Tuesday, October 22, 2019

George A. Custer & The Battle of the Little Bighorn

In my last post, I talked about General George C. Crook. Among other things, you heard about what happened to his large column of troops at the Battle of the Rosebud. Though engaged by a large force of Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, the Indians did not force Crook's column to withdraw. The fact that his men were low on ammo forced General Crook to withdraw his men and head for Goose Creek where his supply wagons were stationed.

His withdraw to resupply his men, and the need to tend to his wounded, forced a change in the overall battle plan against the Indians in that campaign. The battle of the Rosebud changed things. Whereas he was supposed to have linked up with General Terry's and General Gibbon's forces to take on the Indians at the Little Bighorn, Crook would not be apart of that fight. 

On June 17th,1876, while General Crook moved northward to the Rosebud for his inevitable collision with the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, General Terry and General Gibbon had by then joined forces on the Yellowstone River at its confluence with the Powder River. That was where a supply base was established to offload needed supplies from the river steamer  S.S. Far West. In reality, on June 17th, neither Generals Terry or Gibbon knew that General Crook had been blocked by a large force of over 4,000 Indians about 80 miles or so south of their position.

That was the case, even though General Terry sent Maj. Marcus A. Reno with six companies out to reconnoiter the Powder, across the Tongue Rive. Reno was tasked with going into the valley of the Rosebud to reconnoiter the area. It was there on that late afternoon of June 17th, on the same day that General Crooks column had come under attack and withdrew, that Major Reno found a fresh trail leading west out of the valley and across the Wolf Mountains in the direction of the Little Bighorn.

Because Reno was unaware of what really took place earlier that day, he was subsequently unable to inform his superiors that General Crook had been in the Rosebud Valley. While many of us take communication with others for granted, folks today may be unaware of the communication problems that existed at the time. It was weeks later that General Terry would learn why General Crook had to change the plan and did not link up with him. It would be then that Terry would learn about what took place at the battle of the Rosebud. It would also be then that Crook learns of Custer's fate at the Little Bighorn.

It should be noted that the Battle of the Rosebud took place more than 30 miles south of where the Battle of the Little Bighorn would take place eight days later.

On June 21st, General Terry met General Gibbon with his staff to hold a council of war meeting aboard the steamer S.S. Far West to outline his plan of attack. The plan called for Lt.Col. Custer's 7th Cavalry to move south down the Rosebud River, cross the Wolf Mountains, and enter the Little Bighorn Valley from the south. General Gibbon's forces joined by General Terry's would ascend the Bighorn River and its tributary, the Little Bighorn, from the north. That would trap the Indians between the two forces. At least that was the plan.

On June 22nd, General Terry sent out Lt.Col. Custer and the 7th Cavalry. The success of Terry's battle plan, as with any military operation, depended upon everyone doing what they are supposed to do. In the case of Lt.Col. Custer, his failure to do just that resulted in his getting his entire command wiped out. How? He didn't wait until supporting elements were in place. Instead of waiting until everyone was in place, Custer moved at least a day early for the co-operative action envisioned in Terry's plan. Custer premature advance was not part of the plan.

George Armstrong Custer is remembered as one of the most famous and controversial figures in American history for a reason. He started out breaking rules while attending West Point. In fact, he received 726 demerits in his four years there. And that, well that's one of the highest ever received in the history of West Point. He actually graduated last in his class at West Point, the class of 1861.

After graduation, he spent the first part of the Civil War as a dispatch courier and staff officer. Then, just a few days before the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, he was promoted from captain to regular army "brevet" major. For you who have written to ask me about those who held a "brevet" rank, the "brevet" system was a former type of military commission conferred for outstanding service, or out of necessity and need to replace an officer, by which an officer was promoted to a higher rank without the corresponding pay. So the person getting the promotion would get the rank and responsibility, but not the pay that should go along with that position.

While at Gettysburg, his commanding officer was killed during an attack on Confederate Brigadier General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. Custer took command and led a saber charge. No one said he wasn't fearless and bold. In that skirmish, his unit helped to defeat General Stuart's attempt to make a cavalry strike behind Union lines on the 3rd day of the battle. This was a huge win during the overall battle and was looked upon a contributing to the Union victory there.

Custer received a brevet promotion to Brigadier General on June 29, 1863. As a Brigadier General of Volunteers, and being from Michigan, he was given command of the Michigan "Wolverine" Cavalry. Some called him "the Boy General." Right after that, he actually go rid of his standard-issue cavalry jacket and trousers, and replaced them with a "loose-fitting velvet coat that had golden braids adorning its sleeves, and velvet pants he tucked into knee-length top boots. He had a silver star sewn onto each lapel of a light-blue, broad-collared Navy-issue shirt. To complete the refashioning, he looped a scarlet cravat about his neck and donned a black hat with a lower crown and wider brim than those of standard-issue hats." By then, he had grown his blonde hair to his shoulders. This was all for the image that Custer wanted to convey to the newspapers. 

Because Custer was seen as reckless and premature in his actions, his brigade's losses were the highest of any Union cavalry brigade at Gettysburg. Because of that fact, there is a large monument which was dedicated to his brigade on the East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg.

Custer is known to have participated in nearly every cavalry action in Virginia after Gettysburg. It's said that he was bold, and sometime was actually brilliant in his reading the situation correctly. His fault was his vanity. He was neither humble nor shy when it came to seeking publicity for himself and his action. In fact, he was known to search for newspaper correspondents to give them gloriously exaggerated stories of his victories. There is no doubt that he loved to see his name in the papers.

As for appearing on the cover of Harper's Weekly magazine, he did in fact appear on the cover of that magazine after he sought recognition for participating in the burning of the South. He was said to be very proud of that. As for the rest of the Civil War, well believe it or not, he was present at General Robert E. Lee's surrender.

He ended the war at the rank of brevet Major General. After the war, he is said to have toyed with the notion of running for political office as a candidate for Congress from his home state of Michigan. It was actually a surprise to many that he didn't since he was known to have had some very lofty ambitions. Some say which included wanting to be president. In the end, though he saw himself as a celeb of sorts, he reluctantly refused the offers to enter politics and stayed in the Army after the war.

He was appointed a Lieutenant Colonel of the 7th Cavalry when the Regular Army reorganized in 1866. With that, he found himself fighting in a number of campaigns in the Indian Wars. Of course there was the incident in 1867 that resulted his receiving a Court Martial in which he was convicted of desertion and mistreatment of soldiers.

In July of 1867, while stationed at Fort Wallace, he took it upon himself to take troops and leave. Some say it was to go for supplies. Some say he left to see a women. Either way it was against orders and some troops died while away.

On August 7, General in Chief of the U.S. Army Ulysses S. Grant ordered Custer to be tried by a General Court-Martial. It was held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, that September. In fact, by September 16th, Custer was charged with being "absence without leave" from his command and for  specifications that fell under "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline." Two of the charge specifications claimed that he had marched his men "upon private business" and that he had used two ambulances and four mules to travel the last leg of the journey to his destination which was Fort Harker. All without proper authority from his superiors.

Two of his men had been killed by Indians who had attacked a detachment, Custer neglected to pursue the Indians or to recover and bury the bodies of those troops -- more concerned about his private business. Another specification had to do with Custer ordering the execution of three known deserters. All without conducting any trial. Another issue was Charles Johnson, who was a wounded deserter who died after Custer stopped a doctor from administering medical treatment. 

Custer pleaded not guilty to all charges. The prosecution called witness after witness, who supported the specifications of the charges. While some testimony actually helped Custer's defense team, the trial had a few surprises. One surprise was Custer's own brother, Lt. Thomas Custer, who himself was a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor for bravery during the Civil War. He was a member of his brother's staff, and he testified that his brother George said, "I want you to get on your horse and go after those deserters and shoot them down." 

Of course George Custer's defense was that his superiors authorized killing deserters. Though he didn't take the stand, he submitted a long statement that defended and justified his action against the deserters by stating that, after these three men were shot, "Not a single desertion took place from that time so long as I remained with command."

On October 11, 1867, the Army found Custer guilty on five of the charges and specifications. He was immediately sentenced to be suspended from his rank and command for one year and to forfeit his pay for the same period. And no, though he tried, he could not get his sentence set aside. But as was the case with Custer, he and his wife lived well after the verdict. This was due to the fact that his wife's uncle was Major General Philip Sheridan who allowed Custer and his wife use of his suite of rooms at Fort Leavenworth. It's said they lived there in comfort.

To his surprise, on January 2th, 1868, Custer was served with a warrant from the state of Kansas which charged him with the murder of Charles Johnson who was the deserter who died. Then on January 18th, a judge found that the evidence did not support the charge. 

After that, Custer and his wife moved to a home in Michigan. Then in a September of 1868, ten months into his punishment, his wife's uncle General Philip Sheridan pulled some strings to shorten Custer's suspension and had him returned to duty. By September 30th, he was back in command of the 7th Cavalry.

In November of 1868, he massacred an entire Cheyenne village at the Battle of Washita River.  In the Battle of Washita River, which was not much of a battle, Custer attacked a band of peaceful Cheyenne Indians whose Chief Black Kettle was a friend to the United States. In fact, the commander of Fort Cobb had guaranteed them safety. There was even a white flag flying from one of the main lodges which was a sign that the tribe avoided conflict. 

On November 26th, Custer located a large village of Cheyenne encamped near the Washita River, just outside of present-day Cheyenne, Oklahoma. He didn't even bother to identify the village as friend or foe. He did not attempt to identify which group of Cheyenne was in the village, or to make even a cursory reconnaissance of the situation. 

During the night, Custer had the exits of the village sealed off and the village surrounded. And if that wasn't bad enough, believe it or not, he actually brought the regimental band to the site of the attack. Why the band? Well, as insane as it sounds, at dawn, Custer told the band to play "Garry Owen." The 7th Cavalry has adopted the Irish drinking song as their unit's song.

The band started playing "Garry Owen" which signaled for four columns of troops to draw sabers and charge the sleeping village. Surprised and outnumbered, all sorts of innocent Cheyenne were killed. Though a few warriors managed to make a run for the trees and return fire, within no time the United States Army under George Armstrong Custer had killed Chief Black Kettle and slaughtered over 100 Cheyenne. Yes, all to the tune of "Garry Owen," women, infant children, the elderly, and the disabled were massacred. The viciousness of what took place there persuaded many Cheyenne to move to the reservation. 

As shocking as it is to us today, newspapers at the time celebrated the massacre as "the first substantial American victory in the Indian Wars." The papers called Custer a hero. They used the so-called "Battle of the Washita" to promote Custer as someone necessary when dealing with the "Indian problem." 

Yes, his exploits against the Plain Indians were romanticized, glamorized, and exaggerated by the newspapers in the East. And Custer, well he became a legend in his own time. He really did. In fact, to capitalize on his celebrity status, he wrote a number of newspaper articles on the politics of dealing with what he called "savages." And in 1874, he published a book titled "My Life on the Plains."

Then in 1875, because of his celebrity status, Custer was used by the political opposition to President Grant. The Democrat-controlled House invited Custer to testify in Washington for the impeachment of Secretary of War William W. Belknap. Belknap became a political target because he removed troops from the Black Hills earlier that year. That was right after gold was discovered.

The Army had protected the area from white settlers as part of a treaty with the Lakota Sioux. The withdrawal of troops allowed American settlers to flood into the Black Hills during that gold rush. Some say President Grant, Secretary of War Belknap, and others in Grant's administration knew about secretly violating the treaty, but no one was able to prove that. 

As for the Battle of the Little Big Horn

On June 25th, 1876, Custer's 7th Cavalry crossed the Wolf Mountains and moved into the valley of the Little Bighorn. Custer was confident of his capability to handle whatever he ran up against. He was convinced in the invincibility of the 7th Cavalry. And he was convinced that the Indians would follow their usual practice of scattering if they saw such a force as that of the 7th Cavalry descending on them. I believe he thought this was going to be another Washita village that they would massacre.

Little did he know that he was descending upon one of the largest concentrations of Plains Indians ever assembled. It is believed that there was as many as 12,000 Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, with between 3,000 and 4,000 warriors in that village. All under such leaders as Chief Crazy Horse, Chief Sitting Bull, Chief Gall, Chief Crow King, Chief Lame Deer, Chief Hump, and Chief Two Moon. While the figure of how many were in that Indian encampment have been downplayed to reflect only 9,000 Indians in that village with 4,000 to 5,000 warriors, that's still a hundred times the number of men versus what Custer was taking with him into that fight.

Remember, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's battalion had about 225 men. Under his command was Capt. Thomas Custer's Company C, First Lt. Algernon Smith's Company E, Capt. George Yates' Company F, Capt. Myles Keogh's Company I, and First Lt. James Calhoun's Company L. Major Marcus A. Reno's battalion had 140 men. Under his command was Capt. Myles Moylan's Company A, First Lt. Donald McIntosh's Company G, and Capt. Thomas French's Company M. Capt. Frederick W. Benteen's battalion had 125 men. In his battalion was Capt. Thomas Weir's Company D, Capt. Benteen himself commanded Company H, and First Lt. Edward Settle Godfrey's Company K.

On the Sunday morning, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer learned the location of the Sioux village from his Crow, Arikara, and Osage scouts. Besides Charley Reynolds and Isaiah Dorman, who was once a slave, Custer had 33 Indian scouts attached to the 7th Cavalry. Custer's Crow scouts told him it was the largest native village that they had ever seen. As far as taking their reconnaissance into consideration, he didn't believe them when they reported finding a village of over a thousand lodges. He was convinced that they were either lying or wrong.

In fact, at 10 o'cloak that morning, Custer himself went to what became known as Distant Peak Crows Nest. It was from that position that he saw the village below. The size of the village did not deter him as he subsequently pushed on.

It was about noon when Custer’s men entered the Little Bighorn Valley. We know this because it was about noon at what became known as Reno's Creek that Custer divided his command into three fighting groups. He sent Captain Benteen with 140 soldiers and Major Reno with 125 soldiers in different directions. Benteen with three companies was sent to scout out to the left of the command. The remaining 227 soldiers with Custer would charge straight into the village. With five companies, Custer moved off to the right.

Major Reno was instructed to cross the river and charge the Indian camp. Reno's Valley Fight was what they later called his attack on the village. He attacked the village from the south at 2:30 in the afternoon. He was met with hordes of warriors in a counter attack. Quickly, Reno retreated to the woods and then retreated across the river to form a hilltop defense. Soon after, Reno and his men are  joined by Benteen and his men. Together they will be there defending their lives until the next afternoon when the Indians finally withdraw.

It should be noted that while the Indians had been chiefly absorbed on the Custer section of the field, the pack train and its escorting company had moved up and into a defensive perimeter with Reno and Benteen. At one point they did make an attempt to move in force in Custer's direction, but it failed. And frankly, they had no idea where Custer and his men were.

As for Custer, he is on Sharpshooter Ridge and observes the village. He orders Benteen to bring up supplies. After Custer's defeat, the Indians use that spot to pour fire onto Reno and Benteen's position. Reno defensive position was reoccupied and remained under attack until dark of the 25th and on through daylight hours of the 26th. The siege was finally lifted with the arrival of the Terry-Gibbon column on June 27th.

As for Lt'Col. Custer, after leaving Cedar Coulee, he descends to the Little Bighorn River. The area that he had to cross is known as Medicine Tail Coulee. The Indians who are still preoccupied with attacking Reno and Benteen, now realize Custer is advancing on their village.

In the village, word quickly spreads of the impending attack. Sitting Bull rallies the warriors and orders the women and children to safety. He does this while Crazy Horse readies a large force of warriors to meet the attackers head on. Custer doesn't know what he's walking into. This is not Washita. It is a case of karma.

Some say Custer wanted to capture the women, children, the elderly, and the disabled in the village to use them as hostages to convince the warriors to surrender. Frankly, since he demonstrated previously at the Battle of the Washita that he ordered the killing of non-combatants there, I don't believe he had a desire to take hostages and use them as pawns against the warriors. Also, there is something else, he expected a small group of warriors to be on hand there that day. The reason that he believed that was the case had to do with the reservation's Indian agent who reported only a few hundred actual warriors had left the reservation. Custer didn't know that most of those there that day were not reservation Indians.

Medicine Tail Coulee is where Custer's men first engaged the Indians. As he made his way to the village, Custer sends a dispatch rider to the rear to hurry the pack train and its one-company escort forward. Shortly after that, he dispatched trumpeter John Martin with a last message to Benteen informing him that a "Big village lay ahead" and to "Be quick, Bring packs." That dispatch rider would be the last person to see Custer and the others alive.

Medicine Tail Ford is where Custer's Company E and F make there way to the village. Indians quickly force them out and up to battle ridge. Troops are pushed up Greasy Grass Ridge and up Calhoun Hill. It was here that many of those troops are dismounted and afoot. The Indians take the opportunity to stampede off their horses.

The Indians overrun the defenders on Calhoun Hill and the troops of Company I under Capt. Keogh attempt to retreat up to Last Stand Hill. They are cut down and never make it. In what became known as the Deep Ravine below Last Stand Hill, 28 troopers attempt to flee for their lives but are cut down. On Last Stand Hill, Lt.Col. George Armstrong Custer and about 41 soldiers shoot their horses for breastwork and defend themselves to the end.

Three miles away at a place now designated as Weir Point, Capt. Thomas Weir and a handful of men take up a position at the point at about 5:30 in the afternoon in an attempt to locate Custer. They reported looking north and seeing the Indians overrun Custer's position in a cloud of dust. They are about 3 miles away report that the Indians are shooting toward the ground -- indicating that the soldiers may have already been killed.

When the group of Indians made their way toward Weir, he and his men retreat and return to join Major Reno and Capt. Benteen. Reno’s command had to retreat twice and suffered heavy casualties. Major Reno, Capt. Benteen, and their soldiers remained under siege on that ridge until General Terry arrived with reinforcements on Monday, June 26th.

We know that the Battle of the Little Bighorn lasted more than a couple of hours as some say it did. In fact, looking at from the moment that Major Reno's unit ran into hordes of Indians, not retreating, but advancing on him and his men, to the time when they were finally met with General Terry's reinforcements, it was a long drawn out battle. Certainly not as quick as some say it was.

As for the question of when did Custer and his men finally meet their end at Last Stand Hill, I believe it was probably about 4 o'clock that Sunday afternoon. Remember, Capt. Weir reported that he saw a dust cloud and warriors shooting down from horses by 5:30 that afternoon. Of course, since Custer and all of his men were killed, there were no survivors to explain exactly what happened.

At the site of what is called Last Stand Hill, headstones mark where Custer and about 41 soldiers who were with him met their end. The huge area where it all took place was littered with bodies of both Army soldiers and Indian warriors. Fact is, a lot of men on both sides died that day. There are gravestones stretching for miles there. No, not in just one location as one would think reading about the battle. In fact, there are grave makers were Cheyenne warriors as well as Army soldiers fell almost 5 miles south of Last Stand Hill.

The Custer disaster shocked and angered the nation. The American public wanted blood and revenge for Custer. Whether it was his fault or not, whether he jump the gun and simply went off half-cocked as he was known to do wasn't an issue with the public. They wanted an eye for an eye.

As a result, the Army poured troops into the area. In response to that, the Plains Indians scattered, and some like Sitting Bull's band actually retreated to Canada. But gradually, under increased pressure from the Army, the Indians surrendered and returned to the reservation. Later, on May 6th, 1877, Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief Crazy Horse and his band, seeing the futility of further resistance, would surrender to General George Crook at Red Cloud Agency near Camp Robinson, Nebraska. While most of the American soldiers who died on Last Stand Hill are buried in a mass grave. The officers are later re-interred in other graves around the nation. Custer was re-interred in West Point.

As a last note, some have this belief that all of the Native American tribes celebrated when they heard about Custer's defeat. That's simply not true. The Crow Indians whose land bordered the Lakota Sioux saw themselves as vulnerable and next after the Little Bighorn. Besides traditionally being at war with the Lakota Sioux, they were staunch allies of the United States. That in itself made the Crow a target for others. It is no wonder that it's said that the Crow women cried when they heard about Custer's last stand.

Tom Correa

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