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The Grisly Epilogue

July 2024
3min read

A new book by the eminent western historian and A MERICAN H ERITAGE contributor Mari Sandoz may prove to be the definitive account of Ouster’s defeat. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, to be published in May by J. B. Lippincott, relates in scrupulous detail the events that led up to the battle, the hand-to-hand fighting in which Custer died, and the subsequent struggle between the Indians and the remnants of Custer’s command under Reno and Benteen. Finally, in a chapter from which the following excerpt is taken, Miss Sandoz describes the frightful scene that greeted the troops of General Alfred Terry and Colonel John Gibbon as they arrived two days later upon the silent field.

At reveille [on June] twenty-seventh not an enemy was in sight anywhere. The column [Terry’s infantry] started out early, marching along the evener bench west of the river valley while Lieutenant Bradley and his mounted men [part of Terry’s command] scouted the breaks and ridges along the right side of the stream. From a highish point they noticed strange objects scattered over the hills rising far ahead—buffaloes, probably an Indian hunt, the whitish carcasses skinned to the tallow, the dark not yet touched. But curiously there was no movement, no butchering women and children running from one animal to the next, no men packing the meat on horses, no one standing guard.

Terry halted when the glasses showed the first signs of the deserted Indian camp—the Cheyenne village, the ribs of the wickiups and bare gaunt lodge poles like curious clumps of weed sticks in the hot sun. There were more dusky patches farther on—as though a great Indian encampment had stretched in scattered villages up along the river for miles. But not one twist of smoke rose in the air, nothing that could be identified as a movement anywhere, except an eagle flying, or buzzards dropping to the far ridge where it seemed there had been the buffalo hunt.

The horse droppings, the freshly worn pony trails to water from the upland prairie, were beyond anything Terry or Gibbon had ever seen—speaking of great herds, many, many thousands of animals. Through all this sign of an overwhelming force the column was kept moving in uneasiness, the old campaigners certain they were being watched by hidden Sioux scouts, with no telling how many of the warriors of this great camp might be waiting in ambush.

The bearded Terry slumped in the saddle, his eyes alert, his dusty face sweat-streaked in the early morning heat of the sun, the regimental colors sagging in the stillness of the air. On the ridge across the river a mile or more away Bradley and his men were riding among the dark objects, going from one to the other, but apparently without haste, even dismounting.

Then Bradley, pale under the dust and sunshine, and silent, plunged through the flooded stream and hurried to Terry. Saluting with parade-ground formality, he approached to report that they had examined the strangelooking objects along the hills to the east—197 dead men of duster’s force, stripped to the bloated, discoloring skin, most of them unrecognizable, the dark objects their horses, all dead for two, three days.

Early in the morning of the twenty-eighth, Reno ordered Captain McDougall and his Troop B to the Indian camps to search out implements to bury the dead. With what he could scare up—very little—the captain crossed the river in the bright morning sun. Spreading his force out in a sad skirmish line, he moved up from the river, searching through hollows and clumps of sagebrush. They found them, most of the men dead in the ravine. From a distance it was plain they had used the upper sides of the cut bank as a sort of breastwork, sliding down as they were struck. Bloated and blackened as the naked bodies were, the faces like the wounds, puffed and swollen, oozing and flyblown, few were recognizable. The captain had a record kept of those who could be identified, pathetically few, although he had known many of the troopers for years. One definite identification was a sergeant because he had one sock on, with his name still plain.

But in the heat and stench the men trying to examine the decomposing bodies began to vomit so violently that McDougall finally had great chunks of earth and sod cut from the banks of the wide draw and thrown down upon the dead of Company E, covering them as well as possible, filling in much of the ravine’s depth for all time, changing and obliterating much of the site.

Elsewhere other burial details moved over the ground. The bodies were all in similar condition on this third day of heat. Most of the dead were completely naked, many scalped and hacked, although it was no longer always possible to distinguish the wounds of actual combat from later mutilations. Custer’s stripped body had been found in a sort of sitting position between two troopers in the low pile of dead behind the breastwork that was a tangle of stiff horse legs sticking out.

The body of Tom Custer [Custer’s brother] was face down, most of his scalp gone except some tufts of hair at the nape. The skull was crushed, with several arrows shot into it and into his back. The features, which had been pressed into the ground, were flattened and decomposed, unrecognizable, but on one arm, broken by a shot, were the tattooed initials TWC with the goddess of liberty and the flag.

Altogether, the soldiers buried 212 bodies, bringing the dead, with the missing and Reno’s losses, to 265, including sixteen officers, seven civilians, and three Indian scouts. Without proper tools to dig the hard-baked and gravelly earth of the Custer ridge, the bodies were not buried in the usual deep graves or trenches. They were covered, but so thinly that those who knew the swift gully-washers and cloudbursts of the dry country realized that some of the bodies would surely be washed out before fall, or covered by fill-ins beyond all finding, many of the poor markers set up at the graves of the officers certain to be swept away.

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