Fate brought Custer and Sitting Bull together one bloody June evening at the Little Bighorn—and marked the end of the Wild West
Act 1: The Characters
IN LATE MAY 1876, SITTING BULL climbed a butte near the Rosebud River, just south of the Yellowstone. Not far from this eroded projection of rock-capped earth was a village of more than 400 tepees spread out for almost a mile along the bright green valley of the north-flowing river. The great Lakota Sioux leader was about 45 years old, his legs bowed from a boyhood of riding ponies, his left foot maimed by an old bullet wound that caused him to amble lopsidedly. Much more than a brave warrior, he was a wicasa wakan : a holy man with an unusual relationship with the Great Mystery that the Lakota called Wakan Tanka. He could see into the ungraspable essence of life—the powerful and incomprehensible forces that most people only dimly perceive but to which all humanity must pay homage. Dreams and visions provided glimpses into this enigmatic world of ultimate meaning; so did nature, and in conversations with animals and birds, Sitting Bull found confirmation of his role as leader of his people.
On that spring day he knew that hostile U.S. cavalry troops were approaching along the north bank of the Yellowstone River; scouts had also reported that soldiers to the south were preparing to march in their direction. Perched on a mossy rock, Sitting Bull began to pray until he fell asleep and dreamed of a large, puffy white cloud drifting sedately overhead. It was shaped like a Lakota village nestled under snow-topped mountains. On the horizon to the east, he saw the faint brown smudge of an approaching dust storm. Faster and faster the storm approached, until he realized that at the center of the swirling cloud of dust was a regiment of horse-mounted soldiers.
The dust-shrouded troopers continued to pick up speed until they collided with the big white cloud in a crash of lightning and a burst of rain. In an instant, the dust—and the soldiers—had been washed away, and all was quiet and peaceful as the huge cloud continued to drift toward the horizon and finally disappeared. He now knew from where the attack was going to come—not from the north or from the south, but from the east.
AT THE TIME WHEN Sitting Bull dreamed of the approaching dust storm, there were no farms, ranches, towns, or even military bases in central and eastern Montana. For all practical and legal purposes, this was Indian territory. Just two years before, however, gold had been discovered in the nearby Black Hills by an expedition led by none other than Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. As prospectors flooded pioneers from Indian attack, the soldiers who Sitting Bull knew were coming were part of a carefully orchestrated campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne, an unprovoked military invasion of an independent nation that happened to exist within the United States. George Custer would play a major role in that campaign, one destined to enshrine his name in the annals of the American West.
He had grown into manhood during the Civil War, when the frantic, all-or-nothing pace of the cavalry charge came to define his tactical preference. But Custer was something more than the harebrained thrill junkie of modern legend. Over the course of the war, he proved to be one of the best cavalry officers, if not the best, in the Union army. He had an intuitive sense for the ebb and flow of battle; his extraordinary peripheral vision enabled him to capitalize almost instantly on any emerging weaknesses in an enemy line. And because he was always at the head of a charge, he was always there, ready to lead his men to where they were needed most.
Custer had finished last in his class at West Point, but it was because he was too busy enjoying himself, not because he was unintelligent. Whenever the demerits he’d accumulated threatened to end his days at “the Point,” he’d put a temporary stop to his antics and bring himself back from the brink of expulsion. This four-year flirtation with academic disaster seems to have served him well. By graduation he’d developed a talent for maintaining a rigorous, if unconventional, discipline amid chaos. Actual battle, not the patient study of it, was what he was destined for, and with the outbreak of the Civil War he discovered his true calling.
His rise was meteoric. Starting the war in the summer of 1861 as a second lieutenant, he became a 23-year-old brigadier general just two years later and played an important, if largely unrecognized, role on the last, climactic day of the Battle of Gettysburg. As Confederate general George Pickett mounted his famous charge against the Union forces, a lesser-known confrontation occurred on the other side of the battlefield. The redoubtable Jeb Stuart launched a desperate attempt to penetrate the rear of the Union line. If he could smash through Federal resistance, he might meet up with Pickett’s forces and secure a spectacular victory for General Lee.
As it turned out, all Stuart had to do was punch his way through a vastly outnumbered regiment from Michigan, and victory would have been his. But as the Confederates bore down on their Union counterparts (who were outnumbered by four to one), an event occurred that changed the course of the battle and, arguably, the war.
Custer, dressed in an almost comical black velvet uniform of his own design that featured gaudy coils of gold lace, galloped to the head of the 1st Michigan Cavalry and assumed command. Well ahead of his troops, with his sword raised, he turned toward his men and shouted, “Come on, you Wolverines!” With Custer in the lead, the Michiganders started out at a trot but were soon galloping, “every man yelling like a demon.”
When Custer’s and Stuart’s forces collided on what is now called East Cavalry Field, the sound reminded one of the participants of the thunderous crash of a giant falling tree. “Many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them,” a cavalryman remembered. The bodies of some of the combatants were later found “pinned to each other by tightly-clenched sabers driven through their bodies.” Custer’s horse was shot out from underneath him, but he quickly found another mount and returned to the fray. Soon the Federals had the enemy on the run. As one Union officer later commented, it had been “the most gallant charge of the war.”
BOTH CUSTER and Sitting Bull were more than the cardboard cutouts they have since become. Instead of stubborn anachronisms, they were cagey manipulators of the media of their day. Custer’s published accounts of his exploits gave him a public reputation out of all proportion to his actual accomplishments—at least that’s what more than a few fellow Army officers claimed. Sitting Bull gave a series of newspaper interviews in the aftermath of the Little Bighorn that helped make him one of the most sought-after celebrities in America. A tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show only heightened his visibility; it also helped engender the jealousy and resentment that ultimately contributed to his death once he returned to the Standing Rock reservation.
Both Custer and Sitting Bull are often portrayed as grimly resolute in their determination to fight. But even as the first bullets were being fired upon his people, Sitting Bull held out hope that peace, not war, might be the ultimate result of the U.S. Army’s appearance at the Little Bighorn River. Prior to his last battle, Custer had demonstrated a remarkable talent for negotiation and diplomacy. The tragedy of both leaders’ lives is that they were not given the opportunity to explore those alternatives. Instead, they died alongside their families (a son and a brother were killed with Sitting Bull; two brothers, a brother-in- law, and a nephew fell with Custer) and gained undying fame.
Act 2: The Battle
ON THE AFTERNOON of June 21, at the confluence of the Rosebud and Yellowstone rivers, Gen. Alfred Terry, the officer in charge of the campaign against the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne, unveiled his plan in the cabin of the river-boat Far West. In attendance were his aide-de-camp, Col. Robert Hughes; Custer; Col. John Gibbon, commander of the 440-man Montana column that had linked up with Custer’s regiment only a few days before; and Gibbon’s commander of cavalry, James Brisbin. Even though he was the source of their latest and best information about the Indians, Maj. Marcus Reno was not invited to the meeting.
On the table they spread out a map based on a partial survey conducted before the Civil War. Hostile Indians had prevented surveyors from reaching many of the areas on the map. For example, the surveyors had not even seen the Little Bighorn River. That and portions of other rivers, including much of the Rosebud, were represented by dotted lines that could only be described as educated guesses.
Based on information gathered during a scout led by Major Reno as well as a recent report from the Crow, Terry believed that the Lakota and Cheyenne were somewhere to the southwest between the Rosebud and Bighorn rivers, probably in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn. If Custer led the 7th Cavalry up the Rosebud, Terry and the Montana column could work their way up the Bighorn to the west. Because Custer had considerably less distance to cover before he reached the projected location of the Indian village, Terry ordered him to continue south up the Rosebud even if the Indians’ trail headed west. Only after he had marched almost to the Wyoming border should he begin to sweep west. Not only would this postpone Custer’s arrival at the Little Bighorn until about the time Terry and the Montana column were in the vicinity, it might prevent the Indians from escaping to the south. Terry, who was nearsighted, used stick pins to indicate Custer’s line of march and then asked Major Brisbin to use a blue pencil to mark Custer’s projected route.
There was one glaring problem with this plan. As the blue pencil line clearly showed, Terry was ordering Custer to march away from where the village was supposed to be. Did Terry really expect Custer to postpone his own attack and wait for the Montana column to arrive? There was an unwritten code in the military: violating an order was accepted—in fact, encouraged—as long as it resulted in victory. Custer, they all knew, was not going to let a blue pencil line prevent him from becoming a hero once again.
Hindsight has a way of corrupting people’s memories, inviting them to view a past event not as it actually occurred but as they wished it had occurred given the ultimate result. After the disaster, Terry, Gibbon, Brisbin, and Hughes all assured one another that the plan would have worked wonderfully well if Custer had simply obeyed his orders and followed the blue pencil line. If he had done so, he would have arrived at the Little Bighorn just as Terry and Gibbon approached from the north, and victory would have been theirs.
But this does not appear to have been what was considered the most likely scenario at the actual time of the meeting. Terry, it seems clear, expected and wanted Custer to attack if he found a fresh Indian trail. The biggest concern on the evening of June 21 was not the size of the village (which was thought to contain as many as 1,500 warriors); it was that the village might scatter before one of the columns reached it.
FOUR DAYS LATER, around noon on Sunday, June 25, after three days and a night of marching, spirits were high as Custer’s regiment prepared to mount up. Instead of adhering to the blue pencil line, they had followed the Indian trail up to the brow of the Wolf Mountains. That morning the Crow scouts reported seeing smoke from a huge village concealed in the valley of the Little Bighorn, about 15 miles to the west.
A soldier in C Company claimed that it would all be over “as soon as we catch Sitting Bull.” Another laughingly responded that Custer would then “take us with him” to the nation’s centennial celebration in Philadelphia. “And we will take Sitting Bull with us!” added another.
For the next three hours Custer and his men marched toward the valley of the Little Bighorn. Custer was anxious for information about what lay ahead, but his view of the village remained hidden behind a series of bluffs. By that time he’d divided the regiment into three battalions commanded by himself and his subordinates, Major Reno and Capt. Frederick Benteen. As Benteen scouted the bluffs to the left and Reno crossed the Little Bighorn and began to approach the unseen village from the south, Custer and his battalion of five companies veered right and climbed out of the valley and onto the bluffs.
Suddenly, they saw it: two miles to the northwest, nestled into the wooded meanders of the Little Bighorn, was the largest Indian village any of them had ever seen: hundreds of gleaming white tepees. Custer had done it. He had somehow managed to catch Sitting Bull’s village by complete surprise in the middle of the day. That in itself was an extraordinary achievement—a stroke of Custer luck that not even he could have dared hope for.
Some of the mounts, exhausted after four days of almost continual marching, began to lag behind; others, spurred on by their enthusiastic riders, began to edge past the regiment’s commander. “Boys, hold your horses,” Custer cautioned, “there are plenty of them down there for us all.”
Up ahead was a prominent hill. Custer ordered the battalion to halt at its base while he and his staff climbed to the top. He surveyed the village with a pair of field glasses. He saw women, children, and dogs lounging tranquilly around the lodges, but no warriors. Where were they? Were they asleep in their tepees? Some of Custer’s officers speculated that they must be off hunting buffalo.
By that time, Reno was already approaching the village from the other side of the Little Bighorn. As Reno’s battalion galloped down the valley from the south, Custer would swoop down out of the hills to the east, and hundreds, if not thousands, of noncombatants would be theirs. When their husbands, fathers, and sons returned to the village, they’d have no choice but to surrender and follow the soldiers back to the reservation.
Custer pulled the binoculars from his eyes and turned toward the five companies waiting expectantly at the bottom of the hill. Beside him were his brother Tom and his adjutant, William Cooke. If all went well, the 7th was about to win its most stunning victory yet. Around 3:30 p.m. on June 25, Custer took off his wide gray hat and waved it exultantly in the clear blue air. “Hurrah boys, we’ve got them!” he shouted. “We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”
UNLIKE CUSTER, RENO could not yet see the village. A loop in the Little Bighorn concealed the tepees behind a line of cottonwood trees. There was also an ever-thickening cloud of dust. As Reno’s battalion drew closer to the shadowy warriors in the dust up ahead, many of the soldiers began to cheer—a laudable sentiment given the circumstances. But Reno wanted none of it. “Stop that noise,” he shouted peevishly. Then he gave the order: “Chaarrrrge!”
Something about the way he said it—a sloppy slurring—caused Pvt. William Taylor to glance over at his commanding officer. He saw Reno in the midst of drinking from a bottle of “amber colored liquid,” which he then passed to his adjutant, Lt. Benny Hodgson. Although just a few minutes before, Reno had expressed worries about his ability to manage his Springfield carbine while galloping on a horse, he apparently had no problems handling a bottle of whiskey.
Drinking before and during a battle was not unusual in the 19th century. If Reno’s conduct over the course of the next half hour is any indication, however, whiskey had a most deleterious effect on his performance as a commanding officer, making him appear hesitant and fearful at a time when his officers and men needed a strong, decisive leader.
On they galloped into the swirling cloud. Unknown to Reno, the shock of his battalion’s unexpected advance had a devastating effect on the noncombatants in the village. “The camp was in the wildest commotion,” Pretty White Buffalo Woman remembered, “and women and children shrieked with terror. More than half the men were absent after the pony herd.” If Reno’s battalion had “brought their horses and rode into camp,” she claimed, “the power of the Lakota nation might have been broken.”
But then something miraculous happened. The soldiers to the south, she gradually realized, had stopped . Instead of charging into the village, Reno’s troops had formed into a stationary skirmish line. Even though almost all the women and children were running for the hills to the amplified, it seems certain, by the insidious workings of alcohol.
Sitting Bull appears to have interpreted Reno’s sudden pause as the prelude to possible negotiations. “I don’t want my children fighting until tell them to,” he said. “That army may be com[ing] to make peace, or be officials bringing rations to us.” Sitting Bull had mounted his favorite horse, a handsome gray that is depicted in doting detail in the sequence of drawings he created for his adopted brother, Jumping Bull. When two bullets felled his beloved horse, the Lakota leader quickly abandoned all hopes for peace. “Now my best horse is shot,” he shouted. “It is like they have shot me; attack them.”
The warriors charged into Reno’s soldiers. Sgt. John M. Ryan estimated that there were about 500 Indians in the first wave, which emerged from a ravine-like section of bench land about midway between the skirmish line and the village’s edge. “They tried to cut through our skirmish line,” Ryan wrote. “We poured volleys into them, repulsing their charge . . . and emptying a number of saddles.”
In the beginning, the momentum had all been on Reno’s side, but by hesitating, he had given the village’s warriors the time they needed to collect themselves for a decisive attack. The bolt of fear that had once sizzled across the village like an electric shock had begun to flow back toward the soldiers as they came to realize the growing danger of their situation.
Reno soon ordered his men to fall back into a nearby stand of trees. Instead of attempting to hold off the warriors, he decided to bolt for the bluffs on the other side of the river. The retreat quickly devolved into a rout, and close to half the battalion was either wounded, killed, or missing by the time the soldiers reached what came to be known as Reno Hill, where they were soon joined by Benteen’s battalion and the slow-moving pack train. The whereabouts of Custer, whose battalion had last been seen galloping along the bluffs to the north, was anybody’s guess.
ONCE CUSTER BECAME apprised of the true dimensions of the village and the fact that Reno’s charge had stalled at its edge, he must have realized that he should have kept the two battalions together and led the charge himself. But there was nothing he could do about that now.
In the vicinity of a hill topped by a circular hollow that was later named for his brother-in-law, Lt. James Calhoun, Custer convened his final conference with the officers of his battalion. The prudent thing to do was to backtrack to Reno and reunite the regiment. But to do that was to give up any hope of securing hostages. The only option, in Custer’s mind, was to prepare for a decisive thrust to the north.
Hindsight makes Custer look like an egomaniacal fool.
Within less than an hour, Custer’s bid to secure hostages had been thwarted by an overwhelming display of native firepower, as close to 2,000 warriors surrounded his battalion of approximately 210 officers and men. It began with an attack on the right wing of Custer’s battalion, clustered around Calhoun Hill.
The melee that resulted from the multipronged dissection of the right wing was unlike anything the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors had ever experienced. Cheyenne chief Two Moons later described how difficult it was to see amid the impenetrable black smoke, and how the bullets made the “noise of bees.” Others spoke of the ear-splitting shriek of the Indians’ eagle-bone whistles. Many of the Army troopers were so confounded by the intensity of the fighting that they simply gave up. For Miniconjou warrior Standing Bear, there was little joy in killing such a helpless enemy. “When we rode into these soldiers,” he later told his son, “I really felt sorry for them, they looked so frightened. . . . Many of them lay on the ground, with their blue eyes open, waiting to be killed.”
At the northern extreme of Battle Ridge was a flat-topped hill. Here Custer, his staff, and George W. Yates’s F Company welcomed the refugees from the right wing. To their north, the soldiers of Algernon Smith’s E Company remained deployed in a skirmish line. All around these two groups of soldiers an ever-growing sea of Indians was moving in, “swirling,” Two Moons remembered, “like water round a stone.”
Two miles away, on the flats beside the low hills to the west of the river, Sitting Bull watched with the women and children. The soldiers were, as he’d seen in a second vision two weeks before, falling into their camp. Whereas Custer had frantically divided his regiment—first in an effort to surround a supposedly dispersing village, then in an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain the offensive by securing hostages—Sitting Bull had sought to consolidate his forces from the start. Rather than seek out the enemy, his intention all along had been to let the soldiers come to him. In
the face of Custer’s hyperactive need to do too much, it had proved a brilliant strategy.
Back on Last Stand Hill, the relentless rifle and bow-and-arrow fire had winnowed the white men to only a handful. By this point Custer may have already suffered the first of his two gunshot wounds—a bullet just below the heart. The blast would have knocked him to the ground but not necessarily killed him. Alive but mortally wounded, the Army’s most famous Indian fighter could no longer fight.
That evening on Last Stand Hill, as Custer lay on the ground with a gunshot wound beneath the heart, it may have been his brother Tom who came to his aid. Two days later the brothers were found within 15 feet of each other, and the possibility exists that, rather than see his wounded brother tortured to death, Tom shot Custer through the head. Whatever the case may be, Custer’s second bullet wound was through the temple, just above the left ear.
Once the soldiers’ fire had dwindled to nothing, a warrior cried out, “All of the white men are dead!” This unleashed a mad scramble for the hilltop. “The air was full of dust and smoke,” Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg remembered. “It looked like thousands of dogs might look if all of them were mixed together in a fight.”
Instead of fighting the soldiers, the warriors were fighting with one another over plunder. “There was lots of fussing and quarreling . . . over the horses and guns that were captured,” Cheyenne survivor Brave Bear remembered. The women, many of whom had lost loved ones that day, took a leading role in mutilating the dead, using sheath knives and hatchets.
Sitting Bull, his nephew and adopted son One Bull later claimed, had insisted that the Lakota and Cheyenne stay away from the dead on Last Stand Hill. One Bull also said that his uncle predicted that, because of their failure to comply with the wishes of the Great Spirit Wakan Tanka, the Lakota would forever “covet white people’s belongings” and ultimately “starve at the white man’s door.” As the smoke and dust over the battlefield thinned in the northerly breeze, Sitting Bull could see that the warriors were ignoring his pronouncement. This victory, great as it was, had simply been the prelude to a crushing and irresistible ultimate defeat.
Act 3: The End
When it comes to the Little Bighorn, most Americans think of the Last Stand as belonging solely to George Armstrong Custer. But the myth also applies to Sitting Bull. For while the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne were the victors that day, the battle marked the beginning of their own last stand. The shock and outrage surrounding Custer’s stunning defeat allowed the Grant administration to push through measures that the U.S. Congress would not have funded just a few weeks before. The Army redoubled its efforts against the Indians and built several forts on what had previously been considered native land.
Within a few years of the Little Bighorn, all the major tribal leaders had taken up residence on Indian reservations, with one exception. Not until the summer of 1881 did Sitting Bull submit to U.S. authorities, and only after first handing his rifle to his son Crowfoot, who then gave the weapon to an Army officer. “I wish it to be remembered that I was the last man of my tribe to surrender my rifle,”
Sitting Bull said. “This boy has given it to you, and he now wants to know how he is going to make a living.”
Sitting Bull did not go quietly into the dark night of reservation life at the Standing Rock Agency, in what would become North and South Dakota. Even as the number of his supporters dwindled, he did his best to frustrate the attempts of the reservation’s agent, James McLaughlin, to reduce the chief’s influence within the tribe. Tensions between the two men inevitably mounted, and when a new native religious movement called the Ghost Dance caused authorities to fear a possible insurrection, McLaughlin ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest. A group of native police was sent to his cabin on the Grand River, and at dawn on December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull, Crowfoot, and Jumping Bull were shot to death. A handful of Sitting Bull’s supporters fled to the Pine Ridge Agency to the south, where Custer’s old regiment, the 7th Cavalry, had been called in to put a stop to the Ghost Dance craze. The massacre that unfolded on December 29 at a creek called Wounded Knee was seen by at least some of the officers of the 7th Cavalry as overdue revenge for their defeat at the Little Bighorn.
In truth, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was the last stand not for Custer, but for the nation he represented. With this battle and its sordid aftermath, climaxing so tragically with Wounded Knee, the United States, a nation that had spent the last hundred years subduing its own interior, had nowhere left to go. With the frontier closed and the Indians on the reservations, America, the land of Westward Ho!, began to look overseas to Cuba, the Philippines, and beyond.
The Wild West of memory continued to live on, and Custer remains an icon to this day. Sitting Bull is known for his stalwart resistance, for being the last of his tribe to surrender to the U.S. government. But at the Little Bighorn, he did not want to fight. He wanted to talk. This may be his most important legacy. As he recognized, our children are best served not by a self-destructive blaze of glory, but by the hardest path of all: survival and coexistence.
Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s book (except the sidebar) The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn © 2010 by Nathaniel Philbrick.
In Search of Pvt. Peter Thompson: The author reflects on writing history
IT WAS WHILE RIDING a 27-year old former rodeo horse named Tomcat, along the edge of a 300foot-high bluff overlooking the stunningly beautiful Little Bighorn River, that I realized I was in new territory as an author. Research for my previous books had meant visits to historic sailing vessels such as the Charles W Morgan at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and the Mayflower II at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. Standing on the decks of those meticulously maintained craft, it was fairly easy to imagine what it had been like sailing across the Atlantic in 1620 or hunting whales in the 19th century. But every time I had ventured to a land-based historic site, I was inevitably disappointed.
Many of the places associated with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, on the other hand, proved remarkably unchanged, providing a fascinating opportunity to see what Custer and Sitting Bull had seen 134 years ago. I rode across the irregular hills of the battlefield with Crow tribal member Charlie Real Bird as my guide, and I ventured to the Black Hills in South Dakota, where I had lunch with Ernie LaPointe, the great-grandson of Sitting Bull. I traveled by boat up the Bighorn River to its confluence with the Little Bighorn, where, just a few days after the battle, the 190-foot riverboat Far West had been loaded with 50 wounded soldiers and a horse named Comanche before traveling more than 500 miles to Bismarck, North Dakota, to deliver the first word of the disaster. Only a few miles south of Bismarck is Fort Lincoln, the former home of Custer’s 7th Cavalry. In the summer of 2007, after spending several days at the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Sitting Bull’s final home, I embarked on a four-day road trip as I followed Custer’s route more than 300 miles west to Last Stand Hill in south central Montana.
Two years later, during the summer of 2009, I had what I’ve since realized was my most instructive visit to the battlefield. By that time I’d completed a first draft of my book and was as familiar with the written sources as I was ever going to get. One of those sources, a 26,000-word first- person narrative that raised as many questions as it answered, had made it imperative that I return to the scene of the battle.
The question of evidence is central to any work of history, but it is especially important to understanding the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Even before the fighting was over, many of the 7th Cavalry’s survivors had begun to calculate how to cast their actions in the best possible light. A subsequent court of inquiry only compounded the prevarications, and in the following decades the controversial nature of the battle inevitably influenced the way it was remembered.
Problems of evidence also plagued native accounts. In the years after the battle, many warriors were concerned that they might suffer some form of retribution if they didn’t tell their white inquisitors what they wanted to hear. Then there were the problems associated with the interpreters, many of whom had their own agendas.
From the beginning of my research, I found myself intrigued and perplexed by an account written by Peter Thompson, a 22-year-old private who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the battle. Thompson should have died with Custer. Luckily for him, his horse gave out, and he was forced to follow after his leader on foot. Thompson eventually managed to join up with Reno’s battalion and as a consequence lived to tell about his experiences along the Little Bighorn.
Thirty-eight years later, Thompson published his own account of the battle, in which he insisted that, while wandering along the river in search of his battalion, he had come across none other than George Armstrong Custer, on his horse Vic, just an hour or so before his death. At the time of its publication, many readers found it difficult to believe Thompson’s account. In addition to the claim of having seen Custer all alone by the river, the narrative described several other seemingly improbable occurrences.
In the decades since its appearance, most scholars have chosen to ignore, if not dismiss, Thompson’s account. From the first time I read it, however, I was struck by how Thompson conveyed an authentic sense of the disorientation and randomness of battle. I also began to notice that in the last decade or so there had been several instances in which notable Little Bighorn scholars, including the archaeologist Richard Fox and historian Richard Hardorff, had looked to Thompson’s narrative for corroboration of other accounts. After years of neglect, Thompson seemed to be making a comeback. Then I read evidence from a 2004 conference suggesting that Thompson had begun assembling notes for his narrative soon after the battle. Instead of the hazy recollections of an old man looking back, Thompson’s narrative was apparently based on memories that had been recorded within months of the fighting.
It wasn’t until early last summer, soon after completing the first draft of The Last Stand , that I managed to track down one of the presenters at that conference, a resident of Rapid City, South Dakota, named Rocky Boyd. Rocky had spent years researching Peter Thompson, and after several phone calls and a lengthy e-mail exchange, we made plans to meet at the battlefield in early July.
Rocky arrived with his daughter, Kelly, and his seven-year-old grandson, Andrew. For my part, I was accompanied by Mike Hill, my friend and researcher. We secured permits from the park rangers to go “off road” in search of Thompson’s trail. The plan was for Rocky and Andrew to remain on the bluffs, where Rocky would direct Mike, Kelly, and me (all of us sporting ranger-provided orange vests) by cell phone as we tramped over the dusty, sun-baked banks of the Little Bighorn.
It proved to be an extraordinary afternoon. After three and a half years of research, I began to see the ravines, coulees, and bluffs along the Little Bighorn in an entirely different way. Instead of a stretch of terrain to be analyzed and evaluated, this was now a living landscape of fear, exhilaration, and suffering.
Rocky had been in contact with Peter Thompson’s descendants, and with his help I was given permission to consult an unpublished manuscript written by Thompson’s daughter, Susan, in the 1970s, in which she quotes extensively from her father’s original notebook as well as from an, early draft of his narrative. Most exciting of all, Susan, who was seven years old when her father wrote the final version of his narrative, recounted the stories her father had told her about the battle, several of which never made it into his narrative.
As Susan makes clear, Thompson the writer had an unfortunate tendency to mimic the overheated prose style of the dime-store novels he had read as a child. He also insisted (against the objections of his wife, whom he consulted while working on the final draft) on including some of the undoubtedly apocryphal incidents he’d heard from other soldiers, thus introducing the obvious absurdities and issues of tone that have caused many readers to reject the narrative out of hand. Susan’s manuscript convinced me that Thompson was an honest, if stubborn, man who had done his best in his necessarily imperfect and human way to tell what he thought had happened at the Little Bighorn.
More has been written about the Little Bighorn, it’s been said, than any other battle fought on American soil. All of that analysis is ultimately dependent on the testimony of the participants, people like Peter Thompson, who were there , in the midst of a hopelessly confusing event, and yet never stopped trying to understand what they had witnessed. Just as important are the researchers, people like Rocky Boyd, who have proven just as single-minded and indefatigable in their pursuit of the past. Together, these people make the practice of history possible.