Bruce Brown's 100 Voices...
* Did any of Custer's men escape?
by Bruce Brown
THE BATTLE of the Little Bighorn sometimes seems like a Sea of Mysteries -- and like the sea, it doesn't give up its own easily. This is an ongoing inquiry into some of the flotsam thrown on the shore, in Question & Answer form...
A: This is a question that first arose during the battle because Americans like Peter Thompson, John Ryan, William O. Taylor and an anonymous wounded survivor heard bugle calls coming from the Indian side. Kill Eagle and John Stands In Timber said the buglers were Indians, and they probably were, but the question of whether a white man was among the Indians on June 25, 1876 remains.
Asked directly in September 1876 if there was a white among the Indians that day, Blackfeet Sioux war chief Kill Eagle replied, "There were no white men in the fight or on the field. One who had been with them went to Standing Rock Agency." Quized again one month later if there was a "Spaniard" with the Indians, Kill Eagle said, "There was once a white man in camp, but he went to Spotted Tail's [Agency] before the fight."
Oglala Sioux war chief He Dog said he "did not see any white man among Sioux." But then He Dog added significantly, "In my camp there was a Canadian half breed who spoke very good English as well as Sioux." From He Dog's testimony, it appears that this individual was present on June 25, 1876.
Unreconstituted Confederate mercinary Frank Huston said, "I was a squaw man, yes; but I was not present at the Little Big Horn. I was 50 miles away headed thereto. But O -- how I would have liked to have been there! Yet as a matter of fact, there were white men there; not with the Sioux, but with other nations present. Put yourself in their place. Would you, then or now, acknowledge it?" Huston provided no details to support his assertion.
The main eye-witness evidence that there may have been one or more white man fighting on the Indian side at the Battle of the Little Bighorn comes from the accounts of survivors Peter Thompson and August De Voto, and an Anonymous Sixth Infantry Sergeant who was an eye-witness to the condition of the battlefield immediately afterwards.
Thompson provides the strongest testimony. He said he and fellow Seventh Cavalry straggler James Watson were fleeing some Sioux on the banks of the Little Bighorn when they encountered a white man and an Indian whom they at first took for friends -- until the pair dismounted, "threw their guns across their saddles" and fired at them, sending Thompson and Watson fleeing.
After the battle, August De Voto said, "we went over the ground where the Indian camp had been. There were two tepees left standing full of dead Indians. As we rode past I looked in. They were piled up like cordwood. One of them looked to me very much like a white man. I could not see his face, but his legs looked white. I had no chance to go in and make a close investigation."
Other Seventh cavalry survivors made similar statements. In a 1904 interview with Walter Mason Camp, John Martin said he saw the corpse of a white man in the village after the battle, and Camp's comments indicate Daniel Kanipe also told Camp that he saw a dead white man in the village after the battle.
An Anonymous Sixth Infantry Sergeant added, "One of the Indians that was shot by [Major Marcus] Reno's men attracted peculiar attention, and upon going up to him he was found masked, and upon removing the mask the features of a white man were disclosed, with a long, gray, patriarchial beard."
So who knows? Maybe there was one or more white men fighting on the Sioux and Cheyenne side, but the next question is, "did it matter?" and the answer is, "no, it didn't matter." As Short Bull observed of Crazy Horse as he turned from Reno to flank Custer's decapitated command, the Sioux and Cheyenne had their "business well in hand" that day.
Q: Did any of Custer's men manage to get across the Little Bighorn River into the Cheyenne camp when Custer attacked the village at Medicine Tail Coulee?
A: Yes, according to the eye-witness record, at least one Seventh Cavalry trooper made it across the river before (or in the moments immediately after) Custer was shot mid-river by White Cow Bull, and the American attack collapsed. [Note: see Who Killed Custer - The Eye-witness Answer for more info.]
On August 1, 1876 -- six weeks after the battle -- a group of Seven Anonymous Sioux and Cheyenne warriors told Capt. John Polland: "he [Custer] crossed the river, but only succeeded in reaching the edge of the Indian camp."
Crow scout Curley, who was an eye-witness to Custer's attack at Medicine Tail Coulee, said in 1916, "The bugler got killed in the camp. Some of them got killed in the river. They (the Sioux) would not let the soldiers cross the river."
Brule Sioux warriors Hollow Horn Eagle and Brave Bird agreed, adding that the bugler was wounded on the Cheyenne side of the river, and killed there after the battle by Woman Who Walks With The Stars, the wife of Brule Sioux chief Crow Dog. "For some reason he was trying to get back across the river," Hollow Horn Eagle and Brave Bird observed dryly.
Q: Did any of Custer's men manage to escape the slaughter?
A: The last Seventh Cavalry survivor to leave Custer's command was Peter Thompson (also the last man to see Custer alive). Thompson 's exhausted horse "entirely played out" part way down Medicine Tail Coulee, and he was left behind when his comrades charged on to attack the huge Indian village on the other side of the Little Bighorn with Custer in the lead.
There is no evidence that any American got away and lived after this, although Seventh Cavalry survivor Edward Godfrey raised the possiblility in his 1892 Century article when he spoke of the carcass of an apparent Seventh Cavalry horse that had been shot in the head that the Americans found near the mouth of the Rosebud a few weeks after the battle.
"At the time of the discovery we conjectured that some man had escaped, and on reaching the river had killed his horse for meat and used the saddle straps to tie together a raft," wrote Godfrey.
There was also an American trooper who took his clothes off and dove in the river to hide there. The Sioux watched him breathing through his nose for a long time and then shot him dead. Another American played opossum among the dead on the battlefield until after the battle when a squaw stripped him and started to hack up his supposed corpse, at which point he jumped up and ran around naked until he was killed.
Based on the eye-witness record, it is impossible to say that any of Custer's men got away and lived, but there is evidence that one or more may have gotten away, and perished from their wounds before they could reach safety.
Three or four weeks after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, some of General George Crook's troops found the remains of an American cavalry trooper "a few days journey from Custer's hill" who was identified by some as Nathan Short, a trooper with Custer on June 25, 1876.
Daniel Kanipe, who carried Custer's last order to McDougall, said, "How I came to know it was Short of my company was that he had his stuff numbered 50, and General Crook reported that the man's number was 50. He was with the company [Custer's command] when I left it, on Reno's hill."
Sioux warrior Lights also spoke of a wounded American soldier whose corpse was found some distance from the battlefield several days after the battle. He had apparently been subsisting on frogs. The Sioux deduced this from the fact that the dead man's pockets were filled with frogs.
Q: Did Custer "lose it" at the end?
A: One of the persistent sub-threads that runs through the stories of the Little Bighorn -- Indian and American alike -- is the suggestion that Custer "lost it" at the end, depicted most dramatically in the laughing, lunatic Custer at the end of Thomas Berger's Little Big Man.
In fact, Sitting Bull did describe Custer laughing at the end, and Seventh Cavalry survivors Peter Thompson, James Watson and John McGuire told a story of Custer shooting crazily at a Seventh Cavalry scout named Billy Jackson just before the beginning of the Custer fight. How do these stories square with the rest of the eye-witness record?
First, let's look at Sitting Bull's story. By his own admission, Sitting Bull didn't witness the scene he described. His people would have brought him their stories, of course, but as the Sioux and Cheyenne almost universally admitted, none of the Indians recognized Custer on the battlefield, so they really didn't know whether Custer laughed at the end or not.
Meanwhile, as the description of Custer and his gear became public knowledge, the one man who knew what happened to Custer must have begun to realize the truth. This was White Cow Bull, but he did not tell his story to the Americans until 1937 in a battlefield interview with the most friendly of the American Little Bighorn chroniclers, David Humphreys Miller.
On the matter of Thompson, Watson and McGuire's story of Custer shooting at Billy Jackson, again neither Thompson or McGuire actually saw the event. They were repeating stories they heard, and neither Jackson nor the man who actually heard the story from Jackson -- James Watson -- left a story of their own.
So what does the rest of the eye-witness record of the battle say about this episode? Watson told Thompson that the incident occurred "on the trail on the top of the hill but a short distance from the place where it turned towards the village." This would be not too long after Custer turned off the trail paralleling Reno to follow some Indians on the ridgeline, as described by Daniel Kanipe.
Only a few minutes before on Reno Creek, Custer had a sharp encounter with a group of his scouts at the Lone Tepee. Custer was riding ahead of his men with just scout Fred Gerard when he came on a bunch of Arikara scouts. Thinking his scouts were loafing, Custer tongue-lashed them: "I told you to dash on and stop for nothing. You have disobeyed me. Move to one side and let the soldiers pass you in the charge. If any man of you is not brave, I will take away his weapons and make a woman of him."
It is conceivable that Custer encountered the half-Sioux scout Jackson a few minutes later in circumstances which reingnited his fury at the other scouts to a degree that he took direct, aggressive action. According to Peter Thompson, Custer DID take direct action with another one of his errant scouts at the river a few minutes later, although he did not shoot at the scout (probably Curley), he just ordered him to release the Sioux woman he had tethered.
At this point, there's no way of knowing if Custer really shot at Billy Jackson -- or what Jackson might have done to provoke such an act -- but since there are no other records of it, it would have to have occured while Custer was riding apart from his men and the only witnesses were him and Jackson.
So now we have to ask, did Custer ride apart from his men on the charge to Medicine Tail Coulee? Well, as a matter of fact, yes he did so, repeatedly.
Then we have to ask, does the physical geography of lower Medicine Tail Coulee support this story? The answer again is yes, there is a small hill of about 20 feet in height on the Medicine Tail Coulee trail shortly after the Lone Tepee.
The eye-witness record and the physical topography therefore reveal that it is possible that Custer shot at Billy Jackson just before the beginning of the Custer fight, but it further suggests that if it did happen, the incident was probably a reflection of Custer's anger at scouts he considered slackers, not the fact that Custer was coming unhinged mentally.
In fact, the eye-witness record reveals the opposite. Custer was clear-eyed and keen for battle... right up to the moment he took a slug from Oglala Sioux marksman White Cow Bull's repeater through the ribs below the heart, and toppled off his horse into the waters of the Little Bighorn River. See Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for more info.
Q: Did the Indians ambush Custer at Medicine Tail Coulee?
A: Medicine Tail Coulee is the Bermuda Triangle of the Little Bighorn. It's the place where many of the most persistent mysteries of the battle converge.
For instance, how could a handful of Indians have stopped Custer's charge in the middle of the river, as White Cow Bull, George Glenn, Curley and Pretty Shield described? Why did Custer's men abandon all offensive action after the aborted attack at Medicine Tail Coulee? Why didn't Custer support or reenforce Reno, as Custer promised he would? And after Custer's attack at Medicine Tail Coulee was thrown back, why did Custer's men fire two signal volleys and then simply sit and wait across the river from the huge village for the Indians to gather enough force to crush them?
What happened at Medicine Tail Coulee doesn't seem to make sense. The way Custer's men behaved, you'd think they'd met over-whelming force when they tried to charge across the river and attack the Indian village, not a handful of warriors with only a couple guns among them. It is not surprising, therefore, that talk of an ambush at Medicine Tail Coulee began almost as soon as the burial detail began to go over the battlefield.
On August 1, 1876, barely six weeks after the battle, the first published suggestion of an ambush at Medicine Tail Coulee was published in the New York Herald. The account, which is largely credited to an anonymous Sixth Infantry sergeant, stated, "the command came in sight of the village within an hour and a half and he [Custer] gave the order to charge it, which was gallantly done, but no resistance was met with until they arrived at the other side of the village location, when they received a terrific volley, which put an end to many a noble fellow's existence..."
Horned Horse, spokesman for Crazy Horse's at his surrender in May 1877, spoke of the same thing in an account of the action at Medicine Tail Coulee: "He [Custer] made a dash to get across [the Little Bighorn at Medicine Tail Coulee], but was met by such a tremendous fire from the repeating rifles of the savages that the head of his command reeled back toward the bluffs after losing several men who tumbled into the water..."
It wasn't until 61 years later, when White Cow Bull finally told his story to David Humphreys Miller, that the mystery was solved. Actually, it wasn't a "terrific volley" that stopped the charge of Custer and his 200-plus troopers at Medicine Tail Coulee. It was one shot, from White Cow Bull, which caught Custer in the ribs below the heart, and toppled him into the waters of the Little Bighorn.
White Cow Bull didn't know who it was at the time, but he recalled, "shooting that man stopped the soldiers from charging on. They all reined up their horses and gathered around where he had fallen." See Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for more info.
-- Bruce Brown
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