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America was stunned by General Custer’s defeat

Posted in America, Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 29 November 2011

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This edited article about America originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 864 published on  5 August  1978.

Little Bighorn, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Little Bighorn by Ron Embleton

On a blazing June day in Montana in 1876, more than 200 men of the 7th United States Cavalry, led by their glory-hunting commander, George Armstrong Custer, blundered into a huge concentration of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians under Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall. After a ferocious fight against overwhelming odds that lasted about an hour, Custer’s entire command was wiped out and not one white man knew that it had happened, not even the rest of the 7th cavalry, led by Major Marcus Reno, who were fighting stiff opposition several kilometres away.

Custer’s Last Stand, as that desperate battle on a ridge above the Little Bighorn River is usually called, was to become an almost legendary event which has been argued about ever since; but that June evening the dead lay unburied as the thick pall of gunsmoke that had hung over the battlefield thinned out and then vanished into the summer sky. It was 25th June, 1876, and the Indians had won their most famous victory, as the world was very soon to discover.

The first white men to find out the grim facts reached the battlefield on the 27th. They were men of General Terry’s command and they looked in stunned horror at the evidence of the disaster. The victors were nowhere to be seen. Then the rest of Custer’s regiment under Reno reached the battlefield. They tried to piece together what had happened, but no one has ever known for certain.

First to hear about the battle were Indians listening to the “moccasin telegraph” of the Great Plains: mounted messengers and smoke signals. Days before any white man knew what had happened, hostile and peaceful Indians alike knew that a disaster had befallen the soldiers. Those Indians who hung about white forts began giving strange looks that made some whites suspect that something had befallen Custer. But no one realised the extent of the disaster.

As for the rest of the nation, Americans were just about to celebrate the 100th birthday of the United States, the big day being 4th July.

How wonderful it would be if the man they thought of as the finest Indian-fighter of them all pulled off a victory to coincide with the big celebration.

Back on the stricken battlefield, preparations were being made to get Reno’s wounded down the Big Horn, the Yellowstone and the Missouri rivers to the town of Bismarck, in Dakota Territory, where they could be tended. The men had to be got to the steamer Far West at the mouth of the Big Horn.

Meanwhile, one of Custer’s Crow Indian scouts, Curly, who had missed the battle but seen something of it from a distance and knew that it must have been a defeat, reached three of the Far West’s crew, who were fishing a mile from the boat. As he knew no English, he failed to get his message through, but Curly was followed by two white military couriers. Preparations were made to receive the wounded and the steamboat was barricaded in case the Indians attacked.

General Terry arrived with orders for the Far West’s skipper, Captain Grant Marsh.

“Captain, you are about to start on a trip with fifty-two wounded men on your boat,” said Terry. “This is a bad river to navigate and accidents are liable to happen. I wish to ask you that you use all the skill you possess, all the caution you can command, to make the journey safely.”

So began the greatest adventure in the entire history of Western steamboat journeys. The nightmare voyage through frequently raging waters started on the evening of July 3rd. There was a stop to carry troops across river and a second one to collect supplies, and Bismarck was eventually reached at 11 p.m. on 5th July. The Far West had travelled 1,136 kilometres at an average of 560 kilometres a day and, because of her hectic speed, which was never again equalled, fifty-one of the wounded survived.

At Bismarck the crew had confirmed rumours of the disaster; now Mrs. Custer and the other widows of the 7th at nearby Fort Lincoln had to learn the harsh, tragic news.

Other messengers had borne the news of the battle to Frontier outposts and towns, most notably “Muggins” Taylor who carried the official despatches from General Terry. He rode so fast that he exhausted himself and had to ask a rancher named Horace Countryman to take them on. It was Countryman who brought the news to Helena, Montana, where every shop was closed because of the national celebrations. For this was 4th July.

The Editor of the Daily Herald went to work with his staff and brought out a special edition, meanwhile sending news by telegraph across the country. So it came about that on her 100th birthday the first details of the humiliating defeat reached all parts of America. The Herald was deluged with telegrams demanding more details, and at first neither its report, nor others which began to trickle in, were fully believed. How could “savages” destroy the most famous fighting regiment in the Army? But when the first full account – more than 15,000 words telegraphed to the New York Herald at a cost of 3,000 dollars – appeared, there could no longer be any doubt as to the magnitude of the humiliation. By the 8th July, every American and most of the world knew the worst.

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