They were killed like wolves.

THE SUN DANCERS FROM the Crazy Horse band were still preparing to sacrifice their flesh in Nebraska when General George Crook started north for the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming with his old West Point friend, Civil War rival and now commander, General Philip Sheridan. Keeping them company were a dozen officers, most of whom were friends or aides-de-camp of the two generals. All traveled well equipped, with fly rods and sporting rifles. When a reporter in Cheyenne asked the purpose of the excursion, Sheridan answered simply, “Hunting and fishing.”

Numbering a hundred in all, the group was big enough to defend itself, but Crook said there was no danger of Indian attack. Finding the way through the Big Horns, not fighting, was the task of Crook’s favorite guides, Frank Grouard and Baptiste Pourier, who also served as interpreters for a contingent of Oglala and Brulé scouts. The latter had all been enlisted by Lieutenant Clark, and several were veterans of the campaign against Crazy Horse. Among them were Charging Bear, captured the previous fall at Slim Buttes, hostile then but trusted now; Lone Bear, who had been sent as a spy to Crazy Horse’s camp late the previous fall; and Hunts the Enemy, leader of the first delegation sent out to talk peace with Crazy Horse in January. On this trip with Crook, Hunts the Enemy would take a new name; henceforward he would be known as Man That Owns a Sword, after his dead brother.1

The party gathered at Camp Brown in the Wyoming Territory at the end of June, then headed north in a gay mood on the first day of July 1877. Five days out the scouts discovered a herd of buffalo and all gave chase. Lieutenant Bourke with great effort and many shots finally downed an old bull. While he was cutting out the tongue, heart, and some doubtless stringy steaks, three of the Oglala scouts, Sorrel Horse, Sword, and Charging Bear, passed them on the way back to camp, “their ponies heavily laden with meat and fat” from sixteen buffalo they had killed.

So things went on this leisurely jaunt. The country was lively with game—thousands of buffalo one day, herds of elk and antelope the next, fish teeming in the creeks and rivers. The Oglala scouts all knew the country well; for decades they had passed through it coming and going on their way to steal horses from the Shoshones. To Bourke they pointed out a “medicine rock,” one of the big sandstone boulders used by passing Indians to draw figures of “horses, elk, mountain sheep etc.,” all full of meaning to other Indians who later paused to study the drawings. Seven years earlier, on his way to the Shoshone country with He Dog and High Backbone, Crazy Horse had hesitated at just such an inscription rock, perhaps even the very one shown to Bourke. The drawings changed according to the light and the weather. In 1870, Crazy Horse felt the omens were bad and wanted to turn back, but High Backbone taunted him: “What did we come for?” Frank Grouard and the Oglala with Crook’s party all would have known this story of the war party that ended with the death of High Backbone, but it does not seem that any of them told it to Bourke.2

This was the kind of country Crook loved to amble through, keeping an eye out for game and riding so far ahead of the company that he might be alone. The Indians liked it in the same way for the same reasons—time alone and good hunting. The big excursion was accompanied from time to time by white miners, keeping close for protection, but they need not have worried. For the first time in a century there were almost no Sioux roaming through the northern country, perhaps none at all; they had been driven into the reservations, save a few who had gone north to Canada with Sitting Bull, and a remnant of Lame Deer’s band, which sent word it would surrender after a final buffalo hunt.

Generals Sheridan and Crook and their party had the whole magnificence to themselves. Bourke faithfully recorded what the excursionists shot or caught in the rivers and streams. As they were riding along the bank of Shell Creek one day, traveling generally north and east in the direction of the Little Bighorn River, a black bear suddenly burst across the trail heading for the water. Frank Grouard broke the bear’s back with a rifle shot, then Sheridan shot him twice without apparent effect. It was now Bourke’s turn; he missed twice, then hit the bear in the head. They took the skin and paws and abandoned the rest. The meat, Bourke noted in his diary, smelled too strongly of wild onions—the tsimpsila which was often the first fresh green thing the Sioux ate after the end of winter. On the day of the big fight at the Little Bighorn the year before many of the women had gone out in the morning to dig for tsimpsila. But it was game everybody was after on the journey with Crook and Sheridan. One morning the scouts killed three elk but took away only the hindquarters. The next day they killed twenty-seven elk. “A great waste,” Bourke noted. “On this march we have left on the ground four times as much meat as we took for consumption.”3

The travelers were in no hurry. Plenty of time was devoted to hunting, fishing, climbing in the hills, and lounging about the camp while they waited for another splendid feed laid out by the black cook, Clay—“our Ethiopian chief de cuisine,” Bourke called him. One dinner included elk steaks, boiled ham, potatoes, green peas, tomatoes, and corn bread with jelly, the whole accompanied by beer in bottles from Denver and a bottle of red wine brought along by Lieutenant Homer Wheeler, who had passed this way earlier in June, after a trip to the Custer battlefield. On the earlier trip, Wheeler and Colonel Sanford Kellogg had gone up to the battleground on the Little Bighorn to rebury some of the enlisted men who died with Custer. The two officers were now leading Crook and Sheridan back to the battle site to give the generals a chance to walk the ground and gain some sense of what had happened.

Editorialists in the western newspapers referred to the battle in the main as “the Custer Massacre,” but military men called it “the Custer fight.” A massacre in the strict sense it certainly was not. Custer, after all, had forced the battle by attacking the Indians. Some officers mourned the loss of Custer as a friend; others thought him careless and a fool. It was not simply Custer’s defeat but the death of every man in his immediate command that prompted the continuing hunt for an explanation. The obvious question, troubling to every officer in the frontier military, was how an experienced cavalry commander with a score of major victories to his credit in the Civil War, followed by nearly a decade of fighting Indians on the plains, had managed to blunder so completely.

But General Crook took a yet closer interest. He had been roughly handled in the newspapers for his failure at the Rosebud a week before Custer was killed. Crook had sound reasons for his retreat back to Goose Creek, but many now blamed him for leaving Custer to face the hostiles alone. Crook’s pride was especially tender on one point: whispered claims that he had been whipped by Crazy Horse at the Rosebud. In addition, many of his officers thought the general at one point during the battle came close to blundering as badly as Custer himself. Some of the Indians thought so too, including the lately surrendered Crazy Horse. He had said so in May to the part-time news correspondent John W. Ford, sent to report on the chief’s surrender by the Chicago Times.

Ford was one of the many convenient pens, civilians along with military officers, who wrote when chance allowed for leading newspapers of the day in Chicago, New York, Denver, Omaha, and small towns all over the West. Being on the scene was the first requirement. In his early thirties, recently married and a new father, Ford had been working at Fort Laramie as the telegraph operator since April 1874, salaried at $100 per month. Lieutenant Bourke met him at Fort Laramie in February 1876 when he stopped for a night while the officers and ladies of the post were staging a popular play of the day, Faint Heart Ne’er Won Fair Lady. Bourke cited Ford for a strong performance, and it appears the telegraphist generally had a dramatic turn.

Later that summer, when the first reports of the fight at the Rosebud were brought into Fort Laramie, Ford hurried them over to the quarters of Captain Andrew Burt, where he read the news to Mrs. Burt and her friend Cynthia Capron. Ford’s audience was bigger two weeks later, early in July, when it was his lot to deliver first word of Custer’s disaster to the officers of Fort Laramie. It was the custom of the post commander, Colonel Luther Bradley, to meet every morning at about nine with his assembled officers in the adjutant’s office. On the morning of Wednesday, July 5, as news of the disaster came in over the wire, Ford sent Bradley a hastily penciled note saying he would bring an important dispatch to the meeting as soon as it had been transcribed. Many years later, in a note to friends, Ford recorded,

When I reported at the Adjutant’s office all were waiting. Some began badgering me about its assumed importance, no one anticipating how alarming and important it was. I gave the written message directly to General Bradley as courtesy required, but he, knowing it was general news, asked me to read it for the benefit of all. I did so as well as I could for I personally knew numbers killed in the fight. As I progressed the silence became oppressive and when concluded was unbroken.

Bradley was the first to speak. He was shocked by what he had heard—the 7th Cavalry Regiment almost annihilated, and Custer himself dead? He put the obvious question to Ford: “There can be no doubt of the authenticity of this report?”

“Not a particle, General,” Ford answered. He explained that every post was receiving the same message from the government, and that newspapers were supporting the story in detail. “It is absolutely the truth,” he said.

“It was an awful shock to the garrison,” Ford wrote later. “The officers were blanched and still, even the soldiers were silent. Women wept from sympathy. It might have been their fate”—their fate, he meant, to receive such news about their own husbands.4

Skilled as a telegraph operator and an accepted member of the military family at Fort Laramie, where he would spend eleven years, Ford could write, too. In April 1877, leaving his wife, Celia, and two small children, he departed Fort Laramie to spend several days with Bourke and Crook at the Spotted Tail Agency on assignment for the Chicago Times when the big band of Miniconjou under Touch the Clouds came in to surrender. On April 24, when the excitement was over, Ford went on the ninety-mile trip back to Fort Laramie, the very day, as luck determined, that a group from Crazy Horse’s band came in to surrender. One of this group was the Oglala Horned Horse, who provided Bourke and Clark with an early account of the Custer fight, remarking that he did not see it all—“There were two young bucks of my band killed in the fight and we had to look after them.” Clark later learned that one of the two was a son of Horned Horse, a young man known as White Eagle, killed early in the fight. But Ford had a second chance at the Indians’ version of the Custer story a month later, when he returned to the Red Cloud Agency with Crook on May 23.5

The next day Clark arranged a meeting with Crazy Horse, who listened and “approved,” Ford wrote, while others told the bulk of the story. Ford quotes the chief directly only once. Most of the talking was done by Red Dog, Red Cloud’s sometime spokesman, and Horned Horse. But Ford had learned something about newspapering; he insisted from the get-go that this was Crazy Horse’s story of the fight, and it got him onto the front page of the Chicago Times. “Your correspondent has obtained some very valuable information in regard to the Custer massacre,” he wrote, using the word then favored by the western press.

Interpreting for Ford at the meeting was Billy Garnett, described by the reporter as “a man perfectly reliable and thoroughly conversant with the Indian language.”6 What Ford wanted was the Indian version of what happened in “the Custer massacre” and his story publicly established some basic facts of the disaster for the first time, starting with the north-to-south order of the Indian bands camped along the west bank of the Little Bighorn on the morning of Custer’s attack.7

“The attack was a surprise and totally unlooked for,” Ford wrote. The Indians responded with attacks on Custer from two directions. While one force confronted Custer’s men as they approached the Indian camp, Ford was told, a second assaulted Custer’s men from the rear.8

Too many Indians was the core of the problem, as Ford described it. The village consisted of eighteen hundred lodges plus four hundred wickiups, temporary shelters of the kind the young men constructed when out on the warpath without their families. Ford’s working of the numbers added up to “a fighting force of over seven thousand Indians”—maybe more. How could Custer and his five companies, about 212 men in all, deal with such a multitude? “They had him at their mercy, and the dreadful massacre ensued,” Ford wrote. He was not the only correspondent to stress the vastness of the warrior horde that overwhelmed Custer. Inflating the numbers was a customary way for whites to soften the sting of defeat.

Ford failed to grasp just how everything went wrong, but Horned Horse described for him the terrible intensity of the battle’s final moments.

Horned Horse says the smoke and dust were so great that foe could not be distinguished from friend. The horses were wild with fright and uncontrollable … Horned Horse represented this hell of fire and smoke and death by intertwining his fingers and saying, “Just like this, Indians and white men.”

As the conversation grew general it touched also on the fight at the Rosebud, a subject of particular interest to General Crook. None of the whites had spotted Crazy Horse in the fight for sure, but Red Dog and Horned Horse reported that he was running the show: “In both the Rosebud fight and the Custer massacre the Indians claim he rode unarmed in the thickness of the fight, invoking the blessing of the great spirit on him—that if he was right he might be victorious, and if wrong that he might be killed.”

Rode unarmed? That doesn’t sound right. Perhaps Horned Horse sweetened the pill, because he was worried that Crazy Horse would be punished for whipping Crook and killing soldiers. But the chief himself volunteered that his scouts had shadowed Crook’s command from the moment it left Goose Creek until it arrived on the Rosebud forty-eight hours later. Crazy Horse’s plan, it was said, had been to draw Crook’s men into some tight corner where they might be crushed. It is likely the tight corner he had in mind was the canyon of the Rosebud, which Captain Anson Mills at Crook’s direction entered with a large force in hope of striking the Indian village. But Crook had changed his mind and sent his aide, Captain Azor Nickerson, to call the detachment back. Mills then made a left-face up out of the canyon, escaping whatever punishment Crazy Horse had waiting for him. Ford gave the credit for this timely decision to Crook, noting with a tip of the hat to his host, “It shows as much generalship to avoid defeat and massacre as to win a battle.”

Ford’s long report was published in the Chicago Times on May 26, only two days after the interview itself; it had been sent through on the just-completed telegraph line to Fort Laramie. Ford thus confirmed what Crook’s officers already believed: that sticking to the general’s plan for chasing up the canyon of the Rosebud until they reached the village would have meant, in the words of reporter John Finerty, “that all of us would have settled there permanently.”9 The near thing at the Rosebud, the retreat to Goose Creek, the six-week wait for resupply while the hostiles killed Custer and then dispersed at their leisure into the wilderness … these were the implicit charges that made Crook wince with injured pride.

On July 20 the generals’ excursion reached the valley of the Little Bighorn. Bourke described the following morning as, “Sky perfectly spotless. Weather charming in softness and Italian warmth.” Heading north toward the battlefield the party crossed from the east to the west bank of the winding, looping river and made its way a dozen miles downstream through easy bottomland. Bourke loved this rolling grass country and thought the prospectors who had come up from the Black Hills were fools to grub in the earth with picks. “They will never find gold fields richer than those waving in green grass at their feet.”10 He predicted that the country would be flooded with cowboys and cattle “inside of two years.”

Paralleling their route across the river “ran a low chain of bluffs and sandstone,” tougher going for men on horses than the grassy meadow Bourke was passing through. The bottomland along the west bank of the Little Bighorn was just the sort of place the Sioux liked to camp—plenty of grass for the ponies, abundant water, firewood in the thickets of cottonwoods that fringed the river. “One clump of these was pointed out by our guides as the position assumed by Major Reno when he first attacked the village,” Bourke recorded.

Just beyond this point the soldiers began to pass through the camp ground occupied by the Hunkpapas the year before. The ground was still littered with village detritus–“pots, pans, kettles, tipi poles, cups and dishes.” On the fatal day Reno had forded the river at an easy crossing, formed his men into line, and then advanced toward the Hunkpapa village until he was checked by a growing swarm of Indians. A mile beyond the point where Reno turned back the excursion came to the ford “where Custer vainly essayed to cross the stream to charge the village near its center.” The Sans Arcs and Miniconjou had been camped near this spot, and it was here that the big excursion set up their tents and prepared to explore the ground rising away to the right and the left across the river.

Bourke with Lieutenant Homer Wheeler headed up to the left, following a coulee toward higher ground. A terrific rain- and hailstorm had battered the landscape only a week earlier, flattening the grass and washing out many of the shallow graves. Signs of the battle were plain everywhere: the bones of horses and men, bits of equipment, tattered coats and hats, whole bodies partially emerging from the earth. Bourke spotted government-issue cavalry boots strewn upon the ground. The uppers from ankle to calf had been cut away by Indians scavenging the field. They liked the polished boot leather. The lowers, Bourke noted with horror, revealed “the human feet and bones still sticking in them.”

The bodies had been shallowly buried where they lay the year before, then reburied only a month earlier by another detachment under the command of Colonel Michael Sheridan, the general’s brother. Many of the graves of the officers and some of the men had been identified by slips of paper wedged into the split end of a stick driven into the ground. It was this placement of the bodies on the field that provided the earliest and to a large degree still the best evidence of the unfolding of the battle. A rough wooden cross marking the grave of Lieutenant J. J. Crittenden of Company L was the first which Bourke noted. A hundred yards further along Captain Myles Keogh was buried with the men of Company I. Bourke made no careful study of what he saw, but in passing over the ground he absorbed a quick sweeping impression that suggested to him how the battle had gone.

The bodies around Keogh were close together, Bourke noted. He concluded that Keogh’s men had dismounted and “attempted to make a stand on foot to enable Custer to get away.” To the left along an easy rising slope—northward, downriver—was another cluster of bodies on the side of a hill, not far from the top. The top would have been better ground to defend, but the cluster of men did not make it. There Custer died with many of his soldiers. The skeleton of his horse, Vic, lay nearby. Bourke was not immune to souvenir hunting, or the glamour that attached to Custer’s name. Vic was well known to the men of the 7th—a handsome sorrel with three white fetlocks. Bourke and Lieutenant Wheeler cut the hooves from Custer’s horse, and each carried a pair away with them.11

A line of additional graves—“a frightened herd of 30 or 40 poor wretches”—stretched down the hill back toward the river. “They were killed like wolves.” Among them, Bourke noted, well down along in the ravine where this final group had evidently been killed, were the graves of Custer’s two brothers.12 As Bourke read the field they had bolted after the death of the commander—“ran like frightened deer for the river.” Boston got furthest, Tom not quite so far. The graves were still marked, but the bodies had been exhumed and carried away a month earlier by the party under Colonel Sheridan.

That pattern of graves revealed the shape of the battle as Bourke understood it. Keogh alone of Custer’s men, Bourke believed, had time or wit to pick a spot for defense. The final stages of the battle began with a brief stand by Keogh and his men around a buffalo wallow, the bowl-like depression left in the ground where buffalo deviled by insects would roll vigorously on their backs to thicken their fur with dirt. More than once on the plains an outnumbered group of men had stood off attacking Indians from the shelter of a buffalo wallow. But this time the Indians were too many. “This was the only position we found,” Lieutenant Wheeler recorded many years later in a memoir, “where it looked as if a defense had been made, for the men had fallen all over the battlefield, here and there.”

Bourke noted the same impression at the time. With the exception of the tight bunch around Keogh’s buffalo wallow, “the graves are scattered in irregular clumps and at intervals about like those in a slaughter of buffaloes.” That was the core of Bourke’s impression of the battle—after Keogh the men all died in confusion like buffalo when the hunters rode in among them. “I will close this little sketch,” Bourke wrote in his diary, “by saying I don’t believe fifty Indians were killed in any way during this action.”13

The generals’ excursion lingered on the battleground for two days. Before departure a detail of men was ordered to rebury the dead where they had fallen. Bourke began to mull on the battle. Too many Indians, he concluded firmly, like John W. Ford of the Chicago Times. But still—it might have gone another way. “It would have been better to make the onslaught by charging across the open plain near the locality of Reno’s first attack,” he wrote. Better, he is saying, if Custer had not divided his men. The whole outfit might have gone to ground and held out “until Terry came to his rescue.”

Thus Bourke started down the road taken so often over the next hundred years—a strong, clear, initial impression, followed by a growing cascade of second thoughts and reconsiderations. The scouts meanwhile told them many stories. They pointed out a lonely skeleton on the field and said it belonged to a soldier who bolted on a fast horse at the close of the battle on the hill where Custer died. Indians gave chase but the soldier’s horse pulled steadily away, heading upstream in the direction of Reno’s men. The Indians pressed the chase for a mile but then pulled up—it would be good, they thought, “that someone might be left alive to tell the tale.”

But then something incomprehensible happened. Indians told and retold this story over the next forty years. Bourke was probably the first to write it down. “The soldier must have been crazed with fright,” he recorded, “as he was seen to pull out his revolver and blow out his brains.”14

In the scouts’ stories as recorded by Bourke, only one of the Indians was identified by name. That was Crazy Horse. The man they described was not Crazy Horse the weaponless chief calling on the Great Spirit as reported by Ford. This was the warrior chief who killed his enemies. “Crazy Horse killed the first one of Reno’s men who entered the village,” Bourke wrote in his diary. “He split the man’s head with a war club.”

General Sheridan came away from the Little Bighorn battlefield convinced that the fault was Custer’s. He read the ground pretty much as Bourke did. One fact explained much: Custer had died nearly five miles from the hilltop where Reno and half the regiment had been besieged by the Indians for a day and a half. The men with Custer had been killed in several clusters, with others all over the field. A month after his visit to the Little Bighorn, Sheridan wrote Sherman that if Custer had kept his command together he could have escaped disaster, and might even have beaten the Indians outright.15 Sheridan’s curiosity seems to have halted at the moment when Custer divided his command. He showed little interest in how things went after that, probably because no white had survived with the story, and he doubted an Indian could tell him.

What General Crook thought about Custer’s fate is unknown; he kept most of his thoughts to himself, and his judgment on the disaster at the Little Bighorn was one of them.

But unlike Sheridan, Crook thought that the Indians might know the secret of Custer’s defeat, and he asked his aide, Lieutenant William Philo Clark, to write up a report of what the Indians had to say about the battle. No officer had spent more time with Indians than Clark since Crook had put him in command of the scouts at the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies the previous November. For nine months he had studied the sign language, had talked and negotiated with the Indians daily, and had assembled the reports of hostiles as they came in. These months of contact, Clark reported that summer, placed him “on excellent dog-eating terms” with Crazy Horse and his leading men.16 Clark took his task seriously. To keep one jump ahead of any brewing trouble the lieutenant also organized a network of informers—spies, in plain language—to circulate among the camps and let him know what the Indians were saying and planning.

Dragging out the details of the Custer fight was not easy. “The Indians from Crazy Horse down have been extremely reticent,” Clark reported. One group of eighteen surrendered hostiles solemnly insisted to a man that they played no part in the fight at the Little Bighorn or in any other battle during the Sioux war.17 But others, like Horned Horse, were ready to talk, and Clark had the benefit as well of occasional reports in the press, including Indian accounts from Kill Eagle, Red Horse, and a string of hostiles interviewed by Colonel W. H. Wood at the Cheyenne River Agency on the Missouri. From these many sources Clark assembled his report on the Sioux war and submitted it in September. Crook’s fights at Powder River, the Rosebud, and Slim Buttes were all discussed, but the core of Clark’s narrative addressed the fight on the Little Bighorn.

Much has been learned in the 130 years since the battle, but nothing that has fundamentally changed the bare-bones outline of John Ford in the Chicago Times, or the better-detailed account Lieutenant Clark prepared for General Crook. The big question in 1877, just as interesting but less urgent now, was how the Indians managed Custer’s crushing defeat. Was Sitting Bull a kind of Red Napoleon, a native genius plotting future assaults from his refuge in Canada? Or was the man to be feared closer to home—the slender, melancholic, slow-to-speak Crazy Horse, who had surrendered his guns and ponies to General Crook?

Since giving up the gun, Crazy Horse had ignored official requests to camp close to the agency, moving instead five or six miles down Little White Clay Creek, where he remained out of sight but much on the mind of Crook and the watchful Lieutenant Clark. The answer to the big question—who beat Custer?—was not self-evident. It required an understanding of the structure of the battle—what happened first, what happened next, until the historian could at last point to the error that proved fatal. The story then and the story now may properly begin with the first stirrings in the Indian camp spread for a mile and more along the west bank of the Little Bighorn River as the sky grew light in the east at the start of a hot and sultry day.

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