Based on John S. Gray’s tables in Custer’s Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed unless noted otherwise. Several people commented on this timeline when it was originally published on LittleBighorn.info; those comments are in italics.
June 25, 1876
12:30: The main column left the Busby camp on a night march under Lieutenant Colonel George Custer.
2:50: 1st Lieutenant Charles Varnum (left) and scouts arrived at a pocket below the Crow’s Nest.
3:15: The main column arrived at Halt 1 on Davis Creek where it was still dark. Local time was Mountain Standard Time minus 13 minutes to allow for sun transit at 12:13 at Busby and Crow Agency, Montana Territory. On a clear, moonless night, the first streaks of day appear at 1:55 local time. A pocket watch like that which belonged to 2nd Lieutenant George Wallace could be read at 2:45 a.m. It was daylight at 3:00 [Reno Court of Inquiry: Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry in the Case of Major Marcus A. Reno (RCOI): Wallace, Captain Myles Moylan, Captain Frederick Benteen]. Visibility was clear to the horizon by 3:18 although you could not read print until 3:30. (All based on personal observation from divide.) Wallace’s Official Report stated the night march ended about 2:00 (Federal View, p. 65). 1st Lieutenant Edward Godfrey (The Godfrey Diary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, p. 10) halted the night march about 2 o’clock (RCOI, Scout George Herendeen) and marched until probably 2:00. “As soon as the first faint streaks of daylight appeared, we moved into a grove where we were ordered to unsaddle and rest for several hours” (Peter Thompson’s Narrative of the Little Bighorn, p. 95).
3:40: Two Crows saw the Sioux village at the Little Bighorn for the first time. From accounts by Red Star (later known as Strikes the Bear) and Little Sioux, this could have been as early as just after 3:00 a.m. Easily visible by 3:00 local time–personal observation.
3:50: Varnum was awakened for the climb to the peak. Not later than 3:15 since Varnum (Northwestern Fights and Fighters, p. 340) said he got to the Crow’s Nest about 2:30, slept 45 minutes and was awakened when it was just daylight, probably closer to 3:00 a.m.
4:00: Varnum and the scouts study the village in the Little Bighorn Valley.
5:00: Varnum and the scouts saw the breakfast smoke at the Halt 1 camp.
5:20: Varnum sent two Ree scouts with a note to Custer who was still at Halt 1. It was possible for Varnum to have sent the messengers significantly earlier; e.g., 4.30 a.m. Varnum in Northwestern Fights and Fighters said 4:45 or 5:00. Translated to local time that is closer to 3:30, more likely since Interpreter Frederick Girard (left) and the Ree scouts say Custer got Varnum’s message at 4:00 or when the sun was just rising = 4:09 local time. Note that Gray’s use of “Halt 1” can be/is somewhat confusing since Wallace uses “Halt 1″ to refer to the halt at the divide and ” Halt 2″ to identify the halt over the divide when Benteen was sent to the left. I now think it possible Varnum was using headquarters time so he sent the messenger at 3:40 a.m. This fits with the messenger arriving as reported by the Rees as the sun was rising at 4:13 a.m.
5:40: The Crows saw two Sioux west of the Divide.
6:20: Varnum led a sortie against the two Sioux.
6:40: Varnum returns to the Crow’s Nest, unsuccessful.
7:10: The scouts saw two Sioux crossing the divide.
7:20: The two Ree couriers arrived at the Halt 1 camp from the Crow’s Nest. The assumption that the main courier travelled so slowly (less than 3 mph) is very doubtful and the journey time could easily be half the 2 hours claimed here. Cf. note above Girard and the Rees put it at 4:00-4:09 (Girard in Once Their Home, p. 263; Arikara Narrative of Custer’s Campaign and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, p. 149).
7:30: Custer read Varnum’s note, indicating that a village had been spotted in the Little Bighorn Valley.
7:45: Sergeant William Curtiss left the Halt 1 camp on the back trail in search of a lost pack.
8:00: Custer’s Crow’s Nest party (Fred Girard, Bloody Knife (left), Red Star, Little Brave, and Bobtail Bull) left Halt 1 for the Crow’s Nest. If the above comments are correct, Custer could have departed at least one and possibly two hours earlier. (I now think Custer rode around the camp before 5:00 a.m. to tell troop commanders that the column would not march at the standard 5:00 a.m. but to be ready by 8:00 a.m. This would have been the time Custer expected to return from the Crow’s Nest. Custer departed at or soon after 5:00 a.m. for the Crow’s Net and arrived there as reported by WMRH at 6:00 a.m. (The Custer Myth : A Source Book of Custeriana, p. 15). Varnum recalled that Custer arrived from the coffee camp with the column, not before it. Herendeen and Packer Benjamin Franklin Churchill made the departure from the early halt at 7:00 or 7:30 (RCOI) Donohue (Fatal Day, p. 20) thought the column left at 6:00. Remembered times are always earlier than Wallace’s official time. The Edgerly Narrative in Research Review (1986), p. 5, says Custer went up to the Crow’s Nest about 9 a.m., “when the column halted, the command having previously halted from 2 to 5, without unsaddling” Herendeen (Custer Myth, p. 262) “About nine o’clock on the morning of the 25th of June and the last day of our march Custer halted his troops and concealed them as well as he could. . . (then he went to the Crow’s Nest) . . . Custer was gone perhaps an hour or an hour and a half.”
8:05: Custer’s party was spotted by two Sioux as seen from the Crow’s Nest. Varnum saw two Sioux meeting Custer’s party.
8:25: Curtiss party sights Cheyennes rifling through the lost pack.
8:45: Command under Reno departed Halt 1 camp and moved toward the Crow’s Nest. I now think the column marched at 7:25 a.m. under Captain Tom Custer and met the irate George Custer on his return from the Crow’s Nest as he had ordered the column to stay put (see various Girard accounts).
9:00: Custer’s party arrived at the Crow’s Nest.
9:00+: Custer studied the valley and discussed the findings.
10:07: Custer and the scouts watched the command arrive at the Halt 2 camp on Davis Creek for concealment.
10:20: Custer’s party left the Crow’s Nest with Varnum’s party. Curtiss’ party arrived at the Halt 2 camp and reported seeing the Cheyennes with the lost pack.
10:30: Custer and the scouts are met by Captain Thomas Custer with Sergeant Curtiss’ news.
10:35: Custer-Varnum party arrived at the Halt 2 camp. Cheyennes were spying. There is some evidence (1st Lieutenant Charles De Rudio, 2nd Lieutenant Luther Hare in Custer in ’76: Walter Camp’s Notes on the Custer Fight) that Custer made a second visit to the Crow’s Nest; the time taken for this would not be more than 30 minutes if Halt 2 was near the Crow’s Nest.
10:50: At officer’s call, Custer decided they will attack. Benteen (RCOI) and Edgerly (Custer Myth, pp. 216, 219) put officers’ call at 10:00, after Custer had been on the Crow’s Nest for about an hour (Research Review, 1986). See also Donohue in Fatal Day, pp. 20-21. Herendeen very early therefore very reliable put it between 10:00-10:30 (Custer Myth, p. 280).
11:45: Command under Custer departed Halt 2 camp and moved down Davis Creek. This departure time assumes the command halted within 0.75 mile of the Divide. It is likely that they were actually at least twice as far as this since participants reported the column as being concealed in a ravine. This would pull forward the departure time by 15 minutes or so. Hare, DeRudio, Varnum agreed that the column was halted 1/4 to 1/2 mile east of the divide.
To be continued. . . .