WITH LITTLE TO DO while General Crook waited for reinforcements, the officers and men of the Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition frequently left camp to go fishing. A week and a day after the fight at the Rosebud—it was Sunday, June 25—Captain Anson Mills and two soldiers rode up into the foothills near the camp in search of a stream. From a high point, Mills reported on his return, they had seen “a dense smoke” far off to the north and west across the plains. “All agreed,” Finerty wrote, “that it must be a prairie fire or something of the kind.”
What struck Bourke was not the smoke but the one hundred fish Mills and his companions brought back to camp. “Rapids and deep pools of icy cold water, shaded by a heavy growth of willow trees, give a home to multitudes of mountain trout,” Bourke recorded in his diary. The diarist was fascinated and enchanted by this bounty—day after day he recorded in his diary the number of trout caught by this officer or that. Lieutenant Henry Lemly caught twenty in one go, and Major Henry Noyes twice as many. Crook, always competitive when it came to hunting or fishing, went angling with the rest, hoping to achieve on his own what Mills and his men had done together. “General Crook has caught seventy in one day,” Bourke wrote, “and expresses his determination to make the number an even hundred.” Bourke variously identified the fish as mountain trout or “pan trout” and called them “very toothsome”; Lemly said they were “salmon or rainbow trout.” Over a period of weeks, Bourke estimated, Crook’s command caught an average of four hundred fish a day—perhaps fifteen or twenty thousand in all before the expedition resumed its hunt for Indians.1
But it wasn’t just fishing that occupied the general’s time. At the beginning of July, Bourke went with him on a four-day hunt into the Big Horn Mountains rising abruptly to the west of the camp, which they called Cloud Peak after the tallest mountain in the range. There the mountain sheep and the occasional black-tailed deer offered a welcome change from the meat of buffalo and elk, shot in numbers down on the plains. “Mountain sheep mutton is very juicy and tender,” Bourke wrote. He liked to roast steaks two at a time on a sharp stick, angled toward the fire with bacon slices between the pieces of meat. He called the sheep’s heart when boiled a “bonne-bouche.” Finerty was along on the hunt, and noted that “dozens of American eagles rose majestically from the rocks and soared proudly above us, screaming with all their might.” The tracks of game were everywhere; the trees and undergrowth “assumed a tropical richness.” He grew almost giddy describing the “ethereal beauty” of the lakes in the valleys looking “like pieces of the blue sky which had fallen from the heavens.” To his companion Anson Mills he said, “Bring along your Italy.” Mills was just as charmed. The next day the whole party marched back down out of the canyon to celebrate “the centennial fourth” with the rest of the command. “We had nothing but coffee wherewith to drink to the memory of George Washington,” Finerty wrote, “but we had a banquet on elk, deer and mountain sheep killed by Crook and his officers.”2
While his officers feasted Crook brooded. Waiting for him in camp that afternoon had been a telegram from General Sheridan, brought in from Fort Fetterman a day or two previous by Ben Arnold, who had already headed back south. Sheridan’s instructions were brief: “Hit them again and hit them hard.” It seems Finerty was watching nearby.
Crook smiled grimly when he read the telegram, and remarked, “I wish Sheridan would come out here himself and show us how to do it. It is rather difficult to surround three Indians with one soldier.”3
Crook had about twelve hundred men in his command. Did he think he had been fighting 3,600 Sioux at the Rosebud—more than twice the number estimated by Royall on the day of the fight? Was Crook making excuses? Bourke reassured himself no excuses were needed. On July 6 he wrote, “The absence of hostile demonstrations since our fight of June 17th speaks very plainly of the severe handling the Sioux received that day.”4 Sitting around camp unmolested, catching trout, feasting on elk and mountain sheep—all were proof they had whipped the Indians, in Bourke’s view. This pleasant dream continued another four days.
The cable from Sheridan had been delivered with other mail and official dispatches to Crook’s camp by Ben Arnold, one of several couriers who made the trip between Fort Fetterman and Goose Creek every week or so. Arnold had come west to the Fort Laramie area with a unit of Ohio cavalry during the Civil War, then remained as a freighter and scout. It was his friend Nick Janis who had urged him to sign on with the expedition at Fort Laramie—as a courier, Arnold insisted to Captain Randall, not as a scout. “I didn’t want to fight,” he told his stepdaughter. Early in July, Arnold found himself back at Fort Fetterman worn out by the hell-for-leather, three-day ride and so sick with a bug that “I couldn’t even keep water on my stomach.”5
While Arnold languished in bed at the fort, too ill to work or travel, Major Alexander Chambers of the 4th Infantry oversaw the packing of supplies for General Crook, then set out early on the morning of July 4 with a wagon train and six companies of infantry, bound for Goose Creek. Arnold, still weak, elected to stay behind. Leaving the fort with Chambers were two officers of the 14th Infantry, Lieutenant Frederic S. Calhoun, who had joined the regiment a year earlier, and Captain Thomas F. Tobey, accompanied by his dog, Walloper, a heavy-shouldered scrapper who sometimes walked, sometimes rode in the feed box of one of the wagons. Tobey in his mid-thirties was the man of greater accomplishment. He had graduated from Brown University in 1859 and Harvard Law in 1861, then fought all the way through the war, including the Battle of Fredericksburg, where he was wounded, and the Siege of Vicksburg. Malaria forced his resignation from the Army in 1864 as a major; need of a job brought him back a year later as a second lieutenant.
Calhoun had served in 1864 only as a “one hundred day volunteer” before mustering out and returning home to Cincinnati, where his father, a distant relation of the president of the Confederacy, was a prosperous merchant. Peace did not favor Calhoun, and he hoped to follow his brother James into the cavalry. In the summer of 1873 he rode along with his brother’s regiment guarding the survey crew laying out a route for the Northern Pacific Railway up the valley of the Yellowstone River. The following spring officers in his brother’s regiment signed a joint letter to the secretary of war, the Honorable William H. Belknap, urging Calhoun’s commission as a second lieutenant. Fourteen names followed, including those of Calhoun’s brother James, Lieutenant Donald McIntosh, Captain Myles Moylan, Captain George W. Yates, and Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer. It wasn’t just a brother that Fred hoped to join, but the family of the 7th Cavalry; James had married Custer’s sister, Margaret. An examining board quizzed Calhoun on simple arithmetic, U.S. history, and other subjects and declared him satisfactory, but the Army evidently felt there were enough Custer relatives in the 7th and appointed Fred to the 14th Infantry in the Department of the Platte, a sore disappointment to the new lieutenant.6 He was still in his twenties, a trifle blank before the camera but fresh-faced with a dimpled chin and a fringe of blond mustache. Heading north in the first week of July 1876, Calhoun and Tobey rode, messed, and slept together as the wagons creaked and bumped along the old Bozeman Road, abandoned eight years earlier.
Late on the night of July 6, two days after the wagon train had pulled out, the telegrapher at Fort Fetterman received a cable addressed to Crook from Sheridan reporting the bare outlines of a military disaster on the Little Bighorn River in the Montana Territory—General Custer dead with hundreds of officers and men. The telegrapher found Ben Arnold’s bed about midnight, roused him from sleep with the news, and handed him the dispatches from Sheridan. “I got right up,” Arnold later told Josephine Waggoner, “mounted my horse and within half an hour after I was awakened … I was on my way with the message to General Crook.” Riding with Arnold was the mixed-blood Louis Richard, freshly arrived from the Red Cloud Agency. On the trail the two men averaged fifty miles or more a day. Midday on Saturday, near old Fort Reno, Arnold and Richard overtook Colonel Chambers and the wagon train of supplies headed for Goose Creek. In a moment news of the disaster on the Little Bighorn was conveyed. Lieutenant Tobey recorded the moment in his diary:
On the road Louis Richard, with some half-breed scouts from Laramie, overtook us and gave us the news of poor Custer’s affair. Calhoun, of course, is very much distressed. I have not been specially anxious, hitherto, to be personally engaged in a fight with the Sioux but I do want a chance at them now. The tone of the men seems good. I think this news makes them eager for a fight.7
Arnold and Richard did not linger, but hurried on and rode into Crook’s camp on Goose Creek with their grim news as daylight was breaking on Monday morning, July 10. The air was dark with the smoke of a prairie fire set by the Indians during the night. Smoke towered high into the darkened sky and fine ash settled everywhere, making it difficult to breathe. The general himself was off in the mountains hunting but was expected back at any time.
Custer’s fate was of course the sensation of the day but Bourke, worried how the Rosebud fight would reflect on Crook’s reputation, turned his attention first to the dispatch from Major William Jordan, in command at Camp Robinson, where Indians coming in from the north reported that the Rosebud fight had been “hotly contested.” That irritated Bourke. But he was pleased to read that the Indian camps were loud with mourning, a sign (he hoped) that many had been killed. Louis Richard said that “all the young bucks” had gone north from Red Cloud; only half of the families carried on the agency books had showed up on issue day. For Bourke, that explained the Indian hordes confronted by Crook on the Rosebud. The lieutenant was beside himself with indignation at the excuses civilian agents made for their red wards. “The damnable frauds perpetrated at that sink of iniquity daily call to Heaven for redress,” he wrote. Only after a full venting of these angers did Bourke shift his attention to Sheridan’s report of “the terrible disaster lately befallen Custer’s command.”8
What Sheridan knew came from early press reports and the hurried dispatches from General Alfred Terry’s command. Plans for the campaign had called for three independent forces to converge on the hostiles in the Powder and Tongue river country—Terry’s command including Custer’s 7th Cavalry approaching from the east, Colonel John Gibbon with seven companies of infantry from the west, and General Crook with his twelve hundred men from the south. Crook, of course, was out of the game. After the fight on June 17, he had pulled his men back to Goose Creek and gone to ground. On the morning of June 25—the day Anson Mills, out fishing, had wondered about the smoke of distant fires off to the north—Custer and his men had come upon a huge Indian village and attacked it. All we know of what Sheridan told Crook about this fight is what Bourke recorded in his diary. Custer split his command, Bourke wrote, taking five companies to attack the north end of the camp while Major Marcus A. Reno attacked the other end. What happened next was sketched in briskly:
Terry and Gibbon, pressing forward upon hearing the noise of battle, found Reno with his command entrenched on a hill near the village which was in flames. Swarms of Indians surrounded the devoted remainder of the Seventh, but were kept back until the arrival of our reinforcements, when they took to flight. Terry, moving forward, found the ground covered with dead ponies, saddles, burnt and burning lodges and charred corpses. He soon discovered the bodies of Custer and eleven of his officers and more than three hundred dead soldiers, but no wounded. In one pile, two hundred and seventy-one of our dead were found and buried in one grave. Terry, after burying the dead and destroying the remains of the village, fell back to the mouth of the Big Horn to refit.9
The numbers by themselves suggest the magnitude of the event. Even during the incomparably bloody Civil War no substantial force on either side had ever been wiped out to the last man. “The shock was so great,” Bourke summed up later, “that men and officers could hardly speak when the tale slowly circulated from lip to lip.”10 Every man had learned the worst by the time Crook reached camp late in the day. His good humor was swept away by news of the disaster. The glow of the successful hunt—fourteen elk, three or four thousand pounds of meat—faded as Crook realized what Crazy Horse had done. Reports from Terry soon arrived with further details of the Custer fight. All made one thing overridingly clear, as Bourke wrote in his diary: “Custer, moving up the Rosebud, had struck the same village fought by us on the 17th.”11 What did that do to Crook’s claim he had whipped the Indians who killed Custer only a week later?
All eyes were on Lieutenant Calhoun when the wagon train of supplies rolled into the camp on Goose Creek on July 13; his brother James was one of the officers of the 7th whose bodies were found naked and mutilated at the Little Bighorn. There was already heated talk of Reno’s failure to come to Custer’s aid in mid-battle. Ride to the sound of the guns was a soldier’s first commandment. Reno’s men all heard the firing down the river. It grew heavy, then died away. Reno made a tentative move, then pulled back to his hilltop. About Reno even the word cowardice was being used. What, then, was the word for Crook, who had hastened away from the inconclusive affair at the Rosebud for hunting and fishing on Goose Creek?
For weeks thereafter Crook did not budge. The additional companies of infantry brought in by Lieutenant Calhoun and the others were not enough, nor were the two-hundred-some Shoshone scouts who soon arrived with Chief Washakie. Sheridan was anxious for Crook to stir himself and strike a blow against the hostiles; he reassured Crook that he would soon be reinforced by a column of the 5th Cavalry under Colonel Wesley Merritt, but Crook took that to mean he was to stay put till Merritt arrived. While he waited he brooded, and what he brooded about was the infamous betrayal of the correspondent for the New York Herald, Reuben Davenport. It was Davenport’s dispatch that Ben Arnold had arranged to send out a few hours previous to Crook’s own. It beat the competition by a day, appearing in the Herald on July 6. Copies soon reached Crook in the field. Davenport’s account of the fighting that nearly swallowed up Royall’s men looked nothing like a victory. Crook’s conduct of the battle appeared confused; he sent Royall out, then ordered him back, but never marched to the colonel’s aid himself. Captains Andrew Burt and Thomas Burrowes were given the job of relieving the Indian pressure so Royall could retreat, but it was a drawn-out affair. Davenport himself reached safety only with the help of covering fire from Burrowes’s men. He described a misshapen battle. Royall’s men did all the fighting and suffered all the casualties. The rest did a lot of riding about but achieved nothing. “Colonel Royall was circumscribed by orders in every one of his movements,” Davenport wrote, “and the disaster attending the retreat would have been much greater had it not been so skillfully directed by him.”
The Herald’s man did not criticize Crook openly, and he closed with the remark that “the northern Sioux … have been severely crippled.” But Davenport was describing no victory. The Crow and Shoshones departed the day after the fight for home, and Crook, “dreading to march forward through so rough a country after the desertion of his scouts,” turned back toward Goose Creek. Dread is not a soldierly quality. Crook did not hide his fury; we may imagine his resentment at hearing his decisions explained by dread. Nothing was said to Davenport, but nothing needed to be said. All knew what the Herald had printed. “Mr. Davenport,” Bourke noted, “has been prowling about the camp like a whipped cur.”12
At Goose Creek, hostile Indians were now pressing close almost daily, trying to steal horses, shooting into camp, firing the grass. There was nothing Crook could do about it. To send men chasing out after the Indians would only put them at risk. Some weeks earlier he had told Ben Arnold it would be folly to chase Indians about the countryside—“We are foreigners, you might say, and this is their country. They know every nook and corner.”13 As weeks passed, Crook felt the growing impatience of Sheridan, who was himself vigorously urged to take action by General Sherman. Crook’s state of mind—excitable, confused, frightened of failure—emerges in a rambling dispatch from the field to Sheridan on July 23.
I find myself immeasureably embarrassed by the delay of Merritt’s column, as the extremely hot weather of the last few days has so completely parched the grass, excepting that on the mountain tops, that it burns like tinder … On Powder, Tongue and Rosebud rivers, the whole country is on fire and filled with smoke. I am in constant dread of an attack; in their last, they set fire to the grass, but as much of it was still green, we extinguished it without difficulty; but should it be fired now, I don’t see how we could stay in the country. I am at a loss what to do: I can prevent their attack by assuming the aggressive, but … I could do little beyond scattering them.14
So Davenport was not wrong; Crook’s decisions were driven by dread. Bitterly he complained to Sheridan about the “most villainous falsehoods” published by Davenport in the Herald. “A correct account” of the battle had been sent to the New York Tribune, Crook insisted, but evidently “it was suppressed in the telegraph office at Fetterman.” Crook felt the turning of opinion against him. He did not mention but surely knew that at Goose Creek the enlisted men had begun to call him “Rosebud George.”15 It was not a term of affection.
But the waiting, if not the brooding, ended at last with the arrival of Colonel Merritt and the 5th Cavalry in early August. Sheridan was expecting Crook to join General Terry on the Yellowstone, then strike the Indians “a hard blow” if they could find them. Crook’s fighting spirit stirred. He determined to travel light, hoping “to make his column as mobile, if possible, as a column of Indians,” Bourke wrote in his diary. Once again, on August 5, excess baggage was moved to the wagons and left behind. “It was ten weeks before we saw those wagons again,” remembered Captain Charles King, who had arrived with Merritt.16 A train of 360 pack mules would carry fifteen days’ rations, most of the ammunition (250 rounds per man), whatever else did not fit in saddlebags or rucksacks. Nothing was permitted beyond weapons, blanket, personal tin cup, frying pan, and spoon; half of a shelter tent, an overcoat, and the clothes on a man’s back. Crook did not except himself. Some weeks later, the general was found one morning sitting naked on a riverbank, waiting for the underclothes he had just washed to dry.17
On the march north to meet Terry on the Yellowstone, Crook and his staff passed through the Rosebud valley. A huge Indian village had camped there following the fight six weeks earlier. Bourke noted there was “no grazing for our horses.” The valley had been “picked clean as a bone” by the vast numbers of Indian ponies, “not less than ten thousand,” in the view of Frank Grouard. Scouts rode up the canyon where Crook had sent Mills to attack the illusory Indian village. “A trap had been set,” the scouts reported back. “Across the canyon at its narrowest, deepest and most precipitous part, they had constructed an abattis of fallen timber, to prevent our escape to the north.” If Mills had not turned back, Bourke wrote, Crazy Horse and his hostiles would have “slaughtered our battalion to the last man.”18 It was an ever-plainer fact that the Indians who wiped out Custer had almost done the same to Crook.
Many survivors of the Custer fight were with General Terry when Crook’s command joined them at the mouth of the Powder River on the Yellowstone in mid-August. For ten days among the officers talk was the principal business of the day. Not far beneath the usual joking and fooling ran a deep current of apprehension about the Sioux. Bourke in his soldierly way tried to brush this aside. Of Major Reno’s performance at the Little Bighorn he wrote, “He saw enough at that fight to scare him for the rest of his life. He will never make a bold move for ten years to come.”19Bourke read the man correctly; Reno had indeed been chastened—but why not? He had left sixty-five of his men dead on the field.
One night around the fire two officers of the 7th—Captains Thomas Weir and Thomas McDougal—described to some of Crook’s men the moment on June 27 when they had ridden out from Reno’s hilltop to look for Custer’s command. For two or three miles there was nothing. Then the bodies began. “The first thought that seemed to strike every man of us,” said McDougal, “and the first words spoken were, ‘How white they look!’ ” 20 The thought must have struck all of Crook’s men: stripped to the buff, they would have looked the same.
Before Crook separated from Terry on the Yellowstone in the last week of August he gained one officer and lost a few. The man he gained was a lieutenant in the 2nd Cavalry, William Philo Clark, unmarried and not quite thirty, who had freshly arrived from Fort Ellis on the upper Yellowstone in command of a mackinaw, one of the large, shallow-draft, freight-carrying open boats that were steered by rudder and carried downriver by the current alone. At the mouth of the Powder, Lieutenant Clark had unloaded recruits and a Gatling gun for General Terry, who then seconded Clark to Crook as an aide-de-camp—exactly why is unknown. Clark, from the small town of Deer River in upstate New York, had served mainly on the western frontier since graduating from West Point in 1868. Bourke and another of Crook’s officers, Colonel Thaddeus Stanton, first met Clark in a crowded sutler’s tent where officers and men alike were buying “canned fruits and fresh vegetables, eggs and beer at fabulous prices.” Clark, dressed in a “suit of Indian-tanned buckskin” and carrying a hunting knife that weighed as much as a hatchet, invited Crook’s men for lunch in his tent, where he served them bacon, bread, canned peaches, and whiskey. Bourke believed they would have called it “rot-gut” or “hellfire” if not for the bottle’s handsome label. They found Clark a man of broad curiosity and considerable charm; Captain King said Clark was soon recognized as “unquestionably the show-figure” of Crook’s staff.21
At the same time, a number of Crook’s officers and men were placed on the steamboat Carroll and sent down the Yellowstone headed for Omaha, disabled by wounds at the Rosebud or broken down by the campaign. One lieutenant had accidentally shot off a finger with his pistol. Another had broken his arm. Two men were “insane,” and about twenty were ill or recovering from injuries. In command of the invalids was Captain Thomas Burrowes, one of those uncelebrated frontier military officers who passes in and out of the history of the Sioux wars. At the Rosebud, Burrowes had ridden to the aid of Colonel Royall, plunging into the thickest part of the fight. He survived the battle without injury, but old wounds from the Civil War made it impossible for him to go on. In the Battle of Jonesboro, Georgia, on September 1, 1864, Burrowes had been shot twice. One musket ball shattered his right arm and a second punctured his chest and lung near the heart. For weeks he was expected to die, then to lose his right arm, but he recovered and returned to service. But over time scarring in the chest cavity resulted in an enlarged heart, which impeded blood flow. Increasingly, Burrowes was quickly exhausted by even mild exertion. On the Yellowstone, following two months of hard travel and fighting, Burrowes was diagnosed with hypertrophy of the heart, and a military surgeon ordered him to retire from the campaign. He left Crook’s command on the Carroll a physically broken man.22
In the last week of August, Crook felt ready to resume the war. His wounded were off his hands, his men had replenished their rations, and his scouts, Frank Grouard and Baptiste Pourier, had returned from a reconnaissance to report that the hostile camp, still largely intact, was moving east and south. The two generals in their discussions had devised a simple plan. Terry would remain on the Yellowstone and prevent the Indians from crossing and escaping to the north; “Crook was to stick to the trail and follow it wheresoever it might lead him.”23 Bourke felt Crook was the man for the job. He had observed the two generals daily since August 10, and noted in his diary,
Of the two men, Terry would be the more pleasing companion, Crook the stauncher friend. In Terry’s face I sometimes thought I detected faint traces of indecision, vacillation and weakness; but in Crook’s countenance there is not the slightest trace of anything but stubbornness, stolidity, rugged resolution and bull-dog tenacity.24
A week of sometimes violent rain and thunderstorms had turned the country muddy. “Morning cold and foggy,” Bourke noted as Crook’s command moved out on August 26, determined to overtake the hostiles and strike a hard blow. Over the next ten days the rain was nearly continuous; between downpours it was cloudy and cold. For awhile the scouts said the trail of the Indians was growing fresher, but by September 5 it was clear the big camp had broken up at last and Crook’s men were chasing a phantom. Paused on the Heart River and down to half rations, Crook explained his thinking to the correspondent John Finerty, who listened in disbelief. More or less straight east was Fort Abraham Lincoln, about 160 miles distant—five days of riding, by Crook’s calculation. Seven days’ riding and two hundred miles south was Deadwood and the Black Hills, swarming with miners who talked a brave game but knew nothing of fighting Indians. Common sense pointed east; Crook was determined to go south. “It must be done,” he said. “The miners must be protected, and we must punish the Sioux on our way to the south, or leave this campaign entirely unfinished.”
In tranquility twenty years later Finerty wrote:
I looked at him in some amazement, and could not help saying, “You will march 200 miles in the wilderness, with used-up horses and tired infantry on two and one-half days’ half rations!”
“I know it looks hard,” was the reply, “but we’ve got to do it, and it shall be done … All will be glad of the movement after the march has been made. If necessary,” he added, “we can eat our horses.”25