The Fights on the Little Horn: Unveiling the Mysteries of Custer’s Last Stand, by Gordon Harper, Casemate Publishers, Havertown, Pa., 2014, $32.95
Condensed from 1,700 pages of notes compiled over decades of research by Gordon Harper, The Fights on the Little Horn comes off as the work of a man whose professions include private investigator. The author based his conclusions on battlefield archaeology and interviews with the Lakota, Cheyenne and Crow descendants of the surviving combatants. Although Harper died in 2009, his daughter, Tori Harper, assembled his work into nine chapters of narrative reconstructing the battle and eight on further analysis, with an eye on the controversies and myths that persist about the 7th U.S. Cavalry’s disaster of June 25–26, 1876.
Frankly, the controversy may resume afresh with the book’s title for those who are into the names of things. When experts and non-experts alike discuss the battle today, they say it took place near the Little Bighorn (or Little Big Horn) River, some 14 miles from its junction with the Bighorn (or Big Horn) River. Gordon says the river by the main battle action should instead be called the Little Horn. Well, that was in fact what it was called in many after-action reports. So this seems to be a quibbling over semantics. Maybe we should all call the river in question the Greasy Grass, as it was known to the Indians of the time.
If one can get past the “Little Horn” label, though, there is plenty of material to compare to the vast amount of research that preceded it, and without a doubt other enthusiasts of one of history’s most overrated field engagements will get hours of enjoyment debating just how many of its revelations are truly groundbreaking. One example, to which an entire chapter is devoted, concerns the question of what percentage of the 7th Cavalry comprised untrained recruits, and what effect they had on the course of the fight. Harper’s answer, backed by unit records, is that the percentage was low and their bearing on the battle minimal at best. The entire “controversy,” he states, lies in the testimonies of officers such as Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, who sought to deflect their respective responsibility for the operation’s outcome. To what degree the myth has persisted is best answered by the individual reader.
The validity of that and Harper’s other appraisals (such as his contention that nothing significant happened at Medicine Tail Ford) are open to debate, as usual. And there will be some debate whether The Fights on the Little Horn will constitute a major asset in one’s Custer library or just constitute another (albeit a long one) recounting with an eyebrow—or hackle—raising title. Certainly, the research and passion is commendable.