About Charles Albert Varnum
Charles Albert Varnum (June 21, 1849 - February 26, 1936) was a career United States Army officer. He was most noted as the commander of the scouts for George Armstrong Custer in the Little Bighorn Campaign during the Black Hills War, as well as receiving the Medal of Honor for his actions in a conflict following the Battle of Wounded Knee.
Varnum was born to a prominent military family in Troy, New York. He was the son of Civil War major John Varnum, who relocated to Pensacola, Florida, and became a political and civic figure. Varnum was appointed as a Florida cadet to the United States Military Academy and graduated June 14, 1872. He ranked 17th in a class of 57. Given the brevet rank of second lieutenant, he went to the Dakota Territory of the American West to join Company A of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment. He was involved in a number of expeditions and excursions of the regiment, including the Yellowstone Expedition (1873) and Black Hills Expedition (1874). He and the regiment were stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln.
With the eruption of the latest round of the Sioux Wars in 1876, he assumed command of Custer's scouts, made up of civilians, army personnel, Crow, and Arikaree Indians. His duty was to delegate scouting missions and coordinate the resulting reports. During the Little Bighorn expedition, Varnum and his men discovered the location of a huge Indian village with hundreds of lodges. They brought Custer up to a prominent point known as the Crow's Nest to show him the enormousness of the encampment, but Custer could not spot what his scouts were seeing. Ignoring their warning, Custer developed a battle plan and decided to attack. Some of Varnum's Indian scouts departed, while others began chanting their death songs and adorning themselves for battle. Several would die in the subsequent fighting. Varnum accompanied the troops of Marcus Reno and Frederick Benteen and survived the battle.
Varnum served as Regimental Quartermaster from November 1876 through October 1879. In 1877, he participated in the Nez Perce War, fighting at the Battle of Canyon Creek, as well as the Battle of Bear Paw from September 30,–October 4,. He continued to serve on the frontier in various forts and married Mary Alice Moore (1865–1935). They had three children, one of whom died two weeks after being born in 1889.
In 1890, Varnum commanded Captain of Company B of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Wounded Knee on December 29, against the aging Sioux Chief Big Foot and some 350 of his followers. The following day, at White Clay Creek, his heroics helped ensure a safe withdrawal for his troops. For his action, he received the Army Medal of Honor for Most Distinguished Gallantry on September 22, 1897.
Varnum was promoted to major on February 1, 1901, then to lieutenant colonel in April 1905. He sailed under orders for the Philippines from San Francisco in September 1905. Varnum retired from the Regular Army on disability leave October 31, 1907, but remained in the Philippine Islands as a colonel in the Reserve Army until July 1918 when he returned to the United States. He left the service on April 8, 1919.
When he died in 1936 at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco at the age of 86, Varnum was the last surviving officer of those who had participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He was buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery.
The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pleasure in presenting the
Medal of Honor
VARNUM, CHARLES A.
Rank and Organization: Captain, Company B, 7th U.S. Cavalry. Place and Date: At White Clay Creek, S. Dak., 30 December 1890. Entered Service At: Pensacola, Fla. Birth: Troy, N.Y. Date of Issue: 22 September 1897. Captain, Company B, 7th U.S. Cavalry. Place and Date: At White Clay Creek, S. Dak., 30 December 1890. Entered Service At: Pensacola, Fla. Birth: Troy, N.Y. Date of Issue: 22 September 1897.
While executing an order to withdraw, seeing that a continuance of the movement would expose another troop of his regiment to being cut off and surrounded, he disregarded orders to retire, placed himself in front of his men, led a charge upon the advancmg Indians, regained a commanding position that had just been vacated, and thus insured a safe withdrawal of both detachments without further loss.