Friday, June 18, 2010


Chief Sitting Bull (Tatanka iyotake), a Hunkpapa Sioux spiritual leader was 45 at the time of the Big Horn battle. In 1890, he would be shot dead by his own people as predicted in a prophecy.

A much-loved New Hampshire General of the American Revolution named John Stark had described his motivation to fight the British with the famous words “Live Free or Die”, a quote which is presently emblazoned on license plates from that state. I can think of no more succinct explanation of how and why Native Americans of seven disparate tribes and as many bands were willing to overcome their ancient differences and outright enmities, to gather together under a single leader to do battle with the mighty U.S. Army, in June of 1876 on Montana’s Little Big Horn River. With the buffalo herds on which they depended intentionally decimated, their promised lands seized, and reservation life a virtual enslavement, they felt they had nowhere else to go.
Together with families, that gathering numbered nearly eight thousand, supported by perhaps twenty thousand horses. The first of the many mistakes which Custer made that 25th day of June, was to ignore the warnings of his Crow scouts that the village they were approaching was much larger than he had bargained on. The second - and most unforgivable for the commander of such a small force – was to divide his command. He broke off a13l- man battalion under Major Reno, a second of 113 men under Captain Benteen to make circling movements from his own 215 man attacking group (which he then further divided in half for the assault). Another group of 131 troopers and packers he left to protect the pack train, which carried all the supplies, including much of the ammunition and scarce water which now would be separated from the fighting men who would need it !
Custer kept with him his younger brothers, Tom and Boston, his favorite cousin “Autie”, a newspaper correspondent (Custer was ever-attentive to his ongoing PR campaign), and his trusted four Crow scouts. Reno and Benteen shared 35 Indian scouts, mostly Arikara, whose devotion to duty by the way is worthy of special note. (The Indian scouts who served the U.S. soldiers at Big Horn were the most emotionally-affected and heart-stricken of all the survivors. They wept openly for their comrades in blue, and at least one became a suicide. A side story almost never told !)
Nearly half the men of the 7th Cavalry were foreign-born, German and Irish immigrants predominating,, part of a mix from 14 European countries. Many had enlisted because regular jobs in a depressed economy were hard to find. Some spoke and understood little “American/English”, and most had only recently learned to ride a horse – and not very well at that. They were equipped with the standard U.S. Army rifle: a single-shot Springfield carbine. (The U.S. military has long been guilty of arming its troops with weapons left over from the previous war.) In this case, senior commanders wished to conserve on ammunition, arguing that a “good soldier” could still manage to reload and fire 17 times a minute. In actual fact, the Springfield used metallic casings made from copper which swelled in an overheated barrel resulting in a jam which could only be freed with a knife blade.
As a result of battlefield archeology only recently documented, we know that among a mix of weaponry, many Indian warriors carried Winchester and Henry repeaters, firing ammunition with brass casings and capable of rapid and accurate fire, even from horseback. And here there was another telling dichotomy: Cavalry soldiers fought dismounted, forming first into skirmish lines, requiring that one of every four troopers acted as a “horse-holder” and was virtually unable to join the fighting ! Warriors fought individually and often from the saddle. Ironically, even the bow-and-arrow turned out to be a not-so-secret but very effective battlefield weapon, capable of flying through a parabolic trajectory to take casualties among troopers seemingly protected by earthen berms and barriers. As many as 10,000 arrows may have littered the two scenes of battle in the immediate aftermath.
Reno and Benteen were quickly isolated from the “valley fight”, coming together to hold off 2000 warriors for almost two days with their 400 embattled and exhausted troopers on a hilltop now known as “Reno Hill”, while a mile away, and out of sight, Custer and his battalion were losing their fight in an ever-collapsing circle on “Last Stand Hill”. In the end, Custer’s 7th Cavalry were not only outnumbered, but outgunned.
With all the contrary criticism given ample weight, there remains much evidence and compelling testimony to the acts of personal courage and bravery exhibited on the battlegrounds of the Little Big Horn. Fifteen Medals of Honor were won that day, and Captain Frederick Benteen, with all his many faults and a legion of detractors ended up providing the motivating leadership that kept the defenders of “Reno Hill” from joining the list of fatalities marking the battle of June25th and 26th, 1876. Altogether, the U.S. 7th Cavalry lost 268 killed and 62 wounded.
2nd Lieutenant Henry Harrington, CO of Custer’s C Company won the respect of the warriors on the other side who observed his selfless efforts to save his trapped companions not once but twice before falling himself.
Moving Robe Woman, a Lakota mother, was one of several Indian women who joined the field of battle to defend their warrior sons and husbands, while Hunkpapa boys as young as 12 rode into battle.
Several Courts of Inquiry looked at evidence of drunkenness, cowardice and dereliction of duty in the months following the Big Horn disaster and several reputations were tarnished within the military. One may wonder though why much of what was discovered was never made public, and why history books were pretty much written in support of the “Custer Myth”; a story which today is unveiled by new research and technology. The answer probably comes down to a desire to protect the families of the lost troopers, and especially Libby Custer, the widow who devoted the remainder of her long life to guarding and polishing the reputation of the man she loved.
NOTE: The last survivor ot the Little Big Horn was Private (later Sgt’) Charles Windolph, an immigrant from Germany, who died in 1950 at the age of 97.
The Custer disaster was not the most costly U.S. Army defeat of the Indian Wars, but an event during the Wabash campaign in Ohio in 1791, in which 700 troops died and 300 were wounded. It was a great embarrassment for President George Washington.

Three Custer scouts, Little Brave, Bobtail Bull and Bloody Knife, are honored near “Custer Hill” with epitaphs which note that they “died in defense of the Arikara way of life.

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