Newspaper Correspondent Killed
at the Battle of Little Big Horn
By R. J. Brown, Editor-in-Chief
The newspaper offices were dull and unexciting on that hot and sultry July night. The eyes of the nation were centered on the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia where the Republic celebrated one hundred years of existence as an independent nation dedicated to the immutable principles of freedom and justice for all. The Democratic and Republican conventions had passed into history with the nomination of two almost equally obscure personalities.
General George Armstrong Custer, reputed the greatest Indian fighter in the army, together with several less glamorous commanders, was campaigning in the Sioux country against a band of hostile Indians led by the notorious Sitting Bull, whose unusual name furnished the newspapermen with considerable amusement since they had often referred to him as the "Slightly Recumbent Gentleman Cow."
The Bismarck Tribune had scheduled its editor, C. A. Lounsbury, to be an official correspondent and ride with Custer on his expedition. At the last moment -- for reasons unknown -- Lounsbury declined and instead sent one of its reporters by the name of Mark Kellogg.
On June 21, Kellogg sent the following telegraph message to the Tribune:
. . . tomorrow, June 22, General Custer with twelve Cavalry companies will scout from its mouth up the valley of the Rosebud until he reaches the fresh trail discovered by Major Reno, and move on that trail with all the rapidity possible in order to overhaul the Indians whom it has been ascertained are hunting buffalo and making daily leisurely short marches. Gibbon's part of the command will march up the Big Horn Valley in order to intercept the Indians if they should attempt to escape from General Custer down that avenue. It was the last telegraph that Kellogg sent.
After that wire, there were in circulation a few vague and unconfirmed stories originating from frontier posts in the West to the effect that the Custer expedition had met with disaster. On the sixth of July, the New York Herald had published two accounts, both based on dispatches from Salt Lake City dated the fifth of July. One of the accounts originated at Stillwater, Montana Territory and the other quoted the special correspondent of the Helena Montana Herald who described the arrival of "Muggins" Taylor with the news of the battle. The second dispatch had originated at Bozeman at 7:00 P.M. on the third and was also based on the Taylor message. The same edition of the Herald carried a sketch of General Custer in which it spoke of him as having met his fate in one of those characteristic dashes which gave him his reputation as the most reckless Cavalry leader of the war.
Although the Herald seems to have accepted the accounts at their face value, the general tendency was to accept them with reluctance mixed with anxiety. Possibly, because the wish is father to the thought, the War Department was inclined to discredit the information since no official dispatches had been received. The Adjutant General's Office felt that the entire story appeared to be improbable.
General Sherman was of the opinion that it must have been exaggerated since it seemed to terrible to be entirely true. Sheridan called attention to the fact that the report did not seem to come from any accredited source. Rather than coming from headquarters or a special correspondent with the expedition, they came from two far western newspapers. It was argued that since a special correspondent was on the expedition and hadn't sent any word of such a highly newsworthy event, the accounts from other sources must be false. . .
(Although it was unknown at the time, Kellogg had also been killed in the massacre and, thus, didn't send any further accounts.) Moreover, it was based on the account of a frontier scout and this, in his opinion, entitled it to be regarded with the greatest suspicion. To this another officer added that the reputation of the scout who brought the news was not such as to justify the acceptance of the story without considerable reserve.
Then suddenly the telegraph from Bismarck, Dakota Territory, began tapping out the message:
General Custer attacked the Indians June 25, and he, with every officer and man in five companies were killed. Reno with seven companies fought in intrenched [sic] positions three days. The Bismarck Tribune's special correspondent was with the expedition and killed.
This message was all that was needed to confirm the disaster. Since the source of the information was the Tribune itself, this report was deemed accurate and true.
Then followed column after column of notes, comments, interviews with members of Reno's command and, finally, the list of the dead and wounded. In all, more than fifteen thousand words were transmitted at a cost of upwards of three thousand dollars to the New York Herald, which, for an eastern paper, scored one of the greatest "scoops" of newspaper history. The Herald proceeded to adopt Mark Kellogg as their own correspondent although in reality this was not the case. From the accounts printed in the Herald, the news spread quickly throughout the United States.
Coming as it did like a thunderclap out of a clear sky, the authentic account of the disaster left the American people stunned and bewildered. The humiliation felt by both the army and nation was as great as the shock of the massacre, if not greater. The effect was heightened by the fact that the country was celebrating the completion of its first hundred years of independence and admiring, with pardonable pride, the progress that had been made in a century.