At 2:30 a.m., a pair of rifle shots tore through the cool predawn air. It was time, the Lakota and Cheyenne had decided, to resume the battle.
Benteen told the trumpeters to sound reveille. He wanted “to notify all concerned,” Lieutenant Gibson remembered, “including the Indians, that there were still men left on the hill.”
It was then that the phantoms of the previous night became real. A large number of mounted troopers, their guidons waving in the soft morning breeze, appeared to the north. “Of course . . . ,” Trumpeter William Hardy remembered, “we thought it was Custer’s command.” The cavalrymen marched to within four hundred yards of the entrenchment and halted. Then they opened fire. They were Indians dressed in the clothes of the soldiers’ dead comrades.
That morning the warriors unleashed what Private William Taylor remembered as a “perfect shower of bullets.” The fire was hot everywhere, but it was particularly bad for the soldiers of Benteen’s H Company, who were spread out around the irregular edge of a bluff that dominated the south end of the entrenchment. Since they occupied the highest ground, they were vulnerable from virtually every direction. Soon all the sagebrush on their hill had been clipped to the very roots. “My only wonder,” Lieutenant Gibson remembered, “is that every one of us wasn’t killed.”
Benteen had insisted that he and Gibson remain awake all night to make sure the pickets did their duty. But once the sky began to brighten and the bullets began to fly, Benteen decided it was time to sleep. Even though the Indians’ fire was much heavier than the day before and his men were without rifle pits and barricades, he retreated from the line, lay down on the bald and dusty hill, and, using his rifle as a pillow, took a nap.
The Indians quickly had his range, and a bullet cut the heel off his boot; another kicked up the earth under his armpit. But Benteen, who claimed, “I hadn’t the remotest idea of letting little things like that disturb me,” somehow managed to fall asleep.
As their commander slept, the soldiers of H Company became the enemy’s favored targets. The trooper lying beside Private Windolph decided to take off the overcoat he’d put on the night before. He’d rolled over onto his side and thrown out his arm when he cried out in pain. He’d taken a bullet through the heart and was dead. Seconds later, another bullet tore through Windolph’s clothes and nicked him in the torso; yet another shattered the wooden butt of his carbine.
With no way to protect themselves and with Benteen nowhere in sight, the soldiers of H Company began to seek refuge among the horses and mules at the corral in the hollow at the center of the entrenchment. Lieutenant Gibson, who’d been left in charge while his commander slept, feared the depleted ranks were about to be overrun. The Indians were gathering in the ravine that led up from the river. One of the soldiers said what was on all their minds: “Get the old man back here quick.”
Benteen was not happy when awakened with the message that his lieutenant was having “a regular monkey and parrot time of it.” “To say that I felt like saying something naughty to that sergeant was putting it mildly,” he remembered. But as Benteen soon realized, his company was in deep trouble. The warriors were so close that they were pelting the soldiers with rocks and clods of dirt. Some were even throwing arrows at them. He must stop the retreat of soldiers to the corral and start building a breastwork.
He found a group of H Company soldiers and civilian packers cowering among the horses and mules. “Where are you running to, men?” he asked. “Come on back, and we will drive them off. You might as well be killed out there as in here.” He soon had fifteen or sixteen men headed back up the hill, carrying an assortment of hardtack boxes and saddles.
This was a help, but he needed more men and material with which to build a barricade. He must ask Reno for another company. He found the major lying in a pit with Captain Weir. It was an unexpected pairing. Earlier that spring, Reno had attempted to court-martial Weir for insubordination. Now they were sharing a hole in the ground, a partnership that was most likely inspired by their mutual love of the bottle.
Benteen told Reno that his company was being “hard pressed” by the Indians and that he required some reinforcements. Reno said that his side of the entrenchment was just as hard pressed and that he couldn’t spare any men. Benteen pointed out that if the Indians were able to cut through his line, the entire battalion would be overrun. Finally, Reno agreed to give him French’s M Company. “There was some dissatisfaction at the order,” Private Morris remembered, “as the men believed that the necessity was due solely to the neglect of ‘H,’ in digging pits.”
Benteen evoked a similar response from the men of Moylan’s A Company, who had spent the night constructing one of the better barricades in the battalion. From Benteen’s perspective it was better than they needed, and with Moylan’s consent, he supervised the relocation of a considerable portion of the barricade to his end of the entrenchment. Private William Taylor was one of those who reluctantly carried the material over to Benteen’s position on the hill. He was almost killed when the hardtack box on his shoulder was hit by a bullet, but Taylor could not help but admire Benteen’s courage under fire. “You could see the bullets throwing up dust as they struck all around him while he, calmly as if on parade, came down our lines and, after his errand, returned in the same manner carrying in his hand a carbine.”
After ignoring Custer’s order to “Come on,” after refusing to dig rifle pits and build barricades, after sleeping while his men endured the worst fire of the battle, Benteen had finally decided to wake up and fight.
Like Custer, Benteen had a theatrical streak. Unlike Custer, who was infatuated with the cavaliers of old, Benteen had a more contemporary source of inspiration: baseball.
Benteen loved the sport. Back in Kansas, he’d organized a pickup game in the midst of the wide and rolling prairie and proudly speculated that it was probably the first time baseball had been played in such a remote part of the American West. Late in life his hands began to give him problems, a condition he blamed on years of playing baseball.
In 1873 H Company organized “Benteen’s Base Ball Club.” Over the last three years, the Benteens had played throughout the Dakota Territory, even staging a game in the Black Hills, where they defeated a team of “citizen teamsters” 25–11. With the help of baseball, H Company had developed a cohesiveness and camaraderie that no other troop in the regiment could match. They might lack the fastidious attention to cleanliness that typified Yates’s “Bandbox Troop” (and thus earned Lieutenant Bell’s scorn as the regiment’s “poorest company”), but as they were about to prove, they were willing to follow their captain just about anywhere.
The best player on Benteen’s Base Ball Club was First Sergeant Joseph McCurry, a pitcher with professional ambitions who was described as the “stay and prop of the club.” During the hilltop fight, McCurry’s possible future as a pro was placed in jeopardy when he suffered a gunshot wound to the left shoulder. Including McCurry, four members of Benteen’s Base Ball Club were wounded during the battle.
That morning, Benteen prowled the top of his hill like a curmudgeonly baseball manager. When his shirttail worked out of his pants, he made no effort to tuck it back in. He had more important things to worry about. “Men . . . ,” he said, “it is live or die with us. We must fight it out with them.”
Besides baseball, Benteen’s other passion was his wife, Frabbie. Benteen had fallen in love with her during the Civil War; they had had five children together, only one of whom, their nine-year-old son, Fred, was still alive. When a particularly frightful barrage of bullets seemed sure to kill his commander, one of Benteen’s soldiers asked, “Why don’t you keep down, Captain?” “Oh I am all right,” Benteen insisted with a laugh; “mother sewed some good medicine in my blouse before I left home, so they won’t get me.” Whatever the couple had decided to use as “medicine,” they were following the example of the Lakota and Cheyenne, who relied on a diverse range of sacred objects—from bear claws, to bird skins, to stones and even dirt—to protect them in battle. Thanks to Frabbie, Benteen was invulnerable.
The Indians had infiltrated a ravine that began just south of Benteen’s hilltop and led down to the river. Most of the warriors were hidden from view, but the troopers could hear them “singing,” a soldier remembered, “some kind of war cry.” As Benteen stood on his hill amid a shower of bullets, he was suddenly taken with the sheer number of Indians gathered not only in the ravine but all around their little saucer of grass. One of his favorite soldiers in H Company was Private Windolph. “Windolph,” he said, “stand up and see this.” Fearing for his life, Windolph asked, “Do I have to?” “If you do,” Benteen replied, “and ever get out of here alive, which I sincerely doubt, you will be able to write and tell the Old Folks back in Germany how many Indians we had to fight today.”
“It took a man,” Windolph later marveled, “to stand in that exposed position.”
Long Road’s Sans Arc relatives were worried about him. His older brother had been killed the week before at the Battle of the Rosebud, and Long Road no longer wanted to live. As the warriors in the ravine crept constantly closer to the soldiers of Benteen’s H Company, Long Road—a cartridge belt looped over his shoulder, a knife between his teeth, and a pistol in each hand—was at the head of the pack.
The ravine opened up onto the bluff in a welter of grassy crevices and gulches that provided the young Sans Arc with just the cover he needed. Moving quickly among this complex system of dry streams and creeks, he paused, rose, fired, ducked, and moved on.
Private Pigford had been watching Long Road’s gradual but sure progress up the ravine. “Every little while this Indian would rise up and fire,” Pigford remembered. At one point, Long Road grew bold enough to reveal the entire upper half of his body. “Taking deliberate aim,” Pigford fired his carbine and killed the Sans Arc, who was less than seventy-five feet from the soldiers’ line—so close that his fellow warriors were unable to retrieve his body. Some of Benteen’s soldiers later claimed that the warrior had ventured near enough to touch the body of a fallen trooper, a practice known as counting coup, before he died. Whether or not this was true, Long Road had joined his brother in the afterlife.
His men remembered him for his courage, but Benteen’s most distinct memory of that day was being “so confoundedly mad and sleepy.” More than anything else, Benteen wanted to take a nap, but the Indians had made that impossible. He told his men he “was getting mad, and I wanted them to charge down the ravine with me when I gave the yell.”
Given the topography, it was impossible to see how many warriors were massed in the ravine below, but this also meant that the warriors could not see them. With Benteen in the lead and with every man screaming at the top of his lungs, the soldiers poured over the barricade toward the unsuspecting warriors. “To say that ’twas a surprise to them,” Benteen wrote, “is [putting it mildly], for they somersaulted and vaulted as so many trained acrobats, having no order in getting down those ravines.” The charge continued for close to a hundred yards and effectively rid the ravine of warriors.
Before turning back, Benteen raised his carbine and shot one of the fleeing warriors in the spine. The “exquisite satisfaction” Benteen admitted to feeling had nothing to do with bloodlust (“I’m rather fond of Indians than otherwise,” he insisted) and everything to do with being exhausted. “I was so tired,” he wrote, “and [the Indians] wouldn’t let me sleep.”
One of the favorite soldiers of French’s M Company, Private James Tanner, was wounded during the charge. Seeing that Tanner was hit, Sergeant Ryan went back for a blanket, rolled him onto it, and with the help of three others carried him back to Dr. Porter’s hospital. “Poor old Tanner,” Private Newell said, “they got you.” “No,” Tanner gasped, “but they will in a few minutes.” The soldiers did everything they could to make him comfortable, even laying a coat over him as he grew cold beneath the searing summer sun, and soon he was dead.
About that time, Captain French’s horse was shot in the head and began to stagger among the other animals. Private Henry Voight grabbed the horse’s bridle and started to lead him away when Voight, too, was shot in the head and killed. The next day, the soldiers buried Tanner and Voight in the same rifle pit. For a headstone they used the lid of a hardtack box with the dead men’s names written across it in pencil.
Benteen had no sooner completed the charge and returned to his newly fortified breastwork when he realized that the Indians were now massing on Reno’s end of the entrenchment. With a hill between them and the warriors, the soldiers to the north were unaware of the threat. They were also unaware that these same warriors were firing on the rear of Benteen’s line. Once again, he must speak to Reno.
—THE SIEGE, DAY 2, June 26, 1876—
Reno was still in his hole with Captain Weir, and he had no interest in leaving. “No doubt,” Peter Thompson wrote, “[Reno] would have pulled the hole in after him if he could.” Several times Benteen demanded that Reno lead a charge. Only after Benteen pointed out that Reno’s position was now in more peril than his own did Reno, who finally sat up enough to lean on his elbow, say, “All right, give the command.”
“Ready boys,” Benteen shouted, “now charge and give them hell!”
To his credit, Reno leapt up and led his men over the barricade. Lieutenant Varnum was running toward the puffs of gray smoke coming from the warriors’ line when he felt a sudden pain in his legs. “I thought I’d lost them,” he remembered. He later discovered that one bullet had punctured his calf while another had skimmed the length of the other leg, neatly cutting off the yellow cavalry stripe from his trousers before it smashed into his leather boot top. The concussion against his ankle-bone was “like a blow of a hammer,” he remembered, and after collapsing to the ground, he limped back to the barricade.
By that time, the entire battalion had been called back. They had gone only forty or fifty yards, but the charge had served its purpose. The Indians had scattered. Miraculously, not a man had been lost during the charge. However, there was one soldier, Private Patrick Golden, who had elected to stay behind. The night before, he’d become convinced that he was fated to die the next day, and he remained weeping in the pit as his comrades ran bravely into the Indians’ fire. On their return, Lieutenant Edgerly and another soldier joined Golden in his pit. A few seconds later, the heaped earth in front of the pit exploded in a dusty cloud and Golden fell over with a bullet in the head.
Once back behind the line, Varnum attempted to check the wound on his ankle, which was bothering him much more than the bullet through the calf. But every time he rolled on his back and tried to get his boot off, an Indian marksman nearly picked him off and sent him scurrying for cover. A young private from B Company lying next to him found all of this quite funny and began to laugh. Varnum was about to say something when a bullet slammed into the soldier’s head and killed him instantly.
Many of the Indians were firing at such long range that the bullets landed harmlessly along the soldiers’ line. “We could pick the balls up as they fell,” Herendeen remembered. A spent bullet hit the regiment’s chief packer, John Wagoner, in the head. Instead of killing him, it merely knocked him unconscious. Once he’d been revived, his bloody head was wrapped in a bandage, and Wagoner lived for many years afterward with the bullet still lodged against his skull.
By noon the temperature was approaching a hundred degrees, and the stench from the dead horses along the barricade had become intolerable. No one appreciated this more than George Herendeen. His horse had died the day before, and the carcass was swarming with maggots and flies. Even worse, whenever an enemy bullet struck the horse, Herendeen could hear the slow, appalling hiss of gas leaking from the animal’s bloated corpse.
Many of the soldiers had not had a drink of water in two days. Their mouths were so dry they could no longer speak. In hopes of promoting the secretion of saliva, some of them tried chewing on hardtack. But it was no use, and rather than gag on the bread, they were forced, Lieutenant Godfrey wrote, to “blow it out of their mouths like so much flour.” Some of the soldiers grew so desperate for a drink that they reverted, the Cheyenne claimed, to collecting urine from the horses.
The soldiers were all suffering from dehydration, but for the more than forty wounded men, most of whom had lost significant amounts of blood, the torment—technically known as volumetric thirst—was beyond imagining. “It was awful . . . ,” remembered Dr. Porter, who lacked the water even to clean the soldiers’ wounds, “the groans of the men . . . crying and begging piteously for water to moisten their parched lips, which were soon to close and stiffen in death.”
Peter Thompson had been wounded in the arm and hand before he could join Benteen’s charge. He staggered over to Porter’s hospital and, feeling light-headed from loss of blood, collapsed. When he came to, he discovered that another soldier had stolen his carbine. By that time, a considerable number of soldiers had made their way back to the corral, and as Thompson lay on the ground, “meditating on the meanness of human nature,” Benteen arrived shouting, “Get out of here! Do your duty!” and drove the skulkers back to the lines.
The heat had become so oppressive that Dr. Porter decided to try to shade the wounded with a piece of canvas held up by a few pieces of wood. The canvas was so low that it inevitably trapped the smothering heat, but at least they were no longer frying in the sun. Lying beside Thompson was his good friend James Bennett, who’d been hit in the spine and was now paralyzed from the waist down. Thompson asked if there was anything he could do to help. “Water, Thompson,” he said. “Water, for God’s sake.”
“I’ll get it,” Thompson replied, “if I live.” Bennett let go of Thompson’s hand and “seemed satisfied.” It was only then, Thompson wrote, that “I began to realize what the promise I had made meant.”
By the late morning, the fire from the Indians had begun to slacken. Thompson took up a coffee kettle and two canteens and headed down the ravine for the river. On his way, he passed some troopers examining the body of Long Road. The group included two soldiers from his own troop, C Company: Sergeant Daniel Kanipe, who’d greeted him when he first joined Reno’s battalion on the bluff, and Private John Jordan. Kanipe told him he was foolish to try to get water, particularly given his badly wounded right hand, which made it impossible to carry a carbine. But Thompson, stubborn as always, would not be deterred, and after Jordan gave him a handkerchief with which to make a sling, he started down the ravine, wounded and unarmed.
H Company’s charge had flushed the bluff of Indians, but this did not mean there weren’t a few warriors waiting to ambush anyone attempting to approach the river. “As I went down the ravine,” Thompson wrote, “I found it got narrower and deeper, and became more lonesome and naturally more depressing.” The bottom of the ravine was chopped up with hoof prints from the warriors’ ponies. It was clear to Thompson that “the Indians had made a desperate effort to make an opening through our place of defense by this route.” With his hand in a sling and the kettle and canteens in his arms, he moved cautiously down the ever-constricting corridor of grass until the ravine began to bend toward the river.
Ahead of him the ravine opened up enough that it offered no protection from the Lakota snipers who were surely lurking in the dense stand of cottonwoods on the opposite bank of the river. After about a hundred yards, the topography once again provided some cover until the ravine eventually ended about twenty yards from the edge of the Little Bighorn.
Not long before, Thompson had been convinced that if he did as Benteen ordered and ran up the hill to the H Company line, he would surely be killed. The bullets were coming from three different directions and “all exposed places were pretty well riddled.” But he went anyway, running as fast as he could even as he was “seized with a tendency to shrink up”—a posture that his wife and children, for whom he later provided a demonstration, called “a squatty shuffle.” Instead of hitting him in the legs, as he’d expected, a bullet had torn off a knuckle on his right hand before it ricocheted from the barrel of his gun and ripped through his elbow. He’d been badly injured, but he had survived.
Now he was faced with a similar dilemma. He knew that if he dared approach the river, the Indians would open fire. No one had ordered him to do this, but a promise was a promise, and besides, after two days on that sunbaked bluff, the prospect of dipping his face—not to mention his swollen, blood-caked hand—into the gurgling blue-green river made even the most perilous risk worth taking.
Thompson reached the mouth of the ravine without incident and, leaving the two canteens behind, ran for the river with the kettle. But instead of rolling out of the trees on the other side of the river, a volley of gunfire erupted from the left, on his side. Despite his childhood fear of water, Thompson dove in.
Watching from the bank of the river was the Cheyenne Young Two Moons. He and his fellow warriors saw a most unusual sight: a soldier in his undershirt running for the river with a large cup. The soldier “threw himself in [the] water,” Young Two Moons told an interpreter, and started filling the container. “Half the time [we] could not see him,” he remembered, “because of the water thrown up by the bullets.”
When Thompson reached the safety of the ravine, he discovered that he’d succeeded “in getting plenty of sand, a little water,” but at least he had enough of that cool, sweet liquid to fill both canteens. After an exhausting trek back up the ravine, he was greeted by some troopers who asked him about the blood flowing down his forehead. Thompson insisted that his head was all right; it was his hand and elbow that were hurting him. But as was subsequently confirmed, Thompson had been grazed in the head by three different bullets, one of which had dug a sizable furrow (his daughter later described the scar as “a groove, long and quite depressed”) across his skull.
He found Bennett still lying in the hospital. His friend was too weak to drink himself, so Thompson left one canteen in the care of another member of C Company, Private John Mahoney. The strongest loyalties a soldier felt were to the members of his own troop, and the soldiers of C Company were in an unusual position given that most of their members were with Custer’s battalion. They were a small, officerless group, and they must look out for themselves.
Thompson found two more wounded members of C Company, Privates John McGuire and Alfred Whittaker, and gave them the other canteen. Once each of them had had a drink, Thompson took the canteen over to some of the other wounded. John McVay of G Company had been shot in the hips and had been particularly vociferous in his pleas for water. Once he’d drunk from Thompson’s canteen, McVay pulled a pistol from beneath his coat. Still clutching the canteen, he told Thompson “to skip or he would put a hole through me.”
In retrospect, Thompson was glad he hadn’t been armed, because he was sure he would have responded by shooting the ingrate dead. “My action would have been justified by the law,” he insisted, “as it would have been an act of self defense.” But the G Company soldier was only one of many who were desperate for water. As Thompson pushed the pistol aside and indignantly reclaimed the canteen, others offered to pay him for a drink. “Ten dollars,” one soldier said; “fifteen for a canteen of water,” said another; “twenty dollars,” said a third. “And so the bidding went,” Thompson wrote, “as at an auction.” He decided he must make another, almost mile-long trip to the river and back.
Thompson was not the only soldier to venture to the Little Bighorn on his own initiative. Henry Mechling and another soldier from Benteen’s H Company also headed down the ravine with their canteens. There they discovered Michael Madden, a saddler from Lieutenant Godfrey’s K Company, who had been shot in the right leg while attempting to get water, sitting beside a kettle at the ravine’s mouth. Madden had suffered a double fracture beneath the knee and rather than endure the torture of being lugged back up to the top of bluff, had requested to remain beside the river.
Mechling’s partner took Madden’s kettle and ran for the river. When he returned, there was a fresh bullet hole about three inches from the top of the kettle, but he’d managed to collect a good amount of water. Mechling filled several canteens, strapped them around his shoulders, and climbed to the top of the bluff, where he found his captain and offered him a drink. In no time, Benteen had drunk almost half the contents of the canteen.
Extreme thirst is one of the most powerful urges a human being can experience, and the sight of their leader greedily downing a canteen of water was more than Benteen’s men could bear. “The whole line [was] about to start to the river for water,” Mechling remembered, “and Benteen had to make threats to prevent them from leaving the line and making a break for the river.” By hastily succumbing to his own craving for water, Benteen had endangered the safety of the entire battalion. If he didn’t act responsibly now, any remaining order in his company might rapidly degenerate into a collective madness for water.
Benteen asked Mechling if he and a detail of three soldiers could provide some covering fire for another, larger detail of men sent down to the river for water. Soon Mechling and his band of “German boys,” all of them from H Company, were positioned on a narrow bluff overlooking the Little Bighorn, where they could cover the movements of twelve water carriers. It was dangerous for the water carriers, but the four sharpshooters were just as exposed. “The Indians off to the north had the range on us,” Mechling remembered, “and when the fire got too hot we had to get to the south slope of the hill, when the Indians to the south would crack away at us and then we would run over to the north slope, and in this way kept repeating the performance.” All four sharpshooters, including Private Charles Windolph, later received Medals of Honor, as did fifteen water carriers, including Peter Thompson, who made at least three trips to the river that day.
Around 2 p.m., the warriors unleashed one of the stiffest fusillades yet, and the soldiers, many of whom had been milling about the entrenchment, were driven back to the barricade. By this time Thompson had moved to the western side of the entrenchment overlooking the river. From behind the bluff, he heard someone shout in excellent English, “Come down here you white livered son of a bitch, and I will cut your heart out and drink your blood.”
During their panicked flight from the banks of the Little Bighorn, Thompson and Watson had been fired on by a man who Thompson claimed was white. Whether or not this was another one of his mistaken or potentially delusional sightings, others in the battalion heard English spoken by the enemy that day. Several soldiers claimed that at least one of the sharpshooters firing on the entrenchment from the hill to the north was white, and Reno later insisted that the Lakota and Cheyenne had been supplemented by “all the [territory’s] desperadoes, renegades, and half-breeds and squawmen.” True to his oddly original nature, Thompson responded to the enemy’s expletive-laden taunt by bleating like a sheep.
By 3 p.m., the Indians’ fire once again began to slacken. By 4 p.m. it had stopped almost entirely. By 5 p.m. thick clouds of smoke began to billow up from fires along the river. The soldiers had long since left their positions along the line and were gathered in small groups as they looked down on the valley below. “I doubt if a dirtier, more haggard looking lot of men ever wore the Army Blue,” Private William Taylor wrote. They watched as the red ball of the sun sank into the smoky air, when suddenly the wispy clouds started to lift. Below them was a sight that was never seen again: a village of eight thousand Lakota and Cheyenne and twenty thousand horses moving as one.
The train of people and horses was between a half and a full mile wide and went on for almost three miles. It was, Lieutenant Edgerly, testified, “the largest number of quadrupeds I’d ever seen in my life.” Edgerly compared the herd to “a great brown carpet . . . being dragged over the ground.” To Trumpeter William Hardy, it looked like “a long black cloud . . . moving away.” Hardy remembered how Major Reno turned to Captain Moylan and said, “For God’s sake, Moylan, look what we have been standing off!” The soldiers gave three spontaneous cheers as Captain French and Sergeant Ryan trained their long-range rifles on the distant Indians and fired a few halfhearted shots. Sergeant Ryan later claimed that he fired both the first and last shots of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Four men—the interpreter Fred Gerard, the scout Billy Jackson, Private Thomas O’Neill, and Lieutenant Charles DeRudio, all of them still hidden in the brush near the river—saw firsthand the human toll the battle had taken on the Lakota and Cheyenne. From his hiding place in the trees near Reno’s original fording place, Gerard could “plainly see wounded warriors on travois and dead warriors thrown across and tied to the backs of horses. Above all the noise and rattle and the hum of voices and cries of children, we could hear the death chanting of the squaws.”
Up on the hill, Reno and his officers feared that this was simply a ruse and that come tomorrow the warriors would return. In preparation for what was regarded as the inevitable third day of the battle, Reno decided to move the entrenchment closer to the river and away from the stench of the dead horses. As night descended, the men dug new and larger rifle pits while others led the horses down to the river. Lieutenant Edgerly remembered how the horses sat down on their haunches as they tried to make their tentative yet urgent way down the steep bluff to the water. Once they reached the river, it was, Sergeant Stanislas Roy related, “a pitiful sight to see the poor animals plunge their heads into the water up to their eyes and drink.”
Around 11 p.m., the spirits of the men received a boost when Gerard and Jackson wandered in, followed soon after by DeRudio and O’Neill, all of whom had spent two terrifying days and nights hiding from the Indians in the scrubby woods beside the river. Reno wrote out a message for Terry and Gibbon, who were presumably approaching from the Bighorn to the north, but the Crow and Arikara scouts said there were too many warriors in the vicinity to leave the entrenchment safely.
On the morning of June 27 they looked down on what appeared to be a deserted Indian village. The site was littered with tepee poles and a few still-standing lodges, but there was not a living person to be seen. And then they looked down the river valley and saw the cloud of dust coming toward them from the north.
At first they worried that this was the Indians come to renew the attack. But gradually they realized that the two approaching columns were soldiers. Some thought it was Crook; others said it was Terry and Gibbon, perhaps with Custer showing them the way. At last, the siege was over.
For two days, fewer than 400 soldiers, scouts, and packers had held off approximately 2,000 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Their commander, Marcus Reno, had not covered himself in glory, but he had not been the sniveling coward some later made him out to be. Whiskey had dulled his senses and made it impossible for him to lead by example, but a part of him may have realized that his second-in-command, Captain Benteen, was better equipped to inspire the battalion in a desperate siege. After two days of hard fighting, during which they had suffered casualties of 18 dead and 52 wounded, approximately 350 members of Reno’s battalion were still alive, and that, in the end, was all that mattered.
At the court of inquiry that was later called to investigate Reno’s conduct, Captain McDougall gave a most perceptive assessment of his commander. “He could make as stubborn a fight as any man,” McDougall testified, “but I don’t think he could encourage men like others. . . . Men are different, some are dashing and others have a quiet way of going through. I think he did as well as anyone could do.”
Benteen, on the other hand, had been everything Reno wasn’t. “Wherever Benteen went,” Peter Thompson remembered, “the soldiers’ faces lighted up with hope.” However, not until the second day of the siege did Benteen assume the role for which he was later remembered. On the night of June 25 he refused to build a barricade; the next morning, in the midst of a near-catastrophic Indian assault, he took a nap.
Exhaustion, in fact, may have been for Benteen what whiskey was for Reno. By the morning of June 26, Benteen was suffering from three successive nights with almost no sleep, and in his own narrative of the hilltop fight, he refers repeatedly to how tired he felt. The judgment of everyone on Reno Hill was impaired by a powerful combination of fatigue, dehydration, and fear, but it’s safe to say that no one was as exhausted by that morning as Frederick Benteen.
Only when he awoke to find himself in the midst of the imminent collapse of both his company and the battalion did Benteen become “the savior of the Seventh.” By then, he had a special incentive. Custer was still out there, he believed, and if he and Reno could only get through this day alive, the whole world would soon learn how their commander had callously deserted them. Of course, Custer had done the same thing eight years before at the Battle of the Washita and gotten away with it. But not this time. There were too many witnesses. By surviving this two-day siege, he and Reno had surely earned themselves the most satisfying victory of all: the court-martial and professional demise of George Armstrong Custer.
General Terry had promised Custer that he’d be at the Little Bighorn by the morning of June 26. But it had taken longer than expected to ferry the soldiers across the Yellowstone on the Far West. “I shall never forget Terry’s anxiety and impatience to get on,” Major Brisbin wrote.
As the riverboat proceeded up the Bighorn toward the Little Bighorn, Terry and the Montana Column marched along the Bighorn’s eastern bank over some of the roughest country any of them had ever seen. On the night of June 25, in a cold and miserable rain, they lost their way in the moonless dark and nearly fell into the river. “The head of the column came plump on the brink of a precipice at whose foot swept the roaring waters of the Bighorn,” wrote Lieutenant James Bradley, who was in charge of the Crow scouts. “The water gleamed in front a hundred and fifty feet below. . . . For several minutes we sat [on] our horses looking by turn at the water and into the black ravines.”
At Bradley’s suggestion, the Crow scout Little Face was placed at the head of the column, and in a few hours’ time, they were camped about a mile and a half from the Little Bighorn. At daylight on June 26, Lieutenant Bradley and his Crow scouts were sent out to investigate the trail ahead. They found evidence that four unshod Indian ponies had recently passed by on their way to the Bighorn. They soon discovered that the ponies belonged to three of Custer’s Crow scouts, White Man Runs Him, Hairy Moccasin, and Goes Ahead, who had already crossed over to the west bank of the Bighorn. After communicating with the scouts, Little Face rode back to Bradley.
For awhile he could not speak [Bradley wrote], but at last composed himself and told his story in a choking voice, broken with frequent sobs. As he proceeded, the Crows one by one broke off from the group of listeners and going aside a little distance sat down alone, weeping and chanting that dreadful mourning song, and rocking their bodies to and fro. They were the first listeners to the horrid story of the Custer massacre, and outside of the relatives and personal friends of the fallen, there were none in this whole horrified nation of forty millions of people to whom the tidings brought greater grief.
This was the first word of the disaster to reach anyone associated with the Montana Column. Bradley personally delivered the message to Terry and his staff. “The story was sneered at,” Bradley wrote; “such a catastrophe it was asserted was wholly improbable, nay impossible.” Terry, Bradley noticed, “took no part in these criticisms, but sat on his horse silent and thoughtful, biting his lower lip.”
They proceeded and were soon in the valley of the Little Bighorn. About fifteen to twenty miles to the southeast was a cloud of dense smoke.
—THE MARCH OF THE MONTANA COLUMN TO THE LITTLE BIGHNORN, June 21-27, 1876—
As the majority of the column marched up the valley, Lieutenant Charles Roe led several cavalry companies to the bluffs paralleling the river to the right. From his elevated position Roe could see “a long line of moving dark objects defiling across the prairie from the Little Bighorn . . . as if the village were in motion, retreating before us.” Roe also saw some horsemen “clothed in blue uniforms . . . breaking into column and otherwise maneuvering like a body of cavalry.” Thinking they were from Custer’s regiment, he sent a detail to investigate. As they’d done earlier in the day on Reno Hill, the blue-clad warriors fired on the approaching soldiers, who were “quickly undeceived as to their character.”
As it was almost completely dark, Terry ordered the column to camp for the night. “Notwithstanding the disclosures of the day,” Terry’s staff remained confident “that there was not an Indian in our front and that the men seen were members of Custer’s command.” The Crow scouts knew better and had long since slipped away from the column and headed back to their reservation.
On the morning of June 27, five days after Custer had first set forth up the Rosebud River, the Montana Column resumed its march along the west bank of the Little Bighorn. Two advance guards led them up the valley while Terry and Gibbon remained with the slower-moving infantry. After passing a large, heavily wooded bend in the river, they caught a glimpse of two Indian tepees “standing in the open valley.” While Bradley’s advance guard of mounted infantry crossed the river to scout the hills to the east, the rest of the column marched into the abandoned village: a three-mile swath of naked tepee poles, discarded kettles, and other implements. Each of the two standing lodges was encircled by a ring of dead ponies and contained the corpses of several warriors. Among the debris they found the bloody underwear of Lieutenant James Sturgis, son of the Seventh Cavalry’s highest-ranking officer, Colonel Samuel Sturgis. There was also the buckskin shirt owned by Lieutenant James Porter. Judging from the bullet hole in the shirt, Porter had been shot near the heart.
Up ahead to the south, on the other side of the river, Gibbon could see what looked to be a crowd of people standing on a prominent hill. But were they soldiers or warriors? “The feeling of anxiety was overwhelming,” he wrote. By this time, Lieutenant Bradley had descended from the much closer hills almost directly across the river to the east. He rode up to Gibson and Terry. “I have a very sad report to make,” he said. “I have counted one hundred and ninety-seven dead bodies lying in the hills.”
“White men?” someone asked.
“Yes, white men.”
“There could be no question now,” Gibbon wrote. “The Crows were right.”
Not long afterward, Terry and Gibbon learned from Lieutenants Hare and Wallace that Major Reno and seven companies of the Seventh Cavalry were the men they’d seen watching from the hills. As Gibbon looked for a place to camp in the valley, Terry and his staff followed Hare and Wallace to the bluff.
Terry was openly weeping by the time he reached Reno’s battalion. Standing beside the major was Frederick Benteen. Almost immediately the captain asked whether Terry “knew where Custer had gone.”
“To the best of my knowledge and belief,” Terry replied, “he lies on this ridge about 4 miles below here with all of his command killed.”
“I can hardly believe it,” Benteen said. “I think he is somewhere down the Big Horn grazing his horses.” Benteen then launched into the refrain he’d been repeating ever since he arrived on Reno Hill: “At the Battle of the Washita he went off and left part of his command, and I think he would do it again.”
Terry was well aware of the history between Custer and Benteen. “I think you are mistaken,” he responded, “and you will take your company and go down where the dead are lying and investigate for yourself.”
Private Jacob Adams was the the one who found Custer. He called to Benteen, who dismounted and walked over to have a closer look.
“By God,” he said, “that is him.”