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100 Voices: Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Crow, Arikara and American Eye-witness accounts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

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Jacob Adams's Story of the Battle, #1
A 7th Cavalry survivor's account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

An account by Jacob Adams published in The Journal of American History in 1909.
Here is another account by Jacob Adams.
Note

TESTIMONY OF JACOB ADAMS

Cavalry Officer by Frederic RemingtonI ENLISTED at Yankton, South Dakota, April 13, 1873 and was assigned to duty with Company H, Seventh United States Cavalry. Shortly thereafter, we moved to Fort Lincoln, a distance of five hundred miles, where an expedition was fitted out for the summer, called the Yellowstone Expedition. On the 4th day of August we had a brisk skirmish with the Indians near the Yellowstone River in Montana, where two civilians were killed -- Doctor Honzinger, the veterinary surgeon of the Seventh, and Mr. Baliran, the sutler, both of whom had become somewhat separated from the command in their zeal to study the flora of that new region.

In the winter of 1874, while the Seventh was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln, a scout came in and reported to General Custer that a Sioux chief. Rain-in-the-Face, was boasting down at Standing Rock Agency, seventy-five miles from Fort Abraham Lincoln, that he had murdered Honzinger and Baliran. The general instantly sent a detail of fifty men under the command of Captain Tom Custer, to Standing Rock Agency to capture Rain-in-the-Face. I was a member of this detail. We reached the agency on ration day, and there were large numbers of the Sioux present. It so happened that not one of the command knew Rain-in-the-Face, but a scout at the agency gave Captain Custer a description of the wily Sioux and also informed him that Rain-in-the-Face had just gone into the sutler's store where he might be found. Captain Custer went immediately to the store and, with two or three men, entered. Rain-in-the-Face had just stepped to the counter to make a purchase when Captain Tom seized him.  An unusual commotion among the Indians followed this arrest, but no one was hurt and Rain-in-the-Face was landed safely in the guardhouse at Fort Abraham Lincoln to await the charge of murder.

Later on, two civilians who were also incarcerated with the Sioux murderer made their escape from prison, and Rain-in-the-Face, taking advantage thus afforded, likewise escaped. During his incarceration, Rain-in-the-Face had a very close friend in the person of a private soldier who had been locked up for some minor garrison offense. This private soldier often furnished Rain-in-the-Face with tobacco and kilikinnick, and showed him many other favors. I relate this incident because of its intimate connection with another incident associated with the massacre. After his escape, Rain-in-the-Face joined Sitting Bull, the chief of the hostile Sioux.

In the spring of 1876, an expedition was fitted out at Fort Abraham Lincoln, called the Yellowstone and Big Horn Expedition, with gallant General George A. Custer in command of the Seventh Cavalry. I was a member of Company H, of this command. We marched from Fort Lincoln to the Powder River, a distance of five hundred miles, and there we went into camp for some time. During our stay here, Major Reno, with six companies, while scouting, suddenly found a large Indian trail and hurried back to report to the commanding officer, General Terry.

On the 22nd day of June, 1876, General Terry fitted out a pack train, consisting of two men from each company of the Seventh Cavalry. I was a member of this detail, under Captain McDougall. We packed our mules on the morning of the 22nd, broke camp about midday, marched about twelve miles and went into camp again about four o'clock in the afternoon. At five o'clock on the 23rd, we resumed our march and covered about thirty-three miles that day. On the 24th we marched twenty-eight miles. That night all fires were extinguished and no bugle sounded. Captain Tom Custer, Captain McDougall, and a citizen-scout by the name of Charles Reynolds, with a half-breed Sioux scout who had deserted the hostiles and joined Custer, reviewed the Indian camp, got the situation and came back to report to General Custer. Among the soldiers the story was current at this time that Sitting Bull was offering one hundred head of horses for the scalp of this half-breed deserter. The story also went the rounds that this same half-breed had advised General Custer strongly against attacking Sitting Bull at that time and in that place, as the number of the Indians was too great but that Custer called him a coward. This brave scout [Mitch Bouyer] went with Custer's command of five companies and was never seen again, dead or alive. [Note: See Who Killed Custer - The Eye-witness Answer for more info on Bouyer's death.]

I well remember the first bugle call on the morning of the 25th; it was officers' call and was the first bugle call since we had left the Powder River three days before. The officers gathered around General Custer to receive their orders. What these orders were, I, of course, do not know. I only know that the scene was most impressive; I can never forget it. Custer's magnificent bearing was superb. I see him this minute as he stood there, the idol of us all.

General Custer then divided the regiment into three battalions as follows: He allotted to himself companies C, E, F, I and L, together with the regimental staff and the regimental band. He gave Major Reno companies A, G and M, and the three remaining companies, D, Hand K, he gave to F. W. Benteen, captain of Company H, at that time brevet-colonel.

General Custer advanced to the attack first with his five companies. As he passed the remaining command, he lifted his hat in response to the cheers of the soldiers and shouted: "Follow me, boys, and we will sleep on robes tonight!" Benteen's command swung into line shortly after Custer had passed and Major Reno's battalion brought up in the rear.

Now, the Indians' camp lay on the farther side of the Little Big Horn River, in the edge of the timber and immediately in front of a long bluff extending some five miles parallel with the river's bank, which was insurmountable for cavalry except at certain places because of its precipitous, rocky sides.

From the place where the command was divided to the point where Custer hoped to cross the river, at the lower and farther end of the Indian village, was about seven miles. The last mile of this distance before he came to the head of the village was in plain sight of the Indians. Thus warned of his approach, the Indians had every opportunity to concentrate their forces against Custer's battalion, and this they undoubtedly did. My own impression is that the general was attacked about the middle of the ford, as many of the troopers' horses lay dead in the river and there was no evidence that any of them had ever reached the village across the stream. [Note: This agrees with what White Cow Bull, Pretty Shield, Curley and George Glenn said. See Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for more info.] Undoubtedly the troopers became demoralized upon receiving the first volley, and retreated from the ford to the hills about three hundred yards in the rear, for the ground from the ford to the little knoll where the final stand was made was strewn with dead soldiers; now one, now groups of five or six. On this little, barren, yellow knoll, surrounded by a circle of the band horses which he had undoubtedly killed to form a breastwork, I found General Custer. With him lay Captain Custer, Boston Custer -- who was forage master of the expedition -- and Adjutant-General Cook. General Custer had two wounds, one in the right side of the breast, the other in the left temple above the eye. The blood was still oozing from the wound and running down over his face and his mustache being turned into his mouth, the blood had coursed through the mouth and out at the lower side. He was not scalped nor his body mutilated in any way except one cut in his thigh about four inches in length, which evidently had been made after the general's death. The body was naked save only for stockings. [Note: This is an extremely significant detail, indicating that although Custer was apparently shot at the beginning of the battle by White Cow Bull, he was badly wounded but NOT dead, because the profuse bleeding from the head described here by Adams could only occurred if Custer was still alive when he was shot in the head, possibly by either Boston Custer or Cook, to prevent Custer from being captured alive by the Sioux and Cheyenne. And this, in turn, would absolutely have guaranteed that Custer's men would have carried their fallen leader with him as they retreated, explaining why Custer's body was found at the top of the hill, not at the bottom along the river where he was actually shot.] The body of Captain Tom Custer was badly mutilated, scalped and stripped. Adjutant Cook wore long side whiskers, these also were scalped off with the other horrible mutilations. [Note: Here is Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg's account of scalping one of W.W. Cooke's long mutton chops.] All the rest of the command were stripped, scalped and badly mutilated except one private soldier-the man who had befriended Rain-in-the-Face while that chief was a prisoner at Fort Abraham Lincoln; his body was not molested in any way except that his coat had been removed and spread carefully over his face as though to protect it from the sun's rays. I believe Rain-in-the-Face came upon the battlefield and forbade the Indians from molesting this body and I also believe if he could have seen this soldier his life would have been spared.

The entire command of five companies was massacred with but two exceptions. A Crow Indian scout called "Curly" came into Benteen's command about 9 o'clock at night of the 25th, making a great pow-wow. [Note: It appears that Adams has misidentified the Crow scout here. By his own admission -- and the accounts of the other three Crow scouts -- Curley never rejoined Reno's men. After watching Custer's attack at Medicine Tail Coulee collapse through binoculars from a "high point," Curley hid in a deep ravine for several hours and then rode straight to the Yellowstone, where he flagged the steamer Far West. On the other hand, Goes Ahead said he rejoined Reno's command on the evening of the 25, indicating that the Crow described here was probably Goes Ahead.] We thought he had word from Custer but when our interpreters questioned him, he could not tell whether Custer had been killed or not. It was the prevailing opinion of the soldiers that this Crow had never been in the battle, but had run away at the first attack at the ford. John Martin, the orderly-bugler of General Custer, was sent back to Benteen with a dispatch. He told the soldiers that when he left Custer, they were in sight of the Indians. These were the only persons of the whole command who did not perish and neither saw the battle. [Note: Actually there were four more Seventh Cavalry troopers with Custer who survived: Peter Thompson, James Watson, John Brennan and John Fitzgerald. See Peter Thompson's eye-witness account for more info.]

I think the men of General Custer's battalion were all killed about two or three o'clock in the afternoon, for shortly after this time I saw Indians fighting us in the white stable uniforms of the boys; I also saw them with the band instruments, riding on the adjacent ridges and defiantly blowing these instruments at us. I also believe the Indians fought General Custer dismounted, as there was but one dead Indian pony on the entire battle-field. It seems to me evident that all organization was gone after the first demoralization, for the slain of all companies were scattered promiscuously, without regard to company formations. These soldiers were simply overwhelmed and overpowered. [Note: This is further evidence that Custer was shot at the beginning, not the end, of the battle, as White Cow Bull and Pretty Shield described. Curley also said Custer's men fought poorly from the beginning, something that could not be said of troops that were actively commanded by George A. Custer. See Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for more info.] I saw one line of dead soldiers, twenty-five or thirty in number, from all the companies in the battalion, stripped and mutilated -- evidently so arranged by the squaws -- and shot full of arrows by the Indian children after the massacre.

From the point where the bugle sounded "officers' call" on the morning of the 25th, Major Reno's command had about five miles to march to the ford at the left of the village, which he was to reach about the time Custer had reached the ford at the right end of the village. Fording the river without mishap, Reno crossed an open space of some four hundred or five hundred yards before he could reach the woods where the Indians lay concealed. Charging across this open, the troopers entered the timbered tract where they were met by a most withering fire from the Indians, which sent the horses in uncontrollable confusion backward. Reno ordered his men to dismount. At a second volley from the Indians, the troopers were ordered to remount, whereupon such confusion prevailed that the order was now given for every man to save himself. Troopers and Indians were now promiscuously intermixed, fighting a hand-to-hand engagement with indescribable desperation. Troopers were lassooed from their horses and dragged to the center of the village, where they were tied to trees and burned to death that night within sight of their comrades of Benteen's division, who were helpless to rescue them. [Note: See Indian Atrocities for more info.]

Benteen's battalion moved to the center, a distance somewhat shorter than that covered by the other two battalions. It therefore brought up with it the pack-train which was stationed about one mile to the rear of the center. Benteen's soldiers saw with dismay the sad plight of Reno's men and except for his presence, Reno's command would have gone precisely as Custer's. As it was, only a few of Reno's brave fellows escaped from the awful ambuscade across the river to Benteen.

While these frightful reverses were coming to the men, I was at the rear with the pack-train, about a mile from Benteen's command, which we were ordered to join after perhaps one hour's delay. Captain McDougall told us that we should form ourselves into a separate company if the battle was raging when we reached the field. When we reached Benteen's battalion, there was a temporary lull in the fighting. I rode up to the crest of the hill to look over into the valley, when Captain Benteen shouted out: "Rein in your horse, Adams, or you will get killed." I did as ordered, but sa w the Indians just over the brow of the hill as thick as they could lie on the ground.

It was about one o'clock when we reached Benteen. At this time we could hear sharp firing on the right, presumably from Custer's command. The officers held a brief council, after which we shortly started to find Custer. We advanced to the right not more than one-half of a mile when we came to a sharp ridge, very much like a railroad grade. Just over this ridge, literally thousands of Indians lay in wait for us. Benteen, seeing the necessity of acting upon the defensive, ordered a retreat to our former position which was a stronger position than where we then stood. This occurred between two and three o'clock, and the firing to the right had ceased. One company covered our retreat, for as soon as the Indians perceived our intentions of withdrawal, they began to close in upon us from all sides, forcing this last company back to our lines at the double quick.

The battle now raged furiously on all sides, not relaxing until about eight o'clock that evening. This was the first time I had been under such fire. By five o'clock most of the men who were near me had been killed. My bunk mate, George Lell, being fatally wounded, asked pitifully for water, as did all the other wounded men. So, about five o'clock, volunteers were called for to bring water from the river. Being thus far unharmed, I volunteered. With our camp-kettles, several of us started down a little ravine, protected from the Indians' fire. At the end of the ravine was a little open space of thirty yards, just opposite the woods where Reno's men had suffered so terribly in the early part of the day, across which we had to dash to the river. In these same woods the Indians lay concealed. One by one the men would dash across, dip their kettles into the river, then run back to shelter, and to the suffering wounded. What was my own chagrin when just about to enter the ravine with my kettle of water, I felt my kettle receive a jar, and upon examination, I discovered a passing bullet had punctured it and I was forced to get a new kettle and go a second time. But I had the satisfaction of seeing my suffering friend satisfy his thirst ere he died, which sad event came about ten o'clock that night.

After eight o'clock on the evening of the 25th, there was no further fighting until about four o'clock on the morning of the 26th. Seeing a squad of Indians creeping along the top of a ridge higher than where we lay, we opened fire upon them, whereupon the battle raged furiously all along the line. Continuing without interruption until about nine o'clock in the forenoon, the Indians now carne with terrific obstinacy and in apparently countless numbers. It seemed indeed the very end of all hope, but Captain Benteen ordered a charge and although the hand-to-hand struggle was indescribably fierce, the Indians soon wavered and retired to their former position. Our command also fell back a few feet below the crest of the ridge, where we awaited the next move. While effecting this last slight change of position, my tent-mate, Thomas Meadows of West Virginia, fell with a dangerous wound in his right breast. I attempted to carry my wounded comrade back across the ridge, when another bullet struck him in the head, ending his life instantly. I dropped the body and was hurrying to shelter, when happening to look back, I saw an Indian with a long stick adorned with feathers, trying to reach Meadows' form. I felt my whole nature revolt, and I assure you that Indian never attempted another such feat. About four o'clock in the afternoon of the 26th, the Indians began to cease firing and we could see them packing up as if to leave. There were stray shots until about sundown, but we gave little heed to these.

The situation where the command made its final stand was peculiar. We were in a large basin, at the center of which we had our horses. Along the outer edges of the basin, at the top of the ridges, we lay, for the Indians had us surrounded and fought us from every quarter. Company H suffered heavier losses than did the other companies.

There was just one spade in the command; with it we began to throw up breastworks at nightfall, for we had no other thought than that the Indians were merely removing the squaws and children to a place of safety and would return to fight us to the death of the last trooper. But they never returned, their scouts doubtless having learned of the approach of General Terry. Early on the morning of the 27th, from the direction of Custer's command but on the opposite side of the river, Generals Terry and Gibbon arrived. They passed within a few hundred yards of where Custer lay, but passing through the late Indian village, they missed Custer. Our men greeted Terry with loud cheers and waving of hats, but when the old commander attempted to respond to the soldiers' welcome, he choked, sobbed and broke down entirely.

Up to this time no one knew what had become of Custer. We carried our wounded across the river to the commands of Generals Gibbon and Terry, and a squad of this remnant of the Seventh rode in the direction in which we had last seen Custer. Under the command of Captain Benteen and Major Reno we rode across the bluffs and soon began to find dead men. We then separated, each one seeking to unravel the deep mystery. Riding somewhat apart from the other men and nearer the river, I saw a little knoll covered with dead white horses. I rode forward to it and there discovered the mortal remains of the gallant Custer. I motioned to Captain Benteen, who came to me on a gallop. I said, "Captain, here's General Custer." "That surely is General Custer," he sadly replied. The entire command soon assembled at the ill-fated spot, but few words were spoken.

Bones of the dead piled on the Little Bighorn battlefield in 1877The only living thing on that field of death was Comanche, the favorite horse of Captain Keough. This animal was sitting on his hind parts, his front feet upon the ground. As we approached him, he whinnied. Two or three of us dismounted and lifted him to his feet, then we rode away, leaving him feebly grazing. That night this splendid old horse, which was later to attract so much public attention, though riddled with bullets, came into camp. With the wounded soldiers he was transferred to the steamboat belonging to Terry's command and brought East.

The dead of the several commands were buried as far as they could be located, and all of the officers of Custer's command were buried. Yet upon my return to the battle-field two years later, I found the bones of the dead bleaching in the sun, wolves and coyotes having dug up the bodies.


Journal of American History (Volume III, 1909, No. 2) pp 227 - 232

NOTE:

This is one of the most important accounts in the eye-witness record of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Jacob Adams' 1909 account from the Journal of American History:

  1. supports the eye-witness testimony of White Cow Bull, Pretty Shield, Curley and George Glenn that Custer's attack at Medicine Tail Coulee collapsed mid-river (See Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for more info.)
  2. supports the eye-witness testimony of White Cow Bull, Pretty Shield, Curley, Hump and Horned Horse that Custer's men fought poorly from the beginning of their retreat from Medicine Tail Coulee, indicating that Custer was NOT actively commanding his troops after his attack at Medicine Tail Coulee collapsed mid-river. (See Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for more info.)
  3. provides the best eye-witness description of the condition of Custer's corpse (Adams was the American who actually found Custer's corpse on the day after the battle). Adams describes the profuse bleeding from Custer's head wound, indicating that Custer was badly wounded but NOT dead after White Cow Bull shot the "soldier chief" out of the saddle in the middle of the Little Bighorn at the outset of the battle. And this, in turn, makes it certain that Custer's men would have carried their fallen leader with them when they retreated, explaining why Custer's body was found at the top of the hill, not at the river where he was shot at the beginning of the fight. (See Who Killed Custer -- The Eye-witness Answer for more info.)
  4. supports the eye-witness testimony of George Glenn and Little Knife that the Indians tortured some captured American soldiers in the village the night of June 25 (See Americans Whose Bodies Were Never Found for more info.)

Additionally, Adams provides a poignant detail about how respectfully the Sioux and Cheyenne treated the body of the unnamed Seventh Cavalry trooper who was kind to Rain In The Face when he was being held in jail at Ft. Lincoln.

* * *

Here is another account by Jacob Adams.


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