Battle of Little Bighorn: 51 – Locating Hostiles

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

Yellowstone River

Having advanced from Fort Ellis in Montana, General John Gibbon remained along the Yellowstone River, waiting to make contact with General Terry and Lieutenant Colonel Custer, who was leading the 7th Cavalry. Gibbon’s objective was to prevent the Indians from crossing the river and escaping northward.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer

Throughout April and May, Gibbon had camped on the north bank of the river opposite the mouth of the Bighorn. Later he moved downstream near the mouth of the Rosebud. Here there was considerable sign of Sioux and on May 3, the theft of his Crow scouts’ ponies by the Sioux left no doubt that the hostiles were present. Also on that date, Lieutenant James H. Bradley and his men, who were a part of Gibbon’s command, located the main Sioux and Cheyenne camp in the Tongue River Valley.

The Little Bighorn River

Gibbon tried to move his force across the river to attack but, due to extremely high water, the river was so swollen such a move was impossible. Then, on May 27, the hostile camp was again located some 18 miles from Gibbon’s position.

Eastward, Terry and Custer were also searching for these same Indians. A curious fact is that in Gibbon’s dispatches to Terry, he never mentions to Terry that he knows exactly where the hostiles are located. Terry, responding to reports that Sitting Bull was on the Little Missouri, sent Custer to scout that area. It was not until June 8, when he reached the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the Powder River, and met up with some of Gibbon’s officers, did Terry find out were the Indians were.

Terry had assumed that the hostiles would still be on the lower Rosebud where Bradley had seen them two weeks prior. With this assumption, he made plans to trap the hostiles between Custer and Gibbon. But first he wanted to be certain the Indians had not doubled back to the east. To assure this, Terry sent six companies of the 7th Cavalry under Major Marcus Reno southward. Reno was to examine the Powder and Tongue areas, then rejoin the main command at the mouth of the Tongue River. Custer was to move the other half of the 7th Cavalry back to the mouth of the Tongue River and wait for Reno to return.

Terry was certain that the hostiles were somewhere south, either on the Rosebud, Tongue, Little Bighorn, Powder, or Bighorn River. He was also certain that with Crook coming up from the south that the Sioux were trapped. All that was necessary now was to locate the Indians before they slipped away—a tactic the Indians were very good at doing. Terry then prepared to march on to meet the Montana Column.

By June 10, General Terry had made contact with General Gibbon. When they came together at the mouth of the Rosebud, though they had covered the upper Yellowstone to the mouth of Rosebud Creek, they had not seen any sign to indicate that hostiles had crossed the river. So Terry and his generals were assured that the hostiles were within striking distance.