Custer’s Last Stand

George Custer was not a nice man. Brave, certainly, bold, dashing, quick in decision, physically attractive, both to men and women, sexually alluring, all that; but nice, no. Niceness is not, of course, a prerequisite quality in a successful soldier. Grant, greatest of American generals, was not nice. The 1st Duke of Wellington, epitome of the English gentleman, was not nice. Washington, mastermind of Revolutionary victory, was not nice. Sherman, hatchet man of the Civil War and Custer’s commander on the plains, was not nice. There was about all of those four, however, a redeeming moral quality that makes their lack of niceness beside the point. Wellington fought Napoleon with the relentlessness he did because he thought the Emperor of the French a political charlatan. Washington and Grant fought for the United States because they believed in the principles on which the republic was founded. Sherman fought in order to bring to an end a form of political intercourse, war between the states, for which he had come to feel distaste. For all four, war was no more than a means serving a higher object. The object engaged their moral sense, the means aroused in them an ultimate repugnance.

Custer, by every account, enjoyed war for its own sake. “Oh, could you have but seen some of the charges that were made,” he exclaimed to a friend, recalling his experiences in the Civil War. “While thinking of them I cannot but exclaim, ‘Glorious War.’ ” Young, headstrong, successful, and unwounded soldiers have often felt the glory of war. It is the emotion that runs through the Iliad; but Homer’s heroes, like Alexander’s Companions and Bohemund’s Crusaders, were the offspring of warrior societies, in which skill-at-arms rode roughshod over higher values. Warriordom survives into our own times: the Gulf War would not have been won did West Point and Quantico and Sandhurst and St.-Cyr not continue to turn out young leaders who snort like warhorses at the scent of blood. There ought to be, however, a difference between the emotions of the young warrior and the old in civilised societies. A young warrior enlists to fight. His senior serves to tame the impetuousness of gallants and braves—the Sioux thought as much—to more sober purposes. Indeed, the role even of the young officer is as much to restrain as to lead; without his exertion of a measure of control over the actions of his followers, combat descends rapidly into mayhem on the one hand and disaster on the other. In that context, the failure of an officer to grow up is calamitous. Custer, the “Boy General,” appears never to have grown up. His actions on the plains are tinged with the taint of mayhem. His final essay in command resulted in disaster tout court.

Custer was the quintessential bad-boy cadet. At West Point he chose deliberately to be in trouble, since that amused his contemporaries, and passed out thirty-fourth of a class of thirty-four. He had calculated the thinness of the ice on which he skated and just avoided engulfment. “He had more fun,” recalled his West Point friend Peter Michie, “gave his friends more anxiety, walked more tours of extra guard and came nearer to being dismissed more often than any cadet I have ever known.” Recognising only two positions in the cadet ranking, “head or foot,” he opted for foot and gloried in its achievement. War redeemed his West Point record. Within a year of graduation, in June 1861, he had distinguished himself in action by the capture of the first Confederate colours taken by the Army of the Potomac, and had been offered a captaincy on his staff by General McClellan himself.

The serendipity of American warfare never ceases to astonish the European military historian. The continent is so large it defies belief that individuals should so often turn up in the same place and frequently at the same time over and over again. Yet in the history books there they are. Washington managed to be at the Monongahela, as an officer of King George III, at the siege of Boston in rebellion against him, and at the victory of Yorktown which crowned the King’s defeat; the only surprise is that he was not at Quebec also. Bougainville was both at Quebec, on the losing side, and at Yorktown, on the winning side, having circumnavigated the globe and given his name to one of the most beautiful of tropical flowering plants in the meantime. Benedict Arnold was at the American assault on Quebec in 1775 and in the King’s army during the Yorktown campaign of 1781. Gage was not at Quebec or Yorktown but was at the Monongahela and in Boston for the battles of Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill.

So perhaps we should not be surprised after all that Custer had fought in the Peninsular campaign. He had literally seen more of it than most, for he had been chosen to join the balloonist Professor T. S. C. Lowe in aerial observation of Confederate lines. From a height of a thousand feet he had noted, through his binoculars, tents, earthworks, and “heavy guns peering through the embrasures”; he made daily ascents until Magruder withdrew from the Yorktown position to the outskirts of Richmond. Ballooning he nevertheless found alarming; almost everything else about war he did not. Custer was ferociously brave, with the sort of ostentatious bravery that actually diminishes risk in hand-to-hand combat because its display instils fear into opponents. He was always to the front in his cavalry charges, killed men at close range, escaped death himself by a whisker. One of his soldiers killed the great Confederate cavalry leader Jeb Stuart, and he himself not only defeated the formation of his old West Point roommate “Tex” Rosser but captured his kit and tried on his uniform, for all the world like a Greek outside Troy parading in the armour of a fallen Trojan. Custer loved uniforms and cultivated a flamboyant appearance. As a cadet he had thrice been disciplined for wearing his hair or whiskers too long and once for “unauthorised ornament on coat.” During the Civil War most of his uniform had been unauthorised—velvet trousers, braided jacket, sailor shirt, scarlet cravat, long jackboots, gilt spurs, and gold lace everywhere—and his hair was positively effeminate, blond locks spilling over his shoulders. He had, nevertheless, risen to command a division, to win McClellan’s golden opinion, and to be given by Sheridan, as a present for his bride, the table on which Lee had signed the articles of surrender at Appomattox. Sheridan had bought it for twenty dollars in gold, and Custer rode off with it balanced on his head.

Peace is bad for bravadoes like Custer. Those with sense as well as fire find something unwarlike in the aftermath of a great conflict to occupy their energies. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had made a fortune before the war in cotton, made another afterwards in railroads; perhaps the Confederacy’s greatest cavalryman, he put defeat behind him and devoted himself to capitalism and extremist politics. Baden-Powell, Britain’s Boer War darling, took up youth work. Ernst Jünger, Germany’s leading storm-trooper of the trenches, became an intellectual. Leonard Cheshire, who won the Victoria Cross as a Bomber Command pathfinder, founded a major humanitarian charity. There is something dysfunctional, in a civilised society, about heroes who cannot kick the heroic habit. Often they drift off in search of other wars to fight, as so many of the veterans of the Napoleonic Wars did to Greece in its struggle for independence from the Ottomans in the 1820s; sometimes they become mercenaries, hiring their guns to anyone who will pay; the lowliest of them may take to crime. Custer eschewed both crime and mercenarism—though Keogh, who died with him at the Little Bighorn, had been a soldier-of-fortune in Italy—but he succeeded in getting himself court-martialled at Fort Leavenworth in 1867 for insubordination and he became a thorn in the flesh of high command and government in the post-war years, ever ready to allege malpractice against officials of the administration.

He also spoiled for a fight. His wildest exploit before the Little Bighorn was at the Washita in 1868, when he surprised Chief Black Kettle’s Cheyenne in camp and fell on them savagely. That they were “hostiles” there was no doubt; but the 103 dead included women and children as well as braves. Moreover, the battle resulted in the extinction of seventeen of his own soldiers who, departing imprudently to chase the fugitives, were killed to a man. Many in the 7th Cavalry did not forgive their commander for what they saw as a failure to support his subordinates, and the rancours were to fester as late as the Little Bighorn itself. He had other fights, notably in the Yellowstone in 1873, and he won a name as a leading Indian fighter. He never acquired, however, the reputation either of George Crook or Nelson Miles, the leading practitioners of plains warfare, never achieved the sort of empathy with the foe which is the mark of the real wilderness warrior, and never again, after the Civil War, established that psychological ascendancy over his own subordinates which is the bedrock of cut-and-thrust leadership. The impression left by his career in the eleven years between Appomattox and his death is of increasing discontent and frustration, depression and decline, relieved by occasional bursts of action, enlivened by forced displays of independence, and alleviated by passages of adventure, as in his Yellowstone expedition of 1874. In a different, truly colonial or imperial society, Custer might have gone on from the Civil War to greater things, as did Bugeaud in Algeria after the Napoleonic Wars and the Russian veterans of the Crimean War in the conquest of Central Asia. In the stridently populist, mercantile and farmer society of later-nineteenth-century America—critical though its tiny army was to its final occupation of the national territory—Custer could not be more than a servant of forces greater than himself. Some realisation of his marginal role in the growing greatness of America shows in the story of his final years.

Still, the old fire awoke on the divide between the Rosebud and Little Bighorn rivers on the morning of 25 June 1876. Near him, he knew, was the most important encampment of “hostiles” then challenging the authority of the U.S. government and army. That its warriors greatly outnumbered the force he did not guess and may not have cared; he continued to believe, with other plains soldiers, that Indians confronted by cavalry would run, not fight. He gave his orders: Benteen to scout the upper Little Bighorn, the rest of the regiment to follow him along the high ground above it, until the two forces could combine and overawe or overwhelm the Indians below them.

It is an eerie and unsettling experience to come upon the ground that Custer discovered when in early afternoon his column breasted the heights above the Little Bighorn and at last got visual confirmation—clouds of dust, reports of a party of fleeing Sioux—that the Indians were close at hand. We see now almost at a glance—a few minutes by car along the Park Service road, by a brief study of the topographic model at the Visitor Center—what Custer did not see: the length of the battlefield, about four miles from the point of first contact to the site of his last stand, and its exact shape, a series of shallow gullies and ravines running down from the undulating ridge line to the serpentine, tree-shaded course of the Little Bighorn. We also see what the future concealed from Custer: the unrolling of the battle, the unravelling of his command and its final bloody extinction.

Small white headstones, the same headstones that stand in the mown grass at Malvern Hill in the Peninsula, tell the story. This is a curiously Scottish landscape, green but also brown, rough underfoot yet smooth and undulating in the long view, treeless on the tops but bumpy with small knobs of bushes on the slopes, dry and burnt but giving a hint of sogginess in the hollows. White stone shows clear against the ground cover, all the clearer because this is indeed Big Sky country, the banks of high clouds sailing against the blue in stately convoy towards horizons that lie far beyond the circle of vision. Big Sky light picks out the headstones, here a cluster, there a straggling line, in the distance the dot of a single memorial, each marking the spot where a man died, all starkly inscribed: “U.S. Soldier 7th Cavalry Fell Here, June 25, 1876.”

The Park Service road has been driven to follow the route Custer rode, but one travels it in reverse direction, beginning at Last Stand Hill where the battle ended, then down the course of the running battle that unfolded as the Indians raced up the hillside to shoot at the white men riding the ridge, to terminate at the other hill where the companies which had not taken part dug themselves in and survived the onslaught. A historian’s eye interprets the evidence the headstones present: at Last Stand Hill a dense concentration of men fighting for their lives; here and there along the road signs of an effort to form a firing line; down the forward slopes small clumps where troopers tried to take the battle to the enemy; off in the hinterland individual stones marking the death place of fugitives or stragglers; in half a dozen scattered spots small concentrations where isolated groups made last stands of their own. Beaver Dam Creek remains a sinister place, but time has removed from it the physical signs of who died where and when. The Custer battlefield retains its chilling poignancy because each stone tells a story. It is a story of a battle going desperately wrong for the man who initiated it and for the soldiers who followed him into confrontation with savagery.

On my drive back along Custer’s route a coyote—could it have been a wolf? I have never seen either in the wild—cleared the road ahead of my car in a single bound and shot off into the undergrowth beyond, a reminder that this is still wild and unsettled country. A little further on, two travellers in Custer cavalry uniform stopped their horses to be photographed by tourists in a leisure vehicle. There were more leisure vehicles at Reno Hill, where the companies which did not follow Custer dug their rifle pits. There a man with a pitted face and cowboy hat took turns with me to peer through the peepholes in the Park Service markers at the Crow’s Nest and the site of the Sioux encampment. We watched some graziers on horseback begin to drive a small herd of brown cattle up the steep rise from the valley floor. A few minutes later, driving back, I met them opening the roadside fence to let the cattle through. That was all the time it must have taken for the Sioux to ride their ponies up from the river bottom to the high ground where the white men were strung out along the ridge line. Disaster came quickly to the 7th Cavalry.

Disaster began not up in the bare high ground but in the verdant valley below. Custer’s first order, after he had taken the decision to ride to the attack, was to detach the Reno battalion down a feeder stream of the Little Bighorn, now known as Reno Creek, where they stumbled on a party of Sioux, who rode off in alarm towards the encampment, still hidden by a shoulder of the ridge on the west bank. Custer sent Reno in pursuit, promising that “you will be supported by the whole outfit.” While he rode on, Reno crossed the stream to the east bank. At the water the horses stopped to drink, but he got the column moving again at about three o’clock. Soon there were a succession of Indian sightings, for they were approaching the southern end of the camp. Reno sent back first one, then a second man, to warn Custer that the Indians “were strong.” An interpreter, Fred Gerard, pointed out to Reno that the Indians were not retreating but coming forward, but was disregarded. As Gerard knew, however, that “Custer was under the impression that the Indians were running away … and it was important for him to know that the Indians were not running away,” he also told the adjutant, William Cooke, who decided to take the message back on his own account.

As Cooke rode back, Reno pressed on down the valley, now separated from Custer by the river and the tree line; the line of pretty cottonwoods is not wide, but it is, as it was then, quite dense and thickened by fallen branches and undergrowth. Very shortly, Reno ran into the Indians the scouts had reported coming towards them and ordered his men into skirmishing order. This was a drill common to cavalry all over the world. Three men dismounted to open fire, while a “horse holder” led his and their mounts to the rear. One flank of Reno’s skirmishing line was out in the flat ground, above which the Indian ponies had been grazing when Custer spotted them from the Crow’s Nest that morning; the other rested by the river and under the trees.

For a while Reno’s skirmishing tactics held the Indians at bay. Soon, however, they began to filter round his open flank—the end of his line which lay out in the valley—and he began to worry about his ammunition supply. The men were shooting off the rounds they had in their pouches, and the reserve ammunition was up in the heights behind him, with the mule train. After about fifteen minutes Reno decided he was losing the firefight and ordered his men back into the trees; but there the Indians joined them and casualties were suffered. Within half an hour, Reno ordered his men to mount—somehow the horse holders found them—and then, after briefly dismounting them again, perhaps in the hope of forming another skirmishing line, led them upstream at a gallop, mounted Indians intermixed with the fugitives, until they could find a way across to rejoin the main party on the opposite bank. In the disorganisation, many cavalrymen were shot down. By the time Reno reached high ground, 40 of his 140 men had been killed or abandoned and 13 wounded.

While the little battle in the valley bottom had been raging, several of Reno’s troopers had time to notice Custer’s main party on the high ground above, moving at a trot downstream; some saw Custer wave his hat. Custer saw the commotion of battle down below, for one of his Crow scouts, who escaped the catastrophe, recalled that “we could see Reno fighting. He had crossed the Creek. Everything was a scramble with lots of Sioux.” Custer soon knew, moreover, what trouble lay in store, for the adjutant, Cooke, had come up to him and he could see the size of the Sioux host: “camps and camps and camps,” remembered a Crow. “There was a big camp in a circle near the west hills.” Custer’s military sense told him that there was much shooting ahead, for he sent word back “to bring the pack train straight across to high ground—if packs get loose don’t stop to fix them, cut them off. Come quick. Big Indian camp.”

This order must have been sent at about quarter past three, when the head of his column was halfway down the modern battlefield road, approaching the hollow called Medicine Trail Coulee. Here some of his troopers lost control of their horses, which began to gallop. Custer called out, “Boys, hold your horses. There are plenty down there for all of us.” He was still expecting discipline and fire power to prevail, despite the growing evidence of how large Indian numbers were. A little further on he sent a second order to bring up ammunition. Cooke, who had carried news of the Indians’ strength up from Reno’s valley fight, pencilled a quick—still existing—note to Major Benteen, commanding the rear party, “Come on. Big Village. Bring pack. W. W. Cooke. P. [sic] Bring pacs [sic]. “He handed the scrawl to John Martin, an Italian immigrant who had recently anglicised his name from Giovanni Martini, and rode on. Martin, spurring back, met Custer’s brother, Boston, bringing ammunition forward. Martin then glimpsed “the command … going down into [Medicine Trail] ravine.… they were galloping”; he also “saw Indians, some waving buffalo robes and some shooting.”

With this report, Custer passes from white history. All we know of his and his soldiers’ fate comes hereafter from Indian sources. Their testimony—it includes that of Indian scouts, Indian participants in the battle, and the very late deposition of an Indian woman—tantalises Custer historians by its unconcern for exact chronology, topography, or the relationship of one with the other. Yet in truth, the testimony of Custer’s enemies, however exact perfectionists might hope it to be, could add no more than detail to the outcome of their encounter. For Custer, with few more than two hundred men under command, had chosen to ride into a concentration of several thousand Indians, men, women, and children, whose warriors outnumbered the troopers perhaps by ten to one. Some of them were better armed than the soldiers, firing Winchester repeating rifles against single-shot Springfield carbines. All were rested, while the soldiers were physically exhausted, their horses also, while the Indian ponies, hastily collected from the shoulder of the valley bluffs where they had been grazing but minutes before Custer’s appearance, were fresh. The Indians, moreover, were in fighting mood. Custer’s men may have been fired by the sight of the encampment so long sought, and by Custer’s exhortations, but the Indians were not only rebelliously aggressive but frantic to defend their women and children from an attack on the village in which, experience told them, sex and age were no protection against slaughter.

Few against many, therefore, tired against fresh, and, at best, cavalry courage against warrior rage, outrage, and instinct for revenge. It was only to be expected that Custer’s unsupported two hundred should go down to defeat and that, in defeat, they should be killed to the last man and their bodies mutilated. The questions are: How exactly did the two hundred put themselves in a position from which they could not extricate themselves by flight? Where and when were they overwhelmed? Why did the unengaged companies of the 7th Cavalry not ride—if not to their rescue, which disparity of numbers probably ruled out—at least to their support?

The broad answer to these questions is that Custer seems to have believed until the very last moment that he was attacking and enjoyed an offensive advantage, both of timing and dominant position, and that the Indians were running away or would do so when his fire power told. When he at last recognised that it was he who was at a disadvantage, of numbers, of isolation, and ultimately of fire power, and that it was the Indians who were attacking him, it was too late. The bare heights of the ridge above the Little Bighorn offered him no compact, commanding position on which to concentrate his soldiers for a rally in which disciplined fire power might have told. He may well have attempted a rally but then tried to hold too long a perimeter and dispersed his troops. He may simply have been caught by superior numbers while his column was in extended order, encircled, and gunned down. Either way, the results proved fatal.

John Gray, a retired physiologist, has dissected the evidence that survives—narrative, archaeological, topographical—in relentless detail and offered a reconstruction of events upon which it seems impossible to improve. It confirms the picture of a headstrong commander, tensed bowstring-taut in his determination to bring back a victory from the Little Bighorn, pressing ever deeper into danger and taking a succession of decisions each one of which heightened the risks he was running until he had no choice of action left except that of dying in a trap of his own making.

Gray’s timescale is short, little more than an hour and fifty minutes between the departure of Private Martin towards the rear party with the urgent request for ammunition—“Bring pacs”—and the death of Custer’s last survivor in the last stand on what is now known as Custer Hill. Gray discounts disorganisation. Custer, he convincingly proposes, handled his command during some of those two hours in a controlled and military fashion. He had, if not an exact plan, at least an anticipation of how the engagement ought to unroll. Reno, down in the river bottom, would engage the surprised Indians in a firefight and keep them busy at the west end of the village while he and his five companies continued with the envelopment along the high ground towards the eastern end of the encampment. That was his initial decision; then, as he rode further forward and got the extent of the village in view as it unfolded beyond the bumps of the ridge’s shoulders, he decided to create a second threat by detaching part of his battalion to ride down the slope and attack it inside the diversion Reno had already created. While this second threat was developing he rode on further, choosing a route on the reverse slope of the ridge, out of the Indians’ view, with the object of reappearing above the river at a fordable point and riding down to open a third firefight in the heart of the village itself. By then, Gray surmises, he hoped that his urgent appeals for ammunition and reinforcements would have brought up the rest of the regiment. The Indians, assailed at three points, disorganised and frantic for the safety of their families, and now attacked by Benteen’s companies, would then cease to operate as a cohesive force and succumb to the military orthodoxy of Custer’s concentrated attack.

This is a convincing reconstruction of what may have passed through Custer’s mind. The testimony of Curley, an Indian scout whom

Custer sent back as action quickened, bears it out; Custer’s dismissal of all his Indians—three Crows were ordered away as well—at a moment when a European officer would have been counting every rifle is in itself a demonstration of his persisting sense of superiority over the Sioux. Curley, through a later testimony interpreted by an officer, described how part of Custer’s force went down to the river, exchanged fire, and then rode back to join the main column on the ridge. “They came down ravine to its mouth.… The Sioux could be seen mounting … and commenced to fire.… the troops fired back, remaining mounted.… The troops then turned from the mouth … the men in the lead motioning with their hands to go northeast, when [where?] the companies broke from the main column, as if to meet again on the main ridge.”

Dr. Gray suggests that what Curley saw was the outcome of a decision by Custer to divide his command about halfway along the modern battlefield road, in order to create a diversion by part of it, opening the second firefight, while he led the rest of his force behind high ground to reappear further westward, nearer the end of the Sioux encampment, at which point the detached troops rejoined him. Archaeological evidence supports the view that two companies, probably E and F under Captain George Yates, went down to the river; Gray suggests that their role was to make a feint, which would hold some of the Sioux there while Custer pushed on to extend what he still believed was an envelopment of the encampment. When Yates rejoined him, at about a quarter to five, near what is now known as Custer Hill, his command may still have been largely intact. Some men had been lost by Yates in the skirmish at the river and others in the ride along the ridge, but he still led a fighting force.

Shortly afterwards, however, a different reality began to break in. Curley, just before he left to ride out of the battle, saw “a hurried conference of officers.… [Mitch] Bouyer [a half-breed scout] told Curley … that if the command could make a stand somewhere, the remainder of the regiment would probably come up and relieve them. Personally, Bouyer did not expect relief would come, as he thought the other commands had been scared out. Bouyer thought the orders would be to charge straight ahead, drive the Indians from the ravine [below Custer Hill] and try to find more favourable ground.” Bouyer was by this stage wounded. His last words to Curley were “You are very young and do not know very much about fighting. I advise you to leave us, and if you can get away by detouring and keeping out of the way of the Sioux, do so, and go to the other soldiers and tell them that all are killed. That man [Custer] will stop at nothing. He is going to take us right into the village, where there are many more warriors than we are. We have no chance at all.” They shook hands. Curley rode off and followed a creek “until a tributary took him in a northerly direction. He followed it until he reached the high ridge east of the battlefield, about 1½ miles. From this place [he] could see the battle with field glasses. He saw the Indians circle Custer’s men.”

Curley had ridden away at about ten to five. By twenty past, when he brought his field glasses to bear, the end was less than ten minutes away. In the interval, Custer had abandoned his remaining thought of charging down into the village from the high ground and had spread his companions out to line the ring of little crests that encircled his position, from which fire could be directed down on the Indians now swarming in hundreds not only up the slope from the valley, but round his flanks and out into the open heathland to his rear. “Heap Shoot” Curley had already witnessed from close at hand before he left. “Heap Shoot” now enveloped Custer’s men as they made their last stand. Custer’s decision to form a front in all directions along the best ground available had been correct; distance robbed it of point. Dr. Gray has calculated the length of the perimeter Custer tried to hold at 1.8 miles, into which two hundred men go—supposing two hundred were still capable of pulling a trigger—fifteen times. Individuals forty-five feet apart, for that is the interval at which the calculation puts them, would have had, with their single-shot carbines, no hope of sustaining an impermeable wall of fire against attackers outnumbering them eight or ten to one. Their line would soon have been penetrated. The gravestones tell the rest of the story.

No doubt, as Indian numbers thickened, the attempt to maintain a cohesive firing line collapsed. Terrified men must have clustered together, opening wider gaps; parts of the line may have been overrun altogether. There are Indian accounts of this final stage, difficult to relate to the ground or to arrange in time. Some speak of soldiers throwing aside their carbines, perhaps because they had been out of ammunition; others of soldiers committing suicide, not unknown in savage warfare when scalping, disembowelling, dismemberment, or transfixing by arrows awaited the disarmed victim. Much of the killing seems to have been done with arrows, though perhaps only after the soldier targets had been shot or ammunition had run out. Stories of Custer’s men being overwhelmed by a hail of dropping arrows are unconvincing, since the bow was an effective killing agent only in flat trajectory against a visible target. Haphazard shooting into the general area of the last stand would have missed more often than it hit. In the final minutes, however, tomahawking and knifing, described by several Indian participants, probably did despatch the last survivors. What is certain is that, by about half past five on the afternoon of 25 July, all 210 men of the Custer battalion were dead and most of their bodies lay within the two-mile perimeter on which its commander had tried to make a stand until the help which did not reach him should arrive.

The unfolding and culmination of the ghastly slaughter the eye takes in all too quickly, almost at a single glance, in the final circuit of the battlefield road. The dense cluster of gravestones on Custer Hill is the centrepiece of the Park Service’s meticulous conservation of the site; more poignant are the smaller, more distant groupings out in the heathland where the detached companies met their end. They mark the outlines of the most transient fort of American military history, a field position extinguished almost as soon as conceived, not a strong place but a weak place, a mere smear of neural conception, wiped away in an outburst of native American ferocity against the conqueror and tormentor.

The Indians’ ferocious emotions were temporarily assuaged by their triumph over Custer at the western end of the camp. Some of the victors dressed themselves in soldiers’ uniforms, caught and mounted their horses, paraded in triumph before the women and children who had sheltered during the battle in a ravine on the far side of the Little Bighorn. Others searched the battlefield for weapons and ammunition. The battle was not yet over. Beyond the eastern end of the campsite the companies of the 7th Cavalry not yet engaged—Benteen’s three and that protecting the mule train, together with the men of Reno’s three companies who had escaped from the fight in the trees at the river—had gathered on the high ground. They were within earshot of the fighting and sight of the dust it threw up. They had received Custer’s last messages, including the pencilled appeal to “Bring pacs.” It was clear that there was a crisis. Martin, who carried the note, arrived on a wounded horse. One of the company commanders, Captain Thomas Weir, had on his own initiative started forward at the head of his men, other companies following, to go to the rescue. Benteen’s heart was not in it, however, nor was Reno’s. His first words after his escape were “For God’s sake, Benteen, help your command and help me. I’ve lost half my men.”

Reno was the senior officer, and Benteen obeyed. Indians arriving from the victory over Custer soon confronted Captain Weir with superior force, and he fell back on the position his superior officers, Reno and Benteen, had taken up around a hollow in one of the river bluffs. There the companies, some 350 strong, were able to find the compact, defensible position which Custer had sought but not found further to the east where the white marble headstones now dot the heath. During the remaining hours of daylight, spread out in a tight circle around the wounded and the tethered horses and mules grouped in the hollow, they gave back shot for shot against the exultant Indians ringing their firing line. Then, when darkness descended, they began to disappear below the surface, as soldiers do when fire descends, into every shallow scrape that knives, mess tins, and hands could win from the soil. Night had fallen by nine o’clock.

When the sun rose on 26 June the remnants of the 7th Cavalry, companies A, B, D, H, G, K, and M, were entrenched within a shallow earthwork, parapeted by ammunition boxes, saddles, and supply packs. A fort had come into being. Benteen, who had taken effective command, defended it tenaciously throughout the day, striding about to hearten his men when Indian fire quickened, encouraging Reno to counterattack at one stage, at another leading a charge beyond the perimeter himself. This was frontier warfare in classic style. The defence of the entrenchment held through the hot morning, though thirst tormented; at one stage some brave troopers sallied out to the river to bring a few cupfuls of water to the wounded, of whom there were sixty in the hollow. Then in early afternoon the fire of the Indians began to die away. Thirst would have won them the battle, but they lacked the patience to wait and they feared the arrival of army reinforcements. They had triumphed over Custer, they had taken trophies, and now the urge to leave the place of death took possession of them. Perhaps as many as three hundred of their own, out of a fighting force of two thousand, had died. It was time to go, before more were killed on the slopes of Reno Hill, before inevitable retribution arrived. At seven o’clock in the evening the defenders of Reno’s entrenchment saw the valley below them fill with smoke, as the Sioux and their Cheyenne allies set fire to the grass, and through it they watched the great encampment of warriors, women, children, and ponies begin to file away southwestward to a new sanctuary in the Bighorn Mountains.

Early next morning, 27 June, the survivors of Reno’s fight in the treeline at the river, who had lain concealed for a day and a half, staggered into the position. Then, as the hills lightened, the defenders saw the head of a relief column of the 2nd Cavalry riding up the valley from the east. Soon the steamboat Far West, which had supported the expedition, was forced up the Bighorn to its junction with the Little Bighorn at modern Hardin, fifteen miles from the last stand, and the wounded loaded aboard. They were laid on the deck on beds of cut grass; fifty-four hours later, in a burst of speed never to be exceeded in the Missouri river system, Far West docked at Bismarck, North Dakota, 710 miles away. The captain hastened to the telegraph office, where the operator tapped into the national network the brief report: “General Custer attacked the Indians June 25 and he, with every officer and man in five companies, were killed.”

The message down the wire caused a national sensation. The red man had struck back. White America demanded revenge. It got it. Indian resolution in all the wars with the European invader, from those of the Iroquois with the French in the seventeenth century onward, had always—except in the case of the Seminoles—been short-lived; so that of the Sioux proved. Crook and Terry, the two generals who had planned the Sioux War of 1876, did not at once take up the pursuit of the victorious Sioux. They seem to have been disoriented by the disaster. They certainly exaggerated to themselves the numbers of armed Sioux and Cheyenne roaming the warpath in the Bighorn Mountains. Not until early August, when reinforcements arrived at their camps in the Yellowstone and Powder rivers, did they lead out their punitive expeditions: Terry to the Rosebud River with 1,700 men, Crook to the Tongue with 2,300. By then the Indians, who had quickly hunted out the Bighorn region, were already scattering; some actually reported to the Sioux reservation. Crazy Horse was heading for the Black Hills, Sitting Bull—who may in fact have taken no part in the battle his big medicine inspired—for the Little Missouri. Wherever they went, neither Crook nor Terry could find them, though they floundered about all autumn in their pursuit. In September, however, some Sioux chiefs were brought to sign away the Black Hills, while the aggressive Colonel Nelson Miles campaigned all winter against what Sioux bands he could find in Yellowstone country. His relentlessness and that of other younger commanders paid off. In May 1877 Crazy Horse brought 1,100 Sioux into Camp Robinson, Nebraska, and cast his weapons on the ground in token of surrender; within the year he was dead, killed by his jailers when appearing to defy their orders. On 19 July, Sitting Bull led forty-three Sioux families, all that remained under his leadership, into Fort Buford, North Dakota, and handed his Winchester to his eight-year-old son to present to the commander, Major David Brotherton. “I wish it to be remembered,” he said, “that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle.” Then he slipped away into Canada, where whites were fewer—the great settlement of the prairies had not begun—and the authorities less exigent, and where he remained until 1881, when shortage of game and the seepage of his followers back into the United States brought his exile to an end.

That was not quite the end of Sitting Bull’s defiance or of warfare in the West. There remained numbers of tribes, of the Southwest and the Rocky Mountains, Nez Percés, Bannocks, Paiutes, Ute, Apache, who had grievances over treaties or who disliked the reservation system or who simply chose to cling to their traditional ways and who accordingly fell into war with the United States during what remained of the 1870s and the 1880s. The army fought them hard, as the memorial tablets in the Fort Leavenworth chapel record; but during those years some of its leaders also came to adopt a protective attitude towards its enemies, to identify with their culture—as far as any white man could—and even to espouse their cause. Soldiers in savage wars were behaving similarly all over the world during the late nineteenth century, in empathy, part romantic, part moral, with the heroic qualities of the warriors they fought. British officers on the Afghan frontier, French officers in the Sahara, Russians in Central Asia, were learning local languages, adopting native costume, studying tribal customs, even dabbling in alien religions. The U.S. Army did not go so far: its officers jibbed at warpaint and shamanism. Some, nevertheless, came to feel an increasing distaste for the corruption that raged in the Indian Bureau, for the greed of cattle barons and mining kings, for the racialism of settler politicians, for the expedient readiness of the Federal government to abrogate its treaty obligations to native Americans. Nelson Miles, the great Indian fighter, was one of them; his advocacy of the cause of Chief Joseph of the Nez Percés resulted in the survivors of the tribe being allowed to return from Canada, where they had taken refuge with Sitting Bull, and settle near their tribal home in the Northwest.

Such officers inevitably were in the minority. The army’s central relationship with the remaining “hostiles” during the decade following the Little Bighorn was a campaigning one: in the Nez Percé War of 1877 in Idaho and Oregon, in the Bannock and Paiute wars of 1877–78 in those states and in Nevada, in the Ute War of 1879 in Colorado, and in the Apache War in Arizona, New Mexico, and across the Mexican border in the years 1881–86. Geronimo, most elusive and irreconcilable of the Apache chiefs, was the last of the Indian war leaders whose name was to join those of Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull in American folklore. Ironically, on the collapse of his resistance, his Chiricahua Apache were exiled to Florida, from which the expulsion of the Seminoles had been supposed to end the Federal government’s difficulties with native America nearly sixty years earlier.

Geronimo was the last defiant, but not the last resistant. In 1890 a new mood swept the Plains Indians, a belief that they could escape their white tormentors and enter a harmonious new world by the adoption of a quietist moral code, expressed through prayer and dance. Beaten people elsewhere had adapted similarly: Sikhism began as a quietist resistance to forced conversion to Islam by devout Hindus of the Punjab. Quietism, however, has a tendency to tip the other way, into militant self-righteousness. The Sikhs became in the nineteenth century the most warlike people in India. There are other tendencies, notably conversion to a belief that mystical practices or symbols will protect cultists against physical harm. In 1905–6 the Africans of Tanganyika rose against the German colonial government in the Maji-Maji rebellion; Maji-Maji magic, they were persuaded, would turn away German bullets. Seventy-five thousand died in the process of discovering that magic was not a weapon of war.

Some Sioux converts to the Ghost Dance cult of 1890–91 both rejected its quietism and conceived a belief that “ghost shirts” were bulletproof. Their frenetic dancing caused alarm throughout the white settlements of Montana, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, and the army was called in. Many of the Sioux were talked back into passivity; a few chiefs, foremost among them Sitting Bull, remained intransigent. On 15 December 1890, soldiers attempting to arrest Sitting Bull, at Standing Rock on the Sioux reservation, fell into a fracas with his followers, at the end of which the old chief lay dead. Two weeks later the soldiers caught up with the last hostiles at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, surrounded them, and, when they refused to be disarmed, opened fire with automatic cannon. Within a few minutes, 150 Sioux were dead, and within the month, native American resistance to white power in the continent was over for ever. Custer had been revenged. The 7th Cavalry paraded its colour to mark the surrender of his rifle by Kicking Bear, the last fighting Indian chief.

“The Ghost Dance,” concludes Robert Utley, foremost scholar of plains military history, “was the Indians’ last hope … [the last act] in the four-century drama of the Indian wars.… Accommodation had failed. Retreat had failed. War had failed. And now … religion had failed. No choice remained but to submit to the dictates of government. Whether coincidentally or not, in this very year of 1890 the statisticians of the Census Bureau discovered that they could no longer trace a distinct frontier of settlement in the map of the United States. Only three years later a young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner appeared before the convention of the American Historical Association in Chicago to present a paper entitled ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History.’ ”

Turner’s thesis has since become celebrated. In brief, he proposed the idea that it was the frontier which made Americans different from the peoples of other continents. Coming anew to a new world, those with the spirit to abandon the Europeanised coast and push inland found an un-European self-reliance and spiritual freedom through their successful struggle over distance, nature, and danger, of which one was danger from Indian hostility. Self-reliance and the sense of liberty bled back from the frontier to make all Americans innovators, democrats, and wanderers, fiercely nationalistic as individuals but free of the particularistic attachment to a locality or homeland that divided Europeans against themselves. If that were true, it would explain the pitiless relentlessness with which frontier Americans battled against native America for possession of the continent. It would also explain their success. Indians were intensely particularistic, both as social beings and as occupants of territory, but for those reasons incapable of making common cause to defend what they held dearest, their freedom to roam as nomads inside territories they did not claim to own but nevertheless sought to use and enjoy by exclusive right. Against their fragmented resistance, white America was bound to triumph. The only surprise—though this was not part of Turner’s thesis—was that they should have resisted so long and so tenaciously.

There are parallels. The Battle of the Little Bighorn is not a unique example of the humiliation of white regulars by indigenous warriors. At three places in Africa during the imperial era, Isandhlwana, Adowa, and Anual, European armies marching on the offensive were surprised by their enemies, defeated, and slaughtered, not in hundreds but in thousands. At Isandhlwana in 1879 the warriors of the Zulu kingdom overwhelmed a British force and killed nearly 2,000 men. At Adowa in 1896 the soldiers of Emperor Menelek of Ethiopia destroyed an Italian army, killing 6,500. At Anual in 1921 the followers of the Moroccan rebel leader Abd-el Krim attacked a Spanish army and left 12,000 dead on the field. Retribution nevertheless followed, instantly against the Zulu and Abd-el Krim, later but no less certainly against the Ethiopians.

Yet, in the longer run, the Little Bighorn stands apart from Isandhlwana, Adowa, and Anual. Zululand, Ethiopia, and Morocco are today self-ruling, or parts of self-ruling, sovereign states which have escaped from European domination and thrown off white empire. Montana, the “unceded” Indian territory of the 1870s, is a state of the Union. I cannot say that I feel things should be otherwise. There is much that is tragic in the story of native America’s conflict with the European interlopers, particularly in the treatment of the Indians of the temperate forest lands east of the Mississippi by the young republic; the displacement of the Five Civilized Tribes to an utterly alien environment reeks of racialism. Yet the pretensions of the Plains Indians to exclusive rights over the heartland of the continent cannot, it seems to me, stand. Their claim, the claim of less than a million people, to possess territories capable of supporting not only millions more directly settled, but of still more millions outside America waiting to be fed by those territories’ product, is the claim not of oppressed primitives but of the selfish rich. The Plains Indians were indeed primitives; but their primitivism was of the “hard,” not “soft,” variety. Here were not shy, self-effacing marginalists, like the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, the Semai of the Philippine jungles, or the pygmies of the African rainforests, but proud, warrior nomads, who had taken from the Europeans what they coveted as a means to support their way of life, the horse and the gun, and then refused Europeans any share of the lands which horse and gun equipped them the better to exploit.

Little wonder that the European immigrants who made their way onto the Great Plains in the nineteenth century, Slavs of Eastern Europe, Russians from the Steppe, peoples whose history was suffused with memories of oppression by galloping, sword-wielding, slave-taking Hun, Magyar, Mongol, and Turkish nomads, should have felt so little pity in their hearts for those other Mongoloid nomads whose interest in life seemed to subsist in hunting, pillage, and war. If the Indians’ fate was to meet head-on in battle people as tough as themselves, veterans of a civil war in which brother had fought brother, Virginians had slain New Yorkers, Ohioans had burnt out Georgians, so be it. There may be a poignant hurrah about the Little Bighorn. I do not echo it.

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