Just a half hour before, Wooden Leg had been asleep beside the Little Bighorn, dreaming that “a great crowd of people were making lots of noise.” He awoke to discover that his dream was real. Women and children were screaming and running. An old man cried, “Soldiers are here! Young men, go out and fight them.”
He and his brother started to run for their lodge. They passed mothers looking frantically for their children, and children looking just as frantically for their mothers. By the time he reached his family’s tepee, his father had already brought in his favorite horse. As his father placed a blanket on the horse’s back and prepared a rawhide bridle, Wooden Leg put on his best cloth shirt and a new pair of moccasins.
His father told him to hurry, but Wooden Leg refused to be rushed. He took out his tiny mirror and painted a blue-black circle around his face, then painted the interior of the circle red and yellow. He combed his hair and tied it back with a piece of buckskin. Finally, he mounted his pony and, with his six-shooter and powder horn in place, began to ride south through the village. There was so much dust that he couldn’t see far enough ahead to know where he was going, so he simply followed the other warriors ahead of him until he came to an island of trees full of soldiers. “Not many bullets were being sent back at them,” he remembered, “but thousands of arrows.”
He joined a group of Lakota warriors who had worked their way to the south of the timber. “Suddenly,” he remembered, “the hidden soldiers came tearing out on horseback.” Fearing attack, Wooden Leg and all those near him turned their horses and tried to escape from the onrushing troopers. “But soon we discovered they were not following us,” Wooden Leg recalled. “They were running away from us.”
Every man for himself!” someone cried as Major Reno put the spurs to his horse and galloped out of the timber. Captain Thomas French couldn’t believe it. Just one minute before, Reno had assured him “he was going to fight.” And then, without so much as a bugle call to inform the battalion of what he was doing, he had fled, leaving those behind in wild confusion, many of them still looking for their horses, many of them not yet even aware that their commander had just bolted from the timber. French later claimed he considered stopping his commander with a bullet. “Although the idea flashed through my mind,” he wrote, “yet I did not dare to resort to murder—the latter I now believe would have been justifiable.”
French remembered being outraged by Reno’s behavior, but others saw the decision to flee from the woods as unavoidable. The Indians outnumbered them by more than five to one. The soldiers had already exhausted about half their ammunition. Where Custer and Benteen were at that moment was impossible to know. “Had Reno not made the move out of the river bottom when he did . . . ,” Private William Slaper insisted, “we could all have shared the fate of Custer and his men.”
But the most compelling reason to get out of the timber had to do with Reno himself. “When an enlisted man sees his commanding officer lose his head entirely . . . ,” Private Taylor wrote, “it would . . . demoralize anyone taught to breathe, almost, at the word of command.” Given the weakness of their leader and the strength of the enemy, the only sensible option was to get to higher ground on the other side of the river.
Even Captain French, despite his later claims, appears to have seen no other alternative at the time. Before the major’s unceremonious departure, Private Slaper remembered Reno turning to French and asking, “Well, Tom, what do you think of this?” According to Slaper, French responded, “I think we had better get out of here.”
It was not the fact that Reno chose to quit the timber that was unjustifiable; it was the way he did it. Instead of retreating in an organized fashion, Reno followed the example of the battalion’s spooked horses and ran.
Only belatedly did Lieutenant Varnum realize that the battalion had begun to retreat. “For God’s sake men . . . ,” he shouted. “There are enough of us here to whip the whole Sioux nation.” Varnum reluctantly mounted his horse and tried to join the exodus but was quickly shunted aside by the mass of galloping soldiers into a narrow, winding path through the brush. By the time he emerged from the woods, he was almost a quarter mile behind the leaders. The dust that was to make it impossible to see more than fifty feet ahead had not yet risen from the ground, and up ahead he could see “a heavy column” of troopers in the lead. Behind this group, the soldiers were scattered in twos and single file as they galloped through a gauntlet of warriors with Henry and Winchester repeaters laid across the pommels of their saddles, “pumping them into us.”
Varnum rode a Kentucky Thoroughbred, and even though both horse and rider had already covered a staggering number of miles over the last two days, Varnum was able to work his way to the front of the column. The original destination appeared to have been the first fording place, about two and a half miles up the Little Bighorn, but the large number of Indians pressing in on them from the right forced the column to the left.
They were in the midst of every officer’s worst nightmare: the wild disorder of a battalion left to fend for itself. These were no longer soldiers; these were the frightened members of a desperate mob. Since no attempt had been made to cover the soldiers’ retreat, the Indians were free to hunt the men as if they were buffalo: riddling them with bullets, pummeling them with stone hammers, and shooting them with arrows. One soldier was hit in the back of the head with an arrow and kept riding with the feathered stick attached to his skull until another arrow hit him in the shoulder, and he finally fell from his horse.
Making the slaughter all the more one-sided was the condition of the horses. The soldiers’ mounts were famished, exhausted, and burdened with equipment, while the Indians’ ponies were well watered, fresh, and, in many instances, barebacked. Pretty White Buffalo Woman compared the Indians’ ponies to birds that “flitted in and through and about the troopers’ broken lines.”
The soldiers tried to defend themselves with their six-shooters, holding them out at arm’s length and firing at the approaching Indians; but all a warrior had to do was slip over to the far side of his horse—no easy matter in the midst of a gallop—until the soldier had fired his last round and then he was free to attack. Wooden Leg and Little Bird found themselves on either side of a soldier. They were lashing him with their pony whips when the soldier pulled out his pistol and shot Little Bird in the thigh. Wooden Leg responded by whacking the trooper with the elk-horn handle of his whip, then grabbed the carbine strapped to the soldier’s back and yanked it free as the dazed and bloodied trooper tumbled to the ground.
By the time Varnum reached the head of the column, the troopers were being herded toward a makeshift fording place that was about to become a scene of even worse slaughter as the troopers floundered through the fast-flowing current and struggled up the river’s steep east bank. Now more than ever, an effort needed to be made to provide the retreating soldiers with some covering fire. In the building cloud of dust and black powder smoke, Varnum couldn’t see who was who at the ragged head of the column. “We can’t run away from Indians,” he pleaded. “We must get down and fight.”
Out of the roiling dusty murk came the voice of Major Reno. “I am in command,” he said.
Over on the right side of the panicked herd of soldiers was Captain French. He may or may not have endorsed the move out of the timber, but he was now so angered by how the retreat was being conducted that he decided to try to cover his company by himself. As his men veered left for the fording place, he remained on the right, doing his best to hold back the Indians. “And when all had gone for safety,” he melodramatically wrote, “was when I sought death—and tried to fight the battle alone—and did so for nearly a mile.”
It is tempting to dismiss French’s self-aggrandizing account of how he fought off hundreds of warriors so that his men might retreat to the river unmolested. Sufficient evidence exists from both sides of the battle, however, to credit French with being one of the few officers to actively resist the enemy during the battalion’s retreat.
French claimed to have killed or wounded at least eight warriors while covering his company’s withdrawal to the river and immodestly opined what the result might have been if he, not Reno, had been leading the charge in the first place. “If I were able to do all this singlehanded,” he wrote, “what might I not have done with the coveted opportunity?”
When the soldiers first entered the timber, Dr. Porter had been wearing a linen duster—a long billowing coat designed to keep the grime off a gentleman’s clothes. As the Indians’ fire increased, the scout Charley Reynolds pointed out that Porter’s fashionable smock was making him an inviting target. Not long after taking off the duster, Porter found himself stooped over a mortally wounded man. Then something strange happened: All the soldiers started to leave.
When mounted Indians burst out of the woods behind him with their guns blazing, Porter realized it was time for him, too, to be going. He dabbed the trooper’s wound with laudanum, threw on a bandage, and mounted his badly frightened horse. “For God’s sake, Doctor,” the soldier cried, “don’t leave me to be tortured by those fiends.” By then the bullets were “flying thick and fast,” and Porter was on his way out of the timber without his patient.
Private William Morris had also been tending to a fallen man when he, too, realized he was about to be left behind. “Go on, don’t mind me,” Private George Lorentz urged him; “you cannot do me any good.” Morris’s horse, the aptly named Stumbling Bear, was jumping wildly with fright. Unable to get his foot in the stirrup, Morris leapt desperately onto the saddle and was lying awkwardly on his stomach when Stumbling Bear took off through the woods. Morris emerged from the trees with a badly scratched face, but at least he was sitting upright by the time he started for the river.
On the flats beyond the timber was another prairie dog village. This network of holes and tunnels made the footing difficult for the troopers’ horses, particularly once a cloud of dust and smoke had settled over the ground. Soon after leaving the timber, George Herendeen’s horse tripped and fell. Herendeen was nearly run over by about twenty mounted warriors but somehow scrambled to his feet and ran the 150 yards back to the timber. At that moment, Charley Reynolds was mounting his horse. “Charley, don’t try to ride out,” Herendeen warned. “We can’t get away from this timber.”
Either the scout didn’t hear him or had decided he had no choice but to go with the others. At just about the same place Herendeen’s horse had gone down, Reynolds’s mount also fell. Reynolds was able to get off a few shots with his six-shooter but soon succumbed to the fire from the Lakota and Cheyenne.
By then the African American interpreter Isaiah Dorman’s horse had also fallen. Dorman was down on one knee, firing his sporting rifle at the approaching Indians, when his good friend Private Roman Rutten, whose runaway horse had already carried him into the Hunkpapa village and back, rode past. “Goodbye Rutten!” Dorman called out as the private roared by on his still panicked horse.
In the timber that afternoon, Lieutenant Donald McIntosh, the commander of G Company, couldn’t find his horse. So he took the mount of Private Samuel McCormick, who watched in despair as his superior officer, normally known for what Frederick Benteen called “that slow poking way,” galloped off with his horse.
McIntosh had been in such a rush that he hadn’t realized the horse was still attached by a hempen lariat to its picket pin. The fourteen-inch wrought-iron stake was quickly jerked out of the ground, but that did not prevent the pin from catching on clumps of sagebrush and grass as it bounced along the plain. This so troubled the horse that he refused to respond to McIntosh’s increasingly frantic attempts to steer away from the Indians on the right, and the leader of G Company was soon surrounded.
Private Rutten, who had just said his final good-bye to the downed interpreter Isaiah Dorman, now found himself caught up in the swirling mass of twenty to thirty warriors closing in on Lieutenant McIntosh. Luckily for Rutten, his horse was still traveling at a scorching clip. “The horse tore right across the circle of Indians of which McIntosh was the center,” Rutten later told an interviewer, “and on [I] went.”
By that point, Rutten had given up trying to control his horse. Fear of the Indians was what drove this animal, a fear Rutten enthusiastically endorsed. Best to let the horse do whatever he wanted. “Without any communication by bit or spur,” Rutten simply hung on as the horse veered suddenly away from the warriors and headed for the river. Up ahead was a tangle of downed trees. “These,” Rutten remembered, “were no obstacle to him.” Without so much as a pause, the horse leapt over the tree limbs and stumps and bounded toward the Little Bighorn.
There was a twelve- to fifteen-foot drop from the bank down to the river, and the slap of the horses’ bellies as they hit the water reminded the Oglala Brave Bear of “cannon going off.” But the way out on the eastern bank was even more difficult, a V-shaped cut that barely accommodated a single horse. As mounted soldiers leapt lemminglike into the river, the crossing quickly became jammed with a desperate mass of men and horses, all of them easy targets for the warriors gathered on either bank. “When I rode to the bank,” Brave Bear remembered, “the Indians were shooting the soldiers as they came up out of the water. I could see lots of blood in the water.”
Many of the warriors followed the troopers into the river. “Indians mobbed the soldiers floundering afoot and on horseback crossing the river . . . ,” Wooden Leg remembered. “With my captured rifle as a club I knocked two of them from their horses.” Foremost in the killing was Crazy Horse. “He pulled them off their horses when they tried to get across the river where the bank was steep,” Flying Hawk told an interpreter. “Kicking Bear was right beside him and killed many, too, in the water.”
Despite the steepness of the bank, Private Morris’s horse, Stumbling Bear, showed no hesitation when it came time to leap into the river. “I thought I was a goner,” Morris admitted, “but we came up smiling.” Even though soldiers all around him were fighting for their lives, Morris had the presence of mind to reload his pistol as Stumbling Bear surged across the fast-flowing river toward the eastern bank. Up ahead he could see Reno’s adjutant, Benny Hodgson, unhorsed and floating in the river. “The water was crimson around his legs and thighs,” Morris wrote.
Soon after entering the river, Hodgson had been shot through both legs and fallen from his horse. He’d been able to grab the stirrup of a passing soldier, who towed him most of the way across, but was now in need of assistance. Unfortunately, the way out of the river was blocked by two soldiers who had managed to wedge their horses together in the narrow cut, both of them refusing to back away and let the other one pass. “The bullets were flying like hailstones,” wrote Morris, who implored the two men up ahead to sort things out quickly. In the meantime, he held out his right stirrup for Hodgson, who grabbed it with both hands as Morris grabbed the wounded lieutenant by the collar.
Finally one of the soldiers ahead backed away from the cut. The first soldier through was almost immediately killed, but at least the way was now clear. Burdened by not just Morris but also Hodgson, Stumbling Bear struggled up the bank. On the horse’s third desperate lunge, something happened to Hodgson—he either was shot once again or simply passed out from blood loss, but in falling to the ground, he almost dislocated Morris’s shoulder while pulling the saddle back to Stumbling Bear’s rear haunches.
Morris had no choice but to dismount and refasten the saddle. Before him was a flat section of land that led to a two-hundred-foot-high hillside cut up into a confusing series of ridges and ravines. Morris started up the steep incline, his hands clinging to Stumbling Bear’s mane as the force of gravity threatened to slide him off the saddle. Some of the horses were too winded to make it the whole way, forcing the men to walk their mounts up the grassy slope, “little puffs of dust rising from the ground all around” as the warriors fired on them from both the valley below and the hilltops above.
Two-thirds of the way up the hill Morris came upon Privates William Meyer and Henry Gordon. “That was pretty hot down there,” Morris commented.
“You will get used to it, shavetail,” Gordon replied.
At that moment, the warriors above unleashed a vicious volley, instantly killing Gordon, who was shot through the windpipe, and Meyer, who was hit in the eye. Morris, it turned out, was the lucky one, suffering only a bullet wound to the left breast. Unable to remount his horse, he did what Lieutenant Hodgson had done in the river; he grabbed Stumbling Bear’s stirrup, and his trustworthy horse dragged him the rest of the way to the top of the bluff.
Once on the ridge, Morris saw that Captain Moylan, who had been at Reno’s side for much of the retreat, was still on the run as he and what remained of his company continued to dash to the east. By that time, Lieutenant Luther Hare had reached the top of the bluff. “If we’ve got to die,” Hare proclaimed, “let’s die here like men.” Hare was, in his own words, “a fighting son of a bitch from Texas,” and he shouted after Moylan’s company, “Don’t run off like a pack of whipped curs.”
The outburst appears to have finally startled Reno into acting like a commanding officer. “Captain Moylan,” Reno said. “Dismount those men.” Moylan was slow to obey, and Reno repeated the order. Reluctantly, Moylan, who was seen a few minutes later “blubbering like a whipped urchin, tears coursing down his cheeks,” told his men to dismount.
It was, according to Private Morris, “one of the bravest deeds of the day.” Hare, a mere second lieutenant and only two years out of West Point, had “saved the command from a stampede then and there.”
In the chaotic aftermath of Reno’s departure, Sergeant Henry Fehler, the A Company flag bearer, mounted his horse. Before Fehler could insert the butt end of the guidon’s staff into his boot top, the swallow-tailed silk flag slipped from his hand and fell to the ground. Rather than retrieve the guidon, he followed the others out of the timber.
Lieutenant DeRudio decided it was his duty to go back for the flag. He scooped up the guidon and laid the flagstaff against the pommel of his saddle. He was riding through the timber when the flag became entangled in the brush and once again fell to the ground. He’d just jumped down to retrieve it when his horse was hit by a Lakota bullet and galloped off in fright. Stranded at the edge of the timber, with an estimated three hundred Indians just fifty yards away, seemingly all of them shooting at him, DeRudio leapt into a nearby thicket.
Burrowing into the dense undergrowth, he came upon a buffalo wallow—a small round depression about twenty yards from the open flat. There were three others in it already: the interpreter Fred Gerard, the scout Billy Jackson (both of whom still had their horses with them), and thirty-year-old Private Thomas O’Neill from G Company. Jackson’s horse was a mare and Gerard’s was a stallion, and it wasn’t long before, Gerard recounted, “the horses began to act badly.”
Warriors were within only a few yards of them, and the whinnying of these two horses had to be stopped. Jackson stuffed a clump of dry grass into each of their mouths and tied their heads together. It would have to do for now.
And so, in this hollow in the woods, surrounded by the horrifying sounds of unseen Lakota warriors slaughtering their unseen comrades, DeRudio, an Italian aristocrat by pretension if not birth, lay alongside O’Neill, an Irishman from Dublin; Jackson, a quarter-blood Pikuni Blackfoot; and Gerard, an American of French Canadian descent with a son by a full-blooded Piegan woman. Together these four men and their two muffled, amorous horses waited to see what would happen next.
It took Private Henry Petring a long time to get out of the timber. Like many soldiers, he was dismayed to discover that his horse had been killed by the Indians. He mounted a second only to have that horse shot out from underneath him. By the time he mounted his third horse of the day, he was well behind the rest of his company.
When Petring finally left the timber, the dust and smoke made it so difficult to see that he temporarily lost his bearings, and it’s likely that he came to the river well below Reno’s crossing. His horse had just jumped into the water when Petring realized that four or five warriors were waiting for him on the other side. As one of the Indians took aim, he lifted up his carbine and fired. To his amazement, both the warrior and his cream-colored horse dropped to the ground.
Before the other warriors could start firing, Petring leapt off his horse into the waist-deep river and let the current push him several hundred yards downstream. After ducking under a stump that extended out from the river’s western bank, he took refuge in a stand of willows. “[I] thought my situation most desperate,” he remembered, “and wondered if, after all, the best thing I could do would . . . be to shoot myself.”
He was crouched in the shallows when out of the shadowy gloom he saw a sudden glint of reflected sunlight and then heard the sound of someone approaching through the undergrowth. The flash had come, he soon discovered, not from the barrel of a Lakota’s rifle, as he had at first feared, but from one of the buttons on Private Benjamin Johnson’s blue fatigue blouse.
Johnson informed Petring that he was right back where he’d started: the timber. But not to fear: They were not alone. Huddled in the trees, it turned out, were thirteen soldiers, including Private Samuel McCormick, whose horse had been taken by Lieutenant McIntosh, and the civilian scout George Herendeen, who had already emerged as the group’s leader. “[They] were a badly scared lot of fellows and they were already as good as whipped,” Herendeen remembered. “I told them I was an old frontiersman, understood Indians, and if they would do as I said, I would get them out of the scrape, which was no worse than scrapes I had been in before.”
Several of the soldiers still had their horses. Herendeen insisted that they let the animals go, but not before collecting all the ammunition from the saddlebags. Some of the soldiers wanted to make a run for it, but Herendeen persuaded them to stay put. They would wait, he insisted, until the time was right.
Thomas French made much of how he “sought death” that afternoon, but he was not the only one. The Arikara scout Young Hawk was with half a dozen Arikara and Crows in the brush on the east bank of the Little Bighorn, and they were surrounded. As fellow Natives—“Palini” to the Lakota—the Arikara were special targets, and they knew it. “I made up my mind I would die this day,” Young Hawk remembered.
In addition to Bloody Knife, two other Arikara, Little Brave and their leader Bobtail Bull, were killed that afternoon. Young Hawk’s friend Goose had just been injured in the hand. Young Hawk helped him off his horse and leaned him against a tree. He also helped the Crow scout Half Yellow Face with his wounded compatriot White Swan.
“Seized with rage,” Young Hawk stripped to the waist and prepared for the end. In anticipation of being killed and scalped, he unbraided his hair and tied it with eagle feathers. But first he must say good-bye to his horse. Wrapping his arms around the pony’s neck, he said, “I love you.”
On the other side of the brush was a group of Lakota warriors. Once he’d finished bidding his horse farewell, Young Hawk burst out of the timber, his pistol blazing, then took refuge behind a pile of driftwood, where he found his grandfather Forked Horn.
“It is no way to act,” Forked Horn admonished.
Miraculously, Young Hawk had not been injured. Instead of throwing away his life, he decided to take his grandfather’s advice. Like the soldiers and scouts on the other side of the Little Bighorn, he would wait.
By approximately 4:10 p.m., 80 or so survivors of Reno’s 130-man battalion had gotten out of the timber and made it to the top of the bluff, leaving in their wake dozens of dead, wounded, and missing men. Now that all resistance from the soldiers had ceased, Lakota women, old men, and children joined the warriors along the river and began killing the wounded soldiers and stripping and mutilating the dead. “The Indians were mad and it was hard to check them,” Black Elk remembered; “they were plumb crazy.” They had reason to be outraged. The troopers had attacked their village without provocation and killed six women, four children, and ten warriors.
Black Elk and his friends were riding their ponies near the river when they came upon what he described as a “kicking soldier.” “Boy,” a warrior commanded him, “get off and scalp him.” Black Elk obediently took out his knife and started to hack away at the soldier’s head. “Probably it hurt him,” he remembered, “because he began to grind his teeth. After I did this I took my pistol out and shot him in the forehead.”
One of the wounded was the African American interpreter Isaiah Dorman. Since he was married to a Hunkpapa woman at the Standing Rock Agency, he was well known to many of the Indians gathered there that day, one of whom was Moving Robe Woman. Still mourning the death of her ten-year-old brother, Deeds, she approached the wounded interpreter on her black horse, with her hair braided, her face painted red, and a six-shooter in her hand.
“Do not kill me,” Dorman said, “because I will be dead in a short while anyway.”
“If you did not want to be killed,” Moving Robe Woman said, “why did you not stay home where you belong and not come to attack us?”
She raised her pistol and pulled the trigger, but the cartridge did not fire. The second cartridge worked, however, and Moving Robe Woman killed Isaiah Dorman.
Dorman’s body was later found beside his coffee kettle and cup, both filled with his own blood. His penis had been cut off and stuffed in his mouth and his testicles staked to the ground with a picket pin.
Not far from Dorman lay Lieutenant McIntosh, who had taken a leading role in the desecration of the dead at the Lakota burial ground on the Tongue River. What apparently drew the attention of McIntosh’s enemies on the afternoon of June 25 was the lieutenant’s clearly discernible Iroquois ancestry. Given that he was last seen by Private Rutten surrounded by more than twenty warriors, it’s likely that his death was both slow and excruciatingly painful. Only a distinctive button given to him by his wife and later recognized by his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Gibson, made the identification of his remains possible.
Looking down on this horrifying scene from the hilltop to the east was the men’s commander, Major Marcus Reno. The Lakota had set fire to the grass and trees, and billows of smoke rose up from the valley. In the river, the pale bodies of the soldiers floated like dead fish. But as their moans and cries for help indicated, many of the soldiers scattered across the hillside and valley below were still very much alive. At one point a soldier suggested that Reno send a detail to rescue the wounded. Reno responded by saying that the soldier could rescue the wounded himself. “This had a discouraging effect on the men,” Sergeant White remembered.
Almost half his battalion was dead, wounded, or missing. McIntosh’s G Company had been particularly hard hit. Lieutenant Wallace, who when he wasn’t serving as the regiment’s engineering officer had been McIntosh’s second lieutenant, inherited a troop with only, as far as he could tell, three functional members.
Like the captain of a sinking ship, the commanding officer of a retreating cavalry battalion was expected to attend to the evacuation of his men. Instead of being the first to safety, the commander should be one of the last. But Reno had led all the way, and in just half an hour, forty of his men—three officers, thirty-two soldiers, two civilians, and three Indian scouts—had been or were about to be killed.
There was only one way Reno could justify his behavior that afternoon. Instead of having led the regiment in a retreat, he had led them in an attack. It was patently ridiculous, of course, but it was the story Reno stuck to for the rest of his life.
One of the dead included Dr. James Madison DeWolf, whose body lay within sight of the bluff. Dr. Henry Porter was the only surgeon left to attend to more than a dozen wounded men.
“Major,” Dr. Porter said, “the men were pretty demoralized.”
As if answering the unseen accusers in his head, Reno replied, “That was a charge, sir!”
About two hours before, Custer had ordered Frederick Benteen and his battalion to swing left from the Indian trail in search of a glimpse into the Little Bighorn Valley—a duty that the captain later described as “valley hunting ad infinitum.”
Benteen prided himself on his skills at poker, and like any good gambler, he’d come to rely on his premonitions about the future. While he was riding futilely through the hills, a voice told him: “Old man, that crowd ahead is going to strike a snag . . . so you’d better get back to that trail, and you will find work.”
About this time, Lieutenant Gibson, who was riding well ahead of the battalion, reported seeing the much-sought-after valley. As it later turned out, Gibson had glimpsed not the Little Bighorn but a southern tributary to Sun Dance Creek. In any event, the valley contained no Indians; time to quit this wild-goose chase and return to the main column.
With the order “Right Oblique,” Benteen led the battalion on a diagonal course back to the trail on Sun Dance Creek. They could see the dust of the slow-moving pack train to the right. Even though they had spent close to two hours searching for an illusive valley, they were still ahead of Captain McDougall and the mules when they rejoined the trail.
But Benteen was in no rush. After crossing the divide, Custer had berated him for leading the regiment at too fast a pace, and he wasn’t about to set any speed records now. “We continued our march very leisurely,” Lieutenant Godfrey recorded in his journal.
They came to a soggy mud hole, a morass that had a sufficient puddle of water sitting in it for the horses to drink. So they stopped and watered the horses, who’d been without a drink since the evening before.
Watering the horses was perfectly understandable, but what Benteen decided to do with his own horse—a horse with a reputation for being as sly and ornery as his owner—was anything but. “Old Dick” had a habit of running away when the bit was taken out of his mouth. “You could not hold him by the strap of the halter,” Benteen explained, “no one could, and away he would go.” Even though a horse is capable of drinking with the bit in its mouth and gunshots were just beginning to be heard to the northwest, Benteen tied his horse to an ironwood stump with a lariat and removed the bit. After drinking his fill, Dick pulled the lariat taut and looked to his master, “as if to say,” Benteen wrote, “‘Well, I didn’t much care to go off this time anyway.’”
It was a strange time to be playing mind games with a horse, and several of Benteen’s officers began to wonder why they were lingering at the morass. Firing could be heard in the distance. They should be moving on. Captain Thomas Weir of D Company, the troop Benteen had specifically requested, was getting particularly impatient. Like Adjutant Cooke, Weir had once been part of Benteen’s H Company. And like Cooke, he was now one of Custer’s good friends.
—BENTEEN’S SWING LEFT, June 25, 1876—
Weir was already on his horse at the head of the column. He pointed ahead and said, “They ought to be over there,” and without waiting for an order from Benteen, started down the trail with his troop.
By that time the pack train had caught up to them, and mules were bolting for the morass. Whether or not Weir had shamed him into it, Benteen immediately gave the order to advance.
Benteen had returned to the head of the column by the time they came upon Sergeant Kanipe, the messenger sent back by Custer after first glimpsing the village from the bluff. Since the orders were for McDougall and the pack train, Kanipe paused only briefly to speak to Benteen. “We’ve got them, boys!” he was overheard to say as he made his way toward the rear of the column. It was beginning to look as though they had already missed the action.
After another couple of miles, they came upon yet another messenger, Trumpeter John Martin, with a written order for Benteen himself. By this time the captain was, according to Martin, “riding quite a distance in front of the troops, with his orderly trumpeter, at a fast trot.” After leaving Custer’s battalion, Martin had been fired on briefly by some warriors before coming upon Boston Custer. The youngest of the Custer brothers had returned to the pack train for a fresh horse and was now on his way to rejoin the battalion.
“Where’s the general?” Boston asked Martin.
“Right behind the next ridge you’ll find him.”
By the time Martin reached the bluff with a view of the valley below, Reno’s battalion had engaged the Indians. “I did not have time to stop and watch the fight,” he remembered. A half hour or so later, Martin found Benteen and handed over the note telling him that it was a “Big Village” and to “Be Quick” and to “bring packs.” As Benteen noted in a subsequent letter to his wife, Cooke had apparently been so excited that he’d left out the k in packs when he repeated the word in the postscript.
“Where’s the General now?” Benteen asked.
Martin said that the Indians were running (Benteen claimed his exact word was “skedaddling”) and that he assumed Custer had already “charged through the village.”
The written order had told Benteen, in no uncertain terms, to proceed as fast as possible, but instead of forging ahead, he continued his conversation with Martin.
“What’s the matter with your horse?” Benteen asked.
“Just tired out, I guess.”
“Tired out? Look at his hip.”
Martin saw that, unknown to him, his horse had been hit by a bullet.
“You’re lucky it was the horse and not you,” Benteen said.
By this time, Captain Weir and Lieutenant Edgerly had joined them, and Benteen handed Weir the note. Benteen claimed to be perplexed by the order. “Well! If he wants me in a hurry,” he asked rhetorically, “how does he expect that I can bring the packs? If I am going to be of service to him I think I had better not wait for the packs.” Besides, Benteen reasoned, if the village was indeed “skedaddling,” as Martin claimed, ammunition was less of a priority than personnel. Best if they forget about the packs for now and push on to Custer.
As the column moved out at a fast trot, Martin found his place with his company. Although he’d made no mention of Major Reno’s battalion to Benteen (who’d seemed more interested in his horse), Martin began to regale the soldiers of H Company with an account of how the Indians had been “asleep in their tepees” and how “Reno had attacked the village and was killing Indians and squaws right and left.” Martin “seemed jubilant,” Lieutenant Edgerly remembered, “and I was afraid we would not get to the front till the fighting was over.”
As they approached the Little Bighorn, the trail diverged in two directions. “Here we have the two horns of a dilemma,” Benteen said. There was a disagreement as to which of the trails to take. Finally the appearance of three of the regiment’s Crow scouts—who ominously repeated the phrase “Ottoe [too many] Sioux, ottoe Sioux”—confirmed that they should climb the bluff to the right.
The first thing the soldiers saw in the valley below was the smoke. Lieutenant Godfrey assumed that given what the two messengers had said, Custer and his men “were burning the village.” But when Benteen saw what looked to be a dozen or so dismounted soldiers on the river bottom “being ridden down and shot by 800 to 900 Indian warriors,” he realized that something was terribly wrong.
Benteen was well ahead of the rest of the column by the time he first saw Major Reno in his red bandanna, riding toward him. The major was breathing heavily and holding his hand in the air. “For God’s sake, Benteen,” he said, “halt your command and help me. I’ve lost half my men.”
Benteen looked coolly toward Reno—an officer he’d never liked—and said, “Where is Custer?”