The Yellow Hair's Last Fight (1876)
The Seventh Cavalry on the Little Big Horn
In the battle of the Rosebud, June 17, 1876, the Gray Fox men had been held by the Crazy Horse men. But it was not a drawn battle. General Crook had lost.
He had set out to capture the Sioux and Cheyenne village, and to march on. The Sioux and Cheyennes had saved their village, and he was unable to march on. He had to fall back, and wait.
This was a great pity, because on June 17 he was almost in touch with the Seventh Cavalry of General Terry's column. If he had broken through Crazy Horse he might have joined General Custer in three days, for he was heading exactly right. Or even if he had not joined, the Sitting Bull village would have been alarmed by the closing-in movements and would have kept moving.
Then there would have been a different story to tell, of June 25 on the Little Big Horn River, only thirty miles northwest of the Rosebud battle field.
The General Terry column had marched out of Fort Abraham Lincoln, across the Missouri River from Bismarck, North Dakota, on May 17. It numbered one thousand men. These were the entire fighting Seventh Cavalry—twelve companies, of twenty-eight officers and six hundred troopers, under Lieutenant-Colonel George A. Custer the Yellow Hair; two companies of the Sixth Infantry and one of the Seventeenth Infantry; a platoon of the Twentieth Infantry to serve three gatling guns; forty-five Arikara Indian scouts led by Chief Bloody Knife; and one hundred and seventy-nine teamsters and packers to handle the wagons and pack mules.
On June 21 this "Dakota" column was camped beside the Yellowstone River in Montana, at the mouth of the Rosebud River. That was the same Rosebud upon the headwaters of which, ninety or one hundred miles southward, General Crook had had his fight, four days before.
But General Terry did not know of this. He did not know where the Gray Fox was, and the Gray Fox did not know where he was. The country between them was red.
The Yellowstone River cuts southeastern Montana almost into a corner triangle. The Sitting Bull camp was pretty well known to be in that corner.
Colonel Gibbon had arrived down the Yellowstone from the west. His column was encamped across the Yellowstone, opposite the mouth of the Rosebud. The Gray Fox was supposed to be coming on from the south and driving Crazy Horse before him.
But Major Marcus Reno had taken six troops of the Seventh Cavalry and scouted south. On June 17 he had been only forty miles northeast of the very place where General Crook was then fighting Crazy Horse; of course he had heard no sounds.
On his return he reported that he had struck an Indian trail nine or ten days old, pointing southwest up the Rosebud; a large trail, of three hundred and eighty lodges, meaning perhaps fifteen hundred people.
This night of June 21 a council was held by General Terry, Colonel Gibbon and Lieutenant-Colonel Custer aboard the steamboat Far West, which had brought supplies up the Missouri and the Yellowstone. The Indians had not crossed the Yellowstone; that had been made certain by the marches of the two columns, from east and west. They were still in the south. General Terry believed that the trail found by Major Reno was bound for a rendezvous in the country of the Little Big Horn River—the next stream west of the Rosebud.
General Alfred Howe Terry was a Yale man and lawyer who had entered the Civil War with the Connecticut Volunteers; had been appointed brigadier general of Regulars and brevetted major-general of Volunteers for gallantry in the storming of Fort Fisher, January, 1865.
He was a kindly looking man, with a long beard and a limp; was not yet counted an Indian fighter, but was a trustworthy, cautious soldier. Because of his limp, the Indians scouts called him No-hip-bone. He may not have fought Indians; nevertheless he shrewdly guessed what Indians were likely to do. He had his maps.
The Little Big Horn River flows northwest into the "big" Big Horn River, and that flows north into the Yellowstone about one hundred and ten miles on up from the mouth of the Rosebud.
Now General Custer was directed to take his Seventh Cavalry and scout south and examine the Indian trail. The General Terry infantry and the Colonel Gibbon infantry and cavalry were to go on up the Yellowstone to the mouth of the Big Horn; then they should march south up the Big Horn, to the Little Big Horn.
"It is, of course, impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to your movement," said the written orders issued, June 22, to General Custer, "and 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."
General Terry, the commanding officer, thought that Lieutenant-Colonel Custer should follow the Indian trail until he found out its final direction. If it led west from the Rosebud, toward the Little Big Horn, he should leave it and should still scout south, perhaps into Wyoming, swinging widely in an arc to make sure that the Indians were not escaping around his left flank. He was to turn into the northwest, and complete the half circle by marching toward the other column, in the Big Horn and Little Big Horn country. He was to report to General Terry, there, within fifteen days.
From his march Lieutenant-Colonel Custer was to send a courier to Colonel Gibbon. And it was hoped that Sitting Bull might be caught between the two columns.
General Terry was very anxious that the movement should be successful. The gallant Seventh, of the twelve companies averaging fifty men to a company, passed in review before General Terry and Colonel Gibbon, at noon of Thursday, June 22. Then they all, except the band, cantered on, up the Rosebud.
"Now, Custer, don't be greedy, but wait for us," Colonel Gibbon called. For he, too, was anxious. He knew the dashing Custer.
"No, I will not," Old Curly retorted, with wave of his hand as he galloped after his column. He would not—what?
The Arikara scouts went with the Seventh. Their chiefs were Bloody Knife, Stab, and the medicine-man Bob-tail-bull. General No-hip-bone sent six Crow scouts, also, as guides into this country that once had been Crow country. They were White-man-runs-him, Goes-ahead, Hairy Moccasin, White Swan, Curly, and Paints-his-face-yellow. And there was a black squawman—old Isaiah, who spoke the Sioux tongue.
Quiet, blue-eyed "Lonesome" Charley Reynolds, of Fort Lincoln, was chief white scout. Mark Kellogg of Bismarck was war correspondent for the New York Herald. Scout George Herendeen from Colonel Gibbon's column was attached, to carry dispatches.
Boston Custer, General Custer's younger brother, had come out from the East for his health. He was forage master. School-boy Armstrong, or "Autie," Reed, the general's nephew, had "joined" the Seventh at Fort Lincoln, as cattle driver, to spend his vacation "fighting Indians."
The Seventh traveled light. That was the Custer way. It took only a small pack train bearing extra ammunition and rations for fifteen days. The band was left at the Yellowstone; the men had left their sabers at Fort Lincoln.
General Terry had offered General Custer four troops of Colonel Gibbon's Second Cavalry and two of the gatling guns; had proposed going, himself. But General Custer wished no aid. He had all the confidence in the world in his Seventh—his own regiment.
Tom Custer, his brother, was a captain in it; had entered the army at sixteen years of age and possessed two medals for having captured enemy flags. First Lieutenant James Calhoun, commanding Troop L, was his brother-in-law; had married his sister Maggie. And here were Boston Custer; and Autie Reed who was his sister Lydia's boy and had been named for him. Truly, on this march the Seventh United States Cavalry was a Custer regiment.
"Old Curly" wore his buckskin suit and crimson silk handkerchief, but his yellow hair had been cut while he was in the East and was not yet so long as usual. The six Crows eyed him well. They saw that he was tall, slim, erect and broad-shouldered. He looked and talked straight. They said to one another:
"There is a brave, kind and thinking man. There is a good general."
On June 23 the Seventh struck the trail that had been found by Major Reno. It led up the Rosebud and was a plain trail indeed, of lodge-pole and pony tracks. The Arikaras and Crows thought that one thousand or twelve hundred Sioux had passed over it. But nobody here knew that these were Indians running away from the Dakota agencies, to join Sitting Bull.
General Custer made long marches. At seventy miles from the mouth of the Rosebud, on Saturday, June 24, the trail turned into the west, toward the Little Big Horn, just as General Terry had expected.
What a big trail it was! It had increased. The ground was beaten to dust by the many hoofs; the camps had contained not only lodges but also little bush wickiups, like dog houses or children's houses. These puzzled the soldiers. They really had been the "pup" lodges of single warriors, and not play lodges. Parties of Chief Crazy Horse's warriors had followed this same trail, after the battle of the Rosebud.
The great trail led for the divide (the Wolf Mountains) between the valley of the Rosebud and the valley of the Little Big Horn. An Indian village certainly lay over there. General Custer decided to make a night march and surprise the village.
Therefore he did not swing south, as directed. He did not send Scout Herendeen through with word for Colonel Gibbon. Even though there were twelve hundred Sioux ahead of him, he believed that by a quick attack he could crush them. He had done the same at the Washita, with Black Kettle's village. The Sioux of Sitting Bull should not escape, either.
At eleven o'clock tonight the soldiers were aroused by the "silent reveille," which means a nudge and a low command by the non-commissioned officers. They took the westward leading trail, hoping to cross the divide rapidly and strike the village at daybreak, as on the Washita. But after they had marched hard, up hill, by the route of a winding stream, at two in the morning "Lonesome" Charley Reynolds said that it was no use to try farther; the night was so dark and the way so long and bad that they all must wait for daylight.
They halted for three hours. General Custer was disappointed. He changed his plan. The column should advance as far as possible without being seen; and then camp, and attack tomorrow morning.
So at dawn, this Sunday morning, June 25 (and a beautiful Sunday morning), they marched on. At ten o'clock they were near the top of the divide. The Crow and Arikara scouts, who had been reconnoitering before, under First Lieutenant Charley Varnum, reported that from a high point called the Crows' Nest they had seen much smoke and "heaps ponies" fifteen miles on, where the Little Big Horn flowed crookedly northwest through its valley. Bodies on Sioux scaffolding along the trail had been passed and the scalps and beards of white men, hung up.
"The Long Hair will find Sioux enough to keep us all fighting two or three days," said Chief Bloody Knife.
"Oh, tell him I guess we'll get through with them in one day," General Custer laughed.
It was necessary to move with care. About the middle of the morning the column halted again in a hot little ravine on the southwest slope of the Wolf or Rosebud Mountains. A ridge of hills hid the valley of the Little Big Horn. Bad news was now received.
A box of hard-tack had been dropped from a pack mule. A detail had been sent back to get it, and had discovered an Indian trying to open it with his hatchet. The Indian had fled, but had stopped to reconnoiter and probably had seen the whole column!
The village would be told that the soldiers were coming. There was no hope of surprising the enemy. If the column waited until morning, the village likely enough would have broken up and gone.
The Arikaras were being rubbed with sacred oil by Bob-tail-bull, to make them proof against the weapons of the Sioux. Above the ridge there floated a film of blue smoke and yellow dust. The Sioux village was under the smoke, the Sioux pony herds were under the dust.
The smoke and the dust were about five miles away. General Custer rode back to the column, from a scout in the advance to get the lay of the land. Like Old Zach before the battle of Resaca de la Palma he had the choice of several plans.
He could wait and see what the enemy did; if the enemy retired he could follow and send a courier to General Terry and Colonel Gibbon. But the Terry and Gibbon column was many miles distant, the Indians would travel fast, and the Seventh would have to fight them to stop them.
Or he could stay and risk being attacked; but he was outnumbered—might be surrounded and cut off.
Or he could attack. That he decided to do: to attack at once before more spies surveyed him. The motto of the cavalry is "Audacity"; thunderbolt attack is the cavalry weapon.
"You will find more Sioux in that valley than you can handle," Mitch Bouyer, the Crow interpreter, said.
"If Mitch Bouyer is afraid, he can stay behind," Old Curly replied.
"I'll go wherever the Yellow Hair goes; but if we go into that valley we won't come out of it alive," said Mitch Bouyer.
The column was divided. General Custer proposed to charge the village from several sides, just as on the Washita. That had always been his favorite method of attack. He had used it in the Civil War, with success: a charge by three or four detachments, at one time. This confused the enemy.
Major Marcus A. Reno was given the command of Troops A, G and M. Captain and Brevet Colonel Frederick William Benteen (who had won brevets in the Civil War and upon the Kansas plains, both) was given the command of Troops H, D and K. Captain Thomas M. McDougall with Company B was placed in charge of the pack train detail.
General Custer himself took Troop C, Captain Tom Custer; Troop E, the gray-horse troop of First Lieutenant and Brevet Captain Algernon E. Smith, who had been crippled in one arm while carrying the flag at the storming of Fort Fisher; Troop F, the "band-box" troop of the dandy Captain George W. Yates, which boasted that every man who had died in it had died fighting; Troop I, of Captain and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Myles W. Keogh, who was the oldest of the company officers and had fought under the Pope in Italy and under General Stoneman in the Civil War; and Troop L, of First Lieutenant James Calhoun, who had married Maggie Custer and was the handsomest man in the regiment.
The three battalions formed. Under the warm sun of a cloudless June sky they advanced for the broken valley of the Little Big Horn. And fifty miles in the northwest the General Terry and Colonel Gibbon column was coming up the Big Horn, toward them.
Captain Benteen swung to the left, in toward the river, "to sweep everything before him" and drive the Sioux into the net. Major Reno's battalion occupied the Indian trail. Captain McDougall's pack mules followed. General Custer's battalion held to the right.
The trail skirted the ridge before; so did Major Reno and General Custer. Captain Benteen veered more southward, to round the point of the ridge, where it met the river.
A creek flowed down the ridge, to the Little Big Horn. The Major Reno battalion took the left side, the General Custer battalion paralleled, a little way at the rear, on the right side. The sun was high, and approaching noon. Captain Benteen had disappeared, in the draws. Nothing was heard from him, and nothing from the Sioux.
The Arikaras and Crows were spread out in the advance, scouting. They halted—they had found a small camp and had driven some Sioux out. There was one lodge with a dead Sioux in it. He was a Crazy Horse warrior who had been wounded by the Crow and Shoshoni scouts at the battle of the Rosebud, and had died here.
General Custer beckoned to Major Reno to come over, and he did. Pretty soon Adjutant William Cooke—"Queen's Own" Cooke, who had been born in Canada and wore Dundreary side-whiskers of a wonderful black—bore orders to Major Reno.
"The general commanding thinks that the village is not more than two miles before, and evidently the Indians are running away. He directs that you move forward at as rapid gait as you think prudent, and to charge afterward, and the whole outfit will support you."
Now General Custer and his five troops changed their course slightly and headed more to the right, or north. They kept to the high ground of the bluffs bordering the valley. They were making for the lower or north-west end of the village. White-man-rims-him, Hairy Moccasin, Goes-ahead and Curly went with them, to guide them.
"You come and show me where I can make a success," the Long Hair had said to them.
Hairy Moccasin led. It was he who, at dawn this morning, while the other scouts slept, had discovered the enemy's village, from the high place of the Wolf Mountains divide called the Crow's Nest.
Major Reno was to charge the upper or nearer end of the village. Captain Benteen was to attack the rear, or west.
Major Reno ordered "Trot!" In column of fours he followed the trail down the creek, to its mouth. Paints-his-face-yellow and White Swan rode with him. He glimpsed lodges, below him, across the river. He forded the little Big Horn, and deployed his column into line, so that it reached from the river to the southern bluffs. The valley narrowed, here. He put the Arikara scouts upon his left flank. His one hundred and twenty men were ready.
Then he sent word to General Custer.
"I am at the river, and have everything in front of me; and they are strong."
But the Sitting Bull village was not "running away." Not much! To be sure, the women were packing lodge things, in case that the battle should go against the Sioux; but the pony herds had not been brought in and no teepees had been lowered.
It was a hunting camp, and the largest camp in many years. Here upon the Greasy Grass (which was the Indian name for the Little Big Horn) fifteen thousand Sioux and Cheyennes, with a few Northern Arapahos, had gathered.
The fifteen thousand people were camped for three miles up and down the Greasy Grass. Chief Crazy Horse and his hands had arrived from the head of the Rosebud, where he had defeated General Crook last week, only one day's march in the southeast. Large parties had come in from the reservations. A count at the agencies would have shown that not half the Indians were there who should have been there.
Chief Gall of the Hunkpapas was principal war chief; Crow King, another Hunkpapa, was his second. Lame Deer led the Miniconjous; his second was Hump. Big Road led the Oglalas; He Dog was his second. They all were great chiefs. Two Moon was second to Crazy Horse, in the Cheyennes. Black-moccasin Sioux, Brules or Burnt Thigh Sioux of Red Cloud's bands, and Sans Arcs or Without-bows, also were here. And Rain-in-the-face, who had been imprisoned by Captain Tom Custer at Fort Lincoln and had sworn to eat his heart, had his own band of young Oglalas.
Sitting Bull the Hunkpapa made medicine for the whole camp, and accepted presents.
The lodges all were on the left or southern side of the Greasy Grass. The Black-moccasin camp was at the upriver end; the Hunkpapa camp was next; next were the Minconjous; next, the Oglalas, with the Brules back a little distance; next, the Sans Arcs; and at the lower end, the Cheyennes.
The village had been living in the old free way. It was the first time in a long, long period that so many Sioux had been able to enjoy themselves. Every night there had been dancing and feasting. Chief Crazy Horse's men had whipped the soldiers. That was another celebration.
The village had been ordered by the chiefs to move northward, this very morning. But word had come that the pony soldiers were approaching. That was unexpected. The chiefs decided not to run; they had three thousand warriors, plenty of guns and ammunition and meat, and were not afraid of the soldiers. The women were told to go on packing up. If the soldiers attacked, all right; if the soldiers passed by, all right.
Pretty soon the pony soldiers were to be seen, winding along the bluffs in the northeast, six or eight miles out. This was the General Custer column.
A piece of thick woods stood at the upper end of the village, and cut off the view there, where the river curved. While the Sioux and Cheyennes were watching the pony soldiers filing along the hills, and waiting to see what they would do, a sudden volley of bullets rattled through the lodges of the Black-moccasin camp and the Hunkpapa camp. Soldiers cheered. Major Reno had attacked.
That was a surprise. It is said that General Custer had purposely showed his column on the march to the lower end of the village, so as to draw attention from the Major Reno column. He had succeeded. But Chief Gall said that as quickly as the bullets rattled he knew everything, and understood. He had hopes of victory, for the first soldiers had struck too soon. He rallied the Miniconjous and the Oglalas to the relief of the Black-moccasins and the Hunkpapas. They rode to meet the soldiers.
Major Reno did not strike hard enough. He had advanced at a trot down the valley, driving about one hundred Indians before him, into the village. But before he had reached the village, here came the Chief Lame Deer men and the Chief Big Road men, and the Chief Crow King men, and all, urged on by the fiery Chief Gall: six hundred of them, whooping, lashing, careering and spreading ever wider to envelop both flanks of the thin blue line.
They gladly charged the Arikaras, their red enemies; and the Arikaras, except brave Bloody Knife, Stab and Bob-tail-bull, fled so wildly that they did not stop until they were at the Yellowstone River, one hundred miles.
That exposed Major Reno's left. The Sioux passed around. More Indians were arriving every minute. He was confronted by a swarm; the enemy was getting around his flanks and in his rear. The lodges were still standing defiantly. He feared, he said, a trap; if he advanced he would be engulfed. He did not see General Custer, nor Captain Benteen. He and his one hundred and twenty were alone.
"Battalion—halt! Prepare to fight on foot—dismount!"
The Indians have said that if Major Reno had charged straight on, regardless, they would have broken; they would have suspected a trap, themselves, not knowing but that another column was charging from another direction. The warriors would have galloped to save their families.
But the soldiers threw themselves from their horses; the horses were led into the timber at the right—the timber that veiled the course of the river above the Black-moccasin and Hunkpapa camps.
The soldiers fought lying down in the shelter of the timber. The Indians pressed nearer and nearer. They had no need to save their village. Word came to Major Reno that the enemy was killing the horses, in the timber.
That would not do. He still saw no support coming. Where were Custer and Benteen? The timber, surrounded by the howling warriors, five to one, ten to one ("The very earth seemed to grow Indians," he afterward reported), was no place for him, he judged. So he gave the order to retire to the high ground on the other side of the river.
This was Major Reno's first Indian fight. He had graduated from West Point, and entered the army in 1857; had won brevet of lieutenant-colonel in the Civil War, and had been assigned to the Seventh Cavalry in 1869. But he had seen little service in Indian country.
From attack he had changed to defense. Now he let himself be driven back. That upset the whole plan of battle. If he could have held fast, in the timber, with the river curve protecting his flanks, Custer or Benteen would have supported him by attacking and dividing the enemy.
His men ran to their horses and fell back, for the ford. They missed the ford, and had to take merely a pony trail that plunged from the bank into the water and climbed out into a cut or narrow draw on the opposite side.
In crossing the river and fighting a rear guard action many brave deeds were done. Second Lieutenant Bennie Hodgson was wounded twice, and then killed while dismounted and facing backward, revolver in hand. Doctor J. M. DeWolf, the assistant surgeon, was shot dead while fighting like the troopers. First Lieutenant Donald McIntosh delayed to rally the stragglers, and was killed.
Altogether, before the Reno soldiers gained the high ground of the north side of the river, three officers and twenty-nine men had fallen, and seven had been wounded, out of the one hundred and twenty.
Bloody Knife and Stab and Bob-tail-bull were dead. So was Black Isaiah the squawman; so was "Lone-some" Charley Reynolds, the white scout. First Lieutenant Charles de Rudio the Italian, Scout Herendeen and fourteen men had been cut off and were still in the timber.
White Swan and Paints-his-face-yellow saved themselves. That had been the arrangement. The Crows were to guide the Long Hair to the Sioux, but they were not to stay and fight.
The fighting at the timber had lasted only thirty minutes. The retreat had taken about as long. When the Reno remnant had scrambled from the water and up out of the ravine, to the top of a bare hill, the time was almost two o'clock. Now where were Custer and Benteen?
But Captain Benteen and his three companies were coming. They had been entangled in the hot hills and ravines upriver, on this side, and had seen no Indians. Bugler Martini had met Captain Benteen with a penciled message from Colonel Cooke, General Custer's adjutant.
"Benteen: Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs." And—"P. S.: Bring packs."
Old Curly had need of the extra ammunition. Captain Benteen led his companies as fast as he could down the valley, inclining to the right so as to join the Custer column. The pack train toiled after. Mules and horses were tired and thirsty. Presently he heard firing. He saw smoke and dust—saw a skirmish line of blue-coats fighting off a horde of Indians, saw the main body climbing the bluff, saw that somebody had been defeated; and saving his horses he advanced at a trot. He was a cool man, and had faced Indians many a time. Keeping to the high ground he joined Major Reno.
The Indians were leaving; were scurrying down river, as if in a hurry. It seemed as though another fight was in progress. Yes—shots were sounding, two or three miles away in the northwest. They were carbine shots, and the cracks of the Indians' Winchesters.
Custer was engaged. The last seen of Custer was at the moment when Major Reno had reached the ford, to attack the village. The Custer column was winding on, along the high bluffs; Old Curly had waved his hat, as if to encourage.
There he had said, according to Bugler Martini:
"A big one!" It was the village, down below. "Good! We've caught them asleep, boys! Now for a charge!"
And he had sent Martini back with the note ordering up the ammunition and reinforcements.
The firing down the valley rose louder. The pack train and Company B under Captain McDougall toiled in, to the hill. The Indians were sniping and threatening, but did not attack. Major Reno's officers were pleading with him to try for communication with General Custer. What was the best thing to do? Captain Thomas B. Weir and First Lieutenant Winfield Scott Edgerly took Troop D and started; they made way clear to the Custer trail on the bluff; there the Indians stopped them. Major Reno had followed, but could not keep on. They all were turned back to the hill that they had left.
Only four miles lay between them and General Custer. A squadron could have covered it in twenty minutes at a gallop; the pack train and ammunition might have been sent through in half an hour. But Major Reno did not risk, with his seven companies—thirteen officers and three hundred and eighty men. The country was rough and broken; he did not know what lay ahead; all he knew was that Captain Weir had sighted a great commotion of dust and smoke over there—that there appeared to be thousands of Indians, and that a number of the men were without horses. He stayed on his hill, thinking himself surrounded.
Chief Gall had proved good generalship. In crossing the river below Major Reno's column of retreat, to cut it off, he had learned that the General Custer column was galloping in. The Reno men had been whipped. Very well. He left only a sprinkling of warriors to hold Major Reno. With the others he sped for the new attack. So few were the warriors now here, that three hours after the Major Reno retreat Scout Herendeen and thirteen of the lost men stole right through the Indian line and reached the hill. Lieutenant de Rudio and another man joined, the second night.
The Reno force had heard the firing recede; then there had been two volleys, of carbines, like a signal. The firing soon died away. Then it welled again, scattering; then it ceased. The battle was over. Had Custer been beaten off?
Yes. The Indians were coming back in droves. The Reno men dug rifle pits and piled up breast-works. They began to suffer for water. Bullets poured in upon them.
"I think we were fighting all the Sioux nation, and also all the desperadoes, renegades, half-breeds and squawmen between the Missouri River and the Arkansas," Major Reno said.
The hot siege by bullet and arrow lasted from six o'clock in the evening until half-past nine o'clock at night. Eighteen men were killed, forty-eight wounded. Major Reno could not possibly move, now.
But where was Custer? Only the Indians knew. The Sioux and Cheyennes knew; so did Curly, the Crow scout. He and Goes-ahead, Hairy Moccasin and White-man-runs-him had gone into battle, until the Long Hair had ordered:
"You go and save your lives. I will stay with my boys."
Curly had lingered last of all. Then he had let his bushed hair down into two Sioux braids, had taken a Sioux blanket, and jumping upon a Sioux horse had mingled with the enemy until he was free. He looked back and saw the General Custer group wedged tightly in the midst of the enemy. He rode to carry the word to No-hip-bone.
General Custer had had ten miles to march, while Major Reno had had only three or four. It was about half past two o'clock when the five Custer troops descended toward the river. They were late. Major Reno already had been driven to his hill. General Custer must have heard the firing—he may have thought that Major Reno was charging through, from the upper end of the village. So he launched his column for the lower half of the village. Troop L led. They had not seen all the village, and they were striking it at the middle.
Chief Gall had been given plenty of time. When the Long Hair came down from the ridge, the Gall men had sent up the ravines, to take position and waylay him. Major Reno had been defeated; they feared only this one column, now.
When the head of the Long Hair column approached the river, the Indians rose all around, in the path and on either side. The gray-horse troop dismounted first; the other companies dismounted, to fight on foot. One might think that the Long Hair was astounded by the great odds—had decided to hold his ground until the Major Reno or the Captain Benteen charge pushed through.
At any rate, he never reached the river. The Crazy Horse Cheyennes, who had been gathered to save their camp at this end, pressed hard; the Oglalas and Hunkpapas and Miniconjous pressed hard. There was no letup in the whooping and circling and rain of bullets; and within just a few minutes the Long Hair ordered a retirement to higher ground.
The soldiers did not run. One company, dismounted, covered the falling-back movement; the other companies retreated in regular formation, obeying their officers. Some of the men were afoot and some were on horses. Many horses were captured.
This company that stayed all died. It was Troop L, of Lieutenant Calhoun, General Custer's brother-in-law, and Second Lieutenant John Jordan Crittenden, a young Kentuckian who had joined the Seventh from the Twentieth Infantry platoon. After the battle they all were found—every man in line and the two officers at the posts, behind.
The Long Hair was retiring to a detached ridge in the northwest. Chief Gall guessed. He hastened warriors, to out-foot the column; and when the soldiers arrived, there the Cheyennes and Sioux were, surrounding them.
This was a mile from the place where the first brave company had fallen. The soldiers were on foot; almost all the horses left had been put behind the ridge, but the gray-horse men kept theirs. The squaws and warriors circled behind the ridge and stampeded or shot those other horses. Then they knew that the soldiers could not get away, and this made the warriors bold. It was only a matter of shooting and killing.
Besides, the white soldiers were having trouble with their guns. The shells stuck and the guns would not work. So the Indians fought without fear.
The company on the left of the Long Hair's line died. It was old Captain Keogh's company, and warded off the charges until nobody remained there, to protect that flank.
Band-box Troop F of Captain Yates, and Troop C of Captain Tom Custer were in the center. The gray-horse troop of Lieutenant Smith, the Hero of Fort Fisher, stood longest, on the right. The men shot their horses for barricades.
In a very short time, maybe less than an hour, not many of the white soldiers were left. Then Chief Gall gave a great whoop, from all sides the warriors charged—they rode over the ridge. Twenty-six of the soldiers on horses tried to escape from the right, to the trees of the river, but they were caught, and cut off. A man had tried to ride for the hills, as if he were taking a message. He, too, was caught.
Not a white soldier lived. The Sioux and Cheyennes searched for the Long Hair, but his hair was not long and they did not know him, among the slain.
Then they rode back to the village, and said to the women:
"Leave your lodges up. We have killed them all."
After they had rested they went to kill the Reno men, on the other hill; but they decided not to charge. They would keep the soldiers there until thirst had made them crazy.
This night the Sitting Bull village celebrated, with bonfires and scalp dances. The Major Reno men saw the glow, and heard the horrid noises. Where was Custer?
At two o'clock in the morning the hill was attacked. From that hour until two in the afternoon there was hot fighting. The Indian rifles out-ranged the cavalry carbines, but volunteers got to the river and back with water, just the same. In some of the charges the Indians dashed so near that they used their coup sticks; they were always stopped.
At two o'clock in the afternoon the Indians in the valley raised a great smoke. They had set fire to the grass—as the smoke blew aside they could be seen leveling the lodges. But that was squaw work; the warriors would still fight. Then, at sunset, a fresh smoke welled; Indians were fanning the fire with blankets; and then—Hurrah!—a long column of men and women, mounted and afoot, marched out ahead of the smoke, for the northwest. The siege had been lifted.
Tonight, June 26, Major Reno moved his command, with its dead and wounded (seventy in all) nearer the river, to wait for General Custer and the Terry-Gibbon column. He supposed that General Custer had been thrown back, and had met General Terry. It was scarcely possible that five companies of the Seventh Cavalry could have been completely wiped from existence.
After breakfast the next morning, June 27, another dust cloud was seen, approaching from down the valley. That was either Custer, or the Indians again. Major Reno formed for defense and sent scouts out to spy upon the column.
"Look for Custer!" was the cry. "Look for the gray-horse troop. That will show. It must be Custer. The Gibbon column would not get here so quickly."
When the volunteer scouts came back, they brought with them another scout, who had a dispatch from General Terry addressed to General Custer himself.
"General: A Crow scout has just come into camp, saying you've been whipped. I don't believe it, but I'm coming with medical aid."
Custer had not joined General Terry; he was not here. Where was he? A chill fell upon the Reno men.
The Terry and Gibbon infantry and cavalry marched in. No, they had not seen General Custer—knew nothing of him, except by the report of the Crow, Curly; but only a few miles back, on their way they had passed a ridge, to their left, which seemed to be white with bodies, like a battle field.
Captain Benteen was immediately detailed, with a party, to examine closer. He reported; and everybody had to believe, at last.
Two hundred and twelve was the count, upon Custer Field. Several officers and a few men were missing; they had been killed after a chase, when cut off. But General Custer was here; and Tom Custer of the two medals, and old Captain Keogh, and "Bandbox" Captain Yates, and Captain Algernon Smith the Hero of Fort Fisher, and the rest, including Boston Custer and young Autie Reed and Mark Kellogg the newspaper man, were here.
The Sioux and Cheyennes said that if Major Reno had charged on into the village, or had fought at the timber until Custer came, they would have run. Some of them said that if Custer had charged quicker, they would have run. Or if he had not divided his regiment. They thought that Major Reno's battalion was far too small.
"In all the history of my great-grandfather I have never known of such an attack in daylight," Chief Runs-the-enemy, of the Sioux, declared. But General Custer had not foreseen that his orders would fail, and that Major Reno and Captain Benteen would nowhere meet him.
And they all said, through many years:
"We have fought many brave men, but of all the brave men we ever fought, the Yellow Hair was the bravest."