The Little Bighorn

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As the sun emerges from the rain clouds, Charlie and I walk the coulees together, admiring the prairie lilies, blue thistle, and cactus flowers that bloom among the thick tangle of buffalo grass, wild clover, and sage. Along the way we debate the merits of Custer versus Reno with such buffs as Mike Koury, a ringer for Lee Trevino, who runs the Old Army Press out of Fort Collins, Colorado, and wears for this occasion a cap with a solar-powered fan built into the visor.

Mike believes that Reno “failed to be a soldier” when, after Custer lost sight of him, he retreated in desperate disarray from his position south of the village in the face of an Indian counterattack.

“He should have taken one company,” Mike says, “dismounted them, and covered the retreat of the rest. That’s tough to do, but that’s why you’re a goddamn major.”

But Charlie holds that Custer was the damn fool of the case, breaking up his forces the way he did, and who can say what any of us would do if, like Reno, we were surrounded by hostiles and spattered by our best scout’s blood and brains?

“He wasn’t ‘surrounded’ by hostiles,” says Mike disdainfully. “And damn it, he was commanding officer down there. He should have behaved like one.”

Except for the one hill where Custer fell, the field of battle I had always imagined was basically flat. But the landscape around the Little Bighorn is complicated and deceptive. From a distance it appears as benign as a municipal golf course, but crossing it, I discover that the succession of grassy humps conceals deep coulees, and the smooth slopes quickly decline into steep and slippery angles, falling off, here and there, into clay cliffs and tangled ravines.

Following Custer’s putative northward trail along Cedar Coulee, which is actually populated by junipers, I realize how hard it must have been for him to estimate how long it would take to get from here to there. From Reno Hill to Last Stand Hill is a little over four miles as the crow flies, but the route he followed was more like five. At few points along the way could he have taken in the full dimension of the camp he was attacking, much of it hidden from view by a stand of cottonwoods. His comprehension must have consisted of a sequence of foreboding glimpses whose aggregate meaning he was in any case temperamentally inclined to dismiss.

One winter dawn in 1868, at the Washita River in Oklahoma, Custer’s 7th surprised a sleeping and at least partially friendly Cheyenne village, killing a hundred people (including women and children running for cover or hiding in the brush) and their peaceable chief, Black Kettle. Following what one historian has called “the most brutal orders ever published to American troops,” Custer slaughtered between six hundred and nine hundred ponies, burned all Cheyenne lodges and possessions, and then retreated, leaving twenty entrapped troopers behind to die at the hands of the enraged Cheyennes.

But the Battle of the Washita was as great a victory as the Plains War afforded, and nine years later, on his expedition into southeastern Montana, the general intended to repeat it. His plan was to launch a surprise attack on the Sioux, corral the women and children, and thus force their menfolk to surrender. Custer was evidently so sentimental about his success at the Washita that he clung to his shock tactics long after the element of surprise had been lost.

Custer seems to have ridden up and down the coulees, looking for fords, deploying little clots of troopers here and there to cover his movements and await reinforcements while he pressed northward to cut off the fleeing women and children. When it finally dawned on him that the multitudes of well-armed hostiles would not only stand and fight but counterattack en masse, he had spread his forces too thinly across too much time and space to save him.

That’s the way I see the battle, anyhow, as I retrace the general’s route, and who’s to say I’m wrong?

Most of the buffs, I imagine, as we plod through the sopping grass. Admirers of Custer generally subscribe to the fatalist school of Last Stand history, which holds that since their man lost, he must never have stood a chance in the first place. The fatalist school divides in turn into three primary groups: those who blame Reno for retreating, those who blame Benteen for not leading the pack train to Custer’s rescue, and those who simply blame the unprecedented and unanticipatable size of the forces arrayed against him.

There is plenty of blame to go around, but it was Custer who divided his forces in the first place. Even if under better circumstances his grandiose strategy might have worked, it seems churlish to blame his subordinates for failing to reunite his forces under circumstances Custer practically refused to fathom.

“O.K.,” says Neil, trying to point to a promontory called Luce Ridge, where artifacts suggest that Custer’s troops were engaged by hostiles long before he reached Last Stand Hill. “Just follow the line of that little ridge over there. See? It’s sort of red on top.”