Taken from "Custer's Last Stand" by Mort Kunstler


The 7th

The Campaign

The Village

The Troopers

The Scouts

7th Marches

June 25th



The aftermath: Enough recrimination to go around

June 26th and the Terry Relief The Aftermath

June 26th and the Terry Relief

Dawn on June 26th brought a renewal of sniper fire from Indian locations surrounding Reno Hill. It also brought several attacks on trooper emplacements, most notably those of Company H. Captain Benteen finally led a countercharge to relieve the pressure on his front, and later convinced Capt. Reno to do the same on his front. The lack of water became an issue, especially for the wounded who could not be properly cared for. Water details were initiated and a number of brave troopers used the cover of a ravine to the west of Company H's extended line to access the river and bring water to the beleaguered troops. A number of these water carriers earned the Medal of Honor for their efforts. 

By noon, the strength of the Indian assaults and sniper fire began to wane and by afternoon the water carriers were able to reach the river and incur little harassment. As evening approached the troopers on Reno Hill witnessed a massive movement of Indians below in the valley. The entire village was struck and began its movement upstream toward the south. While some troopers cheered this development, company cooks began to light fires to cook the first warm meal anyone had had in the last two days. During the night of the 26th four persons who had been missing in the timber along the river were able to crawl to safety within the camp. They included Lt. DeRudio, Pvt. O'Neill of Co. G, scout William Jackson and interpreter Gerard. By the morning of June 27th the entire valley was devoid of Indians and the Battle of the Little Big Horn was over. In the last day alone seven troopers had been killed and forty-one were wounded. Most of these casualties were from Benteen's company.

After Custer and the 7th Cavalry marched from the Yellowstone up Rosebud Creek, General Terry steamed upriver on the steamer Far West, along with Col. John Gibbon and Maj. James Brisbin to rendezvous early on June 24th at Fort Pease with the Montana Column. During the day of the 24th the Far West ferried troops and pack train across the Yellowstone and Maj. Brisbin led the column late in the day on a four mile march up the Big Horn to camp on Tullock's Fork. A number of Indian scouts had earlier been sent to reconnoiter that stream in the belief that a village may exist somewhere along its banks. General Terry followed the column later along with the pack train while Col. Gibbon remained in camp on the Yellowstone, having fallen ill. Those scouts who had been sent up Tullock's Fork later returned with news of a buffalo carcass having been found but nothing else. The column encamped for the night.

Early on the 25th Terry sent Lt. Bradley up Tullock's Fork to again scout for any sign of an Indian village. Terry followed with the main column but soon left Tullock's Fork and headed west back toward the Big Horn. He sent word of his change in direction to Bradley who then also abandoned his scout of Tullock's Fork and also turned toward the Big Horn River in search of Terry. The ground between Tullock's Fork and the Big Horn was a labyrinth of ridges and valleys and Terry's column soon became disoriented and spread out. Lt. Bradley closed in on remnants of the straggling column around noon but the head of the column, along with Gen. Terry, only reached an oasis on the Big Horn around 1:30 p.m. Further elements arrived at the oasis during the course of the afternoon and it took until 5:30 p.m. for Bradley's party to arrive. Six Crows, who had acted in advance of Bradley's scout, arrived earlier in the afternoon to report that they had advanced far enough along Tullock's Fork to see a heavy smoke along the upper reaches of the Little Big Horn.

Concern about the smoke reported along the Little Big Horn caused Gen. Terry to again start his cavalry, battery and Lt. Bradley's tired scouts on the march at 5:30 p.m.  The infantry and pack train remained in camp at the oasis. This march, over the next 6 1/2 hours, brought them to another camp on the Big Horn but yet miles from the Little Big Horn. Exhausted, having marched through mud and rain and being lost a number of times, this column finally encamped at around 12:00 a.m. Early the morning of the 26th Lt. Bradley was ordered to begin another advance toward the Little Big Horn. After moving about 3 miles he discovered signs of Indian ponies and a heavy smoke about 20 miles ahead. He followed the Indian trail toward the Big Horn River where he encountered three Crow scouts across the river. Surprisingly, they were Goes Ahead, Hairy Moccasin and White-Man-Runs-Him of Custer's command. They brought the first news to Terry's command of the fate of Custer's column. Bradley immediately returned to Terry with the news the scouts had brought. Instead of moving out immediately, Terry waited to consolidate his command during the morning of the 26th and finally moved out with a combined command at approximately 11:00 a.m. Lt. Bradley sent out his Crow scouts to bring in those from Custer's command but all the Crow scouts together left the area of the Big Horn to return to their village. This left Lt. Bradley with eleven Infantrymen to perform as scouts. The Terry column finally reached the Little Big Horn about 4 miles above its mouth at 2:30 p.m. and called a halt.

The advance was begun again by 5:30 p.m. and the column soon began seeing signs of Indians. Scouts Muggins Taylor and Henry Bostwick were sent ahead with messages in an attempt to locate Custer's command but both returned with tales of hostile Indians blocking their advance and refused any further attempts at communicating with Custer's column. The column also saw Indians in the distance, some believing they were cavalry but others believing it was the Indian village on the move (it was). Terry's column finally went into bivouac at 8:30 p.m. on the west bank of the Little Big Horn, only 8 miles below Reno's surrounded troops on Reno Hill.

The column again advanced about 7:30 a.m. the morning of June 27th. No Indians were in sight and after advancing about 4 miles came upon the sight of an abandoned Indian village on the west bank of the Little Big Horn River. While investigating this village site they discovered evidence of Custer's column in the form of cavalry saddles and uniforms, gloves and underclothing. During the course of the investigation of the village, a courier from Lt. Bradley, who had been scouting along the east bank of the river, arrived with the news that Lt. Bradley's command had discovered the remains of 197 bodies on the hills across the stream. The column itself continued south along the west bank and soon encountered further bodies and the remains of horses. Locating a clear area along the river bottom Gen. Terry called for a halt. Scout Muggins Taylor, meanwhile, was the first to locate Maj. Reno's command atop the heights across the river. Finally convinced that the approaching force was friendly, Maj. Reno sent Lieutenants Wallace and Hare out to meet the column in the valley. As Terry's column made camp in the valley, the General returned with Wallace and Hare to Reno Hill. It was at this time that Reno's command finally learned of the fate of Custer approximately 4 miles away.

General Terry immediately began an investigation into the tragedy, interrogating the surviving officers and asking for a count of survivors and estimates of the killed and wounded. He also sent Capt. Benteen and his company to follow Custer's trail to Custer Ridge to try to determine what had occurred and to verify the identity of the remains, if possible. The wounded were a priority and details were organized to carry them down to the river utilizing blankets held between men to Gibbon's camp in the river bottom. Orders were sent to the steamer Far West to prepare for receiving the wounded. While the wounded were taken to the valley camp, the balance of Reno's command stayed atop the heights on the east side of the river. That night General Terry composed his first report of the disaster.

Early the next morning the 7th Cavalry marched to Custer Ridge. They conducted a systematic search for bodies and buried them where they lay. The mutilation of the bodies caused a number of troopers to remain unidentified as well as three officers. In the afternoon the command crossed the river to inter those killed during the valley fight. After having buried 259 of their fallen comrades they finally pitched camp just below Gibbon's command.

Gibbon, meanwhile, had been constructing litters to carry the wounded to the Far West. In addition, a scout was made of the Indian trail up the valley of the Little Big Horn. It was found that the Indian trail split into two trails, one heading toward the Big Horn mountains and the other eastward. A large Indian trail leading to the Indian village of the 24th and 25th was also found, indicating that a large contingent of Indians had arrived at that village just prior to the battle. As the couriers sent to the Far West had not returned, Terry decided to move his command north closer to where he expected the Far West to be located. However, the litters that were constructed to carry the wounded proved to be useless and the command finally halted just north of the site of the abandoned Indian village. It was here that it spent the night of June 28th-June 29th.

Most of June 29th was spent in constructing new mule litters for the wounded. The couriers still had not returned but Terry decided to again move the column that evening. After moving out at 5:30 p.m. the command was soon halted by the return of the couriers who reported the steamer Far West was indeed waiting to receive the wounded. Thus encouraged, the command again moved out and reached the steamer at approximately 2:30 on the morning of June 30th. The couriers had not found the steamer at its assigned location and had then traveled to the mouth of the Big Horn in search of it. Being assured by Capt. Kirtland that the steamer had indeed traveled up the Big Horn they retraced their route only to find the steamer moored where it was supposed to be. On their trip downstream the steamer was actually upstream on the Big Horn, having erroneously moved past its proper mooring earlier. It later returned while the couriers were downriver on the Yellowstone in search of it.

The steamer left for Fort Pease with the wounded the afternoon of June 30th. The column then left for the mouth of the Big Horn where it arrived on July 2nd. The steamer, carrying the wounded and a dispatch from Gen. Terry, then left the base camp at Fort Pease on July 3rd, reaching Fort Abraham Lincoln and Bismarck, ND on July 5th. It was then that the world learned of the fate of Custer's 7th Cavalry.

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The Aftermath

In the intervening years since June 25, 1876, blame has been cast almost everywhere and against almost everyone associated with the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Custer has been blamed for being too reckless, too eager to gain glory for himself, as using the situation to set himself up for a presidential run, for ignoring direct orders, for not first performing a reconnaissance, dividing his command in the face of the enemy - well, for simply being Custer. Major Marcus Reno has been blamed for not carrying through on his valley attack, for leaving the first skirmish line too soon, for then leaving the second skirmish line too soon, for not forming a coordinated retreat to the hills beyond the river, for being drunk on duty, for not coordinating a proper defense once atop the hills, for not immediately marching to the sound of volley fire after arriving at Reno Hill. Then there is Captain Frederick W. Benteen. His guilt has been assessed as a too-casual march after passing the Wolf Mountain pass, lingering too long at the morass, not immediately going to Custer's aid once he received the written order from Custer. And, like Major Reno, not immediately advancing to the sound of volley fire from Reno Hill. Others have been blamed as well, but I think we have enough personal blame to go around with the above.

Other factors in the blame game have revolved around underestimating the Indian strength, meeting a superior enemy having repeating arms with single-shot weapons, those single-shot weapons malfunctioning because of copper cases that fused to the breech, running out of ammunition, the 7th Cavalry disintegrating, abnormal numbers of 7th Cavalry troopers committing suicide, inadequate training, to name a few.

I am not going to play the blame game. Suffice it to say that 263 officers, men, scouts and civilians lost their lives on June 25 and June 26, 1876 in an attack on a numerically superior enemy that was not going to cut-and-run. Because of the imbalance of numerical superiority by the Indians, if I had to choose just one overwhelming factor in this debacle, I would choose the inadequate training given to military personnel at that time. Hand-in-hand with this deficiency would be the belief in vogue at the time that the U. S. Military was a superior force that could overwhelm any given Indian camp on any given day; that Indians would rather flee than fight, or that they would fight individually for brief periods then break off engagement. While some of this did occur on June 25, 1876, the story of the Little Big Horn is a testimony of the Plains Indian to defend themselves when called upon. Do other factors noted above come in to play in the defeat that day? Of course they do. But had the 7th Cavalry Regiment been better trained, a more cohesive military unit, with more first-hand experience in Indian warfare, I suspect the outcome, while perhaps not successful, may have been markedly different. But then, I'll let you the reader decide. That's much of what makes the 'Battle of the Little Big Horn' such a memorable and moving event.

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