Modern history

CHAPTER 9

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Into the Valley

Spirits were high as the regiment prepared to mount up. A soldier in C Company claimed that it would all be over “as soon as we catch Sitting Bull.” Another laughingly responded that Custer would then “take us with him to the Centennial.” “And we will take Sitting Bull with us!” added another.

There was one company, however, that found little pleasure in the impending attack. Captain Thomas McDougall, the son of a general, had fallen asleep prior to officer’s call and had been the last to report to Adjutant Cooke. As a consequence, McDougall’s B Company was to guard Lieutenant Mathey’s slow-moving pack train and had virtually no chance of sharing in whatever glory lay ahead. McDougall could at least take consolation in knowing that his good friend Frederick Benteen was at the head of the column.

The newspaper reporter Mark Kellogg rode his mule over to the interpreter Fred Gerard and the Arikara scouts, who were preparing for battle by covering themselves with a paste of saliva and dirt from their home beside the Missouri River. Kellogg asked Gerard if he could borrow his spurs. Kellogg’s mule was beginning to tire and he wanted to keep up with the scouts, since he was “expecting interesting developments.” Gerard, who rode a big black stallion, handed over the spurs even as he advised the reporter to stay back with the command.

Before moving out, Custer decided it was time to change horses. After two trips up to the Crow’s Nest, Dandy was already lathered in sweat. Custer told his striker, John Burkman, to saddle Vic, a chestnut-colored Kentucky Thoroughbred with a blaze on the face and three white fetlocks. Burkman held Vic by the bridle as Custer prepared to mount. “Appears like I ought to be going along, General,” Burkman said hopefully. Custer leapt into the saddle and placed his hand on the soldier’s shoulder. For the last three nights Burkman had been on guard duty. “You’re tired out,” Custer said. “Your place is with McDougall and the pack-train. But if we should have to send for more ammunition you can come in on the home stretch.”

Custer rode off, and before his two staghounds, Bleucher and Tuck, were able to follow along as usual, Burkman had them by their collars. The two dogs barked and whimpered, but Burkman held fast until their master was safely out of sight.

Almost as soon as the regiment crossed the divide, Custer was finding fault with Frederick Benteen. The captain, Custer complained, was “setting the pace too fast.” Custer took over the advance and after marching just a few miles, abruptly ordered the command to halt. As Benteen looked on from the head of the column, Custer and his adjutant, William Cooke, moved off beyond earshot and, with paper and pencil in hand, began to talk—about “what,” Benteen later wrote, “we knew not.”

But he had his suspicions. Seven and a half years before, after the publication of Benteen’s letter about the abandonment of Major Elliott at the Battle of the Washita, Custer had banished him from the regiment’s headquarters at Fort Hays to the remote outpost of Fort Dodge, almost a hundred miles away. As it turned out, Benteen did not stay long at Fort Dodge. A fortuitous meeting with an old friend with connections at department headquarters soon brought his banishment to an end. He was riding back to Fort Hays across the plains of Kansas when he came upon a herd of buffalo. He’d just shot a cow and was in the process of cutting her throat when Lieutenant Cooke appeared on the crest of a nearby hill. When he saw Benteen bent over the dead buffalo with a knife in his hand, Cooke, the Custer loyalist, said, “At your old business, I see.”

“Yes,” Benteen replied, “I can’t keep out of blood.”

Now, after fifteen minutes of “talking and making notes on a scratch pad,” Cooke and Custer called for Benteen. Once again, he’d been banished. As Custer and the majority of the regiment continued to follow the wide Indian trail toward the Little Bighorn—about fifteen miles away and still hidden behind the hills ahead—Benteen was to lead a battalion of three companies toward a line of bluffs about two miles to the left. The supposed aim of the detour was to find a perch from which he could look into the Little Bighorn Valley and report what he saw. He was also to “pitch in” to any Indians he might come across. Not even a half hour after crossing the divide, Benteen was no longer in the advance.

The real purpose of this order, Benteen’s friends later claimed, was to remove him from the head of the column. But Custer may have had other reasons for sending his senior captain off to the left. For the last two days, Custer had been obsessed with preventing any Indians from escaping in that direction. The night before, as they marched toward the divide in the dust and darkness, he had instructed the Crow and Arikara scouts to “follow the left-hand trail, no matter how small it might be—he didn’t want any of the Sioux to escape him.” By sending Benteen off at a forty-five-degree angle to the left, Custer was continuing to make sure no Indians escaped that way.

The fact remained, however, that Custer was proposing to send approximately 20 percent of his attack force away from the apparent location of the village, a village that was, at least according to the scout Charley Reynolds, “the biggest bunch of Indians he’d ever seen.” And as any soldier knew, dividing your command in the face of a superior force was never a good idea.

Benteen was speaking with Custer and Cooke when Private Charles Windolph approached with a question about his horse. Windolph was waiting to speak to his captain when he overheard Benteen say to Custer, “Hadn’t we better keep the regiment together, General? If this is as big a camp as they say, we’ll need every man we have.”

“You have your orders” was Custer’s preemptory reply.

But Benteen wasn’t finished with his commander. He was being sent out alone into the middle of an unknown country with just three companies. If there were any Indians over there, he’d need all the soldiers he could get, and he wasn’t happy with the small size of one of the companies he’d been assigned. Instead, he wanted D Company, the strongest company in the regiment as far as the number of men. D Company was commanded by Captain Thomas Weir, who, like Adjutant Cooke, had once served under Benteen. When Benteen insisted that he needed Weir’s troop, Custer was overheard to reply, “Well damn it to hell, take D Company.”

Benteen had managed to make Custer, who’d long since vowed never to use profanity, swear for the second time in one day.

Custer next turned his attention to his second-in-command. Ever since their departure from the Far West, Major Marcus Reno had been left without a direct command responsibility. “I was not consulted about anything,” he later complained. Custer decided it was now time for him to lead a battalion of his own. Reno and three companies were to continue down the left bank of Sun Dance Creek as Custer and the remaining five companies of the regiment marched parallel to them on the right bank.

By 1 p.m., all three battalions were off, Benteen trotting glumly toward a seemingly irrelevant bluff to the left as Custer and Reno followed the dusty Indian trail down Sun Dance Creek. The convolutions of the creek, combined with the irregular nature of the Indian trail, meant that Custer and Reno were sometimes virtually side by side and sometimes farther apart, but always over the course of the next half hour or so they remained in proximity.

Custer was dressed in a wide gray hat and white buckskin suit, his distinctive red tie—a holdover from the Civil War—fluttering over his shoulder. Reno wore a blue cavalry uniform with yellow cords running down the sides of his legs. Instead of the standard-issue felt campaign hat, which could be folded up front and back to make an officer look like a backwoods Napoleon, he wore the straw hat he’d purchased from the sutler on the Yellowstone River. Inside his jacket pocket sloshed a flask of whiskey.

Given that Custer had demonstrated nothing but disdain for his subordinate since their confrontation on the Tongue River back on June 19, one wonders why he chose to keep Reno so close to him during the regiment’s final approach toward the Indian village. Perhaps he was taking one final measure of the man he had anonymously pilloried in his last dispatch to the New York Herald. All we know for sure is that Reno more than reciprocated his commander’s lack of respect. “I had known General Custer . . . for a long time,” he later recounted under oath, “and I had no confidence in his ability as a soldier.”

—INTO THE VALLEY, June 25, 1876

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On the afternoon of June 25, as their husbands galloped toward the valley of the Little Bighorn, the officers’ wives of the Seventh Cavalry gathered in the living room of the Custer residence at Fort Lincoln. They were all, Libbie remembered, “borne down with one common weight of anxiety.” It was a Sunday, and to distract themselves from their worries, they began to sing some of the old hymns they’d learned as children. But instead of soothing them, the songs only intensified their fears. “I remember the grief with which one fair young wife threw herself on the carpet,” Libbie wrote, “and pillowed her head in the lap of a tender friend.”

It was not the first time they had sought one another’s company in a time of desperation and dread. One spring morning two years ago, the keeper of the regiment’s mule herd had ridden up to the Custer house and announced that “the Indians were running off the herd.” In just minutes, Custer and almost all his officers and men were galloping furiously out of the garrison in pursuit of the Indians and the regiment’s mules. Only after their husbands had disappeared over the horizon did the wives come to realize that they’d been “almost deserted.” In the “mad haste of the morning,” just a single officer and a handful of soldiers had been left to defend the fort.

“We knew that only a portion of the Indians had produced the stampede,” Libbie wrote, “and we feared that the remainder were waiting to continue the depredations.” The wives gathered at the Custer residence, where they took turns scanning the surrounding hills from the roof of the house’s porch. Not until evening, after a “day of anxiety and terror,” did their husbands finally return.

Custer, Libbie knew, could be impulsive. He had little concern for the consequences of his actions because always, it seemed, things turned out just fine in the end. He loved his family dearly, but there was no one—not even his brothers Tom and Boston, his brother-in-law Jim Calhoun, his young nephew Autie Reed, and yes, not even Libbie—whom he loved as much as the chase. As General Sheridan had marveled in the weeks after Libbie and Custer’s marriage during the Civil War, “Custer, you are the only man whom matrimony has not spoiled for a charge.”

Except for the Crow scouts’ early-morning glimpse of a huge pony herd, no one had so far seen the supposedly vast Indian village along the Little Bighorn. What Custer needed, more than anything else as he marched toward the river, was solid information. But the closer he got to the Little Bighorn, the more he realized how deceptive the country was. What had looked from the divide like a smooth, rolling green valley was actually cut up into almost badland-like crevices and ravines. Just when he thought he was about to gain a glimpse of the river ahead, he discovered there was yet another bluff blocking his view.

He soon recognized that Benteen had no chance of viewing the Little Bighorn from the bluff to the left. So Custer sent a messenger telling him that if he couldn’t see down the valley from the first bluff, he should move on to the next. Not long after, Custer sent yet another messenger telling Benteen to continue to the next bluff after that.

As Custer pushed Benteen farther and farther to the left, he became increasingly anxious about what was happening ahead. As orderly, it was Private Martin’s job to ride just behind Custer, and he watched as scouts came in from the field and reported to the general. Custer “would listen to them,” Martin remembered, “and sometimes gallop away a short distance to look around.”

But Custer wanted to know more. Up ahead, a rapidly moving cloud of dust seemed to indicate that the intermediate village he’d seen from the divide was fleeing toward the Little Bighorn. Lieutenants Varnum and Luther Hare were in the advance with the Indian scouts, and Custer kept pestering them for information. Unfortunately, their view of the valley was no better than Custer’s, especially since the general was now moving so quickly that his scouts were finding it difficult to keep ahead of him. Custer, Hare later remembered, “seemed . . . very impatient.”

Custer still held out hope that there were a significant number of Indians left at the intermediate village. He picked up the pace and quickly left Reno’s battalion well behind. About this time, Benteen, far to the left, caught a glimpse of the most visible portion of Custer’s battalion, the Gray Horse Troop under the command of Custer’s good friend Lieutenant Algernon Smith, galloping down the valley. “I thought of course,” Benteen wrote, “they had struck something.”

What they had struck, it turned out, was a village that had been abandoned just minutes before. Fires still smoldered beneath the hot afternoon sun. A variety of cooking implements lay scattered on the ground. Only a single tepee, beautifully decorated with charcoal drawings, was left standing. The Arikara scout Young Hawk had already cut the lodge open with his knife, and inside, laid out in splendor on a scaffold, was the body of a Lakota warrior fatally wounded the week before at the Battle of the Rosebud. Custer, who had hoped so fervently to catch this little village by surprise, ordered the tepee burned.

Behind the site of the abandoned village was a bluff where Mitch Boyer and several of the Crows were taking turns peering at the valley through a telescope. As the scouts studied the valley, the interpreter Fred Gerard galloped to the top of a nearby knoll on his big black stallion.

Gerard was an interpreter with a chip on his shoulder. He was, at least to his own mind, a man of immense experience. He’d been in Indian country now for close to thirty years and was the only white man in the command who could claim to have met Sitting Bull. That winter, while Custer was in New York, Major Reno had dismissed Gerard for stealing from the government. On his return in the spring, Custer had promptly reinstated the interpreter, but Gerard still felt he had something to prove. Even though this campaign marked his first military experience on the plains, he’d taken it upon himself to advise both Custer and General Terry about what they could expect in the days ahead. Custer appears to have grown increasingly annoyed by the interpreter’s assumption that he was indispensable. Just a few hours before, when Gerard had insisted on joining officer’s call, Custer had stared icily at him and said, “Go where you belong, and stay there.”

Ever since leaving the divide, Gerard had chosen to accompany Custer instead of riding with the Arikara. This meant that the scouts were left without anyone to tell them what Lieutenant Varnum wanted them to do. In the ensuing confusion, they had abandoned Varnum and his orderly, who were well to the left of Sun Dance Creek, and ridden over to investigate what has come to be called the Lone Tepee, where they had enjoyed some of the meat and soup left for the dead warrior’s journey into the afterlife. When Gerard finally arrived at the Lone Tepee, the Arikara One Feather was fuming. “I scolded Gerard for not staying with us . . . to give us the orders,” he remembered.

But Gerard, whom the Arikara called “Fast Bull,” had decided he had more important things to do than interpret. Instead of stopping to speak with his charges, he rode his big black horse to the top of a knoll overlooking the Lone Tepee. There he saw what the Crow scouts had been observing for some time now: billowing clouds of dust rolling up the Little Bighorn Valley in the northerly breeze. Gerard turned his horse sideways and waving his hat in his hand shouted out to Custer, “Here are your Indians, running like devils!”

As his actions at the last officer’s call indicated, Custer knew better than to trust the grandstanding Gerard. In this instance, however, the interpreter had found a way to make his commander finally pay attention. Waving his hat as if he were Buffalo Bill Cody, Gerard had played directly to Custer’s worst fears. Not only had the relatively small village at the Lone Tepee disbanded; the much larger encampment on the Little Bighorn was, at least according to Gerard, also on the run.

Custer immediately began to rethink his strategy. If the village was rapidly disintegrating into fragments, its great size was no longer a concern. What mattered now was capturing as many of the fleeing Indians as possible. As it turned out, Benteen’s battalion to the left was well positioned to meet any Indians that might try to escape up the Little Bighorn to the southeast; Custer must now get himself and Reno down into the valley to the west and attack whatever Indians were left at the original encampment site, still hidden from view by an exasperating bluff. At the very least, they could drive the fleeing village down the valley toward the Montana Column to the north. According to the schedule outlined aboard the Far West, Terry and Gibbon should be arriving soon at the mouth of the Little Bighorn.

By now, Reno’s battalion, which had been left behind during Custer’s final sprint to the Lone Tepee, was just arriving on the left side of the creek. Custer motioned to his second-in-command with his hat. Reno crossed the creek to receive his orders, delivered to him by Adjutant Cooke. Half a dozen people later claimed to have heard Custer’s orders, and as a consequence there are half a dozen versions of what the adjutant said. This is the gist: “Mr. Gerard reports the Indians are two and a half miles ahead and running. Move forward at as fast a gait as you think prudent and charge as soon as you find them, and we will support you with the whole outfit.” Except for telling Reno to take the Indian scouts along with him, that was it.

The major turned to go with his three troops down the left bank of Sun Dance Creek. But there was a problem with the Arikara scouts. Instead of galloping ahead of Reno’s battalion, they remained clustered behind Custer and his staff. Custer turned to Gerard and told him to tell the scouts, “You have disobeyed me. Move to one side and let the soldiers pass you in the charge. If any man of you is not brave, I will take away his weapons and make a woman of him.” All of the Arikara knew what the real problem was. Gerard had been too busy pretending he was a member of Custer’s inner circle to explain to them what they were supposed to do. One of the scouts turned to the interpreter: “Tell him if he does the same to all his white soldiers, who are not so brave as we are, it will take him a long time indeed.” The scouts laughed and to assure the general of their bravery indicated in sign language that they were “hungry for battle.” Gerard later took credit for getting the Arikara back on track, but in actuality he was the cause of the problem in the first place.

Just prior to the departure of Reno’s battalion, Lieutenant Varnum arrived from scouting the left side of the creek. Still desperate for information, Custer asked him what he’d seen.

“I guess you could see about all I could see of the situation,” Varnum said.

“I don’t know,” Custer replied. “What did you see?”

“The whole valley in front is full of Indians.”

Custer knew that Varnum was exhausted. Over the course of the last twenty-four hours his scouting duties had required him to ride more than sixty miles, and he’d been without significant sleep for a day and a half. “Nothing but the excitement of going into action kept me in the saddle at all,” Varnum remembered. Custer told him that if he was up for it, he and Hare were both free to join the Arikara in the attack.

As Varnum prepared to gallop off, he turned to his good friend Lieutenant George Wallace. Wallace, the regiment’s topographical engineer, was in charge of keeping a record of the column’s daily movements and was riding next to Custer. The tall, skeletal Wallace, known as Nick to his friends, had been Varnum’s roommate at West Point; he’d also been the officer who three nights earlier had feared that Custer was doomed to die. “Come on, Nick, with the fighting men,” Varnum quipped. “Don’t stay back with the coffee coolers.”

Custer laughed and shook his fist at Varnum, then indicated to Wallace that he was free to go. As Varnum and now Wallace spurred their horses to catch up with Reno and the Arikara, Custer pulled off his hat and waved good-bye. “That was the last time either of us saw him alive,” Varnum later remembered.

Reno and his battalion were not alone as they thundered down the left bank of Sun Dance Creek toward the Little Bighorn. Galloping beside him were Custer’s adjutant, William Cooke, and the senior officer in Custer’s battalion, Captain Myles Keogh. Cooke rode a horse so pale it was almost completely white. Despite his falling-out with Frederick Benteen, he was known for his charismatic charm and winning manner. “[H]is very breath [was] nothing but kindness,” the Arikara scout Soldier claimed. As Reno approached the eastern bank of the Little Bighorn, Cooke called out to him in what Reno later remembered as “his laughing, smiling way”: “We are all going with the advance and Myles Keogh is coming, too.” But as Reno’s horse jumped into the cool, fast-flowing waters of the Little Bighorn and paused to drink, Reno lost track of Custer’s adjutant and never saw him again.

Lieutenant Charles DeRudio, the former European revolutionary and friend to Frederick Benteen, had a reputation as one of the poorest horsemen in the regiment’s officer corps; he was also unhappy with his current assignment. By all rights, he should have been the commander of the Gray Horse Troop, Company E. Instead, Custer (who had never returned DeRudio’s cherished field glasses) had given that plum position to Lieutenant Algernon Smith and placed DeRudio under the command of Captain Myles Moylan in A Company. Moylan had immediately made it clear he did not like the idiosyncratic officer, even refusing to share his meals with him.

A Company had been assigned to Reno’s battalion, and DeRudio was lagging well behind his troop when his horse, which always seemed slightly beyond his ability to control, plunged into the Little Bighorn. As it turned out, Major Reno was still in the middle of the river astride his horse. But the horse wasn’t the only one pausing for a drink. Reno was in the process of downing what appeared to be a considerable quantity of whiskey when the surge from DeRudio’s horse splashed the major with river water. “What are you trying to do?” Reno complained. “Drown me before I am killed?”

By the time Reno emerged from the river and made his way through the belt of brush and timber along the western bank, Fred Gerard was already on his way back. The Lakota up ahead were not behaving as he’d so melodramatically announced at the Lone Tepee. Instead of running away, they were “coming in large numbers to meet them.”

“Major,” Gerard said, “the Sioux are coming to give us battle.”

Earlier that year, Reno had unsuccessfully attempted to get Gerard fired. No matter how important the message might be, he refused to acknowledge the interpreter’s presence. He may also have begun to feel the effects of his recent slug of whiskey. He looked insensibly down the valley for a few seconds, then gave the order, “Forward, men!”

Having been so thoroughly rebuffed by Reno, Gerard felt he must inform Custer of this spectacular news himself. Once again, the Arikara scouts would have to do without the services of their interpreter.

Soon after recrossing the river, he came upon Adjutant Cooke on his way back to Custer’s battalion, which was concealed from view by a high grassy knoll.

“Well, Gerard,” Cooke said, “what is the matter now?”

“The Indians are coming to fight us, instead of running as we supposed.”

“All right,” Cooke responded, “you go back and I will report to General Custer.”

By the time Cooke returned with Gerard’s news, Custer had stopped at a small tributary to Sun Dance Creek to water the battalion’s horses. “Don’t let the horses drink too much,” Custer cautioned; “they have to travel a great deal today.” Soon a messenger from Reno arrived confirming the fact that instead of running, the Indians were coming up to meet Reno.

Custer was probably encouraged by the report that the Indians were advancing. In order to cover the retreat of the women, children, and old people, the village’s warriors typically engaged the enemy in a temporary rearguard action. Since it was just to provide their loved ones with enough time to escape, the warriors’ attack would not, in all probability, be especially fierce. However, if Reno could hold the Indians’ attention long enough, it might give Custer the opportunity to perform a clandestine end run.

On the east side of the tree-fringed river, the guide Mitch Boyer and the Crow scouts informed him, was a line of bluffs that rose several hundred feet above the valley. If he climbed up onto these bluffs and rode several miles downriver, he might be able to work his way around the village. As Reno attacked from the south, Custer would swoop down out of the hills, gallop across the river, and attack what was left of the dispersing village from the east.

But all this was simply conjecture. None of them had, as of yet, even seen the village, which still remained hidden behind the looming hills ahead—all the more reason to climb to the top of that bluff to the right and finally look down into the valley below.

Before continuing, Custer took off his buckskin jacket and tied it to the back of his saddle. One of Custer’s sergeants shouted out that there were Indians up there on the hill to the east. That decided it—they were not following Reno into the valley; they were swinging right.

At some point, Custer divided his battalion into two subsets: the Right Wing, composed of three companies under Captain Myles Keogh, and the two-company Left Wing, which included Lieutenant Algernon Smith’s distinctive Gray Horse Troop, commanded by Custer’s old friend Captain George Yates.

Yates, with thinning blond hair and a thick, carefully clipped mustache, shared Custer’s obsessive attention to cleanliness. Whereas Custer was known for frequently washing his hands and brushing his teeth, Yates ended each day by turning the pockets of his pants inside out and carefully scouring them with a brush. Yates was always so neat and precise that he looked, in the proverbial phrase of the day, “as if he’d just stepped out of a bandbox,” the cylindrical container of thin wood in which a gentleman’s hat and other crushable pieces of clothing were kept. Taking their cue from their meticulous leader, Yates’s F Company was known as the “Bandbox Troop.” About this time, Custer dispatched a squad of F Company soldiers as an advance guard. Whereas Benteen had been sent left, these troopers would swing far to the right in an effort to see whether anything of importance lay to the east of the bluffs.

As they mounted the hill, Custer and Tom paused to review the battalion. The companies had previously been marching in columns of two. In order to make the battalion less strung out during its potentially conspicuous dash along the bluffs, Custer ordered them to march in columns of four.

By the time they’d climbed out of the valley and onto the bluffs, the small group of Indians they’d seen had disappeared into the rolling green hills. They rode on until they were approaching the ridgeline and suddenly they saw it: the flat and seemingly endless expanse of the Little Bighorn Valley through which wandered the sparkling blue-green ribbon of the river. And there, two miles to the northwest, nestled into the wooded meanders of the Little Bighorn, was the largest Indian village any of them had ever seen: hundreds of gleaming white tepees beneath the soaring transparent canopy of the sky. Beyond the lodges to the west was a weirdly kaleidoscopic sight: a swirling sea of reddish brown that the soldiers only gradually realized was the village’s herd of fifteen thousand to twenty thousand ponies.

Gerard, it turned out, could not have been more wrong. Not only was the village not running; it was also not moving up to meet Reno, whose three companies were visible on the other side of the river about a mile to the west as they, too, rode north toward the village ahead.

Custer had done it. He had somehow managed to catch Sitting Bull’s village by complete surprise in the middle of the day. That in itself was an extraordinary achievement—a stroke of Custer luck that not even he could have dared hope for. By all rights, the valley below should be much like the site of the freshly abandoned village beside the Lone Tepee: a hoof-pocked plain of debris and still-smoking lodge fires, devoid of Indians. Instead, here was a village, a huge village, intact and complete, its inhabitants apparently oblivious to their presence.

The soldiers gave three cheers as they urged their tired horses north across the uneven hills. Some of the mounts, exhausted after a week of almost continual marching, began to lag behind; others, spurred on by their enthusiastic riders, began to edge past the regiment’s commander. “Boys, hold your horses,” Custer cautioned; “there are plenty of them down there for us all.”

Up ahead was a prominent hill that looked as if it might provide the best view yet of the valley below. Custer ordered the battalion to halt at its base as he and his staff climbed to the top. With the help of DeRudio’s field glasses, he studied the village. According to the Italian trumpeter John Martin, who was destined to be the only surviving witness to Custer’s first careful inspection of the valley, he could see women, children, and dogs lounging tranquilly around the lodges, but nowhere could he see any warriors. Where were they? Were they asleep in their tepees? Some of Custer’s officers speculated that they must be off hunting buffalo.

It was the Washita times ten, perhaps even times a hundred. As Reno galloped down the valley from the south, Custer would strike like a thunderbolt from the east and hundreds, if not thousands, of noncombatants would be theirs. When their husbands, fathers, and sons returned to the village, they’d have no choice but to surrender and follow the soldiers back to the reservation.

Given the village’s immense size, Custer’s first priority was to bring up the pack train as quickly as possible. If he hadn’t done so already, it was at this point that he sent back a messenger to McDougall, telling him to hurry up with the ammunition.

Custer pulled the binoculars from his eyes and turned toward the five companies waiting expectantly at the bottom of the hill. Beside him were his brother Tom and his adjutant, William Cooke, along with Martin, the trumpeter. If all went well, the Seventh was about to win its most stunning victory yet; and best of all, it looked like this battalion of Custer favorites was about to deliver the coup de grâce. Around 3:30 p.m. on June 25, Custer took off his wide gray hat and waved it exultantly in the clear blue air. “Hurrah, boys, we’ve got them!” he shouted. “We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”

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