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6/25/2006
THE BATTLE OF GREASY GRASS CREEK
CATEGORY: History

(This post originally appeared June 25, 2005)


A STYLIZED AND UNREALISTIC PORTRAYAL OF CUSTERS LAST STAND

George Armstrong Custer surveyed the low, rolling Montana countryside before him on that brutally hot Sunday afternoon of June 25, 1876 and must have felt a twinge of anticipation. He was a warrior. And prior to every battle he was ever involved in, from his glory days in the Civil War to this, the last battle of his life, Custer felt the tingling of impending combat. He considered himself invulnerable. His confidence - some would say arrogance - inspired both intense loyalty and profound disdain from the men and officers under his command. This, more than anything else, led to his destruction.

The Battle of Little Bighorn (the Lakota call it “The Battle of Greasy Grass Creek”) is the most closely examined battle in American history. Custer’s every known move has been examined, debated, dissected, re-examined and criticized by historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and scientists. It’s also been one of the most popular subjects for artists as every generation since the battle has had both ridiculous and stylized portrayals as well as historically accurate reproductions. And thanks to Hollywood, just about everyone has heard of both the battle and its two major players - Custer and Tashunca-uitco AKA “Crazy Horse.”

The evolution of attitudes toward the battle is one of the most fascinating aspects of its history. Originally seen as a massacre of white soldiers by merciless Indians, the loss of of 267 American soldiers outraged and humiliated a country that was in the process of celebrating it’s Centennial. The resulting outcry sealed the doom of the Lakota, Cheyenne and other plains Indians tribes who had united for one last great war against white encroachment. Custer was portrayed as a great hero, thanks in no small part to his wife Libby’s hagiographic biography of their lives together called Boots and Saddles.

Then in the 1960’s, a welcome re-examination of America’s mythic heroes, including Custer, was initiated by historians eager to take advantage of the American people’s desire for the “truth” about our past. The pendulum swung in the opposite direction and Custer emerged as a vainglorious martinet of an officer, so eager for glory that he sacrificed his men on the altar of personal ambition.

By the late 1970’s, Custer’s image had been slightly rehabilitated thanks to a re-examination of his outstanding career as a Civil War cavalry leader. And along with authors like Jeffrey Wert and Evan McConnel, a new, more personal side of Custer emerged. The arrogant martinet became the loving and devoted husband whose letters to his young wife reveal a playful, likable man with a penchant for teasing.

But on that fateful Sunday, Custer allowed the darker side of his personality to take over. This was a Custer that was unconcerned with the lives of his men. This was the Custer who had been court martialed and suspended for a year for disobeying orders. And this was the Custer whose overweening confidence in his own abilities and suicidal disdain for the fighting skills of his adversary sealed his fate and the fate of so many in his command.

He was not technically in violation of his orders. General Terry who was making his way to the Little Big Horn with 2,500 infantry was due the next day but had not specifically ordered Custer to wait. So despite the warnings of his faithful Crow scouts (”Many Sioux” they had told him, a warning he didn’t heed because he thought the Indians couldn’t give an accurate count of warriors), Custer rode to his death.

His survey of the Indian encampment before him was superficial. All he could see from his vantage point was the north end of the village. This was due to a quirk in the topography of the battlefield. If you ever visit the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, you’ll be struck by the gently, rolling hills that give the impression of a single valley stretching out in the distance. What Custer couldn’t see were intervening copses and indentations that hid not the 5,000 or so Indians he believed he was facing, but fully 15,000 men, women and children in a gigantic encampment that stretched for more than 5 miles across the plain.

At the sight of Custer’s men, the Indian warriors rushed to their families and helped to get them out of harms way. Custer interpreted this as a sign that the Indians were preparing to flee and divided his command into 3 sections. He sent Major Reno around to where he thought the south end of the camp was, ordering him to ride through the village and sow confusion while he attacked from the north and the other column commanded by Major Benteen attacked from the east.

It was stupid, rash, and doomed to failure. Reno, an inexperienced (some would say cowardly) officer took one look at the immense village before him and retreated. Some historians believe that if Reno had attacked while the warriors were busy looking after the safety of their families he could have in fact caused the kind of confusion that Custer was looking for. What this would have meant to the outcome of the battle is uncertain. It may have given Custer time to find better defensive ground as his subordinate Major Benteen was able to do by linking up with the incompetent Reno who had taken up a position on a steep bluff overlooking the Little Big Horn river. Given Custer’s impetuous nature, this probably wasn’t in the cards.

Custer’s 267 men rode along a bluff that he thought hid him from sight of the village. He was tragically mistaken. The Indians, alerted to his presence by the incompetent Reno were now swarming between the copses and in the shallow depressions that marked the north end of the battlefield. Too late, Custer realized his predicament and ordered his men up to the top of a gently sloping hill northwest of the village. Known as “Last Stand Hill,” approximately 900 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors were able to surround Custer’s command and wipe them out to almost the last man. (One of Custer’s Crow scouts escaped by wrapping a Lakota blanket around himself and simply wandering away).

In the aftermath of the battle, General Terry arrived and after hastily burying the dead, started after Sitting Bull and his people. Evading capture for two years by going to Canada, the starving Lakotans finally surrendered on their own and were forced onto reservations.

The spectacular victory of the Indians over the United States army was the last major engagement of the Indian wars of the 19th century. There would be other skirmishes and campaigns - most notably against Goyathlay AKA “Geronimo, the great Chiricahua Apache warrior - but Little Big Horn would be the last time so many warriors on both sides were involved.

As for history’s judgment, Custer’s legacy will be a mixed one. Perhaps it’s unfortunate that Little Big Horn will overshadow his real accomplishments as a cavalry commander during the Civil War. He remains one of the most fascinating characters in American history, reason enough for the continued fascination with the battle that claimed his life.

By: Rick Moran at 6:30 am
7 Responses to “THE BATTLE OF GREASY GRASS CREEK”
  1. 1
    Joe Deaen Said:
    8:07 am 

    Rick,

    Marvelous piece on Custer. I really enjoy these pieces on figures and history. Very well done. I received a book for a gift called, “Life on the Plains”. The semi/auto biography of Custer. My mother found the book on Ebay. First Edition with Custer’s signature in it!.

  2. 2
    Chris Said:
    9:51 am 

    I am sure that you have seen the episode of “Battlefield Detectives” that examined the archaeological evidence left behind. In case you haven’t, they took advantage of a recent fire that removed the grass cover and inspected the battlefield.

    Their conclusion was that there was no “last stand” as such, that there were probably three running battles involving units of Custer’s command. Basically, the forensic evidence indicated that the Indians had a large number of rifles, including repeating rifles, and that the entire fight was basically a tactical slaughter, as the small groups were overwhelmed one by one. The main evidence against any last stand was a lack on concentrated cartridges from the American rifles in any spot.

    Custer was known to be reckless even in the Civil War engagements in which he acquitted himself well. It’s not surprising that he fell victim to a well-planned and executed ambush.

  3. 3
    Geoff Said:
    12:30 pm 

    Having been born, raised, and now back living in Battle Creek Michigan, home of Fort Custer, I’ve enjoyed over the years reading the many stories and accounts of the “Last Stand” Thank you for this post on it.

  4. 4
    JK Moran Said:
    12:58 pm 

    Fine piece, Rick, which I remember well from last year and was going to comment on at the time. Interestingly, today - the 130th anniversary of the battle - is also a Sunday, as the day of the original battle was.

    I may in fact blog on this later today because of some of the political parallels to today, but here I would offer briefly a couple of comments that I intended to make last year.

    The story of “Curley” (Shuh-Shee-Ansh), the Crow scout who told people later that he “changed his hair” to appear to be a Lakota and wrapped himself in a blanket to escape from the final killing on Last Stand Hill was even before his death exposed as spurious. Having seen (with the other Crow and the Arikara or “Ree” scouts) the enormous size of the Shyela/Lakota/Arapaho pony herd from the Crow’s Nest (because as you note accurately they could not see the full dimensions of the village), Curley politely excused himself from the impending conflict with the permission and blessing of Custer and Reno, who understood (and in fact were counting on) the Indians’ dislike of open, pitched, frontal combat. The Crows and Rees had agreed to lead Custer to the Lakota; having done so, they were excused.

    The Crow scouts by all accounts warned Custer against riding into the valley, telling him (as they adduced from the number of ponies visible to their naked eyes but not to Custer even with a spyglass)that there were more Sioux in the valley than there were stars in the skies. Curley was among these; he likely trailed along for a while and in all probability saw the last stand conflict but was more than two miles distant.

    The Rees glumly painted themselves and sang death songs before riding into the valley and meeting their ends - motivated by their personal code of honor, which included loyalty to their chief, in this case Custer, with whom they had an intense and personal bond, especially Bloody Knife. [Funny how this point never gets mentioned any more in discussions about GAC, the battle, the politics involved, and so on.]

    Often overlooked - except in modern times by Connell and Wert, as you mention - was the fact that Custer’s basic battle plan, though based on incomplete and flawed intelligence (this being the point where the charge of arrogance has the most traction) was good and had worked before at Washita and elsewhere because of the differing styles and manners of warfare practiced by the two groups. Custer had in excess of 700 fully armed and supplied troops. He believed he was facing an enemy of perhaps 1500 in strength. Now the actual number of warriors was at least twice that and more likely triple - but Indians fought as indivdiduals demonstrating bravery, not as disciplined combat units. Hence, there were REPEATED encounters in the old West in which small but disciplined groups of whites defeated or at least survivied encounters with overwhelmingly superior Indian forces. Beecher Island is the most notable example, where fewer than 50 cavalry troops and scouts held out for two days against over 2,000 Cheyenne warriors - or similar numbers in the Wagon Box Fight.

    Custer was an intuitive cavalry officer - his “luck” was actually a seldom-erring judgment about when and how to engage. The “reckless” description that Chris alludes to above was actually what earned him and Wesley Merritt the promotion from captain to brigadier general in early 1863 - the fearless willingness to commit cavalry to a frontal charge which, by the way, the brigadier was expected to lead and which Custer - red-kerchiefed, white-hatted, and blond-curled - invariably did, having had eight horses shot from under him in the Civil War. Cavalry troopers lives were absolutely expendable - they were shock troops, after all - and Custer expended them to greater effect than any other Civil War cavalry leader, including Jeb Stuart (whom Custer defeated and killed at yellow Tavern in 1864). By contrast, Grant’s dogged, frontal infantry chrage, siege, trench, and attack strategy was much more controversial at the time, and Grant was liable to far more criticism for “wasting” troops than Custer ever was.

    The fires of 1984 and 1989 that Joe Deaen refers to brought to light a number of fascinating artifacts. For me, the positve indentification of the skull and bone fragments of chief of scouts Mitch Bouyer and the remains of Lonesome Cherley Reynolds were the most interesting. The historical fact of most significance, though, was that the Indians were much, much better armed than previously supposed - modern ballistics enabling archeologists to trace the movement of dozens of indian weapons across the huge battlefied by following expended shell casings.

    And as much of a student of the battle as I have been for forty-five years - as you again note, it wasn’t until I actually visited and walked the battlefield in 1985 that I fully comprehended what had happened and why the survivors of Reno’s battalion, most especially Lt. (later general) Edward Godfrey, never quite understood why Custer’s battalion was annihilated.

    Now, I am not a fan of the PC and “history-lite” PBS series “History Detectives,” which relies again and again on conjecture and politically shaded judgments passed off as facts - and man, did they get this one wrong. There certainly WAS a last stand. Custer had dropped off the “Wild I” company under Keogh a mile and a half from Last Stand Hill - 30 or so troopers under his best battlefield commander. Calhoun’s C Company remained on Calhoun Hill about halfway between Keogh and Custer. The rout occurred when Custer apparently detatched E company and sent them into the Deep Ravine which even today is nearly impossible to be seen from Last Stand Hill.

    The Cheyenne decimated E; I was killed to the man in disciplined ranks surrounded by volleyed shell casings; remnants of C and E made their way to Last Stand Hill, overwhelmed from the rear by at least 900 of Crazy Horses’s Oglalla warriors while engaged from the front by Gall’s Hunkpapa.

    The interesting parallel I would draw today might be between Custer’s Rumsfeldian sense that a small but disciplned quick strike force could subdue an enemy in his own country as opposed to General Terry’s Colin-Powellian plan to mass “overwhelming force” to destroy an enemy force and forcibly occupy his land.

  5. 5
    George Said:
    1:15 pm 

    In Gore Vidal’s “1876″ the news of Custer’s defeat becomes public before July 4th, but in an author’s note Vidal states that the story actually was withheld until after the holiday so not to spoil the centenial celebration. I doubt Bill Keller would have waited to publish it had he been around then.

  6. 6
    Joel Said:
    2:30 pm 

    Rick
    The major Indian opponent of Custer that day was nto Crazy Horse but Gall (the adopted brother of Sitting Bull). It was Gall who led the Hunkpapa Circle which first defeated Major Reno (3 companies)in the Valley and then Gall led the frontal attack on Custer’s battalion (5 companies) while Crazy Horse (Lakota)and Two Moons (Norhern Cheyenne) attacked from the flank and rear. Gall is not nearly as well known as Crazy Horse probably because he eventually made his peace wtih the White Man and did not die a martyrs death.

  7. 7
    Joel Said:
    2:50 pm 

    JK Moran
    Actually Calhoun commanded “L” company not “C” company. It also is intersting in that most of the command officers fell on Last Stand Hill - Custer, his brother Tom (Captain), Yates (EF company commader), Algernon Smith (E Company), adjutant W.W. Cooke, Van Buskirk, Reilly, and several others. By the way the number of Indian warriors was somewhere between 1,500 and maybe 2,000 (if one counts the youths who probably bore arms). I saw the History Detectives documentary that you alluded to and you are right - it was a Poltically Correct homage to the “Native Americvans.”

    As far as Yellow Tavern goes- Stuart was not expected to be victorious in that battle. He was outnumbered more then 4-1 and his opponents had repeaters as well as healthier horses. However as the monument to Stuart at Yellow Tavern says “HE WAS KILLED BUT HE SAVED RICHMOND.” He did save Richmond and in many ways it was JEB’s finest hour.

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