(This post originally appeared June 25, 2005)
A STYLIZED 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 Custer and the battle that claimed his life.
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. Given that there were other instances on the plains of vastly outnumbered cavalry holding off the tribes, Custer may have been able to save most of his command if he had immediately found defensible ground to make a stand. If Reno had followed his orders, it may have given Custer time to find better defensive ground as his subordinate Major Benteen was able to do, taking up a position on a steep bluff overlooking the Little Big Horn river. But given Custer’s impetuous nature, this probably wasn’t in the cards.
Custer had a reputation during the Civil War of doing whatever it took to win battles. His casualty rate was the highest of any Civil War cavalry general. But as Phil Sheridan’s devastating right arm in the Shenendoah, Custer’s troops won victory after victory – including winning the battle of Yellow Tavern where one of those grim necessities for a Union triumph to come to pass finally happened; Custer’s boys killed the biggest thorn in the Union side in the Eastern theater – Jeb Stuart.
Headstrong, fearless, and also something of a martinet in that he demanded much from his men, Custer was popular with ordinary troopers because he won battles and instilled a sense of pride in his brigades. He was not very well liked among his fellow officers, however, due to his shameless self promotion and perceived sucking up to headquarters. In the end, despite some historians who argue Reno and Benteen failed to come to Custer’s defense even though both those officers were busy trying to keep from being wiped out themselves, Custer’s fate was sealed the moment he divided his command
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 the last man.
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.