My question to the scholars : Why did not the men who risk their lives to retrieve water for the wounded etc. from the Little Big Horn River do so at night. It seems to me that would have been less risky than broad daylight. Besides soldiers could have been posted to watch and concentrate volleys in on muzzle flashes from warriors on opposite bank of the river. Certainly the cool headed Captain Benteen must have thought of this plan wouldn,t you think.!. Captain Tom Custer
Last Edit: Mar 8, 2016 13:20:59 GMT -5 by moderator
twc, Private Peter Thompson had some words about that subject. Thompson was one of the twenty-four water carriers awarded the Medal of Honor. He made four trips to the river.
Thompson said,"Under the cover of darkness, they had gained a foothold in some of the numerous ravines that surrounded us. It seemed as if it would be impossible to dislodge them. Some of them were so close to us that their fire was very affective."..."We were quite willing to change our location if we could, but we hesitated for several reasons; we were separated from our leader and our forces were divided. The Indians seemed determined to exterminate us if possible. The only hope for us to accomplish our purpose was to make the effort after night came on."..."As far as getting water was concerned, it was a matter of greatest difficulty. All routes to the river were cut off by the Indians."
"Now, Custer, don't be greedy, but wait for us." General Gibbon "No, I will not." Custer, noon, June 22, 1876 passing in review.
Excellent question Tom, and nice contribution on the matter from Peter Thompson (thanks Gerry).
My own thought on it is that securing the water at night would have been the correct move to make. This for several reasons:
1) the majority of the warriors returned to the village that night, as attested to by the reports of victory celebrations held in the village that evening.
2) the cover of darkness would protect a water carrier detail moving to and from the river far better than could be done during broad daylight.
3) as Tom points out, any Indian sentries left to fire upon them would easily reflect their position by the fire from their muzzles. The troopers, with their greater range and weaponry, could mass fire against this position and suppress its fire with relative ease.
Why this was not done, I would suggest, had more to do with the tremendous stress, uncertainty and exhaustion of the command---or at least the command leadership---than any other rational reason. It seems to me that they just avoided the necessity of getting water until the last possible moment, when they could avoid it no longer. I think, on the whole, it was another example of the poor leadership command exercised in the field that day.
My read is that they did it in daylight so the Soldiers overwatching them could pick out their targets and keep the Warriors heads down, all the way down to the river. Flashes at night reveal a general position, but it is never accurate enough to actually hit a distant target.
At night, the Warriors would be able to close up on the water carriers and be right amongst them without any covering fire to protect them...I don't believe there was much if any moon those nights. At day, as long as the carriers kept to the coulee bottom that was relatively clear, the Warriors had to stay out of sight beyond the crests on either side, or be shot by deadly Trooper fire. As the Warriors rose to shoot at the carriers, they got peppered with Soldier fire. This makes for very inaccurate shooting on their part (of course, I don't think most were very good shots, anyways).
You make some excellent points Clair. But I think the darkness would prevent any Indian snipers from being able to focus in on any of the water carriers, thus making their shots more or less ineffective. But you make a good point about the possibility of running into a large warparty that might close up on them. This was certainly a gamble they would have to consider, however, I personally think the Indians would be just as frightened of bumping into a large group of soldiers down there and would have thought twice about running blindly into their position. They didn't like sustaining needless casualties anymore than the troopers did.
I could be wrong on this, but my view is that the Indians had no notion of doing any hand to hand fighting at night. If they did, they could have just as well crawled up to the defenders on Reno Hill and charged into their position in the dead of night, when visibility was nil. It would have been a real bloodbath, but I have no doubt they would have emerged the victors. That said, I don't believe the Indians were either comfortable nor pyschologically prepared for engaging in night combat with an enemy they could not see, and I would like to have taken advantage of that opportunity. The only difference is that I would have taken half the remaining regiment to perform this dangerous operation.
If they did go out at night and got into hand to hand fighting with a much larger force, they would likely be defeated with no supporting fire from above. As I recall, they weren't carrying much for weapons and ammo because of the need to carry all the water they could.
Don't forget the weather, the night of the 25th had light showers. Possible enough to nurture a little thirst but mainly left a cloudy and starless dark night, almost pitch black. Not sure of the moon cycle but I don't think there was much of a moon on the other nights(such as the 24th, it was dark moving up Davis Creek) and it probably would have been obscurred by clouds also. No good way to sneak down to the river when they can't see where they were walking.
I concur with Keogh that the NAs weren't really night fighters but all the troops had to be concerned that their hill would not be left unguarded. The NAs still had to watch out for a night attack on them.
Post by thehighwayman on Dec 1, 2008 8:52:39 GMT -5
BENTEEN: “Boys, yesterday afternoon we got our butts kicked royally by a couple thousand Indians. They’re still out there in the darkness somewhere, probably still hopping mad, but we need water. The river is only a quarter mile or so down below us here. Sure wish the heel hadn’t been shot off my boot earlier, ‘cause I really wish I could go. So, I need some volunteers to each carry a dozen or so empty clanking, clattering canteens down there and then lug ‘em back up here after they’re filled. May I see a show of hands? Men? Anyone? Men.”
This is one of those situations where it just might be the wiser move to go after the water in the daylight rather then wait for the cover of night. Darkness might not be an ally.
The riverside of the hill was reasonably steep with plenty of gullies, brush and loose rocks and soil, not to mention Indians lurking about, and offered lots of ways to take a tumble and end up stuck down there (somewhere) with a twisted/broken ankle, or as a prisoner in the hands of a completely unforgiving enemy.
Three men loaded down with canteens, along with two men armed to the teeth with extra revolvers might actually have a better chance to get it done quickly and more safely during the day. Even if the wounded, so in need of water, could have hung on until nightfall.
I tend to agree with Highwayman. If they thought by going at night, they had a good chance to sneak down to the river, get the water, and return undetected, they might consider doing it that way. But if they were fairly sure they'd run into opposition of one degree or another, their odds might be better doing it in daylight when their superior firepower might come into play. Doing anything at night is difficult in the extreme and even with repeated rehearsals can turn into a fubar in a hurry. If I was going, it would have to be in daylight when I could have some overwatch.
I'm not sure that gertting water was an important issue on the night of the 25th. Reno's last company didn't take it's position in the perimeter until near sundown. They then had to prepare the position for defence, and by then they probably needed sleep more than water. The reason the water carriers went in daylight was that was when the need became greatest.
By the evening of the 26th the Indians moved off and Reno changed his position to get away from the smell of the dead horses and to get nearer to water.
Post by thehighwayman on Dec 1, 2008 10:53:11 GMT -5
All kidding about Benteen aside, Dr. Porter was the one who stated that the condition of the wounded was dire, and I get the idea that he thought several would not actually make it until after dark - which comes rather late in the day at that time of year - without water pretty quickly.
I'm not certain, as bc alluded too, that Reno and Benteen really had the option of waiting several hours to send the water details off on their missions.
Morning of the 26th, Private Peter Thomson is awoke by Capt. Benteen kicking the soles of his boots. Capt. Benteen needed assistance at the head of a ravine that the Indians were beginning to renew the fight as morning broke. He added,” If they succeed, it will be a sad day with us.” Pvt. Thompson said,” I was not the only one to run for the head of the ravine. Capt. Benteen was busily hunting up all the men he could to go the same point, in order to keep the Indians in check and if possible to drive the Indians out of the ravine”…”But as I was entering the mouth of the ravine, a volley was fired by the Indians who occupied it and over I tumbled shot through the right hand and arm. A short distance below I saw several cavalry men who were soon joined by others, eleven in all; a slim force indeed to clean out the ravine held by so many Indians, but they were resolute men. Capt. Benteen soon joined then and made a short speech. He said,” This is our only weak and unprotected point and should the Indians succeed in passing this in any force they would soon end the matter as far as we are concerned.” And now he asked,” Are you ready?” They answered,” Yes” And with a cheer, away they dashed, their revolvers in one hand and their carbines in the other. Benteen turned around and walked away to the extreme left, seemingly tireless and unconscious of the hail of lead that was flying around him.”…”I found in the center of our place of defense that we had a surgeon busily attending to the wounded and dying. I asked him to attend to me when he had time to do so. He soon bandaged up my wounds and told me the only thing that could be done was to apply plenty of water. What Mockery! Water was not to be had for love or money. Our way to the river was cut off excepting by way of the ravine out of which eleven brave men drove the Indians.”…While the hottest of the fight was going on and the tide of battle seemed to be against us, our doctor dropped his bandages, and grasping a gun started toward the skirmish line. Some of the men, seeing his action, begged him to stay”…”as we had no water to cook with, hence our wounded were deprived of the comforts that a sick man need.”…”Kneeling down beside him (Private James Bennett C Co.) I asked, “Can I do you any service?” “Water, Thompson, Water, for God’s sake!” Poor fellow, he was past speaking in his usual strong voice. I told him I would get him some if I lived.”…”I made my way to the head of the ravine which ran down to the river. I found that very little change had taken place since the incident in the morning.”
So began Thompson's first trip to the river.
"Now, Custer, don't be greedy, but wait for us." General Gibbon "No, I will not." Custer, noon, June 22, 1876 passing in review.
That "trivia" is followed very closely by military personnel. Most Soldiers in the field could tell you what the "illum" is going to be that night...it is more important than what day of the week it is!
23% is not much light...and the moon sets early, so essentially, a very dark night. I don't think the carriers would be leaving the perimeter in such dark...too much chance for unwarned contact with the more numerous enemy around. I think they'd rather do it in the day when they can clear out a field of fire and run under it.
I keep trying to tell you guys that the hostiles are too frightened and superstitious to fight at night. Do we have any examples of a single battle or Indian attack being launched at night? Even today, the Indians up at LBH won't step foot on that battlefield once the sun goes down. Its the safest time to make any kind of move out there. If Reno wanted to, he could have moved the entire command back up Ash Creek more or less unmolested if he could find a way to bring along the wounded, although from certain reports, that latter consideration did not seem that important to him at the time.
"The more I see of movement here (Little Big Horn Battlefield), the more I have admiration for Custer, and I am satisfied his like will not be found very soon again.”
~ Gen. Nelson Miles, Commanding General of the Army ------
"With our cherished ones deliverance within our grasp we waited breathless two hours, for the order that never came."