Modern history



The River of Nightmares

By the evening of June 28, three days after the defeat of Custer’s command and a day and a half after General Terry’s reinforcements had joined Reno, the dead had all been buried by the survivors of the Seventh. There appears to have been no thought on Terry’s part of pursuing Sitting Bull. Even though there were only a few hours left before dark, he decided it was time they start down the Little Bighorn toward their rendezvous with the Far West.

Many of the fifty or so of Reno’s wounded were carried in stretchers, but not Peter Thompson. Stubborn as always, he insisted on riding a horse. But after only a few minutes in the saddle, he was already regretting the decision. Overcome with nausea, he laid his head down on his horse’s neck and, grasping the mane, held on for dear life. Finally, around midnight, Terry ordered the column to halt. “Glad . . . I was when we moved into camp,” Thompson remembered.

Lugging the wounded by hand had proven both exhausting and unbearably slow. It had taken them six hours to travel just four and a half miles. Terry decided they must construct horse-drawn litters similar to the Indians’ travois if they were to have any hope of covering the twenty miles to the Bighorn in the next few days.

They had plenty of tepee poles from the abandoned village, but they needed a supply of rawhide to knit the poles together. Dozens of dead horses still lay scattered across the battleground, but after three days in the sun, the animals’ bodies were badly decomposed. There were, however, quite a few wounded horses and mules still lingering about the encampment. According to a surgeon with Gibbon’s Montana Column, the soldiers executed many of the animals and stripped off their skin to make rawhide thongs for the litters.

There was at least one injured horse that the soldiers refused to kill. Despite having been hit by seven different bullets and arrows, including the gunshot blast that shattered his master’s leg, Comanche, the fourteen-year-old bay gelding ridden by Captain Myles Keogh, was kept alive. He was found, Private Jacob Adams of H Company said, sitting on his haunches near Battle Ridge, “the only living thing,” it was later claimed, near Last Stand Hill. Comanche whinnied when Adams and the other soldiers approached, and once they’d dismounted and carefully helped the wounded animal to a stand, he began eating grass. The next day he was strong enough to follow the column in its slow march down the river.

At 6 p.m. on June 29, the column resumed its march. The soldiers had proceeded just a short way with their newly constructed travois when two mounted couriers appeared on a bluff. The messengers had good news. The Far West was waiting for them at the mouth of the Little Bighorn.

Grant Marsh, the master and pilot of the Far West, first learned of the Custer tragedy from the Crow scout Curley, who appeared on the riverbank not long after the steamboat’s arrival at the confluence of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn. Up until that point, Marsh and his compatriots had heard nothing about the battle, and they were eager for news about Custer’s much-anticipated victory.

Once on deck, Curley collapsed onto a chest and began to rock back and forth, weeping and moaning. Try as he might, Marsh was unable to penetrate the Indian’s bewildering outpouring of fear and sorrow. Eventually, however, Curley accepted a pencil and a piece of paper.

He lay down on the deck and began to draw. As the others looked on, he drew two circles, one inside the other. In the space between the inner and outer circles, he began to make dot after furious dot, each time shouting out in despair, “Sioux! Sioux!”

Once he had entirely filled the space with dots, he turned his attention to the inner circle, which he once again began to cover with dots, this time shouting, “Absaroka! Absaroka!”

Marsh had heard a Crow use that word before and suspected it meant “soldiers.” In actuality, Absaroka meant “Crow,” and Curley was attempting to reaffirm that he was a regimental scout. Curley jumped to his feet and began to slam his hands against his chest while making a weird and disturbing sound: “Poof! Poof! Poof!”

It soon began to dawn on Marsh and the others that Curley was imitating the sounds of gunfire. With the help of pantomime and pencil and paper, he was telling them what he had seen a few days before from a hillside beside the Little Bighorn: the slaughter of Custer and his entire battalion.

On the morning of June 29, Marsh received orders from General Terry to prepare his vessel for the arrival of more than fifty wounded men. He immediately set to work transforming the Far West into a hospital ship. As some of his crew cleared away the provisions and equipment from the aft portion of the lower deck, others began harvesting grass from the marshlands near the Little Bighorn. By evening, an approximately eighty-foot section of the lower deck had been covered with a foot-and-a-half-thick blanket of fresh green grass. When topped by tarpaulins from the quartermaster’s stores, the lower deck became what Marsh described as “an immense mattress.” Chests of medicine and medical supplies were distributed along the edges of the carpeted deck, making it, a doctor aboard the Far West proclaimed, “the best field hospital he had ever seen.”

Around midnight Marsh learned that the column was within three miles of the river mouth. It was a wet, cloudy night and the difficult terrain made it impossible for the soldiers to continue in the darkness. Already one of the mules had fallen into a ravine and pitched Private Madden, whose bullet-shattered leg had been amputated by Dr. Porter, into a bed of cactus. Without some assistance, the wounded would have to wait in the rain till daylight.

In order to help the column find its way, Marsh directed his men to begin building a series of fires along the banks of the Little Bighorn. The troopers resumed the march, and by 2 a.m. the head of the column, “looming weirdly through the darkness in the flickering firelight,” had reached the riverboat. By dawn, fifty-two wounded men had been delivered to the hospital on the lower deck. Behind them, in the space between the Far West’s two rudders, Marsh created a stall for Comanche, and “his care and welfare became the special duty of the whole boat’s company.”

By the morning of June 30, Marsh had prepared his vessel for the more than thirty-mile voyage down the Bighorn to the column’s base camp on the north side of the Yellowstone. Stacks of four-foot-long cordwood and sacks of grain had been positioned along the gunwales of the lower deck to protect the wounded from possible Indian attack. The thin walls of the pilot house had been armored with plates of boiler iron. All was in readiness, but before they began down the river, General Terry wanted to speak to the master of the Far West.

As soon as Marsh reported to Terry’s cabin, the general closed the door. Terry’s long, solemn face was even more somber than usual. “Captain,” he said, “you have on board the most precious cargo a boat ever carried. Every soldier here who is suffering with wounds is the victim of a terrible blunder; a sad and terrible blunder.” Marsh had never seen Terry so deeply moved. “With equal feeling,” Marsh’s biographer Joseph Hanson wrote, “Marsh assured him that he would use his best efforts to complete the journey successfully.”

But when he entered the pilothouse and grabbed the steering wheel, the normally unflappable Marsh experienced a sudden loss of confidence: “The thought that all their lives were depending on his skill alone, the sense of his fearful responsibility, flashed upon him and for a moment overwhelmed him.”

There was no doubt that Marsh had an extraordinary challenge ahead of him. When the current was behind a steamboat, steerage often became a problem, especially on a river as fast flowing and narrow as the Bighorn. During their voyage up the river, a series of misunderstandings had caused them to steam past the mouth of the Little Bighorn, and it wasn’t until they’d ventured fifteen additional miles up the Bighorn that they’d realized their mistake and headed back down for the rendezvous point. Several times during that fifteen-mile run Marsh had temporarily lost control of theFar West, and the 190-foot vessel had been swept stern-first down the river in what Sergeant James Wilson described as “a whirling, revolving manner.” This was disconcerting to say the least, especially when the boat’s bow smashed into a large cottonwood tree, but Marsh had experienced these kinds of challenges before. What he hadn’t experienced before was General Terry’s almost preternatural ability to project his own insecurities onto the psyche of a subordinate. Just as Custer had emerged from his final meeting with Terry uncharacteristically hesitant and depressed, so had Marsh been unnerved by the general’s attempts to inspire him.

Sitting on the bench behind Marsh were his mate and another pilot. “Boys,” Marsh said, “I can’t do it. I’ll smash her up.”

“Oh, no, you won’t,” one of them said. “You’re excited. Cool off a minute and you’ll be all right.”

Marsh paused for a few seconds and finally pulled the bell cord, the signal for the engineer to engage the paddle wheel.

Before he could turn the Far West around and head down the river, he needed to clear a large island. It took some finagling to straighten her out once he’d made it past the obstruction, but they were soon on their way down the Bighorn.

“Never again,” his biographer wrote, “does he want to experience such a sickening sensation of utter helplessness as gripped him that morning in the pilothouse of the Far West.”

Many of the wounded were in desperate need of the kind of medical attention that was available only back at Fort Lincoln. It was also important that word of the battle be transmitted as quickly as possible to the authorities in the East. But instead of immediately sending the Far West down the Yellowstone, Terry insisted that Marsh remain at the encampment across from the mouth of the Bighorn for an additional three days. Not until 5 p.m. on July 3 did the Far West finally start down the river toward the Missouri.

It was true that a riverboat was needed to ferry the troopers across the Yellowstone; but another steamer, they all knew, was on its way from Fort Lincoln. The real reason for the delay, Private William Nugent of A Company claimed, was that Terry and his staff needed all the time they could get to craft an official dispatch that put this botched campaign in the best possible light. “It was,” Nugent bitterly insisted, “a difficult problem to write a report that would suit the occasion.” In the end, Terry put his name to two dispatches: one for public distribution that made no attempt to find fault; the other, a more private communication to General Sheridan that blamed the catastrophe on Custer.

By the time Marsh and the Far West set forth down the Yellowstone, fourteen of the fifty-two wounded soldiers had improved enough that they were left at the encampment, leaving a total of thirty-eight wounded aboard the riverboat. Terry provided Marsh with seventeen dismounted troopers from the Seventh Cavalry; also aboard was a member of Terry’s staff, Captain E. W. Smith, with the dispatches for General Sheridan in Chicago.

Despite having held the steamer back for several days, Terry instructed Marsh “to reach Bismarck in the shortest possible time.” Over the course of the next two and a half days, the Far West broke all speed records on the Missouri and her tributaries, traveling, Marsh later calculated, 710 miles at an average rate of 13 1⁄7 miles an hour.

It was an exhilarating, often frightening ride. “A steamboat moving as fast as a railway train in a narrow, winding stream is not a pleasure,” one passenger remembered. During the day, with the current speeding her along, the Far West frequently topped twenty miles an hour as her hull scraped over the sandbars and bounced off the rocky banks of the Yellowstone, “throwing the men to the deck like tenpins.”

The biggest danger came at night, when it became almost impossible to read the surface of the water. Normal procedure, especially when running with the current, was to tie up to the embankment and wait for dawn. But Marsh insisted on continuing, even though the Yellowstone was still a relatively new river to him.

If a pilot was to have any hope of seeing the river at night, there must be no artificial light of any kind aboard the vessel. Smoking was forbidden, since even the faintest glimmer from a cigarette or pipe transformed the windows of the pilothouse into mirrors. Blinds were placed across the boat’s skylights, and huge tarpaulins curtained the glow from the furnaces on the lower deck to create what Mark Twain remembered as “that solid world of darkness.”

As Marsh strained to see the river ahead aboard a vessel divested of light, the soldiers he’d left behind on the banks of the Yellowstone struggled with a different kind of darkness. Of the Seventh Cavalry’s approximately 750 officers and enlisted men, 268 had been killed and 62 wounded. They’d lost not only their leader, but almost half their officers and men in the most devastating military loss in the history of the American West. If they were to resume the fight against Sitting Bull, they needed more mules, more horses, and more men. So they languished on the sun-broiled riverbank, waiting for reinforcements and getting hopelessly drunk.

Surviving records indicate that Reno bought an astonishing eleven gallons of whiskey over a twenty-two-day period. French got by on only a gallon and a half of brandy, but he was also taking heroic quantities of opium. Benteen and Weir raged drunkenly at each other. As he usually did in such situations, Benteen challenged Weir to a duel. Weir was smart enough to decline the offer.

Back on June 25 Weir had grown so frustrated with Reno’s and Benteen’s refusal to march to Custer that he’d headed out on his own. At the top of the peak that is now named for him, he stood staring toward the distant cloud of dust and smoke. Three days later, when the Seventh set out to perform the grim task of burying the naked and mutilated bodies of the dead, Weir turned to Lieutenant Godfrey and said, “Oh, how white they look! How white!” Five months later, after drinking himself to insensibility for much of the summer and fall, Weir was assigned to recruitment duty in New York City, where on December 9, 1876, he was found dead in his hotel room at the age of thirty-eight.

On the night of July 3, 1876, as the Far West sped down the Yellowstone River in the dark, a quarter of a million celebrants gathered in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. At the stroke of midnight, the Liberty Bell rang thirteen times as the band struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner.” All across the United States, pandemonium reigned as the nation celebrated the centennial of its birth. After weathering the cataclysm of the Civil War, Americans were confident that the country was about to fulfill its destiny as a nation that extended without interruption from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Little did they suspect that in just three days they would learn that the command of General George Custer, the greatest Indian fighter of them all, had been annihilated by the Lakota and Cheyenne.

At four in the morning on July 4, on the lower deck of the Far West, Private William George of Benteen’s H Troop died of a bullet wound he’d received through the left side. They were approaching the supply depot at the Powder River, where a company of the Sixth Infantry under Major Orlando Moore was stationed, and Marsh decided to drop off George’s body for burial. The soldiers at the encampment had assembled a large amount of driftwood in anticipation of a Fourth of July bonfire. “But when they heard the news,” remembered James Sipes, who served as the Far West’s barber, “they gave up the idea.”

In the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the U.S. government stepped up its efforts against Sitting Bull and his people. By the end of July, the new Custer, Colonel Nelson Miles, had arrived on the Yellowstone and begun his ceaseless pursuit of the Lakota and Cheyenne. At the agencies, all Indians, even those who had remained loyal throughout the summer, were forced to surrender their ponies and guns. Plans were in the works to build new forts on the Yellowstone and the Bighorn, and at the Standing Rock Agency on the Missouri.

Of more immediate concern to Sitting Bull, buffalo were proving almost impossible to find. With the collapse of the buffalo herd came the collapse of the Lakota. In the months to come, after a series of small but bloody skirmishes, virtually every band of Lakota and Cheyenne, even the Oglala under Crazy Horse, found that they had no choice but to surrender. By the autumn of 1876 Sitting Bull realized that his people’s world was falling apart, and on October 20, he agreed to meet with Colonel Miles.

By this time the Hunkpapa leader had already captured the imagination of the American people. Without any substantive information to explain how an Indian had defeated the country’s greatest Indian fighter, the rumors abounded. Sitting Bull, a Captain McGarry claimed, could read French, and after studying Napoleon’s military tactics had “modeled his generalship after the little Corsican Corporal.” Others claimed that Sitting Bull was actually a hirsute white man named “Bison” McLean who had graduated from West Point in 1848 and subsequently been court-martialed for dishonorable conduct. “His nature is untamed and licentious,” a correspondent of the Richmond Despatch wrote, “his courage superb and his physical qualities almost herculean.”

But when Colonel Miles came face-to-face with Sitting Bull in October 1876, he saw not a calculating white man in Indian dress but a proud and increasingly desperate Lakota leader struggling to identify the best course for his people to follow. “I think he feels much depressed,” Miles wrote his wife, “suffering from nervous excitement and loss of power. . . . At times he was almost inclined to accept the situation, but I think partly from fear and partly through the belief that he might do better, he did not accept. I think that many of his people were desirous to make peace.”

That winter, Sitting Bull decided to seek asylum in Canada. The following fall he granted an interview with a newspaper reporter in which he spoke about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. His warriors, he claimed, had told him about Custer’s final moments: “It was said that up there where the last fight took place, where the last stand was made, the Long Hair stood like a sheaf of corn with all the ears fallen around him.”

Sitting Bull may simply have been telling the reporter and his readers what they expected to hear. But he also may have found some comfort in this idealized portrait of a leader fighting desperately till the end. For as Sitting Bull no doubt knew, he was headed for his own Last Stand.

After four years in what the Lakota called “the Grandmother’s country,” Sitting Bull finally surrendered to American authorities at Fort Buford in the summer of 1881. That fall, after a brief time at the Standing Rock Agency, he was placed under arrest and transported about four hundred miles down the Missouri to Fort Randall on the Dakota-Nebraska border. A year and a half later, the decision was made to return the Hunkpapa leader to his people at Standing Rock, and in the spring of 1883, Grant Marsh, now the master of the W. J. Behan, arrived at Fort Randall to pick him up.

Everywhere they stopped during the voyage up the Missouri the boat was mobbed by people wanting to see Sitting Bull. At the towns of Chamberlain and Pierre, the crowds were so large that the detail of fifteen soldiers assigned to guard Sitting Bull and his family had difficulty maintaining order.

By this point, Sitting Bull had learned to sign his name. He’d also learned that people were willing to pay for his autograph, and by the time the W. J. Behan stopped at the Cheyenne River Agency just downriver from Standing Rock, he’d accumulated a surprising amount of money.

At Cheyenne River, Marsh was presented with a nicely carved pipe stem. Through an interpreter Sitting Bull asked whether Marsh might be willing to sell him the pipe stem. Marsh declined at first, then jokingly said he’d take the outrageous sum of fifty dollars for it. This time Sitting Bull declined.

“Well, tell him,” Marsh said to the interpreter, “he has kept me scared for twenty years along the river and he ought to give me something for that.”

“I did not come on your land to scare you,” Sitting Bull countered. “If you had not come on my land, you would not have been scared, either.”

Though he ultimately refused to part with the pipe stem, Marsh had to admit that Sitting Bull had a point.

Soon after his arrival at Standing Rock, Sitting Bull discovered that the reservation’s agent, Major James McLaughlin, refused to recognize him as chief of the Hunkpapa. When Sitting Bull asked to be given the privilege of distributing the government’s annuities to his people, McLaughlin, whom the Lakota called White Hair, summarily denied the request and informed him that he would be receiving his own allotted portion just like everybody else.

“Why does he keep trying to humble me?” Sitting Bull later asked in frustration. “Can I be any lower than I am? Once I was a man, but now I am a pitiful wretch. . . . I should have stayed with the Red Coats in the Grandmother’s country.”

The irony was that Sitting Bull, whom McLaughlin dismissed as “crafty, avaricious, mendacious, and ambitious,” was one of the most famous people in the United States. Twice in the years ahead he would tour the country, once with the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. McLaughlin’s Native wife, who served as Sitting Bull’s interpreter, enjoyed these trips, and both she and her husband were disappointed when Sitting Bull decided in 1886 that once was enough with Buffalo Bill and that he was going to remain at Standing Rock. “Ever since,” Sitting Bull claimed, “[White Hair] has had it in for me.”

McLaughlin believed, as did almost all Indian reformers in the late nineteenth century, that Native culture was doomed to extinction. To prepare the Lakota for the future, he must wean them from the past. Many Lakota children were sent away to boarding schools where the watchword was “Kill the Indian, and save the man.”

Sitting Bull had seen enough of the United States to know that the culture of the washichus had problems of its own. He believed the best path for his people was to combine elements from both societies. “If you see anything good in the white man’s road,” he said, “pick it up and keep it. But if you find something that is not good, or that turns out bad, leave it alone.”

Inevitably McLaughlin came to view Sitting Bull as the leader of what he called the “non-progressives” at Standing Rock. But there was more to it than that. “Long ago I had two women in my lodge,” Sitting Bull said. “One of them was jealous. White Hair reminds me of that jealous woman.”

But McLaughlin was not the only jealous one. There were also Sitting Bull’s own people, several of whom hoped to emerge as the new, McLaughlin-endorsed leader of the tribe. During a meeting of the Silent Eaters Society, Sitting Bull compared the dynamics of reservation life to the children’s game of whipping tops, in which a Hunkpapa boy used his top to knock away those of his competitors so that his top would be the first through the gate of a five-foot-square corral.

“Well, it seems,” Sitting Bull said, “that all the Indians are playing that game now. The corral is the agent’s office. Everybody wants to get inside and become a favorite. But no sooner does he do this than all the rest combine against him, and knock him, and try to drive him out. So a good many have failed in their attempt, though a few have managed to get ahead and are now spinning happily inside. I have no chance whatever of getting into that corral. But so long as I know I am not betraying my people, I shall be content to remain outside.”

In August of 1890, Sitting Bull left his home to check on his ponies. After walking more than three miles, he climbed to the top of a hill, where he heard a voice. A meadowlark was speaking to him from a nearby knoll. “Lakotas will kill you,” the little bird said.

In the days ahead, Sitting Bull tried to forget about the prophecy of the meadowlark. But it was no use. From that day forward, his nephew One Bull remembered, Sitting Bull knew “he was to be killed by his own people.”

On the morning of July 5, 1876, ten days after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Far West reached the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. At nearby Fort Buford, Marsh paused to drop off Sergeant Michael Rigney, who was suffering from tuberculosis, and pick up some ice. The deck of the Far West was soon filled with onlookers begging for news about Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. “Their questions were not half answered,” Hanson wrote, “when they were cleared from the decks and the boat was out in the stream again.”

Now that they were on the wider and more familiar Missouri, with approximately three hundred miles to go before they reached Bismarck, Marsh was willing to push the Far West even harder than he’d done on the Yellowstone. In order to increase the heat of the furnaces, he instructed his men to throw hunks of spoiled bacon into the fire. The rising boiler pressure caused the “incessant clang and cough” of the Far West’s machinery to increase in speed as the boat’s timbers shook with the added strain.

By this point, Peter Thompson had become suspicious of one of the Far West’s passengers. During the march from Fort Lincoln, Thompson had given a knife to a soldier in C Company who was later killed in the battle. That afternoon, as he sat with his badly wounded friend James Bennett (“who seemed glad to have me beside him”), Thompson noticed that an Indian with a bandage wrapped around one of his arms was leaning against the wheelhouse. Tucked into the scabbard attached to the Indian’s belt was a knife with a distinctive chip in the handle. Thompson immediately recognized it as the knife he’d given to the trooper. “To say I was astonished,” he wrote, “was putting it mildly.” He began to wonder whether instead of being an Arikara scout, this Indian (who had two rifles in his hands) was, in fact, a hostile who’d pilfered the knife from the body of his dead comrade.

Before Thompson could inquire as to the true identity of this mysterious Indian, the Far West began to edge dangerously close to shore. Up ahead he saw a Native woman washing some clothes beside the river. As the boat rushed past her, Thompson watched as two rifles, followed by the wounded Indian, landed on the shore. “[I] saw the Indian scramble up the bank,” Thompson wrote, “take his guns and go away.”

Several decades later, he was still mystified by this odd and troubling scene. “Was he hostile or was he friendly?” Thompson wrote. “How did he get the knife, and why did he leap from the boat when it was going full speed? These are questions I cannot answer.” Just as when he had watched the man he took to be General Custer gallop along the banks of the Little Bighorn River, Thompson was once again the baffled and awestruck witness to an event he did not wholly understand but nonetheless remembered with an eerie, almost clinical exactitude.

If Thompson had made some inquiries that afternoon, he would have learned that what he had just seen was not the clandestine escape of a Lakota warrior but the return of the Arikara scout Goose to his home at Fort Berthold. But Thompson’s attention was quickly diverted to other, more important matters on the afternoon of July 5. At three o’clock, James Bennett, the soldier whose pleas for water had first inspired Thompson to venture from Reno Hill to the Little Bighorn and back, finally succumbed to his wounds. “Poor Bennett died . . . with my hand clasping his,” Thompson wrote. “So died a man who always gave me good advice.”

That evening, Marsh prepared the Far West for her projected arrival before midnight. In accordance with Terry’s orders, he draped the boat in black and lowered the flag to half-mast. Once again, all lights were extinguished as the riverboat steamed south in the deepening twilight toward Bismarck.

On the night of December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull lay asleep in one of the two cabins he’d built beside the Grand River about forty miles to the south of the agency headquarters at Standing Rock. Over the last few years, his relationship with the agent James McLaughlin, never good to begin with, had deteriorated dramatically. Two summers before, Sitting Bull had opposed the government’s plan to sell off large portions of Lakota land, a plan McLaughlin endorsed. More recently, Sitting Bull had shown interest in a new religious movement called the Ghost Dance.

By 1890, several years of drought had made it almost impossible for the Indians to support themselves by farming. A terrible series of diseases had swept across the reservations, killing many of their children, including a child of Sitting Bull’s. Making conditions even worse, the government had recently reduced their already meager allotment of rations. Sick and starving, with no hope for the future, many Lakota reached out in desperation to the promise provided by the Paiute medicine man Wovoka.

Wovoka predicted that a giant wave of earth was about to sweep across the world, burying the whites and bringing back the buffalo along with the Indians’ cherished ancestors. Until the coming of this new Native utopia, true believers must commune with the dead by means of the Ghost Dance. Despite Wovoka’s insistence on pacifism, authorities throughout the West viewed the movement with alarm, and large numbers of soldiers, including the Seventh Cavalry, had been dispatched to the reservations south of Standing Rock.

Rumor had it that Sitting Bull was about to join a group of Ghost Dancers at a remote area in the Dakota badlands known as the Stronghold. McLaughlin, who’d been looking for an opportunity to get rid of Sitting Bull ever since he’d arrived at Standing Rock seven years before, ordered his arrest. In the early morning hours of December 15, thirty-eight agency policemen, known as the Cheska Maza or “Metal Breasts” for the badges they wore, crossed the frozen Grand River to capture Sitting Bull.

In the frigid darkness, eight Lakota policemen prepared to storm Sitting Bull’s cabin. They were led by Lieutenant Bull Head. Several years before, Bull Head had gone out of his way to insult Sitting Bull’s friend Catch the Bear. Sitting Bull had responded by refusing to give Bull Head a much-coveted horse. “[Bull Head’s] personal arrogance was hurt,” a Lakota woman remembered, “and he resented it.”

The policemen pushed through the door, and as they felt their way in the dark, one of them lit a match. Sitting Bull, they saw, was lying in bed with one of his wives and their small child. Before he could reach for a nearby rifle, the policemen grabbed the Hunkpapa leader and blew out the light.

“I come after you to take you to the agency,” Bull Head announced. “You are under arrest.” Sitting Bull responded that he needed to put on his clothes before he could go with them. As the policemen helped him dress, one of Sitting Bull’s wives burst into a loud cry.

Even before they’d led Sitting Bull out the door, his followers had begun to gather around the cabin. The darkness made it difficult to see who was who, but they all recognized the voice of Bull Head’s enemy Catch the Bear.

“Here are the Cheska Maza,” Catch the Bear called out, “just as we had expected all the time. You think you are going to take him. You shall not do it.” Sitting Bull’s adopted brother Jumping Bull urged him to cooperate with the police. But it was the chief’s fourteen-year-old son Crowfoot who carried the day.

Crowfoot was an unusual boy, more comfortable with his father’s friends than with children his own age. “You always called yourself a brave chief,” Crowfoot said to his father. “Now you are allowing yourself to be taken by the Cheska Maza.”

Up until this point, the policeman Lone Man maintained, Sitting Bull had seemed willing to go with them. But after the taunt from his son, he changed his mind. “Then I will not go,” he said.

“Uncle,” Lone Man pleaded, “nobody is going to harm you so please don’t let the others lead you into trouble.”

But as more and more of the chief’s followers arrived, they became increasingly belligerent. Sitting Bull’s old friend Crawler, whose son Deeds had been one of the first to die at the Little Bighorn, shouted, “Kill the old police first. They have experience and the young will flee.”

Lieutenant Bull Head was holding Sitting Bull’s right arm; Shave Head was on the left, with the policeman Red Tomahawk behind. As the chief resisted their efforts to lead him toward an awaiting horse, Bull Head repeatedly struck him on the back and shouted: “You have no ears, you wouldn’t listen!” Suddenly, Catch the Bear threw back his blanket, raised his rifle, and fired at Bull Head, who instantly turned and fired a bullet into Sitting Bull’s chest. Another shot hit Shave Head while Red Tomahawk fired into Sitting Bull’s head, and the chief fell lifelessly to the ground.

The policemen retreated back into the cabin and, after knocking out the mud chinks between the logs, began firing at Sitting Bull’s followers, who quickly dispersed toward the river. As the policemen blazed away, Lone Man saw something moving behind the strips of colored cloth tacked to the cabin’s walls. It proved to be Sitting Bull’s son Crowfoot. “My uncles,” the boy cried, “do not kill me. I do not wish to die.”

Lone Man asked Bull Head, who’d received a mortal wound to the stomach, what he should do. “Do what you like with him,” he replied. “He is the cause of this trouble.” After hitting him with the butt of his rifle, Lone Man and two others shot the boy and threw his body out the door, where it lay beside the corpses of his father and his father’s brother Jumping Bull.

Holy Medicine had been one of Sitting Bull’s devoted followers. But when he saw that his brother Broken Arm, a policeman, had been killed, he took up a wagon yoke and began beating his former leader’s already mutilated face until it was, Shoots Walking remembered, “a shapeless mass.”

When Lone Man returned home that night, he bathed himself in a sweat lodge and burned his clothes “that I [might] cleanse myself for participating in a bloody fight with my fellow men.”

So ended what the Lakota at Standing Rock came to call “the Battle in the Dark.”

Around 11 p.m. on July 5, 1876, Grant Marsh sounded the boat’s whistle to announce the arrival of the Far West at the Bismarck landing. Windows throughout the town blossomed with light as the inhabitants hastily put on their clothes and came out onto the street to learn the much-anticipated news. Even before the Far West was secured to the dock, C. A. Lounsberry, the editor of the Bismarck Tribune, had arrived in his buggy to greet his good friend Dr. Porter along with General Terry’s staff member Captain Smith.

Lounsberry soon learned not only of the death of Custer and his officers and men but of the passing of his own correspondent, Mark Kellogg. Retiring to the telegraph office with Smith’s bulging suitcase full of dispatches, the men awoke the telegrapher John Carnahan. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, Carnahan passed along more than forty thousand words of copy to the editors of the New York Herald, who enjoyed one of the biggest scoops in newspaper history.

As the words flowed across the wires to the East, Grant Marsh backed the Far West from the landing and headed down the Missouri in the early morning darkness to Fort Lincoln.

Two weeks after the death of Sitting Bull, on the morning of December 29, 1890, about two hundred miles to the south of the Standing Rock Agency, the Seventh Cavalry lay encamped at a place called Wounded Knee. There was much excitement among the troopers. Their commander, Colonel James Forsyth, had accepted the unconditional surrender of a band of Ghost Dancers under the leadership of the Minneconjou chief Big Foot. Many of Big Foot’s men, it was rumored, had fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

—THE RIVER OF NIGHTMARES, June 28, 1876-December 29, 1890



That night, several of the officers and men of the Seventh Cavalry got drunk. What they wanted to know, more than anything else, was who among the Minneconjou had been there back in 1876. “They wouldn’t let us get any sleep,” Dewey Beard remembered. “All night they tortured us [with questions] by gun point. They asked us who was in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the battle with Custer. . . . We told them we didn’t know.”

The next morning, Colonel Forsyth positioned his troopers around Big Foot’s people. He announced that before they were escorted to the Pine Ridge Agency, about fifteen miles away, the Indians must turn over their weapons.

Captain George Wallace feared there might be trouble. He could tell the Indians were having difficulty understanding his commander’s orders and urged Joseph Horn Cloud to “tell the women to hitch up and get out of camp.” Three days before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Wallace had predicted that Custer was fated to die. Fourteen years later, Wallace’s premonition once again proved true.

Wallace was attempting to take a rifle from a deaf Minneconjou man who didn’t fully comprehend why he must surrender his weapon. As the two struggled, the gun fired in the air.

“Look out! Look out!” a soldier shouted.

“Fire! Fire on them!” another cried.

Will Cressey was watching from a nearby hill. “In a moment,” he wrote, “the whole front was a sheet of fire, above which the smoke rolled. . . . [T]he draw in which the Indian camp was set looked like a sunken Vesuvius.”

Dewey Beard was caught in the deadly crossfire. “I saw my friends sinking about me, and heard the whine of many bullets. I was not expecting this. It was like when a wagon breaks in the road.” In just a few minutes, eighty-three Minneconjou men lay dead. Since Forsyth had positioned his soldiers around the camp, they were firing not only on the Indians but on one another, and one of the casualties was Captain Wallace, who was later found, according to one account, with a bullet through his forehead.

Women, children, and the handful of men still left alive attempted to escape into the surrounding bluffs and canyons. Captain Edward Godfrey, another veteran of the Little Bighorn, led a detail of between fifteen and twenty soldiers in pursuit. Several miles from the battleground at a place called White Horse Creek, they came upon some Indians hiding in the bushes. Godfrey suspected that they might be women and children and called out, “Hau, Kola,” meaning “Hello, friend.” When there was no response, he ordered his soldiers to fire. The next thing they heard were “screams as from women and children.”

When Godfrey and another soldier went to investigate, they found a woman and two small girls “in their death struggles.” There was also a boy with his arms stretched out and his coat pulled over his head as if he had just fallen down. When the boy moved, the soldier shot him in the head.

Godfrey received the brevet rank of major after the engagement, but there were those in the highest ranks of the military who believed he’d committed an atrocity at Wounded Knee. One of those was President Theodore Roosevelt, who vowed that Godfrey would never receive a promotion under his administration. Roosevelt eventually relented, and Godfrey retired as a brigadier general.

In addition to Captain Wallace, a second Little Bighorn veteran of the Seventh Cavalry was killed that day. Gustave Korn was a blacksmith with I Company and the caretaker for Myles Keogh’s horse Comanche, by then the pampered mascot of the regiment. When Korn died at Wounded Knee, Comanche became despondent. His health declined, and on November 6, 1891, Comanche, famed as “the last living thing” found near Last Stand Hill, died at age twenty-nine.

In the early morning hours of July 6, 1876, Libbie Custer lay on her bed, unable to sleep in her home at Fort Lincoln. She, along with all the soldiers’ wives, had heard the blasts of the Far West’s whistle when the boat arrived at Bismarck, just a few miles up the Missouri.

Already, they feared the worst. Two days before, the families of the Indian scouts at the fort had received news “of a great battle.” But what the results had been, “no white man knew.”

At 7 a.m., a delegation led by Captain William McCaskey, the ranking officer at the fort, arrived at the front door of the Custer residence. As they waited, Lieutenant C. L. Gurley went to the back of the house to awaken the Custers’ maid, Marie, who was to ask that Libbie and her sister-in-law Maggie meet them in the parlor. As soon as Gurley knocked on the back door, Libbie threw on a dressing gown, opened her bedroom door, and saw Gurley walking down the hall to open the front door for the others. She asked the lieutenant why he had come to the house at such an early hour. Choosing not to reply, Gurley followed McCaskey and the others into the parlor, where they told Libbie and Maggie the terrible news. “Imagine the grief of those stricken women,” Gurley later wrote, “their sobs, their flood of tears, the grief that knew no consolation.”

The day was already quite hot, but Libbie began to shiver and sent for a wrap. She decided that as the wife of the regiment’s commander she must accompany McCaskey as he made the rounds of the garrison. There were twenty-six more wives who had yet to learn that they were now widows.

The Far West remained at Fort Lincoln until the following day. That morning, Libbie Custer sent a carriage to the landing with the request that Marsh visit with her and the other wives of the garrison.

A month and a half before, he and these same women had enjoyed an impromptu lunch in the cabin of the Far West. Since that time their world had irrevocably changed. In the months ahead Libbie became so despondent that her friends feared for her sanity. That fall, Custer’s best friend, the actor Lawrence Barrett, visited her at the home of Custer’s parents in Monroe, Michigan.

In one of the rooms, Libbie had re-created Custer’s study, complete with the animal heads and the photograph of Barrett that hung in its customary place above the desk. “I could almost fancy that [Custer] himself was about to enter,” Lawrence wrote his wife. “So thoroughly was the place embraced by his belongings.” Libbie admitted that she had considered suicide until the “presence” of her husband had told her “to live for those they loved.”

She’d since begun to cooperate with the author Frederick Whittaker, who was writing a book that would prove “her dear Husband was ‘sacrificed’—that Reno was a coward, by whose fault alone the dreadful disaster took place.” She was also waiting for “the proper moment” to demand a military investigation to clear her husband’s name. “I learned to estimate the true strength of Mrs. Custer,” Barrett wrote. “And to see what a wife she had been to him, sinking her own personality to push him forward.” Libbie insisted that she had no regrets—“that her life with him had been one of intense happiness—which could not last, she knew—that she would live upon the memory of it.”

But on the morning of July 7, the day the nation first learned of her husband’s death, Libbie was still in the throes of inconsolable despair. Marsh decided that he “could not bear the thought of witnessing [her] grief,” and declined the invitation.

Libbie spent the rest of her life playing out her grief and widowhood before a national audience. The Lakota and Cheyenne widows (some of whom had also lost sisters, brothers, children, and parents in the battle) were afforded no such stage or audience. In the years to come those who were not gunned down or otherwise mistreated during the incidents up to and including Wounded Knee lived out the rest of their lives on the reservations, where malnutrition, disease, and poverty replaced the variety and endless challenges of life on the plains.


Whittaker’s biography of Custer appeared in the fall of 1876. As Libbie had hoped, the book depicted Reno as both a coward and a traitor. To clear his name, Reno requested a court of inquiry into his conduct during the battle. In the winter of 1879, a military court convened at the Palmer House in Chicago, Illinois.

Over the course of almost a month, dozens of witnesses testified before the court. Their statements provided a wealth of information about the battle. But the statements also skirted the issue of blame. The rancor many of the officers had expressed about Reno’s actions during the battle had begun to cool—especially when General Sheridan made it clear that he wanted no disclosures during the proceedings that might reflect poorly on the U.S. Army. By January 1879, the officers of the Seventh had closed ranks. In the end, the judges refused to condemn Reno, but they also refused to exonerate him.

By that time, Reno had lost himself to drink. In addition to the court of inquiry, he endured two humiliating courts-martial, one for making illicit advances toward the wife of a fellow officer, another for peeping through the bedroom window of Colonel Sturgis’s teenage daughter. He was dismissed from the service, and in 1889 he died of complications after surgery for throat cancer.

Frederick Benteen also fell victim to a career-ending court-martial. With Custer gone, it was General Crook’s turn to become the object of Benteen’s scorn. After the two clashed, Benteen did as he’d done after the Washita and fed an unflattering story to the press. Unlike Custer, who had let it pass, Crook was unwilling to tolerate such blatant insubordination, and Benteen had no choice but to retire.

He returned to his home in Atlanta, where he spent much of the next decade trading letters with a variety of correspondents, most of whom wanted to know more about Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Benteen obliged with a series of gossipy and vituperative letters (the writing of which he once compared to “a goose doing his mess by moonlight”) where he made plain the tortured depths of his obsession with Custer. To Theodore Goldin, another veteran of the battle, he admitted that he had felt no sorrow upon viewing the dead bodies of Custer and his circle of relatives and friends. “The Lord, in His own good time had at last rounded the scoundrels up,” he wrote, “taking, however, many good and innocent men with them!”

Benteen despised Custer, but he was powerless to prevent the general’s reemergence as a Great American Hero. The rapid ascent of Custer’s posthumous reputation was not without some initial resistance. Terry’s supposedly private letter to Sheridan blaming Custer for the disaster was published in the summer of 1876 when the document accidentally fell into the hands of a newspaper reporter. Later that year, President Grant publicly claimed that Custer had unnecessarily sacrificed his battalion. One of Custer’s most vociferous critics was the Seventh Cavalry’s own commander, Colonel Samuel Sturgis, who’d lost his son in the battle. “[T]hat he was overreached by Indian tactics, and hundreds of valuable lives sacrificed thereby,” Sturgis said of Custer, “will astonish those alone who may have read his writings—not those who were best acquainted with him and knew the peculiarities of his character.”

But none of these naysayers could match the righteous indignation of Libbie, who dedicated the rest of her long life to making sure her beloved Autie was remembered in the most positive light. In addition to ensuring that the battle’s unofficial historian, Custer’s former lieutenant Edward Godfrey, wrote nothing that might compromise her husband’s reputation, she published her own books about her experiences in the West. The Custer that emerges from the pages of her three reminiscences is boyish, brave, patriotic, and charming. But there was another force contributing to Custer’s rise as an American hero: the myth of the Last Stand.

In the late nineteenth century, with the help of Buffalo Bill Cody’s tremendously popular Wild West Show, which often ended with an earsplitting reenactment of Custer’s demise, the perpetually thirty-six-year-old general became the symbol of what many Americans wanted their country to be: a pugnacious, upstart global power. Just as Custer had stood fearlessly before overwhelming odds, the United States must stand firm against the likes of Spain, Germany, and Russia. Now that America had completed its bloodstained march across the West, it was time to take on the world.

As Custer, or at least the mythic incarnation of Custer, remained center stage in the ongoing drama of American history, those who’d managed to survive the Battle of the Little Bighorn were left with the aftermath of the general’s controversial leave-taking. Some, like Edward Godfrey and Peter Thompson, attempted to reconstruct, as best they could, what had happened on June 25, 1876. Others, like Frederick Benteen, insisted that it no longer mattered: “ ’tis a dead, dead issue,” he wrote Goldin, “stale, flat, &c.” But as both of them knew perfectly well, that had not prevented Benteen from writing compulsively about the man he loathed above all others.

One spring day in Atlanta, Benteen attended a lecture entitled “Reno, Custer, and the Little Big Horn.” “The lecture abounded in compliments to me,” he wrote Goldin, then added, somewhat unconvincingly, “but really . . . I’m out of that whirlpool now.”

Four years after Custer’s death, Grant Marsh returned to the Little Bighorn with three slabs of granite perched on his riverboat’s bow. The following winter the stones were dragged by sledge across the frozen river, and in the summer of 1881, the summer Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Buford, the stones were assembled into a monument on Last Stand Hill.

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