The Man Who Killed Custer


Few episodes in American history have held more fascination for writers—or the public—than George Armstrong Custer’s Last Stand. More has been written on this relatively unimportant incident in American history than on the Battle of Gettysburg—and probably no two accounts agree in all details.

Much of the new material on Custer’s Last Stand comes to the attention of the editors of AMERICAN HERITAGE and from what we have seen none holds quite the fascination of this entertaining article by Stanley Vestal, author of many books on the Old West. The story he tells is adapted for AMERICAN HERITAGE from his forthcoming book, Sitting Bull, Champion of the Sioux, to be published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

The almost legendary action took place in the early summer of 1870, when the Sioux and their allies, the Northern Cheyenne, had very real and altogether legitimate grievances against the United States government. In the treaty signed at Fort Laramie in 1868, the government promised that the Black Hills, the traditionally sacred preserve of the Indians, would be forever free from white settlers. But when gold was discovered there in 1874, sooners began swarming over the whole area.

From this time on, it was the old story of great wrongs compounded by greater ones: once the Treaty of 1868 had been violated, the Army and the Indian Bureau decided to consolidate white occupation of the Black Hills by breaking Sioux power once and for all. They began by restricting the Indians’ movements to the boundaries of the reservations during the terrible winter of 1875-70 when game was so scarce on the reservations that the Indians faced starvation. Then the government announced that all Sioux and Northern Cheyenne found off their reservations after January 31, 1876, were to be regarded as hostile. Famine was already widespread, and the Indians had no choice but to defend themselves when Custer moved against them in punitive expedition.

From the Army standpoint, Custer’s campaign went wrong from the beginning. Scheduled to start in early spring, the two-mile column of cavalry, infantry, scouts, and wagons did not leave Fort Abraham Lincoln until May 17. By then the Indians had gathered in large numbers and were prepared to fight. Moreover, the complicated plan of attack worked out by General Alfred H. Terry, Custer’s commander, called for three columns converging on the Yellowstone region from different directions—all very well on paper, but in fact a fearsome trip across deep streams, badlands, and mountains.

General George Crook’s troops, marching north from Wyoming, were the first to meet the Indians, and were repulsed at Rosebud Creek on June 17. To the north, the other two columns were converging on the Yellowstone and knew nothing of Crook’s defeat—only that a sizeable force of Indians was near the headwaters of Rosebud Greek and the Little Big Horn.

By June 24 the trail was hot, and Custer, thinking the Indians were just over the Wolf Mountains, planned to cross the mountains at night and surprise them with a dawn attack.

Down in the foothills, Custer divided his force into four parts: Captain Fred Benteen to the southwest to scout for Indians, two detachments commanded by Major Marcus Reno and Custer to the northwest in the direction of the Indian camp, and the pack train bringing up the rear. A little after two, the advance saw the first Indians, some Sioux warriors who rode up close and then dashed away, yelling derisively. Reno’s troopers headed off in pursuit, and across the river came face to face with a superior number of Sioux. Alter a fierce engagement, they were driven back with heavy losses.

Meantime, Custer continued northwest, riding along the brown, ravine-gutted bluffs. He had sent a messenger to Benteen, asking for reinforcements—not realixing Reno’s situation. (Benteen’s foray, it might be added, was a wild-goose chase, and he returned just in time to save the beleaguered Reno from annihilation.) So Custer waited with some 225 men—only about one third of his total force—having lost what time advantage he had; and once the Indians repulsed Reno, they hurried to attack him. With a sudden fury they must have come at him from all sides, jumping him from the many ravines and gullies that crisscross those bare hills. From that moment on, the only possible way to hear the true story was from an Indian. In 1932 Stanley Vestal visited the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, where he recorded Chief White Bull’s unique account of George Custer’s final hour.

The Editors