Facts, information and articles about the Battle Of Little Bighorn, a famous battle of the Wild West
Battle Of Little Bighorn Facts
June 25–26, 1876
Near the Little Bighorn River, Big Horn County, Montana
George A. Custer
Native American victory
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Battle Of Little Big Horn summary: The battle of Little Bighorn occurred in 1876 and is commonly referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand”. The battle took place between the U.S. Cavalry and northern tribe Indians, including the Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho. Prior to the battle of Little Bighorn in Montana, the tribal armies, under the direction of Sitting Bull, had decided to wage war against the whites for their refusal to stay off of tribal lands in the Black Hills. In the spring of 1876, Sitting Bull and his tribal army had successfully battled the U.S. Cavalry twice.
The U.S. Cavalry was attempting to force the Indians back to their reservations and divided into three columns to attack. One of the columns was led by Lt. General George Custer, who spotted a Sioux camp and decided to attack it. However, Indian forces outnumbered his troops three to one, and Custer and his troops were forced to reorganize. While waiting aid from the other Cavalry forces, another group of Indian forces, led by Crazy Horse, effectively trapped Custer and his men. In a desperate attempt to hold off the Indian warriors, Custer ordered his men to short their horses and stack their bodies to form a barricade to protect them from the Indians.
It took less than an hour for the arrows and bullets of the Indians to wipe out General Custer and his men. Despite having won this battle, the Indians were not victorious. Outrage over the death of the popular Custer led the U.S. government to redraw the boundaries of the Black Hills so that the land would not be part of reservation property, which left it open for white men to settle.
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Battle of Little Bighorn Coverup
Editor’s note: Like many George Armstrong Custer defenders, the author of the following article believes that Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen were to blame for the 7th Cavalry’s failure in Montana 120 years ago. And, like some of those Custer defenders, the author believes that Reno and Benteen tried to hide the truth. Part of that truth, the author suggests, may have been that Colonel Custer actually crossed the Little Bighorn River and fought in the Indian village.
June 25, 1876. It has become a day of myth and mystery. On that date, Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry fought perhaps the biggest alliance of Plains Indians hostile to the government that had ever gathered in one place. As every student of the American West knows, the 7th Cavalry lost that battle, and Custer’s personal command, about 210 soldiers, was wiped out. Without a survivor of Custer’s command to tell the story, with the possible exception of the young Crow scout Curley, it is only natural that the dramatic event would trigger more debate and conjecture than any other battle in U.S. history.
The entire 7th Cavalry was not destroyed in the desperate fighting. Under the command of Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, about 400 soldiers and scouts survived a two-day siege on a bluff about four miles from where Custer was annihilated. On June 27, reinforcements commanded by Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry arrived on the battlefield to rescue the survivors and bury the dead of the 7th Cavalry. A coverup of the facts of the battle immediately began–a coverup endorsed by many, but orchestrated first and foremost by Major Reno and Captain Benteen.
Custer’s political difficulties during the spring of 1876 and his testimony in Washington, D.C., concerning governmental corruption on the frontier also kept the authorities from pursuing an investigation that might clear up some of the mystery. It was an election year, and President Ulysses S. Grant and his administration had no desire to elevate Custer from his former status of political enemy to that of martyr. Even General Terry confused the issues by inventing a charge that Custer disobeyed orders–a charge still frequently repeated despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Orders were disobeyed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but not by Custer. Reno and Benteen had been ordered forward to attack the Indian village. Not only did the two officers fail to carry out those orders but they also failed to carry out the spirit of military duty as it exists historically in any military structure. Reno and Benteen, to protect themselves, went far in confusing the issues of the battle.
It was early morning on June 25 when, from the divide between the Rosebud Creek and Little Bighorn River valleys, Custer was informed by his scouts of the location of an enormous camp of hostile Indians, mostly Sioux and Cheyenne. Custer was also informed that the 7th Cavalry was under observation by hostile scouts. Because the Indians in the camp might escape–the greatest concern to the frontier army while on campaign–Custer ordered his force forward to the attack. Custer could do so with confidence, for there was no record up to that date of Plains Indians ever having confronted an entire regiment of U.S. cavalry, much less defeating them.
Dividing the regiment into four elements, Custer began the advance into the Little Bighorn Valley. The Indians were camped some 12 miles away. Custer himself commanded two battalions–five companies–and Reno commanded a third battalion of three companies. These three battalions made up the main force of the advance, while Benteen and three companies were sent on a controversial and somewhat mysterious’scout’ to the left (south) of the main advance. One company and several picked soldiers from each of the other companies made up the rear guard and pack-train escort.
As Custer’s and Reno’s forces neared the valley, hostile war parties were observed, as well as dust rising from the valley, indicating that there was activity in the village–probably that the Indians were preparing to flee. Reno was ordered to advance directly into the valley, while Custer turned to the right and took a route parallel to Reno’s advance.
While Custer has been criticized for his tactics in the battle, this maneuver was, in fact, a standard cavalry tactic. Both Custer and Reno were experienced Civil War cavalry officers and would have been very familiar with it. The official manual of the time (used during the Civil War and in the postwar period) was Cavalry Tactics and Regulations of the United States Army, written by Philip St. George Crook. Regulation 561 of that manual states, ‘If possible, at the moment of a charge, assail your enemy in the flank when [the enemy] is engaged in the front.’ Reno’s attack in the valley was to be a diversion, the ‘anvil’ so to speak, while Custer maneuvered to strike the flank, or be the ‘hammer’ of the combined attacks. Custer’s maneuver was straight out of the book.
Two messages are known to have been sent by Custer before his command was destroyed. The first message was brought by Sergeant Daniel Kanipe to the pack train, and the second message was sent with Private John Martin to Captain Benteen. Both messages ordered these forces to quickly advance to support the attack on the Indian village. It is after this point that many details of the battle become obscured, especially the movements of Custer and his five companies.
Although there are conflicting accounts by the survivors of Reno’s command about times and distances involved in the valley attack, it is known that after reaching the valley and advancing toward the camp for perhaps up to two miles, Reno halted his advance and deployed his soldiers as skirmishers, while the mounts were sent into a sheltered wooded area on the right of his line. When the now-alerted Indian warriors began to advance and flank his line, Reno withdrew his men to the wooded area and had them remount. After a bullet struck an Arikara scout, Bloody Knife, in the head, sending a shower of gore into Reno’s face, Reno led a disorganized retreat out of the woods and to the rear. The retreat turned into a total rout, during which Reno lost about a third of his command killed, wounded or missing.
Advancing toward the battlefield, Benteen witnessed Reno’s retreat and then joined Reno and his command on the bluffs. Custer had passed this very spot on his advance to attack the village, and farther downstream (at the position now known as Weir Peak, or Weir Point), Custer had been seen by members of Reno’s command before they retreated from the valley. The pack train soon joined Reno and Benteen on the bluff position, and all the hostile Indian forces that were in the area left. It was also about this time that the sound of gunfire, volley fire, was heard downstream.
At the Reno court of inquiry in 1879–the only ‘official’ investigation of the battle–nearly every participant that testified said he heard gunfire from downstream, and only Reno and Benteen claimed this gunfire did not occur. Among those who heard the gunfire were Lieutenant George Wallace, Lieutenant Charles Varnum, Captain Myles Moylan, Lieutenant Luther Hare and Lieutenant Winfield Edgerly. Most of these soldiers mentioned hearing ‘volley’ fire, which would indicate that Custer’s force was engaged.
The only known position that Custer and his soldiers fought at is on and around the hill (today called Custer Hill, or Last Stand Hill) where the soldiers were killed. This position is 4.1 miles from the Reno position (now known as Reno Hill), where the gunfire was heard. A mile north of the Reno position stands Weir Peak, a geographical formation that might affect any sound from Custer Hill. From the position of the bodies found on Custer Hill, it would appear most of the soldiers were fighting in skirmish formation and not close together–unlike how they would have stood if firing volleys under the direction of an officer. Background noise on Reno Hill, where there were more than 400 men and almost 600 horses and mules, must have affected the hearing of the soldiers there.
To further explore such matters, I created a task force of experts in 1994. Steve Fjstad, firearms expert and author of the Blue Book of Guns, was consulted concerning the question of the gunfire heard. In November 1994, Fjstad directed a sound test using a Springfield carbine and ammunition with powder loads that were similar to those used in 1876 (the cavalrymen at the Little Bighorn used .45-caliber Springfield single-shot carbines). Rick Van Doren, an acoustics expert, provided testing equipment; John Allan, another firearms expert, conducted the actual firing; and firing range supervision was provided by legal investigator John Swanson. Also attending the test was Edward Zimmerman, a lawyer and military law specialist. The results of this test indicate that it was unlikely the gunfire heard on Reno Hill originated from Custer Hill.
Terry Flower, a physics professor at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., conducted a second test in 1995, again using a Springfield carbine and appropriate powder loads. In a 25-page report on his test, Flower wrote, ‘Volleys heard at Reno Hill most probably did not originate from Last Stand Hill [about 7,000 meters away].’ Only on-site testing will answer the question with certainty, but such testing has not as yet been permitted at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (known until 1991 as the Custer Battlefield National Monument).
Still, if it is probable that gunfire from Custer Hill could not have been heard on Reno Hill on July 25, 1876, then where could the sound of gunfire have come from? Interestingly enough, there is testimony from the Reno court of inquiry that may suggest an answer. Sergeant Edward Davern testified: ‘Shortly after reaching the top [of Reno Hill], I heard volley firing from downstream….I could see Indians circling around in the bottom on the right, way down and raising a big dust….I spoke to Captain [Thomas] Weir about it. I said, ‘That must be General Custer fighting down in the bottom.’ He asked me where and I showed him. He said, ‘Yes, I believe it is.” Statements made by Lieutenant Edward Mathey and Lieutenant Edgerly supported Sergeant Davern’s observation.
The ‘bottom’ is, of course, where the Indian village was located. If Davern’s observation was correct, then it would indicate Custer had conducted a successful charge across the river–probably at Medicine Tail Ford, also known as Minneconjou Ford–and into the Indian camp. The testing done by Terry Flower indicates that shots fired near that ford could have been heard on Reno Hill. ‘U.S. Government Survey maps indicate that the Minneconjou Ford is located about 4,300 meters from the Reno entrenchment,’ Flower said. ‘While single shots could marginally be heard, volleys and multiple firings could most likely be identified.’ There are statements from Indians who were in the camp that seem to indicate soldiers were in the camp and fighting there. Indian participants such as Gall, Red Horse, Kill Eagle and Thunder Hawk mentioned women and children being killed and tepees set afire. There is no evidence that this killing and tepee-burning was done by Reno’s men, and most accounts from survivors of his command say Reno’s charge was stopped short of the village. Stray bullets could kill women and children, but they would not set tepees afire.
In his official report of the battle, Reno mentioned that Custer may have crossed the river and attacked the camp, but he later changed this view. Benteen, in a letter to his wife, also mentioned the possibility that Custer got across, but by the time of the Reno court of inquiry, he had changed his view: ‘I can’t think he [Custer] got within three furlongs of the ford.’
The distortions and untruths told by Reno and Benteen about the Battle of the Little Bighorn are so many and so obvious that almost everything they said about it becomes suspect. These ‘errors’ have been pointed out by many researchers. ‘There are many elements to this story that indicate that others besides Reno and Benteen were involved in a coverup of the facts, distortions and outright criminal acts,’ Zimmerman said. ‘Some of these issues require a more in-depth investigation to expose the truth.’
Zimmerman has made a detailed comparison of the map presented at the Reno court of inquiry with the map drawn by Lieutenant Edward Maguire, who was a member of General Terry’s command that arrived at the battlefield on June 27, 1876. Cartographer Phil Swartzberg discovered 10 noteworthy changes. Some of these may have been innocent in nature. Others, such as the addition of a spur to the bluffs between Reno’s hill position and the Indian village, seem to have been deliberately made. An enlisted men’s petition, signed by 236 surviving soldiers of the 7th Cavalry days after the battle, requested that Reno and Benteen be promoted. This petition was presented at the inquiry. A Federal Bureau of Investigation examination of this petition, dated November 2, 1954, discovered that a large number of the names were probably forgeries. The petition, along with the altered map, suggest there was a well-thought-out military coverup designed to discredit Custer–call it ‘Custergate.’
Zimmerman is now pursuing a legal appeal to the court’s finding that ‘the conduct of the officers throughout was excellent and while subordinates in some instances did more for the safety of the command by brilliant displays of courage than did Major Reno, there was nothing in his conduct which requires animadversion of the court.’ If Custer did cross the river and fight in the Indian camp, that would be something Reno and Benteen would desperately try to hide, for if Custer was fighting in the village and they failed to come to his assistance, then any rational defense of their actions becomes impossible. And if Custer did fight in the village, then all the many accounts of the battle to date are incomplete. Only further on-site research and study, with the scientific tools of the 20th century, will shed more light on this possibility. In June 1996, Flower will conduct more acoustics tests near the battlefield. The tests, according to the professor, will not conclusively confirm where Custer was when the shots were heard on Reno Hill, but they will’say which positions could be eliminated from consideration. And that should take us one step closer to understanding the sequence of events of June 25, 1876.’
This article was written by Robert Nightengale and originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Wild West.For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
The 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment Fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn
Shortly before noon Chicago time on Sunday, June 25, 1876, approximately 600 officers and men of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, scouts, mule drivers, and other associated civilians were in the saddle advancing toward destiny on the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. The soldiers’ appearance was much at odds with popular portrayals of the Indian-fighting army. Their uniforms, especially those of the officers, were wildly nonregulation. Many officers wore custom-tailored sailor-style shirts, buckskins, straw hats (or any kind of hat that caught their fancy); the men wore blue shirts of various shades, battered black campaign hats or privately purchased civilian hats; and occasionally individual troopers even wore white canvas trousers or had their light-blue regulation trousers reinforced with canvas. White alkaline dust kicked up by their horses’ hooves mixed with sweat on their uniforms, giving them a spurious appearance of uniformity. Heat in the high 90s and accompanying thirst added to the discomfort of both men and horses.
Led by its second-in-command, Lt. Col. George A. Custer, the regiment had marched out of Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 17 as part of Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry’s column during the ill-fated Indian campaign of 1876. Three bodies of troops converging from west, south and east were attempting to bring the recalcitrant Sitting Bull, his Lakotas, and their Northern Cheyenne and other Indian allies to battle. Neither Sitting Bull’s exact location nor the number of Indians with him were known. Thus, on June 22, Terry sent Custer forward toward the Rosebud and Little Bighorn rivers to try and find the Indians’ village. By the 25th of the month the 7th Cavalry had ridden 105 miles since separating from Terry’s column. The troops had been on campaign for a total of six weeks. The men were tired, dirty and sore. Their mounts also were worn, but despite this the 7th Cavalry was still a very formidable military organization by Indian wars’ standards. Among the troops advancing on the Little Bighorn were three Italian-born soldiers. Each of them was at a key point in the forthcoming battle, and taken together, their personal stories effectively tell the story of the battle. How did these Italians come to find themselves fighting Indians in the vastness of the American West?
The full complement of the 7th Cavalry in June 1876 was 43 officers and 793 enlisted men. Of that number 473 were native born and 320 foreign born. The two largest foreign-born groups in the regiment comprised 129 Irish and 127 Germans. The remaining 64 foreign born were drawn from 14 other nationalities, including six Italians. These were: 1st Lt. Charles Camillus DeRudio (a k a Count Carlo Camillo Di Rudio) of Company A; Private Augustus L. De Voto (a k a Augusto De Voto) of Company B; Private John James (a k a Giovanni Casella) of Company E; Private Frank Lombard (a k a Frank Lombardy, Francesco Lombardi) of the regimental band; Private John Martin (a k a Giovanni Martini), trumpeter of Company H; and Chief Musician Felix Villiet Vinatieri (a k a Felice Villiet Vinatieri) of the regimental band. Two of the six were married. As might be expected, given that the pay of the era made it virtually impossible for junior enlisted personnel to wed and support a family, they were the two highest ranking: DeRudio and Vinatieri.
Unlike native-born Americans, Irish and Germans, the Italians were too few to constitute a group or subculture in the regiment. They were individuals who had come to the United States for a variety of reasons, both political and economic. In many cases the latter flowed from the former. Irish and Germans constituted major immigrant groups during the 19th century. Both nationalities immigrated largely for economic reasons by the mid-1800s. Socially, the Germans were more acceptable; they frequently were skilled craftsmen, and a very large percentage were Protestants. The Irish were much less socially acceptable; they were mostly unskilled, usually dirt-poor and Roman Catholic. In 1876 they constituted a clearly defined minority group that suffered very real social and economic discrimination. The Italians shared many of the social disadvantages of the Irish as well as some unique to themselves. They, too, were Roman Catholics; they were poor and, as southern Europeans, tended to be short and swarthy, and thus further removed in appearance from the northern European norm. Further, they came to the new country speaking a foreign tongue. The only advantage the Italians had over the Irish was that they were so few that they were not objects of such organized discrimination.
If there were six Italians in the 7th Cavalry, why were only three present on that fateful day in 1876? The three absentees were in good company because Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis, the regimental commanding officer, the two senior majors, and approximately 200 other officers and men were also absent. This was characteristic of the frontier army. Large numbers of regimental personnel routinely were seconded to headquarters assignments or detailed to other duties away from their units. This was a pleasant break from the harsh and boring life of campaign and garrison duty in the Far West. In the case of the three absent Italians, Vinatieri was at the Powder River base camp with the regimental band, James was detailed away to unspecified duties, and Lombard was in the hospital back at Fort Abraham Lincoln.
The Italians in the 7th Cavalry evidently recognized their social disadvantages and took steps to lessen the obvious differences between themselves and native-born Americans. All six anglicized their given names, and three of them did the same to their surnames (or in the case of John James, adopted an new surname). Of the six, DeRudio was the only one who could not be expected to downplay his origins. He was a nobleman by birth and as such was pro forma a gentleman. His commission depended on recognition of this distinction. The most he would do was anglicize his Christian name and change the spelling of his surname to make it more phonetic for English speakers. The other Italians, however, labored under no such stricture. They had no urge to maintain their cultural identity, since they belonged to no ethnic subculture. They simply desired to lose themselves in the general population and become Americans.
Three of the six Italians held music-related positions, a traditional occupation for Italians in America at the time, especially those in the Army. Indeed, 20th century New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was an ‘army brat, the son of a regimental bandmaster. Italians stereotypically were thought to possess greater natural musical talent than other ethnic groups and thus were much sought after for military bands. It is no mystery that Chief Musician Felix Vinatieri was the regimental bandmaster, Frank Lombard was a musician (instrument unknown), and John Martin, while a line private, was a trumpeter in his company. Some years before immigrating, when he was only 14, Martin also had served in the Italian army as a drummer boy.
As with John Martin, two other Italians, DeRudio and John James, claimed prior military service. The former attended an Austrian cadet academy in Milan and served with the revolutionary forces of Mazzini and Garibaldi during the period of the Roman Republic in 1848. The latter simply listed his previous occupation as soldier. Vinatieri and Lombard were formerly musicians, and De Voto identified his previous occupation as that of bookbinder.
That three of the six Italians should claim prior military experience is not unexpected, although seemingly flying in the face of the musical stereotype. Italy had been a hotbed of revolutionary activity and active warfare for the past several decades. Up to 1870 the nation of Italy was being forged from many disparate elements. This forging entailed a great deal of armed conflict–against foreign occupiers, such as the Austrians, between the various states that comprised pre-unification Italy, and finally against the Pope himself, ruler of most of central Italy. Thus, while Americans typecast Italians as artistic and musical, given the amount of warfare that afflicted Italy during the first half of the 19th century, the reality was that Italians were much more likely to be soldiers than music makers.
The six Italians were from different parts of Italy, spoke different dialects, and probably felt very little solidarity with one another. After all, Italian was a relatively new term, at least to the degree that it expressed nationality. Italy had only been a nation since 1860, and it was not until 1870 that King Victor Emmanuel II defeated the last enemy of national unification, Pope Pius IX. DeRudio was from Belluno, in the province of Venice, and was born a subject of the Austrian emperor. De Voto from Genoa, Vinatieri from Turin and Martin from Sola Conzalina were all born subjects of the Piedmontese king of Sardinia, who would one day be king of Italy. James was born in Rome, a subject of the Pope, and Lombard in Naples, a subject of the Bourbon king of the Two Sicilies.
The Italians of the 7th Cavalry, like so many others, came to the United States because they saw little future for themselves in the land of their birth. They ended up in the army because it was the employer of first and last resort for recently arrived male immigrants with no prospects. Such immigrants could use the army as a springboard to better things.
One of this group, Charles DeRudio had nothing in common with the others; as a nobleman, an aristocrat, he claimed and received a commission not long after his arrival in the United States. Given his status, he would have felt no camaraderie for his fellow Italians. DeRudio was certainly the most controversial of the six. The Di Rudio family of Belluno held the title count. Their nobility was fairly recent, however, dating back only to the mid-17th century. DeRudio’s grandfather had been an ardent Bonapartist and was extremely hostile to the Austrians. Under Napoleon I, the elder Di Rudio had been prefect of Belluno where Charles would one day be born. Following Napoleon’s defeat and the re-establishment of Austrian power in Italy, the family fell on hard times. Charles’ father, Count Aquila Di Rudio, was as hostile to the Austrians as his father and was involved continually in conspiratorial activities against them. Political ideology, however, had no effect on matters of the heart. While working against the hated Austrians, Count Aquila managed to fall in love and subsequently elope with the daughter of the pro-Austrian governor of Belluno. Disinherited by her father, the bride and her revolutionary husband were compelled to live in modest circumstances. Carlo Camillo Di Rudio was born of this union on August 26, 1832. As a teenager, he attended an Austrian military academy in Milan. At the age of 15 he left to join the Italian patriots during the uprising in 1848, and participated in the defense of Rome and, later, of Venice against the Austrians. Following the suppression of the revolutions in Italy, Di Rudio sailed for America but was shipwrecked off Spain. He claimed subsequently to have served with French colonial troops in North Africa, and he finally ended up in exile in England in 1855. There he impregnated and later married a 15-year-old English girl, an illiterate of working-class origin.
It was in England that the Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini recruited Di Rudio in a plot to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III of France, who had displeased Italian nationalists by his lukewarm support of their bid for nationhood and independence from Austrian domination. Orsini previously had been in an Austrian prison with Di Rudio’s father and sister, and also had a prior association with Di Rudio himself. Although Di Rudio was condemned to death for throwing the most powerful bomb in the 1858 attempt that killed and wounded more than 100 people, he escaped the guillotine via a last-minute reprieve, probably because his wife testified against an English co-conspirator. Sentenced to life imprisonment in the penal colony of Cayenne, French Guiana, he escaped (it has been alleged with French connivance), made his way back to England to gather up wife and family, and then left for a new home in the United States. Arriving in the midst of the Civil War, DeRudio joined the 79th New York Infantry in 1864. This was followed by a commission as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Colored Volunteer Infantry. DeRudio may have been an idealist at 15, but by the time he was 32 he was an opportunistic survivor. Very plausible in manner, he claimed to be a great believer in the cause to free the slaves. He soon had many influential supporters among the liberals of the period, not least of whom was the famous newspaper reporter Horace Greeley. The influence of these supporters won DeRudio a commission in the Regular Army at the end of the war. In 1869 he was a second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Cavalry, and by 1876 had advanced to first lieutenant. DeRudio possessed an air of Old World charm and sophistication and was an inveterate storyteller. He clearly was popular in the social milieu of Far West military outposts, for he was witty and entertaining and helped relieve the crushing boredom that was part of the life of frontier Regulars.
On the other hand, DeRudio’s superiors thought little of his military ability. His previous company commander, Captain Frederick W. Benteen of Company H, although finding DeRudio an amusing companion, disparaged him as Count No Account and had a low estimate of his military skills. Benteen himself was an accomplished Indian fighter and the senior captain of the regiment. The de facto commanding officer of the 7th Cavalry, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, also held DeRudio in low esteem. Custer wrote early in 1876 that He [DeRudio] is, all things considered, the inferior of every first lieutenant in this Regt. as an efficient and subordinate officer. Ironically, one factor in Custer’s disesteem of DeRudio may have been how well the latter got on socially with Benteen, who made no bones about his dislike for Custer. In February 1876 Custer transferred DeRudio from Company E, of which he was acting commanding officer by seniority, and attached him to Company A, under Captain James M. Moylan. Custer simultaneously transferred 1st Lt. Algeron E. Smith, Company A’s executive officer, to Company E where he became acting commanding officer in DeRudio’s place. This transfer saved DeRudio’s life and condemned Smith to death. One thing is certain: at 43, DeRudio was the oldest officer riding toward the Little Bighorn on that fateful June day in 1876; he was perhaps too old, cynical and wily for Custer to consider him a good cavalry officer.
Chance events on the morning of June 25 propelled the trio of Italians in three different directions. That morning Captain Benteen of Company H detailed John Martin to serve as Custer’s personal trumpeter-orderly for the day. As such he would accompany Longhair wherever he went. The Indian scouts had spotted a very large village from the Crow’s Nest, a lookout point some distance ahead of the column. Although warned that the village was enormous, Custer determined to move against the Indians that afternoon instead of attacking during the early morning hours of June 26 as originally planned. Waiting for the next day would have allowed both men and horses time for needed rest and would be more likely to catch the Indians asleep in their lodges. Further, Custer and Terry had agreed that if he, Custer, found Indians on the Little Bighorn, he would attack on the 26th and drive them toward Terry, who would by then be approaching from the northeast.
Despite the seemingly rash change in plan, Custer’s decision to attack on the afternoon of the 25th was perfectly reasonable in the context of the conventional tactics of the era. Although his scouts informed him that he faced up to 2,000 warriors, they also told him that the Indians already had spotted his approach. The greatest fear of Custer and other frontier military commanders on major campaigns was not that they would be outnumbered and overwhelmed, but that their adversaries would break up into small bands and succeed in fleeing, rendering an expensive and exhausting military campaign a failure. Indians habitually picked their battles and, because they were infinitely more mobile than the ponderous columns of cavalry and infantry that pursued them, rarely could be brought to battle except on their own terms. Custer recognized that he had found a large village; if he could attack it before it broke and could capture a large number of women and children, he could force the enemy to surrender. Custer was probably the best cavalry leader in the army’s history; he was no fool and believed that his regiment, properly handled, could defeat any number of Indians. While man for man, Indian warriors were often superior to the soldiers, they fought as individuals. The discipline and organization of Custer’s troops gave them an advantage far beyond their numbers.
Custer had Martin sound officers’ call at about noon, and when the officers had gathered, he gave them orders out of Martin’s earshot. Shortly thereafter, Martin observed Captain Benteen with Companies D, H and K riding off to the left of the regiment, which was preceding roughly southwest along what would later be named Reno Creek. At the meeting, Custer had put 11 of the 12 companies that made up the 7th Cavalry into three maneuver battalions. As senior captain, Benteen was ordered to take one battalion and scout the valleys to the southeast to prevent the Indians from slipping away in that direction; he led his battalion away from the main column at about 12:12 p.m. The other two battalions, under Custer and Major Marcus A. Reno, the 7th Cavalry’s second-in-command on the expedition, continued to advance along Reno Creek.
Custer’s plan for defeating the Indians impelled him to make the classic error of dividing his force in the face of a numerically superior enemy. He did this, however, for the sound tactical reason of preventing the Indians from escaping. After advancing for about two hours, Custer ordered Reno and his battalion, comprising Companies A, G and M, down into the valley of the Little Bighorn, across the river, then roughly west along its left bank to attack the south end of the village. He himself, with Companies C, E, F, I and L, a total of 221 men, continued along the bluffs to the east of the Little Bighorn, heading toward what he thought was the far end of the village. Custer was confident that Benteen would rejoin him shortly, increasing his strength to eight companies. The slow pack train with the extra ammunition and supplies followed well in the rear. Because Company B, to which August De Voto belonged, was the last to report ready to march that morning, it drew the inglorious assignment of escorting the pack train.
At about 3:10 p.m., Major Reno’s battalion charged the south end of the village. Reno, however, daunted by the size of the village, did not press home the charge. Instead, he dismounted his troops short of the village and formed a skirmish line to defend himself against the enraged defenders who began to boil out of the huge encampment. In the meantime, Benteen, who had found no Indians to the south, was following on Custer’s trail but was still some four miles behind him. At about the time that Reno attacked, Custer reached a promontory and, for the first time, saw the village in its entirety. His original plan apparently had been to attack the north end of the village in support of Reno, who was attacking the south end. This would have prevented noncombatants from escaping the village to the north and hopefully would have allowed their capture and a successful end to the battle. Having seen how large the village was, he realized he would need all possible troops and additional ammunition if his plan were to succeed. At 3:20 p.m., he sent trumpeter John Martin with a written message to Benteen to hurry his advance and bring up the pack train. The message was written because Martin, who had only been in the United States three years, spoke very little English. As he rode away from Custer’s battalion, Martin became the last surviving white man to see Custer and his men alive.
What happened next to Custer and his battalion has been a matter of conjecture and controversy for more than a century. It appears likely that he attempted to cross the Little Bighorn at Medicine Tail Coulee and attack the middle of the village but was forced to withdraw in the face of Indian resistance. This attack on the middle of the village instead of the far end probably was precipitated by the fact that Custer could visually observe Reno’s abortive attack and felt he had to get into action against the village to distract the Indians and give Reno some relief. If this were his objective, he was more than successful: large numbers of Indians began to move away from Reno’s beleaguered force toward Custer’s. Custer and his men were attacked by overwhelming numbers and surrounded. They ended up dismounted and entrenched on a high point, later called Custer Hill, and the battle was probably over for them by 4:45 p.m.
John Martin, whose horse had been wounded by an Indian sharpshooter, reached Captain Benteen at 3:35 p.m. At that time, Benteen was some three miles east of Custer, and the pack train was a couple of miles behind him. He could not see how he could proceed quickly and still go back for the pack train. He told Martin to fall in with Company H, and he continued his advance up to the area now known as Reno Hill. There, at 4:10 p.m., he came upon the remnants of Reno’s battalion, which had not fared well in the valley below. Benteen determined not to advance to Custer as ordered but to join Reno and dig in on high ground until the situation clarified. The pack train and Company B subsequently came up and joined this force at 5:15 p.m.
Indeed, Reno had fared poorly in his attack on the village–and no little blame could be placed squarely on himself. Approximately 10 minutes after the beginning of the action, Indian pressure on both his front and left flank forced Reno to withdraw northeast to the edge of a wooded area in a bend of the Little Bighorn; there, he formed a second skirmish line, which faced roughly south. Although the position seemed to be holding, Reno became panicky and at 3:55 p.m. ordered another withdrawal, this time to the east, across the Little Bighorn, and then up the bluffs on the other side to Reno Hill. However, perhaps due largely to Reno’s panicking, the withdrawal turned into a rout. Reno lost 40 percent of his command before he and other survivors made it to the top of the bluffs. Not everyone got word of the withdrawal, which swiftly degenerated into a complete disaster with Indians attacking from behind and on both flanks. First Lieutenant Charles DeRudio and 18 other men remained behind in the woods.
DeRudio and the others either never got word of Reno’s withdrawal, lost their mounts, or became separated from the main body of the battalion. Surrounded by Indians, they took refuge in the heavily timbered area. Shortly after the formation of the first skirmish line, DeRudio, on his own initiative, led a half-dozen Company A troopers to the northwest corner of the woods to head off an attack on the right flank of the line. From this position, DeRudio later claimed he could see Custer’s column atop the high ridge to the north. DeRudio and his detail remained in this position until the battalion pulled out. DeRudio was informed of the withdrawal by Company A’s trumpeter, who brought DeRudio his horse. The men with DeRudio panicked and fled, and though he supposedly tried to save the company guidon, he was also compelled to flee. Unfortunately, his horse bolted and ran away when he tried to mount, leaving him stranded in the woods.
After hiding for a while and following an unsuccessful attempt by the Indians to fire the woods, DeRudio began to cautiously move about in the undergrowth. While doing so, he observed Indian women mutilating dead and dying soldiers who lay on the open ground between the woods and the high ground, men shot down during the battalion’s flight from the valley. Moving stealthily about, DeRudio met Private Thomas F. O’Neil of Company G, who was also on foot. Later, the two met Frederic F. Gerard, a civilian interpreter of the Lakota, and Billy Jackson, a half-blooded enlisted scout. The latter two men still had their mounts. Gerard and Jackson planned to make a dash on horseback for Reno on the bluffs, but DeRudio dissuaded them, fearing that such an attempt would lead the Indians, who were moving around nearby looking for stragglers, to the two men on foot. At this point, in the late afternoon, there were two groups of stragglers in the woods: DeRudio’s group of four and another group of 15 led by George B. Herendeen, a civilian scout. By 5 p.m. Reno’s command faced relatively few Indians; most had earlier moved off to the northwest to engage Custer. This provided an opportunity for the second group of stragglers (with two exceptions who were later killed) to rejoin Reno on the bluffs by 5:30 p.m.
DeRudio and his three companions remained in the woods. After darkness fell, they wandered around trying to find a safe path across the river and up the steep opposite riverbank. They were unsuccessful and had at least one close brush with a party of Lakota who were patrolling along the river. The two unmounted men became separated from their mounted companions and by dawn of June 26 were hiding on a wooded peninsula jutting into the middle of the Little Bighorn. That morning they saw a group of warriors riding along the riverbank. DeRudio mistook them for soldiers, probably because they were wearing items of uniforms and equipment stripped from Custer’s dead. He yelled at them, but O’Neil, recognizing the horsemen as Indians, pulled DeRudio back under cover where they remained undetected. Throughout the day, they could hear the battle that raged on the bluffs above between the surviving elements of the 7th Cavalry and the Indians. DeRudio and O’Neil spent the day under a scorching sun and suffered greatly from thirst because they dared not expose themselves to nearby braves who were sniping at soldiers on the bluffs. Toward sunset, the Indians began to move their village off to the southeast. DeRudio and O’Neil witnessed at a distance of only 150 yards thousands of Indian men, women and children carrying their wounded and dead and all their worldly possessions, accompanied by an estimated 25,000 ponies. The procession took several hours to pass by. At this point the fighting was effectively over. DeRudio and O’Neil remained in their lair until around 3 a.m. on the 27th of June; then they left the woods, scaled the bluffs, and rejoined the command.
DeRudio’s conduct during the Little Bighorn action, like that of many of his fellow officers, was certainly not above reproach. He was criticized by Benteen among others for hiding out while his command was heavily engaged for some 24 hours on the bluffs above. In the end, DeRudio was a survivor. As he candidly admitted, he had gone through too much in his life, had too many close calls with death, to die in an obscure action against Indians in America.
Private August De Voto’s day had been far less harrowing than John Martin’s or Charles DeRudio’s. A member of Captain Thomas M. McDougal’s Company B, he was far removed from the dramatic events of the day until the pack train caught up with the surviving companies of the 7th Cavalry on Reno Hill. At 4:20 p.m., as the pack train followed Custer’s and Benteen’s trail, some of the personnel heard heavy volley fire ahead. This firing, more clearly heard two miles ahead on Reno Hill, was Custer and his men fighting for their lives some miles distant.
De Voto and the others in the pack train encountered a lone Crow scout riding away from the battlefield. His English was poor and all he said was Much soldier down before riding on. Second Lieutenant Luther R. Hare, Reno’s acting assistant adjutant general, arrived shortly thereafter with orders to hurry forward the mules carrying ammunition. He left to return to Reno Hill with two of the mules in tow. The slowly plodding remainder of the pack train took another 45 minutes or so to cover the distance to Reno Hill. The volley fire heard from the northwest had long since ceased, and, in fact, all sustained firing from that direction had ended by 4:45 p.m.
Beginning at about 5 p.m., an abortive attempt was made to advance the seven companies and the pack train toward Custer’s presumed location roughly two miles west of Reno Hill. By this time, however, large numbers of Indians were seen approaching from that direction, so the troops withdrew back to Reno Hill and began to dig in. What remained of the 7th Cavalry made its stand on and around Reno Hill. The battle would continue for almost another 24 hours.
By 5:30 p.m. on June 25, 1876, the disaster was complete. Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry lay dead, killed to the last man on or near Custer Hill. Reno, Benteen and the pack train lay under heavy attack by Indians at Reno Hill, and 19 stragglers hid in the woods below, along the riverbank. No one knew what had become of Custer; all supposed that he had retreated north, but would return and rescue them at some point. Also unknown to them was that General Terry had joined his column with the western column, and both would arrive at the battlefield in about 48 hours. In fact, Terry was expecting to encounter Indians fleeing north from what he hoped was a successful attack by Custer.
The men of the 7th Cavalry who had the good fortune not to ride with Custer that day were involved in a desperate fight for survival. It was here that John Martin ended up because he had been ordered to rejoin Company H after delivering Custer’s last message, and it was here that the pack train delivered August De Voto.
Instead of rushing the soldiers, the Indians occupied vantage points to the north, west, east, and down in the valley to the south. From this last position, they made it impossible for both the troopers above and DeRudio and O’Neil hiding below to get water during the last phase of the battle. The Indians poured a murderous sniping fire onto Reno Hill until nightfall. The soldiers, now joined by 13 stragglers from the valley, spent an uncomfortable night listening and watching the Indians celebrating their victory in the village.
The following day dawned hot, and the Indians resumed their sniping. Everyone in Reno’s command, especially the wounded, suffered terribly from thirst. Consequently, 34 men volunteered to try to bring water up from the river despite the harassing fire. Private De Voto was one of the volunteers. This was an extremely hazardous undertaking as Indian marksmen across the Little Bighorn could easily target anyone coming down from the bluffs to the river. De Voto made it to the river and filled a large cooking kettle and several canteens with water while bullets struck all around him. He survived this ordeal unharmed, although two other water carriers were killed and another was so severely wounded that his leg had to be amputated. Fifteen of the 34 earned the Medal of Honor; De Voto, however, was not one of them.
The sniping began to slack off at 11 a.m., and all firing had ceased by 3 p.m. Not long after, the Indian village was seen moving away to the south; the Battle of the Little Bighorn was over. That night, DeRudio and O’Neil came up from the valley, and the next day General Terry arrived. It was only then that the survivors of the 7th Cavalry learned the fate of Custer and their comrades, for Terry and his men had crossed the site of Custer’s Last Stand on their way to Reno Hill.
In military terms, the Battle of Little Bighorn was of little significance. It did, nevertheless, signal the last push to crush the Plains Indians. The nation was horrified that savages could annihilate the Beau Sabre of the Civil War and nearly half of the elite 7th Cavalry a week before the United States celebrated its centennial. More troops were mobilized and moved west, and the Indians were ultimately defeated and forced permanently onto reservations. The free-roaming culture of the northern Plains Indian was coming to an end. What no one could guess at the time was that this single battle, involving fewer than 600 troops, would become, along with George Armstrong Custer, an icon in American history. More than a century after the event, nearly all Americans as well as large numbers of people the world over know about Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The events at the Little Bighorn on that 25th of June 1876 have been the subject of innumerable publications, motion pictures and television productions. A large number of enthusiasts have been and remain fiercely dedicated to studying every aspect of the battle. But what became of the three Italians who rode with Custer that fateful day and their three comrades who did not?
First Lieutenant Charles Camillus DeRudio, whom Custer considered incompetent, found himself in command of a reconstituted Company E after the battle. Because promotion was on the basis of seniority within the regiment for company-grade officers, those who survived the battle were rapidly advanced. DeRudio was promoted to captain in 1882 and remained on active service with the 7th Cavalry until 1896 when he was promoted to major upon retirement from active duty. He died November 1, 1910, in Pasadena, Calif.
John Martin, the former Giovanni Martini and the last white man to see Custer and his men alive, served for a full 30 years in the Army, retiring as a sergeant in 1904. He subsequently worked as a ticket agent for the New York City subway system, and died in Brooklyn on December 24, 1922.
August De Voto was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1878 at Fort Yates in the Dakota Territory. He died November 3, 1923, in Tacoma, Wash.
John James, who began life as Giovanni Casella, left the army as a corporal at Fort Abraham Lincoln when his enlistment ended in May 1877. Nothing more is known of him.
Frank Lombard the musician also was discharged at Fort Abraham Lincoln when his enlistment expired in September 1876. He died in San Diego, Calif., on June 21, 1917.
Felix Villiet Vinatieri, the 7th Cavalry’s bandmaster, left the army in December 1876. He settled with his wife and five sons in Yankton, Dakota Territory, where he died on December 15, 1891.
Like so many others in this nation’s history, the six Italians came from abroad to make a new and, hopefully, better life in a fresh land filled with opportunities. They found themselves, however, in the front lines of a cultural clash with the original inhabitants of their adopted country. Three of them directly participated in and survived one small chapter of this struggle. In fact, they were more fortunate than the 263 of their comrades who died as a result of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. One hundred of these dead–Irish, Germans, Canadians, French, English, Scots, Welsh, Swiss, Danes, a Russian and a Greek–came to the United States largely for the same reasons as the Italians. They came for a better life, but instead found a violent death at the hands of people fighting desperately for not only their own physical survival but also the survival of their way of life. Although the Indians could justly take pride in having beaten the best the Army had, there were no true victors on the Little Bighorn. The soldiers lost the battle and many lost their lives; the Indians ultimately lost something infinitely more precious, the freedom to live as they chose.
This article was written by Vincent A. Transano and originally appeared in the June 1999 issue of Wild West.
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