JOAN NASBETH STEVENSON
"Deliverance from the Little Big Horn: Doctor Henry Porter and Custer's Seventh Cavalry"
University of Oklahoma Press
The Battle of the Little Bighorn may the best example of the theory that no story can ever be told too often. Just when we think we’ve heard it from every angle, someone like Joan Nasbeth Stevenson comes along and gives us “Deliverance from the Little Big Horn: Doctor Henry Porter and Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.”
As the title implies, this story focuses on one man, a young contract surgeon who was one of three doctors present the day of that famous battle, and the only one who wasn’t dead by the end of the day. For the next several days, Henry Porter was responsible for trying to keep more than 50 injured soldiers comfortable and infection-free until they could be taken to a hospital. Remarkably, Porter only lost six men from that number, half of whom died weeks after he had cared for them.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Stevenson’s account is the exacting detail with which she is able to relate these events. In her bibliography, Stevenson cites 113 books, as well as 50 articles and five archives as sources for this slender book. This extensive research shows in Stevenson’s ability to give us such intimate descriptions such as Dr. Porter trying to decide which kind of amputation to perform on a young private who is in danger of dying from gangrene. Incredibly, Dr. Porter decides, in the middle of a field, with no table, much less any of the usual supplies afforded a medical staff, to perform the more complicated "flap amputation" as opposed to the "circular amputation." The procedure involves carefully cutting the skin below the point of amputation to form two flaps that can be folded over the stump and sewn together to insure a better chance of full recovery for the patient. Porter accomplished this procedure in ten minutes, and his patient did recover.
The cool and professional manner that Porter used to care for these men earned him the respect for everyone involved, and he went on to become a successful surgeon in Bismarck, N.D. He was also instrumental in lobbying to incorporate surgeons into the military as opposed to having them work as contract players. But it is perhaps Porter’s involvement in the hearings that implicated Gen. Marcus Reno for his actions at the battle that is most striking. While most of the military men, fearing retribution from Reno and other higher-ups, contradicted their private sentiments and publicly lauded Reno’s bravery on that day, Porter was one of the few whose civilian status left him free to testify that he believed cowardly Reno’s actions could have contributed to the demise of Custer and his men.
Historians have long lamented that so much attention has been given to this battle. But it’s hard to argue the fact that there are few stories that continue to capture our imagination in the way this one does. And as Stevenson once again proves, perhaps the amount of information and personal accounts that are available about this battle will always contribute to its importance as a story that provides yet another angle from which we can view this crucial time in our development as a region.
Russell Rowland, of Billings, is the author of the novels "In Open Spaces" and "The Watershed Years."