by Cyrus Townsend Brady.
|General George Armstrong Custer|
To return to the spring of 1876. When the column which Custer was to have commanded moved out, Custer led his own regiment, while Major-General Alfred H. Terry was in personal command of the column. I give the reason in the words of General George A. Forsyth in a recent letter to me:
"For some reason Custer, one of the most splendid soldiers that ever lived, hated General Belknap, the Secretary of War. He was a good hater, too. When General Belknap was imprisoned and undergoing trial Custer wrote that he knew of certain things regarding the appointment of post-traders on the upper Missouri River, which things the prosecution thought were what they needed to insure conviction. As a matter of fact, Custer did not know anything. He had heard disappointed men who had failed to get said post-traderships curse Belknap and say that they knew Belknap had sold the traderships to the appointees. It was not so. Belknap had given these appointments to certain able Iowa politicians for their friends, in order to secure their influence in the next campaign for United States Senator from Iowa, as he had determined to try for a senatorship from his state, viz., Iowa.
"It was entirely within his own right to make these appointments and there was really nothing wrong in doing so. Of course the disappointed applicants were furious and especially certain men who had served with Belknap during the Civil War and who thought they had a claim on him. They could not tell lies fast enough about Belknap and especially to Custer, who was thoroughly honest and believed what they said. This was what Custer thought he knew.
"Custer was summoned to Washington of course. When he was questioned by the House Committee of prosecution it was apparent that he did not know anything. His evidence was all hearsay and not worth a tinker's dam. The President — General Grant — was indignant at Custer's statements regarding Belknap, which turned out to be all hearsay. . . The President directed General Sherman not to permit Custer to take the field against Sitting Bull — undoubtedly to punish him.
"You will recall that Belknap was — in a sort of Scotch verdict way, 'Not proven, my lord' — acquitted. It was only upon the strong, insistent and urgent request of General Sheridan to General Sherman — the then Commanding General of the Army — that the President finally said that if General Sheridan regarded Custer's services of great importance in the campaign, Sherman might authorize Sheridan to permit him to join his regiment and serve under General Terry, who was appointed to command the expedition. Sherman wired Sheridan what the President said, and Sheridan at once applied for Custer as in his opinion necessary.'
"I was in Europe at the time of the Custer disaster, and on my return to General Sheridan's headquarters I saw all the correspondence in the case."
Therefore, instead of commanding the column, Custer was placed under Terry, who was to command Gibbon's column as well, when the junction had been made between the two. On the 17th of May the command left Fort Lincoln. The seriousness of the situation was felt as never before in an Indian campaign. It was realized that no child's play was before the troops, and it was with unusual gravity that the regiment marched away. Mrs. Custer tells how General Terry ordered the force to parade through Fort Lincoln to reassure the women and children left behind by the sight of its formidable appearance.
The best part of the expedition was the Seventh Cavalry, six hundred strong, with Custer at its head. The band played "Garry Owen," the famous battle tune of the Washita, as they marched away. They halted on the prairie afterward, and an opportunity was given to the officers and men to say good-by to the dear ones to be left behind; then, to the music of "The Girl I Left Behind Me," they started on that campaign from which half of them never came back.
They reached the Powder River without mishap, and were there joined by General Gibbon, who reported his command encamped along the Yellowstone, near the mouth of the Big Horn. Major Reno, of the Seventh Cavalry, with six troops had been sent on a scouting expedition to the southward, and had discovered a big Indian trail leading westward toward the Big Horn country. On the r7th of June Reno's men had been within forty miles of the place where Crook was fighting his fierce battle, although, of course, they knew nothing of it at this time. On the 22d Custer was ordered to take his regiment with fifteen days' rations and march down the Rosebud, thoroughly examining the country en route until he struck the Indian trail reported by Reno.
And now we come to the most important question of this remarkable campaign. On the one hand, General Terry has been severely censured for its dire failure; the death of Custer and the escape of the Indians have been laid at his door. On the other hand, it has been urged that Custer disobeyed his orders, broke up Terry's plan of campaign, and by his insubordination brought about a terrible disaster and let slip the opportunity for administering a crushing defeat to the Indians, which probably would have ended the war and prevented a deplorable loss of life, to say nothing of prestige and treasure. Both officers had, and still have, their partisans, and the matter has been thoroughly threshed out.
As between Custer and Terry, I profess absolute impartiality, although, if I have any natural bias, it is toward Custer, whose previous career, as I have investigated it, appeals to me more than Terry's, distinguished as were the latter's services. I have studied the situation carefully, examining all the evidence published by both sides, and very reluctantly, in spite of my liking for poor Custer, I am compelled to admit that he did disobey his orders; that his action did break up a most promising plan, which, it is highly probable, would have resulted in a decisive battle with the Indians and the termination of the war; and that he, and he alone, must be held responsible for the subsequent disaster.
General Terry's order to Custer, which follows, is entirely clear and explicit:
Camp at Mouth of Rosebud River, M. T.,
June 22d, 1876. Lieutenant-Colonel Custer,7th Cavalry.
Colonel: The Brigadier-General Commanding directs that, as soon as your regiment can be made ready for the march, you will proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians whose trail was discovered by Major Reno a few days since. It is, of course, impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and were it not impossible to do so, the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy, and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy. He will, however, indicate to you his own views of what your action should be, and he desires that you should conform to them, unless you should see sufficient reasons for departing from them. He thinks that you should proceed up the Rosebud until you ascertain definitely the direction in which the trail above spoken of leads. Should it be found (as it appears almost certain that it will be found) to turn toward the Little Horn,* he thinks that you should still proceed southward, perhaps as far as the head-waters of the Tongue, and then turn toward the Little Horn, feeling constantly, however, to your left, so as to preclude the possibility of the escape of the Indians to the south or southeast by passing around your left flank. The column of Colonel Gibbon is now in motion for the mouth of the Big Horn. As soon as it reaches that point it will cross the Yellowstone and move up at least as far as the forks of the Big and Little Horns. Of course its future movements must be controlled by circumstances, as they arise, but it is hoped that the Indians, if upon the Little Horn, may be so nearly inclosed by the two columns that their escape will be impossible.
The Department Commander desires that on your way up the Rosebud you should thoroughly examine the upper part of Tullock's Creek, and that you should endeavor to send a scout through to Colonel Gibbon's column, with information of the result of your examination. The lower part of this Creek will be examined by a detachment from Colonel Gibbon's command. The supply steamer will be pushed up the Big Horn as far as the forks if the river is found to be navigable for that distance, and the Department Commander, who will accompany the command of Colonel Gibbon, desires you to report to him there not later than the expiration of the time for which your troops are rationed, unless in the meantime you receive further orders.
Very respectfully your obedient servant,
E. W. SMITH,
Captain i8th Infantry,
Acting Assistant Adjutant General.
Custer was directed to march southward until he struck the trail Reno had discovered. If, as Terry supposed, it led across the Rosebud, he was not to follow it westward to the Little Big Horn, or until he met the Indians, but he was to turn to the southward until he struck the head-waters of the Tongue River. If he found no Indians there, he was to swing northward down the valley of the Little Big Horn, toward the spot where Terry supposed the Indians to be, and where, in reality, they were. Meanwhile Gibbon was to come up the Little Big Horn from the north toward the same spot. In the general plan of the campaign, Crook and his force were supposed to prevent the Indians from moving south — which they did, by the way. Custer was to keep them from going east, and, as he advanced, was "to feel to his left" to preclude all possibility of their slipping between him and Crook, while Gibbon was to keep them from going off to the north. The Indians would have no direction open to them for flight except westward, and in that case the troops hoped to overtake them in a difficult country, enclosed by mountains and rivers.
|Map of Custer's Defeat on the Little Big Horn|
Terry, although he was not an experienced Indian fighter, had divined the position of the Indians with remarkable accuracy, and he fully expected to find them on the Little Big Horn. If Custer had followed Terry's orders, he would have reached the Indians on the day that Gibbon's men, as we shall see, rescued Reno. After the disaster Terry magnanimously strove at first to conceal from the public the fact that Custer had disobeyed his orders. Custer had paid the penalty for his disobedience with his life, and Terry was willing to bear the odium of the defeat and failure. His self-sacrifice was noble and characteristic; but a mistake, caused by the carelessness of General Sherman, coupled with the enterprise of a brilliant newspaper reporter, who posed as a regularly accredited government messenger, defeated Terry's intent, and instead of the first report, which made no allusion to the disobedience of orders, being made public, a second report, which told the whole story, and which was intended for the authorities alone, was given to the press and immediately spread broadcast. The first report soon turned up, and Terry thereafter was made the victim of unmerited obloquy by Custer's partisans, who said that the absence of any mention in the Original report of any disobedience on the part of Custer, and the alleged failure to allude to the plan of campaign which Custer had frustrated, was evidence that no importance was attached to the plan by Terry or any one until after the failure and consequent popular indignation. Terry's answer to this was a noble silence, to save Custer's reputation. The living assumed the responsibility to protect the fame of the dead — honor to him!
General Gibbon also has gone on record in a letter to Terry regarding the situation:
"So great was my fear that Custer's zeal would carry him forward too rapidly, that the last thing I said to him when bidding him good-by after his regiment had filed past you when starting on his march was, 'Now, Custer, don't be greedy, but wait for us.' He replied gaily as, with a wave of his hand, he dashed off to follow his regiment, 'No, I will not.' Poor fellow! Knowing what we do now, and what an effect a fresh Indian trail seemed to have had upon him, perhaps we were expecting too much to anticipate a forbearance on his part which would have rendered cooperation of the two columns practicable.
"Except so far as to draw profit from past experience, it is perhaps useless to speculate as to what would have been the result had your plan, as originally agreed upon, been carried out. But I cannot help reflecting that in that case my column, supposing the Indian camp to have remained where it was when Custer struck it, would have been the first to reach it; that with our infantry and Gatling guns we should have been able to take care of ourselves, even though numbering only about two-thirds of Custer's force; and that with six hundred cavalry in the neighborhood, led as only Custer could lead it, the result to the Indians would have been very different from what it was."
With regard to Gibbon's generous suggestion that Custer was suddenly carried away by the opportunity presented, the testimony of the late General Ludlow is interesting. According to him, Custer stated on the 8th of May, in St. Paul, Minnesota, that he intended, at the first chance he got in the campaign, to "cut loose from (and make his operations independent of) General Terry during the summer;" that he had "got away from Stanley and would be able to swing clear of Terry."
It is difficult, nay, it is impossible, therefore, to acquit Custer of a deliberate purpose to campaign on his own account so soon as he could get away from General Terry. The sentence of Terry's orders commencing:
It is, of course, impossible to give you any definite instructions," etc., and expressing confidence in his zeal and energy, and Terry's unwillingness to hamper him with precise directions, when nearly in contact with the enemy, did not warrant Custer in disobeying his orders. It was only to govern his conduct when he should be in contact with the enemy, in which case, of course, he would have to be the sole judge of what was best to be done.
His conduct in that case will be considered later. In any event it has no bearing on the question of disobedience, for the crux is here: had Custer obeyed orders, he would not have come in contact with the enemy when and where he did. The conditions would have differed greatly.
Every student of military matters knows that the words used, "He desires that you should conform to them (his own views) unless," etc., convey a direct, positive command.
The abstract question of disobedience of orders is one that has often been discussed. It is impossible to maintain the position that an officer should never, under any circumstances, disobey his orders. Circumstances sometimes compel him to do so. But when an officer commanding troops which are supposed to act in cooperation with other troops receives orders to carry out a certain specified detail of a stated general plan, and in the exercise of his own discretion concludes to disobey his orders and do something other than what he was directed to do, he takes upon himself the onus of success or failure, not merely of his own immediate manoeuver, but of the whole general plan. If the plan miscarries through his disobedience, whatever may have been his motives, woe be unto him! If by his disobedience he brings about the end at which the original plan aimed, the defeat of the enemy that is another proposition. The event has then justified his disobedience.
Every soldier understands that reasons for disobedience must be so clear, so convincing, and so unexpected, that he is warranted in taking so prodigious a risk. Disregarding for the moment, for the sake of argument, General Ludlow's testimony as to preconceived and deliberate intent on Custer's part to disobey, supposing Custer's disobedience to have been caused by some exigency or crisis, we may ask ourselves what were the reasons that caused him entirely to disregard Terry's plan and so to manoeuver as to bring himself directly in touch with the Indians in the shortest possible time, without attempting either to examine Tullock's Creek or to incline to the southward—"feel with his left"? These reasons—if any there were—can never be known, owing to Custer's death. It can only be said that no satisfactory reasons appear which justify Custer's action.
The best that can be urged in defense of Custer is contained in the following paragraph taken from Colonel Godfrey's Century article.
"Had Custer continued his march southward—that is, left the Indian trail—the Indians would have known of our movements on the 25th and a battle would have been fought very near the same field on which Crook had been attacked and forced back only a week before; the Indians would never have remained in camp and allowed a concentration of the several columns to attack them. If they escaped without punishment or battle, Custer would undoubtedly have been blamed."
It may be pointed out with due reverence to Colonel Godfrey—whom I consider one of the ablest officers in the United States Army, by the way—that it is hard to see how Custer could have been blamed for obeying his orders; and that it is by no means certain that the Indians would have discovered Custer's column. Indeed, his previous success in concealing his movements and surprising the Indians (witness the Washita campaign) leads me to believe that he could have carried out his orders without observation. If Gibbon had struck the Indians first and had held them in play Custer could have annihilated them. General Fry's comments in the Century (appended to Colonel Godfrey's article) on Custer's action are entirely wrong.
As to what would have happened if Custer had been successful, it is more or less idle to speculate. Certainly, if he had overwhelmingly defeated the Indians, I do not think he would have been court-martialed; but if he had been in Reno's place and had been besieged with heavy loss, then I feel certain that Terry would have been in duty bound to prefer charges against him. All this is beside the main question, however, and it is now time to return to the history of the expedition.
Terry offered Custer four troops of the Second Cavalry and two Gatling guns, which were refused. Custer said that any force that was too big for the Seventh Cavalry alone to deal with would be too big for the Seventh Cavalry plus the four troops, and urged that the guns would hamper and harass his movements. Terry, who elected to go with Gibbon's infantry column, agreed with him.
Neither Terry nor Custer nor any one expected to meet more than one thousand warriors. They had no knowledge whatever of the large numbers of the so-called peaceable Indians, for whom rations had been regularly issued, who had broken away from the agencies and joined the hostiles. They did not know of Crook's defeat, and the great effect it had in inducing wavering bucks to give their allegiance to the brave men on the war-path. It will, perhaps, be fair to estimate the number of Indian warriors in the field at a mean between the white and Indian accounts, which range from twelve hundred on the one hand to three thousand on the other. To be on the safe side, I shall call it at least two thousand. Whatever their number, there were enough of them.
In their way they were two thousand of the fiercest and most desperate fighters on the face of the globe. While they were undisciplined, untrained, and not entirely amenable to one will, as were the soldiers, they were, nevertheless, a fearfully formidable force. Their common hatred of the white man gave them sufficient coherence to form a rude but effective organization. They were led by experienced chiefs and were used to fighting. From 1868, after the clog of the treaty by which the frontier posts were abandoned and the country restored to the Sioux and the Cheyennes, to 1876, no less than two hundred distinct fights, like that described in the account of the Yellowstone expedition, had occurred between the soldiers and the Indians. They were now to be tried in a real battle, and, as we shall see, they were not found wanting; for, in the end, all the honors of the campaign rested with them.
The Seventh Cavalry left the camp at the mouth of the Powder River at twelve o'clock noon, on the 22d of June, 1876. Generals Terry, Gibbon, and Custer reviewed it as it marched away. With the column were fifty Arikara (" Rees") Indian auxiliaries, a few Crows, and a number of white scouts and newspaper correspondents. At four o'clock, after they had progressed twelve miles, the march was halted, and that evening the officers were summoned to Custer's headquarters, and marching instructions were given them. No bugle-calls were to be sounded. The march was to be made with the greatest possible rapidity; every officer was to look carefully to his men and horses. Squadron and battalion formations were abandoned; each troop commander was to report to Custer in person.
Custer was usually very uncommunicative. Ordinarily, he kept his plans to himself until the time to strike arrived. On this occasion, however, he announced his purpose, which was to follow the trail until they found the Indians, and then "go for them." He was not "carried away" by anything, and this declaration is further evidence of his deliberate purpose. His manner, at all times blunt and peremptory, not to say brusque, was now entirely changed. He was usually full of cheerfulness and confidence. There appeared to be a marked absence of both qualities in this instance. Officers have recorded that he seemed worried and depressed. It may be that he was feeling the displeasure of Grant, which his imprudent conduct had brought about. Perhaps the serious character of the risk he was taking by his independent move weighed upon him. If he succeeded, he would regain all he had lost in the censure. If he failed — well, he would not anticipate that. It was enough to give a man serious thoughts. His letters to his wife seem as cheerful and confident as ever, but, perhaps, he may have affected that for her sake. At any rate, the testimony as to his mental condition is unequivocal.
However he may have felt, he acted with his usual energy. Starting at five on the morning of the 23d, the regiment went into camp at five in the afternoon, having covered thirty-three miles over an execrable marching country — the "Bad Lands." On the 24th they marched twenty-eight miles over an even worse territory. Indian signs were abundant. Hundreds of Indians evidently had passed. As no one could tell how near they were to the hostiles, after supper on the 24th fires were put out and the men were allowed to sleep until half after eleven, while the officers and scouts examined the trail. It was reported to Custer that it led straight across the divide separating the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn. At half after eleven the men were routed out and marched ten miles toward the crest of the Little Big Horn Mountains, which they reached at two o'clock in the morning of Sunday, the 25th. A further halt was made, and at eight o'clock the advance was taken up once more.
GEN. GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER
Killed with half his regiment at the Little Big Horn
Killed with half his regiment at the Little Big Horn
They marched ten miles farther, and concealed themselves in a large ravine near the divide and about sixteen miles from the little Big Horn, about half after ten in the morning. Smoke was seen trembling in the air by the scouts in the crow's nest on the top of the divide, and there were other evidences of Indians down the valley of the Little Big Horn. It is believed that Custer intended to remain in hiding during the day, and deliver his attack on the next morning. Unfortunately, however, his trail had been crossed by the Indians. A box of hard bread had fallen from one of the pack-mules during the night march. When its loss was discovered, a squad of men had been sent back for it. They found an Indian trying to open it. He made his escape, and would undoubtedly alarm the villages they were approaching.
And now we come to another problem. As the result of his disobedience he was now practically in contact with the enemy, although he should not have been. Being in contact, however, what was he to do? There were no orders to govern him now. He was thrown on his own resources — just what he wanted, and what he had schemed and planned for. How was he to deal with his self-created opportunity?
Believing, as he and everyone else did, that the Indian force did not greatly outnumber his own, an attack was entirely feasible. Should he deliver that attack, or should he wait to be attacked? The advantage is usually with the attacking party in Indian warfare. Should he seize or yield that? Suppose he decided not to attack the Indians, and they moved away and escaped? Would he not be censured for allowing them to get away, since he had got in touch with them?
Suppose — remote contingency — he were not entirely successful in his attack on the Indians? Gibbon must be somewhere in the vicinity. A day or two would probably bring him to the rescue. Could he not fight a waiting battle, if necessary, until the other column arrived on the field? Was it not absolutely incumbent upon him to embrace the opportunity presented to him? He had what he believed to be the finest regiment of cavalry in the service. He had tried it, tested it, on many fields; he knew, or thought he knew, the temper of his officers and men. He decided to attack. Indeed, there was nothing else for him to do. Fight he must. In the opinion of distinguished military critics who have expressed themselves upon the point, from General Sheridan down, he was justified in his decision. In that opinion I concur. And there is no evidence that he ever contemplated doing anything else. He had arranged matters to bring about the opportunity, and he had no hesitation in embracing it. Evidently, he had absolutely no premonition of defeat or disaster.
A little before noon he communicated his intention to his officers and men. He divided his regiment into three battalions. To Major Marcus A. Reno, an officer with no experience in Indian fighting, he gave Troops A, G, and M; to Captain Benteen, a veteran and successful Indian fighter, Troops D, H, and K; Captain McDougall, with Troop B, was ordered to bring up the mule train and take it in charge; Custer himself took the five remaining troops, C, E, F, I, and L.
They left the ravine, and about noon crossed the divide which separated them from Little Big Horn Valley. Benteen was ordered to swing over to the left and search the country thoroughly in that direction, driving any hostiles he might come across into the village and preventing any escape of the Indians to the southward and westward. Reno was to follow a small creek, sometimes called Reno's Creek, to its junction with the Little Big Horn and strike the head of the village, supposed to be there. Custer's movements would be determined subsequently, although for the present he followed Reno. McDougall came last, following their trail with the slow-moving train, which dropped rapidly to the rear as the others proceeded at a small pace. Benteen at once moved off to the westward, while Reno, followed by Custer, started down toward the valley of the Little Big Horn.
This river is a rapid mountain stream of clear, cold water, with a pebbly bottom, from twenty to forty yards wide. The depth of the water varies from two to five feet. While it is very tortuous, the general direction of the stream is northward to the Big Horn, which flows into the Yellowstone. The valley, from half a mile to a mile in width, is bordered by the bare bluffs. Along the river in places are thick clumps of trees. The Indian camp, the end of which they could see as they crossed the divide, was strung along the valley for several miles.
Reno's advance down the creek took him near to the east bank of river. Custer had followed him, slightly on his right flank. When Reno discovered the head of the village in the valley, he crossed the creek to Custer and reported what he had seen. Custer directed him to cross the river, move down the valley, and attack in force, informing him that he would be "supported" by Custer's battalion. Reno accordingly put his battalion to a fast trot in columns of four, crossed the Little Big Horn River beyond the mouth of the creek, and proceeded onward for perhaps half a mile. Then he threw his troops in line, reaching from the river to the bluffs on the left, with the Arikara scouts on the left flank, and galloped down the valley for a mile farther.
Reno stated subsequently that he believed that Custer intended to keep behind him all the time; and he fully expected, should he come in contact with Indians that Custer would be on hand to join in the attack. Custer, however, had not continued down the creek or crossed the river with Reno, but had swung off to the high bluffs on the right bank of the creek, east of the river. Reno mistook the purport of Custer's statement. In order to support an attack, it is not necessary to get behind it. A flank attack or a demonstration in force, from some other direction, frequently may be the best method of supporting an attack. Custer's plan was entirely simple. Reno was to attack the end of the village. Benteen was to sweep around and fall on the left of it, Custer on the right. The tactics in the main were those which had been used so successfully in the Battle of the Washita (q.v.), and were much in vogue among our Indian fighters during the Indian wars.
Dividing forces in the face of an enemy to make several simultaneous attacks is dangerous, because it is almost impossible to secure a proper cooperation between the attacking units. A skillful general will concentrate his force upon the separately approaching and more or less isolated units and beat them in detail. Washington's tactics at Germantown were similar to those of Custer; and his force, which would have swept the British from the field if his plans had been carried out, was beaten in detail for lack of coordination in the separate attacks. Some of Napoleon's most brilliant battles were fought when he occupied interior lines and by successive attacks broke up converging columns.
Still, the Indians were not believed to be veteran tacticians, although everybody underestimated their qualities. They were extremely liable to panic. A sudden attack or a surprise almost always disorganized them and threw them into confusion. Under the peculiar circumstances, I think there is little question that Custer's tactics were entirely sound and well considered, although this conclusion is often disputed. Where Custer made a mistake appears to be in his failure to take greater precautions that the attacks should be delivered simultaneously. He had a much longer distance to go than Reno and over a much worse country before he could attack, and he was not at all sure as to where Benteen was or when he could join. Nevertheless, the chances of success were many, the chances of failure few, and I have no doubt that Custer would have been successful had there not been a woeful lack of conduct on the part of his principal subordinate.
* As the conduct of Major Reno was so decisive in the subsequent fighting, and since, upon his conduct as a pivot, the fortunes of the day turned, it is well to say something of his record, which I have compiled from official sources.
He was graduated from West Point in 1857, and was immediately appointed to the First Dragoons, and had risen to a captaincy in the First Cavalry at the outbreak of the Civil War. His career during the war was one of distinction. He was brevetted major, March 17, 1863, for gallant and meritorious services at Kelly's Ford, and lieutenant-colonel for gallant and meritorious services at the Battle of Cedar Creek, October 19, 1864. On January I, 1865, he was appointed colonel of the Twelfth Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, and was brevetted brigadier-general of Volunteers at the close of the war. Here is a brave and honorable record. Would that it might never have been tarnished.
He joined the Seventh Cavalry December 19, 1869, as major. He had had no Indian service prior to that time, and his services up to the present campaign comprised a three months' scouting expedition in Colorado in the summer of 1870. In 1879, upon his own application, a court of inquiry was convened for the purpose of investigating his conduct at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. It was the opinion of the court that no further proceedings were necessary in the case. One sentence of the record is significant: "The conduct of the officers throughout was excellent, and while subordinates in some instances did more for the safety of the command by brilliant displays of courage than did Major Reno, there was nothing in his conduct which requires animadversion from this court."
His relations with General Custer had not been friendly; so inimical were they, in fact, that Custer was begged, before starting on the fatal campaign, not to intrust the command of any supporting movement to Reno. Custer refused to allow any such personal considerations to prevent Reno receiving the command to which his rank entitled him.
In 1880 Major Reno was found guilty, by a general court-martial, of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. While in an intoxicated condition he had engaged in a brawl in a public billiard saloon, in which he assaulted another officer, destroyed property, and otherwise conducted himself disgracefully. The court sentenced him to be dismissed from the military service of the United States. The sentence was approved by President Hayes, and Major Reno ceased to be an officer of the Army in April, 1880.
It is painful to call attention to these facts, especially as Major Reno has since died; but the name and fame of a greater than he have been assailed for his misconduct, and in defense of Custer it is absolutely necessary that Reno's character and services should be thoroughly understood.
It will be necessary, in order clearly to comprehend the complicated little battle, to treat each of the three operations separately, and then see how they were related to one another.
As Reno's men trotted down the valley, they saw, some distance ahead of them and to the right across the river on a line of high bluffs, Custer attended by his staff. The general waved his hat at them encouragingly, and disappeared over the brow of the hill. That glimpse of Custer, standing on that hill with outstretched arm gallantly waving his troopers on to battle, was the last any one of his comrades in the valley had of him in life; and it is certain that Reno must have realized then that Custer was not following him, and that he was expected to attack in his front alone.
However, Reno, having drawn near to the village, deployed his skirmishers, and slowly advanced down the valley. In a few moments they were hotly engaged with a constantly growing force of Indians.
Now, one thing about the battle that followed is the utter unreliability of the Indian reports of their movements. It is alleged that fear of punishment made them and keeps them reticent and uncommunicative. Different Indians tell different stories. Most of these stories disagree in their essential details, and it is impossible to reconcile them. It may be that the faculties of the Indians are not sufficiently alert to enable them to recall the general plan of the battle, or at least to relate it, although they knew well enough how to fight it at the time. Their accounts are haphazard to the last degree. Some say that they knew nothing of the advent of the troops until Reno's men deployed in the valley. At any rate, they had sufficient time, on account of his dilatory and hesitating advance, to assemble in heavy force. Reno had less than one hundred and fifty men with him. Even if Dr. Eastman's estimate, that the Indians numbered but twelve hundred warriors, be true, they still outnumbered Reno, although, owing to the fact that the villages were strung along the river for several miles, only a portion of them were at first engaged with the troops. Flushed with their previous victory over Crook a short time before, these Indians now fell upon Reno like a storm.
Reno's line extended clear across the valley, which was quite narrow where the battle was joined, the right flank protected by the river, the left by the bluffs. Recovering from their alleged panic, possibly because of the feeble advance of the soldiers, the Indians rallied, and with wonderful generalship massed their attack on the left flank, which was most unfortunately held by the Arikara scouts. No Arikara that ever lived was a match for the Sioux or the Cheyennes. The Rees, as these Indian auxiliaries were called, broke and fled incontinently. They never stopped until they reached the supply camp on the Powder River, miles away. At the same time the horses of two troopers in the command ran away with them, and plunged straight into the Indian lines with their riders. Their fate was plain.
As the Ree scouts broke, the Indians turned Reno's left flank. The troopers gave way at once. There was no reserve which could be thrown upon the Indians until the line was restored. The whole force was slammed back, like a door, into the timber on the bank of the river.
Here Reno made a serious mistake. After rallying his men, he ordered them to dismount. Cavalry may be dismounted for defense, but sound judgment and military usage demand that for an attack, especially upon an Indian village of that kind, they should charge upon horseback. As one veteran cavalryman has written me, "I never could understand why Reno did not charge desperately on the Indians in front of him. His dismounting his men was against all sound military judgment. 'Audacity, always audacity,' is the motto for a cavalryman." Had Reno been governed by this principle and charged, as he should have done, the result would have been different.
The position was instantly surrounded by yelling Indians galloping madly to and fro, firing upon the troops. So far, Reno had lost but one wounded and the two who had galloped into the Indian line. His second position was admirable for defense. Sheltered by the trees, with his flanks and rear protected by the river, he could have held the place indefinitely. However, he had not been detailed to defend or hold any position, but to make a swift, dashing attack. Yet, after a few moments of the feeblest kind of advance, he found himself thrown on the defensive. Such a result would break up the most promising plan. It certainly broke up Custer's. In spite of the defection of the Rees, a vigorous countercharge down the valley would have extricated Reno and might have saved Custer.
It is a painful thing to accuse an army officer of misconduct; yet I have taken the opinion of a number of army officers on the subject, and every one of them considers Reno culpable in a high degree. One at least has not hesitated to make known his opinion in the most public way. I am loath to believe that Major Reno was a coward, but he certainly lost his head; and when he lost his head, he lost Custer. His indecision was pitiful. Although he had suffered practically no loss and had no reason to be unduly alarmed, he was in a state of painful uncertainty as to what he should do next. The soldier, like the woman, who hesitates in an emergency which demands instant decision, is lost.
How long the troops stayed under the trees by the river bank cannot be determined accurately. Some have testified that it was a few moments, others an hour. Personally I think it was a few moments, which fear and apprehension lengthened to an impossible period. There had as yet been no panic, and under a different officer there would have been none; but it is on record that Reno at last gave an order for the men to mount and retreat to the bluffs. Before he could be obeyed, he countermanded this order. Then the order was repeated, but in such a way that nobody save those immediately around him heard it, because of the din of the battle then raging in a sort of aimless way all along the line, and no attempt was made to obey it. It was then repeated for the third time. Finally, as those farther away saw those nearest the flurried commander mounting and evidently preparing to leave, the orders were gradually communicated throughout the battalion, and nearly the whole mass got ready to leave. Eventually they broke out of the timber in a disorderly column of fours, striving to return to the ford which they had crossed when they had entered the valley.
Reno calls this a charge, and he led it. He was so excited that, after firing his pistols at the Indians who came valiantly after the fleeing soldiers, he threw them away. The pressure of the Indians upon the right of the men inclined them to the left, away from the ford. In fact, they were swept into a confused mass and driven toward the river. All semblance of organization was lost in the mad rush for safety. The troops had degenerated into a mob.
The Indians pressed closely upon them, firing into the huddle almost without resistance. Evidently in their excitement the Indians fired high, or the troops would have been annihilated. The Indians supposed, of course, that they now had the troops corralled between them and the river, and that all they needed to do was to drive them into it. Chief Gall, who with Crazy Horse and Crow King was principally responsible for the Indian manoeuvers, seeing the retreat of Reno to the river, summoned a large body of warriors, left the field and crossed the river farther down, intending to sweep down upon the other side and attack Reno's men as they struggled up the steep bank in case any of them succeeded in crossing. This was, as it turned out, a fortunate move for the Indians.
Meanwhile, Reno's men providentially found a pony trail which indicated a ford of the river. On the other side the trail led into a funnel-shaped amphitheater, surrounded by high, slippery bluffs. Into this cul-de-sac the whole fleeing body plunged, the Indians pressing the rear hard. The men jumped their horses from the bank into the water, and finding that the trail stopped at the bluff on the other side, actually urged them up the steep slopes of the hill.
There is no denying that they were panic-stricken. Although some of the veterans opened fire upon the savages, the bulk of the troopers did nothing but run. Dr. DeWolf was one of the coolest among those present. He stopped his horse deliberately, and fired at the Indians until he was shot dead. Lieutenant Macintosh, striving to rally his men, was shot just as they left the timber. Lieutenant Hodgson, reaching the river bank, had his horse shot. In his agony the animal stumbled into the river and fell dead. The same bullet which killed the horse broke Hodgson's leg. He cried for help, and Sergeant Criswell rode over to where he lay. Hodgson took hold of the sergeant's stirrup, and under a heavy fire was dragged out on the bank, which he had scarcely reached before a second bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Criswell was swept on by his men, but so soon as he could he rode back under a furious fire and brought off the body, as well as all the ammunition in the saddle-bags on several dead horses. He received a medal of honor for his courage.
If Gall had completed his projected movements, Reno's men would have been annihilated then and there. As it was, they reached the top of the bluffs without further molestation. They had lost three officers and twenty-nine men and scouts killed; seven men were badly wounded, and one officer, Lieutenant DeRudio, and fifteen men were missing. These had been left behind in the confusion of Reno's "charge."
It was now somewhere between half after one and two o'clock in the afternoon, and during the fighting Reno was joined by Benteen's battalion. The Indians kept up a desultory fire on the position, but they seemed to have diminished in numbers. Reno occupied the next hour in reorganizing his force, getting the men into their accustomed troops, and taking account of casualties.
In accordance with his orders, Benteen had moved off to the westward. He speedily became involved in almost impassable country, full of deep ravines, in which progress was slow and difficult. Water was very scarce in the country over which the regiment had marched until it reached the valley of the Big Horn. What water they had found that morning was so alkaline that the horses and mules, although they had been nearly a day without water, would not drink it. The horses were naturally tired, having marched over fifty miles since the morning of the day before, and the terrible up-and-down hill work exhausted them still more, although they were by no means played out. No Indians were seen by Ben-teen, and the condition of the country was such that it was evident there were none before him.
He turned to the right, therefore, and struck into the valley of the Big Horn, just ahead of McDougall and the pack train, intending to cross the river and attack the village or join Reno, as the case might be. He had just watered his horses at a little brook following out a morass, when a sergeant from Custer's battalion passed by on a gallop, with a message for the supply train to come at once. As the trooper raced along the line he shouted exultantly, "We've got 'em, boys!" Benteen's men took this to mean that Custer had captured the village. A few moments after, Trumpeter Martini galloped up with a message from Custer to Benteen, signed by Cook, the adjutant, which read as follows:
"Benteen. Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs.
"P. S. Bring packs."
The need for the spare ammunition with the pack-train was apparently so urgent that in his hurry Cook repeated the last two words. At the same time the sound of distant firing was heard in the valley. Making ready for instant action, Benteen led his troopers forward at a gallop down the valley. Tired though the animals were, they responded nobly to the demands of their riders, and the whole party swept across the hills in the direction whence the trumpeter had come until they overlooked the valley. Every one supposed that Custer had entered the valley and was driving the Indians before him. That he expected to have a big fight on his hands was indicated by the reiteration of his request that the pack train should be rushed forward, evidently to bring the reserve ammunition.
The valley was filled with dust and smoke; the day was frightfully hot and dry. Bodies of men could be distinguished galloping up and down. Benteen would, perhaps, have crossed the river and charged down the valley had his attention not been called to a body of men in blue on the bluff on the same side of the river to the right. They were, assuredly, hotly engaged, but there were also evidences of fierce fighting far down the valley. What was happening? What should he do? At this junction one of the Crow scouts — these Indians had not fled with the cowardly Rees, but remained with the command, fighting bravely — came up driving a small bunch of captured ponies, and he indicated that the principal battle was on the bluff. Benteen accordingly galloped around the bend of the river, and joined the demoralized Reno without opposition.
It is interesting to speculate what might have happened if Benteen had crossed the river and had charged down the valley. In that case, if Reno had re-crossed the river and again attacked, the day might still have been won, but in all probability Reno would not have re-crossed and Benteen would have been annihilated. At any rate, Benteen did the only thing possible when Reno's whereabouts and need were made known to him by the scout.
Reno had lost his hat in his famous "charge," and had his head tied up in a handkerchief. He was much excited, and apparently had no idea as to what he should do next. The officers of his battalion made no bones about admitting to the newcomers that they had been badly beaten and were in a critical condition. None of them could tell anything about Custer.
Benteen's men were ordered to divide their ammunition with Reno's. A line of skirmishers was thrown out around the bluffs, and an effort to get water from the river was made, the supply in the canteens having been long ago exhausted. The Indian fire prevented this. There was, of course, not a drop of water on the bluffs, and the wounded suffered greatly, to say nothing of the thirsty men. The officers collected in groups on the edge of the bluffs overlooking the field, and discussed the question. They were not molested by the Indians at this time.
The general impression was that Custer had made the mistake of his life in not taking the whole regiment in together. Possibly Reno's men took that view because they had been so badly mauled themselves. The valley had been filled with Indians, but, about three o'clock or a little after most of them galloped down the river and were soon out of sight. The river banks were still lined with Indians under cover, who kept up a smart fire on Reno's men if they attempted to descend the bluffs and approach the water; but the main force had evidently withdrawn.
Firing was heard far away to the northward. It was heavy and continuous. There could be but one explanation of it. Custer's detachment had at last met the Indians and was engaged. This should surely have been a stimulus to Reno. Custer was fighting; Reno was not menaced —what should he do? Later in the afternoon two heavy volleys in rapid succession were remarked. This was so unusual under the circumstances that it was finally felt to be a signal from Custer. He must surely be in grave peril, then, and calling for help. How, in the name of all that was soldierly, could such an appeal be neglected? Many and anxious were the questions the officers and men put among themselves as to why Reno did not do something. It was felt by everybody that Custer was in grave jeopardy, and that Reno should move at once. He had about three hundred men under his command, one-half of whom had not been engaged.
Captain Weir, of D Troop, on the right of Reno's command, having cleared away the Indians in front of him, at last boldly took matters in his own hands. After pleading again and again for permission, he started alone without it toward the sound of the firing to see what he could. Lieutenant Edgerly, his second, supposed that he had received orders to advance, and he accordingly put the troop in motion. Weir was on the bluff, Edgerly lower down in a small ravine. The Indians moved to attack Edgerly, when Weir signaled him to lead his men up the bluff, which he did without loss. The troop, unsupported and in defiance of Reno's orders, advanced to the point where Custer had been last seen to wave his hat, and there stopped. The men could overlook the ridges and valleys beyond them for a great distance.
A mile and a half or two miles away they could see, through the defiles in the ridges, great clouds of mounted Indians. Reports of rifles indicated that the battle, whatever it was, was still being waged. It was impossible for Weir and Edgerly to do anything with their single troop. Although they were not seriously attacked in their bold advance, Reno at first made no movement to support them.
At half after four Captain McDougall and the pack train joined Reno. They had not been molested in any way. At last, about five o'clock, Reno yielded to the urgent and repeated representations of the angry officers, and marched along the ridge to the position Weir and Edgerly had reached. He came up to this point at half after five. The firing on the bluffs far ahead was practically over. The Indians could still be seen and some shooting was going on, but there did not appear to be a battle raging. They learned afterward that it was the Indians shooting into the bodies of the dead.
It was evident to everyone that whatever might have been done earlier in the afternoon, there was no use in advancing now. Indeed, the Indians came sweeping back in great force in front of Reno, and at once attacked him. There was nothing for him to do but retreat to the most defensible position he could find, and endeavor to hold his ground. Custer and his men, if they still survived, must be left to face as best they could whatever fate had in store for them. Reno accordingly retreated to the place on the bluff whence he had just come. Lieutenant Godfrey, of K Troop, the rear guard, without orders deployed and dismounted his men, and, ably seconded by his junior, Lieutenant Luther R. Hare, by hard fighting kept off the Indians till the retreat was safely made by the rest, whom he and his troopers succeeded in joining. It was well that he did this, for his coolness and courage saved the command.
There was a little depression back of a ridge, which afforded some cover for the horses and pack train. During the retreat an incident occurred worthy of mention. One of the pack mules, loaded with precious ammunition, broke away and galloped toward the Indian line. Sergeant Hanley, of C Troop, sprang to his horse and raced after it. Officers and men called to him to come back, but knowing how priceless was the ammunition, he persisted in his course. He succeeded in heading off the animal, which turned and ran parallel to the Indian line, along which he galloped under a perfect shower of bullets, none of which, fortunately, touched him. He captured the mule, and brought it back with the ammunition intact. For this exploit he received a medal of honor.
The men took position around the ridge, across the depression and on a hill to the right, so as to protect the packs and the field hospital from all sides except on the river side, where the height of the bluffs and the distance prevented any Indian attack from that direction. Benteen's Troop H was placed on the right. They were on top of the break of the ridge and were without cover, the ridges being entirely bare of trees. Farther off, to the right, Benteen's position was commanded by higher ridges. At first the brunt of the fighting fell on the left, but the Indians soon surrounded the position and the engagement became general. The men threw themselves on the ground, and dug rifle-pits with their knives, tin pans — anything they could get. The fighting soon became severe, but gradually slackened as darkness approached, and stopped at about nine o'clock at night. The village in the valley was the scene of triumphant revel that night, and the shouting of the Indians could plainly be heard on the bluffs.
The early part of the night was full of wild confusion, but before long the soldiers recovered their equanimity and set to work strengthening their position. They were now completely surrounded; but most of them were under cover except Benteen's men, whose position, as has been stated, was overlooked by higher, ridges within easy range. At two A.M., contrary to their usual habit, the Indians opened fire, but no attack was made. The next morning the battle began again in grim earnest.
The Indians pressed the party closer and closer. Benteen's exposed line suffered more than any other position. That experienced fighter saw that the Indians were massing in front of him, evidently intending to deliver a charge. If it fell upon his single troop it would not be possible to withstand it, and the whole force on the hill would be taken in reverse and annihilated. His men had nearly exhausted their ammunition, several had been killed, and there were a number of wounded to be attended to.
Ordering Lieutenant Gibson to hold the line at all hazards, Benteen ran to Reno, explained the situation, and begged for a reinforcement. After much urging he succeeded in getting Troop M, Captain French, sent over to the hill. Then he entreated Reno to allow the two troops to charge. Reno hesitated. Benteen urged him again and again, pointing out that if something were not done immediately, the position would be rushed and the command wiped out. At last he wrung a reluctant permission from Reno. He ran back to his position on the hill, and not a moment too soon formed his men up for the charge, putting himself at their head.
"All ready now, men!" he cried gallantly. "Now's your time! Give 'em hell! Hip! Hip! Here we go!"
The Indians had also given the word to charge, but Benteen was too quick for them. Leading his men with splendid bravery, revolver in hand, he rushed at the Indians. There was a brief hand-to-hand melee and the Indians broke and fled. Reno, seeing the effect of Ben-teen's gallant dash, actually led out a portion of his command on the other side of the hill and drove back the Indians in that direction. Benteen's magnificent courage had saved the day for the present.
The fire having slackened somewhat about eleven o'clock in the morning, volunteers were called to get water for the command, especially for the wounded. The Indians swept the banks of the river with their fire, and the attempt was hazardous to a degree. Nineteen men offered their services. Four of the best marksmen — Geiger, Windolph, Voit, and Mechling, of Troop H — were detailed to cover the others by taking an exposed position on the brink of the bluffs overlooking the river, as near as they could get to it. The other fifteen, one of whom has told me about the attempt, carrying canteens and camp-kettles, but without arms, crawled down through the bushes and ravines to the open space on the bank of the river, and then, covered by the rapid fire of the four men stationed above them, dashed for the stream. The Indians, who were execrable shots, opened a heavy fire upon them, but the men succeeded in filling the vessels they had brought, and though many of these vessels were hit and some of the men wounded, none of them was killed. A scanty supply of water it was, but it was a godsend. These nineteen also received medals of honor.
At three o'clock in the afternoon the firing, which had been maintained intermittently since noon, finally stopped, and later the men on the hill saw the Indians withdrawing from the valley. They set fire to the grass to screen their movements, but about seven o'clock in the evening they were distinctly seen moving out with all their possessions toward the mountains of the Big Horn. Eighteen troopers had been killed on the hill, and fifty-two wounded.
Now let us turn to Custer.
Nobody knows exactly what he did. The testimony of the field is not clear, and the statements of the Indians are contradictory. Dr. Eastman, an educated Sioux, has investigated the subject among many of his people, and arrives at one conclusion; Colonel Godfrey, one of the troop commanders who was with Benteen, and who has subsequently examined the field in company with Benteen and other officers, taking the testimony of Chief Gall, holds another. According to Eastman, whose account agrees with the popular understanding, Custer attempted to ford the river at a place now called Reno's Creek, and fall on what he supposed to be the rear of the village, but which was really the middle of the upper half, and was driven back to the hills, where the final tragedy took place.
Godfrey, on the contrary, says that Custer, from the point where he was last seen by Reno's men, had a view of the village for several miles, although not for its whole length; that he must have been confident that he had it below him then, and that he made a wide detour in order to fall on the rear of the village. It was from this point that he sent the hurry-up message to Benteen. When at last, having gone far enough, as he thought, to take the village in the rear, or what he supposed was the rear, he turned toward the river, and was at once met by the Indians in great force.
It was probably about half after two in the afternoon. Reno had been forced back and driven across the river. Chief Gall, it will be recalled, had taken a large body of men across the river to intercept Reno on the other side. Before he could move down to the right for this purpose, Custer's men suddenly appeared on the hills.
Custer's manoeuvering had been fine, and his appearance was a complete surprise, which at first greatly alarmed the Indians. Gall, however, did not lose his head. Rightly judging that Reno was temporarily eliminated from the game, he at once determined to attack Custer. He sent word of the situation to Crazy Horse, who was pressing Reno. Leaving just enough warriors to make a demonstration before the demoralized Reno, Crazy Horse galloped headlong down the valley, followed by his men and joined by others from the far end of the village, who had as yet taken no part in the fighting. They too crossed the river at the point where a deep ravine concealed their movements and enabled them to obtain a position on Custer's right flank. A similar ravine enabled Gall to menace the left flank. The Indians were in sufficient force completely to surround Custer. In the twinkling of an eye he found himself attacked in front and on both sides. Instead of advancing, he was forced to defend himself against an overwhelming attack. The troops were dismounted, horses moved to the rear, and Custer's men occupied the ridges.
Calhoun's troop was posted on the left, followed by those of Keogh, Smith, and Yates, with Tom Custer's on the extreme right. The last three troops happened to have the best defensive position upon the highest hill. With them was Custer. The Indians attacked at once. Riding at full gallop along the front of the line on their ponies, they poured a heavy fire from their long-range rifles upon the soldiers, to which the latter made a brave, steady, but not very effective reply with their inferior carbines. Keogh's and Calhoun's horses were stampeded at the first fire.
The force menacing them was so great that Custer dared not leave his position on the hills. To retreat was hopeless, to advance impossible. They must stand on the defensive and pray that the advance of Reno's command up the valley, which they probably hoped that Benteen would reinforce, would compel the withdrawal of the Indians from their front. They fought on, therefore, coolly and resolutely, husbanding their ammunition and endeavoring to make every shot tell on their galloping, yelling foemen. They were, I imagine, by no means without ultimate hope of victory. The Indians in their accounts speak of the cool, deliberate courage of numbers of the officers and men, whom they singled out for their bravery.
Yet the troopers suffered great loss as the afternoon wore on. Their ammunition began to run low, and the contracting, whirling circle of Indians drove them closer and closer together. The remaining horses of the other three troops were at last stampeded, and with them went all of the reserve ammunition. The situation had evidently become so serious that Custer, in the vain hope that Reno would understand his peril at last, fired the two volleys which have been referred to. It appears at this time that he must have endeavored to send a message to Reno, for the body of a solitary soldier, Sergeant Butler, was found after the battle at a point half way between Custer's and Reno's commands. A little heap of cartridges lay near his body, evidencing that he had sold his life dearly. The Indians were acute enough — so they say, and probably with truth — to pick out the officers with Custer, and the mortality among them was fearful. It was evident to all on the hill, as the afternoon drew toward its close, that they were doomed. It was hardly possible that a counterattack by Reno would save them now, and there were no evidences whatever that he was anywhere in the vicinity.
"Where, in God's name," they must have asked themselves in their despair, "can Reno be?"
One of the Crow scouts has said — although his account is generally disbelieved — that he went at last to Custer, as yet unharmed, and told him that he thought he could get him away, and that Custer, of course, refused to leave the Meld. The Crow altered his appearance by draping a blanket about him so as to look as much like a Sioux as possible, and in the confusion of the fight got away safely. He was the only human survivor of the field. What occurred after is a matter of conjecture, based upon the contradictory and inadequate testimony of the Indians themselves.
Gall and Crazy Horse now determined to end the affair. Massing their warriors in the ravine, they fell on both flanks at the same time that Crow King and Rain-in-the-Face led a direct charge against the front of the thinned and weakened line. They swept over the little band of men, probably now out of ammunition, in a red wave of destruction. There was a fierce hand-to-hand struggle with clubbed guns, war-clubs, and tomahawks, and all was over. Some twenty or thirty men, without their officers, who had probably all been killed where they stood, for their bodies were found grouped around that of Custer on the highest hill, endeavored to break through on the right. They were slaughtered to a man before they reached the river. A few scattered bodies, here and there in different parts of the field, indicated that separate men had made futile dashes for freedom. But the bulk of the command was found just where it had fought, with the troopers in line, their officers in position! They had been beaten and killed. Not an officer or man lived to tell the story, but they had not been disgraced.
There, the second day afterward, Terry, with Gibbon, having relieved Reno's men, found them on the hills which they had immortalized by their desperate valor. They had been stripped and most of them mutilated. Custer's body was shot in two places, in the side and in the temple. It was not scalped or mutilated. Colonel Dodge, an authority on Indian customs, declares that if Custer's body was neither scalped nor mutilated, he is convinced that the general committed suicide. None of the officers with whom I have communicated who inspected the body is willing to indorse this statement; on the contrary. Therefore, I am sure Colonel Dodge must be in error. The Indians give no particular information as to Custer's death. All that is known is that his body was there with those of his brave men.
With Custer in that fight perished many gallant souls. His brother, Captain Tom Custer, was the only man in the United States Army who held two medals for capturing two flags with his own hands in the Civil War. Rain-in-the-Face had accomplished his terrible revenge, for after the battle he had cut open the breast of the brave young soldier and had eaten his heart. Calhoun, of L Troop, was Custer's brother-in-law. With him was young Crittenden, a lieutenant of infantry, who had sought an assignment with Custer for this campaign. Smith was the captain of E, the Gray Horse Troop. At the storming of Fort Fisher, after two color-bearers had been killed, he had led his regiment to the attack, colors in hand. His shoulder had been smashed by a musket ball in that attack. He could never afterward put on his coat without assistance. With him was young Sturgis. Yates, a veteran of the Civil War, was captain of F, the Bandbox Troop; and with him was Riley, the youngest lieutenant there. Keogh, of I Troop, the oldest soldier of them all, and not the least brave, had been an officer of the Papal Zouaves in early life. He had a gallant record in the Civil War, too. With him was Porter, and with the others who had done their parts were Cook, the adjutant, and Lord, the doctor.
Others worthy of note fell on that fatal field: Mark Kellogg, a newspaper correspondent; Charlie Reynolds, the famous scout; Boston Custer, the General's brother, who was civilian forage-master of the regiment, and Autie Reed, the General's nephew — a mere boy, who wanted to see something of life in the West and who had welcomed with joy his opportunity to make the campaign. Well, he saw it, poor fellow! Indeed, the Custer family was almost wiped out on that fatal Sunday.
Premonitions of disaster, such as loving women may feel, were in the air that afternoon. Back at Fort Abraham Lincoln, the devoted wife tells how the women of the garrison assembled in her quarters in an agony of apprehension. There were words of prayer. Someone at the piano started "Nearer My God to Thee," and the women tried to sing it, but they could not finish it. It was not until the 5th of July that they received the news that at that very hour their loved ones were dying on the hill.
On the morning of the 27th of June Terry and Gibbon rescued Reno. The next day the surviving troops of the regiment, with some individuals from the other command, marched to the scene of Custer's defeat to identify and bury the dead. The bodies upon the dry grass had all been stripped and left, white and ghastly save for the red stains of wounds. The bodies of Doctor Lord, Lieutenants Porter, Harrington, and Sturgis, with those of a number of men, were not recovered. What became of them is not known to this day. They may have been captured alive and taken by the Indians to the village, and there tortured to death and their bodies disposed of. This, however, is unlikely. The Indians positively deny that they took any prisoners, and it is probable that they did not. There are quicksands near the bed of the Little Big Horn, and possibly those bodies were engulfed in them. But all this is only surmise. No one can tell anything about it, except that they were undeniably killed. And we may be certain they died as brave men should.
They buried two hundred and twelve bodies on the hill, and the total losses of the regiment in the two days of fighting were two hundred and sixty-five killed and fifty-two wounded — over fifty per cent. The losses of the Indians were never ascertained. They did not, however, begin to equal those of the soldiers. It is grossly unfair to speak of the battle as the "Custer Massacre," as is often done. Custer attacked the Indians, and they fought him until all the white men were killed. There was no massacre about it.
The cause of the disaster must, first of all, be laid to Custer's disobedience of orders. In spite of that, however, I think it is probable that he might have won the battle, or at least made good his defense until relieved by Terry and Gibbon, although sustaining heavy loss, had it not been for three happenings. The first was the vastly greater number of Indians in the field than anyone expected to encounter. The next, and to me this is absolutely decisive, was Reno's failure to press his attack. If he had gone in with the dashing gallantry which was expected of him, while it is certain that he could not alone have whipped the Indians, yet he could have so disorganized them as to have maintained his position in the valley in the midst of the village without the greatest difficulty, until Custer could fall upon the rear of those attacking him, and Benteen, with the pack train, could reinforce them both. The Indians say that they were demoralized for the time being by Reno's sudden appearance, and that the squaws were packing up getting ready for flight when the weakness of Reno's advance encouraged them to try to overwhelm him. Custer had a right to expect that Reno would do his duty as a soldier and take a bold course — which was, as usual, the only safe course.
Colonel Godfrey, in his account, suggests still a third cause. The carbines of the troopers did not work well. When they became clogged and dirty from rapid firing, the ejectors would not throw out the shells, and the men frequently had to stop and pick out the shells with a knife. The chambers of the carbines at that time were cylindrical, and the easily accumulated dirt on the cartridges clogged them so that the ejectors would not work properly. The chambers were afterward made conical, with good results. The Indians had no such trouble. Their weapons were newer and better than those of the soldiers. If the indifferent weapons of the troopers failed them, their annihilation in any event would have been certain.
I have censured Custer somewhat severely in this article, and it is a pleasure to me to close it with a quotation from Captain Whittaker's life of his old commander. In this quotation Lawrence Barrett, the eminent actor, who was an old and intimate friend of Custer, has summarized the character of the brave captain in exquisitely apposite language; and, in his words, I say good-by to the gallant soldier whose errors were atoned for by an heroic death in the high places of the field:
"His career may be thus briefly given: He was born in obscurity; he rose to eminence; denied social advantages in his youth, his untiring industry supplied them; the obstacles to his advancement became the steppingstones to his fortunes; free to choose for good or evil, he chose rightly; truth was his striking characteristic . . . his acts found his severest critic in his own breast; he was a good son, a good brother, a good and affectionate husband, a Christian soldier, a steadfast friend. Entering the army a cadet in early youth, he became a general while still on the threshold of manhood; with ability un-denied, with valor proved on many a hard-fought field, he acquired the affection of the nation; and he died in action at the age of thirty-seven, died as he would have wished to die, no lingering disease preying upon that iron frame. At the head of his command, the messenger of death awaited him; from the field of battle where he had so often `directed the storm,' his gallant spirit took its flight. Cut off from aid, abandoned in the midst of incredible odds . . the noble Custer fell, bequeathing to the nation his sword; to his comrades an example; to his friends a memory, and to his beloved a Hero's name."
from Indian Fights & Indian Fighters, 1904.