Friday, June 17, 2011

Battle on the Yellowstone: The Yellowstone Campaign of 1863

Custer's Last Stand. The General can be easily seen in the center lower half of this popular image of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 
Battle On The Yellowstone
The Yellowstone Campaign Of 1863
By Dakota Wind
YELLOWSTONE RIVER, M.T. - A month after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Galaxy published General Custer’s account of his first altercation with the Lakota on the Yellowstone three years previous. General Custer wrote under the alias Nomad for the Galaxy, what we’d call today a magazine or periodical. Here is an excerpt of that account.

There were three Yellowstone Expeditions altogether, or rather, one survey over three years from 1871 to 1873.
At ten o’clock we reached the crest of the high line of bluffs bordering the Yellowstone valley, from which we obtained a fine view of the river and valley extended above and beyond us as far as the eye could reach. Here and there the channel of the river was dotted with beautiful islands covered with verdure and shaded by groves of stately forest trees, while along the banks on either side could be seen for miles and miles clumps of trees varying in size from the familiar cottonwood to the wavering osier, and covering a space in some instances no larger than a gentleman’s garden, in others embracing thousands of acres.
A photo from the bluffs overlooking the Yellowstone River valley.

After halting upon the crest of the bluffs long enough to take in the pleasure of the scene and admire the beautiful valley spread out like an exquisite carpet at our feet, we descended to the valley an directed our horses’ heads toward a particularly attractive and inviting cluster of shade trees standing on the river bank and distant from the crest of the bluffs nearly two miles. Upon arriving at this welcome retreat, we found it all that a more distant view had pictured it. An abundance of rich, luxuriant grass offered itself to satisfy the craving appetites of our travelled steeds, while the dense foliage of the forest trees provided us with a protecting shade which exposure to the hot rays of an August sun rendered more than welcome. First allowing out thirsty horses to drink from the clear, crystal water of the Yellowstone, which ran murmuringly by in its long torturous course to the Missouri, we then picketed them out to graze.

This photo of the Yellowstone is by L A Huffman.
Precautionary and necessary measures having been attended to looking to the security of our horses, the next important and equally necessary step was to post half a dozen pickets on the open plane beyond to give timely warning in the event of the approach of hostile Indians. This being done, the remainder of our party busied themselves in arranging each for his individual comfort, disposing themselves on the grass beneath the shade of the wide-spreading branches of the cottonwoods that grew close to the river bank. Above us for nearly a mile, and for a still greater distance below, the valley was free from timber. This enabled our pickets to command a perfect view of the entire valley, at this point about two miles wide, and almost level, save where here and there is, was cut up by deep washes in the soil. Satisfied that every measure calculated to insure our safety had been taken, officers and men – save the trusty pickets – stretched their weary forms on the grassy lawn, and were soon wrapped in slumber, little reckoning that within a few rods there lay concealed more than five times their number of hostile Sioux warriors, waiting and watching for a favorable moment to pounce upon them. For myself, so obvious was I to the prospect of immediate danger, that after selecting a most inviting spot for my noonday nap, and arranging my saddle and buckskin coat in the form of a comfortable pillow, I removed my boots, untied my cravat, and opened my collar, prepared to enjoy to the fullest extent the delights of an outdoor siesta.


Tom Custer enlisted as a private during the Civil War at the age of sixteen. By war’s end he had the rank of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel and was a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. Though he was only a lieutenant with the 7th Cavalry on the Yellowstone Expedition of 1873, he worked to regain the regain the rank of captain by the Centennial Campaign.

I did not omit, however, to place my trusty Remington rifle within easy grasp – more from habit, it must be confessed, than from anticipation of danger. Near me, and stretched on the ground sheltered by the shade of the same tree, was my brother, the Colonel, divested of his cap, coat, and boots; while close at hand, wrapped in deep slumber, lay the other three officers, Moylan, Calhoun, and Varnum. Sleep had taken possession of us all – officers and men – excepting of course the watchful pickets into whose keeping the safety, the lives, of our little detachment was for the first time entrusted. Many of the horses even, having lunched most bountifully from the rich repast which nature had spread around and beneath them, seemed to share in the languor and drowsiness of their riders, and were to be seen here and there reposing upon the soft green carpet which to them was both food and couch. How long we slept I scarcely know – perhaps in hour, when the cry of “Indians!” “Indians!” quickly followed by the sharp ringing crack of the pickets’ carbines, aroused and brought us – officers, men, and horses – to our feet. There was neither time nor occasion for questions to be asked or answered. Catching up my rifle, and without waiting to don hat or boots, I glanced through the grove of trees to the open plain or valley beyond, and saw a small party of Indians bearing down toward us as fast as their ponies could carry them.

“Run to your horses, men! Run to your horses!” I fairly yelled as I saw that the first move of the Indians was intended to stampede our animals and leave us to be unattended afterward.

Picture adapted from a color photo taken from sixpounder’s Flickr page. The soldiers at the Yellowstone skirmish were rising from an afternoon slumber, they didn’t pitch camp as shown in the picture above.

At the same time the pickets opened fire upon our disturbers, who had already emptied their rifles at us as they advanced as if boldly intending to ride us down. As yet we could see but half a dozen warriors, but those who were familiar with Indian stratagems knew full well that so small a party of savages unsupported would not venture to disturb in open day a force the size of ours. Quicker than I could pen the description, each trooper, with rifle in hand, rushed to secure his horse, and men and horses were soon withdrawn from the open plain and concealed behind the clump of trees beneath who shade we were but a few moments before quietly sleeping. The firing of the pickets, the latter having been reinforced by a score of their comrades, checked the advance of the Indians and enabled us to saddle our horses and be prepared for whatever might be in store for us.

A staged photo by E Curtis of a Sicangu Lakota war party.
A few moments found us in our saddles and sallying forth from the timber to try conclusions with the daring intruders. We could only see half a dozen Sioux warriors galloping up and down in our front, boldly challenging us by their manner to attempt their capture or death. Of course it was an easy matter to drive them away, but as we advanced it became noticeable that they retired, and when we halted our diminished speed they did likewise. It was apparent from the first that the Indians were resorting to stratagem to accomplish that which they could not do by an open, direct attack. Taking twenty troopers with me, headed by Colonel Custer and Calhoun, and directing Moylan to keep within supporting distance with the remainder, I followed the retreating Sioux up the valley, but with no respect of overtaking them, as they were mounted upon the fleetest of ponies. Thinking to tempt them within our grasp, I being mounted on a Kentucky thoroughbred in whose speed and endurance I had confidence, directed Colonel Custer to allow me to approach the Indians accompanied by only my orderly, whose was also well mounted; at the same time to follow us cautiously at a distance of a couple of hundred yards. The wily redskins were not to be caught by any such artifice. They were perfectly willing that they orderly and myself should approach them, but at the same time they carefully watched the advance of the cavalry following me, and permitted no advantage. We had by this time almost arrived abreast of an immense tract of timber growing in the valley and extending to the water’s edge, but distant from our resting place, from which we had been so rudely aroused, about two miles.


Another staged photo by E Curtis, this one of a Oglala Lakota war party.

The route taken by the Indians, and which they evidently intended us to follow, led us past this timber, but not through it. When we had arrived almost opposite the nearest point, I signaled to the cavalry to halt, which was sooner done that the Indians also came to a halt. I then made the sign to the latter for a parley, which was done by simply riding my horse in a circle. To this the savages only responded by looking on in silence for a few moments, then turning their ponies and moving off slowly, as if to say, “Catch us if you can.” My suspicions were more than ever aroused, and I sent my orderly back to tell Colonel Custer to keep a sharp eye upon the heavy bushes on our left and scarcely three hundred yards distant from where I sat on my horse. The orderly had delivered his message, and had almost rejoined me, when judging from our halt that we intended to pursue no further, the real design and purpose of the savages was made evident. The small party in front had faced toward us and were advancing as if to attack. I could scarcely credit the evidence of my eyes, but my astonishment had only begun when turning to the wood on my left I beheld bursting from their concealment between three and four hundred Sioux warriors mounted and caparisioned with all the flaming adornments of paint and feathers which go to make up the Indian war costume. When I first obtained a glimpse of them – and a single glance was sufficient – they were dashing from the timber at full speed, yelling and whooping as only Indians can. At the same time they moved in perfect line, and as seeming good order and alignment as the best drilled cavalry.

Gall lead a war party in Yellowstone country against the survey expeditions for those particular expeditions went against the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. He and the war party he lead were defending their people’s territory.

To understand our relative positions the reader has only to imagine a triangle whose sides are almost equal; their length in this particular instance being from three to four hundred yards, the three angles being occupied by Colonel Custer and his detachment, the Indians and myself. Whatever advantage there was in length of sides fell to my lot, and I lost no time in availing myself of it. Wheeling my horse suddenly around, and driving the spurs into his sides, I rode as only a man rides whose life is the prize, to reach Colonel Custer and his men, not only in advance of the Indians, but before any of them could cut me off. Moylan with his reserve was still too far in the rear to render their assistance available in repelling the shock of the Indians’ first attack. Realizing the great superiority of our enemies, not only numbers, but in their ability to handle their arms and horses in a fight, and fearing they might dash through and disperse Colonel Custer’s small party of twenty men, and having once broken the formation of the latter, dispatch them in detail, I shouted to Colonel Custer at almost each bound of my horse, “Dismount your men! Dismount your men!” but the distance which separated us and the excitement of the occasion prevented him from hearing me.

Robert W. Larson put this wonderful book together about Chief Gall a few years ago. Larson made several trips to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation to visit with the descendants of Gall to learn the family oral traditions. It’s a great read, easily accessible by the everyday reader, and quick too. Go order yourself a hardcover copy, or better yet, buy it at the Little Bighorn Battlefield.

Fortunately, however, this was not the first time he had been called upon to contend against the sudden and unforeseen onslaught of savages, and although failing to hear my suggestions, he realized instantly that the safety of his little band of troopers depended upon the adoption of prompt means of defense.

Scarcely had the long line of splendidly mounted warriors rushed from their hiding place before Colonel Custer’s voice rang out sharp and clear, “Prepare to fight on foot.” This order required three out of four troopers to leap from their saddles and take their position on the ground, where by management of their horses, a more effective resistance could be opposed to the rapidly approaching warriors. The fourth trooper in each group of “fours” remained on his horse holding the reins of the horses of his three comrades.
Itomagaju, or Rain In The Face, was part of the Lakota war party on the Yellowstone in 1873. He killed a couple men of the survey crew. Tom Custer tackled Rain at Standing Rock in the fall of 1874 and imprisoned him at Fort Abraham Lincoln where he escaped from in April 1875.

Quicker than words can describe, the fifteen cavalrymen now on foot, and acting as infantry, deployed into open order, and dropping on one or both knees in the low grass, waited with loaded carbines – with finger gently pressing the trigger – the approach of the Sioux, who rode boldly down as if apparently unconscious that the small group of troopers were on their front. “Don’t fire, men, till I give the word, and when you do fire, aim low,” was the quiet injunction given his men by their commander, as he sat on his horse intently watching the advancing foe.

Swiftly over the grassy plains leaped my noble steed, each bound bearing me nearer to both friends and foes. Had the race been confined to the Indians and myself the closeness of the result would have satisfied an admirer even of the Derby. Nearer and nearer our paths approached each other, making it appear almost as if I were one of the line of warriors, as the latter bore down to accomplish the destruction of the little group of troopers in front. Swifter seem to fly our mettled steeds, the one to save, the other to destroy, until the common goal has almost been reached – a few more bounds, and friends and foes will be united – will form one contending mass.


The victory was almost within the grasp of the redskins. It seemed that but a moment more, and they would be trampling the kneeling troopers beneath the feet of their fleet-limbed ponies; when, “Now, men, let them have it!” was the signal for a well-directed volley, as fifteen cavalry carbines poured their contents into the ranks of the shrieking savages. Before the latter could recover from the surprise and confusion which followed, the carbines – thanks to the invention of breechloaders – were almost instantly loaded, and a second carefully aimed discharge went whistling on its deadly errand. Several warriors were seen to reel in their saddles, and were only saved from falling by the quickly extended arms of their fellows. Ponies were tumbled over like butchered bullocks, their riders glad to find themselves escaping with less serious injuries. The effect of the rapid firing of the troopers, and their firm, determined stand, showing that they thought neither of flight nor surrender, was to compel the savages first to slacken their speed, then to lose their daring and confidence in their ability to trample down the little group of defenders in the front. Death to many of their number stared them in the face. Besides, if the small party of troopers in front was able to oppose such plucky and destructive resistance to their attacks, what might not be expected should the main party under Moylan, now swiftly approaching to the rescue, also take part in the struggle? But more quickly then my sluggish pen has been able to record the description of the scene, the battle line of the warriors exhibited signs of faltering which soon degenerated into an absolute repulse. In a moment their attack was transformed into flight in which each seemed only anxious to secure his individual safety. A triumphant cheer from the cavalrymen as they sent a third installment of leaden messengers whistling about the ears of the fleeing redskins served to spur both pony and rider to their utmost speed. Moylan by this time had reached the ground and had united the entire force. The Indians in the mean time had plunged out of sight into the recesses of the jungle from which they had first made their attack.

The skirmish continued for more than three hours. General Custer had begun to worry about his men’s depleting ammo when the main body of troops of the Yellowstone Expedition arrived on the scene. This fight, near the Tongue River, was similar to the Wagon Box Fight on the Bozeman Trail of 1868, in that the fights were turned in favor of the soldiers because of breech loading carbines. Had the soldiers still been using muzzle loading rifles, they’d have been overwhelmed entirely in both fights.