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Last Stand

By Robert M. Utley
Autumn 1998 • MHQ Magazine

How could a commander and a regiment widely seen as the best on the frontier fall so spectacularly to a mob of untrained, unlettered natives?

MASSACRED! screamed the headlines of newspapers all over the United States. An Indian fight in remote Montana stunned the entire nation in the centennial summer of 1876 and has stirred the popular imagination ever since. The Battle of the Little Bighorn-Custer’s Last Stand-seems forever destined to command fascination, controversy, speculation, debate, and painstaking reconstruction.

In that year of 1876 the United States manufactured a war against the Sioux. Under the Treaty of 1868, most of these people had settled on a huge reservation in Dakota Territory. But some 3,000 tribesmen continued to roam the buffalo ranges in Wyoming and Montana, a right conceded by the treaty. They gave allegiance to the dynamic Sitting Bull, a political, military, and spiritual leader of commanding influence and rocklike opposition to all relations with the whites. At first these tribesmen, known as “nontreaties,” were simply a nuisance, stirring up trouble and offering a summer haven for restless reservation Indians. But when they threatened violence to any chief who gave in to the Great Father’s demand that the Sioux sell the gold-rich Black Hills, they had to be neutralized. Since the Sitting Bull bands had provided no recent pretext for war, the government simply labeled them “hostile” and ordered them to abandon the old free life and settle on the reservation. From this order, predictably ignored by the Sioux bands scattered over the winter landscape, sprang the Great Sioux War of 1876.

Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, the Great Plains commander, ordered three strong columns to converge on the Indian country of the Powder and Yellowstone river basins. Their mission was to drive the “hostiles” to the reservation. Brigadier General George Crook marched north from Fort Fetterman in southern Wyoming, Colonel John Gibbon descended the Yellowstone River from Fort Ellis in western Montana, and Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry moved west from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota. With Terry rode the entire 7th Cavalry Regiment under command of its lieutenant colonel, Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer.

The personality of this flamboyant cavalier, now 36, gave rise to much of the controversy that followed. A gloriously triumphant “boy general” in the Civil War, he had achieved new fame on the western frontier as Indian fighter, sportsman, plainsman, and author. Among acquaintances, he inspired veneration or loathing, never indifference. Some saw him as reckless, brutal, egotistical, unprincipled, and immature. Others looked on him as upright, sincere, compassionate, honorable, above all fearless in battle and brilliant in leading men to victory. And he was lucky.

In this campaign as in all others, Custer intended to win glory for himself and the Seventh Cavalry. But besides his usual ambition, this time he had special incentive. As punishment for congressional testimony charging the administration of Ulysses S. Grant with frontier frauds, he had been publicly humiliated by the president himself, denied command of the Fort Lincoln column, and allowed to lead his own regiment only at the last moment. Whether he sacrificed 250 men in an attempt to wipe out the stain will be debated endlessly.

Although a veteran regiment, the Seventh Cavalry was not a tightly knit fighting machine. The officer corps was severely faction-ridden. A “royal family” enjoyed Custer’s favor, while those excluded suffered his discrimination and found constant fault with his leadership. Among other sins, they suspected him of a flagrant hypocrisy that concealed his own brand of frontier fraud as well as a supposedly idyllic marriage that nonetheless tolerated infidelity.

Aggravating the rift on this campaign, the “royal family” included no fewer than five Custers: the regimental commander himself, brother Tom, winner of two Civil War medals of honor and now captain of C Company; brother Boston, a civilian hired as a “guide”; a namesake nephew, Armstrong (“Autie”) Reed, carried on the payroll as a herder; and brotherin-law James (“Jimmi”) Calhoun, commander of L Company.

Moreover, Custer’s two senior subordinates detested him and each other. Major Marcus A. Reno, socially inept, a weak man and weak officer, enjoyed little respect. Captain Frederick W. Benteen, a first-rate company commander but a sour, crotchety troublemaker, had led the opposition to Custer for 10 years. That neither enjoyed a rapport with his commander held ominous tactical implications.

None of the column commanders did well. Colonel Gibbon found the main Indian encampment in March, but let it get away. More serious, on June 17 General Crook allowed himself to be surprised and routed at the Battle of the Rosebud. He withdrew from the campaign altogether, with calamitous consequences. At last, in mid-June, Terry and Gibbon met on the Yellowstone and laid plans to corner the Sioux.

On the afternoon of June 21, Terry summoned Custer and the other senior officers to gather around a big map aboard the steamer Far West, moored to the bank of the Yellowstone at the mouth of Rosebud Creek. Terry laid out his plan. An Indian trail of about 400 lodges pointed up the Rosebud Valley, and the scouts guessed that it would lead over the mountains to the Little Bighorn River. The general envisioned a strong, swift-moving strike force searching out the Indians and driving them against a less mobile blocking force. Custer and his cavalry would attack, Gibbon and his infantry block.

Terry’s plan called for Custer to push up the Rosebud on the Indian trail and Gibbon, with Terry accompanying, to march up the Yellowstone and Bighorn to a blocking position at the mouth of the Little Bighorn. If the Indians turned out to be on the Little Bighorn, Custer would attack from the south and Gibbon intercept any who tried to get away to the north.

Custer’s movements, all understood, had to be governed by circumstances, for the Sioux might not be on the Little Bighorn. Therefore, Custer’s written orders laid out his mission in discretionary terms. He was to follow the trail up the Rosebud. If it turned to the Little Bighorn, he was still to continue up the Rosebud before swinging west to the upper Little Bighorn-this to make certain that the Indians did not escape to the south or east and to give Gibbon, with his infantry, time to get to the Little Bighorn. Terry expected him to be there by June 26, but this date had no other significance. The notion that Terry meant Custer to attack on June 26 arose only after the offensive ended in disaster.

No one worried much about enemy strength. This reflected the usual military assumption that the Indians would scatter and run if given the chance. If only they could be caught, Custer often boasted, the Seventh could whip any force of Indians on the Plains. Thus Terry’s plan focused on how to catch the Indians, not how to defeat them.

The trail up the Rosebud was made by Sitting Bull’s “nontreaties’- 3,000 people, 800 fighting men. The generals knew that each summer many Indians came from the reservations to join their brethren for the warm months, but how many there might be and when they might arrive did not enter into the planning.

At that time, Indian movements were taking place that would decisively affect the military plan. Sitting Bull’s village had in fact turned from the Rosebud to the Little Bighorn. Here their brethren began to arrive from the reservation. In only six days, the encampment more than doubled, from 400 to 1,000 lodges, from 3,000 to 7,000 people, from 800 to 2,000 warriors.

There in the valley of the river the Sioux called the Greasy Grass lay a village of unusual size. Such numbers consumed immense quantities of game, forage, and firewood and so could not remain long in one place, or even together in one village. The coincidence of timing that brought the Seventh Cavalry to the vicinity of this village during the few days of its peak strength was only the beginning of a run of ill fortune that ended in the utter collapse of “Custer’s Luck.”

For three days the Seventh Cavalry marched in billowing dust up Rosebud Creek. The tree-lined stream snaked back and forth in the narrow valley, forcing frequent crossings. Ahead, the grassy ridges shouldering the valley merged into a low range of blue mountains dividing the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn.

“Passed several large camps,” recorded Custer’s itinerist on the afternoon of June 24. “The trail was now fresh, and the whole valley scratched up by the trailing lodge poles.” Although the officers did not understand that additional reservation Indians were trampling the older trail made by Sitting Bull, they did perceive the meaning of the fresh pony droppings: Indians had to be just over the mountains, on the Little Bighorn.

Swiftly, Custer made a crucial decision. To continue up the Rosebud made no sense. It would force him to lose touch with an enemy that he had in his immediate front, to make a long detour through country that he knew could not harbor many Indians, and to risk the very possibility that everyone dreaded-the escape of the Indians.

Calling his officers together over a flickering candle, Custer outlined a new plan. Instead of continuing up the Rosebud, he would follow the Indian trail across the divide under cover of night, spend the next day resting the command and fixing the location of the Sioux, then hit with a dawn attack on June 26, the date Gibbon was to reach the mouth of the Little Bighorn. Roused from their blankets at midnight, the troopers groped blindly forward in the darkness, marching about six miles up a rough, rocky valley. At 2:00 a.m., still short of the summit, they halted to await daylight.

At about 8:00 a.m. Custer received word that his scouts had spotted the Sioux village from a nearby mountain peak called the Crow’s Nest. He rode to the top himself, but by this time the sun had risen and a haze had settled over the landscape. Nonetheless, he had no reason to doubt his scouts. His objective lay in the Little Bighorn Valley only 15 miles to the west.

The Scouts gave Custer other, and disquieting, information. From their perch high above the surrounding country, they had seen three separate parties of Sioux warriors. That at least one of these groups would discover the soldiers and rush to alert the village seemed probable.

Instantly, Custer made another crucial decision. All experience pointed to the certainty that he had been discovered. The gnawing fear that had ridden with the regiment all the way from Fort Lincoln was about to be realized: The village would break up and flee in all directions. In another stroke of bad luck, Custer could not know that the Sioux in his vicinity were on their way back to the reservations and in fact would not sound the alarm. From his perspective, there could be only one proper decision: Find the village and strike it as soon as possible.

An attack plan could not be formulated until the exact location of the village had been pinpointed and some impression gained of the surrounding terrain. So, instead of sending out the reconnoitering parties he had planned for this day, Custer advanced in a reconnaissance in force employing the entire regiment. The attack plan would have to take shape as events unfolded.

The noon sun shone torrid in a cloudless sky as the Seventh Cavalry, 600 strong and trailing a mule train, crossed a low divide and paused at the head of a stream later named Reno Creek. Custer had shed his jacket and wore a dark blue shirt with buckskin trousers encased in boots. A broad-brimmed white hat shaded his bearded, sunburned face. Two holsters on his belt contained a brace of stubby English Webley “bulldog” pistols. His personal flag followed, but the regimental standard remained furled.

Custer had Adjutant William W. Cooke form the regiment into battalions, to reconnoiter or maneuver for combat as circumstances required. Major Reno commanded one, consisting of Companies M, A, and G-140 officers and enlisted men. Captain Benteen led another, Companies H, D, and K, about 125 strong. Companies E and F under Captain George W. Yates and C, I, and L under Captain Myles W. Keogh, about 225 horsemen, remained under Custer’s direct control. Captain Thomas M. McDougall and B Company guarded the pack train and brought up the rear.

To Custer, the first task was to ensure that no Indians had found their way to the upper Little Bighorn. Since a ridge blocked the view to the south, he assigned Benteen to seek the needed intelligence. He was to oblique his battalion to the left and send a reconnaissance party to the crest of the ridge to scan the Little Bighorn Valley, then rejoin the rest of the command farther down Reno Creek.

The rest of the regiment took up the march down Reno Creek, Custer and his two battalions on the right side, Reno with his one on the left. The pack train and McDougall’s B Company fell increasingly to the rear. They were half an hour behind when they met Benteen, returning to the main trail, at a spongy morass in the creek.

Benteen had accomplished his mission. The upper Little Bighorn Walley appeared to be empty of Indians. Doubtful that Custer knew what he was doing, Benteen neither sent a courier ahead with this information nor quickened the pace of his march to catch up.

Three miles ahead, Custer and Reno halted at an abandoned village site. From a nearby hill, Interpreter Fred Gerard began waving his hat and shouting. He had spotted a party of warriors down the creek valley in the distance racing their ponies toward the river. Custer ordered Reno to push forward at a trot. Following, Custer saw dust boiling up from behind high bluffs that hid the Little Bighorn Valley on his right front.

A trot of about three miles brought the two columns to within a mile of the Little Bighorn. Custer could defer decision no longer. The rising dust meant that he had at last found the village and, coupled with the warriors retreating in his front, that its occupants had taken alarm and were trying to get away. The situation demanded an immediate attack. Custer sent Cooke with orders for Reno: The village lay ahead two miles; the Indians were running away; move rapidly forward, “and charge afterward,and you will be supported by the whole outfit.”

Instead of following Reno, however, Custer obliqued his five companies to the right, toward the crest of the bluffs. His subordinate expected support from the rear, but Custer had apparently decided to give support by falling on the Indians’ rear as they fought Reno in front. This would have the added advantage, if the Sioux were running after all, of cutting off their escape route. In either event, hitting from more than one direction could be expected to strike panic in the enemy.

In parallel columns of twos, the five companies galloped up the long gentle slope toward the blufftops. After a mile, they halted short of the brow. Custer, his orderly trumpeter for the day, John Martin, and several Crow scouts rode to the top and looked out over the valley. Just below, the river swung in a wide loop out over the valley. “Down the valley,” recalled one of the Crow scouts, “were camps and camps and camps. There was a big camp in a circle near the west hills.” Below also, related another of the Crows, “we could see Reno fighting. Everything was a scramble with lots of Sioux.”

Battle had thus been joined, and Custer had to get the rest of the regiment into it as swiftly as possible. Back at the command he conferred briefly with Cooke and other officers, including his brother, Captain Tom Custer. As the march resumed, Tom rode to his company and, motioning to Sergeant Daniel Kanipe, told him to hurry back to Captain McDougall with orders from the general. “Tell McDougall,” he instructed, “to bring the pack train straight across to high ground–if packs get loose don’t stop to fix them, cut them off. Come quick. Big Indian camp.”

As Kanipe turned aside, Custer signaled the advance. Some of the horses became excited and broke into a gallop, out in front even of Custer. “Boys, hold your horses,” Custer shouted, “there are plenty of them down there for us all.” The command swung to the right, down a long ravine falling away from the heights. It was narrow and forced the formation into a single column. After a mile, the ravine opened into a broad coulee now known as Medicine Tail, which ran toward the river and gave promise of ending in a ford. Custer signaled a left turn into the coulee.

Anxious to get Benteen into the fight and worried about ammunition, Custer decided to send another courier. He motioned for his orderly trumpeter, Martin, and barked instructions. Martin had immigrated from Italy, where his name had been Giovanni Martini. Adjutant Cooke, distrusting the trumpeter’s mastery of English, scrawled a message on a page torn from his memorandum book and handed it to him: “Benteen. Come on. Big Village. Be Quick. Bring Packs. W. W. Cooke. P. bring pacs.”

Spurring his horse up the back trail, Martin glanced over his shoulder. “The last I saw of the command they were going down into the ravine Medicine Tail Coulee). The gray horse troop was in the center and they were galloping.”

Shortly after Martin’s departure, Custer divided his command. He sent Yates’s two-company battalion galloping down Medicine Tail Coulee toward the Little Bighorn, and he posted Captain Keogh’s three-company battalion in dismounted positions on a ridge separating Medicine Tail from the next drainage to the north, Deep Coulee.

A plausible explanation is that Custer intended Yates to hold the ford and threaten the Indians, thus relieving the pressure on Reno, until Benteen could come up and join in a powerful thrust into the village itself. Keogh’s mission was to cover Benteen’s approach route, then accompany him to the attack position. Whether Custer went with Yates or remained with Keogh is unknown.

Whatever Custer’s plans, two crucial developments elsewhere doomed them: First, Benteen dawdled on the back trail, falling farther and farther behind the rest of the regiment. Neither Sergeant Kanipe nor Trumpeter Martin stirred the cranky captain into more than a trot. Only a gallop would have been responsive to Custer’s expectation and need. Second, Reno did not hold his position at the upper end of the village. Met by several hundred shouting warriors, he dismounted and formed a skirmish line. Flanked, he quickly withdrew into a grove of timber along the river. Then, pressed by Sioux for half an hour or more, he ordered a retreat, which turned into a demoralized rout back across the river to the bluff tops from which Custer had first looked over the valley. This “charge,” as Reno termed it, cost 40 dead and 13 wounded.

The actions of his two subordinates left Custer to fend for himself. Reno’s retreat freed all the Indians to concentrate on Custer. Benteen’s languor brought him to Reno’s hilltop position and thus under Reno’s command. The demoralization of Reno’s shattered battalion, combined with the indecision of the two ranking officers, kept seven companies and the pack train out of action at the most critical moment for the other five.

Yates’s two companies reached the Little Bighorn opposite the center of the Indian camp. A hot fire greeted them from warriors posted in the brush on the other side. Sitting Bull, who remained in the village, later described this action succinctly: “Our young men rained lead across the river and drove the white braves back.”

At first, only a handful of warriors, perhaps 30, held the ford against Yates. But they quickly received help as men returned from the pony herd with their mounts, and others, freed by Reno’s withdrawal, reached the new scene of action. Chief Gall, an inspiring leader, powerful in mind and body, led the forces across the river.

Yates’s two companies retreated from the river, returning a ragged defensive fire as they rode, dismounting skirmishers to hold back the Indian advance. The soldiers “held their horses’ reins on one arm while they were shooting,” remembered Low Dog, “but the horses were so frightened that they pulled the men all around, and a great many of their shots went up in the air and did us no harm.” The line of this fighting retreat lay up the northern slope of Deep Coulee toward a high ridge that offered the prospect of a better position.

Gall’s warriors also hit Keogh. From dismounted skirmish lines, the troopers laid down a heavy fire that kept the Indians at bay. Although not seriously threatened, Keogh probably realized that Yates was in trouble and that the Indians gathering in Deep Coulee, to his rear, might isolate the two battalions from each other. Keogh withdrew northward toward a union with Yates.

Gall’s warriors pressed closely. On the slope north of Deep Coulee, Keogh dismounted and formed a line. The Indians fired into the horse holders and dropped enough men to stampede the horses and put much of the battalion on foot. With the horses went the extra carbine ammunition. “After this,” related Gall, “the soldiers threw aside their guns carbines and fought with little guns pistols.” Dismounted, Keogh’s men moved up the slope to join with Yates.

The union occurred on a flat hill, tilted toward the river and overlooking Deep Coulee, that is now named Calhoun Hill, for the L Company commander. Calhoun Hill formed the southern nose of a high ridge extending half a mile northward. This elevation came to be known as Battle Ridge. Commanding a sweeping vista of the river valley and the Bighorn Mountains beyond, Battle Ridge fell abruptly, amid tumbles of steep hills and deep ravines, to the valley below. On the east, a narrow ravine heading on Calhoun Hill bordered Battle Ridge and widened and deepened as it ran northward. On these slopes the final scenes of Custer’s Last Stand unfolded. What role Custer himself played can never be known. Almost certainly, no Indian recognized “Long Hair” in the smoke, dust, grime, and excitement of battle or, indeed, even knew they were fighting his soldiers. As hinted in some Indian account, he may even have fallen, dead or wounded, in the first fire at the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee and been carried to the spot where his body was found. If he remained in the saddle on Calhoun Hill, he must by now have recognized how desperate was his plight. Faced with overwhelming numbers of well-armed warriors, caught in rough terrain unsuited to cavalry, partly dismounted, and with no trace of Benteen or the packs on the hills to the south, even Custer’s robust self-confidence must have wavered.

If he still commanded, he saw more Indians to his left front, crossing the river at the mouth of a deep ravine draining the western slope of Battle Ridge. From this cover, they fired on the command’s flank on Calhoun Hill. To counter this threat, one company advanced. “The Indians hidden there got back quickly,” said a Cheyenne witness. The soldiers “stopped and got off their horses along another ridge, a low one just north of the deep gulch.” Suddenly warriors led by Lame White Man, a Cheyenne, hit with an attack that overran the company and drove survivors back to Calhoun Hill.

Northward along Battle Ridge the fighting progressed with growing intensity. While Keogh held Calhoun Hill against the warriors streaming up Deep Coulee, Yates’s two companies, possibly accompanied by Custer, fought their way along the ridge. From all directions, Indians converged in overpowering force.

The warriors made few if any grand mounted charges. Rather, they kept up a long-range fire, mostly from dismounted positions. They took advantage of hillocks, sagebrush clumps, tall grass, and folds and troughs of the terrain. From these hiding places, they struck down the cavalrymen with bullets and arrows. Loosed in high arcs, arrows fell with deadly effect on clusters of exposed troopers.

The fatal blow hit from the north. Crazy Horse, a magnetic leader and silent mystic, had led a large force of warriors down the Little Bighorn Valley to a crossing below the village, forded the river, and swept in a wide arc to climb Battle Ridge from the north. They struck the units with Custer and Yates and thrust up the ravine on the east leading to Calhoun Hill. Here they crushed Keogh’s men against Gall’s warriors beyond.

Although each of the companies made its “last stand,” the last stand of history and legend occurred at the northern end of Battle Ridge, now known as Custer Hill. Here, most of F Company, part of E, and remnants of other companies gathered with the headquarters group. A large contingent of the cavalrymen broke toward the head of the deep ravine in the direction of the river. “We finished up this party right there in the ravine,” said Red Horse.

On Custer Hill about 40 survivors shot their horses for breastworks and fought until all died. Among the bodies found there were those of Custer, his brothers Tom and Boston, nephew Autie Reed, Yates, Cooke, and Lieutenants Algernon Smith and William Van W. Reily. Myles Keogh fell nearby, in the ravine east of Battle Ridge, with most of his company, I. Brother-in-law Jimmi and his company died defending Calhoun Hill, half a mile to the south.

The hot June sun hung low over the Bighorn Mountains when the last man fell, possibly two hours after Yates had opened the battle at the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee. Exultant warriors raced their ponies around the battlefield, dispatching wounded men, firing their rifles in triumph, and raising great clouds of dust. Women and children made their way up the slopes from the village to rob, strip, and mutilate the bodies.

Four miles to the South, a trace of blue appeared atop a peaked hill beyond Medicine Tail Coulee. Hearing firing from the north, and irate over Reno’s indecision, Captain Tom Weir had simply mounted his company, D, and moved to the sound of the guns. The rest of the command had followed hesitantly. Reaching the high hill later named Weir Point, the troops scanned the rugged terrain beyond. They discerned only a distant dust-clouded activity and, in the foreground, warriors galloping to head off their advance.

Falling back to their original hilltop position, the seven companies fought desperately until darkness brought relief. During the night they dug in, and next day, June 26, they held out as the emboldened Indians tried to carry their defenses. Reno displayed weak leadership. Benteen, fearlessly stalking the lines as enemy sharpshooters tried to drop him, inspired the troopers to valiant efforts. By midafternoon, the firing had tapered off.

Below, the Indians fired the valley’s dry prairie grass. A wall of thick smoke screened the village. About 7:00 p.m., an immense procession of horsemen, women and children on foot, travois, ponies, and dogs emerged from behind the smoke. Slowly, it wound its way across the benchland to the southwest, toward the Bighorn Mountains.

Next morning, June 27, a blue column approaching up the valley explained the hasty withdrawal of the Indians. Two officers rode down to investigate. A short gallop brought them to the advance guard, General Terry in the van. Both general and lieutenants burst out with the same question: Where is Custer?

Lieutenant James H. Bradley and his Crow scouts brought the answer, and on the morning of June 28, Reno and his men rode down the river to see for themselves. “A scene of sickening ghastly horror,” remembered one. The bodies, many of them stripped, scalped, and mutilated, all grotesquely bloated from the burning sun, lay scattered about the battlefield where they had dropped.

On Custer Hill, the knot of fallen men graphically portrayed the drama of the last stand. Although Cooke and Tom Custer had been badly butchered, most in this group escaped severe mutilation. “The bodies were as recognizable as if they were in life,” Benteen wrote to his wife.

Although naked, “The General was not mutilated at all,” a lieutenant remembered. “He laid on his back, his upper arms on the ground, the hands folded or so placed as to cross the body above the stomach: his position was natural and one that we had seen hundreds of times while he was taking cat naps during halts on the march. One hit was in the left temple, and one in the left breast at or near the heart.”

A third wound may not have been visible to those who looked down on their former chief. The Cheyenne woman Kate Big Head related that two Southern Cheyenne women recognized Custer from his campaign in the Indian Territory in 1868-69, when he had been much admired by the women taken captive at the Battle of the Washita. Claiming that he was their relative, the two women prevented some Sioux men from mutilating the body. Continued Kate Big Head:

The women then pushed the point of a sewing aw into each of his ears, into his head. This was done to improve his hearing, as it seemed he had not heard what our chiefs in the South said when he smoked the pipe with them. They told him then that if ever afterward he should break that peace promise and should fight the Cheyennes the Everywhere Spirit surely would cause him to be killed.

In their victory, the Sioux suffered defeat. After the Custer battle, they scattered. An outraged nation demanded retribution, and troops flooded the Indian country. Ultimately all the “hostiles” surrendered, even Sitting Bull-although only after four years of Canadian exile. Also, with soldiers now occupying the reservations, the chiefs had no choice but to sell the Black Hills. In fact, Custer’s last stand had been theirs as well.

But the nagging questions remained: How could the massacre have happened? What flagrant blunders produced so awful a debacle? How could a commander and a regiment widely seen as the best on the frontier fall so spectacularly to a mob of untrained, unlettered natives?

Custer is usually branded the scapegoat. Given what he knew or could anticipate at each decision point, however, one is hard-pressed to say what he ought to have done differently. The failures of Reno and Benteen contributed to the disaster. But, more decisively, Custer’s vaunted luck simply ran out on that day. Contrary to the popular interpretation, Custer died less the victim of bad judgment than of bad luck.

But to ascribe defeat entirely to military failings is an ethnocentric devaluation of Indian strength and leadership. The Sioux and Cheyennes were strong, confident, united, well led, well-armed, outraged by the government’s war aims, and ready to fight if pressed. Rarely had the army encountered such a mighty combination in an Indian adversary. Perhaps no strategy or tactics could have prevailed against the Indian power that day. Perhaps the truest explanation is that Custer lost because Sitting Bull won. MHQ

ROBERT M. UTLEY is a former chief historian of the National Park Service. He has written extensively on the American West. This article is adapted from his biography of Custer, Cavalier in Buckskin, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1988 issue (Vol. 1, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Last Stand

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