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100 Voices: Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Crow, Arikara and American Eye-witness accounts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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W.S. Edgerly's Story of the Battle
A 7th Cavalry survivor's account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

From the Leavanworth Times



Lt. W.S. EdgerlyMade 18 August 1881,
at Ft. Yates.

LIEUTENANT EDGERLY of the Seventh Cavalry who was in Benteen's battalion, which joined Reno's force fifteen or twenty minutes after Reno's retreat, gave me the following account:

At about 10 o'clock in the morning of the 25th of June, 1876, we were, say, fifteen miles from the hostile camp. Our force was then all together. We halted while Custer went on a hill with the Crow and Ree scouts to take a look at the Inthan camp, which was in sight. When General Custer came down from the hill officers' call was sounded. The officers all went to where he was, and he told us that our presence was discovered; that his scouts had chased a small number of Indians that they had seen, and they had gotten away and gone, in the direction of the Indian camp, and as there was no use in trying. to surprise them, as his intention had been, the next morning, we would press on as quickly as we could and attack them in the village if possible. The idea was that the Indians would not stand against a whole regiment of cavalry, and that as soon as they learned of our advance they would try to get away from us. He then ordered troop commanders to mount their troops and report when they were in readiness to move on. In about a minute every troop commander had reported. General Custer and his Adjutant, Colonel Cook [Lt. W.W. Cooke], then organized the regiment into four battalions of three troops each, giving to each of the four senior officers the command of a battalion. These officers were Reno, Benteen, Keogh and Yates. He ordered Major Reno to move straight down the valley to the Indian village and attack, and he would be supported. He ordered Colonel Benteen to move off toward the left, at an angle of about forty-five degrees from Reno's course and attack any Indians he could find. The idea was that the Indians would run either to the right or left. He detailed Captain McDougall, with his troop, as rear guard, to take charge of the pack train. The orders he gave to Colonel Keogh and Captain Yates I don't know, but he went off with them -- five companies and about 250 to 300 men-in a direction parallel to Reno's. The last that I saw of General Custer alive he was going off in the direction mentioned. Colonel Benteen moved off as ordered, and almost immediately struck a series of high hills. He sent an officer -- Lieutenant Gibson -- to the tops of several of these hills, to see if any Indians were visible in the direction of his route. Lieutenant Gibson reported several times that there wet, no signs of Indians, and then Colonel Benteen swung around to the right, and about five or six miles from the starting point we came upon Reno's trail and followed it rapidly. After following it several miles, an orderly trumpeter from General Custer came in and handed Colonel Benteen a note to this effect:

"We have struck a big village. Hurry up. Bring up the packs.
W. W. COOK [Cooke], Adjutant."

We then passed on, and when within about three miles of the Indian village we could see that there was fighting going on in the valley, and very shortly we saw a body of men -- upwards of a hundred -- make a break for the bluffs on the east side of Little Big Horn river, on the west side of which the Indian village was situated, cross the stream and disappear in the bluffs. We were then on the right bank, to the east of the stream, and some distance from it. As the orderly who brought the message from Custer had told us that the Indian village was surprised, and that, when he came away, Reno was driving everything before him and killing them right and left, I supposed that the men we saw running were Indians driven by our men. We hurried forward in the direction of the ford where Reno had crossed, with intent to hurry to his support; but as we approached the ford a Crow scout, Half Yellow Face, came out upon our right and beckoned us to come up on the hill. We immediately turned to the right and went up the hill. When we reached the summit we found Colonel Reno and his battalion there, with several wounded men crying anxiously for water, and then learned to our surprise that they had been driven from their ground. There were a few Indians around, behind rocks and the points of the hills, who were shooting into us at that time. A skirmish line was formed and these Indians driven away in a few minutes.

Cpt. Thomas B. Weir and Nina Dean Tilford CameronThen I heard heavy firing over in the direction in which we afterwards found the remains of Custer's portion of the command, and could see clouds of dust, and horsemen rushing back and forth on the opposite side of the river and about four miles away. While this firing was going on, Colonel Weir, my captain, came to me and asked me what I thought we ought to do. I told him I thought we ought by all means to go down to Custer's assistance. He thought so too, and I heard the first sergeant express himself to that effect. He then asked me if I would be willing to go down with only D troop, if he could get permission to go. I told him I would. He then walked towards Colonel Reno and Benteen, and very shortly came back, mounted his horse, took an orderly with him and went out in the direction from which we had heard the firing and which had then almost wholly ceased. I supposed that he had received permission to go out with the troop (though he afterwards told me he had not, and had not even asked for it), so I mounted the troop and followed him. After going a few hundred yards I swung off to the right with the troop and went into a little valley which must have been the one followed by Custer and his men, or nearly parallel to it, and moved right towards the great body of the Indians, whom we had already seen from the highest point. After we had gone a short distance down the valley, Col. Weir, who had remained to our left, on the bluff, saw a large number of Indians coming toward us, and motioned with his hand for me to swing around with the troop to where he was, which I did. When I got up on the bluff I saw Col. Benteen, Captain French and Lieutenant Godfrey coming toward us with their troops. We moved along on that bluff for a short distance, when the Indians commenced to fire on us. The troops were all dismounted, formed on the top of the ridge and returned the fire. This firing was kept up about half an hour, when the troops were drawn back to their original position by order of Gen. Reno. Our troops had one man killed in coming back and one horse only, although two or three Indians ran up on the hill immediately after we left and emptied their Winchesters on us. As soon as we got back to where Reno was we found the other troops disposed around on the crest of this elevation, and Weir's troop and Godfrey's fell in side by side so as to prolong their regular line already formed by our troops. Almost as soon as we took this position the Indians came up in our front and opened fire. The firing was heavy, but only a few men were killed, as most of the shots went over our heads. It continued for more than an hour, and until half an hour after dusk. That ended the first day's fight.

The next morning, before daylight, heavy firing commenced again from the hills, five to seven or eight hundred yards from us, and continued until about 10 o'clock. After that there was very little firing, although the Indians in small numbers could be seen on the ridges around us. During the afternoon the Indians on the other side of the river had taken down their lodges, or tepees, and about 4 o'clock they all started off. From the time we took our position the after noon before, we lost but few men. We remained right there, or in a new position adjoining, that night, and the next morning Lieut. Bradley, of Gen. Terry's column, who had command of the scouts came up and told us that Custer and all his men were killed. Shortly after Gen. Terry came along with his column. He then sent our regiment along to bury the dead.

The first dead soldiers we came to were Lieuts. Calhoun, Crittenden, and enlisted men of L troop. The bodies of these officers were lying a short distance in rear of their men, in the very place where they belonged, and the bodies of their men forming a very regular skirmish line. Crittenden's body was shot full of arrows.

The next lot we came to consisted of Colonel Keogh and his troop. They had evidently been falling back toward the knoll where we found Colonel Custer's body-fighting as they retreated. The other men that I saw showed no sign of regular formation; their bodies were scattered over the ground with a general tendency toward the knoll where Custer was.

On the knoll which I spoke of we found the bodies of General Custer, Colonel Cook [Lt. W.W. Cooke] his adjutant -- Colonel Tom Custer, several enlisted men and several horses, while lower down, just at the base of the knoll were Lieutenant Riley, Captain Yates, and a great many enlisted men and horses. General Custer's brother, Boston, and his Nephew, Reed, were about a hundred yards from the general's body.

The only bodies of officers that I saw mutilated were Colonel Tom Custer and Colonel Cook [Lt. W.W. Cooke]. All the bodies were stripped of their uniforms. The great majority of the men were stark naked, but in a good many cases they left the undershirt, socks and drawers on the bodies. The bodies were on the east side of the river, below the main village, and about four miles from where Reno had taken position.

When I went out with the troop, on the afternoon of the 25th, I could see quite a number of Indians galloping back and forth on the battlefield, where we afterwards found the bodies, and firing at objects on the ground, but we could not see what the objects were.

Hunkpapa Sioux war chief Low DogWhen I first reached the top of the hill where Reno was, on the 25th, I heard the heavy firing, and it continued about fifteen or twenty minutes. Then the heavy firing was all over. After we buried Custer and his men on the east side of the river, we crossed to the west side and buried the dead of Reno's command -- about forty in number -- and then we found two Indian lodges, or tepees, with six bodies of Indians in one and five in the other, beautifully dressed, and fastened to a pole in the center of the tepee. Chief Low Dog has told me since he came here that that is an honorable way of disposing of men who have died fighting bravely, and that their bodies are left to the enemy, to whom they belong. I never knew another such case. My opinion is that they were left because the Indians left in a hurry, being frightened by the approach of Terry's column. Around the tepees where we found the dead Indians were as many dead ponies as there were Indians. The ponies were arranged in a circle around the tepee, with their heads towards the tepee.

From what I saw, I think there were as many as 7,000 warriors. I judged from seeing Terry's command -- about 500 men -- the size of which I knew, ride down where I saw the Indians the day before. Terry's command looked like a handful compared to the Indians.

Custer's trail showed -- and this is what the Indians say -- that he passed down the river, which is only about fifteen or twenty yards wide there -- on the east side; that is, on the right bank. Reno had crossed and attacked from the west. The river bank was so high and steep that it was impracticable to get down to it from the bluff until he got to a place a little over three miles from where Reno took his position after his retreat across the river. There he found a ford, and the general belief was that he attempted to cross and was attacked and driven back to where he was found dead. Dead bodies were found all the way from the ford to where Custer's body was found.

Custer's hair -- which he had been accustomed to wear long -- was cut short before he started on the march. His body was naked, but not mutilated.

The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custerania, written and compiled by Colonel W.A. Graham, The Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, PA 1953, p 250 - 251

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