The Little Bighorn

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The Crows are ambivalent about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Their ancestors scouted for the 7th Cavalry in 1876, but now some of them wish that they had found common cause not with Custer but with Sitting Bull, for in the long run they have fared no better than their blood enemies, the Sioux. To immobilize the Crows and orient them toward agriculture after the buffalo were decimated, the American government paid them a bounty to wipe out their own pony herds and consigned their children to schools where missionaries beat them for so much as muttering in their native language.

I ask a reenactor named Joe Wallace how he as a Crow has come to regard the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

“The Crow was on Custer’s side,” he says. “The Sioux was our enemies.”

Sure, I say, but when he was a small boy playing at the battle, which side did he like to be on?

“Aw,” he says with a chuckle, “we was always the Cheyenne.”

On a blustery Saturday morning I join two hundred Custer aficionados on an expedition along Custer’s route from Reno Hill to Custer Monument. A Virginian named Neil Mangum, former chief historian at the battlefield, declares himself our Custer and commands us to break up into five companies under himself and men he designates as Keogh, Yates, Calhoun, and Tom Custer. But keeping a large body of people together is like pushing a string, and we haven’t gone the length of a football field before we sprawl across the landscape—as Ouster’s men did—and gripe about this damned fool Great Rain Campaign of 1991.

Of course, it is nothing compared with the real thing. Day and night, from the twenty-third of June, 1876, through the day of the battle, Custer drove his men 115 miles, about 50 of those miles in a twenty-one-hour period, and after only three hours’ sleep rode another 23 miles on the day of the fight.

What, exactly, was Custer’s hurry? His admirers maintain that he simply wanted to get the drop on the Sioux and prevent them from scattering. Custer’s detractors claim he was scrambling toward the Little Bighorn to gain the presidential nomination from the Democratic Convention assembling on June 27 in St. Louis.

No single motivation necessarily cancels out another, but I think Custer was rushing to salvage his foundering military career by beating his commanders to the glory. The campaign called for three separate expeditions under Generals Terry and Crook and Colonel Gibbon to converge on a large body of hostile Sioux that had bolted from their reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota and were reported to be gathering with their Arapaho and Cheyenne allies for their annual sun dance in southeastern Montana.

The campaign lacked coherence and coordination from the start. No one knew the size of the encampment they were targeting, and none of the three limbs of Terry’s campaign had any idea what the others were doing.

Custer’s orders were vague enough to inspire debate to this day, but it would have been just like Custer to conceive of Terry’s plan as a race.

“Now, Custer, don’t be greedy,” Gibbon had called to him as Custer set off ahead of Terry with the 7th. “But wait for us.”

“No, I will not,” Custer cheerfully replied.

The disastrous result of Custer’s hurry was that by the time he reached the Little Bighorn on the twenty-fifth, his poorly trained and ill-equipped men were parched and exhausted. He, too, must have been a little punchy, for even when you consider his overweening confidence in himself and his contempt for the Indians’ capacity to stand and fight, his strategy, under circumstances he could never fully perceive, seems reckless and impetuous.

 

With a total force of 647 men, Custer seems to have decided to conduct his own miniature version of Terry’s entire three-pronged campaign. First he sent his most experienced officer, Frederick Benteen, with 251 men and the pack train (including his reserves of ammunition), off on an oblique to cut off a possible Sioux retreat southward. Then he ordered 175 men under Major Reno to act, in effect, as beaters, firing into the south end of the village and advancing while Custer himself trotted smartly northward with only 221 men to ford the Little Bighorn and cut off the noncombatants’ retreat.

It’s a good day to die,” says one wag as we lean into the rain and make our way to Sharpshooter Ridge, where in the broiling sun 115 years ago, a single Indian with a long-range rifle managed to pick off a succession of Reno’s sunstruck troopers at five hundred yards.

I fall into step with a courtly, garrulous widower named Charles G. Neelley, a former Navy man who looks the part of a Custer buff—red-haired, intense, with a Sherman beard and a flinty gaze. But in fact, he is an artist and a Southerner and no fan of the general.