June 25, 1876, is a date that shall live in controversy. Even if Lieutenant Colonel (General to his men) George Armstrong Custer came back from the grave to tell his side of the story, the controversy would still not die. The Battle of the Little Bighorn is like a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the south-central Montana landscape – the stuff of legend and historical gamesmanship. Custer and more than a third of the elite 7th Cavalry Regiment lost their lives in an epic struggle with the Plains Indians. Although the deadly conflict at the Little Bighorn is a multifaceted tale that rivals the Alamo as the most famous military clash in the American West, the main focus has always been the man in command of the losing side – thus, the battle’s popular alternative name, Custer’s Last Stand.
Countless historians, authors and amateur scholars more often than not after coming down with a bad case of the Custer bug and finding it impossible to shake have analyzed the battle. The analyses have sometimes been in direct conflict, since the so-called experts have taken different routes in trying to explain the sequence of events, why things happened and who was to blame (Custer, his supporting cast or his bosses) for the 129-year-old U.S. military defeat at the hands of Sitting Bull’s people. The controversy has not lost its intensity through the years. Recent archeological discoveries on the battlefield have cast new light on the engagement and opened the door to new interpretations and, yes, new controversies concerning Custer’s Last Stand.
A previously unidentified cavalry combat position has been discovered near Last Stand Hill (also known as Custer Hill), the knoll north of the Little Bighorn River where Custer and about 40 troopers are said to have made a final stand while surrounded. It is my understanding that artifacts have been discovered on private property near the river, says Darrell Cook, superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Park. The National Park is not involved in this; private individuals have done the research. The exact whereabouts of these newly discovered artifacts remains confidential to protect them from looters, but the general location is close to the Little Bighorn River west and slightly north of Last Stand Hill (see map, P. 45). Artifacts recovered from this site indicate that a portion of Custer’s command fought at this location. What is particularly intriguing about this combat position is that, at the very least, it demonstrates that Custer’s Last Stand was far more complex than most authorities have believed. Unlike Errol Flynn (see the 1941 movie They Died With Their Boots On), Custer did not simply ride over the hill to be suddenly surrounded and massacred by thousands of Indians in a few short minutes.
There is no record of dead cavalrymen being found at this location when burial details were conducted a few days after the battle. This lack of bodies suggests that the cavalry detachment that fought at this position was not overwhelmed by the Indian warriors and was able to withdraw from it in good order, taking any dead and wounded with them. The fighting that occurred at this newly discovered site, as well as the movement to and from this location, would also seem to indicate that Custer’s Last Stand was a lengthy battle and one of maneuver, at least part of the time. That’s not something that the Custer critics and haters want to hear.
As many students of the Battle of the Little Bighorn have concluded, Custer’s Last Stand is one of the most overly intellectualized and politicized events in American history. Some of the most basic facts have escaped the public’s attention, while yarns such as Custer running for president of the United States have been invented. As a result, the public perception of Custer today probably falls somewhere near or below Attila the Hun. This misinterpretation of Custer has in turn led to many misperceptions about Custer’s Last Stand. Because of what happened on June 25, 1876, the Custer name has become synonymous with defeat in the minds of many, but those individuals are not seeing the larger picture, particularly Custer’s extraordinary Civil War career as a Union cavalry officer.
Custer, born in New Rumley, Ohio, on December 5, 1839, was a member of the second class of 1861 at the Military Academy at West Point, graduating a year early because Southern artillerymen had opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The newly commissioned second lieutenant fought in the Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas) on July 21, 1861. On his own initiative, he protected the Union retreat at the Cub Run Bridge, and his Company G, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, was one of the last Union formations to leave the battlefield. Custer went on to distinguish himself in nearly every major battle fought by the Army of the Potomac.
Because of his aggressiveness in cavalry charges, 23-year-old Custer was promoted from captain to brigadier general just days before the Battle of Gettysburg. The Union’s youngest general was given command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. On July 3, 1863, when Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s Confederate forces began their assault on Cemetery Ridge, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s Rebel cavalrymen were maneuvering to make an attack on the Union rear. Saber-wielding General Custer and his Wolverines were there to stop what some historians have suggested could have been a battle-winning assault. Vastly outnumbered, Custer twice charged Stuart’s forces, throwing them off balance and denying them access to the Federal rear.
The dashing young general stayed in the spotlight with the Michigan Brigade until September 30, 1864, when he was promoted to major general and given command of the 3rd Cavalry Division. Custer would hold that command post until the end, particularly distinguishing himself during the Appomattox campaign. After the Rebel surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan, who had been Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s chief of cavalry, purchased the table on which the articles of surrender had been signed. He would later present this table to Elizabeth Bacon Custer, General Custer’s wife, with a note saying: I respectfully present to you this small writing table on which the conditions for the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia were written by Lt. General Grant and permit me to say, Madam, that there is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband.
That such memorable service should be overshadowed by what happened one Sunday in June more than 10 years later is an injustice that irritates Steve Alexander as much as it does anyone. Alexander has portrayed Custer in Little Bighorn reenactments for more than 15 years and in nearly 20 documentaries, including Betrayal at Little Big Horn, Encounters of the Unexplained and Command Decisions. Custer may be the most misunderstood figure in American history, says Alexander, who has amassed a huge library of Custer reference material through the years. I have studied Custer most of my life and have been continuously amazed at his exceptional courage, military ability and character. Custer’s greatest fault, or at least the characteristic that most offended his enemies, was his consistent success, eternal optimism, and zest for life.
Custer’s Civil War record demonstrates that he was courageous and a leader beyond his years. He was a master at the use of surprise, maneuver and terrain. He led from the front and demonstrated his ability to seize opportunity in an instant; the soldiers he commanded held him in esteem. This is hardly the nasty and/or delusional Custer that has shown up in popular American culture. Custer was colorful, but he wasn’t crazy.
By the end of the Civil War, Custer had been promoted to major general. In the peacetime Army that followed, his rank would be reduced to that of lieutenant colonel. Custer, as well as other U.S. Army officers who had been reduced in rank, was referred to in official documents and press reports as General. In 1866 he was made acting commander of the 7th Cavalry. For the next 10 years, Custer and the 7th Cavalry would chase hostile Plains Indians and take them on in many skirmishes and two major battles. In November 1868, after a harrowing winter march, Custer and his command attacked and captured a Cheyenne Indian village located on the Washita River in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). About 100 Indians were killed, but Custer also took 67 captives, a fact that debunks the charge by some that it was a bloodthirsty massacre. Evidence found within this village and other allied Indian camps nearby, including murdered white captives, demonstrated that these bands were not at peace. At the Washita, as at the Little Bighorn, Custer had Indian scouts who led him to the enemy (other Indians) and were more than happy to participate in the defeat of people who were also their enemies.
In 1873 Custer and 10 companies of the 7th Cavalry were among the soldiers in Colonel David S. Stanley’s Yellowstone Expedition, which was escorting a railroad survey crew across Montana Territory. When some Sioux warriors tried to raid horses from the expedition on August 4, Custer gave chase. About 300 Sioux suddenly burst out of the timber by the Tongue River, but Custer executed a skillful withdrawal and held them back, later saying that the warriors displayed unusual boldness. After attempts by the Sioux to burn the grass and smoke out the soldiers failed, Custer surprised the enemy with a counterattack and drove them off. Just seven days later, near the mouth of the Bighorn River, warriors fired on the cavalry from the opposite shore. Custer’s 450 troopers, who faced about 500 Sioux, repulsed those warriors who tried to cross the river. During another counterattack, Custer had a horse shot out from under him but emerged without a scratch. In these two engagements, Custer demonstrated enough leadership and discipline to more than hold his own against a larger force of Plains Indians.
Not that it was always smooth sailing for Custer in the West prior to June 1876. Back in 1867, the 7th Cavalry had been plagued by factionalism, and Custer had been court-martialed for absence without leave from his command and for ordering deserters to be shot. He was convicted and suspended from command for one year. In March 1876, he was summoned from his post at Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, to testify in Washington, D.C., about corruption in the awarding of Western post traderships and other frauds that were cheating both the frontier Army and American Indians. His testimony was damaging to William W. Belknap, who had been the secretary of war in the Grant administration, as well as to the president’s brother. Consequently, Ulysses S. Grant removed Custer from command of the troops at Fort Lincoln, but under pressure, the president later returned Custer to command of the 7th Cavalry (though Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry would be the overall commander of the Dakota Column that marched into Montana Territory in May 1876). On June 25, Custer rode to his death in a cloud of controversies, and his many enemies and later detractors would ensure that the earlier controversies and the ones generated by the military disaster that day would grow after his death.
One controversial notion should be put aside right away: that the Plains Indians at the Little Bighorn were defending their homeland. That is a myth. When Custer surprised the Sioux and Cheyennes village, he was not attacking peace-loving defenders. The Little Bighorn Valley is part of the Crow Indians traditional homeland, and the Sioux had driven the Crows from it. Back on March 10, 1876, Indian agent Dexter Clapp of the Crow Agency in Montana said that the Sioux are now occupying the eastern and best portion of their reservation and by their constant warfare paralyzing all efforts to induce the Crows to undertake agriculture or other means of self support, and added that the Crows expect the Sioux to attack this agency and themselves in large force. Other tribes such as the Shoshones, Blackfeet and Arikaras were also victims of Sioux raids and war making. The proud warrior culture of the Plains Indians was one reason that disenchanted Sioux warriors and their allies left their reservations in 1876 to join the influential medicine man Sitting Bull, who had never signed a treaty with the United States. Another reason was that the government was not fulfilling treaty obligations, which was something Custer had pointed out when summoned to Washington. In any case, the Indians defiance meant war.
The U.S. Army did have a plan of action to deal with the hostile Indians. The Terry and Custer force that departed Fort Lincoln on May 17, 1876, consisted of the entire 7th Cavalry of 12 companies, three companies of infantry, three Gatling guns, Indian scouts and a huge wagon train. Two other columns were also dispatched to seek out the hostile tribes. Plains Indians fought Brig. Gen. George Crook’s column (which had marched up from the south) to a standstill in the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, and by pulling back to his camp on Goose Creek instead of pursuing the enemy, Crook was of no help to Custer or anyone else. The third force, commanded by Colonel John Gibbon, marched east from western Montana and hooked up with the Terry/Custer force for a conference on the night of June 21. A scouting party headed by the second-ranking officer in the 7th Cavalry, Major Marcus Reno, had discovered a huge Indian trail leading toward the Little Bighorn Valley. The next day, Custer would separate from Gibbon’s force and march up the Rosebud Valley to follow that trail. Gibbon, with Terry accompanying him, was to follow the Yellowstone River to the Bighorn River and then follow that river to the Little Bighorn Valley. In a communication addressed to General Sheridan dated June 21, Terry said, My only hope is that one of the two columns will find the Indians. His belief that either of the two columns would be able to handle any hostile warriors was realistic.
On the morning of June 25, after Custer’s command marched several days, his advance scouts on the Crow’s Nest, a high point between the Rosebud and Little Bighorn valleys, saw a large Indian encampment 15 miles away near the Little Bighorn River. Custer did not heedlessly rush into battle against the advice of his scouts. I told [guide and interpreter] Mitch Bouyer it would be a good thing if they would hide here until night and then surprise the camp, scout White Man Runs Him later said. Then the two Sioux appeared over there and I said we had better hurry and get over there just as soon as possible. Custer was able to pull off a surprise attack. Sheridan reported on November 25, 1876, If Custer had not come upon the village so suddenly, the warriors would have gone to meet him in order to give time to the women and children to get out of the way, as they did with Crook only a few days before.
Custer divided his command into battalions, and retained personal command of two battalions (five companies, about 210 men). Reno was given command of three companies and most of the scouts (about 175 men). Captain Frederick Benteen was given command of three companies (about 125 men). One company and six men from each company (about 135 men) were assigned to protect the pack train and provide a rear guard for the advance. It has often been claimed that this decision doomed Custer, but never before had a battalion (let alone an entire regiment) of cavalry been whipped by Plains Indians. Neither Custer nor any of the officers with him would have doubted that each of these commands, with the exception of the pack train command, was a formidable offensive force. It is accepted military doctrine that forces divide and maneuver for the offensive while they concentrate for the defense. Custer had divided his forces many times during the Civil War, as well as at the Washita and during the Yellowstone Expedition. At the Little Bighorn, each command had disciplined troops who were expected to carry out their commander’s orders.
As would be expected, Custer commanded the largest force and planned to strike the main blow at the enemy. His company commanders included his brother Tom Custer, twice awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, and other reliable officers Captain Miles Keogh, Captain George Yates, Lieutenant Alger Smith and Lieutenant James Calhoun (who was married to Custer’s sister). Captain Benteen would later refer to these men, along with a few others, as the Custer gang. Perhaps so, but none of these proven soldiers would have conducted themselves the way that Reno and Benteen seemingly did at the Little Big horn by disobeying orders, exhibiting dereliction of military duty and displaying cowardice. Putting the majority of his most reliable officers in his own command may have been Custer’s biggest mistake.
Benteen, by most accounts, resented Custer and had publicly criticized his conduct at the Washita. Their personal animosity was still going strong in 1876. Benteen demanded to lead the advance from the Crow’s Nest, and for a brief time did, before Custer ordered him into the foothills on the left of the main force. That order may have been Custer’s second critical mistake on June 25. What legitimate military purpose this order had, if any, has been much debated. Ordered to pitch into anything you might find, Benteen’s battalion marched parallel to the main force but gradually fell behind and became separated by several miles. From a tactical view, Benteen’s role became little more than that of the combat reserve, and it is possible that Custer’s purpose for making that assignment was to humiliate Benteen. However, James Schreffler, a military science instructor at the College of the Ozarks who has studied the battle extensively from the military perspective, has suggested that Benteen headed a surveillance/reconnaissance force to keep the enemy from slipping away through the numerous draws and washes in the area. Schreffler adds, I believe the tactics used by Custer very possibly would have been used by any other officer of that era in his position and possessing the same information.
As the main force approached the Little Bighorn Valley, hostile warriors were seen, and Custer ordered Reno into the valley to attack the Indian camp while he turned to the right to advance upon the camp from the hills overlooking the valley. Reno crossed the Little Bighorn River and charged down the valley until he halted to form a skirmish line. According to the original map of Lieutenant Edward Maguire, who arrived with General Terry and the reinforcements two days later, Reno stopped his advance about two miles from the main Indian camp. As Maguire was a trained Army engineer who examined the battlefield shortly after the fight was over, it must be presumed that his map is more accurate than the revisionist maps that have the Indian camp shifting about and have Custer’s advance drifting away from the path depicted by Maguire.
The accounts of the Indian participants frequently conflict, but one thing almost all the old warriors agreed on was that their camp (or village) was unprepared for the sudden attack. Reno was able to form a dismounted skirmish line in good order, and the horses were sheltered in low benchland near the river. While this is sometimes portrayed as a defensive action, Reno was actually creating a diversion while Custer maneuvered for a flank attack. It is evident to me that Custer intended to support me by…attacking the village in the flank, Reno later said. The now alerted Indians knew better than to make a frontal attack on Reno’s skirmish line, so they advanced in the foothills to the left of his line to strike the cavalrymen in the flank and rear. Reno then ordered the skirmish line into a wooded area, where the men remounted. Up to this point, Reno’s command had suffered few casualties and was still an offensive force threatening the Indian camp. Had Reno been in a defensive mode, he most likely would have concentrated his forces and kept his men on foot.
At this point, a bullet struck the scout Bloody Knife in the head and a shower of gore sprayed the face of Reno, who was standing next to him. Reno lost his composure, ordering his force to dismount, and then to remount again. Without bugle calls or any preparation at all, Reno bolted from the woods, leading his command in a disorganized retreat that almost immediately became a rout. About a third of the men were killed, lost or missing by the time the command had crossed the river and reached the top of the bluffs on the other side. Fortunately for Reno and the survivors, Benteen and his battalion were just arriving on the scene and the two forces were able to unite on the position now known as Reno Hill. Captain Thomas Weir led one feeble advance to go to help Custer. The company reached Weir Peaks (prominent points joined together and sometimes called Weir Peak or Weir Point), from which the Custer Battlefield is visible, but held this position only briefly before retreating to Reno’s hill position. Only one of Weir’s men, Vincent Charley, died in that short-lived advance. Until Terry’s reinforcements arrived two days later, Reno and Benteen did nothing with their combined command of almost 400 soldiers except defend themselves on Reno Hill.
Custer had been at Weir Peaks earlier. From there, he could clearly view Reno’s position, the Indian camp and the back trail. It is probable that from this position, Custer had made his final plans and had sent his last message to Benteen. The order, hurriedly scribbled on paper by Custer’s adjutant, Lieutenant William W. Cooke, said: Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs. Custer biographer Jeffry D. Wert states the only reasonable conclusion: It would appear that Custer shaped his movements by his commitment to the offensive in the anticipated approach of Benteen. Custer had even given orders for the pack train to come quick. Reno had seemingly created a diversion, Benteen would be coming soon, and now it was time for Custer to do his thing – attack.
Maguire’s map shows that from Weir Peaks, Custer advanced to the Little Bighorn River at the bottom of Medicine Tail Coulee. Although many people claim Custer was repulsed by warriors at this point, no dead cavalry horses were found to indicate a fight had occurred here. Furthermore, if Custer had been repulsed, his retreat line would have been to the rear and reinforcements, not away from them and toward what would become known as Last Stand Hill. Maguire marked the spot on his map with a B and later testified at the Reno Court of Inquiry that a ford was there and that it was supposed General Custer went there and attempted to cross. A map made by Captain Benteen also shows a ford at the point Custer reached the river. No beaver dams or other natural features would have prevented Custer from crossing the river at what has become known as Medicine Tail Ford. It is possible that Custer successfully crossed the river at the ford and actually reached the Indian camp. Sergeant Edward Davern testified at the Reno Court of Inquiry: I could see Indians circling around him in the bottom….I spoke to Captain Weir about it. I said that must be General Custer fighting down in the bottom. He asked me where and I showed him. He said Yes, I believe it is. Similar statements were made by Lieutenants Edward Mathey and Winfield Scott Edgerly.
According to Maguire’s map, Custer’s command advanced to Last Stand Hill by two separate trails. In a withdrawal from the river ford, Custer might have been expected to concentrate for the defense rather than divide his force. Perhaps, if these trails had been made at different times, one of them could have been made during an offensive maneuver. Custer commanded two battalions. He may have sent only the largest battalion (three companies) across the river, with the hope that it would soon join forces with Reno’s command (not realizing that Reno’s battalion had retreated in the other direction). That would have given him six companies, half the regiment, in or near the Indian camp, with Benteen expected to arrive with three more companies to reinforce the attack.
As for the other two companies, led by Captain Yates, they may have been part of a separate attack. Custer, ever audacious and offensive-minded, may have wanted them to threaten the Indian camp from another unexpected direction, or else he may have wanted them deployed as skirmishers along the ridges overlooking the camp. The artifacts recently discovered west of Last Stand Hill near the river might indicate the location of another Custer threat to / or attack on the camp. In his original map, submitted with his report of September 1876, Maguire had a dotted line, representing troop movement, extending almost to the river and marked by a prominent E (see section of that map on P. 44). These markings suggest the lieutenant may have believed that elements of Custer’s command fought at that location (the area of new discovery on the aerial photo map seen on P. 45, where a purple line replaces Maguire’s dotted line). Both the E and the dotted line running beside it toward the river were removed from a later Maguire map, which was used at the Reno Court of Inquiry in 1879.
The retreat of Reno’s force from the valley, along with the subsequent failure of Benteen and Reno to advance to Custer’s support, eventually would have forced Custer to go on the defensive. His immediate command of just over 200 men was vastly outnumbered by an Indian force of at least 1,500 warriors (some estimates are much higher). It stands to reason that Custer chose Last Stand Hill as a defensive position, and the reason he must have gone in that direction (instead of falling back to Weir Peaks) was to reunite with Yates force farther downstream. In the end, Custer’s forces were dispersed and killed over a vast area. From Last Stand Hill, Captain Keogh’s and Lieutenant Calhoun’s companies stretched nearly a mile along a ridge that pointed almost directly at Weir Peaks, as if they were trying to reach that position or facilitate an advance from it. A second division of Custer’s force appears to have created a skirmish line extending from Last Stand Hill west toward the Little Bighorn River, possibly to protect his flank or perhaps even to keep a corridor open toward the Indian camp for an eventual charge. Either Custer failed to concentrate for the defense or else he was still maneuvering for the offense. If the latter is true, he may very well have been expecting reinforcements from Weir Peaks. In any case, his divided forces had become vulnerable.
Survivors of the Reno-Benteen Battlefield and reinforcement soldiers who arrived on the scene a few days later described some 36 horses that had been shot down in a circle on Last Stand Hill. Behind those horses were about 40 cavalrymen, including George Custer, Tom Custer, Yates and Cooke. It has been claimed that a last stand did not occur on this hill, because artifacts have not been found there recently. But this premise ignores the fact that extensive leveling was done to the hilltop, a road and parking lot were built, and a huge water tank was buried almost on top of the hill. Last Stand Hill may be the most abused piece of historical ground in America. Artifacts not carried off or shifted during construction were also vulnerable to being picked up by the millions of people who have visited the battlefield. Once the horses were shot and the men were in a desperate defensive position behind them on June 25, 1876, the Battle of the Little Bighorn became a Last Stand.
Much of the famous battle (which officially ended on the afternoon of the 26th when the Indians broke off their siege of the Reno-Benteen position and withdrew from the field) will forever remain a mystery, and some people will never stop saying that it was all Custer’s fault. The little band of Texans at the Alamo stood its ground against overwhelming odds, and those men became American heroes. Custer and some of his most trusted men in the 7th Cavalry did the same, but not many Americans view them as heroes today. There are, of course, differences. Underdogs William Travis and David Crockett knew that defeat and death at the hands of the overwhelming Mexican force were inevitable. On the other hand, there is every reason to believe that Custer thought a victory was possible until near the end. General Nelson Miles, a successful Indian fighter, later commented on the cause of the defeat: The fact that after Custer’s five troops had been annihilated, the Indians who came back and engaged the seven troops were repulsed, and that they failed to dislodge these troops, is proof that the force was amply strong, if it had only acted in full concert. No commanding officers can win victories with seven-twelfths of his command remaining out of the engagement when within sounds of his rifle shots.
At the Little Bighorn, both Reno and Benteen had refused to follow their orders. They had for all intents and purposes abandoned their commander and the battle. Their actions, or inactions, made Custer’s defeat and death inevitable, but it doesn’t mean that George A. Custer didnt stand tall on Last Stand Hill.
This article was written by Robert Nightengale and originally published in the August 2005 issue of Wild West Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Wild West magazine today!