After a slow two-day march, the wounded soldiers from the Battle of the Little Big Horn reach the steamboat Far West.
The Far West had been leased by the U.S. Army for the duration of the 1876 campaign against the hostile Sioux and Cheyenne Indians of the Northern Plains. Under the command of the skilled civilian Captain Grant Marsh, the 190-foot vessel was ideal for navigating the shallow waters of the Upper Missouri River system. The boat drew only 20 inches of water when fully laden and Marsh managed to steam up the shallow Big Horn River in southern Montana in June 1876. There, the boat became a headquarters for the army’s planned attack on a village of Sioux and Cheyenne they believed were camping on the nearby Little Big Horn River.
On June 28, Captain Grant and several other men were fishing about a mile from the boat when a young Indian on horseback approached. “He wore an exceedingly dejected countenance,” one man later wrote. By signing and drawing on the ground, the Indian managed to convey that there had been a battle but the men did not understand its outcome. In fact, the Indian was Curley, one of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s Crow scouts. Three days earlier, he had been the last man to see Custer and his 7th Cavalry battalion before they were wiped out during the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The following day, Grant received a dispatch from General Terry, who had found Custer’s destroyed battalion and the surviving soldiers of the 7th Cavalry. Terry ordered Grant to prepare to evacuate the wounded soldiers. Slowed by the burden of carrying the wounded men, Terry’s force did not arrive until June 30. Grant immediately received the 54 wounded soldiers and sped downstream as quickly as possible. With the Far West draped in black and flying her flag at half-mast, Grant delivered the wounded to Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, North Dakota, at 11:00 p.m. on July 5.
The fast and relatively comfortable transport of the wounded by steam power undoubtedly saved numerous lives. Yet, Grant was also the bearer of bad news. From Fort Abraham Lincoln, General Terry’s report of the disaster was telegraphed all over the country. Soon the entire nation learned that General Custer and more than 200 men had been killed along the Little Big Horn River.