Custer had performed a vanishing act. He’d last been seen by Reno’s men about a half hour before on the bluffs bordering the river. After pausing to wave his hat, he’d disappeared behind the hill and was gone.
When Trumpeter John Martin left Custer with his message for Benteen some five minutes later, at about 3:30 p.m., the battalion was within minutes of reaching the Little Bighorn. Reno had not yet fled the timber. Custer might have stormed across the river and into the village and provided Reno with the promised support. But something happened up there in the hills above the Little Bighorn.
The gap between Reno’s retreat and Custer’s eventual attack was long enough that Sitting Bull, who was watching the battle unfold from the west side of the river, mistakenly believed that Custer’s and Reno’s troopers were one and the same. Not until Reno had retreated across the river, Sitting Bull maintained, did the troopers begin their final thrust to the north. This meant that Custer, the officer of seemingly perpetual motion, had paused—possibly for as long as forty-five minutes—at the most crucial stage in the battle.
No one knows for sure what Custer was doing during this hiatus—unless, of course, you believe the three Crow scouts who claimed to have been there with him.
In the fall of 1907, the photographer and ethnographer Edward Curtis visited the Little Bighorn battlefield. Curtis was in the midst of creating The North American Indians, a twenty-volume compilation of text and photographs documenting the Native cultures of the United States and Canada. When it came to the Indians of the northern plains, there was no story more important than that of the Little Bighorn, and Curtis resolved to give the battle its due. By the time he visited the battlefield in 1907, he’d already spent the summer traveling to several Lakota reservations to conduct interviews. Once at the site of the battle, he secured the services of three of the Crow scouts who had accompanied Custer thirty-one years before: Goes Ahead, Hairy Moccasin, and White Man Runs Him, along with the interpreter Alexander Upshaw.
With White Man Runs Him (who’d been named for an uncle who was once chased by a white trader) setting the pace, they followed Custer’s path from the divide to the ridge beside the Little Bighorn. Once they’d reached a high hill, the Crows told of how Custer and his staff had dismounted at this natural viewing platform and stopped to watch Reno’s battle unfold in the valley below. While Custer and his officers lingered on the hill, the Crows continued north to a hill overlooking the village, where they fired off a few rounds before returning to Custer. By then, Reno’s battle was raging, and White Man Runs Him “scolded” Custer for not immediately descending to the valley floor and assisting the struggling battalion. “No, let them fight,” Custer replied; “there will be plenty of fighting left for us to do.” As Reno’s battalion retreated in chaos, Custer waited. Only after he knew he had the huge village all to himself did he descend from the bluffs.
Curtis found the story difficult to believe. To think that Custer had purposefully postponed his attack until he knew that Reno’s battalion had been defeated was, to paraphrase an officer Curtis later consulted about the Crows’ account, “too terrible to contemplate.” But after repeated questioning, Curtis became convinced that the Crows were telling the truth.
To publish the Crows’ claims would surely incite a firestorm of outrage, most of it directed at him. But to conceal a version of the truth simply because it did not meet the public’s perception of an American hero was to perpetuate a blatant falsehood. In desperation, Curtis decided to send a detailed summary of the Crows’ testimony to one of the foremost chroniclers of the American West, Theodore Roosevelt. In the past, Roosevelt, who also happened to be president of the United States, had been a champion of Curtis’s work; perhaps he would know what to do with these incendiary claims.
Roosevelt found the Crows’ account “wildly improbable.” This, however, did not necessarily make it untrue. “Of course, human nature is so queer that it is hard to say that anything is impossible . . . ,” Roosevelt wrote in an April 8, 1908, letter to Curtis. “Odd things happen in a battle, and the human heart has strange and gruesome depths and the human brain still stranger shallows; but the facts should be clearly brought out indeed, and the proof overwhelming, before at so late a date a man of high repute deliberately publishes a theory such as the above.”
It wasn’t the source of the evidence that prompted Roosevelt to doubt the story; it was the passage of time. “I need not say to you,” he wrote, “that writing over thirty years after the event it is necessary to be exceedingly cautious about relying on the memory of any man, Indians or white. Such a space of time is a great breeder of myths.”
As it turned out, the testimony of the three Crows may have been influenced by a rivalry within the tribe. There had been a fourth Crow scout accompanying Custer’s battalion that afternoon, the nineteen-year-old Curley. Curley claimed to have stuck with Custer long after the other three Crows had fled, and as a consequence he’d gained a national reputation as the sole survivor of the Custer massacre, a status the other scouts inevitably resented.
According to Goes Ahead, Hairy Moccasin, and White Man Runs Him, Curley was the one who left Custer’s battalion early. Curtis could understand why the three Crows might cast aspersions on Curley. But why depict Custer as, in Roosevelt’s words, “both a traitor and a fool,” unless, of course, Custer—whose anonymous defamation of Reno made plain his feelings for the major—had in fact acted as they had claimed?
It was a question that became more and more perplexing the more Curtis pondered it, especially since White Man Runs Him insisted that Custer “was always very good to us Crow scouts, and we loved him.” Taking Roosevelt’s advice to heart, Curtis elected not to publish the results of his interviews with the three Crow scouts. “I am beginning to believe,” he wrote, “that nothing is quite so uncertain as facts.”
Curtis was not the only one at the beginning of the twentieth century wrestling with the mysteries of memory and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There was also Walter Mason Camp, the editor of a railroad trade journal based in Chicago, Illinois. Over the span of several decades, Camp crisscrossed the country interviewing more than 60 survivors of Reno’s command and more than 150 Lakota and Cheyenne participants in the battle. He also tracked down dozens of firsthand accounts published soon after the battle in newspapers and magazines, as well as the official documents related to the campaign. Camp never published a book about the battle, but the evidence he collected is voluminous.
Like Roosevelt, Camp was skeptical of the Crow scouts’ claims about Custer’s movements along the ridge. He seems to have had more faith in Curley even though he recognized that the scout’s accounts had shifted over time. (Curley defended himself by insisting, “I have always told the same story but there have been different interpreters.”) Camp also realized, however, that there were others besides White Man Runs Him and his fellow Crow scouts who had questioned Curley’s veracity.
Custer’s striker, John Burkman, had been relegated to the pack train at the divide. As the train approached the valley of the Little Bighorn, Burkman recognized Curley riding with a group of Arikara scouts as they drove a small herd of Lakota ponies east. If Burkman’s perception was accurate, Curley had, as the other Crow scouts insisted, left Custer’s battalion long before it engaged the enemy. But, like White Man Runs Him and the others, Burkman also had reasons to be jealous of Curley’s status as the last to have seen Custer alive. Burkman had wanted desperately to be with the general at the end, and to think that someone else, and an Indian at that, had been granted that right (and lived to tell about it) must have been difficult for Burkman to bear.
We interact with one another as individuals responding to a complex haze of factors: professional responsibilities, personal likes and dislikes, ambition, jealousy, self-interest, and, in at least some instances, genuine altruism. Living in the here and now, we are awash with sensations of the present, memories of the past, and expectations and fears for the future. Our actions are not determined by any one cause; they are the fulfillment of who we are at that particular moment. After that moment passes, we continue to evolve, to change, and our memories of that moment inevitably change with us as we live with the consequences of our past actions, consequences we were unaware of at the time.
For the historian, the only counter to the erosive effect of time is to emphasize those accounts that were recorded as close to the event as possible. But to dismiss an account simply because it was collected well after the event is to ignore testimony that has the potential of revealing a new, previously unrecorded side to the story, particularly when it comes to an event that included thousands of participants. The great, never-to-be-repeated advantage enjoyed by Camp and his contemporaries was that they were able to seek out and find so many living participants in the battle.
But no matter how many soldiers and warriors Camp and the other researchers talked to, there were a distressing number of instances in which it was impossible to verify a participant’s account. Despite all the testimony, all the points of view, a single, largely unanswerable question remained: When there was no corroborating evidence, whom could you believe?
In the end, telling the story of the past requires the writer to assemble as much information as is available and make a judgment as to what really occurred. When it came to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, this was Walter Camp’s lifework. After conducting hundreds of interviews, after receiving hundreds of letters, after visiting the battlefield close to a dozen times, he’d developed an overall sense of how the battle had unfolded. Some of the evidence was contradictory, but as in the case of the disagreement between Curley and the other Crow scouts, he could understand why those inconsistencies might exist.
There was one participant, however, whose testimony continued to confound Camp. Twenty-two-year-old Private Peter Thompson had been uniquely positioned on that hot afternoon to see what really occurred between Reno’s Valley Fight and Custer’s Last Stand. The only problem was that what Thompson saw, or at least claimed to see, was so head-scratchingly strange that most historians have chosen to ignore or even mock his testimony—as did several of his contemporaries.
In 1921, Thompson, who’d been awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the Battle of the Little Bighorn and was by then a highly respected rancher in Montana, attended the burial of the Unknown Solider in Washington, D.C. That night he joined a gathering of Little Bighorn veterans at the Army and Navy Club. But when Thompson told of his experiences during the battle, the other veterans refused to believe him, and Thompson angrily left the party.
By the time Thompson walked out of the veterans’ dinner, Walter Camp had already visited Thompson at his ranch and even toured the battlefield with him. “I tried to discuss with him the impossibility of [some of ] these things,” Camp wrote Daniel Kanipe, the soldier who delivered Custer’s message to Captain McDougall and the pack train and who accompanied Camp and Thompson during their tour of the battlefield, “but there was ‘nothing doing’ and I saw that he would take offense if I persisted.” Camp remarked that if just a few crucial incidents in Thompson’s account were adjusted or deleted, the story would make perfect sense, “but I hardly think,” he wrote, “the historian would have the moral right to do that.”
As becomes clear after studying his twenty-six-thousand-word narrative, not published until thirty-eight years after the battle, Thompson, like many battle veterans, remembered the past as a series of almost static, disconnected tableaux. But while Thompson’s memories were highly visual and detailed, he sometimes confused the chronology of events as well as the identities of who did what. He also had an unfortunate tendency to incorporate the unverified stories of others while imitating the florid, overblown style of the dime-store novels he had read as a child. When combined with his hardheaded refusal to admit to any personal fault whatsoever, it is no wonder no one believed him.
But, as Camp clearly realized, to reject all of Thompson’s testimony out of hand was to risk ignoring an important, possibly revelatory window into the battle. Thompson’s account wasn’t published until 1914, but he began recording his impressions of the battle as early as September 1876, “when,” he wrote Camp, “everything was a moving panorama in my mind.”
Thompson may have sometimes had the identity of the participants and the order of events mixed up, but the essence of what he remembered— the scene burned into his dendrites—proved remarkably trustworthy when it was possible to compare his account to those of others. “It may be as a preacher told me once,” Thompson wrote in a letter to Camp, “‘Thompson, your memory is too good.’”
Peter Thompson had been a member of C Troop, one of the five companies in the battalion under Custer’s command. They’d been galloping north along the edge of the bluffs, the valley to their left, when Thompson’s horse began to tire. As he lagged farther and farther behind the battalion, he stopped to put on his spurs. But his trembling fingers refused to work. “[H]e was shaking so badly and was in such a hurry,” remembered his daughter Susan, who listened to her father recount his experiences and later wrote a fascinating unpublished commentary on her father’s narrative, “that he simply could not fasten those . . . spurs.” Thompson was eventually forced to give up on trying to ride his horse, “for I was afraid he would fall down under me, so stumbling and staggering was his gait.” He was, he realized, in “a terrible predicament . . . : alone in enemy’s country, leading a horse practically useless.”
The appearance of a group of Lakota warriors prompted him to abandon his horse and seek refuge in a ravine full of wild cherry bushes. After taking stock of how much ammunition he had left (five cartridges for his pistol, seventeen for his carbine), he started on foot down the bluff toward the Little Bighorn. Custer, he reasoned, was probably in the village by now, and it was his duty to join him.
He’d just started down a narrow, badly washed-out trail when a mounted warrior started racing after him. Thompson ran for his life, plummeting down the steep hillside in a desperate dash for the river, “going,” he told his daughter, “like a bat out of hell with his wings on fire.” Before the Indian could run him down, Thompson stopped, shouldered his carbine, and prepared to catch the warrior by surprise. But as soon as the warrior saw that he had stopped and raised his gun, the Indian “wheeled around and galloped back . . . as fast as he could go.”
Thompson continued down the trail. Ahead of him in the valley below was Sitting Bull’s village. It seemed almost deserted, “so quiet and deathlike was the stillness.” It is one of the more surreal aspects of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. As Reno’s Valley Fight was reaching its terrible crescendo of dust, smoke, and deafening gunfire, the troopers to the north found themselves in another, almost hermetically sealed world. Not only did the broken hills and cottonwood trees cut off their view of Reno’s battle; they acted as an acoustic shield.
But there were other factors contributing to Thompson’s eerie sense of isolation. The most important, perhaps, was the fact that he was totally deaf in the left ear, the ear facing Reno’s portion of the battle. The inevitable fear and disorientation of battle also had the effect of dramatically shrinking a soldier’s frame of reference. “When men are fighting . . . ,” the veteran F. E. Server recalled, “they do not know what is going on around them six feet away. . . . They see only that closely in front.” A prisoner of his own necessarily myopic perspective, Thompson was wandering aimlessly through a terrifying and unknown terrain in search of his battalion.
Down below, at the foot of the bluff near the river’s edge, he saw a trooper on a horse. It was Private James Watson, also from C Company, “riding in a slow, leisurely way” along the same trail Thompson was following. Like Thompson, Watson had become separated from the battalion as his horse started to give out. At that moment, Watson turned to the left and began riding upriver toward a group of Indians gathered just below Thompson. Despite the more than ninety-degree heat, they were wrapped in government-supplied blankets stamped with the letters I.D., for Indian Department. The black mosquitoes were particularly fierce along the river, and the blankets provided the Indians with some protection as they talked among themselves “in a very earnest manner.” Thompson decided he must warn Watson of what lay ahead of him.
He jumped off the trail and cut diagonally across the hillside to his right. He came to a deep ravine and, unable to stop himself, fell several feet, kicking up the dried flakes of alkaline mud into a dusty gray cloud as he tumbled down the hill, finally arriving at the riverbank just ahead of Watson. Thompson breathlessly asked where he was going. “To our scouts, of course,” Watson replied without betraying the least bit of surprise at the sudden appearance of a trooper from his own company. Thompson explained that the Indians gathered along the river up ahead were not Arikara; they were hostiles. “I told him,” Thompson wrote, “that I.D. stood for Immediately Dead if he went over [there].” But where to go next?
As far as they could tell, there were few, if any, warriors in the village. The bluffs on their side of the river, however, were infested with them. The safest thing to do was to cross the river and enter the village, where they could see a guidon from one of Reno’s companies stuck into the ground beside a tepee. The flag gave them confidence that the encampment was now occupied by their own troops, even though there were no soldiers presently in sight.
They started toward the river, Watson leading the way, with Thompson hanging on to the tail of his horse, when they saw something unusual. Up ahead was, Thompson maintained, the Crow scout Curley leading a bound and struggling Lakota woman by a rawhide rope.
Making this already bizarre scene even more fantastic was the sudden appearance of none other than General George Armstrong Custer, all alone on his horse Vic. Custer rode upriver to the Crow scout, and the two began to converse. Soon after, Curley released the woman, who, after waving what Thompson thought was a knife in his and Watson’s direction, crossed the river and disappeared back into the village while Curley proceeded up the river toward Reno.
—PETER THOMPSON’S WALKABOUT, June 25, 1876—
Whether or not the heat, exhaustion, and intense fear had caused Thompson to hallucinate, he remained convinced that this dreamlike interlude was real. Yes, he insisted for the rest of his life, he’d seen Curley with a captured Lakota woman talking to Custer on the banks of the Little Bighorn. But is this as absurd as it at first might seem? As Theodore Roosevelt allowed, “odd things happen in a battle.”
We know that a group of Arikara scouts killed six women and four children on the flats to the east of the Little Bighorn, not far from where Thompson saw the Indian scout and the Lakota woman. We also know that it was common practice among the warriors of the northern plains to take wives from rival tribes. Given Thompson’s tendency to confuse the identities of the people he saw during the battle, the possibility exists that the scout he saw was an Arikara, not a Crow, who’d decided to take a Lakota wife.
There is also the possibility that Thompson was mistaken about Custer. The question is, whom did Thompson really see? Perhaps a light-haired and mustachioed soldier or scout from Reno’s battalion (Charley Reynolds looked quite Custer-like) rode downriver in an unsuccessful attempt to get a message to the other battalion and stumbled on the two privates from C Company. Then there is the possibility that Thompson really did see Custer alone on the banks of the Little Bighorn.
The Cheyenne and Lakota reported that a portion of Custer’s battalion made it to the banks of the Little Bighorn at the mouth of a dry watercourse leading down from the bluffs called Medicine Tail Coulee. Since most of the warriors were either fighting Reno or retrieving their horses, there were only a handful of Lakota and Cheyenne on the west bank of the ford to oppose the troopers’ advance. And yet, after only scattering fire, the soldiers eventually retreated back up into the hills to rejoin their comrades on the bluff.
As several historians have suggested, this was probably a feint—a diversionary tactic similar to the one Custer had used with such spectacular success at the Battle of the Washita. During that battle, he had marched boldly toward the enemy’s village with the band playing. This time, Captain George Yates and the two companies of the battalion’s Left Wing marched down Medicine Tail Coulee with, at least one warrior claimed, their bugles blaring. In both instances, Custer was attempting to attract the enemy’s attention.
Many believe that Custer was trying to draw the Indians away from Reno even as the three companies of the battalion’s Right Wing, under the command of Captain Keogh, remained on the bluffs, waiting for the imminent arrival of Benteen. Custer’s brother Boston had joined the battalion soon after Trumpeter Martin’s departure and would have reported that Benteen was less than a half hour away. Given the immense size of the village, it only made sense to wait for reinforcements before initiating the attack.
In the meantime, the feint down Medicine Tail Coulee would not only draw the enemy away from Reno; it might also provide Custer with the chance to perform some much-needed reconnaissance. As Yates and the Left Wing made a great show at the bank of the river, Custer would dash south on his fast and relatively fresh horse toward the scene of Reno’s engagement.
It was a strange and outrageously risky thing for the commander of a cavalry regiment to do, but Custer had done this type of thing before. “Everyone was used to Custer’s unpredictable actions,” Thompson told his daughter Susan, “and thought nothing of it.” During the column’s approach to the Powder River, Custer and his brother Tom had impulsively left the regiment to scout out a trail across the badlands. Seven years before, while pursuing the Cheyenne in the months after the Battle of the Washita, Custer and Lieutenant Cooke had taken what others viewed as an unnecessary, even suicidal gamble by leaving the rest of the regiment behind and entering an Indian camp alone—a story Custer had taken great relish in describing in My Life on the Plains. Also recounted in that book was the event that helped introduce him to the West: his “rashly imprudent” decision to stray from the column and chase the giant buffalo.
While pursuing his first buffalo, Custer had made an already precarious situation worse by accidentally shooting his horse in the head. Almost a decade later on the Little Bighorn he’d placed himself at a similar disadvantage by prematurely scattering his command into four distant fragments. If Peter Thompson is to be believed, Custer was once again alone in the midst of excessive and exhilarating danger, attempting to extricate himself from a mess of his own devising. It was exactly where a deep and ungovernable part of him liked to be.
According to Thompson, once Custer had finished communicating with the Indian scout, he turned his horse around and headed back downriver. As he passed Thompson and Watson, who were no doubt staring openmouthed at the man they took to be their commander, he “slightly checked his horse and waved his right hand twice for us to follow him.” Without uttering a word, he pointed downstream and, putting his spurs to his horse, disappeared around the bend of the Little Bighorn.
In the years to come, as the controversy over Custer and the battle raged on, it became difficult even for those who had been present that day to separate their own memories from the confusing welter of conflicting accounts. One veteran, Private William Taylor, confessed to a retired army officer “that after hearing all the stories he doubts that he was there and only dreamed that he was there.” Thompson’s memories were like the memories of all battle veterans, infuriatingly confused and incomplete. Unlike just about every other Little Bighorn survivor, he had written many of those memories down back in 1876. He was more than a little odd and obstinate, but he always stuck to the same story—no matter how incredulous his audience.
On the afternoon of June 25, Thompson insisted, he saw Custer—all by himself—riding along the banks of the Little Bighorn.
It being a very hot day, [Thompson wrote,] [Custer] was in his shirt sleeves; his buckskin pants tucked into his boots; buckskin shirt fastened to the rear of his saddle and a broad brimmed cream colored hat on his head, the brim of which was turned up on the right side and fastened by a small hook and eye to its crown. This gave him the opportunity to sight his rifle while riding. His rifle lay horizontally in front of him; when riding he leaned slightly forward. . . . This was the appearance of Custer . . . just one half hour before the fight commenced between him and the Sioux.
Whether or not Thompson imagined it or mistook someone else for his commander or really did see Custer, the image was encoded in his brain: Custer, leaning forward on his horse, frozen like the figures on the Grecian urn described by the poet Keats, in the still, airless atmosphere of eternity.
By the time Thompson and Watson reached the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee, Custer was long gone. They couldn’t tell if he’d recrossed the river or exited into the hills to the right, but they could see that both banks of the river were “wet with splashing made by the animals going to and from the village.” Still hopeful that the soldiers had established control of the almost empty village, they decided, once again, to cross the river.
But first Watson agreed to ride out into the middle of the rushing stream to check the river’s depth. Ever since Thompson was ten years old, when he’d fallen off the immigrant ship that was carrying his family from Scotland to America, he’d been terrified of water. “Much over knee high in swift water was high enough for him all his life afterward,” his daughter Susan wrote. “Animals could swim across swift water, if necessary, but not Peter Thompson.”
As Watson started on his horse, Thompson paused at the riverbank for a drink. Watson was in the midst of the Little Bighorn when Thompson realized that three Indians had appeared on the opposite bank, and he shouted out a warning.
“What in thunder is the matter?” Watson asked.
“If you don’t get off your horse at once,” Thompson replied, “you will get shot.”
Watson obediently dove into the river as Thompson scrambled up the slippery red mud banks to higher ground, where he loaded his carbine and fired at the Indians. He began to reload for a second shot only to discover that, just as had happened to several of the troopers on Re-no’s skirmish line, the cartridge casing had jammed in the barrel. Finally, after extracting the spent shell with his thumbnail, he fired once again and succeeded in hitting one of the Indians.
By that time Watson had made it back to the east side of the river, and the two troopers started down the bank on foot in search of Custer’s command. As they scurried to the north, they noticed that the village on the other side of the river had begun, in Thompson’s words, “to teem with life.” With the defeat of Reno, warriors had started to arrive in large numbers. “Ponies were dashing here and there with their riders urging them on,” he remembered; “the dust would rise and mingle with the smoke of the burning grass and brush.”
A little ways up ahead, the river looped to the west, creating a small peninsula on the eastern bank where Thompson and Watson decided to hide themselves in a clump of red berry bushes. A driftwood log lay amid the brush and made, Thompson commented, “quite a comfortable seat for us.” It was very much like a duck blind against the clifflike bank of the river, and concealed behind the leaves and berries, they watched as warriors continued to return to the village from the south.
Suddenly, around 4:25 p.m., a “heavy volley of rifle shots” erupted from the bluffs downriver. Thompson stood up and, using the barrel of his carbine to part the brush, “the stalks being covered with long sharp thorns,” took a look.
Custer’s battalion had finally engaged the enemy.