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Online Extra: A Custer Gallery—Man, Myth, and Memorial

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: November 02, 2012 
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(Heritage Auction Galleries, Texas)
(Heritage Auction Galleries, Texas)

SINCE 1876 HISTORIANS have debated every nuance of Custer's battle against the Sioux at the Little Bighorn River. The quantity of literature produced is stunning, and it consistently contends that Custer was thrown on the defensive, that he quickly hunkered down on a ridgeline, awaiting help that never came. An even more troubling scenario is offered up by others, most notably Captain Frederick Benteen in 1876 and archeologist Richard Fox today, who contend it was a rout without any true defensive lines or even the celebrated "last stand."

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But the well-accepted details have baffled many who have studied the battle and the man in depth. The idea of Custer dismounting his troopers to hold a ridgeline, passively waiting for help, goes against the grain of every aspect of his career and character. How could this brilliant, consistently aggressive officer have been thrown totally on the defensive? In MHQ's Winter 2013 issue, historian Paul Andrew Hutton contends that the conventional interpretation of Custer's movements is deeply flawed and that, in fact, Custer retained the offensive throughout the battle.

On May 22, 2013, Hutton received the Army Historical Foundation's 2013 Distinguished Writing Award (Journals and Magazines) for this story. We've posted it to celebrate!

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10 Responses to “Online Extra: A Custer Gallery—Man, Myth, and Memorial”


  1. 1
    Dennis says:

    The evidence as shown on the History Channel shows that the troops were scattered and died alone. The History Channel evidence with another book I read shows Custer was on not the hero people want him to be.

  2. 2
    C. Lee Noyes says:

    As to the article "Could Custer Have Won?" (MHQ Winter 2013):

    Professor Hutton concludes “Custer retained the offensive throughout the battle” until the final desperate moments of his immediate command on Last Stand Hill. In this context he notes that by abandoning his assault on the southern end of the Lakota-Cheyenne village, Major Marcus A. Reno “surrendered the offensive power of his cavalry—a crucial mistake.”

    No would question George Armstrong Custer’s aggressive, perceptive leadership on the field of battle,
    as clearly demonstrated by his decisive tactical victory against Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart on East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Yet, he also demonstrated judicious caution by refusing to attack under unfavorable circumstances and odds (notably, for example, at the Battle of Trevilian Station in 1864 or during his skirmish with the Lakota on the Yellowstone River in 1873). His strategic withdrawal from the Washita battlefield in 1868 testifies to such judgment and restraint.

    The general reader of military history might assume that this essay presents a “new analysis” of the Little Big Horn (as MHQ purports). However, the student familiar with this battle as well as the subject matter expert will conclude that its portrayal of the movements of Custer’s two battalions largely reflects the well-known research of such recognized scholars as Michael Donahue, Richard Fox and Joseph Sills, notably the apparent movement of at least part of his command north of Last Stand Hill to Ford “D” in an attempt to cross the river at that point and capture village non-combatants.

    One point subject to a different interpretation is the statement that Custer ordered Reno to “attack the village.” (A more plausible scenario is that the major was ordered to pursue the Indians that interpreter Frederic Gerard had observed “running like devils,” not the encampment, the size and location/s of which had not been established.) The combat strength of the respective battalions and other data in the article is somewhat dated in view of recent research.

    c. Lee Noyes, Editor
    CBHMA BATTLEFIELD DISPATCH

    (518) 561-2528 (home ET)
    CLeeNoyes@aol.com

    http://www.custerbattlefield.org

    • 2.1
      Pierre Silvestre says:

      My concerns with this article are that I would really like to see the evidences the author mentions he has uncovered. This article appears a little light there unless I missed them reading it. I hope he is publishing them somewhere else and I will try to find them.

      Best regards,
      PS

  3. 3
    Don Haines says:

    There was a lot of dissension within the Officer corps of the seventh, especially among the Custer faction and the Reno/Benteen faction. Benteen never disguised his hatred of Custer and had he "come quick"
    as ordered, victory might have been achieved despite the odds. Also, if Reno had continued his charge all the way into the village, it would have made a big difference. Indians were never very good at withstanding Cavalry charges. Many say that professional soldiers would never let personal feelings interfere–but human nature is human nature.

  4. 4
    Lew Frank says:

    Hutton's piece was brief yet well done in terms of recounting the events. Space constraints limited the quantity, but not quality. Mr. Noyes is right about "new analysis" angle: Nothing new in the article per se, mostly just a solid restatement of previously known info.

    As Mr. Noyes also pointed out, Hutton references the excellent research work by Fox and Donahue. Hutton also managed NOT to make a common error when referring to the last messenger as (simply) John Martin; most others refer to him as Giovanni Martini (just finished reading a very interesting book on Martin – "Custer's Bugler: The Life of John Martin").

    Hutton is sharp and the article illustrates that perfectly.

  5. 5
    Alvin says:

    As far as I can remember I've always been fascinated with the history of Custer’s Last Stand. I remembered long time ago seeing a framed Budwiser print of the Last Stand in an old neighborhood bar and wondered what was it like to be there surrounded by hostile Indians and knowing you are outnumbered and death is knocking at your door. I just finished reading a book “ Son of the Morning Star” and I find it very intriguing reading from both sides and what it was like up to the point before the massacre.

    Custer was known to be arrogant, indiscipline, intolerable, glory hound and hated by many and loved by few. History should tell the whole story of what this man was truly like and what it was like to be under his command. We all love what we saw in the movie “They died with their boots on” starring Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland. We didn’t see the other side of what his troop of the 7th Calvary did prior the fateful event when they raided the Indian villages of what they did to the old men, woman and children. We only heard one side of the story and not the complete history of what brought on this attack at Little Big Horn. If it weren’t for this attack, Custer would not become a national hero. We all love Heroes but all for the right reasons. Kit Carson is another example of a ill rated hero.

    • 5.1
      Leigh W Cole says:

      Alvin…General Custer was a national hero bythe Civil Wars end. The best of the US Cavalry Generals of the war. No understanding of his career on the plains is possible without first studying his achievements during the war. I invite you..and any others interested..in joining us for study at Little Big Horn Associates FB page or LBHA.com.

  6. 6
    jeff james elsden says:

    dear sir,/madam please can you send me a list of all dideos/dvds of documentarys film of indian fighting us army true,custer or films of custer, and battle of the litrtle bighorn 1876 films silent or with sound i have they died with their boots on, custers last battle 1912, custer wild west+ custers last battle 1876, little big man w/ dustin hoffman, bugles in the afternoon w/ ray milland, red tomahawk, custer of the west, son of morning star, little bighorn, the glore guys,the plainsman w/ gary cooper, the oregon trail,dr quinn medicin woman whole series, warpath 1951, badlands of dakota 1941, tonka 1958, buffalocusters last stand 1936, the legend of custer 1968 the whole series, buffalo girls 1995, class of 1, cheyenne the whole series w clint walker, steve spielbergs in to the west 2005, stolen women 1997, crazy horse 1996, snta fe trail 1940, the plainsman 1966,

    • 6.1
      Franco says:

      Hi,
      Try these:
      A&E Betrayal at Little Big Horn DVD
      A Good day to Die by John S. Gray and Robert M. Utley DVD
      The above two might be available from Amazon.com or Ebay.
      Their Shot Quit Coming DVD available from Western National Parks Ass.
      (WNPA runs the bookstore at Little Big Horn.)

  7. 7
    Sm8213 says:

    Alvin,
    I think your perception of Gen. Custer might be a little skewed. Hard driving yes. Glory hound maybe. Gen. Custer was absolutely a national hero after the civil war. A reputation he absolutely deserved. He was without question a brilliant tactician. You referenced non combatants being attacked by Gen. Custer prior to the LBH. I would strongly encourage you to read a little more about Indian warfare on the plains. Quite frankly the Indians were as bad if not worse than Custer in that regard. Their treatment of what we would consider to be non combatants when fighting each other was atrocious. However! That was the norm and accepted method of warfare among the plains tribes at the time. That was the entire point of getting into the village to begin with. As a rule the Indians would disengage or lay down there arms when it was clear the non combatants were becoming involved. This is a important factor to look at when you look at the 7th's movements at LBH.

    Respectfully



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