Former Brevet Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer always savored his blocking movement against J. E.B. Stuart on the third of July 1863 at Gettysburg. Had the Confederate Cavalry successfully swept unopposed behind Union General George Gordon Meade’s rear defenses on that fateful day, just as General Robert E, Lee released Pickett to charge Meade’s front, Lee’s last offensive gamble might pay off. And within two hours, it did. Stuart’s Horse stacked the odds in favor of Pickett’ last charge at the right moment. The Battle of Gettysburg would give the Confederacy its decisive military victory, and eventual national independence at the peace table. And History might have recorded the successful partition of the former United States into two countries.
Instead, Custer saved Meade from a disastrous defeat, the way Bluecher did for Wellington against Napoleon at Waterloo some 48 years earlier! It was natural that this great Union officer had a brilliant political future ahead of him. The only obstacle confronting Custer was fighting diminished wars against Indians, if he wanted fame and fortune really to turn again his way.
In 1868 Custer’s former commander-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant easily slipped into the White House.
That was perfectly fine by Lieutenant-Colonel George Armstrong Custer. He could bide his time.
When the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes balked at giving up their Black Hills’ sacred sites and hunting grounds, both Grant and Custer agreed the time came to put the Indians back in their marginal places. That treaties and promises made in bad faith from Washington, made no difference. The “Great White Father” would not be denied. His war chiefs Generals Philip Sheridan, George Crook, and George Custer, would have their final say on opening the last pages of the West to white ownership.
For one of these brave paladins against the technologically inferior but valiant indigenous opponents, the Battle of the Little Big Horn in that fateful June day of 1876, sealed the fate of two peoples.
Instrumental to contributing a victory against overwhelming odds of nearly seven-to-one by the combined Indian forces against the paltry US Army’s 7th Cavalry, was the presence of six Gatling Guns, well-deployed to cut down thousands of “hostiles” in the few hours of that battle!
Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse never understood what hit them, as their warriors fell like wheat before the scythe.
President Ulysses S. Grant remembered a similar meeting with a similarly ambitious Army officer like himself, nearly some six years ago, when he was a two-star general sipping whiskey with his Commander-in-Chief, the late Abraham Lincoln. At that time, the United States was riven in two by one of its sections determined to carve out a new Nation in blood and bravery.
Lincoln only had one question before he offered a third star, and overall command of all the armies of the United States.
“General Grant, how will you proceed to win this war for the Union?”
Grant sipped his whiskey before answering.
“Mr. President, I propose to kill Confederates, until they are none left to fight against the Union and your Office, Sir!”
Remembering that memory and its outcome, Grant smiled at his guest now sitting before him. All the while thinking to himself how Lincoln was bedeviled by the same difficulties out West. The Country expects that the “Indian Problem” be solved once and for all! Too many Americans on both former sides of the last conflict, want a fresh start! I know. I did everything to bring the Rebellion by the South to heel. Now I must stitch the Nation again with another bayonet! And, By God, I will, one way or the other! The former butcher of Confederates continued thinking to himself. Hell, the Indians out there are worse in one way. They have no comprehension of modern warfare like we do. I intend to teach them that comprehension, once and for all. Just like I did with Lee back at Appomattox in ’65! He gave in, and so will these damn chiefs, or whatever they call themselves, out in the Plains. At least none of these hostiles ever went to West Point, did they? I can offer them instruction on defeat, to be sure.
Custer sat quietly before his President. It pleased him that his immediate superiors forwarded his name to the “Man Who Won the Civil War” with brutal force, and clear foresight. The Michigander could do no less! Confederates were white and able, to be sure. Custer fought them every step of the way. He knew that these adversaries were worthy of his sword. To be cut down, of course.
Now, Indians. They were a different matter entirely.
Expert horsemen and fighters, like the Mongols of another era and world, George Armstrong Custer was under no illusion that his opponents Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were stupid or cowardly. Reports from crafty scouts and surviving settlers, confirmed exactly the opposite.
That is why the Seventh Cavalry would have a contingent of battery soldiers. Along with them pulled by twelve teams of sturdy horses, were six Gatling Guns and boxes of ammunition galore. If rumors of thousands of Cheyenne and Oglala Sioux gathering into one immense host were true, any pitched battle with odds favoring the tribes would be suicide. Custer studied every report, many accounts, and quizzed whites and Indians familiar with the Little Big Horn ground, to gather intelligence. Weeks earlier, he had conferred with Generals Crook and Sheridan and their staffs to get ideas and useful information, to put down any uprising on this scale by hostiles.
Sheridan suggested the Gatling Guns.
Proven in the Civil War at Gettysburg and The Wilderness, Gatling’s invention of a six-barreled rotating “machine gun” was most effective against massing troops. The question before Custer, though, was simple. Can machine guns overwhelm highly mobile warriors who rarely fought on foot, and only when their foe was nearly dead, anyway. It was one thing to mow down infantry; quite another to defend against mounted fighters. The solution appeared almost before they could thrash the question out, one day at the officer’s mess.
Cut down the horses first and then finish the helpless fools next.
Sitting Bull watched his wife Running Deer finish clearing their breakfast bowls. He loved her ever since they were first introduced by accident one day long ago. He was returning from a buffalo hunt. She preparing to smoke the huge blocks of meat the warriors killed the buffalo for. While he and a group of young men strolled past, she sent him a saucy look that he could not fail to notice. Eventually, a bargain was struck between the fathers for Sitting Bull to marry Running Deer. The years may have aged them both, but their passion for one another never ceased.
Today was no different. But Sitting Bull had other things on his mind. By the time was high for mid-morning, he, Crazy Horse, and all the council of war chiefs would palaver over their next move against the hated US Army, and the torrent of greedy gold prospectors and white settlers following behind. Since the current “Great White Father” sat in his house faraway, every Indian agent and ambitious third-rate military officer ignored the string of promises and crooked treaties with the tribes. True, tribal hot heads often raided white ranches to steal cattle, or even young women now and then. But how many buffalo lay rotting from buffalo hunters, or Indian women forced into prostitution and drunkenness at trading or military posts, for the carnal pleasure of white men?
Sitting Bull rose from the buffalo robe he sat on. Running Deer opened the tent flap for her husband and gave a small smile of pride at the same time. He nodded his respect and quickly left. The day was already hot. As Sitting Bull headed for the hillock where Crazy Horse and the rest waited, he felt a surge of pride and power stir from all the thousands of warriors encamped about within the range of his vision. Eeh Yeh! The white eyes will learn our strength soon! No gathering of so many tribes and fierce warriors has been in my father’s or grandfather’s days. Had we banded together sooner when the first white eyes appeared on the People’s lands, we might not be fighting them again and again, as their numbers swarmed like locusts to devour all before them. Now we can only fight them to survive with what remains of our lands and peoples. Today or tomorrow when we fight, only the Great Spirit can say. We only can say to Him, “We are ready, Eeh Yeh!” Will that be enough?
Sitting Bull saw Crazy Horse lope toward him in a slow running-walk. Another young war chief followed a few paces behind. The latter was Cheyenne. Known as Killing Bear, this warrior counted many coups and scalps from his enemies. Killing Bear was aptly named. Ruthless, crafty, and malevolent by nature in peacetime, on the battlefield the Cheyenne was unstoppable. Legends grew around him, told by witnesses who spoke in hushed tones, lest Killing Bear turn his attention to the gossip-tellers. None of them want that kind of attention.
It seemed like many moons ago when a rider from the Cheyenne bearing three white feathers on his lance, rode into the Oglala encampment. Runners spotting this figure reported that a brave crossed into Sitting Bull’s lands. Noting the three white feathers and the lack of war paint on the man or horse, Sitting Bull sent Crazy Horse and three other hand-picked warriors to intercept the rider. As the party of five slowly cantered into the main camp, hundreds of Oglala gathered to see who was so bold to ride alone, bearing on his lance three white feathers, and no war paint from a rival tribe like the Cheyenne.
They soon found out.
Senior War Chief Killing Bear came bearing ill-tidings, and an offer. Immediately after dismounting and carefully placing his lance at the feet of Sitting Bull as a mark of respect, the rider was given a tumultuous ululation. Sitting Bull signaled for Crazy Horse to pick up the lance and hand it to him. The three white feathers were spotless. A sign. As people drifted back to their routine, Sitting Bull invited his guest inside their tepee, while Running Deer finished preparing a meal over the low fire. She rose up to nod her acknowledgment of three chiefs and silently left. Sitting Bull invited both men to sit on robes spread over the ground and eat. After they ate and made small talk, the Oglala Chief prepared a pipe for all to smoke and get down to business. After Killing Bear first drew from the pipe, he got right to the point of his visit.
“I am here to talk about an alliance between the Oglala and Cheyenne. We have fought one another for countless moons in the past. We will fight each other no more. The white eyes are pouring into your lands like locusts upon the grass without let up. We have seen their wagon trains cross our lands of late on their way to the Great Mountains and beyond, since my grandfather’s time. They paid tribute, we let them pass. That was then. It is not so now. The white eyes have sent blue coats on us. They build forts and offer our land to any white eye who stops their wagon and stays. We do not want them here. You do not want them either.”
Sitting Bull took the pipe from Crazy Horse after he smoked two puffs and then leaned over toward Killing Bear with the pipe in his hand to offer him another smoke. Killing Bear smiled politely at the ritual, but both Oglala chiefs saw it was a cruel twist of their guest’s lips than one of genuine warmth.
“Chief Killing Bear. Your words are like the wind over the grass from the West. I feel a storm is gathering behind it. One that turns the sky green and gold and purple before a mighty wind touches the earth, and all before it flees. Such is the coming of so many white eyes in blue with horses and men. They are the wind before the settlers and robbers among them follow, and sweep all before them with their iron horses and wooden wagons. You come a long way to tell us what we already know.”
Killing Bear put down the pipe carefully in front of him. Looking at both chiefs, he got the point.
“My People and Your People must band together to turn away this storm. The Army is more than a wind. It is death wherever and whenever they build forts. We must bind our warriors as one, and attack the Army always until they cannot build forts, or lay paths for their iron horses to run and bring more white eyes to steal our lands, poison our lives, and make the Indian vanish like a ghost forever. In my side pouch I bring you, Chief Sitting Bull, a war club with two black feathers. If you choose to take it, I will bind the black feathers, and return to tell the Cheyenne we and the Oglala are one in this fight.” Then with a quick movement of his hand to reach the buffalo pouch, Killing Bear drew out a handsome war club, and laid it in front of him. Next, came the two black feathers.
Sitting Bull looked at Crazy Horse. “Chief Killing Bear,” Crazy Horse spoke. “How do you know we will take this club from you? When we fought the Shoshone or Pawnee, you stayed away. Now you wish us to fight the white eyes who invade and take what they want on our land, before they take yours. Is it not so?”
“Those moons are past. The sun rises each day, whether the moon appears at night. Together, we make the fire of the sun. Separately, we are pale shadows in the night before the white eyes. We wish to be that fire. We wish you to be this fire, too. Seeing you must deliberate, Chief Sitting Bull, I will stay among your people until the sun rises a second morning to hear what you have to say.” Knowing the custom of an envoy- - or special person of note - - asking for a full day and night as an important guest, the Cheyenne knew his hosts would honor this tradition. Meanwhile, Killing Bear hoped his listeners would come to the same conclusion for an alliance.
On the very next morning, after a night where all the Oglala senior chiefs talked over what Killing Bear proposed, they reached a consensus to accept the Cheyenne offer. When Killing Bear was notified, he let out a whoop while waving the black-feathered club in the air, and then took breakfast with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. By the time the sun was high, the Cheyenne emissary was gone. Three months later, nearly all Oglala and Cheyenne warriors were spread in campsites made to accommodate some 5000 men. They kept hunting parties and women preparing meat busy.
So were the scouts sent by the three war chiefs to bring back precious intelligence from the forts, and foraying patrols at the Army. The summer moon that Americans call the month of June was already waning, when scouts told their combined chiefs that Yellow Hair was on the move. According to one scout, Red Eagle, the large force from Fort Lincoln would soon be at the Little Big Horn. Red Eagle thought it was peculiar that Yellow Hair had two wagons with him. They were small and had many soldiers around them. Yellow Hair always looked inside each wagon many times. Also, many blue coats were in no hurry, stopping to kill buffalo for food, and resting their horses.
Soon both sides would meet at one place.
And the waiting would end with many deaths on one June day.
When Crazy Horse and Killing Bear reached Sitting Bull, all three gave their quick salutations and started back to the assembled war council. As they arrived, dozens of senior and junior chiefs gradually rose to greet their leaders. Sitting Bull watched as Crazy Horse and Killing Bear sat down on either side of him. In unison, so did all the others. A light wind made the prairie grass ripple in waves, while overhead starlings swooped and darted in careless abandon to the affairs of men below. The air smelled of summer. The sun climbed higher to pay its respect to the Great Spirit, and bathe His Peoples with its rays to shine upon the palaver taking place.
Sitting Bull looked first to Crazy Horse, who let a little smile return to his friend. Then at Killing Bear, whose face was impassive, and gave no sign of friendship in return. Surveying the audience before him, Sitting Bull paused a few more heartbeats, and then gave his oration.
“I greet so many of the greatest chiefs and their warriors with a full heart on this day. When my messengers fanned out across the great grass and sky, which were made for all of us by the Great Spirit to each one of you, my voice was heard, and you came. I know all the senior chiefs here, and honor also all the junior chiefs among us. Today, we are like one instead of many. The white eyes never thought we were capable of unity such as this.
“Soon they shall think otherwise!” As Sitting Bull looked at this or that chief in front, a tumultuous outpouring of screams and ululations poured over him in waves. Gradually the noise subsided. Sitting Bull knew that two sets of eyes stared at him, their owners not sharing in the cheers. Crazy Horse was a skilled speechmaker in his own right and knew his friend was even greater. Killing Bear stifled his impatience over this bit of theatrics. He knew that Sitting Bull was “circling” before he “charged” his listeners, the way hunters did at the buffalo in their forays. He didn’t mind such tactics, so long as they were quickly dispensed with, and the business of killing was at hand.
“The blue riders will be upon us by tomorrow, or the next day,” Sitting Bull began. The “circling” was over.
“Our scouts tell us the Seventh is on the move towards our encampment. War Chief ‘Yellow Hair’ chafes like a maiden, before her husband takes her with excitement. He comes with horse and wagons to us. His numbers are far smaller than ours. Crows in their trees, before this large buffalo herd. Like crows, they cackle and preen. We are not afraid of crows. Like the Tatanka, we are many! We are strong! We are here! Our horns and hooves cannot be defeated so easily, except by men such as ourselves!
“But we must not be goaded foolishly from our own power. They have rifles. We have rifles. They are few but able. We are many and capable. Yet, I hear of a strange weapon on little wheels that spits death faster than many rifles. I have not seen this thing. But if true, I fear it.” This time yips and “eeh yehs” were returned from the throng to show their contempt for whatever the white man pushed “on little wheels” to fight against many rifles-bearing warriors!
Killing Bear leaned over behind Sitting Bull to whisper his amazement to Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse believed Sitting Bull about the gun that spits bullets faster than any rifle, anywhere. He, too, spoke with his spies at Forts Lincoln and Kearney who claimed they saw gold barrels bundled and rolled on little wheels. One claimed that he saw it fire so fast, that the barrels seemed to dance in a circle at the same time. All the wooden boxes filled with sand exploded into pieces in a blink of an eye. And such a noise! It seemed as all the evil spirits chattered their spells at the same time. The man’s ears were ringing for a day or two afterward.
If any of this were true, then this fight might be the last! Crazy Horse thought to himself. Killing Bear saw that Crazy Horse was not paying attention to him, or to Sitting Bull. Before he could try again to gain Crazy Horse’s attention, Sitting Bull inadvertently took a step back and broke the space between both chiefs flanking him.
“All of you have sent scouts ahead, and their voices sing like many starlings in my ear. Yellow Hair will be at the Little Big Horn and looking for us. I am told he does not know of our numbers; only that he will face Oglala and perhaps a few Cheyenne in equal strength. We do not want him to think otherwise. He will send out his eyes and ears to find us where he thinks we must be in wait. The hills and bends by this river are like buffalo robes covering so many of us. The bulk of this force must remain hidden and still while a few will be found and chased by Yellow Hair. Once we know the direction where he comes from and is going, the buffalo robes will fall away, and we shall fall upon him.” Now more yips and ululations erupted in excitement over this simple battle strategy.
Sitting Bull then motioned for all the senior war chiefs in the front rows to stand and approach him. As they did, on a pre-arranged signal passed at the same time from Sitting Bull by Crazy Horse and Killing Bear, the junior chiefs closed about these leaders in a circle. The rest of the day, until the sun began to sink in the west, ongoing details and ideas were fashioned into concrete deployments and orders of battle.
Two days later, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry reached the Little Big Horn.
History was about to be made and changed.
Fort Abraham Lincoln situated near to Bismarck and a bend of the Missouri River, was the apex of three Army forts between Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakota territories. Generals Crook, Sheridan, and Terry were overall in charge of taming and removing all tribes from lands coveted by settlers, and gold-digging or railroad-building entrepreneurs. They assigned George Armstrong Custer under General Alfred Terry to take his troop deep into Montana in pursuit of “known hostiles” and bring them to heel. Custer was pleased to have Marcus Reno assigned to the Seventh. A capable officer and slavishly devoted to his immediate superior, Reno would prove invaluable in the weeks ahead.
“Major Reno,” Custer bawled out from his quarters. A minute later, Reno stood in front of his CO’s desk. After the perfunctory salutes passed between them, Custer got to the point. “The day after tomorrow, Major, we will move out toward the Little Big Horn. Make sure the Gatlings are secure, and have plenty of ammunition. We will proceed toward an encampment of Oglala and Cheyenne hostiles close to that river bend. Normally, I would have your companies locate exactly where the hostiles are, and how many. This time, I am of the mind that our forces must be at full battalion strength. No matter how many hostiles possibly out number us, our Gatlings will quickly equalize and neutralize those numbers for naught.”
“Colonel,” Reno said. “The troop are ready and able. The Gatling wagons are secure and ready. I’ve got my best teamsters and sharpshooters deployed after we move out. Is there anything else, Sir?”
Custer kept a stern face at Reno. He was confident that his subordinate made all preparations for this campaign to succeed. Should Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Killing Bear dare to fight, it would be their last.
With these guns, I can ride right to the White House just like Grant did in his day! Custer thought bemusedly to himself. If Reno does what we expect, I might even promote him to full colonel, once I am president!
“Major, you are dismissed. See to it that your men are bedded down. Tomorrow, we have a long, hard ride ahead of us.” Reno snapped to attention again, and then left Custer alone to his dreams of glory.
It took four days for the Seventh to reach the northern hillocks of the Little Big Horn. A Shoshone scout rode back in the late afternoon of June 24 to give Custer a report of what he saw. When a second scout returned with nearly the same reconnaissance of Sitting Bull’s strength, the commander of the Seventh immediately called his junior officers to go over the plan, and their positioning of force to meet the Indians.
The sun was two hours high when Custer and the Seventh crossed the Little Big Horn. About a mile past the river, Chiefs Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Killing Bear launched their assault. Using their tactics of hitting Army troops with wave after wave of mounted warriors firing rifles and arrows at their target, the Oglala and Cheyenne were confident that they would make short work of their numerically inferior enemy.
It was their first mistake that day.
Custer and Reno rode around, they positioned troops and Gatlings for a brutal killing defense. Finding the highest hillock with the Little Big Horn river at their backs, the Seventh deployed five of the Gatlings in a pentagonal perimeter, with the apex pointed directly in the avenue of approach the Indians must get at their foe. One Gatling they kept pointed at the Big Horn which would run red with blood soon enough when needed.
“Major Reno,” Custer shouted. “Get Company C to tighten up in that spot. I will get the ammunition wagons spread out, in case one somehow explodes. Sergeant Johnson! Get more ammunition boxes out to every gun. I don’t want anyone to run low when Sitting Bull hits us with everything he has!” Wheeling his horse, Custer galloped off to the front line to see for himself where the Oglala and Cheyenne would make their first assault.
He only had a few minutes’ respite. The horizon to the southwest looked normal. The sky kissing the ground with blue on gold, and only a few starlings swooping for their morning breakfast. A peregrine hawk floating lazily on the backside of The Little Big Horn; and the rippling of a fish here and there to disturb the otherwise slow-moving water.
As Custer put his hand over his eyes, he spotted four lone horsemen gently loping across the gently undulating ground towards his position. When they got within earshot, the tallest brave shouted insults in Oglala and English to taunt the first line soldiers to open fire. Sergeant Johnson warned his troop that if one man fired without permission, he would cut off his balls and stuff them in their mouth should both soldiers survive this morning’s business.
No one on the blue line said anything.
Just as quickly as the four horsemen appeared, they turned tail and began riding in broken formation. One went to the north, the other three scattered rapidly back where they came from. A breeze rose to announce the late June heat arrived in tandem with the sun climbing higher on its appointed journey.
Death hovered in the grass between both forces.
Then the horizon in front of the Seventh began to shift from gold to many colors as Sitting Bull and Killing Bear launched their first wave at Custer. Crazy Horse had moved his forces along twin pincer lines to be used, should the white eyes fall into an encirclement trap.
“Move swiftly, my Brother,” Sitting Bull shouted to Killing Bear. “Today we take no prisoners, but one. I want Yellow Hair tonight. If he falls, no one must take his scalp. I know he will fight to the death, and I want to be the one he faces if it be so!” Killing Bear merely grunted. If Yellow Hair somehow came into his grasp, he would kill him and mutilate his body, so that even the scavenging women could not recognize his corpse.
As thousands of warriors converged on Custer and his small force, none of them paid the slightest attention to the two wagons and their strange things each balanced on three legs of their own. The first waves of hostiles arrived like waves crashing against rocks. And they broke just as easily, when the Gatlings spoke. At first, the next wave and the one after it kept sweeping forward and trying to encircle the blue coats, calmly returning their fire.
It was their second and most disastrous mistake.
For every one Seventh brought down by a bullet or arrow, hundreds of Indians fell like cut wheat. Each rider could see the man on a horse in front of him go down before he fell on top of a writhing horse screaming, or its rider broken on the ground. The air was rent with screams mixing with shouts in a deafening cacophony, mostly from the third and fourth waves facing spitting death that seemed never to tire.
Killing Bear grew nauseated for a moment, and anger made his vision fade in and out. Forcing himself to swallow his gorge, the Cheyenne Chief raised his lance high and kneed his horse right into the fray. Sitting Bull quickly sent a signal with his lance swooping from side to side for his forces to break their charge and start fanning away from the Gatlings taking so many down each second.
15-year-old Yellow Feather on his first battle was at the very rear of Sitting Bull’s horse. Straining to see what was happening, he watched in confusion when the dust and smoke cleared for a moment, so many of his older friends fall or swerve before the strange guns that glowed orange, like the early morning sun off a stream.
One of his cousins, Blue Man, came up to Yellow Feather with his horse in a lather. “Yellow Feather,” he shouted above the din, “follow me! Today we count many coups and take scalps!” Not needing any further encouragement, the boy kicked his horse to follow his cousin into combat. Blue Man took two shots from someone’s rifle before the Gatling in front shattered his mount into bloody meat. Yellow Feather watched his cousin and best friend fall in slow motion to the grass, and roll over once. Death moved on to be available elsewhere.
Private First-Class Jeremy Stone fingered the Gatling ammunition belt with the expertise of a tailor unfolding the finest silk in his shop before an anxious customer. Corporal Billy Cashew pulled and pulled the Gatling’s trigger and forgot how its six barrels sang their song in harmony with men screaming and dying in front of them. “Shit,” Cashew shouted above the rotating harmony of brass and lead. “Look at them goddam Injuns coming at us! Gimme more feed, will yuh? I see some fuckin’ chief riding with his finger up in the air, like he wants to stick it in my ass. I will stick some lead up his, instead!” Stone had no time to reply. The feed snaked in loops out of the box and through his hands, as his Gatling kept up its chattering staccato. The chief saw his left hand vanish in a red mist before his upper chest and left shoulder joined their owner being cut down.
As the sun climbed higher, so did the death toll among the Oglala and Cheyenne. Once the Gatling Guns spoke with rapid shot and loud thunder at the enveloping Indians, all Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Killing Bear, separated from one another at different points of the battle, could do was sit up on their horses in shock. They knew it was over in front of their very eyes.
Every minute the Indian-mounted horses were shot down, the soldiers took easy aim at their fallen warriors to cut them down by the dozens. The prairie grass so golden in the early day, now lay trampled and soaked with blood and gore, never seen before on the Great Plains. When the sun began its burning descent into the western horizon in front of Custer’s worn face, the sounds of war faded into an uneasy silence broken only by shrieking horses and dying or wounded men on both sides. The Gatlings were spinning almost by themselves, as if celebrating their good day’s work. One wagon somehow caught fire and now settled as a charred ruin. Fortunately, the horses escaped being burned alive when a teamster cut their traces before an arrow in the throat took his life.
By late afternoon, Custer suffered some 187 dead or wounded. The Oglala and Cheyenne broke off the fight, leaving some 2465 dead and dying on the battlefield. Sitting Bull was gravely wounded, as was Crazy Horse. Killing Bear died, and they found his corpse tangled among five dead blue coats he took with him.
It was a slaughter. One that Custer later always enjoyed comparing Little Big Horn with Gettysburg when Union guns massacred some 15,000 Confederates charging under Pickett in Lee’s futile gamble. So, too, was Little Big Horn a gamble, and a total disaster for Sitting Bull in Custer’s estimation.
Never again would the American Indian forge another alliance to fight the Army and Country to keep their lands and dignities free from white domination.
Sitting Bull never remembered how he came back to Running Deer some two days and nights later. The Medicine Man Hidden Crow applied every poultice and incantation he knew on his unconscious patient. The Oglala leader took two bullets later that day as he rode to form his braves into falling back. One bullet pierced his right lung and, other than broken ribs front and back, passed through without severe nerve damage to his torso. The other shattered his ankle from an angle that should have cost him both the lower leg and foot. Instead, he would limp for the rest of his life. Sitting Bull was fortunate that it was a rifle slug instead of a Gatling one that hit him. The shot came from quite a distance and its impact, while severe, was not fatal. One of the Oglala nearest him, had a mind to stuff some cottonwood fluff into the chest wound, front and back. As blackness drove out the pain, Sitting Bull tried to get up and slipped down into the tunnel of forgetfulness.
Running Deer held his head in her lap as Hidden Crow sprinkled more of his magic on the fire. Sparks and smoke billowed for a second or two and then left their three occupants to continue in silence.
“Will my husband recover?” Running Deer whispered more to herself than to Hidden Crow. The Medicine Man said nothing. What was there to say? If the Great Spirit wanted such a brave warrior to ride forever across the stars, who was he to gainsay with an inadequate prognosis? As the fire crackled, Running Deer knew that Hidden Crow silently left their tepee. The warm night outside cloaked the cries of women grieving, or wounded men sobbing from pain and defeat.
When Custer and the white-eyed devils never rode up to claim their coup, Crazy Horse began to prepare for the Tribe to leave this killing ground forever. Eventually, Sitting Bull could sit up, and even walk by the time the first winter moon shed her pale light to caress the snowy land.
No more would the Oglala or the Cheyenne face the Blue Coats as warriors on their own land.
The Great Plains would never again see the likes of these Great Peoples free as before, and masters of their own lives.
The banquet held in Fort Lincoln was attended by every general and important politician to honor newly promoted Colonel George Armstrong Custer for The Little Big Horn Triumph. Amidst the glittering gold braid and festive music gracing four tables groaning under the weight of so much food and drink, Custer turned over in his mind the letter that President Ulysses S. Grant sent him from the White House. One sentence stuck out. “As soon as you can come, please attend me at the White House.” Custer was impatient to leave but Generals Crook, Sheridan, and Terry insisted on this little shindig to present the “Hero of the Day” his eagles, and their congratulations for ending the “Red Menace” on the Great Plains.
When the official dinner finally ended, and Custer could return to his quarters, sleep came like a heavy shroud over him as he fell into bed. Recently, he began having broken dreams - - even vivid nightmares - - of the slaughter at Little Big Horn. Sometimes he would wake up in cold sweats; his heart beating like a war tom-tom drum, and his lungs trying to get more air. Visions of dying men and horses spraying their blood and body parts about him faded as he woke; but the taste of bitter bile, and his barely controlling of bowels or bladder were distinct reminders that battle was not all bravery and hoopla.
One dream made Custer turn sometimes to drink. In this one, Sitting Bull is laughing as Killing Bear cuts off Custer’s testicles while he is alive, helpless, and sobbing. The leer on Killing Bear’s face sears into Custer’s consciousness as the Cheyenne then tosses Yellow Hair’s balls into an open fire.
After a few months, the dreams and nightmares recede. Only now and then, when something or someone makes an untoward sound or startling movement, does Custer get flashbacks to that June Day. The death of the first Mrs. Custer helped neither. One late Sunday morning, the Colonel was walking when he heard the wind sigh through some trees lining his path. He thought nothing of it at first. Then as a wayward child on someone’s porch screamed their anger for being picked up against their will. At that precise second, Custer saw a young warrior barely in his teens scream like that when a large hole opened up on his chest. When he returned to his quarters, Custer shook for an hour, until some whiskey helped calm his nerves.
On the day he met with President Grant, the bemedalled Custer sat in the anteroom outside the Oval Office. A grandfather clock softly dropped one of its weights. Custer turned to the source of that click, and when he saw the brass weights, memories of the Gatlings glinting just so flooded his mind. Before he could take another deep breath and look away, the door to the Oval Office opened and Grant stood on the threshold with a cigar clamped in his mouth to greet his guest.
“Colonel Custer, I presume?” the President smiled as he held the cigar in his left hand, and extended his right to greet the “Hero of the Day” from the Indian wars. Custer rose quickly and took the President’s hand in a firm grip. Then both men entered the Oval Office. The brass weight clicked one more time, before the clock chimed another quarter hour in that meeting.
Grant came right to the point.
“Colonel Custer, the Country owes you a great debt. You know this. I know this. What I would like to know is, if you are interested in sitting in this Office after I retire? The Republican ‘big wigs’ asked me to inquire if you might want to run in November against our opposition?” With that, Grant crushed out his cigar and reached in the humidor by him for another. As he lit up and clouds of blue smoke rose in front of his face like dragon puffs, Custer sat perfectly rigid, and waited for the ritual to pass before he spoke.
“Mr. President, Sir,” Custer started with a commander’s tone to a subordinate. “I’ve been approached by the Democrats in my home state for such a proposition. There are others in states recently returned to our Union, which made similar inquiries on my behalf. To be perfectly honest, General Grant, I am thinking of St Louis next week. And I appreciate your asking me now. You served the late President Lincoln honorably and followed him into his Party. But, Mr. President, the public is most unhappy about some scandals reported in the newspapers. If I were to consider a presidential bid, I believe my chances are enhanced by representing another party before the electorate across this nation.”
Grant drew another puff and slowly blew a ring toward the ceiling. Before he could reply, a gentle knock at the door got both men’s attention. Grant shouted, “Not now! Goddammit!” Whoever was behind it, quickly retreated, while president and colonel laughed to themselves to break the tension between them.
“Colonel Custer, I am sorry to hear that. I don’t favor Hayes at all. The Country needs you in the White House. I need you. The press be hanged! I fired or jailed some crooks here, but I can’t touch Congress with all their thieves and liars now. You can, if you are sitting in this Chair. Command is nothing new to you, Custer. The Country wants you to command when the economy is going sour, and our European friends are questioning America’s emergence as a power in world affairs. Your popularity can keep the Party of Lincoln on a steady course. In fact, I believe you have a duty to do so. Do we understand one another?”
“You are my commander-in-chief, Mr. President. I wear this uniform under that obligation. But if I run on my own, I will resign my commission first, so I can be a citizen and not an Army officer then.”
Grant leaned back on his chair, drew another puff and then placed his cigar on an ashtray. “So be it, Colonel. I will not make my wishes an order. That will not do. But do think about what I said. Now, I must attend to my next appointment, Colonel. The audience was over. For a moment, Grant remained sitting and then stood up. Custer followed suit, and gave a salute. Grant returned the salutation impassively. Then Custer was ushered out of the Oval Office.
He would return as its occupant after his inauguration on March 4th, 1877.
When the Democrats held their nominating convention in St Louis the following month, George Armstrong Custer won the nomination by acclamation. The next victory for Yellow Hair came in November 1876, when he trounced Rutherford B. Hayes in the election. The slogan “Little Big Horn and Manifest Destiny!” was on everyone’s lips during the whistle stops; and every stump speech Custer blared to adoring voters and the public.
What few knew, and almost none suspected, was the fact that Custer was a master in politics outside of the usual games ambitious officers played to become generals. While the aftermath from the Election of 1876 would make this obvious later even to the most obtuse voter, or Congressman, President-Elect George Custer had a greater goal in mind; once he became sworn in as President.
To make the newly “Reconstructed” South his power base for the next term; and surely to win third one after that!
True, the Mid-West, and several key Eastern states catapulted the former Army colonel and one-time brevet brigadier general, to fill another general’s shoes in the White House. But the Electoral College could be fickle down the road. Another Section in his pocket for insurance would make all the difference to his presidency. With the South reconciled by ending Reconstruction on her terms, Custer would have more than enough electoral votes for 1880, and 1884, to fend off the disgraceful retirement that Grant faced over his scandalous administration.
Also, a powerful bloc in both Houses of Congress made up of grateful Southern and Western politicos!
During the hectic 1876 campaign, Custer crisscrossed every Southern state when not hitting his Northern base hard for electoral votes. They made promises to certain influential men; not quite a few who were proud ex-Confederates only in civilian mufti. In exchange for white votes from rank and file delivered by these “influential men”, the Army would withdraw its occupation of the former Confederacy; and all carpet bagger governments would be quickly disbanded. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 became impotent when the last Freedman’s Bureau packed up and headed North. Every Southern government quietly ignored the newly enacted 14th and 15th Amendments resurrected; based on Custer’s guarantee that as President, he would abide by the “People’s Will!” Naturally, the Democrats swept Congress pretty much along the same promises made by the reunited Party, North and South. All the Republicans could do for the next 66 years was wander in the political wilderness until the Country called them to power after Pearl Harbor in 1940.
President George Armstrong Custer sat in the very same chair his predecessors Lincoln and Grant used. Every morning and evening, he lovingly caressing the massive desk in front of him. The Oval Office was so much better than Army billets and tents from those days when he wanted military glory and rank alone. With the popular vote at his back, President George Armstrong Custer worked the media and Congress in Washington to build a formidable reputation for the next election. Money, patronage, and good old-fashioned arm twisting, with a dash of favoritism, worked wonders in the first three years of his term in office. Especially to hungry congressmen and ambitious governors from two other sections neglected or taken for granted until recently.
Adding the Middle Atlantic and Western states in 1880, cemented his hold on the presidency.
Custer won the election to a second term almost handily in 1880.
Being a “Builder of the West and Restorer of the Nation!”, as he campaigned hard in the two sections most important for a possible third term in 1884, he made a fateful promise that his predecessors in the next century would pay dearly to keep.
The election of 1884 was quite an event. No sitting president every served over two terms. George Armstrong Custer was no ordinary “sitting president”. He broke with tradition; one hoary with history, since another George gratefully relinquished the Office after his second term. Running against the Republican James Blaine of Maine, Custer crushed him with 228 electoral votes to Blaine’s 73. After the Third Inaugural Speech finished ringing out across the crowd below the Presidential Stand, for the first time Custer felt somewhat winded and weak.
The Inaugural Balls scheduled for the two nights in early March 1885 went on with Vice President Grover Cleveland and his new wife presiding. All Washington was atwitter over rumors of health of this “tradition breaker”, who the populists dearly loved, and all blue-collar “Custer Republicans” liked to vote again and again. The South voted “Solid Democrat”, without black voters to gainsay white supremacy across the Old Confederacy. The West made sure that Mexican and Indian Americans somehow never got registered to vote, even for dog catcher, or cattle inspector. Voters in Hawaii in their first presidential election, were most grateful for being admitted in 1884 as the 39th state to the Union! White planters and residents in the Islands only numbered some 7,000 potential voters out of 19,000; most of the latter being women and minors, compared to the 260,000 Native Hawaiians, of whom roughly 43,000 were men over 21 and eligible to take part. A few hundred got a chance to cast their ballot in 1884; almost these votes went to Blaine when the final tally was made.
A year later in 1885 Columbia became the 40th state; and like her newly gained Southern and Pacific sisters, firmly Democrat until the election of 1940 in the next century. Custer enjoyed having the new Hawaiian and Columbian congressional delegations respectively for dinner at the White House; often enjoyed his correspondence with their governors for years to come.
One morning, sitting in the West Wing family quarters, President Custer watched his personal physician put away a stethoscope, and turn to face his patient.
“Mr. President, I will be blunt. Your heart is strained. My examination shows a pattern of “off- synchronized beats”, or ventricular arrhythmia. There is no known cure for this condition. They prescribe laudanum in very mild doses for these cases. The problem here, is that the palliative is worse than the condition it treats for some patients. Laudanum is addictive. In the long run it can trigger the very condition it is supposed to mollify. I will prescribe a tiny regimen, but the overall treatment requires much rest, and limited physical activity on your part. Being President is a demanding responsibility that your mind can handle well, but your heart says something else, Sir. If you are not careful, the Country may have its next presidential funeral to grieve over since Lincoln’s.”
Custer stared at the White House doctor while hearing this prognosis.
He did not get this far to relinquish one iota of his Presidency to a “weak heart” condition.
He did not want to give any real power to Vice President Grover Cleveland, either.
Custer knew that Cleveland wanted to run in 1888, and with Custer’s blessing. The President knew the Country might not want a fourth term for him. The Republicans were spoiling for such an issue as “Presidential Dictatorship” was red meat for voters and the press.
One day, on an unusually warm March day and early harbinger of spring to come in Washington, a letter arrived at the White House addressed “To the Great White Father and Chief Yellow Hair”. When someone in the postal room saw the return address and who it was from, the letter made its way upstairs to the Oval Office. Custer took the letter from his secretary and opened it with a sense of amazement and amusement.
Both warriors had come a long way since Little Big Horn.
One became the “Great White Chief Yellow Hair”, a worthy rival of another Great Plains Chief.
The other a legend for the ages; now a prisoner of war on his stolen land for fighting to be free.
Carefully removing the letter from its envelop postmarked “Grand River, SD”, and dated December 31, 1887, Custer read the words on it several times. And each time, felt his eyes water at the simplicity and honesty of his former adversary’s polite and powerful expressions.
The rest of his day, President Custer tended to business. But the letter never left his sight.
As was his wont on nights he was restless from the cares of his Office, he would pick up the envelop and its message inside just to hold them in his hands. After so many readings of it to others in his cabinet, or the second Mrs. Custer, George Armstrong could see every word flash across his mind like heat lightning above the Dakota hills and plains.
US FEDERAL LAKOTA INDIAN RESERVATION
GRAND RIVER, SOUTH DAKOTA
DECEMBER 9, 1887
GREAT WHITE FATHER, AND CHIEF YELLOW HAIR:
I am speaking to you on paper instead of together over a pipe. You know I cannot read or write in the white man’s words. A Christian medicine man who teaches the People about your God who died in his own Sun Dance long ago, is making my words for you to see and understand.
Your people have honored you as a Great Chief in their powwows again. You have three feathers to add to the first won so long ago at our place of war. Every year I walk to the little river to sit by the place where so many of our peoples fought and died. When the wind ripples the grasses, so do the ghosts of men and horses make their voices for me to hear like a wailing wind. From your House, do you remember such wailing on nights when sleep is gone, and dawn still far away?
Before I fell from your gun, I shot you first. My wound was deep. Your wound not so. Time heals much. Chief Yellow Hair, I appeal to your sense of honor and courage. My People are cold and hungry this winter. The Agent is deaf to our children’s cries for food. Our women cannot forage enough. The cattle given to us are sickly or starving themselves. The Oglala cannot hunt buffalo any more. I and my chiefs are beggars, where once we roamed and hunted and warred as we pleased!
These things you may not know.
In the spirit of respect for one another in better times before we fought at the Little Big Horn so many moons ago, I ask you to help my People. Had the spirits thought otherwise, my People would not be in so much suffering.
When you lay down your lance and give the chieftain to the next Great White Father, come and see us. We will smoke a pipe and tell stories your and my grandchildren will sing songs.
Given under my hand for Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, on this Day and Year of Our Lord, on the 9th of December 1887, by John Edward Bennett, the Pastor of Grand River Church, Grand River, Territory of South Dakota.
The wagons and Army escort rolled to a stop in front of the Grand River Indian agent’s office. Indian Agent Bradley Stephenson was expecting them for some weeks, ever since he received a letter from the district Bureau of Indian Affairs in Rapid City; his immediate superior, Charles Finney. The “bureauspeak” was quite clear for a change. Agent Stephenson was to send to Rapid City a tally of remaining supplies available to feed and clothe the Oglala on their reservation. The ukase was also quite clear as to inventory accuracy. The message in between the lines was very precise: “No fudging! No fraud!”
Stephenson mused over this diktat coming from his boss, who was the head “scammer” of them all! Guess somebody in Washington put a bee up Finney’s ass! Stephenson chuckled to himself when he first read the contents. Then a clammy feeling came over him. Shit! What if there is an auditor from Rapid City coming out soon to check on things here. I could be in deep sheep dip. Finney will know how to cover himself, but I could be left hanging in the wind. Shit! I better use some money I got squirreled away, and a few supplies to hand out to the Indians around here I bribe to keep me looking good!
Captain William Tomlinson, Seventh Cavalry, strode up the steps leading to Stephenson’s office. One of the minor clerks saw the captain, followed by another officer and a sergeant, ride slightly ahead of the wagon train. Indian Agent Bradly Stephenson had on his Sunday suit, and a cheesy smile to greet his guests on the porch.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Captain Tomlinson got down to business.
“Agent Stephenson, sir, I have a manifest of supplies and sundries for you to look over. I require you to sign a receipt thereof, that this shipment arrived on such-and-such date forthwith. After the wagons are unloaded, Sergeant Johnson, under First Lieutenant Richard Sloan, will present you with an audit report tallying what you acknowledge was duly delivered into your care. If you have questions, please direct them to First Lieutenant Sloan, or he is not present, Sergeant Johnson will oblige. Is this satisfactory to you, sir?”
Stephenson lost the smile on his face when Tomlinson’s grey eyes glittered at him like a wolf about to savage a sheep. Quickly gaining some measure of self-control, Stephenson said without stammering, “No, Captain, it sounds perfectly agreeable to me. I shall have my clerk assist you in every way.” Taking the first manifest in hand, Stephenson quickly scanned it and scrawled his signature and date as per the Army officer’s order.
Sergeant Johnson walked over to the first teamster and informed the man to get the wagons ready for unloading. Captain Tomlinson and First Lieutenant Sloan stood aside, while Stephenson brought out a lanky young non-descript man to take over the inventorying once they stacked the cargo for examination.
A young boy nearby, who was with his mother to get some food from the bare-bones commissary, took his mother’s meaning to let Sitting Bull know of the Army’s arrival with wagons. He ran like the wind.
Sitting Bull was walking with Yellow Hawk, a nephew of Crazy Horse’s, when the boy caught up to them.
“Tatanka-Iyotanka! Tatanka-Iyotanka! Wagons and blue coats are here! Come and see!” the boy gasped. Yellow Hawk looked at Sitting Bull, and it surprised both at this news.
“Red Lizard, we come. Say nothing to anyone else, yet. We will join you and your mother. Now go.” With that, Sitting Bull whispered to Yellow Hawk, “Stephenson will pass water from both ends now.”
“Why?” Yellow Hawk asked.
“My letter to Chief Yellow Hair,” was all Sitting Bull would divulge.
President-Elect Grover Cleveland sat with outgoing President Custer in a small alcove near the Oval Office, quite private, and away from unwanted ears and eyes. The transition between administrations in those days was simple and direct. Custer’s people prepared their resignations, and worked with some of Cleveland’s counterparts until March 4th to make the pathway easier from one presidency to another.
Custer was fully recovered from a heart attack he suffered back in October 1886. Now almost 50, the soon to be “ex-President” looked forward to his retirement from public office. Not ignoring the growing chest pains at certain times of stress, or night sweats and shortness of breath, and recurring dark memories of battle, Custer listened to his second wife Amanda about “slowing down”, and enjoying his two young sons, Carter and Benjamin, while he had good health and time.
Once, in June 1886, he felt he would die. The chest pain started in his left arm, and then slowly seared its way up to his neck and jaw. Fortunately, he was in bed at the time fighting off another sleepless night, and kept a bottle of laudanum on hand. First Lady Custer aroused their servants; and the White House physician arrived as quickly as his carriage and the night-time traffic allowed. They prescribed bed rest. And in a few weeks, the President was moving around and working a very light schedule, until his doctor said otherwise.
The dream of a fourth term vanished like mist in the early morning sun of hard politics.
Custer wanted to leave a legacy comparable to the greats before him, like Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln.
From the day he ended Reconstruction in the South back in April 1877 to secure for future Democratic presidents and congressional power holders of their political base; hammered both parties in Congress for exclusionary immigration powers between 1881-1882; passed civil service reform by 1883 to winnow out enemy partisan patronage; and successfully added two new states, and gained a “protectorate” over Cuba in 1878- - possibly a Latin future state, the first of its kind since Mexico ceded the American Southwest back in 1848 , which led to six new states between 1850 and 1896 to the American flag - - George Armstrong Custer could well be proud of his legacy to the Country and history.
Now as his successor was being sworn in on that mild March 4th, 1889, as the 19th President of the United States, the 18th dreamed of one more act. When the 21-gun cannonade finished echoing across the Capitol Steps and buildings clustered around the Grand Stand, Custer knew he had one thing left to do in this lifetime.
One that would give him some peace at last.
One only Chief Sitting Bull would appreciate.
Custer’s Last Stand.
I wonder if my friend Tashunkewitko, or “Crazy Horse” as the white eyes called him, would be pleased to see Yellow Hair one more time. And here on what they leave of our land and People? Soon, Yellow Hair will sit beside me and smoke a pipe and tell lies to match mine. Only his will be more colorful among his People, and mine have never known. Just as my memory will mean something to the Oglala and their descendants long after I am dust, or a whisper in the prairie wind.
When Yellow Hair arrived with only his oldest son Carter as escort, Sitting Bull greeted both with much dignity as his modest means could afford. Somehow, rare buffalo meat with all the trimmings of corn and berry lay in bone platters, as Running Deer moved her ancient bones gracefully for their honored guests. Custer presented Sitting Bull a box containing dueling pistols that came into his possession from a grateful “ex-Confederate” general and former governor, as a token of his appreciation.
After they concluded the repast, Yellow Feather guided the other Custer to see the “sights”, and exchange their outlooks on the world.
Sitting Bull smiled his deep satisfaction watching his former foe and new friend smoke a pipe together, as the sunset, and dusk covered the Great Plains, and faraway Little Big Horn.