Friday, July 10, 2015

Steamboat saved Custer's wounded soldiers, navigating shallow Montana waters

Here at the mouth of the Rosebud Creek, 12 miles from Forsyth, Custer left the Far West to meet his fate on the Bighorn.


Steam boats like Far West could navigate the difficult
and often shallow waters of the Upper Missouri river system.
and archives

THREE DAYS after Custer fell on a hot June day in 1876, a distressed Indian approached Captain Grant Marsh and his Far West steamboat, near Forsyth.  It was June 28 and using sign language, he explained there had been a terrible battle. The Indian was Curley, a Custer Crow scout who on June 25, had been the last known man to see Custer and his Seventh Cavalry alive. Days before, Custer had received his final orders aboard the Far West.
Captain Grant Marsh was
a skilled civilian who
saved the lives of many.
TWO MORE days later, on June 30, Captain Marsh received the 54 wounded soldiers and sped downstream as quickly as he could. With the Far West draped in black and flying her flag at half-mast, Marsh delivered the wounded to Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, North Dakota, at 11 p.m. on July 5, an amazing five days later.
The Far West was a stern wheel steamboat -- a steam powered boat driven by a single paddle wheel at the rear end of the boat. It was built in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1870 and sank October 30, 1883 after it struck a snag at Mulhanthy Island, near St. Charles, Missouri.
The Far West could navigate the shallow waters of the Upper Missouri
River system, and helped save the lives of battle survivors.
THE FAR WEST was remarkable, with a length of 190 feet and a 33 foot beam. It could carry 398 tons when loaded to maximun draft of 4 feet 6 inches, 187 tons on only 3 feet of water, and 60 tons on 2 feet of water. Mountain boats were minimal to sleek and light, to cut wind resistance and save weight.
The Visitor Center and Little Bighorn Battlefield memorial pay tribute
to the fallen on both sides, soldiers and native American warriors.
Under the command of the skilled civilian Captain Marsh, the Far West, took the wounded to care in North Dakota.   The boat drew only 20 inches of water when fully laden. Lucky for the wounded that Marsh had managed to steam up the shallow Bighorn River in southern Montana just days before the June 25 battle.  He was only about 12 miles from the huge Indian encampment along the "Greasy Grass." 
EARLIER CUSTER had conferred with the Far West.
After crossing the divide between the Rosebud and Little Bighorn June 25, he divided his command, assigning three companies, including Windolph’s Company H, to Benteen, and three to Major Reno. Custer took Companies I, F, C, E and L, all of which perished.
Edgar Paxson's famous painting of the Battle of the Little Bighorn may
 be viewed in the Whitney Gallery at the Buffalo Bill Center in Cody, Wyo..
"NEVER IN ALL Indian history had there been such a fight on that river,” Windolph said. “Custer may have made a mistake to divide his command that Sunday afternoon of June 25, but the gods themselves were against him.”
Late that afternoon Benteen’s troops returned from a scouting mission to the south to find Reno’s command “being whipped and driven up the hill by the Indians.” 

long and lonely night for the cavalrymen dug in on that dangerous hilltop. Fire from Indian sharpshooters pinned them down behind makeshift barricades. A dozen troopers were dead. The wounded pleaded for water, Windolph recalled.

In the Indian encampment beside the river, the black night was pierced by blazing camp fires, cries and beating drums of victory dances. Fearful questions ran through the heads of troopers on Reno’s Hill. Where was Custer? Why wasn’t he coming to their support?
Marcus Reno, one of the survivors of the Little Bighorn Battle, was not
with Custer when Custer was wiped out. He is buried at the battlefield.
Just as dawn broke, Windolph, six months from his 25th birthday, sustained a slight flesh wound from a bullet that ricocheted from the ground into his chest. A direct hit from another bullet split his rifle butt.  Soon, though, he would help bury his fallen comrades.
THE BODIES were discovered the next day, and within a few more days, all dead were buried and the wounded on their way to be tended.
The Far West provided those injured fast, comfortable transport and saved many lives, including Windolph's.
Far West was also the bearer of the bad news. From Fort Abraham Lincoln, reports of the disaster were telegraphed around the world. Soon, everyone learned that General Custer and 265 men had been killed along the Little Bighorn River.

Andrew Renzi's love of film and Montana came
together in his movie, "Fishtail." Clips will
be shown at a fundraiser July 26.
UP NEXT:   A gifted young filmmaker with an affection for Stillwater County and a cattle operation is attracting attention with his film, "Fishtail." Andrew Renzi will be at the July 26 event near Absarokee. It's a chance to have fun, see clips from the film, meet Renzi and chat with friends in the valley we all love. Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us Wednesdays and weekends at

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