Custer’s Last Man: I Survived Little Big Horn, History, 2011, 88 minutes, $19.99
Wouldn’t we all like to know every detail surrounding the last hour or so of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer’s immediate command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876? And more than a few of us are dying to know whether any soldier survived that one-sided fight known as Custer’s Last Stand. Call it “the great 19th-century history mystery,” as does James Donovan, the author of A Terrible Glory and a contributor to this documentary from History (formerly, the History Channel).
Custer’s Last Man opens by prefacing and outlining the Battle of the Little Bighorn—a 7th Cavalry defeat at the hands of Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes that struck the nation with 9/11 proportions. The traditional view holds that the “famous, celebrated and reviled” Custer and every member of his five companies (the other companies under Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen were elsewhere on the battlefield) perished that day. Through the years, however, historians have argued for the existence of survivors, or at least soldiers who were able to evade the center of the storm and temporarily cheat death. This documentary centers on Frank Finkel, who 44 years after the battle told a newspaperman he was, as a C Company sergeant, the lone survivor of Custer’s Last Stand.
Custer’s Last Man analyzes Finkel’s detailed claims of having enlisted in the U.S. Army under the name “August Finckle,” been bloodied and blinded in the battle but still able to ride far from the battlefield and, eventually, become a fugitive deserter from Custer’s fiasco. It is no tall tale, insists talking head John Koster, the author of the book Custer Survivor and an article on that subject in this issue of Wild West. Koster lays out his argument, while other speakers comment pro or con, a treatment that raises many interesting questions, such as, Why did Finkel wait so long to come forward? Don’t expect any concrete answers. It’s a fascinating story nonetheless, even if one ultimately rejects Koster’s assertion that Finckle and Finkel was the same person.
The documentary leaves one feeling that perhaps instead of arguing over what’s truth and what’s a lie, it is best just to relish the mystery. Of course, for some Little Bighorn buffs that is impossible.