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Marching with Custer:

A Day to Day Evaluation of the Uses, Abuses and Conditions of the horses on the ill-fated Expedition of 1876


Colonel Elwood Nye

Much has been, and will ever be as long as men are interested in history, written about the campaign of the Seventh Cavalry under Custer which terminated in tragedy on the Little Big Horn. However one phase in which mounted men, and particularly horsemen must be interested has, to the writer's knowledge, had too little direct attention. This is the condition and use or, more truly, abuse of the horses and mules of the expedition.

A paramount consideration with any cavalry leader is the condition, effectiveness, and well-being of his mounts. Senior officers, junior officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates, down to the most recent recruit, have this constantly in mind.

Much detailed instruction is given on the subject. Only the most urgent military necessity will cause a cavalry commander to push his mounts to the point where their efficiency is seriously impaired. The military situation must always govern, but even so, a good cavalry leader will conserve the strength of his animals to the greatest possible extent in order that they may reach the field of action in the most effective condition the situation will permit. In other words he must arrive as cavalry, and not as infantry.

A notable event illustrative of this and its far-reaching effects is that of the action of Stuart's cavalry at Gettysburg. The Confederate cavalry had been on a rather senseless raid, barren of important results, for several days prior to July 2, 1863, and when Stuart arrived on the scene that became Gettysburg, his men and horses were so exhausted that he was decisively defeated by the Federal cavalry. To a considerable extent Lee's loss of the battle may be charged to Stuart's defeat. Had his men and mounts been fresh, certainly their effectiveness would have been vastly increased and the results very different possibly.

What of Custer, in this respect?  The whole story of his military life shows a brutal disregard of the well-being of his men, and animals. There can be no doubt that this contributed, in part, to his tragic end beside the "Greasy Grass."  He appears to have been one of those fortunate and rarely endowed persons who was far above the average in physical endurance and immunity to fatigue.  The history of his campaigns and marches shows that he almost invariably rode far and wide in advance and on the flank, scouting ahead, or ranging beyond, simply because of his love of action.  His hunting dogs went with him always and many a chase increased his excitement and the distances he rode.  To cover the extra miles, Custer could not, and did not, depend upon the usual cold-blooded public mount.  He used Thoroughbreds and had always at least two available.  That these were superior animals needs no proof. Had they not been so, they would not have survived Custer, and one did survive him at the Little Big Horn.  In his exultant physical perfection together with his superior mounts, Custer appears to have given little thought or consideration to the poor trooper on his cold-blooded mount.

A recent book, "Keogh, Comanche and Custer," by Captain Smith Luce, U. S. A., Retired, gives information descriptive of the horses in use by the Cavalry in that period, 1867 to 1876.  Captain Luce states: "During the Civil War, horse-traders from the far west were culling the most likely looking horses and supplying the Union and Confederate armies. Their stock was better for the hard usage of warfare and cheaper in price than the breed which had come from importations of Danish, Dutch, French, and English horses of the middle seventeenth century to The New England and Southern. States.  The horses of Comanche's breed were standing the tough campaign better than their blue blooded cousins from the blue grass fields of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.  The crying need for more horseflesh was urgent, and traders went farther west and north into Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Washington for a tougher strain – those whose ancestors had come from Egypt to Arabia, thence to Europe, and finally to America, where they had been left to shift for themselves.

At the close of the Civil War and for a few years afterwards interbreeding was tried, and it was found that a three-quarter American and one-quarter Spanish horse possessed remarkable endurance and stamina for western cavalry service.  Such was the breed of Comanche, a horse that never faltered, but kept onward, outrunning and out-campaigning the others. On April 3, 1868, he and many others were purchased by the Quartermaster at St. Louis, Missouri for the sum of ninety dollars – his entrance fee to the cavalry service of the United States Army.

No longer would Comanche range the plains of Texas and Oklahoma, nor would he stand hunchbacked in the river bottoms amid the cotton wood trees seeking protection from snow blizzards. Those days were gone forever. He was a cavalry mount now. He would have corn, oats, and the best of hay for his fodder, not the hard strawgrass and brush roots he previously had to scrub and dig for. No more would he have to rub and scrape against a tree to get cockleburrs out of his rough, shaggy coat – his master and rider would do that for him. Nor would he have to go miles and sometimes days before he could quench his thirst.  Now there would be watering troughs where he could drink.  In fact, he soon learned in the corral at the Depot in St. Louis that the trumpeter blew a musical call – "Water Call" – when he was supposed to drink. Did he wonder whether the musician had ever heard the old saying that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink"? But Comanche much preferred this water from the Mississippi River to the alkali water holes of the Texas Panhandle, and drank off and on schedule.

For the short time that this light bay or buckskin horse was corralled in St. Louis, he met a number of the blue bloods from Kentucky and the Eastern States. They were quite a little heavier, as he weighed only about 950 pounds and stood only 15 hands high. Nevertheless, his mates were going to be cavalry mounts as was he, and it would be a test of breeding against background, where heights and weights were minor items.

It was only a matter of three or four weeks before he and 40 other horses were placed in animal cars and transported to their first Army post, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Here Comanche entered the military service, a recruit cavalry mount. 

Spring had arrived, and after the morning grooming, he was turned loose to graze in a large grass-covered field, sprinkled with clover and alfalfa.  This was very different from what he had known on the Panhandle plains, where he had to rustle buffalo-grass for his forage. Nor were there any coyotes or wolves to guard against – he was now protected and well cared for. If it were cold, a large heavy woolen blanket was provided for his comfort; it was much different from trying to keep warm and comfortable in the river bottoms among the cottonwood trees. Here at the fort there was no yelling, no lariats whirling around his head – only a firm tone, interspersed with a few well chosen cuss-words that only a trooper would use, and a halter for leading him. True, his freedom to roam the range had been somewhat curtailed, but the care and treatment he received compensated for that loss.

It was only a few days later that he and the other 40 mounts with which he had come from St. Louis were again placed in animal cars and sent on their way to join the Seventh Cavalry, which was now in the field protecting the early settlers of Kansas from murder and depredations from the roving bands of renegade Indians. The officer in charge of escorting these cavalry mounts was none other than First Lieutenant (Brevet Captain) Thomas W. Custer, Seventh Cavalry, twice winner of the coveted Congressional Medal of Honor, and brother of the illustrious cavalry leader of the Civil War, Major General George A. Custer.

When Comanche and the other 40 horses arrived at the detachment's headquarters in the field the following report was made:

Camp Detachment 7th U. S. Cavalry

near Ellis Station, Kansas

May 27th, 1868

Lieut. A. O. Smith, 7th Cavalry,

Bvt. Capt. U. S. A.

Act'g Adjutant



I have the honor to report that I left Leavenworth City, Kansas at Six (6) o'clock P.M. May 16th in charge of Forty-one horses for the 7th Cavalry, was delayed at Lawrence Ks about three hours. I arrived at Elsworth City Ks about Seven o'clock P.M. May 17th and was delayed there until about Eleven o'clock A. M., May 18th and did not reach Hayes City until about Five o'clock P.M. May 18th, 1868.

And I further state that I used every exertion possible at Ellsworth City to be sent on to Hayes City without delay.

I am very Respectfully, Sec-

T. W. Custer,

1st Lieut. 7th Cavalry

Bvt. Capt. USA


This letter was enclosed and forwarded with the following letter from Major Joel H. Elliot, Seventh Cavalry.

Camp Alfred Gibbs. Kansas

May 27th, 1868

Bvt. Major Gen'l Gibbs,

Comdg 7th U. S. Cav.

Fort Leavenworth, Ks



Enclosed please find report of Capt. Custer concerning the detention of his horses while enroute to Fort Hays. Aside from the unnecessary detention I found no fault with the treatment of the horses. The horses were in good condition. Some of them had distemper but most of them were looking well and I regard them as a choice lot of horses.

Very Respectfully

Joel R. Elliot.

Major 7th U. S. Cav.

Comdg Det.

Now came trying days for Comanche, and another phase in the life of a recruit cavalry mount – his introduction to saddle equipment and accoutrements, which he must learn to wear with grace and humility.  Never before had he worn such contraptions or carried a rider on his back or been directed to go in certain directions by the feel of the reins on his neck and a touch of the spur on his flank. His had been a care-free roaming life on the plains, and he had been master of his own destiny. But now this was all changed and he was to have a kindly master and rider in the person of Captain Myles W. Keogh, who had admired his fine qualities only a few days after his arrival at Ellis Station and had been granted permission to purchase him as his private mount, paying the same price which the Government had previously paid for him.

Comanche was indeed fortunate in having such an owner as this gallant Irishman, and under his tutelage and keen understanding of equitation it was only a matter of days before Comanche was an ideal cavalry officer's mount. And he was to share his master's affection with another horse named "Paddy."

The writer has had much personal experience with western horses, even to the wild (in fact) horses of Utah and Idaho.  This experience dates back to 1900 when these animals were not greatly different from those of the post Civil War period. As to breeds and types they represented everything conceivable in the equine world.  There was the completely common little "broomtail" with ancestry lost in the mists of early Spanish-American history, but no doubt tracing back to Arab or Barb.  These animals, through inbreeding and unceasing war with nature, were small, tough, ill-shaped, and had the disposition of "Satan in Person."  Due to their small size and rugged individuality these horses were of very little use and saw little, if any, service with the Army. However, out of this "broomtail" base grew several types or groups of horses which did see military service. One of these types was the Thoroughbred-bronco cross. Animals of this type were fairly common through parts of the west as early as 1870. Such animals were produced usually by the simple expedient of turning Thoroughbred stallions out to run with range mares. This combination produced some good horses and many that were not usable. To the bronco sagacity, cunning, and endurance was added the Thoroughbred speed and fire. The resultant animal often became an excellent trooper's mount if he could be captured, subdued, and trained. However a goodly percent was not suitable by reason of faulty type, vicious disposition, or untamable traits.

Another class, or type, was that produced by crossing the range mare with small draft, or grade-draft stallions.  This crossing was more often a failure than not for it frequently resulted in a coarse "knot-headed" animal of no type and very little usefulness. However, some of them were fair individuals with endurance and ability to carry weight. Numbers of these found their way into the military service.

Aside from the above, there were all other possible combinations with a few Thoroughbreds and considerable numbers of standard-breds, or grade-standard breds.

We may safely conclude that a troop of cavalry in 1876 had a varied collection of horses as to breed and type, with cold-blood very evident. Such animals, of course, played an important part in the success or failure of the organizations to which they were assigned.

In this discussion the writer will not consider that part of Custer's career covered by the Civil War, and will mention only briefly an incident or two prior to the beginning of the fatal march from Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 17, 1876.

In the spring of 1867, Custer was in command of the 7th Cavalry during an expedition through central Kansas and into Nebraska. After considerable marching, Custer was ordered to make a long scout from Fort Hays to Fort McPherson in Nebraska. This distance was about 225 miles. Records indicate that the command started from Fort Hays, June 1st, arrived on the Platte, June 9th, and remained a week around Fort McPherson, then south to the Republican River where another week was passed. The command then returned to the Platte, and from there to Fort Wallace. During this march a trooper remarked of Custer, "He thinks more of his dogs than he does of us." The horses and men were much exhausted upon arrival at Fort Wallace, but almost immediately and without necessity Custer started for Fort Hays with a mounted escort of 75 men and 3 officers. A small party of this escort which fell behind because of the condition of the horses was attacked by Indians.  One man was killed and another wounded. Custer made no halt to rescue his men, or attack the Indians, but pushed on to Fort Hays. So much for Custer's methods of marching in that period of his career immediately following the Civil War. We see that condition of men or animals concerned him but little. In the Wallace to Hays march Custer was not under orders, he was violating orders, nor was he guided by any military necessity. He was, in fact, actuated solely by personal motives.

The next phase to be considered will be the marching, scouting, and actions of the 7th Cavalry under Custer from Fort Abraham Lincoln to the place of his death.  There is little information available as to the condition of the horses and mules of the unit when it left Fort Lincoln, but we do know that there was much confusion and uncertainty at the time, and it may be safely assumed that the condition of the animals was not too good.

Custer had become involved in the Congressional proceedings against Secretary of War Belknap, and as a result was relieved from duty with his regiment and placed under arrest as he was passing through Chicago.  It was only upon the kind intercession of General Terry that he was restored to duty and permitted to accompany the expedition against the Sioux.

Custer arrived with Terry at Fort Lincoln on May 10th, and found the 7th Cavalry assembled and supplies collected.  Some rather indifferent preparations had been made under Reno, but Custer stated that he found conditions far from satisfactory.  With only a week under his supervision the regiment moved out on May 17th, 1876.  From the above, it appears entirely possible that the animals were not in the best condition for extended field service.  To add to the difficulties of the mounts, a large percentage of the enlisted men were recruits with little or no experience in the care of animals under field or any other conditions.

The command as it left Fort Lincoln consisted of the 7th Cavalry, two companies of the 17th Infantry, one company of the 16th Infantry, a few men of the 20th Infantry Indian Scouts, and about 150 wagons which carried grain for a month's ration.

The morning of the start, May 17th was cold, raw, and foggy. The troops had been camped in tents outside the post while preparing for the march, but when all was ready for moving out, Custer gave the command to march first through the garrison, that the wives and children being left behind might have a last look at the regiment. How real that became! It was indeed the last glimpse for many a wife or child of the one they would not see again. The usual forced cheer or bravado was wanting. A sense of doom seemed to hover over men and families.  The command came to "dismount and fall out," that a quick farewell might be taken.  Then mounted again, the troops moved quickly out behind the band to the loud strains of "The Girl I Left Behind Me."

Elizabeth Bacon Custer did not say farewell to her husband at Fort Abraham Lincoln as art and fiction so fondly portray. She rode out mounted with the command as she often did when marches were to be made. On many a change of station she rode her horse all the long way.  When the 7th Cavalry made the move from Kentucky to Fort Lincoln in 1872, she had ridden the weary distance from Yankton, South Dakota to Bismark, North Dakota and enjoyed it, if one may judge from her account of the experience. But this time she was to ride only the first day.  With her rode Maggie, Custer's sister, the wife of Calhoun. Sadly the two women turned back to the post the morning of May 18th. Neither was to see her husband again.

The column moved out directly west to Heart River.  The distance covered the first day was short, about 13 miles, and camp was reached at 1:30 p.m.  Terry camped early in order that the men might be paid by the pay-master who had come to the camp with the column. He would not permit them to have money while the temptations of Bismark were available. Later the victorious Sioux were enriched beyond their own belief by this same money which they found in following their ancient custom of stripping the dead.

The morning of May 18th, the march was resumed with the cavalry in right and left wings. Custer, with one troop, went ahead to select route and camping places. The march, this day, covered about 11 miles, and camp was made at Sweetbrier Creek. Shortly after camp was made, a heavy rain began to fall and continued throughout the day. The travel during the day had been very difficult because of the rain.  The march was resumed about 6:30 a.m. on the 19th. The route lay over a rough country, and as Sweetbrier Creek was too much of a torrent to be crossed, a detour was made to the south.  Part of the going was so bad it became necessary to double teams on each wagon. A severe storm of hail and rain broke at noon and lasted about 20 minutes, adding to the discomfort and misery of men and animals.  It was night before the last wagon came in although the march covered only about 14 miles.  To add to the general unhappiness the camp was a dry one.  Wood was not to be had, and the buffalo chips were too wet to burn.

The column marched at 7:30 a.m. on the 20th, and after a march of 10 miles, went into camp on a branch of the Big Muddy. During this day many antelope were seen and Custer gave his hounds a workout.

The marches from May 21st to 26th inclusive covered a total distance of 88 miles.  During much of this time the command was assailed by rain and mosquitos and traversed some very rough country. Elk and other game was seen during this period and the men were encouraged to hunt, which some did with considerable success, at the same time adding to the distances covered by their mounts.

The first view of the bad lands of the Little Missouri was obtained on the morning of May 26th, after a march of a few miles. At a distance these formations have a weird beauty and resemble ruined cities with broken towers and embattlements.  On closer view they merely present an inferno of eroded cliffs and hills and gullies with a tenacious mud in wet weather. Terrain such as this is difficult enough for mounted parties, and practically impossible for vehicles.  The march which this day covered 17 miles, continued south to Davis Creek. The water here was alkaline, and insufficient in amount.

The next march, May 28th, was down Davis Creek toward the Little Missouri. The creek was so winding that it was crossed 10 times in 8 miles. The banks were high and steep and the stream bed, miry. It required 8 hours of heavy labor to cover as many miles.  As the command approached the Little Missouri they found the grass, which had been sparse and poor, much better, while wood and good spring water were available. The river supplied excellent fish and game was abundant.

It had been rumored that large numbers of hostile Indians were located along this stream so Terry decided to rest the command for a day or two and scout the region. The morning of the 29th Custer started off up-stream with four troops of the Seventh and part of the scouts. The river valley here is about a mile wide and closely bounded by bad lands. This scout covered about 50 miles during which the Little Missouri was crossed 34 times, so winding was its course. Custer returned at 6 p.m. and reported no Indians in the vicinity nor any signs that there had been any for 6 months.

The march was resumed on the morning of the 30th, the Little Missouri being crossed with some difficulty because of a soft and miry bottom. The course continued to Sentinel Buttes over a difficult country and then down a steep ravine to an open valley traversed by a small stream. Camp was made at 2 p.m. after a march of 11 miles. During this day Reynolds killed 2 big horn sheep and Custer amused himself by shooting from ambush over the head of his brother, Boston. Custer and Captain Tom Custer, being far ahead, noticed that Boston, who had been with them, had halted. Quickly they rounded an elevation, out of sight of Boston, and dismounting, crept to the top.  They saw that Boston was lost, and leveling their rifles, fired several rounds over the hapless brother's head.  That was enough. Boston immediately mounted and beat a hot retreat back to the column thinking the whole Sioux nation was in pursuit.  This type of sardonic humor seems to have appealed to Custer.  On another occasion his brother Tom was slow in getting up in the morning.  Custer set fire to Tom's tent. It is reported that Tom came out with considerable promptness.

During the evening, rain started which soon changed to snow and by morning several inches had fallen.  The storm continued during the day and the little creek on which the command was camped soon became a torrent. Wood was scarce and the animals suffered from exposure and poor grass.

Camp was broken on the morning of June 3rd. The first 6 miles were covered in cold and misery, then the command marched out upon a beautiful rolling prairie where scouts from Colonel Gibbon of the Montana Column were met. The total march this day was 25 miles and camp was made on Beaver Creek.

The march of the 4th was generally south along the course of Beaver Creek. The road was fairly easy over a high rolling prairie, and camp was again made on Beaver Creek after the column had covered 18 miles. Water, wood and grass were good and abundant and antelope and rabbits plentiful.

It was necessary for the Engineer Detachment to bridge the creek on the morning of June 5th before the command could proceed, and then a very rough country was reached. It was much cut up by ravines and bad lands, and all hands had hard work in getting the wagon train through. After a march of about 20 miles, camp was made on a well-grassed prairie, but pools of melted snow provided the water.

On June 6th, the expedition reached O'Fallons Creek after marching 22 miles and found excellent wood and water.  The march was resumed at 4:20 a m., the 7th, and a region was entered that had never known a wagon train. This area formed the divide between O'Fallon's Creek and the Powder River. It was very rough and uninteresting country. A cold rain started

and this did little to make the prospect pleasing. The descent to the river was difficult and dangerous and camp was not made until 7 p.m. The distance covered was 32 miles and men and animals were exhausted. This point on the Powder offered pleasant camping as to wood and grazing, but the river water was yellow with silt, and bordered by black sand which probably accounts for the name.

General Terry decided to leave the command in camp at this point and proceed to Yellowstone to meet Gibbon, taking two troops as escort.

To this point the expedition had been in the field 22 days and had marched about 290 miles. In addition to this, much additional distance was covered by parts of the command in scouting, hunting, locating routes, etc.  As to one scout alone, we find a distance of 50 miles covered by Custer and four troops on May 29th. During the entire march to the Powder there were two or three days rest for parts of the command.

Up to this time there is probably nothing to be criticized in the conduct of the march. Considered alone, the distances are, in fact, short. However other conditions must be kept in mind. Most of the route was over extremely rough terrain. There was no road, no trail, for much of the distance. It was necessary to move a huge wagon train over country then unsuited to such transportation. The men of the expedition did much additional and exhausting work getting the wagons over country that today would be considered impossible.

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