Bruce Brown's 100 Voices...
John Burkman's Story of the Battle
THE STORY OF PRIVATE JOHN BURKMAN, CUSTER'S ORDERLY
From "OLD NEUTRIMENT"
THE MEN caught the skeer from the coward Reno and acted accordin'. Dan Neally -- he's livin' at Gilt Edge, Montana now -- he's been goin' all these years as 'Cracker-box Dan' on account of durin' the fight he kept hid back of a cracker box. And Captain Miles Morland -- I've heerd he was buried in Los Angeles a spell back -- he was known as `Aparejo Mickie' 'cause all the time he was layin' behind an aparejo. And then they was young Billy Blake, a private. Fur two days up thar he made out like he was wounded and laid with the wounded so's he wouldn't have to fight, and he want hurt at all. Arter it was over and he come to his senses poor Billy was ashamed o' hisself. He couldn't stand the joshin' he got from the rest o' us and so he got transferred to another company. Now, Billy and Cracker-box Dan and Morland was brave men, nat'ral, good soldiers, but the skirmish they'd been through down below with Reno, plumb out o' his head with skeer yellin' orders they couldn't hear, and the panicky retreat up the hill kinda made 'em crazy fur the time bein'. They was like riderless horses in a fire.
"Bud, all the time I was workin' in the awful heat, draggin' dead horses fur to make breastworks, firin' down at the Indians, I kept wonderin', `whar was Custer?' And the men that worked with me kept sayin', `What d'you s'pose happened to Custer?'
"Some of 'em said maybe he'd gone to jine Terry but most of us knowed better than that. We knowed he wouldn't leave us in the lurch 'cause that wasn't his way ever, and along with the heat and the cravin' fur water, constant, was the worry about Custer.
"At fust, whilst we worked, early on the twenty-fifth, we could see a lot o' smoke and dust across on tother ridge. Jist a leetle ways, it was, Bud. About then most o' the Indians left us and went in that direction. If we'd followed 'em-if we'd attacked their rear 'stead o' lettin' 'em bunch up agin Custer -- maybe he'd be livin' today. But we didn't. We stayed hid back o' the rifle pits. We heerd some shots fired from over thar. Some one spoke up and laughed and said, `Reckon Custer's givin' the red devils hell.'
"We kept listenin'. We heerd a volley fired, and then, arter a minute, another. Folks figger now that that was Custer's signal of distress, his last call fur us to come to him. [ Two volleys were also heard by Crow Scout Goes Ahead near the beginning of the Custer fight] If we'd walked jist a leetle ways, jist up to the next ridge, we could o' seen down onto Custer Hill. But we didn't. Then arter while they want no more shots from over thar and the smoke cleared away and the dust settled.
"Don't know's I kin tell things in reg'lar order, Bud. It's a long time to remember back and even then, what with the firin' and the heat and the torment fur water and our worryin' about Custer and the yellin', shootin', ridin' Indians down below, we was bemuddled. But purty soon Wallace come back up the hill and he was licked. They want many of his men left with him. The rest had been killed down in the brush, tryin' to git through to Custer. But they want to be pitied, those men want. They died like soldiers. I'd ruther be one o' them than to live on, branded a coward.
"Don't git me wrong, Bud. We want all cowards. A lot o' gallantry was showed that day. Some men volunteered to go down right in the face o' Indian fire, to rescue the wounded that was strung here and thar 'long the side o' the cliff. We was all cravin' water. The wounded suffered most. Doctor Porter -- he was a good one and a brave fellow -- he worked like a beaver, easin' the sufferin' best he could. What with the heat, blood pizen set in quick. I seen him, one time in partic'lar, amputize a fellow's leg. I seen the man lay thar, his face white's a sheet, his lips set tight, not a moan out o' him, nothin' but his eyes tellin' how it hurt. Doctor Porter says, `My wounded has got to have water! Who'll volunteer to go arter it?'
"Bud, thar was the river jist below us, millions o' gallons of water a-ripplin' and a-sparklin' along, but betwixt us and it was the Indians, shootin' any one that made toward it. A deep ravine led from our hill and men could crawl down through it almost to the river but then there was a short stretch of open space and to dash across it to the water meant death, sure's sartain. Our hankerin' fur a drink got terrible. We sucked raw potatoes. We held pebbles in our mouths. Nothin' helped much. We'd all of us, horses and men, 've sold our souls fur a drink o' that water we could see flowin' along; but the wounded, o' course, was in the worst fix. When Doctor Porter spoke up some men volunteered and crept down the ravine carryin' buckets and kettles and canteens. I started with them. My horse got hit in the flank and I come back, figgerin' I'd jist as soon die of thirst as an Indian bullet. Some of 'em made it. One fellow was hit jist as he stooped over to fill his bucket and the pail was shot away and his leg was shattered. He hung on to another fellow's stirrup and was dragged back up the hill. Arterwards that leg had to be amputized. Most o' them that went down brung back a leetle water, jist enough so' the doctor could trickle it into the mouths of the wounded. Arter that from time to time men kept slippin' down through the ravine to the river, but I didn't try it agin. [Note: here is Mrs. Spotted Horn Bull's cheerful recollection of the water brigade slaughter.]
"I seen Dandy shot in the neck. Don't recollect who was ridin' him. I seen him fall. He was a purty leetle horse, dark brown. Never could stand to have any other horse ahead o' him. Custer'd got him in '68 and I thought, `The General'll feel purty bad when I tell him Dandy was killed.'
"I remembered his sayin' jist as we left Fort Lincoln that he'd have to git another horse 'cause Dandy was beginnin' to show his age a bit. He lay thar, jist like he was sleepin' and I thought of all the good times him and Custer'd had gallopin' hell bent fur Sunday across the plains and the tears come to my eyes whilst I stroked his neck. Then he opened his eyes and they was big and soft and sufferin' and he give a leetle nicker. I knowed he was beggin' fur water. He was wonderin' why I didn't take keer o' him same's always.
"Wall, the long, hot day dragged on. Seemed like a year to us up thar, us not knowin' whar Custer was, and not knowin' what minute the Indians 'ud charge us from the rear whar they want no cliffs fur pertection. Thinkin' back on it now, Bud, it all seems like a bad dream, seems like it couldn't 've happened. And I git to thinkin', `maybe it is a dream. Maybe, arter while, I'll wake up, and I won't be old, and I'll be back with the Seventh, tendin' Bleuch and Tuck and Vic and Dandy and Miss Libby'll be thar, and the General'll be around, laughin', jokin', wearin' his big, white hat, same's allus.
"But the bad dream won't never end, I know, till I git the guts to end it.
"All durin' the twenty-fifth and sixth whilst the Indians down below was firin' up at us they was a fellow on a hill overlookin' ours that kept poppin' down at us with a long range buffalo gun. He was a good shot. We couldn't see him but every time his gun popped down dropped one o' our men or a horse or a mule. That Indian did more to pester us than all the bunch down below. Toward the last Captain Ryan got him with a long range gun. [Note: here is John Ryan's account of killing the Indian with the buffalo gun.] Arter the fight I went over to the hill and seen him layin' thar, the buffalo gun still in his hand, back o' some boulders he'd piled up fur breastworks.
"Long towards night o' the fust day -- the twentyfifth -- the smoke cleared some in the valley and most of the Indians begun dwindlin' away, goin' back to thar village fur a spell o' restin' and mournin' fur their dead, leavin' jist enough warriors around to keep us up thar on the hill. None o' us had eat since leavin' camp with Custer early that day. We chewed on hardtack and raw bacon but the vittals was like hay scratchin' down our dry throats, without any water. All of us was purty much petered out. A lot o' the men jist dropped in their tracks and went to sleep, too tired to keer what happened next. I was one of them detailed to do night guard. I had to guard Reno's tent. He had a keg in thar and he was drinkin' considerable. I couldn't see in but I could hear. Oncst, as I was marchin' past, I heerd him say to another officer that was with him, `Wall,' he says, `I wonder whar the Murat of the American army is by this time!'
"And then I heerd them both laugh. I never knowed what 'Murat' meant, but I knowed he was meanin' Custer, and I knowed they was a sneer in his laugh.
"It was dark. I kept on marchin' back and forth in front o' his tent. Here and thar on the ground was splotches whar men was stretched out, sleepin', and they was other dark splotches, bodies of dead horses and dead men. It got awful quiet. Down in the valley whar all day thar'd been fire and smoke, screamin' horses, yellin' Indians it was dark and still. From fur away come the beat o' tomtoms and the wailin' of Indians moanin' fur their dead. No other sound 'cept rustle o' cottonwoods and the swish of the river. Every leetle while I'd stop trompin' back and forth and listen, thinkin' I heerd low voices and crunch o' horses feet, thinkin' maybe it was Custer and his men creepin' up to us through the dark. I kept strainin' my eyes across toward the ridge whar he'd last been seen and seemed like my hull body ached jist to know whar he was. But all night nothin' happened and by'n by mornin' broke."
Old Neutriment by Glendolin Damon Wagner, Ruth Hill Publishers, Boston, MA, 1934 p 166 - 171
"Old Neutriment" was the Seventh Cavalry's affectionate nickname for John Burkman, George A. Custer's orderly.
The story Burkman told very late in life about the Battle of the Little Bighorn is rife with errors of fact and memory. Further detracting from its intended charm are its poisonous attacks on Major Marcus Reno.
Burkman was a simple, uneducated man (as his syntax and spelling suggest) who worshipped Custer. His views were typical of Custer loyalists, whose line ran pretty much like this: Reno (the man who charged into the huge Indian encampment) was a coward, and Custer (the man who hung back and never did charge or provide the support he promised Reno) was a brave heart.
Custer apologists saw Reno (who managed to save a portion of his men) as incompetent, while Custer (who never reconnoitered the the Indian village before the attack, divided his troops, failed to support Reno's strike force in any manner at all -- even though he knew from scouts Hairy Mocassin and Fred Gerard that the Indians weren't running from Reno... they were attacking in large numbers -- and then finally lost his entire command) was a great military leader with a winning battle plan. And there's more! Custer apologists faulted Reno (with approximately 112 men) for not rescuing Custer (with approximately 210 men)! And then, after Custer had hung Reno and his men out to dry, Reno had the audacity to be sarcastic about the Great Man!
These arguments still echo faintly in the 21st century, but today no one seriously suggests that the responsibility for the American defeat at the Little Bighorn rests with anyone but George A. Custer. He must take the blame, and to shift it off onto Reno as Custer loyalists like John Burkman try to do, merely diminishes Custer more.
The truth is that on June 25, 1876, Custer and the U.S. Army's Seventh Cavalry (a mercinary force largely made up of recent immigrants and the sort of disadvantaged individuals who have long populated America's volunteer armies) met a combined Sioux / Cheyenne army under Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, Crow King, Rain In The Face, Lame White Man, Two Moon, and others that was superior in every way -- superior leadership, superior numbers, superior corps motivation, superior individual soldiers, and quite frankly, a superior cause. The Sioux were fighting to protect their families and their rightful homeland, while Custer's soldiers were an illegal invader force whose very presence on the landscape violated the Treaty of 1868, as does the continued presence of American invaders in the Great Sioux Nation today.
Furthermore, the charges against Reno (cowardice, drunkeness, etc.) were all aired at his subsequent Court of Inquiry, and he was found innocent of all charges against him, although that didn't undo the damage Custer's friends had done to him and his reputation, or stop their attacks on him.