‘Never run a bluff with a six gun.’
In June 2005, the Northern Cheyenne, breaking more than a century of silence, revealed that Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a heroine of the Battle of the Rosebud, had knocked Custer off his horse before he died. Two other women shoved their sewing awls into his ears, to allow his corpse to 'hear better in the afterlife,’ because he had broken the promise he made to Chief Stone Forehead, to never again fight against Native Americans.
Custer was found with shots to the left chest and left temple. Heartless and mindless. Tin man. Straw man. Either wound would have been fatal, though he appeared to have bled from only the chest wound, an indication that his head wound may have been delivered post-mortem. His two younger brothers, Thomas Custer and Boston Custer, had both died with him.
Two days later, General Terry found the 7th Cavalry's dead corpses stripped of their clothing, firearms and ammunition, ritually mutilated and scalped, and in an advanced state of decomposition, making identification of many impossible. Most of the bullet holes had been caused by ranged rifle fire. Under threat of attack, they were hastily buried, covered by pieces of tent canvas and blankets, side by side in a shallow grave, where they had fallen. A year later, Custer’s remains were recovered and sent back east for reinterment with full military honours, at West Point Cemetery.
The rest had stayed behind with Robyn and I, at the National Cemetery of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. William Fetterman’s headstone was here. A lone tipi overlooked two fields of graves. One cemetery plaque looked toward the battlefield. The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat The soldier’s last tattoo No more on Life’s parade shall meet That brave and fallen few. One looked away. On Fame’s eternal camping ground Their silent tents are spread And Glory guards with solemn round The bivouac of the Dead.
Inside the museum was a dramatic depiction of ‘Custer's Last Stand,’ the painting commissioned by Anheuser-Busch. Reprints had been framed and hung in saloons across the United States, forever connecting the golden boy and the golden brew in the hearts and minds of bar patrons.
But, if Custer had been as good as he was supposed to have been, why did it all go so wrong? Here is very little neutral ground.
Custer clearly overestimated his own ability, and that of his troops.
Four days before the battle, he had turned down General Terry's offer of an additional battalion, four companies, of the 2nd Cavalry, stating that he ‘could whip any Indian village on the Plains’ with his own regiment. At the steamer Far West on the Yellowstone, he left behind the battery of Gatling guns, provided for his regiment. The heavy, hand-cranked weapons could fire up to 350 rounds a minute, but each had to be hauled by four horses, soldiers often had to drag the heavy guns by hand over obstacles, and they were known to jam. Custer believed they would impede his march and hamper his mobility. Before leaving the camp all his troops boxed their sabres and sent them back with the wagons.
The life of a soldier was a ‘glittering mishap.’ The 7th Cavalry had been carved out of a few Civil War veterans, returning from constabulary duty in the Deep South. A quarter of the troopers had been enlisted in the prior seven months, were marginally trained, and had no combat or frontier experience. A sizable number were immigrants from Ireland, England and Germany. Many were malnourished and in poor physical condition. Fourteen officers assigned to the regiment (including the regimental commander) and 152 troopers, did not accompany the 7th during the campaign. Twenty-two per cent of its soldiers had been detached for other duty, three of the regiment's 12 captains were permanently absent, two officers had never served a day since their appointment, and three second lieutenant vacancies were still unfilled.
Custer’s plan ‘to live and travel like Indians; in this manner the command will be able to go wherever the Indians can’ had resulted in a rapid march en route to the Little Big Horn, averaging 30 miles a day. His men were tired.
Government Indian agents had provided an estimate of ‘hostiles’ the Army could expect to face. ‘Fewer than eight hundred,’ they said, based on the number that Sitting Bull had led off the agency. It was wrong by an order of magnitude, by the several thousand ‘reservation Indians’ who had joined him for the summer buffalo hunt. More concerned about preventing the escape of the Lakota and Cheyenne than fighting them, Custer conducted an inadequate reconnaissance before launching his attack. He ignored the advice of his scouts, who began to change back into their native dress right before the battle. If your mind’s not made up, don’t use your spurs.
Custer was unable to communicate with his divided force, relying on rifle volleys to bring support to another unit's aid. He assumed that Benteen would have quickly come to his.
Unlike the valley, the heights above the Little Bighorn River were completely unsuited for mounted troops. Direct fire at the Indians through the dense scrub would have been difficult. The exposed terrain to which Custer led his troops actually gave deadly advantage to the bows and arrows of the Lakota and Cheyenne, in the heavy sagebrush below. The large volume of iron-tipped shafts that flew upward over obstacles, at the puffs of smoke from the weapons of the troopers, inflicted massive casualties. Custer's men were trapped on higher ground. Indian women rushed troopers waving blankets and bright robes to induce panic in the cavalry mounts, forcing troopers to choose between holding their horse’s reins or letting go to return fire. Aiming soldiers also had their hands pulled upwards by the frightened mounts, which resulted in weapons discharged uselessly into the air. When horses carrying ammunition packs were driven off, the Indians quickly gained control of them. They systematically stripped dead soldiers of guns and cartridge belts, their firepower steadily increasing as Custer's losses mounted and his return fire became silent.
Also, and paradoxically, the Indians were armed with repeating Spencer, Winchester and Henry rifles, while the 7th Cavalry carried single-shot Springfield Model 1873 carbines. which not only had a slower rate of fire, but were cursed with an additional fault.
The Army had chosen single-shot rifles over repeating weapons to prevent overuse of ammunition, emphasizing marksmanship to economize on the costs of transporting cartridges along a 1,000-mile supply line.
But the Springfield’s copper cartridges expanded in the breech when heated upon firing; the ejector would cut through the copper and leave the case behind, and the rifle would jam. The carbine version used by the cavalry did not come with a cleaning rod which could have been used to clear stuck cartridges. Troopers were forced to extract them manually with knife blades; thus, the carbines were nearly useless in combat except as clubs. Custer’s men's were not terribly familiar with the Springfields, as they had been issued only weeks before the battle. Lakota accounts noted his soldiers throwing down their rifles, in panic or anger, or both.
Finally, Custer was in a hurry to redeem himself, from the scandal he had left behind back east. President Grant still had no love for him. I regard Custer's Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.
As the country celebrated its centennial, citizens accustomed to battlefield victories and inherent Manifest Destiny superiority, were stunned by the news of the defeat. They were in no mood to recognize the reality of the historic mistreatment of Native Americans defending their traditional lands and way of life against the relentless westward expansion of European-American invaders, aided by the U.S. Army. Custer was a cavalier without fear and beyond reproach, a tragic military hero and exemplary gentleman who sacrificed his life for his country. Frederick Whittaker rushed out a reverential biography the same year of his death. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote an adoring erroneous poem. ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody popularized him as a heroic officer fighting valiantly against savage forces, in his Wild West extravaganzas. President Teddy Roosevelt's lavish praise pleased Custer's widow.
Marble monuments and memorials sprung up like mushrooms- counties and towns were named in for him in six states, as well as a national cemetery, a military camp and reservation, a museum, and a state park and a hill. No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
From the Indian perspective, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was the beginning of the end of the Indian Wars, their own last stand. Any white prisoners were tortured and killed the night of the victory. Three charred and burned heads were later found in the vacated village near the scene of the big war dance.
Within 48 hours after the battle, the large encampment on the Greasy Grass broke up into an exodus. Many of the Indians slipped back to the reservation, leaving only about 600 warriors still at large, and hostile. Crook and Terry finally took the field with two thousand reinforcements against the Indians in August. In May 1877, Sitting Bull escaped to Canada. Within days, Crazy Horse surrendered at Fort Robinson, and The Great Sioux War was over.
Threatened with starvation under the direction of the Manypenny Commission, the Lakota ceded the Black Hills, their Paha Sapa, to the United States.
Sitting Bull remained in exile for four years near Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, refusing a pardon and the chance to return. He had been welcomed by the Canadian Mounties commander, James Morrow Walsh, who explained that the Lakota were now on British soil and subject to British law. The two became good friends for the remainder of their lives. There is no use talking to these Americans. They are all liars, you cannot believe anything they say.
Because of the smaller size of the buffalo herds in Canada, and a growth in tension between the Canadian and the US governments, Sitting Bull, and 186 of his family and followers surrendered to the Americans on July 19, 1881. the Army transferred Sitting Bull and his band to the Fort Yates agency, and then loaded onto a steamboat to Fort Randall, as prisoners of war, for almost two years.
In May 1883, they were moved again, this time north to the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota. And this is where the story goes strange. In 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
He earned fifty dollars a week for riding once around the arena, and gave speeches about his desire for education for the young, and reconciling relations between the Sioux and whites. In the four months he stayed with Cody, his audiences began to view him as a romantic warrior. He gave his money away to beggars.