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

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The campaign of 1876 and the war against the Sioux

 

 

Subchapters

Treaty of 1868

The Army Goes to War

Crook's Powder River Campaign

Gibbon Down the Yellowstone

Terry's March...Reno's Scout

Crook's Second Campaign

 

In 1875 a series of events was moving forward that would culminate in the disaster on the banks of the Little Big Horn river one year later, and the final subjugation of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians a couple decades later.

The Sioux Treaty of 1868

The Sioux Treaty of 1868 was an attempt on the part of the government of the United States to restore peace along the hotly contested Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana, and to move the Indian tribes populating that area away from the main immigrant thoroughfares then in use. It established a "Great Sioux Reservation" that extended west from the Missouri River all the way through most of what is presently South Dakota - including the Black Hills. The land west of this reservation, which included the Powder River country up to the Big Horn Mountains, was considered 'unceded territory'. This was land on which, while not part of the great reservation, the tribes could continue to hunt for game instead of living a reservation life. The intention of the government was that, once the buffalo were gone, the Indians would be forced to move to the reservation. The treaty, as written, would then require all the tribes to relinquish any right to permanently occupy any lands outside their reservation. In addition, white travel routes could even intersect the reservation after the assessment of damages.

The treaty of 1868 also established the Crow Reservation in south-central Montana. The Sioux and Crow Indians were long-time foes and intertribal warfare between them frequently affected whites who increasingly populated the area as trappers and traders. The Gallatin Valley to the west was also affected by raiding Sioux as well as the town of Bozeman. These raids, as well as raids on the expansion of the Northern Pacific Railway and other roads leading through the area, were performed by bands of Indians who scorned the Sioux Treaty of 1868 and were determined to lead their normal nomadic life. 

The "Great Sioux Reservation" itself came under encroachment, beginning in 1874, with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. Gold seekers defied the government's ban on white occupation of the reservation and not only mined the area but established villages and towns. The Grant Administration came under increasing pressure from both sides of the Indian issue. One side wanted the Administration to curb white incursion into the reservation ceded to the Indians by the treaty of 1868, and the other side wanted the Administration to open the land to expansion and development. As the rhetoric escalated, and 'depredations' continued to occur, the idea of a military campaign to bring the Indians populating the 'unceded territory' onto the reservation once and for all became the cornerstone of Administration policy.

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The Army Goes to War

On December 6, 1875 the Indian Bureau issued orders to the effect that all Indians who had not returned to their reservation by January 31, 1876 were to be considered hostile and subject to military intervention. Although Indian Agencies sent out runners to those villages wintering in the 'unceded territory' to advise them of this condition, there was no way the requirement could be met in the time allowed, and, in fact, many of the 'winter roamers' were disinclined to obey. The intention of the government was to mount a winter campaign to punish those Indians in default of the order. General Philip Sheridan was to oversee the campaign from his headquarters in Chicago, and he delegated operational responsibility to two department commanders; General George Crook, Dept. of the Platte, in Omaha, and General Alfred Terry, Dept. of Dakota, in St. Paul. General Crook would move north from his base at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory, and General Terry would mount a two-pronged attack on the 'winter roamers'. The eastern thrust would originate at Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory with Lt. Col. George Custer in command, while from the west, Col. John Gibbon would move from Fort Ellis, Montana Territory. Although this three-pronged approach was to move in concert, weather and the frozen Missouri river precluded Terry from moving until the Spring thaw. In addition, Custer found himself in trouble with the Grant Administration (see The 7th U. S. Cavalry: A brief history amid controversy) and General Terry was ordered directly by President Grant to lead the campaign with Custer as a subordinate.

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Crook's Powder River Campaign

General Crook's command included six battalions of two companies,  including 5 companies each of the 2nd and 3rd Cavalry and two of the 4th Infantry, totaling 692 officers and men. General Crook actually went along with the column as an observer, having placed General Joseph Reynolds of the 3rd Cavalry in operational command. The column also consisted of a pack train of 50 mules and over 60 civilian packers for each battalion, and a supply train of 80 wagons and 84 civilian teamsters. A Major Stanton was named Chief of Scouts and was in command of a group of 31 scouts including Frank Grouard, Big Bat Pourier and Louis Richard. 

The column left Fort Fetterman on February 28th. Prior to dawn on the morning of March 3rd the column was awakened by the sound of a group of Indians running off with the entire beef herd. Then, on the evening of March 5th, Indians again attacked skirmishers while in camp on the Powder River near old Fort Reno.

March 14th found the column on the Tongue River. No Indian village had been sited and there was dissention among the scouts as to where any village might be located. Frank Grouard insisted they were on the Powder River to the east and indeed found a village encamped near the present town of Moorhead, MT. Having followed Grouard's scout to Otter Creek on the 15th, Crook gave General Reynolds command of the striking force of 15 officers and 359 men. General Reynolds struck the village of about 105 lodges on the morning of March 17th. Although completely surprising the sleeping Indians and taking control of their village, he wound up in a defensive battle and later evacuated the village after destroying it and its contents. Also, although having captured almost half the village's horse herd, most were recaptured by the Indians through neglect by the command and approximately half of those retained were shot to provide for short rations.

Reynolds reunited with Crook at Clear Creek and the reunited column then began its return to Fort Fetterman. Bickering among the officer staff and recriminations against General Reynolds for his handling of the attack soon turned General Crook against him, and upon arrival back at Fort Fetterman on March 26th, General Crook initiated Court-martial proceedings against General Reynolds.

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Gibbon Down* the Yellowstone

Meanwhile, Col. John Gibbon was organizing his expedition at Fort Ellis. His command consisted of four companies of the 2nd Cavalry and six companies of the 7th Infantry, a total of 27 officers and 409 men. Chief of Scouts was Lt. James Bradley. The compliment of scouts and interpreters included 25 crows and whites such as Barney Bravo, Thomas LaForge, H. 'Muggins' Taylor, Michael 'Mitch' Boyer and George B. Herendeen.

The Gibbon command left Fort Ellis beginning April 1st. Leaving one company of Infantry to guard Camp Supply, near Crow Agency, the column headed eastward along the north bank of the Yellowstone River on April 13th and camped opposite the mouth of the Big Horn River on April 20th, near the now deserted Fort Pease. The column remained at this spot until May 9th. During this time a number of scouts were made of the surrounding country, even as far east as the mouth of the Rosebud and as far south as the future site of the battle of the Little Big Horn, but no sightings of Indian activity were reported by Gibbon even though the scouts lost approximately 35 head of horses to a Sioux raid.

The command left this camp on May 10th, again heading east. Continued scouts by Lt. Bradley in fact located an Indian village on the Tongue River on May 16th, but this news was never reported to General Terry by Gibbon. Further sightings of  Indians or Indian sign occurred on April 19th and between that date and the 27th. By this time Gibbon was camped opposite the mouth of the Rosebud. His dispatch of the 27th indicates "...No camps have been seen, but war parties of from twenty to fifty have been seen to the south of the river and a few on the north side". Why Gibbon failed to report what his scouts clearly reported may never be known. On June 5th, upon receiving dispatches from General Terry, he began moving his column east along the north bank of the Yellowstone in hopes of meeting up with General Terry who had taken the field almost a month earlier.

* The use of upstream and downstream can be confusing to anyone not familiar with reading maps. Upstream always refers to the headwaters of a stream while downstream always refers to its mouth. The only way a reader can know whether this implies north, south, east or west is by becoming familiar with the stream's direction of flow.

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Terry's March and Reno's Scout

General Terry and his column had left Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, on April 17th. His force consisted of twelve companies of the 7th Cavalry and three and one half companies of the 6th, 17th and 20th Infantry. Lt. Charles Varnum was Custer's Chief of Scouts, whose command comprised at least 39 Indian scouts and quartermaster employees and interpreters such as Charley Reynolds, Boston Custer, Fred Gerard and Isaih Dorman. In addition there was a large wagon train and a small pack train and beef herd. All this while the column neither located Indian sign nor found evidence of Indian villages nor activity.

The command reached the Little Missouri River on May 29th, then arrived at Beaver Creek on June 3rd. Veering south, then west, it reached the Powder River near Locate, MT on June 7th and arrived at the mouth of the Powder River (on the Yellowstone) on June 8th. He moved up the Yellowstone on June 9th where he met with Col. Gibbon on board the Far West steamer. Meanwhile Lt. Bradley (Gibbon's Chief of Scouts) had reported a large village of Indians moving from the Tongue River to the Rosebud. Upon meeting with Gibbon and hearing of this report, General Terry ordered Gibbon to return his command to their camp on the Rosebud. Custer's command would remain encamped near the juncture of the Powder River and the Yellowstone while establishing a base of supply at that point.

Terry formed a two-pronged plan. Major Marcus Reno, with half the 7th Cavalry would leave the Rosebud camp and perform a reconnaissance up the Powder River, then move over to the Tongue River, and  return to its confluence with the Yellowstone where it would again meet with the balance of the 7th. He was explicitly cautioned to stay away from the Rosebud in an effort to not alarm the village thought to be on that stream. 

Gibbon would then ascend the Rosebud while Custer would move up the Tongue River hopefully trapping the Indian encampment on the Rosebud between the two columns.

Reno left for his reconnaissance on June 11th. He ascended that stream until June 12th when he began moving west toward Mizpah Creek and Pumpkin Creek, at which he arrived on June 14th. Continuing west he arrived near the Tongue River on June 15th and began descending that stream toward its mouth until locating signs of an Indian encampment near present day Garaland, MT. It was at this time that Reno made a fateful decision. Ignoring his orders, he moved his command west toward the Rosebud, to where Indian sign indicated the old camp had relocated. On reaching the Rosebud, scouts located signs of additional old villages. Following the trail further upstream, Reno finally turned toward that stream's mouth on the 15th and reached the Yellowstone on June 18th. The next day Reno moved down the Yellowstone to connect with Terry at the mouth of the Tongue, and finally camped 8 miles short of his destination. His ignoring explicit orders angered both Terry and Custer, however Reno brought with him important news about the Indian village.

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Crook's Second Campaign and the Battle of the Rosebud

After arriving back at Fort Fetterman on March 26th, Crook set about reorganizing his command and preparing for a second campaign. General Reynolds was out and this time Crook would take personal command. This command now comprised ten companies of the 3rd Cavalry and five of the 2nd, in addition to 3 companies of the 9th Infantry and two of the 4th Infantry. The total came to 51 officers and 1000 men. In addition there was a pack train of 81 men and 250 mules, and a wagon train of 106 wagons and 116 men. Crook had terminated most of his civilian scouts except for Grouard, Pourier and Richard in hopes of enlisting a large number of Indian scouts. However, attempts to enlist Sioux as scouts were turned down and attempts to enlist Crow and Shoshone Indians hadn't yet been answered.

The column left Fort Fetterman on May 28th and reached the site of old Fort Reno on June 2nd. In need of a viable scouting contingent to help locate the enemy, Crook dispatched his three scouts to Crow Agency in hopes they could round up sufficient Indian scouts to assist his campaign. They agreed to meet near present day Sheridan, WY on Goose Creek. Enroute to Goose Creek Crook lost the trail and wound up on the trail of the original expedition near the juncture of Prairie Dog Creek and the Tongue River on June 7th. Two days later the camp was attacked by a small contingent of Sioux from the bluffs across the river. After driving away the Indians they remained in camp until the 11th when Crook decided to correct his mistake and locate Goose Creek which was only seven miles away. It was on Goose Creek on June 14th, that Frank Grouard and Louis Richard returned with a single Crow chief. Pourier was waiting further out with 175 more Crow scouts. No sooner had they been welcomed than 86 Shoshone under Tom Cosgrove also arrived at camp. Crook's need for Indian scouts was fulfilled.

Crook left camp at Goose Creek on the morning of June 16th, leaving the wagon train behind, and camped that night near the source of the South Fork of Rosebud Creek. The column began its march the following morning, June 17th at 6 a.m. scouts having previously been sent ahead. An hour later the scouts began signaling they had seen signs of the enemy and Crook halted his command. Soon, the scouts began returning in a hurry followed by more and more Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. Crook engaged them in the hills along the north bank of the stream while holding the bluffs to the south to keep this vantage point from the Indians.

Crook engaged almost his entire command in this fight before making the decision to send about half the command (Cavalry) downstream to attack what he believed was the Indian village. Those companies disengaging to make this attack were, in turn, attacked by the hostile Indians and suffered losses. Nevertheless, these companies, under Captain Anson Mills, broke away from the main contingent and began following the Rosebud toward the suspected village. Meanwhile, Crook, having decided that this disengagement left his remaining force too depleted, sent a countermand to Mills through his Adjutant ordering Mills to return. Mills, instead of turning around and following his back trail, exited the valley of the Rosebud to the west and found himself on the flanks of the enemy. The Sioux and Cheyenne, instead of engaging this new threat, broke off their action and moved north and west. The Battle of the Rosebud was over.

Most estimates indicate that nine soldiers were killed and twenty three wounded. Of the scouts, seven were wounded and one killed. Indian losses were unknown. Crook at first wanted to pursue the Indians but upon reflection decided against that plan as his rations were low, his ammunition close to depletion, and he had need to care for his wounded. Thus, on June 18th, Crook's column began its journey back to its camp on Goose Creek.  The Crows also left to return home and by the time the column reached Goose Creek most of the Shoshones had also departed. On June 21st the wagon train and two companies of Infantry left Goose Creek, returning to Fort Fetterman with the wounded and to round up supplies and ammunition. It would be a long period of time before Crook again took pursuit after the Indians.

If anything were to be accomplished against the Indians that year it would be up to General Terry's command.

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