The Custer Fight


JUNE 25-26, 1876

With Comments on the Rosebud Fight of June 17, 1876 by ROBERT E. STRAHORN, War Correspondent for the CHICAGO TRIBUNE and NEW YORK TIMES


Hollywood, California


FOR THE FIRST TIME since he testified before the Reno Court of Inquiry, at Chicago, in 1879, Capt. F. W. Benteen, senior captain of Custer's regiment, the famous 7th Cavalry, here relates the part he played in that most disastrous of Indian fights on American soil, over which more controversy has raged than over any other battle fought against the reel man in the United States.

Much of the account is from his own testimony at the Reno Inquiry; some of it is from the personal letters of Capt. Benteen, (in possession of the author). Certain charges were made against Major Marcus A. Reno and Capt. Benteen by Frederick Whittaker, Custer's biographer. At the last moment Whittaker withdrew his charges against Capt. Benteen. He also utterly failed to substantiate his charges against Major Reno, the verdict of the Court being that “there was nothing in his conduct which requires animadversion from the Court) and that in view of all the facts in evidence, no further proceedings are necessary in this case.“

No officer in the Civil War won a more brilliant record than Major Reno, he being brevetted by grades from a first lieutenant to a colonel “for gallant and meritorious service.” Later, he served as Assistant Instructor of Infantry Tactics at the U. S. Military Academy at WestPoint.

The testimony at the Reno Inquiry revealed that both Capt. Benteen and Major Reno had done the best that could be clone with what they had to do with, and that, but for their extraordinary heroism and bravery in the fight on the bluffs, following Custer's overwhelming defeat, four miles down the river, the troops under their charge would likewise have been wiped out.

Capt. Benteen's testimony and extracts from his letters proves absolutely that Custer had formed no battle plans at the time he made his battalion assignments; or, if he had such plans, he did not reveal them to either Major Reno or Capt. Benteen. While the numbers of the attacking Indians has been •variously estimated at from 1,500 to 4,500, Capt. Benteen states that, in his opinion, they numbered 8,000 or 9,000.

Students of the battle of the Little Big Horn will do well to carefully preserve this account of the Custer fight as related by Capt. Benteen.



ON THE MORNING of the 24th of June, General Custer rode by my bivouac of the night before. I approached him and reported that, on account of fearing for the safety of the pack-train the day before, I had placed the battalion on guard differently from the manner he had ordered.

“Custer stammered slightly and said, 'I am much obliged to you, Colonel Benteen; I will direct the officer who relieves you to guard the train in the manner you have done.' As my duties ended on delivering the pack-train at camp on the 23d, I did not have to report to the commanding officer with the new officer of the day.

“The march of June 24th was interrupted by frequent and sometimes quite lengthy halts of the column, but on what accounts I was not aware; but on arriving at Mud Creek, which was to be our place of bivouac, I was loudly called to by Colonel Keogh to come where he was; that he had been saving for me a snug nook, with beautiful grass in it for me, that I might camp next to him. The reply to this was characteristic of the-plains-something like 'Bully for you, Keogh; I'm your man!'

“After our frugal repasts which went for dinner, Colonel Keogh and his lieutenant, Porter, came over to my bivouac, where, sitting around were four or five officers engaged in listening to Lieut. De Rudio' s yarns. However, I placed my saddle in position for a pillow, and notified the gentlemen 'that I was going in for what sleep I could pick up, as I was impressed with the belief that we would not remain in that camp all night.'

“The officers, however, went on with their conversation, and before I had caught a wink of sleep, an orderly from regimental headquarters came with information to us to meet at once at headquarters. It was then pitch dark; so I called up my first sergeant and directed him to see that everything was in order for an immediate move, as I didn't think we would be allowed to remain in that camp all night. The sergeant assured me that everything was in good shape, so I then started to find Custer's headquarters.

“I had not gotten far on the way thereto when I stumbled across Lieut. Edgerly, who informed me that it was not necessary to go any farther, as the only orders were that we were to move at 11 o'clock that night, at which hour we did move.

“However, there was an hour and a half consumed in getting the pack-train across Mud Creek. Colonel Keogh had charge of the packs on that move, and the column remained impatiently on the other bank of the creek while Keogh was superintending the crossing of the pack-train.

“Some little time after the column got started on the march, the only guide of direction I had for my troop was the pounding of tin cups on the saddles of the men in rear of the troop preceding me in the column.

“About this time, Colonel Keogh rode up to me complaining that he couldn't tell head or tail of the pack-train; didn't know 'where the Sheol they were,' and what was he going to do about it? I told him to take it easier; that nothing but an Indian could run one of those mules off. Some of the packs, of course, might slip off and be left behind, but we could recover the same at daylight-and the tin-cup pounding on saddles of the troop ahead of me went on, all of which suddenly ceased-the column was at a halt, pack-train and all spread out together.

“I should think an hour and a half after this daylight began to peer through, •and I noticed General Custer pass me on horseback. He went on, saying nothing to me. Just then I noticed Major Reno on the other side of a ravine, about to sit down to breakfast; so, not knowing where I would get any breakfast, I went over and assisted them in disposing of what they had.

“On June 24th we marched till about 3 o'clock and bivouacked without orders to unpack mules, unsaddle horses, and on the next morning when we moved I got no orders. The command moved, and I followed the rest.

“The battalion organization was made after we had marched about four hours. I think at the first halt an orderly came to me with instructions for the officers to assemble. General Custer told us that he had just come down from the mountain; that he had been told by the scouts that they could see a village–ponies, tepees and smoke. He gave it to us as his belief that there were no Indians there; that he had looked through his glasses and could not see any, and did not think there were any there.* [Italics throughout are mine.- E. A. B.]

“Now, in 1875, I had a very similar experience with Indians in Dakota, and as the statements of the Indians then were absolutely confirmed by what was afterwards proved, I was strong in the belief that the Crow Indians only reported what was shown them by their superior keenness of vision, and that the hostile village was where they located it; but as no opinions were asked for, none were given.

“The column then advanced, I should think a mile or so, and the officers were summoned to General Custer. On arrival of all, General Custer desired to know whether the requirements of a regimental order which were issued on the Yellowstone River, were being carried out, which order was, to the effect, that every troop of the regiment should have a non-commissioned officer and six men on duty with the pack-train, in immediate charge of the packmules of each troop, and that one hundred rounds of carbine ammunition and twenty-four rounds of pistol ammunition should be issued to each trooper; that the officer who first notified him that these requirements were being observed, should have the advance of the regiment for his troop. I so reported, and was given the advance. “We moved then probably eight miles, and halted in a kind of valley surrounded by high hills, and there the division into battalions was made. I received three companies, and was sent to the left to a line of bluffs. I don't know how many battalions, or who was put in command. It was not told to me at all. My orders were to proceed out to a line of bluffs about four or five miles away; to pitch into anything I came across, and to send back word to General Custer at once if I came across anything.

“I had gone about a mile when I received instructions through the chief trumpeter that if I found nothing before reaching the first line of bluffs, to go on to the second line of bluffs, with the same instructions.

“I had gone I suppose a mile further when I received orders through the sergeant-major that if I saw nothing from the second line of bluffs, then to go into the valley. The angle of my march to the route of the regiment was about forty-five degrees, a left oblique. The pack-train, at the first halt, was close up. I don't know where it was at the second halt, but I suppose close to the rear.

“General Custer had instructed me to send an officer and six men in advance of my battalion, and to ride rapidly. I selected my first lieutenant and six men from my own company and sent them ahead; but the greater part of the time I was ahead of them with my orderly, the battalion coming on as fast as they could.

“I went to the second line of bluffs and saw no valley, and I knew the Indians had too much sense to go to any place over such a rugged country-that if they had to go in that direction they had a much better way to go.

“The last I saw of the column was the gray-horse troop at a dead gallop. I had an idea that General Custer was mistaken as to there being Indians in that vicinity; and as there were no Indians there, and no valleys I thought my duty was to go back to the trail and join the command.

“The route back was the same as going over, bearing to the right at the same angle. I struck the trail about a mile ahead of the pack-train. I saw it coming on the trail. I then followed the trail to a kind of morass. My horses had not been watered since 6 or 8 o'clock the evening before, and I formed them around this morass and watered them.

“As I moved out from there, two mules from the pack-train rushed into the morass and were stuck. I then went on about seven miles, when I came to a burning tepee which contained a dead warrior. A mile or so from that, I met a sergeant coming back with instructions to the commanding officer of the pack-train to 'hurry up the packs.' I told him the pack-train was about seven miles back, and he could take the order back, as I had nothing to do with that -that Captain McDougal was in charge of the packtrain.

“About a mile or so further on, I met Trumpeter Martin, who brought a written order, which I have. It has no date. It says: 'Benteen, come on-big village-be quick-bring packs. P. S. Bring packs. W. W. Cook.'

“It was about two miles from where Major Reno first crossed the Little Big Horn that Martin met me, and about two and a half miles from the burning tepee. I did not know whose trail I was following. I asked Martin, after reading the note, about the village. He said the Indians were all 'skedaddling'; therefore, there was less necessity for me to go pack for the packs. I could hear no firing at that time.

“I was then riding four or five hundred yards in advance of the battalion with my orderly. Captain Weir was about two hundred yards in my rear. I waited till he came up, then handed him the note. I asked him no questions, and he did not volunteer advice.

“When the command came up, I ordered a trot, and went on ahead to the crossing of the Little Big Horn. That was my first sight of it. There I saw an engagement going on, and supposed it was the whole regiment. There were twelve or thirteen men in skirmish line that appeared to have been beaten back. The line was then parallel with the river, and the Indians were charging through those men. I thought the whole command was thrashed, and that was not a good place to cross. To my right I noticed three or four Indians four to five hundred yards away from me. I thought they were hostile, but on riding toward them I found they were Crows. They said there was a big 'pooh-poohing' going on. Then I saw the men who were up on the bluff, and I immediately went there and was met by Major Reno.

“I did not consider it necessary for me to go back for the pack-train, as it was coming, and the Indians could not get to it except by me.

“I heard very little firing at all. After the time when I got on the Reno hill, not more than fifteen to twenty shots. While at the river I could both hear it and see it about two miles away. My effective force was about 125 men. I reached Reno about 3 p. m. The pack-train was not yet in sight; it came up in an hour to an hour and a half.

“Reno was not present when Custer ordered me to move off to the left.

“Reno's men appeared to be in good order, but pretty well blown, and so were the horses. They were not in line of battle, but were scattered around, I suppose to the best advantage. They all thought there was a happier place than that, I guess.

“The Indians saw me about the time I saw them, and checked their pursuit. Four or five hundred came to the highest point of land there; they were nearly a mile away. There were about nine hundred circling around in the river bottom. •

“I showed Reno the order I had from Cook, and asked him if he knew where General Custer was. He said he did not; that he had been sent in to charge those Indians on the plain, and that General Custer's instructions to him, through Lieut. Cook, were that he would support him (Reno) with the whole outfit; and that was the last he had seen or heard of him, and he did not know where he was.

“I had no knowledge or impression where Custer was, or on which side of the river. My impressions from Martin were that the Indians were skedaddling; but my first sight of the fight showed that there 'Was no skedaddling being done by the Indians! I, of course, thought that was the whole command, and if so, it was whipped. When I found it was not, I supposed Custer was clown the river. Reno did not explain to me why he had retreated from the river bottom to the hill; nor did he express any solicitude or uneasiness about Custer. Nor did I. I supposed General Custer was able to take care of himself.

“Reno was just as cool as he is now. He had lost his hat in the run from below.

“The only firing I heard which came from the direction Custer had gone, was fifteen or twenty shots that seemed to come from about the central part of the village. The village was in two divisions. I have heard officers disputing about hearing volleys. I heard no volleys.

“After our arrival on the hill, Captain Weir sallied out in that direction in a fit of bravado, I think without orders, about half an hour after we arrived. It was before the packs came up. I afterwards went down in the same direction to the highest point, and had the troop on the bluffs to show Custer our position if he was clown there. Reno was not there; probably then at Hodgson's body and picking up the wounded.

“A movement could have been made clown the river in the direction Custer had gone; but we would all have been there yet! The whole command could have gone as far as I went, but no farther; we were driven back.

“From there was my first sight of the village, and the only point from which it could be seen. I saw about eighteen hundred tepees-no sign of troops or fighting. We had not been there but two or three minutes before the gorge was filled with Indians rushing toward us, and then we fell back to where we were corralled.

“I was for halting before we got there, so as to check the Indians, and to select a better place while we had time) and not be rushed over by them; but Major Reno thought it best to go back to where he first got on the hill.

“The line was formed in an irregular ellipse; there was a flat where our pack animals and horses were corralled, and the line formed around it in the shape of a 'U' (horseshoe) one prong of the horseshoe extending further than the other. The Indians surrounded us there, and kept it pretty lively as long as they could see. I was in the long prong of the horseshoe; the short prong was turned in at right angles; Capt. Moylan had that.

“I had left one company back on the ridge with orders to hold it at all hazards, but that company got back as quick as the others! Then I sent Captain Godfrey's company to another hill to check the Indians till we could form. I saw Reno there; he came back with me and talked with me. I don't know that he gave any orders to retire from the advanced position. Orders were not necessary about that time! The first I knew as to the formation of a line was when I told Lieutenant Wallace to place his company at a spot that I pointed out. But he said he had no company–only three men. I told him to go there with his three men, and I would see that he was supported; and from that the line was formed. Major Reno might have been at the other end or in the center after the line was formed. I saw him in the center. I thought then there were about twenty-five hundred Indians surrounding us, BUT I THINK NOW THAT THERE WERE EIGHT OR NINE THOUSAND!

“At the angle of the line was Company A; then followed G, D, B, M, and K. I was not assigned to any particular part. My company was on the extreme left. After our line was formed it was about as lively a fire as you would like to stand up under. You had only to show a hat or a head, or anything, to get a volley! It was about 5:30 when we got our line finished, or maybe later. We were under fire from two and a half to three hours.

“The Indians had picnic parties as large as a Regiment standing around in the river bottom looking on. There was no place to put them. Fully two thousand were around us, waiting for a place to shoot from.

“The Indians close to us did not expose themselves; the only thing you could see would be the flash of a gun. They came so close that they threw arrows and dirt over at us with their hands, and touched one of the dead men with a coup-stick. That was the next morning. That afternoon was like the second day-we could see nothing to shoot at. We got volleys, but could not return them.

“The night of the 25th Major Reno was upon the hill where my company was, and ordered me to build breast-works. I sent for spades, but •there were none. I thought it unnecessary; but the next morning the fire was much heavier, and I had a good deal of trouble keeping my men on the line I had to run then-t out of the pack-train, and I brought up sacks of bacon and boxes of hard bread and pack-saddles, and made a redoubt. I took twelve or fifteen skulking soldiers and packers, and turned the redoubt over to my first lieutenant, and told him I intended to drive the Indians from the ravine. I did so, and we then got water. Major Reno at the time was on the other end of the line. He thought the main attack would come there.

“After getting to the water I sent word to Reno to get all the receptacles together and fill them. I then told Reno I was being annoyed by a cross-fire from every quarter, and was unprotected, save by the breastworks, and asked him if I might drive those Indians out. He said 'Yes,' and we did it. I gave the order and told the men to go, and went in with them.

“I may say I was with Major Reno all the time the night of the 25th. I saw him every fifteen to thirty minutes till 3 a. m. I laid down in his bed. He was as sober as he is now. He is entirely sober now as he was then. There was no time during the 25th or 26th when there was any indication of drunkenness on the part of Major Reno! He could not have been staggering and stammering without my knowing it.

“I know nothing about any altercation with a packer except by hearsay. I know they robbed the packs and robbed me, and I also know there was not whiskey enough in the whole command to make him drunk!

“I had occasion to go to the pack-train many times during the 25th and 26th to drive out skulking Soldiers. There was much complaint about stealing in the pack-train.

“I might have joined Reno in the timber, but would not have attempted it without first getting the pack-train; but my losses would have been much greater. What we did was the best that could be done. If I had to do it again I would go over the same trail. I could not improve it.

“The timber position first taken by Reno was an A-1 defensive position, and could have been held five or six hours, depending on the size of the attacking force. Against nine hundred it was defensible, but the nine hundred would have been reinforced by another nine hundred, and the next morning we would all have been killed! It could, however have been made more defensible than the position on the hill with axes and implements, but there were few if any of these.

“The position did not threaten the village much, though only six or seven hundred yards away, because they could pull down their tepees and take them away. It would hold a large force of Indians between there and the village to prevent a charge, but they had enough to do it. Eight or nine hundred was only a small part of what they had! It could not have made a particle of difference so far as Custer was concerned. The seven companies would have been as completely concealed there as on the hill.

General Custer would have had to look out for himself the same as we did. And how he did, you know! Doubtless the abandonment of the timber released numbers of Indians for attacking Custer; but I don't think they had any use for them down there.

“There was not a foot of unoccupied ground in that country; there were Indians everywhere, from twelve feet to twenty hundred yards away.

“I think Custer went to the right of the second divide and not to the river at all.

“On the morning of General Terry's arrival, I asked permission to take my company and go over the battlefield of General Custer. I did so, and followed down the gorge; but I am now satisfied that he did not go down that way. The nearest body to the middle ford was six or eight hundred yards from it.

“I went over the battlefield carefully with a view to determine how the fight was fought. I arrived at the conclusion I have right now-that it was a rout, a panic, till the last man was killed; that there was no line formed.

“There was no line on the battlefield. You can take a handful of corn and scatter it over a floor and make just such lines. There were none. The only approach to a line was where five or six horses were found at equal distances like skirmishers. Ahead of them were five or six men at about the same distances, showing that the horses were killed and the riders all jumped off, and were all heading to get where General Custer was. That was the only approach to a line on the field! There were more than twenty killed there to the right; there were four or five at one place, all within a space of twenty to thirty yards. That was the condition all over the field.

“Only where General Custer was found was there any evidence of a stand. The five or six men I spoke of were where Captain Calhoun's body was; they were of his company. There were twenty-two bodies found in a ravine, fifty to seventy-five yards from the river. They had, I think, been killed with stones and clubs. They were unarmed-I think they were wounded men who had gone into the ravine to hide. There was a trail leading to a crossing about a hundred yards above that ravine_.

“I counted seventy dead horses and two Indian ponies. I think, in all probability, that the men turned their horses loose without any orders to do so. Many orders might have been given, but few obeyed. I think they were panic-stricken. It was a rout, as I said before.

“The village, as I saw it from the one high point, I estimated at three to four miles long; about eighteen hundred tepees, four to seven warriors to the tepee. I saw it when it moved. It started about sunset, and was in sight until darkness came. It was in a straight line about three miles long, and I think a half-mile wide, as densely packed as animals could be. They had an advance guard, and platoons formed, and were in as regular military order as a corps or division.

“I saw no evidence of cowardice on Major Reno’s part. I found it necessary at one time to caution him about exposing himself. I told him to be careful how he stood in front of the point as volleys were coming constantly.

“When I received my order from Custer. to separate myself from the command, I had no instructions to unite at any time with Reno or anyone else. There was no plan at all. My orders were 'valley hunting’ ad infinitum.’ The reason I returned was because I thought I would be needed at the ridge. I acted entirely upon my own judgment. I was separated from Reno fifteen miles, when at the greatest distance.

“Trumpeter Martin came at a jog trot, and told me the Indians were 'skedaddling.' I moved at a trot then till I met Reno. I moved at a trot all the time from when I left Custer till I met Reno, except when watering the horses.

“I had a very fast-walking horse which I think can walk five miles an hour easily. It is impossible for a column of cavalry to keep up with it without going at a trot, and if the right of the column is at a trot, the probability is that the left will be at a trot or gallop. I watched that column all through. We had to go by files through defiles and circuit around rugged hills which were too steep to ascend, and that Is why I tell you we were at a trot from the time we left Custer until we watered the horses at the morass. From that time until we reached the place where Reno crossed the river, the gait was the same. It was not necessary to give a command to trot, because the men would all be trotting to keep up with me. We were going then as fast as we could go without going at a gallop.

“Reno could not have expected me to join him. There were no orders to do so.

“It was all of eleven miles from the tepee with the dead warrior that Custer gave me the order to diverge. I passed from the sight of the column in about three-quarters of an hour.

“When I left I did not know that Reno had a command. The division had not been made yet, and I don/t think Reno knew anything about it at the time I left. When I passed, he asked me where I was going, and I told him I was going to the left, with instructions to pitch into anything I came across. The next time I saw Reno was on the hill.

“The farthest downstream that any company of Reno's got was about a half-mile below that highest point. I planted a guidon there as a guide to our position for Custer. His battlefield is not visible there. I know that positively, though some officers think it was. Not a soul in the command imagined Custer had been destroyed till General Terry came up. That was our first intimation. Up to that time we were wholly ignorant of his fate. From all the circumstances it is my judgment that his fight lasted from fifteen minutes to half an hour or an hour; not more than the latter. I do not think it would have been possible to have communicated with him, even if we had known where he was.

“It was after we had marched eight or ten miles the morning of the 25th when General Custer said he did not believe there were any Indians in that country. It was about 10 o'clock that morning. I started off to the left shortly after 12 o'clock.

“It was the belief of the officers on the hill during the night of the 25th, that General Custer had gone to General Terry, and that we were abandoned to our fate!

“Major Reno knew I went to the left, but not what orders I had. If different parts of a command are expected to cooperate, I should think it very necessary to communicate orders to other officers. When I left, Reno had no command that I knew of. Reno had no reason to think I was near or following the same trail. I scarcely myself knew what to do, as I said I was 'valley hunting.' He had no right to expect any assistance from me whatever.

“If there had been any plan of battle, enough of that Plan would have been communicated to me so that I would have known what to do under certain circumstances. Not having done that, I do not believe there was any plan. In General Custer’s mind there was a belief that there were no Indians nor any village. I do not know, except that I was sent off to hunt up some Indians. I was to pitch into them and let him know. And if I had found them the distance would have been so great, that we would have been wiped out before he could get to us!

“The country did not make me bear to the right. I could have gone on in a straight line all the way to Fort Benton.

“It would have taken me an hour and a quarter to bring up the packs after I got the Martin order. I could not have expedited it by going back after them, as a sergeant had already done that. I heard no firing until I arrived at the ford, when I both heard and saw it-about nine hundred Indians engaged in demolishing about thirteen men on a skirmish line.

“The orders I got from Custer did not indicate that he expected me to cooperate in any attack on the village:. The first two were things he forgot to tell me as he started off, while the column was in plain sight. The order to send him word if I found anything showed that he did not believe there was any village there. Of course it would be expected that the whole command would cooperate with whatever detachment found the hostiles, and to notify the others-BUT I AM CONVINCED THAT WHEN THE ORDER BROUGHT BY MARTIN REACHED ME, GENERAL CUSTER AND HIS WHOLE COMMAND WERE DEAD!

“It was about 3 o'clock. It was not evident to me that he expected me to be on the trail; he could have expected no such thing. • From the orders I started with, he could not possibly have known where to find me within ten or fifteen miles.

“My going back was providential or accidental, or whatever you may be pleased to term it. I suppose that Custer had found what he sent ME out to find, and he wanted me as quickly as possible; AND I GOT THERE AS SOON AS I COULD.

“From my orders I might have gone on twenty miles without finding a valley! Still, I was to go on to the first valley, and if I did not find any Indians, I was to go on to the next valley. Those were the exact words of my order-no interpretation at all. I at least had to go to the second valley. I understood it as a rather senseless order; we were on the main trail of the Indians; there was plenty of them on that trail. We had passed through immense villages the preceding days, and it was scarcely worth while hunting up any more! We knew there were eight or ten thousand Indians on the trail we were following!

“General Crook had fought those same Indians seven days before we did, and he saw enough of them to let them alone. He had a larger force than we did; yet he remained from the 17th of June to the 15th of August waiting reinforcements, and did not think it prudent to go after those Indians! [The reason for Crook's retreat after the battle of the Rosebud is• clearly and concisely explained in Mr. Robert E. Strahorn's letter to the author-see addenda.] I knew there was a large force of Indians, and knew it at the time. Why I was sent to the left, I don’t know. It was not my business to reason why. I went! “I consider that I violated my orders when I struck to the right. If I had carried them out, I would have been at least 25 miles away. I don't know where I would have been! As it was, I was certainly too far to cooperate with Custer when he wanted me.

“I think after Custer sent Reno across to charge the Indians, his intentions were to get in the rear of the village and attack them from the left. His plan of attack was therefore known only' to himself and not to Major Reno’ for he must naturally have expected his assistance to come from the rear and not from the front.

“The reason we moved down stream after I joined Reno, was the presence of about 900 Indians on the other side, who seemed pretty vigorous and well-armed.

“I have never expressed an opinion adverse to Major Reno's conduct to any officer. I was on as amicable terms with General Custer on the 25th of June as I ever was with him.

“My idea in striking to the right was that there was more for me to do on the trail; that there was, or would be, fighting on the trail, and that I had better go back and help. I thought I had gone as far as I should, and would be needed on the trail.

“The position of the bodies on the Custer battle field indicated that the officers did not die with their companies, for only three officers were found with their companies. That shows that they did not fight by companies. All the officers, except Keogh, Calhoun and Crittenden were on the line with Custer. That would not be the fact if the command was overwhelmed making a stand. If there had been a charge the officers would have led it; there is no royal road to death in a charge.

“The officers' bodies, including General Custer's, were in a position which indicated that they had not died in a charge; there was an arc of a circle of dead horses around them.

“Lines could have been formed, but lines were not formed; they probably had not time to form lines. General Custer might have fled the field and saved a part of his command; and I think discretion would have been the better part of valor if he had done that.

“The sergeant who came to me had verbal orders to the commanding officer of the pack-train) and I did not consider that an order to me. The packtrain was not a part of my command or column.

“Not a soul knew, on the hill with Reno, where Custer was. My supposition in regard thereto was that he had found more Indians than he could conveniently handle with his battalion of five troops, and that he had fallen back to connect with Generals Terry and Gibbon.

“My battalion got to the point in time to save Reno's forces; but from not knowing the position or needs of Custer, it was without the bounds of possibility to render him any assistance. That my battalion made such an attempt is clear enough. It is also clear enough to me that after the occurrence the whole seven companies of the regiment could have rendered no assistance to Custer after Reno had been defeated, even had there been time and we had known the whole lay of the land; and the reason for this is, that there were a great deal too many Indians who were powerful good shots on the other side. We were at their hearths and homes; they had gotten the bulge on Reno; their medicine was working well, and they were fighting for all the good God gives anyone to fight for.

“We were not cognizant of the wiping out of Custer's command, but it seemed to me that the Indians developed very much more strenuosity in their attentions to us than I had ever noticed among their characteristics.

“Had I known of the defeat of Custer's force at this time, my only surprise would have been, why they didn't get us, too!

“The fact is, all the talk about Reno's being able to reinforce Custer is simply absurd. Custer himself was responsible for the Little Big Horn action, and it is an injustice to attribute the blame to anyone else.”  


On July 7th, 1876, the Chicago Tribune printed a column-length editorial on the Little Big Horn battle in which it also attributed the disaster to Custer himself, saying among other things :

“Custer…was a brave, brilliant soldier, handsome and dashing, but he was reckless, hasty and impulsive, preferring to make a dare-devil rush. and take risks rather than to move slower and with more of certainty, and it was his own mad-cap haste, rashness and love of fame that cost him his own life, and cost the service the loss of many brave officers and gallant men.

“No account seems to have been taken of the numbers or leadership of the Sioux, or of their past record of courage and military skill. No account was even taken of the fact that Gen. Gibbon was coming• to the Little Big Horn with reinforcements, only a day's march behind, although Gen. Custer was aware of it. He preferred to make a reckless dash and take the consequences, m t he hope of making a personal victory and adding to the glory of another charge, rather than wait for a sufficiently powerful force to make the fig-ht successful and share the glory with others. He took the risk, and he lost.

And on June 5, 1932, the same Chicago Tribune said:

“Printed at a time when it could not be popular, that Tribune utterance was a master-piece of editorial judgment and courage.”  




Robert E. Strahorn

THE WRITER HAS, since commencing this article, had a most interesting and valuable letter from Mr. Robert E. Strahorn of San Francisco, war correspondent for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Rocky Mountain News of Denver, through the Sioux campaign of 1876, being assigned to Gen. Crook's division, and taking part personally in every battle and skirmish in which Crook's forces were engaged throughout the campaign. Mr. Strahorn is prominently mentioned and thanked by the then Secretary of War, for his courageous help in the Crazy Horse fight, and particularly mentioned in Capt. John G. Bourke's well-known work, “On the Border With Crook,” for distinguished bravery and gallantry in action against the hostiles on every occasion in which he engaged. There is no more competent living authority on the part played by Crook's forces in the Sioux Campaign of 1876, than Mr. Strahorn. In explanation of Crook's fight on the Rosebud, and his subsequent return to his base on Goose Creek, near the present city of Sheridan, Wyoming, Mr. Strahorn says:

“Dear Mr. Brininstool: Your question as to •why Crook, with his 1,100 men, retreated to Goose Creek after the Rosebud fight, and called for reinforcements, is easily answered. After some hours of pretty close fighting with a body of Indians estimated all the way from 2,000 to 3,000 or 4,000, and incidentally, their retreat down through a narrow gorge ( canyon of the Rosebud) toward their main command on the Little Big Horn, we happened to be riding with Gen. Crook and his staff at the head of the column in pursuit. Suddenly halting, and raising his hand as a signal for that, he turned square back up through the ravine-of course facing the column all the way back-and with a disappointed look. I made bold' to ask him why this move. He said that with all those wounded on our hands, and with an ambuscade clearly in sight, he would not take his men down into that hole.

“So we returned to the battlefield, camped there for the night, and buried our dead, which we had been carrying, and made campfires over their graves, to mislead the Indians, if possible, (who would naturally have dug them up to gratify their usual appetite for plunder).

“That night Crook took the necessary steps to discover just the situation down that canyon and below, assigning this duty to Frank Grouard, and, I think, one other scout. Upon their return they reported all sorts of preparations on the sides of the canyon and in the cul-de-sac at the bottom, for a massacre, if we had gone down a little bit further.

“Crook thus took the only course open, and rode back to his wagon-train and sent for reinforcements. He had felt the Indians out very effectively, much to his credit following the safe course. He was on the offensive throughout the fight, took his time to return to his base-and wasn't whipped!

“I was with Crook in every foray or movement throughout the Sioux war, and am sure that his undoubted courage, absolute devotion to duty, and unequalled experience in Indian warfare, -would have led him to persist in his march to a junction with Terry on the Yellowstone, except for the needless sacrifice of troops involved in certain further encounters with the savages, whose overwhelming numbers were absolutely unknown until then. Remember, that with every fourth man taking care of the horses in a fight, (because you can't fight Indians mounted) ; also providing adequate protection of the wounded and pack-train, and exhaustion of half his ammunition, Crook was actually in nearly as poor shape to advance as was Custer when he rode to his doom, a week later.

“Doubtless the Indians he engaged there would have returned with much larger forces, had Crook continued northward; and while I think he was too adroit a campaigner to have duplicated the Custer fiasco, there is no telling how great a loss of men might have been suffered, but for his return to his base.”

(Signed) “Robert E. Strahorn.”


QR Code
QR Code the_custer_fight_captain_benteens_story (generated for current page)

Advertise with Anonymous Ads