The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 3 No 1 - June 1974

George Armstrong Custer and THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIG HORN

The subject of a talk given to the S.A. Military History Society by Mr R. Murchison in November, 1973.

Editors’ Note. Shortly after the Journal went to print, the sad news of Mr Rod Murchison’s death while on home leave in the United States reached us. We are sure that readers who knew Rod Murchison will feel as we do that we have lost a dear friend and that they will join us in extending heartfelt sympathy to his family.

On January 21, 1879, at a place called Hat Creek Bluffs in the American State of Nebraska, 89 Indian warriors, 112 squaws and 134 children died in the snow under the guns of the soldiers of the U.S. Army. The Indians who died that bitter day were Northern Cheyennes, the last of the great Sioux-Cheyenne alliance that wiped out George Custer and his men in the great victory that ultimately brought defeat to the Indians of the American northwest, and destroyed their traditional way of life. The next day, January 22, 1879, half-a-world away, the Zulu nation won the victory that spelled defeat for them and resulted in the end of the Zulu empire.

There are many singular, even amazing, parallels and similarities in the history of the development of the United States and the Republic of South Africa, but there are none more singular or amazing than the events involved in the final clash between the whites and the savage empires that dominated the land before the white man came. Most South Africans, particularly those interested in the military history of their country, are familiar to a degree with the battle of Isandhlwana, but there are probably only a handful who know of Isandhlwana’s historical, and nearly contemporary, parallel in the western United States. In fact, there are not many Americans who know much more than the name of the place and the name of the Army commander — they nearly always pick the wrong man as leader of the Indians.

The action that took place on the morning and afternoon of June 25, 1876, somewhere between the North Fork and the South Fork of the Little Big Horn River in what is now the state of Montana, has given rise to more misinformation, nonsense, bad cinema shows and bad jokes than any other in American history.

Some of you are bound to wonder what is important about a battle in which less than 260 soldiers were killed (no one knows what the Indian casualties amounted to), that was only an incident in one of the so-called Indian Wars that went on all during the settlement of the American West, and which many people only know about because of the expression ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ and a very bad painting by a German who never visited America. The Battle of the Little Big Horn was important in American history far beyond its immediate results, and it gained its fame because of the reputation and character of the U.S. commander and because of the year in which it occurred. It was the last important incident of violent resistance by the American Indian to the advance of white settlement in the northwestern United States. It was the only time in which the Indians overcame their inherent reluctance to inter-tribal alliances to the extent of fielding a national force, and it was the Indians’ only complete and overwhelming victory against a major invasion of their lands. George Custer was the best known of the western field-commanders without exception his associates and underlings either adored or despised him. There were no neutrals in the Custer argument. Finally, the battle occurred just over a week before the nation’s first centenary anniversary of independence, and the news of the slaughter of Custer and his entire command reached the big cities of the east just in time to spoil the celebrations.

The continued expansion of the whites west of the Mississippi River forced the Plains Indians on to restricted reservations. Good grazing and hunting lands had been allotted to them, only to be taken away when greedy white settlers and fortune-hunters demanded the land for other uses — intensive farming and mining. A treaty, of 1868, provided that a large area be set aside as a permanent home for the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. The area, known as the Great Sioux Reservation, included the game-abundant region of the Black Hills, a place which the Indian considered traditionally important to his religious beliefs. In 1874, a scientific expedition into the Black Hills (the military element of which consisted of the 7th U.S. Cavalry led by Custer) reported the finding of gold, and the region was immediately invaded by a horde of prospectors and fortune-seekers. The Indians, justifiably resenting the intrusion into their allotted hunting lands and sacred places, raided the white settlements and camps and left the reservation limits to hunt where they pleased. If the whites could break the treaty, why not the Red Man? The immediate cause of the campaign of 1876 was the Government’s order of December 3, 1875, directing that all Sioux be notified ‘that unless they shall remove within the bounds of their reservations (and remain there) before the 31st of January next, they shall be deemed hostile and treated accordingly by the military force’. It was practically impossible for the Indians to comply with this order because of the limited time allowed and the extreme winter weather at that time. Inasmuch as the Indians failed to comply, on February 7, 1876, the Secretary of the Interior and the General of the Army gave Lt-Gen P. H. Sheridan authority to commence operations against the hostile Indians.

The hostiles! The toughest, smartest, cruellest foemen any army ever faced the flint-eyed horse soldiers of the Great Plains. General Jeb Stuart, the Southern Confederacy’s great cavalry leader, called them the ‘finest light cavalry in the world’. In 200 years, since 1680 when Spanish attempts to prevent the western Indians learning horsemanship failed, the horse had become as much a part of the Plains Indian’s life as his squaw, his teepee or his weapon. The ‘horse frontier’ moved north from the old Spanish Southwest and in so doing met another of the white man’s contributions to Indian life — the gun. The Indian of the eastern United States became acquainted with firearms about the same time that his western brother got the horse, and by the time the eastern tribes had been pushed westward they had progressed from musket to rifle to the repeating rifle. The horse frontier, moving in from the south and west, and the gun frontier, advancing from the east, met on the Great Plains in a spectacular clash, and created the image that has obsessed the world ever since as the archetype of the Red Man: the feather-streaming, buffalo-chasing, wild-riding, recklessly fighting Indian of the plains. He was a late, last flowering of ancient cultures already vanished or in ruins over most of the Americas, and he only reached full glory when the real Indian world was all but a memory.

Among the great fighting tribes, perhaps the greatest, was a group or alliance of tribes known as the Dakota or as the French, using an Algonquian term for enemy, called them — the Sioux.

Large gatherings or encampments of Indians were rare occurrences, the problems of food supply for man and pony were too great for nomadic people, and estimates of the number of Sioux and their allied tribesmen who gathered in the Big Horn Valley in 1876 vary greatly. It may have totalled between 12 000 and 15 000 Indians, probably as many as 5 000 being warriors. Although there were scattered bands from other tribes, and quite a few were Northern Cheyenne (under Chiefs Two Moon and White Bull), the most were Teton Sioux-Ogallala (under Chiefs Crazy Horse, Low Dog and Big Road); Uncpapa (under Medicine Man Sitting Buffalo — Sitting Bull to the whites and War Chiefs Gall, Crow King and Black Moon); Miniconjous (under Chief Hump) and Sans Arcs (under Spotted Eagle). Their camp extended about three miles along the west bank of the river, with the Uncpapas at the extreme south rim and the Northern Cheyenne at the opposite end. Because of the rich grazing, the Indians called the site the ‘Greasy Grass’, and though the region was cut by many arroyos (or dongas), and therefore not ideal for cavalry tactics, the grazing for the large pony herd suited the Indian’s needs. This was the concentration of hostile Indians that Custer was to attack with about 600 soldiers, 44 friendly Indian scouts and 20 packers, guides and civilians.

In 1866, one year after the end of the Civil War, the entire U.S. Army consisted of only 45 000 men. This ridiculously small force was expected to police the defeated but still unpacified Southern States, defend two quiet but unfriendly borders (with Mexico and Canada) and act as a living barrier between the marauding Indians and the white settlers streaming into the western half of the United States. About one third of the army was cavalry or mounted infantry. This undue proportion of horse soldiers was required because of the hostile Indian’s mobility of life and his hit and run tactics. The Red Man feared the foot soldier, with his massed and disciplined fire power, augmented by artillery, more than he did the blue-clad cavalryman and he seldom stayed to do battle with infantry units. In fact, it was not the Indian’s tactics to stand and fight a pitched battle at all. Given an hour’s warning he would strike his camp and escape and, except in those rare instances when the Indian fell upon some small detached and unfortunate band of soldiers, he was more willing to run than to fight. This does not imply that the Red Man was lacking in personal courage. He knew his limitations and adapted his method of warfare to fit them.

The blue-uniformed men who enlisted for six years to chase Indians for twelve dollars a month and a diet of hardtack, beans and bacon were all ‘regulars’. After four years of war, the militia units and volunteer regiments had been disbanded and gone home. One million, thirty-four thousand of them, war-weary and homesick, were rapidly mustered out and returned to rejoicing families and flag-decked cheering hometowns. Throughout the Civil War, the Regular Army was the unloved stepchild of the fighting forces, never numbering more than 26 000 all told. There were no bounties for enlistment in the regulars, promotion was slow and no State Government provided extra comforts or ensured a fair share of publicity after famous actions. While many regular officers, graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, were seconded to commands in volunteer units during the war the rank and file of the professional army was made up largely of pre-1861 enlistees. When the post-war army was expanded to 45 000, many of these men re-enlisted to provide the non-commissioned officers who are the backbone of every army.

The regular commissioned officer, however, could look forward only to demotion and stagnation in rank if he chose to continue his career in the post-Civil War Army. In April 1865, Custer was a Major-General, commanding a division of volunteers. In 1876, he was a Lieutenant-Colonel and only second in command of the 7th Cavalry. Colonel Sturgis, the actual regimental commander fortunately for him and perhaps unfortunately for the regiment was detached for headquarters service in the summer of 1876. Reno and Benteen, respectively major and captain in the 7th, had both commanded brigades during the war. Except for the newly joined subalterns, there was hardly an officer of the 7th Cavalry who had not held a brevet of at least two higher ranks during the years 1861-65.

And what of the men who rode behind Custer, Reno, Benteen, Cook and Keogh? Were they as experienced and battle-hardened as the officers and non-coms who led them? Unfortunately not! There were men with the love of the Army too deeply ingrained in them to leave it— restless, footloose men who knew no profession other than soldiering and were unwilling to learn a new one. Back into uniform came some veterans who, finding that stay-at-homes had married their girls or grabbed their jobs, cursed their luck and sought the nearest recruiting station. The majority of the post-war rank and file, however, were newcomers the cream and the dregs of civilian life; youths, disappointed because they had been just too young to serve in the war and determined to see some Indian fighting; farm-boys, bored clerks, blacksmiths; salesmen who drank themselves out of a job; tramps dragged out of the gutter; criminals, one jump ahead of the police, enlisting under assumed names, and men who joined simply as a means of reaching the goldfields and who deserted at the first opportunity.

French Foreign Legion could not outdo this American army in variety of nationalities. Besides native Americans, it was full of Irish, Germans, French, British, Scandinavians, Italians, Russians and others. The waves of immigration from Europe in the 60s and 70s washed a number of of ex-professional soldiers and products of European conscription into the Western Army, and by and large they made first class soldiers. Myles Keogh, captain and commander of I company of the 7th, was a typical example; he was an Irish soldier of fortune; had a craving for drink that kept him constantly in debt, had served in at the Papal Zouaves and seen action in Africa and the Civil War. Trumpeter Geovanni Martini, the last man to see Custer alive, had served as a boy with Garibaldi before he emigrated from Italy and joined the U.S. Army as John Martin. Good, bad; drunk, sober; hero or coward; they all donned the blue woollen uniform and rode west to fight the only true Americans on the continent.

Except for the veterans, the troops were poorly trained. A city-bred boy after less than a month in the army might find himself in a troop pursuing an Indian war party. There were no depots, no basic training units and no induction centres. The average recruit made his way to one of the western forts and enlisted there in a specific regiment. As soon as he learned to sit his horse and fire his gun he was deemed ready for action. If he lived long enough he would become a rider and a marksman. If he did not, there was always another recruit to fill his place. When the 7th Cavalry rode out of Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota, between 30 and 40 percent of the regiment were raw recruits without prior service. According to a surviving officer, they were very poor horsemen and would fire at random. Brave enough, perhaps, but without the time or opportunity to be turned into soldiers. To very many of them, their first fight was their last.

The soldier’s weapon was the single-shot Springfield Carbine Model 1873, 45 calibre, firing 70 grain ammunition, accurate to about 1 000 yards. Many of the officers and some of the men purchased Colt Navy revolvers from their own funds, as the Springfield carbine was not a popular weapon. It was slow to load, and the Government-supplied ammunition was so poor that rounds frequently stuck in the overheated carbine chambers. The Springfield extractor would cut through the rim of a jammed cartridge like putty and leave the soldier no alternative but to hack it out with his hunting knife before he could reload. Very few cavalry units used the sabre other than for ceremonial duties and the lance had seen its day in the first years of the Civil War. Better firearms than the Springfield existed but an indifferent Government in Washington did not see fit to equip its servants with them.

About one third of the Indians at the Little Big Horn carried guns and the majority of these were Henry or Winchester magazine rifles, capable of pumping copper-jacketed bullets at a very high rate of fire, and accurate at over 600 yards. Enterprising white traders sold them to the Indians at $100 worth of furs (buffalo, bear or beaver) for a rifle, and 15 or 20 cents per cartridge.

These then were the troopers, what about the man who led them? George Armstrong Custer graduated at the foot of his class at West Point in the spring of 1861. If the Confederate States Government had not opened hostilities that spring by firing on Fort Sumter, it is doutful that he would have received any kind of diploma. Custer was held back while his classmates were made drill instructors for the thousands of civilians flocking to the colours. What was later called ‘Custer’s Luck’ then intervened — a junior officer was urgently required for a cavalry regiment riding to Manassas Junction where the Confederate Army lay.

Custer's superior officers reluctantly allowed him to fill the vacancy, and then only when they were sure no one else was available. During the rout of the U.S. Army at Manassas (or First Bull Run) Custer’s unit covered the retreat and his dashing figure, attempting to rally the fleeing Union soldiers, was noticed by a general officer who was later involved, in creating the new armies that eventually crushed the Confederacy. Custer’s rise in the expanded army was meteoric. By July 1863, he rode at the head of the newly created Michigan brigade of cavalry and in the spring of 1865 was commander of a volunteer division with the rank of Brevet (that is Acting or Temporary) Major-General. It was in the last nine says of the war, however, that Custer with his streaming, shoulder-length golden hair and flamboyant, self-designed uniform, captured the imagination of the civilians who were hourly waiting for news of Lee’s surrender. As the barefoot Army of Northern Virginia, half starved and almost without ammunition, fell back from Five Forks to Appomattox Court House, Custer’s Third Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac harried and harassed them every step of the way. Tired, hungry, with only rags of their gray uniforms left, they were only a remnant of the army that had smashed the blue ranks at Manassas, Groveton, Sharpsburg and Chancellorsville, and had fought off unequal odds for nearly two years after Gettysburg, but they were still a fighting force. Custer hovered around them like a vulture following a dying cow, darting in at every crossroad, picking off flankers, stragglers, wagons. Giving the hungry columns no time to eat, much less to sleep, forcing them to stop and deploy against his charges, he finally threw his entire division across their only line of retreat and halted them until the Union infantry came up. It was Custer who led the last cavalry charge of the war (against a North Carolina Colonel who would not surrender), Custer who bore off from the McClean House at Appomattox the table on which Grant and Lee signed the surrender terms, Custer whose runaway charger made him the most conspicuous figure at the grand review in Washington. Overnight he became the idol of the American public, and when, in 1866, the 7th Regiment of Cavalry was formed for service on the western plains, his old commanding officer, General Phillip Sheridan, gave him the chance for further glory. Custer was the idol of the newspaper-reading public and the newly-joined trooper, but not of all his army comrades or superior offices. Some said he was a puffed-up coxcomb, that he won his victories only against exhausted troops whose moounts could hardly walk, much less trot or gallop. His early fortunes with the 7th Cavalry against the Indians added to both his public image and his professional critics.

The battle of the Washita against Black Kettle’s overwhelming array of warriors started vaingloriously, with the band blaring Custer’s battlesong (Garry Owen) and probably alerting the Indians to the attack; and, to the dumb amazement and disgust of some of his best officers, closed with the abandonment of Major Elliot’s flanking party as Custer withdrew the regiment from the field. He was later in trouble for absenting himself from duty and for shooting deserters without proper trial. When the 7th was ordered to Fort Lincoln for action against the hostile Sioux in 1876 Custer was under censure of the War Department and President Grant removed him from command. Only his earnest pleading and the request of the territorial commander, General Alfred Terry, that he might be spared the humiliation of having his regiment ride off to battle without him, saved Custer’s reputation, and consigned some 250 men to death.

The 1876 campaign against the Sioux nation, as planned by General Sheridan, consisted of three independent columns moving from south, east and west and converging on the area between Bighorn and Rosebud Rivers. The plan was intended to trap the Indians and force them to return to the reservations. Heavy fighting was not contemplated by the planners. The southern column, under a skilled Indian fighter and eventual conqueror of the Apaches, General Crook, marched north from Fort Russell in the Wyoming Territory. The western column, under General Gibbon, marched south and east from Fort Shaw, while from Fort Lincoln Terry’s command moved to the west. With Terry rode the 7th Cavalry and at their head rode George Custer (yellow curls cropped close), determined once more to see his face and fame spread across the newspapers.

May 17th, 1876. The 7th’s mounted band blared ‘Garry Owen’, the companies (or troops as we call them now) wheeled and formed in column and the regiment moved off. With them were Major Marcus Reno, acting second-in-command, inexperienced in Indian fighting but the bearer of three Civil War brevets for gallantry in action; white-haired Captain Fredrick Benteen, with bulldog jaw and the glint of hate in his eyes when he stared at Custer’s back (did he remember the Washita and Elliot’s sacrifice?); Captains Keogh, Yates and Tom Custer, the colonel’s brother, also blond and handsome and towering Adjutant Cooke of the flowing side whiskers; Lieutenant Calhoun, Custer’s brother-in-law; Lieutenants Smith, with a crippled left arm, and Moylan who had risen from the ranks; Lieutenant McIntosh, a half-breed Indian, and able young officers like Godfrey and Hare who would one day wear Generals’ stars; Nowlan and De Rudio who, like Keogh, had been Papal Zouaves; Lieutenant Varnum, commanding the Ree and Crow scouts; John Sturgis, fresh from West Point and son of the absent Colonel of the 7th, and John Crittenden who transferred temporarily from the 20th Infantry to see action and found a grave on Custer’s last battlefield.

Horse, foot and transport, Terry’s column pushed on. By mid-June it was in hostile country, some twenty-five miles above the mouth of the Powder River on the Yellowstone. From this point Terry dispatched Major Reno, with six companies of the 7th, to scout the valleys of the Powder and Tongue rivers. Reno swung west as far as the Rosebud, and there found a wide Indian trail leading west toward the Big Horn mountains. He followed it only a short distance, for which he was criticised by Custer, before returning to Terry’s command headquarters on board the river steamer ‘Far West’ at the mouth of the Rosebud. By ill fortune, Reno missed a vital piece of information. On June 17, he was not many miles distant from the headwaters of the Rosebud where Crook was suffering a repulse at the hands of Chief Crazy Horse in a battle which forced Crook to retreat two days march. Terry was counting on Crook’s support, and vice versa, yet neither of these commanders was informed of the other’s movements. Gibbon’s column from the west, comprised of the 17th Infantry regiment and several companies of the 2nd Cavalry, did effect a junction with Terry at the confluence of Yellowstone and Rosebud rivers on June 21, and in the cabin of the ‘Far West’ Terry conferred with his two subordinates Gibbon and Custer. A plan of campaign was developed, based on Reno’s report, and Terry described his intended operations. Gibbon, with his force composed largely of infantry, should proceed south along the banks of the Big Horn — some 50 miles to the west, and in the region through which he had just passed — while Custer and the entire 7th would ride south, up the Rosebud, until he reached the trail Reno had discovered on the scouting trip a few days before. He was to determine the direction the trail followed and if, as Terry surmised, it led to the valley of the Little Big Horn, Custer was to proceed no further with the 7th, but to send scouts over the trail while the cavalry rode south to the headwaters of the Tongue. From there Custer was to swing north and west, timing his marches to conform to the estimated progress of Gibbon’s column, so that the two groups would reach the vicinity of the Little Big Horn at about the same time on June 26, and be in a position to co-operate with each other in any fighting. Terry, who decided to march with Gibbon’s column, detailed one of his best scouts, George Herendeen, to Custer as a courier to keep Terry informed of the 7th’s movements and any news of the enemy. There is no question as to Terry’s general scheme of operations, but, unfortunately for the 7th, his final instructions to Custer were less than positive. Since Custer was the more experienced Indian fighter, Terry felt it unwise to hamper him too closely with detailed orders. His written instructions closed with the phrase: ‘I place too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy.’ Custer was offered three Gatling machine guns and four troops of the 2nd Cavalry to reinforce the 7th. He declined to accept them, because he thought wheeled vehicles might not be able to negotiate the broken country he must traverse — and because ‘he wanted it to be a 7th Cavalry battle’. Fateful choice — one more company of cavalry and three machine guns, spitting 1 200 shots a minute at a massed foe, might have made all the difference.

The 7th left the mouth of the Rosebud at noon June 22, 1876 comprised of 12 companies — the entire regiment — about 600 strong, with some 40 Ankara (Ree) and Crow scouts, hereditary enemies of the Sioux Nation. The half-breed scout Mitch Bouyer, scout Lonesome Charley Reynolds and a New York newspaper correspondent, Mark Kellogg, rode with them, as well as another brother of Custer, Boston, and a nephew, Armstrong Reed. As they formed a column of march, Gibbon called after the impetuous commander, ‘Now Custer don’t be greedy, but wait for us.’ Yellow Hair wheeled his horse, waved and shouted back, ‘No, I won’t.’ What did he mean — won’t be greedy or won’t wait? You can take it either way.

The 7th rode hard for the next three days 30 miles a day was not excessive for veteran cavalry, but there was many a green man and horse in the regiment and they had come a long way from Fort Lincoln. One recruit, limping and saddle-sore at the night halt, told Benteen, ‘Sir, I have the heart of a soldier, but the backside of a nursemaid.’ I doubt that he said ‘backside’ — but it was a very formal age and that is how Benteen recounted it. There were omens, untoward happenings which would have aroused forebodings in Roman Legions and troubled matter-of-fact young officers in 1876. Custer was strangely subdued, he who was always buoyant at the prospect of battle. So unusual was his mood of despondency, that one officer remarked, ‘I believe General Custer knows he’s going to be killed.’ Heads were shaken when the red and blue banner, in front of the commander’s tent, was twice blown down by odd gusts of wind that did not even flutter the other flags and guidons.

The regiment struck the half-mile wide trail of an Indian village (the trail previously found by Reno) and followed it until the scouts were sure that it led to the valley of the Little Big Horn River. At that moment, shortly after 9 p.m. on June 24, Custer stood at the cross-roads of his career a vital decision before him. To turn aside from the trail, as his orders clearly required, meant a lost opportunity which might not be redeemed by joint action with the other column. To thrust on ahead would be a technical disobedience of orders, yet it might lead to a great victory, a triumph which would lift the cloud of official displeasure that had descended on him at Washington, and regain the honour and glory he had won so often in the past. The decision was his and his alone, and how he reached it will never be known. What we do know is that he did not hesitate long after receiving the scout’s report before he gave orders to continue the night march at once. He told his assembled officers that he wished to get as near as possible to the divide (between the Rosebud and Little Big Horn) before daybreak, conceal the regiment during the day (the 25th), locate the village and make plans to attack it at dawn the following day the 26th. This was the first of the decisions for which Custer has been so strongly criticized. Events certainly proved it to be a wrong decision, but we must look at it, not in the light of what we know now, but what Custer did and did not know then. He knew that the trail showed signs of a large Indian village moving west toward the Little Big Horn and, from his previous experience, he probably assumed they were moving away from — maybe fleeing from the concentration of soldiers coming from the east. He did not know that they were hastening to the assembly of warriors called by Sitting Bull on the Greasy Grass. He knew (though he had not used Herendeen to ensure it) that Terry and Gibbon were due to reach the area of the village on the 26th, and that Crook was heading north to the same region. He did not know that Crook had been repulsed by Crazy Horse whose braves were even then riding into the Greasy Grass camp with tales of victory over the soldiers. He did not know that Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had been reinforced by hordes of young men from the reservations, and that the Indians in front of him were not the thousand to fifteen hundred warriors and families he expected, but at least three times that number of fighting men. If the Indians got away, he would be blamed for lack of initiative if he ran into a fight the other columns would provide a base to fall back on.

The night march continued, laboriously picking a way in the intense darkness, for another ten miles toward the divide, until at 2 a.m. (June 25) the regiment again halted for news from the scouts. Lieutenant Varnum and the scouts had gone ahead to a high point on the divide known as the Crow’s Nest, from which one could see the valley of the Little Big Horn. Varnum and his Ree and Crow scouts reached the Crow’s Nest before dawn, and as the first rays of sunlight illuminated the valley, the sharp eyes of the Indians detected, some fifteen miles away, the immense herds of ponies in Sitting Bull’s sleeping village. Varnum at once sent word to Custer that the village had been located. Custer received the message at daybreak, and ordered the regiment to move at 8.00 a.m., while he rode ahead to confirm the report. By the time he climbed to the Crow’s Nest, the sun was well up and even with fieldglasses Custer could not see the village. The Crow scouts insisted ‘Big village — many ponies — many Sioux’. Mitch Bouyer, the only man in the command thoroughly familiar with the country, said, ‘Look for worms — the pony herd looks like worms moving on the grass.’ Custer was adamant, ‘My eyes are as good as yours and I don’t see any Indians.’ Bouyer warned insistently of the Sioux’s overwhelming numbers, until a contemptuous look from his leader forced him to retort fiercely, ‘All right. I can go anywhere you can.’

Custer descended the hill to meet the main body, and was told that a sergeant, riding back down the trail to recover a pack lost from one of the mules in the night, had seen a small party of Sioux examining the pack. They rode off as soon as they sighted the sergeant. About the same time, two Sioux scouts were discovered in the distance watching the party on the Crow’s Nest. Further attempts to conceal the presence of the soldiers was obviously useless. It was now near noon and Custer, believing that the instant the Sioux scouts reached the village the Indians would scatter in all directions, led the regiment across the divide. At 12.07 p.m. he halted, divided the regiment into battalions and prepared for action.

The division of his force was the second of Custer decisions open to criticism. The tactic is as old as the history of warfare dangerous but potentially tremendously effective. Simply hit your enemy from two directions and trap him between the two forces. Against a foe who is liable to flee when surprised it is the basic answer the catch is how small a force can you afford to divide? Remember, Custer still expected to find only a little over a thousand Indians, all poised for flight. Adjutant Cooke took out his notebook and recorded Custer’s assignments. One battalion (or squadron as we would call it) went to Major Reno, the only other field officer present. This consisted of Companies A (Captain Moylan), G (Lieutenant McIntosh) and M under Captain French. The second battalion went to the senior captain, Fredrick Benteen and comprised H (Benteen’s own company), K under Lieutenant Godfrey and Captain Weir’s D Company. It is doubtful whether further battalion assignments were made, though the remaining five may have been divided between Captains Yates and Keogh. The question is immaterial since Custer retained them under his personal command. C was his brother Tom Custer’s company, E was Lieutenent Algernon Smith’s, F was Yates’s, I was led by Miles Keogh and L by Lieutenant Calhoun, Custer’s brother-in-law. The remaining company, B under Captain McDougall, was assigned to convey the pack-train, to which duty each of the other companies contributed one non-commissioned officer and six privates. Each of the latter was to lead two pack mules. The reorganization was completed by 12.15 p.m., and Custer ordered Benteen, with his battalion of approximately 125 men, to proceed to the left, at an angle of about 45 degrees from the regiment’s line of march, and to scout the bluffs that loomed in the distance. Such was the nature of the broken ground that, within ten minutes, Benteen’s men were out of sight of the main body. Twice during the first few minutes of his march, Custer sent amendment orders which directed Benteen, in case he found nothing, to go on to the next valley beyond and, if he still found nothing, to the next valley.

It is well to remember that when Benteen was sent off to the left, the entire command was nearly 15 miles from the Indian village which was encountered some two hours later. This bears out the argument that Custer did not then plan a three-pronged attack on his enemy. He still did not believe the Indian village was nearby and must have divided his force for other reasons to extend his scouting range? To disassociate a man, who though brave and loyal, was not a Custer admirer? Or to reduce the heart of the fighting force to just the so-called Custer clique friends and relatives?

For the next two hours, Custer and Reno led their units along a small tributary of the Little Big Horn, sometimes on the same side, sometimes divided by the stream, but always within sight and speaking distance of each other. Shortly after 2 p.m. they came upon a lone teepee, containing the body of an Indian warrior in full regalia. The Crow scouts set fire to their traditional enemy’s last resting place, and just then a heavy dust cloud was seen some five miles distant, across the river and down the valley. Fred Girard, a civilian interpreter, rode to the top of a small knoll from which he saw a party of some 40 Sioux between the troops and the river. They appeared to be in full flight downstream. ‘Here are your Indians running like devils’, shouted Girard. Instantly, Custer ordered the Crow scouts to go in pursuit and, when they refused, saying there were too many Sioux, he ordered them to give up their rifles and go home. As Reno came up, Cooke rode to him and said, ‘General Custer directs that you take as fast a gait as you deem prudent, and charge afterward, and you will be supported by the whole outfit.’ This was a verbal order, and the survivors differed slightly in their later accounts, but they all agreed on the last sentence — that Reno would be supported by the whole outfit.

When the attack order was given, the village was not visible. Aside from the party sighted by Girard, no Indians were in sight and the only indication of any considerable force was the dust cloud in the distance. Nothing had yet developed to warn Custer that several thousand hostiles, elated by their victory over Crook, armed with new repeating rifles and literally loaded down with ammunition, awaited him in the valley. The fleeing party and the cloud of dust meant but one thing to Custer the Sioux were running. There is no evidence or indication that at that moment Custer had any other intention than to follow in Reno’s tracks, cross the river after him and hurl his five companies upon a startled, disorganized and routed enemy.

Reno made the three miles to the river at a sharp trot and crossed it about 2.30 p.m. Custer followed at a slower gait and was about three quarters of a mile behind when Reno reached the stream. All but five of the Indian scouts, apparently disregarding Custer’s dismissal, had gone with Reno. As they reached the river, they excitedly pointed out to Girard that the Sioux were streaming up the valley toward the advancing soldiers. Girard, knowing that Custer believed the Indians were running, rode back and reported to Cooke that the Sioux were coming up the valley in full force.

Reno crossed the river, halted briefly to form his command for action — Varnum and his scouts on the left front, A and M Companies in line with G in reserve. ‘Left front into line! Gallop! Guide right!’ Reno shouted.

The excited horses of three troopers took the bits in their teeth and dashed ahead straight into the red horde. One rider was swallowed up, miraculously the other two ran that deadly gauntlet, got their mounts under control and rejoined the galloping blue line. More shots from the left, and suddenly a mass of Indians drove in, smashed the Ree scouts against the main body and circled around to Reno’s rear. He looked back — where was Custer? Now it was Reno’s decision — drive on through or make a stand here. ‘Halt! Prepare to fight on foot. Dismount!’ The major made his choice and whether he thereby threw away a chance of victory or saved his men from annihilation is still hotly argued. Each horseholder took charge of four linked mounts, and thereby reduced the firing line by a quarter — the weakness of cavalry forced to fight dismounted. With the horses and his rear protected by a heavily timbered bend of the river, Reno advanced his skirmishers to within three hundred yards of the southernmost teepees from which Indians were now pouring in increasing numbers and circling around the blue line. Fearing the usual Sioux tactic of getting behind an enemy and driving off his horses, Reno called in G company from its place on the line and placed it in the timber. Now the firing line was too thin, outnumbered ten to one and the proportion of hostiles increasing every minute. His left doubled back with the red pressure and Reno changed front, pivoting to line the edge of the timber. This put the river to his rear and the village on his right flank. Indian bullets buzzed like wasps. A trooper near Reno groaned and dropped lifeless. Suddenly the scout, Bloody Knife, standing next to Reno, was hit in the head and his blood and brain matter spattered over Reno’s face. Hold this strip of woods or retreat? again the short, swarthy major was faced with a dilemma, and again his answer was fall back.

Right or wrong and this decision too is still debated — Reno’s conduct of the retirement was anything but creditable. Only the troopers nearest him heard the order to mount — others along the firing line looked up and began to follow. Reno did not stay to organize a rear-guard to hold off the enemy. Pistol in hand, he led a charge, not forward but back through the Indians who had closed on his rear along the river bank. Some would brand Reno a coward for this, others defend him — but unnerved as he undoubtedly was, he managed to retain command and fight a way out. It was a disorderly retreat — devil take the hindmost. Lieutenant De Rudio, Girard and fifteen others failed to hear the order and were left in the woods. Indians rode alongside the galloping soldiers shooting, hacking and clubbing all within reach pistol against tomahawk, swinging carbines against clubs — what price a sabre now! At the six foot drop to the river bed (Reno had been forced downstream from his original ford), the lead troops hesitated but the red tide forced them over the bank. That fine old scout, Charley Reynolds, went down, his rifle cracking to the last. Lieutenant McIntosh, coming up late from ensuring that all his men were safely out of the woods, was cut off and dragged down — his body horribly mutilated because of his Indian blood. The retreat was close to a panic now. Varnum raced up to Reno and begged him to stand at the river and save the wounded, but Reno waved his arm forward and dashed into the stream. After him plunged the remnants of his command — horses were hit, their riders grasping a friendly stirrup to be pulled through the water, only to be shot down as the overburdened mount tried to climb the equally steep west bank. Reno’s adjutant, Hodgson, his horse dead, faced the pursuing Indians alone and went down revolver blazing. Dr. De Wolf and his orderly made it safely across, but were caught in a ravine and killed and scalped in full view of the survivors of the rout. Varnum succeeded in rallying the men who struggled up the slopes to the hills above the stream, and when Reno, hatless and panting, reached the crest a semblance of a defensive line had been formed. As the scattered remnants of the three companies, some wounded, many without mounts, gathered on the hill, they were hastily posted to fend off the expected rush of the Sioux in pursuit. Many warriors did, in fact, ford the stream and were advancing up the slopes and ravines toward the soldiers, when the greater part of the force suddenly began streaming back toward the village, leaving only enough Indians to pin Reno’s men to their position.

This ended the first phase of the battle of the Little Big Horn. Reno crossed to attack about 2.30 p.m., his action in the valley lasted about an hour and his retreat about half as long. It was about 4 o’clock when, routed and disorganized, his command reached the comparative safety of the right bank hills, having lost, in killed, wounded and missing, nearly half his battalion.

Where was Benteen and where was Custer? Benteen, you remember, carrying out Custer’s orders, had diverged from the main body to scout the distant bluffs. Frequently riding ahead of his own scouts, accompanied only by his orderly-trumpeter, he had climbed one ridge after the other, always with the same result — nothing in sight only more bluffs, gullies and ravines. Satisfied that nothing was to be found in that direction and that even Indians would never cross such country without a path, he turned in the direction the regiment had been headed when he left it. His march had covered some 15 miles, all to the left and rear of the command, when he again struck the trail at about 3.30 p.m. He stopped at a boggy spring to water his hot and weary horses. Just as he was about to leave, the pack mules arrived, rushed to the water and splashed down in the mud. Captain Weir of D company reported hearing firing in the distance and started down the trail with Benteen following with the remainder. A mile beyond the lone teepee, now a smoking ruin, they met Sergeant Kanipe of C company (Tom Custer’s troop) with a message from Custer to the pack train to hurry up. Benteen sent the sergeant down the trail toward the spring, and quickened the pace of his command. A mile or so further along he met a member of his own troop, John Martin, who had been detailed as Custer’s orderly-trumpeter that day. Martin (or Martini) bore Custer’s last message, written and signed by his adjutant. It read: ‘Benteen — Come on — Big Village — Be Quick — Bring Packs.’ After Cooke had scrawled his signature, he had added hurriedly, ‘P.S. Bring pacs.’ Martin had been fired on as he made his perilous ride and his horse was bleeding, but he had seen Reno in action and he was elated. In his broken English, he told Benteen that Custer was charging the village and the Indians were ‘skedaddling’. The sound of firing was now unmistakable and Benteen hurried forward. As he surmounted a rise, the valley floor was suddenly visible. Savage horsemen were swooping down on a group of blue-clad figures trying to reach the river (this was the rear of Reno’ s command who had been unhorsed and left during the mad rush). Closer, on the same side of the river as his own men, Benteen saw blue uniforms on a hill, men on the defensive, in heavy action, and he rode to their rescue.

With vast relief, Reno received the reinforcements and the precious ammunition they brought. The fight on the hill raged on. Indians, in position on the commanding bluffs ringing the defenders, poured in a hail of lead. Then abruptly, many of the assailants seemed to melt away and, for a time, the hill garrison, though still besieged, had a breathing spell. But shortly they heard heavy firing up the valley, punctuated by the crash of volleys, Custer was in action! Upon Benteen’s arrival on the hill he, not Reno, was the real commander. His magnificent presence and dominating personality quickly brought order out of chaos and his response to Reno’s ‘For God’s sake Benteen, halt your command and help me. I’ve lost half my command’, saved the men on the bill. But Reno was the senior officer and the decision to move or stay was his. March to the sound of the guns or stand fast! Anxious eyes questioned him. There were angry demands to go to Custer’s support. Weir began to move his troops off without orders. Reluctantly, Reno gave a command to follow. With his wounded carried on blankets, six troopers grasping the edges of each make- shift litter, Reno could only move at a slow footpace. They advanced a mile or more downstream, until from a high point they could see Indians on a distant hill. Some of them were gathered in groups, while others rode about shooting at objects on the ground, but no engagement was in progress. Whatever combat there had been was finished now and, if the firing they had heard had come from Custer, he was apparently no longer fighting there. The Indians saw Reno’ s men and charged toward them. Fighting desperately and covered by a rearguard led by Godfrey and Hare, they retreated back to their position on the hill and dug in. All night they fought for their lives, a night made hideous with the clamour of triumphant scalp-dances. In the valley, fires silhouetted leaping red figures. Trumpet calls roused false hopes of relief from Custer. They were sounded by an Indian (probably an ex-scout) on one of Custer’s instruments, and only mocked the besieged men. There was one event which cheered them. Under cover of darkness, Dc Rudio and the troopers who had been cut off in the timber and lain concealed there, crept out and managed to join their comrades on the hill.

There were only three spades and two axes to build entrenchments, but the men dug with knives and spoons, piled bread boxes, saddles, dead mules and horses (anything that would stop a bullet or arrow) in front of the shallow holes. They fought on through the next morning, with Benteen as the bulwark of the defence. When the Sioux surged up close to the rifle-pits, he led the gallant charges that met them head-on and hurled them back. There were deeds of heroism that would bring high decorations. A sergeant galloped after an ammuni- tion mule which stampeded along the Indian lines, rounded it up and drove it back up the hill. Volunteers made dashes through a curtain of fire to get water for the moaning wounded and their parched comrades. Shortly after mid-day, Sioux scouts rode into the Indian lines, and, after much talking and pow-wowing among the chiefs, the tired defenders on the bill watched the Indians tear down the village and round up the pony herds. Late in the afternoon, the whole force of Red Men slowly moved off toward the Big Horn mountains. Reno, Benteen and the surviving troopers watched them depart and thanked God for a deliverance, the reason for which they could not guess.

Eighteen men had been killed on the hill, and fifty-two wounded. Added to the three officers and 29 troopers and scouts killed in the retreat across the river (only seven wounded were pulled across in that mad dash), the losses took a fearful toll of the 7 companies. All that night (the 26th) the weary men stood to arms, snatching only minutes of sleep in fear of an Indian ruse and a renewal of an attack. They buried the dead on the hill, recovered the bodies of those who fell on the east bank during the retreat and shifted their position to be nearer the water and to escape the stench of dead animals on the hill. Throughout the long, tedious night-watches, men asked, ‘Where is Custer? What has happened to the five companies with him?’

The next morning (June 27th), Terry and Gibbon came up to relieve Reno and his exhausted men and answered their questions. The previous evening, Terry’s advanced units had found the site of Custer’s last battle. The mute evidence of over two hundred stripped and mutilated corpses was all that remained to tell the tale of the final heroic fight against overwhelming odds. The only living creature on the field unfortunately could not talk. Miles Keogh’s horse, Commanche, bleeding from bullet wounds and bristling with arrow shafts, his saddle swung under his belly, was too severely hurt to be worth being driven off by the Indians. Commanche, faithfully standing near his dead master, survived a wagon and steamer journey back to Fort Lincoln and a year in a sling, to live another 15 years the pride of the 7th Cavalry.

The exact story of what happened to Custer and his men, after John Martin left them, will never be known. The position of the bodies told something of the last moments, still lying behind breastworks of dead horses. The only accounts of the fight have come from Indians, speaking many years later, when it was prudent to talk of the Indian’s greatest victory and the western army’s worst defeat. Probably not long after the Sioux began to show a strong force in front of him, Custer turned his column left and advanced in the direction of the village. Having met no serious opposition, he probably halted at the junction of two ravines below a spring, and here he met the full force of Gall’s Uncpapas fresh from blocking Reno away from the southern limit of the teepees. Two companies, under Keogh and Calhoun, dismounted, advanced to a little knoll and covered the withdrawal of the three remaining mounted companies to what is now called Custer Hill. The line occupied by the battalion was the first considerable ridge back of the river. Custer’s front extended about three-fourths of a mile with most of the village in view. A few hundred yards from his line was another, but lower, ridge, the further slope of which was not commanded by the final firing position. It was from this slope that Crazy Horse launched his Ogallalas at Custer while Gall’s braves overran Keogh and Calhoun. The soldiers fought much of their last battle from prone positions behind their dead mounts, while their adversaries wriggled along the gullies and ravines. The Indians managed to drive off some of the horses that carried extra ammunition, and their loss may have seriously affected the outcome. As the entire fight probably lasted only about one hour, the horse stampede must have been followed quickly by a concerted attack which was so successful and so quickly executed that not a trooper could have been alive by the time Reno and Benteen were half-way on their wounded-encumbered attempt to reach Custer. The Indians stated that not one prisoner was taken alive, nor was there a final charge on horseback — a scene much favoured by film-makers. The only semblance of such an action was a rush by Indian youths and old men to seize plunder from the bodies. At the end, Custer lay dead, shot in the head and breast, unscalped and unmutilated, while about him — like a feudal-chieftain lay the bodies of his kinsmen, his captains and his men-at-arms. If immortal glory was his goal, he achieved it that bloody afternoon.

Long before the battered survivors of Reno’s and Benteen’s fight had been carried back to the ‘Far West’ and that craft’s intrepid Captain had made his perilous voyage to bring them to refuge and security, riders and the telegraph had carried the news of the disaster to the eastern cities and to Washington. At once the arguments began about Custer’s conduct. General Sheridan, his friend and commander, said: ‘Had the 7th been kept together, it is my belief it would have been able to handle the Indians at the Little Big Horn and, under any circumstances, it could at least have defended itself; but separated, as it was, into three detachments, the Indians had largely the advantage, in addition to their overwhelming numbers.’ Ulysses Grant, former Commander-in-Chief of the Army and President of the United States, wrote: ‘I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by himself, that was wholly unnecessary.’

Custer’s friends and his lovely, sorrowing widow sprang to defend his memory and accused Reno and Benteen of failing to support their leader. Briefly they tried to maintain that Custer had a master plan that was spoiled by his subordinates. Benteen’s reputation and conduct throughout the action, saved his career and, if there was a true hero of the battle, it was he. Reno was not so fortunate, and bitter taunts like De Rudio’s ‘if we had not been commanded by a coward, we would have all been killed’ — embittered him so that he requested a Court of Inquiry. The story of the battle was told by every available witness and the Court finally ruled that, while his subordinates, in some instances, did more for the safety of the command then did Major Reno, there was nothing in his conduct to justify censure. Reno’s career, however, was ruined and he was eventua]ly dismissed from the army for drunkenness and conduct unbecoming an officer.

As for the Indians! The Sioux never tried so great a concentration again and, within two years, they had been crushed in a series of winter campaigns, in which Crook was the star performer, and herded back to their reservations to begin the slow decline to their present status of second or even third-rate citizens of the country they once owned.

Such was the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Such was the death of Custer.


1. Graham, Col. W. A., The Story of the Little Big Horn, (Stackpole, Harrisburg, Pa., 1952).
2. Graham, Col. W. A., The Custer Myth, (Crown Publishers, New York, 1953).
3. Brininstool, E. A., Troopers with Custer, (Crown Publishers, New York, 1925).
4. Official Record of the Reno Court of Inquiry, (Pacific Palisades, California, 1951).
5. Luce, E. S., Custer Battlefield National Monument, (National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1949).


This talk was followed by a comparative analysis of the battles of the Little Big Horn and Isandhlwana/Rorke’s Drift and the similarities between the American Plains Indians and the Zulus, by Mr Roderick C. Murchison (III), son of the author of this article, which will be published in the December 1974 issue of this Journal.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page
South African Military History Society /