Although I am happy that modern technology allows us access to news almost immediately, I enjoy looking at the first newspaper reports of historical events. I like to see how much we learned after the initial reports as well as how the public’s attitudes towards those people and events have evolved. I have previously blogged about newspaper reports of Lizzie Borden and the Titanic.
This time I’m checking out the first public reporting of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also commonly known, as if it were a morality play, as Custer’s Last Stand. On June 25, 1876, George Armstrong Custer led a cavalry regiment of the U.S. Army against a coalition of Native American tribes. For a variety of reasons, including the simple fact that the U.S. forces were completely outnumbered, 286 soldiers died that day, including Custer.
For the past 141 years, this battle and the participants have been studied and debated thoroughly. I was always less interested in the strategies and errors of the battle than in how the opinions of the American public shifted throughout the years. Was he hero or villain? Master strategist or vain publicity hound? Does it even matter how we view him from 25 or 50 or 141 years on, when the facts of the battle don’t change?
The New York Times has a great searchable archive available online, and this is their first report of the battle on July 6, 1876, which had been reported in Salt Lake on July 5 from a July 2 report from Montana.
MASSACRE OF OUR TROOPS
FIVE COMPANIES KILLED BY INDIANS.
GEN. CUSTER AND SEVENTEEN COMMISSIONED OFFICERS BUTCHERED IN A BATTLE ON THE LITTLE HORN – ATTACHED ON AN OVERWHELMINGLY LARGE CAMP OF SAVAGES – THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN MEN KILLED AND THIRTY-ONE WOUNDED – TWO BROTHERS, TWO NEPHEWS, AND A BROTHER-IN-LAW OF CUSTER AMONG THE KILLED – THE BATTLE-FIELD LIKE A SLAUGHTER-PEN.
SALT LAKE, July 5. – The special correspondent of the Helena (Montana) Herald writes from Stillwater, Montana, under date of July 2, as follows:
Muggins Taylor, a scout for Gen. Gibbon, arrived here last night direct from Little Horn River, and reports that Gen. Custer found the Indian camp of 2,000 lodges on the Little Horn, and immediately attached it. He charged the thickest portion of the camp with five companies. Nothing is known of the operations of this detachment, except their course as traced by the dead. Major Reno commanded the other seven companies, and attacked the lower portion of the camp. The Indians poured a murderous fire from all directions. Gen. Custer his two brothers, his nephew, and brother-in-law were all killed, and not one of his detachment escaped. Two hundred and seven men were buried in one place. The number of killed is estimated at 300, and the wounded at thirty-one.
The Indians surrounded Major Reno’s command and held them one day in the hills cut off from water, until Gibbon’s command came in sight, when they broke camp in the night and left. The Seventh fought like tigers, and were overcome by mere brute force.
The Indian loss cannot be estimated as they bore off and cached most of their killed. The remnant of the Seventh Cavalry and Gibbon’s command are returning to the mouth of the Little Horn, where a steam-boat lies. The Indians got all the arms of the killed soldiers. There were seventeen commissioned officers killed. The whole Custer family died at the head of their column.
The exact loss is not known as both Adjutants and the Sergeant-major were killed. The Indian camp was from three to four miles long, and was twenty miles up the Little Horn from its mouth.
The Indians actually pulled men off their horses, in some instances.
This report is given as Taylor told it, as he was over the field after the battle. The above is confirmed by other letters, which say Custer has met with a fearful disaster.
SALT LAKE CITY, July 5. – The Times publishes a dispatch from Boseman, Montana Territory, dated July 3, 7 P.M.
Mr. Taylor, bearer of dispatches from Little Horn to Fort Ellis, arrived this evening, and reports the following:
The battle was fought on the 25th of June, thirty or forty miles below the Little Horn. Gen. Custer attacked an Indian village of from 2,500 to 4,000 warriors on one side, and Col. Rneo was to attack it on the other side. Three companies were placed on a hill as a reserve.
Gen. Custer and fifteen officers and every man belonging to the five companies were killed. Reno retreated under the protection of the reserve. The whole number killed was 315. Gen. Gibbon joined Reno.
When the Indians left, the battle-field looked like a slaughter-pen, as it really was, being in a narrow ravine. The dead were much mutilated.
The situation now looks serious. Gen. Terry arrived at Gibbon’s Camp on a steam-boat, and crossed the command over and accompanied it to join Custer, who knew it was coming before the fight occurred. Lieut. Crittenden, son of Gen. Crittenden, was among the killed.
So that was the first report. That was what they knew, or at least reported, at the beginning.
The next day, July 7, 1876, they printed much more information, including a “sketch” of Custer with his school and Civil War history. They included more details of the battle, the “scene of the massacre”, the causes and consequences, and the views at the War Department.
What stuck me most about this second day of reporting was that it was less a linear report of facts and more editorial. No longer are they “Indians”, they are now called “red devils”. Oh, and there were “no less than ten thousand red devils”. Also on this second day it was reported that:
It is the opinion of Army officers in Chicago, Washington, and Philadelphia, including Gens. Sherman and Sheridan, that Gen. Custer was rashly imprudent to attack such a large number of Indians, Sitting Bull’s force being 4,000 strong. Gen. Sherman thinks that the accounts of the disaster are exaggerated.
And that’s how the news was back in the day when it wasn’t immediate. Should you be interested in seeing how this story progressed, check out The New York Times archives online. Go ahead, see what they reported the NEXT day.