Thursday, June 30, 2011

Photo Essay: From Little Bighorn To Fort Abercrombie

Photo Essay Of Skirmish Site & Little Bighorn Battlefield
Theodore Roosevelt National Park & Ft. Abercrombie
By Dakota Wind
GREAT PLAINS - About five miles south of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is the original boundary of the Fort Abraham Lincoln military reservation along a little creek which converges with the Missouri River.  In the middle distance of the picture, close to where the bush and scrub line is, is that creek. The Lakota had launched a ten day siege on Fort Rice back in 1868, a smaller less-organized war party had attempted to do the same on Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1873. The field in the picture is privately owned (see image above), but the creek is property of the US Army Corps of Engineers. There is no signage to mark the skirmish, but it is right off of HWY 1806, five miles south of Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. 

Painted Canyon (see above) lies west of Dickinson, ND on I-90, out by Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The canyon is as old as the Grand Canyon, but not nearly as large or well known. If you ever get a chance to visit North Dakota, take in a visit to this geophysical site and experience the mystery of creation. I felt a vast serenity and immense solitude on my early morning visit here. 

Another view of Painted Canyon (above). 

About fourteen miles easterly of the Little Bighorn Battlefield is "The Crow's Nest," (above) in the distance near the center of the photo. The Crow and Arikara scouts told General Custer that there were more Indians than bullets, and they also advised him to attack immediately while they had the element of surprise. The General waited for about three hours instead, much to the disgust of the scouts. 

In roughly the center of this picture (above) is where Major Reno began his engagement with the Hunkpapa Lakota (Teton).  Major Reno was an officer used to office work, and had no experience fighting Indians. General Custer divided his command into three with himself leading one third, Major Reno leading a third to make the first attack, and Captain Benteen who lead the last third - the pack train. Reno's attack was to draw the warriors south, the women and children of the Lakota and Cheyenne fled north, General Custer was to flank the encampment from the north - where the women and children were fleeing to, but the encampment was larger than he anticipated. This actually was the same strategy that General Custer employed at Washita, in Oklahoma, where he was also outnumbered.  When he captured the women and children there, the fight ended, but it ended with the deaths, a massacre, of Cheyenne women and children. But that's a tale for another day. 

Here's the timber line (above) where the Hunkpapa Lakota, led in a counter attack by Chief Gall, retaliated and pushed back Major Reno and his command.  Chief Gall, Pizi Intancan, had stepped away from his wife and children, as he did so, they were shot by the soldiers in Reno's command.  Among the first, if not the very first of Reno's command to be killed in retaliation, was Bloody Knife.  Gall, or Pizi, and Bloody Knife, known to the Lakota as "Tamina Wewe," were lifelong adversaries who grew up in the same Hunkpapa encampment. 

The Little Bighorn River, or creek if you prefer (above). Major Reno witnessed the end of Bloody Knife in a way that probably haunted him the rest of his life. Bloody Knife rode in with Reno against the Hunkpapa Lakota and was promptly shot in the head, his brains and blood spattered onto Reno's face. Reno was so rattled that he called for his men to mount and dismount three times before their retreat. Reno's and his men's retreat took them across this part of the Little Bighorn River, and up the embankment towards where I standing when I snapped this photo. 

After Reno's retreat, the entire encampment of Lakota and Cheyenne followed General Custer's command to this site, Last Stand Hill (above). General Custer failed to capture any women and children, the encampment was far larger than he thought, and tactics dictated that he ascend the highest point of battle for any advantage, however slight. He and his entire command were killed to the man. The warriors took the hill using three tactics at once: some warriors rode around the hill and me (as seen in many movies), some rode directly through the soldiers to count coup or take them out, yet others shot their arrows up and over the circle of riding warriors and into the soldiers on the hill - according to Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne, it literally rained arrows, and the dust kicked up by the horses turned day to night. 

During and after the fight at Last Stand Hill, some Lakota continued to harass Reno and his command. A Lakota sharpshooter took shelter from the top of this hill (above) and proceeded to pick off soldiers who were trying to dig a shelter and assemble a makeshift field hospital. The Lakota Akicita nearly took out a line of soldiers before being shot himself. 

Here are the Bighorn Mountains to the south and west of Little Bighorn Battlefield (above). The Lakota and Cheyenne encampment broke the day after the Battle of the Greasy Grass and moved across this plain below. To the Crow and survivors who witnessed the camp break, the movement was awe inspiring. Nothing has been seen like that since. 

Captain Weir came a day after the camp breakup and took a survey of the battlefield from this point, today called Weir Point (above). I took this picture looking south to the Reno-Benteen site. 

From the same spot, I simply turned northerly to face the Last Stand Hill (above), which I tried to center in this photo. I have a higher resolution of this image, but I couldn't post it here - too big. 

On the drive north from Weir Point to Last Stand Hill I encountered some ponies on the privately owned part of the battlefield (above). The Real Bird family on the Crow Indian Reservation put on a reenactment of the battle each year on their land on the battlefield. I've only seen parts of it, but I'm sure that some day I'll catch the whole thing. My reenactor friend, Mr. Stephen Alexander (the world's foremost Custer living historian), has invited me to participate in killing Custer (him) one day and then dying beside him the next. As a native, I'm part of a very select few who could do this. I might take him up on killing him one day, figuratively speaking of course. 

The horses are acclimated to the heavy traffic from visitors to the battlefield. I got within five feet of this recently born foal (above). The mare "whuffed" at me and stepped over to me and brought her head to my outstretched hand. 

About a hundred paces north of the 7th Cavalry monument is the American Indian monument (above). It lists the tribes and bands who fought to defend their way of life at the battle. The tribes who participated in the battle are the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara, and Blackfeet. 

Here's a close up of the metal sculpture (above), a beautiful open representation of Northern Plains Indian pictography. I learned that the Cheyenne have a different name for the battle. They refer to it as "The Battle where the girl rescued her brother." According to one an oral tradition, a boy or young man was unhorsed at the battle. The girl, or young woman, jumped onto a horse and raced into the fight to get him, and she did. 

A few days later, I was at Fort Abercrombie south of Fargo, ND about twenty miles, on the day of the 135th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (above). After the battle, Co. F of the 7th Cavalry, was brought to Fort Abercrombie. A group of reenactors of the 7th Cavalry were there. 

This group of the 7th Cavalry were conducting some drills on horseback (above).

One of the reenactors liked my presentation and my stuff, so he snapped this pic of me with my wintercount (above). I was in one of the blockhouses at the fort, Fort Abercrombie. Two of the 7th Cavalry reenactors were native, one an enrolled Cherokee and the other an enrolled Choctaw, both from Missouri. They really liked my combination of native regalia and cavalry, and invited me to participate in next year's civil war reenactment someplace in Missouri where natives fought for the Union and the Confederate States of America. I'd like to go, but I think that I'll wear the blue.

South of Mandan, ND about thirty miles on HWY 1806, is this interesting geophysical feature (above). It has at least four names I've heard, but my favorite is "Rain In The Face Butte." I took a long-time friend of mine down to Cannonball once and on our way I pointed this out on our drive. I told him that the Indians believe that this face looks up into the heavens to the face thats on Mars. I was so serious about it, and his reaction was a mix of confusion and wonder, that I waited a minute to tell him I was pulling his leg. The butte does resemble the profile of a person looking up though, and probably not to Mars.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Custer Fight Is Compared To Battle Of Thermopylae

Before the 2006 “300” movie, there was the 1962 “The 300 Spartans” which starred Richard Eagan as King Leonidas and it was actually filmed in Greece.
General Custer and the Battle of Thermopylae
300 Comes To Little Bighorn
By Dakota Wind
LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD, M.T. - In Chapter 2 of Warpath and Bivouac, or Conquest of the Sioux, by John F. Finerty, Finerty compares the Battle of the Little Bighorn to the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece over two thousand years ago. While comparing an ancient “Last Stand” where 300 Spartans died to a man defending their way of life to an overwhelming invasion of Persians sounds heroic, there is a major difference between the reasons behind the two last stands: General Custer and the 7th Cavalry weren’t defending the United States from an invasion of the Sioux, and the Greeks weren’t interested in treating with the Persians and colonizing Asia. In retrospect, were Finerty alive in this age, he may have saved his comparison of Thermopylae to Wounded Knee. Or compared the Fall of Constantinople in A.D. 1453, when Basil Constantine XI stripped off his royal insignia and fought and died alongside the common soldier; a comparison more akin to the “fall” of General Custer in A.D. 1876 and all the soldiers under his immediate command. Then again, Constantine XI did beg his own soldiers to kill him, rather than fall to hand of the enemy.

Here follows an excerpt of Finerty’s Warpath and Bivouac, or Conquest of the Sioux, Chapter XIV. Finerty writes of Curly’s account of the battle.

If you haven’t seen this classic film starring Errol Flynn as General Custer, you’re missing cinema history. Anthony Quinn stars as Crazy Horse – according to this movie, Crazy Horse was captured and brought to Fort Abraham Lincoln (the fort in this movie has walls, Fort Abraham Lincoln never had walls), when in reality it was Rain-In-The-Face who was brought to Fort Abraham Lincoln, who later escaped and wasn’t released by General Custer. The movie is so full of historical inaccuracies its fun to watch. Go and rent this, or better yet, log in to Amazon or Ebay and get your own copy.

The official story of the Custer disaster was put into a few words, but no account that I have heard of or read, either on or off the plains, equal in clearness and succinctness the story of the Crow Indian scout, Curly, who alone of the immediate command of General Custer survived the memorable disaster of June 25, 1876. The following is the gist of Curly’s statement:

“Custer, with his five companies, after separating from Reno and his seven companies, moved to the right around the base of the high hill overlooking the valley of the Little Horn, through a ravine just wide enough to admit his column of fours. There were no signs of the presence of Indiansin the hills on that side (the right) of the Little Horn, and the column moved steadily on until it rounded the hill and came in sight of the village lying in the valley below them. Custer appeared very much elated, and ordered he bugles to sound a charge, and moved on at the head of his column, waving his hat to encourage his men. When they neared the river, the Indians, concealed in the undergrowth on the opposite side of the stream, opened fire on the troops, which checked the advance. Here a portion of the command were dismounted and thrown forward to the river, and returned the fire of the Indians. During this time the warriors were seen riding out of the village by hundreds, and deploying across Custer’s front and to his left, as if with the intention of crossing the stream on his right, while the women and children were seen hastening out of the village in large numbers in the opposite direction.”

Curly, the Crow Indian scout. 

During the fight at this point, Curly saw two of Custer’s men killed who fell into the stream. After fighting a few moments here, Custer seemed to be convinced that it was impractical to cross, as it only could be done in column of fours exposed during the movement to a heavy fire from the front and both flanks. He therefore ordered the head of the column to the left, and bore diagonally into the hills, down stream, his men on foot, leading their horses. In the meantime the Indians had crossed the river (below) in immense numbers, and began to appear on his right flank and in his rear; and he proceeded but a few hundred yards in the new direction the column had taken, when it became necessary to renew the fight with the Indians who had crossed the stream. At first the command remained together, but after some minutes’ fighting it was divided, a portion of deploying circularly to the left, and the remainder similarly to the right, so that when the line was formed, it bore a rude resemblance to a circle, advantage being taken, as far as possible, of the protection afforded ground. The horses were in the rear, the men on the line being dismounted, fighting on foot. Of the incidents of the fight in other parts of the field than his own, Curly was not well informed, as he was himself concealed in a deep ravine, from which but a small part of the field was visible.

Kicking Bear recorded the Battle of the Little Bighorn in this pictograph.

The fight appeared to have begun, from Curly’s description of the situation of the sun, about 2:30 or 3 o’clock P.M., and continued without intermission until nearly sunset. The Indians had completely surrounded the command, leaving their horses in ravines well to the rear, themselves pressing forward to the attack on foot. Confident in the great superiority of their numbers, they made several charges on all points of Custer’s line; but the troops held their position firmly, and delivered a heavy fire, which every time drove them back. Curly said the firings were more rapid than anything he had ever conceived of, being a continuous roll, or, as he expressed it, “like the snapping of the threads in the tearing of a blanket.” The troops expended all the ammunition in their belts, and then sought their horses for the reserve ammunition carried in their saddle pockets.

White Bird, a Northern Cheyenne, rendered this pictographic record of the Little Bighorn.  

As long as their ammunition held out, the troops, though losing considerably in the fight, maintained their position in spite of all the efforts of the Sioux. From the weakening of their own fire toward the close of the afternoon, the Indians appeared to believe that their ammunition was about exhausted, and they made a grand final charge, in the course of which the last of the command was destroyed, the men being shot, where they lay in their positions in the line, at such close quarters that many were killed with arrows. Curly said that Custer remained alive throughout the greater part of the engagement, animating his men to determined resistance, but about an hour before the close of the fight he received a mortal wound.

The Crow said, further, that the field was thickly strewn with the dead bodies of the Sioux who fell in the attack - in number considerably more than the force of soldiers engaged. He was satisfied that their loss exceeded 200 killed, besides an immense number wounded. Curly accomplished his escape by drawing his blanket around him in the manner of the Sioux, and passing through an interval which had been made in their lines as they scattered over the field in their final charge. He thought they must have seen him, for he was in plain view, but was probably mistaken by the Sioux for one of their own number, or one of the their allied Arapahoes or Cheyennes.

Red Horse drew this beautiful pictograph of the Little Bighorn battle.

In most particulars the account given by Curly of the fight is confirmed by the position of the trail made by Custer in his movements and the general evidences of the battle-field. Only one discrepancy is noted, which relates to the time when the fight came to an end. Officers of Reno’s battalion, who, late in the afternoon, from high points surveyed the country in anxious expectation of Custer’s appearance, and who commanded a view of the field where he had fought, say that no fighting was going on at that time - between 5 and 6 o’clock. It is evident, therefore, that the last of Custer’s command was destroyed at an earlier hour in the day than Curly relates.

Chief Gall wears a war bonnet in this famous image of him.
Much doubt was expressed at the time to the truth of Curly’s tale, but the famous Sioux chief, Gall, who had an important command among the hostiles during the battle, confirmed the statement of the Crow scout. Custer, according to Gall, did not succeed in crossing the river. He saw at a glance that he was overpowered, and did the only thing proper under the circumstances, in leading his command to higher ground where it could defend itself to some advantage. Even in that dread extremity, his soldier spirit and noble bearing held the men under control, and the dead bodies of the troopers of Calhoun’s and Keogh’s companies, found by General Gibbon’s command lying in ranks as they fell, attested the cool generalship exhibited by the heroic leader in the midst of the deadly peril. It had always been General Custer’s habit to divide his command when attacking Indian villages. His victory over Black Kettle on the Washita was obtained in that manner, but the experiment proved fatal to Major Elliott and a considerable squad of soldiers. It was the general opinion in Crook’s command at the time, that had an officer of more resolution been in Major Reno’s place, he would have attempted to join Custer at any cost. Reno was, no doubt, imposed upon by Indian strategy, and his retreat to the bluffs was, to say the least of it, premature. But, in the light of after events, it does not seem probable that he could have reached the fatal heights upon which Custer and his men perished. Had Custer taken his entire regiment into the fight he might still have sustained a repulse, but would have escaped annihilation. It is always a tactical error to divide a small command in the face of the enemy. This was Custer’s error. Applying the same principle on a larger scale, Napolean erred when he detached Grouchy after Ligny. That fault cost him his crown and liberty. Reno, at the Little Big Horn, was Custer’s Grouchy.

General Alfred Terry, did he or did he not order General Custer to engage the Lakota and Cheyenne?

Some prominent army officers, and others, have held that Custer did not obey the order of General Terry. This point has given rise to controversy, and I think it only fair to reproduce the commanding officer’s instructions to General Custer, issued on the day that he marched from Rosebud landing. The order was as follows:

“The Brigadier-general commanding directs that as soon as your regiment (the 7th Cavalry) can be made ready for the march, you proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians whose trail was discovered by Major Reno a few days since. It is, of course, impossible to give any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and, were it not impossible to do so, the department commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy. He will, however, indicate to you his own views of what your action should be, and he desires that you should conform to them, unless you shall see sufficient reason for departing from them. He thinks you should proceed up the Rosebud until you ascertain definitely the direction in which the trail above spoken of leads. Should it be found, as it appears to be almost certain that it will be, to turn toward the Little Big Horn, he thinks that you should still proceed southward, perhaps as far as the head waters of the Tongue river, and then turn toward the Little Big Horn, feeling constantly, however, toward your left flank. The columns of Colonel [General] Gibbon is now in motion for the mouth of the Big Horn. As soon as it reaches that point, it will cross the Yellowstone and move up at least as far as the forks of the Big and Little Big Horn. Of course its future movements must be controlled by circumstances as they arise; but it is hoped that the Indians, if upon the Little Big Horn, may be so nearly enclosed by the two columns that their escape will be impossible. The department commander desires that on your way up the Rosebud you should thoroughly examine the upper part of Tulloch’s creek, and that you should endeavor to send a scout through to Colonel Gibbon column with information of the result of your examination. The lower part of that creek will be examined by a detachment of Colonel Gibbon’s command. The supply steamer will be pushed up the Big Horn as far as the forks of the river are found to be navigable for that space, and the department commander, who will accompany the column of Colonel Gibbon, desires you to report to him there, not later than the expiration of the time for which your troops are rationed, unless, in the meantime, you receive further orders.”

Custer marched only twelve miles up the Rosebud on June 22nd. On the succeeding day he made thirtythree [sic] miles. Then Indian signs began to show themselves, and the trail became hot. On June 24th Custer marched twenty-eight miles, halted and waited for reports from his scouts. At 9:25 o’clock that night, according to Reno’s report, Custer called his officers together, and told them that, beyond a doubt, the village of the hostiles had been located by the scouts in the valley of the Little Big Horn. It would, therefore, he said, be necessary to cross the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn, and, in order to effect this without being discovered by the Indians, a night march would be necessary. The command resumed its march, and began crossing the divide at 11:00 o’clock P.M. Three hours later the scouts informed Custer that the divide could not be crossed before daylight, so the command halted and made coffee. The march was resumed at 5:00 A.M. The divide was crossed at 8 o’clock, and the command was in the valley of one of the branches of the Little Big Horn. Some Indians had been seen, and, as all chance of surprising the village was, therefore, at an end, Custer resolved to march at once to the attack. Custer didn’t immediately resolve to march to the attack, he all but ignored the insistence of the scouts to attack as soon as the element of surprise was lost, and instead waited three hours before resuming the march. 

Not only does Finerty omit the snowfall that Custer’s column faced on June 23rd, the scene at the Crow’s Nest is not mentioned either. Custer’s column had to have been exhausted from the snow, the lack of sleep, and the blazing heat of midsummer, not to mention a month and a week of riding westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Commands were assigned on the march, and Reno had Troops M, A and G placed under his orders; Colonel Benteen received command of Troops H, D and K; Captain McDougall with Troop B escorted the pack train, and Custer took with himself the fated Troops C, E, F, I and L.

Reno claimed that he received no definite orders from Custer, but moved with the companies assigned to him along with the rest of the column, and well to its left. He saw Benteen moving with this battalion still further to the left, and the latter officer told Reno that he had orders to sweep everything before him. He did not see Benteen again until 2:30 o'clock, when the survivors of both battalions, together with Captain McDougalls's troop, rallied on the bluffs above the Little Big Horn river.

Custer carried his battalion to the right, and in this order all moved down the tributary creek to the Little Big Horn valley. When Custer saw all the signs of the presence of a large village, previous to the division of his command, he became greatly elated, and, waving his hat above his head, he, according to the statements of some of the soldiers who were detached with Reno and Benteen, shouted: “Hurrah ! Custer's luck!” But luck turned its back on the hero of sixty successful charges that bloody day. His long, yellow locks had been cut shorter than was his wont, for the sake of convenience, and, after the tragedy, some of the officers who survived likened the dead hero to Samson. Both were invincible while their locks remained unshorn.

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.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The US Scouts on Campaign

In 1888, Harper's Weekly reported that the US Army was limited by law to 25,000 enlisted service men. The Army was also limited to only 200 Indian scouts. General Miles believed that the Indian scouts were essential to the Army's efforts on the frontier. Wood engraving by RF Zogbaum which appeared in Harper's Weekly, May 1889. 
The US Indian Scouts On Expedition
On The Little Bighorn Campaign
By Dakota Wind
MANDAN, N.D. - The scouts who served at Fort Abraham Lincoln were called the Fort McKeen Detachment of Scouts. Most of them were Indian scouts in service in the United States military defending their way of life, that is, that their people could live. Other scouts were contracted civilians, holdovers from the last days of the fur trade era, who could speak the native languages fluently or knew the lay of the land like the back of their hand.

This book was required reading for one of my courses at university. It details the interactions of whites, blacks, and natives leading up to the Revoluntionary War. The English had promised freedom to black slaves who fought for the British. The English and Americans divided several tribes as each country vied for allies during the war. Log onto Amazon or ebay and get yourself a copy.

The history of scouts serving our country goes back to before there even was a United States.Certainly the history of Indians serving our country goes back just as far, and the AmericanRevolution couldn't have been won without Indians aiding the colonials or the colonials adapting the guerilla fighting techniques the Indians favored.

It wasn't until the Civil War that Congress took note of the thousands of Indians who were already fighting for both the North and South, entire companies and commands made up of Indians, including battles fought by Indians, and against Indians (ex. Cabin’s Creek) that Congress recognized the Indians' service by forming an official branch for them, the US Scouts. This new branch of the Army included an official insignia and crossed sabers accompanied by the letters “USS.”

This is the first official insignia worn by the US Scouts. The sabers of this insignia were later replaced by crossed arrows in the mid 1880s. 

The Indian scouts who served at Fort Abraham Lincoln began their service at Fort McKeen, a two company infantry post constructed in 1872. Fort Abraham Lincoln, a six company cavalry post, was built a year later on the plains below the infantry post and the new name encompassed both forts. The only thing to retain the name “Fort McKeen” was the detachment of Indian Scouts.

Each detachment of Indian Scouts received their own guidon like this one pictured. Some detachments even had their tribal affiliation on the guidon as well as which territory or fort they served at.

On July 6, 1872, Fred Gerard was hired as an interpreter at Fort McKeen. He held his position until 1882. During his first year he recruited several Arikara scouts from Fort Buford where activity was primarily running down deserters, to Fort McKeen where they engaged the Sioux in several hit-and-run raids. That first year seven Arikara Scouts died. The Post Surgeon remarked “The Indian scouts in the several skirmishes with the Sioux in Oct. and Nov. exhibited instances of the greatest personal bravery and fearlessness.”

This image of four Arikara scouts was taken at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Bloody Knife is featured in this image on the far right wearing a shaved horn headdress with eagle feather trailer, a symbol of his chieftainship in the peacekeeping society of the Arikara. 

General Custer was well aware of the value of the Indian scouts on the frontier. Oftentimes an Indian scout could get messages and mail through hostile territory where a white soldier or civilian scout could not. The scouts provided General Custer with intelligence, given with respect and varying degrees of awe, and were rewarded with preferential treatment.

Forty Arikara scouts were brought on to guide the military from Fort Abraham Lincoln to the Yellowstone in 1873. Only three civilians joined the Indian scouts to escort twenty companies of the 6th, 8th, 9th, 17th, and 22nd infantry regiments, and ten companies of the 7th Cavalry (about 1500), about 350 Northern Pacific Railway survey crew employees, four scientists, and two members of the British nobility, to Yellowstone country. General Custer often accompanied the Indian scouts.

General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry engaged in a skirmish on the north bank of the Yellowstone River across from Pompey's Pillar. Sixty-nine years before, the Corps of Discovery came by here and Captain William Clark left his signature on the east side of the pillar. When you visit the Battle of the Little Bighorn, be sure to take in a visit to Pompey's Pillar too. Its about an hour's drive north, just off of Interstate 94.

On August 4, 1873, the Yellowstone Expedition reached the Powder River. About 90 men, including the scouts, explored the Tongue River. There they were surprised when six Sioux men attempted to stampede their horses. The Sioux were driven off and pursued to a heavy stand of trees, when an estimated 300 mounted Sioux warriors led by Chief Gall, burst forth to fight. Bloody Knife was the quickest draw, remarked General Custer, having shot and killed the first antagonist, from horseback. The scouts' bravery and guidance spared all the soldiers' lives but for three.

The Arikara scouts were a conservative lot, who often complained to the chief of scouts, a non- Indian second lieutenant who served as liaison to the commanding officer, about the traffic in flesh the enlisted soldiers partook in. The scouts also had zero tolerance for domestic abuse, and any soldier who was found beating women was arrested immediately.

In his yearly report of 1873, Post Surgeon Middleton praised the service of the scouts, saying, “There have been no successful desertions during the year, although many have attempted it…deserters are easily overtaken by the scouts and [accompanying] detachments.” At some forts, the desertion rate was as high as 30% after many newly enlisted soldiers realized life in the army in the frontier wasn't what they expected. Middleton's acclaim for the scouts pulling military police duty was mirrored throughout Dakota Territory. Simply put, the scouts were at home in a land they were born and raised in, and could read the features of friend or foe in a glance.

Here's an image of the encampment at the Black Hills. Photo by Illingsworth.

The Black Hills Expedition of 1874, led by General Custer, a journey intended to confirm the discovery of gold in the hills, left Fort Abraham Lincoln guided by a detachment of scouts that consisted of 22 Arikara and 38 Santee Dakota Sioux up from Nebraska. There is no written record if the groups socialized, but together they led about 1,200 men to the hills and back, covering nearly 1,200 miles. Professor Donaldson, a geologist on the expedition, remarked, “The scouts are invaluable. Where they scour the country, no ambush could be successfully laid.”

Above is a map of what was then called the "Centennial Campaign."

On May 17, 1876, the Centennial Campaign left Fort Abraham Lincoln with the scouts in lead, guiding about 1200 men to meet their destiny at the Little Big Horn. Twenty-one scouts were left behind at Fort Abraham Lincoln, twelve at Fort Stevenson, and six at Fort Buford to maintain open lines of communication. In all, a total of fifty-one Indian scouts from the Arikara, the Crow, the Sioux, and the Pikuni (also called Piegan or Blackfoot) escorted and safeguarded the 7th Cavalry. Surgeon DeWolf wrote of the scouts, “…we cannot be surprised very easily. The Indian

Scouts are all camped tonight outside us…Scouts working ten miles out.” Indeed, no ambush or raid could be laid.

Approaching the Little Bighorn, General Custer divided his command into three columns. One column was led by Captain Benteen, another by Major Reno, and one by General Custer himself. General Custer recieved a missive from General Terry telling him to engage the Lakota and Cheyenne. The General Terry/General Custer command was supposed to have waited a few more days for General Crook and General Gibbon.

The duty of the scouts was to guide the 7th Cavalry to the encampment of the Sioux and their ally, the Cheyenne. Vacant camps, trails, and other sign of the Sioux encampment lead the Indian scouts to believe there were perhaps five thousand of the enemy. On June 25, 1876, the Crow and Arikara, believing that they were likely seen approaching the Sioux, urged General Custer to engage the enemy immediately if that's what they came out to do, or lose any advantage that surprise would give them. Despite the advice to Custer to immediately go into battle with the Sioux, the scouts didn't seem as excited to fight as the general. Many accounts mention the scouts singing songs, plaiting their hair, painting, etc., not to take their time in meeting the enemy, but because many of them were preparing to meet the creator, as some of them did that day.

General Custer was attempting to flank the Lakota and Cheyenne from northeast of the encampment. General Custer used this same strategy at Washita where he was outnumbered there as well. That strategy was to capture the women and children who fled opposite from the first attack. The native camp was far larger than General Custer believed it was and his attempt failed. 

The scouts didn't have to be at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Their duty came to an end the moment they ascended the Crow's Nest and directed General Custer to the direction of the Sioux encampment. The scouts voluntarily entered combat against the principles for which they were employed, and they went to take traditional honors by stealing horses from the Sioux and Cheyenne.

General Custer ordered his men to take the higher ground, a last attempt to hold a strategic advantage over the Lakota and Cheyenne when the warriors began to retaliate. Today the hill is called Last Stand Hill. 

The Battle of the Little Big Horn didn't go as General Custer envisioned it would. Instead, a swift and utter downfall met his command. General Custer ordered the Scouts into battle with Major Reno, whose experience fighting the Indians was virtually none, primarily to distract the Sioux on one side so General Custer could flank the Sioux from the north. Dividing his command was a mistake which paved the way for Custer's last stand. Reno's witness to Bloody Knife's sudden death so rattled the Major that he ordered a halt and retreat three times.

Bloody Knife kneels on General Custer's left side and points to a location on a map. Bloody Knife was General Custer's favorite scout. From Bloody Knife, General Custer learned to speak a little Lakota, Arikara, and became well practiced in the Plains Indian sign and gesture language. The two became so close, they regarded one another as brother.

Bob Tailed Bull, Little Soldier, and Bloody Knife lost their lives, two others received wounds, Goose and White Swan, on Major Reno's retreat.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn is often broken down into lines, fights, and skirmishes, with the Last Stand Hill serving as climax. The Arikara and the Lakota regard the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as they regard it, as simply one battle. This author has visited the battle several times, and has heard the Lakota and Cheyenne bristle when they hear “there were no survivors.” For certain there were, for the victors in that fateful battle survived to either fight another battle, return to the reservations, or go to Canada.

Captain Miles Keogh's horse, Comanche, shown here is often regarded as the last survivor of Custer's command at Last Stand Hill. There were perhaps a hundred other horses and even one a yellow bulldog survived. Comanche died fifteen years after the battle and was stuffed. Comanche can be seen today in a glass class at the University of Kansas.

For several years Captain Miles Keogh’s horse was accorded some great degree of respect, almost reverence, even honored with a song by Johnny Horton. Similarly do the Arikara hold Bloody Knife’s horse in high regard. Bloody Knife’s pony was shot and injured at the battle and journeyed over 300 miles back to Fort Berthold where he came to stand outside Bloody Knife’s wife’s, She Owl’s, lodge. After arriving home, Bloody Knife’s buckskin pony lay down and died. The Arikara honored the pony in song. If you, dear reader, are fortunate enough to visit the White Shield pow-wow on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, you may hear that song, and if you’re luckier, hear one composed for the scouts, other veteran songs, or even one composed for General Custer.

Bloody Knife on one of his horses on the Yellowstone Expedition. 

Whether it was skirmishes at the infantry post, the cavalry post, or on expedition, the Indian scouts were the first in line to defend their charges, but most importantly, they protected our country to ensure that their people would live.