Battle of Little Bighorn: 15 – To the Black Hills

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

Custer had stretched the truth just a mite when he penned that the Black Hills were “a region of country as yet unseen by human eyes, except those of the Indians.” Perhaps he had not heard of the miners that had entered the Hills, never to return, or those few that did come back to civilization, bringing tales of gold in “them-thar-hills.” His typically exaggerated words were close enough. It was true that no in-depth investigation had ever been made of the Black Hills.

It would have been interesting if the Black Hills could have spoken to these explorers. What secrets they surely could have whispered since Winchell and Grinnell found stacks of dinosaur bones. But Custer, with his “hurry-up” attitude left them little opportunity to delve into these prehistoric riches, a situation that set an uneasy atmosphere between leader and followers.

Black Hills Expedition

Custer’s troopers were unhappy as well, and no wonder. Ambrose tells us that “the July sun burned down on the treeless prairie and temperatures consistently rose above one hundred degrees in the shade.” I recall, as a child, traveling through this area by Model-T in the summer and it is just as Ambrose describes it. Which would be worse – jogging along hour after hour astride a sweaty horse and fully exposed to the sun’s radiance or crammed into a motorized tin can between two irritated adults after hours of travel with four little girls – could make a very heated debate. At least we in the chugging auto did not have to employ scouts to keep a lookout for marauding Indians—although it would have relieved the boredom just a bit. And fortunately, father was no Custer.

Custer, in his ambition to do his job, had his troops up by 3 A.M. and on the road by 4 A.M. However, as hard as this may sound and invited complaints, it made sense. To travel as far and as fast as possible in the wee cool hours of dawn was exactly the correct thing to do. However, I find no immediate reference to him having halted his column for a few hours rest during the hottest part of the day. And Ambrose says that Custer pushed his troops till nearly midnight before making camp.

During those long hot hours of the day, Custer would often charge ahead on his favorite horse, Dandy, in the pursuit of antelope. With him would be his pack of hounds he had brought along. This taking off alone was an activity his dear wife, Libbie, had forbidden him to do. Most likely her sensible demand stemmed from Custer’s wild ride sometime previously when he took off after a buffalo all alone across the lone prairie and accidentally shot his own horse in the head, killing his trusty steed dead. Custer admits to this deed in his autobiography My Life on the Plains.