THE HOUNDS OF GENERAL CUSTER
by M.H. Dutch Salmon
It has often been written that the only survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a trooper's horse named Comanche. There is evidence, however, that one of General Custer's hunting hounds may have also survived the battle. True or not, the dogs of George Armstrong Custer tell an interesting story of outdoor sport in the Old West.
From 1868 till his death in 1876 Custer was involved in cavalry campaigns against various tribes on the Western plains. His primary recreation from the rigors of war was hunting, and hunting on the plains meant pursuit of coyotes, jackrabbits, antelope and other game with big, leggy coursing hounds.
Early in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War, Custer received orders to proceed to Kansas to tame the hostiles. In his book, Life on the Plains, he wrote:
"At Ft. Leavenworth I halted in my journey long enough to cause my horses to be shipped by rail to Ft. Hays. Nor must I omit two other faithful companions of my subsequent marches and campaigns named Blucher and Maida, two splendid specimens of the Scotch staghound, who were destined to share the dangers of an Indian campaign . . ."
Photos of the Custer hounds indicate they were of two types -- greyhound, and Scotch deerhound (or staghound), which is essentially a greyhound with a rough, wiry coat. He seemed especially fond of the staghounds, such as Blucher and Maida. He even used them to hunt buffalo.
In one incident, recorded in Life on the Plains, a yearling bull is brought to bay by the hounds after a long running fight.
"Finding escape impossible," Custer wrote, "he boldly came to bay and faced his pursuers; in a moment both dogs had grappled with him as if he had been a deer. Blucher seized him by the throat, Maida endeavoured to secure a firm hold on the shoulders. The result was that Blucher found himself well trampled in snow, and but for the latter (Maida) would have been crushed to death. Fearing for the safety of my dogs, I leaped from my horse and ran to the assistance of the stag-hounds. Drawing my hunting knife, I succeeded in cutting the hamstrings of the buffalo, which had the effect to tumble him over in the snow, when I was enabled to dispatch him with my pistol."
Blucher and Maida would not last long sharing the dangers of an Indian campaign. The dog was killed at the Battle of the Washita, the bitch in a firearms accident. But Custer would acquire other hounds. Among his favourites was a staghound bitch named Tuck. In a letter to his wife Elizabeth, Custer wrote:
"Did I tell you of Tuck catching a full-grown antelope-buck, and pulling him down after a run of over a mile, in which she left the other dogs far behind? She comes to me every evening when I am sitting in my large camp chair . . . First she lays her head on my knee, as if to ask if I am too much engaged to notice her. A pat of encouragement and forefeet are thrown lightly across my lap; a few moments of this posture and she lifts her hind feet from the ground, and great overgrown dog that she is, quietly and gently disposes of herself on my lap . . . She makes up with no other person."
Further adventures of the hounds is provided by Elizabeth Custer in her book, Boots and Saddles:
"With the staghound, hunting was so bred in the bone that they sometimes went off by themselves, and even the half-grown puppies followed. I have seen them returning from such a hunt, the one who led the pack holding proudly in his mouth a jackrabbit . . . Once when the staghounds were let out of the kennel for exercise, they flew like the winds over the hills after a coyote. The soldier who took care of them could only follow on foot, as the crust on the snow would not bear the weight of a horse. After a long, cold walk he found the dogs standing over the wolf they killed. When he had dragged it back to our wood shed he sent in to ask if the General would come and see what the dogs had done unaided and alone, for he was very proud of them . . . "
Most accounts have it that when Custer and the Seventh Cavalry rode to their doom at the Little Bighorn, his hounds were left behind in camp. However, in a 1907 letter to the old Forest and Stream magazine, a reader wrote that he had seen one of Custer's hounds -- "one of the pair that came from Queen Victoria" -- at Ft. Washakie in September, 1882. The correspondent added:
"Three days after the fight, when a scouting party reached the battle ground where Custer and the few survivors had made their last stand, the greyhound was found lying down near his dead master. A rifle bullet had struck him near the eye which made him blind on that side, but otherwise he was uninjured. He was taken good care of by the party and finally found a master in Lieut. R.E. Thompson, of the Sixth Infantry, who was stationed at Washakie when I was there. It was the lieutenant himself who gave me the above details concerning the dog."
Was the dog truly a greyhound? Or was it one of the staghounds, a greyhound in rough coat?
I don't know of any corroboration for the story; it may or may not be true. Regardless, there are rough coated staghounds similar to the Custer dogs being hunted in the Western states today. I own one myself. Some perhaps are descended from the Custer hounds; all share a unique hunting heritage from a romantic and difficult period in Western Americana.