Battle of Little Bighorn: 14 – Custer and the Black Hills Expedition, 1874

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"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

July 2, 1874 would be the departure date for the expedition into the Black Hills to leave Fort Abraham Lincoln, located just east of present-day Bismarck, North Dakota.

Fort Abraham Lincoln

During the winter months prior to the expedition’s leave-taking, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, at Fort Abraham Lincoln where his wife Libbie had joined him in December, penned the final lines of his autobiography.

Colonel and Mrs. Custer

I am in the midst of scenes of bustle and busy preparation attendant upon the organization and equipment of a large party for an important exploring expedition, on which I shall start before these pages reach the publishers’ hands. During my absense (sic) I expect to visit a region of country as yet unseen by human eyes except those of the Indian — a country described by the latter as abounding in game of all varieties, rich in scientific interest, and of surpassing beauty in natural scenery.

Custer entitled his autobiography My Life on the Plains. He well could have called it My Life and Death on the Plains, had he only known.

Custer had applied for and received command of the entire exploring force. Fort Abraham Lincoln was to be the base of operations and, there, Custer gathered together his column. And it was no meager collection. It included ten companies of the 7th cavalry, two infantry companies, a three-inch Rodman gun, and three Gatling guns. In the line of march would be one hundred and ten wagons, one hundred Indian scouts consisting mostly of Arikara and Santee Sioux and including Rhee scout Bloody Knife.

Bloody Knife

There were also white scouts in the party. These included “Lonesome” Charley Reynolds, called such because he had a tendency to wander off hunting or trapping by himself, and Louis Agard, a guide and interpreter for some thirty years in the Sioux country. Rounding out the white scout contingency were Captain Luther North and Lieutenant Colonel George “Sandy” Forsyth, as well as Colonel Fred Grant—none other than the President’s son.

“Lonesome” Charley Reynolds

Of course the purpose of this expedition was not to find gold in the Black Hills—however Custer hired two miners to just ride along anyway. He also brought along a geologist, Newton Winchell—to authenticate any gold discoveries they weren’t going to look for. Also, a young osteologist, George Bird Grinnell, was invited, as well as a stereoscopic photographer and four newspaper reporters. In total, there were at least one thousand men and nearly two thousand horses and mules. Quite a group just to locate a spot for a fort, I’d say.

So, on July 2, 1874, this “group” moved out across the plains. With them was one other collection of men, the official band of the 7th Cavalry which greeted the hot arid plains with the strains of a famous Irish drinking song that the 7th had adopted as their marching song “Garryowen.”

Calamity Jane

Bringing up the rear was none other than Calamity Jane, “dressed in male clothing, covered with lice. John Burkman, who was Custer’s orderly, said she did not smell good and usually was begging for a drink. The men avoided her, now and then giving her whisky in exchange for doing their laundry,” according to Evan S. Connell.