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Montana Column

By Lorna Thackeray

Webmaster's Note: This article appeared in the June 22-23, 2008 issues of the "Billings Gazette." Ms. Thackeray provides a riveting and accurate account of the Montana Column's involvement in the Sioux/Cheyenne War of 1876, and finding the dead of George Custer's soldiers after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

One-hundred and thirty-two years ago today, Lt. Col. George Custer and 12 companies of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry began a march up Rosebud Creek on a mission that would lead to a historic encounter with Sioux and Cheyenne.

At a meeting on the steamer Far West on the Yellowstone River the day before, the plan seemed infallible. Custer would move on the enemy from the south with most of the Dakota Column that Gen. Alfred Terry had led to Montana from Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Bismarck, N.D.

Their biggest worry was that, at Custer's approach, the assembled Indian forces would simply disperse and melt into the southeastern Montana prairie.

That's where the Montana Column figured into the plan. Col. John Gibbon would position his force of infantry and cavalry from Fort Ellis and Fort Shaw to the north of the Seventh Cavalry to prevent an escape. They expected to find the Indian encampment somewhere in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn Valley on June 26 or 27, 1876. It didn't work out that way, of course. Custer, believing that the Sioux and Cheyenne had discovered him, rushed to the Little Bighorn on June 25 and died there with about 260 others under his command.

The Montana Column was still two days away, exhausting itself on a march up the rugged divide that separates Tullock Creek and the Bighorn River. The column arrived at the scene of battle on June 27, buried the dead under Custer's immediate command and relieved survivors a few miles away who had been under siege for two days.

Then the Montana Column moved on in a futile search for the victorious tribes.

In all the analyses and all the histories written about the Little Bighorn and the 1876 campaign to force recalcitrant Sioux and Cheyenne onto reservations, the Montana Column gets relatively little attention, except for the few days surrounding Custer's defeat.

There was controversy, as there is about everything connected with the battle. Before Custer's obliteration, when the Montana Column was still the only the only column in the field, Gibbon had passed up many opportunities to attack large enemy villages.

The Montana Column, about 450 strong, had been wandering about the Yellowstone for two months before the Dakota Column started its westward journey May 17, and Gibbon's footsore men didn't get home again until early October.

They left their home bases with an army-issue great coat, long underwear, their uniform and a pair of leather boots made by military prisoners at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said John Doerner, the chief historian at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. They were still wearing most of those clothes at the end of their seven months in the field.

"One luxury about that, that was they all smelled the same," Doerner said.

Often, supply lines couldn't keep up and the men complained of marching 20 miles a day or more on half rations. Sometimes, as the summer wore on, water supplies eluded them in the rough terrain between river valleys. Mail was sporadic at best.

The misery of those long months in the field was documented by officers and enlisted men in Gibbon's command. Foremost was Lt. James H. Bradley, Gibbon's commander of scouts, who apparently scribbled notes in the field and transcribed them later. Before he could finish his journal on the 1876 campaign, he died at the Battle of the Bighole in August 1877 in a fight with the Nez Perce as they fled toward Canada.

The notes of Pvt. Eugene Geant, H Company, 7th Infantry, can be found in the archive at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, along with a couple of unsigned letters written by a medical officer with the Montana Column. Lt. Edward J. McClernand also kept a journal.

Their stories told of a spring much like this year's - cold and prolonged, with heavy snow on the plains as well as in the mountains. Snow was blowing itself into a drifting frenzy March 17, 1876, when five companies of the 7th Infantry marched out of Fort Shaw, not far from present-day Great Falls.

"There was about a foot of snow on the level and we marched about 8 miles the first day," Geant wrote. "It is cold. We have to shovel the snow away to pitch our tents, and build big fires to dry the ground. The worst is the snow will penetrate through the leather of the shoes, and shoes are too low, allowing the snow to get in at the top."

They had 170 miles to go and the weather didn't improve much in the 11 days it took to get to Fort Ellis, near Bozeman. When the sun shone, men and officers, including Bradley, suffered debilitating snow blindness, the scout recorded. At night, they trembled with cold.

"There was no thermometer at hand, but experienced judges pronounced it at least 40 degrees below zero," Bradley wrote of the first night out.

When the cold subsided March 20, snow melted rapidly and the infantry marched through slush and mud. Their clothing and blankets were soaked by nightfall. The next morning, roll call showed that two men had deserted. Bradley quickly rounded them up. By the time the troop tromped through mud to arrive at Fort Ellis about noon March 28, nine men had deserted, Bradley reported. Only three were captured.

Fort Ellis offered little relief.

"Again, the men are under the necessity of making down their beds in the mud, as the whole country around Ellis is a wash of slush and mud, with torrents of dirty water sweeping down the slope on which our camp it pitched," Bradley wrote that day.

The infantry was given a day's rest, then set out for the Yellowstone River. The 2nd Cavalry, stationed at Fort Ellis, caught up a few days later. Snow continued to impede the column's progress. The diarists made notations through early April of marches through blinding snowstorms and camps made on wet ground.

But once on the Yellowstone, Lt. McClernand found that things were looking up.

"All along the Yellowstone, until the mouth of the Clark's Fork was passed, great numbers of trout were caught; in fact, the command almost lived on this delicious food," he wrote.

On April 7, Bradley reported that 300 pounds of fish had been caught that day alone.

The Montana Column continued up the Yellowstone while Bradley scouted widely throughout Eastern Montana, noting historical sites and Indian pictographs along the way. He described the still-standing ruins of abandoned Fort C.F. Smith on the Bighorn River and Baker's Battlefield near present-day Billings, where four years earlier Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull had attacked a Northern Pacific Railroad survey crew escorted by Maj. Eugene Baker. The Montana Column camped at the site April 15.

Two days later found the Montana Column at Pompeys Pillar, engaged in what people have done for generations both before and after - they set to work carving their names in the sandstone rock.

Bradley noted that Capt. William Clark's signature "still appears as distinctly as when graven there 70 years ago. But a cavalry vandal today disfigured the inscription by carving his own name over the letter 'k.' For that he deserves to be pilloried."

On April 21, Gibbon learned that he was way ahead of the Dakota Column and a Wyoming Column expected from the south. He received orders to keep his troops where they were, near a failed trading post called Fort Pease at the mouth of the Bighorn River. The Dakota Column - including Custer's doomed command - wouldn't leave Fort Lincoln for another three weeks.

It wasn't a dull layover. On May 3, the Sioux signaled that they were very near when large numbers of horses, including all those of the Crow scouts, were stolen during the night.

"A search of the camp disclosed the fact that they had been in close vicinity to our sentinels," Bradley wrote. He estimated that 50 Sioux were in the raiding party and that 20 of them had penetrated the horse herd.

McClernand still found things to appreciate. "The country was alive with game - elk, deer, buffalo and antelope in great numbers. It was a hunter's paradise," he wrote.

On May 9, Gibbon's troops finally got orders to move down the Yellowstone to coordinate with the Dakota Column. The Montana Column suffered its first casualties May 23, probably somewhere near present-day Forsyth, when two infantrymen and a civilian who had been out hunting were killed and scalped two miles from camp, Geant recorded.

From then until the end of June, the Montana Column marched most of the way down the Yellowstone almost to the Powder River, then back to the Bighorn and from there to the Little Bighorn.

Everywhere in that uneasy summer there were portents of what was ahead.

On May 27, Bradley, returning from a scout, reported that "the country was dotted thickly with the carcasses of freshly killed buffalo, the hides all have been removed the manner it was done when they are designated for lodge skins. The pony tracks were innumerable, showing that there must have been hundreds of mounted Indians here within a recent period."

The weather continued to be fickle. Geant reported on June 2: "Stormy and snowing. Water froze 1 inches in buckets overnight."

Rain fell periodically and a storm dropped hail the size of hens' eggs on June 21. River crossings - and they made a lot of them - became treacherous as streams filled with melt water and rain. A few men drowned in the crossing.

The hardship of the long march in 1876 wore down many in the Montana Column and exhilarated others.

The anonymous medical man attached to Gibbon wrote home that "This sort of thing is liable to either toughen one tremendously or knock him up. It has had the effect of toughening me so that I never felt better in my life. It's fun in summer, but less so in winter. After a day's march of 30 or 40 miles, one sleeps as soundly as he would in a bed in a civilized place, where there wouldn't be the chance of waking to grab a rifle to stand off a pack of yelling savages till morning."

As far as the Cavalry's scouts ventured that summer - hundred of miles back and forth exploring vast stretches of Montana around the main column - it was the infantry that hardened most in the long march.

Leaders among the Sioux and Cheyenne feared the tenacity of these troops who understood how to dig in hard and hold their ground, Doerner said.

Crazy Horse called the infantry warriors "Walks A Heap" and knew to treat their approach with respect, the battlefield historian concluded.
On the eve of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Col. John Gibbon's Montana Column camped on Tullock Creek near the Yellowstone River - three hard days' march from where Sitting Bull had gathered the largest alliance of warriors on the Northern Plains.

In the previous three months, the 450 men of the Second Cavalry and Seventh Infantry had already marched halfway across Montana and partway back when they halted for the night on June 24, 1876, not far from the present-day town of Bighorn.

Mounting tension must have rippled through the camp as members of a Crow scouting party came charging down the valley just before dark to report they had found a buffalo recently wounded by arrows.

There was little doubt that the Sioux and their allies, the Cheyenne, were in the area in formidable numbers. A week earlier, on the mouth of Rosebud Creek, traces of a large village had been found. Scout Mitch Bouyer had counted 360 lodge fires, and estimates put the village at 1,200 people. A fresh trail from the recently abandoned village pointed toward the Little Bighorn. That was no surprise. It fit perfectly with plans already in play.

Gibbon's Montana Column would approach the Little Bighorn from the west. From the east, the Dakota Column under the command of Gen. Alfred Terry had been marching toward Montana for more than a month. In that column out of Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, N.D., were 12 companies of the Seventh Cavalry, more than 600 men, under the command of Lt. Col. George Custer.

On June 21, in a conference on the steamer Far West moored on the Yellowstone River near the mouth of Rosebud Creek, Terry, Gibbon and Custer fixed their strategy.

They anticipated cornering the Sioux and Cheyenne somewhere between the two columns. Custer was expected to attack the village from the south of the Little Bighorn, while Gibbon secured the north, preventing the escape of fleeing Sioux and Cheyenne. Between Custer and Gibbon would have been more than 1,000 soldiers ready to pounce.

Lt. James H. Bradley, who was in charge of Gibbon's Crow scouts, had time to size up things at the Tullock Creek camp.

"Should we come to blows, it will be one of biggest Indian battles ever fought on this continent," Bradley, 32, wrote in his journal that day. "And that most decisive in its results, for such a force as we shall have, if united, will be invincible and the destruction of the Indian village and the overthrow of Sioux power will be the certain result. There is not much glory in Indian wars, but it will be worth while to have been present at such an affair as this."

But the best-laid plans go awry.

Bradley, a Civil War veteran and a seasoned campaigner in Indian Country, probably slept more restfully than most that night. But he was up at 4 a.m. on June 25 and roused his Crow scouts for their journey toward the Little Bighorn. The rest of the command followed about 5:30 a.m., marching toward the Bighorn River and the Little Bighorn.

About the same time, Custer sat down at a campfire where his Arikara scouts rested on Davis Creek, a few miles southwest of present-day Busby, after a nightlong march. The scouts were uneasy. Signs show they would meet enough enemy warriors to keep up the fight for two or three days, they warned.

Custer smiled.

"I guess we'll get through them in one day," he reassured his scouts.

Custer was in a hurry that day. He thought that the enemies had discovered his pursuit and would disappear if he did not catch them quickly, surprising the villagers before they could disperse.

Shortly after noon on June 25, Custer divided his exhausted command into three parts.

Maj. Marcus Reno and three companies, about 140 men, were ordered to attack the Indian village spread for miles along the Little Bighorn Valley. Reno charged into Sitting Bull's camp. Soon routed, survivors raced pell mell back across the river to the bluffs above.

Capt. Frederick Benteen and his 125 troops, who had been scouting the area, joined them there. They dug in and held off the Sioux and Cheyenne for two days.

Custer and 225 men under his immediate command headed toward the other end of the village while hundreds of warriors swarmed out of their camp circles, crossed the river and raced toward Custer. No one in his command survived an onslaught that probably ended after no more than a two-hour fight.

While the Seventh Cavalry was annihilated on the hills above the Little Bighorn, the Montana Column struggled through a long day in the rugged terrain between Tullock Creek and the Bighorn. They were still two days' march from the Little Bighorn when the weary troops went into camp about 6 p.m., 13 hours and 23-1/2 miles from where they started.

About that time, victorious Sioux and Cheyenne were at work stripping Custer and his men of their uniforms and searching for the spoils of war among the mutilated corpses.

Crow scouts reported seeing smoke in the direction of the Little Bighorn, confirming suspicions that the village would be found there.

Gibbon's cavalry pushed ahead, hoping to get within striking distance of the village. Bradley and his scouts soon caught up with them.

But night and a soaking rain brought them up against the thunderous waters of the Bighorn, swollen by a late snowmelt and a wet spring. They could go no farther.

About midnight, the troops unsaddled their horses, dropped to the ground and fell asleep.

"We had a rough night with no tents," Pvt. Eugene Grant wrote in his journal. "I stripped a big cottonwood tree of its bark and made a shelter under which I slept like a top all night."

It was a short night for Bradley, who was awakened at daybreak and ordered to scout ahead without pausing for breakfast.

"As I had traveled some 20 miles farther yesterday than anybody else, so that my horses were tired and my men hungry, it struck me as rather rough treatment," Bradley wrote in his journal.

"I was too much vexed to hurry much, and did not get off till 4 a.m., having sent six Crow scouts ahead half an hour earlier."

Later that morning on the opposite side of the Bighorn, Bradley spotted three men watching the scouting party.

"We at once signaled to them with blankets that we were friends," Bradley noted. "They responded by kindling a fire that sent up a small column of smoke."

The men, who turned out to be Crow scouts Gibbon had loaned Custer, came down to the river to talk with Little Face and other of Bradley's scouts who went down to meet them. The two groups of scouts shouted at each other across the Bighorn.

When Bradley's scouts returned, they were crying and wailing, mourning for the dead.

"Little Face in particular wept with a bitterness of anguish such as I have rarely seen," Bradley wrote. "For a while he could not speak, but at last composed himself and told his story in a choking voice, broken with frequent sobs."

Custer's three scouts brought word that Custer and his command had been wiped out at the point where the smoke was rising on the Little Bighorn.

"My men listened with eager interest, betrayed none of the emotions of Crows, but looking at each other with white faces in pained silence, too full of the dreadful recital to utter a word."

Bradley rode ahead to report the tale to Gen. Alfred Terry who, with Gibbon, was leading the Montana Column. The command staff listened "with blank faces and silent tongues and, no doubt, heavy hearts," he reported.

"But presently, the voice of doubt and scorning was raised, the story was sneered at. Such a catastrophe, it was asserted, was wholly improbable, nay, impossible," Bradley wrote.

"If a battle had been fought, which was condescendingly admitted might have happened, then Custer was victorious and these three Crows were dastards who had fled without awaiting the result and told this story to excuse their cowardice."

Bradley wasn't so sure. If it was true, then the Montana Column must go at once to rescue any survivors, he believed. Terry seemed of the same mind and ordered the column forward. The infantry was 12 miles behind and caught up with the cavalry about noon on June 26.

During a rest that afternoon, two civilians were sent on ahead to try to communicate with Custer. One of them came racing back after an encounter with a large body of warriors.

"It was now sufficiently evident that we had Indians in our front, and that the column advanced slowly in fighting order," Bradley wrote. "As we advanced I continually saw Indians up the valley and on the bluffs to the right, riding about singly and in groups of two, three, half a dozen and more."

Lt. Edward J. McClernand wrote in his account of that night that doubt about Seventh Cavalry's fate was beginning to solidify. Gen. Terry still had received no communication from Custer.

"Whatever the result of Custer's fight had been, everyone anticipated another on the morrow," he wrote.

White Bull, Sitting Bull's nephew, returned to the village on the Little Bighorn that morning after spending the night in the siege of Reno and Benteen across the river. His father woke him about noon. The Montana Column had been spotted up the river.

The Montana Column camped for the night near the present site of Crow Agency about 9 p.m. after a 30-mile march. Pvt. Geant noted that every man lay down with his gun in line of battle.

"It was getting quite dark, and, not knowing the country, I supposed the general was afraid of being ambushed by the Indians, and quite right he was, as events proved," the infantryman wrote.

Whether to fight or move on was, indeed, a topic of debate in the Indian camp that night, according to Wooden Leg, a Cheyenne warrior.

"All the young men wanted to fight them," he told his biographer, Thomas Marquis. "A council of chiefs was held. They decided we should continue in our same course - not fight any soldiers if we could get away without doing so. All of the Indians then got ready to move."

Crazy Horse had been monitoring the Montana Column, too, fearing that it would turn to follow. But, by the morning of June 28, there was no sign the troops were in pursuit.

Gibbon and Terry struck camp early on the morning of June 27 and headed farther up the Little Bighorn Valley, Bradley and his Crow scouts riding ahead.

"Saw plenty of smoke ahead," Geant wrote. "Our skirmishers and scouts are ahead on both sides of the river. We are not checked by any Indians."

Bradley was first to confirm the fate of the Seventh Cavalry.

"I was scouting the hills some two or three miles to the left of the column upon the opposite bank of the river traversed by the column itself, when the body of a horse attracted our attention to the field of Custer's fight, and hastening in that direction the appalling sight was revealed to us of his entire command in the embrace of death," Bradley wrote in a letter to the Helena Herald a month later.

He made a quick count of the dead and reported finding 197 bodies to Gen. Terry.

Terry, pushing up the valley, got his first confirmation of a great battle when two tepees were spotted ahead of the column. Cavalry sent ahead found dead warriors inside.

Ominously, they found bloody cavalry clothes and dead cavalry horses, Geant wrote.

An unidentified medical officer wrote: "As we proceeded up the valley, we found a lot of dead Indians lying on scaffolds, under trees and in two lodges and saw nothing of white men except a very few bodies and some heads evidently dragged from a distance."

The horror of the day had just begun.

"But what was that we saw on a bluff ahead of us?" Geant, who had a flair for the dramatic, wrote. "It looked like a mass of horses and men. Were they Indians or Seventh Cavalry? Spy glasses and signal flags were brought out and off goes a message."

Answering the signals were messages from Reno and Benteen, who were still dug in on the bluffs above the river.

"Had not our command come to their relief, they could not have held out much longer," Geant wrote. "They had 45 men killed and 41 wounded."

No one, including Reno or Benteen, had any idea where Custer was.

"All at once a scout came to Gen. Terry reporting that Lt. Bradley had found the bodies of Custer and his soldiers on the hillside about three miles from camp. The gallant Custer and his whole command was killed."

Bradley's journal ended before he completed transcribing his notes of June 27, but, in his letter to the Helena Herald, he probably tried to calm the public with a description of the scene contradicted by others who bore witness to the conditions of the remains.

"Of the 206 bodies buried on the field, there were very few that I did not see, and beyond scalping, in possibly a majority of cases, there was little mutilation," he wrote. "Many of the bodies were not even scalped, and in the comparatively few cases of disfiguration, it appeared to me the result rather of a blow with a knife, hatchet or war club to finish a wounded man, than a deliberated mutilation."

In his journal entry for June 28, Geant reported a death toll of more than 250 at the Little Bighorn "mostly naked and mutilated in a horrible manner." The bodies were buried where they fell.

"As we had but a few spades, the burial of the dead was more of a pretense than reality," Lt. McClernand wrote. "A number were simply covered with sagebrush. Yet we did our best."

While the burial parties worked under the hot June sun, medical officers from Gibbon's command helped with the wounded from the Reno-Benteen siege. The anonymous medical officer counted 50 wounded, including two or three who died that day.

Their task on June 29 was to carry the wounded down to the Far West, which had made its way up the Bighorn River to the mouth of the Little Bighorn. According to Pvt. Geant, the troops spent much of the day constructing litters that could be strung between two mules.

"The rawhide we got from dead horses, skinning them and cutting the hides into long strips," he wrote. "It was a nasty job, but it had to be done."

They wandered through the river valley most of the night.

"It was pitch dark and we were lost half of the time, one part of the command running against each other and challenging each other," Geant wrote.

"It was very skittish work, sometimes the men being excited and thinking there were Indians in the vicinity. I believe that if one man had fired a shot, one part of the command would have blazed into the other thinking they were Indians."

About 3 a.m. on June 30, the wounded were finally loaded on the Far West for the trip back to Fort Abraham Lincoln.

"It was a trying night," Geant wrote. "I would never like to pass another like it."

The men of the Montana Column had endured long and difficult marches through some of the worst weather Montana has to offer since the first troops marched out of Fort Shaw in a foot of snow on March 17. They'd been traumatized by the horror at Little Bighorn and worn down by a constant state of alert.

But Gibbon's long summer campaign was far from over.

The Montana Column would start the next morning, July 1, to retrace its march to the Yellowstone. They marched down the Tongue River and cross country to the Powder River, then back up the Yellowstone to the mouth of O'Fallon Creek not far from present-day Terry.

A cryptic entry in Geant's journal for July 20 and 21 read: "Capt. Thompson committed suicide."

On Aug. 30, he wrote, "Still crossing the country, over hills and dales. No one knows where we are going."

The next day found them on Glendive Creek near present-day Glendive. From there on Sept. 6, the Montana Column at last turned west toward home. On Oct. 6, Geant returned to his own bed at Fort Shaw.

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