General George Crook
General Crook reorganized at Fort Fetterman as General Terry prepared his two commands. Sheridan’s three-pronged offensive had now become a summer campaign instead of a winter operation.
By early April Colonel John Gibbon was leading what was being called the Montana Column. It consisted of about 450 men of the 2nd Cavalry and 7th Infantry Regiments. They were moving eastward from Fort Ellis, Montana, down the north bank of the Yellowstone River.
General John Gibbon
On May 29 Crook was again prepared and equipped. And, as before, headed north from Fort Fetterman.
On May 17, 1876, at Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, the 7th Cavalry, led by Colonel George Armstrong Custer, circled the parade ground. It was a maneuver, ordered by General Terry and intended to calm the uneasiness the wives, mothers, sweethearts, and sisters of the brave men of the 7th were feeling. It also gave the men one last chance to say good-bye.
Lt. Col. George Custer
For the most part, the anxiety of the adults did not reach the children. These young ones had tied handkerchiefs to sticks and were bravely waving their ‘flags.’ They also raised a considerable din by beating on tin pans as they marched happily beside their departing fathers.
Custer, as usual, pranced ahead. He then wheeled his horse, gallantly bent down from his saddle, and embraced his beautiful wife. It is noted that he said, “Watch for our return, Bess.” And then he was gone.
As the column got underway, a thick ground fog began to evaporate. This created a rare “meteorological phenomenon” in that “this Army of soldiers, artillery, and white-hooded mule-drawn wagons—a caravan extending almost two miles—was ethereally reflected” heavenward.
Libbie Custer later noted that it was “a scene of wonder and beauty.” But something about it troubled her, this “sight of her husband leading his regiment across the sky. “
The sun burning through the mist glinted on the weapons of departing soldiers. This left Libbie Custer ill at ease. But what military wife has not had similar feelings upon bidding farewell to a husband marching, or sailing, off to war?
As the column started off across the Dakota prairie the lilting notes of “The Girl I Left Behind Me” filled the air. Perhaps each woman, including Libbie Custer, at Fort Abraham Lincoln that spring morning felt that she, alone, was that girl who was being left behind. Then the music changed.
The Band of the 7th Cavalry
No longer did the music hold the sentiment of love. Instead, the band blared out the lively quick-stepping notes of “Garryowen,” an old Irish drinking song that the 7th Cavalry had adopted as their marching song. Then the 7th was gone, across the wide Dakota landscape.
The Dakota Prairie
And all of those left behind would watch for the return of the 7th Cavalry.