Indian Wars

Major M.A. Reno's Report on the Battle of Little Big Horn

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Report on the Battle of Little Big Horn
Major M.A. Reno


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Camp on the Yellowstone River, 5 July 1876

The command of the regiment having developed upon me as the senior surviving officer from the battle of the 25th and 26th of June, between the Seventh Cavalry and Sitting Bull's band of hostile Sioux, on the Little Big Horn River, I have the honor to submit the following report of its operations from the time of leaving the main column unitl the command was united in the vicinity of the Indian village:

The regiment left the camp at the mouth of the Rosebud River, after passing in review before the department commander, under command of Bvt. Maj. Gen. G. A. Custer, lieutenant-colonel, on the afternoon of the 22nd day of June, and marched up the Rosebud 12 miles and encamped; 23rd, marched up the Rosebud, passing many old Indian camps, and following a very large pole-trail, but not fresh, making 33 miles; 24th, the march was continued up the Rosebud, the trail and signs freshening with every mile, until we had made 28 miles, and we then encamped and waited for information from the scouts. At 9:25 p.m. Custer called the officers together and informed us that beyond a doubt the village was in the valley of the Little Big Horn, and in order to reach it it was necessary to cross the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn, and it would be impossible to do so in the day-time without discovering our march to the Indians; that we would prepare to march at 11 p.m. This was done, the line of march turning from the Rosebud to the right up one of its branches which headed near the summit of the divide. About 2 a.m. on the 25th the scouts told him that he could not cross the divide before daylight. We then made coffee and rested for three hours, at the expiration of which time the march was resumed, the divide crossed, and about 8 a.m. the command was in the valley of one of the branches of the Little Big Horn. By this time Indians had been seen and it was certain that we could not suprise them, and it was determined to move at once to the attack. Previous to this, no division of the regiment had been made since the order had been issued on the Yellowstone annuling wing and battalion organizations, but Custer informed me that he would assign commands on the march.

I was ordered by Lieut. W. W. Cooke, adjutant, to assume command of Companies M, A, and G; Captain Benteen of Companies H, D, and K. Custer retained C, E, F, I, and L under his immediate command, and Company B, Captain McDougall, in rear of the pack- train.

I assumed command of the companies assigned to me, and, without any definite orders, moved forward with the rest of the column, and well to its left.

I saw Benteen moving farther to the left, and, as they passed, he told me he had orders to move well to the left, and sweep everything before him. I did not see him again until about 2.30 p.m. The command moved down to the creek toward the Little Big Horn Valley, Custer with five companies on the right bank, myself and three companies on the left bank, and Benteen farther to the left, and out of sight.

As we approached a deserted village, and in which was standing one tepee, about 11 a.m., Custer motioned me to cross to him, which I did, and moved nearer to his column until about 12.30 a.m. when Lieutenant Cook, adjutant, came to me and said the village was only two miles above, and running away; to move forward at as rapid a gait as prudent, and to charge afterward, and that the whole outfit would support me. I think those were his exact words. I at once took a fast trot, and moved down about two miles, when I came to a ford of the river. I crossed immediately, and halted about ten minutes or less to gather the battalion, sending word to Custer that I had everything in front of me, and that they were strong. I deployed, and, with the Ree scouts on my left, charged down the valley, driving the Indians with great ease for about two and a half miles. I, however, soon saw that I was being drawn into some trap, as they would certainly fight harder, and especially as we were nearing their village, which was still standing; besides, I could not see Custer or any other support, and at the same time the very earth seemed to grow Indians, and they were running toward me in swarms, and from all directions. I saw I must defend myself and give up the attack mounted. This I did. Taking possession of a front of woods, and which furnished, near its edge, a shelter for the horses, dismounted and fought them on foot, making headway through the woods. I soon found myself in the near vicinity of the village, saw that I was fighting odds of at least five to one, and that my only hope was to get out of the woods, where I would soon have been surrounded, and gain some high ground. I accomplished this by mounting and charging the Indians between me and the bluffs on the opposite side of the river. In this charge, First Lieut. Donald McIntosh, Second Lieut. Benjamin H. Hodgson, Seventh Cavalry, and Acting Assistant Surgeon J. M. De Wolf, were killed.

I succeeded in reaching the top of the bluff, with a loss of three officers and twenty-nine enlisted men killed and seven wounded. Almost at the same time I reached the top, mounted men were seen to be coming toward us, and it proved to be Colonel Benteen's battalion, Companies H, D, and K. We joined forces, and in a short time the pack-train came up. As senior, my command was then A, B, D, G, H, K, and M, about three hundred and eighty men, and the following officers: Captains Benteen, Weir, French and McDougall, First Lieutenants Godfrey, Mathey, and Gibson, and Second Lieutenants Edgerly, Wallace, Varnum, and Hare, and Acting Assistant Surgeon Porter.

First Lieutenant De Rudio was in the dismounted fight in the woods, but, having some trouble with his horse, did not join the command in the charge out, and hiding himself in the woods, joined the command after night-fall on the 26th.

Still hearing nothing of Custer, and, with this re-enforcement, I moved down the river in the direction of the village, keeping on the bluffs.

We had heard firing in that direction and knew it could only be Custer. I moved to the summit of the highest bluff, but seeing and hearing nothing sent Captain Weir with his company to open communication with him. He soon sent word by Lieutenant Hare that he could go no farther, and that the Indians were getting around him. At this time he was keeping up a heavy fire from his skirmish line. I at once turned everything back to the first position I had taken on the bluffs, and which seemed to me the best. I dismounted the men and had the horses and mules of the pack-train driven together in a depression, put the men on the crests of the bluffs, and which seemed to me the best. I dismounted, the men and had the horses and mules of the pack-train driven together in a depression, put the men on the crests of the hills making the depression, and had hardly done so when I was furiously attacked. This was about 6 p.m. We held our ground, with a loss of eighteen enlisted men killed and forty-six wounded, until the attack ceased, about 9 p.m. As I knew by this their overwhelming numbers, and had given up any support from that portion of the regiment with Custer, I had the men dig rifle pits, barricade with dead horses and mules, and boxes of hard bread, the opening of the depression toward the Indians in which the animals were herded, and made every exertion to be ready for what I saw would be a terrific assault the next day. All this might night the men were busy, and the Indians holding a scalp-dance underneath us in the bottom and in our hearing. On the morning of the 26th I felt confident that I could hold my own, and was ready, as far as I could be, when at daylight, about 2.30 a.m., I heard the crack of two rifles. This was the signal for the beginning of a fire that I have never equaled. Every rifle was handled by an expert and skilled marksman, and with a range that exceeded our carbines, and it was simply impossible to show any part of the body before it was struck. We could see, as the day brightened, countless hordes of them pouring up the valley from the village and scampering over the high points toward the places designated for them by their chiefs, and which entirely surrounded our position. They had sufficient numbers to completely encircle us, and men were struck from opposite sides of the lines from where the shots were fired. I think we were fighting all the Sioux Nation, and also all the deparadoes, renegades, half-breeds, and squaw-men between the Missouri and the Arkansas and east of the Rocky Mountains, and they must have numbered at least twenty-five hundred warriors.

The fire did not slacken until about 9.30 a.m., and then we found they were making a last desperate effort and which was directed against the lines held by Companies H and M. In this charge they came close enough to use their bows and arrows, and one man lying dead within our lines was touched with the coup-stick of one of the foremost Indians. When I say the stick was only ten or twelve feet long, some idea of the desperate and reckless fighting of these people may be understood.

This charge of theirs was gallantly repulsed by the men on that line, lead by Colonel Benteen. They also came close enough to send their arrows into the line held by Companies D and K, but were driven away by a like charge of the line, which I accompanied. We now had many wounded, and the question of water was vital, as from 6 p.m. the previous evening until now, 10 a.m., about sixteen hours, we had been without.

A skirmish line was formed under Colonel Benteen to protect the descent of volunteers down the hill in front of his position to reach the water. We succeeded in getting some canteens, although many of the men were hit in doing so. The fury of the attack was now over, and to our astonishment the Indians were seen going in parties toward the village. But two solutions occured to us for this movement; that they were going for something to eat, more ammunition, (as they had been throwing arrows,) or that Custer was coming. We took advantage of this lull to fill all vessels with water, and soon had it by camp- kettles full. But they continued to withdraw, and all firing ceased save occasional shots from sharp-shooters sent to annoy us about the water. About 2 p.m. the grass in the bottom was set on fire and followed up by Indians who encouraged its burning, and it was evident to me it was done for a purpose, and which purpose I discovered later on to be the creation of a dense cloud of smoke behind which they were packing and preparing to move their village. It was between 6 and 7 p.m. that the village came out from behind the dense clouds of smoke and dust. We had a close and good view of them as they filed away in the direction of the Big Horn Mountains, moving in almost perfect military order. The length of the column was full equal to that of a large division of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac as I have seen it in its march.

We now thought of Custer, of whom nothing had been seen and nothing heard since the firing in his direction about 6 p.m. on the eve of the 25th, and we concluded that the Indians had gotten between him and us and driven him toward the boat at the mouth of the Little Big Horn River. The awful fate that did befall him never occurred to any of us as within the limits of possibility.

During the night I changed my position in order to secure an unlimited supply of water, and was prepared for their return, feeling sure they would do som as they were in such numbers; but early in the morning of the 27th, and while we were on the qui vire for Indians, I saw with my glass a dust some distance down the valley. There was no certainty for some time what they were, but finally I satisfied myself they were cavalry, and, if so, could only be Custer, as it was ahead of the time that I understood that General Terry could be expected. Before this time, however, I had written a communication to General Terry, and three volunteers were to try and reach him. (I had no confidence in the Indians with me, and could not get them to do anything.) If this dust were Indians it was possible they would not expect any one to leave. The men started, and were told to go as near as it was safe to determine whether the approaching column was white men, and to return at once in case they found it so, but if they were Indians to push on to General Terry. In a short time, we saw them returning a note from Terry to Custer saying Crow scouts had come to camp saying he had been whipped, but that it was not believed. I think it was about 10.30 a.m. when General Terry rode into my lines, and the fate of Custer and his brave men was soon determined by Captain Benteen proceeding to the battle-ground, and where was recognized the following officers, who were surrounded by the dead bodies of many of their men; Gen G. A. Custer, Col. W. W. Cook, adjutant; Capts. M. W. Keogh, G. W. Yates, and T. W. Custer; First Lieuts. A. E. Smith, James Calhoun; Second Lieuts. W. V. Reily, of the Seventh Cavalry and J. J. Crittenden, of the Twelfth Infantry, temporarily attached to this regiment. The bodies of Lieut. J. E. Porter and Second Lieuts. H. M. Harrington and J. G. Sturgis, Seventh Cavalry, and Asst. Surg. G. W. Lord, U. S. A., were not recognized; but there is every reasonable probability they were killed. It was more certain that the column of five companies with Custer had been killed.

The wounded in my lines were, during the afternoon and evening of the 27th, moved to the camp of General Terry, and at 5 a.m. of the 28th I proceeded with the regiment to th battleground of Custer, and buried 204 bodies, including the following-named citizens: Mr. Boston Custer, Mr. Reed (a young nephew of General Custer,) and Mr. Kellog, (a correspondent for the New York Herald.) The following-named citizens and Indians who were with my command were also killed: Charles Reynolds, guide and hunter; Isaiah Dorman, (colored,) interpreter; Bloody Knife, who fell from immediately by my side; Bobtail Bull, and Stab, of the Indian scouts.

After traveling over his trail, it was evident to me that Custer intended to support me by moving farther down the stream and attacking the village in flank; that he found the distance greater to ford than he anticipated; that he did charge, but his march had taken so long, although his trail shows that he had moved rapidly, that they were ready for him; that Companies C and I, and perhaps part of E, crossed to the village or attempted it; at the charge were met by a staggering fire, and that they fell back to find a position from which to defend themselves, but they were followed too closely by the Indians to permit time to form any kind of a line.

I think had the regiment gone in as a body, and from the woods from which I fought advanced upon the village, its destruction was certain. But he was fully confident they were running away, or he would not have turned from me. I think (after the great number of Indians that were in the village,) that the following reasons obtain for the misfortune; His rapid marching for two days and one night before the fight; attacking in the day-time at 12 m., and when they were on the qui vire, instead of early morning; and lastly, his unfortunate division of the regiment into three commands.

During my fight with Indians, I had the heartiest support from officers and men, but the conspicuous services of Bvt. Col. F. W. Benteen I desire to call attention to especially, for if ever a soldier deserved recognition by his Government for distinguished services he certainly does. I inclose herewith his report of the operations of his battalion from the time of leaving the regiment until we joined commands on the hill. I also inclose an accuate list of casaulties, as far as it can be made at the present time, separating them into two lists: A, those killed in General Custer's command; B, those killed and wounded in the command I had.

The number of Indians killed can only be approximated until we hear through the agencies. I saw the bodies of eighteen, and Captain Ball, Second Cavalry, who made a scout of thirteen miles over their trail, says that their graves were many along their line of march. It is simply impossible that numbers of them should not be hit in the several charges they made so close to my lines. They made their approaches through the deep gulches that led from the hill-top to the river, and, when the jealous care with which the Indian guards the bodies of killed and wounded is considered, it is not astonishing that their bodies were not found. It is probable that the stores left by them and destroyed the next two days was to make room for many of these on their travois. The harrowing sight of the dead bodies crowning the height on which Custer fell, and which will remain vividly in my memory until death, is too recent for me not to ask the good people of this country whether a policy that sets opposing parties in the field, armed, clothed, and equipped by one and the same Government should not be abolished.

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Annual Report of the Secretary of War, 1876, 44th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 476-480.