The period from the end of the Civil War up to 1900 is one of my favorite periods of US history. It was during those 35 years that America leaped into the modern age thanks to innumerable technological advancements. It was also during this period that the “Indian Wars”, so called, came to an end. but not before George Armstrong Custer and his command were wiped out by Native American warriors on a hillside in what is now Montana. Nathaniel Philbrook, whose earlier works include “In the Heart of the Sea” and the outstanding “Mayflower” delves into Custer’s demise in his 2010 history, “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn.”
Philbrook does an excellent job of telling Custer’s story despite a paucity of reliable sources. While all of the soldiers with Custer died, the warriors who killed them survived and a number of them told their side of the story. But Philbrook points out that even amongst the Native Americans, jealousy and ill feelings of the various reporters require the historian to treat these accounts with a healthy amount of skepticism. Of course, the same can be said for the accounts of the peripheral military figures. Where evidence is contradictory, Philbrook explains why and teases out the most likely inferences; where the evidence is non-existent, Philbrook says “we just don’t know.”
Despite all these caveats, the story Philbrook does tell is a fascinating one. We all know that Custer attacked a larger Indian force and that he and his unit – the 7th Cavalry – were wiped out. While that is true, the full story is much more complex. For nearly a decade, the biggest challenge facing the US Cavalry was actually finding the Indians who, both to follow the Buffalo herds for food and to stay ahead of the cavalry, moved often and quickly. On this operation, Custer was part of a much larger Army force that was trying to box in a multi-thousand village of Indians that was somewhere out in the wilderness of Montana and the Dakotas. Just before embarking on the mission, however, Custer had been in the East where he was suffering financial difficulty and had made critical public comments about President Grant which incurred the wrath of his former Civil War commander.
Custer was by nature reckless but when he headed to the field with the 7th Cavalry this time, he felt he had to win a decisive victory to rescue his reputation and his fortune. When that was added to the historic difficulty of finding large groups of Indians, never mind getting them to stand and fight, Custer’s mindset was primed for placing the regiment in extremely hazardous situations without being able to recognize this peril. Custer’s mission was complicated by the fact that he completely despised his two most senior subordinates, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen who both reciprocated with deep and undisguised contempt for Custer.
With suspicions but no hard evidence that an Indian village was located near the Little Big Horn River, Custer divided his force into three parts. He send Captain Benteen with three companies on a pointless reconnaissance mission away from the suspected Indian location. He then advanced towards the Little Big Horn until his scouts reported an Indian village ahead. Rather than conduct additional scouting to ascertain the size and exact location of this village, Custer immediately divided his remaining eight companies, sending four with Major Reno and keeping four with himself. He ordered Reno to cross the river and attack the village head-on along the plain that bordered the far side of the river. Custer would take his element around to the rear and flank of the village and attack from there.
Although the attacks were supposed to commence at the same time, the two elements were completely out of sight of each other and there was no way to coordinate. When Reno thought he had been discovered by two wayward Indians, he ordered his companies to charge so as not to lose the element of surprise. Reno did achieve complete surprise and created absolute panic in the Indian village. Had he continued the charge into the midst of the Indian huts, Reno probably would have defeated the entire Indian force due to the shock and suddenness of his approach. But Reno was drunk, according to Philbrick, and lost his nerve. He ordered a halt to the charge 200 yards from the village and had his men form a skirmish line and begin firing their carbines towards the village. Since this was at the extreme range of their weapons, it did little damage and gave the Indian warriors time to reform and mount up. Soon they had outflanked Reno’s dismounted force which, with Reno leading the way, fled in panic back across the river and onto the high ground on the other side. More than half of Reno’s command were killed in this action.
Fortunately for Reno, Captain Benteen had abandoned his pointless recon mission and “rode to the sound of the guns.” He and his element arrived at Reno’s hilltop location just as it came under attack by overwhelming numbers of Indians. Benteen was a competent combat commander, however, and he soon had the combined cavalry force dug into a secure defensive perimeter which allowed them to withstand the continuous Indian attacks.
The next day, however, the Indians departed from the Reno/Benteen strongpoint. The soldiers inside that perimeter survived. Some of them claimed to have heard heavy fire in the distance (presumably this was Custer’s force in action) but both Benteen and Reno denied hearing anything of the sort. They remained in position, unengaged, for another day until another regiment arrived for the planned rendezvous.
Whether it could be heard from the Reno/Benteen position or not, Custer was heavily engaged. Philbrick is unable to say whether Custer commenced the attack or whether he was attacked. The relief forces found the bodies of several companies of troopers strewn up a hill as if they were fleeing to high ground. On the high ground, a bigger grouping of bodies was found including that of Custer, his brother, his brother-in-law, and his nephew, all who perished alongside of him.
The Army conducted an investigation but Custer’s widow, Libby, made the preservation of her late husband’s reputation her fulltime occupation for the remainder of her life. Since she lived until 1933, most of those who survived the engagement and who could shed light on what happened pre-deceased her and their stories never became publicly known.
Custer’s Last Stand undoubtedly had a substantial effect on American history and culture but to accurately discern that impact, it’s important to know what really happened on that Montana hillside in the summer of 1876. To the extent it is possible, Nathaniel Philbrook as provided us with such an explanation.