The Cheyenne warrior Little Hawk had been given an important responsibility. Soldiers had been spotted to the south, and he and five other warriors were to find out where the army was headed. But instead of soldiers, they found a herd of buffalo. They killed a cow, and as his friend Crooked Nose stayed to cook the meat, Little Hawk and the rest of the warriors rode off to continue the hunt. They hadn’t gotten far when they noticed that Crooked Nose was gesturing urgently for them to come back.
He had seen two Indians on the top of a nearby hill. They might be scouts for the soldiers, but Little Hawk had his doubts. He knew that their allies, the Lakota, had also sent out scouting parties to look for the soldiers.
Little Hawk enjoyed a good joke, especially if it was at someone else’s expense. One of his favorites was to shoot a surreptitious arrow into a woman’s water bag and watch her reaction as the water gushed out. Despite the seriousness of the mission, Little Hawk decided to have some fun with his Lakota counterparts. He proposed that they creep up to the brow of the hill and “pretend to attack them.”
They started up the hill, but before they reached the top, Little Hawk jumped off his horse and crawled to the hill’s edge. It was a good thing, too, because when he lifted his head and peeked into the valley below, he realized that he’d been mistaken. Instead of a few friendly Lakota, it was as if, he later remembered, “the whole earth were black with soldiers.” They must leave immediately and warn the village.
By June 16, the village had moved four times since Sitting Bull’s sun dance. After gradually working their way farther and farther up the Rosebud, they had turned west, crossing the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn. They were now encamped on a tributary to the Little Bighorn called Sun Dance Creek.
The camp was divided into six circles, with the Cheyenne in the front and the Hunkpapa in the rear. Groups of Indians had been regularly streaming in from the agencies to the east, but many, if not most, of them were still in transit, drawn in by the gravitational pull of Sitting Bull’s ever-growing camp.
Little Hawk and his scouts arrived just at daybreak. As they approached the village, they began to howl like wolves, a sign that they had seen the enemy. Heralds quickly began to ride throughout the six camp circles, which extended for almost a mile, announcing Little Hawk’s news. The women started packing up their possessions in preparation for a possible move as the young warriors talked of riding out to attack the soldiers.
Later that day, the chiefs met in the large council tent. Many of the foremost Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, including Crazy Horse, were already present in the village. But Sitting Bull remained firm. There were still many more men of fighting age coming from the agencies. The longer they waited, the stronger they would be. Let the washichus attack first. And besides, in his dream he had seen the soldiers coming from the east, not the south. “Young men,” the heralds reported, “leave the soldiers alone unless they attack us.”
But as night approached, more and more of the young men slipped away from the village. By midnight, perhaps as many as a thousand warriors had departed for the upper portion of the Rosebud to the south. Reluctantly Sitting Bull, his arms still scabbed and swollen, joined them for the night ride across the divide to the soldiers. As was so often the case, the young warriors had no ears.
George Custer might fancy himself America’s premier Indian fighter, but it was George Crook, the commander of the Wyoming Column, who had achieved the actual results. In many ways he was the anti-Custer. Instead of dressing up like a buckskinned dandy, he affected a grubby anonymity; in fact, he looked so ordinary in his dirty shirt and shapeless black hat that at least one new recruit had mistaken him for an enlisted man—much to Crook’s amusement. But once you studied his face—two piercing eyes above a biblical beard tied into two sloppy braids—you detected a troubling, oddly Zen-like zealotry.
Crook had spent the last few years in the Southwest hunting the Apache. He’d been so successful that it had been Crook, not Custer, who’d been elevated two grades from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general. (Custer’s Civil War rank of major general had been only a brevet, or honorary, rank.) Crook was the one who’d pioneered the technique of using pack mules instead of wagons to transport his regiment’s supplies, the technique that the Seventh Cavalry was now belatedly learning. Traveling light and fast, he had gained a reputation for relentless pursuit.
But his real secret was in his use of Indian scouts—not just scouts from rival tribes, but scouts from the very people he was pursuing. “To polish a diamond,” he later told a reporter, “there is nothing like its own dust. It is the same with these fellows. Nothing breaks them up like turning their own people against them. They don’t fear the white soldiers, whom they easily surpass in the peculiar style of warfare which they force upon us, but put upon their trail an enemy of their own blood, an enemy as tireless, as foxy, and as stealthy and familiar with the country as they themselves, and it breaks them all up. It is not merely a question of catching them better with Indians, but of a broader and more enduring aim—their disintegration.”
Crook was confident that he’d found the key to subduing Indians, and he came to the northern plains with the expectation of doing unto the Lakota and Cheyenne what he’d done to the Apache. In the middle of May he traveled to the Red Cloud Agency with the intention of recruiting at least three hundred Lakota scouts.
But when he met with Red Cloud, he encountered some unexpected resistance. The Oglala chief lived on a government agency, but this did not mean he approved of the government’s war. His own teenage son Jack was on his way to Sitting Bull’s village. “They are brave and ready to fight for their country,” Red Cloud warned the general and his staff. “They are not afraid of the soldiers nor of their chief. . . . Every lodge will send its young men, and they all will say of the Great Father’s dogs, ‘Let them come!’ ” Crook left the agency without recruiting a single Oglala scout.
In the weeks ahead, Crook had to settle for some Crows and Shoshone. He also had the services of Frank Grouard, the Kanaka scout who had found the Cheyenne village back in March. By the morning of June 17, when Crook called a halt within a wide, rolling amphitheater of grass, he was still supremely confident that he had the manpower—more than eleven hundred soldiers—required to handle anything the Indians could throw at him. He had no idea where the Dakota and Montana columns commanded by General Terry were at that moment, but all the better. The victory would be his and his alone.
Crook was so confident, in fact, that he’d dispensed with the pack train that had made his earlier successes possible. The Lakota, he predicted, “would never stand punishment as the Apaches had done.” This was going to be a quick and decisive battle, and there was no need for a pack train. As they waited beside the Rosebud for word from the Crow scouts, Crook and his staff played a hand of cards.
They began to hear sounds of shooting to the north, but Crook, who was a man of exceedingly few words, appeared unconcerned. Some Crow scouts rode down out of the hills and breathlessly reported that a large number of Lakota were headed their way. Then they heard what Grouard called “the Sioux war-cry.” Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the seven hundred Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who’d spent the night riding up the Rosebud had arrived.
Crook’s troopers were still dismounted and unprepared for a charge—some of them had even erected tents. This meant that the initial fighting was left to the Crow and Shoshone scouts. On a high plateau above the Rosebud, they bravely met the Lakota onslaught. “The coming together of the Sioux, Crows and Shoshones . . . ,” Grouard remembered, “was the prettiest sight in the way of a fight that I have ever seen.” For twenty minutes, the fighting remained hand to hand until, finally, the troopers began to appear, and the Lakota reluctantly fell back. “I believe if it had not been for the Crows,” Grouard recalled, “the Sioux would have killed half of our command before the soldiers were in a position to meet the attack.”
Captain Anson Mills was part of the charge to relieve the Crows and Shoshone. It had been every officer’s assumption that once the full force of the cavalry was brought to bear on the Indians, they would retreat in a panicked rout. But this did not turn out to be the case. “The Indians proved then and there that they were the best cavalry soldiers on earth,” Mills later wrote. “In charging up toward us they exposed little of their person, hanging on with one arm around the neck and one leg over the horse, firing and lancing from underneath the horse’s necks, so that there was no part of the Indian at which to aim.” Mills and the others were able to drive back the Lakota and Cheyenne, but soon groups of warriors came barreling in from other directions. “The Indians came not in a line but in flocks or herds like the buffalo, and they piled in upon us.”
—THE BATTLE OF THE ROSEBUD, June 17, 1876—
Crook became convinced that the warriors must be protecting a village a few miles down the Rosebud. So he sent Captain Mills and eight companies of cavalry (about a third of his total force) down the river. Soon enough, several companies on the other side of the battlefield found themselves virtually surrounded by the hostiles. Crook called back Mills, whose men were able to come to the besieged companies’ rescue just in the nick of time.
After six hours of fierce fighting, the Lakota and Cheyenne decided that they’d had enough for the day. Crook later claimed that since he was still on the field at the conclusion of the battle, the victory was technically his. His subsequent actions proved otherwise.
He decided he didn’t have sufficient ammunition or supplies to keep up the chase. So he turned back, and after a day’s march south made camp at Goose Creek near modern Sheridan, Wyoming.
Never before in the history of the West had the Indians been known to seek out and attack a large column of soldiers on the open field. The hard part was usually finding the Indians, let alone convincing them to make a stand, but this time the Indians had swooped out of the hilltops like infuriated birds of prey and fallen on them. Crook was convinced that the Indians had outnumbered his army by a factor of three to one when in actuality, his army was probably the larger force. Crook also claimed that the Indians were better armed than his soldiers. It was true that many of them possessed repeating rifles compared to the soldiers’ single-shot 1873 Springfield carbines and rifles (the weapons selected by General Terry’s munitions board), but this had not prevented the troopers, infantrymen, and scouts from firing off an astounding number of rounds—25,000 cartridges by one estimate, or about 250 rounds per Native casualty.
What had really happened was that the Lakota and Cheyenne had succeeded in putting a deep and enduring fright into George Crook and his army. “Their shouting and personal appearance was so hideous that it terrified the horses . . . and rendered them almost uncontrollable,” recalled Captain Mills. For his part, Crook never forgot the sound of that battle, in particular “the war whoop that caused the hair to raise on end.”
Crook dispatched a messenger to Fort Fetterman, where word of the battle was relayed by telegraph to General Sheridan in Chicago. Sheridan had every reason to expect that Crook would dust himself off and continue after the hostiles. That was the way he’d subdued the Apache to the south. But once Crook had ensconced himself and his column at Goose Creek (where he remained for six long weeks), he tried to forget about the humiliating encounter with the Lakota and Cheyenne by fishing for trout and shooting, on one memorable day, a cinnamon bear. On June 19, he penned a report to General Sheridan, sent via Fort Fetterman to the south, but not once did he attempt to communicate with the man who might have profited most from his most recent experience: General Terry.
By June 22, word of Crook’s battle had reached Fort Lincoln. “The Indians were very bold,” Libbie worriedly wrote Custer. “They don’t seem afraid of anything.” But her husband, several hundred miles from the nearest telegraph station, never learned of the battle. Not until July 9—more than two weeks after the Battle of the Little Bighorn—did news of Crook’s encounter finally reach General Terry.
On Monday, June 19, General Terry, who was about 125 miles to the north of Crook and the Wyoming Column, received a dispatch from the long-awaited Major Marcus Reno. He and the Right Wing were bivouacked on the Yellowstone between the Rosebud and Tongue rivers. Unapologetic about having disobeyed his orders, Reno was also strangely reticent as to the very real and substantial intelligence he had collected during the scout. Terry was furious. “Reno . . . informed me,” he wrote his sisters, “that he had flagrantly disobeyed my orders, and he had been on the Rosebud, in the belief that there were Indians on that stream and that he could make a successful attack on them which would cover up his disobedience. . . . He had not the supplies to go far and he returned without justification for his conduct unless wearied horses and broken down mules would be that justification. Of course, this performance made a change in my plans necessary.”
The extremity of Terry’s anger is curious. He might have recognized that Reno’s balanced combination of gumption and caution had saved him from an embarrassing gaffe. Without tipping off the hostiles, Reno had succeeded in determining that the Indians had long since left the lower portion of the Rosebud. Otherwise, Terry would have wasted at least another week attempting to entrap a nonexistent village. Instead of being grateful, he seemed to resent the fact that he must now scrap his original plan. For the meticulous and bookish Terry, whose personal motto, “Blinder Eifer schadet nur,” translated from the German into “Zeal without discretion only does harm,” the plan was what mattered, and Reno’s daring and insubordinate initiative had made a mockery of his plan.
Custer was just as angry, but for an entirely different reason. Reno, the coward, had failed to attack! In an anonymous dispatch to the New York Herald, Custer went so far as to insist that Reno deserved a court-martial for his “gross and inexcusable blunder,” claiming that “had Reno, after first violating his orders, pursued and overtaken the Indians, his original disobedience of orders would have been overlooked.”
As it turned out, Custer’s dispatch did not appear until well after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Not only did the article make shockingly clear Custer’s feelings toward his second-in-command, it also demonstrated that Custer, like Benteen before him, had no qualms about using the press for his own self-serving ends even if it might prove destructive to the morale of the regiment. But most of all, the dispatch laid bare Custer’s frame of mind in the days before his final battle. “Faint heart never won fair lady,” he wrote; “neither did it ever pursue and overtake an Indian village.”
On the morning of Tuesday, June 20, Custer and the Left Wing crossed the Tongue and marched up the Yellowstone toward Reno and the Right Wing. In the meantime, the Far West also moved up the Yellowstone, and at 12:30 p.m. Grant Marsh delivered General Terry to Re-no’s camp. Custer had gotten there about an hour ahead of him and appears to have already made his feelings known to Reno. “General Custer upbraided him very bitterly,” Private Peter Thompson wrote, “for not finding out the exact number and the direction the Indians were taking instead of supposing and guessing. There were some sharp questions and short answers; but General Terry interposed and smoothed the matter over.”
It was now time for Terry to do what Terry did best, devise another plan. He retreated to his cabin on the Far West and, surrounded by his staff, set to work. As far as the reporter Mark Kellogg was concerned, it was as if a benevolent, omniscient god—“large brained, sagacious, far reaching, cool”—had set up shop aboard the riverboat, and whatever plan he came up with “must be successful.”
Prior to the Civil War, when he had been clerk of the superior court in New Haven, Connecticut, Terry had been an amateur student of military history. He had even spent a year in Europe, traveling to famous battlefields and forts. His subsequent experience in actual warfare had done little to change his assumption that battle plans were to be drawn up on the European model, in which two well-ordered armies confronted each other on the open field. As had been true with his earlier, aborted plan, Terry based his strategy on using two columns in a pincer movement designed to ensnare the Indian village. Unfortunately, the mobility of the Indians meant that attempting to trap a village between two columns of cavalry was like trying to catch a glob of mercury between two sticks. From the start, the likelihood of successfully coordinating the movements of two different regiments over a vast and largely unknown territory was remote at best.
On the afternoon of June 21, Terry unveiled his plan in the cabin of the Far West. In attendance were Terry; his aide-de-camp, Colonel Robert Hughes; Custer; Gibbon; and Gibbon’s commander of cavalry, James Brisbin. Even though he was the source of their latest and best information about the Indians, Marcus Reno was not invited to the meeting.
They spread out the map on the table. The map was based on a partial survey conducted before the Civil War. Hostile Indians had prevented the surveyors from reaching many of the areas on the map. For example, the surveyors had not even seen the Little Bighorn River. That and portions of other rivers, including much of the Rosebud, were represented by dotted lines that could only be described as educated guesses.
Based on Reno’s scout and a recent report from the Crows, Terry believed the Indians were somewhere to the southwest between the Rosebud and Bighorn rivers, probably in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn. As Custer led the Seventh up the Rosebud, Terry and the Montana Column would work their way up the Bighorn to the west. Since Custer had considerably less distance to cover before he reached the projected location of the Indian village, Terry ordered him to continue south up the Rosebud even if the Indians’ trail headed west. Only after he had marched almost to the Wyoming border should he begin to sweep west. Not only would this postpone Custer’s arrival at the Little Bighorn until about the time Terry and the Montana Column were in the vicinity, it might prevent the Indians from escaping to the south.
Terry used stick pins to indicate Custer’s line of march. The pins pierced the thick parchment of the map and dug into the table underneath. Terry, who was nearsighted, asked Major Brisbin to use a blue pencil to mark Custer’s projected route.
There was one glaring problem with this plan. As the blue pencil line clearly showed, Terry was ordering Custer to march away from where the village was supposed to be. Custer had recently rebuked Reno for not having the courage to follow the trail to its source even though Reno was in violation of Terry’s orders. Did Terry really expect Custer to postpone his own attack and wait for the Montana Column to arrive?
There was an unwritten code in the military: Violating an order was accepted—in fact, encouraged—as long as it resulted in victory. At Gettysburg, Custer’s superior, General Alfred Pleasanton, had ordered him to join forces with General Judson Kilpatrick, an officer Custer disliked. Instead, he had chosen to remain with General David Gregg and had, it could be argued, won the Battle of Gettysburg for the Union. Custer, they all knew, was not going to let a blue pencil line prevent him from becoming a hero once again.
As commander in chief, President Grant had insisted that Terry, not Custer, lead the Seventh Cavalry in the field. Ever since leaving Fort Lincoln, Terry had done exactly that, and over the last month both Custer and Reno had demonstrated a disturbing tendency to ignore his orders. The only way to ensure that Custer followed his orders in this instance was for Terry to be there in person. Why didn’t he do as the president and, as a consequence, General Sheridan intended and lead the Seventh in the field? After the conference, Major Brisbin privately asked him this precise question.
“Custer is smarting under the rebuke of the President,” Terry responded, “and wants an independent command, and I wish to give him a chance to do something.” But as Brisbin’s continued questioning made clear, Terry’s decision was not simply motivated by an altruistic wish to let Custer redeem himself. He also believed that Custer was the better man for the job. “I have had but little experience in Indian fighting,” he told Brisbin, “and Custer has had much, and is sure he can whip anything he meets.”
Ever since the Civil War, Terry had distinguished himself as both a negotiator and an administrator. He had no interest in leading troops in battle. He might claim he was trying to do Custer a favor, but it was his own fundamental lack of confidence, a constitutional inability to take the reins and lead his officers and men in the field, that led Terry to give the command to Custer. Later that summer, with Custer dead, Terry relied on Colonel Gibbon in the same way, “very much to the disgust” of Lieutenant Godfrey and the other surviving officers of the Seventh. “Something must be wrong about Genl Terry,” Godfrey recorded in his diary, “that he cannot hold control of Cavalry & Infty without having merely nominal command.”
Hindsight has a way of corrupting people’s memories, inviting them to view a past event not as it actually occurred but as they wished it had occurred given the ultimate result. After the disaster, Terry, Gibbon, Brisbin, and Hughes all assured one another that the plan would have worked wonderfully well if Custer had simply obeyed his orders and followed the blue pencil line. If he had done this, he would have arrived at the Little Bighorn just as Terry and Gibbon approached from the north and victory would have been theirs.
But this does not appear to be what was considered the most likely scenario even at the actual time of the meeting. One of the few contemporary accounts we have is provided by Gibbon’s chief of scouts, Lieutenant James Bradley. “It is understood,” he recorded in his diary, “that if Custer arrives first he is at liberty to attack at once if he deems prudent. We have little hope of being in at the death, as Custer will undoubtedly exert himself to the utmost to get there first and win all the laurels for himself and his regiment.”
There is also the testimony of the interpreter Fred Gerard. Unlike the officers who attended the meeting on the Far West, Gerard had nothing to hide. Gerard said that he overheard Terry repeat the verbal instructions he had given Custer. “I told him,” Terry said, “if he found the Indians not to do as Reno did, but if he thought he could whip them to do so!”
Finally there is the testimony of Custer’s friend the actor Lawrence Barrett. Barrett visited Terry and his staff in St. Paul several months after the battle. “[The] story of [Custer’s] disobedience of orders is false,” he wrote to his wife on October 3, 1876, “as he was told to act according to his own judgment at his final interview with Terry.”
Terry, it seems clear, expected and wanted Custer to attack if he found a fresh Indian trail. The biggest concern on the evening of June 21 was not the size of the village (which was thought to contain as many as fifteen hundred warriors); it was that the village might scatter before one of the columns reached it. The stated, if not written, plan was for Custer and his fast-moving cavalry to make the initial attack from the south and east while Gibbon’s slower-moving column of infantry and cavalry blocked any Indians attempting to flee to the north.
Custer knew he had to move quickly to accomplish his objective. That was why he ultimately declined the offer of the Gatling guns that had proven such a bother to Reno. Thinking his regiment powerful enough to handle anything it might encounter, he also declined the offer of four additional cavalry companies from the Montana Column.
In the months after the disaster, Terry and his minions complained about how Custer had ruined everything. “Poor fellow!” Gibbon wrote Terry. “Knowing what we do now, and what an effect a fresh Indian trail seemed to have on him, perhaps we were expecting too much to anticipate a forbearance on his part which would have rendered cooperation of the two columns practicable.” In truth, Gibbon and everyone else present at the meeting knew perfectly well what Custer was going to do once Terry, in the words of Major Brisbin, “turned his wild man loose.”
—GENERAL TERRY’S PLAN, June 20, 1876—
Terry was six feet two inches tall. He had a bushy black beard that concealed a long and thoughtful face. It was impossible not to like General Terry, but behind his air of forthright magnanimity lurked something unexpected: a crafty and calculating intelligence that seems to have caught Custer, who emerged from the meeting on the Far West strangely shaken and depressed, almost completely off guard.
Terry was that most egotistical of egotists: the humble man. Unlike Custer, who compulsively needed to tell anyone who would listen how great he was, Terry was patient and smart enough to let others do the praising for him. He was modest, but he was also, as he admitted in a letter to his sister, “day-velish sly.”
Before Custer became the mythic figure we know today, he was a lieutenant colonel desperate to find a way to salvage his reputation after his run-in with President Grant. Custer did not stride through history doing what he wanted; he, like any military man, spent most of his time following orders.
It is often said that the road to the Little Bighorn began with Custer’s Black Hills Expedition of 1874. But Custer was not the prime mover in his own career. That expedition would not, in all likelihood, have happened without Alfred Terry’s prior approval. Terry had helped draft the Treaty of 1868, and only after he had assured Sheridan that it was legal “to make surveys and explorations” in land that had been granted in perpetuity to the Lakota did Sheridan go through with the expedition. It’s true that Terry subsequently objected to granting land claims to the miners who then flooded into the Black Hills, but by then it was too late—the process that had begun with his legal opinion could no longer be reversed.
Terry had a lawyer’s talent for crafting documents that appeared to say one thing but were couched in language that could allow for an entirely different interpretation should circumstances require it. The written orders Custer received on the morning of June 22 are a case in point. On their surface they seem to say that Custer has been granted free rein. But lurking beneath the orders’ sometimes fulsome surface are hidden qualifiers.
It is of course impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement [Terry’s orders read], and, were it not impossible to do so, the Dept. Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to impose on you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy [italics mine].
As Terry’s aide, Colonel Hughes, later pointed out, whatever latitude Terry had granted Custer applied only, thanks to that final clause, to the moments just prior to the attack. Anything he did before encountering the Indians must conform to the letter of Terry’s orders, which carefully directed him to continue up the Rosebud even if the Indian trail “be found (and it appears to be almost certain that it will be found) to turn toward the Little [Big] Horn.” With these orders, Terry had managed to protect his reputation no matter what the outcome. If Custer bolted for the village and claimed a great victory, it was because Terry had had the wisdom to give him an independent command. If Custer did so and failed, it was because he had disobeyed Terry’s written orders.
Left unsaid, or at least unrecorded, during the meeting aboard the Far West was the possibility that instead of attacking the Indian village, Custer might do what he had done after the Battle of the Washita and attempt to bring the Indians in peacefully. Given that Terry had taken a leading role in the government’s negotiations with the Lakota, it might be assumed that he would have been inclined to at least discuss the option.
There is a tantalizing reference in a May 23 letter written by one of the Seventh Cavalry’s medical staff, Dr. James DeWolf. “General Terry, I learn, wishes to try first to bring the Indians into the Reservation & if they won’t come, to fight them. He, I believe, is not in favor of the treatment they have received for some time past.” If Terry did, in fact, express this sentiment, he did not choose to share that view with the press. A week earlier he had told the reporter Mark Kellogg “that there was to be no child’s play as regards the Indians. They must be taught that the Government was not to be trifled with, and such measures would be taken as would learn the Indians to feel and recognize that there existed in the land an arm and power which they must obey.” Terry was an intelligent and empathetic man, but he was unwilling to let his own sense of right and wrong interfere with the wishes of his superiors. Custer was to attack the village.
As Terry would have wanted it given the ultimate outcome of the battle, Custer has become the focal point, the one we obsess about when it comes to both the Black Hills Expedition and the Little Bighorn. But, in many ways, it was Terry who was moving the chess pieces. Even though his legal opinion launched the Black Hills gold rush and his battle plan resulted in one of the most notorious military disasters in U.S. history, Terry has slunk back into the shadows of history, letting Custer take center stage in a cumulative tragedy for which Terry was, perhaps more than any other single person, responsible.
It was dark by the time Terry, Gibbon, and Custer left the Far West and made their way to Custer’s tent. Custer’s orderly, John Burkman, was with Custer’s dogs Tuck and Bleucher inside the tent and heard Terry say, “Goodbye and good luck.” Custer laughed and said, “Thanks. We may be needing a lot of luck.”
When Custer entered the tent, he was dejected and preoccupied. “He stood for a minute,” Burkman remembered, “just staring straight ahead, frowning, not seeing me or Tuck or Bleuch.” After a minute or so, he turned and left for officer’s call.
At the meeting that followed, Custer was, according to Lieutenant Godfrey, “unusually emphatic.” He announced that the regiment would no longer be divided into two wings; all company commanders were to report to him. Each man was to carry fifteen days of rations and bring twelve pounds of oats for his horse. Custer recommended taking along some extra forage for the pack mules. Godfrey and Captain Myles Moylan pointed out that many of the mules were already “badly used up.” The extra weight might cause them to break down completely. “Well, gentlemen,” Custer snapped, “you may carry what supplies you please; you will be held responsible for your companies. The extra forage was only a suggestion, but this fact bear in mind, we will follow the trail for fifteen days unless we catch them before that time expires, no matter how far it may take us from our base of supplies.” Custer ended the meeting with the words, “You had better carry along an extra supply of salt; we may have to live on horse meat before we get through.”
That night, Custer also met with the six Crow scouts who had been assigned to his command along with Mitch Boyer. Once again, the overriding theme was indefatigable pursuit. “[The Crows] have formally given themselves to me, after the usual talk,” he wrote Libbie. “In their speech they said they had heard that I never abandoned a trail; that when my food gave out I ate mule. That was the kind of a man they wanted to fight under; they were willing to eat mule too.”
At some point Custer fell into informal discussions with some of his officers. “General,” enthused Lieutenant Edgerly, “won’t we step high if we do get those fellows!” Custer replied, “Won’t we!” adding, “It all depends on you young officers. We can’t get Indians without hard riding and plenty of it.” Custer’s reference to “young officers” was significant. He had had enough of the regiment’s two senior officers, Reno and Frederick Benteen. In fact, later that night he fell into an argument with Benteen about, of all things, the Battle of the Washita. Benteen complained about the lack of support he’d received from Custer during that battle. Custer responded by recalling how Benteen had shot to death a Cheyenne boy during the fighting. Benteen angrily defended his actions, claiming it was his life or the boy’s. “It was plain . . . ,” recalled an infantry officer who witnessed the exchange, “that Benteen hated Custer.”
It was midnight by the time Custer returned to his tent. “Knowing him so well,” Burkman remembered, “I seen he was pretty much worked up over something. He didn’t joke none with me. He didn’t pay no attention to the dogs, even when Tuck tried to worm his way up onto his lap. He set on the edge of his cot, frowning, staring ahead. I don’t think he went to bed at all that night.”
Before the Battle of the Washita, Sheridan had told him, “Custer, I rely on you in everything, and shall send you on this expedition without orders, leaving you to act entirely on your own judgment.” Terry, in his affable way, had pretty much said the same thing; but it was also clear he wanted the others present at the meeting to see that blue pencil line, which would undoubtedly be reflected in the written orders Custer would receive the next morning.
As was becoming increasingly clear to Custer, Terry had boxed him into a corner. To do as ordered, to continue marching south just as he drew within reach of the village, risked being detected by the Lakota scouts before he had a chance to attack. There was also General Crook to consider. Somewhere to the south was the Wyoming Column, and if Custer was to extend his own march in that direction, he increased the odds of blundering into Crook, who outranked him. Since Custer, like virtually every other cavalry officer in the army, wanted all the glory for his own regiment, this was unacceptable. And then there were Gibbon and the Montana Column, who would be somewhere to the northwest. Even if it meant risking another, career-killing court-martial, Custer must follow the trail to the village.
Custer had always lived life at a frenetic pace. He thrived on sensation. Whether it was courting Libbie in the midst of the Civil War, learning taxidermy during his first expedition in the northern plains, or writing his articles while surrounded by his dogs and listening to his band, he needed to be in the midst of an often self-created uproar. But by the night of June 21, at the age of thirty-six, Custer was finding it difficult to marshal the old enthusiasm.
He’d spent the winter and spring frantically staving off financial catastrophe. He’d battled the president of the United States to a draw. And, now, thousands of miles from Washington and New York, on the banks of the Yellowstone River, Grant’s deceptively benign emissary, Alfred Terry, was busily spinning his invisible and cunning web. Custer was about to embark on what was in all likelihood the last Indian campaign of his career. But as was about to become increasingly clear to his officers, the burden of being Custer had finally caught up with him.
Custer appears to have spent much of the night writing the anonymous dispatch for the New York Herald in which he blasts Reno for not having followed the Indian trail. Reno, sullen and unapologetic to the last, was the perfect target as Custer prepared himself to do what his subordinate should have done. “Few officers,” he wrote, “have ever had so fine an opportunity to make a successful and telling strike and few ever so completely failed to improve their opportunity.” For Custer, there would be no turning back.
Burkman had guard duty that night, and with Custer’s dog Tuck beside him, he marched back and forth in front of his commander’s tent. In the distance he could hear the steady beat of drums from the tents of the Arikara and Crow scouts. Many of the officers and soldiers were in the process of getting very drunk, “the liquor tasting good to the innards,” Burkman remembered, “after so much alkali water.” Others were writing letters and making wills; “they seemed to have a presentiment of their fate,” Lieutenant Godfrey wrote.
If the Battle of the Little Bighorn had resulted in victory for Custer, it’s doubtful that these “presentiments” would have been remembered. But as is the way with most great disasters, the survivors later saw the catastrophe as preordained.
Back in 1867, Custer’s regimental adjutant, the tall and elegantly whiskered Lieutenant William Cooke, had survived a terrifying encounter with the Cheyenne during which he and about fifty other men were attacked by an estimated five hundred warriors. They were able to hold off the Indians for three hours until reinforcements arrived and the Cheyenne fled. Nine years later on the Yellowstone, Custer’s adjutant was convinced his luck had run out and asked Lieutenant Gibson to witness his will.
“What, getting cold feet, Cookie,” Gibson taunted, “after all these years with the savages?”
“No,” Cooke responded, “but I have a feeling that the next fight will be my last.”
Onboard the Far West, Mark Kellogg sat writing his dispatches for the New York Herald. It was after midnight by the time he joined Major Brisbin, who was smoking a cigar on the riverboat’s deck. Kellogg had originally planned to follow Gibbon and Terry but had just decided to go with Custer; otherwise, he feared, “he might miss something if he did not accompany the column.” Brisbin secured the reporter a mule and some canvas saddlebags, along with some provisions from the riverboat’s stores. “We fixed poor Mark up,” Brisbin later remembered, “for his ride to death.”
Also on the fence about going with Custer were his younger brother Boston, to whom Grant Marsh had offered a cabin on the Far West, and his nephew Autie Reed. In the end, both went with the Seventh. The scout Charley Reynolds had a serious infection on his hand, and one of the regiment’s surgeons, Dr. Henry Porter, had advised him to remain on the boat, as did Marsh. “Captain,” Reynolds said, “I’ve been waiting and getting ready for this expedition for two years and I would sooner be dead than miss it.”
That night the main cabin of the Far West was the scene of a high-stakes poker game that was, according to Marsh, “the stiffest ever played on the river.” At the table were Marsh, Custer’s brother Tom, his brother-in-law James Calhoun, and Captain William Crowell of the Sixth Infantry. By the end of the night, Captain Crowell had won several thousand dollars, leaving Tom Custer and Jim Calhoun not only exhausted and hung over but broke.
As Tom Custer and Calhoun lost at cards, Marcus Reno sang. That afternoon he’d purchased a straw hat from the sutler and at least one half-gallon keg of whiskey. He appears to have spent much of the evening getting drunk, and that night he and several officers stood arm in arm on the deck of the Far West singing sentimental songs. Custer’s tent was beside the riverboat, and one can only wonder whether the major’s slurred harmonizing contributed to the anger his abstemious commander directed toward him that night in his anonymous dispatch.
Burkman watched the cabin light on the Far West finally go out. “All got still,” he remembered. “Here and there was blotches where men was laying asleep on the ground. You couldn’t hear nothing except horses munching their feed or nickering soft to one another.” At some point Custer’s dog Tuck sat down on his haunches and with his muzzle pointed skyward started to howl. “It sounded like the death howl . . . ,” Burkman remembered. “I tried to shut him up.”
When streaks of light began to appear in the sky, Burkman knew he must awaken his commander. He found Custer “hunched over on the cot, just his coat and boots off, and the pen still in his hand.” As he’d done every night for the last month and a half, Custer had spent the night filling up the darkness with words. The pen was his talisman, his way to whatever future might exist beyond the next few days, and he’d fallen asleep clutching it like a rosary. “I hated to rouse him,” Burkman remembered, “he looked so peaked and tired.”
Once awake, Custer asked, “What’s the day like outside?”
“Clear and shiny,” Burkman said.
They departed at noon on June 22. There was a cold wind blowing out of the north, and as the Seventh Cavalry approached Terry and Gibbon, who waited at the head of the camp along with Brisbin, the regiment’s colorful flags, known as guidons, could be seen, Gibbon wrote, “gaily fluttering in the breeze.” “Together we sat on our horses,” he continued, “and witnessed the approach of the command as it threaded its way through the rank sage brush which covered the valley.” Once the advance had started, Custer rode up to join Terry and the others, where they were accompanied by the regiment’s buglers, who gave as rousing a version of “Garry Owen” as was possible without Vinatieri’s band. “General Custer appeared to be in good spirits,” Gibbon wrote, “chatted freely with us, and was evidently proud of the appearance of his command.” The horses, Gibbon noted, were of unusually high quality for the U.S. cavalry, and Custer claimed that despite the many days of hard marching they’d already seen, “there was not a single sore-backed horse amongst them.”
Once the pack mules had passed, followed by the rear guard, Custer shook hands with the assembled officers and started after his regiment. Gibbon claimed that it was then that he called out, “Now, Custer, don’t be greedy, but wait for us.” Over the course of the last month, Gibbon had passed up two matchless opportunities to attack the Indians. That he now had the audacity to ask Custer to save some of the fighting for him was, to put it politely, disingenuous.
Custer’s response to Gibbon’s plea to not “be greedy, but wait for us” was suitably ambiguous. “No, I will not,” he said.