A Seventh Cavalry trooper’s eye-witness account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn
Peter Thompson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for valour at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
IN THE MORNING before mounting the companies form in single lines. Each man, commencing at the head of the company calls out in turn his number; one, two, three, four, and so these are repeated until the company is all numbered into sets of fours. Cavalry men dismount and fight on foot except when a charge is made, but when a dismount is ordered, number four remains on his horse, numbers, one, two, and three dismount and hand their bridle reins to number four who holds the horses, while they deploy as skirmishers or as otherwise directed. The men composing the four with myself were Fitzgerald [Pvt. John Fitzgerald], Brennan [Pvt. John Brennan], and Watson [Pvt. James Watson], and although composing one of the sets of fours that entered into action with Custer, not one of us ever reached the battlefield which proved fatal to Custer and his men. Both Brennan and Fitzgerald turned their horses toward the rear, when they had gone two miles beyond the lone teepee.
We soon gained the top of the bluffs where a view of the surrounding country was obtained. The detail of Company F which was sent to investigate the teepee, now passed by us on their way to the front with the report that it contained a dead Indian and such articles as were deemed necessary for him on his journey to the “Happy Hunting Ground.”
About a half a mile further on we came in sight of the Indian village and it was truly an imposing sight to anyone who had not seen anything like it before. For about three miles on the left bank of the river the teepees were stretched, the white canvas gleaming in the sunlight. Beyond the village was a black mass of ponies grazing on the short green grass.
When the companies came in sight of the village, they gave the regular charging yell and urged their horses into a gallop. [Curley and Foolish Elk also reported that Custer’s men charged into a gallop when the Indian village came in sight.] At this time a detail of five men from Company F was sent ahead to reconoiter and from this point I was gradually left behind in spite of all I could do to keep up with my company. There were others also in the same fix. All urging on my part was useless. Getting vexed I dismounted and began to fasten on my spurs, when I heard my name called and, on looking up, I saw Brennan near me on horseback. He asked, “What is the matter?” I told him that I was afraid my horse was entirely played out. “Well,” said he, “Let us keep together.” I straightened myself up and said, “I will tell you what I will do.” “I will trade horses with you if you will.” He gave me a strange look and turned his horse around and rode towards the rear, leaving me to shift for myself. “Well,” I thought, “I will get along anyway.” I finished putting on my spurs, mounted my horse again, and rode on after my company, but my progress was very slow.
My spurs having been poorly fastened came off again, and seeing a pair lying on the trail, I got off my horse to secure them. Hearing an oath behind me, I looked back and saw my comrade Watson trying to get his horse on its feet. The poor brute had fallen and was struggling to gain an upright position. [Note: the accounts of Arikara scouts Soldier and an Anonymous Ree Scout both reported seeing Seventh Cavalry troopers kicking their downed horses just before the battle was about to begin.] Beside him, I saw Sergeant Finkle [Sgt. George A. Finckle] of our company sitting calmly on his horse looking on and making no effort to help Watson in his difficulty. But finally the poor animal gained his feet with a groan, and Finkle passed on with a rush to overtake our company. [Note: this was clearly the slow part of the troop — Sgt. Finckle had already missed the chance to carry Custer‘s last order — and live — because his mount was giving out.]
By this time, the last of the companies had disappeared over the crest of the hill. I was still tugging away at the spurs, when Watson came up and asked what the trouble was and then passed on in the trail of the soldiers. I mounted my horse again but found that a staggering walk was all I could get out of him.
I then looked across the river at the Indian Village, it was all in commotion. One party of Indians were dashing down the river; others were rushing toward the upper end of the village. The cause of this commotion was Major Reno with three companies of men about a mile distant from the upper end of the village, dashing along in a gallop towards them. The officers were riding in order, a little in advance of their respective companies. It was a grand sight to see those men charging down upon the village of their enemies, who outnumbered them many times. The well-trained horses were kept well in hand. There was no straggling; they went together, neck and neck, their tails streaming in the wind, and the riders arms gleaming in the sunlight. It was no wonder that the Indians were in great commotion when they beheld the bold front presented by the cavalry. But alas! How deceptive are appearances. The cavalry dashed into the village where one of the noncommissioned officers halted and struck up the company’s guidon alongside of a teepee before he was shot from his horse. The halt was but for a moment, for the Indians came rushing towards them in great numbers. At this juncture the dry grass caught on fire threatening the destruction of the village, but the squaws fearless as the braves themselves fought the fire and tore down the teepees which were in danger of burning. Major Reno seeing that he was greatly outnumbered ordered an immediate retreat to a grove of cottonwood trees, which stood on the bank of the river about a mile from the upper end of the village, where they found shelter for their horses and protection for themselves…
* * *
Meanwhile, I was perusing my way along the trail on foot leading my horse for I was afraid he would fall down under me, so stumbling and staggering was his gait.
After the disappearance of Custer and his men, I felt that I was in a terrible predicament to be left practically alone in an enemy’s country, leading a horse practically useless.
While meditating upon the combination of circumstances which had brought me into this unhappy condition, I looked ahead and saw Watson, but was unable to overtake him slow as he was going. He suddenly turned aside from the trail as if he wished to avoid some threatening danger. While I was wondering what it could be, I saw a small party of Indians, about thirty in number driving a small bunch of ponies and mules, coming toward us. I thought my time had surely come; It was too late to retreat.
While I was making calculations as to leaving my horse and trying my luck on foot, I thought I was seeing something familiar in their appearance. On coming close, I saw they were our Ree scouts and two Crow Indians, one of whom was Half Yellow Face or Two Bloody Hands. He had received this latter name from the fact that on the back of his buckskin shirt the print of two human hands was visible, either put there by red ink or blood.
When close enough I gave them to understand the condition I was in and asked for an exchange of mount. Half Yellow Face only shook his head and said “Heap Sioux,” “Heap Sioux,” “Heap shoot” “Heap shoot,” “Come,” and motioned for me to go back with them. I shook my head and answered, “No.” They made their way to the rear and I went on ahead. The animals the scouts had they had captured from the Sioux.
I had lost sight of Watson and thinking that I could make my horse go faster by mounting, I did so. I had not gone far before I became aware of the fact that I had company. When I had nearly gained the top of the hill, I saw five Sioux Indians. We discovered each other about the same time. The other two brought their guns to their shoulders and aimed at me. Almost instantly my carbine was at my shoulder, aiming at them; but it was empty; while in the ranks or on horseback, I made it a practice to carry it empty. There we sat aiming at one another; the Indians did not fire and I couldn’t. True, my revolver was loaded, but I was not fool enough to take my chances, one against five.
After aiming at me for a few seconds, they slid off their ponies and sneaked after the other three. I now looked around to see how I was going to make my escape, for I knew I could not retreat; with five I could not cope, and within the last few moments a few more Indians had gained the trail ahead of me; and to make my way down the face of the bluff, I knew was nearly impossible, as the Indians were climbing up to gain the trail.
Looking to my right, I saw a ravine and at the bottom of it a small clump of wild cherry bushes. But beyond and on a higher elevation than on which I stood was a pillar of rocks, which I thought might afford me a means of defense. I knew I would have to act quickly if I was to save my life, so dismounting from my horse, which had carried me so many miles, I dashed down into the ravine toward the bushes; but the sudden flight of a flock of birds from that point caused me to turn aside and I made a bee line for the pillar of rocks above me. After arriving there I took inventory of my ammunition. My pistol contained five cartridges, my belt contained seventeen cartridges for my carbine, a very slim magazine as a means of defense. I had left nearly a hundred rounds in my saddle bags, but owing to the incomplete condition of my prairie belt I was unable to carry more with me.
Belts for carrying ammunition were, at this time, just coming into use, and a great many of us had nothing but a small cartridge box as means of carrying our ammunition when away from our horses.
I was disappointed with my place of defense. I found that the pillar was barely eighteen inches through; it was about seven feet high with a piece of rotten cottonwood on top. It had been built by Indians for some purpose or other.
After completing my inventory, I sat down and began to reflect on my chances for my life, if I remained where I was. I knew that if the cavalry drove the savages from their village, they would scatter in all directions, and if any of the straggling devils came across such an unfortunate as myself, I would stand a poor show. I looked back toward the trail where I left my horse; he was still in the same place with an Indian riding around him. I thought that if he was going to be stripped, it was a pity that the ammunition I had left should fall into the hands of an enemy.
I thought that my time for acting had again arrived and that I had better seek other quarters, so I determined that I would try to reach the trail where it made a turn toward the river. I began to make tracks once more in a lively manner, and in a short time reached the point I had started for. At this point the trail was washed very badly on both sides as it descended towards the river. I looked back and saw a mounted Indian coming full speed after me…
The trail I was on led directly to the river and thence into the village. The commotion in the village had subsided; the signs of life were few; it appeared to me that it was deserted, so quiet and deathlike was the stillness. But when I looked closer, I could see a few Indians sneaking around here and there, and every once in awhile an Indian would dash out of the village as if anxious to get to some given point in the least possible time.
While making these observations, I also made a pleasant discovery. Down at the foot of the hill I was descending, I saw a white man riding in a slow, leisurely way. Suddenly he left the trail and made his way up the river. Wishing to have company, I was about to call for him to stop, but happily for me I did not, for I saw the reason why Watson, for such he proved to be, turned aside. He was making his way towards a party Indians who were standing close to the river bank near a clump of underbrush. They were talking and gesticulating in a very earnest manner. The day was extremely warm, but for all that the Indians had their blankets wrapped around them. Some of the blankets were stamped with the large letters I.D. meaning Indian Department. I knew then they were some of the hostiles we were after.
Watson had evidently not made this discovery. I was anxious to save him and if I did I must act quickly. So leaving the trail I ran down the hill at full speed and came to a place where there was a deep cut with steep sides that I would not have dared to face had I been able to check myself in time. But I could not; so I gave a leap which landed me many feet below, and strange to say, I did not lose my balance. Fortunately for me the soil was soft and loose to light upon.
When I got close enough to Watson, I called to him in a guarded voice. On hearing me, he checked up his horse and looked around. I rushed up to him and asked him where he was going. He answered, “To our scouts, of course.” I then told him when he passed our scouts on the trail above. “Well,” said he, “Who are those ahead of us?” I told him I was under the impression that they were hostiles and that we had better keep clear of them. He came to the same conclusion. The problem that now perplexed us was what we were to do. We finally concluded to enter the village by way of the trail. “And now, Watson,” said I, “I will help myself along by hanging to your horse’s tail, as I cannot otherwise keep up with you.” So we started in the proposed direction. [Note: Thompson did not overplay the dramatically dangerous nature of his situation after he was left behind by his Seventh Cavarly comrades. One of the Seventh Cavalry’s Arikara scouts, who watched part of Thompson and fellow straggler Watson‘s encounter with the five Sioux from the distance, was amazed to learn later that they survived.]
We had not gone far, before we saw a sight that puzzled us very much. Coming out of the river was one of our Crow scouts, mounted on his horse with the end of a rawhide rope over his shoulder, which he held firmly in his right hand. At the other end of the rope, straining and tugging to get away, was a Sioux squaw. The rope was tied around both her hands, but, struggle as she might, she could not break away.
While looking on and wondering where the Crow was going we were further astonished by seeing General Custer dash out of the fording place and ride rapidly up to the Crow and commence to talk to him. Custer was well versed in several Indian languages. The conversation with the Indian did not last long, and what the nature of it was I do not know, but the Crow released the Sioux woman, and she seemed glad to be free came running towards us in a half stooping posture and in her hand was a long bladed knife of ugly dimensions. So fierce did she look that my hand involuntarily sought the handle of my revolver. She must have noticed the movement for she made a short circle around us, ran over the bank, crossed the river, and disappeared in the village.
The Crow then left Custer and rode in a jog trot towards the river and disappeared. [Note: Custer apparently didn’t like the looks of the ford at Medicine Tail Coulee (it required his men to cross four abreast) and so he quickly rode off for a quick “scout” while his men dismounted on the river bank, as White Shield and and Goes Ahead witnessed. After meeting Thompson and the Crow scout with the roped enemy squaw on the banks of the Little Bighorn — and finding no better alternative crossing places — the eye-witness record says Custer then returned to the ford at Medicine Tail Coulee in this scenario, tried to cross there, got shot by White Cow Bull, and died “in the water of the Little Bighorn.” Or at least that’s one plausible way to read the eye-witness record of the battle. However, there’s also another, equally plausible but much, much darker read on the scene with Custer and the roped squaw, namely that Curley was Custer‘s procurer and they were both there to rape and murder the Sioux woman. See Who Killed Custer — Part 11 “War Crime Time” for more info.]
Custer was mounted on his sorrel horse and it being a very hot day he was in his shirt sleeves; his buckskin pants tucked into his boots; his buckskin shirt fastened to the rear of his saddle; and a broad brimmed cream colored hat on his head, the brim of which was turned up on the right side and fastened by a small hook and eye to its crown. This gave him opportunity to sight his rifle while riding. His rifle lay horizontally in front of him; when riding he leaned slightly forward. This was the appearance of Custer on the day that he entered his last battle, and just one half hour before the fight commenced between him and the Sioux. When the Crow scout left him, he wheeled around and made for the same point in the river where we had first seen him. When he was passing us he slightly checked his horse and waved his right hand twice for us to follow him. He pointed down the stream, put spurs to his horse and disappeared at the ford, never uttering a word. That was the last I ever saw of Custer alive. He must have gone thence directly to his command. We wondered why none of his staff were with him. In all probability he had outrun them. His being alone shows with what fearlessness he traveled about even in an enemy’s country with hostiles all around him.
We reached the fording place as soon as possible, but all signs of Custer were gone. Whether he had gone through the village or waded down the stream to reach his command is a question that cannot be answered; but as we had seen no signs of him crossing to the opposite side, we naturally thought that he had made his way down the stream.
When we came to the fording place, we found that the water was rushing very rapidly. Both banks were wet with the splashing made by the animals going to and from the village. We stopped a moment to consider the best way to proceed and how to act. When we looked into the village we could see the guidon fluttering in the breeze. This was the flag which had been placed there by the corporal just before he was shot. The sight of this increased our courage.
Our plan was for Watson to cross the river first to show how deep the water was. Being very thirsty I forgot everything else, and stooping down, began to dip water from the river in my hands and drink. While I was thus engaged and when Watson had forded to the middle of the stream, I heard the crack of three rifles which caused me to straighten up quickly and look around to see what the trouble was. Standing on the opposite bank of the river and at the very point we wished to gain were three Indians, with their smoking rifles in their hands. Watson, looking around at me said, “What in thunder is the matter?” I answered, “If you don’t get off your horse at once, you will get shot.” He did not need a second bidding, neither did he dismount in military style, but more like a frog landing with feet and hands in the water at the same time. This ungainly dismount caused the water to fly in every direction. The Indians no doubt thought that they had finished him for two of them turned and disappeared in the village.
The one that was left stood facing me, still disputing our passage across the river. From his decorations of paint and feathers, I judged he was a chief.
Watson began to crawl out of the water. If he was as thirsty as I was before he dismounted, I will guarantee that he was in that condition no longer.
I made up my mind to climb to the top of the bank and let drive at our painted friend. I called to Watson to keep quiet for a few moments, and began to walk backwards up the bank keeping my eyes fixed on the Indian and watching his every movement. When he saw my maneuvers, he took aim at me and shot. But the only result was that the lead lay buried in the red clay at my side. The bank being very wet, my feet slipped from under me several times. The Indian without lowering his rifle blazed away a second time, with the same result as before. I began to get very angry and climbed to the top of the bank in no dignified manner. The red devil still kept aiming at me; I was a better target for him now than before. When I thought it time for him to fire, I dropped to my left side, the bullet whistling over my head, buried itself in the bluff behind me. As this duel had been one-sided so far, I determined to try my hand. So, loading my carbine which was done in a moment, I took aim at him as he turned to go to his pony which was about thirty feet back of him on a slight elevation winding up his rawhide rope as he did so, I fired, but missed him because Watson who was on the line with the Indian made a movement which distracted my aim. I threw open the breech lock of my carbine to throw the shell out, but it was stuck fast. Being afraid that the Indian would escape, I worked at it in a desperate manner and finally got it out far enough to use my thumb nail, which proved effective. The cartridge was very dirty, a nice predicament for a man to be in when at close quarters with an enemy. I was careful to put in a clean one next time, and calling Watson to remain quiet for a moment, I fired when the Indian was within three feet of his horse. The ball plowed through his body, and buried itself in the ground under the horse, throwing the dirt in every direction. The Indian threw up his hands and fell with his head between the legs of his pony. It may seem hard to take human life, but he had been trying to take mine, and self preservation is the first law of nature.
When I fired this shot, Watson jumped to his feet and began to lead his horse out of the stream toward me. I asked him if his horse was not played out; he said it was. In that case, I told him, that he had better leave it as it would take us all our time to take care of ourselves. He studied for a moment and then waded out of the stream leaving his horse with everything on it as I had done.
After he joined me, we had a consultation as to the best course for us to pursue. It was clear that the Indians still held the village, and it would be foolish for us to again attempt to enter it. To wade downstream was an impossibility. We finally decided to go down the right bank of the stream and see if we could not get sight of Custer‘s command, and join our ranks where we were much needed.
* * *
Watson cast a last fond look at his horse and then we started on our perilous journey. We saw plenty of Indians on our side of the stream; they seemed to get bolder and more numerous, but so far they were some distance away. We kept very close to the underbrush, which lined the bank of the river.
Suddenly a small band of Indians came up towards us on a jog trot, which made us seek cover. When they had passed, we moved on our way. Again we were sent to cover by the approach of more Indians. No doubt they were coming this way in order to enter the village by the ford. We concluded to seek some sheltered nook to cover ourselves from the extreme heat of the sun, and to wait until the Indians had quieted down for they were beginning to be like a swarm of bees. They were coming from every direction; so unlike what they were a half an hour previous, when they were first surprised by the Seventh Cavalry for surprise it must have been to them. But now they were beginning to recover themselves. After they had driven Major Reno across the river we noticed that the village was beginning to teem with life. The herd of ponies which had been grazing at quite a distance were now rounded up close to the teepees; so that the Indians had available mounts. Ponies were dashing here and there with their riders urging them on; the dust would rise and mingle with the smoke of the burning grass and brush. The squaws had got the fire under control and had it confined to a comparatively small space.
We managed to secret ourselves in a bend of the river, which turned like the letter S, and gave us running water on three sides of us. In a clump of red berry bushes we found a log which made quite a comfortable seat for us. Peering through the brush I thought I recognized the horse which Billy Jackson, our guide, had ridden. One of its hind legs was fearfully gashed by a bullet. I called Watson‘s attention to it, but he did not think it was the same horse. He had met Jackson when on the trail on the top of the hill but a short distance from the place where it turned towards the village. He said Jackson was in a fearful state of mind. Watson asked him what was the matter. He replied, “Have you seen Custer?” Watson, surprised, answered, “No,” and again asked what was up. Then Jackson informed him Custer had shot at him cutting away the strap that connected his stirrup to the saddle, and in order to save his life he had ridden away. Watson said he saw that the stirrup strap was broken off and Jackson without any hat, presented a wild appearance. He cast fearful glances around him as in mortal terror. Suddenly he put spurs to his horse and rode away, his long hair streaming in the wind and looking right and left as if expecting his enemy to appear at any moment. “And the strangest part of it,” added Watson, “was that instead of taking the back trail, he struck straight from the river across the country and as far as he could see him, he was urging his pony to its utmost speed. I then asked Watson if that did not account for Custer’s presence away from his command. He shook his head and said he did not know. [Note: there is actually a fairly rational, fairly conceivable explanation for Billy Jackson‘s story. See Mysteries of the Little Bighorn for more info.]
We had scarcely been concealed ten minutes before we heard a heavy volley of rifle shots down the stream, followed by a scattering fire, I raised to my feet and parting the brush with my gun; the stalks being covered with long sharp thorns, which made it quite disagreeable for a person’s clothes and flesh. Looking through this opening down the stream, I could see Custer’s command drawn up in battle line, two men deep in a half circle facing the Indians who were crossing the river both above and below them.
The Indians while fighting remained mounted, the cavalry dismounted. The horses were held back behind and inside of the circle of skirmishers. The odds were against the soldiers for they were greatly outnumbered, and they fought at a great disadvantage. Their ammunition was limited. Each man was supposed to carry one hundred rounds of cartridges, but a great many had wasted theirs by firing at game along the route. It does not take very long to expend that amount of ammunition especially when fighting against great odds.
Watson took hold of the sleeve of my coat and pulled me down urging me to be careful, as the Indians might see me and called my attention to the village which was in a perfect state of turmoil. Indians were leaving the village in all speed to assist in the fight against the cavalry; others from the battlefield with double burdens of dead and wounded were arriving. Then commenced a perfect howl from one end of the village to the other, made by the squaws and papooses. The noise gradually became louder and louder until it became indescribably and almost unbearable to the ears of civilized persons. Then it would almost die out until some more dead or wounded were brought in, this would put fresh vigor into their lungs. I could not keep still and so got onto my feet again. The firing was continuous, I removed my hat so that I would not attract attention, and looked over the panorama, as it was spread out before me. [Note: Curley also spoke memorably of the continuous roar of battle.] I could see that the fight was well under way; hordes of savages had gained a footing on the right bank of the river and had driven the soldiers back a short distance. [Note: this may be when Spotted Calf killed an officer with his tomahawk, as Foolish Elk recounted.]
The Indians were riding around in a circle and when those who were nearest to the cavalry had fired their guns (riding at full speed) they would reload in turning the circle. [Note: this is an interesting observation — the first description I know of by a white of the “stationary wheel” technique which allowed the mounted, circling Indian cavalry to (1) maximize the concentration of their firepower, and (2) minimize their exposure to American soldiers’ fire. See Sioux and Cheyenne Military Tactics for more info.] The well formed ranks of the cavalry did fearful execution, for every time the soldiers fired I could see ponies and riders tumbling in the dust, I could also see riderless ponies racing away in every direction as if anxious to get away from such a frightful scene. Cavalry men were also falling and the ranks gradually melting away, but they sternly and bravely faced their foes; the cavalry men fighting for $13 a month. Indians for their families, property, and glory. It seemed to be the desire of each to utterly exterminate. the other.
Round and round rode the savages in a seemingly tireless circle. When one fell either dead or wounded he was carried from the field; but there remained plenty to take his place; but if a soldier fell there was no one to take his, and if wounded there was no one to bring him water to quench his thirst; if dying, no one to close his eyes. It was a sad, sad sight. Lucky indeed was that soldier who died when he was first shot, for what mercy could he expect from a Sioux. If their enemy fell into their hands wounded or dying, it was simply to be put to the worst torture possible. Being in our present predicament, we were utterly powerless to help as we wished we could. We knew our duty, but to do it was beyond our power. Look where we could, we saw Indians; we two on foot could not cope with scores of them on horseback.
During the fight between Custer and the Sioux, scores of Indians had stationed themselves on the bluffs overlooking the village as far as we could see, so that any movement on our part would have led to our discovery; but nevertheless we made up our minds not to remain long in our present place of concealment. So we began to map out a course by which we could join our command, where we felt we were so much needed. We found that we had made a mistake and had taken a wrong trail. The trail we had followed had been made by buffalo, when going to and from the river.
Both Watson and myself had failed to notice the trail made by the cavalry in making their efforts to reach the lower end of the village. And thus we were brought to the fording place near the center of the village. A person could easily be mistaken, for the road over which they passed was rocky, sandy, and hard, consequently, the marks left by the horses’ feet were very faint.20 Notwithstanding, this mistake left us in a very critical condition.
Looking in the direction of the battle, I saw that the cavalry were being driven towards the foot of a small hill; their number greatly reduced. The firing was growing less every minute, but the Indians still kept up their seemingly tireless circling, making a great cloud of dust.
The Indians who seemed to be detailed to bring in the dead and the wounded were continually coming into the village with double burdens showing that the soldiers though greatly decreased in numbers were still doing eff ective work. The squaws and papooses now kept howling without intermission. The noise they made resembled the howling of a coyote and the squealing of a cat.
Watson kept himself during the time of our concealment buried in deep thought. He seemed to come to one conclusion, and that was that the 7th Cavalry was going to be whipped. He said, “the Indians greatly outnumber the soldiers; while we have been here, we have seen more Indians, twice over the combined strength of the Seventh.” I told him that I could not bring myself to believe such would be the case but Watson persisted in his conviction and said, “It’s no use talking, they are going to get the worst of it.” But I was just as positive in my belief that the cavalry would win.
The plan we had mapped out for ourselves was to climb the right bank of the river and gain the trail of the cavalry and then, if possible, join our company. It was a foolish undertaking for, a short distance below us, the bluffs came close to the river and the water washing at the base for so long a time, had caused the bluff to cave in and for the distance of a hundred feet up was so steep that even a goat could not climb it. On the top of the bluff just where we desired to go there were seated three Indians with their ponies but a short distance behind them. We did not feel any way alarmed on their account for we felt able to cope with that number. So we left our retreat and moved down as far as we could for the cut in the bank. I felt exceedingly thirsty and said to Watson that I proposed to have a drink. So, jumping from the bank, I landed at the edge of the water and I just saw that the water tasted good. I asked Watson to hand me his hat and I would fill it with water for him and he did so. When I was handing his back to him I noticed that the three Indians had discovered us and were watching our every movement. But without fear, we commenced our march up the hill, keeping as near to the cut bank as the nature of the ground would permit. When about half way up the bluff, I noticed something that made me hesitate. Watson was a short distance behind me and was keeping watch on the flat below. What I discovered was several Indians peering at us over the edge of the bluff; in all I counted eight and concluded that they were too many for us, especially with an uphill pull on our side. While I looked at them, one rose to his feet and beckoned for us in the most friendly manner to advance. But I knew he was a hostile and we stood no show whatever on foot with such a number against us. So I turned around and called to Watson to run for it, and I went after him full speed, but kept my eye on the movement and seeing that they were making preparations to fire at us, I called out, “Stretch yourself, Watson.” And he did and gradually left me behind. The Indians let fly with their rifles with the usual result.
One of the Indians mounted his pony and rode on the edge of the bluff abreast of us. Jerking off his blanket he waved it in a peculiar manner and shouted out some lingo to those in the village and then pointed towards us. We felt we were discovered.
It was our intention to hide ourselves in our former place of concealment, but the Indians were watching us; so passing it we came back again to the fording place. We looked to see if the horse was still there but there was no trace of it; no doubt it had passed into the hands of the Indians. Passing the ford on the run, we came to some underbrush; when we slowed down to a walk. Watson still being some distance ahead of me.
I now heard the clatter of hoofs behind me. On looking around, I saw a white man and what I supposed to be a Crow Indian. I called for Watson to stop and told him that we had friends coming. I turned around, intending to wait until they came up. No sooner had I faced them than they stopped, turned their horses across the trail, dismounted, threw their guns across their saddles, and took aim at us. To say that we were astonished would faintly express our feelings. There was nothing left for us to do but run. [Note: August De Voto and an Anonymous Sixth Infantry Sergeant also spoke of white men fighting on the Indians’ side at the Little Bighorn. See Mysteries of the Little Bighorn for more info.] The trail we were on ran through a thick clump of bushes, and we put our best foot first in order to gain its shelter. But before we could reach it, they fired at us but as usual missed; but the twigs and leaves were cut by the bullets and we came to the conclusion that we were not to be killed by the Indians. But if we were not wounded in our bodies we were in our feelings.
We determined to ambush them if they attempted to pursue us. We followed the trail for several hundred feet, then forced our way through the brush and with our revolvers cocked, lying at our feet and our guns in our hands we waited and watched for their appearance. But we waited in vain. They must have suspected our intentions. One thing we made up our minds to do, that was to kill the white man even if the Indian escaped.
We had been two hours and a half in our concealment in the bend of the river watching the fight between Custer and the Indians. It had taken us one half hour to reach this place, making three hours in all. The firing in the direction of the battlefield had just now ceased, showing this act of the tragedy was ended.
The question may be asked why we attempted to join our commands after two hours and a half. My answer is, a sense of duty, and love for our comrades in arms. Then others may ask why we did not go sooner. We were repulsed at the ford; we were surrounded by Indians on the bluffs; we were without horses; and when we did make the attempt we did so at nearly the cost of our lives.
We were now undecided which way to go. We knew we were surrounded by Indians and we would be very fortunate if we escaped at all. The noise in the village was as great as ever, which told us that the Indians still held it. We were ever on the alert, but could see very little on account of the underbrush. I ventured to rise myself and scanned the top of the bluffs to see if there were any Indians in sight. But I could not see any, and this puzzled me very much, but on looking down to the lower end of the bluffs I could see a body of men on horseback mounting slowly up the trail on top of the bluffs. Then I saw several guidons fluttering in the breeze, which I knew as the ones which our cavalry carried on the march. I called Watson’s attention to the approaching horsemen, but he was firmly convinced that they were Indians. I then drew his attention to the orderly manner in which they moved, and the guidons they carried and told him that we better try to join them before they passed us. “Well!” said he, “Let’s move.” So we started, following the trail until we were entirely clear of the brush and then began to climb the face of the bluff in order to reach the trail on which we saw the cavalry were moving [Watson’s concern was legitimate. The night of June 25, Lt. Charles DeRudio thought he saw Capt. Tom Custer and other Seventh Cavalry troopers riding across the river in the moonlight, but it turned out to be Indians in captured Army uniforms.]
We had scarcely got clear of the underbrush before we became aware of the fact that we had run into a hot place. Before we reached the foot of the bluff we came upon an opening in the timber and brush with several large cottonwood trees lying upon the ground, stripped of their bark. They had undoubtedly been cut down by the Indians during some severe winter when the snow was very deep and the ponies had to live upon the bark, not being able to get the grass.
Near the water’s edge, some distance up the river, we saw a large body of Indians holding a council, and that we might avoid them we kept as close to the cover of the brush as possible and went as rapidly as we could towards the face of the bluff.
So intent were we in our endeavor to escape the attention of the Indians by the river, that we did not perceive another party which was in the road we wished to take until the gutteral language of the savages called our attention to them. I jumped behind one of the fallen cottonwood trees; where Watson went, I could not at the time tell. I peeped over the fallen tree and saw a group of mounted Indians gesticulating, grunting out their words, and pointing towards the advancing cavalry. Suddenly they broke up and advanced toward my place of concealment. I began to think they had seen me and crouched as close to the tree as possible. Drawing my revolver, I made ready to defend myself. I made up my mind that all but one shot should be fired at the Indians, and that one would go into my head, for I had determined never to be taken alive. With open ears and eyes I awaited their coming. They passed my hiding place without seeing me and made their way toward the river. I jumped to my feet and started off at once, hardly caring whether the Indians saw me or not, for the presence of the cavalry had put fresh courage into me. I had not gone far before I heard my name called and on looking around I saw Watson coming after me at full speed. I was glad to see him safe, it gave me renewed courage, and we hoped that we would soon be entirely safe. After we began to climb the hill, I found my strength was giving out, and in spite of the fact that we were in full view of the Indians, I laid down to rest and all my entreaties for Watson to go on and save himself were fruitless. He would not budge. But there was something that made us move sooner than I wished; a large body of Indians had crossed the river and were coming across the flat toward the hill we were climbing. I struggled to my feet and staggered after Watson. The heat at this time seemed to be intense, but it might have been on account of my exhausted condition. Watson made no complaint, for like myself he knew it would do no good. After we had climbed nearly half way up the bluff, the Indians commenced to fire at us, but that did not trouble us, because we knew that the Indians when excited were very poor shots; and in our case the bullets went wide of the mark.
We were becoming so tired that the presence of the Indians was no longer a terror to us. The hill we were climbing seemed very long, so much so to me that I fell down and lay there without any inclination to move again, until Watson called my attention to the head of the column of cavalry which now came into plain view. So with renewed energy we made our way up amid showers of lead. The savages seemed loathe to let us go.
* * *
When we stepped out into the trail at the head of the advancing column, it was about five o’clock in the afternoon. The first man we recognized was Sargeant Knipe [Sgt. Daniel Kanipe] of our company. He had been sent back by Custer to hurry up the ammunition…
The forces under Major Reno, at the time we stepped into the trail, were six companies of the left wing and one company of the right, namely Company B under the command of Capt. McDougal [Capt. Thomas McDougall]…
Sargeant Knipe then told me that my horse had been found and was in charge of Fitzgerald, the horse farrier. Knipe added, “They all thought you was a gonner.” This was good news to me.
Just then the order was given to retreat and Reno‘s command began to march slowly to the rear. Of course we all wondered at this but said nothing. It was our duty not to question, but to obey. I made a dive through the retreating column in quest of my horse and found it in the center of the command led by Fitzgerald, who seemed greatly surprised at seeing me saying, “I thought the Indians had your scalp!” I told him I was too good a runner for that. On examining my saddle, I was glad to find everything as I had left it.
We did not retreat very far, for that was impossible. The Indians were closing in around us. Our retreat was covered by Company D commanded by Capt. Thomas B. Weir. He was the only captain who wished to go to the relief of Custer. He had begged in vain to have Reno advance to Custer’s relief. That being denied him, he asked permission to take his company and ascertain Custer’s position; but he was refused that privilege. [Note: according to Edward Godfrey, Weir did not ask permission, but did, in fact, lead a foray in Custer’s direction, but was quickly driven back by the Sioiux and Cheyenne.]
Major Reno moved to the left of the trail and went into a flat bottomed ravine. By this time the Indians were pouring a shower of lead into us that was galling in the extreme. Our horses and mules were cuddled together in one confused mass. The poor brutes were tired and hungry. Where we made our stand there was nothing but sand, gravel, and a little sagebrush. We were in a very precarious condition. Our means of defense were very poor. There were numerous ravines leading into the one which we occupied. This gave the savages a good opportunity to close in on us and they were not long in doing so. Some of us unloaded the mules of the hard tack they were carrying and used the boxes for a breastwork. We knew if we did not do so we would be picked off one by one. We formed the cracker boxes into a half circle and kept them as close together as possible.
By the time we had everything arranged, the sun was going down. We all knew that the Indians never fought after night fall. We thought we would have time enough to fortify ourselves before the light of another day appeared. But in the meantime several accidents happened which helped to make it a serious matter for us. We saw that our horses and mules were beginning to drop quite fast, for they were in a more exposed position. This is very trying to a cavalry man, for next to himself, he loves his horse, especially on a campaign of this kind. A peculiar accident happened to a man lying next to me, sheltered by a cracker box and talking in a cheerful manner about the probabilities of us getting out of our present difficulty, when a ball came crashing through the box hitting him and killing him instantly. There was but one gasp and all was still. He had made the mistake of placing the box the wrong way, the edge of the crackers toward the outside. While meditating on the uncertainty of life, a bullet struck the box behind which I lay, and as I heard the lead crashing through its contents, I wondered if the time had come for me to wear a pair of wings. But no, the ball stopped and I gave a sigh of relief, I noted with great satisfaction that the night was closing in around us…
I wandered to the edge of the bluff overlooking the village. By this time it was quite dark; I could plainly see several large fires which the Indians had built. There was a noise in the village which increased as night advanced. The deep voices of the braves, the howling of the squaws, the shrill piping of the children and the barking of the dogs made night hideous; but they appeared to enjoy it amazingly.
Suddenly we heard above all other sounds, the call of a bugle. The sound came from the direction of the village, and immediately following was the sound of two others. The officers hearing those bugles sound ordered our buglers to sound certain calls and waited to see if they would be answered. The only answer was a long wailing blast; it was not what was expected. I now turned around and made my way to the place where my dead horse lay and stripped the saddle of everything, then went and made my bed behind my cracker box. The last thing I heard as I lay down upon the ground was the howling of the Indians and the wailing of the bugles. I slept so soundly that I heard and knew nothing until I felt someone kicking the soles of my boots. Jumping to my feet I saw Capt. Frederick Benteen standing by my side. When he saw that I was fully awake, he told me I would have to render some assistance at the head of the ravine up which the Indians were trying to sneak. He added, “If they succeed, it will be a sad day with us.”
* * *
The Indians had been pouring in volleys upon us long before I had been awakened and they were still at it. Under cover of darkness, they had gained a foothold in some of the numerous ravines that surrounded us. It seemed as if it would be impossible to dislodge them. Some of them were so close to us that their fire was very effective. The ping of the bullets and the groaning and struggling of the wounded horses was oppressive. But my duty was plain. The way that I had to go to my post was up a short hill towards the edge of the bluff and the head of the ravine. While packing my ammunition in order to carry it easily, I glanced up in the direction I had to go, and for the .life of me, I could not see how I could possibly get there alive for the bullets of the Indians were ploughing up the sand and gravel in every direction; but it was my duty to go.
After getting everything in shape, I started on the run. The fire of the Indians seemed to come from three different directions and all exposed places were pretty well riddled. Even as secure a place as where we had formed our breastwork was no longer safe. The red devils seemed determined to crush us. As I ran up the hill, which was but a short distance, I was seized with a tendency to shrink up and was under the impression that I was going to be struck in the legs or feet. I was not the only one to run for the head of the ravine. Capt. Benteen was busily hunting up all the men he could to go to the same point, in order to keep the Indians in check and if possible to drive the Indians out of the ravine. It did not take me long to reach the top of the bluff, where I got a glimpse of the village, the river and the mouth of the ravine.
I had gotten so far without being hit that I thought I was going to get through safe, but as I was entering the mouth of the ravine, a volley was fired by the Indians who occupied it and over I tumbled shot through the right hand and arm. A short distance below I saw several cavalry men who were soon joined by others, eleven in all; a slim force indeed to clean out the ravine held by so many Indians, but they were resolute men. Capt. Benteen soon joined them and made a short speech. He said, “This is our only weak and unprotected point and should the Indians succeed in passing this in any force they would soon end the matter as far as we are concerned.” And now, he asked, “Are you ready?” They answered, “Yes.” “Then,” said he, “Charge down there and drive them out.” And with a cheer, away they dashed, their revolvers in one hand and their carbines in the other. Benteen turned around and walked away to the extreme left, seemingly tireless and unconscious of the hail of lead that was flying around him.
Knowing that in my condition I was useless, I looked around to see if I could find anyone who could direct me to a surgeon. I knew that there were two with General Custer, but I was not sure whether we had one with us here or not.
A short distance from me lay a wounded man, groaning and struggling in the agony of death. Just as I was thinking of getting up, I heard an order given by a Sioux chief. A heavy volley of bullets was the result. My wounded neighbor gave a scream of agony and lay still. After the volley was past, it was a wonder to me how I had escaped. I now struggled to my feet and found that I was weak and dizzy from the loss of blood. I looked around me and saw what remained of those who had gone down the ravine against such fearful odds. Few of them returned but they had accomplished their object. We had men with us who seemed utterly fearless in the face of danger. One young man had the courage of a lion. Wherever duty called him, whatever the danger might be, he was always at his post.
Going in the direction of the horses, I saw what suffering the poor brutes were enduring from thirst and hunger. But we ourselves were no better off. I found in the center of our place of defense that we had a surgeon busily attending to the wounded and dying. I asked him to attend to me when he had time to do so. He soon bandaged up my wounds and told me the only thing that could be done was to apply plenty of water. What Mockery! Water was not to be had for love or money. Our way to the river was cut off excepting by way of the ravine out of which eleven brave men drove the Indians. But to attempt to get water by that route was too risky. I looked on while the doctor attended the wounded that were brought in. Some of the poor fellows would never recover, others would be crippled for life and I would carry a broken hand.
The sun reflecting on the sand and gravel made it very hot. The loss of blood and the lack of water made me so dizzy that I reeled and f ell and lay unheeded. But this was getting to be a common sight. I still clung to my carbine and revolver. When I fell I managed to roll over on my face and place my carbine under me. I knew that if anyone needed such an implement they were liable to take it. I do not know how long I lay there, but I have a faint recollection of being turned and my gun taken from me. This aroused me and I managed to struggle to a sitting posture, but the man and the gun were gone. He had left his own in its place, but it was practically useless, the breech being broken.
While I was meditating on the meanness of human nature, I saw Capt. Benteen dash into the midst of our horses and drive out several men who were hiding and skulking about them. “Get out of here,” he cried, And do your duty!”
It soon became known that the Indians were concentrating for an attack upon our lines. They had closed in around us on three sides and so close were they, that we could hear them talking. Capt. Benteen seemed to be aware of the impending danger, and was forming all the men he possibly could into line at the point where it was expected that the Indians would attack us.
The heat of the day was oppressive and the guns of the Indians were silent and these facts brought a feeling of depression over us. We all realized that our lives were not worth betting on, but the expression on the faces of the men was that of a dogged determination to sell them dearly.
We had two spades, the others having been either broken or lost, so our means of digging rifle pits were limited and natural defenses there were none. History hardly records a predicament such as we were in. It does mention the hardships of the soldiers of the late Civil War, but it is nothing to campaigning against the Indians. A white man capturing an enemy usually spares his life but if captured by hostile Indians, his days are numbered and he is known of men on earth no more.
How were we going to transport our wounded? We had plenty of them and some of them very badly hurt. Look where you would, you could see either dead or wounded soldiers and the end not yet.
The silence was suddenly broken by a loud command given by a hostile chief, which was followed by a terrific volley and a great many of our horses and mules passed over the range. Our men never wavered but hugged the ground as close as possible and fired whenever they found the slightest opportunity to do execution. All realized that the less ammunition expended the better. Although the Indians outnumbered us many times, they lacked the courage and determination of the day previous when they fought Custer; they no doubt had been taught a bitter lesson. Had it not been for the watchfulness of our men, they certainly would have got the best o f us. Wherever they attacked, our men were always ready. While the hottest of the fight was going on and the tide of battle seemed to be against us, our doctor dropped his bandages, and grasping a gun started toward the skirmish line. Some of the men, seeing his action, begged him to stay telling him that it would go hard with the command if anything should go wrong with him and to enforce their arguments a wounded man was brought in who needed his immediate attention. This, for a time, seemed to deter him for he laid down his gun and commenced work at his former occupation. He was kept very busy for some time.
I made my way slowly over the small place in which we huddled together and was very pleased to see some of the men stretching canvas over the wounded and dying. This canvas the officers had brought along for their own use, but it was given by them for the humane purpose of sheltering the helpless. The canvas had to be stretched very close to the ground. The supports that were used were short pieces of wood of any kind that we could procure without risk.
We had no use for firewood if we could have gotten it, as we had no water to cook with, hence our wounded were deprived of the comforts that a sick man needs. As I strolled around, I could see something of the horrors of our position. It was not a question of days but of hours. We could in all probability bury our unfortunate comrades who had fallen in battle, but it would be impossible for us to dispose of dead horses and mules. The stench would become so great that it would drive us from our present position and where were we to go? It was utterly impossible to move our wounded, as we had no means at hand with which we could do so. We were quite willing to change our location if we could, but we hesitated for several reasons; we were separated from our leader and our forces were divided. The Indians seemed determined to exterminate us if possible. The only hope f or us to accomplish our purpose was to make the effort after night came on. I wondered if any of the other members of Company C had been as unfortunate as myself. Although that company had entered the fight with General Custer, there were a few who had been detailed to the pack train. So I commenced to search around for them.
I first found a man by the name of Bennett [Pvt. James Bennett] whom to know was to respect. I could see that his days were numbered. Kneeling down beside him I asked, “Can I do you any service?” “Water, Thompson, Water, for God’s sake!” Poor fellow, he was past speaking in his usual strong voice. I told him I would get him some if I lived. He released my hand and seemed satisfied and then I began to realize what the promise I had made meant. This was the 26th day of June, a day long to be remembered by all who took an active part, in fact, a day never to be forgotten. As far as getting water was concerned, it was a matter of greatest difficulty. All routes to the river were cut off by the Indians. I was determined to make the eff ort nevertheless, and looked around for a canteen. I thought of the ravine which was cleared by eleven brave men and hoped that I might be able to make my way to the river by that route. I made some inquiries of some skulkers who I found among the horses and from what they told me I concluded that the ravine route was the only safe one to take. In a short time I secured two canteens and a coffee kettle. I made my way to the head of the ravine which ran down to the river. I found that very little change had taken place since the incident in the morning.
The firing on the part of the Indians was rather dilatory. A person could make his way around with a little more comfort, but how long this would continue was impossible to tell. As I gained the rise of ground that commanded a view of the village, river and surrounding country I saw a small group of men examining an object lying on the ground which I found to be an Indian bedecked in all his war paint, which goes to make up a part of their apparent courage and fierce appearance. He was found very close to our position which goes to show how closely we were confined. The Indians were able to occupy every available position afforded by nature on account of their numbers. If it had not been for the terrible position we were in we could have had a panorama view of the snowcapped hills of the Big Horn Mountains, which forms the fountain heads of the Little and Big Horn Rivers.
While wondering as to my next move, I was suddenly brought to myself with the question, “Where are you going? And what are you going to do?” The questioner belonged to my own company and I naturally expected him to sympathize with me in my errand of mercy. He not only tried to dissuade me but called to Sargeant Knipe and told him of my intention of going to the river. The Sargeant told me of the hopelessness of the undertaking telling me if I should ever attempt to make the trip I would never get back alive. I told him that as I could not carry a gun I thought I had better do something to help the wounded and the dying.
Seeing that I was determined to go, they said no more but one of the men of Company C, named Tim Jordan [Pvt. Tim Jordan] gave me a large pocket handkerchief to make a sling for my wounded hand. I started down the ravine but halted f or I f ound I had not my belt in which I usually carried my pistol having given it to one of my comrades. But on going back to the man and asking for it he seemed to be confused and stated that he had lost it. So there was nothing to do but console myself with the reflection that I had better take care of it myself. I turned around and made my way through the midst of several citizen packers who accompanied us on our expedition. No doubt they thought the position they occupied was the safest one to serve their country in. As I went down the ravine, I found it got narrower and deeper, and became more lonesome and naturally more depressing. I noticed numerous hoof prints showing that the Indians had made a desperate effort to make an opening through our place of defense by this route. But now it was deserted. After I had traveled a considerable distance, I came to a turn in the ravine. Pausing for a moment I looked cautiously around the bend and there before me was running water, the Little Horn River, on the opposite side was a thick cover of cottonwood timber, the sight of which made me hesitate for a moment. It was possible that some of the Indians were concealed in it to pick anyone off who was bold enough to approach the water; but I could see no signs of life and concluded to proceed. I made my way as rapidly as possible toward the bank of the river. I found the ground was very miry, so much so that I was afraid that I might get stuck in the mud. I concluded that there was nothing like trying. I laid down my canteens and took my kettle in my left hand and made several long leaps which landed me close to the water’s edge. The water at this point ran very shallow over a sandbar. With a long sweep of my kettle upstream I succeeded in getting plenty of sand and a little water. Making my way back towards the mouth of the ravine a volley of half a score of rifle balls whistled past me and the lead buried itself in the bank beyond. I gained the shelter of the ravine without a scratch and I was thankful. I wondered whether it would be safe to stop long enough to put the water into the canteens, as the fire of the Indians seemed to come from a bend in the bank, a short distance from the mouth of the ravine on this side of the river. I was not sure but that the Indians might take a notion to follow me. Had I been armed I would have been more at my ease. I knew I could travel with greater ease if I left the kettle behind, so I placed it between my knees and soon transferred the water from it to the canteens.
I started on looking back once in a while to see if the Indians were coming. I soon turned the bend of the ravine, but no signs of them did I see. Although my thirst was great, I did not stop to take a drink until I landed amidst my fellow soldiers. I offered to divide the water of one canteen with some of the men of Company C. They refused my offer when I told them that my effort was made in behalf of the wounded members of our company. On coming to Bennett, I placed a canteen in his hand, but he was too weak to lift it to his lips. He was attended by John Mahoney [Pvt. John J. Mahoney] of our Company and I had no fear but that he would be well cared for. I skirmished around and found two more of my company slightly wounded. I gave them the other canteen and told them that if they should not require all the water that I would like it to be passed around to some other wounded ones lying close by, which was so done. A man, by the name of McVey [Trumpeter David McVeigh], to whom I handed the canteen that he might drink seemed determined to keep it in his possession. I jerked it from his grasp and passed it on to the next. With a cry of rage he drew his revolver from beneath his overcoat and taking aim at me he told me to skip or he would put a hole through me. I was too astonished for a moment to even speak or move, but when I did regain my speech I used it to the best advantage as that was all the weapon I had. Fortunately I was not armed or I would have committed an act that I would have been sorry for afterwards. My action would have been justified by the law, as it would have been an act of self defense. The offers of money by the wounded for a drink of water was painful to hear. “Ten dollars for a drink,” said one. “Fifteen dollars for a canteen of water,” said a second. “Twenty dollars,” said a third and so the bidding went on as at an auction.
This made me determined to make another trip and to take a larger number of canteens. So I would not have to make so many trips. The firing on the part of the Indians was very brisk at intervals. On our part we never expended a cartridge unless we were sure that the body of an Indian was in sight.
My next trip to the river was taken with more courage. But as on the former occasion, when I came to the bend in the ravine I halted and looked carefully around the corner. I was astonished at seeing a soldier sitting on a bank of earth facing the river with his back towards me. I was curious to know who he was. I came up to him and saw that he had two camp kettles completely riddled with bullets. He had his gun in his hand and his eyes fixed on the grove of timber across the river watching for the enemy. On looking him over I could see the reason for his sitting and watching as he did. I discovered a pool of blood a short distance from him which had come from a terrible wound in his leg. It was impossible for him to move further without assistance. I asked him how he received his wound. He told me he had gone to the river for water and when he was coming up from the bed of the river with two kettles filled with water, a volley had been fired at him, one of the bullets hitting him and breaking his leg below the knee, the others riddling his kettles. He had managed to make his way under cover of the ravine to the place where I found him. I then told him as it was now my turn I would proceed to the business. He tried to dissuade me, but as I would not go back without water and it was useless for me to remain where I was, I laid down my canteens and grasped the camp kettle which I had left on my previous trip. I walked forward looking into the grove for signs of Indians, but not a sign of life could I see. Looking to see where the water was deepest, I made a few leaps which landed me in the water with a loud splash. I knew it was useless for me to try to avoid being seen so I depended on my ability to escape the bullets of the Indians. A volley was fired but again I escaped. Madden, [Pvt. Michael P. Madden] the wounded man I had just left, watched me with great interest. When I returned to him I urged him to take a drink, but he refused to do so saying he was not in need of it. This caused me some surprise, as I knew he had lost a great deal of blood which is almost invariably followed by great thirst.
I had made haste to fill the canteens and started on my way to camp bidding Mike Madden to be of good cheer and he made a cheerful reply. When I reached the place of our defense, I found that the firing was not so brisk. Only a few scattering shots now and then. But our men were still on the alert. There was no weak place unguarded, no ammunition was being wasted. Although we had 2¢ boxes of ammunition which amounted to thousands of rounds. The men only fired where they thought they were going to do execution.
After leaving three canteens for the wounded at the hospital, I took the other two and gave them to my wounded comrades. After this, I began to feel very sick and looked around for a sheltered place to avoid the heat of the sun. This sickness was caused by the loss of blood and the pain in my hand, which at this time had swelled to great size. I did not want to get under the canvas where the wounded were as that was already overcrowded, so I crawled under one of the horses which was standing in a group with the others. I could not but wonder what sort of fix I would be in if the horse under which I was lying happened to get shot and fell down on me. But this soon passed out of my mind, as there was always something going on which attracted my attention.
I began to watch the actions of the men. A short distance from me was a man belonging to Company A. He was lying on his face so still that I thought he was dead. Two men came towards him dragging a piece of canvas with which they were going to construct a shelter for the steadily increasing numbers of wounded men. Tony, for that was the man’s name, was lying in the place best suited for the shelter and the men called to him to get out of the way. But he never moved. One of the men began to kick him and yelled for him to get up.
He struggled to his feet; his face bore tokens of great fear. He said he was sick. A more miserable looking wretch it would be difficult to find. The man was almost frightened to death. He walked a few steps and fell to the ground heedless to the heat of the sun or anything else going on around him.
Another young man was going around in a most helpful manner. Here, there, and everywhere he thought he was needed. I noticed him frequently and it did my heart good to see in what a cheerful manner he performed his duty. He was a trumpeter, belonging to either Company I or L and I am very sorry that I have forgotten his name.
With few exceptions, the soldiers performed their duty with great bravery and determination.
Excerpted from The Black Hills Trails, by Jesse Brown and A.M. Willard, Rapid City Journal Co., Rapid City, SD, 1924
THIS EYE-WITNESS account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Seventh Cavalry Private Peter Thompson is one of the three great Lost Texts — or perhaps I should say, Ignored Texts — of the Little Bighorn eye-witness canon (the others are the accounts of White Cow Bull and Pretty Shield).
Thompson was a genuine everyman sort of hero who was wounded in Benteen’s desperate, do-or-die charge to clear the head of the ravine on the night of June 25, 1876.
Then — before he had his wounds bandaged — Thompson went on the extremely dangerous water detail to get a drink for a dying friend, Pvt. James Bennett. For his valor at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Thompson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Given his true heroism, the story of the battle that Thompson told late in life was winning in its modesty and compelling in its authentic detail, but among those details are a couple passages that throw the Accepted Consensus View of the Little Bighorn out the window.
The “problematic passages” in Thompson‘s first-person account of the battle center on Thompson and fellow straggler Pvt. James Watson‘s experiences along the banks of the Little Bighorn on the afternoon of June 25th.
Thompson and Watson had spied a Seventh Cavalry guidon in the huge free Sioux and Cheyenne village across the river, and they were under the mistaken impression that they could rejoin their Seventh Cavalry comrades there. This was actually an extremely BAD idea, but while they were cruising the banks of the river looking for a ford (see Peter Thompson Detail Map, #13), Thompson said he and Watson stumbled upon Custer and one of Custer‘s Crow scouts in the midst of some kinky business with a Sioux woman on a tether.
The episode described by Thompson is fleeting, but because of it most conventional scholars of the battle have dismissed much or all of what Thompson had to say.
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THE DEGREE to which conventional Little Bighorn authors have written Thompson out of the history of the battle is as shocking as it is shameful.
Peter Thompson was an American who put his life on the line for his comrades and his country — and received the Medal of Honor for his valor — but that hasn’t stopped America from turning him into non-person in order to preserve its cherished, comfortable self-deceptions.
Most modern accounts of the Battle of the little Bighorn confidently state that Daniel Kanipe and John Martin — or Curley, if they’re being liberal enough to consider Indians human — were the last Seventh Cavalry survivors to see Custer alive, even though Kanipe himself said that Thompson was the last one to see Custer alive.
This is even true of Kingsley Bray‘s generally admirable 2006 Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life. “Of approximately 210 men,” writes Bray, “only one would survive the next hour. Curley, a young Crow scout, would leave the command within the next ten minutes to take news of the battle to General Terry.” Not true. Not even close. The eye-witness record of the battle says there were actually four more survivors who left Custer‘s command after Curley.
The first two were John Fitzgerald and John Brennan, whose tired mounts faultered so much that they “turned their horses toward the rear when they had gone two miles beyond the lone teepee,” according to Thompson, whose horse was the next to go down. Both Brennan and Fitzgerald survived.
Thompson‘s exhausted horse “entirely played out” near the bottom of Medicine Tail Coulee and James Watson‘s horse went down too. Thomson and Watson eventually found each other, banded together, and survived with Reno.
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AMONG SURVIVORS of the Little Bighorn, a few veterans like William Slaper dismissed Thompson‘s story out-of-hand, while others — such as John McGuire, Daniel Kanipe, Curley, Goes Ahead and an Anonymous Ree — corroborated parts of what Thompson said.
Slaper also questioned the timing of Thomspon‘s tale (he saw dark significance in the fact that Thompson‘s battlefield companion, Pvt. James Watson, was already dead by the time Thompson told his story), but actually Thompson‘s story had been circulating among the enlisted men (but not the officers) since 1876.
No one was more hostile to Thompson, though, than Walter Mason Camp, the most rigidly wrong-headed of the early American collectors of eye-witness accounts of the battle. Camp, who had no battlefield experience at all, declared Medal of Honor winner Thompson‘s eye-witness account of his escape from the slaughter “impossible,” a judgement that American historians have not revisited in almost a century.
In fact, however, there is far, far more truth in Thompson‘s tale than Camp or conventional wisdom has been willing to accept. In addition to describing the valiant actions he participated in, Thompson‘s account contains a lot of significant detail, such as the fatigue of Custer’s men and their horses as they rode into battle (Thompson got separated from Custer because his mount gave out).
Additionally, Thompson provides the last look at Custer alive; he shows that Indians used captured Cavalry bugles, as Roman Nose did at the Battle of Beecher’s Island; and he describes the clever “stationary wheel” technique they employed in their attack on Custer, as well as its withering effect on the Americans:
Round and round rode the savages in a seemingly tireless circle. When one fell either dead or wounded he was carried from the field; but there remained plenty to take his place; but if a soldier fell there was no one to take his, and if wounded there was no one to bring him water to quench his thirst; if dying, no one to close his eyes. It was a sad, sad sight.
Thompson is also dead-on accurate in his description of the landscape he passed through that afternoon.
For instance, the sequence of physical landmarks described by Thompson almost exactly matchs the actual landscape of lower Medicine Tail Coulee and the adjacent Little Bighorn River (see detail map left and full map above).
Here’s the sequence: you start with the little hill on the lower Medicine Tail Coulee Trail where his horse played out; then there’s the ravine he jumped into; then there’s the pilar of rock he climbed to; then there’s the badly eroded trail he followed to the river; then there’s the flat beside the river where he saw Custer and the Crow scout with a tethered Sioux squaw; then there’s the ford at the lower end of the flat where he tried to cross the river; then there’s the bend where the river runs hard against the bluffs he tried to climb; then there’s the oxbow he hid in; then there’s the flat where he saw the Indians in some sort of council; then there are the bluffs he saw Reno‘s men retreating up, etc.
If Peter Thompson‘s account of his experiences at the beginning of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a treasure map, you could find the treasure with it — it’s that accurate and true to the actual landscape he’s talking about.
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BUT WHAT ABOUT the “problematic passages” in Thompson‘s story? Are they really “impossible?”
Let’s look first at the incident Thompson observed on the banks of the Little Bighorn River, where he said a Crow scout appeared with a Sioux woman on a tether moments before Custer himself rode into sight and ordered the woman released. Custer then waved to Thompson and Watson, motioning them to follow him, and rode off.
Is this “impossible”? Specifically, what about the kinky bit with the Crow scout and the Sioux squaw on the tether? Can this be true? Yes, absolutely! Considering that Reno‘s Arikara scouts had murdered a dozen Sioux squaws at the outset of Reno‘s attack a half hour before, what Thompson described the Crow scout doing with the tethered squaw isn’t impossible at all. It was just the way Custer and his mercinary scouts did business.
Likewise, it was certainly not unusual for Custer to ride alone ahead of his men when scouting. Custer had done so repeatedly on the Seventh Cavalry’s approach to the Little Bighorn.
Crow scout Running Wolf described how “Custer went ahead to look for a trail for the wagons” in the Bad Lands, and both Daniel Kanipe and John Ryan described how Custer left his command and rode ahead with just Chief Trumpeter Henry Voss and a few scouts on the morning of June 25. Kanipe said Custer was “gone two hours.”
And Custer was riding ahead of his men with scout Fred Gerard minutes before Reno‘s attack when he encountered a group of Seventh Cavalry scouts at the “Lone Tepee.” Here is Arikara scout Red Bear‘s account of the incident, complete with the scouts’ humorously insolent backtalk to the “Great Man.”
Curley and Kanipe both stated that Custer rode apart from his men to scout the countryside after the Battle of the Little Bighorn had started, and the Seventh Cavalry was charging to attack the Indian village at Medicine Tail Coulee, as did White Man Runs Him and Medal of Honor winner Fred Goldin.
John Martin agreed, “All the time, as we rode, scouts were riding in and out, and the General would listen to them and sometimes gallop away a short distance to look around.”
Again, what Thompson described was just the way Custer did business — and the flat by the river where Thompson said he saw Custer and the Crow scout with a Sioux squaw on a tether is barely 1,000 feet from the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee, thus EASILY within Custer‘s accustomed solo reconnaissance range.
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OK, WHO WAS the Crow scout Thompson and Custer apparently caught mid-murder and/or rape?
To answer that, you have to look at the numbers. There were four Crow scouts with Custer that day, plus an Arikara named Black Fox. According to White Man Runs Him, they all “went with Custer down a dry gulch to near the river.”
After Custer excused the scouts from further service, Goes Ahead said he and Hairy Moccasin and White Man Runs Him went together to the river on their own, and Sioux warrior White Cow Bull said he saw three Crows on the bluffs above Medicine Tail Coulee just before Cuter attacked the village.
We also know that Curley was there at the river too from what he described of the beginning of the Custer fight. By his own word, he was watching through binoculars when Custer attacked at Medicine Tail Coulee.
So it turns out that there’s actually an abundance of reasonable suspects among Custer‘s Crow scouts! However, the most likely is Curley, who was at the river alone — as Thompson described — and he was always fundimentally evasive about what happened there.
So what Walter Mason Camp called “impossible” in Thompson‘s story about the tethered squaw is actually the opposite!
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The same is also true of what seems, on the face of it, the wildest parts of Thompson‘s story: (1) the eye-witness account of how a white man with an Indian shot at him while he was fleeing to join Reno, (2) the hearsay claim (via his Seventh Cavalry straggler companion) James Watson, that Custer took a shot at half-Sioux Seventh Cavalry Scout Billy Jackson just before the beginning of the Custer fight.
Actually, these aren’t “impossible” either. Although the Indians denied it, there are several eye-witness accounts that suggest that there were one or more whites fighting on the Indians’ side at the Little Bighorn, although not with the Sioux.
There’s even a fairly reasonable — or at least plausible — explanation for the story of Custer taking a shot at Jackson. See Mysteries of the Little Bighorn for more info.
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WHEN YOU ACTUALLY look at them, Thompson‘s “problematic passages” are really no problem at all, except that they honestly tell Americans some things they don’t want to hear — e.g., that the Seventh Cavalry under Custer murdered and quite possibly raped its way to annihilation. Ooops!
The unexpected bonus in Thompson‘s tale is that he may reveal what Curley was up to when he vanished just before the start of the Custer fight — and why he was always evasive about what happened at the river.
Although America has ignored Peter Thompson for nearly 100 years, you really can’t understand what happened at the Little Bighorn without listening closely to what Peter Thompson said.
So here’s a belated salute to a great American, Peter Thompson: he was courageous in battle, and courageous in telling America the truth about the battle afterwards.
— Bruce Brown