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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, although only 26 years old, had already taken part in nineteen engagements. Ten of these were with white men, one with government Indian scouts, and the rest with Indian enemies. He had counted seven coups, six of them “firsts,” had taken two scalps, killed three enemies, wounded one, shot three enemy horses, rescued six wounded comrades, and recovered one dead body under fire. He had captured and spared an enemy Assiniboin woman and her husband, had stolen 45 enemy horses, had been hit twice in battle by bullets, and had had a horse shot from under him. Three different warrior societies had invited him to become a member, and on two occasions he had undergone the voluntary tortures of the Sun Dance. He had thrice been given a new name because of brave deeds.
Custer was stronger than White Bull, but the Indian had far more experience in hand-to-hand lighting than the officer. Such it would be now as the Indians closed in on the few remaining troopers. Here is how White Bull described it:
“I charged in. A tall, well-built soldier with yellow hair and mustache saw me coming and tried to bluff me, aiming his rifle at me. But when I rushed him, he threw his rifle at me without shooting. I dodged it. We grabbed each other and wrestled there in the dust and smoke. It was like fighting in a fog. This soldier was very strong and brave. He tried to wrench my rifle from me. I lashed him across the face with my quirt, striking the coup. He let go, then grabbed my gun with both hands until I struck him again.
“But the tall soldier fought hard. He was desperate. He hit me with his fists on the jaw and shoulders, then grabbed my long braids with both hands, pulled my face close and tried to bite my nose off. I yelled for help: ‘Hey, hey, come over and help me!” I thought that soldier would kill me.
“Bear Lice and Crow Boy heard me call and came running. These friends tried to hit the soldier. But we were whirling around, back and forth, so that most of their blows hit me. They knocked me dizzy. I yelled as loud as I could to scare my enemy, but he would not let go. Finally I broke free.
“He drew his pistol. I wrenched it out of his hand and struck him with it three or four times on the head, knocked him over, shot him in the head, and fired at his heart. I took his pistol and cartridge belt. Hawk-Stays-Up struck second on his body.
“Ho hechetu! That was a fight, a hard fight. But it was a glorious battle, I enjoyed it. I was picking up head-feathers right and left that day.
“Now I was between the river and the soldiers on the hill. I started up the hill. Suddenly I stumbled and fell. My leg was numb, I saw that my ankle was swollen. The skin was not broken, only bruised. I must have been hit by a spent bullet. I crawled into a ditch and lay there till all the soldiers were killed. At the time I stopped fighting, only ten soldiers were on their feet. They were the last ones alive.”
White Bull scoffed at the yarns about the soldiers committing mass suicide. Said he: “The soldiers looked tired, but they fought to the end. There were few cartridges left in the belts I took off the soldiers.
“I waited where I was until my friend With Horns came along and found me. He put me on his horse and led it back across the river. The people were some distance west on the flat; they had not had time to move their tepees.”
After resting, eating, and having the wound dressed, White Bull mounted his horse and forded the river to get his leggings and saddle. He then rode over the battleground to see the dead. Most of the bodies were naked. He did not see anyone mutilating the dead.
“On the hill top, I met my relative Bad Soup. He had been around Fort Abraham Lincoln and knew Long Hair by sight. When we came to the tall soldier lying on his back naked, Bad Soup pointed him out and said, ‘Long Hair thought he was the greatest man in the world. Now he lies there.’
” ‘Well,' I said, ‘if that is Long Hair, I am the man who killed him.’ Nobody scalped Long Hair, because his hair was cut short.”
Of course, Bad Soup was not the only Indian who had seen Custer, and others may have recognized his body. At any rate, I have never met an old-time Sioux who took part in that fight who had any doubt that White Bull killed Custer. But White Bull declared to me: “They say that I killed Long Hair, but I never saw him to know him before the battle. I do not think my cousin, Bad Soup, would have lied to me.”
White Bull did not know what became of Custer’s pistol, as after he was hit he could not go back to gather up his trophies. By the time he rode out to inspect the battlefield other Indians had carried them off. (According to the authority General Edward S. Godfrey, “Custer carried a Remington Sporting rifle, octagonal barrel; two Bulldog self-cocking, English white-handled pistols, with a ring in the butt for a lanyard; a hunting knife, in a beaded fringed scabbard; and a canvas cartridge belt.")