The Little Big Horn, Saturday, 25 June 1876
The biggest problem American Indians faced with European immigrants was that they kept allying themselves with the losing side! During the French and Indian War, Indians allied themselves with the French. The French lost. During the Revolutionary War, Indians allied themselves with the British. The British lost.
So, by the middle of the 1800s, not surprisingly Americans had precious little sympathy with Indians, all Indians. They were all seen as godless devils. Contemptuous disdain for Indians and Indian culture would thus drive American Politics for the rest of the Century. Primitive man would have to move, or be moved, out of the way, so that western expansion could proceed. Indian Tribes had few allies in Washington. They couldn’t vote, and they were constantly “in the way.” Civil War hero, Phil Sheridan, coined the expression, “The only ‘good’ Indian is a dead Indian!”
Indian “chiefs” were thus located and persuaded to sign away vast tracts of land, without ever consulting with sub-chiefs, nor with adjacent tribes. “Civilized” tribes, like the Cherokee, who had seen the “handwriting on the wall,” and thus had tried to accommodate European settlers and amalgamate with the new culture were never given a chance. They were carelessly lumped together with all other Indians and casually pushed out of the way. Warriors from belligerent tribes fought an intermittent and disorganized battle against encroachment, but the ultimate outcome was never in doubt. There were no new Pontiacs, Little Turtles, nor Tecumsehs to unite the tribes. Western expansion, in fact, was taking place so rapidly that “reservations” were hastily created, mostly to keep settlers out, not Indians in.
By 1876, with no major war to capture headlines, the Regular Army had, once again, deteriorated to a low level, both in numbers and morale. Only 26,000 troopers were on the roles. At any one time, a substantial percentage were AWOL The regular army had become a refuge for those who had nothing else going for them.
Of all army officers in the post Civil War era, the one name most remembered is George A Custer, which is exactly as he would have wanted it!
Inactivity made him crazy. Such an incorrigible glory hound was he that, when the Civil War ended, he considered joining the Mexican army, so that he could take part in an actual, shooting war. His uniform and personal appearance were always overstated and he usually looked more like a thespian than a soldier. On a darker side, Custer was unfeeling and cold-blooded. His uncaring attitude for the welfare of his subordinates was manifested on many occasions. He craved only personal glory, and had scant concern for the people with him. Though married, he kept a number of Indian and black mistresses.
In 1868, a bored Custer charged into Black Kettle’s Indian village on the Washita River in Oklahoma, killing a handful of warriors along with many women and children and several dozen horses. Not surprisingly, Custer inflated casualty figures to purport that well over one hundred warriors were killed. Also not surprisingly, he sent a small patrol to reconnoiter a hidden area on the river, then forgot about them! They were all killed by Indians, but Custer never bothered to find out what had happened to them. Their lives obviously meant nothing to him. As a result, his command was thereafter sharply divided into pro-Custer and anti-Custer factions.
President Grant hated Custer, as did just about everyone else in Washington. Grant’s administration had been plagued with scandal, most of it revolving around his sleazy brother, Orville. In an act which alienated him completely, Custer was persuaded by ambitious politicians to publicly speak out against Grant. Because of that and a host of other indiscretions, Grant was so enraged he wanted Custer decommissioned and drummed out of the service. Only Custer’s longtime friend, Phil Sheridan, shielded him from Grant’s wrath.
In the nick of time, a major military campaign began to take shape. Lakotas, under Sitting Bull, Gall, and Crazy Horse, had left their reservation and invaded an area in the Montana Territory that had been assigned to the Crows. It was June, and various political parties in Washington were selecting candidates to run in upcoming fall elections. Politicians naturally wanted to be perceived as being in control of “the Plains.” Several newspaper editors were eying Custer as presidential material.
So, General Crook was sent north from Ft Laramie. Colonel Gibbon was to proceed east from Helena, MT. General Terry would advance west from Ft Lincoln, SD. Custer, assigned to Terry’s command, was ordered to take his regiment further west, toward the Yellowstone River.
All four columns were to simultaneously converge at the Little Bighorn River in present-day Montana, where the referent Lakotas were believed to be. The intent was to round-up the entire contingent of trespassing Indians, and then escort them back to their proper place. The expectation was that, faced with overwhelming force, Indians would all be rounded up like so much cattle.
Custer declined to take four Gatling Guns, because he contended they, and wagons necessary to carry enough ammunition to run them, would slow him down. However, he did insist on taking the regimental band! General Terry immediately vetoed that idea.
Knowing his reputation, Colonel Gibbon chided Custer, “Don’t be greedy. Wait for us!” Custer’s response (as he rode away) was, “No I won’t!” His reply could have been taken two ways, and the colonel never got a chance to demand a clarification.
Custer’s column resembled a circus parade far more than a military unit! Custer’s younger brother Boston and a teenage nephew, Autie Reed, joined the group as tourists. Mark Kellogg, Custer’s personal publicist, was also invited to come along. Custer was himself flamboyantly dressed in a long-frilled, buckskin coat and carried two British Webley revolvers, and a hunting rifle.
A third of Custer’s 480-man contingent were raw recruits with virtually no military training. Many were recent immigrants who didn’t even speak English. They were unfamiliar with their rifles and had no marksmanship training, and surely had no business taking part in any serious military operation. Few were in any kind of “uniform.”
The issue rifle was the 1873 “Trapdoor Springfield” in 45-70 caliber. It was functional piece, but it was a permutation of a sporting rifle. It was accurate, but not designed for high-volume fire. When it got hot, it would fail to extract and thus quickly become non-functional. This would prove a fatal shortcoming. Few troopers carried sabers. Smart ones carried multiple revolvers!
Prior to that time, the most Indians anyone had ever seen in one place was fifteen hundred. There was no reason to believe that the “Lakota Sioux,” who were themselves a ragtag, disorganized amalgamation of a number of different tribes, numbered any more than that, nor would be capable of any kind of organized military action. The word, “Sioux,” was an Ojibwa term that translated to “enemy.” It was adopted by soldiers as meaning “any Indian.”
Custer sped ahead! He intended to arrive at the Little Bighorn a full day ahead of other units. As they approached, his scouts warned him that the Indian camp was far bigger than anyone had thought. They were able to discern the size from the number of ponies they could see grazing on a hillside. That is not what Custer wanted to hear, so he discounted their warnings, accusing them of having cold feet.
Custer was also urged to pause by his two chief subordinates Marcus Reno and Fred Benteen. Even his own brother, Tom Custer, who was also one of his subordinate commanders, advised great caution.
Saying, “We’ve caught them napping!” Custer rejected their advice and decided to attack immediately. He sent Reno to charge the Indian camp from the south. He sent Benteen off to take an ill-defined “blocking position.” Custer himself was to lead a charge directly into the middle of the Indian camp, although Reno had been lead to believe Custer would be “right behind” his (Reno’s) group. Both Reno and Benteen were part of the anti-Custer contingent within the command, particularly Benteen, and he was probably sent away from the action mainly to assure that he did not play any significant role, and would thus not merit space in newspaper headlines.
The Indian camp was the largest in history, containing six thousand, far larger than anyone had expected! As noted above, it represented a tedious, fidgety, uneasy, and unlikely association of a number of separate tribes who didn’t particularly like each other, but that had been brought together mostly out of mutual need and convenience.
Custer, suddenly realizing he had grossly miscalculated the capability of his opponent, quickly summoned a courier and told him to go find Benteen and get him back to the main fight. However, the courier had gotten off a boat from Italy just weeks earlier and spoke only broken English, and it became obvious to Custer that the kid didn’t understand a thing he was telling him!
So, Custer quickly scribbled a note to Benteen, saying:
“Come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs (ammunition). PS Bring packs.”
But, it was too late already!
Reno’s charge had barely begun when it became obvious that he was in way over his head. The attack immediately bogged down, and, trying desperately to salvage as much of his command as possible, Reno ordered a series of retreats. Reno lost half of his troopers, but he managed to get the balance on a hilltop and there set up a successful parameter defense. All subsequent probes by Indians were successfully repulsed.
Custer in the meantime never got a chance to charge the Indian encampment. They charged him! Instead of establishing a dense, perimeter defense on a hilltop, Custer ordered his 215 men to spread out over a half mile of indefensible terrain. That was a fatal mistake. His units were attacked one at a time and defeated in detail. When the remnant finally retreated to a hilltop, it was too late. They were overrun and all killed. It took less than twenty minutes! Many (probably most) committed suicide rather than being captured. Many of their overheated rifles were jammed and out of action. According to the Indian version, Custer was himself killed or mortally wounded early on and was literally dragged to the top of the hill by his brother, Tom.
In the meantime, Benteen luckily found, and reunited with, Reno’s bedraggled group. Several attempts were made to break out and find Custer, but all were unsuccessful. By the following day, no more shots were heard, and Reno and Benteen realized all the Indians had left. Even then, they had no idea of what had happened to Custer. It was General Terry’s command, arriving that same day who discovered Custer’s body and those of the rest of his contingent. The last of the bodies were not located until 1958! The Indians killed most of the cavalry horses, having no use for them, since they required grain for subsistence. Grass-fed ponies were much smaller but eminently more suitable for their purposes.
Great courage was displayed by both sides, but brilliant tactics by either! Custer’s hasty and presumptuous plan was doomed from the beginning. Crazy Horse was involved in some credible cavalry maneuvers, but the “charge” of Custer’s rapidly retreating troops simply involved running up a series of gullies.
The Lakotas were as surprised by their lopsided victory, as was everyone else! However, they knew they couldn’t stay and were fearful of repercussions. Most fled to Canada. In Canada they found refuge for a short time, but soon discovered that Canadians didn’t want them any more than Americans did.
Gall was killed by Reno’s men early on in the battle.
Crazy Horse turned himself in and was promptly murdered by his captors.
Sitting Bull became (briefly) a star in Bill Cody’s “Wild West Show!”
The land itself was returned to the Crows, who have it to this day.
Had he survived, Custer would surely have been court-martialed. As it was, poor Marcus Reno was selected as the most eligible scapegoat. He was acquitted, but never recovered. He was thereafter a broken man and died a pathetic alcoholic.
Even in death, Custer was generally (and correctly) regarded at the time as an incompetent egomaniac. There he would have surely remained, had it not been for his long-suffering wife, Elizabeth (Libby). Libby Custer is the one who, through strong media connections, resurrected her late husband’s image and eventually made him a (posthumous) Hollywood hero.
Don’t mistake a bull market for brains!
It is a common warning emanating from the lips of stock brokers and financial planners alike. The foolish and the self-deceptive will consistently confuse a run of good luck with divine providence! When the winning streak goes cold, they think it is unfair or that God has abandoned them. Both conclusions are absurd. There is nothing wrong with good luck, nor with bad luck. There is a great deal wrong, in either case, with thinking you deserve it!
Stay Alert, Stay Armed and Stay Dangerous!