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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
West Point

Elizabeth D. J. Waugh

published by
The Macmillan Company,
New York, 1944

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p127  Chapter X
In the Western Wilderness

During four years the country had been at bitter war. To many it had seemed that peace would never come. There had been talk of a mighty southern empire to embrace Mexico, even South America; yet at Appomattox Court House in 1865º the South surrendered and Americans were left to face not the horrors of war but the vast uncertainties of peace. They were as ill prepared for peace as the North had been for war. West Pointers who had been graduated into war found the duty of peacetime irksome. There was young General George A. Custer with his flowing yellow hair. It was to Custer, who had pursued him so relentlessly, that Lee had sent the flag of truce — a linen towel — which had brought about the armistice. Now in the year of Northern victory General Custer had still to celebrate his twenty-fifth birthday.

Custer, accustomed to lead cavalry charges saber unsheathed, found it slow work to be stationed in the Kentucky hills watching for illicit moonshiners — work, he thought, which might well be left to the revenue officer. He felt himself more useful when he was combating the outrages of the Ku Klux Klan or saving some unfortunate Negro from the Molly Maguires. Yet it was not until 1873, when he was headed west at the head of his famous regiment, the Seventh Cavalry, that he felt truly alive once more. At that time a man might still ride west into the unknown. Peace had demoted Custer to his permanent rank of Lieutenant Colonel; he had been, by brevet, Lieutenant General. Custer knew that he was going to live on  p128 the extreme frontier among hostile tribes; he knew that he would have to fight. These thoughts did not spoil his absurdly high spirits. With him, at her own imperious insistence, went his young and charming wife, Elizabeth. The young lady had simply refused to be left behind.

When orders came to move, Custer and his wife were stationed at Elizabethtown, Kentucky. He celebrated by wild hilarity, throwing the chairs around the house until the Negro cook called out a warning from the kitchen.

"Chairs don't grow on trees in these yere parts, Gen'l," she said.

The next step was to call in the company saddlers, who sewed up all the Custer possessions — there were few of these — in sacks and packed the kitchen utensils in barrels. The cook's bedding was packed inside an extra-gay quilt made of the pieces from her friends' gaudy dresses and, a fitting pinnacle, topped the load piled on the army mule wagon.

The General's orders assigned him to a post in Dakota, and during these hectic preparations Elizabeth Custer found time to hide away and take a surreptitious peek at an atlas. Dakota seemed the end of the earth to her, far up at the British border as it was. She knew that the trip, which to the General meant the kind of service every cavalryman loves, would mean agonies of apprehension for her.

The kind of service which Custer saw was typical of that assigned to West Point graduates of his period, when the majority were assigned to Western frontier posts. Americans have quite forgotten to be thankful to these soldiers who opened the West; their courage and their sacrifices have been all but obscured. We have rightly pitied the red savage, driven from his happy hunting grounds before the advance of the raw civilization of the white man. Left sometimes to starve when the buffalo herds on which he depended were all but  p129 exterminated, the Indian is used in almost all youthful political arguments to prove that the white man has little real right to the privileges of democracy. Perhaps these contestants over-simplify the lessons of history; possibly, too, history has been incompletely read and imperfectly digested.

General Philip H. Sheridan speaks fairly on the subject and his voice has the authority of contemporary observation. He wrote in 1868:

The present system of dealing with the Indians, I think, is an error. There are too many fingers in the pie, too many ends to be subserved, too much money to be made. . . . The Army has nothing to gain by war with the Indians . . . it has everything to lose. In such a war it suffers all the hardships and privation, exposed as it is to the charge of assassination if the Indians are killed, to the charge of inefficiency if they are not; to misrepresentation by the agents who fatten on the plunder of the Indians, and misunderstood by worthy people at a distance who are deceived by these agents.

Most of us have remained "worthy people at a distance" prejudiced by overcolored presentation of history. Not that the truth is other than picturesque, as the story of General Custer's service as a typical army Indian fighter proves.

Custer rendezvoused with his regiment at Memphis, Tennessee, in 1873. Units of the Seventh Cavalry had been widely scattered from Texas to Kentucky. The full strength of the regiment was rated at twelve hundred men; nine hundred, more or less, piled on the river steamer at Memphis. The regiment was transported by river from Memphis to Cairo and thence by train over the new-built tracks to the desolate station of Yankton in the present state of South Dakota. Elizabeth Custer was handed handsomely from the comfort of the "cars" to the barren ground on the plains outside of Yankton,  p130 where there was neither water nor wood near by. The trains of the period were elaborate with inlaid wood and mirrors and were made comfortable by potbellied stoves, in each car, over which the passengers' servants cooked meals. As the train pulled back from the dead end to which it had brought them, the Custers were too busy to be apprehensive. The men had all come from hot climates. Here the wind blew between the bones, and the faint sun had vanished; it was beginning to rain. No one warned of an approaching blizzard nor would any one have realized the seriousness of the warning if it had been given.

Under Custer's command the regiment was making camp as fast as possible. The goods and baggage were piled all about and water was being transported, with the necessary wood for a temporary camp. Elizabeth Custer sat on a trunk getting more and more apprehensive as she grew colder. The General did not return and, acting on her own initiative, she sent her servant into the town of Yankton for food and a stove. Also she managed to get possession of a little half-completed shack.

The black cook returned with a few provisions; she had bought a stove, but no one would bring it out that night. It had begun to snow heavily. Inside the shack there was no heat and the General returned exhausted from the effort of making camp and with a high fever; probably he was a victim of what we would name influenza.

Before General Custer lost consciousness he gave orders to his adjutant to have the entire regiment retire to the little town of Yankton and find what quarters they could for themselves and for their Southern-bred horses. When the thud of flying hoofs had died away in the night, the shrieking wind reminded the Custers that they were alone on the plains. The fine blinding snow drifted in through all the many cracks  p131 in the loose board walls and they were obliged to shake it off the bedclothes.

In the middle of the night heavy blows were heard on the barricaded door. Running down the rickety stairs, Mrs. Custer saw the door burst open and six half-frozen soldiers fall into the little house. They had been lost in the whirling woolly snow and had been saved only by seeing the faint light in the window. Again the door opened and more soldiers entered. Mrs. Custer was in despair as she tried to think of ways to warm the frozen men. The General was an abstainer and they had no spirits, nor any fuel except a tiny bit of alcohol for the spirit lamp. She gave this small bit of fiery comfort to the soldiers. She thought of the carpets which were still piled in their wrappings in the corner of the shack, with their other possessions. Each soldier was wrapped in a Victorian carpet and then they were piled up together like cordwood. Thus many lives were saved, though the men were already so badly frozen that many afterward lost hands and feet.

For three days and three nights the blizzard continued. The snow, like mounting flood water, piled higher and higher about the poor shack. It seemed to Elizabeth Custer that they would be buried alive in the whiteness. During the second night the tramping of feet rose above the rushing of the wind, which formed the snow into drifting waves. It came again, a sound like a cavalcade rushing upon them. Mrs. Custer, breathing against the windowpane, cleared a little space. She could see the stampeded. Abandoned mules, lost in the storm, were galloping toward the house. They thudded against it and took for a few minutes what shelter they could on the leeward side. Later they heard the terrible whinnying of a horse as it passed and repassed the house. Once they opened the door, thinking it  p132 was in truth a human cry, and Mrs. Custer was haunted by the wild appealing eyes of the horse. Toward dawn a herd of swine, squealing and grunting, rammed the shaking house.

At dawn on the third day Mrs. Custer fell asleep from exhaustion. Later she was awakened by a strangely familiar smell. Coffee, hot coffee. The faithful colored Mary stood by with this miracle. The General had returned to consciousness. Elizabeth Custer thought that help had at last arrived, but it turned out that the resourceful Mary had managed to pile together the fragments of candles which she had pilfered from the railway and had made coffee and fried a little steak over this makeshift stove.

As they held the warm cups in their hands the General began to be himself and to make light of the danger. "See," he said, "it has stopped snowing!"

As he spoke a little pale sun filtered over the floor boards. There was a thudding at the door below, then the sound of many voices. The citizens of Yankton had at length got through to them. Help had come.

The march of the Seventh Cavalry to the unknown Northern station was on the whole a pleasant one.

Before dawn the regiment breakfasted. The Custers had a little sheet-iron stove, and as the country abounded in fat plover they breakfasted well. With the skill of a circus the soldiers packed the supply wagons and the time of starting on the march never varied five minutes all summer. The regiment rode two abreast, with the covered mule-drawn wagons bringing up the rear. Young Mrs. Custer liked to pause on some hillside and watch the train as the trail wound around the hills. Perhaps she did not know that she was watching civilization in its relentless progress creeping forward as the incoming tide creeps over sand flats. At night around the campfire, lying on the grass or huddled in buffalo robes, the  p133 men sang and told tall stories. The life of the Western pioneer was so exciting in itself that a tame true tale could not attract.

Up to this time they had been in the country of friendly Indians; now as the column progressed westward along the wild Missouri they were warned of danger by their own Indian scouts. Strange signs began to appear; posts were set in the ground and bits of red cloth were fastened to them. This the scouts said was a sign of war. Sometimes what seemed to be no more than a pile of brush on the crest of a hill turned out to contain a pair of glittering eyes, for the Indian, skilled in guerrilla warfare, was content to lie prone all day, concealed by low growth, for only one glimpse of the white foe. On other days they seemed alone in a deserted world. The glare of the sun and the barrenness of the great plains made them long for the shade of trees, and the dark muddy waters of the Missouri which they were compelled to drink reminded them by contrast of the cool, sparkling well water on their Eastern farms.

One day Elizabeth Custer was riding in advance of the column with the General and another officer. They were, as usual, surrounded by their dogs. One of the stag hounds started a deer and the General was off in swift pursuit. And then by the banks of the river they saw that most desired thing — a grove of cottonwood trees. The two riders turned their horses to the grateful shade. They were laughing as they entered the grove and could still see the General, a speck on the brow of a hill.

Without warning Elizabeth Custer's horse reared and would have bolted. How happy this rider would have been to give her horse his head and to let him run away with her! Instead, with rare presence of mind, she firmly reined him in, though he snorted and bucked. In the woods they had almost overrun a company of Indian braves sitting with loaded guns in immobile  p134 ambush! Even with the two white people upon them they did not move and, as they were camouflaged with variegated war paint to resemble their background, it was necessary to look twice to believe the testimony of their eyes.

Elizabeth Custer's fear was twofold: she was naturally terrified by the savages, but she glanced at the officer by her side with something of the same feeling. She knew that her husband had commanded that if she was captured by Indians whoever had her in charge must shoot her dead. Rather than have his woman fall to Indian tortures many a pioneer has shot his own wife. The officer by her side behaved with marvelous coolness. He shouted a dignified "How" to the savages, who stared sullenly without returning the greeting; they were watching something else — a little cloud of dust. It was the approaching regiment. Afterward it seemed that these savages could have had no other object than the capture of the General and his two companions but that their preconceived plan had been put off by his sudden pursuit of the deer — which, causing him to ride at right angles to the trail, had given the main column time to come up. Evidently they had calculated that the little patch of woods would lure the white man away from the open plain.

After a march of five hundred miles the Seventh Cavalry settled down to its permanent camp at Fort Lincoln. Long low barracks were built; these were rude enough — they scarcely served to keep out the cold. The lack of wood or stone in the vicinity made building a difficult problem. The first barracks were burned down over the Custers' heads. The post was located in a valley surrounded by bluffs and no white man dared go without its confines alone. Each summer General Custer led expeditions into the country of the hostile Indians, but the long severe winters were spent in camp. Each year shavetails from West Point were ordered to the desolate post.

 p135  In the three years that followed, the Indians became ever more hostile; the sense of isolation grew on the little post. It was noticed that in the Indian villages near by only women and children and remained; the young braves were all away. The explanation that they were gone on hunting trips did not deceive General Custer; he knew that they had gone to join the ranks of the ever-growing savage army.

These were no longer the guileless savages whom the white man had been deceiving and maltreating since the days of Henry Hudson. They had learned the white man's way of fighting and they were armed with the newest type of Springfield rifles, while Custer's command had but old-fashioned carbines. At Fort Lincoln he was forced to look on while cargoes of these Springfields passed up the river to be sold to the Indians by unscrupulous traders. The Indian was a dead shot; his rifle, his dearest possession, was always in perfect condition. A hunter, never a tiller of the soil, he was by nature and education cruel. To him cruelty was a virtue.

With the increasing scarcity of game, and because of the disappearance of the buffalo herds, whole tribes starved. The Indian saw the white man occupy the lands that had been his since the dawn of time. He saw, too, that in union lay strength. More and more, over the endless councils of the tribes, the old men urged unity, attack in force, and they never forgot to counsel the braves to remember the ancient Indian arts of war: the art of the cunning scout, the noiseless tread, and the impenetrable ambush. Without forgetting his almost animal cunning the Indian was learning to fight like a white man. And his country had been invaded!

We shall never have an accurate idea of how vastly the white man was outnumbered in the West. Custer's Seventh Cavalry of about seven or eight hundred men was surrounded by uncounted tribes of savages. Each summer the campaigns took  p136 them farther away and the post was left to be garrisoned by only a handful of soldiers. The officers' wives clung together in mortal fear. Then the savages became bolder. One dawn almost all the mules belonging to the regiment were stampeded and driven off. Sounding the clear call of the Cavalry — the unforgettable "Boots and Saddles" — on the bugle, the regiment rode in pursuit. Most of the mules were recovered.

During the Yellowstone Expedition, which was undertaken the second year, the Seventh was encamped at Fort Lincoln; two civilians attached to the regiment were murdered as they stopped to water their horses in a little glen from which they could plainly see the encampment. It was their misfortune that the trees hid them from their friends. During the winter that followed, word came to General Custer that an Indian at the station of Standing Rock was in the habit — while drawing his government rations of food, blankets, and ammunition — of boasting of the murder of these two men, both of whom had been the fathers of families — one so old as to be bald, thereby depriving the Indian of a scalp.

The name of the Indian was Rain-in‑the‑Face. The General detailed his brother, Colonel Tom Custer, to capture this Indian. It was no easy matter, for the weather was cold and the Indians were all wrapped in identical blankets, never showing their faces for hours as they sat endlessly in the agency. But in the end Colonel Tom got his man. They took Rain-in‑the‑Face back to Fort Lincoln and imprisoned him there. Now Rain-in‑the‑Face was accounted a mighty warrior; not for nothing had his boasting warned the white man — he was regarded by many tribes as a hero to have entered the agency at all; each rash boast had made him the more admired by his red brothers. At Fort Lincoln he not only confessed his murder of the unarmed men but spared no terrible detail. He was a young savage, tall and straight and imperturbable.

 p137  Rain-in‑the‑Face had a comrade, Iron Horse. It was Iron Horse who followed the regiment and asked to see his brother. Iron Horse was dressed in mourning, for he had no other idea than that Rain-in‑the‑Face would be hanged at once. His leggings were black and his black blanket was held in by a belt beaded in pure white; a single sable feather adorned his scalp lock. With eloquence brother pleaded for brother. It was explained to Iron Horse that Rain-in‑the‑Face was to be tried in Washington, that his fate was in no way different from that of a white man committing a similar crime. In fact, because he was an Indian he might hope for mercy. Iron Horse did not depart until he had given his brother his valuable pipe; a locket presented to his father by the President of the United States; and, finally, his heavily beaded buffalo robe, a garment which highly became the handsome savage.

Iron Horse returned to the camp once more; this time to escort a solemn and numerous council of Indians. Endless speeches were made, the pipe of peace was twice circulated, and in the end it seemed that the position of the white man was clear to this high council. They departed in peace. It was necessary to detain the Indian in captivity until the spring, when he could be sent to Washington. But before spring came he had escaped. It turned out that Rain-in‑the‑Face did not dare return to his reservation; he went, instead, to join the greatest of all the chiefs, Sitting Bull. He sent word that he was with Sitting Bull awaiting his revenge.

In the spring General Custer was called to Washington, where he testified fearlessly regarding the swindling of the Indians which he had seen practiced by the traders. He also protested about the unlimited sale of the finest firearms to them. This testimony, which involved several high-placed government officials, angered President Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, who suddenly  p138 deprived Custer of his command and appointed General Terry as head of the department.

This action naturally caused a wave of protest and it is to General Terry's credit that he himself led in the vindication of Custer. However, when Custer was restored, at least to the command of his beloved Seventh Cavalry, Terry remained his commanding officer. Meanwhile the machinations of Sitting Bull, that chief of "little heart and long head," had united the red men into a most threatening coalition. The camp of the hostile Indians had grown and no white man could accurately estimate its number.

The strategy of the Yellowstone Expedition of 1876 was planned by Terry, Gibbons, and the famous Indian fighter Crooka together with Custer. All felt that the time to strike hard had come. Custer was selected for this task, which all knew was a desperate risk; it fell to him to lead the attacking party. Yet Custer from the start seemed to lack something of his former confidence. He refused the aid of infantry — preferring his own regiment, on whose utter loyalty he could depend. Under the mighty trees, in sight of the brilliant mountains, the expedition made its way through the Yellowstone country to the Big Horn River. Soon we see Custer following the course of the Little Big Horn. The Indian scouts attached to the regiment were increasingly restive. A wide trail was discovered; thousands of Indian ponies had crossed that way, but the most expert scouts could not say how long ago. They passed deserted Indian villages. How long had these been deserted? No man could answer.

The white men noticed that the Indian scouts seemed to have no heart in their duty, preferring to remain in the column of march during the day and to stay in camp at night. The tremendous landscape surrounding them, the vast trees, and the colored mountains with jagged snowy peaks seemed to  p139 strike awe into the men. If they were not alone in the unlimited solitude, then they were surrounded by a sinister and hostile force.

A man straggling behind the column had met with an accident and been forced to leave some of his supplies in a ditch by the trailside until night, when he with some companions rode back to recover his boxes. But when they came to the place, looking through a screen of trees, they saw an Indian opening the boxes with his tomahawk! This proved that they were discovered; it was as they had all feared — they were being watched.

Soon there could be no doubt that each day they were penetrating deeper and deeper into the land of the hostile Indians. Custer knew, too late, that he was surrounded by a vast number of savages. One evening, though the regiment was tired after the day's march, preparations were made for attack at dawn. The Indians had grown so bold that Custer must attack or be surrounded. Indian watch fires gleamed from the hills; a big Indian camp was but a short distance ahead. In planning his strategy Custer made the mistake of dividing his forces; yet he was so vastly outnumbered that perhaps this very precaution ended by saving two-thirds of his command. He sent Major Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Reno ahead and commanded Captain Benteen to make a flanking movement, while Custer himself, with five companies of cavalry, took a position on a hill — "Custer's Hill." Reno at once found himself charged by the greatest force of Indians he had ever seen, and fell back with little resistance: Benteen took refuge in the bluffs overlooking the river. Both detachments were completely out of communication with Custer. Though these two companies suffered heavy casualties they remained in ambush until help arrived.

Only an Indian squaw has told us just what happened to Custer and to the men of his immediate command. For on  p140 that hill every man lay dead. A single horse, Commanche,º remained alive, and the horse could not speak. Colonel Tom Custer, who had captured Rain-in‑the‑Face, was found with his heart cut out. According to the tale of the squaw, when the white men had dismounted in order to fire, the savages rushed upon them and, waving blankets, caused their horses to stampede while the Indians, who have been variously estimated at from three to five thousand, finished the battle in their own way. Custer's whole regiment when it left General Terry had numbered but six hundred and fifty-five men, and the men in his immediate command were only a few over two hundred and fifty. Of these not one remained to tell the tale. The revenge of Rain-in‑the‑Face had been complete and terrible. General Custer lay as he had fallen, a bullet in his temple.

Generals George A. Custer and George Crook — the "Gray Fox," as he was called by both Indians and white men — were perhaps the most famous of the West Point men who opened the West by helping to clear it of hostile savages. Both men were fearless in denouncing the depredations which unscrupulous traders made on the red men. Their duty was hard and in their lifetime it was not rewarded. In their long marches over the Great Plains in the glare and the dust, did they think of the sharp bend of the Hudson as it lay on some June day, silver and peaceful, while a young cadet stole an idle moment from tedious study to watch it wind beneath its guarding mountains?

Thayer's Note:

a General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George Crook, Class of 1852.

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