Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Horned Horse's Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

A depiction of the Battle of The Little Bighorn by Kicking Bear.
Horned Horse's Account
The Battle of the Little Bighorn
By Dakota Wind
BISMARCK, D.T. (N.D.) - In Chapter 2 of Warpath and Bivouac, or Conquest of the Sioux, by John Finerty, Finerty compares the Battle of the Little Bighorn to the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece over two thousand years ago. Finerty also compares General Custer to the biblical hero Samson, “both were invincible while their locks remained unshorn.”

In Jessie Reil’s article, Custer’s Stand Mattered for Victory, which appears on the website, Reil compares General Custer’s passing, also, to that of Samson’s death.  Both “pulled the house down” on their enemies and lost their lives for it. 

Here follows an excerpt from Finerty’s book, chapter XIV. 

Horned Horse, an old Sioux chief, whose son was killed early on in the fight, stated to the late Capt. [William] Philo Clark, after the surrender of the hostiles, that he went up on a hill overlooking the field to mourn for the dead, as he was too weak to fight, after the Indian fashion.  He had a full view of all that took place almost from the beginning.  The Little Bighorn is a stream filled with dangerous quicksand, and cuts off the edges of the northern bluffs sharply near the point where Custer perished.  The Indians saw the troops on the bluffs early in the morning, but, owing to the abruptness and height of the river banks, Custer could not get down to the edge of the stream.  The valley of the Little Big Horn is from half a mile to a mile and a half wide, and along it, for a distance of fully fifty miles, the mighty Indian village stretched.  Most of the immense pony herd was out grazing when the savages took the alarm at the appearance of troops on the heights.  The warriors ran at once for their arms, but by the time they had taken up their guns and ammunition belts, the soldiers had disappeared.  The Indians thought they had been frightened off by the evident strength of the village, but again, after what seemed quite a long interval, the head of Custer’s column showed itself coming down a dry water course, which formed a narrow ravine, toward the river’s edge.  He made a dash to get across, but was met by such a tremendous fire from the repeating rifles of the savages that the head of his command reeled back toward the bluffs, after losing several men, who tumbled into the water, which was there but eighteen inches deep, and were swallowed up in the quicksand.  This is considered an explanation of the disappearance of Lieutenant Harrington and several men whose bodies were not found on the field of battle.  They were not made prisoners by the Indians, nor did any of them succeed in breaking through the thick array of the infuriated savages. 

Horned Horse did not recognize Custer, but supposed he as the officer who led the column that attempted to cross the stream.  Custer then sought to lead his men up to the bluffs by a diagonal movement, all of them having dismounted, and firing, whenever they did, over the backs of their horses at the Indians, who by that time crossed the river in thousands, mostly on foot, and had taken the General in flank and rear, while others annoyed him by a galling fire from across the river.  Hemmed in on all sides, the troops fought steadily, but the fire of the enemy so close and rapid that they melted like snow before it, and fell dead among their horses in heaps.  He could not tell how long the fight lasted, but it took considerable time to kill all the soldiers.  The firing was continuous until the last man of Custer’s command was dead.  Several other bodies besides that of Custer remain unscalped, because the warriors had grown weary of the slaughter.  The water-course, in which most of the soldiers died, ran with blood.  He had seen many massacres, but nothing equal to that.  If the troops had not been encumbered by their horses, which plunged, reared and kicked under the appalling fire of the Sioux, they might have done better.  As it was, a great number of Indians fell, the soldiers using their revolvers at close range with deadly effect.  More Indians died by the pistol than by the carbine.  The latter weapon was always faulty.  It “leaded” easily and the cartridge shells stuck in the breech the moment it became heated, owing to some defect in the ejector.  It is not improbable that many of Custer’s cavalrymen were practically disarmed, because of the deficiency of that disgracefully faulty weapon.  If they had been furnished with good Winchesters, or some other style of repeating arm, the result of the battle of the Little Big Horn might have been different. 

What happened to Custer, after he disappeared down the north bank of the river, has already been told in the words of Curly and Horned Horse.  Not an officer or enlisted man of the five troops under Custer survived to tell the tale.  The male members of the Custer family, George A., Colonel Tom and Boston, were annihilated.  Autie Reed, a young relative of the General, who, like Boston Custer, accompanied the command as sightseer, was also killed.  Mark Kellogg, of the St. Paul and Bismarck Press, the only correspondent who accompanied the Custer column, nearly succeeded in making his escape.  The mule he rode was too slow, however, and he was finally overtaken and shot down.  Had he succeeded in getting away, his fame would have rivaled that of the explorer, Stanley. 

Reno crossed the Little Big Horn, accompanied by some of the scouts, and charged down the valley a considerable distance.  He finally halted in the timber and was, as he subsequently claimed, attacked by superior numbers.  He remained in position but a short time, when he thought it advisable to retreat across the river and take up a position on the bluffs.  This movement was awkwardly executed, and, in scaling the bluffs, several officers and enlisted men were killed and wounded.  The Indians, as is always when white troops retreat before them, became very bold, and succeeded in dragging more than one soldier from the saddle.  Captain De Rudio, an Italian officer, exiled from his country for political reasons, and a scout, unable to keep up with Reno’s main body, concealed themselves in the brush, and the Indians passed and repassed so close to them that they could have touched the savages by merely putting out their hands.  They were fortunate in remaining undiscovered, and joined Reno on the 27th, after the arrival of Terry and Gibbon. 

Col. F. W. Benteen, new retired and residing at Atlanta, GA., has, at the request of the author, given the following statement relative to the movements of his battalion after parting from the main command:

There was to have been no connection between Reno, McDougall and myself in Custer’s order.  I was sent off to the left several miles from where Custer was killed to actually hunt up some more Indians.  I set out with my battalion of three troops, bent on such purpose, leaving the remainder of the regiment, nine troops, at a halt and dismounted.  I soon saw, after carrying out the order that had been given me by Custer, and two other orders which were sent to me by him, through the sergeant-major of the regiment and the chief trumpeter, at different times, that the Indians had too much “horse sense” to travel over the kind of country I had been sent to explore, unless forced to; and concluded that my battalion would have plenty of work ahead with the others.  Thus, having learned all that Custer could expect, I obliqued to the right to strike the trail of the main column, and got into it just ahead of McDougall and his pack train. 

I watered the horses of my battalion at the morass near the side of the road, and the advance of McDougall’s “packs” got into it just as I was “pulling out” from it.  I left McDougall to get his train out in the best manner he could, and went briskly on, having a presentiment that I’d find hot work very soon.  Well, en route, I met two orderlies with messages – one for the commanding officer of the “packs” and one for myself.  The messages read: “Come on.  Be quick” and “Bring packs;” written and signed by Lieutenant Cook, adjutant of the regiment.  Now, knowing that there were no Indians between the packs and the main column, I did not think it necessary to go back for them – some seven or eight miles – nor did I think it worth while waiting for them where the orders found me, so I pushed to the front at a trot and got there in time to save Reno’s “outfit.”  The rest you know.

Reno, Benteen and McDougall, having effected a junction, fortified themselves on the bluffs and “stood off” the whole Indian outfit, which laid close siege to them, until the 27th.  Several desperate charges of the savages on the position were handsomely repulsed.  The troops, especially the wounded, suffered terribly from thirst, and during the night a few daring soldiers succeeded in getting some water out of the river in their camp kettles, at the peril of their lives.  One of those brave men was Mr. Theodore Golden, then of the 7th Cavalry, and now a resident of Janesville, Wisconsin. 

The situation of the closely beleagured troops was growing desperate, when the infantry and light artillery column of General Gibbon, which was accompanied by General Terry, came in sight on the morning of the 27th.  The soldiers of Reno, at this inspiriting vision, swarmed out over the rough and ready breastworks, cheering the heroes of Fort Fisher and Petersburg vociferously.  Many wept for joy and the chivalrous Terry and the gallant Gibbon did everything in their power to cheer up the wearied soldiers in their hour of misfortune.  The Indians did not attempt any further attack after the rescuing party arrived.  They, too, were tired out, and had expended a vast quantity of ammunition.  They drew off toward the mountains, first burning such irremovable impedimenta as remained in their village.  A part of their teepees had been burned in the fight with Custer.  General Gibbon, after a brief rest, set out to see what had become of that officer.  Reno’s men felt certain that something dreadful had happened to their comrades, because during the afternoon of the 25th and the morning of the 26th they had recognized the guidons of the 7th Cavalry, which the savages were waving in ecstasy of triumph.  General Gibbon had to march several miles before he came upon the field of blood.  The sight that met his eyes was a shocking one.  The bluffs were covered with the dead bodies of Custer’s men, all stripped naked, and mostly mutilated in the usual revolting manner.  The General’s corpse was found near the summit of the bluff, surrounded by the bodies of his brothers and most of the officers of his command.  The Indians, had recognized his person, and who respected his superb courage, forbore from insulting his honored clay by the process of mutilation.  The 7th Infantry, General Gibbon’s regiment, buried the gallant dead where they fell, marking the graves of all that could be identified.  Custer’s remains, and those of his relatives, together with those of most of the officers, have been removed.  The brave General is buried at West Point, from which he graduated, and on which his glorious career and heroic death have reflected immortal luster. 

General Custer’s body was mutilated, not nearly to the extent as his brother Tom’s body was – who was mutilated beyond recognition; a tattoo was the only thing that identified Tom Custer’s body at all.  In fact, several, out of the 206 other soldiers were not mutilated, and two soldiers, it would seem, out of respect were not mutilated at all.  One of General Custer’s legs was slashed, an arrow was forced up his manhood, and his ears were perforated – possibly with arrows or awls.