- Historic Sites
The Little Bighorn
April 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 2
In the fall of 1960 a novelty-song about Custer’s Last Stand climbed its way inexplicably onto the Billboard charts. To the ominous beat of a tom-tom, an Andy Devine sound-alike named Larry Verne, portraying a trooper of the 7th Cavalry, implored, “Please, Mr. Custer. I don’t want to go,” in a cracking, hopeless chorus.
All through the sixties they kept replaying “Mr. Custer,” and I suppose it was meant to be funny. But every time Custer himself shouted, “Squad ho!” in the distance, and war whoops rose in an engulfing crescendo, a chill crawled up the spine of at least one American adolescent entertaining premonitions of the draft and Vietnam.
“Mr. Custer” was by no means my first exposure to the Custer legend. As far back as I can remember, I have watched the general make his stand in movies, comics, paintings—watched so intently that despite all the disabusing histories I read, George Armstrong Custer has stood tall in my imagination, battling alone among the gallant dead and dying of his doomed command, his long hair blowing in the dust and smoke, his saber upraised against the lurid horde, gloriously poised on eternity’s brink.
Perhaps the battle there is so strangely compelling because it isn’t over yet
Perhaps with a mind to put away such childish things, I fly to Montana to see what remains of the Custer myth and drive from Billings to the battlefield on a dazzling morning in June, a few days shy of the 115th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I suspect that the economically depressed Montana I am traversing is not the posterity Custer intended to bestow: a dead porcupine putrefying on the tarmac of Highway 90; miles of fence and high-tension wire and feed crops; a few dozing, rectangular cattle; a scattering of minimarts and modular houses; and a jet spurting vapor overhead—all of man’s works still dwarfed by the northern Great Plains themselves, an infinitude of grassy swells under a deep blue dome.
The Custer Battlefield lies on the Crow Agency off Interstate 90, about fifteen miles out of Hardin, Montana, and covers 765 acres of contested ground. Four and a half miles of ridgetop road connect two distinct portions: Last Stand Hill to the north, with its visitors’ center, museum, monument, and national cemetery, and the entrenchment to the south, where, under the erratic Maj. Marcus Albert Reno, more than half the 7th Cavalry, cut off from Custer, survived two days’ blistering siege.
Despite all the disabusing histories I read, Custer has stood tall in my imagination.
As I pull into the parking lot, I have to wonder how we plump, pale descendants of the pioneers, disembarking from our minivans and rental cars, sorting through our coolers, checking the batteries in our camcorders, could possibly understand the likes of General Custer, let alone the valiant nomads who finished him off.
American families in shorts, bickering and road-weary, climb and descend the macadam path to Last Stand Hill, the women stumping along with their aim-and-shoots, the children fidgeting with their Nintendo Gameboys, the men in caps explaining with the instant authority of sports fans—“Now listen to me, kids”—that the marble stones that punctuate the battlefield mark where the troopers are buried (they don’t exactly), that the fighting was hand to hand (it wasn’t), that the Sioux tricked Custer (they didn’t), that he is buried beneath the monument on Custer Hill (if he is, it’s inadvertent; he’s supposed to be buried at West Point, but some believe that in 1877 a burial detail may have shipped the wrong set of disinterred remains, in which case an enlisted man has been impersonating an officer for more than a century).
The battlefield interpreters provided by the National Park Service do their diplomatic best to free the tourists of their misapprehensions, lecturing to them in rotating shifts under the veranda of the visitors’ center. Robert Rybolt, a wide, bald, bearded man with a drawling Paul Harvey delivery, stands in his ranger outfit and tries to orient the crowd to the distant Wolf Mountains, from whose heights Custer—squinting perhaps through the retrieved binoculars that now stare out from a display case in the adjacent museum—failed to sight the largest encampment of Plains Indians in the history of the continent: a thousand Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho lodges stretched across three and a half miles of the western bank of the Little Bighorn River, perhaps ten thousand men, women, and children, and so many ponies that Ouster’s scouts saw them through the morning haze as a writhing of worms.
A lot of tourists sitting along benches on the veranda seem distracted: they load cameras, consult maps, stare off across the dappled zigzag of the river below—but a few are plainly transfixed by Rybolt’s vivid exposition, and when he is done, and the others file up the hill to the monument or return to their cars, they fall behind to ask him questions—“So nobody really knows what happened to Custer?” “You mean he might have got shot at the river?” After a while I can see a new light flaring in their eyes, the idée fixe of the incipient buff glinting from their sunburned faces.
Every June the middle-aged fancies of a variety of American males lightly turn to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Going it alone or dragging their families behind them, Custer buffs, collectors, enthusiasts, historians, and assorted obsessives arrive from all over the country to attend the Last Stand reenactment at the Crow Agency down the road and sign up for the symposium and tours arranged by the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association, which administers the battlefield museum, library, and bookshop.
Pent up with their obsession for 360 days of the year, they arrive at the Little Bighorn bursting with stuff no one but a fellow aficionado can appreciate: a cavalry button from a yard sale, a letter from a survivor’s relative, a new theory about the marker stones, a 7th Cavalry memorial belt buckle, a set of prints, a Custer calendar, a resin bust of the general.
The trouble is that they all burst with this stuff at once, and the required response to the blurted revelations of one’s fellows is to appear monumentally unimpressed. I watch as a buff in a Stetson listens distractedly to an elderly man’s boyhood recollection of meeting a veteran of the battle named Shaughnessy. (The last white survivor of the siege on Reno Hill, a trooper named Charles Windolph, died in 1950 at the age of ninety-eight.) Fidgeting in his pockets, feigning attention with a forbearance that seems to cause him almost physical pain, the buff finally breaks in during one of the old man’s inhalations. He withdraws a succession of captioned and laminated snapshots he has taken of one of Ouster’s campsites in the Black Hills, where, in 1874, the general’s extravagant reports of gold “among the grass roots” let loose a deluge of prospectors onto the Sioux’s sacrosanct hunting grounds. During the Stetsoned buff’s exposition the elderly man hums to himself and gives each cherished snapshot a perfunctory glance.
Very little about the Last Stand is certain, but listening to these generally conservative and quasi-military men—many of whom believe that Custer represents certain endangered manly virtues—you would think that “you can bet your life” on a lot of what they tell you, and “that’s for damn sure.”
And so a certain truculence greets the speakers of the Fifth Annual Little Big Horn Symposium at the Hardin Middle School on Friday, where the papers include “Gall: Sioux Gladiator or White Man’s Pawn?,” “The Cartridge Case Evidence on Custer Field,” and “An Examination of the Similarities Between the Battle of Isandhlwana and the Little Bighorn.”
A plucky, bespectacled lawyer from Maryland named Joe Sills, Jr., gives a solid defense of the testimony of the Crow Scouts who were wise enough to part company with Custer just before he attacked the Sioux. But after a couple of ornery questions from the floor, he mutters, “I don’t know why I do these things,” and walks away from the microphone.
A San Franciscan buff gives a slide show on the later years of a Custer lieutenant named Varnum who was the first trooper to sight the Sioux’s encampment. Varnum’s subsequent career seems notable mainly for his having ordered that a fellow officer’s unfaithful wife be held down and beaten with barrel staves.
“O.K. Next slide,” says the buff, craning around toward the screen in his full-dress cavalry jacket. “Now, O.K. This is Varnum’s house, O.K.? Next slide. O.K. O.K. Now, this is the street he walked down on the way to his club, O.K.? He would walk right down this very street, O.K.? O.K. Next slide...”
Out in the lobby, as buffs peruse Custer T-shirts, videos, and books, an angry wife asks her husband why he comes to these things.
“You don’t even stay awake,” she tells him.
The landscape around the Little Bighorn is complicated and deceptive.
“Do too,” replies her husband, sheepishly scanning the crowd from under the bill of his cap.
“You fell asleep.”
“I did not,” he whispers sharply.
Friday night the buffs convene in downtown Hardin at Little Big Men Pizza, where the atmosphere is mock V.F.W. and the subject is The Name Change.
This week a bill designed to erect a memorial to the Indians and rename Custer Battlefield as Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is breezing through the House of Representatives. Many of the men at Little Big Men Pizza have no problem with the monument idea, as long as it’s kept a respectful distance from Custer’s. But the name change really gets their goat.
“It’s the worst kind of revisionism,” huffs one man with chin whiskers. “It’s just going to stir things up.”
A fierce, mustachioed man suggests that if they renamed the Custer Battlefield, they might as well rename Pearl Harbor after the Japanese. I can’t make head or tails of this argument, and walk away buffaloed. Isn’t Little Bighorn, like Pearl Harbor, merely a place-name, and an Anglicized one at that? (The Sioux called the area Greasy Grass.) And though the Sioux were occupying Crow territory in 1876, wasn’t the sneak attacker at the Battle of the Little Bighorn the 7th Cavalry?
Proponents of the name change point out that battlefields shouldn’t be named after participants, not to mention losers. Opponents counter that there has been a tradition in the West of naming battlefields after participants—even after outright fools like Capt. William J. Fetterman, who in 1866 led eighty-one troopers into a fatal and obvious trap sprung by the Sioux and their allies. But this merely begs the question; it’s precisely this tradition of white precedence that galls many Native Americans who are reluctant to visit the site of their greatest victory under Ouster’s hated brand name.
A Native American named Barbara Booher is superintendent of the national park, and though she affects an official opacity about the name change, she is nonetheless darkly suspected by some buffs of pushing a revisionist agenda.
“It’s all very PC, you understand,” sneers a man with a walrus mustache.
As the pitchers of beer pile up on the tables at Little Big Men Pizza, the name change drops from conversation, and the jokes begin to fly: “Custer got Siouxed”; “Is it true blonds have more fun?”; “Custer wore an Arrow shirt.” And then there is the one about the Custer buff who dies and goes to heaven, and the first thing he does is look up General Custer.
“General! At last!” the buff calls out. “What happened to you at the Last Stand?”
“Damned if I know,” says Custer. “They shot me at the ford.”
I drive about six miles west of Hardin to attend the Custer’s Last Stand Reenactment, staged courtesy of the Hardin Chamber of Commerce on a flat field facing a small ridge on the Crow Agency.
The buffs I spot in the bleachers seem a little embarrassed to find themselves here, sucking Sno-Kones and waiting for the rumpus to begin. They wave to the reenactors who have come here from all over the country to impersonate Custer and his troopers, and they elbow each other at various inauthenticities: the Hollywood yellow bandannas and pants stripes on the troopers’ pants legs as they ride out of an ersatz Fort Apache constructed from cedar fence materials, the saddles lumping up under the Indians’ blankets as Crow reenactors gallop from a collection of tepees set picturesquely against a backdrop of recreational vehicles.
The narration, as delivered through loudspeakers by Crow elders and an excitable local anchorperson, is longiloquent—“Listen! The tall grass to the east is pushed back by the footsteps and the rims of the tall wheels determined to move. Westward ho!”—and various movie soundtracks give some of the proceedings a curiously Hawaiian flavor. Lewis and Clark carry around a canoe, a smiling missionary strolls forth for a moment, a wagon train is attacked, and there are powwows marked by the longest handsigned orations in the history of Western pageantry.
But when the Last Stand portion begins, the buffs lean as far forward as the small, impatient boys who sit among them, happily jumping to the intermittent crack of carbine fire, nodding sharply at the call of a bugle, immersing themselves in the dust and smoke that sweep across the bleachers as the troopers retreat toward the distant ridge.
We glimpse the fight in a sequence of eerie tableaux. An abandoned cavalry horse calmly grazes in the midst of battle. A brave with a club chases down a dismounted trooper. (“Oo,” says a Crow woman beside me, “Roger rides nice.“) A squaw de-pantses a fallen soldier splashed with ketchup.
After the last trooper falls, we all are invited to sing the national anthem, and then everybody pours out of the stands to get autographs. The Custer impersonator, Steve Alexander, a powerplant worker from Monroe, Michigan, is surrounded by fans and comports himself as the general with almost papal gravity.
“Hey,” he tells a passing Crow, “you guys were looking good out there.”
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.
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.”
But now I also can see how even the most conscientious accounts by survivors—troopers, scouts, and Sioux alike—could be garbled by the ambiguous terrain. As Neil marches on, five of us can’t agree on which of the seemingly interchangeable bumps in the landscape he means, and pretty soon we’re debating among ourselves.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but Custer divided his forces in the first place.
“He means that one with the little dip in it,” says one.
“Balls,” says another. “It’s that one next to it with the worn spot.”
We all pause for a picnic lunch at the battlefield’s penultimate ridge, from whose promontory Custer’s acolyte, Capt. Thomas Weir, may well have witnessed Custer’s final moments. All Weir could see from three miles away were a lot of antic figures in a rising cloud of dust and smoke, shooting into the ground on Last Stand Hill; all I can see as I eat my ham sandwich is a storm retreating and another storm advancing and between them a billowed grassland sea.
After lunch we follow Neil hither and yon and begin to reach the first stone markers that make the Little Bighorn a uniquely narrative battlefield. The stone markers were installed in 1890 wherever dead troopers had been found, and from their pattern it’s hard not to envision the disposition of Custer’s troopers as they met their fate. Here on Last Stand Hill they bunch up like frightened children around Custer himself, there below they scatter to the edge of Deep Ravine, and all across the landscape stray stones suggest troopers cut off from their retreating buddies: desperate, dismounted, chased by Indians on horseback, and dispatched with bullets, arrows, lances, war clubs.
Passing on the battlefield road that runs along Battle Ridge for some reason I find myself transfixed by the set of stones that represent Lieutenant Keogh’s company. Custer deployed his ferocious Irishman between himself and Lieutenant Calhoun’s southern skirmish line, and now I have something approaching a vision of Keogh and his men as I follow the pattern of those fifty-two markers toward Last Stand Hill. I see Keogh’s desperate troopers scrambling northward, most of them on foot, trying to join Custer while the bobbing Indians picked them off and ran in to count coup on the troopers’ fallen comrades.
Of course, where troopers’ bodies were found isn’t necessarily where troopers actually fell. Nonetheless, my intuitive image of Keogh’s company begins to calcify into an unshakable conviction, and I am therefore indignant when my friend Charlie says that it is his belief that when those same troopers died, they were crazily retreating south to find Reno. Charlie and I debate the matter with increasing vehemence as we stagger back to the visitors’ center.
A historian who has observed me among the buffs takes me aside to confide that though some of them struggle to stay objective, “a lot of these guys stick with the images they grew up with. They get rigid about it, which is O.K., I guess,” he says, keeping his voice low. “It’s just that when new evidence comes in, they’ll reject it if it doesn’t fit. So a lot of these guys miss out on one of the great aspects of this battle, which is that it’s still unfolding.”
Everywhere stray stones suggest desperate troopers cut off from their buddies.
The battlefield at the Little Bighorn has been picked over for more than a century, first by the victorious Indians, then by soldiers, buzzards, wolves, coyotes, burial details, ranchers, and souvenir hunters, until just about everybody figured that nothing was left.
But as I discovered when I dropped my pen into a snarl of buffalo grass, the plains can swallow things up in a twinkling, and so perhaps it’s no wonder that when a fire swept the battlefield in 1983, the first rangers to walk the charred ground came upon bones and artifacts protruding from the blackened clay.
The fire set in motion an archeological dig that eventually brought to bear on over twenty-two hundred artifacts and three hundred human bones all the forensic technology of the twentieth century. Shells found in one part of the battlefield were ballistically matched with slugs found in another, establishing various lines of fire. Indian rifle cartridges demonstrated the great number and variety of their weapons. Troopers’ knicked bones and shattered skulls provided sure evidence of mutilation.
According to Richard Fox, an archeologist who worked at the Little Bighorn under the sponsorship of the Custer Battlefield and Museum Association, the results corroborate much of the more downbeat Indian testimony that Custer partisans have either ignored or bitterly rejected.
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.”
When I ask Fox if he has any notion of when Custer was shot, he sighs impatiently. “I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. “I suppose the disintegration might support the theory that he was killed early. So maybe the general got shot early, and they just fell apart.
“But then maybe he didn’t, and they fell apart anyway,” he says with another shrug. “What difference does it make? The point is there was no fight here. The troopers put up no substantial resistance. It was a complete rout.”
Fox says with fierce emphasis, “There was no gallant defense on Custer Hill.”
And the reports of suicides?
“We didn’t find any forensic evidence that the troopers shot themselves. The skulls we found were crushed with hatchets and war clubs or shot at close range by the Sioux while the troopers lay dead or wounded.
“Of course,” Fox says, shrugging again, “we only examined a few skulls, so I’m not saying it didn’t happen. The troopers heard a lot about what the Sioux did to wounded enemies. We know troopers shot themselves in the Fetterman massacre, for instance, and from the evidence of mutilation we uncovered I wouldn’t blame any man who might have done the same thing here.”
The British exalted the massacre of their countrymen during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 as the “Epic of the Race” and worshiped the memory of Gordon, the martyr of Khartoum; the Boers glorified the commandos who fell in the slaughter at Umgungundhlovu; the Texans canonized the doomed defenders of the Alamo. Whenever a tide of nonwhites consumed outnumbered whites, a kind of imperial iconography arose.
Concocting a moral basis for the American appropriation of native lands has been almost as difficult and divisive as defending slavery. Just as slavery divided North and South, so the Indian wars of the nineteenth century divided East and West. But an occasional massacre—indeed, any unfortunate skirmish that might be passed off as a massacre—could at least temporarily unify Americans in their essential contempt for the moral condition of native peoples, buttress their belief in their own cultural superiority, and obscure their own atrocities with the fire and brimstone of their vengeance.
But I think that as a small boy I stared at those images of Custer’s Last Stand because it was my first intimation of the inevitability of death. None of my fictional Western idols—Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid—was mortal. But on Last Stand Hill death was pitilessly oblivious of the chivalric virtues and glamorous trappings of George Armstrong Custer. And if death could catch up with a man as fleet as General Custer, it would surely catch up with me.
But as I walk the battlefield at the Little Bighorn, an image even more terrible displaces my boyhood dread. Custer raises his saber no longer (the 7th Cavalry didn’t carry sabers into battle); his hair doesn’t flow in the hot wind (he had cut off his hair, and there was not even a breeze that day); nor is he clad all in buckskins (he had stripped off his jacket in the heat), nor is he standing (not if they shot him in the ribs by the river); nor do the Sioux race around him on their horses (most were dismounted); nor do they charge him with war clubs (most were sensibly shooting their bows and rifles from distant tangles of sage).
All around Custer, in the whisper and whine of arrows and slugs, his men are so disoriented, so paralyzed by fear and shock, that they crouch behind their fallen horses and do not take aim as they try to fire carbines jammed by alkali and heat.
Down the hill in Deep Ravine, I think I glimpse in the tangled brush a last trooper raising his pistol to his temple to spare himself a few more seconds’ pandemonium. And in the wind that whispers along my hat brim I hear the ghosts of the warriors of the Great Plains singing one last victorious song.
Since Andrew Ward’s visit the battle site has indeed been renamed. On December 9 the President’s signature made it the “Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.” A second fire has also scorched the battlefield, but so far no new bones have been recovered from the burnt-over ground.