Modern history

CHAPTER 8

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The Crow’s Nest

It was already beginning to get dark when Frederick Benteen arrived at the night’s campsite on the Rosebud. Captain Myles Keogh, who was a thirty-six-year-old Irishman and the leader of I Company, was there to greet him. “Come here, old man,” he called out. “I’ve kept the nicest spot in the whole camp next to me for your troop.” “Bully for you, Keogh!” Benteen responded. “I’m your man.”

Keogh had been born to a well-to-do Catholic family in county Carlow and at twenty left for Italy to join the army of Pope Pius IX in its battle against Garibaldi’s Italian revolutionaries. He was recognized for his bravery, and after the eventual defeat of the papal forces, he headed for America to fight in the Civil War. Once again, Keogh distinguished himself as a gallant and trustworthy officer. Like Custer (whom he first met while serving on General McClellan’s staff), he looked good on a horse, and like Custer, he knew it. Remembered one officer, “His uniform was spotless and fitted him like the skin on a sausage.”

But Myles Keogh was no Custer. “A certain lack of sensitiveness is necessary to be successful,” he reflected in a letter to one of his many siblings back in Ireland. “This lack of sensitiveness I unfortunately [did] not inherit.” He’d fallen in love with a young widow at the end of the Civil War, and when she died in June of 1866, he was heartbroken. Whether or not it was because of this loss, Keogh drank more than was good for him. He was so often “hopelessly boozy,” remembered Libbie Custer, that he’d been forced to hand over the management of his financial affairs to his orderly.

Keogh, ever the dandy, wore buckskins like the Custers, but he was by no means a member of the Custer clique. Custer had no patience with Keogh’s sentimentality and fits of depression; his frequent requests for leave meant that he’d missed every major engagement in the regiment’s nearly decade-long history. Just this last winter, Keogh had once again requested leave, a request Custer denied. Tensions appear to have been particularly high between the two of them at the onset of the campaign. Lieutenant Edgerly later felt compelled to assure his wife that Custer “gave Keogh command strictly in accordance with his rank on the morning of the fight.”

Part of Custer’s problem with Keogh may have been the Irishman’s good looks. He was an inch or two taller than Custer, had high cheekbones, dark hair and eyes, and a look of sad yet raffish intelligence. He was, without question, the handsomest man in the regiment. In a photograph taken at an 1875 picnic, Keogh and Custer stand on either side of Libbie. Keogh, dressed all in black, leans suggestively on the back of Libbie’s chair while Custer, dressed in his white buckskin suit, looks away from the two of them, his arms awkwardly crossed.

Weeks after the captain’s death at the Little Bighorn, Benteen found himself dreaming about the man beside whom he spent his last night before the battle. “I had a queer dream of Col. Keogh . . . ,” he wrote to his wife; “ ’twas that he would insist upon undressing in the room in which you were. I had to give him a ‘dressing’ to cure him of the fancy. I rarely ever thought of the man—and ’tis queer I should have dreamt of him.”

That night after supper, Keogh sat down beside Benteen, who had just taken off his boots and was reclining beneath a bullberry bush, listening to Lieutenant Charles DeRudio regale a group of officers about his adventures in Europe. Before serving in the Civil War, the Italian-born DeRudio, a small man with an elfish face, had been involved in a botched attempt to assassinate France’s Napoleon III. His sentence of death by guillotine had been commuted to life at the notorious Devil’s Island in French Guiana, from which he had managed to escape to England. The stories of DeRudio, known as “Count No Account,” always seemed to change with each telling, and Benteen was not about to lose a night’s rest to another one of the officer’s endless yarns.

“See here, fellows,” he said, “you want to be collecting all the sleep you can, and be doing it soon, for I have a ‘Pre’ [for premonition] that we are not going to stay in this camp tonight, but we are going to march all night, so, good-night.”

They’d traveled almost thirty miles that day and were now camped near where the Indians’ trail, which had suddenly become even larger and fresher, veered away from the Rosebud toward the rugged divide to the west, known as the Wolf Mountains. On the other side of the divide was the Little Bighorn.

“I had scarcely gotten the words from my lips,” Benteen wrote, “before the orderly trumpeter notified us that we would meet at the commanding officer’s headquarters at once.”

There was no moon that night, and with a ban on fires and lanterns, the officers had a difficult time finding Custer’s tent. “We groped our way through horse herds, over sleeping men, and through thickets of bushes,” remembered Lieutenant Godfrey. Finally, Godfrey came upon “a solitary candle” flickering beside the general’s tent. Once most of the officers had assembled, Custer explained that the Crow scouts, who’d marched to the verge of the divide that afternoon, claimed the trail led into the valley beyond. However, due to glare from the setting sun, they were unable to see any sign of a village. The Crows, along with Lieutenant Varnum, the scout Charley Reynolds, and some Arikara, were now on their way back up to the divide, where they hoped to catch a glimpse of the village “in the early morning when the camp fires started.”

In the meantime, Custer wanted to get the column as close as possible to the divide, some fifteen miles away. His plan was to march all that night, and after concealing the regiment beneath the eastern brow of the Wolf Mountains, spend the next day scouting out the location of Sitting Bull’s village. If all went according to plan, they’d march for the village on the night of June 25 and attack at dawn of the twenty-sixth. As Godfrey and the other officers undoubtedly realized, this was almost precisely the strategy Custer had used at the Battle of the Washita in 1868.

That summer the newspaper correspondent John Finerty accompanied General Crook’s Wyoming Column. Of all his experiences during that eventful time, nothing compared to the thrilling mystery of a night march. “You are conscious that men and animals are moving within a few paces,” Finerty wrote, “and yet you cannot define any particular object, not even your horse’s head. But you hear the steady, perpetual tramp, tramp, tramp of the iron-hoofed cavalry . . . , the jingle of carbines and sling-belts, and the snorting of the horses as they grope their way through the eternal dust.”

In the early-morning hours of June 25, Lieutenant Godfrey used the dust as a navigational aid. As long as he kept himself and his horse within that choking cloud, he knew he was moving in the right direction. The trouble came, Godfrey wrote, when “a slight breeze would waft the cloud and disconcert our bearings; then we were obliged to halt to catch a sound from those in advance, sometimes whistling or hallowing, and getting a response we would start forward again.”

The regiment was marching toward a range of mountains, just the topographical feature that the Native peoples of the plains used to commune with the forces of Wakan Tanka. Sitting Bull had seen his vision of the great white cloud crashing into the dust storm from the top of a butte. Only a few hours ago, he’d climbed the hill overlooking the Little Bighorn for his tearful appeal to Wakan Tanka. Now Custer was climbing to the top of the Wolf Mountains in search of his own vision. For on the other side of the divide he hoped to glimpse the village that was to determine his destiny.

Within the hills, the Indians believed, lived the “below powers”—mysterious forces often represented by the bear and buffalo that could see into the future. That night as the Seventh Cavalry marched through the dusty darkness, it marched toward a destiny foreshadowed to a remarkable degree by a battle fought more than seven and a half years earlier on the plains of Oklahoma.

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In the fall of 1868, General Sheridan recalled Custer from his yearlong suspension to lead the Seventh Cavalry in a winter campaign against the Cheyenne. Upon his return from exile, Custer proceeded to turn the regiment inside out.

For “uniformity of appearance,” he decided to “color the horses.” All the regiment’s horses were assembled in a single group and divided up according to color. Four companies were assigned the bays (brown with black legs, manes, and tails); three companies were given the sorrels (reddish brown with similarly colored manes and tails); one company got the chestnuts; another the browns; yet another the blacks; and yet another the grays; with the leftovers, euphemistically referred to as the “brindles” by Custer, going to the company commanded by the most junior officer.

It might be pleasing to the eye to assign a horse color to each company, but Custer had, in one stroke, made a mockery of his officers’ efforts to provide their companies with the best possible horses. And besides, as every cavalryman knew, horses were much more than a commodity to be sorted by color. Each horse had a distinct personality, and over the course of the last year, each soldier had come to know his horse not only as a means of transportation but as a friend. “This act,” Benteen wrote, “at the beginning of a severe campaign was not only ridiculous, but criminal, unjust, and arbitrary in the extreme.” But Custer was not finished. During his absence, he announced, the regiment had become lax in marksmanship. To address this failing, he established an elite corps of forty sharpshooters. He then named Benteen’s own junior lieutenant William Cooke as the unit’s leader.

Benteen certainly did not appreciate these moves, but there was one officer who had even more reason to view them as a personal affront. Major Joel Elliott had assumed command during Custer’s absence. Elliott, just twenty-eight, was an ambitious and energetic officer; he had also done his best to quietly undercut his former commander, and Custer, Benteen claimed, knew it. By so brazenly establishing his own fresh imprint on the regiment, Custer had put Elliott on notice.

From the start, the regiment had expected cold and snow, but the blizzard they encountered before they left their base camp on the morning of November 23 was bad enough that even the architect of this “experimental” winter campaign, General Sheridan, seemed reluctant to let them go. Already there was a foot of snow on the ground and the storm was still raging. “So dense and heavy were the falling lines of snow,” Custer remembered, “that all view of the surface of the surrounding country, upon which the guides depended . . . , was cut off.”

They were marching blind in the midst of a howling blizzard, and not even the scouts could tell where they were headed. Rather than turn back, Custer took out his compass. And so, with only his quivering compass needle to guide him, Custer, “like the mariner in mid-ocean,” plunged south into the furious storm.

They camped that night beside the Wolf River in a foot and a half of snow. The next day dawned clear and fresh. Before them stretched an unbroken plain of glimmering white, and as the sun climbed in the blue, cloudless sky, the snow became a vast, retina-searing mirror. In an attempt to prevent snowblindness, the officers and men smeared their eyelids with black gunpowder.

Two days later, November 26, was the coldest day by far. That night, the soldiers slept with their horses’ bits beneath their blankets so the well-worn pieces of metal wouldn’t be frozen when they returned them to the animals’ mouths. To keep their feet from freezing in the stirrups as they marched through a frigid, swirling fog, the soldiers spent much of the day walking beside their mounts. That afternoon they learned that Major Elliott, whom Custer had sent ahead in search of a fresh Indian trail, had found exactly that. On the night of November 27, they found Elliott and his men bivouacked in the snow.

Judging from the freshness of the trail, the Osage scouts were confident that a Cheyenne village was within easy reach. After a quick supper, they set out on a night march. The sky was ablaze with stars, and as they marched over the lustrous drifts of snow, the regiment looked, according to Lieutenant Charles Brewster, like a huge black snake “as it wound around the tortuous valley.”

First they smelled smoke; then they heard the jingling of a pony’s bell, the barking of some dogs, and the crying of a baby. Somewhere up ahead was an Indian village.

It was an almost windless night, and it was absolutely essential that all noise be kept to a minimum as they crept ahead. The crunch of the horses’ hooves through the crusted snow was alarmingly loud, but there was nothing they could do about that. When one of Custer’s dogs began to bark, Custer and his brother Tom strangled the pet with a lariat. Yet another dog, a little black mutt, received a horse’s picket pin through the skull.

Custer and his officers observed the village from one of the surrounding hills. The tepees were clustered on a flat thirty-acre crescent just to the south of the Washita River. One of his officers asked, “General, suppose we find more Indians there than we can handle?” Custer was dismissive. “All I am afraid of [is] we won’t find half enough.”

Even though he was unsure of the exact number of tepees, Custer divided his command into four battalions. At dawn, he and the sharpshooters would attack from the north as Elliott came in from the east and another battalion came in from the south. Benteen was assigned to the battalion that was to attack from the west. The brass band, all of them mounted on white horses, were to strike up “Garry Owen” when it was time to charge the village.

As the other three battalions maneuvered into their proper places, Custer waited beneath the cold and glittering sky. For a brief hour he lay down on the snow and slept, his coat thrown over his head. By the time the first signs of daylight began to soften the edges of the horizon, he was awake and readying his officers and men for the coming attack.

The village was so intensely quiet that Custer briefly feared the tepees were deserted. He was about to signal to the bandleader when a single rifle shot erupted on the far side of the village. The time to attack was now. Soon the “rollicking notes” of “Garry Owen” were echoing improbably across the snow-covered hills, and the four battalions of the Seventh Cavalry were galloping into the village.

Custer led the charge, his big black horse leaping across the river in a single jump. Once in the village, he fired on one warrior and ran down another on his way to a small hill, where he established a command post. He had encountered almost no resistance in his charge to the hill, but such was not the case with the battalion to the west, led by Frederick Benteen. A Cheyenne teenager charged toward him with his pistol up-raised. Not wanting to shoot someone he considered a noncombatant, Benteen gestured to the boy, trying to get him to surrender, but the young Cheyenne would have none of it. Three times he fired, narrowly missing Benteen’s head and wounding his horse before Benteen reluctantly shot the boy dead.

Benteen claimed that his company did most of the hard fighting that day and “broke up the village before a trooper of any of the other companies of the Seventh got in.” He also took credit for rounding up the fifty or more Cheyenne women captives and for driving in the Indians’ pony herd of approximately eight hundred horses. “I know that Custer had respect for me,” he later wrote, “for at the Washita I taught him to have it.”

Lieutenant Godfrey returned from pursuing Indians to the east with some disturbing news. Several miles down the river was another, much bigger village, and hundreds, if not thousands, of warriors were then galloping in their direction. Custer also learned that Major Elliott had chased another group of Indians in that direction but had not yet returned. Godfrey had heard gunfire during his foray east—might it have been Elliott? Custer, Godfrey remembered, “pondered this a bit,” then said he didn’t think so, claiming that another officer had also been fighting in that vicinity and would have known if Elliott had been in trouble. And besides, they had other pressing concerns. They must destroy the Cheyenne’s most precious possession: the pony herd.

—THE BATTLE OF THE WASHITA, November 27, 1868

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As the surrounding hills filled up with warriors from the village to the east, the troopers turned their rifles on the ponies. It took an agonizingly long time to kill more than seven hundred horses. One of the captive Cheyenne women later remembered the very “human” cries of the ponies, many of which were disabled but not killed by the gunfire. When the regiment returned to the frozen battle site several weeks later, Private Dennis Lynch noticed that some of the wounded ponies “had eaten all the grass within reach of them” before they finally died.

Custer then ordered his men to burn the village. The tepees and all their contents, including the Indians’ bags of gunpowder, were piled onto a huge bonfire. Each time a powder bag exploded, a billowing cloud of black smoke rolled up into the sky. All the while, warriors continued to gather in the hills around them.

Black Kettle’s village contained exactly fifty-one lodges with about 150 warriors, giving the regiment a five-to-one advantage. But now, with warriors from what appeared to be a huge village to the east threatening to engulf them, the soldiers were, whether or not Custer chose to admit it, in serious trouble.

The scout Ben Clark estimated that the village to the east was so big that the odds had been reversed; the Cheyenne now outnumbered the troopers by five to one. But Custer wanted to hear none of it. They were going to attack the village to the east.

Clark vehemently disagreed. They were short of ammunition. Night was coming on. Victory was no longer the issue. If they were to get out of this alive, they must be both very smart and very lucky.

In My Life on the Plains, Custer took full credit for successfully extracting the regiment from danger. Ben Clark had a different view, claiming that he was the one who devised the plan. The truth is probably somewhere in between: Once Clark had convinced Custer that attacking the other village was tantamount to suicide, Custer embraced the notion of trying to outwit the Cheyenne.

It was a maxim in war, Custer wrote, to do what the enemy neither “expects nor desires you to do.” The Seventh Cavalry appeared to be hopelessly outnumbered, but why should that prevent it from at least pretending to go on the offensive? A feint toward the big village to the east might cause the warriors to rush back to defend their women and children. This would give the troopers the opportunity to reverse their field under the cover of night and escape to safety.

With flags flying and the band playing “Ain’t I Glad to Get Out of the Wilderness,” Custer marched the regiment toward the huge village. Even before setting out, he’d positioned the Cheyenne captives along the flanks of the column. Sergeant John Ryan later remembered how the panicked cries of the hostages immediately caused the warriors to stop firing their weapons.

On they marched into the deepening darkness. Without warning, Custer halted the regiment, extinguished all lights, and surreptitiously reversed direction. By 10 p.m., they’d returned to the site of the original battle (where the bodies of Black Kettle and his wife still floated in the frigid waters of the Washita). By 2 a.m., the troopers had put sufficient distance between themselves and the Cheyenne that Custer deemed it safe to bivouac for the night.

Several days later they returned to their base camp, where General Sheridan declared the operation a complete success. There was one nagging question, however. What had become of Elliott and his men? Already Benteen had begun to question the scouts concerning what Custer had known about the major’s disappearance. One of the officers told how, before galloping off to the east, Elliott had waved his hand and melodramatically cried, “Here goes for a brevet or a coffin!” Elliott had clearly left Black Kettle’s village on what Benteen termed “his own hook.” To hold Custer accountable for the officer’s death seemed, to many, unfair—but not to Frederick Benteen.

Custer’s lust for glory had, Benteen was convinced, put the entire regiment at risk. In his typically brash and impulsive way, Custer had attacked the village without proper preparation and forethought. “From being a participant in the Battle of the Washita,” Benteen wrote, “I formed an opinion that at some day a big portion of his command would be ‘scooped,’ if such faulty measures . . . persisted.”

But as others pointed out, the mobility of an Indian village did not allow for the luxury of reconnaissance. By the time a regiment had scouted out the location and size of the village, the encampment was more than likely beginning to disperse. One of Custer’s biggest tactical defenders later became, somewhat ironically, Lieutenant Edward Godfrey, the very officer who’d asked him about Major Elliott. “[The] attack must be made with celerity and generally without knowledge of the numbers of the opposing force . . . ,” Godfrey wrote, “and successful surprise . . . depend[s] upon luck.” Or as another noted expert in plains warfare asserted, Indians “had to be grabbed.”

But Benteen refused to see it that way. Custer, he maintained, had needlessly left one of their own to die—an inexcusable transgression that the regiment must never forget.

Several weeks after the battle, the cavalrymen returned to the Washita. When Custer and Sheridan rode into Black Kettle’s village, a vast cloud of crows leapt up cawing from the scorched earth. A wolf loped away to a nearby hill, where it sat down on its haunches and watched intently as they inspected the site. About two miles away, amid a patch of tall grass, they found Elliott and his men—“sixteen naked corpses,” a newspaper correspondent wrote, “frozen as solidly as stone.” The bodies had been so horribly mutilated that it was at first impossible to determine which one was Elliott’s.

Soon after, Benteen wrote the letter that was subsequently published in a St. Louis newspaper. “Who can describe the feeling of that brave band,” he wrote, “as with anxious beating hearts, they strained their yearning eyes in the direction whence help should come? What must have been the despair that, when all hopes of succor died out, nerved their stout arms to do and die?”

If Custer had committed one certain crime at the Washita, it involved not Major Elliott but the fifty or so Cheyenne captives who accompanied the regiment during the long march back to the base camp. According to Ben Clark, “many of the squaws captured at the Washita were used by the officers.” Clark claimed that the scout known as Romero (jokingly referred to as Romeo by Custer) acted as the regiment’s pimp. “Romero would send squaws around to the officers’ tents every night,” he said, adding that “Custer picked out a fine looking one [named Monahsetah] and had her in his tent every night.” Benteen corroborated Clark’s story, relating how the regiment’s surgeon reported seeing Custer not only “sleeping with that Indian girl all winter long, but . . . many times in the very act of copulating with her!”

There was a saying among the soldiers of the western frontier, a saying Custer and his officers could heartily endorse: “Indian women rape easy.”

Sometime between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, June 25, 1876, Lieutenant Varnum awoke on the divide between the Rosebud and Little Bighorn rivers. He was lying in what he described as a “peculiar hollow” nestled under a high peak. The topography reminded him of a similarly shaped mountaintop back at West Point known as the Crow’s Nest, named for the lookout on the masthead of a ship. The Crow’s Nest at West Point provided a spectacular view of the Hudson River valley. What became known as the Crow’s Nest in the Wolf Mountains offered a very different vantage point of the Little Bighorn Valley, about fifteen miles to the west.

Varnum sat beside several Crow scouts as the thin clear light of a new dawn filled the rolling green valley of the Little Bighorn. At West Point, you peered down like God from a great, vertiginous height. Here in the Wolf Mountains, there was no sense of omniscience. As the Crows had warned the Arikara during a smoke break that night, “all the hills would seem to go down flat.”

And that is exactly what Varnum saw in the early-morning hours of June 25: an empty green valley seemingly drained of contour. But the Indian scouts saw much more. “The Crows said there was a big village . . . ,” Varnum remembered, “behind a line of bluffs and pointed to a large pony herd.” But Varnum couldn’t see it, even after looking through one of the Crows’ spyglasses. “My eyes were somewhat inflamed from loss of sleep and hard riding in dust and hot sun,” he later explained. But, as the Crows understood, seeing is as much about knowing what to look for as it is good vision.

Speaking through the interpreter Mitch Boyer, they urged him to look for “worms on the grass”—that was what the herds looked like. But try as he might, Varnum saw nothing. He’d have to take their word for it.

Perfectly visible to all of them were the columns of smoke rising from the eastern side of the divide behind them. The regiment must be encamped and making breakfast. The Crow scouts were outraged. To allow fires of any kind when so close to the enemy was inconceivable. Were the soldiers consciously attempting to alert the Sioux to their presence?

Around 5 a.m. Varnum sent two of the Arikara, Red Star and Bull, back to Custer with a written message. The Crows, he reported, had seen “a tremendous village on the Little Bighorn.”

Custer had halted the column just before daylight. It had been a brief but punishing march, and many of the men simply collapsed on the ground in exhaustion, their horses’ reins still looped in their hands. Others made themselves breakfast, lighting fires of sagebrush and buffalo chips (which burned blue and scentless) to heat their coffee. Benteen joined Reno and Lieutenant Benny Hodgson, the diminutive son of a Philadelphia whale oil merchant whose wry wit made him one of the favorites of the regiment, in consuming a meal of “hardtack and trimmings.” For his part, Custer climbed under a bush and, with his hat pulled over his eyes, fell asleep—apparently too tired to worry about concealing the regiment from the enemy.

The officers and men were exhausted, but it was the horses and mules who were truly suffering. Under normal conditions, a cavalry horse was fed fourteen pounds of hay and twelve pounds of grain per day. To save on weight, each soldier had been given just twelve pounds of grain for the entire scout, which he kept in a twenty-inch-long sack, known as a carbine socket, strapped to the back of his saddle. Since the Lakota pony herds had virtually stripped the Rosebud Valley of grass, this meant that each trooper’s horse had been living on only two to three pounds of grain per day. Walking among the horses that morning, Private Peter Thompson noticed “how poor and gaunt they were becoming.”

Varnum had given his written message to Red Star, and as the Arikara scout approached the campsite he “began,” he remembered, “turning his horse zig-zag back and forth as a sign that he had found the enemy.” He was met by Stabbed, the elder of the Arikara, who said, “My son, this is no small thing you have done.” Once he’d unsaddled his horse and was given a cup of coffee, Red Star was joined by Custer, Custer’s brother Tom, Bloody Knife, and the interpreter Fred Gerard.

Red Star was squatting with his coffee cup in hand when Custer knelt down on his left knee and asked in sign language if he’d seen the Lakota. He had, he responded, then handed Custer the note. After reading it aloud, Custer nodded and turned to Bloody Knife. Motioning toward Tom, he signed to the Arikara scout, “[My] brother there is frightened, his heart flutters with fear, his eyes are rolling from fright at this news of the Sioux. When we have beaten the Sioux he will then be a man.”

To speak of fear in regard to Tom was, Custer knew perfectly well, an absurdity. Just as the Indians valued counting coup as the ultimate test of bravery, a soldier in the Civil War had wanted nothing more than to capture the enemy’s flag. In the space of three days, Tom went to extraordinary lengths to capture two Confederate flags. The taking of the first, at Namozine Church on April 3, 1865, was spectacular enough to win him the Medal of Honor, but it was the second, taken at Sayler’s Creek, that almost got him killed.

Tom had just spearheaded a charge that had broken the Confederate line. Up ahead was the color-bearer. Just as Tom seized the flag, the rebel soldier took up his pistol and fired point-blank into Tom’s face. The bullet tore through his cheek and exited behind his ear and knocked him backward on his horse. His ripped and powder-blackened face spouting blood, Tom somehow managed to pull himself upright, draw his own pistol, and shoot the color-bearer dead. With flag in hand, he rode back to his brother and crowed, “The damn rebels have shot me, but I’ve got the flag!” Understandably fearful for Tom’s life, Custer ordered him to report to a surgeon, but Tom refused to leave the field until the battle was won. He’d handed the flag to another soldier and was heading back out when Custer placed him under arrest. Soon after, Tom, all of twenty years old, became the only soldier in the Civil War to win two Medals of Honor.

In his derisive remarks to Bloody Knife, Custer was picking up where he and the Arikara scout had left off three days before. The first night after leaving the Far West, a drunken Bloody Knife had tauntingly claimed that if Custer did happen to find the Indians “he would not dare to attack.” Custer was now using the supposed fears of his brother Tom as a way to show Bloody Knife that he had no qualms about attacking even a “tremendous village.”

What Custer apparently didn’t fully appreciate was the extent to which the ever-growing size of the Indian trail had already changed his scout’s attitude toward what lay ahead. The evening before, during their last encampment on the Rosebud, Bloody Knife had said to a small group of fellow scouts, “Well, tomorrow we are going to have a big fight, a losing fight. Myself, I know what is to happen to me. . . . I am not to see the set of tomorrow’s sun.”

That morning on the eastern slope of the Wolf Mountains, Custer leapt onto his horse Dandy and rode bareback throughout the column, spreading the news of the Crows’ discovery and ordering each troop commander to prepare to march at 8 a.m. There was at least one officer to whom he did not speak. “I noticed Custer passed me on horseback,” Benteen wrote. “[He] went on, saying nothing to me.”

By the time Custer returned to his bivouac, he was in a more meditative mood. When Godfrey approached him just prior to their 8 a.m. departure, Custer “wore a serious expression and was apparently abstracted” as a nearby group of Arikara, including Bloody Knife, discussed the prospects for the day ahead. At one point Bloody Knife made a remark that caused Custer to look up and ask, “in his usual quick, brusque manner, ‘What’s that he says!’ ”

“He says,” Gerard responded, “we’ll find enough Sioux to keep us fighting two or three days.”

Custer laughed humorlessly. “I guess we’ll get through with them in one day,” he said.

At 8:00 sharp, Custer led the column due west on a gradual climb toward the divide. At 10:30, after a march of about four miles, he directed the regiment toward a narrow ravine less than two miles east of the divide. As Custer, Red Star, and Gerard continued on to the Crow’s Nest, the soldiers were to hide themselves here until nightfall.

The officers and men climbed down into the cool depths of this subterranean pocket of sagebrush, buffalo grass, and brush. After three days and a night of marching, it was a great relief to be free, if only temporarily, from the dust and sun. Several officers, including Godfrey, Tom Custer, Custer’s aide-de-camp Lieutenant Cooke, Lieutenant Jim Calhoun, and Lieutenant Winfield Scott Edgerly smoked companion-ably in the ravine. They now knew that the day of the fight was finally at hand. Edgerly, the youngest of the group, later remembered how Cooke laughed and, speaking figuratively, predicted, “I would have a chance to bathe my maiden saber that day.”

On the other side of the divide, climbing up into the Wolf Mountains from the west, were two groups of Lakota. The first comprised just two people, Crawler, the camp crier for the prestigious warrior society known as the Silent Eaters (of which Sitting Bull was the leader), and Crawler’s ten-year-old son, Deeds. The previous day Deeds had been forced to abandon his exhausted horse in the vicinity of Sun Dance Creek, a small tributary of the Little Bighorn that flows west from the divide. Deeds had doubled up on his brother’s horse and ridden back to the village on the Little Bighorn. Early that morning, he and his father headed out to find the horse.

They were now about a mile to the west of the divide, riding toward the gap where the Indian trail passed over the crest of the Wolf Mountains. Crawler was in front, holding a long lariat that led to the newly recaptured pony, with Deeds just a little behind. It was a beautiful summer morning, not a cloud in the sky, as they rode up the grassy mountainside. At some point Crawler noticed a cloud of dust rising from the other side of the divide. A group of people was approaching from the east. Even though a great battle had been fought the week before, he didn’t assume these were soldiers. As the Lakota had long since learned, not all the washichus who wandered the plains wanted to fight.

—THE MARCH TO THE DIVIDE, June 25, 1876

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Eight years earlier, in 1868, the Catholic priest Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet had ridden all the way from Fort Rice on the Missouri River to the confluence of the Powder and Yellowstone rivers to meet with the Hunkpapa. He had come unarmed, and rising from the bed of his wagon had been a giant flag decorated with a picture of the Virgin Mary. He spoke with several Hunkpapa leaders, including Sitting Bull (who eight years later still wore the crucifix DeSmet had given him), about ending the conflict with the whites. Soon after, Gall traveled to Fort Rice and signed the treaty that established the Great Sioux Reservation.

On the morning of June 25, many of the Lakota gathered in Sitting Bull’s village were hoping for a peaceful resolution to their current difficulties with the washichus. Years later, several Indians told the cavalryman Hugh Scott that “if Custer had come close and asked for a council instead of attack he could have led them all into the agency without a fight.”

As crier of the Silent Eaters, Crawler knew the thoughts of Sitting Bull and his circle of advisers, and when he saw the cloud of dust rising into the sky that morning, he wondered whether this could be a repeat of DeSmet’s peace mission of 1868. “We thought they were Holy Men,” he remembered. But as Crawler and his young son quickly discovered, these were not men of God.

The second group of Lakota approaching the divide that morning was led by an Oglala named Black Bear. Black Bear lived at the Red Cloud Agency, and earlier that spring someone had stolen his horses. When he realized that they’d been taken by some Indians on their way to Sitting Bull, he put together a small party and headed out to the hostile camp to retrieve what was his. He’d finally succeeded in finding his horses, and on the morning of June 25 he was headed back to the agency along with six men and one woman. Like Kill Eagle’s band of Blackfeet, who were still being detained at the village against their will by the Hunkpapa police, Black Bear appears to have resented Sitting Bull’s strong-arm tactics and was relieved to be on his way back to the reservation.

Black Bear and his companions were riding along the ridge in single file when they stumbled upon the approaching column. “We ran into the high hills and watched them,” he remembered, “holding bunches of grass in front of our heads as a disguise.” While concealed behind the grass, they were approached by yet another group of Indians—a party of Cheyenne under the noted chief Little Wolf. Little Wolf’s band, which was on its way to Sitting Bull’s village, had seen the soldiers the night before on the Rosebud; in fact, earlier that morning three of the Cheyenne had come across a box of hardtack that had spilled from a pack mule. They’d been trying to open the container when some soldiers had appeared and shot at them. The Cheyenne would continue to follow the soldiers all the way to the village. Black Bear, on the other hand, had no intention of turning back. “We did not go to warn the village,” he later remembered. “As we were not hostiles we continued on toward the agency.”

As it turned out, both Black Bear’s band and Crawler and his son Deeds had been under close observation as they approached the divide. From their perch at the Crow’s Nest, Varnum and the scouts had watched in mounting alarm as the two groups of Lakota made their seemingly inevitable way toward the regiment. Varnum and Charley Reynolds had even set out to kill Crawler and his son but had been called back when the Crow scouts mistakenly thought the two hostiles had changed direction. Once back on the Crow’s Nest, Varnum had watched Black Bear’s party riding along the ridge, their horses backlit by the morning sun and looking “as large as elephants.”

By the time Custer arrived at the Crow’s Nest, the two groups of Lakota had vanished. The regiment, Varnum and the Crow scouts knew, had been seen. Varnum told of these most recent and potentially devastating developments as Custer stared out into the distance through his field glasses. Custer refused to believe that the regiment had been discovered. According to Red Star, he even got into an argument with the Crow scouts, who insisted that, having lost the crucial element of surprise, he must attack at once. “This camp has not seen us . . . ,” Custer stubbornly maintained. “I want to wait until it is dark and then we will march, we will place our army around the Sioux camp.”

There was yet another potential problem with Custer’s plan. If the village was really as big as the scouts seemed to think it was, there was no way a regiment of just 650 soldiers and scouts could effectively encircle it. As General Crook had noted after the Battle of the Rosebud, “It is rather difficult to surround three Indians with one soldier!”

Custer might boast that his regiment could defeat all the Indians on the plains, but in his heart of hearts he knew better. At the Washita, there had been, in essence, several villages strung out along the river. By happening upon Black Kettle’s small and isolated camp, he’d been able to secure the captives that had made his ultimate victory—not to mention survival—possible. There is evidence that as he looked out from the Crow’s Nest that morning, Custer was looking for hopeful indications that between them and the unseen mass of Indians on the Little Bighorn was a smaller, more manageable camp on the order of Black Kettle’s.

About eleven miles away were two tepees, one flattened, the other standing. Were these part of a smaller, intermediary village? The problem was that Custer couldn’t see well enough through his field glasses to tell for sure. In the hours since the Crows had first glimpsed the giant pony herd, a haze had filled the valley as the temperature steadily climbed with the sun.

Unlike modern binoculars, which use mirrors to increase magnification to somewhere between 7 and 10 power, standard army field glasses in 1876 relied on straight-through optics and achieved a magnification of just 2.5 to 4 power. The Crow scouts had a small spyglass, but this, too, proved of little help to Custer in deciphering the supposed pony herd or, for that matter, the far closer cluster of tepees.

In the early days of the Civil War, Custer had experienced a new and exciting innovation in military surveillance: the hot-air balloon. As an “aeronaut” aboard a balloon named Constitution he had enjoyed a truly panoramic view of the York and James rivers and had been one of the first to realize, at least according to his own account, that the Confederates were evacuating Yorktown. The possibility of a Native evacuation was what he feared more than anything else as he looked out from this peak in the Wolf Mountains. He urgently needed, if not a balloon, a decent pair of binoculars.

Custer sat on the rocky outcropping, staring for several long and unsatisfactory minutes into the distance. “I have got mighty good eyes,” he finally said to Mitch Boyer, the Crow interpreter and scout, “and I can see no Indians.”

“If you can’t find more Indians in that valley than you ever saw together before,” Boyer replied, “you can hang me.”

Custer leapt to his feet. “It would do a damn sight of good to hang you, wouldn’t it?” It was only the second time in four years that Varnum had heard his commander swear.

They started back down the eastern side of the divide toward the regiment, which Custer assumed was still hidden in the ravine almost two miles away. They were about a half mile from the ravine when they saw the column marching toward them. “Confound it!” Gerard overheard Custer mutter to himself. “Who moved out that command?”

Soon after, they were met by Custer’s brother. “Tom,” Custer snapped, “who moved out the command?”

Tom wasn’t sure. “Orders came for us to march,” he said lamely, “and we marched.”

Custer called his officers together and told them about his inability to see the large village. He, for one, was beginning to think that the scouts had never really seen it either. About this time, Lieutenant Cooke learned that Charles DeRudio had a pair of Austrian binoculars that were much more powerful than the army-issue field glasses. After some prodding from Cooke, DeRudio agreed to lend them to Custer. As the column continued on toward the divide, Custer, the binoculars in hand, rode Dandy back up to the ridgeline for another look into the valley below.

When Custer returned to the column, which had advanced to within a half mile of the divide, he no longer doubted that there were large numbers of Indians in the valley. With the help of DeRudio’s glasses, he’d seen the distant “cloudlike objects” that the scouts had said were the pony herds. But he also appears to have seen something else: a much smaller, and closer, Indian village.

Private Daniel Newell overheard Custer telling his company commander, Captain Thomas French, that the village contained only “ten or twelve tepees.” It was too late, of course, for a dawn attack, but he still held out hopes for a positive result. Just as the seizure of Black Kettle’s village had made possible his success at the Battle of the Washita, so might this even smaller village assure him another victory. “It will be all over in a couple of hours,” Custer told French.

Tom approached with some bad news, this time from Captain Keogh. Sergeant William Curtiss had inadvertently left behind a bag of his personal belongings during the regiment’s hasty departure after breakfast. He’d returned to the bivouac site with a small detail of men and discovered the three Cheyenne from Little Wolf’s band trying to open a box of hardtack with a tomahawk. “I knew well enough that they had scouts ahead of us,” Charley Reynolds said, “but I didn’t think that others would be trailing along to pick up stuff dropped by our careless packers.” Custer could no longer cling to the hope that the regiment had escaped detection. They must attack as soon as possible.

In addition to the six Crows, Colonel Gibbon had given Custer a white scout named George Herendeen. An experienced frontiersman who had fought the Lakota several times in the last two years, Herendeen was to act as a messenger between Custer and Terry. Stretching to the northwest from the Wolf Mountains was a tributary called Tullock’s Creek. According to Terry’s orders, Herendeen was to scout the creek and then report to Gibbon’s column, which should be starting up the Bighorn River about now, and tell them whether or not there were any Indians in this portion of the country.

Soon after Tom informed Custer about the Indians and the hardtack box, Herendeen asked if it was time for him to head down Tullock’s Creek, now visible from the divide. “Rather impatiently,” Herendeen remembered, Custer told him, “[T]here are no Indians in that direction—they are all in our front, and besides they have discovered us. . . . The only thing to do is to push ahead and attack the camp as soon as possible.” Herendeen had to agree with Custer’s logic—“there was really no use in scouting Tullock’s [Creek].” But as both of them knew, Gibbon and especially Terry were expecting some kind of word from Custer.

Now that Custer had violated his written orders by venturing away from the Rosebud, he apparently felt that the less Terry and Gibbon knew about his whereabouts, the better. “Custer wished to fight the Indians with the Seventh alone,” Herendeen remembered, “and he was clearly making every effort to do this.”

Custer ordered his bugler, the twenty-three-year-old Italian immigrant Giovanni Martini (known to the regiment as John Martin), to sound officer’s call. It was the first trumpet call in two days. By midday on June 25, there was no longer any need for silence.

As if to insist that the tension of the last few hours had failed to trouble him, Custer was lying casually on the grass as the officers gathered around him. He began by recounting Keogh’s report about the Indians finding the lost hardtack box as well as the two other instances in which Lakota scouts had been seen. He had hoped to postpone the attack till the next morning, “but our discovery,” Godfrey wrote, “made it imperative to act at once, as delay would allow the village to scatter and escape.” The other possibility was that the Indians might choose to attack them. In that case, Custer said, “I would rather attack than be attacked.”

Custer ended the meeting by ordering each company commander to detail one noncommissioned officer and six men to the pack train. The commanders were also to inspect their troops and report to him as soon as all was ready. “The troops would take their places in the column of march,” he announced, “in the order in which reports of readiness were received.”

The last officer Custer expected to hear from first was Frederick Benteen. The night before on the Rosebud, Benteen had been so slow getting his boots back on that he hadn’t even made it to officer’s call. But Benteen, who knew that the first troop in the column was the most likely to see action, had a trick up his sleeve. As it so happened, his men were positioned next to where Custer had convened the meeting. He had no more than started back to his company when, after a nod from his second-in-command, Lieutenant Francis Gibson, he about-faced and reported to Custer’s adjutant, Lieutenant Cooke, that H Company was ready.

Ever since their last night on the Yellowstone, when he had complained about Custer’s lack of support at the Battle of the Washita, Benteen had done his best to antagonize his commander. And now, as the regiment prepared to march into the valley of the Little Bighorn, he’d managed to place himself exactly where Custer did not want him to be.

Obviously taken aback, Custer stammered, “Colonel Benteen, you have the advance, sir.”

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