- Historic Sites
The Man Who Killed Custer
To Stanley Vestal, the old Sioux warrior White Bull describes the day when he counted his greatest coup
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
White Bull said, “I saw a mounted soldier waver in his saddle. I quirted my pony and raced up to strike him and count the first coup on this enemy. Before I could reach him, he fell dying from his saddle. I reined up my pony, jumped down and struck the body with my quirt. I yelled, ‘ Onhey! I have overcome this one.’ I took the man’s revolver and cartridge belt.
“Did-Not-Go-Home struck this enemy right after me; he counted the second coup. I jumped on my horse and hurried on to join the charge through the dust and smoke drilling down the hill.
“I saw a soldier on horseback left behind; his horse had played out. I charged him, Crazy Horse following. “The soldier heard me coming and tried to turn in his saddle and aim his carbine at me. But before he could shoot, I was alongside. I grabbed him by the shoulders of his blue coat and jerked hard to throw him off his horse. He fired in the air, screamed, and fell from his horse. This was another first coup for me. Crazy Horse struck this man second.
“Other soldiers were left afoot. I saw one with Indians all around him, turning from side to side, threatening them with his carbine to keep them at a distance. I rode straight at him. When I got close, he fired, but I dodged and he missed me. Then I rode him down. Bear Lice counted the second coup. The survivors of these two bunches of soldiers moved up and joined those to the north and west, about where the monument stands now. Another bunch of soldiers was down the hill nearer the river. The air was full of dust and smoke.
“Here and there through the fog you could see a wounded man left behind afoot. I saw one bleeding from a wound in his left thigh. He had a revolver in one hand and a carbine in the other. He stood all alone shooting at the Indians. They could not get at him. I rode at his back. He did not see me coming. I rode him down, counting the first coup. Brave Crow counted the second coup on this enemy. By this time, all the soldiers up the hill had let their horses go. They lay down and kept shooting.
“The horses turned loose by the soldiers—bays, sorrels and grays—were running in all directions. Lots of Indians stopped shooting to capture these horses. I tried to head some off, but other Indians were ahead of me. I caught just one sorrel.
“Now that the soldiers were all dismounted their firing was very fierce. All at once, my horse went down, and I was left afoot. For a while the Indians all took cover and kept shooting at the soldiers.”
This fight, known to white men as the Battle of the Little Big Horn or Custer’s Last Stand, is known to the Sioux as Pe-hin (Head-hair) Hanska (Long) Ktepi (Killed), for on the frontier (Custer usually wore his hair long and was called “Long Hair’ by the Indians. The battle, therefore, was “the fight in which Long Hair was killed.”
On the day of his death Custer was considered the most dashing and successful cavalry officer in the Army. During the Civil War he had distinguished himself repeatedly, and his division had led the van in the pursuit of General Lee’s forces. It was to him that the Confederates brought their white flag just before Lee’s surrender. General Sheridan reported, “I know of no one whose efforts have contributed more to this happy result than those of Custer.” To Custer was given the table on which Grant wrote the terms of surrender. He was celebrated as “the boy general” who had never lost a gun or color, and “Custer’s luck” was a proverb in the Army.
He had been the second strongest man in his class at West Point and remained to the end a man of extraordinary vigor. Lithe, slender, with broad shoulders, he was a fine horseman and good shot, standing six feet in his boots and weighing about 165 pounds. He could ride all day, carry on his duties until midnight, then scribble long letters to his wife—one of them running to eighty pages—and still be raring to go in the morning.
At this time Custer was in disfavor with President Grant. He had been nursing a grudge against Grant’s secretary of war, W. W. Belknap, and early in 1876, when Belknap was hauled before a congressional committee on charges of sharing illegally in the profits of post traders, Custer went to Washington to testify against him. His evidence was largely hearsay, and he defamed Belknap’s character and that of Grant’s younger brother—thus maligning the President himself. When Custer came to his senses, he tried to explain his position to Grant. But the President refused to see him, and to punish the hothead further, removed him from command of the crack 7th Cavalry.
Yet there was no one who could match Custer as an Indian fighter. General Terry knew this as well as anyone, and in May, Terry persuaded Grant to reinstate Custer on grounds that his services were indispensable in the campaign against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. But for this chance, the Battle of the Little Big Horn might never have happened.