Springfield State Journal-Register, April 13, 2010:
"Scouts find mystery in Carlinville cemetery"
By Dave Bakke
It had been nagging at me since Dr. John Lapp, a Carlinville optometrist, called to tell me about the strange grave marker he found in Mayfield Cemetery in Carlinville.
Lapp and some Boy Scouts were putting flags on graves at Mayfield when he saw this particular grave. He wasn't sure that he believed his own eyes, so he called a few Scouts over. They saw the same thing.
"It's a woman's grave," John said. "And below her name and dates of birth and death, it says ‘Survivor, Custer's Last Stand.'"
How is that possible? History holds that the sole survivor of the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn was a horse named Comanche. Disney made a movie about it. An Indian scout named Curly is said to have left Custer's forces before the battle and can't technically be called a survivor of the battle. Everyone else was killed.
I asked a few other people what they thought. The only plausible explanation was that the woman buried in Carlinville was a member of the Sioux tribe. But she wasn't.
She was Mary Personeus. She was born in 1845 in France. She died in 1931 in Carlinville. The exact wording on her gravestone is "Survivor, Gen. Custer's Massacre."
The Battle of The Little Big Horn was in 1876. She would have been 31.
I called Josephine Remling, longtime Macoupin County historian. She had never heard of this, even though the county historical society had previously indexed every grave in Mayfield Cemetery. She, like John and like me, was intrigued and baffled.
"Here I am an old lady," Josephine said, "but I'm almost tempted to be out there walking and looking. I would like to see that stone."
Josephine referred me to Dorothy Etter. Dorothy and her sister Mary do genealogy work for the historical society. I talked to Dorothy and promptly added one more name to the "intrigued and baffled" list. We started researching independently.
The best thing I discovered was entered in the Congressional Record. Mary had petitioned Congress for a federal pension. The record of the U.S. Senate for May 13, 1890, details that her first husband, William B. Crisfield, was in the Seventh Cavalry and was killed with Custer. (Lists of the dead verify that Crisfield was there.)
But her second husband, Martin Personeus, was also in the Seventh Cavalry and in the same outfit (Company L) as Crisfield. They were married a few months after Custer's battle.
Military records Dorothy found show that Personeus enlisted in 1861 (he fought at Gettysburg) and joined the Seventh Cavalry in 1866. In 1872, four years before Custer died, Personeus was in South Carolina. He was discharged from the Army in 1877, less than a year after The Battle of Little Big Horn.
By 1886, according to the Congressional Record, Personeus was in the state mental facility in Jacksonville. "Personeus is now incurably insane," reads the Senate record. Before his mental condition deteriorated too far, however, he had instituted paperwork for a federal pension, claiming his military service caused his decline. He died on Christmas Eve, 1889.
The House and Senate both agreed and voted to award a pension to Mary Personeus and her children, or as the official record has it, "the fruit of said marriage."
But Dorothy Etter did much better than I did. This is where the story gets very, very intriguing.
Dorothy found Mary's obituary from the Macoupin County Enquirer of February 1931. Mary was 86 at the time of her death. She had lived in Macoupin County for 47 years dating back to 1884. And then there is this:
"During the Civil War," says her obituary, "she was a cook for Gen. Custer. Her first husband, William Crisfield, also a member of Gen. Custer's force, was killed in the Custer massacre. She married a second time, to Martin Personeus, who was also a member of Gen. Custer's forces but "escaped at the time of the massacre." The italics are mine.
If Martin Personeus escaped from the Little Big Horn slaughter, we would have a scoop of major historical proportions. But where does that information come from? Historians believe none of Custer's soldiers survived.
The Web Site littlebighorninfo.com, which is maintained by the Little Bighorn History Alliance, confirms that Personeus served in ill-fated Company L, but says of his role during the battle: "Not present, detached service." No further explanation is given.
Was Personeus' mental state perhaps responsible for his claim, if he ever really said it at all?
Quite a few people subsequently claimed to have survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn for one reason or another. There have been books written about some of those people, but their stories are dismissed as either being the beer talking or idle boasting.
As for Mary Personeus, she definitely knew Custer and probably met both of her husbands while cooking for the Seventh Cavalry. Her obituary, however, says only that she served as Custer's cook in the Civil War, which was 12-15 years before the Little Big Horn. Why she is memorialized on her grave as a survivor of the massacre is unknown.
Members of the family have scattered — there is no Personeus living in Illinois, according to my Internet search. But, as often happens, there is probably a family member living here or elsewhere in the country who might be able to shed some more light on what is an interesting mystery.
If someone surfaces and has some good information, I'll follow up on the strange case of The Custer Massacre Survivor.
Springfield State Journal-Register, April 15, 2010:
"Custer's Last Stand 'survivor' mystery solved"
Mary Personeus was with Gen. George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry as they approached the Little Big Horn, according to her grandsons. They say their grandmother was in camp that day in 1876 when Custer and the Seventh were wiped out.
Charlie and Ernie Personeus say the story of their grandmother, Mary, her two soldier husbands and Custer has been handed down through several generations of their family. They were happy to fill in the blanks in the mysterious story of Mary's gravestone in Carlinville that reads "Survivor, Gen. Custer's Massacre."
I found Charlie in Hagerman, N.Y., and he led me to his brother, Ernie, in Alexandria, Va.
In Wednesday's column, we learned that Mary was Custer's cook in the Civil War, that her first husband, William Crisfield, was killed at the Little Big Horn and that her second husband, Martin Personeus, was in the same army company as William and was said to have survived the Custer battle along with Mary.
"That might be an exaggeration, in a sense," says Ernie Personeus.
It depends on the definition of "survivor." Neither Mary nor Martin was on the Little Big Horn battlefield that day, Ernie and Charlie agree. Both their grandparents were back in camp. Martin was ill. Mary was doing the soldiers' laundry.
"In the family archives, I have a couple of orders," Ernie says, "one of them signed by Custer and another signed by a company commander for her. She may have been a cook for Custer in the Civil War, but by the time of the Little Big Horn, she was the laundress."
But Charlie says the story has another surprising twist. He was told that Martin Personeus was supposed to ride with the Seventh to the Little Big Horn, but since he was sick, they ordered Mary's husband, William Crisfield, to go in his place. With Crisfield dead, Mary ended up marrying Martin a few months later, most likely at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck in what was then Dakota Territory.
Her grandsons describe Mary's life as extremely difficult. Not only did she lose two husbands, she buried at least six of her children. She had 10 kids, but fewer than half of them survived.
Both of her grandsons traveled from New York to Carlinville for Mary's funeral in 1931. They are almost certain that Mary's grave marker and its inscription referring to the "Custer massacre" were the work of Mary's daughter, Phoebe. Phoebe married a man named Goodnight and lived with him in Gillespie, near Carlinville.
Ernie and Charlie were little boys when they traveled to central Illinois for their grandmother's funeral. They don't remember the ceremony or burial. Their father was Charles, the son of Mary and Martin Personeus.
Both Ernie and Charlie (Charles Jr.) carried on the family's tradition of military service. They are World War II veterans. Not only that, but Charlie took his basic training in — what else? — the Army horse cavalry.
There is another family legend about Mary that both of her grandsons have heard.
"We always heard that Sitting Bull came out to visit her in Gillespie," says Charlie.
Sitting Bull was touring the country with Buffalo Bill at the time, the story goes, and he somehow knew that Mary had been with Custer and so they talked about that fateful day at the Little Big Horn.
Whether the Sitting Bull story is true, nobody really knows. But the rest of the story of Mary and Martin and Custer they know is true. In fact, Ernie's son, Mark, found that out for himself while he was halfway around the world. He lives in Germany and, well, I'll let him tell it.
"I was on the Czech border in a restaurant when I heard these two guys at a table talking," Mark says. "They were talking about the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
"It seemed that they knew what they were talking about, so I walked over. I said you guys seem to know a lot about that battle. The one guy said yes, he'd studied it extensively. I told them my name is Personeus, and right away the one guy said, ‘Martin Personeus! He was on the burial detail.'"
That makes sense. Though Martin's life was spared by his illness that day, he was among the living who would have been left to bury their fellow Seventh Cavalry soldiers, more than 260 of them, who died at the Little Big Horn.
Martin Personeus, his grandsons say, is buried in central Illinois, but exactly where is unknown. Mary's grave, as we know, is in Mayfield Cemetery in Carlinville. The story behind its unusual inscription? Now we know that, too.
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