The Truth about Custer’s Last Stand!

Who is telling the Truth?

“‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’” which became synonymous with the Indian policy of Sheridan and most other generals and soldiers.” (Miedor)

Custer’s last stand is one of those tales that just keeps getting embellished and revised with every telling in the 127 years since it occurred. We are no closer to understanding what happened. There is an awesome amount of testimony most of which is conflicting with each other, that of the Teton Sioux and their allies the Northern Cheyenne against the U.S. Army. Just where does the legend of Custer’s Last Stand (The Battle of the Little Big Horn) end and the truth start? If some of the historians that have researched it are unwilling to give the testimony of Native North Americans a fair hearing, then maybe the conflicting testimony would evaporate? What happened on that afternoon on June 25, 1876 goes down in history as not only a tragedy for Custer and his men, but native North Americans as well. The mystery of the event lies in it being the total destruction of those that were with Custer that day. The Location of the rest of the 7th being to far from the battle, and again an unwillingness to listen to the Sioux and Cheyenne, partly because there were no white survivors, and partly, not giving any credibility to the native American testimony of the event

The survivors of the battle were wrapped up in something between elation for having beaten the white soldiers and mourning for the loss of their friends and families. The families of the soldiers were caught up in the desire for revenge and mourning over their loss. Some of the accounts from the Sioux and Cheyenne must be weighed very carefully because of differences in language and culture, but they should not be totally ignored. Graham’s book which is the classical work on the subject was copyrighted in 1953, since then scholars have rethought the facts (Graham 3). There have been several attempts to reconcile the events that led up to the battle, during, and then after the battle from the native American view point, but there are seemingly many contradictions mostly because of a misunderstanding of their concepts of time and distance. In 1997 a very good work was published that attempts to reconcile the different accounts using the words of the Sioux and Cheyenne that were present (Michno 3). There is also much information available on the internet starting with

Further the sentiment in the preface was so common during the “Indian wars,” that it is impossible to nail it down to just one person. It was so pervasive in the United States, that during the second half of the 19th century, Senator James Michael Cavanaugh (R) Montana was expressing boldly in the House of Representatives, what most Americans felt if not said as well (Mieder). His statement in the House of Representatives reflects how common such a sentiment was in those days:

“During a debate on an “‘Indian Appropriation Bill’” that took place on May 28th, 1868, in the House of Representative, James Michael Cavanaugh (1823-1879) from Montana uttered the following despicable words: “I will say frankly that, in my judgment, the entire Indian policy of the country is wrong from its very inception. In the first place you offer a premium for rascality by paying a beggarly pittance to your Indian agents. The gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Butler) may denounce the sentiment as atrocious, but I will say that I like an Indian better dead than living. I have never in my life seen a good Indian (and I have seen thousands) except when I have seen a dead Indian”. (Mieder)

Custer’s last stand should be studied against the backdrop of the sentiments and events in the day in which it occurred. It was not just one event that resulted in the tragedy at the Little Big Horn, but a whole series of calamities. It is very important to examine these events to establish the dynamic of events that was Custer’s Last Stand. It has been called Custer’s Last Stand for most of the 127 years since it happened. Perhaps in fairness to the Sioux and Cheyenne who died there it should be called the Battle of the Little Big Horn, as it is now called.

I have used material from Michino’s book, mostly from the preface, and from Graham’s classic work on The Custer Myth, which is a very good work from the perspective of the 7th Cavalry, except that he completely denies the validity of the testimony from the Sioux and Cheyenne.

The survivors of the battle were those “under the command of Major Marcus A. Reno (Bvt. Co.)… (and those under the command of)…Captain (Bvt. Col) Frederick W. Beenteen (duMont 9).” It is equally important to avoid some of the more blatant Custer knocking that was prevalent during the 1930′s down to the late 1940′s. For instance, he was a product of the times in which he lived and the military that he served with during those days.

The military career of George Armstrong Custer is a very colorful and experienced one. “In 1861, Custer had graduated from West Point just in time to participate in the first battle of Manassas. He later served on the staffs of Generals McClellan, Pleasanton and Sherman. He had a distinguished military career in the Civil War, including earning a battle field rank of Brigadier General. After the war he was brevetted down to Colonel, but he still received all the rights and privileges of a General (garryowen).”

Custer made some very ill fated decisions the first of which started right after the Civil War, when he was offered command of one of the “Negro” cavalry units, which just happened to be among some of the most unsung heroes of the southwest “Indian wars.” It is difficult to imagine what may have happened if he had not made that ill fated decision. The Buffalo soldiers had a reputation of being some of the best soldiers on the frontier, but received no credit for their work from white soldiers.

“For the Buffalo Soldiers never lost a battle, had the lowest desertion rate on the frontier, and had an exception level of discipline and espirt de corps. Yet, they had the toughest assignments in the most desolate regions of the southwest, but were never accepted as part of the local communities which they protected. They rescued the Beecher Island expedition, helped the 7th Cavalry restore order at Wounded Knee, and later saved the day on San Juan Hill for a besieged Theodore Roosevelt (garryowen).”

The total picture of what happened at the Little Big Horn, on the afternoon of June 25, 1876, makes it imperative to look into some of the previous “Indian battles.” It is these events that occurred many years before and too which some of those on both sides of the Little Big Horn shaped the attitudes, as well as the conditions that existed between the “blue coats,” and the native Americans.

“On November 29, 1864 Col. John M Chivington, a former Methodist preacher with political ambitions, attacked and destroyed the Cheyenne camp of Chief Black Kettle and Chief White Antelope on the plains of eastern Colorado.” (Mieder) Chivington’s men without any warning shot and killed White Antelope, then proceeded to attack the village of friendly southern Cheyenne. Black Kettle and his band had already declared themselves at peace with the whites. This made little difference to Chivington and his men.

The previous year Black Kettle had visited Washington, D.C. and had been given a 34 star American flag that he attached to his tipi to show he was at peace with the whites. He had been told that no soldier would fire on them when they held the American flag. He took a white flag and the American flag and held them up for Chivington to see (garryowen).

Then Custer himself had attacked a band of the same Cheyenne’s, plus some Arapahoe, Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache that were camped along the Washita River, almost a hundred and forty miles from Oklahoma City. “The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site is locate a little over one mile from what is now the town of Cheyenne, Oklahoma” (garryowen The Washita village,) according to Custer, had extended continuously for about 12 miles (garryowen). As it turned out Black Kettle was also in that village that Custer attacked on the Washita.

“Native Americans were deprived of their homeland, killed mercilessly or placed on reservations, where many continue their marginalized existence to the present day. The early concepts of “‘good Indian’” or “‘noble savage’” quickly were replaced by reducing the native inhabitants to “‘wild savages’” who were standing in the way of expansionism under the motto of “‘Manifest destiny.’” (Mieder)

Further, the “Only good Indian was a dead Indian philosophy was so well ingrained among the American political environment, common citizens, and the military that it had become the driving force behind all their actions against the “plains Indians.” At times it amounted to just plain hatred for all native Americans, giving no respect whatsoever to their culture and language (mieder).

General Custer was immediately responsible to General Philip Sheridan (1831-1888).Sheridan was known to be a bigot and hated the native Americans. Sheridan later denied that he has ever said, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” apparently what he actually said is, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead,” but he is often quoted as saying the more generalized “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” So the ruling authorities had decreed that if the “Indians,” were in the way then they must be taken out of the way (mieder).

General Godfrey who was a Captain at the time of the battle reports the size of the expeditionary force:

7th Cavalry, Custer in Command with 700 men and 28 officers.
2 companies 17th United States Infantry
1 company of the 6th United States Infantry, 8 officers and 135 men
1 platoon of Gatling Guns, 2 officers and 32 men of the 20th United States Infantry
40 “‘Ree‘” Indian Scouts.” (Graham 125)

Custer was offered to take the Gatling Guns with him, but he turned it down, because he was concerned as to how fast he could move carrying along the heavy Gatling guns (duMont 38). For assumptions sake it is very likely that Custer had been made aware by his scouts as to how rough the terrain ahead of him was going to be.

Each trooper was supplied with 100 rounds of Carbine ammunition for the standard issue Spring field rifle and 24 rounds of ammunition for the standard issue Colt .45 revolver. This ammunition was to be carried on his person and in his saddle bags (duMont 10). In fact the government was concerned at the time with using too much ammunition, which was laughable considering what was about to happen, so they had issued the following order: “War Department General Order 103 on August 5, 1874…45 caliber ammunition held to 10 per month. amended September 23, 1875 General Order 104 15 rounds per month this only applied to cavalry service (duMont 12).”

The Springfield Carbine, model 1873 was a breach loading, trapdoor carbine, the main draw back of this weapon is that it could easily jam, because the cartridges were very thin, and the expanding gas would wedge the shell in the chamber (duMont 25). Practically speaking since this was a single shot weapon they would have to reload after each shot, then if the shell was jammed after firing they were only provided with one wooden rod for every ten soldiers that was issued to ram the spent shell out of the carbine (duMont 26). These facts in and of them selves could lead to disaster even if Custer was not responsible for the disaster. At the Little Big Horn they were only able to reload just so fast and refire, combined with the jamming qualities of the weapon it could only spell disaster. There was another issue that had an effect on the outcome of any engagement that these troopers were involved. They would dismount, kneel then place a handful of shells in front of them, however, if they had to move they would not pick up the unused shells, this would diminish there overall fire power (duMont).

General Terry had ordered that Major Reno “scout to the forks of the Powder and then cross Mizpah creek, follow it down to near its confluence with the Powder; down to the Tongue. While Custer was waiting at the mouth of the Tongue River. Custer had camped at a spot that the Sioux had camped the previous winter.” This is a point at which an incident occurred that seems to give an idea of the callousness of Custer’s men and some idea of the mind frame of a good deal of the military of that day (Graham 129).

“A number of their dead, placed upon scaffolds, or tied to the branches of trees, were disturbed and robbed of their trinkets. Several persons rode about exhibiting their trinkets with as much gusto as if they were trophies of their valor and showed no c concern for their desecration than if they had won them at a raffle. Ten days later I saw the bodies of these same persons dead, naked and mutilated (Graham 129).”

The native American plains people were divided into two classes, those that were agency and those that only came to the agency to visit family and friends. Some of the plains peoples had never visited the agencies nor had they ever been on a reservation. They would also come sometimes to the agency to barter for goods. “They camped in and roamed about the buffalo country. Their camp was frequently the rendezvous point for the agency Indians… (Graham 130)” For this reason the exact numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne are not easily identified.

Major James McLaughlin United States Indian Agent, stationed at the Devils Lake Agency, Dakota, from 1870 to 1881..about 1/3 of the Sioux, including northern Cheyenne’s and Arapahoe’s, were present at the battle…estimates the number as between twelve and fifteen thousand; at one out of four a warrior…2,500 to 3,000 warriors.”

The warriors’ leadership at the battle was as follows; “Sitting bull, Huncepapa Sioux chief of the hostile camp.” Sitting Bull was at the time of the battle about forty-two, but he was not the warrior chief,” his views did hold great weight because he was known as a great medicine man (Graham 130).”

“A short time previous to the battle he had “‘made medicine,’” had predicted that the soldiers would attack them and that the soldiers would all be killed. He took no active part in the battle… (Graham 130)”

One of the War Chiefs was Gall; he was born on the Moreau River, South Dakota in either 1838 or 1840 of Huncepapa parents, and was orphaned at a very early age. By the time of the battle that would have made him about thirty-seven which was the maximum age for continued warrior activity (Graham 131). Of the other War Chiefs at least the principle ones were “…Crazy Horse, Crow King,” and a list of about six other War Chiefs (Graham 131).

The size of the village is both a critical and pivotal issue that has been debated among researchers since 1876, mostly because it indicates whether Custer faced an overwhelming force, or as is more likely a much closer to even force. The size of the village can’t be discounted from either the view point of native Americans or U.S. Army debates. First there was Benteen and Reno their testimony is questionable, because they were way to far away from Custer’s Hill to know what happened, besides they were already under stress from their own situation. Second there was the Sioux and Cheyenne and they too were under stress and their testimony not thought to be reliable due to contradictions (Michno 18).

Number of Tipis

There is also the testimony of the Sioux and Cheyenne that were present at the battle. Their concept of time and space needs to be understood before you try and interpret what they are saying. The fact is the picture of this ‘enormous village that has been presented to us for more than a century was a product of the factors discussed above: an inability to see the entire camp; spatial distortion induced by combat stress; reluctance to admit defeat by a “‘savage’” foe without the advantage of overwhelming numbers; and being deceived by the camp’s secondary extension. The camp ran one and one-half miles along the river and tree hundred yards back from it. The area covered by the main bulk of the village on June 25 amounted to only one-quarter square mile.” (Michino 18)

This figure for the size of the camp was reached by figuring about 12 tipi to the acre. The taking the testimony of the Sioux, Cheyenne and 7th cavalry figures as to the boundaries of the camp (See Figure 1).

“If we allow one and one-half miles (2,640 yards) of river frontage from the Garryownen loop (of the Little Big Horn River) to the mouth of the Medicine Tail, and extend back from the river only 300 yards, we have an area of 792,000 square yards, or 163 acres.” Then calculating the number of acres as 163 acres at a rate of 12 tipi to the acre allows for 1,956 tipis. The information in is helpful in understanding the calculating of these figures (Michino 17).

The other major question that should be considered is the amount of and kind of weapons that the Sioux and Cheyenne used. There has always been an attempt to excuse the defeat on an overwhelming well armed “hostile,” force but that may not have been the case. Thought some of the warriors did possess Spencers, Henrys, and Winchesters the quantity is probably exaggerated (duMont 46).

In fact those that were under the command of Major Reno experienced the fire power of the buffalo rifle. Most of the attack on Custer Hill came at a distance rather then up close and again the power of the buffalo rifle was involved (duMont 46). “Basically, the most common Indian gun, prior to the battle, was the then old fashioned muzzle loading trade musket, used in flintlock ignition well into the 1860′s” During the battle a sizable amount of Springfield were being used mostly captured in the battle (duMont 46).

Clusters orders were travel the whole length of the Rosebud. Then crossover to the Little Big Horn, hopefully to drive the Sioux in the direction of Generals Terry and Gibbon. The intention was to block the Sioux from escaping to the south. Upon getting word from his scouts that they were being followed by a party of Sioux, Custer made the decision to attack and fight the village. It was at this point that the decision was made to divide his command into four battalions (see Figure 2). The intention was to send Reno to the “southern most end of the village. Hoping to catch the village between Reno’s battalion as the anvil and his battalion as the hammer. He was in hopes of having Captain Benteen’s brigade to stop any escape in a southwesterly direction. At the same time Captain BenTeen was to “explore the area in a southwesterly direction and fight anything he finds. The pack train was to remain behind with Company “B” to guard the pack train (Graham 130).”


If an overwhelming size village was not what Custer saw that day then the only question that should be asked is what was different that day from other battles that Custer had been engaged in with the plains people. The answer seems to be that he caught these Sioux at home with their families and they fought to protect them ( Michino 20 ). Expecting anything else of them would be an unfair expectation. That and he was also relying on an anvil and hammer tactic that went seriously wrong. The apparent reason it failed was that Reno who was the “anvil,” had to retreat not just once but twice because the resistance in the village was too much for his troops to handle. At some point the retreated for the second and final time, maybe because he was unsure of exactly what he should do stay and fight or retreat (Graham 130).

Accordingly if the Little Big Horn was Custer’s last stand then the Washita was his first stand (garryowen). It is thought by some that he may have faced a much larger village on the Washita then he did on the Little Big Horn (garryowen). Also the hostiles new Custer by reputation and maybe even some by sight. Custer May have fallen victim to the old adage of “the right way, the wrong way and the army way.” That is he figured that the 7th cavalry was pretty much able to handle anything that the “hostiles,” could toss at him even if there were more of them then just him and troops. The real only way that he possibly could have felt this way if he had attacked a sizable village before, which he had on the Washita.

On the morning of the attack the Sioux and Cheyenne had been at that location for about three days. The location was not chosen for strategically reasons, but because someone had said, “this looks like a good place to camp.” There was some thinking that they were aware that the troops were in the field, but not exactly how close. On the morning of June 26th some of the agency group left the encampment to return to the agency, but on the way the saw the dust being stirred up by the troopers. It is from this that many authorities say that they must have had a pretty good “Intelligence Service, (Graham 137-138)”

Reno’s route that morning took him up the flat bottom of the Little Big Horn to a point that he came into contact with the village, he was informed that the village was moving so he gave the order to attack. The short of it was that he met resistance in the village, retreated from the village regrouped and then attacked the village a second time then was forced to retreat up the bluffs away from the village (Graham 139).

A more realistic size of the village also accounts for Chief Crazy horse’s having been seen at more then one place at one time. He was apparently seen at the Garryowen loop and then not long after that he was seen at the mouth of Medicine Tail, if the distance was three miles then it would have been almost impossible, but if the distance was under a mile then there was ample time for him to be seen at both fights (Michino 19). The more realistic size of the village also makes Custer not crazy for attacking an extremely large village, but a village that could be well within his means based on what he had experienced as an “Indian fighter.”

The story of the battle of The Little Big Horn, boils down to a who, what, and why the first two of these is a matter of research and is a matter of history, however, the last of these requires good judgment and common sense. Custer was not out gunned, nor was he really out numbered (700 men and 28 officers verses 1000 warriors is a lot closer then 728 verses 2,500) he was not a brash egotistical maniac anymore then the rest of the military was at that time (Michino 295). Now the why of the results of the battle, a loss for the soldiers and a win for the native Americans, is probably tactical more then anything else, but giving Custer the credit that he probably had no idea aw to what was going to take place leaves us with two tactical dilemmas and one personnel dilemma (Michno 295).

The tactical considerations would dictate that if there were only about a thousand warriors, then he probably should not have divided his command. 700 soldiers could handle 1,000 warriors a whole lot easier then 200 soldiers could. However dividing your command so that there is only 200 soldiers facing 1,000 warriors is not such a good idea. For instance the hammer and anvil tactic works real well, but it requires a very large hammer as well as anvil.

Reno had the balance with Reno a slight edge over Benteen but they were separated from Custer by not only distance, but some very angry warriors. In order for his tactic to work the hammer and the anvil needed to be significantly closer to each other.

Personnel under his command for the most part thought that Custer could walk on water, (my conclusion). However, there were some among his command that were not that supportive, I was never able to find out the names of these people. He also had some command problems in Reno and Benteen. Reno sometimes could be very reserved, that is he would not push forward when conditions dictated it. Such as pushing hard on the village at the proper moment. If he had and Custer had been able to come into the village from the other side the outcome may have been significantly different, but who knows for sure (Graham 327)?

Benteen was second in command to Reno, but he came to Reno’s rescue and stood by him, even though there had been some apparent differences between them as what to do (Graham 327). Benteen supported his commanding officer even when he thought that things were not quite right. Benteen had been born a southerner, but fought on the side of the north during the Civil War, much to his father’s discontinuation.

Finally, from this research I have learned two things. When it comes to history don’t jump to conclusions that are not born out by facts, (which I probably have in a few places), due more to the sheer volume of information that is available on the subject. Then do not be afraid to research different areas and come up with conclusions that are not the normal conclusions. My main two conclusions are that the village could have been significantly smaller then I have thought in the past, having about 1,000 warriors. Even if the village numbered 5,000 that does not mean you have 2,500 warriors. Second, Custer actually was confident enough that he could win the battle that was coming, but made serious tactical errors.

The Truth about Custer’s Last Stand!

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