ONE HUNDRED YEARS WITH THE SECOND CAVALRY
By Joseph I. Lambert, Major, Second Cavalry
Copyright 1939 Commanding Officer, Second Cavalry, Fort Riley, Kansas
Capper Printing Company, Inc.
Simultaneously with the assembling of Crooks’ command at Fetterman, Terry was preparing to enter the field. He marched from Fort Lincoln, North Dakota, May 17, with the Seventh Cavalry, three Gatling guns, and six companies of infantry. On June 7 he established a supply camp at the mouth of the Powder River. From here Major Reno with six companies of the Seventh Cavalry made a scout to the Rosebud, picking up an Indian trail leading toward the Big Horn River.
The column from Fort Ellis, Montana, had marched east along the north bank of the Yellowstone in order to make a junction with General Terry’s force. It consisted of Companies F, G, H, and L, Second Cavalry, and six companies of the Seventh Infantry. These two forces combined at the junction of the Yellowstone and Rosebud Rivers.
General Terry decided to divide his force into two parts. Colonel Gibbons, with all the force except the Seventh Cavalry, was sent up the Big Horn to the mouth of the Little Big Horn. Colonel Custer with the Seventh Cavalry was to proceed to the Rosebud until he discovered the direction taken by the trail found by Major Reno. He was then to veer to the south and prevent the hostiles from escaping west to the mountains. The two columns were to unite on the Little Big Horn, June 26. At the conference June 21, Terry offered, at Major Brisbin’s suggestion, to send with Custer the battalion of the Second Cavalry, but he later declined.
Gibbons’ column, which included Companies F, G, H, and L, Second Cavalry, was ferried to the south side of the Yellowstone River by the supply steamer Far West. They followed along this stream until the Big Horn was reached, which was ascended. By forced marches the command came to a point twelve miles below the mouth of the Little Big Horn. General Terry was anxious to join forces with Colonel Custer and decided to push on that evening with the cavalry and Gatling guns. The night was stormy and the path was so rough that the command halted at midnight to await daylight. The battalion moved out late next morning to permit the infantry to partially close up. Soon after leaving bivouac, word was brought in that two of the Crow Indians who had been sent with Custer were across the Big Horn and refused to cross. They said that Custer’s command had been beaten and that he had been killed. This of course was not believed by anyone. The infantry having arrived, the united command moved up the Little Big Horn about three miles from its mouth and made camp about 1:00 p.m.
A scout was sent forward to try to communicate with Custer. The march was resumed at 5:00 p.m. after the horses had been given time to graze in the luxuriant grass. After advancing about five miles, shots were fired at Company F, under Lieutenant Charles F. Roe, which had been sent along the bluffs to cover the right flank. Night overtook the column while the officers searched the country with their glasses. Although apprehensive of Custer’s fate, the unit went into bivouac, ignorant of what had occurred that day only a few miles up the river.
On the morning of June 27, General Terry decided to move along the valley with scouting parties on the hills on both sides. Advancing beyond a large clump of trees, they saw the remains of a large Indian village, which had just recently been moved. A few tepees were standing with dead bodies in them, and a number of wounded horses and some equipment were scattered about. While General Terry and Colonel Gibbons were pondering the situation, a message came from the scouts that they had just counted 196 dead cavalrymen on the hills east of the river. Soon two horsemen came dashing toward them from up the valley. They were messengers from Major Reno to tell of the desperate fight of his detachment and their location further up the river.
Realizing that he could not now pursue the retreating Indians with such a small command, General Terry remained on the battlefield. The next day was spent in burying the dead, bringing the wounded to camp from Reno Hill, and making hand litters for their transportation. On June 28, the troops started for the steamer Far West, which had ascended the Big Horn to the mouth of the Little Big Horn. After making only about four miles that day carrying wounded in hand litters, it was decided to make mule litters. The efficiency of these was due to Lieutenant Gustavus C. Doane, Company G, Second Cavalry. The hide from dead animals was cut into ropes and tied between two poles about twenty-two feet long. The poles were hitched to one mule in front and another in rear, with a wounded soldier carried between. After placing the wounded on board the steamer, the command was marched back to the Yellowstone to await reenforcements. Although the four troops of the Second Cavalry from Fort Ellis escaped the fate of Custer’s force because he declined to take them along, it was they who came to the rescue of Major Reno’s battalion and prevented its complete destruction. A scout made by Company H, under Captain Ball, proved the Indians had withdrawn on account of the approach of General Terry’s force, and had split into two parts, one going west and the other east.