The Little Bighorn

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When the Indian participants were first interviewed about the battle, many were afraid they might be punished for their roles in Custer’s downfall. Some of them may have told their white interviewers only what they wanted to hear: Custer fought like a demon, his men put up a gallant defense, they had never seen soldiers so brave, and so forth.

When a few participants suggested otherwise, they were often greeted with such indignation that they either shut up or changed their tune. Still, stories persisted about troopers panicking, running, firing their carbines into the air, about Custer being shot by the river and carried up the hill (his horse, Vie, was never found), even about troopers shooting themselves and each other as the Sioux advanced.

Of course, the Sioux may have fabricated even these stories to deprecate Custer or diminish their own culpability; they couldn’t very well be blamed for killing men who killed themselves. But the Sioux attached great ritual significance to combat and believed that the braver the adversary, the greater the honor of beating him. For that reason the Sioux would have cherished the image of a brave Custer and valiant troopers every bit as much as the whites did. But in the security of their later years many spoke of the troopers’ unseemly panic, disgusted that their adversaries in the Sioux nation’s greatest victory had proved so unworthy.

Such accounts would at least partially explain the comparatively small number (perhaps forty) of Indians killed that day. And yet Indian testimony was often discounted as vague, partisan, and contradictory mythology. But now Fox has discovered that much of Indian testimony jibes with the disposition of cartridges and bullets, artifacts, and human remains uncovered during the dig in 1984, and many contradictions among their accounts and those of the scouts’ and soldiers’ can be ironed out when you understand their metaphorical rhetoric and realize that whereas the whites describe Battle Ridge—which actually runs southeast-northwest—as running south-north, the Indians perceived it as running east-west.

“As soon as I figured that out,” says Fox, a bluff, pipe-smoking veteran of the Vietnam War, “it was like the gears in a clock slipping into place.”

The picture Fox paints of Custer’s Last Stand will not please the buffs, whose usual explanation for Custer’s failure to attack the village at Medicine Tail Coulee was that he was met by overwhelming forces.

“The buffs look at Custer’s personality,” Fox says, sitting with Charlie and me on a bench outside the visitors’ center as elegant black-billed magpies bob in the tree above us. “They figure he would have pitched into anything. And in the Civil War he did. But he didn’t pitch in at Medicine Tail Coulee, and the only explanation they can accept is that Reno’s retreat released all those warriors, and he was faced with overwhelming forces.”

But Fox’s explanation, which he is about to publish in Revealing Custer’s Last Battle: Archaeology at Little Big Horn (University of Oklahoma Press), is less dramatic: “By the time Custer got down to Medicine Tail Coulee the noncombatants’ exodus had begun, and the village was virtually empty. So he rejoined his right wing up on the ridge and then left them to await Benteen and cover his flank as he took his left wing—about eighty men—almost a mile and a half north to cut off the noncombatants.

“But when Custer got up to the river, he finally saw the dimension of the exodus, and realizing he couldn’t corral them with only eighty men, he hurried back up to the lower slope of Cemetery Ridge to wait for Benteen. By now Reno had retreated and released all those warriors, and they had begun to gradually infiltrate the countryside.”

Up to this point firing had been pretty light, but when Keogh sent C Company down to reinforce his skirmish lines, a kind of combustion point was reached, and suddenly a force under Chief Lame White Man launched a massive attack with repeating arms.

“C Company turned and ran,” says Fox, “and that’s where everything disintegrated. Only twenty men out of almost a hundred made it to Custer, and they all bunched up together.”

Emboldened, more Indians joined in the attack, and as Custer’s men were picked off, somebody sent E Company down toward the river. For a moment the Indians fell back, but when the Indians regrouped, E Company panicked, and troopers scrambled down into a snake-infested little defile called Deep Ravine, to which their desperate fire drew the last survivors from Custer’s position. In what should probably be dubbed Last Stand Ravine, the remainder of Custer’s men were dispatched like ducks in a barrel.

“You’ve got to consider the factors going against those troopers,” says Fox. “There was proximity, the shock effect of the Indians’ weapons, the sheer number of Indians, there were no protected positions, the troopers were exhausted and ill trained. It wasn’t cowardice. It was group panic.

“What the archeology and the Indian accounts told me,” Fox says with fierce emphasis, “is that there was no gallant defense on Custer Hill.”