George Herendeen's Story of the Battle #2
A Scout's Story of the Battle of the Little Big Horn
A Brilliant Attack
Reno Precipitately Retreats Before Two Hundred Reds
A ZERO IN THE FIGHT
The Whole Strength of the Village Allowed to Crush the Battalions Engaged
Bozeman, M. T., Jan. 4, 1878.
I have read a good deal of late in the Herald and other papers about the battle of the Little Big Horn, much of which is incorrect and calculated to mislead the public. I was present with Reno during the whole of his connection with the battle and am personally cognizant of what occurred both before and after the engagement. Of course I did not see all that took place; but I saw a great deal and will relate it just as I witnessed it.
A Council o f War
I was with General Gibbon's command at the mouth of the Rosebud when General Terry and General Custer joined Gibbon. General Terry told me I could go with General Custer on his march up the Rosebud. He told me at General Gibbon's tent to go with Custer, and I afterwards saw Terry on the steamer Far West while she lay at the mouth of the Rosebud, and he asked me about the country along the upper part of the Rosebud and Tullock's Fork. I was standing on the forward deck of the boat when I was called into the cabin where I found Generals Terry, Gibbon, Custer and Brisbin around a table apparently holding a council of war. Terry showed me a map and asked me for information about the country on Tullock's Fork and the Little Big Horn. I understood from the conversation had by Terry with Gibbon and Custer that he was trying to find out where the columns of Custer and Gibbon could best form a junction somewhere in the neighborhood of the mouth of the Little Big Horn, Custer to march up the Rosebud and Gibbon up the Big Horn. I had been over the ground and told the General all I knew about it. Custer seemed pleased with the information I gave Terry and said I was just the man he wanted, and that he would like me to go with him. I went out on the deck again, and soon afterward General Gibbon came out and spoke to me. He said I could consider myself as employed to go with General Custer. I asked him what compensation I would receive and what I would be expected to do, and he replied I would act as a scout, and when Custer's command got to the head of Tullock's Creek, I would come down the Tullock with dispatches to his (Gibbon's) command. There was some conversation about what compensation I would receive, but the above was all that occurred of importance. This was on the 21st of June, and soon after General Gibbon left the boat. General Brisbin came out of the cabin and I asked him where his cavalry would probably be in the next few days, so I could find him and he replied about the mouth of the Little Big Horn.
Starting up the Rosebud
I reported to General Custer at noon on the 21st of June and was sent to Lieutenant Varnum, who had charge of some scouts. I saw with Varnum, Mich Boyer* the half-breed scout and guide. We started out on the 22nd about noon and travelled up to the Rosebud. Boyer and Bloody Knife, a Ree scout, had the lead and Custer traveled with them. Lieutenant Varnum with his scouts followed Custer in advance of the column. We marched about twelve miles and went into camp at five P.M.
An Indian Trail
General Custer ordered reveille to be sounded at four and the command to be ready to march at five o'clock next morning. This was the morning of the 23rd and we marched promptly at five A.M. Our course led up the stream four or five miles, when we struck an Indian trail which Reno had followed a few days before. We followed the trail until five P.M. when we encamped for the night; and in the evening Custer sent the Crow scouts who were with us on in advance to see what they could find out.
On the morning of the 24th we broke camp at five o'clock and continued following the trail up the stream. Soon after starting Custer, who was in advance with Boyer, called me to him and told me to get ready, saying he thought he would send me and Charlie Reynolds to the head of Tullock's Fork to take a look. I told the General it was not time yet, as we were then travelling in the direction of the head of the Tullock, and I could only follow his trail. I called Boyer, who was a little ahead, back and asked him if I was not correct in my statement to the General, and he said "Yes; further up on Rosebud we would come opposite a gap, and then we could cut across and strike the Tullock in about fifteen miles' ride." Custer said, "All right; I could wait."
A Bloody Omen
We had not proceeded far when the Crows came in on the run and reported the trail was getting fresh ahead, and that they had seen some fresh pony tracks. They brought in with them the scalp of a white man which they had picked up on the trail, and which was identified as coming from the head of a man named Stoker, Company H, Second Cavalry, who had been killed a few days before at the mouth of the Rosebud.
Custer on receiving the above intelligence halted his command, dismounted the men and had the officers' call sounded. He held a council with his officers, but I was not near enough to hear what passed.
After halting about half an hour we mounted and moved slowly along the trail, and soon came to the mouth of Muddy Creek, up which about three miles the Second Cavalry had its fight with Lame Deer's band last spring (1877).
A Split Scent
As we passed Muddy Creek I noticed that some lodges had left the main trail on the Rosebud and gone that way. I followed them a short distance and then rode over to Custer and told him some of the lodges had gone up the Muddy. He halted the command at once, and sent Lieutenant Varnum to find out where the trail on the Muddy went. Custer said he did not want to lose any of the lodges, and if any of them left the main trail he wanted to know it.
While Varnum was gone we halted and the men cooked dinner. He was absent about two hours, and when he came back told Custer that the Muddy trail swung over on the Rosebud and joined the main trail again. We then started on the large trail, which freshened every moment. We passed over places where a number of camps had been quite close together, showing that the Indians were travelling very slowly, and only moving for grass.
Aiming to Get the Whole Village Towards evening the trail became so fresh that Custer ordered flankers to be kept well out and a sharp lookout had for lodges leaving to the right or the left. He said he wanted to get the whole village, and nothing must leave the main trail without his knowing it. About dusk we halted and went into camp on the trail. It was then very fresh and the General sent Varnum, Boyer and some scouts on ahead to examine the trail and adjacent country. The men were given orders to graze their animals, get supper and be ready to start at eleven P.M. Everybody rested until ten P.M., when we packed up again and moved out. The night was very dark and our progress slow. After marching some ten miles, about two A.M. we halted, the horses were unsaddled and the men lay down to rest. The packs were taken off the mules and everything done to rest and recuperate the animals.
Its Great Strength Known
Some time during the night the scouts came in and reported to Custer that the Indian camp was found. We packed up and moved forward at early light. Mitch Boyer and Reynolds, who had been out, said the camp was very large. Boyer said it was the biggest village he had ever seen. Reynolds said there was a heap of them, and Custer replied "he could whip them." Reynolds said it would take six hours hard fighting to whip them.
Custer Reconnoitres in Person
About nine o'clock on the morning of the 25th of June* and the last day of our march Custer halted his troops and concealed them as well as he could. He then took an orderly and rode up on the Divide about four miles to where Lieutenant Varnum and Boyer were. The General was trying to get a look at the village, which was over on the other side of the Divide, on the Little Big Horn. While Custer was gone I rode up the Dry Fork of the Rosebud, along which the trail ran, but had not gone far when I saw two objects going over the hills in the direction of the Little Horn.
Custer was gone perhaps an hour or an hour and a half, and when he came back Boyer, who was with him, asked me if I had seen the Indians. I said, "Yes, I had seen what I thought were Indians." Boyer replied: "You were within 150 yards of them and you surprised them and they have gone to camp as fast as they can go."
Custer had "officer's call" sounded, and gave his orders. I understood him to assign each one his place, and he divided the column into battalions. As soon as the orders were issued we started up the Divide at a fast walk and travelled about three or four miles, when we came to the top" The scouts, under Lieutenants Varnum and Hare, then pushed on ahead at a lope and the command followed at a trot. I was with the scouts, and we kept down a creek which led toward the Little Horn. When we got near the mouth of the creek we saw a lodge standing on the bank. We rode up on a hill, so as to flank and overlook the lodge, and soon saw it was deserted. From the top of the hill we looked ahead down the Little Big Horn and saw a heavy cloud of dust and some stock apparently running. We could see beyond the stream a few Indians on the hills riding very fast, and seemingly running away. I said the Indians were running, and we would have to hurry up, or we would not catch them. Lieutenant Hare wrote a note to Custer, but I do not know what he reported. I presume he thought as the rest of us did, that the Indians were getting away. Custer was near at hand, and was riding at a fast trot.
A Dead Man's Lodge
The scouts charged down on the abandoned lodge, cut it open, and found in it a dead Indian. Custer came up while we were at the lodge, Colonel Reno having the advance. I heard Custer say to Reno, "Reno, take the scouts, lead out, and I will be with you."** Reno started at a gallop, and as he rode called out, "Keep your horses well in hand." My horse fell, and for a few moments I was delayed, but I caught up with Reno at the ford. As we were crossing I heard the Crow scouts call out to one another, "The Sioux are coming up to meet us," and, understanding the language, I called to Reno, "The Sioux are coming." Reno waited a few moments until the command closed up, then crossed the Little Big Horn, and formed in line of battle on the prairie, just outside some timber. The formation was made without halting, and the line kept on moving, first at a trot and then at a gallop.
The Indians Hold Their Fire
We could see a large body of Indians just ahead of us and apparently waiting for us. We advanced probably half a mile, the Indians setting fire to some timber on our right and in our front. A few Indians were in the timber and we fired on them, but no shots were returned.
The Slaughter Begins
Very soon we dismounted, and the soldiers formed a skirmish line, facing the hills. The line extended to the left and front, and firing almost immediately began, the Indians being near the foot hills of the little valley. In a short time the firing became quite heavy, the Indians moving to the left and working to our rear. The horses were now led into the timber on our right and rear, and the soldiers fell back to cover among the bushes and small trees. There was a little park or meadow just within the timber, and on this the command formed and mounted. I was one of the last men to get into the timber and halted at the edge of the bushes to fire at some Indians who were coming into the timber on our left and rear. I got my horse and joined the command, which I found mounted and sitting in line of battle in the park or open space among the bushes. There was little firing for some minutes, and then we received a volley from the bushes. Bloody Knife was just in my front at the time, and Reno on my left. The volley killed Bloody Knife and one soldier. I heard the soldier call out as he fell, "Oh! my God, I have got it."
Reno's Change of Mind and Precipitation
Reno gave the order. to dismount, and almost immediately gave the order to mount again. The soldiers were not all on horseback when Reno started out of the timber toward the prairie, the men following him. The men scattered, getting out of the woods as best they could. They ran quartering toward the Little Big Horn. I had started out of the timber when the command did, about half of it being ahead of me and the other half in my rear. There was such a cloud of dust no one could see where he was going; just as I got out on the edge of the prairie my horse fell, throwing me off and running away. I ran back to the timber about 150 yards and took cover among the bushes. Just as I turned back I heard some officer call out: "Halt men! halt! Let us fight them!"
As soon as the troops led by Reno emerged from the timber the Indians closed down upon them, some ahead, some alongside and some in the rear of them.
When I went back to the timber, after my horse threw me, just as I reached the cover I met Lieutenant DeRudio and stopped to talk to him. As we spoke together about a dozen soldiers, some on foot and some on horseback, came along and I called to them to come into the timber and we could stand the Indians off. The soldiers joined us at once and we concealed ourselves, tying the horses to the trees.
The Noise of Custer's Fight
just as we got settled down firing below us opened up and we knew Custer was engaged. The Indians had been leaving Reno and going down the valley in considerable numbers at full speed. The firing down the valley was very heavy. There were about nine volleys at intervals and the intermediate firing was quite rapid. The heavy firing lasted from three-quarters of an hour to an hour and then it died away.
Escaping from Hiding
I said to the men who were with me, "Boys, we had better get out of this." I told them that the fight below had stopped, and it was a guess how it had gone, but I thought likely in favor of the Indians, and we had better get away before they came back up the valley. I started out and the men followed me. We saw only five Indians between ourselves and Major Reno. We could see Reno's troops on a hill about a mile distant, where they had halted. It was five o'clock when I joined Reno.
Second Attack on Reno
When we had got out of the timber we could see the Indians coming up the valley in large numbers. As I came up the hill Reno started down the way Custer went, but did not go more than a third of a mile before the Indians met him and drove him back to his old stand on the hill. The Indians attacked Reno with great fury and fought him until dark.
On the following day, the 26th of June, the fight opened at daylight and lasted until one minute past four o'clock P.M. The men had no water and suffered greatly. As many as seven men were hit while trying to get water.
Benteen to the Rescue
I think Captain Benteen saved the fight on the hill. None of us knew with certainty what had become of General Custer until General Terry came up with Gibbon's command on the morning of the 27th of June.
Will Reno Answer This?
The number of Indians that attacked Reno's command in the flat on the 25th of June could not have exceeded 200 warriors. [Note: other souces put the warriors' number closer to 1,000. W.A. Graham noted: "The testimony taken at the Reno Inquiry almost unanimously estimated the Indians opposing Reno in the valley at from 800 to 1000; the firing, however, being done by about 200 at any one time. This is probably what Herendeen means."]. I do not think any one had been killed up to the time when he retreated into the timber, and only one man had been killed at the time when he broke for the bluffs.
Neither Men Nor Horses Were Tired
The horses were not tired and the men worn out and sleepy (as has been represented) when we arrived at the battle field. The animals were fresh and Custer led as well fed and cheerful a set of men as ever went to battle. Everybody thought the Indians were running away when we charged down upon the village and the only fear was that they would escape before we could strike them.
The Changing Tide of Battle
I do not think Custer's fight lasted very long. Certainly it was all over in less than two hours; but at one time the firing was so heavy we thought Custer was advancing, and the Indians seemed to have some doubt as to the result of the battle, for they commenced to take down the lodges and pack up the village as if for flight.**
The Marches Before the Fight
The distance from the mouth of the Rosebud, where Custer started out, to the battle field at the mouth of the Little Big Horn was something over one hundred miles. I think the first day we marched twelve miles, the second day thirty-five miles, the third day thirty-three miles, and the fourth and last day twenty-five to twenty-eight miles. We started at noon on the 22d of June, and did not reach the battle field until about noon on the 25th of June. All stories about Custer running his men and horses until they were worn out by the time they arrived on the battle field are unqualifiedly false. A heavy pack train kept up with us. The movements of Custer throughout the march, so far as I could judge, were deliberate and soldierly in the extreme.
GEORGE B. HERENDEEN
The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custerania, written and compiled by Colonel W.A. Graham, The Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, PA 1953, p. 261 - 265
NOTE: George Herendeen (also spelled Herendon, Herndon and other ways) was a white Army scout assigned by General Alfred Terry to accompany Custer's Seventh Cavalry in June 1876 for the purpose of keeping Terry -- Custer's commanding officer -- informed of Custer's movements. Here is another account by Herendeen, written 13 days after the battle.
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