The Strength of
It is to be regretted that Major Reno and General Terry should have felt it necessary to reflect on the course of Custer in attacking the Indians before the other troops were within supporting distance, and equally so that Custer's friends should have returned the attack by accusations of disobedience and cowardice against Reno and Benteen. There was no occasion for either. The affair is pardonable on one account, and one
only; and all of its minor happenings fall under the same excuse. No one with Custer's command, or with Terry or Gibbon or Crook, had any thought that there was so large a force of hostiles; and none of them had any reason to suspect its real strength. The roaming Indians were reported by the Indian Department to number 3,000, which meant a fighting force of 600 possibly 800. The information from other sources did not indicate any excess over this figure. On March 22, General Crook, reporting the attack on Crazy Horse's village, said: "Crazy Horse had with him the Northern Cheyennes and Minneconjous, probably in all one half the Indians off the reservation." This camp consisted of 110 lodges, or less than 600 people. From this statement it would appear that the military expected a hostile force of not to exceed 1,200, or a fighting force of about 250. Agent Howard, of Spotted Tail agency, replying to Crook's report, said, on April
1: "Very few, if any, of these Indians have been north this season, and I have heard of none who were in co-partnership with those of the North." Agent Hastings, of Red Cloud agency, in a similar communication, on April 3, said: "The agency Indians appear to take but little interest in what has transpired north; but the disastrous result may have a tendency to awaken the old feeling of superiority. I have experienced no difficulty whatever in taking the census, but have been somewhat delayed on account of the weather." There was in these reports no cause to anticipate that the hostiles would be materially reinforced from these agencies. General Sherman, whose position put him in possession of all the information that could be had, referring to Custer's departure on June 22, said: "Up to this moment there was nothing official or private to justify an officer to expect that any detachment could encounter more than 500, or, at the maximum, 800 hostile warriors." There was nothing, after that moment, from which Custer or any of his officers had any reason to change that estimate, until they were fairly within the clutches of the enemy.
This was a wide miscalculation. The Indians from all the Sioux agencies began slipping away to the hostiles as soon as spring gave signs of approach, and when Custer struck them, there were together, as nearly as can be judged, about one half of all the Sioux in Dakota. As soon as the fight on the Little Big Horn had shown what the real state of affairs was, the military authorities insisted on taking control of the agencies, and, on July 22, the Secretary of the Interior acceded to the demand. The soldiers at once took possession of the agencies, and made a careful census of the Indians remaining on the reservations. At Red Cloud, instead of 12,873 Indians, there were 4,760. At Spotted Tail, instead of 9,610, there were found to be 2,315. At Cheyenne River, instead of 7,586, there were found 2,280. At Standing Rock, instead of 7,322, there were found ,2305. In other words, there were 25,800 less Indians at these four agencies than belonged there, according to the reports of the Indian Bureau. These, with the 3,000 roaming Indians, who were always off the reservations, make 28,800, to which there could safely be added a considerable number as representatives from other agencies, notably from Fort Peck. It is certain that a large portion of the Indians, off the reservations when the censuses were taken by the military, had left after reports of the Little Big Horn fight reached them and stimulated them to a desire for war, but, deducting one half for this, we may still count at least 3000 warriors for that engagement. Reno says, of the horde that surrounded his intrenchment on the 26th: "I think we were fighting all the Sioux nation, and also all the desperadoes, renegades, half-breeds, and squaw men between the Missouri and Arkansas, east of the Rocky Mountains, and they must have numbered at least 2,500 warriors." This is more probably an underestimate than an overestimate. The hostiles had assembled at this point, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and all the rest. The Indians say so, and the scouting that had been done previously had shown that all the hostiles were in that neighborhood. The two main bodies joined about the 23d, as was shown by a heavy trail into the valley, about five days old, discovered by Captain Ball, on the 28th. The village extended three miles down the river, and in addition to the lodges there were a large number of brush shelters, such as are commonly called wiek-i-ups in the West. Officers who estimated from the size of the village thought there were at least 3000 warriors.
The belief has been held by some military men that the Indians were not expecting an attack when the soldiers struck them, but this theory is not supported by the facts. The inference from all the evidence is irresistible that Custer advanced into a remarkably complete and well planned ambuscade. The Indians had ample notice of his approach, he did not advance on them rapidly. At five o'clock in the morning, when he re-began his march, he was twenty-three miles from the village. At half past twelve, when Reno was ordered to charge, they were still four miles from it. In seven hours and a half they had advanced nineteen miles. They first saw Indians at eight o'clock, and at their rate of marching they were then about fifteen miles from the village, with the Indians still nearer. If we suppose these first Indians seen to have been the first Indians who saw the troops, it is evident that they could have notified the village with ease by ten o'clock. No one at all acquainted with Indian methods will believe that the troops were out of sight of Indian scouts at any time after eight o'clock. There are two facts going to show that they desired the troops to suppose that the village had not been alarmed. They did not make any signal fires for communication, as they usually do. These would have informed the soldiers that their presence was known to all the Indians in the vicinity. Secondly, Trumpeter Martin (the last white man who saw Custer alive), who brought back the message to Benteen, says he left the general at the summit of the bluff overlooking the village, and that, as he turned, " General Custer raised his hat and gave a yell, saying they were asleep in their teepees and surprised, and to charge." It is known that only a part of the village was visible from any point on the bluff that the soldiers reached before the fight, but the part Custer saw was quiet. It must have been kept quiet intentionally, for the warriors were at that time waiting for Custer below, and under such circumstances there would naturally have been an appearance of activity in the village, whatever its size might have been. Custer drew the correct conclusion on his theory of the number of Indians there. If there had been only from five to eight hundred warriors, and they had been notified of the coming of the troops, the squaws would have been taking down the lodges and packing at that time. The only inference that could be drawn was that they were surprised, and Custer acted on it, as they probably desired that he should.
The Indians were in at least two bodies before the fight began, one at the upper end of the village, and one at the ford where Custer attempted to cross. When Reno retired across the valley from the timber he was pursued by all the Indians there, who followed him until he reached the top of the bluff. His heaviest loss occurred while ascending the bluff. From the summit he heard firing, down the river, where Custer had gone. Custer was on the retreat from the time he was attacked, as is shown by the trail. Consequently, an overwhelming force of Indians was fighting each party at the same time. The number of Indians fighting Reno was estimated by Benteen at 900, and by Reno to be at least that number. So far as is known, the remainder, numbering probably 2000, were fighting Custer. The record of time given by Reno also shows that they were fighting simultaneously. Custer ordered Reno forward at half past twelve. His own command followed Reno's to a point near the ford, and then moved rapidly three miles down the river, in all five miles. He must have been engaged by two o'clock, and probably was fighting from half past one. It was half past two when Reno reached the top of the bluff and was joined by Benteen. It is not probable that Custer's fight lasted long after that time. There has been published an account of this massacre, purporting to come from a trapper named Ridgely, who was a prisoner in the Sioux camp and escaped during the jubilee on the night of the 25th, in which it is stated that the fight with Custer lasted only fifty-five minutes. This story contains numerous errors, and is therefore unworthy of belief except as corroborated. In this particular it is corroborated by Reno and Benteen, who say the firing had ceased when they advanced on the bluffs, and Captain Weir was sent beyond to learn Custer's whereabouts. This movement was made shortly after Reno and Benteen united, and before the pack train had come up. Another fact which shows conclusively that Custer's fight was short, was the small number of Indians killed. The estimates of their killed, in the entire affair, by the officers engaged, were from forty to one hundred. The Indians conceded a loss of thirty-five. Most of these were killed by Reno's command in the fight on the 26th.
With these points in mind, it is easy to see the plan of the Indians. They knew that a force of about six hundred men was approaching. They saw Benteen's detachment leave the others and ride to the left. They arranged their forces, part at the end of the village nearest the soldiers, and part at the first accessible ford below the approach to the upper end of the village. If the soldiers reunited they might possibly charge through at either place, but if they did they would be surrounded on all sides. If they came in two detachments there would be enough warriors at both points to overwhelm them. At the upper end a few Indians remained among some scattered teepees, above the main village. As the soldiers advanced these were to retreat, and draw their pursuers into the midst of the main body at this point. They failed in this, because Reno became suspicious of their action, and, seeing nothing of Custer, who, he understood, was to follow him, halted before reaching their ambuscade. They then advanced on him, passing constantly to his rear, to surround him, whereupon he cut through them to the bluffs. At the other end Sitting Bull had his main force at the ford, with a strong band advanced six hundred yards on the right bank, and concealed in the timber. Sitting Bull so states, and his statement is verified by the fact that Custer, instead of falling back by the road over which he advanced, retired farther down the stream. This he would not probably have done from choice, for it took him away from Reno and Benteen, and placed him in very bad ground, much cut up by ravines. He was struck in the rear by this band, turned down the river, and hurried on by a force vastly outnumbering him, until completely swept away. It has been quite commonly believed that Custer recklessly charged his command into a force that outnumbered him from five to ten times over, and that his recklessness was more or less due to his trouble with General Grant. That this last made him more anxious for action is probably true. One can readily see how the soldier, who has unwittingly been drawn into the muddy pool of politics, would wish for an open field and the enemy before him. The people understood that, and they looked on the attack as some of "Custer's dash," but they did not blame him, for it was that same "dash" that carried him into their hearts long before. There was another consideration, too, that might well have palsied the tongue of criticism the terrible loss to the Custer family. The general, his two brothers, his brother-in-law. Captain Calhoun, and his nephew, were certainly sacrifices enough to have expiated any common mistake. But this estimate, though it may be intended to be a kindly one, is unjust to Custer's memory. In fact, there has been injustice done to all the officers engaged in the battle, and it has arisen chiefly from the efforts of themselves or their friends to evade the supposed fault in the affair. There was not fairly any fault in it. It is evident that Custer attacked a force which he believed, and had every reason to believe, was about equal to his own. In that belief he concluded logically that the Indians were surprised when he saw their quiet camp. With that belief his division of his force into detachments, to strike on two sides, was a most excellent plan. He had not over marched his command. His advance was only sixty-one miles, from five o'clock on the morning of the 24th, to the time of the fight, or about thirty-two hours. It is plain enough that Terry's plan was to get the Indians between Custer and Gibbon, but this was not from any supposition that either command was not large enough to handle the Indians singly. It was for the purpose of preventing their escape. Terry had no more knowledge of the number of the Indians than Custer had, and neither Terry nor Custer can justly be blamed for relying on what information they had.
On the other hand, Reno and Benteen are equally justifiable. Reno saw that he was being drawn into a trap, and fell back in time to save the greater part of his command. It was most fortunate that he did so as quickly as he did. Army officers, in blaming one another for failures, almost invariably weaken their common defense, and this case is no exception. Custer's biographer, Captain Whittaker, in assailing Reno for falling back, labors to prove that the number of all the Indians at the village, including squaws and children, was about 4,500. If this were correct, the maximum number of warriors that could fairly be counted would be 1,500. The number assailing Reno, by the estimates of both Reno and Benteen, was about 900. The result of Whittaker's argument, therefore, would be that Custer was driven back by a party smaller than that assailing Reno, and Custer had two companies more than Reno. Benteen's course is also attacked by Captain Whittaker, but in this his premises are incorrect. His argument is based on the time consumed in Benteen's movements, and his time and distances are fixed by the time when Benteen watered his horses, which he assumes to have occurred when crossing the river. The horses were watered at a morass, some distance back on the main trail. The unjustness of the estimate of our officers has been increased by an underestimate of the Indian leaders. That they were men of ability to handle their forces is certain. That was a matter of notoriety all through the campaign of 1876. No more complete evidence of their skill could be given than the fact that neither of the three armies searching for them secured any knowledge of their numbers or position in advance. Crook had no idea of their strength until they fought him and turned him back on the 20th of June. Custer did not suspect it until they swarmed about him on the 25tli. Terry and Gibbon did not believe it possible for Custer to have been defeated, when the Crow scouts brought them word of it. It is a task requiring much tact and skill for a commander to conceal 15,000 people from the scouts of armies which are on all sides of him.
The struggle with the Sioux was protracted. The hostiles of the Little Big Horn separated into two bands, Sitting Ball's Indians remaining in the west, and Crazy Horse's moving towards the east. The war spirit was awakened throughout the Sioux nation, and warriors were constantly leaving the reservations. Colonel Merritt intercepted and drove back a party of 900 Cheyennes, that had started from Red Cloud, but many others gained the hostile camps. In a short time small parties were raiding in all directions. Reinforcements and supplies for the troops were hurried forward, but autumn had arrived before they were ready for active operations. On September 29, Captain Mills, of Crook's command, with 150 men, surprised the camp of American Horse (Wa-se-chnn-Ta-shun-kah, i. e., Washington Tashunkah) at Slim Buttes, Dakota. American Horse was mortally wounded, four of his men killed, and a dozen captured. The Indians lost their lodges, supplies, arms, ammunition, and 175 ponies. A number of articles belonging to the 7th Cavalry were found in this camp. In October, after a desperate and fruitless attack on a large supply train, escorted by Colonel Otis, Sitting Bull met Colonel Miles with propositions for peace. Miles, who had been put in command of the active troops in Dakota, told him that he could have peace if he would go on a reservation, or camp near the troops, where he would be in subjection to the government. Sitting Bull said he would come in and trade for ammunition, but wanted no rations or annuities, and desired to live free, as an Indian. The council dissolved with the assurance to the Indians that non-acceptance of the government's terms would be considered an act of hostility. Both parties took positions for action, and a battle ensued, in which the Indians were routed, and chased for over forty miles. On the 27th more than 400 lodges surrendered. Sitting Bull, with his band proper, escaped to the North, and was afterwards joined by several others. One baud of 119 lodges, under Iron Dog (Shon-ka-Ma-za) gained the Yanktonnais reservation and dissolved. Just previous to this time the Indians on the reservations were disarmed and dismounted. The same policy was pursued towards all the hostiles that came in subsequently. Red Cloud, who had remained at his agency, was deposed for his hostile bearing, and Spotted Tail was put in charge of all the Indians at both agencies.
Late in the fall a new expedition was fitted out by General Crook. The cavalry with this force (ten troops), under Colonel Mackenzie, surprised the camp of Dull Knife, a Cheyenne chief, at daybreak, on November 25. The Indians escaped with heavy loss, but their village of 173 lodges was destroyed, and 500 ponies were captured. Owing to cold weather, operations were thereafter suspended in this department, but were maintained in the Department of Dakota. On December 7 Lieutenant Baldwin, with 100 men, attacked Sitting Bull's camp of 190 lodges, and drove him across the Missouri into the bad lands. On the 18th Baldwin surprised their camp and captured all its contents, together with 60 horses. The Indians escaped across the Yellowstone in a state of destitution. Hearing of the reverses of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse sent him word to join his camp, as he had plenty of men and supplies; but General Miles learned of this from spies, and kept a force between the two bands which prevented their union. On Dec. 29, Miles started with 436 men and two cannons against Crazy Horse, who had his winter camp on the Tongue River. The Indians abandoned their village on his approach, and were driven up the river from January 1 to January 7. On the evening of the 7th, the advance captured a young warrior and seven Cheyenne women and children, who were relatives of one of the Cheyenne head men. The Indians made a desperate attempt to recover them that evening, and on the following morning 600 warriors engaged Miles. This fight occurred on a spur of the Wolf Mountains. The ground was covered with snow and ice, and a blinding snowstorm came on during the action. The Indians were driven back over three rugged bluffs, which horses could not cross, and which men could surmount only with great difficulty. They then fled, having lost heavily, and went through the Wolf Mountains in the direction of the Big Horn range.
Communication was opened with them through the captives. On February 1 Miles sent word to them that they must surrender unconditionally or he would attack them again. In March, after consultation, they concluded to submit, and left nine men as hostages for their surrender, either to Miles or at the agencies. 300, under Two Moons, Hump, and other chiefs, surrendered to Miles on April 22. Over 2000, under Crazy Horse, surrendered at Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies in May. Sitting Bull fled into British America with his little band, and was there joined by Iron Dog, Gall, and other chiefs. Crazy Horse remained on the reservation near Camp Robinson, until September. It was then learned that he was trying to bring about another war. He was arrested, but tried to escape, while on his way to the guardhouse, by running amuck through the crowd, striking with his knife at all who opposed him. He received a fatal wound, and died on September 7. The only band remaining at large was Lame Deer's. They were Minneconjous, with some renegades, who broke off from Crazy Horse's band when he determined to surrender, numbering in all 51 lodges. Colonel Miles surprised and routed them, on the morning of May 7, on the Rosebud, near the mouth of Muddy Creek. They lost 14 killed, including Lame Deer, all their supplies, and 450 ponies. The remaining Indians scattered, and Miles was soon after called away to stop the Nez Perce, who were retreating through Montana. On September 26, 1876, the "hostile" feeling having become somewhat subdued, the Sioux concluded the agreement by which they surrendered the Black Hills and the Powder River country to the government, and accepted in lieu thereof a substantial ration for each member of the tribe until they should become self supporting.
Sitting Bull's party was visited in British America by a commission, with the object of inducing them to return and surrender. They returned a defiant refusal to the emissaries of the government which "had made fifty-two treaties with the Sioux and kept none of them," declaring their intention to become subjects of her majesty. The new situation did not long suit them. The British government gave them protection merely, with no assistance, and this on the understanding that they would not be allowed to depredate across the line. One by one they concluded to come back to the fleshpots of the republic. They kept coming in small parties and surrendering to the troops until, on July 20, 1881, Sitting Bull, with his little band, reduced to 45 men, 67 women, and 73 children, surrendered .at Fort Buford. Two days later all the captive hostiles, numbering 2829, were turned over to the agent at Standing Rock. There has been no trouble of any importance with the Sioux since 1877, and they are reported to be making remarkable progress in civilization.
Telegraph Messages on Little Big Horn
Little Big Horn -
Source: Massacres of the Mountains, by J.P. Dunn Jr, M.S., LL.B, Harper &
Brothers, Franklin Square, New York, 1886