The Battle of the Rosebud pitted the vaunted warrior Crazy Horse… against the greatest Indian fighter the U.S. Army had at the time—that is, Crook not Custer.
“When we reached the crest of the plateau [in Montana Territory}, there appeared in our front a formidable band of those justly celebrated Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, magnificently mounted and in all the splendor of war paint and feathers. Every hill appeared to be covered with their swarming legions, and up from every ravine and out of every little vale more seemed to be coming. Many wore the long Sioux warbonnet of eagle plumes, which floated and fluttered in the air, back of the wearer, to the distance of 5 or 6 feet, while others wore half masks of the heads of wild animals, with the ears and sometimes the horns still protruding, giving them the appearance of devils from the netherworld or uncouth demons from the hills of Brocken.”
No, the words above are not from one of the officers who rode toward the Little Bighorn with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in June 1876 but managed to survive what will forever be the most famous battle of the Indian wars. Historians sometimes lavish attention on one monumental battle, while virtually ignoring others of genuine significance. Such is the case with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, fought on June 25 and 26, 1876, and the Battle of the Rosebud, fought eight days earlier and just 30 miles away. The scene above, written by Brig. Gen. George Crook’s aide-de-camp Captain Azor H. Nickerson, describes the opening moments of the unsung June 17 clash.
The Battle of the Rosebud pitted the vaunted warrior Crazy Horse and his allied Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne bands against the greatest Indian fighter the U.S. Army had at the time—that is, Crook not Custer. Celebrated chiefs of the friendly tribes, swaggering scouts, brave men and women of the hostile bands, packers, miners, newspaper reporters in the thick of the action and one special correspondent known as "Z" who was also an officer—all were elements of this legendary Montana Territory fight that was soon and forevermore overshadowed by what followed in the same territory.
General Crook and his impressive column of just under 1,000 soldiers (from the 2nd and 3rd cavalries and 4th and 9th infantries) left Fort Fetterman in east-central Wyoming Territory on May 29, 1876. The campaign could be considered Round 2 in Crook’s attempt to corral the hostile warriors of the northern Plains. An earlier foray in March of the same year had not gone well. Crook had relied on Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds to locate and attack a village on the Powder River in Montana Territory. Locate it he did, but the action did not unfold as planned, and the chance for a critical victory evaporated due to mistakes (including not guarding the ponies taken from the Indians, thus allowing the warriors to steal them back). Heads rolled because of that failure, and Reynolds’ superiors laid the blame squarely at his feet, court-martialing him and forcing him to resign. Crook was determined not to let such a thing happen again.
Crook personally led his force to the vicinity of present-day Sheridan, Wyo., reaching it on June 11 and establishing Camp Cloud Peak. Several days earlier the general had dispatched scouts Frank Grouard, Louis Richaud and Baptiste “Big Bat” Pourier to locate and bring into camp friendly warriors under Old Crow and other Crow chiefs, as well as Shoshone (aka Snake) warriors under Chief Washakie. Both Lakota-loathing bands had indicated they would cooperate in this campaign, and Crook considered their aid indispensable because of their knowledge of Sioux territory.
Crook arrayed his forces in fine military order to welcome and presumably impress the Indian allies—180 Crows and 86 Shoshones—on June 14. The soldiers and Indians exchanged kind gestures and greetings, with the help of scout interpreters. That night everyone had a grand council at a great bonfire. Chief Old Crow spoke out against his tribe’s principal enemy:
These are our lands by inheritance. The Great Spirit gave them to our fathers, but the Sioux stole them from us. They hunt upon our mountains. They fish in our streams. They have stolen our horses. They have murdered our squaws, our children. What white man has done these things to us? The face of the Sioux is red, but his heart is black. But the heart of the paleface has ever been red to the Crows. The scalp of no white man hangs in our lodges. They are thick as grass in the wigwams of the Sioux.
The great white chief [Crook] will lead us against no other tribe of red men. Our war is with the Sioux and only them. We want back our lands. We want their women for our slaves, to work for us as our women have had to work for them. We want their horses for our young men, and their mules for our squaws. The Sioux have trampled upon our hearts. We shall spit upon their scalps. The great white chief sees that my young men have come to fight. No Sioux shall see their backs. Where the white warrior goes, there shall we be also. It is good. Is my brother content?
The gathered warriors shouted their approval. After Crook and Old Crow shook hands, the newly acquired allies commenced a war dance and celebration that continued until morning. Lieutenant John Bourke recorded the following in his diary:
A long series of monstrous howls, shrieks, groans and nasal yells, emphasized by a perfectly ear-piercing succession of thumps upon drums improvised from parfleche (buffalo skin) attracted nearly all our soldiers.…Peeping into the different tepees was much like peeping through a keyhole to Hell.…The ceremony partook of the nature of an abominable incantation and, as far as I could judge, had a semi-religious character.
With Crook now possessing the final element of his strike force, he and his men moved out from camp. His information on the whereabouts of the hostiles, which was sketchy at best, told him they might be camped as far as 80 miles north on the Tongue River.
Crook led a colorful cast of characters. His disciplined soldiers were under such distinguished officers as Lieutenant Bourke, Lt. Col. William Royall, Captain Anson Mills and Captain Guy Henry. Along with the Crow and Shoshone auxiliaries were the multilingual guides, a few surgeons, 20 civilian packers led by Tom Moore, 65 armed Montana Territory miners and five news correspondents (compared to just one who would accompany Custer to the Little Bighorn). Crook’s press corps included John Finerty, representing The Chicago Times; Reuben Davenport, The New York Herald; Robert Strahorn, Rocky Mountain News, Chicago Tribune, Omaha Republican, The Cheyenne Sun and The New York Times; Joseph Wasson, Alta California (San Francisco), New-York Tribune and The Press (Philadelphia); and Thomas MacMillan, Inter Ocean (Chicago).
As his force moved north toward the enemy, Crook sometimes had his hands full. When thousands of buffalo appeared on June 16, Crows and Shoshones launched a full assault on the herd to provide dinner for the group. Crook was infuriated with this reckless display, as it risked losing the element of surprise in Lakota country. The general was eager to resume the march.
Hours before daybreak on the 17th Crook rousted his men, and by 6 a.m. they were heading down Rosebud Creek. The stream coursed through rough terrain before entering a valley, where it flowed east for nearly three miles. By about 8 a.m. Crook and the head of the column had reached a pleasant area where the Rosebud neatly divided the bottomland. To the south prominent bluffs rose quickly above the valley. Hills rose on the north side of the creek as well, though these inclined more gradually and were intermittently dissected by ravines. As Crook waited for the remainder of the lengthy column to arrive, he ordered that horses and mules be allowed to graze. Troops unsaddled, made coffee and relaxed. Crook and some of his officers broke out a deck of cards and began to play.
About this time Crow scouts who had seen signs of Lakotas in the area rode off northward. Crook also threw out pickets amid the hills to the north. Before long the general and his men heard distant gunfire. At first most assumed it was the scouts shooting at buffalo, as they had done the previous day, but they soon learned otherwise. Old Crow and his scouts raced back to the Rosebud yelling, “Heap Sioux! Heap Sioux!” Instead of wild game, they had found the wildly painted warriors of Crazy Horse, fully prepared for an epic fight.
“They [the Crow scouts] lost no time in conveying the news to us,” recalled 2nd Lt. Daniel Pearson, Company A, 2nd Cavalry. “The news was electrifying in the extreme. The whole atmosphere…became charged with intense excitement. The scouts stripped. They frescoed their bodies. They vaulted onto their ponies. With rifle in one hand and coiled end of lariat in the other, they steered their ponies at a mad gallop, now in straight lines, now in circles, all the time uttering deafening, fiendish, confusing cries.”
Caught off guard, Crook and his men scrambled to saddle their mounts and ready themselves for action. As Captain Nickerson noted, every hill seemed to be swarming with the enemy. The Crows and Shoshones first engaged the attacking Lakotas and Cheyennes, buying Crook and his officers precious time to deploy their forces.
Crook sent Captain Frederick Van Vliet and two troops of the 3rd Cavalry to occupy the bluffs to the south and essentially seal off what would become the rear of the evolving battlefield. It turned out to be a good move. The Lakotas had their eyes on the same prize, and Van Vliet, with the help of 1st Lt. Emmet Crawford, narrowly beat them to the punch.
Crook and the companies with him ascended the hills to the north and soon arrived on a broad plateau. From what became known as Crook’s Hill the general established headquarters, as he had a good view of the field and could direct his troops.
Captain Avery Cain, with men of the 4th Infantry and help from members of the 9th Infantry, repelled the Lakotas’ initial attack and secured the center of the field. Similarly, the forces of 3rd Cavalry Captain Anson Mills and 2nd Cavalry Captain Henry Noyes executed significant actions on the right, securing ridges and driving off the enemy.
As the battle continued, the brunt of the conflict shifted decidedly to the left, where the hottest fighting of the day would take place. Colonel Royall, second in command to Crook, realized that numerous Indians were massing on that side in an attempt to flank the infantry, so he moved his forces south and west across the ridges and ravines. Royall, with Captains Guy Henry, William Andrews, Charles Meinhold and Peter Vroom, began clearing ridges and promontories held by the encroaching Lakotas. These soldiers crossed the ravine of Kollmar Creek and took possession of the high ground to the southwest, later dubbed Royall’s Ridge.
During the fight the reporters, scattered throughout the ranks, dutifully documented the maneuvers and other events of the day. More interesting, though, was the presence of another “correspondent” who submitted riveting firsthand battle accounts to a leading newspaper. J.W. Vaughn explains in his 1956 chronicle With Crook at the Rosebud:
The most comprehensive description of the fighting on the left is given by an unknown officer writing in the July 13, 1876, issue of the New York Daily Graphic. The article, signed by “Z,” is entitled, “A thrilling Description of General Crook’s brave fight by an Officer of the Command—Wonderful Bravery of the Troops, dated June 20, at Camp on Goose Creek.”
It has been 137 years since the Battle of the Rosebud, but the precise identity of Z has remained shrouded. This “Officer of the Command” was, as Vaughn writes, clearly “with the troops on the left.” In his official report of the fight Colonel Royall names these officers under his charge: Captain Henry, Captain Andrews, Captain Peter Vroom, 2nd Lt. Henry Lemly, 2nd Lt. Charles Morton, 2nd Lt. Bainbridge Reynolds and 2nd Lt. James E.H. Foster. Captain Meinhold also had been with Royall in the early part of the fighting on the left. And so the Daily Graphic correspondent Z must have been one of these eight men.
As the action continued and grew hotter on the left side of the battlefield, Lakotas and Cheyennes appeared seemingly everywhere. Captain Henry and his men performed admirably, clearing ridges and driving back the hostiles. Venturing out even farther to engage the enemy was Captain Andrews, with Lieutenant Foster.
Z reported on that part of the action, referencing points on a battle map he included with his article:
Andrews, after detaching his subaltern, Lieutenant Foster, with the 2nd Platoon, to charge a body of the enemy further [sic] to the left, dashed on under a strong fire with the remainder of I Troop, 3rd Cavalry, and carried the point [later dubbed Andrews’ Point]. With an abiding faith in his men and horses, Foster again advanced…following the retreating enemy along the crest of the ridge, both pursuers and pursued firing rapidly as the movement was executed.
The advantage of these mini-victories, though, was debatable. Andrews and Foster in particular had each advanced quite a distance beyond Royall, who himself was dangerously far from Crook and the main command. Sensing his platoon was exposed, Foster began to pull back, prompting an immediate charge by Crazy Horse’s warriors.
As that action was unfolding, Crook ordered Royall to fall back and reconnect his right to the general’s left (some accounts indicate that a half-mile or more separated the two primary forces). Royall’s welfare wasn’t Crook’s only motive in ordering this action. He sought to consolidate his forces while he sent a detachment down the Rosebud to the supposed location of the Indian village to strike a blow and secure a resounding victory.
This was a pivotal juncture in the fight. Indeed, Crook sent a 400-man force, including Captain Mills, Captain Noyes and his favorite scout Grouard, down the Rosebud. But Royall only partially complied with Crook’s order at first, sending just Meinhold’s company to rejoin the main body. Crazy Horse, not one to miss an opportunity, sensed Royall’s vulnerability and pounced on his command.
Meanwhile, as Foster’s men were in danger of being cut off, Royall ordered him back. Foster would have to cross one of the ravines to get to Royall. Z described the action:
The platoon had gotten halfway to the bottom when the advance of the pursuing Indians reached the crest just abandoned and poured a scattering volley into the party.…The order was given to take the charging gait and make for our own lines.
Although a couple of his men were wounded, Foster did get back to Royall to bolster what would become known as Royall’s first position. Under fire from multiple directions, the lieutenant’s men, according to Z, faltered briefly but ultimately held their ground.
Royall, attempting to comply with Crook’s orders while at the same time seeing his situation deteriorate rapidly, fell back to a second position on what became known as Royall’s Ridge. “This retrograde movement was made on foot, and the enemy, occupying the position just abandoned, fired steadily and heavily on our retreating line,” Z recorded. “Occupying the second line, the enemy not only pressing us in front but getting on our flanks, Royall refused the left of his line and held on stoutly against from 500 to 700 Indians.”
Despite putting up a heroic fight, Royall and his men were forced to retire farther down the ridge to the southeast—the only possible escape from the noose being tightened by Crazy Horse and his warriors.
“The retreat was then continued to the last position, which was destined to be the scene of the fiercest encounter that has ever taken place between Indians and United States troops,” Z wrote. “The officers, with the four companies under the immediate command of Colonel Royall—Henry, Andrews, Vroom, Reynolds and Foster—remained mounted and, although a conspicuous mark for the enemy’s rifles, were on the line with their men, who were fighting on foot during the whole engagement.”
Of the eight mentioned Z candidates, we can reduce the options to the five officers listed in the previous quote. Lemly, Meinhold and Morton fell back at various times to Crook’s position and were not close to all the action. At this point in his report Z makes special mention of the bravery of 1st Sgt. John Henry of I Troop and then continues:
By this time the four companies that had averaged about 40 men each at the opening of the fight were so depleted by casualties and details necessary to carry the wounded to the hospital, as well as losing the services of every fourth man who had been detailed in the morning to hold the led horses, did not number in all more than 60 or 70 men, whilst in their front, if the estimate of experienced officers who could see the whole field from higher ground further [sic] back is to be considered, there were upwards of 700 Sioux warriors.
With a 10-to-1 advantage, the Lakotas and Cheyennes in this area were poised to move in for the kill. The troops on Royall’s Ridge were under siege from every direction. Z’s narrative of the crisis reads as only one who was in the thick of it could have written:
The firing was now terrific, the repeating rifles used by the Indians enabling them to make it one continuous volley. Officers who were through the [Civil] war and were there say that they never in their experience saw anything hotter. Again the Sioux advanced. With their ‘Yip! Hip! Hi-yah! Hi-yah!’ urging their ponies to their utmost speed, they came in myriads from the ravine on the right.…Men brave and true, were falling every moment.…The line…growing thinner and thinner, seemed to be dwindling so constantly that annihilation was apparently but a question of time. ‘Better die right here than back in the ravine,’ said one officer to another. ‘It’s only a question of cartridges,’ said a soldier to his comrade, who stood by him in the line.
With the Indians converging on Royall’s Ridge, Z described the terrifying scene as “Royall’s last stand”—a chillingly prophetic phrase in light of what would happen to Custer at the Little Bighorn eight days later. No soldier, of course, lived to tell us what happened on Custer Hill, but Z puts us right beside him on Royall’s Ridge during those do-or-die moments:
At last the supreme moment arrived. The Sioux, massing in all their strength, charged with a yell on the right flank and on the front. For an instant it looked as though Royall and his little band were doomed. The Indians never flinched under our fire, but pressed on, and the worn-out, harassed little battalion gave way. The officers, with one accord, dashed forward. Sergeant Henry’s clear, ringing voice was heard high above the tumult, shouting, ‘Face them, men! __ __ them, face them!’ whilst some officers, calling out, ‘Great God, men! Don’t go back on the old 3rd!’ raised a cheer, and the line faced about, fired into the enemy at such short range as to almost burn the noses of their ponies, and drove them back almost 200 yards over the slope on their front, the officers riding with and ahead of the charging line.
During this momentous clash Captain Henry was severely wounded in the face, the bullet entering one cheekbone and exiting the other. There are discrepancies in the various accounts, but Henry said the brave actions of Chief Washakie himself saved him from certain mutilation at the hands of the formidable enemy.
This valiant stand on Royall’s Ridge, with aid from the Crow and Shoshone allies and long-range firepower from Crook’s Hill, allowed Royall and his men to escape across Kollmar Creek and rejoin the main command. Not all of the troopers made it, of course. According to reporter Reuben Davenport, a handful of stragglers were killed on the spot, one surrendering his carbine and being rewarded with a tomahawk to the head.
Despite the losses, Royall’s and Crook’s forces finally regrouped. Due to Royall’s predicament, though, Crook was compelled to order Mills to abandon his village-seeking mission. Mills returned to the field on the flanks and in the rear of the hostiles who, after a hard day’s fight, decided to withdraw. The Battle of the Rosebud was over.
Crook reported nine soldiers killed and 23 wounded, one Indian scout killed and seven wounded; scout Grouard, though, said Crook’s casualties were 28 dead and 56 wounded. Crazy Horse later acknowledged that 36 Lakotas and Cheyennes died and 63 were wounded. Crook claimed victory, as he had possession of the battlefield, but it can be very well viewed as an Army defeat, seeing as Crook withdrew from the larger three-pronged campaign against the Lakotas, in turn opening the door for Custer’s defeat on the Little Bighorn.
In the final lines of Z’s Daily Graphic chronicle he expresses the sorrow that swept over the men at the loss of some of their comrades. He then doles out praise for the brave actions of soldiers like Private Michael McMahon of I Troop, the first man to reach one of the ridges taken from the enemy in the early part of the fighting. Two other I Troop soldiers also receive special recognition:
William W. Allen, of I Troop, 3rd, died as a soldier might be expected to.…Nobly the brave fellow fought, standing all the while and firing coolly with his carbine, until the Sioux, coming in on either side, shot him down.…Private Herbert W. Weaver, of I Troop, displayed high courage in carrying the order for Lieutenant Foster to withdraw, as in doing so he had to pass over open ground commanded by the rifles of the enemy, thus running the gauntlet of their fire at the imminent risk of his life.
Although barely mentioned in some accounts of the Great Sioux War of 1876, the Battle of the Rosebud was far more than just a prelude or footnote to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It featured plenty of colorful characters (though no Colonel Custer), some of the most intense fighting of the Indian wars, incredible bravery on both sides (notably the Crows and Shoshones on General Crook’s side) and important military consequences (knocking Crook out of the summer campaign so that he would be of no use to Custer or anyone else in the 7th Cavalry eight days later at the Little Bighorn).
What about the identity of the elusive, mysterious Z? There were eight officers in proximity to Royall during the fight, and Royall mentions seven of them in his official report. In Z’s vivid newspaper depiction of the crucible of fire on Royall’s ridge he mentions five officers—Henry, Andrews, Vroom, Reynolds and Foster. Henry was wounded and incapacitated. That leaves him out. So which of the four remaining officers is it?
There are some big clues. Z suddenly slips into usage of first-person pronouns at key points—for example, “The order was given to take the charging gait and make for our own lines.” This scene was describing the action of one specific group of men under one specific officer. And at the close of the Daily Graphic article, Z, in three consecutive remarks, heaps praise on the men of I Troop. These were the soldiers he must have closely witnessed in action, his close comrades in his own company, I Troop, 3rd Cavalry. Thus the “Officer of the Command,” known heretofore only as Z, can be none other than 2nd Lt. James E.H. Foster.
John Flood of Winchester, Va., is the director of Big Legends [www.big-legends.com], a family history and genealogy research firm that produces books and DVDs. His great-great grandfather, Sergeant Patrick Flood, served in the frontier Army for 30 years and was involved not only in the Battle of the Rosebud but also the 1876 Battle of Slim Buttes and the 1879 Cheyenne outbreak from Fort Robinson, Neb. Suggested for further reading are J.W. Vaughn’s With Crook at the Rosebud, John D. McDermott’s General George Crook’s 1876 Campaigns: A Report Prepared for the American Battlefield Protection Program and Marc H. Abrams’ Sioux War Dispatches: Reports From the Field, 1876–1877.