Somewhere to the south of Thompson and Watson’s lair, George Herendeen and a dozen or so soldiers were also doing their best to conceal themselves in the timber and brush. They, too, heard the beginning of Custer’s battle—what Herendeen remembered as two earthshaking volleys followed by the crackling pop of uncoordinated fire. More than two miles farther south, Captain Thomas McDougall, who was still marching north with the pack train, also heard volleys: “a dull sound,” he later remembered, “that resonated through the hills.” On the bluff occupied by Reno’s and Benteen’s battalions, which had just been reunited after Benteen’s “valley hunting” expedition to the south, the volleys were so distinct that Lieutenant Varnum shouted “Jesus Christ! What does that mean?” Even Lieutenant Godfrey, who, like Peter Thompson, was deaf in one ear, heard the volleys. But not Marcus Reno or Frederick Benteen.
Soon after his arrival on what became known as Reno Hill, Benteen introduced one of his favorite topics: Major Joel Elliott and the Battle of the Washita. Once again, Benteen claimed, Custer had forsaken his second-in-command, and this time “the abandoned party” was Reno. Custer wasn’t beyond the bluffs, fighting for his life; he was on his way to the mouth of the Little Bighorn, where he planned to meet up with Terry and Gibbon. Yes, Benteen assured Reno, they were in the midst of “another ‘Major Elliott affair.’ ”
This meant, of course, that the volleys to the north could not exist, and both Reno and Benteen later claimed to have never heard them. It was more difficult to ignore yet another indication that Custer had, in fact, engaged the enemy.
When Benteen’s battalion first arrived, there were an estimated nine hundred warriors in the valley below them. And then something strange started to happen: The Indians left. As if pulled by an unseen current, the swirling mass of warriors began to flow north. In a matter of minutes, the bottom had been virtually evacuated.
Instead of wondering whether this might indicate that a new battle was being fought on the other side of the bluffs, Reno had more immediate concerns. With the Indians gone, it was now safe to venture down to the river. He must go in search of his fallen adjutant, Lieutenant Benny Hodgson. Even though the Indians had been methodically torturing and killing the wounded for the last half hour or so, Reno held out hope that Hodgson was still alive. Leaving Captain Benteen in command of approximately three hundred men with absolutely nothing to do but wait for the approaching pack train, Reno started down the bluff with Dr. Porter and a platoon of soldiers.
When Benteen first received Custer’s orders to “Come on,” he’d decided that he didn’t have time to wait for the ammunition packs. But now, even though fighting was obviously occurring to the north, he resolved to wait.
Benteen might have told Reno that he had no choice but to push on to Custer. Unlike Reno’s exhausted and frightened companies, his men were relatively fresh. While Reno remained here, licking his wounds and searching for Hodgson, Benteen might have taken at least a portion of his battalion north to see where all the warriors had gone. Instead, he and the rest of the officers sat on the bluff and talked about Custer.
Myles Moylan had been weeping uncontrollably only a few minutes before. Now that the Indians had all left, he was in a more assertive mood. “Gentlemen,” he declared, “in my opinion General Custer has made the biggest mistake in his life, by not taking the whole regiment in at once in the first attack.”
Instead of judging Custer, Captain Weir was still trying to figure out what his commander was up to. Moylan had served as Custer’s adjutant at the Washita. Weir asked him whether Custer had ever explained why he was issuing a particular order. No, Moylan insisted, “Custer never told me what he was going to do.”
About this time, Private Edward Davern called Weir’s attention to a pillar of dust rising from the flats along the river to the north. “That must be General Custer fighting down in the bottom,” he said.
“Yes, I believe it is,” Weir agreed.
Weir went to his second-in-command, Lieutenant Edgerly. “[He] asked me,” Edgerly remembered, “if I would be willing to go to Custer if the rest of the command did not. I told him I would.”
By that time, Reno had returned to the bluff. He’d discovered Hodgson’s lifeless body beside the river, and although Hodgson’s watch had already been taken, Reno had been able to retrieve the lieutenant’s ring and keys. Weir found the major talking with Benteen and Moylan. “Custer must be around here somewhere,” Weir said, “and we ought to go to him.”
“We are surrounded by Indians,” Reno insisted, “and we ought to remain here.”
Benteen and Moylan tried to convince Weir that Reno was right. “Well if no one else goes to Custer,” he countered, “I will go.”
Without saying anything to Edgerly, Weir mounted his horse and started to ride north.
In the past, Weir had given his lieutenant great latitude in handling the troop. Assuming that Weir had received the requested permission and that he wanted him to follow with the rest of the company, Edgerly ordered his men to mount up on their coal black chargers and march north.
Weir and the rest of D Troop had already left by the time Captain McDougall arrived with the pack train. Before him was a scene of astonishing placidity. “One would not have imagined,” he remembered, “that a battle had been fought.” Officers and men lounged casually on the bluff. Reno and Benteen had not even taken the precaution of throwing out a skirmish line. The whole battalion, McDougall later testified, might have been annihilated if the Indians had suddenly chosen to attack.
According to Lieutenant Mathey, who was also with the pack train, Reno greeted him with a bottle of whiskey in his hand. “Look here,” he said, “I got half a bottle yet.” Mathey took particular note of the remark because Reno, who was obviously drunk, didn’t offer any of the whiskey to him. Reno pointed to the river and said distractedly to McDougall, “Benny is lying right over there.”
A box of ammunition, containing five hundred rounds, had already been unloaded from the mules, and after the box was broken open with an ax, the cartridges were distributed among the men. The firing to the north was still audible to anyone who chose to listen. Standard military procedure dictated that the battalion march toward the sound of the guns. But Reno, McDougall euphemistically testified, “did not appear to regard the seriousness of the situation.” McDougall pointed to the north and said, “I think we ought to be down there.”
McDougall was a good friend of Benteen’s, and his appearance may have made Benteen realize that he could no longer simply sit and watch as Reno wallowed in an alcohol-soaked stupor of terror and despair. Once again Benteen must follow Weir’s lead. McDougall later claimed that it was Benteen’s deference to Reno’s rank that caused him to wait for more than an hour on the bluffs. But as his subsequent actions made clear, Benteen had no qualms about ignoring Marcus Reno.
Without consulting his superior officer, Benteen ordered his two remaining companies to mount and headed north. Reno, who’d just sent Lieutenant Varnum down to the river to oversee the burial of Hodgson, seems to have been caught by complete surprise. “Continuously and assiduously,” Benteen remembered, Reno’s trumpeter sounded the call to halt, but Benteen pretended not to hear. It was time to see, Benteen wrote, “what I had left my valley hunting mission for.”
As the warriors in the bottom streamed past the timber toward the firing to the north, George Herendeen periodically ventured to the edge of the trees to monitor the state of the valley floor. After close to an hour, he decided it was as safe as it ever was going to get. Time to cross the river and find Reno’s battalion.
He turned to the dozen or so soldiers in the timber behind him and told them it was time to leave. “We must walk and not run,” he said. “Take it cool and we should get out.” Sergeant White, who was badly wounded, assured Herendeen that the men would do as he said. “I will shoot the first man who starts to run or disobeys orders.”
They crossed the open flat without incident. As they approached the river they came upon a small group of Indians. Herendeen fired only a single shot and the warriors dispersed. When they started across the chest-high river, Herendeen and Sergeant White remained on the west bank covering the soldiers, who dutifully covered Herendeen and White when it was their turn to cross. Up on the bluff they could see the guidons of Reno’s battalion.
When Weir arrived at the high sugarloaf-shaped peak that eventually bore his name, he wasn’t sure what he saw about four miles to the north. He could see the huge village on the flats to the west of the river, but the hills to the east were shrouded in a thick cloud of dust and smoke. There were plenty of people over there; he just wasn’t sure whether they were Indians or soldiers. Then he saw the guidons. “That is Custer,” he said as he prepared to mount his horse and continue heading north.
—To WEIR PEAK AND BACK, June 25, 1876—
Sergeant James Flanagan stood beside him staring through his binoculars. “Here, Captain,” Flanagan cautioned, “you had better take a look through the glasses. I think they are Indians.” After taking a look, Weir decided that Flanagan was right. Not only were they Indians, they were beginning to head in their direction.
By that time, Lieutenant Edgerly had led the rest of the troop beyond Weir’s position on the hill. Since Edgerly was down in a hollow to Weir’s right, he could not see that a vast number of warriors had begun to rush toward them from the north. The Indians were far enough away that the troopers still had some time, but it was a daunting sight nonetheless: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of warriors who just a few minutes before had been moving leisurely over the distant hills were now riding with frenzied purpose south. Weir signaled Edgerly to bring the company back toward him on the hill. With their horses clustered behind Weir Peak, the soldiers of D Company formed a skirmish line from east to west. Ahead of them, the wide and rolling green hills were covered with warriors, “as thick as grasshoppers,” one trooper remembered, “in a harvest field.” Another trooper remarked on the fresh clouds of dust rising in all directions as the horsemen in the advance “converged toward our position.”
Benteen arrived soon after with his companies in columns of fours. Once he climbed up to Weir Peak, he realized that “perhaps this time we had bitten off quite as much as we would be able to well chew.” He took up his company’s guidon and jammed the staff into a pile of rocks. “Perhaps the fluttering,” he wrote, “might attract attention from Custer.” He also knew that this hill was, as he was overheard to say, “a hell of a place to fight Indians.” They must fall back toward their original position. He was determined, however, that this time the retreat would not be a rout.
By then, Reno, who’d been joined by Herendeen and his dozen soldiers, had reluctantly ordered his battalion to follow Weir and Benteen to the north. Benteen ordered Captain French’s M Company to form a skirmish line behind Weir’s troop; he then directed Godfrey to dismount his company along the bluffs to the south of the hill to prevent the Indians from overrunning them from the river. Under no circumstances were French and Godfrey to fall back until Weir’s men, who were still to the north, had been given sufficient opportunity to withdraw in safety. Now it was time to speak to Reno.
Benteen found the major about a half mile back. Whether it was before or after this conversation, Captain McDougall, who’d been observing Reno during the delayed and disorganized march north, made a point of speaking confidentially with Benteen. “Reno,” McDougall said, “is doing nothing to put the command on the defensive.” Since Benteen was the senior captain, he “had better take charge and run the thing.” Otherwise, they would surely be overrun and massacred. Benteen answered McDougall with a grin and continued on to Marcus Reno.
No one was more aware of the perilous nature of their situation than Peter Thompson. After witnessing what he was certain was the demise of at least a portion of Custer’s command, he and Watson had just spent the last half hour dodging Indians as they worked their way to the foot of the bluffs south of Weir Peak. On the hill above them, they could see “several guidons fluttering in the breeze.” The only trouble was that to get to them, they now had to climb up a near-vertical two-hundred-foot-high cliff.
It was getting close to 7 p.m., but the day was still stifling hot. The hill ahead of them was a broken, crumbling mess of dusty clay, with only the dry stalks of grass and sagebrush providing potential handholds. But as the valley around them filled up with Indians, Thompson and Watson knew they must climb the bluff.
About halfway up, Thompson was overcome with exhaustion. He told Watson to continue on without him and fell gasping to the ground as the Indians down below blasted away at him. Up ahead, Watson shouted that the troopers were “now in plain view.” Finding reservoirs of energy he did not know he possessed, Thompson once again started up the hill “amid showers of lead.”
One of the first soldiers he saw as he staggered onto the bluff was a fellow member of C Company, Sergeant Daniel Kanipe. “Thompson,” Kanipe cried, “where in the devil have you been?”
In the years to come, Thompson found the question increasingly difficult to answer. On the evening of June 25, he simply said, “Well, my horse gave out and left me afoot.”
Once Lieutenant Edgerly had dismounted his troops, he led his horse beyond the northeast edge of Weir Peak, where he hoped to catch a glimpse of Custer’s battalion. But it was too late for reconnaissance. The Indians, he could now see, were upon them.
Behind him, Weir and the troops of D Company had mounted their horses and begun to retreat. It was already past the time to join them. Unfortunately, his horse had started to panic and was plunging wildly up and down. A vanguard of mounted warriors had ventured to within fifteen feet of his position.
For reasons that were not apparent to Edgerly, Sergeant Thomas Harrison of Sligo, Ireland, was smiling. Harrison, a veteran of the Battle of the Washita, later explained that the Indians’ poor marksmanship was what amused him that afternoon on Weir Peak. In the meantime, Edgerly, who was referred to by his men as “Big Feet,” still hadn’t managed to climb onto his horse. In an attempt to calm the lieutenant’s mount, Harrison brought his own horse alongside, and with one last desperate lunge Edgerly vaulted into the saddle. The two troopers threw their reins behind their backs and with six-shooters in hand “cut through” the warriors between them and the rest of their troop.
Up ahead, D Company was retreating along the ridge in columns of two as the warriors raked them with what Corporal George Wylie remembered as a “hot fire” from the high ground of Weir Peak. A bullet punctured Wylie’s canteen; another splintered the staff of the guidon he was holding and the flag fell to the ground. Nearby, Vincent Charley, the company’s farrier, or blacksmith, was blasted off his horse by a shot through the hips. By the time Edgerly and Harrison arrived, Charley was “half crawling on his feet and one hand,” and he begged Edgerly not to leave him. The lieutenant paused and promised he’d return with a rescue party. Until then, Charley should crawl into a nearby ravine and wait.
It may have been a well-intentioned promise, but it was an unrealistic one given the proximity of the warriors. When Edgerly subsequently asked Weir to mount a rescue effort, the captain sadly insisted that they must continue the retreat. Edgerly later referred to Weir’s refusal with bitterness, but it had been Edgerly who’d declined to dismount and save Charley when a rescue might still have been possible. Inevitably contributing to Edgerly’s feelings about the incident were the circumstances of the farrier’s death. Charley was later found with a stick—perhaps the broken piece of Corporal Wylie’s flagstaff—jammed down his throat.
The retreat to Reno Hill did not go as well as Benteen had hoped. Even before Weir’s company rode past “in hot haste,” Captain French’s M Company was also on the run. That left only Lieutenant Godfrey’s K Company between the battalion and the onrushing warriors.
By that time, Benteen had conferred with Reno about the necessity of taking up a defensive position before the Indians had worked their way completely around the command. Not only were the warriors riding toward them along the bluffs; even more of them were returning south along the west bank of the river. The battalion needed to find a place where the steepness of the bluff facing the Little Bighorn protected at least one side of their entrenchment from attack. The location Benteen eventually chose was certainly not perfect, but it was as good as they were going to find under the circumstances: a shallow crater of grass and sagebrush beside the bluff with a hill to the south overlooking both the depression and a ravine down to the river to the west.
When Benteen realized that French’s company had, in his words, “flunked” its test against the warriors, he sent word to Godfrey “to hold his vantage point, and everything would soon be O.K.” He then turned to Lieutenant Wallace of G Company. “Wallace,” he shouted, “put your troops here!” Wallace had inherited the leadership of his decimated company from Lieutenant McIntosh. “I have no troop,” Wallace said, “only three men.”
“Well, then,” Benteen replied, “put yourself and your three men here and don’t let any of them get away. I will look out for you.” It was a pathetic, even absurd way to begin what was about to become one of the greatest sieges in the history of the American West, but Wallace’s three men would have to do. With G Company serving as what Benteen called “the nucleus,” he assigned each company a position as he strung the men along in the arc of an irregular circle. Five of the seven companies were concentrated on the northern half of the entrenchment, with Moylan’s A Company bridging the gap to the east and Benteen’s H Company assigned to the hill to the south. Clustered in the center, in a “saucer-like depression of prairie,” were the mules and horses, positioned so as to screen the wounded, who were stationed in what was loosely termed Dr. Porter’s hospital: “the blue canopy of heaven being the covering,” Benteen remembered, “the sage brushes [and] sand being the operating board.”
As Benteen and Reno oversaw the positioning of the men, Lieutenant Godfrey did his best to hold back the Indians. Benteen had been deeply disappointed in the staying power of French’s M Company, but he was pleasantly surprised by the doggedness of K Company. Godfrey threw out a skirmish line about five hundred yards to the north of the entrenchment. Even when Reno’s new adjutant, Luther Hare, arrived with an order to retreat, Godfrey resolved to stay; otherwise “the Indians would make sad havoc in the other companies.” Seeing that Godfrey needed all the help he could get, Hare decided to remain with K Company, “adjutant or no adjutant.”
The two officers positioned the men so there were about five yards between them. Many of the soldiers had never been in battle before, and as the fire of the warriors increased, they began to bunch protectively together. The “swish-thud” of bullets striking around their feet was bad enough, but the high-pitched “ping-ping” of bullets whizzing around their heads was what bothered them the most. Up until this point, the soldiers had been slowly retreating toward the entrenchment. Godfrey ordered them to halt and restored the original intervals between the men. Sure enough, the rate of fire once again increased, and the warriors were temporarily driven back.
They continued to retreat slowly toward the rest of the battalion. They had reached the ridge overlooking Reno’s position when Godfrey realized that the Indians were galloping toward a hill to the right that would enable them to rake the entrenchment. He told Hare to go with a platoon of ten men and take the hill. But Reno had had enough. They must join the others on the line. Reluctantly, Godfrey called Hare back, and after firing one last volley at the Indians, the soldiers of K Company sprinted for the entrenchment without having lost a man.
Godfrey was justifiably proud of how his company had covered the battalion’s retreat, but they were not alone. The Arikara scout Young Hawk had played a role as well.
When the Lakota and Cheyenne began leaving the valley, Young Hawk and his grandfather Forked Horn had emerged from the bushes and seen that they could now safely join Reno’s battalion on the ridge. To make sure the soldiers didn’t confuse them with the enemy, Young Hawk tied his white handkerchief to a long stick and rode at the head of the Arikara as they climbed the bluff. By the time they rejoined the battalion, the retreat to the entrenchment had begun. As the other Arikara fell back, Young Hawk, who had managed to kill two enemy warriors during Reno’s previous retreat, resolved to remain behind and fight. Soon the Lakota and Cheyenne were upon him, and Young Hawk had no choice but to pull back. Waving his white flag, he galloped toward the soldiers, who fired at the warriors behind him as the warriors fired at the soldiers. About a hundred feet from Reno’s line, the crossfire caught Young Hawk’s beloved horse, and the two of them tumbled to the ground. Young Hawk was quickly back on his feet, and with the white flag still in his hand, he ran to the entrenchment just as the guns of the Lakota and Cheyenne began what he later remembered as “a continuous roar.”
In the beginning, the fire from the warriors was so hot that the soldiers had little alternative but to lie as flat as possible and “take it.” A ridge provided the companies in the northern portion of the entrenchment with some protection, but Benteen’s H Company, high on its hill to the south, was exposed to fire from both ahead and behind, with only sagebrush and tufts of grass between them and the path of the warriors’ bullets. Even more exposed were the horses and mules, and during the three deadly hours before nightfall, dozens of the animals were killed.
The adrenaline rush of having held back more than a thousand warriors with his single troop seems to have endowed Godfrey with a giddy sort of bravado. Given the intensity of the Indians’ fire, he decided he must “reassure the men.” He stood up and began walking back and forth, spouting instructions and encouragement. It was clear to everyone but Godfrey that his actions were drawing the Indians’ fire, not only on him but on those who lay at his feet, and Lieutenants Hare and Edgerly both told him repeatedly to get down.
Godfrey was standing over Sergeant Dewitt Winney, “talking to somebody and giving orders,” when a bullet cut into the sergeant’s torso. “He gave a quick convulsive jerk,” Godfrey recounted in his diary, “said, ‘I am hit,’ and looked at me imploringly.” Soon Winney was dead. “This was the first time since 1861 that I had seen a man killed in battle,” Godfrey wrote, “yet I felt cool and unconcerned as to myself.” Those around him were anything but. Godfrey’s cook, Private Charles Burkhardt, begged him to “please lie down, Lieutenant, you will get hit. Please, sir, lie down.” Reluctantly, Godfrey retreated to the rear of the line. Only then did he realize that his actions had been “endangering others.” As Benteen later observed, Godfrey was always the last officer in the regiment to “see the nub of a joke.”
Early in the fighting, one of the regiment’s more cantankerous mules, Barnum, slipped through the soldiers’ line and headed for the Indians. Barnum had already survived a dramatic tumble during the march up the Rosebud, and he was now ambling toward the enemy with two ammunition boxes strapped to his back. The prospect of a thousand cartridges falling into the hands of the Indians was enough to inspire Sergeant Richard Hanley to set out in pursuit with his pistol drawn. If he was unable to catch up with Barnum, he planned to “shoot the mule down” before he reached the Indians.
Hanley was in the middle of the no-man’s-land between the soldiers and the warriors, with bullets flying all around him, when, thankfully, Barnum decided to turn back. Two years later, Hanley was awarded the Medal of Honor for having “recaptured singlehandedly, and without orders, within the enemy lines and under a galling fire lasting some 20 minutes, a stampeded pack mule loaded with ammunition.”
That evening a Lakota sharpshooter found the range on the soldiers of Captain French’s M Company. The first soldier to die was the fourth man to Sergeant John Ryan’s right. Soon after, the third man was hit, followed by the second. When the soldier lying beside him cried out in pain, Ryan “thought my turn was coming next.” But before the sharpshooter had a chance to reload and fire, Ryan, along with Captain French and six other soldiers, leapt to their feet and, spinning to their right, pumped a volley in the sharpshooter’s direction. “I think we put an end to that Indian,” Ryan remembered with considerable satisfaction.
Over the course of the next few hours, a rhythm developed. The warriors blasted away for fifteen to thirty minutes, creating, Varnum remembered, “one ring of smoke from their guns around the entire range.” Then, with “a general ‘Ki-Yi’ all around,” the warriors mounted their horses and, leaning as far back as possible, charged the entrenchment as the soldiers rose to their knees and “let them have it and drove them back.” After another fifteen minutes or so of unrelenting fire, the warriors charged once again.
It was when the soldiers were firing that they could see, however briefly, what they were up against. Gathered amid the surrounding hills and on the flats along the river were many more warriors than could fit along the firing line. As a consequence, most of the Indians were reduced to being spectators. “The hills were black with Indians looking on,” McDougall remembered, “while warriors were as thick as they could get within firing range.” The wonder was that the Indians didn’t overwhelm them with one deadly charge. Instead, they seemed content to test them with volley after halfhearted volley, knowing that time was on their side.
Now that the soldiers’ carbines were being fired so regularly, the weapons started to jam on an almost constant basis. M Company developed a solution of sorts. Every time a carbine jammed, it was handed to Captain French, who, sitting tailor-style just behind the line, coolly extracted the casing with his knife, slipped in a new cartridge, and returned the weapon to the firing line.
By 9:00 p.m. it was growing dark, and the Indians’ fire began to slacken. By 9:30 the firing had ceased altogether, and the officers and men stood up and began to mingle and talk. Private William Taylor of A Company wandered over to what became known as the corral, the roughly circular area where the horses and mules had been collected. There he found Sergeant Henry Fehler standing near Major Reno.
“What are we going to do,” Taylor asked, “stay or try to move?” Although the question had been addressed to the sergeant, Reno responded: “I would like to know how in hell we are going to move away.” Given the tenor of the major’s remarks, Taylor thought it best to pretend, at least, that he was still speaking with Fehler. “If we are going to stay,” Taylor said, “we ought to be making some kind of barricade.” “Yes, Sergeant,” Reno said, “that is a good idea. Set all the men you can to work, right away.”
By this point officers and men alike were so exhausted, hungry, and dehydrated that no one was thinking very clearly. Instead of dedicating a few hours to an activity that might save their lives, all they wanted to do was sleep. “Many of the men showed but little interest . . . ,” Taylor remembered, “officers less.” But an order was an order, and reluctantly the men began to build a breastwork made of hardtack boxes, saddles, and dead horses. They also dug shallow rifle pits in the cracked and flintlike earth with their forks, plates, and tin cups, heaping the excavated dirt into rounded, protective mounds.
But there was one exception. Even though H Company occupied more territory than any other company and was situated on a prominent hill, Benteen chose to ignore Reno’s order. “I had an idea,” he later testified, “that the Indians would leave us.” Benteen’s premonitions usually served him well, but not in this instance. His refusal to take even the most rudimentary measures to defend his troop meant that in the horrifying, blood-soaked day to come, his men suffered twice the casualties of any other company.
Benteen later claimed that Reno approached him that night with a proposition. The battalion should mount up and steal away under the cover of darkness. This required them to abandon the wounded, but in Reno’s estimation they had no choice.
In the years to come, Benteen made much of this supposed conversation and how he “killed that proposition in the bud.” But all sorts of proposals were made that night. Godfrey and Weir believed that Custer “had been repulsed and was unable to join us . . . [and] that we ought to move that night and join him.” Since this also would have required them to leave anyone who could not mount a horse, it is unclear why Reno’s proposition—if, in fact, he ever made it—was the dark crime against humanity that Benteen made it out to be. In truth, the one undeniable crime committed by an officer that night was Benteen’s refusal to attend to the welfare of his own company. However, compared to some of his other actions that day, this was a relatively minor transgression.
There was no one in the regiment who better understood both Benteen and the role he had been given to play that afternoon than Lieutenant James Bell. Bell had fought with the Seventh at the Washita but was away on leave during the Battle of the Little Bighorn. At the Washita, Bell had succeeded in doing what Custer had wanted Benteen to do: arrive just in the nick of time with the precious ammunition.
At the Washita they had used wagons instead of mules to transport their equipment, and Bell had been in charge of the wagon carrying the ammunition. Just as was to occur eight years later with the pack train, the Seventh had advanced well ahead of the ammunition wagon during its approach to Black Kettle’s village. By the time Bell reached the encampment, the Cheyenne from the larger village to the east had Custer surrounded. Without extra ammunition, Custer was at the warriors’ mercy. But Bell courageously ran the wagon through enemy lines and came to his commander’s rescue.
It will never be known what would have happened if Benteen had done everything in his power to reach Custer in a timely manner on the afternoon of June 25—if not with the ammunition packs, at least with his even more desperately needed battalion of soldiers. Given the size of Sitting Bull’s village and the mistakes Custer had already made, it might very well have resulted in the demise of the entire regiment. But that did not justify Benteen’s passive-aggressive refusal to “Come on,” and deep down he knew it.
Benteen’s one overarching weakness, Bell told Walter Camp, was “vindictiveness.” He not only held a grudge against Custer for the death of Major Elliott at the Washita, he was galled by his low rank relative to what he’d achieved during the Civil War, especially when it required him to serve under inferior sorts like Custer and Reno. As a consequence, Benteen “never took the interest in his command that might have been expected of him.” He was “indifferent,” Bell claimed, “to minor matters of discipline and always had the poorest company in the regiment.” But if Benteen was “not a good company officer,” he was, Bell acknowledged, “a first rate fighter.” As the next day was about to prove, that was an understatement.
Instead of plotting to abandon the wounded, Reno appears to have spent the night nursing his whiskey and complaining about Custer. At one point, Private Burkman overheard Reno say to another officer: “Well I wonder where the Murat of the American army is by this time!” Since Burkman, who was illiterate, didn’t know that Murat was Napoleon’s greatest cavalry officer, the remark didn’t mean much to him; he did know, however, that Reno had “a sneer in his laugh.”
Later that night two civilian packers were searching for some food and blankets near the corral. The boxes and saddles that hadn’t made their way to the barricade had been tossed together into a large, disorganized heap. Standing alone in the darkness with a bottle in his hand was Major Reno. “Are the mules tight?” Reno said. Assuming the major had misspoken, one of the packers asked if he meant to ask whether the mules were “tied.” “Tight, goddamn you,” Reno shouted as he lunged toward the man and showered him with whiskey.
Lieutenant Edgerly also saw Reno near the horses and mules that night. When Reno asked what he’d been doing, Edgerly said that he’d been sleeping. “Great God,” Reno responded, “I don’t see how you can sleep.”
That night Peter Thompson went to check on his horse. When he’d last seen the animal, it was one of five horses being held by Private John McGuire, who’d been so frightened by the terrific fire of the Indians that he’d scrunched down as low as was humanly possible and still hold five horses. When Thompson arrived several hours later, McGuire was in the exact same position, even though three of the horses were dead. Thompson asked McGuire whether he realized that he’d lost three of his charges. “He mournfully shook his head,” Thompson remembered. When he saw that one of the dead horses was his own, Thompson left “in disgust.”
As had been true all afternoon and evening, the only thing anybody wanted to talk about was the whereabouts of Custer and his battalion. In the beginning Thompson attempted to tell his fellow soldiers what he’d witnessed. They were perfectly willing to believe that he had seen Custer on the river, but they refused to believe that Custer had gotten “the worst of the fight, that was bosh.” Instead of attempting to convince them of the truth, Thompson decided to “say nothing further about it as contradiction was a thing I could not stand, when I was right.”
Thompson walked over to the edge of the bluffs and looked down into the valley. Large bonfires illuminated the village below, throwing long and quavering shadows across the hills. He could see the Indians dancing around the fires and hear the throb of the drums, the barking of the dogs, and the high-pitched howls of the women grieving for the dead. The sights and sounds “made the night hideous,” Thompson observed, but the Lakota and Cheyenne “seemed to enjoy it amazingly.”
While he and the others stood gazing at the village, they heard the hoarse bleat of a bugle echoing across the valley. One of the buglers in the battalion sent out an answering call. But the response was yet another meaningless, discordant blast. The Indians were mocking them, they decided, with a captured bugle.
Each company had stationed two pickets along the periphery of the entrenchment. In case of attack, the pickets were to provide at least a measure of advance warning that the enemy was approaching. But instead of warriors, the pickets thought they saw something else. A column of cavalry, they announced to those back in the entrenchment, was out there in the darkness.
The men studied the gloom ahead for what was described as a “shadow seen passing southward over to the east.” It was Custer, some insisted. Others said it was Terry and Gibbon. No, one of the packers claimed, it was the Wyoming Column, come to their rescue. The packer jumped onto a horse and rode up and down the line shouting, “Don’t be discouraged, boys, it’s Crook!” They stood staring into the dark as behind them the village blazed with light. Finally, the soldiers were forced to admit that nothing was out there.
The superstitious among them might have wondered whether they’d witnessed the departure of Custer’s battalion for the afterlife. But no one (with the exception of Thompson and Watson, who’d seen glimpses of the desperate fighting to the north) could imagine that Custer and his men were dead. The life force burned so vigorously within George Armstrong Custer that it was impossible to believe it could be extinguished. Despite all the circumstantial evidence—the captured guidons and bugles, the dust cloud they’d seen hovering over the hills—the officers and men of Reno and Benteen’s battalion remained convinced that Custer was alive and that, as Benteen had maintained from the start, he had forsaken them.