PILGRIMAGE TO CUSTER
by Jackie Jura, 2023
5.HOMAGE TO CUSTER AT LAST STAND
...cont'd from 4.CUSTER MASSACRE AT GATES OF HELL
You can tour the Battlefield from start to finish without even getting out of the car except at pullovers to read storyboards placed at strategic places. Battlefield Road is the line in red in the first map below showing Custer's route behind the bluffs, high above the east side of the Little Big Horn river flowing north, from Reno Hill to Last Stand Hill. The other map shows Custer's route west to the Little Big Horn river along Sundance creek, now Reno creek, from the Wolf Mountains 15 miles away in the east. The dotted lines in green are the ravines, aka coulees, that some of Custer's men rode down to cross the river and attack the village in the center simultaneously while Reno attacked from the south. Other of Custer's men kept galloping along the ridge until north of the village and then down to cross the river and attack from there. That was the plan, but as we know, Reno disobeyed orders and ran for the hills instead of charging and Benteen disobeyed written orders to follow Custer "quick" and bring the pack mules loaded with ammunition. Therefore, more than half of Custer's 12 companies -- over 300 men in 7 companies -- were never in the fight -- they never came to Custer's aid and he and his 5 companies -- 225 men -- were abandoned and thus surrounded by the savage enemy.
To further visualize the lay of the land I've marked key locations of the Yellowstone, Big Horn and Little Big Horn rivers on the map below:
As described in JOURNEY TO CUSTER'S BIG HORN, I climbed Pompey's Pillar, just a few miles west from where the Big Horn river, flowing down from the Big Horn mountains, flows into the Yellowstone river. William Clark had named this rock and signed his name on it in 1806. In 1873 Custer's 7th Cavalry rode west past Pompey's Pillar during pathfinding for the Northern Pacific Railroad survey. Custer fought and won a big battle against Sioux and Cheyenne warriors -- even had a horse shot out from under him -- about 20 miles down from Pompey's Pillar just east of where the Big Horn enters the Yellowstone. Then three years later, in that same spot -- except 50 miles south on the Little Big Horn river, which flows into the Big Horn river -- Custer fought some of those same Indians, and more. But this time Custer was abandoned by cowards and conspirators, instead of supported by brave and devoted men doing their duty and following his orders.
So now, having hopefully given readers enough background to understand the history of the battle, I invite you to ride along on my tour of the battlefield. I'll be sharing the photos I took, transcribing the storyboards and sometimes adding commentary and excerpts and pics from other sources in explanation. Firstly, let's begin with Custer's last sunrise on Sunday, June 25th.
"...From the Crows Nest, a vantage point 14 miles away in the Wolf Mountains, Custer's Crows and Arikara scouts saw evidence of the massive Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment. Convinced that he was discovered, Custer abandoned plans for a reconnaisance and a delayed attack. He divides his forces into 4 groups along Reno Creek deciding to strike the village before it could scatter...."
"...At dawn, on June 25, 1876, George A Custer rode with his interpreter, Fred Gerard and his Arikara Scouts, Little Brave, Bloody Knife, Bob-Tailed Bull and Red Star, into a crest called "Crow's Nest", to see into the valley of the "Little Bighorn". Early in this morning, Red Star and other crow scouts had discovered enemy Sioux and Cheyenne camps from this vantage point. When Custer got there he couldn't see anything through the morning sun. But he believed his scouts who advised him to attack the enemy camp as soon as possible. That was the last sunrise that Lieutenant Colonel G.A. Custer along with about 250 officers and men would experience...." (from Benno's painters/wargamers of miniatures)
"...The spot that had been chosen for our bivouac was one of the most beautiful that we had met with.... It was easy to see why the river was given its name [Rosebud], fringed as it was with low willows and fragrant rosebushes. It was such a place for a camp that Custer was in the habit of selecting, when possible, one of great natural beauty. In this case it seemed so very fitting that what was to prove to be the "last camp" for so many should be such a beautiful place.
"My Troop (A) was quite near to Custer's headquarters, a single "A" tent, before which he sat for a long time alone and apparently in deep thought. I was lying on my side, facing him, and was it my fancy, or the gathering twilight that made his face take on an expression of sadness that was new to me. Was it because his thoughts were far away, back to Fort Lincoln where he had left a most beloved wife, and was his heart filled with a premonition of what was to happen on the morrow? His reverie however was soon broken by the gathering of a number of officers at his tent for certain instructionns. As the council broke up a small group of the younger officers stopped near the bivouac of one of their number and soon the words of "Annie Laurie", with a slow sad cadence came to my ears... followed by... and then ending with the "Doxology: Praise God From Whom all Blessings Flow", a rather strange song for Cavalrymen to sing on an Indian Trail. Was it not something in the nature of a prayer coming from the hearts of those young officers, several of them but a short time from West Point... But as the last words died away, as if to throw off their gloomy feelings they added "For He's a Jolly Goodfellow, That Nobody Can Deny"... A few "good nights" and they sought their rest. An unusual quietness settled over the camp, broken only by the stamping of a horse or the note of some night bird.
"Our rest here proved to be but for a few hours only, for about 10 o'clock we were awakened and ordered to saddle up for a night march... We halted somewhere about 2 a.m. awaiting news from the scouts who had been sent ahead to locate, if possible, the camp of Indians. Saddles were removed and many of the men availed themselves of the chance for a nap. After daylight came some coffee was made... Those who did not care to sleep sat around in little groups discussing the prospects of a fight and pulling away at the ever present pipe.
"General Custer who had gone on ahead to the point on the divide from whence the scouts had seen the smoke rising from the Indian village and the pony herds grazing in the valley near it, some 12 or 15 miles away, had returned, and a little before 8 o'clock came riding bareback, and I think also bareheaded, around to the several troops giving the officers the information that the Indians had been located, and saying that the command would move at once. The men began to saddle up and we were soon in motion travelling up the divide between the Rosebud and Little Big Horn rivers...."
"...After crossing the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn, and somewhere about noon, the Regiment had been divided into Battalions, Custer retaining under his personal command 5 Troops... The 2 commands, Custer's and Reno's, continued until about 12:30 p.m. when they were within about 2 miles of the river. Reno was then ordered to "Move forward at as rapid a gait as prudent and charge after-wards". Custer soon left the trail and moved squarely to the right, apparently heading for the lower part of the Indian village.
"...Custer's next, and final appearance was on a high point of the bluffs overlooking the river and the Indian camps, a short distance below the point where Reno's command made their hurried and difficult ascent. This occurred while Reno's Battalion was charging down the valley and, just before he dismounted the command to fight on foot. Custer was seen to wave his hat to the charging Battalion, a signal of encouragement, and a final farewell. What a picture it must have been, and what a pity some artist could not reproduce it on canvas...."
"...Major Reno's Battalion, following the Indian trail, marched down a valley through which ran...Sundance creek. The creek flowed into the Little Big Horn river, when there was any water in it, but at this time it was dry... When within a short distance of the river, Reno received an order that caused us to increase our speed and we soon came to the Little Bighorn, a stream some 50 to 70 feet wide, and from 2 to 4 feet deep of clear, icy cold water. Into it our horses plunged without any urging, their thirst was great and also their riders. While waiting for them to drink I took off my hat and, shaping the brim into a scoop, leaned over, filled it and drank the last drop of water I was to have for over 24 long hours. The horses having been watered, we rode out of the river and through the underbrush and then a few yards on the prairie, where we dismounted and tightened our saddle girths, and in about 10 minutes were heading down a long but rather narrow valley. On our right was the heavily wooded and very irregular course of the river, flanked by high bluffs. On our left were low foothills near which we could see a part of the pony herds, and as we came nearer, could distinguish mounted men riding in every direction, some in circles, others passing back and forth. They were gathering up their ponies and also making signals. We were then at a fast walk. Soon the command was given to "trot". Then as little puffs of smoke were seen and the "Ping" of bullets spoke out plainly, we were ordered to charge.
"...Some of the men began to cheer in reply to the Indians war whoops when Major Reno shouted out, "Stop that noise", and once more there came the command, "Charge"! "Charrrge"! was the way it sounded to me, and it came in such a tone that I turned my head and glanced backward. The Major and Lieutenant Hodgson were riding side by side a short distance in the rear of my Company. As I looked back Major Reno was just taking a bottle from his lips. He then passed it to Lieutenant Hodgson. It appeared to be a quart flask, and about one half or two thirds full of an amber coloured liquid... What that flask contained, and effect its contents has...I have ever since had a very decided belief [that Reno was intoxicated]... Over sage and bulberry bushes, over prickly pears and through a prairie dog village without a thought we rode. A glance along the line shows a lot of set, determined faces, some of them a little pale perhaps, but not altogether with fear.... There was no flinching on the part of anyone. To most of us it was our first real battle at close range. Our baptism of fire, a new and strange experience, to sit up as a human target, to be shot at and not to return the fire, was a little trying, but our turn was at hand. "Halt!", came the sharp, quick order. "Prepare to fight on foot", follows at once. Every 4th man from the right remained in his saddle, the others dismounted and tying their horse together, handed the bridle reins to the number four man and sprang forward to their places in the skirmish line. When I look back and think of the sublime audacity of one hundred and fifty Cavalrymen charging with a cheer down on an Indian village...and when within close range, dismounting to fight on foot leaving one 4th of their number to hold the horses, it does seems like madness...
"...The fire and pursuit by the Indians seemed to cease as soon as we reached the top of the bluffs, this was much to be thankful for although we little dreamed of the cause... We had been there but a very short time when we were joined by Captain Benteen with the 3 Troops H, D and K that had been sent off to the left some two hours [noonish] before. They were now, in obedience to a written as well as verbal order, on their way to join Custer. This junction with all of Reno's command occurred at 2:30 p.m., so Reno states. A very short time afterwards, Captain McDougall with B Troop, escorting the pack train, came along and joined us. Captain McDougall had also received an order from General Custer to make haste and join him with the pack train. The message to McDougall was delivered to him by Sergeant David C Kanipe of Tom Custer's Troop, C. It might be well to say here that Boston Custer, a younger brother of the General, was acting as a civilian forage master. He had been riding with the General that morning but had gone back to the pack train for a fresh horse, which having secured he started on ahead to rejoin the General's command. While on his way he met Trumpeter Martini who was bringing a dispatch to Captain Benteen. Mr Custer and the Trumpeter exchanged a few words and then continued their respective ways. Mr Custer had time enough to rejoin the command before the battle began and his body was found within a few yards of those of his two brothers.... We remained there on the bluff, unmolested in any manner... We had heard firing off in the general direction Custer was supposed to have gone. "Why don't we move?", was a question asked by more than one. The 3 Troops that had been engaged in the valley were it is true somewhat demoralized, but that was no excuse for the whole command to remain inactive. A few of our men had been wounded, but none so seriously that they could not ride with the pack train. All of the officers must have known that Custer was engaged with the Indians and quite near by for he had not time to go a great way. The sudden withdrawal of that strong force of Indians who had driven us from the close vicinity of their camp, could indicate but one thing, and that was another attack on their camp, real or threatened, by a force from another direction...."
~ end quoting from With Custer on the Little Bighorn by Taylor ~
Now here I am, exactly 140 years later -- on Sunday, June 25th, 2016 -- standing on the very bluff atop the very ravine Reno and his men escaped to.
"...After fording the Little Big Horn river, Reno's battallion gallops down the valley below. Convinced he is vastly outnumbered Reno dismounts and forms a skirmish line across the valley floor, firing into the lodges. Warriors in great numbers run forward to defend the village. Outflanked, Reno retreats into the timber. Sitting Bull directs surprised noncombatants to flee to the north and west... Under mounting pressure Reno abandons the timber. His retreat disintigrates into a rout as pursuing warriors ride in amongst the troopers killing more than 30 soldiers. Indian casualties are few. Lakotas and Cheyennes drive the cavalry across the river and up the steep bluffs... Receiving word of other soldiers downstream [Custer attacking the center] they [the Indians] abandon Reno to meet the new threat to their village...."
There was huge controversy all over America -- as big as the assassination of Lincoln and JFK -- after the news hit -- on the 100th anniversay of Independence Day -- that Custer and the 7th Cavalry had been annihilated. Investigative journalists in the press published questions demanding to know why over half of Custer's soldiers weren't even in the fight and accusing Reno and Benteen of disobeying orders and cowardice -- crimes punishable by death or having their heads shaved, branded with a hot iron and drummed out of the army -- as had been done to soldiers for lesser offences during the Civil and Indian wars. The official story from Reno and Benteen and the government and the military top brass didn't add up. The truth was being covered up but eventually the facts were dug up exposing the who, what, when, where and why of Reno's and Benteen's actions and inactions after coming together at the top of Reno Hill. Here are excerpts from Custeriani explaining the controversy and the findings:
"...In an attempt to locate Custer Company D under Captain Thomas Weir advances to this hilltop position without orders late [actually it was 2:30 in afternoonon] June 25. Weir may have witnessed the conclusion of the battle [actually it was still in progress] 3 miles ahead. He is later joined by Captain Benteen and others. The Lakota and Cheyenne, returning after destroying all of Custer's immediate command, force these troops to abandon this position in favor of their hilltop defense one mile south."
"...The first biography of General George A Custer was published late in 1876, only months after the disaster of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. A COMPLETE LIFE was the beginning of a legend, and Frederick Whittaker did more than anyone else except Libby Custer to make the flamboyant Boy General a permanent resident of the national consciousness. Quite aside from its contribution to the public image of Custer, this important book placed him and his associates against a concrete background of onrushing events. Drawing on newspaper reports and the general's own words, Whittaker captures the excitement of the era... Volume 2 takes Custer west to head up the newly created Seventh Cavalry and fight the Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Sioux. Whittaker gives full scope to Custer's brushes with authority, his changeable relations with his troops, and his famous expeditions, ending with a memorable description of his last stand at the Little Big Horn in 1876.
"...Major Reno's 'accuser', Frederick Whittaker, ventured his opinion...in a public letter which appeared in various newspapers around the country not long after the Reno Court of Inquiry [in Chicago 1879] adjourned... 'I was barred out of the court even though that inquiry was called forth by my own letter to congress last spring... I therefore had no opportunity to say one word in Custer's or my own behalf in court, and was obliged to remain a silent and powerless spectator of events in which I had so keen an interest. Now that the trial is over...it becomes my duty, as a biographer of the late General Custer, to speak and put the position of Custer as well as my own in their proper light, to prevent future misunderstandings. I came to Chicago for two purposes -- to vindicate Custer as a soldier and myself as a man of truth... This trial has established facts which prove Custer to have been, not rash, but prudent; not defeated but abandoned by the treachery or timidity of his subordinates. Hereafter, any man who accuses Custer of bringing on his own fate by rashness will write himself down as a false defamer, who goes against the facts of history...."
"...Lieutenant Lee further contemplated the role that history had placed upon him and... wrote to Mrs Custer with his opinions on the issues... 'There has been so much misrepresentation, so much from personal and interested motives that it would seem that the truth is hard to separate from the chaff. I believe as an unprejudiced person, I have better opportunities to get at the facts than almost any other person... Major Reno abandoned a splendid position where he threatened the entire village, and thus enabled the entire force of Indians to concentrate on General Custer who was thus compelled to meet them with less than 2/5 of the effective force of his regiment. Major Reno's disastrous retreat resulted in keeping out of the battle at a critical period fully 3/5 of the effective force, and in doing this, all chance for victory over the Indians was lost'....
"Another witness who did not appear, and whose testimony could have been pivotal, was Captain Thomas Weir. Weir did not attend the Reno Court of Inquiry for a very good reason: he was dead. Weir died suddenly on December 9, 1876, less than six months after the Battle of Little Big Horn... Captain Weir's death was, to say the least, convenient. It removed the one person who, more than any other, could have been embarassing to certain surviving officers of the 7th Cavalry. One author commented upon Weir's death in a later book said: "Weir took suddenly ill in early December. He had begun a correspondence with Libbie Custer and had confided that there was something he could tell her in private that he could not set down on paper. His illness was never accurately diagnosed. Thomas Weir died on 9 December 1876 of unknown causes, prompting rumors that he had been poisoned because of something he knew. His death has been contributed to 'congestion of the brain' and 'melancholia'. He had gone to bed shortly before he died and refused to eat anything'... Interestingly, Captain Weir apparently believed there was a 'dark secret' he was 'in on' and before his death, he wrote Mrs Custer: 'I know if we were all of us alone in the parlor, at night, the curtains all down and everybody else asleep, one or the other of you would make me tell you everything I know. Author Frederick Whittaker would later say he had an affidavit concerning the Battle of Little Big Horn from a deceased 7th Cavalry officer, identified as Captain Weir. This affidavit, if it ever existed, has never surfaced....
"In an interview on record in the North Dakota Historical Records, Sitting Bull said of those on Custer Hill: 'As they stood waiting to be killed they were seen to look far away to the hills in all directions and we knew they were looking for the hidden soldiers in the hollows of the hills to come and help them'. Of course they did, and those soldiers would have been looking 'far away' with field glasses... On the Weir Peaks the soldiers gathered there, including Captain Benteen with his 'trusty binoculars' could observe the horses and guidons on Custer Hill with their view unobstructed by smoke and dust. A reasonable conclusion that on Custer Hill the officers there, watching the Weir Peaks for the anticipated advance, observed the gathering of soldiers on Weir Peaks. With the aid of field glasses each group of officers could certainly see the other group clearly. For those on Custer Hill the appearance of the soldiers on Weir Peaks signaled the much awaited advance of the regiment. If there was any doubt by those on Custer Hill that the regiment was indeed advancing, Captain Benteen thoughtfully dispelled it: 'We then showed our full force on the hills with guidons flying, that Custer might see us'. Captain Benteen also spoke of an incident with the guidon which, while much overlooked in significance, was possibly of extreme, if not decisive, importance. Captain Benteen also said: 'I planted a guidon there as a guide to our position to Custer'. Captain Benteen mentioned this incident on other occasions. However, by 1890 when he had written a narrative of the battle he was, apparently, having second thoughts about raising this interesting point and he omitted the guidon episode entirely...."
"...To the soldiers on Custer Hill the appearance of the reinforcements lined across the Weir Peaks would have been a welcome sight and would not have been overlooked. This was the advance of the regiment they had been watching and waiting for. Then, after showing his force with 'guidons flying', Captain Benteen ordered the abandonment of the Weir Peaks. At this point the Weir Peaks were not under attack, nor had a single casualty been suffered by Benteen's command.... There was no military reason for Benteen to order the abandonment of Weir Peaks.... Not long after the Battle of the Little Big Horn a reader wrote to a newspaper and made an interesting observaton: 'Cowardice in the face of the enemy is, under the laws of war, punishable by death'. This harsh military maxim is a universal law, historically practiced to some extent by nearly every military establishment in the world. Disobedience of orders is also included as an offense meriting, for some, the death penalty. The reason for this unpleasant penalty is that, under combat conditions, cowardice and disobedience of orders will not only lose battles, but also will get soldiers killed, sometimes a lot of them. Under universally accepted military law Major Reno's panicked retreat from the valley was both cowardly and in disobedience of orders.... Panic is contagious and can quickly cause the disintegration of a military unit. Troops in combat simply cannot afford to be infected by panic resulting from cowardice. For this reason many, perhaps most, of the instances of battlefield cowardice and disobedience of orders never reach the court-martial phase. They are handled directly and immediately by the fellow soldiers of the soldier who has panicked, and sometimes that soldier does not survive the experience.
"...Benteen failed to follow his orders to advance and would suffer the consequences, if Custer were to live. Major Reno's position was, if anything, worse than Captain Benteen's. Reno was second in command of the regiment and his panicked retreat from the valley had been a disgrace. He too had then failed to advance. This was the reason Reno could not muster the courage to advance even as far as Benteen had. Neither Reno or Benteen could escape the facts of military law. By the time of Captain Weir's advance, had Custer lived, Major Reno and Captain Benteen, at the very least, were finished as soldiers. Custer did not live to press the issue but, had he, there can be little question but that Reno and Benteen would have been lucky to see the sun set that ill fated day, saved only for a court martial and an inevitable guilty verdict. Captain Weir would have been a star witness. Looking across the ravines and hills to Custer Hill, the thought of what Custer would do to him did not just flash through Captain Benteen's mind. It undoubtedly raged there like a firestorm. Benteen knew the consequences of his actions and he knew Custer and the officers with him. It was with that thought in mind that Benteen gave Custer a final farewell with the cavalry guidon and then evacuated their Weir Peaks, leaving Custer and his command to fend for themselves, with hopefully unsuccessful results. Benteen chose his own life over that of Custer and more than 200 soldiers. Through his actions, Benteen sealed the doom of Custer and his soldiers... One thing is certain, the evacuation of the Weir Peaks left Custer out on a limb, so to speak, and gave the Indian warriors an unbelievable opportunity. By evacuating the Weir Peaks Captain Benteen had determined the fate of Custer and the soldiers with him. The Indian warriors would no longer face a threat from the 7 companies under Major Reno and Benteen and could now turn their full force on the now dispersed companies under Custer..."
~ end quoting from Little Big Horn by Nightengale ~
"...Approximately 10-minutes after the troops of Reno reached the hill, Benteen arrived with his battalion. At that time, there was little or no action there. Benteen immediately took charge of the entire command until Reno was able to function again as an officer. One of Benteen's first actions was to show Reno the written order he had received from Custer, and he asked Reno where the general had gone. Reno replied that he did not know; that Custer had promised to support him, and had not... The order remained Benteen's to carry out... Only Custer himself could rescind the order... Custer was most certainly alive at that time... It was Benteen's duty to carry out his mission. This he did not do... Had it not been for Captain Weir, it is doubtful that any effort would have been made to relieve Custer, and had it not been for Lieutenant Godfrey, the entire episode might have resulted in a panic-stricken rout at least equal to Reno's retreat in the valley.
"Weir must be commended for his move to aid Custer. As a troop commander in the Benteen battalion, he was under the same obligation as Benteen to obey the written order from Custer. Having been shown the order, and aware of the fact that Benteen had no intention of obeying it, he was fully justified in setting out with whatever force he could muster. Once he had left, the rest of the regiment followed in a most disorderly and unmilitary formation. When the troops had gathered on the high ridges of Weir Point, the Custer battlefield was in view, but Custer and his men were not visible. That there was action on the field, Lieutenant Godfrey said later, 'the conclusion was arrived at that Custer had been repulsed and the firing heard was the parting shots of the rear guard'... Dr Kuhlman suggests that it was the sight of the troops on Weir Point that motivated Custer into the maneuvers that culminated in his annihilation. His position on the ridge was tenable in every respect up to that time. Having sent for Benteen, it is reasonable to assume that Custer would be looking for him, and probably in the same direction from which he, himself, had come. The sight of the forces on Weir Point would indicate only one thing to Custer: Benteen was finally coming. The dispersal of the units under him was based on this fact, and when Benteen did not continue on toward him, his position was then weakened beyond successful possibility of defense... Benteen's contention that the field of battle was not even visible is difficult to accept. At the Court of Inquiry, Benteen stated: 'Some of the officers say that the battlefield was in sight but I know positively that it was not... An examination of the field will show that the field IS visible, even to the naked eye, and it must be remembered, the officers carried field glasses.... Benteen also claimed, with Reno, that no firing could be heard from Custer while he and the others were loitering on Reno hill.
"...Girard, Herendeen, and Lt Rudio, left behind in the timber after Reno's retreat, all testified that they heard the firing from Custer hill. But what of those with Reno and Benteen? Lieutenant Edgerly, who came up with Benteen, stated, 'Shortly after I got to the hill, almost immediately, I heard firing and remarked it. Heavy firing, by volleys, down the creek. Captain Weir came to me and said General Custer was engaged and we ought to go down. I said I thought so too. He went away walking up and down rather anxiously. I heard the fire plainly'. He went on to say that his first sergeant also came up to him and commented on the firing, and then told of Weir's decision to move out to Custer's aid. Lieutenant Godfrey, in his testimony, bore out Edgerly and the others... 'I heard 2 very distinct volleys, still they sounded a long distance off. Then we heard scattering shots afterwards, not very heavy..,. We know that Benteen was not totally deaf. The obvious inference is then that Benteen lied, or merely closed his ears to the firing. Major Reno also denied hearing the firing when questioned at the inquiry. Yet in his official report of July 5, 1876, he said, 'We had heard firing in that direction and knew it could only be Custer'.
"The fact remains that the forces who went there, to Weir Point -- adequate enough in number to follow through to Custer -- were not sufficiently supervised to make any such movement successful. Reno and Benteen, in their testimony, attempted to create the illulsion that they were 'driven back' from Weir Point to Reno hill by the overwhelming Indian forces... Facts from others indicate that this was not true... The troops were ORDERED back from Weir Point. No engagement took place there until nearly all the troops had been withdrawn. Godfrey, commanding the last company to leave, was the only one to engage the Indians, in a valiant and successful effort to cover the retreat of his comrades, and by this time Custer and his men were dead. As the last of the troopers with Custer, searching frantically for one more cartridge, dropped silently to the dusty ground of Custer hill, the tiny scrap of paper containing the last order ever to come from Custer -- 'Benteen, Come on -- big village -- be quick -- bring packs --' still nestled unheeded in the pocket of the man to whom it had been addressed. Three days later, as Benteen stood over the naked corpse of General Custer, he was heard to remark, 'There he is, God damn him, he will never fight anymore'. To the 'overgrown drummer boy', it was a job well done, and he seemed to draw elation from the part he had played in bringing it about. The Lion was dead...."
~ end quoting from Kick the Dead Lion by Du Bois ~
Even though combined troopers of the 7 remaining 7th Cavalry companies had been lined up in formation below Weir Point, preparing to gallop to Custer's position, from where they could still hear gunfire, Benteen ordered the troops to turn around and retreat back to Reno Hill. The Indians, who along with Custer had seen Benteen wave the flag on top of Weir Point, now realized there was no threat from the blue coats from that direction and quickly surrounded and killed off Custer and his fight-to-the-death troopers on Last Stand Hill. Then the Indians -- not all of them because many were preoccupied scalping, stealing horses and plundering -- turned their attention to the soldiers now running away in the opposite direction to Reno Hill where they'd hunker down behind dead horses and piled-up-ammo boxes from the pack-train for the next 2 days. In the Little Big Horn handbook it's described as the Reno-Benteen Battlefield:
"...After retreating from the valley to the bluffs, Reno and his shattered command took positions in the vicinity of the present Reno-Benteen monument. Here Reno was shortly joined by Captain Benteen and his battalion and, soon afterward, by Captain McDougal and the pack train. After wiping out Custer 4 miles to the north, the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors laid siege to Reno at this site. The command, about 400 strong, entrenched in a rough circle around the saucer-like depression just south of the monument. In this sheltered swale, Dr Porter established the hospital. Beginning at the monument, Entrenchment Trail provides an interepretive tour of Reno's defensive positions...."
I must admit that while I was at Reno Hill, which has parking and a turn-around at the end of Battle Road, I didn't walk down to the monument. There were people standing around where you can listen to interpretive recordings and I overheard some saying that Custer "made a mistake dividing his forces" and that Reno expected Custer to "back him up" during the charge to the village and that Reno and his men would have been massacred if they hadn't escaped across the river and up into the bluffs. I remember commenting to a couple of people that Reno was the one who "made a mistake" by disobeying Custer's orders and one of the guys said, "Well who can blame him when he saw all those Indians coming at him" to which I commented "Well, he wasn't just along for the ride -- it was his DUTY to charge the enemy". Then I walked away and returned to the car, somewhat frustrated that these lies about Custer permeate so much of the public discourse.
I didn't realize at the time of my tour of the Battlefield -- having not yet read Nightengale's book LITTLE BIG HORN about the 1988 investigation exposing the lies and evidence tampering at the 1879 Reno Court of Inquiry, that I had an ancestor there at Reno Hill. His name jumped out at me on the page where it lists the identities of the soldiers whose signatures had been forged in the farcical petition Reno had submitted to high-command requesting that in light of Custer's death he be promoted to Commander of the 7th Cavalry. During the Civil War, and the Plains Indian War, the enlisted men were often immigrants from Ireland, England, Italy, Germany etc who had come to America to seek a better life in the New World. My paternal grandfather had emigrated to Canada for this very same reason. He was born in England in November 1892 and in 1911, at age 19, he and his older brother emigrated to the Canadian prairies to take advantage of land offered for homesteading. Some of his ancestors had first emigrated to North America at the time of colonization. And, it turns out, not only was my grandfather's ancestor an active participant at the Battle of Little Big Horn but, to boot, he'd been awarded the Medal of Honor and is buried in the Custer National Cemetery at the foot of Last Stand Hill. This was another "godcidence", not just a coincidence, that happens to me often throughout my life's journey.
"...was born in England in November 1847 and may have served in the British Army... Emigrating to the United States, he enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army in Boston Massachusetts in December 1874... Saw action with the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment during the Great Sioux War of 1876-77 and, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 26, 1876, was one of 15 soldiers who volunteered to carry water to wounded soldiers at the Reno-Benteen site. Five sharpshooters put themselves in an exposed position to cover the men as they spent 4 hours carrying water in cast iron canteens and cookware 80 yards from the Little Bighorn River to Reno-Hill under heavy fire. The men were ambushed by Sioux warriors concealed in bushes along the river, and he was wounded in the right ankle. He and the rest of the Little Bighorn water carriers were among the 24 members who received the Medal of Honor for gallantry... After leaving the Army in late 1879 he married and settled in Montana... In November 1893 he was killed in confrontation with a man who pulled a gun on him. It was discovered that he was an MOH recipient when the coroner discovered the medal pinned to his body upon examination. He is one of two MOH recipients who are buried at Custer County Cemetery..." [from biannual journal of The Custer Association of Great Britain]
Reno Monument inscription: "This area was occupied by troops A, B, D, G, H, K and M, 7th U.S. Cavalry and the Pack Train when they were besieged by the Sioux Indians June 25th and 26th 1876."
My grandfather was a soldier too, serving in both WWI and WWII. Above is a photo taken of him in 1918, in center, standing in front of his DeHavilland-4 biplane with a wooden propeller. His plane was shot down over Germany and he was taken prisoner of war. When we were children he used to roll up his trouser leg and we could see and feel the shrapnel embedded there for life -- his war wounds.
After learning I had an ancestor who'd fought at the Little Big Horn as a soldier in the 7th Cavalry under Custer, I paid more attention to a brochure I'd picked up in the museum at the battlefield.
"By the morning of June 26, the command had been without water for many hours. 'The excitement and heat made our thirst almost maddening. The men were forbidden to use tobacc. They put pebbles in their mouths to excite the glands, some ate grass roots, but did not find relief; some tried to eat hard bread, but after chewing it awhile would blow it out of their mouths like so much flour. The sun beat down on us and we became so thirsty that it was almost impossible to swallow. The wounded were suffering terribly for lack of water. Doctor Porter advised Major Reno and Captain Benteen that some of the wounded would soon die unless they were given water. Benteen called for volunteers to go down to the river, in the face of warrior gunfire, to fill kettles and canteens. During the morning, several groups of volunteers went down the deep ravine in front of this point and obtained enough water to ease the wounded. Four (4) men went down to the edge of the river bluff, above the mouth of the ravine, and stood up, firing their carbines to pin down some of the Indians and draw fire away from the water carriers. These 4, and 15 of the volunteer water carriers, later received the Medal of Honor..."
To guide us as we move north along Battle Road is a topographical map below, drawn in 1877 by an army cartographer and a map denoting the key points of action. The coulees (dried creeks) are traced in green for clearer understanding.
After walking away from Reno Hill we drove half a mile to the next pullover on Battle Road.
"...June 25-26, 1876 - From the ridge to your right Custer first views the village. Needing more information about the extent of the encampment he moves further north. After witnessing the beginning of Reno's charge Custer's five companies descend Cedar Coulee, the ravine to your immediate front. After Custer's destruction, this promontory was occupied by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who poured a deadly and accurate fire into Reno and Benteen's besieged troops...thus the name Sharpshooter Ridge...."
Just around the corner and a mile down the road we approached the sacred hill of Weir Point -- the last place Custer was seen alive and the place from which others viewed his death throes -- and the place to where Custer's eyes "looked unto the hills from whence cometh my help" but that help never came.
Following in Custer's hoof prints I climbed to the top of Weir Point and aimed the camera panoramically to capture what my eyes were seeing but my brain didn't register until later when examining the photos. If you look closely you can make out the white Memorial on Last Stand Hill three miles north. And looking east, 15 miles away you can see the Crow's Nest just to the left of the Wolf Mountains divide. Compare my photos with the storyboard photos to see what Weir saw there -- the smoky white dust cloud of Custer's fight. Climbing down the hill to where the speedy steed was grazing I stopped to pick some flowers growing along the slopes.
At the Battle of Little Big Horn Captain Thomas Weir was the commander of company D, one of 3 companies under overall command of Captain Benteen. Weir had been a soldier since 1861 when joining the Michigan Cavalry under Custer, who became a General in 1863. In recognition of superior performance in the Civil War Weir earned promotion from 1st sergeant to brevet captain/major/lieutenent-colonel and then colonel by war's end in 1865. Weir then served under Custer again from the formation of the 7th Cavalry in 1866 to its annihilation ten years later. Weir was also a personal friend of Custer and his wife Libbie -- part of the inner circle of officers who had earned Custer's respect for their devotion to duty in the many battles they'd fought together -- including the Battle of Washita where Weir was riding next to Alexander Hamilton's grandson when he was killed during the initial charge into the village. And Weir is another Custer friend with Canadian connections, which intrerests me, being Canadian. In 1873 Weir's 7th Cavalry command, on detached duty, marched hundreds of miles along the 49th parallel protecting the survey crew marking the Canada-USA border. At Little Big Horn when Weir realized that Reno and Benteen were disobeying Custer's orders he led a mutiny of officers and men in "going to the sound of the guns". Soon they came to the ridge of three high peaks and climbed the highest one which, named after him, is today "Weir Peak".
Weir was severely traumatized by the massacre on Custer's Hill which he witnessed from on top of his hill and then two days later up close when he helped bury the naked, tortured, mutilated, decapitated, mostly unrecognizable bodies of his friends and brothers in arms. As soon as he got back to home base at Fort Abraham Lincoln Weir started talking to people, and writing letters to Libbie, telling them that Reno and Benteen had committed treachery and implied that it was intentional murder of Custer and his men. Weir was deemed unfit for active service by his superiors and shipped off to desk duty in New York City where he continued to speak out to journalists -- including Custer's first biographer, Frederick Whittaker. Weir was planning to be a witness at the Reno Court of Inquiry (turned out to be a kangaroo court) but was murdered (probably) and then his death blamed on 'incapacitation of the mind' by those who wanted to shut him up -- permanently. Weir was 38 years old, one year older than Custer when he died.
Weir Peak is very important because it provides an irrefutable time-line as to where Custer was and what he was doing while Reno was charging the village. It proves that by the time Reno was running for the hills, Custer was attacking the center of the village. That's why the Indians stopped chasing Reno and galloped away toward their village. We know that after spotting the village for the first time, and waving to Reno's men, Custer told his bugler Martini, who was by his side, to go back along the trail and tell Benteen to hurry up with his men and to bring the ammunition. Knowing that Martini didn't speak very good English, W.W. Cooke wrote the order out and told Martini to give it to Benteen.
Then Custer shouted down exuberantly to his men lined up in formation beneath the hill, "Hurrah, boys, we've got them". The last time Martini saw him, Custer was galloping in front of his battalion leading a charge in the direction of the village.
"...Descending the north face of Weir Point, the tour road affords good views of the Little Bighorn Valley to the west. This was the site of the Indian Camp, approximately 2 miles long. Custer first glimpsed it from the bluffs near where Reno and Benteen later fought... From Weir Point, the tour road drops 1.6 miles to the crossing of Medicine Tail Coulee. To the west about 300 yards the coulee empties into the Little Bighorn River. Descending Medicine Tail Coulee, part of Custer's command encountered Indians at its mouth and, after an exchange of fire and possibly some casualties, retreated north and east to Battle Ridge...."
"...On June 25th, 1876 approximately 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho, including 1,500 to 2,000 warriors encamped on the Greasy Grass River. Under the political and spiritual leadership of Tatanka-Iyotanka [medicine-man Sitting Bull] they refused to be restricted to their reservation and sought to follow their traditional nomadic way of life." [massacring pioneers & soldiers]...."
Godcidently we were at the right place at the right time -- the once a year Battle of Little Big Horn re-enactment where, over three days, the village symbolically comes to life personified by hundreds of people in the stands. The photo I took is from the identical spot to the storyboard and the view is of where we were yesterday on the Greasy Grass. And very clearly, in my photo, you can see the trail of Medicine Tail coulee leading to the ford for crossing the river to the center of the village.
"...The most famous Indian War battle ever fought at location -- the Battle of Little Bighorn -- is reenacted annually just south of Crow Agency, Montana and between the historic points of Custer's Last Stand Hill, Reno's Charge/Retreat, and Reno-Benteen Battlefield. Held at Medicine Tail Coulee and Minneconjou Ford, this is where Custer's Battalion was closest to the village and where E and F Troops were sent to attack the Indian village... Witness Bvt Major General Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry Troopers come out of the Medicine Tail Coulee and clash with Indian Braves as they both cross the Little Bighorn River..."
"...After leaving Cedar Coulee Custer descends toward the Little Big Horn in the ravine ahead known as Medicine Tail Coulee. Near here Custer sends back a message for Captain Benteen to "be quick". Most warriors are still engaged with Reno in the valley, yet some are aware of Custer's advance...."
Discerning readers will notice, in the official storyboard above, that when Custer came down Medicine Tail coulee to cross the river at the ford he'd caught the Indians by surprise. They were away from the village chasing Reno up the bluffs and had to stop and head back to the village to defend against Custer. In other words, Custer was attacking the center of the village around the same time Reno should have been attacking it from the south if he hadn't dismounted and ran away. It would have been a simultaneous flank attack as planned -- mission accomplished. But we all know that didn't happen.
Yesterday I was in the stands on the village side of Medicine Tale coulee watching Custer attack the village; today I was at the same place on the opposite side from where the Indians repulsed Custer's attempt to cross the river.
"...As soldiers descend Medicine Tail Coulee, the Minniconjou and Cheyenne camps were on the western bank... Initial fighting took place on the flats near the river to your left and cutbank directly ahead. The Grey Horse Company (Co. E) and possibly Company F approaches this area. Indian pressure quickly forces these troops to battle ridge. Three Crow scouts who led Custer fired into the village from the bluff (at left) before departing...."
"...After the brief encounter near the river, Custer's two companies retreat up the ravine known as Deep Coulee. The remainder of Custer's command skirmishes with warriors on the high ridge. Seizing the initiative, Crow King, Gall and Two Moons lead warriors in pursuit of the retreating soldiers.
"...Deep Ravine was the scene of heavy fighting. As Sgt Kanipe [delivered Custer's first order to pack train to come quickly bringing ammunition] recalled: "I went along the line of dead bodies toward the river and riding along the edge of the deep gulley about 2,000 feet from where the monument now stands, I counted 28 bodies in the gulch..."
The story from the Little Bighorn Battlefield official handbook says that it's a mystery why no headstones were placed along Deep Ravine marking where soldiers died and that no remains have ever been found. But I believe the men who died there did leave proof behind of their existence. I believe that the flag found by a sergeant in the burial party came from under the body of one of the men who died in Deep Coulee. It was the only surviving flag of the five company flags that flew with Custer that day. Where the actual bodies of the men disappeared to is a mystery none of us will know the answer to until, as Custer says, "the great day of final review".
"...Made of silk, measuring 33 inches by 27 inches, frayed, torn and with bloodstains, the Only U.S. flag not captured or lost during the Battle of Little Bighorn was found by Sgt Ferdinand Culbertson while on burial duty. The other flags were believed captured by the victorious Indians. As Custer's Last Flag it's a piece of Americana. The Detroit Institute of Arts paid $54 for it in 1895 but kept it hidden from public view. When in possession of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the flag was poorly cared for and is now in horrible condition --"almost dust". Sealed in a custom-made plexiglass case by the Detroit museum since its return from the Park Service in 1982, the flag has several holes and the red of some its stripes has run into the white stripes. Its once-sharp swallow tail tips are now tattered and torn. The flag's also missing a star and a section of striping about 9 inches wide and 6 inches high -- apparently cut away as souvenirs."
"...After separate skirmishing Custer's commands reunite here. Company L under Lt James Calhoun skirmishes here with Gall, Crow King, Two Moons and other warriors. From here these soldiers could have attracted Captain Benteen's column and the pack train. A Lakota and Cheyenne charge overruns this hilltop and stampedes Cavalry horses held in the ravine."
"...The remnants of Custer's command gathered on the western slope of Battle Ridge at its northern end, just below the present monument. They shot their horses for breastworks and fought the 'last stand' of history and legend...Lt Edward Godfrey counted 42 men here behind a barricade of 39 dead horses. One of the bodies was Custer's. Next to him lay his brother Tom, mutilated almost beyond recognition... Among the headstones in this group are those of George, Tom and Boston Custer as well his other officers. On the top of the hill stands the monument erected in 1881."
It was a profoundly eerie and awestriking moment seeing the tall granite monument -- the personification of Custer -- looming majestically ahead as the road climbed up and then circled around the back of Last Stand Hill. We drove down to the entrance-gate, parked and got out of the car to walk up the infamous hill. From the top of the hill was a panoramic view of the Little Big Horn valley from south to north of the village from where Custer planned to cross the river and attack.
I stood in front of the fenced-in graveyard where the headstones of Custer, and the men who were with him on the hill, mark the places where they died. Over my left shoulder you can just barely see the black inscription of Custer's headstone. And closely beside Custer you can see brother Tom's headstone. Blessedly, so they weren't alone, they left this realm for the afterlife, together. Standing straight, to the best of my ability, I saluted and said a prayer for Custer and all his men. I'd come a long way to pay homage to Custer and will cherish this experience forever.
"The remains of about 220 soldiers, scouts and civilians are buried around the base of this memorial.
The white marble headstones scattered over the battlefield
denote where the slain troopers were found and originally buried.
In 1881 they were reinterred in a single grave on this site.
The officers remains were removed in 1877 to various cemetaries throughout the country.
General Custer was buried at West Point."
Walking down from Last Stand Hill we followed the path to the Custer National Cemetery. "Nearly 5,000 soldiers are buried here. Originally established to commemorate the dead of the Custer battle, it was later expanded to receive veterans of all wars... Internments include soldiers from the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, the Korean War and Vietnam War. Major Reno, moved from elsewhere in 1973 is also buried here. The Custer National Cemetery has been officially closed since 1977."
"To the Officers and Soldiers Killed or Who Died of Wounds Received in Action
in the Territory of Montana While Clearing the District of the Yellowstone of Hostile Indians"
The muffled drums sad roll has beat
The soldiers last tattoo
No more on life's parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few
After leaving the Little Big Horn Battlefield we hit the highway going east toward the Crow's Nest from whence Custer saw his last sunrise.
...cont'd at 6.CUSTER ON BOZEMAN & DEADWOOD
1.JOURNEY TO CUSTER'S LITTLE BIG HORN
2.CUSTER ALT-HISTORY BIG HORN VICTORY
3.LAST WORD ON CUSTER FROM FRONT
4.CUSTER MASSACRE AT GATES OF HELL
5.HOMAGE TO CUSTER AT LAST STAND
6.CUSTER ON BOZEMAN & DEADWOOD
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