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Little Bighorn Slaper’s Side of the Story

By John Koster
3/2/2017 • Wild West Magazine

In a 1920 interview Private William Slaper of Company M, 7th U.S. Cavalry, defended Major Marcus Reno but not Lieutenant Colonel George Custer for their actions in June 1876.

William C. Slaper, born in Cincinnati on Novem- ber 23, 1855, joined the cavalry without fanfare or flag-waving, and his account as a private in the most famous Indian battle on the Western frontier is honest, authentic—and runs somewhat contrary to the generally accepted narrative. In 1920, 44 years after the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, Slaper sat down in Los Angeles to be interviewed by historian Earl Alonzo Brininstool, whose motto was, “I tell things just as they were told to me, by the men who were there.” What Slaper related was an unvarnished account of one soldier’s Little Bighorn by a man who was surely there—and whose version of the 7th Cavalry’s defeat is almost a flip side to the mythology conjured up by those who were not there.

Slaper was out of a job in early September 1875 when a Men Wanted sign drew him into a U.S. Army recruiting station in his hometown. He had no grandiose notions of patriotism (he was a second-generation German American) nor any desire to either reform or kill Indians. His motives were simple: He was broke. “Half-heartedly, I went upstairs, almost hoping I would be rejected,” he recalled. “I told the recruiting officer what I was after. He asked me many questions, and finally I was requested to disrobe for a physical examination.” There were 10 applicants that morning, and only two were accepted. That Slaper was one of them didn’t exactly excite him. In fact, he was ashamed of being seen in uniform, as soldiers in those postwar days were looked upon as “idlers.” Technically he was under age, and his brother threatened to put him back “out of the Army” by turning him in. William protested, explaining he could get two years in prison for lying under oath.

“[My brother] finally concluded to let me go ahead,” Slaper said, “but first commanded me to go home and see my mother.…When she saw me in Army uniform, she fainted. That was too much for me! Kissing her, I rushed from the house, leaving my mother in the care of my sister. Mother had a dread of war —and with good reason. My father, my mother’s brother, her brother-in-law and a cousin all lost their lives during the first year of the Civil War.”

Slaper was one of 20 recruits shipped to Jefferson Barracks, in St. Louis, where they remained for six weeks learning dismounted drill, horse grooming and stable duty from the legendary Bully Welch, “a character whom all old cavalrymen of that day will remember.” Orders sent some of the recruits to the 5th U.S. Cavalry. At the time Brevet Maj. Gen. Sam Sturgis, a blunt-spoken Civil War veteran and colonel of the 7th U.S. including Slaper, that he was entrusting them with his son, and that they should all take care of one another. Thus the draft of recruits, and the shavetail lieutenant set out for Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory.

 While stopping for coffee and something to eat at Fargo, Dakota, we had about two hours to wait,” Private Slaper recalled. “An Irish sergeant in charge of our car —seemingly an old veteran—instructed a bunch of recruits to go to a certain saloon not far from the station, take their canteens and guns, and pawn or trade the weapons for liquor, and to bring the liquor back in their canteens. …He then took the squad of recruits, armed them as guards…threatened the proprietor for buying government arms and immediately confiscated the pawned weapons!…I thought myself that it was a pretty clever trick. Needless to say that from Fargo to Bismarck that night the sergeant’s car contained a bunch of noisy and hilarious troopers.”

Slaper was assigned to Company M and spent a memorable first winter in Dakota—“the thermometer often reaching 40 degrees below zero”—while he and his fellow troopers cut ice for the ice house at Fort Rice before returning to Fort Lincoln in early spring 1876. Slaper, oblivious to the politics behind attempts to coerce the Lakotas into selling the Black Hills, observed, “Sitting Bull and Cavalry, was on recruiting service and also in command of Jefferson Barracks. His son, James “Jack” Sturgis, had recently graduated from West Point and been appointed to the 7th, and General Sturgis told a group of chosen recruits, his hostile warriors of the Sioux nation …were then leaving their reservation in large numbers and committing all sorts of depredations.” That the depredations were mostly attacks on trespassing prospectors who often fired upon Lakota families or hunters on sight was not part of his perspective.

On May 17, 1876, Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, Lt. Col. George Custer and the entire 7th Cavalry marched out of Fort Lincoln, with Slaper as one of the newest soldiers. “I was,” he told Brininstool in 1920, “only in the ‘shavetail’ class, having had no real experience in roughing it, much less of Indian fighting.”

By the time of the interview Slaper had become a serious student of the battle, though not quite on the order of survivors Private William O. Taylor, who collected documents and clippings for decades afterward, or Private Charles Windolph, who remained in the Dakotas for the rest of his 98 years. Slaper’s firsthand account complements rather than coincides with Taylor’s and Windolph’s —but his personal and intense descriptions of the battle were those of a solid soldier who fought well but had no wish to play the hero.

Slaper described to Brininstool a hard march before dawn on June 25: “As I recall, it was about daylight when we halted and made coffee. I remember this very distinctly, because I did not get any of the coffee, having dropped down under a tree and fallen asleep, holding to the bridle-rein of my horse, and I did not awaken until called to fall into line. We did not unsaddle at this halt, so the animals secured but little rest.”

Company M, led by Captain Thomas French, was detailed to Major Marcus Reno’s command and was sent to strike the Indian village across the Little Bighorn. M, according to Slaper, was the first to ford the stream, with Company A following and Company G in the rear. “Soon commenced the rattle of rifle fire,” he recalled, “and bullets began to whistle about us. I remember that I ducked my head and tried to dodge bullets which I could hear whizzing through the air. This was my first experience under fire. I know that for a time I was frightened, and far more so when I got my first glimpse of the Indians riding about in all directions, firing at us and yelling and whooping like incarnate fiends, all seemingly as naked as the day they were born and painted from head to foot in the most hideous manner imaginable.”

Captain French ordered the troopers in the valley to dismount, but things were already going wrong. “Our horses,” Slaper said, “were scenting danger before we dismounted, and several at this point became unmanageable and started straight for the open among the Indians, carrying their helpless riders with them.” As most of the men formed a firing line, the horse-holders, one man out of four, took the mounts back into the cottonwoods. Slaper recalled that under cover of the clouds of dust the Indians began to circle behind the troopers’ firing line and lodge in their rear “where we found them on our retreat!” He saw Sergeant Miles O’Hara fall, “Then I observed another, and yet another. Strange to say, I had recovered from my first fright and had no further thought of fear.”

Major Reno’s command was in serious trouble. “In a short time word came to retreat back to the horses in the timber,” Slaper recalled. “We got back there about as quickly as we knew how.” Some of the men learned their mounts had fled from the horse-holders. “Consequently they were ‘placed afoot,’ which made it exceedingly critical for them,” Slaper said. What happened next remains the stuff of intense controversy.

 It was said,” Slaper told Brininstool, “that before Reno gave the order to mount and retreat, he rode up to Captain French and shouted ‘Well, Tom, what do you think of this?’ Captain French replied, ‘I think we had better get out of here.’ Reno thereupon gave the order, although I did not hear it. Neither did I hear any bugle calls or other orders or commands of any sort. I could hear nothing but the continual roar of Indian rifles and the sharp, resonant bang-bang of cavalry carbines, mingled with the whoops of the savages and the shouts of my comrades.”

As Slaper reached his own horse, Private Henry Klotzbucher—French’s striker, or orderly—was hit in the stomach as he was mounting. “He fell to the ground, and I saw Private [Frank] Neely dismount to help him. I thereupon got off my own horse and helped Neely drag the wounded trooper into a clump of heavy underbrush, where we thought he might not be found by the Indians. [Private] William E. Morris, another comrade, came up at this juncture and helped us care for Klotzbucher. We saw that he was probably mortally wounded, so we left him a canteen of water and hurriedly mounted again, dashing toward the river in the wake of our flying trooper comrades.”

The men around Reno and French had not panicked. “I cannot say that the retreat from the river bottom—and farther on—had a very military appearance,” Slaper admitted, “but I can say that I saw nothing disorderly about it, although so many had gone on ahead of me…that what they did, or in what order they retreated, I cannot say with positive certainty.

“As I urged my horse through the water, I could see Indians in swarms about the ford above me, and many lashing their ponies to reach the spot, paying no attention to me.…Bullets were cutting the air all around me.…Death seemed to ride on every hand, and yet a kind Providence must have been watching over me, for I crossed the stream unscathed.” He noted that during the retreat 29 soldiers were killed at the crossing.

“Captain French was as ‘cool as a cucumber’ throughout the entire battle,” Slaper said, “and although I searched his face carefully for any sign of fear, it was not there. He had such perfect self-control that I had to admire his courage and bravery and was indeed glad to be under his leadership. I was, however, considerably worried about the rest of the command, and where Custer was and why he had failed to support us as he had promised to do. It looked to me as if we could be wiped out.

“Had Reno not made that move out of the river bottom when he did—just in the nick of time—we could have fared the fate of Custer’s men. I cannot understand why [Captain Frederick] Benteen was not at hand where he could have assisted Reno in the fight in the river bottom. Of course he had his orders, but what they were I do not know. But after he joined us on the hill, we shortly thereafter all mounted and started in the direction that Custer was supposed to have gone. But we did not get very far. The Sioux had such a countless horde of warriors there, and they met our advance with such a staggering fire, that we were compelled to turn about and retreat to our first position on the hill.”

The Indians were able to reach higher ground and poured down relentless fire on Reno’s and Benteen’s men and the guards and civilian packers from the mule train that had brought in ammunition and hardtack. In answer 1st Sgt. John Ryan used his personal Sharps rifle with a telescopic sight with deadly effect. The cool-headed French, according to Slaper, “would extract shells from guns in which cartridges would stick and pass them loaded, then fix another, all the time watching in every direction.”

The men on what came to be called Reno Hill were not well entrenched. Many, like Slaper, worked to improve their defenses. “I used my butcher knife to cut the earth loose and throw a mound of it in front of me upon which to rest my carbine,” he said. “At one time a bullet struck the corner of this mound, throwing so much dirt into my eyes that I could scarcely see for an hour or more. That same afternoon while [I was] lying facedown on the ground, a bullet tore off the heel of my left boot as effectually as though it had been sawed off.”

A trooper nicknamed “Happy Jack” for his cheerful disposition kept laughing all through the siege of Reno Hill, which left Slaper puzzled even in 1920. “I didn’t see anything to laugh at; but it cheered me and made me feel a bit braver.” Slaper and another trooper dragged a wounded soldier to the improvised hospital, ringed by the company’s horses, but there was trouble ahead. “My comrade had just reached the horse line when a bullet struck him behind the ear. Fortunately it was merely a glancing shot, passing through his ear. He tumbled to the ground and rolled over and over until I had a chance to examine him and assure him he was not seriously hurt.”

But the Indians kept up their fire. “I had only just returned to my position on the firing line,” Slaper said, “when the man next to me was shot through the shoulder and disabled.”

The next morning, June 26, with the wounded in need of water, men volunteered to try to reach the stream. Slaper went out with the second party. “When the first squad went out,” he told Brininstool in 1920, “nobody had the forethought to post a bunch of good shots at a point where they could fire volleys into the brush to silence the fire of the Indians; but when my detachment went for water, several expert riflemen [four sharpshooters, including Private Windolph] were instructed to fire volleys into the brush.…In spite of this an Indian managed to put a hole through the camp kettle I carried. On our way back, [Private] Jim [Weeks] was hailed by Captain [Myles] Moylan, requesting a drink. I was surprised to hear Jim blurt out, ‘You go to hell and get your own water; this is for the wounded.’ Nothing more was said.” The detachment delivered its water to the hospital.

As Slaper returned to the fight, the man on his left, Private Roman Rutten, was shot through the shoulder. “And thus it went for the balance of the day, with Captain French still sitting up tailor-style, superintending the firing and defying the Indian bullets without flinching once. I must say that I had to admire Major Reno during the entire fighting on the hill. I also saw him twice in the river bottom, and he did not seem to be at all ruffled.…I observed Reno several times during the fighting on the bluffs and can well remember his walking about among the men through the night. He would tap a man with his boot and remark, ‘Don’t go to sleep, boys.’…I know it encouraged his fellow officers as well as the troopers.”

That evening the firing stopped, and the soldiers were able to lead the surviving horses down to the water. At roll call the next morning, June 27, many names went unanswered. Slaper and other survivors expected they might be joining the dead and missing when they spotted an approaching dust cloud. But Indians hadn’t raised the dust; they had already slipped away. It was General Terry’s relief force with the Gatling guns.

Slaper helped bury the dead and described a number of corpses the Indians had horrifically mutilated. He was relieved to find that Private Klotzbucher’s body, back in the timber, was not among those disfigured; the Indians had not found the striker’s remains amid the brush. Lieutenant Sturgis, whom Slaper and others had vowed to protect, died with Custer’s command. A search party turned up Sturgis’ bloody clothes, but his body was never found—or at least not recognized.

 Slaper served out his five-year hitch but wanted no career in the Army. He kept his promise to himself and got home to his mother in Cincinnati, though she only lived another three months. Slaper himself lived until November 13, 1931. Survivor stories were petering out by then, and Slaper hadn’t accepted any of them, particularly those of Private Peter Thompson and the Crow scout Curley, who ultimately told interviewer Walter Mason Camp (and his own Crow relatives) he never got anywhere near Custer Hill or tried to lead Custer from the field in the last moments of the fight.

Slaper, like Windolph, was not an unqualified admirer of Custer. “He was a fearless and brave soldier,” the former Company M private told Brininstool, “[and] he was also a hard leader to follow. He always had several good horses, whereby he could change mounts every three hours if necessary, carrying nothing but man and saddle, while our poor horses carried man, saddle, blankets, carbine, revolver, haversack, canteen, 10 days’ rations of oats and 150 rounds of .45-caliber ammunition.…It is no secret why our horses played out before going into action.…Custer disobeyed the orders of General Terry [to converge on June 27].…His object in going into the fight without Terry, was that if he were going to win, he would get all the glory himself.…He made a mistake in dividing his command in this fight. Had he kept them together and struck the village at one end, he might have mastered them, or at least have put them to flight.”

Slaper, unlike Private Taylor, respected Major Reno. Taylor claimed he saw Reno swig “an amber-colored liquid” from a bottle just before his command charged the Indian village from the south. “I have read articles pertaining to this part of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in which it was stated that Reno was drunk,” Slaper told Brininstool. “This I brand as a lie. At no time did I observe the least indication of drunkenness on the man nor see him use any liquor.”

In the end, Slaper’s candid account provided both corroboration and counterpoint. He didn’t share Taylor’s or Brininstool’s affection for Indians, though Brininstool, too, thought Reno had been defamed, as did Custer expert Colonel W.A. Graham. Nor did Slaper entirely share Medal of Honor recipient Windolph’s adulation of Benteen, whom Windolph credited for most of the leadership on Reno Hill. Slaper’s true hero, despite his admiration for Reno, was Captain French, elsewhere sited as the “bravest of the brave,” an opinion Slaper endorsed. “A year or so after the battle I was cooking for Captain French,” Slaper told Brininstool, “and we often had a heart-to-heart talk about the Little Bighorn Fight. One day I asked him what he would have done had he been in Custer’s place. His answer was, ‘There would have been no fight.’”

 

John Koster wrote Custer Survivor and the 2014 edition Custer Survivor: Revised. William C. Slaper’s account appears in Troopers With Custer, by E.A. Brininstool.

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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