Being a historian and never-ending student of history, the Battle of Little Bighorn always fascinated me. One of the very first things I ever got published in the Ann Arbor Wargamer newsletter was a review of the Battleline Game of Custer’s Last Stand. Last week was the anniversary of the battle (25 June 1876) so I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on the battle.
This battle stuck in the public psyche for a few reasons. While Custer and the 7th Cavalry were massacred on the 25 of June, word really didn’t reach the newspapers until around 4 July 1876, the centennial of America’s independence. Amidst the celebrations came word of an inglorious defeat of one of our nation’s young heroes – George Armstrong Custer. The stunning defeat and details of the slaughter of the men iconized Custer at the very moment when America was celebrating.
Custer had been our youngest general in the American Civil War. He was a dashing and often reckless cavalryman who knew how to work the press to his advantage. He had fallen into disfavor in the postwar period and sent out west to either wither away or distinguish himself.
The summer campaign against the Indians the summer of 1876 was designed to be brutal and subjugating. Make no qualm about it – when Custer rode into the Little Bighorn Valley it was not to negotiate with the tribes gathered there, it was to do battle. He either woefully underestimated the number of the Indians there, or outright ignored his scout’s (there’s validity in both accounts).
Custer’s plan of attack was not entirely unsound given his lack of enemy intelligence. He sent one portion of his command down to the Rosebud River to draw the attention of the Indians, then swept along the hills to hit them in what he thought was their rear or flank. The problem was he did not factor in that his enemy was present in such large numbers that his diversionary force failed to hold their ground, fighting a vicious battle to extract themselves. This left Custer to engage with the rest of the 7th Cavalry companies under his command against a fully alerted and armed Indian force.
These were not the Hollywood variety of Indians. Sure bows and arrows were used, but many were as well armed (or better) than the Cavalry. The lack of trees or other cover meant that the cavalrymen were devoid of protection on exposed hills in the blazing hot sun. In this battle of simple attrition, Custer’s force struggled to stay alive as they were surrounded and whittled away.
The concept of Custer’s epic “last stand” where he is one of the last men standing, guns a’blazing, really was a myth that Libby Custer, his wife perpetuated. Libby was George’s press agent and spent her remaining years carefully crafting her husband’s place in history. The image of Custer as a victim was one the newspapers endorsed, despite the fact that the US Army was clearly the aggressor. The myth was solidified when Anheuser Bush printed a wonderful lithograph of Custer’s Last Stand for bars around the nation. That cemented the image in many of our minds that somehow Colonel Custer remained alone, surrounded by his dead command and the enemy, fighting to the last. In reality, new battlefield evidence has postulated that at least a few stragglers attempted to flee, only to but cut down in a nearby creek bed.
The battle always draws attention because of the “what if?” factors. Custer had access to Gatling Guns – would they have swayed the battle and averted disaster? There are a half dozen such scenarios that are often played out, all with the supposition that somehow the 7th Cavalry might survive the fighting. I have to admit, these are tantalizing to explore.
The final bit of the mystique of the battle is the question as to whether any of the cavalrymen who were there survived. Movies like Little Big Man and some recent books seem to feed off of this need. We all want there to be a survivor that could tell the details of what happened at the end…mostly because written Indian accounts are sparse and rare. It is somehow exciting to think that someone may have made it out of that slaughter…a romantic notion at best.
One-hundred-and-twenty-seven years later, the fighting at Little Big Horn still holds a strange grasp on us.