A History of the Sioux War, and a Life of Gen. George A. Custer, with a Full Account of his Last Battle/Chapter 6



After the battle in which Lieut. Col. Custer lost his life, the command of the 7th Cavalry regiment devolved on Major Reno. The following is a copy of Reno's official report to Gen. Terry, excepting that a few unimportant paragraphs are omitted. It is dated July 5th, 1876.

"The regiment left the camp at the mouth of Rosebud River, after passing in review before the department commander, under command of Brevet Major General G.A. Custer, Lieutenant Colonel, on the afternoon of the 22d of June, and marched up the Rosebud 12 miles and encamped. 23d—Marched up the Rosebud, passing many old Indian camps, and following a very large lodge-pole trail, but not fresh, making 33 miles. 24th—The march was continued up the Rosebud, the trail and signs freshening with every mile until we had made 28 miles, and we then encamped and waited for information from the scouts. At 9.25 p.m., Custer called the officers together, and informed us that beyond a doubt the village was in the valley of the Little Big Horn, and that to reach it, it was necessary to cross the divide between the Rosebud and Little Big Horn, and it would be impossible to do so in the daytime without discovering our march to the Indians; that we would prepare to move at 11 p.m. This was done, the line of march turning from the Rosebud to the right, up one of its branches, which headed near the summit of the divide.

"About 2 a.m. of the 25th, the scouts told him that he could not cross the divide before daylight. We then made coffee and rested for three hours, at the expiration of which time the march was resumed, the divide crossed, and about 8 a.m. the command was in the valley of one of the branches of the Little Big Horn. By this time Indians had been seen, and it was certain that we could not surprise them, and it was determined to move at once to the attack.

"Previous to this no division of the regiment had been made since the order was issued on the Yellowstone, annulling wing and battalion organizations. General Custer informed me he would assign commands on the march. I was ordered by Lieut. W.W. Cooke, Adjutant, to assume command of Companies M, A, and G; Capt. Benteen of Companies H, D, and K; Custer retaining C, E, F, I, and L, under his immediate command; and Company B, Capt. McDougall, being in rear of the pack train. I assumed command of the companies assigned to me, and without any definite orders, moved forward with the rest of the column, and well to its left. I saw Benteen moving further to the left, and, as they passed, he told me he had orders to move well to the left, and sweep everything before him; I did not see him again until about 2:30 p.m. The command moved down the creek towards the Little Big Horn Valley. Custer with five companies on the right bank; myself and three companies on the left bank; and Benteen further to the left, and out of sight.

"As we approached a deserted village, in which was standing one tepee, about 11 a.m., Custer motioned me to cross to him, which I did, and moved nearer to his column, until about 12:30 a.m., when Lieut. Cooke came to me and said the village was only two miles ahead and running away. To 'move forward at as rapid a gait as I thought prudent and to charge afterward, and that the whole outfit would support me.' I think those were his exact words. I at once took a fast trot, and moved down about two miles, when I came to a ford of the river. I crossed immediately, and halted about ten minutes or less, to gather the battalion, sending word to Custer that I had everything in front of me, and that they were strong.

"I deployed, and, with the Ree scouts on my left, charged down the valley, driving the Indians with great ease for about 2½ miles. I, however, soon saw that I was being drawn into some trap, as they certainly would fight harder, and especially as we were nearing their village, which was still standing; besides, I could not see Custer or any other support; and at the same time the very earth seemed to grow Indians, and they were running toward me in swarms, and from all directions. I saw I must defend myself, and give up the attack mounted. This I did, taking possession of a point of woods, which furnished near its edge a shelter for the horses; dismounted, and fought them on foot, making headway through the woods. I soon found myself in the near vicinity of the village, saw that I was fighting odds of at least five to one, and that my only hope was to get out of the woods, where I would soon have been surrounded, and gain some high ground. I accomplished this by mounting and charging the Indians between me and the bluffs on the opposite side of the river. In this charge First Lieut. Donald McIntosh, Second Lieut. Benjamin H. Hodgson, and Acting Assistant Surgeon J. M. De Wolf were killed.

"I succeeded in reaching the top of the bluff, with a loss of the three officers and 29 enlisted men killed, and seven men wounded. Almost at the same time I reached the top, mounted men were seen to be coming toward us, and it proved to be Capt. Benteen's battalion, Companies H, D, and K; we joined forces, and in a short time the pack train came up. As senior my command was then Companies A, B, D, G, H, K, and M, about 380 men; and the following officers:—Captains Benteen, Weir, French, and McDougall, First Lieutenants Godfrey, Mathey, and Gibson, Second Lieutenants Edgerly, Wallace, Varnum, and Hare, and A.A. Surgeon Porter. First Lieut. De Rudio was in the dismounted fight in the woods, but having some trouble with his horse did not join the command in the charge out, and hiding himself in the woods, joined the command after nightfall of the 26th.

"Still hearing nothing of Custer, and with this reinforcement, I moved down the river in the direction of the village, keeping on the bluffs. We had heard firing in that direction, and knew it could only be Custer. I moved to the summit of the highest bluff, but seeing and hearing nothing, sent Capt. Weir, with his company, to open communication with the other command. He soon sent back word by Lieut. Hare that he could go no further, and that the Indians were getting around him. At this time he was keeping up a heavy fire from his skirmish line. I at once turned everything back to the first position I had taken on the bluff, and which seemed to me the best. I dismounted the men, had the horses and mules of the pack train driven together in a depression, put the men on the crests of the hills making the depression, and had hardly done so when I was furiously attacked. This was about 6 p.m. We held our ground, with the loss of 18 enlisted men killed and 46 wounded, until the attack ceased, about 9 p.m.

"As I knew by this time their overwhelming numbers, and had given up any support from the portion of the regiment with Custer, I had the men dig rifle-pits; barricaded with dead horses, mules, and boxes of hard bread, the opening of the depression toward the Indians in which the animals were herded; and made every exertion to be ready for what I saw would be a terrific assault the next day. All this night the men were busy, and the Indians holding a scalp dance underneath us in the bottom and in our hearing.

"On the morning of the 26th I felt confident that I could hold my own, and was ready as far as I could be, when at daylight, about 2:30 a.m., I heard the crack of two rifles. This was the signal for the beginning of a fire that I have never seen equaled. Every rifle was handled by an expert and skilled marksman, and with a range that exceeded our carbine; and it was simply impossible to show any part of the body, before it was struck. We could see, as the day brightened, countless hordes of them pouring up the valley from out the village, and scampering over the high points toward the places designated for them by their chiefs, and which entirely surrounded our position. They had sufficient numbers to completely encircle us, and men were struck on the opposite sides of the lines from which the shots were fired. I think we were fighting all the Sioux nation, and also all the desperados, renegades, half-breeds and squaw men, between the Missouri and the Arkansas and east of the Rocky Mountains. They must have numbered at least 2,500 warriors.

"The fire did not slacken until about 9:30 a.m., and then we discovered that they were making a last desperate attempt, which was directed against the lines held by Companies H and M. In this attack they charged close enough to use their bows and arrows, and one man lying dead within our lines was touched by the 'coup stick' of one of the foremost Indians. When I say the stick was only about 10 or 12 feet long, some idea of the desperate and reckless fighting of these people may be understood. This charge of theirs was gallantly repulsed by the men on that line led by Capt. Benteen. They also came close enough to send their arrows into the line held by Companies D and K, but were driven away by a like charge of the line, which I accompanied. We now had many wounded, and the question of water was vital, as from 6 p.m. of the previous evening until now, 10 a.m. (about 16 hours) we had been without it. A skirmish line was formed under Capt. Benteen, to protect the descent of volunteers down the hill in front of his position to reach the water. We succeeded in getting some canteens, although many of the men were hit in doing so.

"The fury of the attack was now over, and to my astonishment the Indians were seen going in parties toward the village. But two solutions occurred to us for this movement—that they were going for something to eat, more ammunition (as they had been throwing arrows), or that Custer was coming. We took advantage of this lull to fill all vessels with water, and soon had it by the camp kettle full; but they continued to withdraw, and all firing ceased, save occasional shots from sharpshooters, sent to annoy us about the water. About 2 p.m. the grass in the bottom was set on fire, and followed up by Indians who encouraged its burning, and it was evident it was done for a purpose, which purpose I discovered, later on, to be the creation of a dense cloud of smoke, behind which they were packing and preparing to move their tepees.

"It was between 6 and 7 p.m. that the village came out from behind the clouds of smoke and dust. We had a close and good view of them, as they filed away in the direction of the Big Horn Mountains, moving in almost perfect military order. The length of the column was fully equal to that of a large division of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac, as I have seen it on its march.

"We now thought of Custer, of whom nothing had been seen and nothing heard since the firing in his direction about 6 p.m. on the eve of the 25th, and we concluded that the Indians had gotten between him and us, and driven him toward the boat, at the mouth of Little Big Horn River; the awful fate that did befall him never occurring to any of us as within the limits of possibilities. During the night I changed my position, in order to secure an unlimited supply of water, and was prepared for their return, feeling sure they would do so, as they were in such numbers. But early in the morning of the 27th, and while we were on the qui vive for Indians, I saw with my glass a dust some distance down the valley. There was no certainty for some time what they were, but finally I satisfied myself they were cavalry, and if so could only be Custer, as it was ahead of the time that I understood that General Terry could be expected. Before this time, however, I had written a communication to Gen. Terry, and three volunteers were to try and reach him (I had no confidence in the Indians with me, and could not get them to do anything). If this dust were Indians, it was possible they would not expect any one to leave. The men started, and were told to go as near as was safe to determine if the approaching column was white men, and to return at once in case they found it so; but if they were Indians to push on to General Terry. In a short time we saw them returning over the high bluff already alluded to; they were accompanied by a scout who had a note from Terry to Custer, saying, 'Crow scouts had come to camp saying he had been whipped, but it was not believed.' I think it was about 10:30 a.m. that General Terry rode into my lines, and the fate of Custer and his brave men was soon determined by Capt. Benteen proceeding with his company to the battle ground.

"The wounded in my lines were, during the afternoon and eve of the 27th, moved to the camp of General Terry; and at 5 a.m. of the 28th, I proceeded with the regiment to the battle ground of Custer, and buried 204 bodies, including the following named citizens:—Mr. Boston Custer, Mr. Reed, and Mr. Kellogg. The following named citizens and Indians, who were with my command, were also killed:—Charles Reynolds (guide and hunter); Isaiah (colored) interpreter; Bloody Knife (who fell from immediately by my side); Bob-tailed Bull and Stab of the Indian scouts.

"After following over his trail, it is evident to me that Custer intended to support me by moving further down the stream, and attacking the village in flank; that he found the distance to the ford greater than he anticipated; that he did charge, but his march had taken so long, although his trail shows he moved rapidly, that they were ready for him; that Companies C and I, and perhaps part of Company E, crossed to the village or attempted it at the charge and were met by a staggering fire; and that they fell back to secure a position from which to defend themselves; but they were followed too closely by the Indians to permit him to form any kind of a line. I think had the regiment gone in as a body, and from the woods in which I fought advanced on the village, its destruction was certain; but he was fully confident they were running, or he would not have turned from me. I think (after the great number of Indians that were in the village) that the following reasons obtained for the misfortune: His rapid marching for two days and one night before the fight, attacking in the day time at 12 p.m. and when they were on the qui vive, instead of early in the morning; and lastly, his unfortunate division of the regiment into three commands.

"During my fight with the Indians I had the heartiest support from officers and men, but the conspicuous services of Brevet Colonel F.W. Benteen, I desire to call attention to especially, for if ever a soldier deserved recognition by his government for distinguished services, he certainly does.

"The harrowing sight of the dead bodies crowning the height on which Custer fell, and which will remain vividly in my memory until death, is too recent for me not to ask the good people of this country whether a policy that sets opposing parties in the field, armed, clothed, and equipped by one and the same government, should not be abolished. All of which is respectfully submitted."

The following is Capt. Benteen's account of his detour to the south and junction with Reno:—

"I was sent with my battalion to the left to a line of bluffs about five miles off, with instructions to look for Indians and see what was to be seen, and if I saw nothing there to go on, and when I had satisfied myself that it was useless to go further in that direction to rejoin the main trail. After proceeding through a rough and difficult country, very tiring on the horses, and seeing nothing, and wishing to save the horses unnecessary fatigue, I decided to return to the main trail. Before I had proceeded a mile in the direction of the bluffs I was overtaken by the chief trumpeter and the sergeant major, with instructions from Gen. Custer to use my own discretion, and in case I should find any trace of Indians, at once to notify Gen. Custer.

"Having marched rapidly and passed the line of bluffs on the left bank of a branch of the Little Big Horn which made into the main stream about two and a half miles above the ford crossed by Col. Reno's command, as ordered, I continued my march in the same direction. The whole time occupied in this march was about an hour and a half. As I was anxious to regain the main command, as there was no signs of Indians, I then decided to rejoin the main trail, as the country before me was mostly of the same character as that I had already passed over, without valley and without water, and offering no inducement for the Indians. No valleys were visible, not even the valley where the fight took place, until my command struck the river.

"About three miles from the point where Reno crossed the ford, I met a sergeant bringing orders to the commanding officer of the rear guard, Capt. McDougall, to hurry up the pack trains. A mile further I was met by my trumpeter, bringing a written order from Lieut. Cooke, the adjutant of the regiment, to this effect:—'Benteen, come on; big village; be quick; bring packs:' and a postscript saying, 'Bring packs.' A mile or a mile and a half further on I first came in sight of the valley and Little Big Horn. About twelve or fifteen dismounted men were fighting on the plains with Indians, charging and recharging them. This body numbered about 900 at this time. Col. Reno's mounted party were retiring across the river to the bluffs. I did not recognize till later what part of the command this was, but was clear they had been beaten. I then marched my command in line to their succor.

"On reaching the bluff I reported to Col. Reno, and first learned that the command had been separated and that Custer was not in that part of the field, and no one of Reno's command was able to inform me of the whereabouts of Gen. Custer. While the command was awaiting the arrival of the pack mules, a company was sent forward in the direction supposed to have been taken by Custer. After proceeding about a mile they were attacked and driven back. During this time I heard no heavy firing, and there was nothing to indicate that a heavy fight was going on, and I believe that at this time Custer's immediate command had been annihilated."

In a letter addressed to the Army and Navy Journal, Lieut. E.L. Godfry, of Benteen's battalion, gives the following information:—

"Captain Benteen was some six miles from the scene of action when he received Lieut. Cooke's note; he had no intimation that the battle had begun, of the force of the Indians, or plan of attack. Benteen pushed ahead; the packs followed, and not until he reached the high bluffs over-looking the river valley and near to where the troops afterwards were besieged did he know of the battle or immediate presence of the troops to the enemy; he could only hear occasional shots, not enough to intimate that a battle was going on. Soon after reaching this point two volleys were heard down the river where Gen. Custer was, but his force was not in sight. Soon after this Reno and Benteen joined. By accident Benteen's column constituted a reserve. It was well it was so. As soon as dispositions were made on the bluff, Weir's company was sent to look for Gen. Custer. He went to a high point about three-quarters of a mile down the river, from which he had a good view of the country. From it could be seen Custer's battle field, but there was nothing to indicate the result. The field was covered with Indians. He was recalled from the place; the packs closed up; ammunition was issued and the command moved down the river to, if possible, join Custer. Upon reaching this high point we could see nothing, hear nothing, to indicate Custer's vicinage. But immediately the Indians started for us."

The following is the narrative of George Herndon, a scout, published in the New York Herald:—

"At 11 p.m., June 24th, Custer followed the scouts up the right-hand fork of the Rosebud. About daylight we went into camp, made coffee, and soon after it was light the scouts brought Custer word that they had seen the village from the top of a divide that separates the Rosebud from Little Big Horn River. We moved up the creek until near its head, and concealed ourselves in a ravine. It was about three miles from the head of the creek where we then were to the top of the divide where the Indian scouts said the village could be seen, and after hiding his command, General Custer with a few orderlies galloped forward to look at the Indian camp. In about an hour he returned, and said he could not see the Indian village, but the scouts and a half-breed guide said they could distinctly see it some 15 miles off. Custer had 'officers' call' blown, gave his orders, and the command was put in fighting order. The scouts were ordered forward, and the regiment moved at a walk. After going about three miles the scouts reported Indians ahead, and the command then took the trail.

"Our way lay down a little creek, a branch of the Little Big Horn, and after going some six miles we discovered an Indian lodge ahead and Custer bore down on it at a stiff trot. In coming to it we found ourselves in a freshly-abandoned Indian camp, all the lodges of which were gone except the one we saw, and on entering it we found it contained a dead Indian. From this point we could see into the Little Big Horn valley, and observed heavy clouds of dust rising about five miles distant. Many thought the Indians were moving away, and I think Custer believed so, for he sent word to Reno, who was ahead, to push on the scouts rapidly and head for the dust. Reno took a steady gallop down the creek bottom three miles to where it emptied into the Little Big Horn, and found a natural ford across Little Big Horn River. He started to cross, when the scouts came back and called out to him to hold on, that the Sioux were coming in large numbers to meet him. He crossed over, however, formed his companies on the prairie in line of battle, and moved forward at a trot, but soon took a gallop.

"The valley was about three-fourths of a mile wide. On the left a line of low, round hills, and on the right the river bottom, covered with a growth of cottonwood trees and bushes. After scattering shots were fired from the hills and a few from the river bottom, and Reno's skirmishers had returned the shots, he advanced about a mile from the ford, to a line of timber on the right, and dismounted his men to fight on foot. The horses were sent into the timber, and the men formed on the prairies and advanced toward the Indians. The Indians, mounted on ponies, came across the prairies and opened a heavy fire on the soldiers. After skirmishing for a few minutes Reno fell back to his horses in the timber. The Indians moved to his left and rear, evidently with the intention of cutting him off from the ford. Reno ordered his men to mount and move through the timber. Just as the men got into the saddle the Sioux, who had advanced in the timber, fired at close range and killed one soldier. Reno then commanded the men to dismount, and they did so; but he soon ordered them to mount again and moved out on the open prairie. The command headed for the ford, pressed closely by Indians in large numbers, and at every moment the rate of speed was increased, until it became a dead run for the ford. The Sioux, mounted on their swift ponies, dashed up by the side of the soldiers and fired at them, killing both men and horses. Little resistance was offered, and it was a complete route to the ford.

"I did not see the men at the ford, and do not know what took place further than a good many were killed when the command left the timber. Just as I got out my horse stumbled and fell, and I was dismounted—the horse running away after Reno's command. I saw several soldiers who were dismounted, their horses having been killed or having run away. There were also some soldiers mounted who had remained behind. In all there was as many as 13 men, three of whom were wounded. Seeing no chance to get away, I called on them to come into the timber and we would stand off the Indians. They wanted to go out, but I said 'No, we can't get to the ford, and, besides, we have wounded men and must stand by them.' They still wanted to go, but I told them I was an old frontiersman, understood Indians, and, if they would do as I said, I would get them out of the scrape, which was no worse than scrapes I had been in before. About half of the men were mounted, and they wanted to keep their horses with them; but I told them to let them go, and fight on foot. We stayed in the bush about three hours, and I could hear heavy firing below in the river, apparently about two miles distant. I did not know who it was, but knew the Indians were fighting some of our men, and learned afterward it was Custer's command. Nearly all the Indians in the upper end of the valley drew off down the river, and the fight with Custer lasted about one hour, when the heavy firing ceased.

"When the shooting below began to die away I said to the boys, 'Come, now is the time to get out; the Indians will come back, and we had better be off at once.' Eleven of the 13 said they would go, but two staid behind. I deployed the men as skirmishers, and we moved forward on foot toward the river. When we had got nearly to the river we met five Indians on ponies, and they fired on us. I returned the fire and the Indians broke, and we forded the river, the water being breast-deep. We finally got over, wounded men and all, and headed for Reno's command, which I could see drawn up on the bluffs along the river about a mile off. We reached Reno in safety. We had not been with Reno more than 15 minutes when I saw the Indians coming up the valley from Custer's fight. Reno was then moving his whole command down the ridge toward Custer. The Indians crossed the river below Reno and swarmed up the bluff on all sides. After skirmishing with them Reno went back to his old position which was on one of the highest points along the bluffs. It was now about 5 p.m., and the fight lasted until it was too dark to see to shoot. As soon as it was dark, Reno took the packs and saddles off the mules and horses and made breastworks of them. He also dragged the dead horses and mules on the line and sheltered the men behind them. Some of the men dug rifle pits with their butcher knives and all slept on their arms.

"At the peep of day the Indians opened a heavy fire and a desperate fight ensued, lasting until 10 a.m. The Indians charged our position three or four times, coming up close enough to hit our men with stones, which they threw by hand. Captain Benteen saw a large mass of Indians gathering on his front to charge, and ordered his men to charge on foot and scatter them. Benteen led the charge, and was upon the Indians before they knew what they were about and killed a great many. They were evidently surprised at this offensive movement. I think in desperate fighting Benteen is one of the bravest men I ever saw. All the time he was going about through the bullets, encouraging the soldiers to stand up to their work and not let the Indians whip them. He never sheltered his own person once during the battle, and I do not see how he escaped being killed. The desperate charging and fighting was at about 1 p.m., but firing was kept up on both sides until late in the afternoon.

"I think the Indian village must have contained about 6,000 people, fully 3,000 of whom were warriors. The Indians fought Reno first and then went to fight Custer, after which they came back to finish Reno. Hordes of squaws and old, gray-haired Indians were roaming over the battle-field howling like mad. The squaws had stone mallets, and mashed in the skulls of the dead and wounded. Our men did not kill any squaws, but the Ree Indian scouts did. The bodies of six squaws were found in the little ravine. The Indians must have lost as many men in killed and wounded as the whites did."