Popular movie about Custer's chief engineer was largely fictional

"Did You Know That" columnist explains how "Legends of the Fall" didn't quite line up to the truth about William Ludlow, but did accurately portray his love of Montana's natural beauty and feelings of "betrayal by the United States government on Native Americans.”

Brig. Gen. William Ludlow as seen in the 1890s at the time of the Spanish-American War.
Contributed / U.S. Army Corp of Engineers / Public domain

FARGO — In 1994, the motion picture "Legends of the Fall" was released, in which Anthony Hopkins played the central character, Col. William Ludlow. Ludlow was the chief engineer for the U.S. Army and led scientific expeditions into both the Black Hills and Yellowstone.

During much of the time between 1872 and 1875, he was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln in what is now North Dakota. Ludlow served in the Civil War, the Plains Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War, rising to the rank of brigadier general. A town in South Dakota and a school in Washington, D.C., are named after him.

William H. Ludlow Jr. was born Nov. 27, 1843, in Islip, N.Y., to William and Frances Louisa (Nicoll) Ludlow. Ludlow Sr. was a farmer and a powerful member of the New York State Assembly/Legislature, who unsuccessfully ran for the office of lieutenant governor in 1854. Like his son, Ludlow Sr. also served in the Civil War, rising to the rank of brevet major general.

Ludlow Jr. received his secondary education at the Burlington Academy (now Burlington College) in New Jersey, and then attended the University of the City of New York. In July 1870, Ludlow entered West Point where George Custer was also a student. Ludlow was only 16 years old at the time and his immaturity became apparent by racking up 202 demerits in his first year at the military academy.

A source for some of his demerits occurred during the end of his freshman year when he got into a fistfight with another freshman, Peter Ryerson, on June 29, 1861. A large group of cadets gathered around the two pugilists to cheer them on. Custer was the officer of the day, and it was his duty to break up the fight, arrest the fighters and take them to the guardhouse. Instead, he shouted at the crowd, “Stand back boys, let’s have a fair fight.” For this, Custer was court marshaled and, at his trial, he was found guilty, but he only received a verbal reprimand.


The administration at West Point considered dismissing Ludlow from the academy, but because of the shortage of Union officers at the start of the Civil War, “the Board of Conduct allowed him to continue.” This proved to be a wise decision because Ludlow matured, and by the time he graduated in June 1864, his ranking in a class of 27 cadets had risen to eighth place. At his graduation, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, “and was immediately appointed chief engineer of XX Corps,” first under Gen. Joseph Hooker and later under Gen. Alpheus S. Williams, in the Georgia campaign.

Gen. William T. Sherman chose Ludlow to be his assistant engineer during his Atlanta campaign. At the Battle of Peachtree Creek in Georgia on July 20, 1864, Ludlow was noted for his “gallantry” and promoted to major in December. In March 1865, the 21-year-old, who as less than a year out of West Point, was breveted to lieutenant colonel.

After the Civil War, Ludlow was sent to Jefferson Barracks, Mo., and promoted to captain in the regular army. In March 1867, he was named assistant to the chief of engineers to oversee work on coastal fortifications and civil works projects on Staten Island, N.Y., and at Charleston, S.C. He also received instructions on fulfilling “the topographical needs of commanders who were fighting hostile Indians.”

In November 1872, Ludlow was appointed chief engineer of the Department of Dakota. He first traveled to St. Paul to receive further instructions and arrived at Fort Abraham Lincoln on Dec. 2, where he was greeted by Custer. When Ludlow arrived, “he found a challenging task before him. The Army was attempting to maintain order and protect American citizens as the Sioux Indians responded with increasing hostility to the white man’s incursions into their territory.” The situation was exacerbated because the Northern Pacific Railroad was bringing hundreds of settlers into the territory. The Army wanted Ludlow to provide “maps of the territory, descriptions of topography, and recommendations on sites for new forts.”

In July and August 1874, “Ludlow accompanied Colonel Custer into the Black Hills, home of the Sioux, and the mere presence of a military force was enough to stir up Indian resentment.” Ludlow “evidenced a marked sympathy for Indian treaty rights and disdain for those who sought to exploit the region... and Custer differed sharply.” In the summer of 1875, Ludlow appeared relieved to leave Custer’s command when he was ordered by Brig. Gen. William Terry to “reconnoiter the Montana Territory.”

Ludlow met with Terry in St. Paul and assembled a team to go with him into Montana. In June 1875, Ludlow and his team left St. Paul by train for Bismarck. They then proceeded up the Missouri River by steamboat, arriving at Fort Buford on July 9. One of the team members was Edwin Ludlow, William’s brother, who became ill at Fort Buford, delaying the expedition for two weeks.

On Aug. 14, Ludlow’s party reached Yellowstone Park and all of the party members were in total “awe and reverence” of their surroundings. “Ludlow stated that the ‘varied features of mingled grandeur, wonder, and beauty,’ required a great writer to do them justice.”

What disturbed Ludlow the most was seeing “visitors armed with shovels and axes cutting away souvenirs and destroying in minutes, miracles of art that had formed through the slow process of centuries.” He called the plunderers “sacrilegious invaders of nature’s sanctuary.” After spending 10 days in Yellowstone, Ludlow returned to St. Paul and filed his report with the chief of engineers on March 1, 1876. In the report, he stated that the Department of Interior was not doing its job in protecting Yellowstone Park, and then he listed a number of actions that needed to be implemented. “Nearly all of Ludlow’s suggestions regarding the park later became reality.”


During his later years, Ludlow supervised major engineering projects in Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C. In between those assignments, Ludlow served as military attache at the U.S. Embassy in London from 1893 to 1896 and military governor of Havana, Cuba, from 1898 to 1900. Early in 1900, he headed the Ludlow Board, which was responsible for creating the Army War College.

In May 1901, he was ordered to take command of a department in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, but soon became very ill and died on Aug. 30, 1901, shortly after returning to the U.S. Ludlow is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Although most of the events in "Legends of the Fall: are fiction, the character traits of William Ludlow appeared to be true. These included his love of the natural beauty of Montana and his feelings of “betrayal by the United States government on Native Americans.”

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
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