Battle of Little Bighorn: 49 – War!

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

The three-pronged attack against the hostiles has begun. The leading military persons involved are General Alfred Terry, General John Gibbon, General George Crook, and Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. Introduced are Custer’s brothers Tom and Boston, nephew Harry Reed, and brother-in-law James Calhoun. Hostile Indians as well as numerous reservation Indians begin to collect in the camps of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. While holding his second important Sun Dance, Sitting Bull has a vision of soldiers falling upside down into an Indian camp. The Battle of the Rosebud is also included in this lesson.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer

On May 31, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s command was about ten miles west of the Little Missouri, according to a letter he sent back to Fort Abraham Lincoln to Libbie. General Crook’s command crossed the Platte River at Fetterman by ferryboat at this time.

Custer was in high spirits. Even though he’d left Libbie behind, other members of his family were with him. Still under his command were brother Tom and brother-in-law James Calhoun.

Libbie Custer

Also along was brother Boston, employed as a forage master, while nephew Harry Reed, still a teenager, helped drive the beef herd. In addition, selected from about forty of his dogs, George Custer had brought along four of his staghounds.

Though Custer was “as tough, as meticulous, and as professional as any general officer could be” he had never lost the capacity to act like a little boy at times. His letter of May 31 to Libby tells of one of many pranks played on Boston.

Harry Reed

All three Custers had been riding ahead of the Army. While they were passing through a ravine Boston stopped to dislodge a pebble from his pony’s shoe. George and Tom were soon out of sight. They then dismounted, scrambled up a bluff, and peered over the edge. Below was Boston. Custer fired a shot over Boston’s head. Boston mistook it for a Sioux ambush, jumped on his pony, and galloped back for help.

Boston Custer

During this expedition Custer kept up his literary and letter writing, producing long and descriptive letters to his wife and articles for Galaxy. The steamboat, Far West, while plying the Yellowstone River, picked up and delivered their mail. Often, Custer sat up well into the night, writing articles and his letters to Libbie. In one letter he told his wife that “Bloody Knife looks on in wonder at me because I never get tired and says no other man could ride all night and never sleep.”

The Far West

Custer was as flamboyantly dressed as ever on this trip. Although he had cut his hair short, he was growing a beard. “He wore a red tie, broad-brimmed white hat, and his fringed buckskin shirt.”

This was Custer’s fourth major expedition across the Plains. It was Terry’s first trip across these same miles and he strongly depended on Custer with his “wonderful sense of topography—he was almost as good as an Indian.” Custer selected the trails they traveled. This was a task that was not easy considering a plain as level as possible was desired because of the wagons and the Gatling guns.

Lt. Col. Custer

Along with being a stern military leader and a playful boy, each in turn, Custer had not lost his capacity for also being insubordinate at times. This trait proved out, also, on this expedition when he, unauthorized by Terry, took four companies on a forty-five mile scout up the Little Missouri. “Terry complained to his diary about Custer’s insubordination but did not put him under arrest or, evidently, even give him a verbal reprimand.”