Calhoun was born on 24 August 1845 in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a rich merchant family. When the Civil War broke out, he was travelling in Europe, but on returning to the US, in 1864, he enlisted in the Union Army. By 1867, he had been commissioned as second lieutenant in the infantry. In 1870, he met Maggie, the sister of General George Custer, and they were married in 1872. By this time, Custer had promoted Calhoun to first lieutenant, had transferred him to his own regiment, the 7th cavalry, and had made him his adjutant. Custer and many of his men, including Calhoun, died in 1876, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn - famously remembered as Custer’s Last Stand - an overwhelming victory for the Native Americans against the US government. Subsequently, the site of the battle was named Calhoun Hill.
Two years earlier, in 1874, Custer had embarked on an expedition to the unexplored Black Hills, in what is now South Dakota, tasked with finding locations for a fort, seeking out a route to the southwest, and investigating the possibility of gold mining. He set off with around a thousand men, several Native American scouts, over a hundred wagons, artillery, and two months food supply. Calhoun kept a detailed diary of the expedition. This was edited by Lawrence A. Frost and published in 1979 by Brigham Young University Press as With Custer in ‘74: James Calhoun’s diary of the Black Hills expedition. For more on Calhoun see Wikipedia or Custer Lives, and for more on the Black Hills expedition see Wikipedia or Dr Brian Dippie at the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield website. Here, though, are a few extracts from the published diary.
17 July 1874
‘The command moved at 5 o’clock. Two more rattlesnakes added to the family. Saw an Indian trail.
In full view of the Black Hills.
Two extensive fires from the direction of the Black Hills - at midnight the very heavens seemed on fire. Marched 18 miles. Arrived at Camp No. 16. No wood, very little water.’
7 August 1874
‘Travelled through a rich country - high rolling prairie - good arable land, extensive forests of fine timber, principally pine of large growth. Passed several small valleys with beautiful streams of crystal water running through them. A large mountain (grizzly) bear was killed late this afternoon. I should judge its weight to be about 800 lbs. The following named persons shot him: General Custer, USA, Capt W. Ludlow, Engineer Corps, USA, Private Jno Noonan, Co. L. 7th Cavalry, Bloody Knife, Indian scout.
Mr. Illingworth, a photographer of St. Paul, Minn., acompanying the Expedition, took a photograph of the hunters on a high knoll behind the tent of the Commanding Officer.
The Indian also killed a bear.
Abundant supply of wood. In the Black Hills there is no scarcity of timber. Extensive forests of large timber run all through this country, and for this reason I have not mentioned for several days past the fact of wood being found at our camps.
Marched 16 half miles, arrived at Camp No. 29. An excellent stream of water running through camp.
16 August 1874
‘Saw Indians on the right intercepted by Bloody Knife and Cold Hand, who report that six (6) bands of hostile Indians are encamped on the east side of the Little Missouri awaiting to attack this command on its return march. These Indians, four (4) in number, belong to Cheyenne Agency.
Travelled nearly north. At noon arrived at the “Belle Fourche River.” The wagons were loaded with wood and water. Our general direction is towards “Slave Butte.”
28 August 1874
‘The General obtained two (2) porcupines. March 16 quarter miles. Arrived at Camp No. 47. Abundant supply of wood, water and grass.’ [Although this is the last of the diary entries, the diary is supplemented in the published book by Calhoun’s letters.]