On his deathbed in 1866, Libbie Custer’s father, Judge Daniel Bacon, made a most unsettling observation. “Armstrong was born a soldier,” he told his daughter, “and it is better even if you sorrow your life long that he die as he would wish, a soldier.” It was not a sentiment Libbie shared. “Oh Autie,” she wrote her husband during the Civil War, “we must die together. Better the hum-blest life together than the loftiest, divided.”
On the year of Judge Bacon’s deathbed exhortation, Custer visited a psychic in New York City who told him everything Libbie wanted to hear: He would have four children and live to “seventy or more.” The psychic also told him he was considering “changing businesses,” to either the railroads or mining, which happened to be exactly what Custer was contemplating at the time. Best of all, the fortune-teller confirmed the metaphysics of Custer luck: “I was always fortunate since the hour of my birth and always would be. My guardian angel has clung to my side since the day I left the cradle.”
Over the course of the intervening decade, almost none of the psychic’s predictions had come true. Libbie and Custer remained childless. It was just as well, Custer insisted. “How troublesome and embarrassing babies would be to us . . . ,” he wrote in 1868. “Our married life to me has been one unbroken sea of pleasure.”
Custer’s flirtation with business also did not pan out. By the winter of 1876, a poorly timed investment in a silver mine combined with a series of risky railroad stock speculations had brought him to the brink of financial disaster. That January, while he and Libbie were in New York City soaking up Julius Caesar, he pleaded with Generals Sheridan and Terry to extend his leave until April so that he could attend to his affairs; otherwise, he grimly claimed in a telegram, he stood to lose ten thousand dollars and would “be thrown into bankruptcy.” The extension was not forthcoming, and he and Libbie (who would not know the full extent of her husband’s financial woes until after his death) returned to Fort Lincoln.
In the end, he was neither the father of a growing brood of babies nor a budding millionaire; he was merely, as Judge Bacon had known all along, a soldier. But even that had been threatened during his run-in with President Grant. Quivering on the brink of professional and financial ruin, he was now headed, he fervently hoped, for a reunion with his guardian angel. If Terry would only give him the opportunity to find and catch the Indians, all would once again be well.
In the meantime, as he waited with his regiment beside the Powder River for Terry’s return from his meeting with Gibbon and the Montana Column on the Yellowstone, Custer spent every spare moment writing his next article for the Galaxy magazine. As Libbie had assured him, writing was his true destiny, and even though he was supposed to be directing preparations for the scout to the Tongue River, Custer sat in his tent composing an account of his early days in the Civil War. “It is now nearly midnight,” he wrote Libbie after a long day of writing capped by a simple dinner of bread drenched in syrup, “and I must go to bed, for reveille comes at three.”
At 9:50 p.m. on Friday, June 9, General Terry arrived back at the Powder River encampment in a driving rain. The next morning he met with the officers of the Seventh. He had big news. Major Marcus Reno—not, as had generally been assumed, Custer—would be leading the scout to the Tongue River.
The officers of the Seventh Cavalry didn’t know how to interpret this stunning bit of information. “It has been a subject of conversation among the officers why Genl Custer was not in command,” Lieutenant Edward Godfrey recorded in his journal, “but no solution yet has been arrived at.” For his part, Custer quickly did his best to make it sound as if he had never wanted to lead the mission in the first place. Mark Kellogg was a forty-three-year-old newspaper correspondent traveling with the Seventh Cavalry. “General Custer declined to take command of the scout . . . ,” Kellogg reported, “not believing that any Indians would be met with. . . . His opinion is that they are in bulk in the vicinity of the Rosebud range.”
In all probability, Custer had thought the scout was a fine idea when he saw it as a way to break free of Terry with the entire Right Wing of the Seventh Cavalry and find Sitting Bull. The Right Wing contained his six favorite companies in the regiment. With this group of loyal officers and their well-trained men, he could have done wonders. But now he must hand them over to Reno, who in his dutiful obedience to Terry’s misguided orders would only exhaust and discourage them.
Reno and the approximately three hundred officers and men of the Right Wing headed out that afternoon. Instead of wagons, each company was equipped with eleven pack mules to help transport twelve days of rations and forage. The sure-footed mules could travel over country that was inaccessible by wagon. Unfortunately, the only mules the regiment had at its disposal were the ones that had pulled the wagons from Fort Lincoln. For the last two days, the troopers had attempted to convince these recalcitrant animals that lugging a heavily loaded aparejo, a specially designed saddle equipped with large side bags, was in their best interests. When not bucking and braying until the contents of the aparejos had been scattered in every conceivable direction, the mules demonstrated a remarkable talent for locking their knees and refusing to budge. To no one’s surprise, the pack mules proved to be a problem throughout the scout.
Adding to Reno’s logistical challenges was a different kind of burden: a precursor to the modern machine gun known as the Gatling gun. This six-barreled, cannon-sized, rapid-firing behemoth was mounted on a two-wheel carriage and pulled by two cavalry horses that were judged unfit for regular service. Since its invention during the Civil War, the Gatling gun had been used only sparingly in actual battle, but there was no denying it was, potentially at least, an awesome weapon. In the years ahead, the Gatling would be used to curb labor riots, defeat the Spanish in Cuba (Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders swore by the Gatling), and provide a dramatic and deafening conclusion to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Military traditionalists liked to claim the gun was unreliable, but in actuality the Gatling functioned surprisingly well. The biggest problem with the gun was transporting it to where it might be of some use. In the week ahead, the Gatling, not the mules, proved to be the biggest hindrance to the expedition.
The scout was led by a man who was a cipher to most of his officers. After a commendable but unspectacular Civil War career, Marcus Reno, a West Point graduate, joined the Seventh in 1870, just around the time the regiment was being scattered across the South for Reconstruction duty. This meant that he had missed the defining moment of the regiment, the Battle of the Washita. His subsequent assignments—fighting the Ku Klux Klan in Spartanburg, South Carolina; serving on a munitions board in New York; and escorting a survey of the U.S.-Canada border—prevented him from participating in the other two most significant events in the life of the regiment: the Yellowstone Campaign of 1873 and the Black Hills Expedition of 1874.
Dark-haired and dark-eyed—the Arikara scouts called him “the man with the dark face”—Reno was the quintessential outsider. Whether or not it was because he’d lost both his parents by fifteen, something always seemed to be smoldering inside him, and his reticent, stubborn manner won him few friends. He was bullnecked and sleek as a seal, and almost as soon as he joined the Seventh back in 1870, he made the mistake of insulting blue-eyed and graying Frederick Benteen, who slapped him across the face and called him a “dirty S.O.B.”
If Reno’s relations with the officers of the Seventh improved after this inauspicious start, it was because his ebullient wife, Mary, and their son, Robert, were there to save him from his own worst impulses. However, during the summer of 1874, while leading the escort on the Canadian border, Reno learned that Mary had died at her family home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Heartbroken and desperate, Reno sent an urgent message to General Terry in St. Paul, requesting an immediate leave so that he could be reunited with his grieving ten-year-old son.
Reno had recently served under Terry on the five-man munitions board that had selected the 1873 Springfield “trapdoor” carbine as the standard-issue weapon for the U.S. cavalry. Assuming the leave was forthcoming, he had already begun the more than fifteen-hundred-mile trip back to Harrisburg when he learned that Terry had denied his request. “While fully sympathizing with you in your affliction,” the telegram read, “the Department Commander feels it imperative to decline to grant you leave. You must return to your command.” Not until more than two months after his wife’s death was Reno able to return to Harrisburg.
Reno applied for an eight-month extension of his leave, and in anticipation of a significant inheritance from his wife’s estate, he promptly left with Robert on a transatlantic steamer for Europe. They arrived in Paris in November, and over the course of the next year traveled as far as Moscow and St. Petersburg, not returning to Harrisburg until mid-October of 1875. Leaving Robert in the care of his wife’s family, Reno reported to Fort Lincoln on October 30.
Custer and Libbie were already on leave in New York City, and Reno found himself temporarily in charge of a regiment he hardly knew. The following spring, with Custer stranded in Washington, D.C., he made no secret of his desire to lead the Seventh in the upcoming campaign, an ambition that was not appreciated by the Custer loyalists in the regiment. In April, Captain Thomas Weir refused to participate in a battalion drill. As Reno led his officers and men on the parade ground, Weir sat on the porch of one of the officers’ quarters, no doubt with a huge, mocking grin on his face. Reno charged Weir with insubordination, a charge that was dismissed by General Terry, who, if his earlier refusal to grant Reno a leave after his wife’s death is any indication, had no love for Marcus Reno.
And yet, here he was, leading this scout up the Powder River. Besides demonstrating Terry’s frustrations with Custer, the decision to put Reno in charge of the scout also showed how low the expectations were for finding any Indians on the Powder and Tongue rivers. Assuming Reno obeyed his orders, he should be back at the Yellowstone in a week. As Terry soon learned, this was a big assumption.
The morning after Reno and the Right Wing headed south, Terry came to Custer’s tent and requested that he lead the rest of the column on the day’s march to the Yellowstone. Having already ridden down the Powder and back, he feared the country to the north might prove impassable for the wagons. Once again, Custer achieved wonders. Boldly veering east to avoid a maze of badlands, he found a sequence of high, surprisingly flat plateaus upon which the column marched all the way to the mouth of the Powder. It was a good thing, too, since after donating most of their provisions to Reno’s officers and men, they had only enough food to last them a single day.
Grant Marsh and the Far West had been downriver at the original rendezvous point at Glendive Creek collecting the much-needed provisions. When they returned to the Powder River, what had once been a wide and lonely stretch of wilderness had become a bustling, noisy encampment, particularly when the sutler and his men set up a temporary trading post underneath two large tents. With a wall of canned goods separating the enlisted men from the officers, and with several employees collecting the money behind makeshift countertops, the tents were quickly overrun by hundreds of thirsty, trail-weary men. “The tent was black with soldiers buying liquor,” remembered the Arikara scout Red Star; “it looked like a swarm of flies.”
At the beginning of the campaign, Custer had delayed paying the troopers their overdue wages until the first night on the Heart River, thus depriving them of their customary payday debauch in Bismarck. Now, at long last, they could make up for that lost opportunity. The troopers’ canteens held three pints of liquor, and many of them were soon on their way to getting roaring drunk. The interpreter Frederic Gerard informed the Arikara scouts that Custer, despite his own abstemious ways, had said they could each buy a single drink. With the band playing beside the wide and beautiful river (“[M]y heart was glad to hear the band,” Red Star remembered), General Terry, Custer, and the Left Wing of the Seventh Cavalry settled in for a few days of rest and relaxation.
Terry quickly reestablished his headquarters on the Far West, where he once again began to pore over his maps and papers. Back in February, before Custer’s problems with President Grant, Terry had begun planning the campaign. “I think my only plan will be,” he had written Sheridan on February 21, “to give Custer a secure base well up on the Yellowstone from which he can retire at any time if the Indians gather in too great numbers for the small force he will have.” Even though Gibbon’s men had sighted Indians on the Rosebud just a few weeks before, Terry refused to scrap his original plan. Using Reno’s fruitless reconnaissance of the Powder and Tongue to buy him an extra week, he was now where he had always wanted to be, on the Yellowstone, assembling his “secure base.”
As Terry scrutinized his maps, Custer sat in his tent with his dogs, putting the finishing touches on his latest article for the Galaxy. “Tuck regularly comes when I am writing,” he wrote Libbie on June 12, “and lays her head on the desk, rooting up my hand with her long nose until I consent to stop and notice her. She and Swift, Lady and Kaiser sleep in my tent.” Custer was keeping himself busy, but as his letters to Libbie make clear, he was frustrated and depressed. He now knew Libbie was not going to join him by steamboat. It was also clear that even though they were just a few days’ march from where the Indians had last been seen on the Rosebud, he was going to have to wait in idleness as Reno led a scout that was just as likely to alert the Indians to the regiment’s presence as it was to gather any useful information.
Terry was not alone in this oddly passive approach to pursuing Indians. All spring Colonel Gibbon had been choosing to focus on anything that might prevent him from the matter at hand—attacking Indians. He worried about how he was going to keep his men provisioned; he worried about how to best obey Terry’s clearly outdated orders; and when his scouts located an Indian village—first on the Tongue on May 17 and then on the Rosebud on May 27—the column remained rooted to the north bank of the Yellowstone.
Even the regiment’s doctor was baffled and appalled by Gibbon’s listlessness. “A large camp was found on the Rosebud about 18 miles off,” Dr. Holmes Paulding wrote his mother on June 14, “but our genial C.O. did not deem it advisable to attack it. . . . After laying there for 10 days, with the Indians showing themselves every day as though they knew what a harmless command they were dealing with, he began to do something . . . go away. . . . Our C.O.’s excuse was that he had rec’d orders to guard this side of the Yellowstone. There’s literal obedience for you.” Something was going on here on the banks of the Yellowstone. A crippling hesitation and fear seemed to waft from these gurgling, sun-glinting waters, and as Dr. Paulding could sense, the Lakota and Cheyenne knew it.
Frederick Benteen shared a tent with Lieutenant Francis Gibson, and on June 13 he wrote his wife, Frabbie, a letter that captured in telling and troubling detail the strange languor that had taken over the command. “I am now sitting in my undershirt & drawers—and slippers,” Benteen wrote. “Gibson is lying on his rubber blanket on floor of tent, puffing away quietly and calmly and regularly, like a high pressure engine. The mattresses and blankets are out on the sage brushes getting sunned, the horses and mules all dozing around, everything seeming as lazy as can well be imagined.”
In the meantime, Marcus Reno was edging toward a momentous, potentially insubordinate decision. Instead of simply finding, as he later put it, “where the Indians are not,” why not try to find where they are? Contrary to nearly everyone’s expectations—especially General Terry’s—Reno decided to do the obvious: find the Indians’ trail and follow it.
Prior to his departure from the Powder River encampment, Reno had been assigned the man who knew perhaps more than anyone else about the territory over which they were now moving. His name was Mitch Boyer, and he was living proof of just how complex the culture of the northern plains had become in recent decades. Half Lakota and half French, he was married to Magpie Outside, a Crow. The Crows had long since decided to align themselves with the United States, not because they had any great love for the Americans but because they saw the alliance as a way to keep from losing their lands to the Lakota. Even though Boyer’s mother was a Lakota, he remained loyal to his wife’s people and willingly took up arms against his kindred.
There is a photograph of Boyer wearing a fur hat decorated with what appear to be two stuffed blue jays. The birds are poised as if to peck opposite sides of his skull. It is the perfect piece of headgear for a man caught between two warring peoples. “If the Sioux kill me,” he once said, “I have the satisfaction of knowing I popped many of them over, and they can’t get even now, if they do get me.”
Boyer had so impressed Colonel Gibbon over the course of the last few months that Gibbon had offered him to General Terry when the two had met aboard the Far West. By June 13, Boyer had led Reno up the Powder River to the Mizpah Creek, about ten miles to the west. Attempting to follow the course of a river was bad enough, but the most difficult terrain was inevitably encountered when marching over the jagged ridge of hills, known as a divide, that separated each north-flowing tributary from the other. When atop the bare, rugged divide between the Powder and the Mizpah, they had been able to see far to the north. Terry’s orders had instructed them to continue down the Mizpah Valley, but they could see perfectly well that there were no Indian villages along that creek. They decided to skip the Mizpah and continue west to Pumpkin Creek and then to the Tongue, where the LakotaCheyenne village had first been sighted on May 17.
Two days later, they were on the banks of the Tongue. Compared to the cloudy and shallow Powder, the Tongue was a paradise—clear, cool, and about two feet deep—and the men took turns swimming. Terry’s orders had been quite specific. Reno was to continue down the Tongue to the river’s confluence with the Yellowstone, where he was to meet up with Terry, Custer, and the Left Wing. Under no circumstances was he to go as far west as the Rosebud, even though that was where the hostiles had last been seen on May 27. That river was to be left to Custer. Once Reno had proven there were no Indians east of the Tongue, Custer and nine companies of the Seventh were to march back up the Tongue a considerable distance, then cross over to the Rosebud, where, it was assumed, the Indians still were. As Gibbon marched up the Rosebud from the Yellowstone, Custer would proceed down the river, and if all went according to plan, they’d crush Sitting Bull’s village between them.
But as Boyer undoubtedly told Reno, the likelihood that the Indians were still anywhere near where they’d found them back in May was nil. A village of that size had to move every few days as the pony herd consumed the surrounding grass and the hunters ranged the country for game. Since almost three weeks had passed since the hostiles had been last sighted, and an Indian village could move as many as fifty miles a day, the hostile camp might be several hundred miles away by now.
Reno was, and still is, derided for his lack of experience fighting Indians. In actuality, he’d been chasing Indians since before Custer had even graduated from West Point. In 1860, he’d been assigned to Fort Walla Walla in the Oregon Territory, where he’d been ordered to investigate the whereabouts of a missing pioneer family. He found their mutilated bodies “pierced by numerous arrows” and set out in search of the Indians responsible for the attack. He and his men succeeded in surprising a nearby Native encampment, and in hand-to-hand combat he captured the two Snake warriors who were reputed to have killed the family. He’d done it more than a decade and a half before, but the fact remained that Reno knew how to pursue and find Indians.
—RENO’S SCOUT, June 10-18, 1876—
Now that Reno was on the Tongue, it only made sense to cross the divide between them and the Rosebud, locate the May 27 village site, and, at the very least, identify in which direction the Lakota had headed next. Otherwise Terry’s subsequent move against the Indians was likely to come up with nothing. And besides, if they did happen to find the Indians, it could prove to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Back in 1860 he had taken an Indian village with a handful of men. Now he had more than three hundred of the cream of the Seventh Cavalry, and a Gatling gun to boot. It was a clear violation of Terry’s orders, but it was a violation that might make Reno’s career.
With Mitch Boyer leading the way, they crossed the Tongue River and headed west, toward the Rosebud.
On June 12, Grant Marsh and the Far West left the encampment on the mouth of the Powder and steamed down the Yellowstone to secure additional provisions at the depot on Glendive Creek, eighty-six miles to the east. Marsh offered to take along the reporter Mark Kellogg. It turned out to be the steamboat ride of Kellogg’s life. Over the last few days, the current on the river had, if anything, increased. “The Yellowstone is looming high,” Kellogg wrote in the New York Herald, “and its current is so swift, eddying and whirling as to create a seething sound like that of soft wind rustling in the tall grass.”
With a full head of steam and the current behind her, the Far West averaged an astonishing twenty-eight miles an hour during the three-hour trip to Glendive. “I think this proves the Far West a clipper to ‘go along,’ ” Kellogg wrote.
Marsh had brought a mailbag stuffed with the regiment’s personal and official correspondence. Sergeant Henry Fox of the Sixth Infantry and two of his men and one civilian were to take the mail in a small rowboat to Fort Buford near the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Missouri, a voyage of 126 miles. Fox was a twenty-two-year veteran of the army and the father of six children. He had just returned from Washington, D.C., where he’d filed his application for ordnance sergeant, considered to be “the crowning ambition of the most faithful old soldiers.”
His men brought the boat alongside the Far West, and with the heavy bag of mail draped on one arm, Fox stepped into the rowboat. The boiling waters of the Yellowstone pinned the little boat to the steamboat’s side, and it proved difficult for the soldiers to push away. As they struggled to separate the two craft, the rowboat began to tip, and before anyone could help them, the force of the river had capsized the boat, pitching all four of them into the Yellowstone.
The three younger men were experienced swimmers and were quickly rescued, but Sergeant Fox sank below the surface and was never seen again. There was much more death to come in the days ahead, but for Grant Marsh and the crew of the Far West, the tragedy began on June 12 with the drowning of Sergeant Fox, his lifeless body left to tumble and twist in watery freefall down the rushing river.
Soon after Fox’s disappearance, the mailbag was spotted floating between the Far West and shore. Before they could reach it, the bag had sunk once again, but with the aid of a boat hook, they were able to retrieve the sodden bag of letters. That night Marsh and Kellogg sat by the Far West’s stove, laboriously drying each piece of correspondence. The envelopes had become unsealed and the stamps had fallen off, but by the next morning, they’d succeeded in preserving these river-soaked, flame-crisped palimpsests of blurred ink. Custer was particularly appreciative of the lengths to which Kellogg had gone to save not only his letters to Libbie but also his Galaxy article, describing how the reporter had taken “special pains in drying it.”
Sure enough, about a week later, Custer’s letters had made their way down the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers to Libbie. In their hurried attempts to dry the contents of the mailbag, Marsh and Kellogg had apparently come close to destroying some of the correspondence they were attempting to save. Libbie’s earlier premonitions of doom had left her agonizingly sensitive to anything even remotely associated with her husband. In a missive Custer never got the chance to read, she reported, “All your letters are scorched.”
At 6 a.m. on Thursday, June 15, Custer and the Left Wing of the Seventh Cavalry crossed the Powder and headed up the south bank of the Yellowstone. About thirty miles to the west was the Tongue River, where they were to rendezvous in the next day or so with Reno and the Right Wing. For now General Terry remained on the Far West, which would meet them the following day on the mouth of the Tongue.
They had left behind about 150 men at the supply camp on the Powder. Most of them were infantrymen assigned to guard the provisions, but there were also the teamsters and their wagons, the unmounted troopers, and the members of Felix Vinatieri’s band, who had donated their pure white horses to the troopers in need of fresh mounts. For Custer, this was a stinging loss. The band had been an almost omnipresent part of his storied life in the West. Even in the subfreezing temperatures encountered at the Battle of the Washita, the band had played “Garry Owen” before the troopers charged into the village. It had been so cold that morning back in 1868 that what was supposed to have been a dramatic crescendo of horns had turned into a few strangled squawks and squeaks when the musicians’ spittle froze almost instantly in their instruments—but no matter. The band with all its gaiety and swagger had been there on the snowy plains. That morning the band members climbed up onto a hill beside the Yellowstone and played “Garry Owen” one last time. “It was something you’d never forget,” Private Windolph remembered.
In addition to the band, the troopers also left behind their sabers. In contrast to the Civil War, when sabers had been useful in hand-to-hand fighting, the cavalry in the West rarely found an opportunity to use these weapons against the Indians, who generally refused to engage them closely. Since the sabers were quite heavy, it was decided to leave them boxed on the Powder. It only made sense, but to be without a saber left many of the officers feeling naked and vulnerable. For a cavalryman, his meticulously crafted sword was what a coup stick was for a Lakota—a handheld object with tremendous symbolic power. At least one officer, Lieutenant Charles Camilus DeRudio, born in Belluno, Italy, could not bear to leave his saber behind (it was useful, he claimed, in killing rattlesnakes) and surreptitiously brought the weapon along in spite of the order.
That afternoon, after a dusty march over a low, grassless plain of sagebrush and cactus, they came upon the remains of a Lakota camp from the previous winter. The reporter Mark Kellogg judged the village to have been two miles long, with between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred tepees. Being a winter encampment, this was as close to a permanent settlement as was known among the nomadic Lakota. To protect their ponies during the brutal winter months, they had constructed shelters for the animals out of driftwood from the river.
Custer was at the head of the column, and soon after entering the abandoned village he came upon a human skull amid the charred remnants of a fire. “I halted to examine it,” he wrote Libbie, “and lying near by I found the uniform of a soldier. Evidently it was a cavalry uniform, as the buttons of the overcoat had ‘C’ on them, and the dress coat had the yellow cord of the cavalry uniform running through it. The skull was weather-beaten, and had evidently been there several months. All the circumstances went to show that the skull was that of some poor mortal who had been a prisoner in the hands of the savages, and who doubtless had been tortured to death, probably burned.” The Arikara scout Red Star watched Custer as he “stood still for some time” and stared down at the skull and scattered bones of the soldier. “All about [the soldier] were clubs and sticks,” Red Star remembered, “as though he had been beaten to death.”
The column next came upon the remains of a large Lakota burial ground. Some of the bodies had been tied to the branches of trees, others laid out on burial scaffolds. After having witnessed the grisly evidence of the unknown trooper’s torture and death, Custer appears to have been in the mood for revenge. They still had a few miles to go before reaching the Tongue, but it was here, at the Lakota burial ground beside the Yellowstone, that he decided to bivouac for the night.
That afternoon, Custer and his troopers systematically desecrated the graves. One of the scaffolds had been painted red and black, an indication, Red Star claimed, “of a brave man.” Custer ordered the African American interpreter, Isaiah Dorman, to take the wrappings off the warrior’s body. “As they turned the body about,” Red Star remembered, “they saw a wound partly healed just below the right shoulder. On the scaffold were little rawhide bags with horn spoons in them, partly made moccasins, etc.” Dorman ultimately hurled the body into the river, and since he was next seen fishing on the riverbank, Red Star surmised that he had used a portion of the warrior’s remains for bait.
Lieutenant Donald McIntosh’s G Company took a leading role in the desecration. McIntosh’s father had worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Quebec, Canada; his mother, Charlotte, was a direct descendant of Red Jacket, a famous Iroquois chief. His ancestry apparently did not prevent him from joining in the pillage. As McIntosh and his men pilfered trinkets from the bodies before throwing them in the river, at least one soldier cautioned the lieutenant “that G troop might be sorry for this.”
Foremost in the desecration, however, was the Custer clan, aided by Custer’s regimental adjutant, Lieutenant William Cooke. “Armstrong, Tom and I pulled down an Indian grave the other day,” Custer’s brother Boston happily reported to his mother. “Autie Reed got the bow with six arrows and a nice pair of moccasins which he intends taking home.”
Lieutenant Edward Godfrey was careful not to name names, but he was clearly shocked by the Custers’ behavior. “Several persons rode about exhibiting their trinkets with as much gusto as if they were trophies of their valor,” Godfrey wrote, “and showed no more concern for their desecration than if they had won them at a raffle. Ten days later I saw the bodies of these same persons dead, naked, and mutilated.” For his part, the interpreter Fred Gerard became convinced that the ultimate demise of the three Custer brothers, Autie Reed, and Lieutenant Cooke was “the vengeance of God that had overtaken them for this deed.”
That night the Custers were too busy being the Custer brothers to betray any concern about the possible consequences of their actions. “We all slept in the open air around the fire,” Custer wrote Libbie, “Tom and I under a [tent] fly, Bos and Autie Reed on the opposite side. Tom pelted Bos with sticks and clods of earth after he retired. I don’t know what we would do without Bos to tease.”
Approximately fifty-five miles to the southwest, Major Reno and the Right Wing had just made camp. All that day and until 11:30 that night, they had been carefully feeling their way across the divide to the Rosebud. They awoke the morning of June 17 to find themselves on the banks of a slender sliver of brown water beside what could only be described as a Native highway: an irregular road of furrowed dirt several hundred yards wide.
When moving from camp to camp, each Lakota and Cheyenne family loaded its goods onto a horse-drawn sledge known as a travois. The front ends of two tepee poles were lashed to either side of the horse, leaving the rear tips of the poles to drag along the ground behind. Tied between the poles was a rawhide hammock that could accommodate several hundred pounds of goods or an injured warrior or several small children and their puppies. Because of the flexibility of the slender poles, the travois provided a surprisingly smooth ride as it jounced easily over the uneven earth.
Given how much weight they were supporting, the rear tips of the travois poles inevitably dug deep into the ground. The trail left by this village of more than three thousand people had virtually scoured the Rosebud Valley of grass. “The trail was wide and so turned up by tepee poles,” Private Peter Thompson remembered, “that we found it a difficult matter to secure a good camping place.”
That morning they marched only six and a half miles up the river before halting at 10 a.m. Reno must have been in a state of extreme excitement. He had not just ignored Terry’s orders, he had flagrantly disobeyed them, and now he was marching in the direction of a hostile Indian camp that, if the trail they were following was any indication, seemed to be growing by the minute.
The Right Wing’s three hundred horses, sixty-six mules, and that godforsaken Gatling gun kicked up an easily detectable cloud of dust. Reno decided it was best to let Boyer and the Arikara range down the trail on their own, looking for some recent signs as to the village’s location.
They waited for six hours until the scouts finally returned. The scouts had ventured close to twenty additional miles up the Rosebud. All they could say with any certainty was that the village was somewhere to the south. Given the age of the pony droppings and other signs, Boyer estimated that the encampment could be no more than a two-day ride away.
This was Reno’s chance. They still had several days’ worth of provisions. He could lead them south, find the village, and attack. He, not that poseur George Custer, would be the hero of the campaign.
Reno asked the Arikara scout Forked Horn what he thought about the situation, especially given the immense size of the trail. “If the Dakotas see us,” Forked Horn replied, “the sun will not move very far before we are all killed. But you are the leader, and we will go on if you say so.”
That was enough for Reno. At 4 p.m., he ordered the Right Wing to turn around and head back north, toward the Yellowstone. He had violated his orders, but he had also secured some vital intelligence: The Indians were no longer where Terry had assumed they’d be.
What he didn’t know was that farther up the Rosebud, less than sixty miles to the south, General George Crook and his army of more than a thousand men had found the Indians.
Actually, the Indians had found them.