Advance in Three
The plan adopted for the campaign was an advance in three columns, as soon as the weather permitted. General Crook was to march north from Fort Fetterman, with fifteen troops of cavalry and four companies of infantry, 1300 men; Colonel Gibbon was to come east from Fort Ellis, Montana, with four troops of cavalry and six companies of infantry, 400 men; General Custer was to move west from Fort A. Lincoln, with the 7th Cavalry, six companies of infantry, and three Gatling guns, 1000 men, besides the train men. This plan was followed, except that General Terry commanded the last force, Custer having been deposed by order of General Grant. The trouble between them was occasioned by Custer's testimony before the celebrated Heister Clymer committee, in the Belknap investigation. Clymer learned that Custer had reported his suspicions of certain transactions to the War Department, and that orders had been given that the transactions referred to be not interfered with. He at once summoned Custer, by telegraph. This was in the middle of March, and Custer was preparing to start his column early in April. He protested, and asked to be examined by deposition, but without effect. Mr. Clymer was gunning for big game, and did not propose to feel around in the dark by means of interrogatories. Custer had to go on to Washington. The main point elicited from him was that certain government contractors had turned over to him a large amount of grain, in sacks which bore the Indian Department's mark. He suspected that the sacks had been stolen from the Indian Department through a conspiracy between the Indian ring and the contractors, and reported the matter through his superior, General Terry, in accordance with military etiquette, at the same time refusing to receive the grain. He received peremptory orders to take the grain, which orders, he naturally believed, came down from the Secretary of War. This belief, however, was erroneous, as Custer learned of General Terry, on his return. Terry had given the orders himself, under certain instructions intended for the protection of the government. Custer at once telegraphed this fact to Clymer, and asked that the telegram be made part of his testimony, but the evil had already been done.
Grant was furious. He considered the attack on Belknap as an attack on himself and his administration, as well as an unjustifiable assault on his personal friend. The same quality of persistence that made Grant successful as a general, got him into trouble as an executive. He stuck to his friends in rough weather just as when the sky was smiling. He always fought it out on the line he had begun with - an excellent policy if the line be correct, but very bad otherwise. The verdict of history will probably be that Grant was an honest man who fell an easy prey to tricksters. The partisan effort to defend his administration, and the partisan effort to involve Grant personally in its corruption, will both fail under the test of time. Whether, in fact, Belknap was guilty in the Fort Sill tradership affair, or whether the folly of his wife occasioned his ruin, is not very material. It is beyond doubt that he was saved from impeachment solely by the legal theory of the defense, that a man out of office cannot be impeached, for of the twenty-five Senators who voted "not guilty," twenty-three explained their votes as being wholly on the ground of lack of jurisdiction. Whether guilty or not, there is clearly no reason why anyone who knew any material facts should not be called as a witness, or why any witness should be reproached for telling what he believed.
Custer was in disgrace at court. In court opinion the probability of his antipathy to the administration was heightened by the fact that he was a Democrat in politics. He had joined that party soon after the war, on account of a feeling that the Southern States were treated unjustly. He now felt that he was misunderstood, but Grant refused to see him or hear any explanation. Three times Custer called at the White House and failed to obtain an audience. During the last call, as he waited in the anteroom, General Ingalls notified the President that Caster desired to speak to him, but Grant said he did not wish to see him. Custer then sent in a note stating that he desired the interview solely to correct certain unjust impressions which he believed were held concerning him. Grant still declined to see him. Custer started for his post. At Chicago he was overtaken by a despatch, through General Sheridan, ordering that he should stop and await further orders, while the expedition went on without him. A telegraphic correspondence ensued, which disclosed the fact that the instigator of the order was Grant, and that Custer's offence as a witness was the case of his hostility. The first concession obtained was that Custer might go on to his post, and remain there on duty. This did not satisfy the warrior. He appealed personally to Grant by telegram, saying: "I appeal to you as a soldier to spare me the humiliation of seeing my regiment march to meet the enemy and I not to share its dangers." This message General Terry kindly endorsed: ''I do not know the reasons upon which the orders already given rest; but if those reasons do not forbid it, Lieutenant colonel Custer's services would be very valuable with his command." This brought Grant around one step more, and Custer was permitted to go with his regiment, under Terry.
Unfortunately for Custer, the press got hold of the matter, and it became the subject of partisan dispute. The worst thing that can befall a man is to become a political martyr for the benefit of an opposition. His temporary friends cannot assist him, and usually care nothing for him, except as a viaduct for attack, while to the other and powerful side he becomes an object of execration. The Democratic papers attacked Grant for his treatment of Custer, and the Republican papers, as in duty bound, abused Custer, in defense of Grant. Between his policy friends and his unreasonable enemies poor Custer was well nigh ruined.
The expeditions finally started. Crook met the enemy first. He moved to the hostile country, and, on June S, established a large supply camp on Goose Creek. This he left under a strong guard, and marched on the I6th in search of the enemy, with nearly one thousand men. He had mounted his infantry on the train mules, and supplied each man with four days' rations. The Indians were believed to be on the Rosebud, about sixty miles away. Crook advanced for forty miles and went into camp. His Crow scouts refused to make a night march, having secured some buffalo during the day, and being determined to feast before they fought. The next morning an advance of seven miles was made, after which the troops camped at the mouth of a deep and rocky canon with steep, timbered sides. The scouts were out ahead. Suddenly the reports of guns were heard, and soon the scouts came racing over the hills, chased by a large force of Sioux. The soldier's were quickly formed in line of battle, and the right centre was advanced to the summit of the bluffs, the position of the camp being untenable except these were held. In this general position the light was carried on from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon. At the latter hour the left wing was ordered to retire, or connect with the main body. This movement was effected with considerable loss, the Sioux at once occupying the deserted position, and pouring a heavy fire into the retiring troops. Their advance was checked by a charge of the infantry and Indian allies from the left centre. Orders were then given for an advance, the purpose being to strike the Indian village, which was supposed to be about six miles ahead, but this was abandoned on account of the shortness of the supply of ammunition, and the discovery that the advance would have to be made through a canon where the troops would be at the mercy of the enemy. After a brief pursuit of the Indians, who were now withdrawing, General Crook went into camp on the field. The loss to the troops was nine killed and twenty-one wounded. Eleven dead Indians were found on the field. The surprise of the village being now impossible, the wounded needing care, and the enemy being in much greater force than had been expected. Crook determined to fall back on his supply camp, which he did without further molestation.
Communication had not yet been established with the other two columns, and this withdrawal took Crook out of the range of practicable communication. Terry and Gibbon had communicated on June 1. On the 7th Terry established his supply camp at the mouth of Powder River. From this point Major Keno made a scout up Powder River to the mouth of the Little Powder, about one hundred and fifty miles, thence across to the Rosebud, and down it to its mouth. He could find nothing of Crook and nothing of the Indians, but on the Rosebud he found a heavy Indian trail, about nine days' old, which he followed for a short distance. In the mean time the main command had proceeded up the south bank of the Yellowstone to a point opposite Gibbon's camp, the steamer Far West moving up the river at the same time. A conference was held, and it was determined to make a grand surround, it being now reasonably certain that the Indians were between the Rosebud and the Big Horn, probably on the Little Big Horn. Gibbon was to cross the Yellowstone near the mouth of the Big Horn, march to the mouth of the Little Big Horn, by June 26, and then up the last named stream. Meanwhile Custer was to inarch up the Rosebud with the 7th Cavalry, to the trail discovered by Reno. Beyond that point Custer had virtually carte blanche by his written orders, but it was understood that if the trail were found to lead to the Little Big Horn he would pass it and continue southward long enough to allow Gibbon, who had all the infantry, to reach the mouth of the Little Big Horn. This he could not do before the 26th. This understanding is substantially set forth in Custer's orders, as the views of General Terry, with the desire that Custer should "conform to them" unless he should "see sufficient reason for departing from them." It was evidently the object of the movement to get the Indians between the two forces, but it is equally evident that either command was supposed to be large enough to safely engage all the hostiles. The object of division of forces was to prevent the escape of the Indians, to surround the hostiles, and bring the campaign to a close at one blow. No one, as yet, had any suspicion of the number of Indians they were to meet.
Custer moved up the Rosebud on the afternoon of the 22d twelve miles, and encamped. On the next day he advanced thirty-three miles, striking the lodge pole trail that Keno had found. On the 24th he followed this trail for twenty-eight miles, still up the Rosebud, and went into camp. The scouts were kept ahead. At half past nine a council was called, and Custer announced his intention of crossing the divide to the Little Big Horn that night, in order to avoid detection by the hostiles. At eleven o'clock the regiment moved on, up one of the small feeders of the Rosebud, towards the Little Big Horn. The divide between these two streams is only about twenty miles across at this point, but by the course followed, up the tributary of the Rosebud, and down a tributary of the Little Big Horn, it was thirty three miles from Custer's camp, on the evening of the 24th, to the Indian village. At two o'clock in the morning, after making ten miles, the column again halted until live o'clock in the morning, the scouts reporting that the divide could not be crossed until daylight. Coffee was made, and the troops moved on. At eight o'clock the first Indians were seen. It was then evident that no surprise could be made, but it was determined to attack the village, at any rate. The regiment was divided into four commands. Custer took five companies; Major Reno had three; Captain Benteen had three; and Captain McDougal, with one, was placed in charge of the pack train. Benteen was ordered to ride with his detachment to some bluffs on the left front, and to report if he could see anything of the village from there. He reached these bluffs, but could sec nothing, and went on to some others beyond, making an offing of some ten miles. The rest of the command kept on down the creek until half past twelve. Custer then sent word to Reno that the village was only two miles ahead and the Indians were running away. Reno says his orders were "to move forward at as rapid a gait as prudent, and to charge afterwards, and that the whole outfit would support me." He rode at a fast trot for two miles, crossed the river at a ford, halted ten minutes to gather his battalion, and moved on down the valley with his men in line of battle. The small number of Indians who appeared fled before him for two miles and a half, making scarcely any resistance.
"I soon saw," says Reno, "that I was being drawn into some trap, as they certainly would fight harder, and especially as we were nearing their village, which was still standing; besides, I could not see Custer, or any other support, and at the same time the very earth seemed to grow Indians, and they were running towards me in swarms, and from all directions. I saw I must defend myself, and give up the attack mounted. This I did, taking possession of a point of woods, and which furnished, near its edge, a shelter for the horses; dismounted, and fought them on foot, making headway through the wood. I soon found myself in the near vicinity of the village, saw that I was fighting odds of at least five to one, and that my only hope was to get out of the wood, where I would Boon have been surrounded, and gain some high ground. I accomplished this by mounting and charging the Indians between me and the bluffs, on the opposite side of the river. I succeeded in reaching the top of the bluff, with a loss of three officers and twenty nine enlisted men killed, and seven men wounded."Benteen had struck the trail of the main body, just in advance of the train, and come on at a trot. He met a messenger with orders to McDougal to bring on the train as rapidly as possible. A mile farther on he met another messenger with the order: "Benteen, come on; big village; be quick; bring packs. P. S. Bring packs." Says Benteen: "A mile or a mile and a half farther 'on, I came in sight of the valley and Little Big Horn. About twelve or fifteen dismounted men were fighting on the plain with Indians, charging and recharging them. This body (the Indians) numbered about nine hundred at this time. Colonel Keno's mounted party were retiring across the river to the bluffs. I did not recognize till later what party this was, but was clear that they had been beaten. I then marched my command in line to their succor. On reaching the bluff I reported to Colonel Reno, and first learned that the command had been separated, and that Custer was not in that part of the field, and no one of Reno's command was able to inform me of the whereabouts of General Custer."
The two united commands, numbering three hundred and eighty men, now moved down the river, keeping on the bluffs. Firing had been heard in that direction, and the inference was that Custer was engaged. On reaching the summit of the highest bluff nothing could be seen of him, and no more firing was heard. Reno stopped until the pack train came up, meanwhile sending Captain Weir, with one company, to open communication, but he quickly sent back word that he could make no progress; that the Indians were surrounding him. A heavy fire from his force showed that his enemies were not imaginary. It now seemed certain that Custer had been driven back and he retired down the river. Weir was called back, and the whole force moved to Reno's first position after retreating across the river, which was the most available point for defense yet found. Here they were rejoined by scout Herndon and thirteen men, who had become separated from the command in the timber. The place was a small depression, surrounded by the crests of the hills that formed it. The animals were scarcely placed in the depression, and the men stationed on the crests, when the Indians attacked them in strong force They maintained an incessant fire from six till nine o'clock in the evening, during which the troops lost eighteen killed and forty-six wounded.
All through that night the soldiers worked at their entrenchments, making rifle pits and barricading with dead animals. Below them, in the valley, the Sioux were holding a scalp dance over those already fallen, and the wild sound came plainly on the night air to the little band, who knew that their scalps would be in demand on the morrow. Day broke at half past two, and the attack was renewed at once,' by a part of the enemy. The remainder came in crowds, riding up the valley from the scene of their orgies of the night, until all the elite of Sioux chivalry had taken their places about the tiny fortress. For seven hours they maintained a continuous fire of rifles, themselves out of reach of the carbines of the cavalrymen. At half past nine they made a desperate charge, advancing close enough to use their bows and arrows, but were driven back by a counter charge from the lines, led by Captain Benteen. They then charged on the other side, but were repulsed by a like countercharge under Major Reno. It was now ten o'clock, and the men, especially the wounded, were suffering for water. Volunteers were called for, and a party was soon scrambling down to the river, under cover of the fire of their comrades. They secured enough to moisten the lips of all, but they left half a dozen brave men on their road. The Indians then began moving to the valley, presumably either to get something to eat or more ammunition, and the soldiers hastened to get a good supply of water before they should return. They did not come back. At two o'clock they fired the grass in the valley, and under cover of the heavy smoke began preparations for their final departure. About sunset they emerged from the clouds of smoke and filed away in the direction of the Big Horn Mountains. Reno moved his position that night, so as to secure a full supply of water, but the Indians had gone to stay. The only arrival during the night was Lieutenant De Rudio, who had become separated from the command in the timber, where he had been hiding ever since. In the morning Terry and Gibbon came up. They had seen nothing of Custer.
Until this time no one had felt any serious apprehension for Custer's command. Reno and Benteen supposed he had fallen back, down the river, and united with Terry. Terry and Gibbon had received word by the Crow scouts that Custer had been defeated, but did not believe it. Captain Benteen was sent out with a company of cavalry to make a search. He struck the broad trail that Custer had left, and in that trail was read the record of their progress to death, as plainly as though it were written in words. From the point where Reno crossed the river, Custer had marched rapidly down the north hank, keeping back of the crests of the bluffs, for a little more than three miles. Then his trail swung around to the river, but did not cross it. It turned back on itself and still bore down the river. The fighting began at this turning point, as was shown by the bodies of men and horses first appearing there. Custer had probably intended to strike the lower end of the village, but, not knowing its extent, had attempted to cross the river near the middle of the village. He had been ambushed and driven back. He had been pressed so closely that there was no opportunity for a stand. Three quarters of a mile back from the river Captain Calhoun's company had been thrown across the line of retreat as a rearguard. They died at their posts. Stretched across the trail in irregular line, with Calhoun and Lieutenant Crittenden in place at the rear, were the bodies of all the company dead, where they had been stationed, in the attempt to save the remainder of the command. Under cover of this check, the rest of the force had fallen back a mile farther and gained a better position; but the remorseless Sioux were on their heels. The force was now disposed in something like military order. The centre, on a small ridge, was held by Yates's company. On the left was Keogh's company, with its right flank resting on the ridge. On the right was Smith's company. Captain Tom Caster's company was probably in the right centre.
The brunt of the attack came first on Keogh's company, which went down, as Calhoun's had, in line. There was no chance to aid them. The Indians were pressing on every side. It has been learned from Sitting Bull that at this point the Indians captured most of the horses, by circling the hill to the right (of the Indians) and driving them away from the rear. The superior forces of the Indians, and the shrewdness and daring of their fighting, can be judged from this movement. They knew where the horses were and that they wanted only these to make their prey secure. The plains Indians have not the nerve to ride to certain death, but they charge as gallantly as any cavalrymen that ever rode, when they are confident of success. They had trampled down Keogh's men like ripened grain, as they dashed to the rear to secure the horses. The attack now came on the left centre - from the front, rear, and left flank. The fire poured in on the little ridge must have been terrific. Custer fell there, with nearly all his officers. Around his body were those of Captain Yates, Colonel Cook, and Lieutenant Riley. Close by were Boston Custer, the general's brother, Autie Reed, his nephew, and Kellogg, the Herald correspondent, all civilians who had accompanied the expedition. Around these were the bodies of Yates's company. Just beyond was the corpse of Tom Custer, the general's brother, with part of his men; and a little farther on lay Captain Smith. The positions of the bodies showed that the remnants of Custer's and Smith's companies, their officers all dead, and themselves surrounded on three sides by the foe, had fallen back through a ravine to the river, leaving twenty-three dead along the line of retreat. Near the river they stopped. They had all the surviving un-captured horses with them. It is probable either that the sight of the village, extending yet below them, showed them there was no chance for escape, or that they were here met by some new force. Here, at least, they died.
The only man of the entire command that escaped wag "Curly," a Crow scout. When Custer was surrounded on the hill, he slipped down a ravine, let down his hair in Sioux fashion, changed his paint, secured a Sioux blanket, and succeeded in getting among the enemy during a charge. He mounted the horse of a fallen warrior and made his escape during the confusion of the battle. He says he did not leave Custer until the fight on the hill was almost ended. He saw Custer sink to a sitting posture, from a shot in his side, and then fall back, struck by a second bullet. It has been reported as having been claimed by some of the hostiles who fled into British America, that Custer was the last to fall; and that he died, saber in hand, shot by Rain in the Face. The story is hardly credible. Custer was not the last to fall, beyond question. The evidence that has been obtained all goes to show that he was not even the last officer who fell on the ridge, but that Lieutenant colonel Cook survived the others. Curly says that as he rode away, when nearly a mile distant, he looked back and saw a dozen or more soldiers, in a ravine, fighting the Sioux, who hemmed them in on all sides. This was after Custer's death, as the position of the bodies and the trail itself proved. The opinion most prevalent among Dakota people, to whom the talk of the Indians drifts, sooner or later, is that no one knows certainly who killed Custer that he died by some bullet that could never be identified among the hundreds that were flying.
Of course it is possible that Rain in the Face shot him; but the real basis of this story was the imprisonment of this Indian, and his probable desire for revenge. In 1873 Custer had been sent with an expedition to protect a surveying party of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, from the Missouri to Montana. They crossed the country which had been guaranteed the Sioux, by the treaty of 1868, and which was consequently occupied by "hostiles." On this expedition the troops were attacked by the Sioux, and, at the time of the attack, two noncombatants were killed while separated from the command. They were Dr. Honzinger, the veterinary surgeon, and Mr. Baliran, the sutler of the 7th Cavalry. They were elderly men, of scientific tastes, and were searching for fossils, in which the bad lands abound. Their slayer was unknown; but, eighteen months later, while Custer was in winter quarters at Fort Abraham Lincoln, he was discovered at Standing Rock agency. The Sioux were there drawing rations, and, as usual, held dances in which they recounted their prowess. In one of these Rain in the Face, a young brave, described how he had killed these two men, and displayed articles that had belonged to them. Unfortunately for him, Reynolds, the scout Lonesome Charley Reynolds, he was called; a brave man with a pathetic history, who fell in Reno's first skirmish on the Little Big Horn was looking on, and understood the story. He notified Custer, who sent a company to arrest the man. They brought him out, after many threats and much begging by the Indians, and took him to Fort Lincoln. His arrest caused much anxiety to the Sioux, who expected him to be hung. He was a great brave, and so were his five brothers; one of them, Iron Horn, being a chief of prominence. He had especially distinguished himself in the sun dance the Sioux test of endurance by remaining suspended for four hours and refusing to be cut down, although the judges decided that he had passed the test.1 He confessed his guilt to Custer, and was retained in the guardhouse. In the spring of 1875 some white hay thieves, confined in the same place, made their escape by cutting through the side of the building, and Rain in the Face slipped out after them. When next heard from he was with Sitting Bull, and sent in word to his tribe that he was awaiting an opportunity for vengeance.
1. The tortures of the sun dance are about the same as those of the Mandans, described and illustrated by Catlin. The suspension test is made by hanging the candidate on cords passed under various muscles or sinews, until the flesh gives way under the strain and he falls to the ground. Sometimes weights are attached to the limbs to hasten the desired result. Rain in the Face was hung by cords passed under the muscles at the base of the shoulder blades.
Telegraph Messages on Little Big Horn
Big Horn -
Source: Massacres of the Mountains, by J.P. Dunn Jr, M.S., LL.B, Harper &
Brothers, Franklin Square, New York, 1886