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Marching with Custer - page 2

Spring was late in 1876, and as a consequence grass was scant and poor in many instances, and the animals suffered accordingly. Many of the marches and camps were made miserable for men and animals by snows and cold rains.  Water was frequently wanting, or so alkaline that it was of little use. In view of these conditions it may certainly be assumed that the animals reached the end of the first phase of the journey in a depleted and exhausted condition, yet they were to have little opportunity for rest and recuperation for the stern and tragic task which lay ahead.

Terry found the steamer "Far West" under Captain Marsh waiting on the Yellowstone, and the boat proceeded up the river to a point near the mouth of the Tongue River where Gibbon was met. After a conference Terry returned to Custer's camp on the Powder. Here he issued an order for Reno to take six troops of the 7th Cavalry with Gatling gun and Ree scouts and proceed to scout the valley of the Powder to the Little Powder, thence by Mizpah and Pumpkin Creeks to the Tongue River and down that stream to the Yellowstone where he would find the command. Reno was rationed for 12 days and a supply of oats for the horses was carried on pack mules.

Reno started June 10th. Thus we see that the animals he used had a rest of 2 days from the exhausting march to the Powder, unless some were in Terry's escort to the Yellowstone. If these went with Reno they had no rest at all. The route was up the Powder to the Little Powder, a distance of over 80 miles. From the Little Powder Reno marched westward to Mizpah Creek and thence to the Pumpkin where he found the great Indian Trail, leading westward to the Tongue River. He crossed the Tongue and followed the Sioux Trail toward the Rosebud; in all, a distance of 25 miles. The great camp on the Rosebud was found abandoned, and Reno proceeded up the Rosebud to a point 35 to 40 miles above its mouth. From this point he retraced his route down the Rosebud, following a good trail to the Yellowstone. Following the complete route it is over 80 miles from the camp on the Powder to the Little Powder, and from that point over the march it is about 160 miles to the mouth of the Rosebud, making a total of over 240 miles which the animals of Reno's troop covered on this scout.  As stated above these horses and mules started from the Powder with little rest, and must have been very tired and in poor flesh.  They had about two pounds of oats per day per animal, and such grazing as was possible for a command in enemy territory. Colonel Charles Varnum told the writer that Custer remarked to him: "Reno made the mistake of his life when he didn't follow the trail leading to the Little Big Horn and attack." We know now that Reno and all of his command would have died very quickly had he done so. Terry sent him orders to halt at the mouth of the Rosebud and await the command. This was the evening of June 19th.

Returning to Custer's camp on the Powder, 20 miles above its mouth, on June 10th, Terry sent out one troop to locate a route to the Yellowstone suitable for wagons. The troop sent out failed to return when expected, and Custer with one troop started on the 11th to find a route and the lost troop. This was accomplished and after a hard march of 24 miles, the command with train arrived on the Yellowstone and camped at 6:20 p.m.

By June 15th, supplies had reached the camp at the mouth of the Powder, and Custer with the remaining troops of the Seventh, two Gatling guns, and a train of pack mules, had marched out toward the Tongue River.  The wagon train, infantry companies, band and Custer's dogs remained in this the base camp.

Custer arrived at the Tongue River on June 16th and went into camp on ground which later became the site of Miles City, and near which Fort Keogh was established.

General Terry with staff was aboard the Far West at this time and the steamer became his headquarters. It was now at the mouth of the Tongue River, where, the evening of June 19th, an Indian scout from Reno reported to Terry the former's position and operations.  Terry at once directed that Reno remain where he was on the Rosebud and await the assembling of the command at that point. The next morning Terry went to Reno's camp where he was joined by Custer and after a conference and discussion, he told them in a general way of his plans. It is of special interest to note that at this time Terry cautioned Custer to take special care of his men and animals. Subsequent events disclose how little Custer regarded the instructions. As always, he was impatient of restraint and control.

General Terry had a final conference aboard the "Far West" the evening of June 21st which Custer and Gibbon attended. Here he issued the orders and instructions written and verbal which have become notable and which have been the subject of so much speculation and discussion. Consideration of these orders and their obedience or disobedience is not a part of this article. That part of the story has been covered many times by writers far more able than the one who writes this. It will be necessary here to discuss only such points as had bearing upon the subsequent abuse of the animals that went with Custer.

Custer was to start immediately up the Rosebud continuing until the Indian Trail was reached and follow it far enough to determine whether or not it led to the Little Big Horn. He was to scout the headwaters of Tullock’s Creek and at the same time far enough to his left to prevent the Indians escaping around him to the east. He was also to send a scout through to Terry after he had scouted Tullock's Creek, and was then to march far enough south to avoid discovery and to give Gibbon sufficient time to get into position at, or near, the mouth of the Little Big Horn.  At the conference Terry had stressed to Custer and Gibbon the necessity for concerted movement and cooperation. He considered that Gibbon would have one day more marching than Custer, and that the two commands would meet for united action on the Little Big Horn on June 26th.

All preparations had been completed before noon of June 22nd and Custer was ready to march. His command consisted of all 12 troops of the 7th Cavalry, 42 Crow and Ree scouts under Lieut. Chas. Varnum, and the white scouts, Chas. Reynolds and George Herendeen. The supplies and extra ammunition were carried on a mule pack train, which was handled by six civilian packers. Most of these pack train mules had already made a difficult march under Reno on his scout. Custer was offered the Gatling guns and the four troops of cavalry under Brisbin, of the Gibbon's command. He refused them, saying that if the Seventh couldn't defeat any Indians encountered, then additional troops would make little difference.

The departure of the Custer command shortly afternoon on the 22nd was made the occasion for a review of sorts. Terry, Gibbon and Brisbin were present to watch the troops pass and Custer sat his horse with them until the rear guard approached, when he shook hands and started off to the head of his column.  Having reached this position, a halt was called and the Indian scouts were organized in two groups.  They preceded the command by short intervals. The march up the Rosebud was rough, after which the regiment crossed and marched up the left bank for about 10 miles. The stream was clear and small and slightly alkaline. The bottom lands being rather heavily timbered, the route followed some bench-lands further out. After a march of 12 miles, camp was made in the shelter of a bluff where wood, water, and grass were good.

Officers' call was sounded in the evening and the meeting was at Custer's tent. He announced that bugle calls would be discontinued and that the march would be resumed at 5 a.m. All details except when to make and break camp would be left to the troop commanders. He also informed his officers at this time that the marches would be from 25 to30 miles daily and cautioned troop officers to exercise particular care of horses and mules.  It quickly developed that Custer himself made these last instructions impossible of accomplishment.  Animals could not be spared when he forced his command forward against all reason and in defiance of orders.

At 5 a.m., June 23rd, the regiment moved out up the Rosebud. The bluffs were now high and broken and the trail followed the creek which was crossed five times in three miles.  After marching five miles from camp, Reno's trail was found and three miles farther, the abandoned Indian village.  During the day, three of these abandoned camps were found and the command halted at each.  Camp was made at 4:30 p.m. on a site a few miles from the present settlement of Lee, Montana. The last of the pack train reached camp at sunset, and the day's march was 33 miles.

The column marched at 5 a.m. the 24th.  The Crow scouts had been out much earlier and returned to the command about 6 a.m., stating that they had seen fresh signs of Sioux.

A halt was made for lunch about noon at the forks of the Rosebud, near Lame Deer and the regiment rested here until 5 p.m. The command moved at 5 p.m. and crossed to the left bank and passed through the sites of several large camps. The Indian Trail was new and the valley floor was scarred by the trailing lodge poles. Scouts were again sent ahead and camp was made at 7:45 p.m. near where the small village of Busby now stands. During the day the headwaters of Tullock's Creek, which Terry had directed Custer to scout and report were near. However, Custer did not then, or at any time, scout this area, and Terry with Gibbon was left in ignorance of Custer's position, or what had been found.

The command had marched 28 miles by 7:45 p.m., the 24th, but the animals had been under saddle, on the alert, or marching, from 5 a.m. until 7:45 p.m., a total of 14 hours and 45 minutes, and 9 hours and 45 minutes was consumed in actual march conditions.  Every cavalryman knows that it is not alone the distance covered by an animal that wears him down, but also the time spent in making that distance. We may very well assume that Custer's horses and mules were exhausted and worn, the evening before that last day of life for so many of them. Yet much remained to be done before the last great halt.

At 9 o'clock the scouts returned and reported that the Indian Trail crossed the divide and into the valley of the Little Big Horn. It should be noted how much extra distance the ponies of the scouts were covering and had been covering since leaving the camp on the Powder. Their animals became so fatigued that several were unable to keep up with the command and dropped to the rear.

The column moved out again about 1:00 a.m. of the 25th, but due to delays in the pack train had only proceeded about 8 miles by daylight. A halt was made here and some of the men made coffee which was so bitter from the alkaline water that it was not drinkable. The horses had no water for the same reason.

At about 7:00 a.m. Custer received a message from Varnum who was ahead with scouts at a point on the divide later called "Crows Nest." Custer at once gave orders for the regiment to march at 8:00 a.m., and he, together with some scouts proceeded to join Varnum.  The scouts, particularly Bouyer tried hard to show Custer where the Indian Village lay on the Little Big Horn about 15 miles northwest. Even with glasses Custer was unable to see it and expressed the opinion that there was no village there.  This opinion, or obsession, seemed to have remained his and to have guided all his subsequent actions, at least until the time he ordered Reno to attack, and even at that time the village could be seen only in small part, if at all.  However the scouts on Crows Nest knew.  They knew by the dust, smoke, and the great pony herd on the mesa west of the Indian camp, even though the bluffs along the east bank of the Little Big Horn effectively screened the tepees. Had Custer accepted the humble but expert advice of these scouts how different the fate of the regiment might have been. But Custer was Custer! He accepted no advice not conforming to his pre-conceived opinions.

At this time, while observations were being made on Crows Nest, six Sioux appeared near the divide and must certainly have located the command. They quickly disappeared and the Crow scouts told Custer that the enemy would surely be warned.

Custer rejoined the command which had arrived and was sheltered in a deep ravine just east of the Crows Nest, and issued orders that each troop detail one officer and six enlisted men to accompany the pack train.

It seems advisable here to check up on the condition of men and horses and the writer can do no better than to quote from the "Custer Tragedy" by Dustin. – "Concerning the condition of the command at this time it may be summed up thus: On June 22nd, the command marched 12 miles going into camp at 4:00 p.m. On the 23rd, starting at 5:00 a.m. the march was 33 miles, camping at 4 :30. On the 24th, moving at 5:00 a.m., marched until 1:00 p.m., moving out again at 5:00 p.m. and camping at 7:45 p.m. distance 28 miles. On the 25th the command marched at 1:00 a.m., none of the men having had more than three hours sleep, and many of them none at all. This march continued until about 4:00 a.m., and was resumed at 8:00 a.m. covering a distance of probably 14 miles to the ravine at the foot of the Crows Nest.  From this point to the Custer Field Monument the distance is not less than 20 miles over his route, and Reno, in reaching his final position, traveled still farther, while Benteen's three troops added at least 6 or 8 miles in their march. It will be manifest, therefore, that Custer and Reno's battalions marched over 60 miles from 5 o'clock in the morning of the 24th to approximately 2 o'clock in the afternoon of the 25th, Benteen, upwards of 70 miles and the pack train and its escort over 55 miles, in a period of 33 hours, including halts, with very little sleep or food, hardly any water, almost no grass, and but few oats for the animals."

Another matter we must consider is that the scouts had covered from 10 to 25 miles more than any of the troops with the possible exception of Varnum and those in Benteen's battalion.

Military necessity cannot be urged as the motive for this abuse of men and animals.  Custer was to have arrived on the Little Big Horn to cooperate with Gibbon on the 26th; instead

he reached the objective about 24 hours too soon. Had this additional time been allotted the marches, men and animals would not have reached the scene of action in the exhausted state which was theirs.

To return to the command which was left in the ravine east of the Crows Nest when the last troop commander, McDougall, reported "ready," it was noon of the 25th of June. The column moved across the divide and at 12:15 p.m., Custer halted and divided the command into three battalions, or squadrons. Reno was given troops A. G. and M., Benteen got H. D. and K., and Custer himself retained the rest.  Varnum and Hare had the scouts. The command totaled about 630 men. The halt was brief, and Benteen moving out to the left under Custer's orders to scout a line of bluffs five miles or so to the front and to look for Indians, was soon out of sight of the remainder of the command which marched down Reno Creek, Custer on the right bank and Reno on the left. In this way they covered about 12 miles. At about this time some Indians were seen running their horses toward the Little Big Horn and Custer, apparently considering the village was in retreat, ordered Reno with his battalion ahead.  Reno was ordered to move forward as rapidly as prudent, charge afterward, and was told that he would be supported by the "whole outfit." Reno forded the Little Big Horn near the point where Reno Creek empties and halted on the left bank to form his command. Many of the horses had scattered in crossing in their frantic efforts to drink. However no halt was made for watering and a hastily snatched swallow here and there was all the desperately thirsty animals got. Reno had about two-and-a-half miles to cover between the ford and his first position of attack. As soon as his battalion was formed he took up the trot and after a short distance the gallop, which was held until the command dismounted to fight on foot at a bend in the river opposite the present site of the village Garryowen.  Here these horses got such rest as might be possible in the excitement of battle.  Then followed the wild dash of Reno's charge to regain and cross the river and reach the bluffs beyond. This charge, or route, call it what you will, was made at the greatest speed of which the animals were capable and covered about a mile to the second ford. The ford was narrow and a wild confusion of charging, milling troop horses and screaming Sioux brought pandemonium back again. During this dash and crossing many men and animals were killed. The survivors surged across the river and struggled up a steep ravine to the top of the bluffs about a quarter of a mile from the river. Men and animals were, of course, exhausted, but there was no time to consider that for the Sioux were pressing forward to attack the hastily formed position, and defense was the only consideration. Reno and the remnant of his command reached the position on the bluffs about 4:00 p.m., June 25th. Here these animals, poorly protected from Indian fire, were to remain, tormented; without water, without food, and without relief for their wounds except the mercy of a quick death, until the evening of June 26th. This takes the animals of Reno's squadron to the end of the trail so far as this story is concerned. In this connection Lieut. Wallace, testifying at the Reno Inquiry in Chicago in 1879 made statement as follows:–"They had been marching for three or four days, making many of the marches at night, and they moved that morning with little or no breakfast. The men were tired and the horses were worn out."

Let us return to Benteen and the pack train. As noted previously in this article, Benteen quickly disappeared with his squadron following Custer's indefinite orders to scout some rough areas to the left, Sergeant Windolph, now living at Lead, South Dakota, then a member of "H," Benteen's troop, told the writer that Benteen appeared disgusted with the order and remarked that the Indians had too much sense to enter a country such as they were scouting. However Benteen carried out orders and followed through two or three rough valleys and lines of bluffs, until considering that he was accomplishing nothing where he was and that he might be needed with the regiment turned back to the right. When he left Custer at 12:15 p.m. he had no orders whatever as to where, or when, to rejoin the command. He turned back after marching about 12 miles and at about 3:30 p.m. he struck Custer's trail. As he reached the trail he came upon a bog containing swamp-water and here he paused to water his horses. As Benteen left the bog a few of the pack train mules rushed up, and frantic with thirst, plunged into the water and were soon mired.

A few miles (two or three) further on, Sergeant Kanipe, of Tom Custer's troop, met Benteen and explained that he had an order from Custer to hurry up the packs.  Benteen directed Kanipe to the train far in the rear and rode on.  A little later he was met by Trooper Martin with a message from the Commanding Officer directing him to come on.  Be it noted here that this was the first order or instruction Benteen had about rejoining the command.  Had he not taken events into his own hands, had he been where Custer had every reason to expect him to be, he would have been at some indefinite point far to the left rear, and Martin might have ridden many weary hours before he found him, if at all. This meeting of Benteen and Martin probably occurred at a point on Custer's trail about a mile south of the hill on which Reno soon took refuge.  Benteen read the message, showed it to Weir and Edgerly, then taking up a rapid gait, rode on toward the sound of firing. He did not wait for the pack train. He had already directed Kanipe to it.

Reaching rising ground they saw Reno's command in its retreat, or charge, to the river. At this point Benteen too came under fire, but the range was too great for damage.  The command drew pistols and trotted forward and had soon joined Reno in his position on the bluffs. From here on the condition of Benteen's animals was the same as that described above for those of Reno.  Benteen's squadron had marched further, but had not had the several miles of extended gallop that was the lot of those horses with Reno.

In the meantime the pack train escorted by McDougall's troop and details from the other troops was following the trail of the regiment. The train got far to the rear and, as noted above, only the first mules had come up to the bog on the main trail soon after Benteen cut into it.  Benteen went on and the mules, after getting a drink of water and being dragged from the mud, were formed again and urged forward. The train reached the position Reno and Benteen assumed about 4:30 p.m.

The mules had carried heavy loads; among other items the extra ammunition they had covered all the line of march that the regiment covered except the additional distances made by Reno and Benteen as noted above, and the final and fatal 4 miles traveled by Custer. The pack train carried the extra ammunition.  Had the Sioux known, how readily, how easily they might have captured it from the small force available for its defense.  Fortunately for Reno and Benteen, the Sioux did not know and the train reached the position they had taken. The ammunition and supplies they brought made possible the successful defense of that position. Without the train, the men with Reno and Benteen must have shared very quickly the fate of those with Custer. The condition of the mules was now the same as that of the horses which arrived before them – thirst, hunger, wounds, and death – until the evening of the 26th.

The condition of the animals of the Indian scouts was pitiful. They had not only made the distances that the regiment had covered, but they had ranged far and wide in advance, and on the flank, day and night, until they covered many more miles than any troop horse. The ponies were so exhausted toward the end that when Custer ordered some of the scouts forward in pursuit of fleeing Sioux as the regiment approached the Little Big Horn, they refused to go because of the condition of their animals.  Some of the scouts dropped out completely during the last few miles of the approach, saying their horses were too poor, (meaning in too poor condition), to go on.  Others tried to lash their faltering mounts forward but in several instances horse flesh had given all it could.  There was no reserve remaining. Most of the scouts whose ponies retained sufficient strength to go on fought with Reno, and their mounts shared in degree the hardship and fate of that sore-beset command.

We have followed the fortunes of the command save the five troops with Custer. What of them?  After Reno crossed the Little Big Horn to attack at 2:30 p.m., Custer continued on down the right bank for a short distance and watered his animals at a branch of Reno Creek, and then bearing more to the right passed up a long ridge and just to the east of the hill on which Reno later took refuge.  Why he did not support Reno with the "whole outfit" as he had stated he would do is not a part of this narrative.  He kept on northward along the bluffs and Varnum and De Rudeo fighting with Reno in the valley saw part of the squadron as it passed a more open point in the bluffs.  This was the last seen of Custer and his command until they were found by Bradley of Gibbon's column lying as they had fallen, stripped and mutilated, at a point 4 miles north, or down the stream.

Twice Custer and a few of his staff rode furiously to the left to high points on the bluffs which permitted observation of the Indian camp below. The second of these observations was taken at a point about a mile north, or down stream from Reno Hill.  Here he must have seen that he must continue on as committed and after rejoining his squadron and, proceeding about a half-mile further, sent Sergeant Kanipe back to hurry the pack train forward.  Soon after sending Kanipe on his way, Custer also dispatched Trumpeter Martin with his message to Benteen to hurry.

The route of the squadron was generally along the high ground east of the river bluffs for about 2 miles then right oblique into a ravine which enters Medicine Tail Coulee at a point about a mile east of the ford.  Custer apparently went down the Coulee toward the ford for a short distance, and then turned back east and followed the Coulee to its source and thence northeast and north for a mile or so along a ridge about a mile and a quarter east of the river and parallel to it.  This soon brought the command to the part of the field now known as the Custer Battle Field, where the main monument stands.

The distance from Reno's final defensive position on the bluffs to the Custer Monument near which Custer was killed is a little over four miles.  Figuring the time and distance as nearly as possible it appears that after Reno crossed the Little Big Horn at 2:30 p.m. Custer and his command marched nearly seven miles to the final action, and that this section was finished at 4:00 to 4:30 p.m. No man will ever know how long Custer was engaged. The Indians say, "as long as it takes to eat," perhaps half an hour, although other evidence more clearly indicates about an hour. If we accept an hour for the engagement and that it terminated at 4:30 p.m., then Custer's squadron covered about 7 miles of very rough going between 2:30 p.m., (after separating from Reno) and 3:30 p.m., or in about an hour. This is rapid marching in any army or country and must have involved much extended trot and gallop, not considering the wild dashes to charge or escape which must have marked the end of that fatal conflict. We know that during this approach march at least four troopers dropped out of the column because their mounts were so exhausted they could not be goaded forward. We know this could be the only reason, for in a country then seen to be swarming with enemy Indians no man would be left behind who could do anything to prevent it. Two of these men later succeeded in joining Reno. The fate of the others is not known.

Custer's squadron with attached civilian personnel numbered 225. All were mounted and we may assume that there were some extra animals. During the engagement many casualties naturally occurred among the animals. Numbers of them, frantic with fear, broke away from the horse holders and dashed away to be gathered up by Sioux.  Mute evidence on the stricken field showed plainly that troopers and officers had shot their mounts to form a breastwork behind which the last desperate minutes were passed.

Click to enlarge picture of Comanche and his groom, Gustave Korn

One living thing, one only, was found on the field. This was the horse Comanche, Keogh's mount.  Severely wounded in several places by bullet and arrow, and with part of the equipment still hanging to him, Comanche wandered on the field, weak and near death when found by Gibbon's men on the 27th.  He was given gentle care and finally made the long journey by steamboat back to Fort Lincoln.  He remained an honored member of the Seventh Cavalry until his death at Fort Riley when 28 years old.

As stated above, the Indians secured all the troop horses possible and many were seen later under Sioux riders attacking Reno's command.  Later these animals were scattered far and wide as the Indians dispersed, or broke up into smaller groups.  Several were found and re-taken by Crock in September of that year when he surrounded and captured the village of American Horse at Slim Buttes in South Dakota. Others were found in various other Indian battles later.

The writer does not have the numbers of the horses killed, destroyed, or lost during the campaign. He does, however, risk the statement that the loss was excessive, far greater than it would have been, had Custer conformed his marches and attack to the plans of Terry.

In considering Custer, and the care of his animals one may wonder concerning his attitude toward veterinarians.  The writer has found reference to two who served with the Seventh Cavalry under Custer.  There were probably others.  A veterinarian named Hunziger was present on the Stanley expedition in 1873 and straying far from the column was killed and scalped by the Indians under Rain-in-the-Face.  There is mention of a veterinarian named C. A. Stern as with the Seventh Cavalry during the early part of the march from Bismark described in this article.  Kellogg, in his diary, makes mention of the destruction of a mule because of glanders.  One wonders how many more animals of the command were infected. The above is all we know of Stern.  His name is not on the lists of killed, or wounded, and we must conclude therefore that he did not go with Custer's squadron into the final action. He may have been with Reno or Benteen, or the pack train, or possibly he remained behind with the wagon train on the Powder.

We see that on at least two occasions Custer had a veterinarian, and since the presence, or absence, of these men was entirely according to the wishes of the regimental commanders in those days, we may conclude that Custer desired their services.  However, knowing Custer's imperious nature and impatience with advice, and the lowly status of veterinarians in the army in those times, we must assume that his veterinarians merely treated sick and injured animals, and had little to say concerning care of animals and animal management. There is ample evidence that Custer did, in person, at least part of his forage inspection. Whether or not his veterinarians did any of this work is questionable.

Colonel Elwood Nye was born at Rugby, Utah in 1892. He received his doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Colorado Agricultural College in 1914. Having been awarded a commission in 1917 as a lieutenant in the United States Army, Nye performed with distinction as an officer in the US Army Veterinary Corps. During that time he rose to the rank of colonel, led six hundred American cavalrymen on an equestrian journey of nearly a thousand miles, served at a variety of posts and worked with the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington D.C. Because of his academic and cavalry expertise, in 1941 Nye was described in a government report as “the only competent veterinarian to study the Custer campaign.” Towards the end of his career, Colonel Nye was detailed to participate in excavations at the Custer battle site. In addition to interviewing survivors of the battle, the colonel was one of the co-discoverers of artifacts found on the Nye-Cartwright Ridge. The distinguished mounted scholar retired from the army in 1946.

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