Thomas Sullivan (Medal of Honor, 1890)

Thomas Sullivan (April 4, 1859 – January 10, 1940) was a United States Army soldier and a recipient of America's highest military decoration—the Medal of Honor—for his actions in the Battle of Wounded Knee,[Note 1] but now called the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Thomas Sullivan
BornApril 4, 1859
Ireland, County Meath
DiedJanuary 10, 1940
Place of burial
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchUnited States Army
UnitE Co. 7th U.S. Cavalry
AwardsMedal of Honor


Thomas Sullivan was born in County Meath, Ireland, most likely to either Patrick Sullivan and Bridget Conolly, or Richard Sullivan and Mary McCann, based on available baptism records.[1][Note 2] At age 28 he immigrated to the US and enlisted in the US Army at 28 years and five months age. His listed occupation on his enlistment documentation was a "laborer".[2][3]

Sullivan was immediately assigned to Troop E 7th Cavalry and served four total enlistments with the unit. Afterward, for his fifth enlistment, he transferred to Troop H 2d Cavalry. There he served as quartermaster sergeant. Sullivan would go on to serve in both Cuba and the Philippines as part of the Spanish–American War before retiring from Ft. Bliss as a First Sergeant with 23 years total in the Army.[3]

Following his retirement Sullivan returned to New Jersey, married a woman named Ellen, another naturalized Irish immigrant, and worked intermittently as a watchman, guard, and policeman. He died in 1940 and was buried in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery along with his wife who had died six years earlier.[3]

Wounded KneeEdit

Map of Wounded Knee

The Battle of Wounded Knee (also Massacre of Wounded Knee) took place in December 1890. The 7th Cavalry Detachment had been escorting approximately 350 Lakota to the Pine Ridge Reservation when on December 29, the decision was made to disarm the tribe members. A scuffle ensued which quickly evolved into all-out hostilities, with the 7th Cavalry enjoying a significant tactical advantage, having superior numbers of fighting men as well as superior arms, including four Hotchkiss 1.65 inch M-1875 Mountain Guns.[4]

This same day, E Troop 7th Cavalry began taking direct fire from Lakota who had concealed themselves in a ravine. After suffering three casualties, two of whom were killed, the call was put out for volunteers to maneuver from the current pinned-down position and attempt to gain a better vantage point. Sullivan volunteered to move left of the main body to an exposed position in an attempt to eliminate the threat. He and his fellow soldiers, Private Kellner and Sergeant Tritle, drew the enemy fire to their own position, providing relief for the main body.[3][5][6]

Awards and decorationsEdit

1st Row Medal of Honor Indian Campaign Medal Philippine Campaign Medal
2nd Row Spanish War Service Medal Army of Cuban Occupation Medal Mexican Border Service Medal

Medal of Honor CitationEdit

The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private Thomas Sullivan, United States Army, for conspicuous bravery in action against Indians concealed in a ravine on 29 December 1890, while serving with Company E, 7th U.S. Cavalry, in action at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota.[7]

The reverse side of the medal is engraved with the following: "The Congress to Private Thomas Sullivan, Troop E, 7th Cavalry, for bravery at Wounded Knee Creek, S.D., December 29, 1890."[3]


Mass Grave for the Dead Lakota After the Engagement at Wounded Knee

There have been several attempts by various parties to rescind the Medals of Honor awarded in connection with the Battle of Wounded Knee.[8][9][10] Proponents claim that the engagement was in-fact a massacre and not a battle, due to the high number of killed and wounded Lakota women and children and the very one-sided casualty counts. Estimates of the Lakota losses indicate 150–300 killed, of which up to 200 were women and children. Additionally, as many as 51 were wounded. In contrast, the 7th Cavalry suffered 25 killed and 39 wounded, many being the result of friendly fire.[11][12][13]

Calvin Spotted Elk, direct descendant of Chief Spotted Elk killed at Wounded Knee, launched a petition to rescind medals from the soldiers who participated in the battle.[14]

The Army has also been criticized more generally for the seemingly disproportionate number of Medals of Honor awarded in connection with the battle.[15] For comparison, 20 Medals were awarded at Wounded Knee, 21 at the Battle of Cedar Creek, and 20 at the Battle of Antietam.[15][16] Respectively, Cedar Creek and Antietam involved 52,712 and 113,000 troops, suffering 8,674 and 22,717 casualties.[17][18][19][20][21] Wounded Knee, however, involved 610 combatants and resulted in as many as 705 casualties (including non-combatants).[22][11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ According to the US Army, two Thomas Sullivans received Medals of Honor during the Indian War period. This article is about the Irish born Sullivan who received the award for serving with the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee. See Thomas Sullivan (Medal of Honor, 1869) for the Kentucky born PVT Sullivan who received the award for serving with the 1ST Cavalry in the Chiricahua Mountains.
  2. ^ Sources provide differing dates for his birth, making it difficult to match his birth to baptismal records with a high degree of certainty.


  1. ^, Ireland, Selections of Catholic Parish Baptisms, 1742–1881 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011 (Original data: Parish Registers. Dublin, Ireland: National Library of Ireland (NLI).
  2. ^, New York, Passenger Lists, 1820–1957 [database on-line], Year: 1889; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820–1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 531; Line:47; List Number: 358;, U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798–1914 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M233, 81 rolls), Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780s–1917, Record Group 94, Year Range: 1885–1890, Surname Range: L-Z, Image: 443, Line: 588.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Irish Immigrant Private Thomas Sullivan, E Troop, 7th Cavalry – Conspicuous Bravery – Army at Wounded Knee". Army at Wounded Knee. February 7, 2015. Retrieved March 1, 2015.
  4. ^ Utley, Robert (1963). "The Last Days of the Sioux Nation". Yale University Press. Retrieved August 4, 2007.
  5. ^[bare URL image file]
  6. ^[bare URL image file]
  7. ^ "Thomas Sullivan - Recipient -".
  8. ^ Dana Lone Hill (February 18, 2013). "The Wounded Knee medals of honor should be rescinded". the Guardian. Retrieved March 1, 2015.
  9. ^ "No Medals for Massacre: Close the Open Wound of Wounded Knee". The Huffington Post. February 12, 2013. Retrieved March 1, 2015.
  10. ^ "Lakota~WOUNDED KNEE: A Campaign to Rescind Medals: story, pictures and information". Retrieved August 17, 2011.
  11. ^ a b "Plains Humanities: Wounded Knee Massacre". Retrieved December 9, 2014.
  12. ^ "The 110th Anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre". Retrieved March 1, 2015.
  13. ^ "Wagner...Part Two". Retrieved March 1, 2015.
  14. ^ Joseph Huff-Hannon (February 12, 2013). "No Medals for massacre: Close the Open Wound of Wounded Knee". Huffington Post.
  15. ^ a b Green, Jerry (1994). "The Medals of Wounded Knee". Nebraska State Historical Society, also available in Nebraska History #75, pp. 200–208. Nebraska State Historical Society History.
  16. ^ Owens, Ronald J. (2004) Medal of Honor: Historical facts and figures. Turner Publishing Company
  17. ^ Whitehorne, p. 15. The NPS battle summary lists Union strength of 31,945. Cullen, p. 111, states 35,000 Union effectives, including 10,000 cavalry. Salmon, p. 368, and Kennedy, p. 319, state 32,000 Union.
  18. ^ Whitehorne, p. 17. The NPS battle summary and Kennedy, p. 319, list Confederate strength of 21,000. Cullen, p. 112, states 18,000 Confederate effectives, including 4,000 cavalry.
  19. ^ Wert, p. 246, Eicher, p. 752. Lewis, p. 288, reports Union totals as 5,764 (569 killed, 3,425 wounded, 1,770 missing), Confederates 3,060 (1,860 killed and wounded, 1,200 prisoners). Kennedy, p. 323, reports 5,672 Union, 2,910 Confederate. The NPS battle summary reports 5,665 Union, 2,910 Confederate. Salmon, p. 372, reports Union "almost 5,700", Confederate "almost 3,000."
  20. ^ Eicher, p. 363. Sears, p. 173, cites 75,000 Union troops, with an effective strength of 71,500, with 300 guns; on p. 296, he states that the 12,401 Union casualties were 25% of those who went into action and that McClellan committed "barely 50,000 infantry and artillerymen to the contest"; p. 389, he cites Confederate effective strength of "just over 38,000," including A.P. Hill's division, which arrived in the afternoon. Priest, p. 343, cites 87,164 men present in the Army of the Potomac, with 53,632 engaged, and 30,646 engaged in the Army of Northern Virginia. Luvaas and Nelson, p. 302, cite 87,100 Union engaged, 51,800 Confederate. Harsh, Sounding the Shallows, pp. 201–202, analyzes the historiography of the figures, and shows that Ezra A. Carman (a battlefield historian who influenced some of these sources) used "engaged" figures; the 38,000 excludes Pender's and Field's brigades, roughly half the artillery, and forces used to secure objectives behind the line.
  21. ^ Sears, pp. 294–96; Cannan, p. 201. Confederate casualties are estimates because reported figures include undifferentiated casualties at South Mountain and Shepherdstown; Sears remarks that "there is no doubt that a good many of the 1,771 men listed as missing were in fact dead, buried uncounted in unmarked graves where they fell." McPherson, p. 129, gives ranges for the Confederate losses: 1,546–2,700 dead, 7,752–9,024 wounded. He states that more than 2,000 of the wounded on both sides died from their wounds. Priest, p. 343, reports 12,882 Union casualties (2,157 killed, 9,716 wounded, 1,009 missing or captured) and 11,530 Confederate (1,754 killed, 8,649 wounded, 1,127 missing or captured). Luvaas and Nelson, p. 302, cite Union casualties of 12,469 (2,010 killed, 9,416 wounded, 1,043 missing or captured) and 10,292 Confederate (1,567 killed, 8,725 wounded for September 14–20, plus approximately 2,000 missing or captured).
  22. ^ Brown, p. 178, Brown states that at the army camp, "the Indians were carefully counted." Utley, p. 204, gives 120 men, 230 women and children; there is no indication how many were warriors, old men, or incapacitated sick like Big Foot.