George Bird Grinnell's
GEORGE BIRD GRINNELL'S STORY
THE CUSTER BATTLE, 1876
THE DEFEAT of General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry on June 25, 1876, with a loss of 265 men killed and 52 wounded, was the most sensational battle of the western Indian wars. Under orders from General Alfred H. Terry, the commander of the Department of Dakota, General Custer had been sent from the mouth of the Rosebud River, in Montana, on a scout to find the Indians believed to be camped somewhere to the south-perhaps on the Little Big Horn River. The trail of these Indians, leading up the Rosebud River, had been discovered some days before, and on June 22 practically the whole Seventh Cavalry, about 700 men and 28 officers, had ridden out from the camp to follow that trail.
The story, told so many times, need not be repeated in detail here. From a lookout on the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn, General Custer learned from his scouts the location of the Indian village, and at a point on Reno Creek near the Little Big Horn divided his forces into three battalions, sending Major Reno with three troops of cavalry and some scouts to a point on the Little Big Horn above the uppermost village, and Captain Benteen with three troops to scout a little to the left in a southerly direction toward the Little Big Horn. Benteen's orders were if he saw any Indians to attack them. Custer himself went around to attack the village farther down the stream. His scouts had warned him that the village was very large and that the issue would be doubtful.
Near the point where Custer and Reno separated, Reno crossed the river and soon after attacked the upper village. Seeing the size of the camp and being afraid to continue the attack, he retreated to a body of timber, where he remained but a short time and then, panic-stricken, left the timber, crossed the Little Big Horn River, and took refuge on the high bluffs on the north side of the river, where he afterward entrenched himself. A little later Benteen joined him, as did Captain McDougall with the pack train. Meantime Custer went around, came within sight of the lower part of the great camp where the Cheyennes, Brules, and Ogallalas had their lodges, and then, instead of crossing the stream and charging through the village, halted and took a position on a long, high ridge; and after a fight which lasted not more than two or three hours his whole command was killed. [Note: actually Custer did attempt to cross the river and attack the Indian village at Medicine Tail Coulee, as numerous witnesses attest. See Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for more info.]
General E. S. Godfrey, retired, at that time lieutenant in the Seventh Cavalry, was with Benteen and Reno and in 1892, in the Century Magazine, gave by far the most complete account we have had of the matter. [Note: although it remains a crucial piece of the eye-witness puzzle, most of the conclusions in Godfrey's 1892 Century article have been challenged.]
There were no white survivors of the Custer battle, and such information about it as we have comes from Indian accounts. What is told here comes altogether from the Northern Cheyennes. Many of the informants are still living. These accounts consist of a number of individual observations, from which it is not easy to get any general idea of the fight.
In 1875, Sitting Bull took part in a medicine lodge held on Tongue River. White Bull [AKA Ice Bear], who was present, has told me what took place. Sitting Bull professed to have a vision, after which he announced to the people that the Great Power had told him that his enemies would be delivered into his hands. He did not profess to know who these enemies were, but explained that perhaps they might be soldiers.
In the spring of 1876, the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes came together near the mouth of the Rosebud River, near the Yellowstone, where a large camp gathered. At this camp it was reported that white soldiers were in the country somewhere, but just where nobody seemed to know. In March, in bitter cold weather, General Reynolds attacked and captured a camp on Powder River occupied by Sioux and Cheyennes. No Indians appear to have been killed, but the troops lost some men. The whole Indian herd was taken. Suddenly, without apparent reason, the troops retreated, and the Indians followed them and recaptured most of the horses.
From the mouth of the Rosebud the Indians moved up that stream, and then over to the head of Reno Creek, always keeping scouts out to look for enemies.
After the men had left the camp on the head of Reno Creek to go to fight Crook [Note: this is the Battle of the Rosebud.], the villages moved a short distance down Reno Creek toward the Little Big Horn River, and after two nights there they moved to the mouth of Reno Creek and camped there for five or six days. While in this camp seven Arapahoes came to the camp. The Cheyennes and Sioux believed that these men were scouts from some camp of soldiers and seized them, took their arms and horses and a part of their clothing, and were inclined to kill them. Two of the Cheyennes, Black Wolf and Last Bull, took their part and advised the people not to act hastily but to wait. The Arapahoes were taken to old Two Moon's lodge, which was closely surrounded. While they were there, many Sioux came up with cocked guns, and, pointing them at the Arapahoes, said that they must be killed. Women whose relations had been killed asked for the death of the Arapahoes. Nevertheless most people said: "This is Two Moon's lodge; we must wait until he comes; he shall decide." They sent out a young man to look for Two Moon, who at last was found in one of the Sioux camps. In the meantime they had taken the Arapaho chief into the lodge. After a time Two Moon with five or six Sioux chiefs came to his lodge and called in all the Arapahoes. These chiefs were to decide what should be done with the prisoners.
After some conversation Two Moon called out: "These Arapahoes are all right. They have come here to help us fight the soldiers. Do not harm them, but give them back their property." The Sioux chiefs said the same thing, and then their horses, arms, and clothing were returned to the Arapahoes. Some old people then advised that these strangers should be invited to go to different lodges and be fed. [Note: Here are accounts of the same episode by two of the Arapahoes involved, Waterman and Left Hand.]
The day before Custer's attack the Indians moved again and camped in the great bottom of the Little Big Horn, at the place where the battle was fought. There seems to have been a general impression that they were to be attacked, but no specific information was at hand. The very morning of the fight two young men went fishing on the Little Big Horn River. From time to time a little lad, who accompanied them, was sent up to the higher land away from the river to catch grasshoppers to use in the fishing, and the last time he returned he said to his uncle, White Shield: "I saw a person wearing a war bonnet go by just now. They must be looking for someone." White Shield rode up on the hill to look and heard distant shooting and saw people running about. This told him that the camp had been attacked, and he hurried to it.
We have definite accounts of the Seventh Cavalry until the time of the division of the command, when Custer sent Reno to charge the upper end of the camp and himself went about to come in below. Cheyenne and Sioux scouts left to watch the troops under Crook had seen that command march south, and, while returning to their own camp, saw Custer's command marching up the Rosebud River. Not long after the man who made this discovery reached the camp, four or five lodges of Sioux hurried in. They had set out to go to Red Cloud Agency, had discovered Custer's people close to them, and turned back frightened. Their report caused much alarm.
At a point on Reno Creek two men, wounded in the Crook fight on the Rosebud, had died and been left there in lodges. The troops discovered these lodges and charged them, but found no one there alive. It was known in the camp that the troops had separated on Reno Creek, and an old man harangued that the soldiers were about to charge from the upper end and also from the lower end. When this was called out, men began to prepare for the fight and to mount their horses, but many of the horses had been sent out on herd and most of the men were on foot. Reno's party was seen approaching the upper Indian camp, and most of the men went up there to meet him. He charged down on the flat where there was timber and near to the upper end of the Sioux village. Then the troops stopped and seemed to become very much excited and retreated to the timber.
After a short stop in the timber the troops rushed out and began to retreat, their commander apparently leading the way. The Indians say they acted as if they were drunk, which perhaps means that they were very much excited -- probably panic-stricken. At all events, they bolted out of the timber and charged back through the Indians, to cross the stream and reach the higher ground on the other side. They did not cross where they had come over before, but jumped over a bank. All the Cheyenne evidence shows that they made no attempt to defend themselves but thought only of getting away. The Indians rode up close to them and knocked some of them from their horses as they were running, while some fell off while crossing the river. "It was like chasing buffalo-a great chase."
"We could never understand why the soldiers left the timber, for if they had stayed there the Indians could not have killed them." [Note: Reno was driven out of the timber by Crazy Horse's first charge of the day, which "broke Reno's left wing," according to Standing Bear and others.] The troops crossed the river and got up on the hill. Just about that time the Indians saw the large pack train of mules, which went directly to Reno. At the river all the Indians stopped. They did not follow the troops across the stream, but turned back to look over the dead to see who of their own people were killed, and to plunder. While doing this, they heard shooting and calling down the rivera man shouting out that troops were attacking the lower end of the village. They all rushed down below and saw Custer coming down the hill and almost at the river.
Before this the women and children down at the lower villages heard the shooting up above and, becoming frightened, set out to cross the river to the north side and so to get farther from the Reno fight. While some were crossing the river and some who had already crossed were going up the hill, they discovered more troops coming -- Custer's party. The women ran back and out the other side of the village and toward the bluffs to the southeast of the river. By this time the men who were fighting Reno had learned that more soldiers were coming, and all the men rushed down the creek to the lower camps.
By that time -- according to Brave Wolf -- a part of Custer's troops had got down toward the mouth of the little, dry creek and were near the level of the bottom. There they began fighting, and for quite a long time fought near the river, neither party giving back. [Note: according to the eye-witness record, Custer's men paused at the river, as Reno's men had done a half hour before, and then tried to charge across the Little Bighorn and attack the village at Medicine Tail Coulee. This is when White Cow Bull, Curley and Pretty Shield said Custer was shot and "fell in the water." See Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for more info.]
When White Shield, hurrying back from his fishing, reached the camp, his mother had already secured his horse and was waiting for him. He began to dress, and while doing this, he saw Custer's troops in seven groups approaching the river. Some Sioux and Cheyennes had already seen them, and some men who were in the camp had crossed the river at the ford to meet Custer. White Shield overtook a group of four Cheyennes, among whom were Roan Bear, Bobtail Horse, and Calf. Mad Wolf -- probably Mad Hearted Wolf, often called Rabid Wolf, but actually meaning Wolf That Has No Sense was riding with White Shield. He was one of the bravest and wisest men in the tribe. As they rode along, he said to White Shield: "No one must charge on the soldiers now; they are too many." As the Cheyennes rode out of the river toward the troops, who were still at a distance, they saw that the soldiers were following five Sioux who were running from them. They gradually circled away from in front of the soldiers, and the troops did not follow them, but kept on toward the river. The troops were headed straight for the ford -- about half a mile above the battlefield -- and White Shield and the other Cheyennes believed that Custer was about to cross the river and get into the camp. The troops were getting near them, but suddenly, before the troops reached the river, the gray-horse company halted and dismounted, and all who were following them, as far as could be seen, also stopped and dismounted. [Note Custer's men actually stopped on the banks of the Little Bighorn, directly across from the Indian village, as White Cow Bull and White Man Runs Him described.]
White Shield rode off to the left and down the river, while Bobtail Horse, Calf, and the two or three who were with them stopped close to the river, and under cover of a low ridge began to shoot at the soldiers. [Note: One of these was the Oglalla Sioux warrior White Cow Bull.] The five Sioux whom the troops had at first seemed to be pursuing now joined Calf and Bobtail Horse, and the ten Indians were shooting at the soldiers as fast as they could. About the time the soldiers halted, one was killed. Now more Sioux and Cheyennes began to gather, the Indians crossing the river and stringing up the gulch like ants rushing out of a hill, and the two troops of cavalry that had come up nearest to Bobtail Horse and his party fell back to the side of a little knoll and stopped there. Yellow Nose charged close up to them alone. The two troops remained there only a few moments. Crowded back, they crossed a deep gulch and climbed the hill on the other side, going toward where the monument now stands, where by this time the gray-horse company had stopped. Some of the soldiers were killed on the way, but the gray-horse company opened so heavy a fire that the Indians fell back.
Certain brave Cheyennes -- Yellow Nose, Contrary Belly, and Chief Comes in Sight -- had been charging up close to the soldiers, and these charges seemed greatly to frighten the troop horses held behind the line, so that they were struggling and circling about the men who held them.
Now the call went along the Indian line ordering them to dismount, and the Cheyennes began to shoot fast. A long way off to the southeast two men, followed by many Indians, made a charge, and Yellow Nose snatched from the ground where it stood, a company guidon, carrying it away, and as he went counting coup on a soldier. After this charge the frightened horses of this company broke away from those who were holding them and stampeded. Some Indians cried: "The soldiers are running," but this was not true.
By this time all the soldiers had moved back from the river except the gray-horse company, which stood its ground on the place where the monument now is. The different groups of soldiers moved about a little on the higher ground, some going toward the river and some away from it, and when the Indians charged from all sides, the soldiers drew a little together. By this time three of the troops had lost their horses, but four still had theirs. One company that had lost its horses was near where the road goes now, and the men, all on foot, were trying to work their way toward the gray-horse company on the hill half a mile from them. About half the men were without guns. They fought with six-shooters, close fighting -- almost hand to hand as they went up the hill.
They did not reach the top of the hill. Every ravine running down from the northwest side of the ridge, every little bunch of brush, was occupied by Indians, who kept up a constant and galling fire, and the Indians were so many that the destruction among the troops was very great. By this time the Indians were to some extent provided with improved arms. In the Crook fight [Battle of the Rosebud] they had captured a number of carbines from the troops, and today were constantly acquiring new arms while they found that the saddlebags of the captured horses were full of ammunition. White Bull [AKA Ice Bear] says: "If it had not been for this they could not have killed them so quickly." When the fight began about half the Indians had guns and the remainder bows, for which however, they had many arrows. The guns were of many sortsmuzzle-loaders, Spencer carbines, old-fashioned Henry rifles, and old Sharps military rifles. The Sharps were probably the best guns they had, except those recently captured from the soldiers.
White Shield says that the gray-horse company held their horses to the last, and that almost all these horses were killed. On the other hand, Bobtail Horse declares that some of their horses got away from the soldiers and charged down through the Indians, knocking them down and running over them. Bobtail Horse caught two of these horses and took them across the river to the camp, to which the women had now returned.
Brave Wolf, who was the fighting chief of the Cheyennes, had been in the fight with Reno until the shooting was heard down the river, when all the Indians went down there. He told me: "When I got to the Cheyenne camp, the fighting had been going on for some time. The soldiers [Custer's] were right down close to the stream, but none were on the side of the camp. Just as I got there, the soldiers began to retreat up the narrow gulch. They were all drawn up in line of battle, shooting well and fighting hard, but there were so many people around them that they could not help being killed. They still held their line of battle, and kept fighting and falling from their horses -- fighting and falling, all the way up nearly to where the monument now stands. I think all their horses had been killed before they got to the top of the hill. None got there on horseback, and only a few on foot. A part of those who had reached the top of the hill went on over and tried to go to the river, but they killed them all going down the hill, before any of them got to the creek.
"It was hard fighting; very hard all the time. I have been in many hard fights, but I never saw such brave men."
Just after the three companies had reached the gray-horse company, a man riding a sorrel horse broke away from the soldiers, and rode back up the river and toward the hills, in the direction from which the soldiers had come. Some Indians followed him, but his horse was fast and long-winded, and at last only three men were left in pursuit. A Sioux, and two Cheyennes, Old Bear and Kills in the Night, both living in 1915, kept on, trying to overtake him. The Sioux fired at the man, but missed him; then Old Bear fired, and a little later the man fell from his horse, and when they got to him, they found that he had been shot in the back, between the shoulders. It is believed that Old Bear killed him. It is conjectured that this was Lieutenant Harrington, whose body was never identified.
A man supposed by some of the Indians to be General Custer was on the outer edge of the gray-horse company, toward the river. White Shield saw this man while he was being stripped. He was clad in a buckskin shirt, fringed on the breast, with buckskin trousers; wore fine, high boots, and had a knife stuck in a scabbard in his boot. A large red handkerchief was tied about his neck. He was armed with a six-shooter and a long knife. He died with his pistol in his hand. He had a mustache, but no other hair on his face, and had blue marks pricked into the skin on the arms above the wrist. This was probably Tom Custer.
The Indians state positively that they did not kill the troops by charging into them, but kept shooting them from behind the hills. The final charge was not made until all the troops in the main body had fallen, though, of course, many soldiers were still on foot scattered down toward the river. When all the troops on the hill had fallen, the Indians gave a loud shout and charged up the ridge. The soldiers toward the river backed away, and after that the fight did not last long enough to light a pipe.
After the fight was over, the women and children went up to the battleground, and as usual there was mutilation of the dead. Spotted Hawk, who was then seven years old, relates that he went up with a group of children a little older than he, and they began to take what they wished from the slain. Among other things they tried to take off the clothing, cutting loose the waistbands of the soldiers to remove their trousers. While engaged in this work, a child happened to rip up a waistband and noticed in it pieces of green paper, some small and some large-the small no doubt fractional currency and the larger pieces bills. The children thought these things pretty, and looking further found that almost every waistband contained some money. They did not know what this was, but since it was hidden, they assumed that it must be precious, and took it back to camp. Spotted Hawk says that after this, while playing at making mud images, as the children did, he made a clay horse for a clay rider, and used a folded bill for a saddle blanket for the horseman to sit on.
After the Custer command had been wiped out, the fighting men returned up the river to attack Reno's command, with which were Captain Benteen's men and the pack train. The subsequent operations here have been detailed by General Godfrey in his article in the Century Magazine, which still remains the best account of the fight. During the afternoon thirteen of Reno's men-twelve soldiers and one civilian scout-who had been in the timber rejoined the command. George Herendeen was one of these.
Lieutenant De Rudio and Tom O'Neal, [Tom O'Neill] an enlisted man, together with William Jackson and Fred Girard [Fred Gerard], had remained in the timber and were now concealed there. The Indians knew that there were people in the timber, but devoted their attention chiefly to the troops entrenched on top of the hill, and kept shooting at them.
The morning after the Custer fight the Indians were still watching Reno's troops. By this time the besieged had begun to suffer for water. The Indians say that a soldier stripped to his underclothing ran down the hill to the river, and the Indians began to shoot at him. In one hand he held a quart cup, and in the other a canteen. When he reached the river he threw himself down in the water, filling his vessels and drinking at the same time. Half the time they could not see him because of the water splashed up by the bullets. After two or three moments he rose and ran up the hill again, entering the breastworks unhurt, though they had been firing at him all the time.
The Indians stayed here all day long and made several charges, but at length their scouts brought word of the approach of Terry, and they determined that they must go. The criers went about shouting out orders that the camp should move, and the women began to pack up and were soon on their way.
Among the scouts killed with Reno was Bloody Knife, a well-known Ree, who had been brought up among the Sioux, for during some period of peace his father had married a Ree woman. By the time that Bloody Knife was a well-grown boy in the Sioux camp, his mother was seized with a great wish to see her own people, and her husband consented that she should return to the Ree village on the Missouri River. Bloody Knife went with her and after that lived with the Rees, and was considered a Ree. In 1874, he accompanied the Custer expedition to the Black Hills of Dakota and was a good scout.
During the flight of Reno's troops across the Little Big Horn River, Bloody Knife was killed. Later among the women who came down from the Sioux and Cheyenne camp to get trophies to take back to their camp were two young women, daughters of Bloody Knife's sister, a Sioux woman. They found an Indian, and seeing from his clothing that he was a scout for the soldiers, cut off his head, put it on a pole, and returned to camp. They showed the trophy in triumph to the people, and among others to their mother, who recognized it as the head of her brother, Bloody Knife. [Note: David Humpreys Miller also told the same story about Bloody Knife's head after the battle.]
Some years ago Major De Rudio wrote for Harper's Weekly an account of the adventures of the four men who were left in the timber after Reno had fled across the Little Big Horn River to the hill. They became separated; Major De Rudio and O'Neal stayed together, and Jackson and Girard. The two former unexpectedly met some Indians who were traveling through the timber and killed two or three of them. All four finally reached Reno's command on the hill.
The community of Indians attacked here by the Custer command was a large one -- how large no one knows. Young Two Moon had declared to me that there were two hundred lodges in the Cheyenne village and six villages of Sioux, each one larger than the Cheyenne. Even if the Sioux villages were no larger than the Cheyenne this would make fourteen hundred lodges, and besides the people occupying the lodges there were a multitude of strangers -- Indians from different reservations-whose number cannot be estimated. That spring the Sioux and the Cheyennes sent out runners to Red Cloud, Spotted Tail, Standing Rock, and other Sioux reservations to call warriors to join the camp, and the response to this invitation was large. There were also in the camp some Southern Cheyennes, some Yankton Sioux, and some Arapahoes. Many of these people were guests in the lodges, and many others camped under shelters outside of the lodges. Cheyennes have told me that they believed there were more than fifteen hundred lodges, and perhaps three or four fighting men to a lodge, a total therefore of from forty-five hundred to six thousand men.
Eastman's account' is quite different, and his numbers much smaller. He gives only a little more than nine hundred lodges, and perhaps fourteen hundred warriors. Yet perhaps this is as much too small as the other estimate is too large. Northern Cheyenne testimony agrees that there were two hundred lodges of Cheyennes, while Eastman gives only fifty-five. His enumeration of the Sioux may be closer. Of one thing we may be sure, that if Reno and Custer had kept on and charged through the village from opposite ends, the Indians would have scattered and there would have been no disaster.
For many years past, the Northern Cheyennes whenever the Custer fight has been under discussion have expressed the opinion that if Reno had remained in the timber, the Indians could have done nothing with him. [Note: actually, remaining in the timber wasn't an option because Crazy Horse's first charge of the day crushed Reno's left wing.] They agree further that if Custer had continued his charge and gone to and through the villages, the Indians would have fled, and he would have killed many of them. "If the soldiers had not stopped, they would have killed lots of Indians," said one of their most famous warriors. [Note: see Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for why Custer didn't continue the attack.] Anyone familiar with Indian ways, mode of thought, and war customs knows very well that as a rule the Indian avoids coming to close quarters with his enemy. If the enemy charges, the Indian runs away, but as soon as the vigor of the charge lessens or the enemy stops, the Indian becomes encouraged, turns about, and himself charges. This was characteristic of the old intertribal wars, which consisted largely of charges backward and forward by the two opposing forces.
Examinations of the battleground have been made by many people without clearing up the events of the fight. It seems, however, that a part of Custer's command did come nearly down to the ford, and if the two companies that reached that point -- with whom I suppose were Lieutenants Crittenden and Calhoun -- had kept on and crossed the river, they would no doubt have been followed by the rest of the command, and a great victory might have followed. It is clear that Custer's purpose was to charge the camp from both ends. The plan was a good one, but required that the two charges should be made about the same time and should be led by men who were without fear. Either Reno charged too soon, or else it took Custer far longer than expected to get around to his position. The distance Reno had to go was but three miles, while Custer had six or seven, or even ten, to ride. Reno had been defeated and was on his hill before Custer drew near the river. It is possible that Custer stopped on the hill to look for Reno, and that this gave the Indians time to get together, and that then Custer supposed that the force he had to meet was too strong. Yet the Cheyennes say that at first only ten Indians were present at the ford to oppose any charge that might have been made. The hill on which the monument stands seems well enough chosen for defense, but the borders of the ridge are cut by many little ravines and draws, which provided effective shelter for the Indians' approach.
Assuming that for whatever reason Custer could not or would not cross the river and charge through the camp, a plan of defense better than the one he adopted would have been to get down on the flat of the river bottom, where a steady body of men fighting coolly under competent officers could have worn out the Indians, who would have left them after a day of fighting. If Custer had kept moving and either crossed the river at the ford at the mouth of the dry gulch toward which Crittenden and Calhoun seem to have been going when killed, or had gone down the river, crossed there, and come up the flat, I have no doubt that the Indians would have run. If Crittenden and Calhoun's companies had crossed the ford and shown Custer the way, he would no doubt have followed them, and the day would have turned out differently. [Note: see Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for why Custer didn't cross the river.]
The Fighting Cheyennes by George Bird Grinnell, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY 1915 p 345 - 358
In his long and distinguished career, George Bird Grinnell was a naturalist with George Custer's 1874 Black Hills expedition, founded of the Audubon Society and was the author of The Fighting Cheyenne.
Although not a Cheyenne, or an eye-witness to the battle of the Little Bighorn, George Bird Grinnell shares a crucial quality with the other Sioux, Cheyenne and Crow chroniclers included in 100 Voices. Like Ohiyesa, John Stands In Timber, William Bordeaux, Pretty Shield, Bird Horse and David Humphreys Miller, Grinnell had unique access to important particpants in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. What you see in The Fighting Cheyenne is an intelligent, well-informed and sympathetic telling of the Cheyenne story.
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