Private James E. Kelly, I Troop, 7th Cavalry—Dying Words

It is sure death to go down here.

For most of the enlisted soldiers killed or mortally wounded in the fighting along the creeks of Wounded Knee and White Clay the only recognition they received was their misspelled names in newspapers across the country. Some may have had the detail of a fatal wound next to their name and perhaps their rank. For most all, their last words went unrecorded. One exception was Private James E. Kelly of Captain Nowlan’s I Troop, a young man who endeared himself to many such that his dying words were often mentioned in the papers or personal letters.

On the morning of December 29, 1890, I Troop was located in two positions on the field: two thirds were dismounted as perimeter guards along the south side of the ravine and along portions of the eastern and western sides of the Indian camp; one third were held in reserve between the artillery and the first battalion’s camp.

(Click to enlarge) Inset of Lieut. S. A. Cloman’s map of Wounded Knee depicting the scene of the fight with Big Foot’s Band, December 29, 1890.

The earliest account of Kelly’s death was recorded the evening of December 30 after the Drexel Mission fight long White Clay Creek. Sergt. Michael Conners of Capt. Godfrey’s D Troop scribbled out a hasty letter using the butt of his carbine as a writing surface. In the post script he listed the killed that his future wife might know; among them was “Poor Kelly.” In a follow up letter the following day, Conners elaborated on Kelly’s last words and the manner of his death, “The last words Kelly said was when we started down in the ravine, ‘it is sure death to go down here,’ and at that he was shot.” This would indicate that Kelly was on the perimeter at the ravine, and may have been combined with the D Troop detachment that Lieut. Tommy Tompkins took down into the ravine. It is interesting to note that Kelly was known to a non-commissioned officer from another troop such that his death warranted mentioning in a personal letter to that soldier’s fiancé.[1]

In that morning’s edition of the Omaha Bee, the list of soldiers killed included the misspelled name of “Kelley, private, Company I, Seventh Cavalry.” The next day’s edition included the mortal wound, but still misspelled his last name, “Company I . . . Kelley, James E., head.”[2]

(Click to enlarge) “Graves of Soldiers who were killed at battle of Wounded Knee, Dec. 29th, 1890, Pine Ridge Agency, S. D., 30 in number.” by W. R. Cross, circa 1891. Private James Kelly was buried in grave No. 18.

Private Kelly hailed from Chicago, and was the only soldier killed in action from the Windy City (Sergt. Henry Howard was also from Chicago and mortally wounded, though he did not pass until January 23rd). As such, details of Private Kelly were read with interest in the Chicago Tribune, who thankfully spelled to fallen soldier’s name correctly. The following appeared on January 10, 1891:

Mrs. Margaret Kelly, No. 271 Loomis street, Chicago, has received a letter from Capt. H. J. Nolan, Troop I, Seventh Cavalry, announcing the killing of her son, James E. Kelly, by the Indians during the Wounded Knee engagement. Young Kelly was a private in Capt. Nolan’s troop, and that officer pays high tribute to his bravery in the letter referred to. Young Kelly’s remains were interred with those of the other soldiers killed near Pine Ridge, but his brother left Chicago for that point yesterday and will have the body disinterred and brought here.
The dead man was the son of Patrick N. Kelly, one of the early settlers of Chicago, and ran away from home seven years ago. [3]

A special dispatch appearing in Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle on January 12 recorded the arrival of Kelly’s older brother at the Pine Ridge Agency to claim the body of his kin and bring him back to Chicago for burial.

W. D. Kelley, of No. 271 Loomis street, Chicago, arrived here to-day for the purpose of removing the body of his brother, who lost his life in the battle at Wounded Knee Creek. Private James E. Kelley belonged to Company “I” Seventh Cavalry and was buried as he fell a fortnight ago. His brother has asked for his saddle and carbine, but they were lost in the confusion and cannot be found.[4]

The next day a similar article ran in the Chicago Tribune. Here the sensationalist reporting of that era’s papers crept in and became a feature of most all the future reports on Kelly’s death. The mention of a saber is pure fiction, as the regiment left their sabers at Fort Riley.

W. D. Kelly, who came here to look for the remains of his brother, James E. Kelly of the Seventh Cavalry, found the grave of his brother in the Episcopal graveyard today. Trooper Kelly has been buried in his uniform, and his body showed that he died fighting, and fighting bravely. A half-emptied revolver was found by him and his saber was bent.[5]

Three week’s after the Wounded Knee fight, the Omaha Bee, ran an article that attributes to Kelly a different version of his dying words.

Private James E. Kelly was an example of the members composing [a regiment of the bravest men that ever engaged in warfare,] after doing bloody execution and going down in the hand to hand struggle he called his lieutenant to his side and said: “Tell my mother that I died like a soldier and a man,” and today the officer carried out the wish of the dead soldier.[6]

Kelly’s first lieutenant was W. J. Nicholson, who was serving as the adjutant for first battalion. His second lieutenant was J. C. Waterman. There is no mention in reports that either officer travelled to Chicago in the midst of the campaign, and the article could be referring to a letter that one of the lieutenants may have written to Kelly’s mother. The detail of “going down in the hand to hand struggle” would seem to indicate that Kelly was involved in the fighting at the council circle, which would place him in the third of I Troop positioned between the artillery and the cavalry camp, in which case Sergt. Conners may have been mistaken. That, or the detail is another fiction of a sensationalist Omaha Bee.

The Chicago Tribune ran a similar article on January 23rd that mentions Kelly giving his last words to Lieut. Tompkins of D Troop, placing Kelly back at the ravine. The article also details that Kelly was shot in the heart, not the head as reported shortly after the battle.

The remains of James E. Kelly, the Chicago trooper killed at the battle of Wounded Knee Dec. 29 last, arrived in the city Wednesday night. The funeral will take place from the home of the young man’s mother, No. 271 Loomis street, Saturday morning at 10 o’clock.
W. D. Kelly of this city, a brother of the unfortunate trooper, went to Pine Ridge Agency, where the body was buried, had it disinterred, and brought it back to Chicago. Kelly was 23 years old, a member of Troop I of the Seventh United States Cavalry, stationed at Fort Riley. He was born and raised in Chicago. He was a gallant soldier, and was shot through the heart by an Indian, death being almost instantaneous. His last words to Lieut. Tompkins were: “Tell my mother I died like a man.”
The funeral will be from the Jesuit Church to Calvary Cemetery.[7]

Two days later the Chicago Inter Ocean, ran a lengthy article detailing Kelly’s second funeral.

He fell with his face to the foe.
Like a brave soldier he died and a soldier’s funeral was his.
There, in the quiet graveyard they left him. There where the night wind will sing their dirge across his grave he rests. There, where the summer flowers will bloom and die, where the winter snows will fall and melt away, where the stars will shine through the trees and the nights that are starless will wrap it in their gloom, is his resting place. There the soldier boy sleeps on and on and will awaken only at the call of the angels.
The battle of Wounded Knee last December had a sad sequel in a quiet West Side home yesterday.  A brave Chicago lad was among the few white men who fell in the fight. He was buried yesterday at Calvary, with all the military honors that were rightly his.
James E. Kelly was a private in Troop I, of the Seventh Cavalry, that regiment which has seen so much war and slaughter. He went with his fellows to the Indian war, and in that bloody fight at Wounded Knee he fell, shot through the heart.
Trooper Kelly was a model soldier. He was beloved by officers and men, and not even his parents and brothers regret his death more than do his late comrades in the field of arms. At the mess none was brighter than he, and in the saddle none quicker, livelier, or more prompt to the call.
Shot down on the battle-field, his body was interred with due ceremony. But his mother and brothers were not satisfied that the mortal part of their loved one should rest for all time on that far off plain. W. D. Kelly, his brother, caused the body to be disinterred, and with it reached Chicago on Wednesday.
At No. 271 Loomis street yesterday gathered a large company of friends and relatives who were to do the last earthly honors to the dead soldier.
In a darkened room rested the magnificent casket, covered with a silken flag–the one he died fighting under–and all around were floral offerings, rich in color and fragrance. On the casket was a plate. It read:

James E. Kelly,
Born Jan. 7, 1868.
Killed in battle at Wounded Knee
Dec. 29, 1890,
Aged 22 years, 11 months, 22 days.

At 10 o’clock the funeral cortege moved to the Jesuit Church, where the services were conducted by the Rev. Fathers Murphy and Donnelly. A detachment of soldiers was expected from Fort Sheridan, they having been detailed for escort duty by Colonel Corbin, but through some misunderstanding they did not arrive in time to join the procession at the church. The escort, however, met the procession at the Calvary railroad station, and led it to the grave.
A special train took the dead soldier and the funeral party to Calvary. As the casket was lowered from the train the soldiers, who were drawn up in company front on the platform, presented arms, and then led the cortege into the graveyard with arms reversed, while following the body was the bereaved mother, two brothers, and a large number of friends.
To the tolling of the passing bell the solemn procession moved slowly toward the grave. Under the trees it was situated, near the center of the graveyard. On reaching the last and silent camping ground of the soldier boy, a halt was called.
While preparations were being made for the lowering of the casket into the grave, the soldiers stood like statues with their arms “present.”
“Carry arms,” came the order. Then “order arms.”
At the same instant the coffin was poised above the last resting place.
“Rest on arms,” was the next command.
And with bowed heads the men in blue stood motionless, while the straps were loosened, and while only an occasional sob, mingled with the rustling of the dead leaves broke the silence, the gallant boy was placed tenderly in his last long home.
For a moment all was quiet. Then came the order:
“Carry arms!”
With a click and a rattle all the soldiers were again erect.
The Bell Still Tolled, but even as the rifles came into position it stopped, and before the last echo had died away came the command:
A few snaps were heard and in an instant the guns pointed toward the hill tops.
“Fire,” rang out the order.
All the guns, as if moved by an electric current rang out in the still air.
Again and again was the same order given and two more volleys spoke out the news that to the echo of the sounds he loved so well a soldier had been given his last farewell.
Songs are beautiful when sung at the side of an open grave. Tender and consoling addresses heal up many hearts and teach lessens to sorrowing ones when given at the bier of a loved one, but there is no more solemn and more touching rite than the sounding of “taps” at the grave of a dead soldier. “Lights out” is the meaning of this bugle call. “Lights out” it meant to many sorrowful hearts who surrounded the grave of that soldier. To his mother, who not long ago stood in nearly the same spot and saw her husband’s body lowered into the remorseless tomb, it meant that from her life another of its brightest lights had faded and flickered and died away. To her it meant that henceforth her brave boy would no more arise with the reveille, do his duties as a soldier, and extinguish his candle at the bugle sound. To him who lay beneath it meant that the last earthly act was ended, that the curtain had fallen on a life, young and undeveloped as it was, and that although in reach of the sound of that bugle no more calls would he answer until that last great reveille when the trumpet sound will call to judgement all the nations upon earth.
Bugler Sherman’s notes were trembling as the first shrill tones were sounded, but as he overcame his first emotions “taps” rang out through the frosty air with a solemnity and awful distinctness that seemed to sink into every heart that heard it. And as the last echo died out in the distance the mother of that boy bowed her knees and leaned over the grave, while every head was uncovered, and every one nearest and dearest to the dead one was left alone for a brief space with the ashes and dust of her soldier.[8]

Private James E. Kelly is buried in the Calvary Cemetery at Evanston, Illinois.[9]

Shortly after Kelly was reburied, The Buffalo Commercial, along with most every paper in the country, printed yet another version of Kelly’s last words:

The Indians fought desperately until they were annihilated, but their bravery was no more conspicuous than that which was ostentatiously displayed by some of the soldiers. Perhaps the most remarkable case was that of Private Kelly, who was shot near the heart. He knew the mortal nature of his wound, and as he rolled over said to Private Girbach: “I’m gone sure; roll me around and make a breastwork of me.” That was courage.[10]

There was a Private Louis Girrbach in I Troop, so this account of Kelly’s last words may have originated from a comrade who was with him at Wounded Knee. There were instances of soldiers using feed bags as cover from the lethal fire that Indians, concealed in the ravine, were able to unleash on the troopers.

The variations of Private Kelly’s last words and actions took one more turn. Father M. J. Craft was the Catholic priest who was wounded at Wounded Knee. He was initially reported as killed, and later as mortally wounded, but eventually recovered. He provided a description of an Irish soldier’s death that appeared on January 21st in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and numerous other papers.

Not noticing the wound he [Father Francis M. J. Craft] continued his endeavor to calm the Indians and trying to persuade the frantic Ogalala to release him and lie down, when a soldier, a young Irishman, came to him and amidst the roar of the guns said, with the most admirable calmness: “Father, I am dying; will you hear my confession?” Four bullets had passed through his body, and bleeding from every wound he laid his head on the priest’s shoulder and made his confession. Father Craft raised his hand and began the absolution, when the dying soldier began sinking to the ground. “Lean on me,” said the priest. He extended his arm and the soldier clutched it, but Father Craft had been bleeding from his own wound, and had grown too weak to bear the weight of the dying man. Struggling still with the Indian, who clung to him for protection, he and the wounded soldier sunk to the ground, and leaning over him Father Craft finished the absolution and the soldier’s spirit passed away.[11]

Two months later on March 13th, Father Craft’s description in a letter provided additional details of the death of the Irish soldier:

When the firing ceased, & after I got through with the Indians, I attended to the soldiers. That Irish soldier was the pluckiest young fellow I ever had the good luck to meet.  He came up with four balls through him, & the blood pouring like a pump, but smiling & saluting as coolly & politely as if in a ball room instead of a battle field. While I was giving him absolution, his hands slipped from my shoulder, & he fell, just as you have it. I caught him, but the blood was all out of me then, & I was too weak to hold him, & was carried down with him. I finished the absolution lying beside him.[12]

By February 1892 Father Craft asserted that the Irish soldier who asked for a last confession before dying in the Priest’s arms was James Kelly:

When the battle was over I heard Kelly’s confession, & kept my Indian from getting shot, when it looked very much as if he had killed Kelly, & then I finally dropped, & had to be carried to the field hospital…. If the soldiers had been the bloodthirsty, excited savages they have been falsely described, I never could have managed to save that Indian, as I must admit his helping me to rise just then & just as he did, made it look very much as if he had killed Kelly & then grappled me,–at least it must have seemed so to the party of soldiers, who just came up returning from another part of the field, & had not seen the beginning of the affair.[13]

(Click to enlarge) In the January 1891 newspapers, Fr. Craft’s confessor is identified as an Irish soldier. By the following year, Fr. Craft was certain the soldier was Private James Kelly.[14]

The variations of Private James E. Kelly’s last words are perhaps indicative of the dying words of several different soldiers from across the field at Wounded Knee. Or, perhaps they are little more than the imaginations of soldiers, reporters, or a priest.

It is sure death to go down here.

Tell my mother that I died like a soldier and a man.

I’m gone sure; roll me around and make a breastwork of me.

Father, I am dying; will you hear my confession?

In Army circles, there is a saying, “the first report is always wrong.” In this case, perhaps the first report was the most accurate.


[1] Michael Conners, letters to Lillie Carlyon at Junction City, KS, 30 Dec 1890 and 1 Jan 1891.
[2] “A Deadly Triangle,” The Omaha Bee (Omaha: 31 Dec 1890), 1; “The Death Roll,” The Omaha Bee (Omaha: 1 Jan 1891), 1.
[3] “J. E. Kelly to be Buried Here,” The Chicago Tribune (Chicago, 10 Jan 1891), 6. I excluded the dubious last sentence from this article, “He achieved notoriety in 1885 by shooting the Niagara rapids in a barrel.” My research shows that the first man to perform such a feat was Graham Carlisle on July 11, 1886. 
[4] “Latest From Pine Ridge,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY: 12 Jan 1891), 1.
[5] “Reds Finally Show Up,” The Chicago Tribune (Chicago: 13 Jan 1891), 1.
[6] “Paul Weinert’s Bravery,” The Omaha Bee (Omaha: 16 Jan 1891), 1.
[7] “He Died Fighting the Indians,” The Chicago Tribune (Chicago: 23 Jan 1891), 6.
[8] Associated Press, “Fell Like A Soldier,” Inter Ocean (Chicago: 25 Jan 1891), 16.
[9] Bill Schultz, photo., “Pvt James E Kelly,” FindAGrave, accessed 15 Mar 2014.
[10] “A Story of the Fight,” The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, NY: 29 jan 1891), 5.
[11] “Hero Priest of Dakota: How Father Craft, the Sioux Missionary, Was Wounded,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, vol. 42, no. 88 (St. Louis.: 21 Jan 1891), 1.
[12] Fr. Francis M. J. Craft, letter to James E. Kelly, dated 13 Mar 1891, in At Standing Rock and Wounded Knee, by Foley, 302-305.
[13] Fr. Francis M. J. Craft, letter to James E. Kelley, dated 12 Feb 1892, in At Standing Rock and Wounded Knee, by Foley, 310-312.
[14]  Thomas W. Foley, At Standing Rock and Wounded Knee: The Journals and Papers of Father Francis J. Craft, 1888-1890, by  (Norman, OK: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2009), 304.

Citation for this article: Samuel L. Russell, “Private James E. Kelly, I Troop, 7th Cavalry—Dying Words” Army at Wounded Knee (Carlisle, PA: Russell Martial Research, 2023, posted 22 Apr 2023, accessed date __________.

About Sam Russell

I am a fifth-generation retired Army officer with twenty-nine years of commissioned service. I have been researching the frontier Army for over eighteen years and am interested in documenting the lives of the soldiers that participated in the battle of Wounded Knee using primarily official reports, diaries, letters, newspaper articles and other primary source documents. My interest in Wounded Knee stems from my kinship to one of the principal participants. I am the great-great-grandson of Samuel M. Whitside, who was a major and battalion commander at the battle. I welcome and encourage comments on posts and pages and am always interested in any new primary sources. If you have copies of letters, diaries, etc, from participants and are willing to share, please contact me. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are strictly my own, and should in no way be construed as official Army or U.S. Government positons.
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4 Responses to Private James E. Kelly, I Troop, 7th Cavalry—Dying Words

  1. Mark says:

    It’s nice to hear the other side of the story. History has been ‘altered’ over the past 40 years or so.


  2. Jerome Greene says:

    Hi Sam—Beautiful job, and thanks for sharing. Hope that you’re doing well, and all my best. Jerry



  3. Bob Hopkins says:

    Thanks for sending this. I’ve written to you before. My grandfather, who lived to 1958, when I was 13, told me stories of his time in service with D troop. I finished a paper on him and his time with D Troop, including Wounded Knee and White Clay Creek, and made it into a booklet for all my cousins and my two sisters. Tommy Tompkins was one of my Grandfather’s Lieutenants. Really enjoyed reading about him. Keep up the good work.
    Bob Hopkins
    Charlie Battery, 3/13th Artillery
    25th Infantry Division
    Vietnam, 1968-1969


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