George Custer, the son of a blacksmith, was born in New Rumley, Ohio, on 5th December, 1839. The family was poor and when he was ten Custer was forced to live with his aunt in Monroe. While at school he met his future wife, Elizabeth Bacon, the daughter of a judge. Custer did odd jobs for her family, but was never allowed into the house.
Custer wanted to become a lawyer but his family could not afford the training so he decided to become a soldier instead. He attended the Military Academy at West Point but he was a poor student and when he finally graduated in 1861 he was placed 34th out of a class of 34.
After leaving West Point he joined the staff of General George B. McClellan and during the American Civil War he saw action at Bull Run (August, 1862), Antietam (September, 1862) and Gettysburg (June, 1863). Custer emerged as an outstanding cavalry leader and at the age of 23, was given the rank of brigadier general and took command of the Michigan Brigade.
Custer developed a reputation for flamboyant behaviour. He led his troops into battle wearing a black velvet trimmed with gold lace, a crimson necktie and a white hat. He claimed that he adopted this outfit so that his men "would recognize him on any part of the field".
In August , 1864, Custer joined Major General Philip Sheridan in the final Shenandoah Valley campaign. Sheridan and 40,000 soldiers entered the valley and soon encountered troops led by Jubal Early who had just returned from Washington. After a series of minor defeats the Union Army eventually gained the upper hand. His men now burnt and destroyed anything of value in the area and after defeating Early in another large-scale battle on 19th October, the Union Army took control of the Shenandoah Valley.
Custer was a strong supporter of his own abilities. He said of his performance at Gettysburg: "I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry." He also managed to persuade journalists to share this view. After Custer took part in the Shenandoah Valley campaign E. A. Paul of the New York Times reported that "Custer, young as he is, displayed judgment worthy of a Napoleon."
On 1st April, Philip Sheridan, William Sherman and Custer attacked at Five Forks. The Confederates, led by Major General George Pickett, were overwhelmed and lost 5,200 men. On hearing the news, Robert E. Lee decided to abandon Richmond and President Jefferson Davis, his family and government officials, was forced to flee from the city.
By the end of the war Custer had been breveted for gallant and meritorious services on five occasions. Although only wounded once he had 11 horses killed under him.
In January 1866, his commission as major-general expired and he reverted to his 1862 rank of captain in the Regular Army. However, in July, 1866, he was commissioned lieutenant colonel (he was also given the honorary rank of major general) and made second in command of the newly created Seventh Cavalry. He was posted to Fort Riley in Kansas and spent the winter of 1866-67 preparing his troops to take part in the Indian Wars.
Custer's behaviour continued to be erratic. In July 1867 fifteen of his men deserted during a forced march along the Republican River. Custer ordered a search party "to shoot the supposed deserters down dead, and to bring none in alive." Soon afterwards he deserted his command in order to spend a day with his wife. As a result of this actions he was arrested and charged with disobeying orders, deserting his command, failing to pursue Indians who had attacked his escort and ordering his officers to shoot down deserters. Found guilty he was suspended for a year without pay.
General Philip H. Sheridan recalled Custer to duty and on 27th November, 1868, Custer destroyed the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle on the banks of the Washita River. Custer later claimed that his men killed 103 warriors. However, the majority of the victims were women and children. This action was highly controversial as the Cheyenne were not at war against the Americans at this time. General Harney pointed out: "I have worn the uniform of my country 55 years, and I know that Black Kettle was as good a friend of the United States as I am."
One of his own men, Captain Frederick Benteen, also criticized Custer's behaviour during this operation. He was mainly concerned with what happened to Major Joel Elliott and 18 of his men who had been sent off to pursue fleeing members of the Cheyenne tribe. They had been cut off and massacred by warriors from neighbouring villages. Benteen accused Custer of abandoning these men and had been responsible for their deaths. General Philip H. Sheridan rejected these claims and complimented Custer on his "efficient and gallant services" during the attack.
In August 1873, Custer was involved in protecting a group of railroad surveyors. The group were attacked by a Sioux war party near the mouth of Tongue River. During the raid two of the surveyors were killed. Later, Charley Reynolds, an Indian scout, told Custer that Rain in the Face had led the attack at Tongue River. Rain in the Face was living on the Standing Rock Reservation at the time and so Custer had him arrested. Custer forced Rain in the Face to confess but before he could appear in court he managed to escape.
In 1873 Custer was a member of General David Stanley's Yellowstone expedition. Later that year he took command of Fort Abraham Lincoln on the River Missouri. In 1874 Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills of Dakota. Later he published an autobiography, My Life on the Plains (1874).
Custer was called to Washington in March, 1876, to testify before a Congressional committee probing frauds in the Indian Service. President Ulysses Grant was furious when Custer's evidence damaged the reputation of his former War Secretary, William Belknap. Grant was so angry he deprived Custer of his command. However, after protests from senior officers in the army, Grant backed down and Custer was able to return as commander of the 7th Cavalry.
At this time the Sioux and Cheyenne were attempting to resist the advance of white migration. On 17th June 1876 General George Crook and about 1,000 troops, supported by 300 Crow and Shoshone, fought against 1,500 members of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. The battle at Rosebud Creek lasted for over six hours. This was the first time that Native Americans had united together to fight in such large numbers.
On 22nd June, Custer and 655 men were sent out to locate the villages of the Sioux and Cheyenne involved in the battle at Rosebud Creek. A very large encampment was discovered three days later. It was over 15 miles away and even with field glasses Custer was unable to discover the number of warriors the camp contained.
Instead of waiting for the arrival of the rest of the army led by General Alfred Terry, Custer decided to act straight way. He divided his force into three battalions in order to attack the camp from three different directions. One group led by Captain Frederick Benteen was ordered to march to the left. A second group led by Major Marcus Reno was sent to attack the encampment via the Little Big Horn River.
Major Reno was the first to charge the village. When he discovered that the camp was far larger than was expected he retreated to the other side of the Little Big Horn River. He was later joined by Captain Benteen and although they suffered heavy casualties they were able to fight off the attack.
Custer and his men rode north on the east side of the Little Big Horn River. The Sioux and Cheyenne saw Custer's men and swarmed out of the village. Custer was forced to retreat into the bluffs to the east where he was attacked by about 4,000 warriors. At the battle of the Little Bighorn Custer and all his 231 men were killed. This included his two brothers, Tom and Boston, his brother-in-law, James Calhoun, and his nephew, Autie Reed.
The soldiers under Reno and Benteen continued to be attacked and 47 of them were killed before they were rescued by the arrival of General Alfred Terry and his army. It was claimed afterwards that Custer had been killed by his old enemy, Rain in the Face. However, there is no hard evidence to suggest that this is true.
General Philip H. Sheridan concluded that George A. Custer had made several important mistakes at the Little Big Horn. He argued that after their seventy mile journey, Custer's men were too tired to fight effectively. Custer had also made a mistake in developing a plan of attack on the false assumption that the Sioux and Cheyenne would attempt to escape rather than fight the soldiers.
Sheridan also criticized Custer's decision to divide his men into three groups: "Had the Seventh Cavalry been held together, it would have been able to handle the Indians on the Little Big Horn." His final mistake was to attack what was probably the largest group of Native Americans ever assembled on the North American continent. President Ulysses Grant agreed with this assessment and when interviewed by the New York Herald he said: "I regard Custer's Massacre was a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary".
Despite this criticism George Custer was given a hero's burial at West Point.
The general was a figure that would have fixed attention anywhere. He had marked individuality of appearance, and a certain unstudied carelessness in the wearing of his costume that gave a picturesque effect, not the least out of place on the frontier. He wore troop-boots reaching to his knees, buckskin breeches fringed on the sides, a dark navy blue shirt with a broad collar, a red necktie, whose ends floated over his shoulder exactly as they did when he and his entire division of cavalry had worn them during the war. On the broad felt hat, that was almost a sombrero, was fastened a slight mark of his rank.
He was at this time (1874) thirty-five years of age, weighed one hundred and seventy pounds, and was nearly six feet in height. His eyes were clear blue and deeply set, his hair short, wavy, and golden in tint. His mustache was long and tawny in color; his complexion was florid, except where his forehead was shaded by his hat, for the sun always burned his skin ruthlessly.
The Indians, who were interested spectators of these preparations for their reception, continued to approach, but seemed willing to delay their attack until the plain became a little more favorable for their operations. Finally, the desired moment seemed to have arrived. The Indians had approached to within easy range, yet not a shot had been fired, the cavalrymen having been instructed by their officers to reserve their fire for close quarters. Suddenly, with a wild ringing war whoop, the entire band of warriors bore down upon the train and its little party of defenders.
On came the savages, filling the air with their terrible yells. Their first object, evidently, was to stampede the horses and draft animals of the train; then, in the excitement and consternation which would follow, to massacre the escort and drivers. The wagon master in immediate charge of the train had been ordered to keep his two columns of wagons constantly moving forward and well closed up. This last injunction was hardly necessary, as the frightened-teamsters, glancing at the approaching warriors and hearing their savage shouts, were sufficiently anxious to keep well closed upon their leaders.
The first onslaught of the Indians was made on the flank which was superintended by Colonel Cook. They rode boldly forward as if to dash over the mere handful of cavalrymen, who stood in skirmishing order in a circle about the train. Not a soldier faltered as the enemy came thundering upon them, but waiting until the Indians were within short rifle range of the train, the cavalrymen dropped upon their knees, and taking deliberate aim poured a volley from their Spencer carbines into the ranks of the savages, which seemed to put a sudden check upon the ardor of their movements and forced them to wheel off to the right. Several of the warriors were seen to reel in their saddles, while the ponies of others were brought down or wounded by the effectual fire of the cavalrymen.
Those of the savages who were shot from their saddles were scarcely permitted to fall to the ground before a score or more of their comrades dashed to their rescue and bore their bodies beyond the possible reach of our men. This is in accordance with the Indian custom in battle. They will risk the lives of a dozen of their best warriors to prevent the body of any one of their number from falling into the white man's possession. The reason for this is the belief, which generally prevails among all the tribes, that if a warrior loses his scalp he forfeits his hope of ever reaching the happy hunting ground.
At Fort Hayes, the headquarters of the Fifth Infantry, I found a splendid regiment composed of very intelligent, efficient officers and strong, brave soldiers. A few miles away, in a beautiful valley, was the camp of the Seventh United States Cavalry, commanded by Gen. George A. Custer. He was one of the most enterprising, fearless cavalry leaders the great war produced. General Custer left the West Point Military Academy early in the Civil War. He was most ambitious and enterprising and soon rose to the command of a regiment and brigade, and later commanded, with great success, one of the active cavalry divisions.
We were very near the same age - rivals in the military profession, but the best of friends. Mrs. Custer, a superior and accomplished young woman, who had "followed the flag" whenever it was possible, was pleasantly located in a beautiful camp, and was the constant companion of her gallant husband, as she afterward proved his devoted champion by voice and pen. Mrs. Custer and Mrs. Miles became life-long friends. We all enjoyed the splendid exercise of riding over the plains, and the General and myself frequently went on buffalo-hunts together, but at that time it was never safe to venture out of sight of the garrison or command without a good escort.
The Brigadier General commanding directs that as soon as your regiment can be made ready for the march, you proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians whose trail was discovered by Major Reno a few days ago. 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 shall see sufficient reason 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 to be almost certain that it will be found, to turn toward the Little Big Horn he thinks that you should still proceed southward, perhaps as far as the headwaters of the Tongue, and then turn toward the Little Big 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.
I am now going to take up the trail where the scouting party turned back. I fear their failure to follow up the Indians has imperilled our plans by giving the village an intimation of our presence. Think of the valuable time lost! But I feel hopeful of accomplishing great results.
Since the murder of General Canby by the Modocs the country has not been more startled than it was by the announcement that General Custer and five companies of his regiment, the Seventh Cavalry, had been massacred by the Sioux Indians in a ravine ... the Indians outnumbering our troops ten to one. General Custer had personal and soldierly traits which commended him to the people. He was an officer who did not know the word fear, and, as is often the case with soldiers of this stamp, he was reckless, hasty, and impulsive, preferring to make a dare-devil rush and take risks rather than to move slower and with more certainty. He was a brave, brilliant soldier, handsome and dashing, with all the attributes to make him beloved of women and admired of men; but these qualities, however admirable they may be, should not blind our eyes to the fact that it was his own madcap haste, rashness, and love of fame that cost him his own life, and cost the service the loss of many brave officers and gallant men. They drew him into an ambuscaded ravine.... In this instance, three hundred troops were instantly surrounded by 3,000 Indians, and the fatal ravine became a slaughter-pen from which but a few escaped.... No account seems to have been taken of numbers, of the leadership of the Sioux, of their record of courage and military skill.
When the redskins made their rush down the valley that morning, I did not know what was going on, but I climbed a hill and there in full sight was the terrible battle going on. The Indians rode around in a circle and kept picking off the horses first. After they had shot all the horses, killed or wounded them, then they started to close in on the men, and they done it slow too. Custer and his men then retreated to a small rise of ground, and there made their last stand.
Those of the redskins who had lost their horses, closed in on foot and slowly but surely they picked off the white men, one by one, until at last only the brave General Custer was left with his comrades dead around him.
One sweep of the saber and an Indians head was split in two, one flash of his revolver, his last shot, and a redskin got the bullet between the eyes, then he fell with a bullet in the breast, the last of that brave band.
I saw him within 15 minutes after he was shot, and there was still a smile on his face. Perhaps he was thinking of his home, his beloved wife or Mother. Who can tell.
I think I owe it to myself to put you more fully in possession of the facts of the late operations. While at the mouth of the Rosebud I submitted my plan to General Gibbon and to General Custer. They approved it heartily. It was that Custer with his whole regiment should move up the Rosebud till he should meet a trail which Reno had discovered a few days before but that he should not follow it directly to the Little Big Horn; that he should send scouts over it and keep his main force further to the south so as to prevent the Indians from slipping in between himself and the mountains. He was also to examine the headwaters of Tullock's creek as he passed it and send me word of what he found there. A scout was furnished him for the purpose of crossing the country to me. We calculated it would take Gibbon's column until the twenty-sixth to reach the mouth of the Little Big Horn and that the wide sweep which I had proposed Custer should make would require so much time that Gibbon would be able to cooperate with him in attacking any Indians that might be found on that stream. I asked Custer how long his marches would be. He said they would be at first about thirty miles a day. Measurements were made and calculation based on that rate of progress. I talked with him about his strength and at one time suggested that perhaps it would be well for me to take Gibbon's cavalry and go with him. To this suggestion he replied that without reference to the command he would prefer his own regiment alone. As a homogeneous body, as much could be done with it as with the two combined and he expressed the utmost confidence that he had all the force that he could need, and I shared his confidence. The plan adopted was the only one that promised to bring the Infantry into action and I desired to make sure of things by getting up every available man. I offered Custer the battery of Gatling guns but he declined it saying that it might embarrass him: that he was strong enough without it. The movements proposed for General Gibbon's column were carried out to the letter and had the attack been deferred until it was up I cannot doubt that we should have been successful. The Indians had evidently nerved themselves for a stand, but as I learn from Captain Benteen, on the twenty-second the cavalry marched twelve miles; on the twenty-third, thirty-five miles;
from five a.m. till eight p.m. on the twenty-fourth, forty-five miles and then after night ten miles further; then after resting but without unsaddling, twenty-three miles to the battlefield. The proposed route was not taken but as soon as the trail was struck it was followed. I cannot learn that any examination of Tullock's creek was made. I do not tell you this to cast any reflection upon Custer. For whatever errors he may have committed he has paid the penalty and you cannot regret his loss more than I do, but I feel that our plan must have been successful had it been carried out, and I desire you to know the facts. In the action itself, so far as I can make out, Custer acted under a misapprehension. He thought, I am confident, that the Indians were running. For fear that they might get away he attacked without getting all his men up and divided his command so that they were beaten in detail. I do not at all propose to give the thing up here but I think that my troops require a little time and in view of the strength which the Indians have developed I propose to bring up what little reinforcement I can get. I should be glad of any that you can send me. I can take two companies of Indians from Powder River and there are a few recruits and detached men whom I can get for the cavalry. I ought to have a larger mounted force than I now have but I fear cannot be obtained. I hear nothing from General Crook's operations. If I could hear I should be able to form plans for the future much more intelligently.
While I was sitting on my horse I saw flags come up over the hill to the east like that (he raised his finger-tips). Then the soldiers rose all at once, all on horses, like this (he put his fingers behind each other to indicate that Custer appeared marching in columns of fours). They formed into three bunches with a little ways between. Then a bugle sounded, and they all got off horses, and some soldiers led the horses back over the hill.
Then the Sioux rode up the ridge on all sides, riding very fast. The Cheyennes went up the left way. Then the shooting was quick, quick. Pop - pop - pop very fast. Some of the soldiers were down on their knees, some standing. Officers all in front. The smoke was like a great cloud, and every where the Sioux went the dust rose like smoke. We circled all round him - swirling like water round a stone. We shoot, we ride fast, we shoot again. Soldiers drop, and horses fall on them. Soldiers in line drop, but one man rides up and down the line - all the time shouting. He rode a sorrel horse with white face and white forelegs. I don't know who he was. He was a brave man.
Indians keep swirling round and round, and the soldiers killed only a few. Many soldiers fell. At last all horses killed but five. Once in a while some man would break out and run toward the river, but he would fall.
At last about a hundred men and five horsemen stood on the hill all bunched together. All along the bugler kept blowing his commands. He was very brave too. Then a chief was killed. I hear it was Long Hair (Custer), I don't know; and then five horsemen and the bunch of men, may be so forty, started toward the river. The man on the sorrel horse led them, shouting all the time. He wore a buckskin shirt, and had long black hair and mustache. He fought hard with a big knife. His men were all covered with white dust. I couldn't tell whether they were officers or not. One man all alone ran far down toward the river, then round up over the hill. I thought he was going to escape, but a Sioux fired and hit him in the head. He was the last man. He wore braid on his arms (sergeant).
All the soldiers were now killed, and the bodies were stripped. After that no one could tell which were officers. The bodies were left where they fell. We had no dance that night. We were sorrowful.
The well-known capacity, tenacity and bravery of General Custer and the officers and men who died with him forbid the supposition of a panic and a rout. There was a desperate and sanguinary struggle in which the Indians must have suffered heavily. From the evidence that has been spread before this Court it is manifest that General Custer and his comrades died a death so heroic that it has but few parallels in history.
Fighting to the last and against overwhelming odds, they fell on the field of glory. Let no stigma of rout and panic tarnish their blood-bought fame. Their deeds of heroism will ever live in the hearts of the American people, and the painter and poet will vie with each other in commemorating the world-wide fame of Custer and his men.
Before the attack the Sioux were camped on the Rosebud river. Sioux moved down a river running into the Little Bighorn river, crossed the Little Bighorn river, and camped on its west bank.
This day (day of attack) a Sioux man started to go to Red Cloud agency, but when he had gone a short distance from camp he saw a cloud of dust rising and turned back and said he thought a herd of buffalo was coming near the village.
The day was hot. In a short time the soldiers charged the camp. (This was Major Reno's battalion of the Seventh Cavalry.) The soldiers came on the trail made by the Sioux camp in moving, and crossed the Little Bighorn river above where the Sioux crossed, and attacked the lodges farthest up the river. The women and children ran down the Little Bighorn river a short distance into a ravine. The soldiers set fire to the lodges. All the Sioux now charged the soldiers and drove them in confusion across the Little Bighorn river, which was very rapid, and several soldiers were drowned in it. On a hill the soldiers stopped and the Sioux surrounded them. A Sioux man came and said that a different party of Soldiers had all the women and children prisoners. Like a whirlwind the word went around, and the Sioux all heard it and left the soldiers on the hill and went quickly to save the women and children.
From the hill that the soldiers were on to the place where the different soldiers [by this term Red-Horse always means the battalion immediately commanded by General Custer, his mode of distinction being that they were a different body from that first encountered] were seen was level ground with the exception of a creek. Sioux thought the soldiers on the hill [i.e., Reno's battalion] would charge them in rear, but when they did not the Sioux thought the soldiers on the hill were out of cartridges. As soon as we had killed all the different soldiers the Sioux all went back to kill the soldiers on the hill. All the Sioux watched around the hill on which were the soldiers until a Sioux man came and said many walking soldiers were coming near. The coming of the walking soldiers was the saving of the soldiers on the hill. Sioux can not fight the walking soldiers [infantry], being afraid of them, so the Sioux hurriedly left.
The soldiers charged the Sioux camp about noon. The soldiers were divided, one party charging right into the camp. After driving these soldiers across the river, the Sioux charged the different soldiers [i.e., Custer's] below, and drive them in confusion; these soldiers became foolish, many throwing away their guns and raising their hands, saying, "Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners." The Sioux did not take a single soldier prisoner, but killed all of them; none were left alive for even a few minutes. These different soldiers discharged their guns but little. I took a gun and two belts off two dead soldiers; out of one belt two cartridges were gone, out of the other five.
The Sioux took the guns and cartridges off the dead soldiers and went to the hill on which the soldiers were, surrounded and fought them with the guns and cartridges of the dead soldiers. Had the soldiers not divided I think they would have killed many Sioux. The different soldiers that the Sioux killed made five brave stands. Once the Sioux charged right in the midst of the different soldiers and scattered them all, fighting among the soldiers hand to hand.
One band of soldiers was in rear of the Sioux. When this band of soldiers charged, the Sioux fell back, and the Sioux and the soldiers stood facing each other. Then all the Sioux became brave and charged the soldiers. The Sioux went but a short distance before they separated and surrounded the soldiers. I could see the officers riding in front of the soldiers and hear them shooting. Now the Sioux had many killed. The soldiers killed 136 and wounded 160 Sioux. The Sioux killed all these different soldiers in the ravine.
The soldiers charged the Sioux camp farthest up the river. A short time after the different soldiers charged the village below. While the different soldiers and Sioux were fighting together the Sioux chief said, "Sioux men, go watch soldiers on the hill and prevent their joining the different soldiers." The Sioux men took the clothing off the dead and dressed themselves in it. Among the soldiers were white men who were not soldiers. The Sioux dressed in the soldiers' and white men's clothing fought the soldiers on the hill.
The banks of the Little Bighorn river were high, and the Sioux killed many of the soldiers while crossing. The soldiers on the hill dug up the ground [i.e., made earthworks], and the soldiers and Sioux fought at long range, sometimes the Sioux charging close up. The fight continued at long range until a Sioux man saw the walking soldiers coming. When the walking soldiers came near the Sioux became afraid and ran away.
1. The Court of Inquiry of which Colonel John H. King, 9th Infantry, is President, instituted by direction of the President, in Special Orders No. 255, Headquarters of the Army, Adjutant General's Office, November 25, 1878, on the application of Major Marcus A. Reno, 7th Cavalry, for the purpose of inquiring into Major Reno's conduct at the battle of the Little Big Horn River, on the 25th and 26th days of June, 1876, has reported the following facts and opinions, viz:
First. On the morning of the 25th of June 1876, the 7th Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel G. A. Custer commanding, operating against the hostile Indians in Montana Territory, near the Little Big Horn River, was divided into four battalions, two of which were commanded by Colonel Custer in person, with the exception of one company in charge of the pack-train; one by Major Reno and one by Captain Benteen. This division took place from about twelve (12) to fifteen (15) miles from the scene of the battle or battles afterwards fought. The column under Captain Benteen received orders to move to the left for an indefinite distance (to the first and second valleys) hunting Indians, with orders to charge any it might meet with. The battalion under Major Reno received orders to draw out of the column, and doing so marched parallel with and only a short distance from, the column commanded by Colonel Custer.
Second. About three or four miles from what afterwards was found to be the Little Big Horn River, where the fighting took place. Major Reno received orders to move forward as rapidly as he thought prudent, until coming up with the Indians, who were reported fleeing, he would charge them and drive everything before him, and would receive the support of the column under Colonel Custer.
Third. In obedience to the orders given him by Colonel Custer, Captain Benteen marched to the left (south), at an angle of about forty-five degrees, but, meeting an impracticable country, was forced by it to march more to his right than the angle above indicated and nearer approaching a parallel route to that trail followed by the rest of the command.
Fourth. Major Reno, in obedience to the orders given him, moved on at a fast trot on the main Indian trail until reaching the Little Big Horn River, which he forded, and halted for a few minutes to reform his battalion. After reforming, he marched the battalion forward towards the Indian village, down stream or in a northerly direction, two companies in line of battle and one in support, until about half way to the point where he finally halted, when he brought the company in reserve forward to the line of battle, continuing the movement at a fast trot or gallop until after passing over a distance of about two miles, when he halted and dismounted to fight on foot at a point of timber upon which the right flank of his battalion rested. After fighting in this formation for less than half an hour, the Indians passing to his left rear and appearing in his front, the skirmish line was withdrawn to the timber, and the fight continued for a short time - half an hour or forty-five minutes in all - when the command, or nearly all of it, was mounted, formed, and, at a rapid gait, was withdrawn to a hill on the opposite side of the river. In this movement one officer and about sixteen soldiers and citizens were left in the woods, besides one wounded man or more, two citizens and thirteen soldiers rejoining, the command afterwards. In this retreat Major Reno's battalion lost some twenty-nine men in killed and wounded, and three officers, including Doctor De Wolf, killed.
Fifth. In the meantime Captain Benteen, having carried out, as far as was practicable, the spirit of his orders, turned in the direction of the route taken by the remainder of the regiment, and reaching the trail, followed it to near the crossing of the Little Big Horn, reaching there about the same time Reno's command was crossing the river in retreat lower down, and finally joined his battalion with that of Reno, on the hill. Forty minutes or one hour later the pack-train, which had been left behind on the trail by the rapid movement of the command and the delays incident to its march, joined the united command, which then consisted of seven companies, together with about thirty or thirty-five men belonging to the companies under Colonel Custer.
Sixth. After detaching Benteen's columns Colonel Custer moved with his immediate command, on the trail followed by Reno, to a point within about one mile of the river, where he diverged to the right (or north-ward), following the general direction of the river to a point about four miles below that (afterward taken by Major Reno) where he and his command were destroyed by the hostiles. The last living witness of this march, Trumpeter Martin, left Colonel Custer's command when it was about two miles distant from the field where it afterwards met its fate. There is nothing more in evidence as to this command, save that firing was heard proceeding from its direction from about the time Reno retreated from the bottom up to the time the pack-train was approaching the position on the hill. All firing which indicated fighting was concluded before the final preparations were made in Major Reno's command for the movement which was afterwards attempted.
Seventh. After the distribution of ammunition and a proper provision for the wounded men, Major Reno's entire command moved down the river in the direction it was thought Custer's column had taken, and in which it was known General Terry's command was to be found. This movement was carried sufficiently far to discover that its continuance would imperil the entire command, upon which it returned to the position formerly occupied, and made a successful resistance till succor reached it. The defense of the position on the hill was a heroic one against fearful odds.
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.
We journeyed up the Little Big Horn to the Custer battlefield. On this visit, just two years after the battle occurred, I was accompanied by a body of twenty-five of the principal chiefs and head warriors of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes, who had all been prominently engaged in the battle, and later had surrendered to me. During the time they were under my control they had become reconciled and reliable. They had proved their loyalty by valuable military service in the campaigns against hostile Indians.
What the Indians did at the Little Big Horn, or the Custer Massacre, as it was called, and how the battle was fought on their side, was perfectly familiar to them. What our government and people knew concerning the battle was very vague, for of the two hundred and sixty-two officers and soldiers who fought under Custer not one lived to tell the story. All that was known to the other troops in the field was the orders given and the actions of Custer and his men while they were with them, and the impressions and surmises made from the evidences of the field, as well as the position of the dead bodies after the battle.
Unfortunately, in that campaign the government authorities greatly underestimated the strength of the hostile Indians. They had little knowledge of the character of the country, and sent weak exterior columns, five hundred miles apart, into the field without concert of action against a superior body. The commands from the East and West united on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Rosebud, under General Terry. He even then divided his force, sending General Custer with the Seventh Cavalry south and west, while with the remainder he moved on the north side of the Yellowstone west and then south. Evidently his object was to inclose the Indians, but he placed at least fifty miles of rough country and an impassable river between the two columns, necessitating the giving of discretionary authority to the commander of the column thus isolated and moving into a country known to be occupied by a powerful body of Indians. General Custer has often been unjustly accused of disobedience of orders. The order referred to is in the nature of a letter of instruction, and not a positive order.
Custer . . . was a brave, brilliant soldier, handsome and dashing, but he was reckless, hasty and impulsive, preferring to make a daredevil rush and take risks rather than to move slower and with more certainty, and it was his own mad-cap haste, rashness and love of fame that cost him his own life, and cost the service the loss of many brave officers and gallant men. He preferred to make a reckless dash and take the consequences, in the hope of making a personal victory and adding to the glory of another charge, rather than wait for a sufficiently powerful force to make the fight successful and share the glory with others. He took the risk and he lost.
I regard Custer's Massacre was a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary - wholly unnecessary.
The facts as now understood dispose most people here to lay blame for the slaughter upon General Custer's imprudence and probably disobedience of orders. But criticism is kindly and charitable in tone, as it would not be had he not fallen with his command in the thickest of the battle.
All during June 1876, events and Custer's own mistakes conspired against him. Experience in the plains wars indicated that the problem in fighting the Indians was not so much defeating them as it was getting them to stand and fight at all. This was one of Custer's major worries. Moreover, he had been led to believe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs not to expect more than 800 hostile braves; in fact he was probably confronted by over 4,000. Finally, he was not aware that many of his future foes were armed with Winchester repeating carbines, whereas his own men were equipped with single-shot Springfields. Thus of the three major aspects of military intelligence - the number of the enemy, their willingness to fight, and their armament - Custer was ignorant and unprepared.
I feel that Custer would have succeeded had Reno with all the reserve of seven companies passed through and joined Custer after the first repulse. I think it quite certain that General Custer had agreed with Reno upon a place of junction in case of a repulse of either or both of the detachments, and instead of an effort being made by Reno for such a junction as soon as he encountered heavy resistance he took refuge in the hills, and abandoned Custer and his gallant comrades to their fate.
As a soldier I would sooner today lie in the grave of General Custer and his gallant comrades alone in that distant wilderness, that when the last trumpet sounds I could rise to judgment from my post of duty, than to live in the place of the survivors of the siege on the hills.
The first day General Custer marched twelve miles, and in four days he moved one hundred and eight miles, ten of which were to conceal his command. He frequently called his officers together and urged them to act in harmony and not become separated. He said he did not expect to fight until the 26th. He scouted the country, saw Indians in the distance, and, knowing his command would be discovered and fearing the Indians would escape, he decided to attack on the 25th. He formed his command for action in three parallel columns, within- deploying and supporting distance; moving with the right column himself, Major Reno, commanding the center, following the Indian trail, and Captain Benteen on the left. He rode forward to a high bluff. Discovering the location of the camp just before going into action, he sent an order to Benteen, directing the left column, to alter its course, which would have changed the formation and brought this command into the center instead of on the left.
When Reno's troops fired into their village the Uncapapas and Ogalallas rushed for their arms and war ponies, fought Reno, and chased his command "like buffalo" across the plains, over the river and up the bluff. Just at that time the alarm passed among the Indians that another command (Custer's) was attacking their village. The two tribes then withdrew, and, without recrossing the river, passed down along the right bank of the Little Big Horn and massed opposite to the left of Custer's troops. The Minneconjoux and Sans Arcs had crossed the river and were fighting Custer's troops back and forth. They said it was a drawn battle up to that time. The Cheyennes had moved up the valley against Reno's attack without becoming engaged, but when the alarm of Custer's attack was given they retraced their steps, moving down the left bank of the Little Big Horn, and, fording the river, took position behind a ridge near the right flank of Custer's line.
The Uncapapas and Ogalallas then charged his left flank, rolling up his line from left to right. When that point was reached the soldiers killed some of their horses for defense and let loose the remainder. The Cheyennes said they secured most of these. The fight continued, and when the Indians had killed all except forty those who remained rushed in a forlorn hope for the timber along the Little Big Horn. All were killed before they reached the river. This accounts for the line of dead bodies on that part of the field on which no dead horses were found. The Indians said that they would have fled if Reno's troops had not retreated, for the troops could not have been dislodged. They also said that, when they left to attack Custer, had the seven companies under Reno and Benteen followed them down and fired into their backs they would have been between two fires and would have had to retreat. Thus the battle was twice lost. We walked our horses over the ground from Reno's last position to the extreme right of Custer's line, and were fifty-six minutes by the watch. Had Reno's command walked half that distance it would have been in action. Moving at a smart trot or gallop, as cavalry go into action, it could have attacked the Indians in the rear easily in fifteen or twenty minutes.
Custer had commanded large bodies of troops successfully in many desperate battles. How his strong heart must have felt when he saw from the ridge a part of his own regiment running from the field and when the major part of his command failed to come into action! His flag went down in disaster, but with honor. The greatest military genius could not win victories with five-twelfths of his command, when seven-twelfths remained away.
Custer had devoted friends and bitter enemies. His brothers and strongest friends died with him, while his enemies lived to criticize and cast odium upon his name and fame; but it is easy to kick a dead lion.
When he saw that the party with the General was to be overwhelmed, he went to the General and begged him to let him show him a way to escape. General Custer dropped his head on his breast in thought for a moment, in a way he had of doing. There was a lull in the fight after a charge, the encircling Indians gathering for a fresh attack. In that moment, Custer looked at Curly, waved him away and rode back to the little group of men, to die with them.... Why did he go back to certain death?
Curly the Upsaroka scout tells us, he the only man who escaped alive... Custer had to go farther down the river and farther away from Reno than he wished on account of the steep bank along the north side; but at last he found a ford and dashed for it. The Indians met him and poured in a heavy fire from across the narrow river. Custer dismounted to fight on foot, but could not get his skirmishers over the stream. Meantime hundreds of Indians, on foot and on ponies, poured over the river, which was only about three feet deep, and filled the ravine on each side of Custer's men. Custer then fell back to some high ground behind him and seized the ravines in his immediate vicinity. The Indians completely surrounded Custer and poured in a terrible fire on all sides. They charged Custer on foot in vast numbers, but were again and again driven back. The fight began about 2 o'clock, and lasted. Curly says, almost until the sun went down over the hills. The men fought desperately, and, after the ammunition in their belts was exhausted, went to their saddlebags, got more and continued the fight. He also says the big chief (Custer) lived until nearly all his men had been killed or wounded, and went about encouraging his soldiers to fight on. Curly says when he saw Custer was hopelessly surrounded, he watched his opportunity, got a Sioux blanket, put it on, and worked up a ravine, and when the Sioux charged he got among them, and they did not know him from one of their own men.
The official story of the Custer disaster was put into a few words, but no account that I have heard or read, either on or off the Plains, equals in clearness and succinctness the story of the Crow Indian scout, Curley, who alone of the immediate command of General Custer survived the memorable disaster of June 25, 1876. The following is the gist of Curley's statement.
Custer, with his five companies, after separating from Reno and his seven companies, moved to the right around the base of a high hill overlooking the valley of the Little Horn, through a ravine just wide enough to admit his column of fours. There were no signs of the presence of Indians in the hills on that side (the right) of the Little Horn, and the column moved steadily on until it rounded the hill and came in sight of the village lying in the valley below them. Custer appeared very much elated, and ordered the bugles to sound a charge, and moved on at the head of his column, waving his hat to encourage his men. When they neared the river the Indians, concealed in the undergrowth on the opposite side of the stream, opened fire on the troops, which checked the advance. Here a portion of the command were dismounted and thrown forward to the river, and returned the fire of the Indians.
During this time the warriors were seen riding out of the village by hundreds and deploying across Custer's front and to his left, as if with the intention of crossing the stream on his right, while the women and children were seen hastening out of the village in large numbers in the opposite direction.
The fight appeared to have begun, from Curley's description of the situation of the sun, about 2:30 or 3 o'clock P.M., and continued without intermission until nearly sunset. The Indians had completely surrounded the command, leaving their horses in ravines well to the rear, themselves pressing forward to the attack on foot. Confident in the great superiority of their numbers, they made several charges on all points of Custer's line, but the troops held their position firmly and delivered a heavy fire which every time drove them back. Curley said the firing was more rapid than anything he had ever conceived of, being a continuous roll, or, as he expressed it, "like the snapping of the threads in the tearing of a blanket." The troops expended all the ammunition in their belts and then sought their horses for the reserve ammunition carried in their saddle pockets.
As long as their ammunition held out, the troops, though losing considerably in the fight, maintained their position in spite of all the efforts of the Sioux. From the weakening of their fire toward the close of the afternoon the Indians appeared to believe that their ammunition was about exhausted, and they made a grand final charge, in the course of which the last of the command was destroyed, the men being shot where they lay in their positions in the line, at such close quarters that many were killed with arrows. Curley said that Custer remained alive throughout the greater part of the engagement, animating his men to determined resistance, but about an hour before the close of the fight lie received a mortal wound.
Strictly speaking the destruction of General Custer's command was not a massacre, since it involved only soldiers fighting in open battle. Yet after the lapse of almost eighty years it continues to intrigue the popular mind and to challenge the resources of historians, so that almost no year passes which does not witness the publication of one or several articles and books devoted to the subject. The author's (John F. Finerty) discussion presents one viewpoint which was more or less prevalent sixty years ago. A convenient more recent and more authoritative account is Colonel W. A. Graham's The Story of the Little Big Horn, first published in 1926 and several times reprinted since then, most recently in 1952. The story told by Curley, the Crow scout, is no longer seriously credited.