SUNDAY, JUNE 7, 2015

Custer Luck Runs Out: Or, What Really Did Happen At the Little Bighorn?

June 25, 1876. The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Much has been written about this iconic battle in American history. And I’m sure there’s much more to follow.That battle captured the imagination of the American people, starting the very day news of it reached the ears of a startled nation, literally on the hundredth anniversary of the country’s birth, July 4, 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It marked the death of George Armstrong Custer, the popular Civil War General and possible (in his eyes if not in others) future U.S. President (he had been in Washington a few short weeks before, testifying about the corruption of (a furious) President Grant’s administration). And, as Nathaniel Philbrick brilliantly develops in his The Last Stand, though they were victorious in that battle, it actually marked the last stand of the Plains Indians against the U.S. Army.

In his just-published, micro-detailed book, Fights on the Little Horn: Unveiling the Myths of Custer’s Last Stand, Gordon Harper makes a dramatic point I’d never thought of. This is the only battlefield in the history of the world that he (and I) can name “which claims to mark the actual locations where all the individual soldiers met their deaths.” And, of course, interestingly, for only the losing side.

And then there have been the innumerable other books, the movies, the magazine articles, the paintings, the debates, and the controversies for now approaching 140 years. My own historical fiction novel, Chief of Thieves, is coming out a week from tomorrow, June 15, from Sunstone Press. The book essentially ends that afternoon at the Little Bighorn, and is a sequel to my earlier novel, Where They Bury You, also from Sunstone Press.

But I digress. The subject for today is supposed to be “what really did happen” that day.

For decades, received thought was “we’ll never know.” After all, the whole point was that there were no human survivors. It was a massacre. Oops! There were “nine million” surviving Plains Indians (an art dealer friend in Santa Fe related to me last month that his 11-year old daughter insisted to him—even over his objections—that there was no mystery: “after all, Daddy, Custer only had two hundred soldiers and there were nine million Indians”). Since historians and surviving Indians alike have, in fact, in 139 years never agreed on how many Indians were in that mile-long set of villages, I’ll choose until a little later below to go with the 5th grader’s estimate!

And as Gregory F. Michno shows in riveting detail in his Lakota Noon, and Kate Bighead discussed (actually, that’s her reservation name—her Cheyenne name was Antelope; she survived and discussed both the Washita and Little Bighorn battles), those “nine million” Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne were not mute, were not unobservant, and told a story that is consistent with much subsequent research and the battlefield terrain. Antelope lives on as a very major character in Chief of Thieves.

What follows, as briefly as I can, is a description of what I believe happened that day on the banks of the Little Bighhorn River. It agrees in the main with Philbrick, Michno’s witnesses, Harper, and, of course, Antelope. They are not responsible if i have included any misinterpretations or imperfect extrapolations.

George Armstrong Custer

On June 22, 1876 George Armstrong Custer led his 7th Cavalry from the Yellowstone River under orders from General Terry and Colonel Gibbon to ride south up the entire length of the Rosebud, then west to below where they believed the (unknown) number of Indians would be camped. Thus Custer would be south of the Indians and could coordinate an attack simultaneously with Terry and Gibbon when they arrived from the north. In effect, surrounding the Indians.

In fact, when he found the Indians’ trail before reaching the mouth of the Rosebud, he used his initiative and turned west to follow the Indians, well before his literal instructions had ordered. Much has been made of this “disobedience.” I side with those military historians who say nonsense, This was not Custer’s first rodeo. He had found the Indians’ trail, and would, in fact, find them and be to their south, where his superiors expected him to be.

He and his scouts saw the village on the banks of the Little Bighorn on the morning of the 25th. They had marched on the order of a hundred miles in three days, including an exhausting all night thirty mile ride the night of the 24th/25th instead of camping after riding thirty miles the day of the 24th. They were two days earlier than when Terry would arrive from the north.

Custer’s revised plan was to attack the village at dawn on the morning of the 26th after a day of rest and reconnaissance. Not a terrible plan. In retrospect, the morning of the 27th would have been better, but Custer had spent years chasing the Plains Indians and then watching them disappear at the expected point of contact. The village was right there before his eyes. He would attack the next morning.

Crazy Horse

But then his scouts and troops discovered three circumstances of their presence having been discovered by the Indians. His experience was that, as a result of these discoveries, the Indian village would simply not be there in the morning. Interestingly, unbeknownst to Custer, but known today, was the fact that one week before, Crazy Horse had not sat around waiting for his village to be attacked. He had led a thousand Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne into a direct,victorious battle against General Crook less than a day’s ride south of where Custer sat at that moment.

Captain Frederick Benteen

Now abandoning the idea of scouting out the size of the village all afternoon, Custer made the decision to march on the village (of unknown size) immediately. As the 7th Cavalry neared the village, in a much-criticized move, Custer sent Captain Frederick Benteen’s companies due west to cut off any escape from the soon-to-be attacked village. Ordering him to take women and children prisoners if the Indians retreated toward him.

Major Marcus Reno

He then ordered Major Marcus Reno to take his companies to the left and attack the village from its southern tip, telling him that he, Custer, would support him. Custer then took his remaining five companies to the right, across the bluffs overlooking the village, which he intended to attack at its northern, eastern edge. When he (finally) saw the the staggering size of the village from the bluffs, Custer sent emergency orders to Benteen to “come quick” to reinforce him.

That was Custer’s planning. He would attack the village from the north and the south, precisely Terry and Gibbon’s original planning. But as Dwight Eisenhower would say some sixty years later, “Planning is everything. Plans are nothing.”

Before we reach the universally known climax, let’s stop for a minute and review received thought and the charges leveled by a hundred and forty years of Monday morning quarterbacks.

—Custer disobeyed his orders in not marching up the length of the Rosebud, before heading west. NOT GUILTY. Any battle-proven commander knows that initiative in the face of overwhelming new intelligence is required. It’s his job. Gibbon and Terry knew their man extremely well. They had begged President Grant to look past personal anger and let them have Custer as their chief weapon against the Sioux. Besides, he wound up south of the village without the Indians’ knowledge, which was the idea from the beginning.

—Custer attacked a village with no reconnaissance and no idea that he was up against nine million Indians (well, okay, whereas there is no precise consensus among historians, it is generally believed there were on the order of 1,200 lodges along that mile of the Little Bighorn, with, accordingly, approximately 6,000 to 7,000 Indians, and, maybe 2,500 warriors, give or take, against the 7th’s 700 man cavalry). A QUALIFIED GUILTY. BUT, his experience told him two things: 1) the Indians would be gone in the morning and he and Gibbon and Terry (and Crook) would have to start all over again; and 2) charging into a village from multiple directions would yield women and children prisoners, and the braves would immediately cease fighting and surrender. Had he known he was outnumbered by the warriors only three or four to one, he would not have hesitated to mount a surprise attack on the village.

—Custer attacked without coordinating with Gibbon and Terry who were approaching from the north. Again A QUALIFIED GUILTY. BUT, same rationale as above.

—Custer irresponsibly split his forces. NOT GUILTY. This was standard cavalry tactics by the U.S. Army against the Plains Indians. It had worked in every success against the Plains Indians, including by Custer at the Washita. In fact, Gibbon and Terry, themselves, had split their entire command in precisely the same manner, among Crook, presumably still coming from the south, Custer coming from the east, and Gibbon and Terry coming up from the north. The identical splitting of their entire force into three groups.

So, then, what did happen to Custer’s plan?

Setting aside the fact that the Indians were minding their own business in their villages that day, living and hunting on lands given to them “forever” by President Grant, and were not bothering any white settlers despite the very same Custer’s previous desecration of their sacred Badlands, and that the U.S. Army was participating in a completely indefensible war against the Sioux and the Cheyenne, Custer was participating in that war, and, as an officer of the U.S. Army was doing the job his country had given him that day.  From the comfort of our 21st Century armchairs and laptops and iPads, Sitting Bull and his “nine million” Indians were the good guys, and Custer and his 700 troops (many of them immigrants just off the boats) were the bad guys. No sympathy for Custer from 2015 Americans. Nor should there be.

Sitting Bull

Here’s what happened—it’s pretty simple actually. Sitting Bull himself reported later that Custer almost carried the day. Almost.

—Reno, ordered to attack the southern edge of the village while Custer was to support him (with Benteen coming up behind, and/or Custer fording the river and attacking the northern village (the Northern Cheyenne, Antelope’s village, actually), disobeyed his orders and didn’t attack. Drunk, he instead took up defensive positions just short of the village against a prairie dog village. Seeing the soldiers approach, but not attack, Sitting Bull remembered thinking that they had come to negotiate. When the warriors he sent to see what the soldiers at the prairie dog village wanted were shot, the warriors not very surprisingly, attacked Reno. Led by Crazy Horse, they drove the soldiers into the woods along the west bank of the Little Bighorn, and then into the river itself. The drunken Reno led a frantic retreat (which he heinously and self-servingly called an “attack”) into the river and up a hill. He lost half his men before taking up position in disarray on the hill (now known as “Reno Hill”).

—Benteen, receiving the orders to “come quick” with ammunition and his men to reinforce Custer, disobeyed his orders and not only didn’t come quick, he never came at all. He joined Reno on the hill, and, in fairness, set up the defenses that the drunken and (probably terrified) Reno was incompetent to do. Benteen then remained in place, asserting that Custer had abandoned them to their fate, and, instead of “coming quick” to reinforce Custer, helped defend Reno on the hill from the attacking Indians.

—Custer, expecting the warriors to be occupied at the southern end of the villages by Reno, and expecting Benteen to be arriving to double his forces, began searching for a way down the bluffs to ford the river and capture defenseless fleeing women and children and then supervise a quick warrior surrender. But instead, because he had been seen on the bluffs, and because Reno had fled rather than attacking, most of the roughly 2,500 warriors began streaming, like water broken through a dam, to the north, toward Custer’s five companies on the bluffs.

—While the Indians had no idea this was the soldier they called Long Hair come to attack them (he had cut off his curly locks), any number of the surviving Indians recounted the roughly forty-five minute disappearance of one of the companies during the ensuing battle (Michno, Lakota Noon). This was almost assuredly Custer riding down to the river to find a place to cross. He had left his other four companies strategically placed to fight a defensive battle on the high points of the bluffs to: 1) await the arrival of Benteen and maybe even Reno who had not attacked from the south; and 2) then Custer could lead them all down to the river to cross and win the battle in the village itself. It was that company that Sitting Bull saw and that led him to comment that they would have taken the day if they had come across the river in force.

—But Custer, presumably having found his ford (we’ll, of course, never know, since that secret died with him), headed back up the bluffs to his other four companies to help them hold their defensive positions until Benteen’s expected arrival.

—And there they all died. All roughly 220 of them. All evidence and all accounts by the surviving Indians suggest that Custer’s five companies fought hard and effectively until an “old” (32ish, “old”!) Cheyenne chief with the ironic name of Lame White Man rallied the Indians up out of a coulee and drove the soldiers into disarray. Crazy Horse then opportunistically led the Lakota Sioux into the routed soldiers. Outnumbered by a much superior force who had the home field advantage of all home field advantages, and without their ordered and expected reinforcements, Custer’s five 7th Cavalry companies were massacred.

The Indians then went back and continued attacking Reno and Benteen on their hill the night of the 25th and the day of the 26th.

The morning of the 27th, General Terry’s forces arrived coming up the Little Bighorn from the north. The Indians had left, taking their villages with them. Terry was shown the sight of the massacre by his scouts. Terry’s men then proceeded south to tell Reno and Benteen, who professed to still believe that Custer had abandoned them and was refusing to come help them.

Reno and Benteen were roughly three and a half miles away from Last Stand Hill. An hour’s walk.

Reno was certainly guilty of: disobeying direct orders and being drunk while commanding his troops. He was probably guilty of cowardice and inability to command.

Benteen was certainly guilty of disobeying direct orders and probably guilty of failure to come to the aid of his fellow soldiers.

George Armstrong Custer was certainly guilty of being on the wrong side of public opinion 140 years after the fact; of being reckless throughout his professional career; and of being unprepared due to insufficient intelligence going into battle. The latter two had held him in good stead throughout his Civil War and Indian Military career up until his luck ran out at the Little Bighorn. He was demonstrably not guilty of dividing his command, as this was the tactic used successfully by the Army in general, and him in particular in previous, successful, engagements with the Plains Indians.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Benteen and Reno had followed Custer’s direct orders. Would Sitting Bull’s speculation that the 7th Cavalry would have carried the day be correct? Or would the massacre at the Little Big Horn been of all 700 members of the 7th Cavalry?

But Benteen and Reno did not follow their orders.

And history, at least as it is “known” by the vast majority of the public, has let Benteen and Reno escape what should have been their deserved reputations
for insubordination, incompetence, and cowardice. Shockingly and inappropriately, a 1967 U.S. Army review board had Marcus Reno’s remains reinterred on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, despite the fact that he had been dismissed from the Army for conduct unbecoming an officer.
Twitter: @StevenKohlhagen

Where They Bury You, Sunstone Press, can be purchased on Amazon

Chief of Thieves, Sunstone Press, can be purchased on Amazon

Chief of Thieves, Sunstone Press, will be available on June 15, 2015.
Share This