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Daniel Kanipe's Story of the Battle
THE STORY OF SERGEANT KANIPE, ONE OF CUSTER'S LAST MESSENGERS
On MAY 17  we were sent out on what was to prove to be the disastrous expedition. We started to the Yellowstone river. We marched 12 miles to the Big Heart river and made camp. We stayed there a while looking around. About June 10 we went on up to the Powder river. Six companies of the 12 were sent out on a scouting party. Leaving the wagon train at the Powder river and taking 10 days rations on pack mules, we went up the Powder river for two days, then turned across towards the Tongue river and it was on the Rosebud river that we found the Indian trail.
It was about sundown then, so we made a little coffee, then marched up the trail all night. In the morning we made coffee, and hit out up the trail again, marching up it until 12 o'clock. General Reno, who was in command of this detachment, found that his 10-day rations were running low, so we turned back down the Rosebud river and at the junction of it and the Yellowstone we met the other six companies of the regiment, under General Custer.
General Terry, department commander, was there. General Custer was under arrest. It was said, because of his attitude against the post traders who had been allowed the concessions at the different posts and which were done away with after the airing of scandals concerning posttraderships during President Grant's administration.
Why, those fellows had things so that you couldn't buy anything at the posts without getting it from them. Liquor was 25 cents a glass and the glasses was mostly glass-mighty little whisky. Custer set a maximum price and it caused his arrest. But all the high army officers were with him and he was given a command at the place I spoke of.
On July 22 Custer's outfit drew 15 days' rations off the steamboat Far West that was in the river. There were two Rodman guns, two Gatling guns in a battery with Custer. He thought that he could get along without them, and he turned them over to General Gibbon, who carried them across the river.
There's where he made a mistake, as we see it now, because if he had had one of those Rodman guns and had fired it one time those Indians wouldn't have stopped running yet -- no siree, would still be running. And if we'd had one of the Gatling guns there would have been a lot more survivors than me. In fact there would never have been any Custer massacre.
On June 22 we broke camp and started out, marching all day. That evening Custer issued orders that there would be no more bugle calls and only fire enough to make coffee and that commands would be given by signs. On the morning of June 23 we started out. We marched until nearly night, then camped and continued on next morning, June 24. That day we came to a place where the Indians had had a sun dance, and had staged a war dance, too. They had built brush sheds out of the cottonwood trees, and the ground was patted down smooth and hard, where they had been dancing about on it.
Six Crow Indian scouts that were with our regiment had come on ahead and they had found the scalp of a white man. That was from the head of a soldier with Gibbon's command. Well, sir, when those Indians, they hated the Sioux, the ones we were hunting, anyway, found this scalp hanging on a willow twig they sure had a fit.
Just cut up in general and yelled and hollered and danced about. What did they want? Why, if they had had a Sioux there then it would have been a bad day for him, they were that mad. They brought the scalp back to General Custer, who passed it around to the men, after looking at it. Sergeant Finley, who was the oldest line sergeant in my company, had it in his saddle pockets when he was massacred. We marched all day June 24. Indian scouts that had been sent ahead returned that night about 10 o'clock. It was just good dark. You know that you can see to read at 9 o'clock in the summer time in that country.
We got orders that night to saddle and pack up. We marched all night, coming close to the junction of the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn river. So General Custer took the regiment into a ravine that looked as though we could keep concealed there as long as we wanted to. But, in coming in, as we were riding at a hard trot and a gallop, Quartermaster Sergeant Hearst lost some hard bread from the packs of some of the pack train. Learning this, General Custer ordered the sergeant to go back and get the bread.
But when the sergeant reached the point where the bread had dropped out, there were two Indians helping themselves to it. They ran at the approach of the soldiers. Coming back to camp this incident was reported to General Custer and he ordered us to saddle up. [Note: Quartermaster Sergeant Hearst murdered one of the Sioux who found the lost hardtack box, a ten-year old boy named Deeds. However, two Sioux got away: Drags The Rope and Brown Back. Here is Drags The Rope's eye-witness account of the Americans' murder of Deeds.]
I reasoned it out that he had planned to surprise the Indians the next morning, but as they already knew that we were there, he was going to do it now. [Note: Edward Godfrey, who attended the Officers' Call the night before, said Kanipe was correct on this point: Custer had originally planned to attack at dawn on June 26.] We marched up the divide and halted. General Custer took the chief trumpeter [Henry Voss] and two scouts and was gone two hours.
When he came back he divided the regiment into three detachments. He gave Major Reno three troops, "A," "M," and "G;" Captain Benteen, three troops, "H," "K" and "D," and gave Captain McDougall charge of the pack train with Troop "B." He then took for himself Troops "C," "E," "I," and "F." Leaving that place we went out this way. Major Reno was to the left and abreast with General Custer and Captain Benteen to the left of Major Reno. You could tell that the plan was to strike the Indian camp at three places. Captain McDougall was to bring the pack train on up the main Indian trail. We went at a gallop. Turning down what is now Benteen's creek, we made our way to a crossing and found a vacated Indian camp on the other side. The fires were not all out. There was a dead Indian in one of the tepees that was still standing. General Custer ordered the tepee fired. Major Reno came in sight and he was signaled to cross Benteen creek and did so. General Custer, with three companies, pushed down the creek. [Note: Feather Earring said the dead warrior was Old She Bear, who had been mortally wounded at the Battle of the Rosebud eight days before.]
When we reached within a quarter of a mile of the junction of Benteen's creek with the Little Big Horn I sighted Indians on the top of the range of bluffs over the Little Big Horn river. I said to First Sergeant Bobo, "There are the Indians."
General Custer threw up his head about that time and we -- Troops "C," "E," "I," and "F" -- headed for the range of bluffs where we had seen the Indians. Tom Custer, brother of the general, was captain of my troop, "C." We rode hard, but when we reached the top the Indians were gone.
However, we could see the tepees for miles. The Crow Indian scouts with our outfit wanted to slip down and get a few ponies. Some of them did slip down, but they got shot for their pains. Chief Scout Mitch Buie (Mitch Boyer or Bouyer), Curley, a Crow, and "Bloody Knife" Reeve [a Ree or Arikara] stayed up on the bluffs with us.
Well, sir, when the men of those four troops saw the Indian camp down in the valley they began to holler and yell, and we galloped along to the far end of the bluffs, where we could swoop down on the camp * * * * (four words illegible).
I was riding close to Sergeant Finkle. We were both close to Capt. Tom Custer. Finkle hollered at me that he couldn't make it, his horse was giving out. I answered back: "Come on Finkle, if you can." He dropped back a bit.
"Tell McDougall," he said, "to bring the pack train straight across to high ground -- if packs get loose don't stop to fix them, cut them off. Come quick. Big Indian camp."
I went back. I thought then that was tough luck, but it proved to be my salvation. If Sergeant Finkle had not dropped back a few minutes before he would have got the orders -- and I would not be telling this story.
Away off in the distance, the dust rolling up like a little cloud, I saw the pack train. I went toward that. My company and the others went on down toward the Indian camp. I remember the last words that I heard General Custer say; the men were on the hill, we all gave them three cheers riding at a full gallop, some of them couldn't hold their horses, galloping past General Custer. He shouted at them, "Boys, hold your horses, there are plenty of them down there for us all." They rode on. I rode back.
Reaching the pack train, I gave Captain McDougall the orders sent him, and went on toward Captain Benteen as I had been told to take them to him, also. McDougall and his outfit rode on to the top of the hill and reinforced Major Reno as he retired from the bottom of the bluffs.
The Indians were following close at their heels, shooting and yelling, and men were dropping here and there. They, the Indians, would hop on them and scalp them before we could rescue them. Dr. DeWolfe was killed just as he reached the top of the hill. If he had gotten a few feet further he would have been saved.
As I went back after Captain Benteen I saw some Indians running along. I thought they were hostile Indians and got ready to give them a few rounds before they got me, but they were scouts that were making their get away from the big battle that was going on. They had come from Major Reno's command and they were that scared that they did not stop until they reached the Powder river.
Delivering the orders to Captain Benteen, I rode back to the top of the ridge with the battalion and there we joined the others under Major Reno and McDougall. The Indians were between this outfit and General Custer, so I could not join my company.
Major Reno started to march out on the range of bluffs there and attack the Indians, but they came at us and we retired, and formed skirmish lines. But, before we could do that we lost several men and they were scalped before we could get to them. They shot at us all day then at night they powwowed until daylight on the 26th. Then they started out again shooting and charging. We killed a many a one, just how many I do not know.
We were cut off from water, and there were 68 wounded men in camp. A wounded man wants water bad, and it was pitiful to hear their groans as they called for it and we couldn't get it. Some fellows tried to go for it but got shot and had no such luck as bringing any for the wounded. [Note: here is John Burkman's description of going for water, and here is Mrs. Spotted Horn Bull's cheerful recollection of the water brigade slaughter.]
I remember the first shot that was fired in that two-day battle. It went right under my horse's belly and lodged in the bank. There were 14 men and two officers, Lieutenant Harrington and Lieutenant Sturgis, that never were found. It was said that the Indians cut off their heads and dragged them around as they pow-wowed during the night.
There were 56 men in our outfit killed on the hill by the Indians.
Well, they kept up the shooting all through the day of the 26th, until late in the evening we could see the camp begin to move. The warriors kept shooting at us and the squaws were getting the camp moved. On the morning of the 27th there was not an Indian in sight.
We got water and made coffee and relieved the suffering of the wounded as best we could. About 10 o'clock General Gibbon and his command arrived. General Terry, department commander, came with him. When General Terry came up lusty cheers (greeted him). He cried like a baby. Then he told us that he had seen 200 men in the valley below and we knew that General Custer and the four companies had been wiped out. We had thought that maybe he had been corralled as we were.
Late on the afternoon of the 27th, Captain Benteen went to the battlefield, and I was allowed to go with him, and look about wherever I wanted to.
I looked over the dead and recognized here and there a buddy and a sergeant that I knew. I recognized Sergeants Finkle and Finley. Sergeant Finley lay at his horse's (Carlo) head. He had 12 arrows through him. They had been lying there for two days in the sun, bloody and the wounded mutilated. You could tell what men had been wounded because the little Indians and the squaws would always, after taking the clothes off the men, shoot them full of arrows or chop them in the faces with tomahawks. They never hurt a dead man, just these that were wounded.
In all this pile of men, not a one had a stitch of clothes on. The Indians had taken it all. They must have gotten about $25,000 in money off of them, too, for we had just been paid at Powder river camp before we left on the campaign and there had been nothing to spend a cent for.
I saw where the last ones fell, they were in a little heap. General Custer lay across a couple of men, the small of his back only, touching the ground. The dead were thick around him. He had been shot through the heart. My captain, Tom Custer, a brother of the general, was near this last bunch, as was his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Calhoun, who was in command of "H" (sic) troop.
In that battle there were fully 4,000 Indians besides the squaws, making a total of between 12,000 and 15,000 Indians in all.
And on the whole field where Custer and those four companies were wiped out not a living being was left to tell the tale. One horse survived -- his name was Comanche -- when he was found he had seven bullet wounds. He was Captain Keo's (Keogh's) horse.
Well, there were a good many dead Indians. We found three tepees standing with 75 (sic) Indians in them, and there is no telling how many more were carried away when they moved camp. I thought that I would cut one of them out of the blankets and buffalo robes that he was wrapped in. When I did I found that he had a string of scalps as long as your arm and among those were four women's, with hair as long as my arm, two of them having red hair. It was a sight. I dropped them -- didn't want them.
They buried the dead and then began to carry the wounded, including the horse Comanche, to the Far West steamboat which had come up the river as far as it could. It then backed down to the Yellowstone river.
Most of the wounded got well. Old Comanche did and there was an order from general headquarters that this (only) survivor, in fact, of Custer's battle was to have a box stall the rest of his life. One man out of the 7th Cavalry Band was assigned to look after him and on dress parade old Comanche would be led at the head of the regiment, draped in black.
What became of the Indians? Why they went on. My regiment did not try to hunt them, we were all shot to pieces.
The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custerania, written and compiled by Colonel W.A. Graham, The Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, PA 1953, p 247 - 250
As the Battle of the Little Bighorn was rushing to climax, Col. George A. Custer sent the same message to Capt. Frederick Benteen, his best battlefield commander, and Capt. Thomas McDougall, who commanded the Seventh Cavalry's extra ammunition packs, via two different couriers.
With Trumpeter Giovanni Martini [AKA John Martin] he sent Benteen the famous "come on. big village" note penned by Lt. W.W. Cooke, the regimental adjutant. [Martin's note was written because his command of English was sketchy. Here is Charles Windolf's description of Martin and Kanipe.]
And a few minutes earlier, he sent the same message in verbal form to McDougall and Benteen via Sgt. Daniel Kanipe. Both Martini and Kanipe got through, and as a result both survived the battle. Here is Benteen's account of receiving Martin's message, plus an image of the original in the hand of Lt. W.W. Cooke.
Martin and Kanipe are frequently described as the "last Seventh Cavalry troopers to see Custer alive" (or words to this effect) because they carried Custer's last order to Benteen, and thus were the last men to get out alive that day. But actually, the "last Seventh Cavalry trooper to see Custer alive" was not John Martin or Dan Kanipe. According to the eye-witness record, it was Peter Thompson.
Medal of Honor-winner Thompson's horse gave out just before the battle, and while he was trying to rejoin Reno, Thompson caught a glimpse of Custer at the river, away from his command and in the midst of some kinky business with a tethered squaw, something that American historians have not wanted to talk about for over 100 years. See Peter Thompson's account of the battle and Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-Witness Answer for more info.
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Kanipe's eye-witness account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is also important because it shows that Custer stopped following Reno and veered off along the ridgeline in response to the appearance of Indians there, suggesting that Crazy Horse's decoys had the desired effect.
Here's a portion of another account of the battle by Kanipe from Historical Society of Montana.
-- Bruce Brown
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