William Gentles was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, though the date is not known for certain. Records suggest that he was born some time between 1828 and 1835. He may be the William Gentles born September 30, 1828, the son of Robert and Sarah Gentles. William Gentles immigrated to the United States in 1850, arriving in New York City where he worked as a laborer for several years.
On April 2, 1856, Gentles went in to the recruiting station in New York City and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was described in his enlistment record as 5 foot 8 1/2 inches tall, with grey eyes, brown hair and a ruddy complexion.Private Gentles was assigned to Company K Tenth Infantry and sent to Fort Ridgely, Minnesota where he was stationed for the next year.
The perception of a brewing rebellion in Utah Territory prompted President Buchanan to order a large military force west, including the entire Tenth Infantry, as part of the Utah Expedition. Private Gentles departed Fort Ridgely with his company on June 9, 1857 and arrived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, two weeks later. They began marching west along the trail in July, finally reaching Fort Bridger in November. The loss of a supply train to Mormon raiders promised hardships for the soldiers as they settled into winter quarters at Smith's Fork nearby. Captain Randolph B. Marcy was ordered to make a dangerous trek south to Fort Massachusetts to obtain additional supplies and horses. When the volunteers were called for, Private William Gentles was one of those who stepped forward. They struggled through deep snow in the mountains and finally reached Fort Massachusetts in January 1858. They returned to Fort Bridger two months later.
Private Gentles was with his company in July 1858 when they moved through Salt Lake City and established Camp Floyd further south. The following month, they were transferred back to Fort Bridger where Gentles remained for the next two years. In June 1860, the company was transferred to Fort Laramie where Gentles completed his first enlistment and was discharged on April 1, 1861.
As a civilian, William Gentles apparently settled in St. Joseph, Missouri. But with the Civil War engulfing the nation, Gentles again enlisted, this time in the 25th Regular Missouri Volunteers, which later became the 1st Regiment of Missouri Engineers. He was wounded in the hand at the Battle of Pilot Knob on September 27, 1862. Gentles completed his enlistment in 1864 and re-enlisted as a veteran volunteer. He was mustered out on July 22, 1865 in Louisville, Kentucky.
After the Civil War, Gentles returned to civilian life for two years, probably back in Missouri. Then on June 10, 1867, he enlisted in the Regular Army again. He was sent initially to the recruit depot at Newport Barracks, Kentucky and within days, he was assigned to Company F 45th Infantry and shipped to Tennessee where the regiment was on Reconstruction duty. In 1869, while stationed in Louisville, Kentucky, the army consolidated a number of the regiments and Gentles' company became Company F 14th Infantry.
In the spring of 1870, the 14th Infantry was transferred to the Department of Dakota, with Private Gentles' company assigned to Fort Randall. Two weeks later, the company was sent down the Missouri to Fort Thompson near the Crow Creek Agency. On June 10, 1870, while camped near the agency, Private Gentles re-enlisted for his third enlistment. In August 1870, the regiment was transferred to the Department of the Platte. Marching on to the steamboat Far West, famous six years later for evacuating the wounded from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Company F arrived at Omaha Barracks, Nebraska, where they were stationed for the winter. Gentles was stationed with his company at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming, from March 1871 to September 1873 and then at Fort Sanders until February 1874.
In early 1874, troubles were brewing with the Oglala Lakota at the Red Cloud Agency in northwestern Nebraska. Following the killing of the agency clerk, the army sent a large contingent of troops to establish military posts near Red Cloud and the nearby Spotted Tail Agency. On February 15, 1874, Private Gentles and his company rode the train to Cheyenne and then marched north to Fort Laramie. Here they were met by other companies that then marched on to the Red Cloud Agency. Company F established a tent encampment near the agency where they remained for the next four months.
Shortly after returning to Fort Sanders, Private Gentles and Company F 14 Infantry were transferred to Camp Douglas, Utah Territory, arriving on September 5, 1874. Camp Douglas was named regimental headquarters for the 14th Infantry, under the command of Colonel John E. Smith. Most of the original log and adobe buildings at the post were in the process of being torn down and replaced by new red standstone structures. For the next two years, the soldiers at Camp Douglas, including Private Gentles, were busy quarrying and hauling stone as well as other garrison duties. Gentles re-enlisted for his fourth enlistment while at Camp Douglas on June 10, 1875.
In May 1876, Brigadier General George Crook led his expedition north to engage northern bands of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne who had refused to come in to the reservations, part of the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. After being nearly defeated at the Battle of the Rosebud, Crook called for reinforcements and went into camp, awaiting their arrival. Meanwhile, the large village of Lakota and Cheyenne defeated Custer's command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25.
Orders were issued for Companies B and F stationed at Camp Douglas to join Crook in the field. Traveling by train to Cheyenne, Private Gentles and his company marched north to Fort Fetterman where they departed on July 4, 1876 to find General Crook. Once all of the reinforcements had arrived, Crook's expedition set out again, following various Indians trails but failing to find the villages as the Lakota began to scatter. Running short of supplies, the column made a desperate push south to the Black Hills in what became the famous "Starvation March."
With the close of the campaign, Company F 14th Infantry was assigned to remain at Camp Robinson, Nebraska. During that fall, the troops patrolled the Sidney-Deadwood trail and engaged in normal post duties. During the spring of 1877, the soldiers at Camp Robinson witnessed the surrender of large bands of Northern Cheyenne and Lakota at the nearby Red Cloud Agency, culminating with the surrender of Crazy Horse on May 5, 1877.
Private Gentles' name appears in the post records in August 1877 when he was tried by a garrison court martial and sentenced to twenty days in the post guardhouse.
On the evening of September 5, 1877, Crazy Horse was brought to Camp Robinson. During an attempt to place him in the guardhouse, there was a struggle and the famed Oglala war leader was fatally wounded. At the time, there was considerable confusion as to how he had been wounded but a member of the guard detail that evening, Private Edwin D. Wood, wrote that he saw a soldier bayonet Crazy Horse. Nearly all later eye witness accounts collected by various historians confirm that a soldier was responsible. The identity of that soldier, however, was questionable. No official army records note the name of the soldier.
In 1903, a former sergeant of the 14th Infantry, giving his name as William F. Kelly, told a Washington Post reporter what he had seen that evening at Camp Robinson. "It was an exciting moment, when no one knew just what to do," Kelly explained, recalling the struggle outside the guardhouse door between Crazy Horse and Little Big Man. "Suddenly, as the men surged forward in the direction of where I was standing, I saw Wm. Gentles, an old soldier and a veteran of he Mormon campaign of 1857,give Crazy Horse a thrust with his bayonet. The thrust was delivered with lightning rapidity, and in the next instant he had his gun at carry, as though nothing had happened. Crazy Horse gave a deep groan, staggered forward and dropped his knife and fell."
Most writers have since accepted Sergeant Kelly's claim without question. Classic works by E. A. Brininstool, David Humphries Miller and Mari Sandoze have firmly established Private Gentles' name in the literature as the soldier responsible. John Carroll, in his introduction to Richard Hardorff's book on the genealogy of Crazy Horse, provided a brief biography of this soldier and he was even made the list of significant people in the west in Dan Thrapp's three volume Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography. This general acceptance in the literature prompted one recent writer to erroneously conclude that "numerous accounts place William Gentles at the guardhouse."
In 1996, historian Ephriam Dickson challenged the identification of Private Gentles as the soldier responsible, based on two lines of evidence. First, he noted that shortly after Sergeant Kelly's account was published, researcher Walter Camp sent copies to a number of individuals who had been present that evening to verify the information. Three different respondents specifically refuted Sergeant Kelly's identification of Private Gentles as the soldier who bayonetted Crazy Horse. Second, Dickson noted that no soldier named William F. Kelly is documented as serving in the Fourteenth Infantry or was present at Camp Robinson in 1877. Walter Camp attempted to track down Sergeant Kelly but without success. Dickson concluded that while witnesses agreed Crazy Horse was bayoneted by an enlisted soldier on guard duty outside the guardhouse, the identity of the soldier responsible remains unclear.
Company F 14th Infantry departed Camp Robinson on November 4, 1877, however, Private William Gentles remained behind, perhaps packing the company baggage. On November 10, he was issued two blankets by the quartermaster department and a short time later, "relieved from duty" at the post. He soon joined his company back at Camp Douglas, Utah.
In May 1878 suffering from asthma, Private Gentles was admitted to the post hospital at Camp Douglas. He died there on May 20, 1878 and was buried several days later in the post cemetery.