PILGRIMAGE TO CUSTER
by Jackie Jura, 2023
2.CUSTER ALT-HISTORY BIG HORN VICTORY
...cont'd from 1.JOURNEY TO CUSTER'S LITTLE BIG HORN
On Saturday, June 24th, 2016 we arrived early at the Little Big Horn river valley -- what Indians call "the greasy grass". After securing a spot in the grandstands we explored the replica Cavalry Camp including Custer's and the Sutler's tent and the Indian pony herd.
In front of Custer's headquarters there are always two flags flying -- the US-army Stars (34) & Stripes and Custer's personal guidon -- a red-over-blue swallow-tailed silk with white crossed sabers. It was first created by his wife Libbie during the Civil War. Libbie also made the blue shirts Custer and his brother Tom were wearing. The guidon was always carried by a sergeant who rode directly behind Custer. Each of the 12 7th-Cavalry companies carried a US Army flag made of swallow-tailed silk to easily flap in the breeze. The duty of the flag-bearer was to defend to the death the flag from being dropped or captured by the enemy.
Then it was down to the sacred waters of the Little Big Horn. I waded into the river and said a prayer to Custer and his brave men of the 7th Cavalry who "had sold their lives dearly" here 140 years ago. I reached down into the sandy bottom and pulled out a handful of soft smooth rocks -- tangible keepsakes for my Custer shelf.
When it was time for the show to begin we returned to the grandstands and took our place near the top for the best view and chance for photos. Watching the re-enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn, while at water's edge of that very Little Big Horn, was thrilling but also confusing. I knew, from extensive study, that the cavalry from Custer's battalion of 5 companies had never made it across the river -- and yet here they were playing it out as though they had fought on the Greasy Grass. It occured to me much later -- when laying out all the photos -- that what we were seeing was not a RE-enactment, but an ENactment of the battle as it COULD have been and WOULD have been if Custer's tactical plan had been followed. It would have been a Custer victory with the village surrounded and women and children taken as hostages and thus the warriors unable to wage war on that ground.
After Reno had crossed the Little Big Horn and into the valley to commence his charge Custer rode north along the ridge parallel to the river below. From the top of a hill Custer was seen by Reno's men waving his white hat in encouragement of the charge which they'd commenced -- never imagining it would stop dead in its tracks soon after.
The photo above represents, symbolically, Reno's cavalry charging unopposed into the village from the right, the south. They'd caught the warriors "napping" after whooping it up the night before. And all the Indian horsepower was parked on the bluff behind the village. It was the dust from that pony herd that Custer had seen from 13 miles away at dawn, and having finally located the village, he planned the attack.
Next you see Custer's cavalry attacking from the left, ie the north, and from the middle and then merging with Reno's cavalry coming from the right, ie the south.
The photo above shows the three battalions of the 7th Cavalry merged across the village now completely contained between the river and the bluffs behind the village.
That was the end of the ENactment of the battle by the blue coats -- which never really happened. Next are photos of the REenactment of the battle by the Indians -- as it really played out. But first a quick overview to put action into perpsective. The maps are scanned from the INDIAN WARS JOURNAL and OFFICIAL NATIONAL PARKS HANDBOOK.
Custer's ultimate goal, in all his Indian campaigns, was to force the hostile Indians -- with as little loss of life as possible on all sides -- to throw down their weapons and go into the reservation. Custer's so-called "dividing his forces" plan is what had worked at the Battle of Washita in 1868 -- the USA's greatest Indian Plains War victory. And in Custer's Civil War battles this "front and flank" of the enemy had made him the most successful and renowned -- and youngest -- General of all time. Custer was in the first and last battles of the Civil War -- from July 1861 at Bull Run to April 1865 at Appomotox. It was to Custer the white-flag of Confederate surrender was handed and Custer witnessed top Generals Grant and Lee signing the peace agreement ending that war.
In a nutshell -- Custer's battle plan was to attack the village on 3 fronts -- first: Benteen with 3 companies (125 troopers) riding west up the ridges to get a view of the south river to see if there was another village there (like there had been at Washita) and if so attack it, and if not to return and follow Custer's trail -- second: Reno with 3 companies (140 troopers) to cross the Little Big Horn and charge the lower end of the village from the south -- third: Custer with 5 companies (210 troopers) will attack the village from the center and at the upper end of the village from the north. The pack train under McDougal, with 125 men, would follow Custer's trail to supply ammunition.
In the diorama map above, on the left, I've yellow-highlighted and traced in black the route of Custer's flanking-plan if Reno and Benteen had followed orders. The diorama on the right shows what DID happen. The Indians did to Custer what Custer intended to do to them -- ie they flanked and surrounded the cavalry. But the Indians were only successful in this because evil conspirators Reno and Benteen had done nothing but stand on their hill watching the dust cloud and listening to the sound of the guns. Below are my photos of the REenactment as it really did happen that day:
The photo above shows Reno's cavalry in a skirmish line having insanely stopped the charge -- which would have cut through the few mounted Indians available to oppose it -- and dismounted. In the meantime the Indians had time to get their horses from the bluff and chase Reno's retreating blue coats across the river and up the hills -- shooting at, tomahawking and scalping any who fell. It was a complete rout with Reno screaming hysterically 'every man for himself' and leading "from the front" in escape. Some of Reno's cavalry, who lost their horses or were trying to take a stand, hid in the trees along the riverbank and witnessed hundreds of Indians in the attack.
But then, all of a sudden, the Indians stopped their attack and turned their horses back toward the village. That's because Custer's cavalry was charging down the ravine in the centre -- in support of Reno's charge as was the plan -- and all Indians were required to confront them. In the photos above you see Indians by the hundreds coming from the left and right -- converging on the center, and chasing Custer's desperately fighting cavalry back up into the hills.
After the Indians had massacred Custer's abandoned command -- taking "as long as a hungry man to eat a meal", according to Sitting Bull -- the blood-crazed warriors rode jubiantly back to the Greasy Grass waving USA flags and Custer's colors. The women, children and old men did their usual butchering duty mutilating the bodies and stripping and stealing the clothes, jewellry, money, personal photos and letters. That night the Indians celebrated with a scalp dance around the fires, torturing the captives. Their howls could be heard into the wee hours by Reno, Benteen, McDougal and their 300-plus men holed up on the ridge across the river.
The only creature found alive on the battlefield, dying from wounds in the bottom of a gully, was a cavalry horse from Custer's battalion -- Comanche. There he is, in the photo above, standing all alone on the Greasy Grass. If you zoom in closely you'll see an Indian scalping a naked soldier then running away jubiantly waving the blue coat over his head.
Here's the story of Comanche as told by the University of Kansas Natural History Museum:
"...On June 25, 1876 the five companies of the US 7th Cavalry under the command of General George Armstrong Custer were annihilated by a force of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The following day, troops from the remaining companies of the 7th Cavalry discovered the carnage -- 210 men lay dead, including their commander, along with dozens of horses. While no US Army soldier survived the engagement, one horse was found alive on the battlefield. The horse, named Comanche, had belonged to Captain Myles Keough, and had suffered no less than seven bullet wounds during the battle. Though he was heralded as the lone survivor of the battle, many historians believe that as many as 100 horses survived and were either captured or bolted. After the battle, Comanche was transported to Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, and he was officially retired from service in April 1878. As part of his retirement, the commanding officer of the fort ordered that "a special and comfortable stall is fitted up for him, and he will not be ridden by any person whatever, under any circumstances nor will he be put to any kind of work". The horse was also given the honorary title of "second in command" of the 7th Cavalry, and he lived out the rest of his days as a company mascot. When he died in 1890, he was the first of only two horses in American history ever given a funeral with full military honors. He was not buried, however; instead, his body was sent to the University of Kansas to be stuffed and put on display, where he resides today in the university's Natural History Museum. In 2005, Comanche was moved to a new exhibit on the museum's fourth floor after undergoing a complete restoration..."
watch Comanche, by Johnny Horton listen
"...The symbol of bravery at the Little Big Horn,
poor old Comanche you're battle-scarred and torn..."
On June 27th, two days after the battle, the forces of Colonel Gibbon and General Terry arrived at the Greasy Grass where the now deserted village used to be -- across from the battlefield of Custer's Last Stand. They'd been told of the massacre and been directed there by Custer's Crow scout, Curly who'd escaped by disguising himself as a Sioux. The high command arranged for the identification and burial of the bodies, most of which were so bloated and tortured as to be unrecognizable.
When the 7th Cavalry ENactment and the Indian REenactment was over, and the actors had left the scene, we climbed down from the grandstands and mingled with impersonators who were making themselves available for photos and to chat.
I warily approached a savage-looking warrior on his pony and politely asked if I could snap his photo. I couldn't help but notice what appeared to be two scalps hanging from a coup stick.
From The Handbook of Indian Tribes here's a description: "...The practice of scalping originated among certain Native American tribes. This horrible custom was practiced by these savages alone, and sprang from their own barbarism, for it seems never to have existed in any other nation, not even among nations, who, like them, have never received any idea of civilized life. When a war party has captured one or more prisoners that cannot be taken away, it is the usual custom to kill them by breaking their heads with the blows of a tomahawk. When he has struck two or three blows, the savage quickly seizes his knife, and makes an incision around the hair from the upper part of the forehead to the back of the neck. Then he puts his foot on the shoulder of the victim, whom he has turned over face down, and pulls the hair off with both hands, from back to front. This hasty operation is no sooner finished than the savage fastens the scalp to his belt and goes on his way. Savages always announce their valor by a death cry, when they have taken a scalp... When a savage has taken a scalp, and is not afraid he is being pursued, he stops and scrapes the skin to remove the blood and fibres on it. He makes a hoop of green wood, stretches the skin over it like a tambourine, and puts it in the sun to dry a little. The skin is painted red, and the hair on the outside combed. When prepared, the scalp is fastened to the end of a long stick, and carried on his shoulder in triumph to the village or place where he wants to put it. But as he nears each place on his way, he gives as many cries as he has scalps to announce his arrival and show his bravery. Sometimes as many as 15 scalps are fastened on the same stick. When there are too many for one stick, they decorate several sticks with the scalps...."
It wasn't just physical damage scalping caused but also emotional and psychological terror among the pioneers who needed protecting and the soldiers who were sent to defend them. It's explained well in the book SCALP DANCE, by Thomas Goodrich, published in 1997.
"...Some of the most savage warfare in world history was waged on the American Plains from 1865 to 1879. As white settlers moved west following the Civil War, they found powerful Indian tribes barring the way. When the U.S. Army intervened, a bloody and prolonged conflict ensued... There is William Thompson, a railroad worker who was shot, stabbed, and scalped, yet lived to tell the tale; Fanny Kelly, a young mother who was captured, beaten, and raped repeatedly, but escaped to rejoin her husband... And finally, this tells the story of the outnumbered and often outgunned soldiers and scouts who were forced to wage war 'without favor or hope of reward'... As we got farther into the Indian country, I found that the enthusiasm for the wilds of the West I had gained from Beadle's dime novels gradually left me... My courage had largely oozed out while I listened to the blood-curdling tales the old-timers recited... I found that every other person in the outfit, including our seasoned scouts, was exercising all the wit and caution possible to avoid contact with the noble red man. Instead of looking for trouble and a chance to punish the ravaging Indians, the whole command was trying to get through without a fight...."
watch Please Mister Custer listen
"...There's a red skin waiting out there, fixing to take my hair,
a coward I've been called, cus I don't wanna wind up dead or bald..."
I found Custer together with Fred Gerard, his interpreter and Bloody Knife, his favourite scout and Tom, his brother who I posed with.
Speaking about Tom one time during the Civil War, Custer said it was Tom, not he, who should have been made the General. This wasn't necessarily said jokingly because Custer's younger brother, who'd lied about his age to get into the war, had by the time it was over received TWO medals of honour -- the highest award a soldier can receive. It's best described this way:
"...Just as the Indians valued counting coup as the ultimate test of bravery, a soldier in the Civil War had wanted nothing more than to capture the enemy's flag. In the space of three days, Tom went to extraordinary lengths to capture two Confederate flags. The taking of the first, at Namozine Church on April 3, 1865, was spectacular enough to win him the Medal of Honor, but it was the second, taken at Sayler's Creek that almost got him killed. Tom had just spearheaded a charge that had broken the Confederate line. Up ahead was the color-bearer. Just as Tom seized the flag, the rebel soldier took up his pistol and fired point-blank into Tom's face. The bullet tore through his cheek and exited behind his ear and knocked him backward on his horse. His ripped and powder-blackened face spouting blood, Tom somehow managed to pull himself upright, draw his own pistol, and shoot the color-bearer dead. With flag in hand, he rode back to his brother and crowed, "The damn rebels have shot me, but I've got the flag!" Understandably fearful for Tom's life, Custer ordered him to report to a surgeon, but Tom refused to leave the field until the battle was won. He'd handed the flag to another soldier and was heading back out when Custer placed him under arrest. Soon after, Tom, all of twenty years old, became the only soldier in the Civil War to win two Medals of Honor...."
The impersonator portraying Custer was Steve Alexander who gave me his card. It read, on the front, "Genl. G.A. Custer - U.S.A." and on the back it says, "Foremost Custer Living Historian" with his contact info in Monroe, Michigan -- George's and Libbie's home town where they met in 1862 and were married in 1864. It turns out that Alexander not only lives in Custer's HOMEtown but in his actual HOME having bought the original house several years ago. On his website Alexander posts tours and interviews wherein he channels Custer when speaking and answering questions. Actually, that's something the REAL Custer was planning to do during his next leave from the Army. The publisher of his book MY LIFE ON THE PLAINS, which was a huge bestseller, had asked Custer to go on the lecture-circuit and offered to pay him hundreds of dollars for each show -- more in one day than he made in a month in the Army.
Next I saw WW Cooke riding by and hurried over to tell him how thrilling it was to meet him -- he being a Canadian who'd made his country proud during the Civil and the Indian wars and being one of Custer's closest and most trusted friends and officers. They'd been through thick and thin together over the years and each had come to the rescue of the other on more than one occasion. I asked him if his beard was real and he answered by telling me to touch it -- which I did -- and it was. Then he gave me a shell from one of the bullets fired that day.
Cooke was Custer's adjutant during the battle of Little Big Horn and is famous for writing the last ever order from Custer -- a message written immediately after Custer, from the top of the bluff, spotted the extent of the village and needed reinforcement and ammunition ASAP. The message was delivered by courier on horseback to Benteen while he was lagging behind Custer's trail, not much faster than the pack train, leisurely watering the horses. After receiving the written order to "come on, big village, be quick, bring packs" Benteen, in no rush, caught up to where Reno had escaped to, on the hill, after the retreat from the valley. Benteen handed Reno the message and the two of them conspired together in refusing to send their 300-plus men and the pack-mules to the aid of Custer's 200 men whose guns could be heard distinctlty getting louder and faster.
On the way out of the Greasy Grass grounds, to where our steed was grazing in the parking lot, we bumped into Buffalo Bill Cody. I have a couple of books on Buffalo Bill describing his experiences under Custer as a scout for the US Army and their buffalo hunts together entertaining dignitaries like the son of the Czar of Russia. After Custer's massacre at the Little Big Horn Buffalo Bill left his Wild West travelling circus show and resumed scouting Indians for the Army. He infamously shot and scalped an Indian in revenge yelling "first scalp for Custer".
Here's how it's described in the book CUSTER by Larry McMurty, published in 2012:
"...After the battle the Indians waited to see if there would be an immediate response. None came; late on the second day after the battle the Indians decided to leave. It was feared that, by then, many white soldiers might be coming to the Little Bighorn to avenge Long Hair... The whites, Sitting Bull knew, were a determined people. They would be coming... The public wanted the Indian to be struck a terrible blow, but this didn't happen... One encounter that at least made good copy was Buffalo Bill Cody's taking of the famous "First Scalp for Custer". Cody, at that time pursuing a career on the stage, was way over in the Carolinas when Custer fell, but not for nothing was he a showman. He quickly got himself west and was sent to serve under General Wesley Merritt's command, then operating near Fort Robinson, in Nebraska -- the fort where Crazy Horse was killed. General Merritt was trying to get as many Indians as possible to go into the Red Cloud agency, where they could be peaceably processed. On his first morning in camp...Cody loped off, observed by two soldiers with telescopes, who were supposed to keep him from getting into trouble -- no easy task with Buffalo Bill. There was an abundance of Cheyenne to the north, and one warrior decided to attack Cody -- or he may have hoped to bag two couriers on their way from the fort... The encounter was deadly, and Cody -- despite having his horse step in a hole and go down -- did kill the Cheyenne, who was named Yellow Hair... Cody did scalp the dead Yellow Hair and did hold up the first scalp for Custer -- it turned out to be one of only a few. Cody may not have been a scout of the first rank, but he had done a fair amount of real scouting and he was well aware that lots of Cheyenne would soon be coming down on him...."
After Cody returned to his WILD WEST travelling show -- where hundreds of performers re-enacted historic events in huge tents and stadiums in front of thousands of people -- he incorporated Custer's Last Stand into the program as the spectacular final act which had crowds on their feet screaming with love and adoration for Custer.
In the aftermath of the disaster of Custer's death and the 7th Cavalry loss at the battle of the Little Big Horn accusations were made by witnesses that Reno and Benteen were derelict in their duty by not following Custer's orders and for that reason the battle had been lost. Custer-haters in the government and army, including President Ulysses S Grant, participated in a cover-up of what really happened that goes on to this day. But truth-seekers, including Custer's wife, fellow officers and journalists digging into the story wouldn't let it drop and demanded a Court of Inquiry to clear Custer's name and implicate Reno and Benteen. The Inquiry took place in Chicago in 1879. It was rigged with bribes and false testimony and phony signatures on documents and predictably, in the end, found Reno and Benteen blameless, although "incompetent".
But Custer-defenders never gave up and in 1988 re-opened the case against Reno and Benteen by conducting a military investigation into the 1879 Court of Inquiry. Below are its findings which I, as an armchair juror, agree with completely. The pages are from the beautiful book LITTLE BIG HORN, by Robert Nightengale, published in 1996:
1988 investigation into the injustices of the 1879 Court of Inquiry
THE FOLLOWING FINDINGS SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT:
1. ...Major Marcus Reno was ordered to attack the Indian encampment from the South for the purpose of creating and maintaining a diversionary action that would enable Lieutenant Colonel George Custer to attack the encampment at the center and drive through, with the objective of dividing the Indian forces and forcing a dispersal.
2. ...Major Reno did not carry out his orders and did not apply standard cavalry tactics in the conduct of his attack and subsequent retreat which could have enabled him to succeed in maintaining his position or in remaining in contact with the enemy and thus continuing the diversionary engagement.
3. ...Lieutenant Colonel Custer would have been able, from his position on the ridgeline, to observe the position on the opposite side of the Little Big Horn River in the valley below through which the forces under Major Reno retreated.
4. ...Bloody Knife, who was reported by Sergeant Kanipe to have been with Lieutenant Colonel Custer after the division of forces, subsequently made contact with Major Reno during his retreat from the south end of the Indian encampment, but was then struck in the head by a bullet and died in such a sudden, violent, and horrible manner that Major Reno became greatly demoralized and remained in an incapacitated condition, unable to maintain effective control of the forces under his command.
5.. ...After the retreat to the position now known as Reno Hill, Major Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen and many of the troops under their command became aware that Lieutenant Colonel Custer was attacking into the center of the Indian encampment at a point within reach of their forces.
6. ...After learning of this attack, Captain Weir led an element of forces north to the highest point in the area now known as the Weir Peaks.
7. ...Captain Weir, who died before he could testify, and then Captain Benteen, after he joined Captain Weir on the Weir Peaks, would have been able to observe Lieutenant Colonel Custer, either during Custer's retreat from the Indian encampment or during his deployment on Last Stand Hill, depending upon the time of their respective arrivals on the Weir Peaks.
9. ...Lieutenant Colonel Custer was able to see men on the Weir Peaks from his position on Last Stand Hill and he ordered his men to extend south along the ridgeline running from Last Stand Hill toward the Weir Peaks in the belief that the men on the Weir Peaks were there to support him and would attack to the north.
10. ...Seeing Lieutenant Colonel Custer on Last Stand Hill, Captain Benteen, the ranking officer in charge at the scene, did not go to his aid and retreated with all his men back to Reno Hill.
11. ...In the subsequent investigation held by the Court of Inquiry, Major Reno, Captain Benteen, and those supporting them presented false testimony and altered documentary evidence in support of their claims that they were not aware of the location of Lieutenant Colonel Custer's forces and were unable to come to his aid.
12. ...In the conduct of the Battle of the Little Big Horn Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer followed accepted military doctrine and applied sound tactics and did not violate his orders.
~ end quoting from Little Big Horn by Nightengale ~
Custer's West Point friend Thomas Rosser, who was a General in the Civil War on the Confederate side -- and who was top railroad engineer during Custer's 1873 Yellowstone Expedition (about which I wrote in the previous chapter) -- came to Custer's defense just 4 days after the massacre in Montana hit the news on July 4, 1876. Rosser wrote a letter to the St Paul Pioneer Press which was published on July 8, 1876. The bottom-line of Rosser's letter was that Custer would have won the battle if Reno and Benteen and their 300+ soldiers had joined the fight instead of cowering on the hill.
"...It is quite evident that it was expected, if not expressed, that Custer should attack the savages wherever found, and as to the manner of attack, of course that was left to the discretion and judgment of General Custer... I think it certain that General Custer would have succeeded had Reno with all the reserve of 7 companies passed through and joined Custer after the first repulse.... Instead of an effort being made by Reno for such a junction, as soon as he encountered heavy resistance, he took refuge in the hills and abandoned Custer and his gallant comrades to their fate....
"It was expected when the expedition was sent out that Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were to do all the fighting, and superbly did a portion of them do it. As a soldier, I would sooner today lie in the grave of General Custer and his gallant comrades alone in that distant wilderness, that when the last trumpet sounds, I could rise to judgment from my part of duty, than to live in the place of the survivors of the siege on the hills.
"I knew General Custer well; have known him intimately from boyhood, and, being on opposite sides during the late War, we often met and measured strength on the fields of Virginia, and I can truly say now that I never met a more enterprising, gallant or dangerous an enemy during those four years of terrible war..."
~ end quoting from Little Big Horn by Nightengale ~
After the exhilerating day at the Greasy Grass re-enactment of the battle 140 years ago we drove back to Hardin and checked into a motel for the night to be well rested for the adventure tomorow.
...cont'd at 3.LAST WORD ON CUSTER FROM FRONT
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
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~