George Armstrong Custer: Extremely Important and Unpublished Archive from an Officer who Marched with His 1876 Expedition to t...
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Quite possibly the most historically significant holding in private hands.George Armstrong Custer: Extremely Important and Unpublished Archive from an Officer who Marched with His 1876 Expedition to the Little Big Horn. (Little Bighorn/ Greasy Grass) Capt. Otho Ernest Michaelis (1843 - 1890) Ordnance Officer for the Seventh Calvary who marched with Custer on his 1876 expedition to the Little Big Horn. Remaining with Terry's column, he was one of the first to arrive at the site of Custer's Last Stand at the Little Big Horn the day following the battle and assisted in identifying bodies on the field. Important and extremely rare correspondence of twenty-nine (29) Autograph Letters Signed (A number are multiple pages) together with an Autograph Manuscript, 17 May through 9 November 1876. The letters, mostly written to his wife, Kate Woodbridge Michaelis, chronicle Otho Michaelis' westward march with George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry from Fort Abraham Lincoln to the Yellowstone River during the Great Sioux War of 1876. Michaelis, in charge of ordnance for the Seventh Cavalry, describes the march into the heart of Sioux country as well as the aftermath of Custer's defeat and the subsequent attempts to give battle to the Indians. It appears that some of his correspondence was intended for public consumption as the letters contain several requests to forward material to New York Tribune editor, Whitelaw Reid. This includes Michaelis' analysis and insight into factors that led to Custer's defeat.
Michaelis' correspondence opens on the day of the Custer expedition's departure from Fort Abraham Lincoln on 17 May 1876. Writing from "1st Camp on Heart River" he described the cavalry's departure: "This morning at 3 a.m. reveille sounded, and promptly to the minute - at 5 we left camp. We rode to the post - where the troops passed before the General. First came the Indian Scouts - singing their peculiar songs. Then the 7th Cavalry - the band playing 'The girl I left behind me - headed by Custer and Mrs. Custer - who came to this place. The Gatling battery and the infantry battalion followed. It was really an inspiriting sight. The wives of the officers were all on the steps of their quarters to bid their husbands farewell ...we marched to the West up the bluffs that surround Fort Lincoln -passing the train which had left in advance... Major Smith same down to pay the troops, and Mrs. Custer is going back with him..." As the expedition marched westward, Michaelis began to grow nervous about what was to come. On 24 May 1876, from "Camp No 9- Branch of Heart River" he wrote,"... We are beginning to feel that we are near Indians. During the march one company was ordered form the advance ground to protect the Indian Scouts. My heart beat a little more rapidly for things began to look business like..." Of course there were the occasional distractions from the harsh duty. In one letter he remarked, "You have no idea how tedious is it is to walk in a line so far every day". As a high-ranking officer in the Seventh Cavalry, Michaelis enjoyed frequent contact with the commanding officers. On 25 May 1876: "... General Custer invited me to dine with him which I did- and had really very nice dinner. You know he has taken his colored Mary with him. I enjoyed especially the bred, and some jelly cake..."
The march, although at time monotonous, was also not without distraction. On 27 May 1876,"... after progressing about 12 miles - we found that our guides - Custer included - could not find the trail. My orderly, an old cavalry soldier, said he knew where it was - and so the General sent me with 20 cavalry in search of it. the Mr Hugh remembered that it was not at all in the direction we were marching - so I had to return ingloriously ... 'Bobtail Bull', one of our Arickeree scouts finally found the trail..." Because the expedition required transporting Gatling guns and other heavy equipment, bridges were required for creeks and streams that often were the best routes through the harsh country. Writing the next day from "Camp 7 3/4 miles in the Bad Lands on Davis Creek", Michaelis vividly described the struggle: "We crossed the same creek eight times today - and built five bridges. The General went beyond this place about a mile but found the difficulties attending the further crossing of the creek insuperable - considering the exhausting work performed during the day. The only known practicable route through ... is by the valley of Davis Creek - a tortuous as the windings of a zigzag pattern." Though the march proved arduous, he could still appreciate the scenery: "My first glimpse of the badlands showed me an Egyptian ruined city. The conceal knolls, typical of the region - look not unlike distant pyramids. Other mounds presenting broken surfaces to the view appear in every fantastic architectural form. .."
As the column moved west, Custer would command small reconnaissance parties. On 29 May, from "the north bank Little Missouri" he wrote: "Custer goes on a 24 hour's reconnaissance tomorrow morning with 4 companies of his regiment." Again on the 30th, "...Custer with four companies has been out on a reconnaissance up the river - and has just come in - having seen no fresh Indian signs ..." By the 8th of June, Michaelis was itching for a fight: "... We shall have about 600 effective men with us, and if we can strike a blow - we shall be home sooner than was expected. It was a bold movement on the General's part to leave O'Fallen Creek, and strike at once due west across ...to Powder River ...I am glad I am going on this scout for I want to see an Indian campaign ... General Custer does not think that we shall strike any Indians. We are going into the country near which the Crazy Horse fight took place last winter General Custer however does not think that the Indians would remain there. He thinks that they are on the Yellowstone. Scout went to the mouth of the Powder River last night to communicate with the boat. [The steamboat, Far West, had been moving up the Yellowstone River parallel to Terry and Custer's column.] They have just returned ... The scouts brought a dispatch from the stockade announcing that the scouts with orders for Gibbon could not deliver them on account of Indians. This may change the General's plans ..."
Col. John Gibbon's column had been marching eastward from Fort Ellis in order to link up with Custer's men just as Brig. Gen. George Crook's command moved northward from Fort Fetterman in the Wyoming Territory. The object was for the three bodies to converge at the Yellowstone River and overwhelm the Sioux and their allies. Due to the difficulties of the march and lack of communication, these plans began to go awry in early June. On 9 June, he wrote, "...a message from the General. He met Major Brisbin with one company of cavalry, and one of infantry, Gibbon's advance guard, at the mouth of this river. It appears that the scouts with General Terry's instructions for Gibbon to remain on the Rosebud, could no get thro' on account of Indians; so General Gibbon, in accordance with his original orders marched down the Yellowstone. The General went up this morning in the boat, about 30 miles I understand to intercept him. We expect him back tonight, and then our future movements will be decided upon ... Will you please get... my copy of the Department map (Dakota and Montana), and send it to Whitelaw Reid, N.Y. Tribune, with a line explaining that I requested you send it. "* Several days later on the 12 June Michaelis reached the "... Yellowstone River - at mouth of Powder ... [where] we found the steamer 'Far West' - and Major Moore's battalion of the 6th Inf'y - which had been at the stockade ... Reno's right wing of the 7th Cav'y with one Gatling gun went up Powder river on the 9th - are then to strike across to Tongue River - near where the Indians are supposed to be camped. We shall stay here a day or two, and then go up the Yellowstone with pack train to meet Reno. If we meet the redskins, and strike a serious blow, I suppose the expedition will have accomplished its purpose. The stockade has been abandoned, or rather will be this afternoon, and our base of supplies will be here ... This, darling sunshine, will be the last chance for sending a letter for some time -for we are about to cut loose entirely from civilization . ..Please send the map to the Tribune as soon as you can..."
Three days before the Battle of Little Big Horn, Michaelis described the scene just prior to Custer's departure from Terry's column: "On the Yellowstone, near Rosebud River, steamer Far West, Thursday June 22nd 1876 My darling Sunshine - The mail did not leave last evening - so that I have an opportunity of adding a few lines. I purchased from the trader on board a gallon of whiskey, and everybody, including General Terry, drank to George Shepard's health ... Custer is about to leave with his full regiment, rationed for 15 days - on a scout to the East and South. He will march to the Little and Big Horn - where the Indians are now supposed to be. General Gibbon is on board, but his column is marching for the Big Horn on the left bank. We shall steam up the same river. My impression [is] that this last plan - after its execution, will end the campaign ..."
Michaelis' next letter in the collection is dated 16 July 1876, about three weeks after Custer's death at Little Bighorn. In a touching missive to his son, he wrote: "In the field camp north side of the Yellowstone River near the mouth of the Big Horn River... My dear little Son ...I really do not know what to write you, my dear son; you are now so old, and have so much knowledge, that I cannot write you a childish letter. Mama has told you all about the terrible battle which was fought on the 25th of June, and in which poor General Custer, whom you recollect dining with us, and so many of his brave officers and men lost their lives. The Indians fight as well as white men - they have guns and pistols, and besides bows and [arrows] which they use with great dexterity, and with fatal effect. They are expert horsemen, and can do almost anything on the saddle. They ride Indian ponies, that do not seem to know what fatigue is. We captured some of these little horses, and I am very anxious to bring one home to my dear little ones. I am told that they are very docile; they live in the teepees and allow the little papooses to climb up their legs, and pull their tails..."
The defeat of Custer by no means finished the campaign. Attempting to regain their footing, the three commands continued pursuit of the Sioux and their allies. On 30 July Michaelis wrote, "In camp on Yellowstone River, opposite Rosebud Creek, Montana ... The 'Far West' is going down some distance tomorrow at day break with a view of possibly helping one of the boats with reinforcements across the rapids ... General Gibbons column... and the 7th Cavalry arrived in camp today, and when the two battalions of infantry under Miles and Otis arrive we shall be in readiness to move ...I do not think that Crook is anxious to cooperate - as soon as he has force enough he will take the aggressive - irrespective of our movements. He wants all the glory - especially as his fight on the 17th [Battle of Rosebud] was not a success. Our present intended move will bring us ... to a position which will enable us to connect with Crooks right. I do not think however, that Sitting Bull will await this junction. He will offer battle either to Crook or Terry before we unite, or he will consider our combined ores, as they say here, 'bad medicine and 'light out'..."
By 7 August, Terry's command was ready to continue the campaign in earnest: "Camp on Rosebud Creek ... my train is in good order. I have a special guard of 35 men all told under my immediate command... Our campaign commences at 5 a. m. tomorrow ... The men are all in good sprits, and glad to move ...I have done, possibly a foolish, and unnecessary thing today. I have made my will - which I enclose - not that I fear any think may happen - but that if it should please God that I remain out here, where so many gallant fellows lie - no questions may arise as to the guardianship of our dear little ones. I was especially induced to this by having to certify to a copy of poor [Myles] Keogh's will, made near here on the 22d of June. Scouts go out tonight to carry dispatches to Crook from whom we have hard nothing since July 12... I hope we may meet the savages, and give them a good drubbing. They will fight though when pushed, and fight well, three men went ashore from the Far West the other day at Powder River, and were attacked by six Sioux. One, bolder than the others, rose close up to our men, wounded one to the death, and was himself shot from his pony by one of the survivors. One the ground, mortally shot, he just tried to crawl to the dying white man to scalp him. He did not succeed. In his possession was found a carbine taken at Custer's fight... I enclose a few lines for New York - which you can either send, or retain - as you deem best.." The correspondence includes one page of what is believed to be the aforementioned "'lines'. In a partial undated AMs giving his observations on what led to Custer's defeat on 25 June 1876, Michaelis thought the conclusion was: "obvious. He underestimated the enemy, and made a fatal mistake in dividing his command, and thus permitting the enemy to defeat him in detail. He probably was deceived as to the distance he had to travel around the bluffs, and thus lost all the possible advantage to be gained by a simultaneous attack in front and rear. As he knew that General Terry would be on the Little Big Horn on the 26th, and as the enemy made no signal of diparture [sic] - he might have waited, sent a scout, and thus insured a united attack. Had he carried out the spirit of his instructions to proceed southward... the two commands would probably have arrived at the camp at the same time. Even if Gibbons column had reached the battleground first, we could easily have minted ourselves with our infantry and Gatling battery ... All admire Ouster's dash, spirit, courage - and only criticize his judgement so far as Indians are concerned. Some who knew him well say he would have charged this camp with any force he might perchance have had at his disposal. This battle has proved conclusively that the Indian in defense of his Household Gods will fight with desperation - especially when he is backed by the knowledge that he outnumbers the foe 5 to one"
The campaign continued into August and Michaelis' letters chronicle the army's pursuit of the Indians: "[15 August] Camp on Powder River ... Monday - at 9.30 am scouts returned form the mouth of Tongue River with dispatches from General Miles. He had established a force at Powder River and another at Tongue and reports that the Indians have not crossed... [6 August] ... We marched 20 miles down the river today ...It is now certain the Sioux have crossed the river - two weeks ago. We shall follow them ... [18 August] Camp at mouth of Powder River ... Some friendly Indians were a mile or so behind us. We heard a shot on our right. The Indians galloped away. We were somewhat alarmed - thinking a small party of hostiles might perhaps have been watching the boat. The only time to run from Indians is before they see you. We gave our horses the spurs - and rushed through the ravines - in the direction of the column ...we did not dare show ourselves on the bluffs ... The trails seem to diverge hereabouts. Some of the Indians have crossed - some have gone toward the Little Missouri -probably to their agencies..." At some point during the month, Michaelis injured his leg and on 19 August he was ordered to the steamer Far West to recuperate. The campaign came to an end soon afterwards. The correspondence concludes with several letters written from the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in November from where Michaelis arranges a long overdue visit with his wife. Interestingly, he offered little political commentary on the day: "Wednesday, Nov. 8th 1876. My own darling: The great excitement is over - and Tilden is elected. Are you sorry? I was up until one o'clock last evening waiting for returns..." Being a member of the Seventh Calvary as well as a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (who organized the great hall of machinery at the exhibition),"/ have received a final invitation to attend the closing exercise, and I may stay..."
Born in Germany in 1843, Michaelis emigrated as an infant with his parents to the United States where he graduated in 1862 as Valedictorian form the Free Academy of New York. After graduation, Michaelis joined the army where he became the first non-West Point graduate to enter the ordnance corps. During the Gettysburg campaign, he served as George H. Thomas' chief of ordnance. Following his service with the Seventh Cavalry, Michaelis served at a variety of federal arsenals where he made numerous inventions to facilitate the better management of ordnance. He also served on Professor S. P. Langley's celebrated expedition to Mt. Whitney where Michaelis established a signal-station. Apart from his expertise with ordnance and military science, he was also one of the most accomplished amateur chess players in the United States. He spent his retirement in Augusta, Maine where he died in 1890. (William P. Shinn, "Otho Ernest Michaelis, Mem. Am. Soc. C. E. Died May 1st. 1890", Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers., (1887), 132-137.)
While contemporary letters from members of Custer's expedition occasionally appear on the market, we have never before encountered such a large collection of letters with as much detail and thoughtful commentary as the present example.
Provenance: Descendants of Otho E. Michaelis; Private New York collection; the present consignor.
*Reid was a close friend of Custer. The two became acquainted during the Civil War. On 26 Feb. 1876, Custer appraised Reid of his impending mission into the Sioux country from Fort Lincoln adding, "The authorities have been laboring to keep all movements secret but they will all be made public perhaps by the hour this reaches you. If you send a special correspondent select some good man accustomed to roughing it. I wish Mr. Barrows could accompany us again... "Royal Cortissoz, The Life of Whitelaw Reid (1921) Vol.1, 312. Reid did not end up sending a reporter. One journalist did accompany the 7th Cavalry, Mark Kellog (1831 - 1876) of the Bismarck Tribune, who was among the first to be killed by the Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Bighorn.
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