FORT HAYS AND THE START.
The disastrous battle on the Little Horn, which resulted in the annihilation of General Custer and his five favorite companies of the Seventh Cavalry, occurred on the 25th of June, 1876. On the 4th of that month, we of the Fifth Cavalry were far to the south, scattered over the boundless prairies of Kansas. Regimental headquarters and four companies occupied the cosey quarters of Fort Hays, nearly midway between Leavenworth and Denver, Missouri and the mountains, and Company “K,” of which I then was first lieutenant, had pitched its tents along the banks of a winding fork of the Smoky Hill River, wondering why we had been “routed out” from our snug barracks and stables at Fort Riley, and ordered to proceed, “equipped for field service,” to Hays City, by rail. Ordinarily, Uncle Sam pays the costly railway fare for horsemen and their steeds only when danger is imminent. The two posts were but a week’s easy march apart; not a hostile Indian had been seen or heard of in all Kansas since the previous winter; General Pope, who commanded the department, had won the hearts of the ladies and children of the officers’ families by predicting that there would be no separation from husbands and fathers that summer at least; all the ladies had “joined,” and, after our long sojourn in the wilds of Arizona, where but few among them had been able to follow us, we were rejoicing in their presence and luxuriating in the pretty homes ornamented and blessed by their dainty handiwork. Some among their number had never before appeared in garrison, and were taking their first lesson in frontier experience. Some, too, had only been with us six short weeks, and did not dream that the daily parades in which they took so much delight, the sweet music of our band, the brilliant uniforms and dancing plumes that lent such color and life to rapid drill or stately guard-mounting, were one and all but part and parcel of the preparation for scenes more stirring, far less welcome to such gentle eyes.
Fort Hays was joyous with mirth and music and merry laughter, for some of the ladies of the regiment had brought with them from the distant East younger sisters or friends, to whom army life on the plains was a revelation, and in whose honor a large barrack-room had been transformed into “the loveliest place in the world for a german,” and Strauss’s sweetest music rose and fell in witching invitation after the evening tattoo. Riding, driving, and hunting parties were of daily occurrence, and more than one young fellow’s heart seemed in desperate jeopardy when the summons came.
The sun was setting in a cloudless sky as I reined in my horse in front of General Carr’s quarters and dismounted, to make my report of a three days’ hunt along the valley of the Saline for stampeded horses. The band, in their neat summer dress, were grouped around the flagstaff, while the strains of “Soldaten Lieder” thrilled through the soft evening air, and, fairly carried away by the cadence of the sweet music, a party of young ladies and officers had dropped their croquet mallets and were waltzing upon the green carpet of the parade. Seated upon the verandas, other ladies and older officers were smilingly watching the pretty scene, and on the western side of the quadrangle the men in their white stable frocks were just breaking ranks after marching up from the never-neglected care of their horses. Half a dozen laughing children were chasing one another in noisy glee, their bright sashes and dainty dresses gleaming in the last rays of the golden orb. The general himself was gazing thoughtfully at the distant line of willows that fringed the banks of the stream, and holding an open newspaper in his hand as I entered and made my report.
“Have you heard the news?” he asked me. “Schuyler has gone to join General Crook as aide-de-camp. Got a telegram from him just after you left on this scout, and started last night. It’s my belief that Crook will have a big campaign, and that we’ll be sent for.”
Ten minutes after, as the trumpets rang out the “retreat,” and the last echoes of the evening gun died away over the rolling prairie, we noted a horseman coming at rapid gait along the dusty road from Hays City, as the railway station was hopefully named. He disappeared among the foliage in the creek bottom. The soft hush of twilight fell upon the garrison, the band had gone away to supper, the bevy of sweet-faced girls with their tireless escorts had gathered with a number of officers and ladies in front of the general’s quarters, where he and I were still in conversation, when the horseman, a messenger from the telegraph office, reappeared in our midst. “Despatch for you, general; thought you’d better have it at once,” was all he said, as he handed it to “the chief,” and, remounting, cantered away.
Carr opened the ugly brown envelope and took out, not one, but three sheets of despatch paper, closely written, and began to read. Looking around upon the assembled party, I noticed that conversation had ceased and a dozen pair of eyes were eagerly scrutinizing the face of the commanding officer. Anxious hearts were beating among those young wives and mothers, and the sweet girl-faces had paled a little in sympathy with the dread that shone all too plainly in the eyes of those who but so recently had undergone long and painful separation from soldier husbands. The general is a sphinx; he gives no sign. Slowly and carefully he reads the three pages; then goes back and begins over again. At last, slowly, thoughtfully he folds it, replaces the fateful despatch in its envelope, and looks up expectant of question. His officers, restrained by discipline, endeavor to appear unconcerned, and say nothing. The ladies, either from dread of the tidings or awe of him, look volumes, but are silent. Human nature asserts itself, however, and the man and the commander turns to me with, “Well, what did I tell you?” And so we got our orders for the Sioux campaign of 1876.
To the officers, of course, it was an old story. There was not one of our number who had not seen hard campaigning and sharp Indian fighting before. But could we have had our choice, we would have preferred some less abrupt announcement. Hardly a word was spoken as the group broke up and the ladies sought their respective homes, but the bowed heads and hidden faces of many betrayed the force of the blow.
The officers remained with General Carr to receive his instructions. There was no time to lose, and the note of preparation sounded on the spot. General Sheridan’s orders directed four companies from Fort Hays to proceed at once to Cheyenne by rail, and there await the coming of the more distant companies—eight in all, to go on this, the first alarm.
Companies “A,” “B,” “D,” and “K” were designated to go; “E” to stay and “take care of the shop.” Those to go were commanded by married officers, each of whom had to leave wife and family in garrison. “E” had a bachelor captain, and a lieutenant whose better half was away in the East, so the ladies of the regiment were ready to mob the general for his selection; but there was wisdom in it. In ten minutes the news was all over the post. A wild Celtic “Hurray, fellows, we’re going for to join Crook,” was heard in the barracks, answered by shouts of approval and delight from every Paddy in the command. Ours is a mixed array of nationalities—Mulligan and Meiswinkel, Crapaud and John Bull, stand shoulder to shoulder with Yanks from every portion of the country. In four regiments only is exclusiveness as to race permitted by law. Only darkies can join their ranks. Otherwise, there is a promiscuous arrangement which, oddly enough, has many a recommendation. They balance one another as it were—the phlegmatic Teuton and the fiery Celt, mercurial Gaul and stolid Anglo-Saxon. Dashed and strongly tinctured with the clear-headed individuality of the American, they make up a company which for personnel is admirably adapted to the wants of our democratic service. The company of the Fifth Cavalry most strongly flavored with Irish element in the ranks was commanded by Captain Emil Adam, an old German soldier, whose broken English on drill was the delight of his men. “The representative Paddy,” as he calls himself, Captain Nick Nolan, of the Tenth Cavalry, has an Ethiopian lieutenant (a West-Pointer) and sixty of the very best darkies that ever stole chickens. But wherever you meet them, the first to hurray at the chance of a fight is the Pat, and no matter how gloomy or dismal the campaign, if there be any fun to be extracted from its incidents, he is the man to find it.
And so our Irishmen gave vent to their joy, and with whistling and singing the men stowed away their helmets and full-dress uniforms, their handsome belts and equipments, and lovingly reproduced the old Arizona slouch hats and “thimble belts,” and the next evening our Fort Hays command, in two special trains, was speeding westward as fast as the Kansas Pacific could carry us. The snow-capped peaks of the Rockies hove in sight next day, and Denver turned out in full force to see us go through. At evening on the 7th, we were camping on the broad prairie near Cheyenne. Here Major Upham joined us with Company “I.” A week after we were off for Laramie. On the 22d, our companies were ordered straight to the north to find the crossing of the broad Indian trail from the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail reservations, by which hundreds of Indians were known to be going to the support of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
We were to hide in the valley of the South Cheyenne, near the base of the Black Hills, and cut off the Indian supplies. Buffalo Bill had joined us, his old comrades of the Sioux war of 1868-69; and though we feared the Indians would be quick to detect our presence, and select others of a dozen routes to the Powder River country, we hoped to be able to nab a few.
On the 24th, we had begun our march at 6 a.m. from the Cardinal’s Chair, at the head of the Niobrara, and before noon had descended into the valley of “Old Woman’s Fork,” of the South Cheyenne. We had with us two half-breed Sioux scouts and an Indian boy, “Little Bat,” who had long been employed by the Fort Laramie officers as a reliable guide. Camping at noon along the stream, I was approached by Major Stanton, who had joined our column under instructions from General Sheridan, and informed that he was going to push ahead of the column at once, as the scouts reported recent Indian signs. It was necessary, he said, that he should get to the Cheyenne as quickly as possible, and he wanted me to go as commander of the escort. In half an hour we were in saddle again, Major Stanton with his blunderbuss of a rifle, “Little Bat” in his semi-civilized garb, Lieutenant Keyes with forty men of Company “C,” and myself. The general detained me a moment to convey some earnest instructions, and to post me on certain points in Sioux warfare which experience with Apaches was supposed to have dulled, and, with the promise, “I’ll follow on your trail to-morrow,” waved his hand, and in two minutes we were out of sight down the winding valley.
Three p.m. is early on a long June day. We rode swiftly, steadily, but cautiously northward; the valley widened out to east and west; we made numerous cut-offs among the bends of the stream, crossing low ridges, at each one of which Bat, well to the front, would creep to the top, keenly scrutinize all the country around, and signal “come on.” At 5 o’clock he suddenly halted and threw himself from his horse, and I cantered forward to see what was up. We had struck our first trail of the campaign, and the yielding soil was thick with pony tracks. Coming from the east, the direction of the reservation, they led straight down the valley, and we followed. Every now and then other tracks from the east joined those we were on, and though at least four or five days old, they were of interest. Half an hour before sunset, far off among the hills to the northeast, a thin column of smoke shot up into the clear sky. Ten minutes more another rose in the west. They were Sioux signals, and we were discovered. But the country was open all around us; not a tree except the cottonwoods along the narrow stream-bed, no fear of ambuscade, and we must not halt until within sight of the Cheyenne valley; so on we go. Just at twilight, Bat, five hundred yards in front, circles his horse rapidly to the left, and again I join him. It is the recent trail of a war-party of Sioux, crossing the valley, and disappearing among the low hills to the northwest. They number fifty warriors, and those whose tracks we have been following took the same direction—the short cut towards the Big Horn mountains. Our march is very cautious now—advance, flankers, and rear guard of old, tried soldiers, well out; but on we jog through the gathering darkness, and at nine p.m., as we ride over a ridge, Bat points out to me a long, low line of deeper shade, winding six or seven miles away in the moonlight. It is the timber along the Cheyenne, and now we may hunt for water and give our tired horses rest and grass. The valley is broad; the water lies only in scanty pools among the rocks in the stream-bed. There has been no rain for a month, and there is not a blade of grass nearer than the bluffs, a mile away. Our horses drink eagerly, and then in silence we fill our canteens and move off towards the hills. Here I find a basin about two hundred yards in diameter, in which we “half lariat” and hobble our horses; dig holes in the ground, wherein, with sage brush for fuel, we build little fires and boil our coffee, while Keyes and I take a dozen of our men and post them around our bivouac at points commanding every approach. No Indian can reach us unseen through that moonlight. No Indian cares to attack at night, unless he has a “sure thing;” and though from five different points we catch the blaze of signal fires, we defy surprise, and with ready carbine by our side we eat our crisp bacon, sip the welcome tin of steaming coffee, then light our pipes and chat softly in the cool night air. Little we dream that two hundred miles away Custer is making his night ride to death. Our supports are only twenty-five miles away. We dread no attack in such force that we cannot “stand off” until Carr can reach us, and, as I make my rounds among the sentinels to see that all are vigilant, the words of the Light Cavalryman’s song are sounding in my ears:
“The ring of a bridle, the stamp of a hoof,
Stars above and the wind in the tree;
A bush for a billet, a rock for a roof,
Outpost duty’s the duty for me.
Listen! A stir in the valley below—
The valley below is with riflemen crammed,
Cov’ring the column and watching the foe;
Trumpet-Major! Sound and be d——.”
Bang! There’s a shot from below, and the bivouac springs to life.
Categories: English Literature