AND THEIR COMMANDS IN OUSTER'S LAST BATTLE.
T is probable the battle on the Little Big Horn in which a part of
General Ouster's command, including himself, was destroyed,
and known as the " Ouster Massacre," has been more discussed,
written about and commented upon, than any other single en-
gagement between white troops and Indians has ever been. It
was a terrible affair, almost a national disaster ; and there were
some most remarkable features connected with it. The loss of
two hundred and sixty-two men under such circumstances
would have caused a very searching investigation in almost any
country, and it is strange that there has never been any judicious and im-
partial investigation of all the causes that led to that disaster. True,
there was a court of inquiry held at Chicago some months after the affair
occurred. It was called at the request of one of the participants, and the
conclusion was reached that no further action was required.
A general impression has gone abroad, and to some extent prevails
throughout the country to-day, prejudicial to General Ouster. He has
been accused of " disobeying orders," and it has been said that "he had
made a forced march," that " he was too impatient," that " he was rash,"
and various other charges have been made, equally groundless and equally
unjust, and all started and promoted by his enemies.
It is known that there were two sets of officers in his regiment, one
friendly to General Ouster, and the other, few in number, bitterly hostile
to him. His brothers and several of his best friends died with him. In
fact, all that could have been known of the purposes and influences that
governed his action were thus lost, as none of his immediate command
lived to explain the circumstances. We can only judge of what prompted
GENERAL NELSON A. MILES. 199
his course of procedure by what he did previously, and by the testimony
of the Indians who were opposed to him.
I have no patience with those who would kick a dead lion. It is most
remarkable that so little was known of the number and character of the
Indians then opposed to the United States forces.
Sixteen years after the affair occurred, Captain E. S. Godfrey, Seventh
United States Cavalry, an experienced and gallant officer, wrote an inter-
esting and candid account of the affair, in which he was one of the par-
ticipants, which was published in the '' Century Magazine " for January,
1892. Accompanying that article was a three-page, fine-print article over
the signature of James B. Fry. General Fry, since deceased, was at the
time of this publication an officer of the army of high standing and repu-
tation, and recognized as a good authority upon all military matters.
Students of that campaign will be well repaid for reading and studying
these two articles. In the one by General Fry, on page 385, he says :
" Captain Godfrey's article is a valuable contribution to the authentic history of the
campaign which culminated in 'Ouster's Last Battle,' June 25, 1870.
"The Sioux war of 1876 originated in a request by the Indian Bureau that certain wild
and recalcitrant bands of Indians should be compelled to settle down upon their reserva-
tions under control of the Indian agent. Sitting Bull, on the Little Missouri in Dakota,
and Crazy Horse, on Powder River, Wyoming, were practically the leaders of the hostile
Indians who roamed over what General Sheridan called 'an almost totally unknown re-
gion, comprising an area of almost 90,000 square miles.' The hostile camps contained
eight or ten separate bands, each having a chief of its own.
"Authority was exercised by a council of chiefs. No chief was endowed with supreme
authority, but Sitting Bull was accepted as the leader of all his bands. From five hun-
dred to eight hundred warriors was the most the military authorities thought the hostiles
could muster. Sitting Bull's camp, as Ouster found it, contained some eight or ten thous-
and men, women, and children, and about twenty-five hundred warriors, including boys,
these last being armed with bows and arrows. The men had good firearms, many of
them Winchester rifles, with a large supply of ammunition.
"War upon this savage force was authorized by the War Department, and was con-
ducted under the direction of Lieutenant-General Sheridan in Chicago.
"The campaign opened in the winter, General Sheridan thinking that was the season
in which the Indians could be 'caught.' He directed General Terry to send a mounted
column under Custer against Sitting Bull, and General Crook to move against Crazy
Horse. Bad weather prevented Ouster's movement, but Crook advanced March 1. On
March 17, he struck Crazy Horse's band, was partially defeated, and the weather being
very severe, returned to his base. The repulse of Crook's column, and the inability of
Custer to move, gave the Indians confidence, and warriors by the hundred slipped
away from the agencies and joined the hostiles.
"In the spring Sheridan's forces resumed the offensive in three isolated columns. The
first column, under Crook consisting of fifteen companies of cavalry and five companies of
200 PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF
infantry (total 1049) marched northward from Fort Fetterman May 29. The second col-
umn, under General Terry consisting of the entire Seventh Cavalry, twelve companies (about
600 men) ; six companies of infantry, three of them on the supply steamboat (400 men) ; a
battery of Gatling guns manned by infantrymen, and forty Indian scouts moved west-
ward from Fort A. Lincoln, on the Missouri, May 17.
"It happened that while the expedition was being fitted out, Custer unwittingly in-
curred the displeasure of President Grant, who directed that Custer should not accompany
the column. Through his appeal to the President and the intercession of Terry and
Sheridan, Custer was permitted to go in command of the regiment, but Terry was required
to accompany and command the column. Terry was one of the best of men and ablest of
soldiers, but had no experience in Indian warfare.
"A third column under General Gibbon (Colonel of Infantry) consisting of four com-
panies of cavalry and six companies of infantry (450 men all told), marched eastward in
April, and united with Terry on the Yellowstone, June 21. When these columns started
they were all some two or three hundred miles from the central position occupied by the
enemy. Gibbon was under Terry's control, but Crook and Terry were independent of
"The authorities believed that either one of the three columns could defeat the enemy
if it 'caught' him; otherwise isolated forces would not have been sent to 'operate blindly,'
without means of mutual support, against an enemy in the interior of an almost totally
unknown region. Indeed General Sherman said in his official report of 1876 : ' Up to
the moment of Custer's defeat there was nothing, official or private, to justify an officer to
expect that any detachment would encounter more than five hundred or eight hundred
warriors.' The appearance of twenty-five hundred to three thousand in the Custer fight,
General Sherman adds : ' amounted to a demonstration that the troops were dealing not
only with the hostiles estimated at from five hundred to eight hundred, but with the avail-
able part of the agency Indians, who had gone out to help their friends in a fight.'
"The utter failure of our campaign was due to underestimating the numbers and prow-
ess of the enemy. The strength he was found to possess proved, as General Sherman
said in Ms report, that the campaign had been planned on wrong premises. Upon this
point Gibbon said: 'When these various bands succeeded in finding a leader who possess-
ed tact, courage, and ability to concentrate and keep together so large a force, it was
only a question of time when one or the other of the exterior columns would meet with
a check from the overwhelming numbers of the interior body.'
" The first result was that Crook's column encountered the enemy, June 17, and was
so badly defeated that it was practically out of the campaign."
In the above extract General Fry shows by statements made by them-
selves that neither General Sherman, commanding the army, nor General
Sheridan, commanding the military division, was aware of the formidable
character of the hostile force, and Captain Godfrey in his statement says
that General Custer a few days before the fight, in a council with his offi-
cers advised them that from the best information he could obtain they
would not have to meet more than one thousand, or at the maximum,
fifteen hundred hostiles. These statements show that our troops were
GENERAL GEORGE A. CUSTER.
GENERAL NELSON A. MILES. 203
entirely without knowledge of the strength of the enemy, and, as General
Sheridan states, operating in an almost totally unknown region. A fact
still more remarkable is that they were operating on exterior lines without
any positive concert of action or direct communication.
In the first affair with the Sioux, previously alluded to, General Crook
met with so serious a repulse that on the following day he commenced his
retreat back to his base of supplies, eighty miles distant, and remained
there until several weeks later, when he was reinforced by General Merritt.
If the two commands of Crook and Terry had been acting in concert they
could have united, as they were not more than forty or fifty miles apart
at the time. So apparent was this want of knowledge of the strength of
the enemy that even when General Terry's force came together at the
mouth of the Rosebud, he felt it safe to divide it again, and send General
Custer up the Rosebud, and with the remainder, including the column
under General Gibbon and a battery of Gatling guns, he himself moved up
the Yellowstone and Big Horn to the mouth of the Little Big Horn.
As to what the understanding was when the two commands separated,
the best evidence is the written order of battle, and it cannot be disputed,
or gainsaid, or misconstrued. The nature of such an order must be regarded
as absolute. It is like the constitution of a State or the fundamental law
of a community. The order in question was given in very plain language,
as follows :
CAMP AT MOUTH OF ROSEBUD RIVER, )
MONTANA TERRITORY, June 22nd, 1876. \
LIEUTENANT-COLONEL CUSTER, Seventh Cavalry.
COLONEL : The Brigadier General commanding directs that, as soon as your regiment
can be made ready for the march, you will proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the
Indians whose trail was discovered by Major Reno a few days since. It is, of course, im-
possible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and were it not
impossible to do so the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal,
energy and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your
action when nearly in contact with the enemy. He will, however, indicate to you his own
views of what your action should be, and he desires that you should conform to them
unless you shall see sufficient reason for departing from them. He thinks that you should
proceed up the Rosebud until you ascertain definitely the direction in which the trail
above spoken of leads. Should it be found (as it appears almost certain that it will be
found) to turn towards the Little Horn, he thinks that you should proceed southward, per-
haps as far as the headwaters of the Tongue, and then turn towards the Little Horn, feeling
constantly, however, to your left, so as to preclude the possibility of the escape of the In-
dians to the south or southeast by passing around your left flank. The column of Colonel
Gibbon is now in motion for the mouth of the Big Horn. As soon as it reaches that point
it will cross the Yellowstone and move up at least as far as the forks of the Big and Little
204 PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF
Horns. Of course its future movements must be controlled by circumstances as they
arise, but it is hoped that the Indians, if upon the Little Horn, may be so nearly enclosed
by the two columns that their escape will be impossible.
The Department Commander desires that on your way up the Rosebud you should
thoroughly examine the upper part of Tulloch's Creek, and that you should endeavor to
send a scout through to Colonel Gibbon's column, with information of the result of your
examination. The lower part of this creek will be examined by a detachment from Colonel
Gibbon's command. The supply steamer will be pushed up the Big Horn as far as the
forks if the river is found to be navigable for that distance, and the Department Com-
mander,-who will accompany the column of Colonel Gibbon, desires you to report to him
there not later than the expiration of the time for which your troops are rationed, unless
in the meantime you receive further orders. Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
E. W. SMITH,
Captain Eighteenth Infantry, Acting Assistant Adjutant General.
It will be observed that General Ouster was directed to move up the
Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians. The next sentence, it will be noticed,
leaves no question that it was expected that his command would come
in contact with the Indians ; and surely when this command was directed
to move by a course in which they would be placed from forty to fifty
miles distant from any other, confidence was reposed in the knowledge,
zeal, and ability of the commander to exercise his best judgment. It is
folly to suppose that either a small or a large band of Indians would
remain stationary, and allow one body of troops to come up on one side
of it while another body came up on the other side and engage it in battle.
It is fair to give the Indians credit for a reasonable amount of intelli-
Again, when Ouster's command was ordered to move out as it did, it
left the Indians, who were acting on interior lines, absolutely free to
attack either one of the commands thus separated, or fight them in detail
as might be preferred. But we have positive evidence in the form of an
affidavit of the last witness who heard the two officers in conversation
together on the night before their commands separated, and it is conclu-
sive on the point at issue. This evidence is that General Terry returned
to General Ouster's tent after giving him the final order, to say to him that
on coming up to the Indians he would have to use his own discretion and
do what he thought best. This conversation occurred at the mouth of the
Rosebud, and the exact words of General Terry, as quoted by the witness
" Ouster, I do not know what to say for the last."
Ouster replied: " Say what you want to say."
GENERAL NELSON A. MILES.
Terry then said: " Use your own judgment, and do what you think best if
y ou strike the trail ; and whatever you do, Ouster, hold on to your wounded."
This was a most reasonable conversation for the two officers under the
circumstances. One had won great distinction as a general in the civil
war ; was an able lawyer and depart-
ment commander, yet entirely without
experience in Indian campaigns. The
other had won great distinction as
one of the most gallant and skillful
division commanders of cavalry dur-
ing the war, commanding one of the
most successful divisions of mounted
troops ; he had years of experience on
the plains and in handling troops
in that remote country, and he had
fought several sharp engagements
with hostile Indians.
As the command of the Seventh
Cavalry moved out, upwards of six
hundred strong, the leader was fully
confident that he was able to cope with
any body of Indians that they were likely to encounter, and all were in
the best of spirits at the prospect of a vigorous, and what they believed
would be a successful campaign. Moving up the Rosebud until he struck
the main trail, then following this up to the divide separating the Rose-
bud from the Little Big Horn, and on to the latter stream, it is fair to be-
lieve that from the reports he received Custer feared that the Indians
might make their escape without his being able to bring them to an en-
The fact of his slow marches indicates his care and judiciousness in go-
ing from the mouth of the Rosebud to the battlefield on the Little Big
Horn. The first day's march was only four hours, or twelve miles in dis-
tance. The second day, June 23, thirty-three miles or twelve hour's march,
with long halts for the purpose of examining trails, abandoned camps, and
evidences of the presence of Indians. The third day, the 24th, twelve hours
inarch or twenty-eight miles. The night of the 24th, between 11:30 and
the morning of the 25th, he moved ten miles in order to conceal his move-
ments and position from the enemy. On the morning of the 25th,
between eight and ten, he moved ten miles, later fifteen; in all 108 miles
GENERAL TERRY'S LAST ORDER TO CUSTEB.
206 PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF
in four days. During these four days, he frequently called his officers to-
gether and counseled with them ; in fact his directions amounted almost
to an appeal. They were pathetic.
Captain Godfrey says that General Ouster stated that with the regi-
ment acting alone there would be harmony, but acting with another or-
ganization there might be jealousy ; that the marches would be from
twenty-five to thirty miles per day ; and that officers were cautioned to
husband the supplies and strength of their commands ; on another occa-
sion, that they must act together and not become separated ; again, he in-
formed them that the trail led over the divide, and that he was anxious to
get as near the divide as possible before daylight, where the command
could be concealed during the day, and give ample time for the country to
he studied ; that he expected to fight on the 26th.
With a large cavalry command like that moving over a dry and dusty
country, it was next to impossible to conceal it. Any movement of the
scouts or of the command was liable to be quickly discovered by the enter-
prising enemy. Not only did General Ouster receive reports of the exact
locality of the Indian camp, but he also discovered through more than one
source that the Indians were aware of the presence of the troops. This
undoubtedly caused him to move against them on the 25th to prevent if
possible their escape, as he evidently expected that they would make such
an attempt, and had they succeeded he would have been severely censured.
But whatever impression of this nature Ouster may have been under, he
decided to make the attack during the forenoon of the 25th.
He formed his command in three columns, moving parallel to each
other and practically in line. He took position himself on the right, with
five troops of cavalry. Reno was directed to follow the trail with three
troops and attack the village. Benteen with three troops was to move on
the extreme left, Ouster's object undoubtedly being to attack in this form,
which allowed sufficient space between the columns for the deployment of
the three commands, and yet would not prevent their acting in concert.
In moving out from the valley of the Rosebud, over the divide to the
valley of the Little Big Horn, it was fair to presume that the presence of
the command would have been discovered by the Indians, and he may
have thought that if he did not attack them, they would make their escape
without waiting to find themselves placed between two forces, or, very
naturally, with their entire force would attack him.
On approaching the Little Big Horn, Ouster followed the trail down a
small tributary of that stream. It was long afterward learned that a
GENERAL NELSON A. MILES. 207
large body of Sioux warriors had returned from their encounter with
General Crook's command on the Rosebud, June 17, over this trail, thus
making it a fresh one and possibly giving Ouster the impression that the
Indian camp was moving. The Indians state as a reason for their failure
to discover the approach of Ouster's command until it was upon their
camp, that they had been all the night previous to the battle celebrating
what they claimed was a successful encounter with the troops on the
Rosebud, and were consequently sleeping late in the forenoon. Ouster un-
doubtedly expected to find their camp at the junction of the Little Big
Horn with the small creek down which he was following the trail, and
made his disposition accordingly by moving the three battalions of his reg-
iment in parallel columns.
Ouster's order to Major Reno to move forward on the trail and attack
the village, and that he would be supported by the other battalions, was a
proper command, and did not imply that the supports would follow im-
mediately in his footsteps. An attack by the battalion on his right or on
his left or by both simultaneously, would be the most effective support he
could have had.
As these battalions were moving forward into action Ouster rode forward,
well in advance with the scouts, and ascending a high butte where he
could overlook the valley, discovered that the Indians, instead of being
encamped at the junction of the Little Big Horn and the creek down
which Reno was moving, had moved down the left bank of the Little Big
Horn and camped two miles below the junction. Here it was that he
changed the order in the disposition of his troops by sending a courier to
his left column, commanded by Captain Benteen, with a despatch contain-
ing these words. " Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. " The
last referring to the pack-train that was following a short distance behind
the command escorted by one troop and having the reserve ammunition.
As he sent no despatch to Reno to change his movements, he evidently
expected that officer to follow the trail and attack as he did in accordance
with the then existing orders.
The intervals between the columns had by this time become somewhat
increased, although not to the extent of placing them beyond supporting
distance, which is shown by the fact that Benteen's command was easily
reached by the courier, and that Reno's command could be seen from the
crest where Ouster's column was moving.
Reno followed the trail down the tributary of the Little Big Horn,
crossing that stream, and then, moving down on the left bank on the wide,
208 PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF
flat prairie, he deployed his command in line of skirmishers with supports,
and moving further down to within a short distance of the village, he
commenced firing into it from a strong position that had formerly been
the bed of a river, or behind what is known as a " cut bank," where he dis-
mounted his command ; his horses being thereby furnished a safe shelter
in the brush and timber in the rear of his line of troops. His men occupied
an excellent position, where they were completely covered behind what
was to all intents and purposes a natural rifle-pit, and from which they
could fire and easily enfilade the Indian village. If he had held this posi-
tion it would have been of the greatest advantage and might have had a
decisive effect upon the final result.
The Indians were camped in the following order: The Uncpapas,
Ogalallas, Minneconjoux, Sans Arcs and Cheyennes. The camp was thrown
into great consternation. As the firing commenced at the upper end of
the village the Indians fled from it, first trying to strike their tents and
escape, but in many instances abandoning them. The women and children
fled out onto the prairie, and the warriors gathered out to the left on a
" mesa," or high ground, some four or five hundred yards from the village.
There they commenced skirmishing with Reno's troops, but their fire
had little effect until Major Reno ordered his command to mount. Then
he ordered them to dismount, and again to mount ; and finally directing
them to follow him, he dashed out of the timber, leaving the strong posi-
tion, and galloped back across the plain toward the hills on the right bank
of the Little Big Horn. The Indians seeing this movement of the troops,
and interpreting it as a retreat, as it was, rushed after them in hot pur-
suit. As was quite natural they took every advantage of the disorder in
the ranks where officers and men were running such a wild race, rushing
and climbing as best they could up the steep banks of the stream and did
all the injury possible before the troops reached the high bluffs on the
right bank of the Little Big Horn. Here they came in contact with Cap-
tain Benteen's command as he was moving down on the high ground on
the right bank of the river in accordance with Ouster's last order to
"Come on," and "Be quick," and in a way that if he had not been inter-
rupted by the retreat of Reno, would in a few minutes more have brought