Leaving Little Bighorn

By John C. McManus

Back at the main column, General Terry and Colonel Gibbon watched as a lone horseman, Bradley’s runner (Private Henry Rice from H Company), rode across the river and up to them. 3b02389rRice’s face was pale and flushed and his voice trembled as he spoke: “I have a very sad report to make. I have counted one-hundred-ninety seven bodies lying on the hills!” Horror-stricken, everyone stared at Private Rice for a few seconds. “White men?” Terry asked. “Yes, white men.” Rice nodded in reply. Terry and Gibbon exchanged worried looks. They now knew that the Crows’ reports were correct. Custer had met disaster; the only question was to what degree.

By now, Bradley knew all too well. He and his men picked over the battlefield, identifying what bodies they could, looking for survivors, searching the bodies of dead cavalry troopers and Indians. Bradley found the body of Custer and claimed that although the flamboyant officer had been stripped, his body had not been mutilated. Nor did it show signs of any particular trauma or violent death. The same could not be said of many others. Soon the main column reached the battlefield, and Gibbon saw firsthand the grisly remnants of what had happened there. “I came upon the body of a soldier lying on his face near a dead horse. He was stripped, his scalp gone, his head beaten in, and his body filled with bullet-holes and arrows. Close by was another body, also close to a dead horse, lying, like the other, on its face, but partially clothed, and this was recognized by one of our officers as the body of Captain [Donald] McIntosh.”

At a distance, the stripped bodies of Custer’s men had resembled nothing so much as white boulders. Up close, they were truly ghastly to behold. “The men . . . were . . . scalped and horribly mutilated,” one soldier recalled. “There the bodies lay, mostly naked, and scattered over a field maybe half a mile square.” As Captain Clifford surveyed the battlefield and saw the terrible aftermath of violent death, torture, and mutilation, waves of nausea simmered in his gut: “It is sickening to look at the stripped bodies. Here a hand gone, and here a foot or a head . . . gashes cut in all parts of the body; eyes gouged out, noses and ears cut off, and skulls crushed in.” Another officer recalled that “eyes had been torn from their sockets, and hands . . . and arms, legs, and noses had been wrenched off. Many had their flesh cut in strips the entire length of their bodies, and there were others whose limbs were closely perforated with bullets, showing that the torture had been inflicted while the wretched victims were still alive.”

Rather than allow his men to simply stand around the grassy slopes of the battle area, gawking at these horrible sights, Colonel Gibbon immediately set them about the task of cleaning up: “The command was placed in camp here, and details at once set to work to haul away the dead horses and bury the men, both of which were already becoming offensive.”

This work was gruesome. The soldiers had to pull arrows out of their dead comrades and, in the case of many, struggle to identify them. Many of the bodies had swollen to twice their normal size, the faces blackened from accelerated decay in the heat. The bodies oozed with noxious gases and liquids. Some were missing scalps. Some of the faces had been beaten so thoroughly as to be unrecognizable. All of the bodies stank beyond belief. The odor was unearthly, death personified. The steamy heat naturally made the stench even worse. For hours the men dug and scraped, laying the dead soldiers into shallow graves.

Other work details dealt with Reno’s wounded, most of whom were lying on the same hot, dusty hill where they had made their determined stand against the Indians. Now they had no shelter and little medical care. Gibbon ordered them moved down to his camp in a fairly cool area near a creek bed. There the wounded waited and suffered, mostly in silence as Dr. Paulding did everything in his power to save their lives and make them comfortable. In Lieutenant McBlain’s memory, the doctor was “here, there and everywhere . . . [alleviating] the suffering of those whose wounds were necessarily fatal, and who had lain out in the hot June sun for two days and a half.” Paulding spent most of his time, though, helping “those whose wounds were less serious or painful” and could thus be saved.

Flies were attracted by the preponderance of dead flesh in the area. They descended on the wounded, eating away at their sores and pus. They inundated the dead and swarmed around the camp. “The repulsive . . . green flies that have been feasting on the swollen bodies of the dead, are attracted to the camp fires by the smell of cooking meat,” a revolted Captain Clifford wrote. “They come in such swarms that a persevering swing of the tree branch is necessary to keep them from settling on the food. An instant’s cessation of the motion of the branch and they pounce down upon the morsel that is being conveyed to the mouth. They crawl over the neck and face, into eyes and ears, under the sleeves with a greedy eagerness.” The captain and many other men lost their appetites.

Meanwhile, the toughness of the wounded cavalrymen deeply impressed Gibbon: “I have seen in the course of my military life many wounded men, but I never saw any who endured suffering, privations, and the fatigue of travel, more patiently and cheerfully than those brave fellows of the Seventh Cavalry.” Predictably, the unwounded survivors of the 7th Cavalry were deeply infused with melancholy. Private Homer Coon, a Cottonbaler from G Company, watched the cavalrymen closely as they sat in stunned silence around camp: “Men . . . would sit in front of their dog tents with drawn faces thinking of their loved ones at home. It looked that way to me.” The mournful mood affected everyone. A somber, brooding silence infused the whole camp. “We miss the laughing gaiety that usually attends a body of soldiery even on the battlefield,” Captain Clifford commented. “Sorrow hangs like a pall over our every thought. Every sound comes to us in a muffled monotone.”

On the evening of the twenty-eighth, the Cottonbalers, along with surviving cavalrymen, attempted to carry the wounded by hand and by horse to the mouth of the Little Bighorn, where a steamboat waited. In the darkness, over thick terrain, with an unknown number of enemy perhaps lurking in the vicinity, the going was arduous. “We carried the wounded on litters on our shoulders,” Private Geant recalled, “but we had to give it up. The distance was too great and we were all played out, so we went into camp at 2 a.m. I . . . dropped behind a sage brush and fell asleep.” They had covered only four and a half miles.

Everyone realized that a better way of transporting the wounded had to be devised. First Lieutenant Gustavus Doane of the 2nd Cavalry took charge and supervised the building of improvised litters. Freeman described them: “The litters were made of two poles 16 feet long, a crossbar 4 feet from either end, a lacing of rawhide [skinned from dead horses] between the bars upon which the wounded were laid. The ends of the long poles in front and rear of the crossbars made shafts into which the mules were put, and sling rope passed over the saddles. Each mule was led by a man on foot while two others walked at either side of the litter to steady it.”

Doane’s ingenuity made the wounded a bit more comfortable, but the fact that they were moved in pitch-darkness still made for extreme difficulties, as Geant related: “We were lost half the time, one part of the command running against the other and challenging each other.”  The soldiers were extremely anxious that the Sioux would sneak up and attack at any moment: “It was very skittish work, sometimes the men being excited and thinking there were Indians in the vicinity. I believe that if one man had fired a shot one part of the command would have blazed into the other, thinking they were Indians. We arrived at the river at 3 O’Clock A.M. and transferred the wounded to the steamer. It was a trying night. I would never like to pass another like it. It was dark, there were no roads, the mules were unruly, the wounded were groaning and we were tired to death.” Like the previous night, the men collapsed into an exhausted sleep.

After resting near the river for a couple days, the Cottonbalers began searching for the Native American tribes that had wreaked such havoc on Custer. In the process the Cottonbalers sought to make contact with General Crook’s column, which was thought to be approaching from the southwest. Gibbon attempted to order the Crows to leave camp and find Crook. They refused. Next a civilian teamster offered to do this dangerous job for the princely sum of fifteen hundred dollars. Gibbon scoffed and told him he would pay six hundred dollars—take it or leave it. On the night of July 4 the teamster left, but he wasn’t gone long. He returned four days later, minus his rifle and equipment, claiming that he had narrowly escaped being caught by the Indians, proving once again that money cannot buy courage. Three Cottonbalers, Privates James Bell, William Evans, and Benjamin Stewart of E Company, now volunteered to do the job for nothing. They left on July 9, made it to Crook, and returned on the twenty-fifth. For this harrowing runner duty through country controlled by hostile Sioux they received national publicity and Medals of Honor.

For the rest of the summer, the 7th Regiment participated in the vain search for the Sioux, logging many more Montana miles and plenty more privation. The war between the U.S. government and the non-treaty Sioux, specifically Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, continued in the years ahead, but it would not involve the Cottonbalers. The unit finally got back to Fort Shaw on October 6 having logged about seventeen hundred miles of marching during the summer.

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Excerpted from American Courage, American Carnage: 7th Infantry Chronicles: The 7th Infantry Regiment’s Combat Experience, 1812 Through World War II by John C. McManus.

Copyright ©2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of Forge Books.


JOHN C. MCMANUS  is author of The Americans at D-Day; The Americans at Normandy; American Courage, American Carnage; and The 7th Infantry Regiment: Combat in an Age of Terror. He is a professor of military history at the University of Missouri who has traveled extensively in researching his books about the American experience in the Second World War.

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