Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Who Was The Mysterious Sniper On Sharpshooter's Ridge?

January 7, 2020
   Tommy Bell and family have been here for for two weeks and they return to Thailand this afternoon. Grandma Goose is accompanying them to LA to help them board an international flight back to Asia. She returns from LA on a midnight flight to Arizona. 

   That is called Love, with a capital L.

   Meanwhile, I'm trying to condense and make sense of Private Charlie Windolph's narration of the Reno Hill fight at the Little Bighorn for the next Classic Gunfghts. I'll probably start here:

Raining Bullets
   Private Charlie Windolph of H Company hunkers down as a hail of arcing bullets rains in on Reno's command. Private Jones is hit in the heart and dies instantly while Windolph has his rifle butt stock split in half by a bullet. 

   I want to let The Last Man Standing On Reno Hill tell the story as much as possible.

June 25, 1876

   "I'll never forget that first glimpse I had of the hilltop. Here were a little group of men in blue, forming a skirmish line, while their beaten comrades, disorganized and terror stricken, were making their way on foot and on horseback up the narrow coulee that led the river, 150 below. We recognized Major Reno and Lieutenant Varnum. I believe both of them had lost their hats and now had handkerchiefs tied around their heads to protect them from the blazing Montana sun.
   I saw Lietuenant Varnum reach up a shake hands with Lieutenant Godfrey of 'K' troop, who was Varnum's regular company commander. And I heard him say something about a hard fight and that they'd the the men here on the hill, from Reno, down, were not disorganized and downright frightened. They had a lot of men killed, and it had only bee the grace of God, and the bad aim of the Indians, that had let them escape across the river with their lives.
   But it wasn't at all certain that they could keep them now. For there were hundreds of Indians still down there in the valley, maybe a half mile from where we were standing. They were still firing at stragglers trying to cross the river and reach the little command here on the hilltop.
   Cool, capable Benteen more or less assumed command. Major Reno had just come through a terrible experience, and at the moment was glad to have Benteen, his junior, take over.
   Quickly Benteen dismounted his own three troops and ordered us to form a skirmish line. Reno's men had expended most of the ammunition so we were told to divide ours with them.
   We had Benteen's 120 men intact and there around sixty men who'd been in the valley fight with Reno. And even before we got the kinks out our legs from our long hours in the saddle, we were asking one another, 'Where's Custer?'
   Officers and men alike were trying to solve the riddle. . .
   We could see the river valley down below from where we were spread out in a circular skirmish line here on Reno Hill. Some of the poor troopers were still being cut down by the swirling mass of Indians. There was shooting, and dust, and savage yells—then suddenly most the Indians began galloping downstream. That's to the north and before long we could hear heavy firing from down that way. [at this point in his narration, Windolph relates that Lt. Hare mounted Godrey's horse and after fifteen minutes returned with "several pack mules loaded with ammunition boxes."]
   As I recall, Reno had seven wounded men, some of them in pretty bad shape. But altogether he now had around 310 effective, which was a little more than half the total number in the regiment. Custer had around 220 men with him.
   [At round 5 o'clock in the afternoon, according to Windolph, the whole outfit moved northward to join Captain Weir of D Troop, but mounted Indians pushed them back to Reno Hill where they were attacked with the full force of the assembled tribes who had just finished off Custer's entire command and now turned their attention to Reno's crew.]
   In the center in a slight depression the horses and mules were staked out, and an inadequate little field hospital was established. But it was impossible to shield the men and stock from the Indians firing from a hilltop off to the east. Animal after animal was killed, and men were hit. It was tough not to be able to so something about it.
   My own Troop 'H' was posted to the south, in a dangerous position, bordering the river. There was higher ground behind us and we were as helpless as the animals and wounded men to protect ourselves from fire. But we were not not yet fully aware of our peril as we hurriedly piled up such inadequate barricades as we could find. We used pack saddles, boxes of hard tack, and bacon, anything  we could lay our hands on. For the most part it wasn't any real protection at all, but it made you feel a lot safer.
   We'd hardly got settled down on our skirmish line, with 'H' men posted at twenty-feet intervals, when the Indians had us all but completely surrounded, and the fighting began in earnest. There was no full-fleged charge, but little groups of Indians would creep up as close as they could get, and from behind bushes or little knolls open fire. They'd practice all kinds of cute tricks to draw our fire. Maybe a naked redskin would suddenly jump to his feet, and while you drew a bead on him he'd throw himself to the ground. Then they'd show a blanket or a headdress and we'd blaze away, until we learned better.
   [Windolphl then asserts that if the Indians had made a charge they would have easily "swept over us," but "they didn't." Adding that his "H" Troop was in "grave danger of being overrun." After the sun went down the Indians disengaged and Windolph admits, "we were a million miles from nowhere. And death was all around us." The troopers saw the great fires and heard the tom-toms of the victory dances. Windolph estimates Reno lost "no less than a dozen men killed and three times that number wounded." All night they could hear the wounded crying out for water, but with their canteens empty, it was too dangerous to go to the river in the dark.]
   When the sun came up: "Two shots sounded from the hilltop behind us. Soon there was firing all around.
   It had rained a little during the night and some of us had taken our overcoats from the cantles of our McClelland saddles and put them on. It was cold here on this bleak hilltop, too, and those old army blue coats felt good.
   My buddy, a young trooper names Jones, who hailed from Milwaukee, was lying alongside me. Together we had scooped out a wide shallow trench and piled up the dirt to make a little breastwork in front of us. It was plumb light now and sharpshooters on the knob of a hill south of us and maybe a thousand yards away, were taking pot shots at us.
   Jones said something about taking off his overcoat, and he started to roll on his side so that he could get his arms and shoulders out, without exposing himself to fire. Suddenly I heard him cry out. He had been shot straight through the heart.
   The lead kept spitting around where I lay. Up on the hilltop I could see a figure firing at me from a prone position. Looked like he was resting his long-range rifle on a bleached buffalo head. I tried my best to reach him with my Springfield carbine but it simply wouldn't carry that far.
   A few minutes after Jone was killed, a bullet ricocheted from the hard ground and tore into my clothing. About this time the surgeon came up and took a look at Jone. He asked me if I wasn't wounded. I said no, that I was all right 'Put your hand inside your shirt,' he ordered. I did, land when I pulled it out it was bloody. The ricocheted bullet had given me a slight flesh wound. The surgeon wanted to bind it up but I told him there were plenty of badly wounded men to take care of.
   A minute or two later another bullet from the hilltop tore into the hickory butt of my rifle, splitting it squarely in two. I was pretty mad because my army carbine wouldn't let me return the compliment. Somehow I always figured that the sharpshooter who had killed Jones, hit me and split my rifle butt, must have been either a renegade white man, or a squaw man of some kind or another. He could shoot too well to have been a full-blooded Indian."

   So, what is all this talk that the Indians at the Little Bighorn fight were not good shots? I grew up with In-dins and they are as good as any white guy at sports, if not better. It has always seemed rather racist to me. So I asked one of the experts and here is what he has to say:

"You are right about the fact that it is racist to say the warriors could not hit much. The only mention of that is Edgerly who noted that when warriors poured over Weir Point and missed him. They did not miss Vincent Charley. Moot point and observation. There was a white guy dressed like an Indian in a tree burial near Squaw Ravine (to the west of it). Showed up in a map that is not on my book. No way to match him to Sharpshooter's Ridge. Windolph talks about a different Sharpshooter to the south of his position with H company. Do not confuse the two.
   "Important to remember Windolph was with H farther away than Ryan by about 100 yards. The maximum range of the Springfield could be longer than 600 and quite easy to hit Sharpshooter if volley fired.
   "I have taken crowds up on top of Sharpshooter's Ridge and this is something you need to know. The M company line was 600 yards away and the line of men lying down was perpendicular to the sniper. You and I could have hit soldier after soldier if you got any type of line of sight lined up. You couldn’t miss basically as you were looking at a solid blue line of blue coat bodies in a straight line lying side by side. It was like standing next to a skirmish line and shooting down it...you are going to hit someone even if you are not a good shot. Readers think that the sniper was hitting soldiers looking at the hill, but that is incorrect. You might remember Ryan said they pivoted right and turned and fired. He had been receiving flank fire from the hill. With a good rifle all you had to do was rest it on a rock and shoot straight and you would hit something. You were looking at one long line of soldiers. The sidewalk is clearly seen from the hill and where M company was lying. This is an equation unknown except for me and the few I have taken up there. Hope this clarifies."
—Michael Donahue, author of "Where theRivers Ran Red: The Indian Fights of George Armstrong Custer"

   So, it perhaps looked more like this:

Daily Whip Out: "In-din Sharpshooters"

Rifle Range
   Just to put all of this in perspective, a Winchester has about a 300 yard range (for accuracy), while a Springfield has about a 600 yard range and Windolph's narrative mentions a bluff where the Indians are firing from being approximately 900 yards away. That is 9 football fields away! Still, as Michael Donahue points out, if you are arcing your shots and your target is a hundred yards wide and five hundred yards deep, you are bound to hit something or someone.

"Suddenly we caught glimpses of white objects lying along a ridge that led northward. We pulled up our horses. This was the battlefield. Here Custer's luck had finally run out."
—Charlie Windolph who volunteered to ride along the bluffs from Reno Hill to see what had happened to Custer

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