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- The Great Salt Lake Trail - 70/86 -
enforce the terms of the treaty of 1868, that led to the bitter war with Sitting Bull, and which terminated so disastrously on the 25th of June, 1876.
It is a notorious fact that the Sioux Indians, for four years immediately preceding the Custer massacre, were regularly supplied with the most improved fire-arms and ammunition by the agencies at Brûlé, Grand River, Standing Rock, Port Berthold, Cheyenne, and Fort Peck. Even during the campaign of 1876, in the months of May, June, and July, just before and after Custer and his band of heroes rode down into the valley of death, these fighting Indians received eleven hundred and twenty Remington and Winchester rifles and four hundred and thirteen thousand rounds of patent ammunition, besides large quantities of loose powder, lead, and primers, while during the summer of 1875 they received several thousand stands of arms and more than a million rounds of ammunition. With this generous provision there is no cause for wonder that the Sioux were able to resist the government and attract to their aid all the dissatisfied Cheyennes and other Indians in the Northwest.
Besides a perfect fighting equipment, all the Indians recognized in Sitting Bull the elements of a great warrior, one whose superior, perhaps, has never been known among the tribe; he combined all the strategic cunning of Tecumseh with the cruel, uncompromising hatred of Black Kettle, while his leadership was far superior to both. Having decided to precipitate a terrible war, he chose his position with consummate judgment, selecting a central vantage point surrounded by what is known as the “Bad Lands,” and then kept his supply source open by an assumed friendship with the Canadian French. This he was the better able to accomplish, since some years before he had professed conversion to Christianity under the preaching of Father Desmet and maintained a show of friendship for the Canadians.
War against the Sioux having been brought about by the combined Black Hill outrages and Sitting Bull's threatening attitude, it was decided to send out three separate expeditions, one of which should move from the north, under General Terry, from Fort Lincoln; another from the east, under General Gibbon, from Fort Ellis, and another from the south, under General Crook, from Fort Fetterman; these movements were to be simultaneous, and a junction was expected to be formed near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River.
For some cause, which I will refrain from discussing, the commands did not start at the same time. General Crook did not leave Fetterman until March 1, with seven hundred men and forty days' supply. The command was entrusted to Colonel Reynolds of the Third Cavalry, accompanied by General Crook, the department commander. Nothing was heard from this expedition until the 22d following, when General Crook forwarded from Fort Reno a brief account of his battle on Powder River. The result of this fight, which lasted five hours, was the destruction of Crazy Horse's village of one hundred and five lodges; or that is the way the despatch read, though many assert that the battle resulted in little else than a series of remarkable blunders which suffered the Indians to make good their escape, losing only a small quantity of their property.
One serious trouble rose out of the Powder River fight, which was found in an assertion made by General Crook, or at least attributed to him, that his expedition had proved that instead of being fifteen or twenty thousand hostile Indians in the Black Hills and Big Horn country, the total number would not exceed two thousand. It was upon this estimation that the expeditions were prepared.
The Terry column, which was commanded by General Custer, consisted of twelve companies of the Seventh Cavalry, and three companies of the Sixth and Seventeenth Infantry, with four Gatling guns, and a detachment of Indian scouts. This force comprised twenty-eight officers and seven hundred and forty-seven men of the Seventh Cavalry, eight officers and one hundred and thirty-five men of the Sixth and Seventeenth Infantry, two officers and thirty-two men in charge of the Gatling battery, and forty-five enlisted Indian scouts, a grand total of thirty-eight officers and nine hundred and fifty-nine men, including scouts.
The combined forces of Crook, Gibbon, Terry, and Custer did not exceed twenty-seven hundred men, while opposed to them were fully seventeen thousand Indians, all of whom were provided with the latest and most improved patterns of repeating rifles.
On the 16th of June General Crook started for the Rosebud, on which stream it was reported that Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were stationed; about the same time a party of Crow Indians who were operating with General Crook returned from a scout and reported that General Gibbon, who was on Tongue River, had been attacked by Sitting Bull, who had captured several horses. Crook pushed on rapidly toward the Rosebud, leaving his train behind and mounting his infantry on mules. What were deemed accurate reports stated that Sitting Bull was still on the Rosebud, only sixty miles from the point where General Crook camped on the night of the 15th of June. The command travelled forty miles on the 16th, and when within twenty miles of the Sioux' principal position, instead of pushing on, General Crook went into camp.
The next morning he was much surprised to find himself attacked by Sitting Bull, who swooped down upon him with the first streaks of coming dawn, and a heavy battle followed. General Crook, who had camped in a basin surrounded on all sides by high hills, soon found his position so dangerous that it must be changed at all hazards. The advance was at once with Noyes' battalion occupying a position on the right, Mills on the right centre, Chambers in the centre, and the Indian allies on the left. Mills and Noyes charged the enemy in magnificent style, breaking the line and striking the rear. The fight continued hot and furious until two o'clock in the afternoon, when a gallant charge of Colonel Royall, who was in reserve, supported by the Indian allies, caused the Sioux to draw off to their village, six miles distant, while General Crook went into camp, where he remained inactive for two days.
In the meantime, as the official report recites: “Generals Terry and Gibbon communicated with each other June 1, near the junction of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers, and learned that a heavy force of Indians had concentrated on the opposite bank of the Yellowstone, but eighteen miles distant. For fourteen days the Indian pickets had confronted Gibbon's videttes.”
General Gibbon reported to General Terry that the cavalry had thoroughly scouted the Yellowstone as far as the mouth of the Big Horn, and no Indians had crossed it. It was now certain that they were not prepared for them, and on the Powder, Tongue, Rosebud, Little Big Horn, and Big Horn rivers, General Terry at once commenced feeling for them. Major Reno of the Seventh Cavalry, with six companies of that regiment, was sent up Powder River one hundred and fifty miles, to the mouth of Little Powder River, to look for the Indians, and if possible to communicate with General Crook. He reached the mouth of the Little Powder in five days, but saw no Indians, and could hear nothing of Crook. As he returned, he found on the Rosebud a very large Indian trail about nine days old, and followed it a short distance, when he turned about up Tongue River, and reported to General Terry what he had seen. It was now known that no Indians were on either Tongue or Little Powder rivers, and the net had narrowed down to Rosebud, Little Big Horn, and Big Horn rivers.
General Terry had been waiting with Custer and the steamer _Far West_ at the mouth of Tongue River, for Reno's report, and as soon as he heard it he ordered Custer to march up the south bank to a point opposite General Gibbon, who was encamped on the north bank of the Yellowstone. Accordingly Terry, on board the steamer _Far West_, pushed up the Yellowstone, keeping abreast of General Custer's column.
General Gibbon was found in camp quietly awaiting developments. A consultation was had with Generals Gibbon and Custer, and then General Terry definitely fixed upon the plan of action. It was believed that the Indians were at the head of the Rosebud, or over on the Little Big Horn, a dividing ridge only fifteen miles wide and separating the two streams. It was announced by General Terry that General Custer's column would strike the blow.
At the time that a junction was formed between Gibbon and Terry, General Crook was about one hundred miles from them, while Sitting Bull's forces were between the commands. After his battle Crook fell back to the head of Tongue River. The Powder, Tongue, Rosebud, and Big Horn rivers all flow northwest, and empty into the Yellowstone; as Sitting Bull was between the headwaters of the Rosebud and Big Horn, the main tributary of the latter being known as the Little Big Horn, a sufficient knowledge of the topography of the country is thus afforded by which to definitely locate Sitting Bull and his forces.
Having now ascertained the position of the enemy, or reasoned out the probable position, General Terry sent a despatch to General Sheridan, as follows: “No Indians have been met with as yet, but traces of a large and recent camp have been discovered twenty or thirty miles up the Rosebud. Gibbon's column will move this morning on the north side of the Yellowstone, for the mouth of the Big Horn, where it will be ferried across by the supply steamer, and whence it will proceed to the mouth of the Little Big Horn, and so on. Custer will go to the Rosebud to-morrow with his whole regiment, and thence to the headwaters of the Little Big Horn, thence down that stream.”
Following this report came an order, signed by E. W. Smith, Captain of the Eighteenth Infantry, Acting Assistant Adjutant-General, directing General Custer to follow the Indian trail discovered, pushing the Indians from one side, while General Gibbon pursued them from an opposite direction. As no instructions were given as to the rate at which each division should travel, Custer, noted for his quick, energetic movements, made ninety miles the first three days, and, discovering the Indians in large numbers, divided his command into three divisions, one of which he placed under Major Reno, another under Major Benteen, and led the other himself.
As Custer made a detour to enter the village, Reno struck a large body of Indians, who, after retreating nearly three miles, turned on the troops and ran them pell-mell across Grassy Creek into the woods. Reno overestimated the strength of his enemies and thought he was being surrounded. Benteen came up to the support of Reno, but he too took fright and got out of his position without striking the enemy.
While Reno and Benteen were trying to keep open a way for their retreat, Custer charged on the village, first sending a courier, Trumpeter Martin, to Reno and Benteen with the following despatch: “Big village; be quick; send on the packs.” This order was too plain to be misunderstood. It clearly meant that he had discovered the village, which he intended attacking at once; to hurry forward to his support and bring up the packs, ambulances, etc. But, instead of obeying orders, Reno and Benteen stood aloof, fearful lest they should endanger their position, while the brave Custer and his squad of noble horses rushed down like a terrible avalanche upon the Indian village. In a moment, fateful incident, the Indians came swarming about that heroic band until the very earth seemed to open and let loose the elements of volcanic fury, or like a riot of the fiends of Erebus, blazing with the hot sulphur of their impious dominion. Down from the hillside, up through the valleys, that dreadful torrent of Indian
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