I wrote the following article for Louisiana Road Trips back in 2008. When I found out that we had a Battle of the Little Bighorn survivor in Ouachita Parish, I was very excited!
Not much is known about John H. Day in his early years. We find a likely candidate for him on the 1860 Warren County, Indiana census: John Day, eight years old, living in the household of Archibald Johnson, born in Ohio. We next hear from him on September 23, 1873. On this date, John H. Day, shoemaker from Warren County, IN, born March, 1851 enlists as a private in George Armstrong Custer’s famed Seventh Cavalry, Company H. Day would have a date with destiny less than three years later on the rough landscape of Montana. On June 25th, just before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer divided his men into three battalions. Day’s Company fell under the command of Frederick Benteen. Each battalion was sent out to scout for the Indian encampment.
Summoned by Custer to “Bring pacs”, Benteen stumbled across Marcus Reno’s battalion under heavy fire from the Sioux on a bluff overlooking the Little Bighorn River. Just as they were surrounded, gunfire was heard to the north and the Sioux broke off to join the fight. It was Custer’s last stand. Benteen decided to stay and reinforce Reno’s battered troops instead of marching on to help Custer as ordered. Later, after defeating Custer, the Sioux, joined by the Northern Cheyenne, returned to fight Reno and Benteen. The fight continued until dark and resumed the next day. Many men earned Medal of Honor awards during the fight for getting water from the river to wounded men under heavy fire. Day’s Company H was credited by Reno with helping hold off a severe attack that day. All seemed hopeless. Relief was coming, however. General Alfred Terry was approaching with reinforcements from the north and the Sioux and Cheyenne retreated. At the end of the battle, 52% of the Seventh Cavalry troops were dead. The horrors Day and his fellow soldiers must have seen would be beyond imagination.
Almost ten years later, Day appears in Ouachita Parish. He marries a local widow, Eliza Parks and settles down in the bustling town of Monroe. Day and his wife lead a poor but quiet life. Then the arson fires began. For several months in the first half of 1894, mysterious fires had occurred in Monroe. People clamored for a suspect. On Wednesday, June 14th, three fires occurred in different parts of the town at different times: some during the day, some at night. A bundle of kindling was found at each place where the fires occurred. The pine was secured together with a wire. A bloodhound was set on the trail. After running around for a while, the dog led them right to Day’s gate. His house was searched and a similar bundle of pine, tied with wire was found. Day’s clothes were covered in whitewash and cobwebs. The authorities claimed it was from crawling under houses that were fired. That was evidence enough. Day was arrested and put in jail. Late that night, a crowd of men got the keys to the jail from the policeman on duty and Day was drug out. The next day, his body was found hanging from a tree near one of the burned houses.
Monroe newspapers do not survive from this time period, but papers from surrounding parishes do. For the most part, they agreed that Day’s lynching was justified. Homer’s Guardian-Journal even crowed, “Lynch law is always to be deplored, but no community can tolerate fire bugs.” There was one newspaper that dissented from the rest. The Lake Providence Banner-Democrat devoted almost an entire column to the lynching entitled “Judge Lynch at Monroe”. Their remarks were scathing. “The taking of human life on circumstantial evidence of this kind by unauthorized parties is murder, consequently totally unjustifiable and the lynchers should be prosecuted.” The article went on to say, “Of course, as usual no one knows the lynchers, but, we presume, everybody can spell their names.” “She claims to be the “Parlor City,” but her annals would read more like those of a frontier town.” The Banner-Democrat warned in the last paragraph, “Let lynching like that of Monroe go unpunished, and you may as well license it for other supposed offenses: allow lynching for arson and where will you draw the line?”
Day’s Widow Eliza never remarried and died at the age of 58 on February 19, 1901. She was buried in Monroe’s Old City Cemetery.
What happened to Day’s body will never be known. His memory and deeds are long forgotten, no photos of him are known to exist. It is unlikely that the people who lynched him ever knew he served with Custer. It is quite ironic that he would survive the horrors of the Little Bighorn only to die at the hands of local citizens he had sworn to protect as an army private. There is a local effort currently underway to rectify part of the wrong done to John H. Day. As of this writing, a government military headstone will soon be ordered to be placed by the side of his wife Eliza’s grave. Rest in peace, John H. Day.
As an addendum, John’s military headstone was placed by the side of his wife Eliza’s grave about a year after I wrote this. Eliza was a friend of Mary Goss, who I wrote about in a previous article. Mary’s will provided a headstone for Eliza.