As part of its Indian wars campaign of 1876 the U.S. Army tasked Colonel John Gibbon with containing free-roaming Lakotas and Cheyennes south of the Yellowstone River —but did his column do its job?
In eastern Montana Territory on Monday, June 26, 1876, 7th Infantry Lieutenant James H. Bradley was scouting the valley of the Little Bighorn as ordered, looking for any sign of Lakota (Sioux) or Northern Cheyenne warriors. He soon spotted a fresh trail, made, he supposed, by Sioux ponies. He also saw smoke, some 15 miles distant, presumably from the large Indian village reported to be along the Little Bighorn River. The young officer, chief of scouts for Colonel John Gibbon’s Montana column, followed the Indian trail to a Bighorn River crossing. There Bradley’s patrol came upon personal articles that, to the lieutenant’s surprise, belonged to Crow Indian scouts Gibbon had detailed to 7th U.S. Cavalry Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer on the Yellowstone River at the mouth of Rosebud Creek a few days before.
Three Indians appeared on the far bank of the Bighorn and spoke with Bradley’s Crow scouts. They were indeed three of the six Crows lent to Custer. They related how, the day before, hundreds of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors had wiped out Custer and most, if not all, of his immediate command. Bradley hurried back to report the horrible news to Gibbon and Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry, commander of the Dakota column. Neither Terry nor Gibbon seemed to give any credence to the story told by the fugitive Crow scouts. Shortly after noon the column crossed into the valley of the Little Bighorn and made camp west of the river.
On June 27 the united Terry/Gibbon force resumed its march and soon entered the abandoned Indian village, strewn with bare tepee poles and all manner of discarded implements. Inside several standing lodges lay Indian corpses in ceremonial dress, while among the debris were various articles of Army clothing and gear. Bradley, who had crossed to the east side of the river to scout the bluffs, soon returned with a chilling report: What the column had seen across the river that morning and believed to be buffalo carcasses were in fact slain cavalry horses and the bodies of, at Bradley’s rough count, some 200 men of Custer’s immediate command. In the distance the troopers spotted a group of men and horses milling about atop a small rise. Some assumed the figures to be Indians, but they were the remnants of Major Marcus Reno’s and Captain Frederick Benteen’s commands, which had withstood an Indian siege for the past two days. Reno sent 2nd Lts. George Wallace and Luther Hare down the hill to meet the column in the valley.
Able-bodied men of the united commands spent the rest of the day caring for the wounded, and on the 28th they buried the dead as best they could. It was a mournful climax to a three-month trek by the 451-man Montana column. While historians have written exhaustively of the Little Bighorn campaign, especially Custer’s end of it, they’ve devoted relatively little attention to Gibbon’s force. Not that it has avoided the controversy surrounding the campaign. For one thing the Montana column had passed up several opportunities to engage the enemy en route to the Little Bighorn. And after the Custer disaster Gibbon’s men searched for but could not find the triumphant Plains Indians and didn’t make it home until early October 1876.
The catalyst that brought the Montana column to the bloodstained Little Bighorn battlefield was an anticipated order from Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s Chicago headquarters dated February 8, 1876. In it, Sheridan, head of the Army administrative region known as the Military Division of the Missouri, outlined the plan designed to apply a martial solution to the long-festering Indian problem on the northern Great Plains. Thus began the Great Sioux War of 1876.
Sheridan’s opening gambit would be a winter campaign initiated in February. Such a move against the non-reservation Plains Indians would surprise them while they lay immobile in their winter camps and before they could receive the usual spring reinforcements from the Indian agencies. “Unless they are caught before early spring,” Sheridan advised the War Department, “they cannot be caught at all.”
The men chosen to implement the government’s strategy were three commanders of Sheridan’s military division: Brig. Gen. George Crook of the Department of the Platte, General Terry of the Department of Dakota, and Terry’s subordinate Colonel Gibbon of the District of Montana. Each would lead a column of soldiers—Crook north from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming Territory, Terry westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory, and Gibbon east from Fort Ellis in western Montana Territory—and converge on the free-roaming Indian bands. In February 1876 the Army estimated that between 500 and 800 Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors were scattered along the Little Missouri River 120 miles west of Fort Abraham Lincoln, but by March the Army realized the bands had roamed west of the Little Missouri. By June the Indians would be camped along the Little Bighorn, a branch of the Yellowstone River, with between 1,500 and 3,000 fighters concentrated there.
The U.S. military offensive misfired from the start. An especially severe winter hampered both logistics and the Army’s ability to keep men in the field. Crook left Fort Fetterman with his Wyoming column on March 1, and on March 17 Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds of his command attacked an Indian camp along the Powder River but accomplished little. The heavy snow and diminishing rations forced Crook to return to Fort Fetterman, and the column, numbering 1,047 men, did not venture out again until May 29. Blizzards and supply shortages also derailed Terry’s planned move with the Dakota column, preventing him from leaving Fort Abraham Lincoln with his 925 men until May 17.
Gibbon hoped to depart Fort Ellis in mid-March with the intention, he later wrote, “to move the Montana column directly on Fort C.F. Smith [abandoned in 1868], by what was called the Bozeman wagon road, then to cross the Big Horn [sic] River and move eastward, with the expectation of striking any hostile camps which might be located in that vast region watered by the Little Big Horn, Tongue and Rosebud.” As a preliminary to his move east, on March 17 Gibbon ordered five companies of the 7th U.S. Infantry Regiment (12 officers and 195 enlisted men) from Fort Shaw to Fort Ellis, 183 miles to the south. The Fort Shaw detachment reached Fort Ellis late on the 27th. Nine men had deserted along the way. That same day Gibbon learned by telegraph of Crook’s withdrawal to Fort Fetterman.
On March 30 the infantry of the Montana column marched out of Fort Ellis for the Yellowstone River. Snow was falling, and it was cold. Following on April 1 were Gibbon and his staff, a civilian wagon train, four companies of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and its commander, Major James S. “Grasshopper Jim” Brisbin, nicknamed for his interest in agriculture. Severe rheumatism kept Brisbin from either riding or walking without crutches, so he rode out of Fort Ellis in an ambulance. Dr. Holmes O. Paulding, the column’s surgeon, like most of the men, was in the dark as to its mission. He jotted in his journal that “an air of impenetrable mystery overhangs the affair & none but God [Gibbon] knows what we are to do.”
On the day before the Montana column cavalry departed Fort Ellis, Gibbon received a telegram from Terry. It instructed the colonel that until Terry learned of Crook’s future movements Gibbon “ought not to go south of the Yellowstone, but should direct your efforts to preventing the Indians from getting away to the north.” He added that if the opportunity arose, Gibbon should “strike a hostile band anywhere” but admonished the colonel “not to neglect the great object of keeping between the Indians and the Missouri.”
On April 3 the infantry reached a ford on the Yellowstone River, which at that point was 100 yards wide and shallow. The march continued eastward along the Yellowstone, with Lieutenant Bradley’s scouts patrolling several miles ahead. The next few days saw the column cross to the south side, then again to the north bank of the Yellowstone. The acting engineer officer, 2nd Lt. Edward J. McClernand, wrote that the terrain through which the men passed included a snow-covered mountain range and a fertile valley about two miles wide with 100-foot sandstone bluffs on either side of the river. But the column found no Indians in that valley.
On April 7, in a heavy snowfall, Gibbon and his staff caught up with the men of the 7th Infantry. The 2nd Cavalry companies and the wagon train pulled in the next morning. Present in camp was famed half-blood guide Mitch Bouyer, whom Gibbon had asked to join the expedition. The colonel promptly rode out to the Crow Indian Agency, on the Stillwater River, and recruited 25 warriors as scouts. Waiting at the agency were Company E of the 7th Infantry and 28 supply wagons sent there by Gibbon in mid-March. These elements now joined the column.
Between the 16th and the 20th Gibbon crisscrossed the Yellowstone a number of times seeking easier ground to traverse—the terrain on the north shore being very rugged, that to the south having no road. The going was frustratingly slow. A scouting party sent 30 miles ahead to the Bighorn still found no Indians. The main column crossed once more to the north bank of the Yellowstone, near its junction with the Bighorn, and on April 20 reached the recently abandoned Fort Pease, six miles below the confluence of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers.
Soon after arriving at Fort Pease, Gibbon got word from Terry that neither he nor Crook would be taking the field until May, and that the Montana column should “proceed no farther than the mouth of the Big Horn, unless sure of striking a successful blow.” Terry’s order cast a cloud over Gibbon’s command, which was some 230 miles from Fort Ellis. Bradley spoke for many comrades of the apprehension they felt when he wrote, “We were to have acted in conjunction with these forces [Crook and Terry], but we are now, when well advanced in the Sioux country, left unsupported.” Putting a good face on his tenuous situation, Gibbon replied to Terry, assuring him the Montana column would remain near Fort Pease and adding, “I am strong enough to defy the whole Sioux nation, should they feel inclined to come this way.”
While the column remained in place, Gibbon did send out scouting parties to look for hostiles along the Bighorn, Little Bighorn and Yellowstone rivers. None made contact with the enemy. Yet Sioux prowlers sneaked up to camp and made off with the scouts’ picketed pony herd.
Finally, on May 10 Gibbon continued his move down the Yellowstone, his main body marching along the north bank through deep ravines and over steep sandstone bluffs. The soldiers noted roving bands of Sioux warriors observing them from the south bank. On the 14th the command camped at the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Rosebud just as hail and a rainstorm struck. The next evening Lieutenant Bradley led a party of 27 soldiers and six scouts on a two-day reconnoiter through the valley of the Rosebud and discovered a Sioux/Cheyenne village of some 400 lodges and 800–1,000 warriors just west of the Tongue River and 35 miles southeast of the Montana column camp.
When told of the enemy village, Gibbon immediately formulated a plan to attack it. The Yellowstone, though, had become a “raging torrent,” and even with the aid of small boats toted in from Fort Pease, Gibbon could not transport enough men and horses over to the southern shore to have a reasonable chance at assaulting the newly discovered Indian encampment. Further, only a surprise attack was likely to succeed, and hostile warriors were watching the soldiers’ every move from the south bank. The failed assault was a heavy blow to the soldiers’ morale, and it didn’t help matters when both Gibbon and Brisbin fell ill.
From the 18th to the 20th the Montana column inched its way downriver nine miles and camped on the north side of the Yellowstone between the Rosebud and Sweeney creeks. On the 23rd Lakota warriors killed and mutilated two soldiers and a civilian who had left camp to hunt for food—the only Montana column fatalities from the enemy during the Little Bighorn campaign. Tensions mounted among the troops when scouts reported that large Sioux war parties had tested crossings of the Yellowstone just east of the column’s encampment.
Seeking an update on the Indian village spotted by Bradley on May 17, Gibbon again sent out the young lieutenant and his scouts on the 27th. Bradley found his target in the valley of the Rosebud, just 18 miles from the Montana column camp. After reporting the find to Gibbon, Bradley recorded his disappointment that the colonel declined to consider an attack.
Gibbon’s men remained in camp, suffering from rain, snow and hail and awaiting a needed supply train, which arrived on June 4. The next morning his column resumed its march east, camping near the mouth of the Tongue River on the 8th. On orders from Terry, from the 10th to the 16th the column reversed course west along the north bank of the Yellowstone toward the Rosebud in order to prevent any Indians in that region from escaping northward. Gibbon went in to camp below the Rosebud on the 14th. On the 21st Terry, Gibbon, Custer and subordinates met aboard the river steamer Far West, then anchored on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Rosebud, to discuss proposed operations. Since it was believed the Sioux and Cheyennes had concentrated forces between the Rosebud and Bighorn, probably on the Little Bighorn, Custer would lead the 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry up the Rosebud, while the remainder of the Dakota column (including four companies of the 6th U.S. Infantry, two companies of the 17th U.S. Infantry and the Gatling gun battery) and the Montana column worked their way up the Bighorn to the west. The intent was for Custer and his fast-moving horsemen to make the initial attack from the south and east while Gibbon’s slower moving infantry blocked any Indians attempting to flee north.
Ferried across the Yellowstone by Far West on the 24th and 25th, Gibbon’s column marched for the Little Bighorn. On its arrival on the 27th, two days after Custer’s defeat at Last Stand Hill, the men did what they could to aid survivors from Major Reno’s and Captain Ben teen’s commands, which had holed up atop a nearby hill through the 26th. Over the next few days the united commands buried the dead, made litters and then transferred the wounded to Far West, which had steamed up to the mouth of the Little Bighorn.
The long march to the Little Bighorn, the horrific sight of the mutilated dead and the bewildered state of the wounded no doubt took a toll on members of the Montana column. But the summer campaign would continue into the fall. On July 1, after their rescue work at the Little Bighorn, Gibbon’s men retraced their march to the Yellowstone. From there they continued to march, covering much ground in search of hostile Indians. They had little luck, and once again perhaps only Gibbon knew where they were going. By October 6, 1876, the troops were finally back in their posts at Forts Ellis and Shaw, where they settled back into their normal Army routine. In the words of Dr. Paulding, after eight months of hard marching over rough terrain and in bitter weather, the Montana column had accomplished little and “died a natural death.” That fall Gibbon’s men heard that their comrades under Crook and Colonels Randal S. Mackenzie and Nelson A. Miles had defeated the Lakotas and Cheyennes at Cedar Creek, Montana Territory (October 21), the Red Fork of the Powder River, Wyoming Territory (November 25) and Ash Creek, Montana Territory (December 18). Perhaps those victories by others provided them a small measure of satisfaction.
Baltimore-based attorney Arnold Blumberg is a military history scholar. Further reading: Adventures on the Western Frontier, by John Gibbon; The March of the Montana Column: Prelude to the Custer Disaster, by James H. Bradley; and On Time for Disaster: The Rescue of Custer’s Command, by Edward J. McClernand.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.