Military history


General Custer

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century relations between the native inhabitants of North America and the European invaders of their continent were approaching a final crisis. The original settlers had, in many cases, tried to reach an accommodation with the Indians by treaty and land purchase. Such arrangements usually broke down over misunderstandings or allegations of bad faith, justified in one direction or the other. After the British victory over the French in 1763, the government in London reserved the territory to the west of the Appalachian Chain to the Indian inhabitants but, following the winning of the United States’ independence, and under pressure from the waves of settlement crossing the Appalachians to the richer lands beyond, the idea of a general territorial reserve collapsed. During the early nineteenth century the United States government began resettling Indians from the forest lands east of the Mississippi into the western plains, in the belief that whites would not choose to enter a region believed in Washington to be inhospitable to farmers. That belief proved futile. After the Civil War the ‘move west’ became an unstoppable flood and the small United States Army found itself committed to protecting the passage of the wagon trains towards California and Oregon, to defending those settlers who chose to stake claims on the Great Plains themselves, and to persuading the nomadic Indian tribes of the region to accept confinement to new reservations defined for them by the Federal government.

Many of the tribes agreed to reside peacefully on the reserved land. Some intransigents would not. The least co-operative proved to be the Sioux, of what is now Montana, and some of their Cheyenne allies. In 1876 Colonel George Custer, commanding the 7th Cavalry and permitted the courtesy of being addressed by his Civil War rank of general, was one of the officers given the task of rounding up the recalcitrant Sioux who, under the influence of such warrior chiefs and medicine men as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, were threatening war to the death against the white men and refusing to leave the open range to take up life in the reservation.

Custer was a Civil War hero who had never reconciled himself to the tamer life of the peacetime army. Dramatic in appearance — flowing locks, cavalier boots — and married to an adoring and beautiful wife, he approached the mission of pacification on the Great Plains in the same spirit that had inspired him as a cavalry leader against the Confederates in the Civil War. In June 1876, he led the 7th Cavalry in a sweep on the Powder, Tongue, Rosebud and Big Horn Rivers that was intended to curtail the movements of the Sioux and Cheyenne and shepherd them back to the assigned reservation. The response of the Indians was hostile — Sitting Bull, though he did not take part in the actions to follow, had preached war — and on 25 June 1876, when Custer found a large Indian encampment on the Little Big Horn, he determined to encircle the braves and inflict a punishing defeat.

He had, intemperately, underestimated both their numbers and their mood. Galloping ahead of his supports, who escorted the vital ammunition reserves, he attempted to encircle the Indians, only to find that they were encircling him. In the few hours of desperate combat that followed, his command was surrounded and overwhelmed. He and all his 212 officers and men were killed.


Official report of the engagementwith Indians on the 4th and 11th ultimo

At early dawn the next day (the 11th instant), the Indians appeared in strong force on the river bank opposite us, and opened a brisk fire upon us from their rifles. No attention was paid to them until encouraged by this they had collected at several points in full view, and within range of our rifles, when about thirty of our best marksmen, having posted themselves along the bank, opened a well-directed fire upon the Indians and drove them back to cover.

In the mean time strong parties of Indians were reported by our pickets to be crossing the river below and above us, their ponies and themselves being so accustomed to the river as to render this operation quite practicable for them. Captain French, commanding the right wing, was directed to watch the parties crossing below, while Colonel Hart, commanding the left wing, posted a force to discharge this duty with regard to parties crossing above. It would have been possible, perhaps, for us to have prevented the Indians from effecting a crossing, at least when they did, but I was not only willing but anxious that as many of them should come over as were so disposed. They were soon reported as moving to the bluffs immediately in rear of us from the river. Lieutenant Brush was directed to employ his [Indian] scouts in watching and reporting their movements — a duty which they discharged in a thorough manner.

While this was transpiring I had mounted my command and formed it in line close under the bluffs facing from the river, where we quietly waited the attack of the Indians in our front. The sharpshooting across the river still continued, the Indians having collected some of their best shots — apparently armed with long-range rifles — and were attempting to drive our men back from the water’s edge. It was at this time that my standing orderly, Private Tuttle, of ‘E’ troop, 7th Cavalry, one of the best marksmen in my command, took a sporting Springfield rifle and posted himself, with two other men, behind cover on the river bank, and began picking off the Indians as they exposed themselves on the opposite bank. He had obtained the range of the enemy’s position early in the morning, and was able to place his shots wherever desired. It was while so engaged that he observed an Indian in full view near the river. Calling the attention of his comrade to the fact, he asked him ‘to watch him drop that Indian’, a feat which he succeeded in performing. Several other Indians rushed to the assistance of their fallen comrade, when Private Tuttle, by a skilful and rapid use of his breech-loading Springfield, succeeded in killing two other warriors. The Indians, enraged no doubt at this rough handling, directed their aim at Private Tuttle, who fell pierced through the head by a rifle-bullet. He was one of the most useful and daring soldiers who ever served under my command.

About this time Captain French, who was engaged with the Indians who were attacking us from below, succeeded in shooting a warrior from his saddle, while several ponies were known to be wounded or disabled. The Indians now began to display a strong force in our front on the bluffs. Colonel Hart was ordered to push a line of dismounted men to the crest, and prevent the further advance of the enemy towards the river. This duty was handsomely performed by a portion of Captain Yates’s squadron. Colonel Hart had posted Lieutenant Charles Braden and twenty men on a small knoll which commanded our left. Against this party the Indians made their first onslaught. A mounted party of warriors, numbering nearly two hundred, rode boldly to within thirty yards of Lieutenant Braden’s position, when the latter and his command delivered such a well-directed fire that the Indians were driven rapidly from that part of the field, after having evidently suffered considerable loss.

Unfortunately Lieutenant Braden received a rifle-ball through the upper part of the thigh, passing directly through the bone, but he maintained his position with great gallantry and coolness until he had repulsed the enemy. Hundreds of Indians were now to be seen galloping up and down along our front, each moment becoming bolder, owing to the smallness of our force which was then visible.

Believing the proper time had arrived to assume the offensive, orders to this effect were accordingly sent to Colonel Hart and Captain French, the two wing commanders. Lieutenant Weston was directed to move his troop ‘L’ up a deep ravine on our left, which would convey him to the enemy’s position, and as soon as an opportunity occurred he was to charge them, and pursue the Indians with all the vigor practicable. Immediately after, Captain Owen Hale was directed to move his squadron, consisting of ‘E’ and ‘K’ troops, in conjunction with ‘L’ troop, and the three to charge simultaneously. Similar dispositions were ordered in the centre and right. Lieutenant Custer [Tom, the general’s brother], commanding ‘B’ troop, was ordered to advance and charge the Indians in front of our centre, while Captains Yates and Moylan moved rapidly forward in the same direction. Before this movement began, it became necessary to dislodge a large party of Indians posted in a ravine and behind rocks in our front, who were engaged in keeping up a heavy fire upon our troops while the latter were forming. It was at this point that the horse of Lieutenant Hiram H. Ketchum, Acting assistant adjutant-general of the expedition, was shot under him. My own horse was also shot under me within a few paces of the latter.

The duty of driving the Indians engaged in sharp shooting was intrusted to Lieutenant Charles A. Varnum, 7th Cavalry, with a detachment of ‘A’ troop, 7th Cavalry, who soon forced the Indians back from their cover.

Everything being in readiness for a general advance, the charge was ordered, and the squadrons took the gallop to the tune of ‘Garryowen’, the band being posted immediately in rear of the skirmish line. The Indians had evidently come out prepared to do their best, and with no misgivings as to their success, as the mounds and high bluffs beyond the river were covered with groups of old men, squaws, and children, who had collected there to witness our destruction. In this instance the proverbial power of music to soothe the savage breast utterly failed, for no sooner did the band strike up the cheery notes of ‘Garryowen’, and the squadrons advance to the charge, than the Indians exhibited unmistakable signs of commotion, and their resistance became more feeble, until finally satisfied of the earnestness of our attack they turned their ponies’ heads and began a disorderly flight. The cavalry put spurs to their horses and dashed forward in pursuit, the various troop and squadron commanders vying with one another as to who should head the advance. The appearance of the main command in sight, down the valley at this moment, enabled me to relieve Captain French’s command below us, and he was ordered to join in the pursuit. Lieutenant McIntosh commanding ‘G’ troop, moved his command up the valley at a gallop, and prevented many of the Indians from crossing. The chase was continued with the utmost vigor until the Indians were completely dispersed, and driven a distance of nine miles from where the engagement took place, and they were here forced back across the Yellowstone [river], the last pony killed in the fight being shot fully eight miles from the point of attack.

The number of Indians opposed to us has been estimated by the various officers engaged as from eight hundred to a thousand. My command numbered four hundred and fifty, including officers and men. The Indians were made up of different bands of Sioux, principally Uncpapas, the whole under command of ‘Sitting Bull’, who participated in the second day’s fight, and who for once has been taught a lesson he will not soon forget.

A large number of Indians who fought us were fresh from their reservations on the Missouri River. Many of the warriors engaged in the fight on both days were dressed in complete suits of the clothes issued at the agencies to Indians. The arms with which they fought us (several of which were captured in the fight) were of the latest improved patterns of breech-loading repeating rifles, and their supply of metallic rifle-cartridges seemed unlimited, as they were anything but sparing in their use. So amply have they been supplied with breech-loading rifles and ammunition that neither bows nor arrows were employed against us. As an evidence that these Indians, at least many of them, were recently from the Missouri River agencies, we found provisions, such as coffee, in their abandoned camps, and cooking and other domestic utensils, such as only reservation Indians are supplied with. Besides, our scouts conversed with them across the river for nearly an hour before the fight became general, and satisfied themselves as to the identity of their foes. I only regret that it was impossible for my command to effect a crossing of the river before our presence was discovered, and while the hostile village was located near at hand, as I am confident that we could have largely reduced the necessity for appropriation for Indian supplies the coming winter ...

The losses of the Indians and ponies were particularly heavy, while we know their losses in killed and wounded were beyond all proportion to that which they were enabled to inflict upon us, our losses being one officer badly wounded, four men killed, and three wounded; four horses killed and four wounded.

Careful investigation justifies the statement that including both days’ battles, the Indians’ losses will number forty warriors, while their wounded on the opposite bank of the river may increase this number.

Respectfully submitted.

(Signed) G. A. CUSTER, Lieutenant-colonel 7th Cavalry, Brevet-major-general, U.S.A. [Army] commanding

Letters from the second expedition to the Yellowstone, 1876, by General Custer to his wife


... We are now in a country heretofore unvisited by white men. Reynolds, who had been guiding the command, lost his way the other day, and General Terry did not know what to do about finding a road from O‘Fallon’s Creek across to Powder River. I told him I thought I could guide the column. He assented; so Tom [Custer], ‘Bos’, and I started ahead, with company D and the scouts as escort, and brought the command to this point, over what seems to be the only practicable route for miles on either side, through the worst kind of Bad Lands. The general did not believe it possible to find a road through. When, after a hard day’s work, we arrived at this river by a good, easy road, making thirty-two miles in one day, he was delighted and came to congratulate me.

Yesterday I finished a Galaxy [magazine] article, which will go in the next mail; so, you see, I am not entirely idle. Day before yesterday I rode nearly fifty miles, arose yesterday morning, and went to work at my article, determined to finish it before night, which I did, amidst constant interruptions. It is now nearly midnight, and I must go to my bed, for reveille comes at three.

As a slight evidence that I am not very conceited regarding my personal appearance, I have not looked in a mirror or seen the reflection of my beautiful (?) countenance, including the fine growth of auburn whiskers, since I looked in the glass at Lincoln.


... This morning we left our camp on Powder River, I acting again as guide. The expedition started to make its way through unknown Bad Lands to the mouth of the river. General Terry felt great anxiety in regard to the trip, as he feared that we could not get through with the wagons. He had been down the river to its mouth with cavalry, and he and those with him said that wagons could not make the march in a month, and the Bad Lands looked still more impracticable. He came to my tent before daylight, and asked me if I would try to find the road. He seems to think I have a gift in that way, and he hoped that we might get within ten miles of the river’s mouth today. What rendered our condition more embarrassing was that the men had only rations for one day left.

I started with one company and the scouts, and in we ‘plunged boldly’. One company had been sent out the previous day to look for a road, and their failure to return the same day increased the anxiety. I thought it likely they had lost their way and had slept in the Bad Lands. Sure enough we found them about 10 A.M.

After passing through some perfectly terrible country I finally struck a beautiful road along a high plateau, and instead of guiding the command within ten miles of here we have all arrived and the wagon-train beside.

If you will look on the map near my desk you will find the mouth of the Powder River and our present location on the Yellowstone, almost due west from Lincoln. Follow up the Yellowstone a short distance, and the first stream you come to is the Tongue River, to which point we will move after resting three or four days. We will there be joined by the six companies of the regiment now absent on a scout, and I shall then select the nine companies to go with me ...

The steamer Far West leaves for Fort Buford tomorrow ... As I was up at three this morning, and have had a hard day’s march, and as it is now going on to twelve, I must hie to bed to get a little rest and slumber ...


... I rose early this morning, without waiting to be called to breakfast, in order that I might write my letter. The Yellowstone is very high; steamers loaded to their utmost capacity can go up some distance above the mouth of the Big Horn. I wanted to send you a letter that I wished you to read and afterwards re-mail, had I not thought you might have found an opportunity to come up the river in the Josephine. The new supplies for our mess — of onions, potatoes, and dried apples — have just come from the boat.

‘Tuck’ [the general’s favourite dog] regularly comes when I am writing, 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.

You need not be anxious about my leaving the column with small escorts; I scarcely hunt any more ...


... I fear that my last letter, written from the mouth of Powder River, was not received in very good condition by you. The mail was sent in a row-boat from the stockade to Buford, under charge of a sergeant and three or four men of the 6th Infantry. Just as they were pushing off from the Far West the boat capsized, and mail and soldiers were thrown into the rapid current; the sergeant sank and was never seen again. The mail was recovered, after being submerged for five or ten minutes. Captain Marsh and several others sat up all night and dried it by the stove. I was told that my letter to you went off all right, also my Galaxy article. The latter was recognized by a young newspaper reporter and telegraph operator who came up on the train with us from St Paul, and he took special pains in drying it.

With six companies of the 7th, the Gatling battery, the scouts, and the pack-mules, I left the mouth of Powder River Thursday morning, leaving all our wagons behind, and directing our march for this point, less than forty miles distant. General Terry and staff followed by steamer. We marched here in about one and a quarter days. The boat arrived yesterday evening ... The officers were ordered to leave their tents behind. They are now lying under tentflies or in shelter-tents. When we leave here I shall only take a tentfly. We are living delightfully. This morning we had a splendid dish of fried fish, which Tom, ‘Bos’, and I caught a few steps from my tent last evening.

The other day, on our march from Powder River, I shot an antelope. That night, while sitting round the camp fire, and while Hughes was making our coffee, I roasted some of the ribs Indian fashion, and I must say they were delicious. We all slept in the open air around the fire, Tom and I under a fly, ‘Bos’ and Autie Reed on the opposite side. Tom pelted ‘Bos’ with sticks and clods of earth after we had retired. I don’t know what we would do without ‘Bos’ to tease ...

Yesterday Tom and I saw a wild-goose flying overhead quite high in the air. We were in the bushes and could not see each other. Neither knew that the other intended to fire. Both fired simultaneously, and down came the goose, killed. Don’t you think that pretty good shooting for rifles?

On our march here we passed through some very extensive Indian villages - rather the remains of villages occupied by them last winter. I was at the head of the column as we rode through one, and suddenly came upon a human skull lying under the remains of an extinct fire. I halted to examine it, and lying near by I found the uniform of a soldier. Evidently it was a cavalry uniform, as the buttons on the overcoat had ‘C’ on them, and the dress-coat had the yellow cord of the cavalry uniform running through it. The skull was weatherbeaten, 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.

We are expecting the Josephine to arrive in a day or two. I hope that it will bring me a good long letter from you, otherwise I do not feel particularly interested in her arrival — unless, by good luck, you should be on board; you might just as well be here as not ... I hope to begin another Galaxy article, if the spirit is favorable ...


... Look on my map and you will find our present location on the Yellowstone, about midway between Tongue River and the Big Horn.

The scouting-party has returned. They saw the trail and deserted camp of a village of three hundred and eighty (380) lodges. The trail was about one week old. The scouts reported that they could have overtaken the village in one day and a half. I am now going to take up the trail where the scouting-party turned back. I fear their failure to follow up the Indians has imperilled our plans by giving the village an intimation of our presence. Think of the valuable time lost! But I feel hopeful of accomplishing great results. I will move directly up the valley of the Rosebud. General Gibbon’s command and General Terry, with steamer, will proceed up the Big Horn as far as the boat can go ... I like campaigning with pack-mules much better than with wagons, leaving out the question of luxuries. We take no tents, and desire none.

I now have some Crow scouts with me, as they are familiar with the country. They are magnificent-looking men, so much handsomer and more Indian-like than any we have ever seen, and so jolly and sportive; nothing of the gloomy, silent red-man about them. They have formally given themselves to me, after the usual talk. 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.

I am going to send six Ree scouts to Powder River with the mail; from there it will go with other scouts to Fort Buford ...

JUNE 22D — II A.M.

... I have but a few moments to write, as we move at twelve and I have my hands full of preparations for the scout ... Do not be anxious about me. You would be surprised to know how closely I obey your instructions about keeping with the column. I hope to have a good report to send you by the next mail ... A success will start us all towards Lincoln ...

I send you an extract from General Terry’s official order, knowing how keenly you appreciate words of commendation and confidence, such as the following: ‘It is of course impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement; and were it not impossible to do so, the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy, and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders, which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy.’

Garrisonlife [Fort Lincoln]

There were about forty in our garrison circle, and as we were very harmonious we spent nearly every evening together. I think it is the general belief that the peace of an army post depends very much upon the example set by the commanding officer. My husband, in the six years previous, had made it very clear, in a quiet way, that he would much prefer that there should be no conversation detrimental to others in his quarters. It required no effort for him to refrain from talking about his neighbors, but it was a great deprivation to me occasionally. Once in a while, when some one had brought down wrath upon his or her head by doing something deserving of censure, the whole garrison was voluble in its denunciation; and if I plunged into the subject also and gave my opinion, I soon noticed my husband grow silent and finally slip away. I was not long in finding an excuse to follow him and ask what I had done. Of course I knew him too well not to divine that I had hurt him in some manner. Then he would make a renewed appeal to me beginning by an unanswerable plea, ‘if you wish to please me,’ and imploring me not to join in discussions concerning any one. He used to assure me that in his heart he believed me superior to such things. In vain I disclaimed being of that exalted order of females, and declared that it required great self-denial not to join in a gossip. The discussion ended by his desiring me to use him as a safety-valve if I must criticize others. From motives of policy alone, if actuated by no higher incentive, it seemed wise to suppress one’s ebullitions of anger. In the States it is possible to seek new friends if the old ones become tiresome and exasperating, but once in a post like ours, so far removed, there is no one else to whom one can turn. We never went away on leave of absence, and heard ladies in civil life say emphatically that they did not like some person they knew, and ‘never would’, without a start of terror. I forgot that their lives were not confined to the small precincts of a territorial post, where such avowed enmity is disastrous.

I had very little opportunity to know much of official matters; they were not talked about at home. Instinct guided me always in detecting the general’s enemies, and when I found them out, a struggle began between us as to my manner of treating them. My husband urged that it would embarrass him if others found out that I had surmised anything regarding official affairs. He wished social relations to be kept distinct, and he could not endure to see me show dislike to any one who did not like him. I argued in reply that I felt myself dishonest if I even spoke to one whom I hated. The contest ended by his appealing to my good sense, arguing that as the wife of the commanding officer I belonged to every one, and in our house I should be hospitable upon principle. As every one visited us, there was no escape for me, but I do not like to think now of having welcomed any one from whom I inwardly recoiled.

I was not let off on such occasions with any formal shake of the hand. My husband watched me, and if I was not sufficiently cordial he gave me, afterwards, in our bedroom, a burlesque imitation of my manner. I could not help laughing, even when annoyed to see him caricature me by advancing coldly, extending the tips of his fingers, and bowing loftily to some imaginary guest. His raillery, added to my wish to please him, had the effect of making me shake hands so vigorously that I came near erring the other way and being too demonstrative, and thus giving the impression that I was the best friend of some one I really dreaded.

As I was in the tent during so many summers, and almost constantly in my husband’s library in our winter quarters, I naturally learned something of what was transpiring. I soon found, however, that it would do no good if I asked questions in the hope of gaining further information. As to curiosity ever being one of my conspicuous faults, I do not remember, but I do recollect most distinctly how completely I was taken aback by an occurrence which took place a short time after we were married. I had asked some idle question about official matters, and was promptly informed in a grave manner, though with a mischievous twinkle of the eye, that whatever information I wanted could be had by application to the adjutant-general. This was the stereotyped form of endorsement on papers sent up to the regimental adjutant asking for information. One incident of many comes to me now, proving how little I knew of anything but what pertained to our own home circle. The wife of an officer once treated me with marked coldness. I was unaware of having hurt her in any way, and at once took my grievance to that source where I found sympathy for the smallest woe. My husband pondered a moment, and then remembered that the husband of my friend and he had had some slight official difficulty, and the lady thinking I knew of it was taking her revenge on me.

When I first entered army life I used to wonder what it meant when I heard officers say, in a perfectly serious voice, ‘Mrs commands her husband’s company.’ It was my good fortune not to encounter any such female grenadiers. A circumstance occurred which made me retire early from any attempt to assume the slightest authority. One of the inexhaustible jokes that the officers never permitted me to forget was an occurrence that happened soon after the general took command of the 7th Cavalry. A soldier had deserted, and had stolen a large sum of money from one of the lieutenants. My sympathy was so aroused for the officer that I urged him to lose no time in pursuing the man to the nearest town, whither he was known to have gone. In my interest and zeal I assured the officer that I knew the general would be willing, and he need not wait to apply for leave through the adjutant’s office. I even hurried him away. When the general came in I ran to him with my story, expecting his sympathy and that he would endorse all that I had done. On the contrary, he quietly assured me that he commanded the regiment, and that he would like me to make it known to the lieutenant that he must apply through the proper channels for leave of absence. Thereupon I ate a large piece of humble pie, but was relieved to find that the officer had shown more sense than I, and had not accepted my proferred leave, but had prudently waited to write out his application. Years afterwards, when my husband told me what a source of pride it was to him that others had realized how little I knew about official affairs, and assured me that my curiosity was less than that of any woman he had ever known, I took little credit to myself. It would have been strange, after the drilling of military life, if I had not attained some progress.

The general planned every military action with so much secrecy that we were left to divine as best we could what certain preliminary movements meant. One morning when it was too cold for anything but important duty, without any explanations he started off with a company of cavalry and several wagons. As they crossed the river on the ice, we surmised that he was going to Bismarck. It seemed that the general had been suspicious that the granaries were being robbed, and finally a citizen was caught driving off a loaded wagon of oats from the reservation in broad daylight. This was about as high-handed an instance of thieving as the general had encountered, and he quietly set to work to find out the accomplices. In a little while it was ascertained that the robbers had concealed their plunder in a vacant store in the principal street of Bismarck.

The general determined to go himself directly to the town, thinking that he could do quickly and without Opposition what another might find difficult. The better class of citizens honored him too highly to oppose his plan of action, even though it was unprecedented for the military to enter a town on such an errand. The general knew the exact place at which to halt, and drew the company up in line in front of the door. He demanded the key, and directed the men to transfer the grain to the wagons outside. Without a protest, or an exchange of words even, the troops marched out of the town as quietly as they had entered. This ended the grain thefts.

It was a surprise to me that after the life of excitement my husband had led, he should grow more and more domestic in his tastes. His daily life was very simple. He rarely left home except to hunt, and was scarcely once a year in the sutler’s store [the sutler was a civilian supply contractor], where the officers congregated to play billiards and cards. If the days were too stormy or too cold for hunting, as they often were for a week or more at a time, he wrote and studied for hours every day. We had the good fortune to have a billiard-table loaned us by the sutler, and in the upper room where it was placed, my husband and I had many a game when he was weary with writing.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!