Modern history



Custer’s Smile

It was, he later admitted, a “rashly imprudent” act. He and his regiment were pursuing hostile Indians across the plains of Kansas, a portion of the country about which he knew almost nothing. And yet, when his pack of English greyhounds began to chase some an-telope over a distant hill, he could not resist the temptation to follow. It wasn’t long before he and his big, powerful horse and his dogs had left the regiment far behind.

Only gradually did he realize that these rolling green hills possessed a secret. It seemed as if the peak up ahead was high enough for him to catch a glimpse of the regiment somewhere back there in the distance. But each time he and his horse reached the top of a rise, he discovered that his view of the horizon was blocked by the surrounding hills. Like a shipwrecked sailor bobbing in the giant swells left by a recent storm, he was enveloped by wind-rippled crests and troughs of grass and was soon completely lost.

In less than a decade this same trick of western topography would lure him to his death on a flat-topped hill beside a river called the Little Bighorn. On that day in Kansas, however, George Armstrong Custer quickly forgot about his regiment and the Indians they were supposedly pursuing when he saw his first buffalo: an enormous, shaggy bull. In the years to come he would see hundreds of thousands of these creatures, but none, he later claimed, as large as this one. He put his spurs to his horse’s sides and began the chase.

Both Custer and his horse were veterans of the recent war. Indeed, Custer had gained a reputation as one of the Union’s greatest cavalry officers. Wearing a sombrero-like hat, with long blond ringlets flowing down to his shoulders, he proved to be a true prodigy of war—charismatic, quirky, and fearless—and by the age of twenty-three, just two years after finishing last in his class at West Point, he had been named a brigadier general.

In the two years since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Custer had come to long for the battlefield. Only amid the smoke, blood, and confusion of war had his fidgety and ambitious mind found peace. But now, in the spring of 1867, as his trusted horse galloped to within shooting range of the buffalo, he began to feel some of the old wild joy. Amid the beat of hooves and the bellowslike suck and blast of air through his horse’s nostrils emerged the transcendent presence of the buffalo: ancient, vast, and impossibly strong in its thundering charge across the infinite plains. He couldn’t help but shout with excitement. As he drew close, he held out his pearl-handled pistol and started to plunge the barrel into the dusty funk of the buffalo’s fur, only to withdraw the weapon so as to, in his own words, “prolong the enjoyment of the race.”

After several more minutes of pursuit, he decided it was finally time for the kill. Once again he pushed the gun into the creature’s pelt. As if sensing Custer’s intentions, the buffalo abruptly turned toward the horse.

It all happened in an instant: The horse veered away from the buffalo’s horns, and when Custer tried to grab the reins with both hands, his finger accidentally pulled the trigger and fired a bullet into the horse’s head, killing him instantly. Custer had just enough time to disengage his feet from the stirrups before he was catapulted over the neck of the collapsing animal. He tumbled onto the ground, struggled to his feet, and faced his erstwhile prey. Instead of charging, the buffalo simply stared at this strange, outlandish creature and stalked off.

Horseless and alone in Indian country—except for his panting dogs—George Custer began the long and uncertain walk back to his regiment.


Like many Americans, I first learned about George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn not in school but at the movies. For me, a child of the Vietnam War era, Custer was the deranged maniac of Little Big Man. For those of my parents’ generation, who grew up during World War II, Custer was the noble hero played by Errol Flynn in They Died with Their Boots On. In both instances, Custer was more of a cultural lightning rod than a historical figure, an icon instead of a man.

Custer’s transformation into an American myth had much to do with the timing of the disaster. When word of his defeat first reached the American public on July 7, 1876, the nation was in the midst of celebrating the centennial of its glorious birth. For a nation drunk on its own potency and power, the news came as a frightening shock. Much like the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic thirty-six years later, the devastating defeat of America’s most famous Indian fighter just when the West seemed finally won caused an entire nation to wonder how this could have happened. We have been trying to figure it out ever since.

Long before Custer died at the Little Bighorn, the myth of the Last Stand already had a strong pull on human emotions, and on the way we like to remember history. The variations are endless—from the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae to Davy Crockett at the Alamo—but they all tell the story of a brave and intractable hero leading his tiny band against a numberless foe. Even though the odds are overwhelming, the hero and his followers fight on nobly to the end and are slaughtered to a man. In defeat the hero of the Last Stand achieves the greatest of victories, since he will be remembered for all time.

When it comes to the Little Bighorn, most Americans think of the Last Stand as belonging solely to George Armstrong Custer. But the myth applies equally to his legendary opponent Sitting Bull. For while the Sioux and Cheyenne were the victors that day, the battle marked the beginning of their own Last Stand. The shock and outrage surrounding Custer’s stunning defeat allowed the Grant administration to push through measures that the U.S. Congress would not have funded just a few weeks before. The army redoubled its efforts against the Indians and built several forts on what had previously been considered Native land. Within a few years of the Little Bighorn, all the major tribal leaders had taken up residence on Indian reservations, with one exception. Not until the summer of 1881 did Sitting Bull submit to U.S. authorities, but only after first handing his rifle to his son Crowfoot, who then gave the weapon to an army officer. “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle,” Sitting Bull said. “This boy has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living.”

Sitting Bull did not go quietly into the dark night of reservation life at the Standing Rock Agency in what would become North and South Dakota. Even as the number of his supporters dwindled, he did his best to frustrate the attempts of the reservation’s agent, Major James McLaughlin, to reduce his influence within the tribe. Tensions between the two men inevitably mounted, and when a new Native religious movement called the Ghost Dance caused authorities to fear a possible insurrection, McLaughlin ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest. A group of Native police were sent to his cabin on the Grand River, and at dawn on December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull, along with Crowfoot and Sitting Bull’s adopted brother Jumping Bull, was shot to death. A handful of Sitting Bull’s supporters fled to the Pine Ridge Agency to the south, where Custer’s old regiment, the Seventh Cavalry, had been called in to put a stop to the Ghost Dance craze. The massacre that unfolded on December 29 at a creek called Wounded Knee was seen by at least some of the officers of the Seventh Cavalry as overdue revenge for their defeat at the Little Bighorn.

This is the story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but it is also the story of two Last Stands, for it is impossible to understand the one without the other.

By refusing to back down in the face of impossible odds, the heroes of the Last Stand project an aura of righteous and charismatic determination. But when does resistance to the inevitable simply become an expression of personal ego or, even worse, of narrow-minded nostalgia for a vanished past?

Custer embraced the notion of the warrior as a seventeenth-century cavalier: the long-haired romantic with his dogs and his flamboyant clothes cheerfully leading his men into the maw of death. Even when presented with the devastating specter of total war at Gettysburg and Antietam, and later with the sordid, hardly heroic reality of the Indian wars of the West, where torching a village of noncombatants was considered a great victory, Custer managed to see himself as the dashing, ever-gallant dragoon.

For his part, Sitting Bull clung defiantly to traditional Lakota ways even though by the summer of 1877 most other Native leaders had come to realize that, like it or not, some kind of compromise was unavoidable. Instead of negotiating with the U.S. government, Sitting Bull turned his back and walked away. Like Custer galloping into a hostile village of unknown size, Sitting Bull had no interest in visiting Washington, D.C., prior to his surrender and seeing for himself the true scope of what threatened his people from the east.

And yet, both Custer and Sitting Bull were more than the cardboard cutouts they have since become. Instead of stubborn anachronisms, they were cagey manipulators of the media of their day. Custer’s published accounts of his exploits gave him a public reputation out of all proportion to his actual accomplishments—at least that’s what more than a few fellow army officers claimed. Sitting Bull gave a series of newspaper interviews in the aftermath of the Little Bighorn that helped make him one of the most sought-after celebrities in America. A tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show only heightened his visibility and also helped to engender the jealousy and resentment that ultimately contributed to his death once he returned to the reservation.

Both Custer and Sitting Bull are often portrayed as grimly resolute in their determination to fight. But even as the first bullets were being fired upon his people, Sitting Bull held out hope that peace, not war, might be the ultimate result of the army’s appearance at the Little Bighorn. Custer had demonstrated a remarkable talent for negotiation and diplomacy prior to his last battle. The tragedy of both their lives is that they were not given the opportunity to explore those alternatives. Instead, they died alongside their families (a son and a brother were killed with Sitting Bull; two brothers, a brother-in-law, and a nephew fell with Custer) and gained undying fame.

Americans have lived with the familiar images of the “Old West” for more than two centuries. But for those who actually participated in the events of that past, the West was dynamic, unpredictable, and startlingly new. Native horse culture was only a few generations old by the time Lewis and Clark ventured west in 1804, and ever-building pressure from the East meant that the tribes’ territories and alliances remained in near-constant flux throughout the nineteenth century.

The legends notwithstanding, Custer’s regiment in 1876 was anything but an assemblage of craggy-faced Marlboro men. Forty percent of the soldiers in Custer’s Seventh Cavalry had been born outside the United States in countries like Ireland, England, Germany, and Italy; of the Americans, almost all of them had grown up east of the Mississippi River. For this decidedly international collection of soldiers, the Plains were as strange and unworldly as the surface of the moon.

Most of us were taught that the American frontier crept west like an inevitable tide. Instead of a line, the frontier was an ever-constricting zone: a region of convulsive, often unpredictable change across which the American people, aided and abetted by the military, lurched and leapt into new and potentially profitable lands.

In 1876, there were no farms, ranches, towns, or even military bases in central and eastern Montana. For all practical and legal purposes, this was Indian territory. Just two years before, however, gold had been discovered in the nearby Black Hills by an expedition led by none other than George Custer. As prospectors flooded into the region, the U.S. government decided that it had no choice but to acquire the hills—by force if necessary—from the Indians. Instead of an effort to defend innocent American pioneers from Indian attack, the campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne in the spring of 1876 was an unprovoked military invasion of an independent nation that already happened to exist within what came to be declared the United States.

America was not the only place in the world where Western and indigenous peoples were coming into conflict in the late nineteenth century. Little Bighorn–like battles had been or were about to be fought in India, the Middle East, and Africa—most spectacularly, perhaps, at Isandlwana in 1879, when twenty-four thousand Zulus annihilated a British force of more than thirteen hundred men. And yet, there is something different about the American version of colonialism. Since the battles were not fought on a distant and colonized continent but within our own interior, we are living with the consequences every day. After four years of research and several trips to the battlefield, along with a memorable visit to the site of Sitting Bull’s cabin, I now know that nothing ended at the Little Bighorn.

As a writer and a sailor, I have long been interested in what occurs within the behavioral laboratory of a ship at sea. The isolation, unpredictability, and inherent danger of life aboard a sailing vessel have a tendency to heighten the intensity of social interaction, particularly when it comes to the issue of leadership. So it was, I have since discovered, with both a regiment of cavalry and a nomadic Indian village on the northern plains in 1876—two self-contained and highly structured communities under enormous stress.

Sitting Bull had never seen the ocean, but as tensions mounted during the spring of 1876, he described his people in terms to which any mariner could relate. “We are,” he said, “an island of Indians in a lake of whites.” Late in life, one of George Custer’s officers, Frederick Benteen, also looked to the water when considering his often contentious relationship with his former commander. “There are many excellent ways of finding out the disposition and nature of a man,” Benteen wrote. “I know of no better way than having to live on shipboard with one for a series of years. . . . Next, in default of salt-water facilities . . . , campaign with a man in the cavalry, for say 10 or 20 years. . . . Thus I became acquainted with General Custer.”

The fluidity of the sea, not the rigidity of irresistible law, characterizes human conduct, especially in the midst of a calamity. Even when people are bound by strict codes of behavior, their distinctive personalities have a way of asserting themselves. Instead of a faceless “clash of cultures,” the Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought by individual soldiers and warriors, each with his own story to tell. In the pages that follow I have attempted to do justice to those stories even as I tell the larger, ultimately tragic story of how two leaders and their followers embarked on two converging voyages across the river-ribbed interior of North America.

The collision that occurred on June 25, 1876, resulted in three different battles with Sitting Bull’s village of Sioux and Cheyenne: one fought by Custer; another fought by his second-in-command, Major Marcus Reno; and yet another fought, for all intents and purposes, by Captain Frederick Benteen. Reno, Benteen, and a significant portion of their commands survived. Custer and every one of his officers and men were killed.

Even before the battles were over, Reno and Benteen had begun to calculate how to put their actions in the best possible light. Perhaps not surprisingly, a subsequent court of inquiry only compounded the prevarications. Problems of evidence also plagued Native accounts. In the years after the battle, warriors were concerned that they might suffer some form of retribution if they didn’t tell their white inquisitors what they wanted to hear. Then there were the problems associated with the interpreters, many of whom had their own agendas.

At times during my research, it seemed as if I had entered a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I turned there was yet another, fatally distorted account of the battle. Like Custer struggling to find a peak from which he could finally see around him, I searched desperately for a way to rise above the confusing welter of conflicting points of view and identify what really happened.

During my third visit to the battlefield, in the summer of 2009, as I followed a winding, steep-sided ravine toward the Little Bighorn, I realized my mistake. It was not a question of rising above the evidence; it was a question of burrowing into the mystery.

Custer and his men were last seen by their comrades galloping across a ridge before they disappeared into the seductive green hills. Not until two days later did the surviving members of the regiment find them: more than two hundred dead bodies, many of them hacked to pieces and bristling with arrows, putrefying in the summer sun. Amid this “scene of sickening, ghastly horror,” they found Custer lying faceup across two of his men with, Private Thomas Coleman wrote, “a smile on his face.” Custer’s smile is the ultimate mystery of this story, the story of how America, the land of liberty and justice for all, became in its centennial year the nation of the Last Stand.



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