The Army on the Plains

The United States Army had not been raised to fight Indians and until the Civil War was over had done little Indian fighting. Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War hero, had led an army against the forest Indians of the Old Northwest in 1793–94, which made Ohio safe for settlement. A succession of generals had battled with the fierce and wild Seminoles of the Southeast from 1835 to 1842 with little credit to their reputations; exhaustion, not defeat, was what eventually forced the Seminoles to accept “removal” to the plains under the terms which guaranteed them, with all other transplanted Indians, possession of their reservations “as long as waters run.”

The fighting against Tecumseh, leader of the Shawnee during the War of 1812–14, and Black Hawk and Red Bird in Wisconsin and Illinois in the 1820s, was largely carried on by local militias, whose land hunger made them more ferocious enemies of the Indians than regular soldiers could ever be. Their training in Federalist days was, in any case, not to fit them for the exhausting and interminable tit-for-tat of savage frontier warfare but for operations against foreign enemies, the British and Canadians and then the Mexicans. The United States’ military budget during the early nineteenth century gave priority to the building of coastal fortifications on a European scale, the results of which are the magnificent Third System forts, together with the construction of a ship-of-the-line-fleet and the maintenance of a miniature spit-and-polish army of musketeers and artillerists. The army and navy served their purpose in the war against Mexico of 1846–48, in which one of the major expeditions against the enemy was mounted from Fort Leavenworth down the Santa Fe Trail. Federal strategy in the West during all the years between the formulation of the “removal” policy in 1825 and the end of the Civil War in 1865 was one simply of policing and preserving the Permanent Indian Frontier. Such forts as were built were sited either to define it or to protect the north-south Federal road, linking the Indian frontier posts, between Fort Snelling in Minnesota and Fort Towson in modern Oklahoma. A few scattered forts were dragged out westward following the line of emigration to California and Oregon but according to no pattern and policy. Until 1865 government policy meant what it said: an America for whites east of the Mississippi and west of the Rockies, and a red America in the “desert” in between.

Peace in 1865 confronted Washington with a changed reality. The move west was suddenly in full swing. Settlers were finding fertile farming ground in the lands of the buffalo and the Indian; roads and soon railways were breaking the oceanic integrity of the plains; the emptiness of the centre between historic Atlantic America and new Pacific America was filling with people who demanded the protection of the government. Piecemeal, forts sprang up along the river valleys on which settlement was centred: on the upper Missouri, Forts Sully and Buford in 1866, Fort Stevenson in 1867; along the Red River, Fort Sill in 1869 (today still the headquarters of the U.S. Artillery); and on the Washita River, Fort Cobb in 1869. The multiplication of forts was heading towards its eventual total of two hundred posts in the West, some properly defensible stockades or adobe outposts, others, where the garrison was larger, conventional barracks surrounding a parade square.

If Federal policy trembled on the brink of radical, inevitably anti-Indian, redefinition in 1865, so too did the Western strategy of its army. In the spring of 1866 General William Tecumseh Sherman, newly appointed commander of the Division of the Missouri, set out on a tour of his territory from his headquarters in Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis. Sherman, like Ulysses S. Grant, was a man made by the Civil War. They shared the same experience of humiliating failure in civilian life during the years preceding the war, of redemption through victorious command, of success achieved through high-handed and ruthless realism. Yet success also in some way diminished both men. Grant failed as President to bring to politics the extraordinary powers of dominance over others which he had displayed as the Union’s generalissimo. Sherman revealed in his formulation of a strategy for pacifying the plains something of that disgust with warfare as an instrument of policy which was to overwhelm him in his declining years. “The poor Indian finds himself hemmed in,” he testified to Congress. “There is a universal feeling of mistrust on both sides and this will sooner or later result in a general outbreak.” Yet as a man who knew the West in its pre-war rawness, when he had unsuccessfully practised law at Fort Leavenworth, he also recognized the intractability of the Indian, his maddening habit of giving his word one day and breaking it the next, his terrible cruelty and rapaciousness. Grant as President initiated a policy of peace-making with the Indians, in which Sherman, appointed his commanding general in 1869, co-operated. Indian behaviour seems nevertheless to have driven him to accept that the only solution to the tribes’ constant refusal to abide by solemn agreement was to drive them into a Northern and a Southern reservation and keep them there by force of arms. He also seems to have thought this best achieved by offensive operations, mounted whenever the Indians misbehaved, rather than by progressively constricting their territory by penning them in with a chain of forts, the strategies adopted by the British on the North-West Frontier of India and by the French in North Africa.

Yet comparisons between the imperial strategies of the British and French and those of the American army in the plains are perhaps unfair. In the first place, the enemies of the British and French, Pathans and Kabyles—cunning, tough, and brave though they were—did not approach the Plains Indians in qualities of harsh individual warriordom. Neither of those Islamic peoples could be called “primitives” in the strict sense; as followers of one of the great monotheistic religions, they shared many of the ethical assumptions of their white enemies and knew something of political organisation above the tribal level. Neither statement could be made about the Sioux, the Cheyenne, or their fellows. Anthropologists distinguish between “soft” and “hard” primitivism. The pre-metallic, pre-literate, but benevolent culture of Polynesia characterises the first; the rigorously masculine and individualistic way of life of the Plains Indians the second. The rituals undergone by them in the sun dance, in which the aspirant warrior tortured his muscles and lacerated his flesh in the effort to demonstrate in public his powers of endurance, scarcely have parallels elsewhere in the savage world. It resulted in the Indian warriors acquiring qualities of physical hardness, contempt for pain and privation, and disregard of danger to life which both disgusted and awed the white soldiers who fought them. “The adult Apache,” wrote General George Crook, perhaps the U.S. Army’s foremost Indian fighter, of the foremost warrior tribe of the southern plains, “is an embodiment of physical endurance—lean, well proportioned, medium sized, with sinews like steel, insensible to hunger, fatigue, or physical pains.” What was true of the Apache was also true of the Cheyenne and the Sioux.

Moreover, their very qualities of barbaric individualism almost wholly unfitted them for the poacher-turned-gamekeeper system of service on which the French and British counted to subdue and police their Algerian and Indian frontiers. Their colonial armies enlisted Islamic tribesmen—Turcos and méharistes in Algeria, Khyber Rifles and Waziristan Scouts in the North-West Frontier Province—who loyally submitted to European discipline and faithfully obeyed the orders of white officers. The American officers in the plains grasped that they needed such poachers-turned-gamekeepers. In fighting Apaches, General Crook wrote, “regular troops are as helpless as a whale attacked by a school of swordfish”; he recognised that “the only hope of success [against them] lies in using their own methods.” Plains Indians, however, would never submit to the disciplining and direction that the French and British managed to impose on the wild peoples of their imperial frontiers. Indians could be inveigled into enlisting as “scouts,” usually against traditional tribal enemies and always for cash or other inducements. They could never be persuaded to form regiments of the sort the British and French raised. Their loyalty was for a season or to a person. When times and personalities changed, they melted away, perhaps to disappear into the vastness, perhaps even to turn up on the other side. If an Indian scout did not break faith, he retained the option of dissolving back into the landscape. The only survivor of Custer’s Last Stand was a Crow scout who used the colour of his skin as camouflage to make his escape.

The army’s inability to enlist Indians as effective regulars would have mattered less had the white infantry and, more important, cavalry regiments been better attuned to warfare on the plains. The post–Civil War army was a poor thing. Under-trained and miserably paid, its soldiers, like Victoria’s redcoats, were recruited from the country’s unskilled poor. Many were immigrants off the boat, Irishmen and Germans, who had drifted into uniform after failing to find any productive place in the republic’s booming economy. A vast proportion, as many as one-third each year, rapidly drifted out again, impelled by harsh treatment, bad food, boredom, and the hard labour of barrack-building and store-humping to desert when the sergeant’s back was turned. Redcoats in India and French seven-year conscripts in Algeria did not have that option. Isolation in a foreign land turned them into hardened troopers willy-nilly, perfect in drill, adept at marksmanship, dutiful horsemasters. In Custer’s 7th Cavalry, which was to fight at the Little Bighorn in 1876, a quarter of the soldiers were recruits that year, 15 per cent raw recruits. A third of the regiment had joined within the last six months, and, though some had served elsewhere, there were too many unfamiliar faces for it to be reckoned by European officers an effective fighting force. A British cavalry regiment in a similar state of training would have been on the home establishment, working up for active service, not posted to frontier duty in a theatre of war.

If the men were unsatisfactory, so too were many of the officers. Custer’s regiment was unusual in containing several of his relatives as officers, but nepotism did not explain the low quality of captains and colonels in others. The truth was that the post–Civil War army, like many others in the aftermath of a great war, retained rank-holders who had avoided risk-taking in combat and shrunk from the risks of making a new civilian career in the aftermath. They were the second-best, often bureaucrats who made their juniors’ lives miserable by pettifogging application of the rule-book, because they themselves lived in fear of reproof by penny-pinching, narrow-minded superiors in Washington or at departmental headquarters. Custer was an exception, a sabreur—more braggart than beau—who would have been out of place anywhere but at the head of a band of horsemen, however badly trained. He was not an exception in having descended several ranks since his Civil War glory days, when he had worn the star of a brigadier general at the age of twenty-three. By courtesy he was still addressed as “general” after he had reverted to his appointment as a lieutenant colonel commanding the 7th Cavalry, which in his glittering case was fair enough; but too many of the other officers of “brevet” rank in the post-war army were simply inflated leftovers, jealous of past status, jealous of such diminished position and privilege as their shrunken profession left them.

Jealousy and resentment shows in their faces. The soldiers of the Revolution look sternly and steadily out of the frames of their canvases; there is a spry elegance about the tight-waisted, double-breasted warriors of 1812 and 1846; the pathos of anticipated self-sacrifice lights the features of a multitude of young Confederates and of their opponents in dark blue in the fading daguerrotypes of 1861–62; a workmanlike jauntiness surrounds the images of Uncle Sam’s campaign-hatted regulars of the Spanish war and carries over into those of the doughboys of 1917–18; I myself recall the well-cut khaki of the fit, young GIs who swarmed into the English West Country in the months before D-Day in 1944. The officers of the army of the Indian wars, by contrast, look seedy and shady. In their ill-fitting frock coats, scraps of gold lace, Dundreary whiskers, and wrinkled boots, they resemble, in their group photographs, nothing so much as a bunch of carpetbaggers or share-pushers on campaign to relieve honest farmers of their hard-earned dollars. Personally, I find the Indians they fought no more likeable; there is a selfishness about their belief in their right to enjoy the vastness of America quite as unappealing as the standing-upon-dignity of the Civil War relics. Nevertheless, all contemporary observers testify to the physical dignity of braves like Gall, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull. The efforts of the painters of the plains army, Frederic Remington and Charles Schreyvogel, to glamorise the Indians’ shabby opponents strains the credulity of the viewer.

Yet the army of the plains was the only army the United States possessed in the age of Manifest Destiny. Undefended, underpaid, ill-equipped, overstretched, it was the instrument with which white America had to overcome red America if the continent were to be bridged by civilisation from sea to sea. Militarily, moreover, the army had to solve a problem of unparalleled complexity. Nomads everywhere are a menace to civilisation. Hardy, warlike, elusive, they have throughout history tested the powers and discipline of regular armies to the limit. Enormous systems of fortification—the Great Wall of China, the Russian cherta lines on the Steppe, the Roman limes Syriae—were built over the centuries to contain them and protect the settled lands from their depredations. Almost all nomads, however, have an Achilles heel—flocks of grazing animals that they must protect, oases to which they retire between bouts of raiding, patches of fertile land in which they carry on transient agriculture. The American Plains Indians were unique in that they could sustain their nomadic way of life by parasitism on another nomadic entity, the millions of buffalo in the two vast migratory herds which roamed north and south of the Platte River. As long as the buffalo survived, so would the nomadism of the Indians, for unless cornered in combat, which the unobstructed surface of the plains and their own legendary fleetness in retreat made almost impossible, or constricted within a line of continuous fortification, which the army had neither the money nor manpower to construct and garrison, they could always disappear into the landscape.

By the early 1870s the systematic slaughter of the buffalo diminished year by year their freedom of action; so did the army’s adoption of the practice of campaigning in the winter months, when the Indians traditionally hibernated, and of slaughtering their pony herds when found. Neither was a decisive means of imposing control. In any case, neither government nor army sought to extinguish nomadism altogether. In 1866 the Secretary of the Interior, whose department was responsible for running the Indian agencies, wrote that “it has been the settled policy of the government to establish the various tribes upon suitable reservations and there protect and subsist them until they can be taught to cultivate the soil and sustain themselves”; but long experience had taught the unlikelihood of the pony Indians ever becoming farmers. What the government arrived at was a halfway house, a sort of limited nomadism on what were judged generous spreads, the 77,000 square miles of the Sioux reservation, today South Dakota, and the 147,000 square miles of “unceded” territory to the west, today Montana, together exceeding in extent the land area of France or Spain. The Sioux, however, did not want a France or a Spain. They wanted their traditional hunting grounds on the Great Plains, half a million square miles, or nearly one-sixth of the United States; they also wanted their traditional right to war among themselves and against their tribal enemies, while granting themselves the liberty to practise pillage and rapine against whites who violated their territories. They saw, moreover, little wrong in taking what the Indian agents dispensed on the reservations in hard times, flour, sugar, blankets, and in slipping away to the good life outside the reservation when times were better. These transients swelled the numbers of the irreconcilables in an infuriating way and at the most awkward times.

Such a time was 1876, when the great irreconcilables, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, a religious intermediary with the Great Spirit of magnetic power over his fellow tribesmen, preached scorn against the weaklings on the reservations—“slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hardtack and a little sugar and coffee”—and decried the threat of an army offensive. Unfortunately the chiefs had miscalculated. The army was resolved to march if the “roamers” did not report to the reservation by the deadline on 1 February, and when they did not, set its campaign in motion. There were to be three thrusts, all directed at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, in “unceded” Indian territory, where the intransigent Sioux and their Cheyenne allies had set up their camps.

The Yellowstone, I discovered to my surprise when I bought a Montana state map at Billings Airport, flows eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, via the Missouri, not into the Pacific. I had supposed the famous geysers and blowholes of the national park spouted on the western, not eastern, slopes of the Continental Divide. They seem too geographically exotic to belong on the Great Plains side of the Rockies. Yet I was nearly right. The Yellowstone misses rising west of the Continental Divide by less than ten miles. Then it flows clear across Montana, almost parallel to the Missouri, to join it at Forts Union and Buford and so begin a journey of two thousand miles to the delta below New Orleans. By 1860 the head of steamboat navigation was already well beyond Fort Union on both rivers, giving communication to the army’s main western bases at Fort Leavenworth and St. Louis. The strategy for the 1876 campaign, however, did not depend on steamboat for the concentration planned against the Indians. The three columns were to ride or march overland, one under Colonel John Gibbon from Fort Ellis at Bozeman deep in the Rockies, a second under General George Crook from Fort Fetterman on the North Platte River, a way-station on the Oregon Trail short of the famous South Pass through the mountains, and the third under General Alfred Terry from Fort Lincoln at Bismarck, North Dakota. They were intended to converge, from west, south, and east, on the cluster of small tributaries—the Bighorn, Little Bighorn, Rosebud, Tongue, and Powder rivers—which feed the Yellowstone itself. The deployment would bring together a significant proportion of the army’s high-ranking officers, including two of its six brigadier generals, but few enough of its 30,000 soldiers. Crook commanded only 800 men, Gibbon 450, Terry 925. When combined, they would total few more than 2,000. The Indian Bureau had assured the army, however, that the Sioux could not put more than 800 men into the field. General Philip Sheridan, the Civil War luminary who succeeded Sherman as commander-in-chief in 1884, had assured Congress in 1874 that “we cannot have any war with the Indians because they cannot maintain five hundred men together for three days; they cannot feed them.” Three days, however, is a long time in war, particularly if, as Sheridan admitted, the full fighting strength of the Sioux and their allies might be 3,000 to 4,000. His lofty under-estimates were to have a fatal sequel.

Sheridan counted on winter weather to hold Indian fighting numbers low. The army’s new policy of attacking while the snows kept the “hostiles” scattered and campbound had proved successful; but only one of the columns, Crook’s, got away before winter ended, and when it did catch some Indians in camp in the Powder River on 17 March, the officer in charge of the advance guard, Colonel Joseph Reynolds, panicked in the face of a counterattack and withdrew. Crook, perhaps the best of the army’s Indian fighters, cunning, relentless in the trail, a keen student of Indian ethnology, a champion of the principle of using Indians to fight Indians, honourable in his dealings with them, was furious. He had entrusted the attack to Reynolds perhaps to help that officer out of trouble over some recent shady quartermaster deals. When together they returned to Fort Fetterman, he put Reynolds on a charge. The colonel not unjustifiably complained that his men had been defeated by the weather before the fight began. At times during the march to the Powder the temperature had frozen the mercury in the column’s thermometers. Nevertheless, the Powder River hostiles had humiliated the army, lived to fight another day, and, worst of all, kept their herd of ponies on which to ride into battle.

The two other columns failed to take the trail from their forts before the bad weather relented. Gibbon did not leave Fort Ellis at Bozeman until 30 March. He had about two hundred miles to march down the Yellowstone to the mouth of its Bighorn tributary, where today a tiny place called Custer stands east of Billings, and reached it on 20 April. His orders were to stop hostile Sioux escaping northward across the Yellowstone from their encampments, guessed at but not precisely located, on the other side. He did not fulfil them. For nearly a month he patrolled the north bank, skirmishing occasionally with Sioux, who robbed his Crow scouts of their horses, collecting through his chief of scouts, the efficient Lieutenant James Bradley, extensive intelligence of Sioux strength and whereabouts but failing either to move to the attack or to pass on to General Terry the information his command had collected. It is a familiar story from the record of irregular warfare before the age of radio: a local commander putting his own preoccupations, in this case a concern about shortage of supplies, above his duty to transmit his observations of the enemy’s movements, perhaps because of the presumption that what he knew must be known also to fellow commanders in the same area, perhaps because he did not recognise the importance of what his subordinates told him. One way or another, Lieutenant Bradley’s identification of large Sioux encampments—dense smoke, interwoven pony trails—on 16 and 27 May did not reach General Terry. The Helena Herald printed news of the discovery of “500 lodges of Sioux on the Rosebud” on 28 May; but it was collecting information up the line of Gibbon’s march from the west. Terry was still to Gibbon’s east, outside the Herald’s distribution area.

Terry had marched from Bismarck, North Dakota, on 17 May. The 7th Cavalry formed his main force, though Custer, its commanding officer, had rejoined it only at the last moment; during the spring he had been detained in Washington, where his testimony was needed at hearings investigating frontier fraud. Terry’s plan was to use Custer’s cavalry to find the Indians, whom he then hoped to surround between Custer and Gibbon; Crook’s force, which was to mount a second march up from Fort Fetterman, might also arrive in time to take part. The thoughts of all officers were fixed on the importance of stopping the Indians running away, as they almost always did when the army made concerted moves against them. The idea that they might fight was in no one’s mind.

All the marches were long—Terry’s 250 miles, Crook’s 150 miles, while Gibbon had already marched 200—but the theatre of operations on which they were concentrating was quite small, about a hundred miles square. The terrain, however, made it seem large to soldiers who, at the fastest, could ride fifty miles a day and were forever breasting one slope only to see the horizon closed by another; the valleys of the little rivers offered no help, for they were twisty and filled with vegetation. The Indians were impeded admittedly by tentage, pony herds, and families; the soldiers were equally impeded by the wagon trains on which they depended for food. Only the horsemen—the cavalry, the braves—could move unfettered, and they not for long. Sheridan had not been so wrong in his estimate that three days was the maximum period a large Indian fighting force could be kept together in the field. Unfortunately, the same logistics applied to the army. A cavalry regiment like Custer’s could either ride free but grow hungry or feed but keep close to its wagons; it could not do both. This obliged a cavalry commander who established contact with a fleet-footed enemy to take risks or lose his quarry, and that imperative was to underlie all that happened in the coming Sioux War.

Good intelligence would, of course, cut through the logistic difficulty; but good intelligence, even with Indian scouts beating the hills in large numbers, was hard to come by. A rumour that Sitting Bull was waiting on the Little Missouri, well east of the concentration zone, caused Terry to send Custer on a quite fruitless reconnaissance in early June. Not until 8 June, when he met the uncommunicative Gibbon at the mouth of the Powder on the Yellowstone River, did Terry get firm news of the Sioux presence on the Rosebud twenty miles to the west. Jumping to the—wrong—conclusion that they were still there, but wanting to eliminate the possibility that they had shifted camp to the Tongue or Powder rivers, he detached Custer’s subordinate, Major Marcus Reno, thither. Reno, who went further than ordered, returned with the important information that the Sioux had indeed been on the Rosebud but had since moved further away from the Yellowstone into the hilly country to the southwest. Terry, correlating what he now knew of where the Sioux had been with what he could guess they would not do, which was to move westward towards the reservation of their Crow enemies, rightly decided that they must be somewhere in the Bighorn river system, probably in the valley of the Little Bighorn. That greatly reduced the area of geographical uncertainty and shortened the distances his columns would have to march before finding the Indians encamped. Discarding the orders given to Gibbon and Custer to converge on Rosebud, he summoned them on 21 June aboard the Far West, a government-chartered steamer which had succeeded in getting up the Yellowstone from the Missouri as far as the mouth of the Rosebud, the highest head of navigation so far achieved, and issued new instructions. Terry, with Gibbon under command, would proceed along the Yellowstone and then down the Bighorn to the mouth of the Little Bighorn. Custer would ride in a sweep down the Rosebud, proceed across country to the Little Bighorn, and then sweep up the river towards Terry and Gibbon. The Sioux would be trapped.

Unknown to any of the officers who met aboard the Far West on 22 June, however, the Sioux had already fought, and very fiercely. Crook’s ill-fated third column, which had been turned back by Indian resistance on the Powder River on 17 March, had returned to Fort Fetterman, had set out again on 29 May, and had got up to the theatre of operations in mid-June, but suffered a second setback on 17 June when it had to fight a serious, six-hour battle near the headwaters of the Rosebud. Crook’s men had stopped for coffee when they were surprised by hundreds of Sioux. Crazy Horse was in the band, and so were numbers of Cheyenne allies. Luckily for Crook, he had over two hundred of the Indian scouts he so favoured, who held off the first rush while the regulars formed up. When the fighting died down in mid-afternoon, however, Crook found he had lost several score dead and wounded. He reported ten and twenty-one respectively, but his chief scout said twenty-eight killed and fifty-six wounded. The truth was that Crook, who prided himself on his fieldcraft, had been defeated and wished to disguise the fact. He withdrew to base, at modern Sheridan, Wyoming, took no further part in the campaign, and did not get word of his reverse to Terry until too late.

Custer set off, therefore, on 22 June from the mouth of the Rosebud to march up its valley still in ignorance not only of the exact whereabouts of the Sioux but also of the mood that possessed them. He thought his mission was to prevent their escape, so that they could be rounded up and returned to the reservation. He did not know that they were in highly aggressive temper, nor that they had added the second fight with Crook to the success of their first. He did not know that Sitting Bull had presided at a sun dance on the Rosebud in mid-June, where the young warriors had tortured their flesh in demonstration of their courage and endurance and the chief had had a vision of “many soldiers falling into his camp.” Above all, he did not know that the numbers of the Sioux had grown from the expected few hundred into several thousand.

Custer’s orders allowed him wide latitude. Terry expected him to go far up the Rosebud before turning northward again to meet Gibbon, who should by then have reached the forks of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn and be awaiting him, so that the Indians “may be so nearly inclosed by the two columns that their escape will be impossible.” He was reminded, however, of the ration problem—he had food for fifteen days at most, carried on mules—warned to “feel” towards his left, which meant towards the Little Bighorn, and permitted to depart from his orders if he thought that reasonable.

Custer was to see reason to do so. Late on 24 June the trail of Indian pony hoofs he was tracking up the Rosebud turned west, and he decided to follow it. He told his officers that he would pursue it as far as the divide—the separating ridge—between the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn, rest his men there while sending scouts over to reconnoitre, and then move to the attack against the Indian village he expected to find on the far side on 26 June.

My friend Roger Spiller retraced Custer’s route from the Rosebud to the divide in 1992 with a party from the Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. They were looking in particular for a lookout point on the divide called the Crow’s Nest, from which Custer and his scouts are supposed to have spotted the Indian village eight miles distant(the National Park Service marker at the battlefield says fifteen) on 25 June. They found it. “We found the Crow’s Nest,” he wrote to me, “by a form of what I can only call historical triangulation, using the sources, the maps, the photo [a contemporary photograph of Crook and Scouts taken just after the battle], and local knowledge. We climbed the hill, taking perhaps a half hour or more to reach the top. Then we spread out to see if we could locate a spot that corresponded to the photo. We found it, on the side where Custer and his scouts would have come up.… [It was] on a hill mass, perhaps a thousand meters high, that jutted out from the main trace of the divide.… All day long we had been trying to insinuate ourselves into Custer’s frame of mind. He did not know the strength of the enemy or even where they were.… He wanted to engage the Sioux, but he was afraid they would get away. And why wouldn’t he have been anxious? That was the record of most of his kind.… Up on the Crow’s Nest, we wanted to test if he could actually see the eight miles over to the Little Bighorn. Sources said Custer was up there in the morning, and there was much talk about visibility and haze. We were there in mid-May, and Custer came a month later, when the heat works differently. On that day, we could see. We could see the long brow of high ground on the other side of the creek (the Little Bighorn) where the Indians’ pony herds were grazing and which had been noted at the time.

“At this point, the question was: if Custer could have seen the pony herd and all that it implied about the strength of the enemy he was facing, why was he so crazy to get at them? I thought the answer was pretty simple. Like so many other colonial soldiers, Custer believed that the discipline and order and fire power of his own force would easily compensate for lack of numbers. The fight would be a repetition of his massacre at the Washita River (of Cheyenne in November 1868) …. He didn’t think the Sioux would stand.”

Roger Spiller’s re-creation of Custer’s movements, observations, and psychology on the morning of what was to be the last day of his life are both fascinating and convincing. Nevertheless, it demands a gloss or two. The campaign of 1876 may have been “colonial” in character, in the sense that distances, terrain, climate, and the nature of the enemy compare with those the British and French had to face in Afghanistan or Algeria. On the other hand, British and French soldiers were normally better trained than Custer’s, and the locals who accompanied them, Sepoys or Turcos, were many times more numerous and altogether better disciplined than the U.S. Army’s Indian scouts. Moreover, the 7th Cavalry was not only under-trained and under-experienced; it was also, on 25 June, desperately tired after a march of thirty miles the day before and ten during darkness. The mule train, moreover, was lagging, which threatened food supply. If Custer kept to its pace, he might lose the chance of attack. Exhausted though his men—and horse—were, the imperative was to press them forward the eight miles to where drifting smoke of cooking fires in the Little Bighorn valley and the dark masses of pony herds grazing on the grass-covered shoulders of the bluffs above indicated that Sitting Bull, his Sioux, and their Cheyenne allies were in camp.

Custer came to a decision. Some of his scouts reported that the 7th Cavalry had been observed by the enemy. He would attack at once. Accordingly he divided his twelve-troop, or company, regiment for battle. These divisions have subsequently been called “battalions,” a term harking back to the age of European pike-and-musket warfare when it first came into use. One battalion of three companies under Captain Frederick Benteen was despatched to scout to the south, so as to prevent any Indians retreating towards the headwaters of the river. Another three formed Major Reno’s battalion. Custer kept five in his own battalion and left one to guard the pack train. He intended to move to the charge as quickly as possible. Reno would move first, towards the nearest edge of the village, which was not yet in view. Custer would press on to encircle what he estimated to be the other end of the village. He had the high ground, on the crest of the ridge which fronted the Little Bighorn valley on the north. The length of the projected battlefield was less than six miles. Half an hour’s rapid movement would place his battalions in positions from which the escape routes of the Sioux either up or down the river could be blocked. Then their only resort would be to charge against him up the steep sides of the valley which he dominated from the crest. Indians, we may presume Custer believed, did not make frontal attacks against disciplined fire power over open hillsides. It was a fair judgement. It was to be proved wrong.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!