Sitting Bull had dreamed of an army washed away by a burst of rain. By the end of the first week of the Seventh Cavalry’s slow slog west from Fort Lincoln, the prediction was about to come true.
Soon after leaving their first campsite on the Heart River, the column was hit by a furious thunderstorm. At noon on the next day, hail the size of hickory nuts clattered out of the sky, beating on the heads and shoulders of the men and nearly stampeding the mules. The next morning they awoke to a bitterly cold rain that continued all day. And so it went.
Rivers that were barely discernible trickles for most of the year were transformed into brown, rain-pelted torrents. The engineers built crude bridges of boards and brush, and gradually the slender-wheeled wagons made it across, but the going was agonizingly slow. And then there was the mud—glutinous, clinging, and slippery, so slippery that even when pushed by hand the sunken wagon wheels spun uselessly and the men and horses, exhausted and cold, wallowed and slithered in the dark gray alkaline slime of a wet spring in North Dakota. “Everybody is more or less disgusted except me . . . ,” Custer wrote Libbie. “The elements seem against us.”
There were occasional days of sun, when blue and green replaced the gray, when, blinking and with a squint, they gazed upon a world of transcendent beauty. On May 24, flowers suddenly appeared all around them. “During this march we encountered . . . a species of primrose,” wrote Lieutenant Edward Maguire, head of the column’s engineer corps. “The flowers were very beautiful, and as they were crushed under the horses’ feet they gave forth a protest of the most delicate and welcome odor.”
Most welcome, indeed.
The smells associated with this column of approximately twelve hundred men and sixteen hundred horses and mules were pungent and inescapable—an eye-watering combination of horsehair and sweaty human reek. The stench was particularly bad at night, when all of them were contained within a half-mile-wide parallelogram of carefully arranged tents, picketed horses, and freshly dug latrines. If it was too wet to light a fire, the men lived on hardtack and cold sowbelly doused with vinegar and salt. Since wet boots shrank when they dried, it was necessary to wear them at night as the troopers, swaddled like mummies in their damp blankets, lay side by side in their five-and-a-half-foot-wide tents, “all the time getting,” remembered one cavalryman, “the full benefit of the aroma that arrives from the sweat of your horse’s sides and back, as it creeps up out of the blanket.”
On May 27, after the column had been groping aimlessly through a cold, claustrophobic fog, the sun finally dispersed the mist, and they were presented with a sight that awed all of them: the badlands of the Little Missouri River. “I cannot attempt any description of ‘the bad lands,’ ” General Terry wrote his sister in St. Paul. “They are so utterly unlike anything which you have ever seen that no description of them could convey to you any ideas of what they are like. Horribly bare and desolate in general & yet picturesque at times to the extreme. Naked hills of mud, clay & partially formed stone broken into the most fantastic forms, & of all hues from dull grey to an almost fiery red. Sometimes with easy slopes & sometimes almost perpendicular, but water worn & fissured walls.”
Sitting Bull was supposed to be here, on the Little Missouri River, but so far they had found almost no recent sign of Indians. The Lakota leader was probably long gone, but just to make sure, Terry resolved to send Custer on a reconnaissance expedition up the Little Missouri. At 5 a.m. on May 30, Custer and a select group of troopers and scouts left the encampment on the east bank of the river and headed south.
By all accounts, Custer looked good on a horse. “[He] sat his charger,” remembered one officer, “as if ‘to the manor born.’ ” He was five feet eleven inches tall and wore a 38 jacket and 9C boots. His weight fluctuated from a low of 143 pounds at the end of the grueling Kansas campaign back in 1869 to a muscle-packed high of 170. On that morning in late May, he was dressed in a fringed white buckskin suit, with a light gray, wide-brimmed hat set firmly on his head. The famed “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s iconic western outfit was an almost perfect match to Custer’s buckskin suit, which had been specially made for him by an Irish sergeant in the Seventh Cavalry who had once been a tailor.
But for Custer’s striker, John Burkman, there was something missing. Custer was known for his long hair, but in 1876 he, like many men approaching forty, was beginning to go bald. Before leaving Fort Lincoln, he and another officer with thinning hair, Lieutenant Charles Varnum, “had the clippers run over their heads.” This meant that the former “boy general” of the Civil War with the famously flowing locks now looked decidedly middle-aged. “He looked so unnatural after that,” Burkman remembered.
But even if, Samson-like, he had lost his blond curls, Custer (who could leap to a stand from flat on his back) showed no sign of diminished strength. That day his endurance in the saddle proved exceptional, even for him. The inhospitable terrain required them to cross the sucking quicksands of the Little Missouri River a total of thirty-four times before they finally made it back to camp, mud-spattered and saddle-sore, with no news about Sitting Bull. “I breakfasted at four [a.m.], was in the saddle at five, and between that hour and 6 p.m. I rode fifty miles over a rough country, unknown to everybody, and only myself for a guide,” he proudly wrote Libbie that night. The day’s ride impressed even Custer’s normally impassive Arikara scout Bloody Knife, who, Custer reported, “looks on in wonder at me because I never get tired, and says no other man could ride all day and never sleep.”
Custer had mastered the art of the strategic nap. During the brief halts typical of a day’s march, he would lie down in the shade of a cottonwood tree and, with his feet crossed and his dogs gathered around him, fall almost instantly asleep. Yet another secret to his seemingly inexhaustible endurance was the fact that he had at his disposal two magnificent horses: Vic (for Victory) and Dandy. Since horses of any kind were in short supply in the Seventh Cavalry (seventy-eight unmounted troopers were forced to march on foot in their high-heeled cavalry boots), this gave Custer an obvious advantage, particularly since he routinely changed horses every three hours. Adding to his edge was the fact that while each trooper was required to carry close to seventy-five pounds of personal equipment, all of Custer’s baggage was normally transported by wagon. Fresh from an invigorating nap, astride an equally fresh, unburdened horse, it was no wonder Custer seemed tireless. His troopers had no illusions about their commander’s penchant for “hell-whooping over the prairie” and had dubbed him “Hard Ass.”
Despite his promises to General Terry back at Fort Lincoln, Custer was proving to be anything but a dutiful and appreciative subordinate. Instead of hovering at his commander’s side, Custer had his own set of priorities. When not watching his three staghounds chase jackrabbits or hunting antelope with his Remington sporting rifle with an octagonal barrel, he was passing the time with his Arikara scouts, many of whom, such as Bloody Knife, he’d known now for more than three years.
Custer greatly enjoyed talking to his scouts in sign language. He often ate with them, and Red Star later remembered how Custer had once told them that “he liked to see men eat meat by the fire; if they were full, they would be strong.” During these conversations by the fire, he appears to have felt free to indulge in the outrageous boasts and predictions that he usually reserved for his letters to Libbie. At one point, he repeated a claim he’d already made back at Fort Lincoln. If they won a victory against the Lakota, he and Bloody Knife would go to Washington, D.C., where Custer would become the Great Father, or president of the United States.
Given his most recent experiences in Washington, it might be assumed—as countless scholars have insisted—that the scouts were somehow mistaken or, at the very least, received a garbled version of what Custer really expressed. While on the East Coast that spring, Custer had taken time out from testifying before Congress to hobnob with his Democrat friends in New York City. During those conversations he undoubtedly learned that New York governor Samuel Tilden had virtually locked up the Democratic nomination for president. But what if news of a thrilling Custer victory should arrive just as the convention opened on June 27? Might not a draft-Custer movement soon follow?
It was an absurd political fantasy, to be sure, but it was precisely the kind of fantasy the Custer family had been indulging in for years. Custer’s father, Emanuel, was a staunch, even rabid, Democrat, and during the Civil War in the fall of 1864, he wrote his son an extraordinary letter, in which he berated him for the pro-Lincoln comments recently attributed to him in the press. The Democrats were about to win the presidential election, Emanuel claimed, and Custer must make his loyalty to the party clear. “The reputation that you have made for yourself is very flattering and your prospect for the white [house] some day as a democrat if you should live is as good today as many that has occupied it.” Custer was twenty-four years old.
Custer had grown up in the little town of New Rumley, Ohio, where his father, besides being an outspoken Democrat, was a blacksmith and an inveterate practical joker. Practical jokers are jovial sadists. They require someone to mock and humiliate, and the Custers’ raucous household was full of a brawling, pugnacious love that thrived on combat. Emanuel liked to tell the story of how as a young child Custer, his mouth still bloody from a recent tooth extraction, looked up at him and said, “Father, you and me can whip all the Whigs in Ohio, can’t we?”
Thirty years later, it was still the Custers against the rest of the world. The Seventh Cavalry contained a few malcontents, such as Captain Frederick Benteen and Major Marcus Reno, but most of the officers were solidly in the Custer camp, and with five different family members presently associated with the regiment, along with more than half a dozen officers whose loyalty remained unquestioned, this was most definitely a Custer outfit.
The Seventh Cavalry contained twelve companies, also known as troops, of between sixty and seventy enlisted men led by a captain and his first and second lieutenants. When it came to day-to-day operations, the company, designated by a letter, such as Benteen’s H Company and Tom Custer’s C Company, was run by a first sergeant, and for the enlisted men, the company, not the regiment, was where their primary loyalties lay.
The companies were the interchangeable building blocks that the commander used to construct battalions: groups of companies that could act independently from the rest of the regiment during a battle. In peacetime, the regiment’s twelve companies were often spread across the country on separate assignments. Indeed, this campaign marked the first time the Seventh Cavalry had been fully reconstituted since the Battle of the Washita seven and a half years before.
Custer was proud of the twelve companies of his regiment, but as even he had to admit, the army was not what it used to be. Compared to the epic days of the Civil War, when, in the words of Frederick Benteen, “war was red hot,” the once-mighty U.S. military had been reduced to a poorly paid and poorly trained police force. An army of only about five thousand soldiers was expected to patrol a territory of approximately a million square miles (representing a third of the continental United States) that was home to somewhere between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand Indians. Long stretches of boredom were punctuated by often terrifying encounters with Native warriors who the troopers assumed would torture them to death if they were unlucky enough to be captured. Since suicide was preferred to this grisly end, “Save the last bullet for yourself” was the cautionary motto learned by every new recruit, of which there were many in the Seventh. A quarter of the troopers were new to the regiment in the last year; 15 percent were raw recruits, with approximately a third having joined since the fall of 1875.
Private Peter Thompson of C Company had been in the Seventh Cavalry for nine months and as a consequence was considered a “trained veteran.” In that time, he’d been taught how to groom his horse, cut wood, and haul water, but he’d learned almost nothing about his Springfield single-shot carbine, a weapon with a violent kick capable of badly bruising a new recruit’s shoulder and jaw. Years later, Thompson admitted to his daughter that he’d been scared “spitless” of his carbine, which in addition to being powerful, was difficult for a novice to reload.
Since the pay was miserable, the army tended to attract those who had no other employment options, including many recent immigrants. Twenty-four-year-old Charles Windolph from Bergen, Germany, was fairly typical. He and many other young German men sailed for the United States rather than fight in their country’s war with France. But after a few months looking for work, Windolph had no choice but to join the American army. “Always struck me as being funny,” he remembered, “here we’d run away from Germany to escape military service, and now . . . we were forced to go into the army here.” Twelve percent of the Seventh Cavalry had been born in Germany, 17 percent in Ireland, and 4 percent in England. The regiment also included troopers from Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, France, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Greece, Poland, Hungary, and Russia.
In August of 1876, the reporter James O’Kelly, a former soldier of fortune from Ireland, witnessed a remnant of the Seventh gallop out to meet what was believed to be a large number of hostile Indians. It proved to be a false alarm, but the maneuver nonetheless took its toll on the troopers. Of Captain Thomas Weir’s company, no fewer than twelve men fell off their horses, with two of them breaking their legs. “This result,” O’Kelly wrote, “is in part due to the system of sending raw recruits, who have perhaps never ridden twenty miles in their lives, into active service to fight the best horsemen in the world, and also to furnishing the cavalry young unbroken horses which become unmanageable as soon as a shot is fired. Sending raw recruits and untrained horses to fight mounted Indians is simply sending soldiers to be slaughtered without the power of defending themselves.”
O’Kelly knew of what he spoke, but the fact remained that the Seventh was, before it lost several hundred of its finest men at the Little Bighorn, one of the better-trained cavalry regiments in the U.S. Army. Lieutenant Charles King also witnessed the advance of the Seventh on that day in August 1876. What struck him was not the ineptitude of the raw recruits but how Custer’s influence was still discernible among the more experienced troopers when the regiment threw out a skirmish line across the plain. “Each company as it comes forward,” King wrote, “opens out like the fan of a practiced coquette and a sheaf of skirmishers is launched in front. Something of the snap and style of the whole movement stamps them at once.”
Perhaps it was Private Windolph who best described the pride inherent in being a veteran member of Custer’s regiment. “You felt like you were somebody when you were on a good horse, with a carbine dangling from its small leather ring socket on your McClellan saddle, and a Colt army revolver strapped on your hip; and a hundred rounds of ammunition in your web belt and in your saddle pockets. You were a cavalryman of the Seventh Regiment. You were part of a proud outfit that had a fighting reputation, and you were ready for a fight or a frolic.”
By the second week of the march, General Terry had become fed up with Custer’s tendency to stray from the column. On May 31, the regiment became seriously lost, and Custer was nowhere to be found. That evening, Terry officially chided his subordinate for having “left the column . . . without any authority whatever.”
Custer, it turned out, had been off skylarking with his two brothers. As he giddily described in a letter to Libbie, he and Tom had left their younger brother Boston picking a pebble from the hoof of his horse, sneaked up into the surrounding hills, and then fired several shots over their unsuspecting brother’s head. Boston, of course, assumed he’d been attacked by Indians and started to gallop back to the column. “Tom and I mounted our horses and soon overhauled him,” Custer wrote. “He will not hear the last of it for some time.”
Even though he’d been indulging in immature horseplay in the midst of the most important campaign of his and Terry’s post–Civil War careers, Custer was hardly contrite. That night he responded to Terry by letter. “At the time . . . I was under the impression that . . . I could be of more service to you and to the expedition acting with the advance than elsewhere,” he wrote. “Since such is not the case, I will, with your permission, remain with, and exercise command of, the main portion of the regiment.”
That night a violent snowstorm blanketed the column in more than half a foot of snow. For the next two days, they waited for the weather to improve. The snow was particularly bad on the enlisted men, whose dog, or pup, tents had no heat source. They spent the day huddled around smoky outdoor fires, the snow accumulating on their hats and shoulders as they clasped themselves in a futile effort to stave off the cold.
Custer’s scout up the Little Missouri River had proven that Sitting Bull and his warriors were not where Terry had once assumed they’d be. “I fear that they have scattered,” Terry wrote his sister in St. Paul, “and that I shall not be able to find them at all. This would be a most mortifying & perhaps injurious result to me. But what will be will be.”
Terry had a portable Sibley stove set up in one of the two spacious tents that constituted his headquarters, which he shared with his aide-de-camp and brother-in-law, Colonel Robert Hughes. A lawyer by training, Terry was careful and analytical, and now that it was clear the Indians had moved off to the west, he pondered what to do next. In accordance with Sheridan’s plan, there were three columns of troopers headed toward south-central Montana: Terry’s 1,200-man Dakota Column approaching from the east; Colonel John Gibbon’s 440-man Montana Column approaching from Fort Ellis near Bozeman to the west; and General Crook’s 1,100-man Wyoming Column approaching from Fort Fetterman to the south.
With hundreds of miles between them, Terry and Crook (who did not like each other) were operating in virtual isolation. A horse-mounted messenger might have covered the distance between them in a matter of days (assuming, of course, he was able to evade the hostile Indians), but at no time during the campaign did either general make a serious attempt to contact the other.
—THE MARCH OF THE DAKOTA COLUMN, May 17-June 9, 1876—
This was not the case with Terry and Gibbon, who planned to link up at a rendezvous point on the Yellowstone River. Now that Terry knew Sitting Bull was not on the Little Missouri, he was desperate for news from Gibbon to the west. As it so happened, on June 3, the day the column broke camp after the snowstorm, three horsemen were spotted riding toward them from the northwest. They proved to be scouts from the Montana Column with a dispatch from Gibbon.
In obedience to Terry’s earlier orders, made when the Indians were thought to be on the Little Missouri, Gibbon was making his way east along the north bank of the Yellowstone. Almost as an aside, Gibbon reported that his scouts had recently sighted an Indian camp “some distance up the Rosebud.” This meant that Gibbon was now marching away from where the Indians had last been seen.
That night Terry overhauled his plan. Gibbon was to halt his march east and return to his original position on the Rosebud River. Since the Indians were so far to the west, Terry must move his base of operations from the original rendezvous point in the vicinity of modern Glendive, Montana, to the mouth of the Powder River, approximately 50 miles up the Yellowstone. In the meantime, Terry and the Seventh Cavalry were to march west, with a slight jog to the south to avoid another patch of badlands, to the Powder River. After three weeks of hard marching, they were, it turned out, only halfway to their ultimate destination, about 150 miles to the west.
Over the course of the next week, they encountered some of the worst country of the expedition—a sere and jagged land cut up by deep ravines and high ridges, bristling with cacti and prickly pear. An acrid smoke billowed from burning veins of lignite coal. In the alkaline bottomlands, chips of satin gypsum sparkled in the sun. But it was the blue cloudless sky that dominated everything. The troopers had a saying—“the sky fitting close down all around”—that ironically captured the oppressive sense of containment that even an experienced plainsman felt when surrounded by so much arid and empty air. They all wore hats, but the men still suffered terribly beneath the unrelenting sun. “My nose and ears are nearly all off and lips burned,” Dr. James Madison DeWolf recorded in his diary. “Laughing is impossible.” DeWolf now understood why Custer and so many of his officers hid their lips beneath bushy mustaches.
On the night of June 6, they were encamped on O’Fallon Creek with thirty-five miles of even worse country between them and the Powder River. That day, the scout upon whom Terry had come to depend, the quiet and courtly Charley Reynolds, became so hopelessly disoriented that he led them six miles to the south before realizing his mistake. None of the guides, including the Arikara scouts, knew anything about the badlands between them and the Powder River. Terry asked Custer if he thought it possible to find a passable trail to the Powder. Custer predicted he’d be watering his horse on the river by three the next afternoon.
Custer took half of his brother Tom’s C Company, along with Captain Weir’s D Company. They had been riding west into the rugged hills for nearly an hour when Custer ordered Corporal Henry French to ride off in the direction of a spring Custer had seen earlier. French was to determine whether the spring might be useful in watering the column’s horses. As French went off in one direction, Custer, with only his brother Tom accompanying him, set out to the west at a furious clip, leaving the rest of the troopers “standing at our horses’ heads until his return,” Private Peter Thompson remembered. “This action would have seemed strange to us had it not been almost a daily occurrence,” Thompson wrote. “It seemed that the man was so full of nervous energy that it was impossible for him to move along patiently.”
Custer had grown into manhood during the Civil War, when the frantic, all-or-nothing pace of the cavalry charge came to define his life. “The sense of power and audacity that possess the cavalier, the unity with his steed, both are perfect,” remembered one Civil War veteran who attempted to describe what it was like to charge into battle. “The horse is as wild as the man: with glaring eye-balls and red nostrils he rushes frantically forward at the very top of his speed, with huge bounds, as different from the rhythmic precision of the gallop as the sweep of the hurricane is from the rustle of the breeze. Horse and rider are drunk with excitement, feeling and seeing nothing but the cloud of dust, the scattered flying figures, conscious of only one mad desire to reach them, to smite, to smite, to smite!”
But Custer was something more than the harebrained thrill junkie of modern legend. Over the course of the war, he proved to be one of the best cavalry officers, if not the best, in the Union army. He had an intuitive sense for the ebb and flow of battle; his extraordinary peripheral vision enabled him to capitalize almost instantly on any emerging weaknesses in the enemy line, and since he was always at the head of a charge, he was always there, ready to lead his men to where they were needed most. Like many great prodigies, he seemed to spring almost fully formed from an unlikely, even unpromising youth. But if one looked closely enough, the signs of his future success had been there all along.
He’d been a seventeen-year-old schoolteacher back in Ohio when he applied to his local congressman for an appointment to West Point. Since Custer was a Democrat and the congressman was a Republican, his chances seemed slim at best. However, Custer had fallen in love with a local girl, whose father, hoping to get Custer as far away from his daughter as possible, appears to have done everything he could to persuade the congressman to send the schoolteacher with a roving eye to West Point.
Custer finished last in his class, but it was because he was too busy enjoying himself, not because he was unintelligent. Whenever the demerits he’d accumulated threatened to end his days at the Point, he’d put a temporary stop to the antics and bring himself back from the brink of expulsion. This four-year flirtation with academic disaster seems to have served him well. By graduation he’d developed a talent for maintaining a rigorous, if unconventional, discipline amid the chaos. Actual battle, not the patient study of it, was what he was destined for, and with the outbreak of the Civil War he discovered his true calling. “I shall regret to see the war end,” he admitted in a letter. “I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life.”
His rise was meteoric. He started the war in the summer of 1861 as a second lieutenant; by July 3, 1863, just two years later, he was a freshly minted twenty-three-year-old brigadier general at the last, climactic day of the Battle of Gettysburg. As Confederate general George Pickett mounted his famous charge against the Union forces, a lesser-known confrontation occurred on the other side of the battlefield. The redoubtable Jeb Stuart launched a desperate attempt to penetrate the rear of the Union line. If he could smash through Federal resistance, he might meet up with Pickett’s forces and secure a spectacular victory for General Lee.
As it turned out, all Stuart had to do was punch his way through a vastly outnumbered regiment from Michigan and victory was his. But as the Confederates bore down on their northern counterparts (who were outnumbered by four to one), an event occurred that changed the course of the battle and, arguably, the war.
Custer, dressed in an almost comical black velvet uniform of his own design that featured gaudy coils of gold lace, galloped to the head of the First Michigan and assumed command. Well ahead of his troops, with his sword raised, he turned toward his men and shouted, “Come on, you Wolverines!” With Custer in the lead, the Michiganders started out at a trot but were soon galloping, “every man yelling like a demon.”
When Custer’s and Stuart’s forces collided on what is now called East Cavalry Field, the sound reminded one of the participants of the thunderous crash of a giant falling tree. “Many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them,” a cavalryman remembered. The bodies of some of the combatants were later found “pinned to each other by tightly-clenched sabers driven through their bodies.” Custer’s horse was shot out from underneath him, but he quickly found another mount and was back in the fray. Soon the Federals had the enemy on the run. As one Union officer later commented, it had been “the most gallant charge of the war.” But for Custer, it was just the beginning of a long string of spectacular victories that ultimately prompted General Philip Sheridan to award Libbie the table on which Grant and Lee signed the surrender at Appomattox. Included with the gift was a note: “permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring this desirable result than your gallant husband.”
Once Custer had completed his frenetic search for a trail across the badlands to the Powder River, he returned to ask Corporal French about the spring he’d been sent to find. French claimed the spring didn’t exist. “You are a liar,” Custer shouted. “If you had gone where I told you, you would have found it.”
The men had become accustomed to the often embarrassing eruptions of Custer’s temper. A week earlier near the Little Missouri, Custer had berated his black interpreter, Isaiah Dorman, for not directing the column in the way he had instructed. Red Star, one of the Arikara scouts, had seen Isaiah “on his knees before Custer, who was cursing him furiously, while [the interpreter] was crying and begging for mercy. The next day as punishment Isaiah had to go on foot all day.” Two years before, during the Black Hills Expedition, Custer became infuriated with Bloody Knife. A wagon had become stuck, and Custer felt the Arikara scout was somehow responsible. Custer took out a revolver and fired several times over Bloody Knife’s head. Once Custer had returned the pistol to its holster, Bloody Knife walked up to him and said, “It is not a good thing you have done to me; if I had been possessed of madness, too, you would not see another day.”
Custer was unable to reach the Powder River by 3:00, as he’d promised Terry the night before, but he did make it by 3:30. When the river first came into view, he turned to Lieutenant Winfield Edgerly and said, “You and I are probably the first white men to see the Powder River at this point of its course.” Terry and the head of the column arrived at 6:55, while the rear of the column rumbled in at 9:00. “We marched,” Terry wrote, “through an extremely difficult country & over a ridge which must be more than a thousand feet above both our starting point and the valley of the Powder. For the first time, we met pine covered hills—long ridges wooded to their tops. We had at times literally to dig & ‘pick’ our way through.”
Terry was deeply appreciative of Custer’s efforts. “Nobody but General Custer,” he said, “could have brought us through such a country.” For his part, Custer appears to have hoped that his performance that day had convinced Terry to defer to his judgment in the future. “I do hope this campaign will be a success,” Custer’s brother Boston wrote to his mother the following day, “and if Armstrong could have his way I think it would be, but unfortunately there are men along whose campaign experience is very limited, but, having an exalted opinion of themselves, feel that their advice would be valuable in the field. But I think before this trip is over they will be thoroughly understood by those who should know.”
The next day, Terry and two companies of the Seventh Cavalry rode from the column’s encampment approximately twenty miles down the Powder to the river’s confluence with the Yellowstone. Terry was delighted to find the Far West tied up to the bank, her thirty-man crew collecting firewood. The next morning, Terry directed Captain Grant Marsh to take him upriver to a rendezvous with Colonel Gibbon and the Montana Column, reported to be about thirty miles to the west.
After a month of riding a jolting horse and sleeping in a leaky, wind-whipped tent, it was quite astounding to be sitting in the plush cabin of the Far West watching the wild, strikingly beautiful Yellowstone flow past. Even when steaming against the current, theFar West traveled as fast as a column of cavalry; when going down the river, the steamboat reached speeds worthy of a Thoroughbred racehorse. But the Far West was more than a boat; it was a movable island of American culture in a largely uncharted one-hundred-thousand-square-mile sea of western wilderness, a place where Terry could enjoy a gaslit dinner served on china plates and a clean tablecloth. Over the next few weeks he spent as much time as possible aboard the Far West.
Terry had left Custer encamped on the Powder, with orders to direct preparations for an expedition to the west with about half the regiment. Gibbon’s scouts had last seen the Indians on the Rosebud River, approximately seventy miles to the west. Common procedure was to go to where the Indians had last been seen and then follow their trail. But Terry was not, as Custer was quick to point out, an experienced Indian fighter. He thought in terms of the latitudes and longitudes of the maps he pored over every night, and his systematic mind thought it best to make sure there were no Indians between them and the Rosebud before he ventured to their last known location. For Terry, it was a question of reducing the variables rather than pursuing the prey. If, as he suspected, the Powder and the next river to the west, the Tongue, were free of hostiles, he would then combine the Dakota and Montana columns in a coordinated movement against the Indians on the Rosebud.
The Yellowstone was at its snowmelt-infused height in early June, and the river boiled along at between six and nine miles an hour. Bucking the current, the Far West took eight and a half hours to cover the thirty-five miles to Gibbon, whom they found with a company of scouts just below the Tongue River. During his meeting with Gibbon and his officers, Terry learned that while he and the Dakota Column had been crawling west, Gibbon and the Montana Column had apparently been doing their best to avoid the Indians.
Twice Gibbon’s scouts had located sizable villages, first at the Tongue River and then at the Rosebud, and twice he’d failed to attack. Gibbon claimed the current was too strong to get his column across the Yellowstone, but the audacity of the Lakota warriors, who had managed to kill three of his men and steal a large number of horses from his Crow scouts, may have contributed to his decision to remain on the north bank of the river. Terry ordered Gibbon to return to his original position across from the mouth of the Rosebud, where Terry planned to meet up with him after the completion of the reconnaissance to the Tongue River. By noon, Terry was headed back down the Yellowstone on the Far West, which with the aid of the current was now moving along at close to twenty miles an hour.
Terry had known the Far West’s captain for almost a decade. Back in 1867, Grant Marsh had taken him on an inspection tour of the military posts along the upper Missouri. About 150 miles above the mouth of the Yellowstone, on a wide plain of grassy bottomland known as Elk Horn Prairie, they had seen an enormous herd of buffalo approaching the river from the north. The moving brown mass reached out beyond the horizon, and just as the boat approached Elk Horn Prairie, the leaders of the herd splashed into the river and began swimming for the southern bank. Before Marsh could make any kind of evasive maneuver, the boat was surrounded by bison, some of them hurling themselves against the boat’s sides, others pawing at the stern wheel with their hooves. Marsh had no choice but to stop all forward progress as the riverboat became a raft in a roiling sea of buffalo. When they finally emerged from the bellowing herd and once again started up the Missouri, the buffalo were still streaming across the river behind them.
As Terry knew from firsthand experience, Marsh was a most steady and reliable individual—just the man he needed amid the uncertainties of this campaign. On the afternoon of June 9, 1876, as the Far West approached the confluence of the Powder and Yellowstone rivers, they were approximately 250 miles from Bismarck. They also happened to be almost precisely 250 miles from Bozeman, the closest town to the west. They were smack dab in the middle of an immense territory of defiant and potentially dangerous Indians, with only the Far West to provide them with food, ammunition, and, if the worst should happen, a way out.
By 3 p.m., the Far West had reached the mouth of the Powder, and Terry was on his way back up the river for a showdown with Custer. At some point during that all-night ride through a driving rain, he decided to send an unmistakable message to his subordinate. He knew that Custer, having led the most recent march across the badlands and before that the scout up the Little Missouri, fully expected to lead the upcoming scout. He also knew that Custer was itching to break free of him and engage the Indians. But now, Terry was convinced, was not the time. He first needed to get Gibbon in proper position on the Yellowstone, where he could block any Indians attempting to flee north.
He decided that in good conscience he couldn’t give the scouting mission to Custer—at least not yet. Major Reno had been hoping to lead the regiment all spring. Well, now was his chance for an independent command. The likelihood of Reno actually coming across any Indians was slim to none, but so much the better. Once they’d all regrouped at the mouth of the Tongue River after Reno’s scout west, they would proceed against the Indians—but on his terms, not Custer’s.