Story type: Essay
I would write across the sky in letters of light this undisputed truth, proven by every annal of history, that the only way to help yourself is through loyalty to those who trust and employ you.
It was in the Spring of Eighteen Hundred Seventy-six that the Sioux on the Dakota Reservation became restless, and after various fruitless efforts to restrain them, moved Westward in a body.
This periodic migration was a habit and a tradition of the tribe. For hundreds of years they had visited the buffalo country on an annual hunt.
Now the buffaloes were gone, save for a few scattered herds in the mountains. The Indians did not fully realize this, although they realized that as the Whites came in, the game went out. The Sioux were hunters and horsemen by nature. They traveled and moved about with great freedom. If restrained or interfered with they grew irritable and then hostile.
Now they were full of fight. The Whites had ruined the hunting-grounds; besides that, white soldiers had fought them if they moved to their old haunts, sacred for their use and bequeathed to them by their ancestors. In dead of Winter, when the snows lay deep and they were in their teepees, crouching around the scanty fire, soldiers had charged on horseback through the villages, shooting into the teepees, killing women and children.
At the head of these soldiers was a white chief, whom they called Yellow Hair. He was a smashing, dashing, fearless soldier who understood the Indian ways and haunts, and then used this knowledge for the undoing of the Red Men.
Yellow Hair wanted to keep them in one little place all the time, and desired that they should raise corn like cowardly Crows, when what they wanted was to be free and hunt!
They feared Yellow Hair–and hated him.
Custer was a man of intelligence–nervous, energetic, proud. His honesty and sincerity were beyond dispute. He was a natural Indian fighter. He could pull his belt one hole tighter and go three whole days without food. He could ride like the wind, or crawl in the grass, and knew how to strike, quickly and unexpectedly, as the first streak of dawn came into the East. Like Napoleon, he knew the value of time, and, in fact, he had somewhat of the dash and daring, not to mention the vanity, of the Corsican. His men believed in him and loved him, for he marched them to victory, and with odds of five to one had won again and again.
But Custer had the defect of his qualities; and to use the Lincoln phrase, sometimes took counsel of his ambition.
He had fought in the Civil War in places where no prisoners were taken, and where there was no commissary. And this wild, free life had bred in him a habit of unrest–a chafing at discipline and all rules of modern warfare.
Results were the only things he cared for, and power was his Deity.
When the Indians grew restless in the Spring of Seventy-six, Custer was called to Washington for consultation. President Grant was not satisfied with our Indian policy–he thought that in some ways the Whites were the real savages. The Indians he considered as children, not as criminals.
Custer tried to tell him differently. Custer knew the bloodthirsty character of the Sioux, their treachery and cunning–he showed scars by way of proof!
The authorities at Washington needed Custer. However, his view of the case did not mean theirs. Custer believed in the mailed hand, and if given the power he declared he would settle the Indian Question in America once and forever. His confidence and assumption and what Senator Dawes called swagger were not to their liking. Anyway, Custer was attracting altogether too much attention–the people followed him on Pennsylvania Avenue whenever he appeared.
General Terry was chosen to head the expedition against the hostile Sioux, and Custer was to go as second in command.
Terry was older than Custer, but Custer had seen more service on the plains. Custer demurred–threatened to resign–and wrote a note to the President asking for a personal interview and requesting a review of the situation.
President Grant refused to see Custer, and reminded him that the first duty of a soldier was obedience.
Custer left Washington, glum and sullen–grieved. But he was a soldier, and so he reported at Fort Lincoln, as ordered, to serve under a man who knew less about Indian fighting than did he.
The force of a thousand men embarked on six boats at Bismarck. There a banquet was given in honor of Terry and Custer. “You will hear from us by courier before July Fourth,” said Custer.
He was still moody and depressed, but declared his willingness to do his duty.
Terry did not like his attitude and told him so. Poor Custer was stung by the reprimand.
He was only a boy, thirty-seven years old, to be sure, but with the whimsical, daring, ambitious and jealous quality of the center-rush. Custer at times had his eye on the White House–why not! Had not Grant been a soldier?
Women worshiped Custer, and men who knew him, never doubted his earnestness and honesty. He lacked humor.
He was both sincere and serious.
The expedition moved on up the tortuous Missouri, tying up at night to avoid the treacherous sandbars that lay in wait.
They had reached the Yellowstone River, and were getting into the Indian Country.
To lighten the boats, Terry divided his force into two parts. Custer disembarked on the morning of the Twenty-fifth of June, with four hundred forty-three men, besides a dozen who looked after the pack-train.
Scouts reported that the hostile Sioux were camped on the Little Big Horn, seventy-five miles across the country.
Terry gave Custer orders to march the seventy-five miles in forty-eight hours, and attack the Indians at the head of their camp at daylight on the morning of the Twenty-seventh. There was to be no parley–panic was the thing desired, and when Custer had started the savages on the run, Terry would attack them at the other end of their village, and the two fleeing mobs of savages would be driven on each other, and then they would cast down their arms and the trick would be done.
Next, to throw a cordon of soldiers around the camp and hold it would be easy.
Custer and his men rode away at about eight o’clock on the morning of the Twenty-fifth. They were in high spirits, for the cramped quarters on the transports made freedom doubly grateful.
They disappeared across the mesa and through the gray-brown hills, and soon only a cloud of dust marked their passage.
After five miles had been turned off on a walk, Custer ordered a trot, and then, where the ground was level, a canter.
On they went.
They pitched camp at four o’clock, having covered forty miles. The horses were unsaddled and fed, and supper cooked and eaten.
But sleep was not to be–these men shall sleep no more!
The bugles sounded “Boots and Saddles.” Before sunset they were again on their way.
By three o’clock on the morning of the Twenty-sixth, they had covered more than seventy miles.
They halted for coffee.
The night, waiting for the dawn, was doubly dark.
Fast-riding scouts had gone on ahead, and now reported the Indians camped just over the ridge, four miles away.
Custer divided his force into two parts. The Indians were camped along the river for three miles. There were about two thousand of them, and the women and children were with them.
Reno with two hundred fifty men was ordered to swing around and attack the village from the South. Custer with one hundred ninety-three men would watch the charge, and when the valiant Reno had started the panic and the Indians were in confusion, his force would then sweep around and charge them from the other end of the village.
This was Terry’s plan of battle, only Custer was going to make the capture without Terry’s help.
When Terry came up the following day, he would find the work all done and neatly, too. Results are the only things that count, and victory justifies itself.
The battle would go down on the records as Custer’s triumph!
Reno took a two-mile detour, and just at peep of day, ere the sun had gilded the tops of the cottonwoods, charged, with yells and rapid firing, into the Indian village. Custer stood on the ridge, his men mounted and impatient just below on the other side.
He could distinguish Reno’s soldiers as they charged into the underbrush. Their shouts and the sound of firing filled his fighter’s heart.
The Indians were in confusion–he could see them by the dim light, stampeding. They were running in brownish masses right around the front of the hill where he stood. He ordered the bugles to blow the charge.
The soldiers greeted the order with a yell–tired muscles, the sleepless night, its seventy-five miles of hard riding, were forgotten. The battle would be fought and won in less time than a man takes to eat his breakfast.
Down the slope swept Custer’s men to meet the fleeing foe.
But now the savages had ceased to flee. They lay in the grass and fired.
Several of Custer’s horses fell.
Three of his men threw up their hands, and dropped from their saddles, limp like bags of oats, and their horses ran on alone.
The gully below was full of Indians, and these sent a murderous fire at Custer as he came. His horses swerved, but several ran right on and disappeared, horse and rider in the sunken ditch, as did Napoleon’s men at Waterloo.
The mad, headlong charge hesitated. The cottonwoods, the water and the teepees were a hundred yards away.
Custer glanced back, and a mile distant saw Reno’s soldiers galloping wildly up the steep slope of the hill.
Reno’s charge had failed–instead of riding straight down through the length of the village and meeting Custer, he had gotten only fifty rods, and then had been met by a steady fire from Indians who held their ground. He wedged them back, but his horses, already overridden, refused to go on, and the charging troops were simply carried out of the woods into the open, and once there they took to the hills for safety, leaving behind, dead, one-third of their force.
Custer quickly realized the hopelessness of charging alone into a mass of Indians, who were exultant and savage in the thought of victory. Panic was not for them.
They were armed with Springfield rifles, while the soldiers had only short-range carbines.
The bugles now ordered a retreat, and Custer’s men rode back to the top of the hill–with intent to join forces with Reno.
Reno was hopelessly cut off. Determined Sioux filled the gully that separated the two little bands of brave men.
Custer, evidently, thought that Reno had simply withdrawn to re-form his troop, and that any moment Reno would ride to his rescue.
Custer decided to hold the hill.
The Indians were shooting at him from long range, occasionally killing a horse.
He told off his fours and ordered the horses sent to the rear.
The fours led their horses back toward where they had left their packmules when they had stopped for coffee at three o’clock.
But the fours had not gone half a mile when they were surrounded by a mob of Indians that just closed in on them. Every man was killed–the horses were galloped off by the women and children.
Custer now realized that he was caught in a trap. The ridge where his men lay face down was half a mile long, and not more than twenty feet across at the top. The Indians were everywhere–in the gullies, in the grass, in little scooped-out holes. The bullets whizzed above the heads of Custer’s men as they lay there, flattening their bodies in the dust.
The morning sun came out, dazzling and hot.
It was only nine o’clock.
The men were without food and without water. The Little Big Horn danced over its rocky bed and shimmered in the golden light, only half a mile away, and there in the cool, limpid stream they had been confident they would now swim and fish, the battle over, while they proudly held the disarmed Indians against General Terry’s coming.
But the fight had not been won, and death lay between them and water. The only thing to do was to await Reno or Terry. Reno might come at any time, and Terry would arrive without fail at tomorrow’s dawn–he had said so, and his word was the word of a soldier.
Custer had blundered.
The fight was lost.
Now it was just a question of endurance. Noon came, and the buzzards began to gather in the azure.
The sun was blistering hot–there was not a tree, nor a bush, nor a green blade of grass within reach.
The men had ceased to joke and banter. The situation was serious. Some tried to smoke, but their parching thirst was thus only aggravated–they threw their pipes away.
The Indians now kept up an occasional shooting.
They were playing with the soldiers as a cat plays with a mouse.
The Indian is a cautious fighter–he makes no sacrifices in order to win. Now he had his prey secure.
Soon the soldiers would run out of ammunition, and then one more day, or two at least, and thirst and fatigue would reduce brave men into old women, and the squaws could rush in and pound them on the head with clubs.
The afternoon dragged along its awful length. Time dwindled and dawdled.
At last the sun sank, a ball of fire in the West.
The moon came out.
Now and then a Sioux would creep up into shadowy view, but a shot from a soldier would send him back into hiding. Down in the cottonwoods the squaws made campfires and were holding a dance, singing their songs of victory.
Custer warned his men that sleep was death. This was their second sleepless night, and the men were feverish with fatigue. Some babbled in strange tongues, and talked with sisters and sweethearts and people who were not there–reason was tottering.
With Custer was an Indian boy, sixteen years old, “Curley the Crow.” Custer now at about midnight told Curley to strip himself and crawl out among the Indians, and if possible, get out through the lines and tell Terry of their position. Several of Custer’s men had tried to reach water, but none came back.
Curley got through the lines–his boldness in mixing with the Indians and his red skin saving him. He took a long way round and ran to tell Terry the seriousness of the situation.
Terry was advancing, but was hampered and harassed by Indians for twenty miles. They fired at him from gullies, ridges, rocks, prairie-dog mounds, and then retreated. He had to move with caution. Instead of arriving at daylight as he expected, Terry was three hours behind. The Indians surrounding Custer saw the dust from the advancing troop.
They hesitated to charge Custer boldly as he lay on the hilltop, entrenched by little ditches dug in the night with knives, tin cups and bleeding fingers.
It was easy to destroy Custer, but it meant a dead Sioux for every white soldier.
The Indians made sham charges to draw Custer’s fire, and then withdrew.
They circled closer. The squaws came up with sticks and stones and menaced wildly.
Custer’s fire grew less and less. He was running out of ammunition.
Terry was only five miles away.
The Indians closed in like a cloud around Custer and his few survivors.
It was a hand-to-hand fight–one against a hundred.
In five minutes every man was dead, and the squaws were stripping the mangled and bleeding forms.
Already the main body of Indians was trailing across the plains toward the mountains.
Terry arrived, but it was too late.
An hour later Reno limped in, famished, half of his men dead or wounded, sick, undone.
To follow the fleeing Indians was useless–the dead soldiers must be decently buried, and the living succored. Terry himself had suffered sore.
The Indians were five thousand strong, not two. They had gathered up all the other tribes for more than a hundred miles. Now they moved North toward Canada. Terry tried to follow, but they held him off with a rear-guard, like white veterans. The Indians escaped across the border.