My Life on the Plains, by Gen. George A. Custer

Chapter Five.

From Fort Hays to Fort McPherson.

IT had been decided that my command should thoroughly scout the country from Fort Hays near the Smoky Hill River, to Fort McPherson, on the Platte; thence describe a semicircle to the southward, touching the head waters of the Republican, and again reach the Platte at or near Fort Sedgwick, at which post we would replenish our supplies; then move directly south to Fort Wallace, on the Smoky Hill, and from there march down the overland route to our starting-point at Fort Hays. This would involve a ride of upwards of one thousand miles.

     As is usually the case, the first day's march was not to be a long one. The troops, under charge of the officer second in command, Colonel Wickliffe Cooper, left camp and marched up the valley of Big Creek a distance of eighteen miles, and there encamped. Two companies of cavalry and a small force of infantry were to constitute the garrison to remain behind. When the troops composing my command left, it became necessary to rearrange the camp and provide new dispositions for defense. My wife, who always accompanied me when in camp or on the march except when I was engaged in active pursuit of Indians, had rejoined me soon after my arrival at Fort Hays. She was accompanied by a young lady friend from the East, a schoolmate, who had been tempted by the novelties of wild western life to make her a visit in camp. As there were other ladies in camp, wives of officers who were to remain with the garrison, my wife and friend decided to remain and await our return, rather than go back to the protection and luxuries of civilization. To arrange for their comfort and superintend the locating of their tents, I remained behind my command, intending to wait until after midnight, and then, guided by the moonlight, ride on and overtake my command before it should commence its second day's march. I retained with me two soldiers, one scout, and four of the Delawares.

*          *          *

     Soon after midnight, everything being in readiness and my little party having been refreshed by a cup of good army coffee, it only remained to say adieu to those who were to remain behind and we were ready for our moonlight gallop.

     But little was said as we made our way rapidly over the plain in the direction taken by the command. Occasionally, as we dashed across a ravine, we would suddenly come upon a herd of antelope or a few scattering buffaloes, startling them from their repose and causing them to wonder what was the occasion and who the strange parties disturbing the peaceful quiet of the night in this unusual manner. On we sped, our good steeds snuffing the early morning air and pressing forward as eagerly as if they knew their companions were awaiting them in the advance.

     Daylight had given us no evidence of its coming, when, after a ride of nearly twenty miles we found ourselves descending into a valley in which we knew the command must be encamped. The moon had disappeared below the horizon, and we were left to make our way aided by such light as the stars twinkling in a clear sky afforded us. Our horses gave us unmistakable evidence that camp was near. To convince us beyond all doubt, the clear ringing notes of the bugle sounding the reveille greeted our ears, and directed by the sound we soon found ourselves in camp.

     A cavalry camp immediately after reveille always presents an animated and most interesting scene. As soon as the rolls are called and the reports of absentees made to headquarters, the men of the companies, with the exception of the cooks, are employed in the care of the horses. The latter are fed, and while eating are thoroughly groomed by the men, under the superintendence of their officers. Nearly an hour is devoted to this important duty. In the meanwhile the company cooks, ten to each company, and the officers' servants are busily engaged preparing breakfast, so that within a few minutes after the horses have received proper attention breakfast is ready, and being very simple it requires but little time to dispose of it. Immediately after breakfast the first bugle call indicative of the march is the "General," and is the signal for tents to be taken down and everything packed in readiness for moving. A few minutes later this is followed by the bugler at headquarters sounding "Boots and saddles," when horses are saddled up and the wagon train put in readiness for pulling out. Five minutes later "To horse" is sounded, and the men of each company lead their horses into line, each trooper standing at the head of his horse. At the words "Prepare to mount," from the commanding officer, each trooper places his left foot in the stirrup; and at the command 'Mount," every man rises on his stirrup and places himself in his saddle, the whole command presenting the appearance to the eye of a huge machine propelled by one power. Woe betide the unfortunate trooper who through carelessness or inattention fails to place himself in his saddle simultaneously with his companions. If he is not for this offense against military rule deprived of the services of his horse during the succeeding half day's march, he escapes luckily.

     As soon as the command is mounted the "Advance" is sounded, and the troops, usually in column of fours, move out. The company leading the advance one day march in rear the following day. This successive changing gives each company an opportunity to march by regular turn in advance. Our average daily march, when not in immediate pursuit of the enemy, was about twenty-five miles. Upon reaching camp in the evening the horses were cared for as in the morning, opportunities being given them to graze before dark. Pickets were posted and every precaution adopted to guard against surprise.

     Our second day's march brought us to the Saline River, where we encamped for the night. From our camp ground we could see on a knoll some two miles distant a platform or scaffold erected, which resembled somewhat one of our war signal stations. Curious to discover its purpose, I determined to visit it.

     Taking with me Comstock and a few soldiers, I soon reached the point, and discovered that the object of my curiosity and surprise was an Indian grave. The body, instead of being consigned to mother earth, was placed on top of the platform. The latter was constructed of saplings, and was about twenty feet in height. From Comstock I learned that with some of the tribes this is the usual mode of disposing of the body after death. The prevailing belief of the Indian is that when done with this world the spirit of the deceased is transferred to the happy hunting-ground, where he is permitted to engage in the same pleasures and pursuits which he preferred while on earth. To this end it is deemed essential that after death the departed must be supplied with the same equipment and ornaments considered necessary while in the flesh. In accordance with this belief a complete Indian outfit, depending in extent upon the rank and importance of the deceased, is prepared, and consigned with the body to the final resting place.

     The body found on this occasion must have been that of a son of some important chief; it was not full grown, but accompanied with all the arms and adornments usually owned by a warrior. There was the bow and quiver full of steel-pointed arrows, the tomahawk and scalping-knife, and a red clay pipe with a small bag full of tobacco. In order that the departed spirit should not be wholly dependent upon friends after his arrival at the happy hunting-ground, he had been supplied with provisions, consisting of small parcels containing coffee, sugar, and bread. Weapons of modern structure had also been furnished him, a revolver and rifle with powder and ball ammunition for each, and a saddle, bridle, and lariat for his pony. Added to these was a supply of wearing apparel, embracing every article known in an Indian's toilet, not excepting the various colored paints to be used in decorating himself for war. A handsome buckskin scalping-pocket, profusely ornamented with beads, completed the outfit. But for fear that white women's scalps might not be readily obtainable, and desiring no doubt to be received at once as a warrior who in his own country at least was not without renown, a white woman's scalp was also considered as a necessary accompaniment, a letter of introduction to the dusky warriors and chieftains who had gone before. As the Indian of the Plains is himself only when on horseback, provision must be made for mounting him properly in the Indian heaven. To accomplish this, the favorite war pony is led beneath the platform on which the body of the warrior is placed at rest and there strangled to death.

     No signs indicating the recent presence of Indians were discovered by our scouts until we neared the Republican River, where the trail of a small war party was discovered running down one of the tributaries of the Republican. After following it far enough to determine the futility of pursuit, the attempt was relinquished. Upon crossing the Republican we suddenly came in full view of about a hundred mounted warriors, who, without waiting for a parley of any kind, set off as fast as their horses could carry them. One squadron was sent in pursuit, but was unable to overhaul the Indians. From the tracks we learned that the Indians were mounted on horses stolen from the stage company. These horses were of a superior quality, and purchased by the company at a price about double that paid by the Government. This was the only occasion on which we saw Indians before reaching the Platte River.

     One of our camps was pitched on the banks of a small stream which had been named Beaver Creek. Comstock informed us that here an opportunity could be had of killing a few beavers, as they were very numerous all along this stream, which had derived its name from that fact. We had gone into camp about 3 P. M. The numerous stumps and fallen trees, as well as the beaver dams, attested the accuracy of Comstock's statement. By his advice we waited until sundown before taking our stations on the bank, not far above the site of our camp, as at that time the beavers would be out and on shore.

     Placing ourselves under Comstock's guidance, a small party proceeded to the ground selected, where we were distributed singly at stations along the stream and quietly awaited the appearance of the beavers. Whether the noise from the camp below or the passing of hunting parties of soldiers in the afternoon had frightened them, I know not. I remained at my station with my rifle in hand ready to fire at the first beaver which should offer itself as a sacrifice, until the sun had disappeared and darkness had begun to spread its heavy mantle over everything around me. No living thing had thus far disturbed my reveries. My station was on the immediate bank of the stream, on a path which had evidently been made by wild animals of some kind. The bank rose above me to a distance of nearly twenty feet.

     I was just on the point of leaving my station and giving up all hope of getting a shot when I heard the rustling of the long dry grass a few yards lower down the stream. Cocking my rifle, I stood ready to deliver its contents into the approaching animal, which I presumed would be seen to be a beaver as soon as it should emerge from the tall grass. It did not make its appearance in the path in which I stood until within a few feet of me, when to my great surprise I beheld instead of a beaver an immense wildcat. It was difficult to say which of us was most surprised. Without delaying long to think, I took a hasty aim and fired. The next moment I heard a splash which relieved my mind as to which of us should retain the right of way on shore, the path being too narrow to admit of our passing each other. I had either wounded or killed the wildcat, and its body in the darkness had been carried down with the current, as the dogs which were soon attracted from the camp by my shot were unable to find the trail on either bank.

     Nothing occurred to break the monotony of our march until we reached Fort McPherson, on the Platte River. The country over which we had marched had been quite varied in its character, and as we neared the Platte it became very broken and abrupt. It was only by availing ourselves of Comstock's superior knowledge of the country that we found an easy exit from the deep canons and rough defiles which were encountered.

     At Fort McPherson we refilled our wagons with supplies of rations and forage. At the same time, in accordance with my instructions, I reported by telegraph my arrival to General Sherman, who was then farther west on the line of the Union Pacific road. He did not materially change my instructions, further than to direct me to remain near Fort McPherson until his arrival, which would be in the course of a few days.

     Moving my command about twelve miles from the fort, I arranged for a council with Pawnee Killer and a few other Sioux chiefs, who had arrived at the Platte about the same time my command had. My object was, if possible, to induce Pawnee Killer and his band, with such other Indians as might choose to join them, to bring their lodges into the vicinity of the fort, and remain at peace with the whites. Pawnee Killer and his chiefs met me in council and the subject was discussed, but with no positive conclusions. While protesting strongly in favor of preserving peaceful relations with us, the subsequent conduct of the chiefs only confirmed the suspicion that they had arranged the council not to perfect a friendly agreement with us, but to spy out and discover, if possible, our future plans and movements. In this they were disappointed. Their numerous inquiries as to where we intended proceeding when we resumed the march were unavailing. Desiring to leave nothing undone to encourage a friendly attitude on their part, I gave the chiefs on parting with them liberal presents of coffee, sugar, and other articles gratifying to the taste of an Indian. They departed after giving utterance to the strongest expressions of their desire to live at peace with their white brothers, and promised to collect their families and bring them in under protection of the fort, and thus avoid becoming entangled in the ravages of an Indian war which now promised to become general throughout the Plains. Pawnee Killer and his chiefs never attempted to keep their promises.

     General Sherman arrived at my camp next day. He had no confidence in the faith of Pawnee Killer and his band, and desired that a party be sent in pursuit at once, and bring the chiefs back and retain a few of the prominent ones as hostages for the fulfilment of their agreement. This was decided to be impracticable. It was then judged best for me to move my command in a southwesterly direction to the forks of the Republican, a section of country usually infested by Indians, and there endeavor to find the village of Pawnee Killer, and compel him, if necessary, to move nearer to the fort, so that we might distinguish between those who were friendly and those who were not. Besides, it was known that the Cheyennes and Sioux, whom we had pursued from the Arkansas across the Smoky Hill River, had not crossed north of the Platte, and they were rightly supposed to be located somewhere near the forks of the Republican. I could reach this point in three days' marching after leaving the Platte River, on whose banks we were then encamped.

     Owing to the rough and broken character of the bluffs which bound the valley of the Platte on the south side, it was determined to march up the men about fifteen miles from the fort and strike south through an opening in the bluffs known as Jack Morrow's canon. General Sherman rode with us as far as this point, where, after commending the Cheyennes and Sioux to us in his expressive manner, he bade us good-by, and crossed the river to the railroad station on the north side. Thus far we had had no real Indian warfare. We were soon to experience it, attended by all its frightful barbarities.

Previous   Next   Table of Contents