Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighornby Evan S. Connell
Custer's Last Stand is among the most enduring events in American history--more than one hundred years after the fact, books continue to be written and people continue to argue about even the most basic details surrounding the Little Bighorn. Evan S. Connell, whom Joyce Carol Oates has described as "one of our most interesting and intelligent American writers,"… See more details below
Custer's Last Stand is among the most enduring events in American history--more than one hundred years after the fact, books continue to be written and people continue to argue about even the most basic details surrounding the Little Bighorn. Evan S. Connell, whom Joyce Carol Oates has described as "one of our most interesting and intelligent American writers," wrote what continues to be the most reliable--and compulsively readable--account of the subject. Connell makes good use of his meticulous research and novelist's eye for the story and detail to re-vreate the heroism, foolishness, and savagery of this crucial chapter in the history of the West.
Read an Excerpt
Son of the Morning Star
Lt. James Bradley led a detachment of Crow Indian scouts up the Bighorn Valley during the summer of 1876. In his journal he records that early Monday morning, June 26, they saw the tracks of four ponies. Assuming the riders must be Sioux, they followed these tracks to the river and came upon one of the ponies, along with some equipment which evidently had been thrown away. An examination of the equipment disclosed, much to his surprise, that it belonged to some Crows from his own command who had been assigned to General Custer's regiment a few days earlier.
While puzzling over this circumstance, Bradley discovered three men on the opposite side of the river. They were about two miles away and appeared to be watching. He instructed his scouts to signal with blankets that he was friendly, which they did, but for a long time there was no response. Then the distant men built a fire, messages were exchanged by smoke signal, and they were persuaded to come closer.
They were indeed Crow scouts: Hairy Moccasin, Goes Ahead, White Man Runs Him. They would not cross the river, but they were willing to talk.
Bradley did not want to believe the story they told, yet he had a feeling it was true. In his journal he states that he could only hope they were exaggerating, "that in the terror of the three fugitives from the fatal field their account of the disaster was somewhat overdrawn."
The news deeply affected his own scouts. One by one they went aside and sat down, rocking to and fro, weeping and chanting. Apart from relatives and friends of the slain soldiers, he later wrote, "there were none in this wholehorrified nation of forty millions of people to whom the tidings brought greater grief."
Bradley at once rode back to his commandant, General Alfred Terry, and repeated what the Crows had said. Terry, accompanied by Colonel John Gibbon and surrounded by aides, did not join in the chorus of disbelief but sat on his horse with a thoughtful expression, "biting his lower lip and looking at me as though he by no means shared in the wholesale skepticism of the flippant members of his staff."
The column then resumed its march and shortly after noon crossed into the valley of the Little Bighorn.
A white scout named "Muggins" Taylordescribed as a gambler and professional hunterwas directed to look around. When he came back he reported the smoke of a large fire up ahead. Col. Gibbon thought this was good news because it meant one of two things: Custer had taken the Indian village or the Indians themselves were burning it.
General Terry offered $200 to anybody who could reach Custer. Taylor and another scout named Bostwick decided to try. Both returned in a little while saying nobody could get through.
Horsemen materialized on a ridge and through field glasses it could be seen that several of them wore blue uniforms, meaning they must belong to Custer's regimentpossibly his Arikara scouts. Lt. Charles Roe led a troop of cavalry forward. Roe advanced cautiously, uncertain whether he was approaching Arikaras or Sioux. He dispatched a sergeant to find out. Advance, tie a handkerchief to your gun, wave it, and we will see what happens, said Roe. But just then a party of at least sixty United States cavalrymenor what resembled cavalry, proceeding by twos, with a guidon flyingrode into view. A second cavalry unit then merged with the first and Lt. Roe understood that they were hostile Indians dressed in Army clothing. With this frightful masque to contemplate it seems odd that he did not rescind his order to wave a handkerchief at them, but he did not: "I immediately ordered the sergeant to move forward, saying that we would support him ... ."
The obedient sergeant commandeered two enlisted men and these guinea pigs galloped ahead while Roe and the others followed. Very soon a familiar noise could be heard: Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
Neither the intrepid sergeant nor his companions were hit, but the plateau was by now carpeted with Indians and Lt. Roe thought it wise to retreat.
Until this withdrawal, most of the troops with Gibbon and Terry thought the disciplined blue-clad riders must belong to Custer. Only a few remained suspicious. Although the riders maintained cavalry formation, Lt. JohnMcBlain noted, "there was an indefinable something in their movements that did not appear altogether natural." Capt. Henry Freeman bet a cigar they were hostile, despite rumors that two of them had been seen shaking hands with Roe, and in his journal Freeman commented somewhat dryly that he had won a cigar.
While discussing the day's events around a campfire most infantrymen predicted more unpleasant news, whereas the cavalrymenemotionally related to Custer's Seventhargued that if indeed there had been a fight Custer must have been victorious. "So obstinate is human nature," Bradley wrote, "that there were actually men in the command who lay down to sleep that night in the firm conviction, notwithstanding all the disclosures of the day, that there was not an Indian in our front ... . They could explain ingeniously every circumstance that had a contrary look, and to argue with them was worse than useless."
Tuesday morning not an Indian could be seen.
Farther up the valley, on a hillside east of the river, lay a number of pale unidentifiable objects which were assumed to be dead buffalo. Several dark objects among these carcasses were thought to be buffalo skins left behind when the Indians fled. Bradley crossed the river to investigate.
Not long after his departure the column reached the site of an Indian encampment so recently deserted that the fire beds had not cooled. A few skulking dogs loped away when the army approached. Debris littered the ground: shotguns, axes, blankets, soup bowls, horn spoons, brass kettles, hammers, coffee mills, chunks of meat, antique pistols, a grindstone, tin cups, a small bellows, saddles and buffalo robes, along with such incongruous items as photographs, letters, and china dishes. Wounded horses from Custer's regiment and various pieces of army equipment also were discovered in the village, and from an upright pole dangled three human heads bound together with wiresall three so badly burned they could not be identified.
Gibbon's surgeon, Dr. Holmes Paulding, noticed Lt. James Porter's buckskin shirt. "Poor fellow," Dr. Paulding wrote in his diary, "there was a hole under the right shoulder & blood over the restFound 'Yates, 7th Cav' marked on a pair of glovesunder-clothing of Jack Sturgis, with his spurs, and traces of other old friends of that gallant regiment. There were immense fresh trails of lodge poles leading toward the ravines & bluffs and along all of them packs, travoises, lodge poles & utensils dropped or hastily cut loose ... ."
Several lodges had not been dismantled. Terry's soldiers at first thought this was because the hostiles had been in a hurry to escape; but inside each ofthese lodges lay one or more dead warriors, each handsomely dressed andas was the burial customwearing moccasins with ceremonially beaded soles.
About this time Lt. Bradley returned from the other side of the river to say that the dark objects on the hillside thought to be buffalo skins were, in fact, dead horses. What had been mistaken for skinned buffalo carcasses were the naked bodies of Custer's men. Bradley had counted 197 dead soldiers. This news paralyzed the advancing army. A mule packer in Roe's company, Pvt. William H. White, said that for a quarter of an hour there was very little talking.
The column then proceeded through the valley in an attempt to learn what had happened.
As the troops marched south they noticed occasional clusters of arrows standing up like cactus. Before long they understood that each cluster would mean another dead cavalryman.
Moving figures could be discerned on a hilltop some distance aheadrushing around in such excitement that they were assumed to be Indiansand with them a herd of ponies. A detachment of soldiers guided by Muggins Taylor went forward.
After a while Terry's army caught up with this unit and found the officer in charge talking with emissaries from the hill, who turned out to be Lts. Luther Hare and George Wallace of a Seventh Cavalry battalion commanded by Major Marcus Reno. It developed that Reno's battalion had been surrounded by Sioux and Cheyennes for two days, Sunday and Monday, until late Monday afternoon when the Indians dismantled their portable village and moved south toward the Bighorn mountains. What had appeared from the distance to be a pony herd was the Seventh Cavalry mule train.
Reno's messengers were thankful that Terry and Gibbon had arrived, but they were puzzled because they thought this column was led by General Custer. They said there had been no word from him since he divided the command and rode off with five companies early Sunday afternoon. They were stunned to hear that everybody who went with Custer was dead, and they had trouble realizing that their two-day ordeal was a peripheral fight.
Fifty-two of Reno's men were wounded, which gave Dr. Paulding plenty of work. In a letter to his mother some time afterward he sounds bemused by the resilience of the survivors. Although Custer's death shocked them, he wrote, they got over it quickly and became rather cheerful.
Captain Walter Clifford of the Seventh Infantry rode up into the hills for an elevated view of Reno's defensive position and there he happened to see an Indian pony with a shattered legthe leg swinging hideously each time thelittle animal moved. Flies swarmed on the wound. The pony came hobbling over and rested its head against the flank of Clifford's horse. Clifford pulled away because nothing could be done, but when he looked around he saw the pony trying to follow. He rode back and again the pony approached, "this time laying his head on my horse's rump, looking straight at me, as if pleading for help." Clifford held his pistol against the pony's head and fired. "Lightning could not have finished him sooner."
On his way down Capt. Clifford studied the west bank of the Little Bighorn. Reno's men had fled to the hilltop after losing a skirmish at the upper end of the valley and had plunged from this embankment into the river. He estimated its height at about ten feet. They landed in water four or five feet deep and after crossing the stream they climbed hills that were too steep for a direct ascent. "The marvel is that with such a multitude of Indians around them so many escaped. The retreat was a mad race to a place of safety."
Preparations were begun to carry Reno's wounded troopers to the mouth of the Little Bighorn where the steamer Far West was waiting, moored to a cottonwood tree. Pvt. White was one of the men assigned to collect material for litters and he reports that at first they cut saplings, but then realized it would be easier to obtain poles by tearing apart Sioux burial lodges. Besides, this would give them a chance to hunt for souvenirs. White and others in this detail were fascinated by what they saw. Dr. Paulding wanted a pair of beaded moccasins laced on the feet of a dead warrior. He tugged at them, "but they were a tight fit, since his flesh was swollen, and the skin slipped when he took hold of a leg. Notwithstanding he was a doctor, the offensive odor and the repugnant situation in general caused him to quit his undertaking. Those bodies had been lying there through two days and nights of the warm weather of the 25th, 26th, and 27th of June."
The journal of Dr. Paulding fails to mention this incident.
White himself picked up half a dozen pairs of moccasins and a mirror studded with brass tacks. He also found a gunnysack full of letters which must have been taken from a stagecoach or a post office, and somebody's account book containing a list of about twenty names together with amounts charged against them. On several pages of this book were Indian drawings presumably made by whoever had stolen it, but these drawings did not interest him. He gave the letters and the account book to a Chicago journalist who was traveling with the army. The book has now disappeared. A number of journalists accompanied the army, but just two from Chicago: Charles Diehl of the Times and "Phocion" Howard of the Tribune. One of them must have carried it off.
Except for the tack-studded mirrorwhich, in photographs, suggests amedieval Viking artifactWhite lost his Sioux memorabilia when some person or persons unknown ran away with a bag containing the moccasins. He told an interviewer many years afterward that he suspected a cavalryman from the Seventh.
The day after his excursion to the village White spent a while wandering through the valley where Reno's men started the fight. All of the bodies he saw had been horribly gashed. Entrails protruded. Heads, feet, arms, legs, and hands were chopped off. He noted just one exceptiona trooper lying almost hidden beneath the belly of a horse. This man had not been found by the Indians and before dying of his wounds he must have gone mad with thirst because he had thrust his head between the animal's hind legs and opened a haunch with his knife. The knife lay on the ground beside his right hand. His left hand clutched a tin cup in which there were a few ounces of clotted blood.
In 1920 ex-Private William Slaper described what he saw in the valley to historian E. A. Brininstool: "Corporal Henry Scollen of M Troop was found badly mutilated, with his right leg severed from his body. Jim Turley's body was found with his hunting knife driven to the hilt in one eye ... ."
Scollen felt some deep apprehension. On June 24 his bunkmate, Pvt. Daniel Newell, went for a dip in Rosebud Creek and when he returned to camp he noticed Scollen writing in a diary. "If anything happens to me," Scollen said, "notify my sister Mary, who lives in Gardiner, Massachusetts. My name is Henry Cody ... ." This was the second time within a few days that he had told Newell his true name.
He was killed during the retreat from the valley. Newell saw him go down and heard him say "Good-bye, boys!"
His horse got away and later was caught by a soldier from another company. In a saddlebag was his prayerbook, The Key of Heaven, which Newell mailed to his sister. She wrote back wanting to know if her brother had been disfigured. Newell lied, assuring her that he was not. "I would have given most anything if I could have recovered his diary," Newell remarked in 1930, "but I suppose the squaws got that when they stripped his body. Poor boy."
An engineering officer of Gibbon's command, Lt. Edward McClernand, jotted down a few reflections while passing through the valley. He noted that this region had been scouted the previous April, at which time some Crow guideswell aware of Sioux nearbyhad left an ideograph for their enemies to find: an empty breadbox decorated with charcoal drawings. These pictures informed the Sioux that they were going to be wiped out, and the Crows stuffed grass in the cracks of the box to indicate that this would happen in summer. Considering the great amount of territory scouted by Gibbon's patrols,McClernand wrote, it was strange that this breadbox should have been left just a short distance from the actual site of the battle.
Here on the valley floor, at the south end of the Sioux-Cheyenne encampment, the battle may have been resolved before Custer himself fired a shot. In 1883 an Unkpapa Sioux woman told of being here when Reno charged. She thought the man who led the attacking troops must have been drunk or insane : "He had the camp at his mercy, and could have killed us all or driven us away ... ."
Instead, Reno's men dismounted and formed a skirmish line. Then they began to retreat. They ran very fast, she said, dropping guns and cartridges. She was disgusted by the conduct of these whites, saying they must have been seized with panic worse than that which seized her own people.
Things looked different from the troopers' point of view. They saw hundreds of Sioux galloping from the Unkpapa villagestretched out flat on their ponies or clinging to the far side. Bullets began pattering into the earth. Pvt. William Morris said so many bullets hit the ground that he got dust in his eyes. Sgt. John Ryan remembered that when the order to dismount was given they were in a prairie dog town and the men employed these little cones of earth as breastworks. Ryan says nothing else about such a defensive posture, but he and every other soldier knew that a prairie dog mound would not deflect a bullet or anarrow.
Most of the warriors rode back and forth yelping and firing at the prone troopers, but some turned the west end of the line intending to surround them, and when this happened Reno's battalion withdrew toward a stand of cottonwoods beside the river.
Trees offered more protection than prairie dog hillocks and several military analysts believe Reno should have stayed there instead of doing what he did. They point out that his battalion so near the village would have engaged a great many warriors, thus allowing Custer's plan to unfold. Other strategists think he had no choice but to break away, recross the river, and establish a defensive position on the bluff. Sgt. Ryan, whose opinion was formed while Sioux bullets zipped past his head, clearly favored getting out. He observed to his company commander, Capt. Thomas French, that some Indians had managed to get completely behind them. "Oh, no," Capt. French said, "those are General Custer's men." At that moment, according to Ryan, a bullet struck Pvt. George Lorentz in the back of the neck. The bullet dropped out of Lorentz's mouth and he fell to the ground.
Just then Major Reno rode up and shouted, "Any of you men who wish to make your escape, follow me!"
Pvt. Morris thought Lorentz had been hit in the stomach. Whatever happened, Lorentz was dying. Morris dragged him to a tree and propped him up.
"Go on," Lorentz said, "you cannot do me any good."
Morris protested. Lorentz again told him to leave.
"All right, if you say so," Morris answered and tried to mount his horse but the animal was terrified and he could not get a foot in the stirrup. By now everybody else was gone. Morris danced around while the horse reared and struggled. Finally he lunged at it, grabbed the pommel, and hauled himself up. The horse went running through the brush: "I on my stomach across the saddle ... . The Indians were closing in. Two Indians got so close to me that I thought they were going to lasso me ... ."
Lt. Wallace said that when he rode out of the cottonwoods he saw hostiles everywhere. Reno's troops were in a column of fours and the Indians would give way to let them pass, then start firing, and if any man did not use his pistol the Indians would come very near.
Another trooper interviewed long afterward said they howled "like incarnate fiends." Although forty-five years had elapsed, he said, he never would forget a Sioux riding so close that he could have touched the Indian with a saber.
Pvt. James Wilber escaped from the valley unhurt, but on the second day of the battle he was wounded and left partly paralyzed. He remembered that during this retreat a big Sioux galloped alongside and tried to pull him from the saddle. The Sioux had been hit in the shoulder, "and with every jerk he made at me the blood gushed from the wound and stained my shirt and trousers. He was a determined devil and hung on to me until we almost reached the river."
Reno's skirmish line had been supported by Arikara scoutsusually called Rees. Among them was Red Bear, whose story appears in The Arikara Narrative which was compiled with the help of interpreters and published in 1920.
Red Bear decided to pull out when it became apparent that the bluecoats could not stop the Sioux, but he had not ridden very far when his horse stumbled and fell. It scrambled up and galloped toward the river while he chased it through the trees and wild rose bushes. Finally a dead limb snagged the bridle. The limb broke off and dragged behind, which stopped the horse, but just then a Dakota Sioux came riding up. The bottom of the Dakota's face was painted red and the top was yellow. Red Bear shot him. The Dakota fell to the ground. By this time, Red Bear said, all he could hear was gunfire and the shrill eagle-bone whistles of the Sioux. He ran to the Little Bighorn, sawhis horse swimming around, and jumped in. He caught the mane of his horse and together they reached the opposite side, but as he was climbing out he saw the Dakota horsea dark bay with a white streak on the forehead. It wore a necklace of deer hooves and he heard the necklace clattering while the Dakota horse swam across the river. Then he saw Bobtailed Bull's big pinto which came plunging through the brush snorting with fright"the tail and mane floating in the wind." The reins were flying, Red Bear said, and the rawhide saddle was bloody.
Weeks later this pinto showed up at the Arikara village near Fort Berthold, three hundred miles from the Little Bighorn. The Arikaras composed a song about it.
Red Bear saw Major Reno with a handkerchief tied around his head: " ... his mouth and beard white with foam, which dripped down, and his eyes were wild and rolling."
Quite a lot of testimony indicates that Reno did lose control and that a good many soldiers were scared witless. The Sioux ignored some of these terrified men, leaving them to be dragged off their horses and killed by boys. An eighteen-year-old Cheyenne named Wooden Leg said he and his friends jeered the bluecoats, telling them they should not even try to fight, they should get more Crows and Shoshones to help them. He and another Cheyenne rode beside one soldier who was so frightened that instead of killing him they lashed him with pony whips.
Reno was a West Point graduate with combat experience in the Civil War, so it is not likely that his eyes rolled desperately and he foamed at the mouth. But he was excited, of this there is not much doubt. One officer present at the time said Reno ordered the men to mount and dismount three times in quick succession. As for the handkerchief, it was either red or white and he had tied it around his head because he had lost his straw hat. Under the circumstances this insignificant detail might be considered remotely symbolic. Soldiers do not like to see their commandant lose his helmet.
That he should wear a straw hat while charging an enemy camp sounds eccentric, but Reno was not the only member of his battalion thus equipped. It was hottwo months later Gibbon's men would report 111 degrees in the shade, 116 degrees inside a tentand a shrewd Yankee merchant on the Yellowstone turned a neat profit selling straw hats for twenty-five cents. There is no record of how many he sold, but it must have been a sight when Reno charged the village.
Although correspondent John F. Finerty was not at the Little Bighorn he had met the major and described him as a short, stout man "with a determinedvisage, his face showing intimate acquaintance with the sun and the wind." Arikara scouts, who knew him better than Finerty ever did, compressed his nature and his appearance into a single phrase: Man With the Dark Face.
Just when the Arikaras began to call him that is uncertain, possibly after he got into an argument with a scout named High Bear. Reno misunderstood a figure of speech, taking it as an insult, and threatened to shoot High Bearwho responded by drawing a knife. Another scout, invoking Custer's name, jumped between them and managed to prevent a bloody settlement. From then on, if not earlier, the Rees had no trouble identifying that dark face.
How well or how badly Major Reno directed his troops is still, after all this time, a subject of querulous dispute among Little Bighorn buffs. He himself felt so maligned and traduced by subsequent criticism that he demanded a Court of Inquiry, and by order of President Hayes this court convened at Chicago's Palmer House on January 13, 1879. The investigation lasted almost a month. Some thirteen hundred pages of testimony were recorded.
Among the officers who testified was Reno's chief of scouts, Lt. Hare, who said that if they had continued their advance the column would have been demolished in five minutes.
Sgt. Culbertson testified: "If the skirmish had not been retired, or had been held out for three minutes longer, I don't think any one would have gotten off the line."
Lt. DeRudio saw no indication of cowardice: "When he halted and dismounted I said, 'Good for you,' because I saw that if we had gone five hundred yards farther we would have been butchered."
Capt. Moylan said: "In my judgment if he had continued to charge down the valley he would have been there yet." Nobody insisted the retreat was a triumph, Moylan went on, and as for himself, he preferred life on the hilltop to death somewhere else. This observation moved the Court Recorder, Lt. Jesse Lee, to ask if the captain did not think it more honorable for a soldier to die fighting than to sit dishonored on a hilla question Moylan resented.
Reno testified that although he knew nothing of the local topography it later developed that if they had charged another three hundred yards the entire command would have plunged into a ditch several feet deep and ten yards wide. Indians were concealed in this ditch and he thought most of his men would have been shot from the saddle even before they got to it. As for getting outimpossible.
Lt. Varnum said the ground appeared to be open prairie. He did not see any ditch.
Reno was asked about his relationship with Custer. He replied that he felt no animosity, he and the general got on well enough. But the implication ofthis was unmistakable, so he added that even if his own brothers had been riding with Custer he could not have done any more than he did.
His response did not satisfy Lt. Lee:
"The question is, did you go into that fight with feelings of confidence or distrust?"
Reno again responded that he and the general got along all right: "My feelings toward Gen. Custer were friendly."
"I insist that the question shall be answered," said Lee.
"Well, sir, I had known General Custer a long time," Reno said, "and I had no confidence in his ability as a soldier."
Reno's counsel was a civilian named Lyman Gilbert and after all witnesses had been examined he addressed the Court on Reno's behalf. Speaking of the retreat, Gilbert asked rhetorically: "Was he justified in doing so?"
Gilbert pointed out that the Indians, rather than confronting the battalion as might be expected, began separating in an attempt to surround itthus leaving their camp exposed to direct attack. This circumstance illustrated their strength. If they had been afraid, said Gilbert, undoubtedly they would have resisted any approach to the village: "but when they gave way, and invited an attack that if successful would have destroyed their homes, they declared to the commanding officer that they were not only able to protect themselves, but were able to destroy his command." And it must follow, therefore, that when Reno signaled a retreat he acted wisely.
During a recess in this trial Captain Frederick Benteen was asked by a Chicago Times reporter why there seemed to be so much trouble with Indians. Benteen answered that larceny by agents of the Indian Bureau was responsible. There had been, he said, "enormouspilferingandstealing." Agents whose annual salary was $1,500 were saving as much as $15,000 annually. Treat the Indians honestly and there should be no problem.
Charles Campbell, who served in the Third Infantry and later as a government agent in Oklahoma, had this to saynot at Reno's trial but long afterward: "The Indian agent has for years been the butt of the paragraphist and cartoonist, held up to public view as a grafter, if not a persistent robber ... . As a rule they were a set of underpaid officials who had assumed the duties at the call of the various religious denominations to which they belonged, at much sacrifice of comfort and ease, not only to themselves but as well to their families, to help bear the white man's burden. It is not possible to conceive that they would foment disorder or endanger the lives of those dear to them, by acts that would foster rebellion ... ." Campbell may have been correct about the situation in Oklahoma, but there was hanky-panky elsewhere. For example, it is known that a Baltimore contractor who supplied flour to theSioux arranged with an agent to defraud the Indians by using three sacks. From Baltimore to Cheyenne came the flour, at which point the inspector stamped each sack "100 pounds," whereupon one hundred pounds of flour was distributed and three sacks retained as evidence that three hundred pounds had been delivered.
Things were different in Canada. Bishop Henry Whipple pointed out that on the northern side of the boundary lived "the same greedy, dominant Anglo-Saxon race, and the same heathen." Yet the Canadians escaped massacre and warfare. There was no single reason for this, but above all the Canadian government kept its word. As Benteen implied, Canadian bureaucrats had sense enough to treat the natives honestly.
When asked how the Sioux felt about being forcibly transported from one reservation to another, he suggested that one act with a little consideration for an Indian's feelings, just as with other people. "I am a southerner, and I have noticed that you may take a negro far away from home, but he will always have an inclination to return. The same feeling actuates the salmon ... ."
The Court eventually decided that Reno had been opposed by such overwhelming force that any deeper penetration into the hostile village would have brought about the annihilation of his command. While his subordinates may in some instances have accomplished more for the safety of all concerned, "there was nothing in his conduct which requires animadversion from this Court." Such a verdict suggests that his decision to retreat was based on a rational understanding of the situation. Perhaps this is true. To a degree undoubtedly it is true. But after they had withdrawn into the cottonwoods near the river he began talking with Custer's favorite Indian scout, Bloody Knife. He was trying to find out what the hostiles might do, when a bullet struck Bloody Knife in the head and spattered his brains on Reno's face. Some historians believe the shock of this left him psychologically paralyzed. Perhaps. But Reno saw gobbets of blood during the Civil War and may well have been spattered numerous times. Accordingly, one may speculate. At the time of this grotesque incident Bloody Knife was wearing, along with his distinctive clam shellbear claw necklace, a black neckerchief with blue stars which Custer had given him. He was, therefore, emblematic of command; and when he collapsed it may be that Reno perceived the future. All one can say with certainty is that the major was shocked. How deeply and for how long, nobody knows.
He lost his straw hat in the timber, he said, although he did not say just when. Quite possibly he threw it away at this moment. A blood-soaked shirt or trousers may be endured but a bloody hat hangs close to the face.
Major Reno's conductwhether he behaved rationally or was too frightenedto thinkhas been argued for a century. He had a good Civil War record, twice decorated for gallantry, but this was his first experience with Indians, who did not behave at all like Confederates. Boiling dust, an alien landscape, arrows thumping into fleshit made less sense than a premeditated cavalry charge in Virginia.
Four horses bolted out of formation, carrying their desperate riders toward the Sioux. Two of these men regained control and got back. The other twoPvts. George Smith and James Turleyrode on into the Unkpapa village where they were caught, dragged from the saddle, stabbed, beaten, chopped up. A nephew of Sitting Bull, Henry Oscar One Bull, saw the horses break out of line and when interviewed many years later he remarked with satisfaction: "These soldiers didn't last long." Pvt. Morris thought Turley was killed someplace else, but there seems to be little doubt that the Unkpapa villagers got Smith. The head of a white manpossibly Smithwas found on the abandoned site of the village. Whoever he was, he had been dragged at the end of a rope until he fell apart.
Henry One Bull said the bluecoats were confused; some jumped off their horses and scampered toward the cottonwoods beside the river, turning around and shooting while they ran. He rode up behind one of them, knocked him down with a stone-headed club and held him under water until he quit struggling.
Black Elk, an Oglala, claimed to have been thirteen years old at the time. He looked like a child because he was not very robust, but already he had experienced a vision and had performed a number of valorous deeds, so by the white man's count he might have been older. He talked about the dust raised by the ponies' hooves, the smoke, the cries, the gunfire, the shriek of eagle-bone whistles, the women singing to encourage their husbands and sons, and he remembered big American horses galloping through the dust with empty saddles. "Those wasichus had come to kill our fathers and mothers and us," he said, using a Sioux term which implies an unwelcome or disagreeable persistence, "and it was our country."
He and several other boys surrounded a soldier who was hiding in a clump of bulberry bushes. The soldier tried to escape, crawling this way and that, while the boys ran around shooting arrows at him. Black Elk said it was like hunting a rabbit. They knew they hit him at least once because he yelped. After a while they set fire to the grass, which brought him out of the bushes, and some warriors killed him.
Black Elk himself scalped a soldier who was still alive. It was hard work because the soldier's hair was short and the knife was dull. The soldier ground his teeth and made such a fuss that Black Elk had to shoot him in the head.After finishing the job he wanted his mother to know about the scalp so he rode over to a crowd of women and children who had gathered on a hill to watch the fight, and when his mother saw the trophy she uttered a shrill tremolo in his honor.
To Reno's soldiers trapped in the cottonwoods a valley swarming with naked, yipping, barking, fantastically painted aborigines must have resembled a nineteenth-century illustration of Dante's Hell; and what should have been a disciplined withdrawal from this position turned into a rout with Major Reno himself leading the way, deserting those who were unable to follow or who did not understand what was happening. It has been alleged that after emptying his revolver he became so distraught that he tossed it aside, although this was never proved.
His eagerness to escape from the valley might be traced to an unpleasant Civil War experience. In the spring of 1865 his regiment was chasing a Confederate guerrilla known as the Gray GhostJohn Singleton Mosbychasing him with very little success until one day they came upon Mosby chatting with a few men in the village of Hamilton. Delighted by such good luck, Reno spurred forward and the Gray Ghost fled in panic up the road to Middleburg. Then from the woods alongside Middleburg Road came a fusillade of bullets. Twenty-one of Reno's men dropped from the saddle.
Now, the major might not have been brilliant, yet neither was he stupid, so it is a fair assumption that he did not forget the Gray Ghost's murderous trap. Eleven years later in the Little Bighorn Valley he had once again charged an apparently vulnerable enemy, only to be surprised by the response. A sudden recollection of that mistake in Virginia might have sucked his courage. Or, as Napoleon is supposed to have said: Show me a man who makes the same mistake twice and I will show you a fool.
During this retreat from the cottonwoods to the bluffs across the river the Indians very often shot at the cavalrymen's horses, which at first sounds illogical, considering how highly the Indians valued horses. But a horse is a big target and if it went down, or was crippled, the rider had no chance to escape. This inference was drawn by General Terry's command while marching through the valley because his troops noticed that the body of a cavalryman almost always lay beside the carcass of a horse.
Squaws, children, and old men rushed out of the village as soon as the bluecoats fledstripping, robbing, mutilating, killing those who still twitched. Bloody Knife's head was cut off, perhaps by one of Inkpaduta's Santee Sioux because the Santees were the only tribe that habitually practiced decapitation instead of scalping.
There is another possibility. By some accounts two young Unkpapa sisterswere the first to see Bloody Knife's corpse. They did not know who he was, but from his clothing they knew he had been a scout for the soldiers, and his graying hair was parted on the side, which identified him as a Ree instead of a Crowwhose men usually cut their hair short in front and combed the rest into a ruff or pompadour. So the girls cut off the bullet-smashed head of this middle-aged Ree and went back to camp with it swinging between them like a ball, each sister holding one of the dusty braids. In the village they mounted their trophy on a stick.
Bloody Knife was well known to adult Sioux. Although his mother was Ree his father had been Sioux, and the first fifteen or sixteen years of his life were spent among his father's people. Those years were difficult, perhaps because of his mixed blood. At times the Sioux and the Rees got along all rightif they felt like tradingbut ordinarily they did not, and the Sioux spoke of the Rees with contempt as Corn Eaters.
Sahnish was what the Rees called themselves. Mandan neighbors along the upper Missouri called them Panis because they were related to the Skidi Pawnees. But the name by which they were best known was Arikaraantlersbecause in the old days they arranged their hair around two bones projecting from the head like horns or antlers.
Early in the nineteenth century when Lewis and Clark visited the Rees they were friendly. "But owing to the system of trade," said the artist George Catlin who saw them a generation later, "they have been inflicted with abuses, for which they are harboring the most inveterate feelings toward the whole civilized race." Joshua Pilcher, who managed a fur-trading post in 1823, said they were notorious for treachery and barbarity and had murdered more people than all the other tribes combined.
The Sioux also behaved with great friendliness at first, from the days of their meeting with Lewis and Clark until some time after the California gold rush. One forty-niner remarked that without their help in fending off the Pawnees, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes no white man could have gotten through without an army. As to just when and why the Sioux began to feel differently, there is no simple answer. Senator Thomas Hart Benton blamed the War Department, telling his colleagues in Washington that the brass hats dispatched "school-house officers and pot-house soldiers to treat the Indians as beasts and dogs."
Whatever the causes, American response to aboriginal treachery and barbarity was devastating, although inadvertent. On June 20, 1837, the steamboat St. Peter's unloaded at Fort Clark, delivering goods the Indians cherished along with something unexpected. A Mandan stole a blanket contaminated by smallpox, which started the plague in that area, and upriver at FortUnion the Indians refused to disperse, even after being warned away from the boat by whites who now understood the danger. They refused to leave because they assumed that once more they were about to be swindled. Jacob Halsey, in charge of the Fort Union depot, thought the best thing to do was to vaccinate everybody and he is said to have been surprised when a number of his subjects began vomiting, bleeding, and dying. Halsey himself caught the pox. He got over it, but his Indian wife did not.
Five opportunistic Assiniboin, thinking to benefit from the chaos at Fort Union, nimbly scaled the palisade and stole two horses. They were chased and caught by a detachment of soldiers who persuaded them to give up the horses, so the incident ended with no troubleexcept that one of the soldiers happened to be infected and the Assiniboin horse thieves innocently took the disease home. Eight hundred of their people died.
From the Assiniboin it spread to the Cree. Seven thousand Cree died. Then it reached the Blackfoot.
How many Indians from the Missouri tribes died of smallpox within the next few years can hardly be estimated. Possibly one hundred thousand. Some who recovered from the plague committed suicide after seeing their faces in a mirror. Vacant lodges stood on every hilltop. Starving people wandered aimlessly back and forth. "No sound but the raven's croak or the wolf's howl breaks the solemn stillness ... ."
Audubon met what was left of the Rees in 1843. He characterized them as alert, lanky, and dwelling in filth. When a warrior wanted to shake hands with him Audubon obliged but found the touch disgusting. Their squaws, he thought, were immoral, which may be a narrow Protestant judgment; but at that time the Rees were incestuousbrother with sister, daughter with father, son-in-law with mother-in-lawand chronicles of fhe period indicate that a great many were sick with venereal disease. A young Philadelphian who met them in 1858 described them as sullen and insolent with villainous countenances. "Sore and inflamed eyes are very common among them, owing to their filthy habits ... ."
Whatever the physical or moral state of this tribe, the Sioux felt superior, which could explain Bloody Knife's wretched childhood. He was taunted, abused, humiliated. Gall, later to become one of the most famous Sioux warriors, especially disliked him. In 1856 Bloody Knife's mother left the Unkpapa camp for a visit with her own people who lived farther east, perhaps as a way of resolving the unhappy situation. She took her sons, leaving a husband and probably a daughter, and it appears that she did not return.
Four years later Bloody Knife decided to visit the Unkpapas, presumably to see his father and say hello to what few childhood friends he did have in theold village. This idea nearly cost his life. Once a traveler reached an Indian camp he was, by custom, safe. But this proscription did not apply when Bloody Knife showed up; he was spat upon, stripped, cursed, mocked, beaten with musket ramrods and ceremonial coup sticks. Why he was so despised is not clear. His Ree blood alone does not justify such treatment.
A couple of years after this experience his two brothers, who were on a hunting trip, fell into the hands of a Sioux war party led by Gall. Their bodies were quartered and left for the wolves. So it is no mystery why Bloody Knife offered to guide bluecoat armies against the Sioux.
Fort Stevenson records give his height as 5'7", eyes brown, hair black, complexion copper, date of enlistment May 1, 1868.
Chicago Inter Ocean correspondent William Eleroy Curtis described his features as not fundamentally Indian but Spanish or Cuban: "His mouth and nose are small, the latter a smooth aquiline, and his lips are superbly cut, but wear, in repose, a sort of cynical curl, an index sign of his character ... ." He could not be seduced, as many Indians were, by trinkets or cheap finery. He affected no ornament, Curtis said, except a small steel horseshoe hooked to his cartridge belt, "the significance of which I have never been able to discover."
He is said to have been impertinent toward whites. He did not hesitate to ridicule them, even ridiculing General Custer's marksmanship. Custer seems to have been amused by such insolence and occasionally rewarded him like a king rewarding the court jester. Two months before the Little Bighorn while he was in Washington he ordered a silver medal with Bloody Knife's name engraved on it.
The instinctive hatred felt by the Sioux toward this half-Sioux, along with whatever they disliked about him as an individual, was further augmented by his defection to white invaders. They observed him guiding Custer through the sacred Black Hills in 1874 and two years later they splashed his brains on Major Reno.
Among those adults in the Unkpapa village who remembered him was the mother of the two girls who brought back his head. Although the head must have been in poor shape, and she had not seen it for some time, she recognized it at once because Bloody Knife was her brother. According to David Humphreys Miller, who interviewed a good many witnesses and participants in the battle, this woman exclaimed: "Gall has killed him at last!" Other accounts do not mention Gall. Nor have any historians bothered to record the feelings of the Unkpapa sisters, or tell us what they said when they realized they had brought home the head of their uncle.
It appears that this battered trophy was scalped because two Ree scouts,Young Hawk and Forked Horn, went to the deserted village looking for something to eat after the battle and there they met a soldier from Gibbon's command who was carrying a scalp on a stick. This soldier asked if the scalp was Dakota, meaning Sioux. Young Hawk and Forked Horn studied the gray hair and told him who it was. They also told him to throw it away. "No," he said, "if it is Bloody Knife's scalp, I will keep it for my father knew him and I will show it to him."
Bloody Knife's widow, She Owl, arrived at Fort Berthold on April 14, 1879. Upon being sworn to the truth, She Owl declared before agent Thomas Ellis that she had been married to Bloody Knife for ten years, had not received the wages owed him at the time of his death, was "the sole and only legal representative of said Bloody Knife," and would like to get the money. Two years later, almost five years after her husband's head was cut off at the Little Bighorn while he was serving the United States, the government allotted said widow, She Owl, $91.66.
Custer's favorite white scout, "Lonesome Charley" Reynolds, also died in the valley with Reno.
Nobody knew much about Lonesome Charley except that he had spent quite a while in Dakota Territory and that he used to be in partnership with a man named Deitrick who sold firewood to steamboats. Once he told Custer's wife, Elizabeth, that he was born a gentleman, but this disclosure seemed to embarrass him and he quickly diverted the conversation. When he was first introduced to her he was too shy to meet her gaze. He was not picturesque, she said, as most scouts were. His eyes were large and dark blue.
Inter Ocean correspondent Curtis described him as short and stocky, "one of God Almighty's gentlemen ... with a shrinking blue eye." He was a little taller than Bloody Knife, but stoop-shouldered. He lived by himself, absolutely alone, without even a dog for company. His voice was as soft as a woman's and Curtis said he did not smoke, curse, or drink. He was not, however, a zealous prohibitionist because interpreter Fred Gerard testified during the Reno inquiry that as they trotted toward the hostile village Charley asked for a drink of whisky, saying he had never felt so depressed and discouraged in his life. Gerard must have felt the same because he himself took a drink before handing over the flask.
One person who knew Charley said his eyes were "restless gray," and there were some who questioned his experience: "For whom did he scout before the Custer battle?" asked photographer D. F. Barry. But all agreed that he was a modest, private man with a subdued voice.
Since those days much of the mystery has dissolved. Scholars learned that Lonesome Charley was born in Warren County, Illinois on March 20, 1842.His comment to Elizabeth about a genteel heritage was more or less correct; his father was a respectable physician and the family has been traced back to colonial Virginia. He attended Abingdon College and might have lived out a sedate existence if his father had not moved west. Dr. Reynolds chose a Kansas town called Pardee, near Atchison, and from there young Charley took off. In the spring of 1860 he struck out for Pike's Peak where a man could fill a gunnysack with gold, but the emigrant train with which he traveled was attacked and looted, probably by Cheyennes. A few survivors made it to Fort Kearny and here Charley went into business with a crusty old trapper named Green who lived on an island in the Platte. One day they saw the corpse of an Indian woman in a tree, which was not unusual, but old man Green climbed the tree, shook her down, and used her for wolf bait. This was a bit much for Charley, who decided to move along. It was now 1861, the Civil War had erupted, and he joined a regiment of Kansas volunteers. Little has been learned about his wartime service except that he was in the Missouri-Kansas border fighting and worked as an escort along the Santa Fe Trail.
After the war he and a Mr. Wamsley decided to establish themselves as traders, but on Rabbit Ears Creek in southwestern Kansas a band of Cheyennes broke up the partnership by killing Wamsley and capturing the goods. Charley managed to squeeze into an abandoned dugout which probably had been constructed by a trapper and from this hole the Cheyennes were unable to evict him. They hung around, perhaps waiting until thirst forced him to surface, but during the night he crept away, somehow got to Trinidad, and from there to Santa Fe where he fell in love with a Mexican girl. This romance withered. Charley never said much about it.
By 1866 he was a buffalo hunter, drifting north, working along the Republican in eastern Colorado and southern Nebraska. Here again he almost lost his scalp, so for reasons of security he moved to Jack Morrow's ranch on the Platte.
In the spring of 1867 an army officer at Fort McPherson disagreed with him about something and when the quarrel ended the officer had just one arm.
Charley kept drifting. By 1869 he had entered the wild upper Missouri region where he worked as a hunter and guide. Thus he met Custer.
How he died at the Little Bighorn has been disputed. It appears that he was more or less alone, as usual. By one account fifty-eight shells were counted near his body, but this sounds like fiction. Gerard saw him whipping his horse in a desperate effort to escape, which was no reflection on his courage. Everybody was trying to make it across the river. Gerard said Charley's route was blocked by Indians who must have shot his horse because after he fell heseemed to be pinned under the animal. Because of the dust and gunsmoke and excitement and because of concern with his own prospects that was all Gerard saw.
Charley had a seriously infected, suppurating thumbdescribed in contemporary journals as a "felon"which troubled him so much that one of the regimental surgeons, Dr. Henry Porter, advised him to stay behind. Nevertheless, he was determined to go, and because Dr. Porter could not cure his thumb Charley approached Custer's orderly, John Burkman, who concocted a poultice of wet hardtack. On the morning of June 25 he still wore this bulky poultice, but when Burkman saw his body it was gone, which meant that he probably peeled it off when the shooting started.
A year after the fight not much could be found of him. Mr. P. W. Norris, who was a close friend, as well as being Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, wanted to locate his remains and provide a decent burial. Norris and "Yellowstone Jack" Baronette reached the site on July 5, and following a map drawn by Gerard they came upon the skeleton of a horse, shreds of Charley's hat, a few little bones, and tufts of auburn hair. The skull was missing. Norris wrapped the debris in a handkerchief. Then he and Yellowstone Jack rode away, chased by a party of hostiles who had been watching them from Reno Hill. Norris later wrote that he kept some of the hair, but most of it he distributed "in the earnest but fruitless effort to find his birthplace ... ." Norris may have buried the relics in his own family plot in Norris, Michigan.
A nephew, Charles Edwin Reynolds, wrote to historian Brininstool in 1925 that the first news they had of the Custer battle came from Chicago newspapers. "I have never forgotten, although then a small boy, the look of agony on father's face as his eye ran down the casualty list and he reached the name of Charley Reynolds."
Lt. Donald McIntosh died not far from Charley. Pvt. Theodore Goldin saw a mob of about sixty Indians attacking McIntosh. "I noticed that his lariat was dragging on the ground, once in a while catching in the tall grass or sage brush and then breaking loose and the picket pin bounding high in the air ... ."
The Bismarck Tribune wrote: "McIntosh, though a half-breed, was a gentleman of culture and esteemed by all who knew him. He leaves a family at Lincoln ... ." Thus far the Trib may be right. His father was Canadian, his mother probably an Indian of the Six Nations. That "Tosh," as the soldiers called him, was a gentleman of culture may be accepted on faith. Photographs are deceptive, but this angular male with an invisible smile and a long nose does not look like an oaf or a lout. That he was esteemed by all whoknew him is an expression of courtesy we extend, unless there is massive contradictory evidence. That he left a "family" at Lincoln might be argued. The Army and Navy Journal, which handled money from a relief fund established for the benefit of widows and children, allocated $510 to "Mrs. Donald McIntosh," but no children are listed.
The Trib becomes less reliable when describing his death, which is presented as though a reporter witnessed it: "He was pulled from his horse, tortured and finally murdered at the pleasure of the red devils." The Trib also has McIntosh armed with a saber, which is untrue. As for being pulled from his horse, this is possible although by no means certain. Indians interviewed years after the battle mentioned "one of the littler chiefs" who tried to remount his horse and stuck his boot all the way through the stirrup. The animal bolted, dragging this officer. This might possibly have been McIntosh. But there is no evidence that the Sioux caught him alive, tortured and disposed of him at their pleasure.
In the grass beside a severely mutilated corpse whose features had been pounded into a gelatinous glob a sergeant-major from Gibbon's command noticed an unusual gutta-percha button. Lt. Francis Gibson of H Company was able to identify it. He remembered that his sister gave some of these buttons to her husband just before the regiment left Fort Lincoln. Her husband was Tosh McIntosh.
Not much remained of McIntosh when the slain officers were disinterred and shipped east for reburial in 1877. Ex-Private Roman Rutten wrote to ex-Sergeant John Ryan long afterward that he had talked with the man who prepared McIntosh for shipment to Arlington. There were only a few bones in a cast iron box, the skull smashed by a tomahawk. "I suppose you have one of Anhauses & Bushes pictures of the fight," Rutten continued, alluding to the horrifying Anheuser-Busch lithograph which still hangs in thousands of saloons from one corner of America to another. "I have a grand one."
Capt. Benteen wrote to Mrs. Benteen: "I am inclined to think that had McIntosh divested himself of that slow poking way which was his peculiar characteristic, he might have been left in the land of the living."
He must have been homelier than one might suspect from his photograph because it is said that when Lt. George Wallace, who was not very handsome, reported for duty at Fort Rice he went immediately to pay his respects to the senior lieutenant: McIntosh. It was evening when Wallace arrived so he went to the McIntosh home. Mrs. McIntosh opened the door. "My God," she exclaimed, throwing up her hands, "you are the first man I ever saw that is uglier than my husband."
Reno's adjutant, Benjamin Hubert "Benny" Hodgson, was one of severaldoomed men who predicted the future. Before the fight he remarked that if he was wounded or dismounted he intended to grab somebody's stirrup and be dragged to safety. So it happened. While Reno's disorganized unit was trying to get across the river a bullet went through Hodgson's leg and killed his horse. He called for help. Somebody came splashing by, he clutched a stirrup and was towed across. But his prescience dissolved before the end, or else he could not believe what he foresaw. On the opposite bank, temporarily safe, he was struck by another bullet and killed.
It is not clear whose stirrup he grabbedat least four troopers from Reno's battalion claimed this honornor is it clear who served him last. Pvt. Thomas Coleman of McDougall's B Company kept a most extraordinary journal. Coleman reports on the twenty-seventh:
... this Morning after sunrise i went oaver the Battlefield on this side of the river and the first person i saw was Lieut. B. H. Hodgson of my Company he was shot twise with Ball and once with arrow Several other Boddies lay close by I buried the Lieut on a nice Knowloaverlooking the River with a Cedar tree at his head he was a Brave officer and a true gentleman ... .
Capt. McDougall subsequently declared under oath that he himself, assisted by Pvts. Ryan and Moon, buried Hodgson on the night of the twenty-sixth after sewing him up in blankets and a poncho. Most historians trust McDougall, whereas Coleman is thought to be imaginative or at times confusedalthough his journal never lacks flavor.
During Reno's famous retreat from the valley a number of men found their path of escape blocked, so they hid among the cottonwoods and thick brush near the river. Lt. Charles DeRudio was one of these. His account, which appeared in the New York Herald, is regarded with bleak suspicion. Walter Camp, for instance: "There is a story written in the first person under the name of Lieut. DeRudio, but it was written by Major Brisbin, of the 2nd Cavalry. DeRudio told me this himself, and cautioned me not to take all of it seriously, saying that Brisbin 'colored' it a good deal."
DeRudio's cautionary advice seems justified because there is no doubt that Major Brisbin exhibited a talent for creative writing, as may be seen from the optimism of his magnum opus, The Beef Bonanza: Or, How to Get Rich on the Plains. Here we learn that a $ 100,000 investment would easily double within five years, besides paying a handsome annual dividend. Or let us say the investor prefers sheep to cattle: "The time will come when we will have both shepherds and shepherdesses on the plains when the patriarch, as of old, with his sons, daughters, and sons' wives and daughters will follow the herds,crook in hand. Any large family can become rich by following the herds." Dairy farming, too, will flourish: "In the West the mild air and thousands of pure gushing streams furnish multitudes of natural butter-and-cheese ranches. The melting snows not only keep the waters cool, but the snow, air, and cool nights make the milk houses a paradise ... ."
We hear Major Brisbin's voice again in the so-called DeRudio narrative. The narrator, concealed in a ravine, listens to "the silvery, but to me diabolical voices of several squaws" who are scalping an unfortunate soldier. "Two of the ladies were cutting away, while two others performed a sort of war dance ... ." This must be the major at work. Truth, no matter how startling, customarily rings with a distinctive note, rather like the high hard ring of a silver coin dropped on a table, but this clinks like a potmetal counterfeit.
Brisbin was known among the troops as "Grasshopper Jim" because he often talked about the agricultural possibilities of Montana. One might suppose he would be nicknamed Alfalfa Jim or Winter Wheat Jim, but he probably talked a good deal about the grasshoppers which encrusted these northern plains and frequently annihilated crops. They were described as "exceedingly rapacious" by the Chief Engineer for the Department of Dakota, Captain William Ludlow, who said they would arrive in giant clusters and looked like a fall of snowflakes while descending through the last rays of the sun. Being an engineer, Ludlow undertook to calculate their numbers. One day when the insects were not especially thick he counted how many there were on a twelve-inch by twelve-inch plot of earth and found twenty-five, which meant at least a million per acre. The famous scout Luther North, en route to Nebraska in 1874, saw the land devastatedtrees stripped, fields empty. People in the town of Columbus had tried to save their gardens by covering them with blankets and sheets but the voracious creatures devoured the cloth before eating the vegetables and flowers and eating the paint off the houses.
Anyway, a band of Sioux approached the place where DeRudioBrisbin and Pvt. Thomas O'Neill had hidden themselves. Both troopers fired: "The private's eye was true, and his carbine trusty, for Mr. Indian dropped his rein, threw up his paws and laid down on the grass to sleep his long sleep. The gentleman I greeted rode a short distance and then did likewise."
According to the Trib, DeRudio finally escaped because some beavers dove into the Little Bighorn. "DeRudio followed them, got out of sight, and after hiding twelve hours or more ... ."
Beavers? Why would he follow beavers? The Trib does not elaborate.
Well, after creeping from bush to bush for nearly two days the droll narrator and Pvt. O'Neill manage to wade the river and scale the heights to join what remained of Reno's decimated battalion. Capt. Benteen later commentedthat DeRudio had a romantic, thrilling story made up by the time he reached safety, so it appears that Grasshopper Jim embroidered what was already a fancy tale.
As for Pvt. O'Neill, "he is a cool, level headed fellow, and tells it plainly and the same way all the timewhich is a big thing towards convincing one of the truth ... ."
Deadeye Dick O'Neill's report of this encounter does sound less fabricated. In addition to problems with enraged Sioux, he found himself troubled by a nosebleed. A nosebleed! Here we have an unhorsed cavalryman tucked into a patch of dusty underbrush. At any instant he might be seen, in which event he will quickly resemble a porcupine, yet he is concerned about a bloody nose. At the start of the fight, he tells us, he tripped, fell, and bumped his nose. "Not being able to give it attention at the time ..." the blood had trickled down his throat and almost choked him. It must be true. Nobody who was trying to fake a story would pause to insert this ridiculous diversion.
With them on the first day were interpreter Fred Gerard and a mixed-blood Pikuni scout named Billy Jackson. Gerard was French, although born in St. Louis. He married a Ree squaw and eventually sold advertising for Pillsbury Millswhich may sound implausible but is nonetheless a fact. Before obtaining this excellent position with the milling company he had worked as an Indian trader, during which time he learned Arikara and Sioux and occasionally spent a brutal Dakota winter huddled with prospective clients in ravines along the upper Missouri.
He and Billy Jackson were mounted, but DeRudio and O'Neill had lost their horses, a circumstance which made this uncommon quartet extremely vulnerable. In case of discovery the horsemen might escape, but not if they tried to carry passengers. Therefore a plan was worked out. If the Sioux should find them the equestrians would gallop off, expecting to be chased, while the pedestrians would duck into the shrubbery and hope for a miracle. It was not an altogether satisfactory plan but they had few alternatives. They were further imperiled by the fact that Gerard was riding a stallion and Billy Jackson was riding a mare. These animals began to act very badly, Gerard says, "putting us in danger of being discovered by the noise they made. We finally improved the situation by tying their heads together."
All day Sunday the fugitives kept quiet and about ten o'clock that night started moving upstream. They passed a number of bodies. In the hazy moonlight they recognized McIntoshwhich sounds a little surprising because Gibbon's men could not identify him. But of course Gibbon did not get there until Tuesday.
At one point O'Neill asked Gerard to enter the stream on horseback to findout how deep it was. Gerard refused. O'Neill then waded in, or jumped off the bank, and almost disappeared. Obviously this was not a good place to cross, but all four were thirsty so before climbing out O'Neill filled his hat and passed it up to the others. No doubt this was logical. If you are thirsty and find water, you drink. Nevertheless it is preposterous. If these men were seen they would be shot, yet O'Neill stood there dipping his hat in the stream, carefully handing it up to his friends.
Farther along the water rippled, indicating shallows, and here Gerard removed his expensive gold watch. "Oh, Powerful One, Day Maker!" he muttered in Sioux while holding aloft the watch, "And you, people of the depths, this I sacrifice to you. Help us, I pray you, to cross safely here!"
"What were you saying?" DeRudio asked. "What was that splash?"
They entered the stream cautiously, feeling for the bottom, but it was so shallow that the horses' knees did not even get wet. Billy Jackson said he had to bite his lip to keep from laughing when he thought about Gerard's watch.
Not long afterward a party of Sioux heard them. Gerard and Jackson galloped away, as agreed, while DeRudio and O'Neill wriggled into some bushes. Darkness saved all four.
They remained hidden the next dayDeRudio and O'Neill together, Gerard and Jackson separately. That night they met again on Reno's hilltop. None of them had eaten since Sunday morning and Gerard, at least, felt ravenous. He was offered cold coffee and biscuit. His stomach objected. Then he tried to chew a piece of salt pork but fell asleep with the pork still in his mouth and did not open his eyes for ten hours.
One of Reno's white scouts, George Herendeen, also was trapped in the valley but managed to hide in a willow thicket not far from the black interpreter, Isaiah Dorman, who had been caught. Herendeen could do nothing to help. "I saw Indians shooting at Isaiah and squaws pounding him with stone hammers. His legs below the knees were shot full of bullets ... ." By another account, Dorman's ankles and shins were scored with buckshot.
More significant than the choice of weapon is the fact that they wanted him to suffer. They wanted all of the bluecoats and everybody who accompanied the bluecoats to pay for this attack, but Isaiah Dorman became a special target. Nearly every description of his death emphasizes that the Indians killed him slowly. He had a coffee pot and a cupalthough why he carried a coffee pot into battle is not explainedand as he lay dying among the prairie dog mounds they filled the cup with his blood. Rees who found his body mentioned a "kettle" full of blood, but that might be a questionable translation. Near him the Rees discovered one of their own: stripped, sliced open, a willow branch stuffed into his chest with the leafy part extruding.
A Sioux chief talked about Isaiah's death without animosity, almost indifferently."We passed a black man in a soldier's uniform and we had him. He turned on his horse and shot an Indian right through the heart. Then the Indians fired at this one man and riddled his horse with bullets. His horse fell over on his back and the black man could not get up. I saw him as I rode by."
Pvt. Slaper told Brininstool that Isaiah was "badly cut and slashed, while unmentionable atrocities had been committed." Custer's orderly, John Burkman, was more direct. Dorman had a dozen arrows in his breast and "a picket pin through his balls."
Stanley Vestal observed that he was well liked by the Indians. Vestal, who was not present at the Little Bighorn, talked to various participants long after the battle and subsequently produced a story of Isaiah's death which sounds incredible. We are told that Sitting Bull came upon Isaiah grievously wounded. "The Negro asked for water, and Sitting Bull took his cup of polished black buffalo horn, got some water, and gave him to drink." Well, just such a tender scene occurs in an 1896 book for boys, Fifty Famous Stories Retold. Here we learn of a seventeenth-century battle between Swedes and Danes in which the Swedes are defeated. A Danish soldier is about to drink from his flask when he hears a voice nearby: "O Sir! give me a drink, for I am dying." It was the voice of a wounded Swede. The Dane compassionately "knelt down by the side of his fallen foe, and pressed the flask to his lips ... ."
Pvt. Roman Rutten, unlike Vestal, did fight at the Little Bighorn and his report of Isaiah's last stand rings true. Rutten was on a horse that hated the odor of Indians so his immediate problem was how to stay in the saddle. During a wild ride he passed Isaiah, whose horse had been shot. The black man was on one knee, firing carefully with a non-regulation sporting rifle. He looked up and shouted, "Good-bye, Rutten!"
That the black white man, wasicun sapa, was well liked by Indians seems to be a fact. They called him Teat, among other names, possibly because Isaiah sounds rather like azinpitheir word for it. Or perhaps his black skin reminded them of the buffalo cow's smooth black nipple. There are no photographs of him and only two descriptions, both from hostiles. Both said he was very black and very big. A pictograph of Reno's retreat shows a black man in army uniform flat on the ground beside a prostrate white horse. For some inexplicable reason he has an abnormally thick right thumb.
Where he came from and what drew him to the unexplored Dakotas is not known. He may have been a runaway slave or a freedman, because there is no record of him until after the Civil War. Several male slaves belonging to the D'Orman family of Louisiana and/or Alabama during the 1840s are said to have escaped and one of them reputedly was named Isaiah. He first appears on November 11, 1865, when he was hired by the War Department as a courierat $100 a month, which was good pay. He traveled from Fort Wadsworth to Fort Rice and back again every month, afoot, with a sleeping bag on his shoulder and the mail wrapped in waterproof cloth. Wadsworth and Rice were almost one hundred miles apart and each trip took five days. He may not have been able to afford a horse, or he may have thought a horse would deteriorate in such rough country. Whatever the reason, he walked, and the government paid him well because at any moment some discontented or ambitious Indian might lift a courier's scalp.
He did this off and on for about two years, then vanished. He showed up intermittently during the next four years, working as a woodcutter for Durfee & Peck, but most of that time he spent with the Sioux. It is known that he married a Santee squaw and probably he did become friendly with Sitting Bull.
In 1871 the Army hired him to guide the Northern Pacific Railroad survey team, and for the ensuing five years he worked as an interpreter at Fort Rice. Custer demanded his services at the last moment in the fatal year:
Hq Middle District Dept. Dak Ft. A. Lincoln D.T. May 14, 1876
IV The Commanding Officer Ft. Rice, D.T. will order Isaiah Dorman Post Interpreter to proceed to this post and report for duty ... .
Regimental Quartermaster H.I. Nowlan's official report concerning persons and articles hired and employedExpedition in the Field on the March between Fort Abraham Lincoln and the Yellowstone River, M.T.notes that Isaiah Dorman was owed $62.50 for services rendered during June. Three years later a certain Isaac McNutt tried to collect this money. McNutt worked as a handyman around Fort Rice and had known Dorman, but he could produce nothing to substantiate his claim. There were no other claimants. And because Isaiah's next of kinhis Santee wifecould not be located, the Treasury Department retained his wages. Perhaps by now the file has been closed, but it is hard to tell what goes on behind government doors so Isaiah's wages might still be accumulating interest.
Considering that he married an Indian and felt comfortable among them, and they with him, their savage treatment of him seems odd. The explanation is simple: They thought he had betrayed them by working for bluecoats and a traitor deserves no respect.
So much for Isaiah.
Together with Herendeen, DeRudio, O'Neill and several other whites, a number of Ree scouts looked for hiding places among the cottonwoods and willow thickets. One of theseYoung Hawkdecided after a while that death would be preferable to such humiliation. He took off his government coat and blouse, hugged his horse and said, "I love you." Then he stood up and began shooting. The Sioux fired at him but missed. Young Hawk ducked back into the bushes, crawled a little distance and again jumped up. Once again the Sioux bullets missed, and not long after that they went riding downstream to attack Custer. Young Hawk, finding himself alive, concluded that his valiant death could be postponed, maybe for quite some time, and headed for the American flag on the hilltop.
Life at the top was better, if not much. Thirty-two of Reno's command were dead, ten or eleven wounded.
According to plan, Custer would strike the north end of the camp, or the flank, while Reno attacked from the south. Now the lower jaw of this primitive trap had been bent out of shape and the upper jaw was nowhere in sight.
Copyright © 1984 by Evan S. Connell
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >