The Attack Begins
Custer and Reno’s columns rode together for a few miles along a creek leading to the Little Big Horn. As Reno moved off to begin his attack, Custer and his five companies climbed a bluff overlooking the valley. They continued riding east, in columns of two, eventually stopping by a narrow ravine. As the troopers checked their saddles and weapons, Custer rode to the crest of the bluff, accompanied by his adjutants and Martin. The latter, though normally assigned to Benteen’s H Company, was attached to Custer’s column on this day. Martin explained this development in his diary: “Trumpeter Vose [Voss] called back to me to report as orderly to General Custer, and although, again, it was not my turn, I did as he commanded. General Custer told me to keep close behind him, and we began the march which took up to the top of the hill, from which we saw all of Sitting Bull’s village.”Custer and Cooke scrutinized the encampment carefully, and Martin noted, “It seemed deserted as we would only see a few squaws, papooses, ponies, and dog.”According to Martin, Custer assumed the Indian warriors were away, perhaps buffalo hunting. Following a brief consultation with Cooke, Custer wheeled his horse, waved his hat and exhorted the men in his high-pitched voice: “Boys, have courage! Be brave, and as soon as we get through with these Indians we will go home to our winter station.” The troopers replied with three quick cheers.
Little Bighorn Vally from Reno Hill
It was approximately 3:35, moments before Custer launched his attack. Perhaps realizing that this would be a bigger battle than expected, Custer asked Cooke to send a dispatch to Benteen urgently requesting men and ammunition (“packs). Pulling a notepad from his pocket, the Canadian-born Cooke wrote quickly:
Come on. Big Village.
Be quick. Bring packs.
W. W. Cooke
P.S. Bring Packs.
Martin’s diary recounted the next fateful moments. General Custer perused the note before calling for an orderly to deliver it. An unidentified trooper stepped out to which Custer replied, “No, no, the other man.” Martin nudged his mount forward and tucked the dispatch into his gauntlet. Before he departed, Custer instructed, “Trumpeter, go back on our trail and see if you can discover Benteen and give him this message. If you see no danger come back to us, but if you find Indians in your way stay with Benteen and return with him and when you get back to us report.” It has been noted that Cooke penned the note to overcome concern about Martin’s broken English, but Martin does not mention it. The language issue would loom later in the day.
As Martin hurried off, Custer and his five doomed companies began their slow descent into the valley below. “Riding fast,” continued Martin in his diary, “I soon reached the crest of the hill, and looking back, I could see that the Indians had already attacked, and our boys were acting very excitedly. I rested my horse on the brow of the hill for a minute and sat watching the action in the distance. At the time, I did not think it was the last time any one of these men would ever been seen in life.” Carrying the message would not only save his life, it would be Martin’s defining moment in American history: One that would earn him the unenviable renown as “the last white man to see Custer alive.”
Martin pushed his mount hard as rounds fired by nearby Indians slammed into the ground by him. Spurring his mount, he rode out of their rifle range quickly. Within a few minutes, Martin spotted a solitary rider heading in his direction. It was Custer’s younger brother, Boston, a civilian who had accompanied the column as a guide and forager, among other duties. Boston had been with McDougall’s pack train when an earlier messenger had arrived with a request for ammunition; he immediately set out to locate Custer’s command. Seeing Martin along the way, Boston excitedly asked for his brother’s exact location and, before pressing on, told Martin that his horse was limping from a bullet wound. Boston would be one of three Custer brothers – the other, Tom – who would perish that afternoon. Ironically, this brief meeting would unite the last trooper to see Custer alive and the last man to join the doomed column.
Finally locating Benteen and his command around 4:00 p.m., a relieved Martin rode down and handed over the dispatch. Benteen scanned the note quickly, passed it to Captain Thomas Weir, and asked Martin for Custer’s location. Martin breathlessly replied that Custer and his troopers were three miles away to the north.
“Is [Custer] being attacked or not?” implored Benteen.
Martin tersely – perhaps nervously – replied, “Yes, [he] is being attacked.” Martin’s response provokes historical debate. Eyewitnesses to this encounter report that an animated Martin added in a heavy Italian accent – that the Indians were “skedaddling” (army slang for retreating). In a 1908 interview with Walter Mason Camp, Martin denies using the work “skedaddling” although it is generally acknowledged to have been part of the troopers’ lexicon in that era. There exist scant witnesses to this conversation and its veracity is questionable in light of Martin’s recollection. Benteen’s version may have been altered to justify his later actions, as many of the senior officers’ actions were questioned after the battle.
Any version of this brief meeting must be viewed in the light of that particular moment’s circumstances: The troopers, including their commanders, were under severe stress exacerbated by days of relentless riding and imminent battle with an opponent of unknown strength. This was truly the “heat of battle”and history is filled with seemingly obvious miscommunications occurring at these moments.
Martin, for his part, does not delve into the detail of this conversation. His diary, as reported by the Washington Times Magazine in a 1906 column, summarized the conversation as a quick exchange. Then, Benteen hurried forward, joined Reno [who had fallen back with the remains of his command], and we pushed to Custer’s aid. Instead of deploying immediately to support Custer’s attack, Benteen moved to a nearby saucer-shaped hill to reinforce the third battalion led by Major Marcus Reno. The latter’s column suffered a severe mauling after beginning their assault and retreated to what is now called Reno Hill. Reno and his men were almost certainly saved from destruction by Benteen’s timely arrival. These troops remained in their defensive position on the hill for another two days fending off attacks, vainly hoping for Custer to relieve them.
One can imagine what these soldiers endured during this time: Cursing and sweating soldiers frantically scraping the hard ground to create cover from the enemy fire; dust swirling about, limiting vision, and accompanied by unremitting heat; bewildered and terrified horse and mules whinnying wildly; shots plunking into the ground and unfortunate soldiers who would in turn scream from shock and pain; and, unrelenting thirst for both man and animal. As these events unfolded, great courage was evident in some of the men. Many soldiers, including Martin, would later testify that many lives were certainly saved by a cool and composed Benteen. While Reno cowered in the center of the position, Benteen repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire, even being hit in the heel of his boot. Although they occasionally ventured out to chase off snipers or obtain water, they were unable or unwilling to locate Custer’s column with the exception of one failed foray.
It would have made little difference, however, as Custer’s forces were swiftly surrounded and annihilated within an hour. Two long days passed before the main U.S. Army force arrived, led by General Terry. Their arrival, noted Martin, was “late for Custer and just in time for us – for we were about 400 against 5,000.” Gathering up Reno and Benteen’s surviving troops, Terry’s command rode to the battle site. Martin description is chilling and detailed: “When we got to the place where they had made their stand, we found everything dead except Captain Keogh’s horse. The men had been cut and mangled badly, heads all smashed in, arms and legs twisted like rope, and twenty or thirty arrows struck in each body. It was the worst sight imaginable. Toward the middle of the battleground, we found the body of Custer’s grey horse, with the general’s head resting on its stomach. There was a bullet hole in his left breast and one other in his right temple. His clothes, except hat, coat and boots, were on him, but his watch was gone.”After burying the dead where they had fallen, Terry retreated to the mouth of the Big Horn river, eventually arriving at Fort Abraham Lincoln by the Army’s river steamer, The Far West. Reinforcements were ordered and over the next few years, Federal troops streamed into the Black Hills. Recalcitrant Indians were either rounded up and shipped to government reservations, or hunted down and killed.