11. [Battle of Little Big Horn.] Josiah Chance. Highly important and extremely rare autograph letter signed, 23 pages (9 5/8 x 7 ¾ in.; 244 x 197 mm.), Supply Buffalo on the Yellowstone at mouth of Powderriver M.T. 20 June to 5 July 1876 to an unidentified friend being an extraordinary contemporary account of the Battle of Little Big Horn; some creasing, some splits to horizontal folds.
An extraordinary contemporary account of the Battle of Little Big Horn.
The present letter begins with a soldier’s narration of the quotidian realities of a cavalry unit in the field. On 11 June the unit reached their supply depot on the Yellowstone near the mouth of the Glendive’s Creek. At this juncture, Josiah Chance was assigned the duty of Depot Quarter Master (in the rear with the gear), much to his disappointment.
He writes: Very much to my disgust, the day I marched here Genl Terry appointed me Depot Quarter Master, leaving my Company with 4 others to guard the Depot. I was very much disappointed, as I had made arrangements to accompany the forces in the field, which I preferred to remaining in camp. A man in the Army not being a “Free agent”-must necessarily submit to the powers that be, and from long experience I have always found the easiest to be the best way, and I have therefore submitted to my fate without protest in this case. I will make myself comfortable while I remain, and that will doubtfully be until the close of the campaign.
Though clearly unhappy, Chance’s assignment no doubt saved his life and allowed for the present account to be written.
Chance proceeds to record all the intelligence he received from a group of eight of General Custer’s scouts: Nothing of importance has occurred since writing the above, until yesterday when our Camp was thrown into great excitement over the news received from Genl. Custers Command. Eight of General Custers Scouts who were cut off from his Command, came into camp yesterday with the startling news that 7th Cavalry were engaged in a terrible battle, and when they left were surrounded-cut off from water, and unless assistance arrived they would all be killed.
It appears that Genl. Custer after striking the Indian trail near the Rosebud (of which I have spoken of before) followed it rapidly in the direction of the Bighorn, and came upon their camp about noon of the 25th, inst. on the Bighorn 25 miles from the Yellowstone. It appears, also, that Maj. Reno with three (e) Companies of Cavalry (A. G & K Commanded by Capt. Moylan. Lieut Godfrey and Lieut Mcintosh) and Indian Scouts (Leiut Varuum in the Command) seemed to have been detached and was several miles in advance of the main Colonel under General Custer. About 1 o’cl P.M. Maj. Reno crossed his com’d from the left to the right bank of the river, leaving Gent. Custer with the balance of the command on the left bank some five (5) miles below. As soon as Renos Command reached the opposite bank he came suddenly upon some Indians, who opened fire, and they fell back. The country being heavily numbered. Maj. Reno dismounted his com’d leaving the horses in the woods and advanced on foot. He had advanced but a short distance when he came in view of a small village, and immediately ordered a charge--thinking there was but few Indians in the village as but few teepees could be seen. It was not long however, before he knew what he had struck, as he became hotly engaged in a few minutes, and places where a moment before no Indians could be seen, was now swarming and commenced pouring wolly, after volley, into his ranks. After reaching the teepees Reno saw he would be unable to old his position, as the Indians were receiving reinforcements from the camps below, and he at once determined to fall back and re-cross the river, as it was evident that he would soon be surrounded and cutoff from the main Command. While the fight was going on, the Indians succeeded in firing the woods in which the horses has been left, causing a general stampede of the animals, many of which ran into the Indian camp and many others being killed.
At this stage of the action Reno ordered a retreat, and succeeded in crossing the river with most of his command (dismounted) but in doing so lost a number of men and two officers (Srents Mslntosh +Hodgson) and his chief guide Glas. Reynolds. The Indians at once crossed the river and commenced to circle round his com’d. Reno seeing he was outnumbered, 10 to 1--directed his com’d to take (page 12) position on a high bluff nearby, and there determined to make a stand, until assistance from Gent. Custer arrived, whom he supposed would join him as soon as he knew his situation.
He had not been in this position very long before he found himself completely surrounded and closely pressed upon all sides. Cut off from water, and prospect of Custer coming to his assistance. This was the condition of Renos Com’d Saturday evening when the scouts left. As regards Custers command nothing positive was known by the scouts--only he had been fighting all day and was reported killed, and his cam’d (what was left of it) in about the same condition as Renos, surrounded but still fighting. Still later: --Two more scouts arrived about 9 o’cl P.M. and confirmed the above report. Although they left 12 hours later, they report the situation about the same. Our men still fighting but heavily pressed. They met a number of Custers men who reported him killed, besides other officer whom they did not know and that his command was surrendered some four (4) miles from Reno. From all the information gained the field upon which they are engaged must be rough and unfavorable for our forced. The high hills and ravines being heavily lumbered and both banks of the river thickly covered with willows, making it impossible to execute a rapid and concentrated movement of Cavalry. The Indian Camps are reported to extend four or five miles along the left bank of the river, and contain from eight to nine (8 to 9) hundred lodges, and if this be true it is safe to estimate their strength at not Jess than 2,700 warriors. However much truth there is in the reports of these Scouts, I can’t say, but there is not the slightest doubt in my mind, but what Custer has had a terrible hard fight, and perhaps wounded in the first attack, but as I have such doubts, unbounded confidence in the heroic character, bravery, and cool judgement of the man to think him totally defeated is simply impossible. He may have been defeated by detail-but never with his whole command with him! I will here close for the present and wait for further and more authentic information. Besides there will be no chance for sending the mail for sometime and if there was, I would not like to make a report of this kind without official information. More anon!
On 3 July, Chance writes of preparations for their Centenial 4th of July celebration: Although we do not expect any great display, or any flowery 4th of July orations, yet we will celebrate it in a quiet but patriotic way, by parading, and firing a salute from the hands of every man in the command . . . . He notes: No news yet from Genl. Custer.
On 5 July, Chance records: Yesterday while we were quietly grafping our 4th--talking upon various subjects regarding the growth and progress of civilization during the first century of our Republic, our attention was suddenly attracted to the beautiful calling corporal of the guard post 4, in rapid succession and our going out of my tent--heard the men crying “Steam boat! Steam boat!” and upon asking from what direction it was coming, was answered by a dozen voices, “Down the river.” Turning my eyes in that direction I could plainly see the long black chimnnies of a steamer in the distance coming rapidly down the river, and as we knew it was bringing tidings from our friends, and the result of of the late battle, everyone was more or less excited, and waited in breathy suspense for her landing, and learning the fate of our comrades. It proved to be the “Far West”, en route to Lincoln carrying the wounded (46 men) and a staff officer bearing dispatches from Genl. Terry to Genrl. Sheridan. From this officer I obtained some of the particulars of the late fight.
Chance proceeds to recount his understanding of just what happened at the Battle of Little Big Horn: I have lost so many friends and noble comrades, that I sicken at the thought of their fate and my heart is too full of sadness to write, especially when I think of the many houses that will be made desolate by the untimely loss of their dear ones. If what I have already written was the whole truth, it would be less painful for me to write, but as it does not convey in the slightest, half, what the actual truth has proven, I will not at this time attempt to paint or describe the horrible scene. At present it is simply impossible for me to give a truthful account as I have not words sufficiently strong to paint the picture.
It appears that Genl. Custer came upon the Indian Camp about noon on the 25 (June) with 8 Companies and Scouts., the balance of his command under Col Beuteen being left some miles to the rear, as guard over the Pack Train. The Genl., thinking he had struck the lower end of their camp, detatched Maj Reno, with 3 Companies and Scouts (of which I have mentioned before) with orders to proceed to the upper end of their camp, cross the river and attack, and he in like manner would attack from below, and as soon as the Indians were driven the Com’ds would unite, and act together. Maj. Reno at once proceeded to execute the orders given him, and 1 o.cl crossed the river and made the attack, resulting as I have already stated in being driven back to train. Shortly after Reno’s departure the Genl. with 5 Companies, crossed the river, and charged upon what he supposed to be their camp, but which afterwards proved a decoy, an ambuscade.
The side of the river on which the Indians were encamped, some distance back from the bank was a heavy thicket of young willows and of which had been constructed hundreds of false teepees. In the willows beyond the Indians lay concealed, and as soon as the troops advanced beyond these teepees, they opened a murderous fire, unsaddling half the command at the first fire. It was at once evident to the General that instead of attacking them in flank, he had struck them in the center, where they quietly waited his approach, and opened fire when they had all this advantage. He soon gave order to fall back..but from some cause not explained the order was not promptly obeyed, and seeing the critical condition of affairs, determined to leave his command if possible and as quick as though, he put spurs to his horse, taking the bridle reins in his teeth, drawing both revolvers, and charged into the thickest of the fight, cheering his men, and succeeded by his presence and personal bravery, in coming off with 40 men and a number of officers, crossed the river, taking a position on a high butt where he made a noble stand, “and fought his last battle.” This position was gained late Sunday evening, and he was no sooner in it than he found himself surrounded, cut off from water and closely pressed upon all sides, when night came to their relief and closed the fight for the day. No one will ever know the thoughts or feelings of that noble little band as they lay there that long night, surrounded by a savage and unrelenting foe, knowing that a few hours more their ammunition would be exhausted and nothing but death waited them. In the following morning the struggle commenced again but no one knows how long they fought on the hour that closed the terrible slaughter, as there was not a living soul left out of the 5 Companies which followed Custer to tell the tale. They were all dead! Nine officers and 40 men with their chief lay dead, behind their horses which they had killed and used as breastworks. During the evening, Saturday Col. Beuteen with the balance of the command succeeded in joining Reno where they made a desperate fight all day Monday repulsing several charges and holding their position until the Indians gave up the fight, making a hasty retreat, leaving all their dead (which was hundreds) and a great deal of supplies and camp equipment on the field.
The cause of their rapid flight was their seeing the advance Columns of Gent. Gibbons command - which soon arrived on the field and relieved our almost famished troops under Reno. It was not until after the arrival of General Gibbon that Reno learnt the fate of Custer and the 5 Cos. with him. The sodest and most hearrending scene was yet to be witnessed in the buriel of our dead. Going over the ground, and in the deep ravines where our men had fought their bodys were found stripped of their clothing, scalped, mutilated and cut to pieces, and in many cases could not be recognized- having their heads cut off. The total number buried on the field was 16 officers (names hencewith enclosed) 4 civilians and 265 enlisted men. Number of Indians killed not known.
From a “brow Indian” who was with Gent Custer when he made his attack furnishes all the information we have in regard to the fight. He succeeded in making his escape, at the time Custer fell back and recrossed the river, by stripping a dead Sioux of his clothes, and dressing himself in his costume and passed through the lines unobserved. He states shortly after the fight began he went to Gent Custer and begged him to leave the field with him, as he knew they would all be killed, and that he was too brave a man to be killed in this way. He said the General started and went some distance with him, and all of a sudden he stopped still (with his back towards the Indians) dropping his head as if in deep thought, and remained in that position for some moments, when he went up to him, catching hold of his arm & motioned him to come. The General instantly turned shoved him away - turned his hors, took of his hat and charged back in the midst of the fight[.] He then left and he is today the only living being who last saw the noble and heroic Gent Geo A Custer after he went into the fight.
Chance closes his letter apologizing for its length and perhaps uninteresting content to his correspondent. He relays he knows not how long he will remain in the field but reckons he will not return earlier than September. Chance’s letter constitutes a truly remarkable contemporary account of the bloody Battle of the Little Big Horn.