Between late 1874 and early 1875, a geological study – led by renowned Indian fighter and Civil War hero, Lt. Col. George A. Custer – discovered gold in the Black Hills, then considered part of the Department of Missouri. News of the find leaked out and hundreds of prospectors rushed to the area. The Black Hills, however, were considered sacred by the American Indians and existing treaties with the U.S. government forbade any settlement there. Offers to purchase the Black Hills were rejected and the U.S. Secretary of War issued an ultimatum declaring that all Indians would have to move to designated reservations within two months. While most of the Plains Indians resigned themselves to life on the government Reservations, others outraged by the incursion and encouraged by holy man and spiritual leader, Sitting Bull – banded together, determined that war was their only recourse. In response, Sitting Bull’s Lakota and Cheyenne warriors initiated hostilities against the interlopers, hoping to drive off the increasing number of white prospectors and speculators.
Black Hills Expedition
Determining that military intervention was required, troops were assembled to resolve the issue under the leadership of Brigadier General Alfred A. Terry. By the spring of 1876, an intricate three-pronged campaign was mobilized for the Little Big Horn vicinity in an effort to force the “hostiles” onto the reservations. On May 17, Custer and his Seventh Cavalry Regiment left Fort Abraham Lincoln (located near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota), riding out in columns of four. Accompanying Custer and his cavalrymen was the Regimental Band, as well as assorted Arikara and Crow Indian scouts. Some tribes like the Arikara and Crow decided that allaying themselves with the Army would provide better opportunities in reclaiming land taken by the aggressive Lakota.
Little thought was given to understanding the Plains Indians, which were composed primarily of Lakota (Sioux), Arapahos, and Cheyennes along with other contingents of Kiowas and Comanches. For their common defense, the various bands began uniting into one immense camp, totaling perhaps 10,000 men, women and children by some estimates. Subtracting non-combatants from this total still leaves approximately 5,000 warriors in the field. While Terry accompanied one column himself, Colonel John Gibbon and General George Crook commanded the other two, with the primary goal of converging on the Indian village and blocking any route of escape.
Attached to Terry’s column was Lt. Colonel George A. Custer. Impetuous, courageous and often reckless, Custer sought glory and a quick end to the Indian problem. He had earned popular acclaim as a Civil War cavalry leader and spent a few years fighting various Indian tribes. In a lengthy interview with the Washington Times (published November 4, 1906), Martin allowed the journalist to review his diary, which provides exceptional details of Custer and the troops in the period leading up to the battle. In mid-1876, Martin writes, “We are at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and it was the first time in years that Seventh Cavalry had been united. General Terry and staff arrived and the General took command about the 12th of May, 1876. General Custer came from Washington, but did not have much to say, for at that time, he was in trouble with General (then President) Grant. But he had the spirit.”
Ft Lincoln. Lt Col. George Custer third from left
On May 17, 1876, Custer and his troops prepared to leave Fort Lincoln. Martin details the brigade’s make-up and disposition, “The troops for this expedition consisted of twelve troops of the Seventh Cavalry, four companies of infantry, ten of fifteen Indian scouts, and twenty-five or thirty civilians. We took the field at 6:30 AM. “Boots and Saddles” was sounded, and at 7 AM, stand, horse and mount. Then we passed in review and bade farewell to our friends and though the band was playing ˜The Girl I Left Behind Me,” it seemed like a funeral procession. Later it played Custer’s favorite tune, “Garrion” [Garry Owen].” He continues, “After leaving the post, the march was taken up in columns of fours, route step, General Terry and staff in front, followed by General Custer and staff (Mrs. Custer rode on the left of the General). That day we made Little Heart River and camped for the night. After pitching camp assembly was sounded (I was a bugler) and we fell in for payment. It was a pretty sober crowd, everybody felt the position we were in. Some made deposits for their money, and I, for one, put $50 with the Paymaster. Next morning general call was sounded at 6:30, boots and saddles at 7, and we took up the march again. But the paymaster and poor Mrs. Lincoln went back to Fort Abraham Lincoln, and it proved to be the last farewell for her and the General.”
7th Cavalry Band at Ft Abraham Lincoln
Martin’s diary describes several days of “tireless and ceaseless marching.” Tempers flared and discipline slipped during the movement. He notes in detail one episode involving himself and Henry Voss, Custer’s Chief trumpeter. On May 29, they camped by the Little Missionary River, and Voss “detailed me as mounted orderly for headquarters; but as it was not my turn, I refused to do the duty, and after some words the chief trumpeter had me tied up on the picket line for two hours (strung up by the thumbs). I reported it to my Captain, who told General Custer. He sent for me and said he would have it investigated as soon as we got back to quarters.” The Washington Times article records that many days of “dreary, heart-breaking marches” followed, with “a hot sun and dusty plains as constant sources of discomfort to the men.” As Custer and his 647 troopers moved south to form one part of the projected envelopment, Martin noted, “We passed through many Indian camping places, in one of which we found the scalp of a white man. Here we halted, one of the scouts having reported the discovery of a large fresh camp. About this time the headquarters flag was stuck in the ground, but the wind blew it down three times and many of us believed it to be a warning of disaster.” Custer’s Indian scouts had located an enormous Indian encampment by the Little Big Horn River (in present-day Montana) in the late afternoon of June 24. The following morning, one of the Seventh Cavalry’s scouts, a half-breed named Mitch Bouyer (or Boyer), met with Custer to determine the size and strength of the Indian encampment. Bouyer purportedly related to Custer, “Well, General, if you don’t find more Indians in that valley than you ever saw together, you can hang me.” The sheer size of the village and number of Indians was unfathomable to Custer.
On the following morning, as Custer’s men moved into position for an attack planned for the next day, some troopers were spotted by a small band of Indians. This development angered Custer, who assumed it eliminated the crucial element of surprise. Neglecting his general orders to wait for General Terry’s main column and severely underestimating the Indian warriors’ numerical superiority and resolve, he opted for an immediate attack. Utilizing tactics successfully employed in earlier battles, he chose to divide his men into three smaller battalions with the intent of encircling the encampment; Indian warriors, although brave and resilient combatants, were inclined to flee with their families when attacked within their villages. At noon, Martin reported that three companies were sent off with Major Marcus Reno to “march down the Little Big Horn valley and charge everything before him” Reno and his troopers accordingly attacked from the southern end of the village, while Captain Frederick Benteen, also with three companies, rode off to the southwest with orders to “attack all he came across.” Lastly, one company was to guard the pack train of ammunition and supplies, under the command of Captain Thomas McDougall. Custer and the remaining companies would eventually head in a northwesterly direction with the aim of attacking from the east.