Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Unlocking the Mystery of Custer’s Last Stand

"Call of the Bugle," by J.K. Ralston is one of the more accurate depictions.
On the afternoon of June 26, 1876, on high bluffs above the Little Big Horn River, Col. George Armstrong Custer halted the 7th Cavalry and dictated an order.  “Benteen.  Come On.  Big Village.  Be Quick.  Bring Packs.  P.S.  Bring Packs.”  The order was scribbled and handed to trumpeter John Martin, who grabbed it and galloped off in the direction of Captain Benteen and the left battalion of Custer’s command.  As he rode away, the trumpeter turned in his saddle for one last glimpse of the 7th Cavalry.  The blue-coated soldiers were galloping down into a ravine, flags flying, the gallant Custer, dressed in buckskins, leading the way

In less than two hours, Custer and all 210 men of his command would be dead.  

Custer graduated last in his class of West Point.
What happened in those two hours is one of the great mysteries of history.  None of the cavalrymen survived.   Accounts by the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors who wiped them out were confusing or contradictory.  Many Indians, fearing retaliation, told the whites what they wanted to hear.  Others related what they saw, but their story was not believed.

And so, in place of fact, a legend developed.   According to the myth, a courageous, but perhaps rash, Colonel Custer underestimated Indian strength and attacked overwhelming numbers of painted warriors who were camped on the Little Big Horn.  Surrounded, betrayed by his subordinates, captains Reno and Benteen, who failed to come to his aid, Custer had no choice but to gather his men on what came to be called Last Stand Hill.  Here, fighting back to back, his soldiers realized they were doomed, but they were determined to sell their lives dearly.  Custer, with his long golden hair flowing and two blazing pistols, stood beside the flag and fought to the last bullet.

The romantic, legendary version of the battle.
It was this romantic version of Custer’s Last Stand that became the basis for hundreds of paintings, films and books.

Unfortunately, very little of it appears to be true. 

Today, a visitor to Southern Montana’s Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument can learn what historians, archeologists and scientists think really happened on that afternoon in 1876.  Using metal detectors, microscopes and CSI techniques, they have been able to study thousands of rifle cartridges and bullets discovered on the battlefield.  Because each rifle cartridge has a distinctive mark from a firing pin, they were able to trace where each gun was fired, and therefore, where each soldier fought and how well they fought.  Coupled with new interpretations of Native American accounts, this has helped historians piece together the ebb and flow of the battle and write a much different view on what may actually have happened.
A Unique Battlefield

Last Stand Hill, where Custer and his two brothers fell.
The high bluffs along the Little Big Horn River are rolling grasslands with unending views across what Montana calls “Big Sky Country.”   Even without the history, this would be a wonderful place to stop and appreciate the beauty of the countryside.  But once you know what happened here, this becomes haunted and hallowed ground.  The museum at the entrance to the national monument is a good place to begin your introduction.

The Little Big Horn Battlefield is unique in the world in that there is a macabre marble marker indicating where every single soldier was killed.  Two days after the battle, when the relief force finally arrived, they found a gruesome and dreadful sight.  Scattered over a wide area on several hills, were all 210 of Custer’s men… each man lying in the sun, scalped, stripped naked and often mutilated.  One victim had 105 arrows stuck in him. 

One of 260 marble markers.
Shocked, the relief force buried every soldier exactly where they had fallen and marked the spot with a wood cross.  These were later replaced in 1890 with marble markers, and all the bodies were eventually interned in a single grave under a large monument.  What was believed to be Custer’s remains were removed and buried at West Point.

But these first elementary markers allowed historians to know where every single soldier had been killed in the battle.  The lingering question was, how did they get there and why were they scattered in so many places?

Exhibits in the museum set the stage for the battle.

In 1876, several centuries of conflict between Indian and Euro-American cultures were coming to a finish.  Both whites and Indians had repeatedly broke treaties.  Frustrated and seeing their way of life threatened, Indian leaders including Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse moved a large band of 7,000-8,000 Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne off the reservation and into the buffalo-rich country of southeastern Montana.  In response, the U.S. government ordered the cavalry to round them up and move them back. Leading one of the attacking forces was the youngest general to come out of the Civil War, the flamboyant, dashing and immensely popular, George A. Custer.

The remains of 220 soldiers and civilians are buried under this monument.
Strategic thinking held that the way to round up Indians was to capture the women and children and hold the noncombatants as hostages.  Indian villages, if threatened by cavalry, would break up into small groups and scatter like the wind.  Capture the women, children and elders, and the warriors would be reluctant to counterattack and forced to surrender.   Of course, this could result in large numbers of women and children being killed, but that did not deter the U.S. army.

So Custer’s main concern on June 26 was not fighting a battle, but rather locating and surrounding the Indian camp before they could separate and flee. His plans, however,  were changed when some Indians discovered the 7th Cavalry first.

Afraid that the Indians, now warned, would disperse, the always-aggressive Custer went on the offensive.   He divided the 7th into three battalions.  Captain Benteen was ordered to search the west side of the Little Big Horn, while Custer and Reno took the main body north along the river. In a few miles, Custer came upon the large Indian camp he was seeking, and although his men were exhausted, the battle was underway.

Custer ordered Reno to attack the camp from the south with one battalion, while he circled around the ridge with the other battalion and hit the Indian village from the north.   Based on all previous Indian-soldier encounters, this was a risky, but workable strategy.  However, things went array from the start.

Alleged photo of Crazy Horse
Reno’s charge faltered.  Instead of attacking straight into the village, Reno halted 200 yards away and formed a skirmish line.  And with good reason.  Custer’s intelligence had estimated a village with 800 warriors, but there were, in fact, as many as 2,000 fighting men.  Even with surprise on his side, Reno’s 140 men were outmatched and soon forced on the defensive. 

At a crucial moment of the firefight, a friendly Crow Indian scout standing next to Reno was shot in the head, splattering Reno with brains and blood.  Reno, understandably, appears to have become disoriented. He ordered a retreat that soon became a panicked rout.  By the time his command got to a safer position, 40 of his men were dead.  Shortly later, Benteen arrived on the scene.  With Indians still attacking, Reno himself shattered, and his battalion in chaos, Benteen elected to stay put and help Reno’s men.  Custer was now on his own.

Custer’s Last Battle

While historians can never be certain, based on archeological evidence, this is what they think happened.  Unaware of the outcome of Reno’s attack, Custer remained on the offensive and rode north to attack the village from its upper reaches.  However, by the time he got there, the women and children had fled.   Still aggressive, Custer divided his force into two wings.  The right wing held what came to be called Calhoun Hill and waited here for Benteen, who they assumed would be on his way.  Custer led the left wing in search of a new ford further north from which he could still capture the noncombatants.

Charles Marion Russell painting of the battle.
From archeological evidence, we know the right wing formed a skirmish line.  Tactics of the time called for men to stand five yards apart in a line, and archeologists found shell casings consistent with a defensive line.  But as more and more Indians left the Reno fight and turned their attention to Custer’s men, the pressure on the right wing intensified.  Men in battle who become fearful tend to bunch together and the shell casings indicate the men on the ridge fell back and this “bunching” started to occur. 

If the pressure of an attack becomes too intense, it can lead to panic.  Men in panic seldom fight back.  Many even throw away their guns, as they run to what they perceive will be a safer place.  This is apparently what happened to the right wing.  Overwhelmed by superior numbers of Indians, the soldiers gave way to panic and fled.  Indian accounts of the battle spoke of the soldiers acting like they were drunk, running like a buffalo stampede, throwing away their guns and crying like babies.  

Kicking Bear's depiction of Little Big Horn.
The Custer legend interpretation depicted the soldiers in this part of the battle bravely fighting a retreat back to Last Stand Hill.  The lack of gun casings in the area and the high number of marble markers leads archeologists to a new depiction – that of panicked soldiers fleeing and being shot down as they ran.  As you stand on Calhoun hill and see the white marble markers stretching out across the grassy slopes, each indicating the spot where a soldier fell, you can feel those awful moments and get a sense of the terror the men must have felt.

Eric von Schmidt's "Here Fell Custer" is believed to be the most accurate.
Custer, meanwhile, had found his river crossing, but he had too few men to capture the village.  Still confident, he turned back to collect the rest of his troops (and hopefully Benteen’s battalion) and arrived at a viewpoint in time to see the horrifying collapse of the right wing.  Custer with just 85 men raced to Last Stand Hill to offer support.  Only 20 men from the right wing survived to join him.  Now, with half his men dead, surrounded, in dust and confusion, Custer would have realized for the first time he was no longer on the offensive, and was instead, cut off. 

The end came swiftly.  Rather than the fight to the last bullet often depicted, nine men tried to escape by horseback heading south, but were cut down.  Another 45 tried to break out towards the river or hide in a ravine, but they too were sought out and killed.  Custer, flanked by his two loyal brothers, a beloved nephew and some 50 other troopers, was quickly overrun. From shell casings, we know the battle at the end lasted just minutes – not the long protracted battle of films.

Who was to blame?  The easiest answer is that Custer didn’t lose so much as the Indians won.  They had vastly superior numbers, they were fighting for their homes and families and were brilliantly led by chiefs Crazy Horse, Lame White Man and Gall. 

The marker indicating where Custer fell.
Certainly, Custer was let down by Reno, who did not press his charge on the village, and by Benteen, who did not “come on,” as ordered, to his support.  Had Reno and Benteen come forward. they might well have suffered Custer’s fate.  However, under the strict guidelines of the 19th Century army, they must take some blame for not following orders, even if those orders led to disaster, and history has been harsh in its judgment of them.

As it has been on Custer.   Custer divided his force in the face of uncertain numbers, fought on ground he did not know, and as commander, bears the ultimate responsibility.  Throughout the Civil War, he fought a dozen battles in similar circumstance and always came out on top.  At Little Big Horn, his luck ran out.

As it did for the Indians. Though victorious here, within three years, they were defeated and forced back to the reservation.  Both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were murdered in unusual circumstances by white and Indian guards.  Little Big Horn proved to be the high point…and the beginning of the end for the free Plains Indians.  Within a few years, everything changed for everyone who fought at Little Big Horn.  Only the battleground remained the same.  It is, and always will be, a strange and haunted place.


Little Big Horn Visitor Center
Part of the appeal of Little Big Horn Battlefield is that it’s in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mile after mile of unchanged grassland. The closest place to stay is Sheridan, Wyoming, about an hour away. 

Sheridan is part college town, part Wild West, which makes for an entertaining combination.  There are a number of small chain motels near the highway.   The Mint Bar on Sheridan’s main street is a must stop.  The saloon dates back to 1907 and the walls are covered with historic photos, guns and stuffed animal heads.  This is a true cowboy bar, attracting as many real ranchers as tourists.
The Mint Bar
A couple of blocks away, Sheridan has its own brewpub, the Black Tooth Brewing Company, which caters to a younger college crowd.  They have eight beers on tap (standards IPA, amber, pale ale, etc.) and attribute their success to low mineral deposits in the local water.  It’s good beer, but the beers are also available at most local restaurants, which offer more atmosphere.   Warehouse 201, across the street, is an incredibly stylish steak, seafood and martini bar that would not look out-of-place in Denver’s hippest neighborhoods, and features live music on the weekends.

For a more true Old West experience, stay in Buffalo, Wyoming, about 1.5 hours from the battlefield.  This classic 1890’s town was known as the “Rustler’s Capital,”  because Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Hole in the Wall hideout was nearby.  The town figured prominently in the Johnson County War between big cattlemen and rustlers.  Today, it retains its Old West character with a main street lined with historic buildings that now house Western art galleries and tourist shops mixed in with authentic ranching stores. 

The bar in the Occidental Hotel, Buffalo, Wyoming
Stop by the Occidental Hotel and have a beer at the same bar that has hosted Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley, Butch Cassidy, Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway.  The bar staff are friendly and love talking about the saloon’s history.

The operating hotel also serves as a museum and has tours and historic photos of its famous guests.  It’s believed that the 25-foot long bar served as the inspiration for Owen Wister’s novel, “The Virginian,” which included the first written description of what was destined to become a Western classic – the quick draw gunfight.

The West’s Second Largest Massacre

Buffalo is also the center of more Indian-soldier battlefields than any other place in the West.  Ten years before Custer, Captain William J. Fetterman and 81 of his men were wiped out near here in the U.S. Army’s second worst defeat of the Indian wars.  If anything, walking the Fetterman Battlefield is more eerie, and certainly more deserted, than Custer’s. 

The Fetterman Battlefield is unchanged.
On December 21, 1866, Fetterman had been sent out from Fort Phil Kearny with a detachment of cavalry and infantry to rescue a wagon train under attack by Sioux.  Newly arrived in the West, Fetterman had been warned not to pursue the Indians, but to just rescue the train.  But when Fetterman got to the wagons, there were ten Indians, just out of rifle range, taunting him with insults.  One of them was Crazy Horse, who had devised this trap. 

Fetterman ignored his orders and set out in pursuit with his entire command.  Today, you can walk the same ground, and see how Crazy Horse enticed the soldiers to follow him along a narrow ridge that appeared to be leading towards a dead end.  It was.  But in the steep gullies surrounding the ridge were hidden a thousand Sioux warriors, who at the right moment, sprang up, surrounded the soldiers, and in 30 minutes, wiped them out to a man.

Historic markers along the mile-long ridge tell the tale.  This is a battlefield that has to walked.  Only then can you understand how the terrain of steep gullies would have enticed Fetterman ahead, until it was too late.

Old Western historian Sid Wilson on the ramparts of Fort Phil Kearny.
Five miles away, a portion of Fort Phil Kearny has been restored.  This is the classic log fort that served as the inspiration for dozens of Western movies.  It’s also the only Western fort the U.S. Army abandoned in defeat; the fort was eventually taken over and burned by Chief Red Cloud and his warriors. 

The area here, along the Bozeman Trail, saw almost daily fighting between soldiers and Indians and the fort has a small museum that does a good job of telling the story, omitting no gruesome or horrifying detail.   When Fetterman did not return, the commander, Col. Henry B. Carrington, sent out a patrol to see what happened.  In the distance, the patrol saw what looked like stacked cordwood, but as they got closer, they discovered it was Fetterman’s command, stripped naked and left in a pile of bodies. 

The Fetterman Monument, where the last troops fell.
Carrington did not have enough men left to defend the post, but he could not stand the thought of the 81 dead bodies left lying in the sun just over the ridge.  So he ordered all the women of the fort into one building, with instructions to blow it up if he did not return, then left a skeleton force in the fort while with the rest of his men, he went out to bring back the dead.  Since many of the men’s wives were in the fort, that had to be a horrible night.  One of the victims with a wife was a Lt. George Grummond.  Carrington and Grummond despised each other, but the commander must have given the grieving widow some comfort.  He later married her. 

Attractions Along the Trail

 If you’re traveling to Little Big Horn from Denver, plan to spend a few hours in Casper, Wyoming along the way.  This is another surprising college town in middle of nowhere, with cappuccino and a sophisticated bookstore across the street from shops selling boots and saddles.  The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center is a must stop.  This is one of the nation’s finest museums of Western history.  Located on a hill, it has a commanding view of the North Platte River and the valley that made Casper such an important location. 

National Historic Trails Interpretive Center has life-size dioramas.
Between 1840 and 1870, some 500,000 people moved across the western plains traveling to Oregon, the Great Salt Lake, or the gold fields in California and Montana.  All of the passed through Casper because all the trails met here, as did the Pony Express.  

The museum tells the story of each of the trails and of the different people who went west looking for religious freedom, land, wealth or new opportunity.  There are seven large galleries filled with life-size dioramas of covered wagons, stagecoaches, and Pony Express riders.  The museum also has Disney-quality interactive exhibits that let you rumble across a river crossing in the back of a covered wagon, or ride a stagecoach from town to town.  They are very well done and give a complete illusion that you are there. The museum is closed Sun. and Mon.; it’s worth planning your trip to make sure you pass through Casper when it’s open. 

Fort Casper
The Fort Casper Museum is also worth a stop.  While the Trails Interpretive Center is huge, modern and high tech, Fort Casper is homespun with homemade signs – but it’s also the real deal, where the history was made.  A short walk leads to one of the many river crossings in the area and gives some idea that crossing this river in a wagon was no picnic.   

A little further up the road in Douglas, the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum is a big rambling structure started in 1925 as a log cabin and is filled with guns, uniforms and a thousand mementoes of the Old West.  There are better things ahead, but it makes an   If the timing is right, stop in the White Wolf Saloon across the street for a quick one.  This is one crazy bar – a mixture of Old West and pirates (the owners came from Florida and brought the stuffed alligators with them).  Be careful.  You can spend a long time in the White Wolf looking at all the crazy things hanging on the walls, but just as Fetterman discovered, it’s sometimes dangerous to get distracted from your mission. 
entertaining bathroom stop and stretch on the long drive from Denver.