, she's not talking about World War II. Or World War I. Or even the Spanish-American War.

 
  The father of Minnie Grace Mechling Carey, 92, was a blacksmith with General Custer's tropps at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Her father fought Indians in the Battle of Little Bighorn 123 years ago. Carey, 92, of Ellsworth, is the last surviving child of any of the soldiers who fought in the battle where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his battalion were wiped out.

"She's the last direct link. You shake hands with her and you're shaking hands with someone who held the hand of a person who knew Custer," said Dave Lonich of Donora, a teacher, historian and author, who is Carey's biographer.

Carey's father was Medal of Honor recipient Henry W.B. Mechling, who survived the battle. He was a member of one of two battalions, in addition to Custer's, that fought at the Little Bighorn.

Mechling was one of 24 soldiers recognized for his heroic efforts in the fight June 25 and 26, 1876.

Carey has since donated her father's Medal of Honor to the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument Museum in Montana, along with a button purportedly taken by Mechling from Custer's coat, and Indian artifacts from that era.

"I've had a barrel of fun with all of this," Carey confided with a broad smile while sitting at the dining room table where she shows off photo albums, letters and plaques given to her in honor of her father.

Link to the past

Carey lives in the same house she shared for decades with her late husband, Robert.

On the roof above the porch, a bunting-style American flag hangs above the steps, a symbol of her family's history of service to the United States that dates back to the Civil War.

Inside the home, there are the mementos of her father, and of Custer and Sitting Bull, chief of the Uncpapa Lakota nation of the Sioux Indians, one of several leaders central to the battle.

Among the memorabilia is a letter from the Army, which in 1993 named a water training site in honor of Mechling at Fort Lee, Va.

There also is a Christmas card from John Doerner, the chief historian at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument Museum, who confirms what everyone suspected: that Carey is indeed the last surviving child of any 7th Cavalry soldier who fought in the battle.

In fact, Carey also may be the last surviving child of any fighter from either side, since no children of the American Indian fighters have stepped forward, Doerner said.

"I really admire her," said Doerner, who several years ago escorted Carey to the battle site. "She has firsthand stories handed down from her father about George Armstrong Custer and life in the 7th Cavalry. We're privileged to have her. It's mind-boggling, that connection with the past."

Carey, Doerner said, has provided museum personnel with stories her father relayed about the battle, including details about the heat and the rations, specifics that can help the museum staff provide a more realistic accounting of the time.

Carey's son, Hugh, of Monongahela concedes that it's difficult for others to comprehend his mother's link to the past.

"People always want to add a generation when I tell them my grandfather fought in the battle. They [think] it was my great-grandfather," Hugh Carey said.

The battle

Henry W.B. Mechling was born in Mount Pleasant on Oct. 14, 1851.

In June 1876, at the age of 24, he was a blacksmith in the 7th Cavalry, which, in the hours before the battle of Little Bighorn, split into three battalions, headed by Maj. Marcus Reno, Capt. Frederick Benteen and Lt. Col. George A. Custer, all of whom had had higher battlefield ranks during the Civil War.

Company H, to which Mechling was assigned, was under Benteen's command.

During the course of his research into Carey's family, Lonich has uncovered one letter written by Mechling in 1921 in which he described the battle.

Lonich, who plans to use the letter as a part of the book he is writing, characterizes Mechling's words as a "humble account," without embellishment, written by a soldier who simply did what he had to do.

But the Medal of Honor citation and accounts of the battle are testimony to a more dramatic tale.

Mention the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and most people, even those with a cursory knowledge, believe that everyone died. In fact, all 210 soldiers in the five companies under Custer's command were killed.

The two other battalions, those under Reno and Benteen, lost 53 men. But the seven companies that comprised the two battalions had survivors, including Mechling, who along with fellow soldiers found himself under attack early on the morning of June 26, the second day of the fight.

It had begun at 3 p.m. the previous day.

With water in short supply, the situation became more perilous as the sun rose in the sky on that morning.

"If the burning thirst was maddening to the uninjured, its quenching became a question of life and death with the injured. Towards noon, something had to be done at all hazards to obtain water," according to an account of the battle in "Acts of Bravery, Deeds of Extraordinary American Heroism," originally published in 1907 and updated in 1993.

With that in mind, Mechling and 18 other men, all of whom would later be awarded the Medal of Honor, volunteered to try to reach water nearly 100 yards from their battle line.

Mechling and fellow soldiers from Troop H -- Sgt. George Geiger, Pvt. Charles Windolph and saddler Otto Voit -- made their way onto an exposed outcropping, drawing fire from the Indians and returning fire as well.

For hours, they provided cover so the 15 other men could repeatedly dash to a ravine, then down to the river to fill kettles with water. Among those who went for water was Pvt. Peter Thompson, who was from Banksville and who later lived in Indiana County.

Of Mechling's efforts, the Army said, "With three comrades during the entire engagement, [he] courageously held a position that secured water for the command."

Mechling received the Medal of Honor on Aug. 29, 1878.

Father to daughter

After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Mechling remained in the cavalry for a few more years.

In December 1886, at age 35, he married Julia Ellen Melissa Stevenson, 18, of Blair, Ohio. The couple were married by a justice of the peace in West Virginia and eventually settled near Mount Pleasant.

It's not clear what happened in the ensuing years, but by all accounts, the couple remained childless for nearly 20 years.

In 1905, they had a son. Henry Frederick Benteen Mechling was named after his father's commander.

Minnie Grace was born in 1907. By then, her father was 55 years old and collecting disability from his service during the Indian Wars. He suffered from a variety of ailments, including rheumatism and heart and lung problems.

When Carey was 4, Mechling went away to the U.S. Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C.

Mechling at one point returned home to care for his wife, who became ill and died in 1919. "Daddy did come home, and he took care of us," Carey recalled.

After his wife's death, Mechling sold everything the family had, raising enough money to pay to board his children through their teen-age years, first with relatives in Mount Pleasant, then at a nearby farm.

As a young woman, Carey went on to business school to study bookkeeping and shorthand. She married in 1925 at the age of 18.

A year later, en route through Uniontown, Carey received a telegram informing her that her father had died April 10 at the U.S. Soldiers Home Hospital and that he had been buried. It would be years before she would see his grave.

Even so, his possessions became hers. The Medal of Honor, its accompanying certificate, the button supposedly taken from Custer's coat and other items all held a place in Carey's heart and home for decades.

"I had them under the couch. That's where I kept them all my life," she said, adding that she always suspected the possessions were important.

In 1993, at the behest of the Army, Carey traveled to Virginia for the dedication of the Blacksmith Henry W.D. Mechling Appomattox River Water Training Site.

It was the beginning of a journey that over the last six years has led her to rediscover her father and share his story.

For more information about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, visit the Web site of the Custer Battlefied Historical & Museum Association at www.cbhma.org/history.html.



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