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June 25-26, 1876. The most celebrated military man in America at that time goes down fighting. The images are ingrained into American culture - Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in the center of his men on top of a hill, pistols in hand while fierce Indian warriors circle them on horse back shooting bows and arrows. Is that what really happened?
The Little Bighorn is not exactly off the beaten path and it is certainly not a geocaching oasis. But we are history buffs and it is such a fascinating place that we had to include it. Walking the ground of great and terrible events brings to mind questions like "What would have happened if..." or "Why did they do that?". The Little Bighorn is one of those places. We thought we knew what happened here, but found out we didn't know diddly. After three visits in five years and some lengthy research and cross-checking of our own for the web site, we ended up with more questions than answers. We're not the only ones.
With the possible exception of Gettysburg and the JFK assassination, there has probably been more written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn than any other single event in American history. Even today, it is studied and argued and written about. There are still areas of the battlefield that have never been thoroughly investigated. Yet, despite all the books, oral histories, archaeological digs, scholarly research, written records, Indian lore and other examinations, there is very little consensus on anything - except that Custer got killed that day.
We visit battlefields and historical sites all over the country. They have their little mysteries and controversies at times, but nothing on the scale of the Little Bighorn. It's as volatile today as it was 138 years ago.
The issues are endless - the time and length of the Last Stand, how Custer was killed, how big the Indian encampment was, how many warriors there were, how many men got killed in the Deep Ravine, why did Reno dismount at the river, could Benteen have reinforced in time, did the Indians have rifles, what kind and how many - and the opinions are just as endless.
The two main rival camps appear to have historians on one side and archaeologists on the other. Historians rely heavily on battle records and interviews. Contrary to the belief that "there were no survivors" at the Little Bighorn, historians will tell you that there were thousands of survivors. Over half of Custer's regiment survived and walked the battlefield the next day. There were many Native American survivors and they told their stories in detail in the years following the battle but researchers consistently dismiss those reports as unreliable.
Archaeologists say that those reports do indeed need to be taken with a grain of salt. Native American accounts of the battle tend to exaggerate and embellish personal accomplishments, such as all the braves who claim to have shot Custer. A better research model is to use use artifacts and forensics to detail the battle, basically treating the battlefield like a crime scene using forensic science that didn't exist before.
This conflict really escalated 30 years ago. In August 1983, a prairie fire swept over the entire battlefield, burning away 100 years of ungrazed grass and undergrowth. It revealed a treasure trove of artifacts and remains laying exposed on the charred surface. The National Park Service seized the opportunity to pursue archaeological examinations of the Little Bighorn. There were four of them - 1983, 1984, 1989 and 1994. They produced some results and theories which completely revised the traditional view of the battle. A sample of it can be found in this US News and World Report article from July 24, 2000.
To which the historians reply you can't do reliable forensics on a scene that has been contaminated for over 100 years by exposure to the elements, re-enactments, relic hunters and tourists tromping all over the place.
Well, you get the idea. I guess the archaeologists could counter that last one with "Sounds like the pyramids."
Oral histories can be tainted by personal perspective, language barriers and the skill of the interviewer. They also tend to be embellished. All archaeological sites are contaminated to some degree. Therefore it stands to reason that neither side has completely reliable information. Their respective theories are built on incomplete data and subject to endless and fruitless examination.
One thing you rarely see discussed are the actual conditions of the battlefield and the part that terrain and weather played. Prussian General Carl Von Clausewitz is credited with the concept of the "fog of war" meaning the inherent confusion and unexpected things that influence the outcome of a battle. That was probably a major factor in the chain of events at the Little Bighorn - including real fog. The plains of Montana are dusty and hazy especially in late afternoon. The battle area overlooking the river is steep and winding with deep ravines (called coulees) that can make horses and men disappear from sight, only to seemingly pop up out of nowhere someplace else. Add to that the dust from thousands of horse hooves and the smoke from the weapons and it is very likely that there was a pall over the entire battlefield that prevented direct observation, coordinated action or effective assessment. This obscuring of the battlefield would have affected the 7th Cavalry more than their opponents, who had home field advantage.
Our little website is not going to solve the riddle of the Little Bighorn and we don't want to place ourselves in the middle of this controversy, which gets quite heated at times. Instead, we have chosen to present some noteworthy things we saw there or found in our own research, along with some ideas for visiting the battlefield today.
A Bad Omen?
When Custer took the 7th Cavalry into the Little Bighorn Valley, he had been in the regiment for almost 10 years. The war against the Plains Indians was in full swing during that decade and the man in charge of carrying it out was General Phillip Sheridan. An aggressive and ruthless warrior, Sheridan and his Union army laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864 in one of the most hard fought but little known campaigns of the Civil War. His favorite subordinate was Brevet (temporary) Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, commander of the 5th Michigan Cavalry - the Wolverines. Custer distinguished himself many times during the Civil War, none more so than in the Shenandoah with Sheridan.
After the war, Custer was reverted back to his real rank of Lieutenant Colonel but his zeal for combat and his relationship with Sheridan remained. When Sheridan went west to deal with the Indians in August 1867, Custer went with him.
Indian fighting was much different from the swirling cavalry battles of the Civil War. The Plains Indians were an elusive foe who refused to be drawn into the decisive battles that Custer wanted. They always seemed to be one step ahead of the Army. Indian ponies were much faster than army horses and could live on prairie grass, which army horses could not. A cavalry unit in the field had to transport food for their stock, creating a supply train that slowed down everything.
Additionally, the distances in the Great Plains were mind-numbing compared to the relatively compact Civil War battlefields. If the soldiers did get within striking distance, the highly mobile Indians would pull out in haste before the soldiers could do anything. The only exception to that pattern was if the women and children of the village were endangered. Then the warriors would swarm to the attackers and fight ferociously.
One of those times was the Battle of the Washita (wa-shee-TAW) River on November 27, 1868 near present day Cheyenne, OK. At dawn on that bitter cold morning, Custer attacked a Cheyenne village which was set up as winter quarters on the banks of the river. Not expecting a winter campaign by the blue coats, surprise was total and the battle was a one-sided victory for the regiment, which suffered only one man killed. The Cheyenne recovered quickly and mounted a fierce if brief resistance. Even women and children joined in the fight, resulting in the deaths of many. Over 100 Cheyenne were killed and more than 50 were taken prisoner, mostly women and children. Custer and his men were flush with victory, however, this thing wasn't over yet.
Custer's men were in the process of burning everything and slaughtering 800 Indian ponies when they found themselves under fire from the surrounding ridge lines by over 1,000 mounted warriors. They came from other villages down the river which Custer's reconnaissance had not found. Suddenly, he was on defence, surrounded and outnumbered by a force he didn't know about until they showed up and started shooting. Darkness came on early, with deep snow and icy temperatures. A potential disaster was in the making unless he could find a way to extricate his regiment.
The reason the Indians didn't attack in force was they feared for the safety of the women and children taken captive in the battle. That gave Custer some breathing room. His solution was classic Custer. He attacked down river towards the villages. When the warriors moved to protect them, the 7th Cavalry changed direction and marched out of their encirclement. Unaccounted for and left behind were his second-in-command, Major Joel Elliot and 19 troopers. They were last seen pursuing hostiles early in the morning. [**HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE: Two weeks later, on December 11, a column led by General Sheridan returned to the battle area. Several miles away, near a small stream, they found the frozen remains of Major Elliot and his men, killed in a last stand on the day of the battle. Their bodies were retrieved, examined and buried in an unmarked mass grave that night.**]
Despite the close call, the Battle of the Washita River was considered a decisive victory for the army (because they needed one) and burnished Custer's reputation as an Indian fighter. However, this was Custer's first Indian fight and the only major one he would have until the Little Bighorn eight years later. In many ways, it was a harbinger of the future. In between, the 7th Cavalry spent most of their time patrolling the plains and rounding up starving, sick and frozen Indians who offered little resistance. Why should the Little Bighorn be any different?
But it was different. Custer was a horse soldier but the Little Bighorn was not a cavalry battle. It was a dismounted infantry fight. Most of the combat was on foot and low to the ground. There are two reasons for this.
Nine years earlier at the Wagon Box Fight in Wyoming, Native American warriors had been schooled on the futility of charging headlong into massed rifle fire, especially repeaters. In that furious action, 26 troopers with new breech-loading rifles and six civilian woodcutters with 16-shot lever action Henry rifles held off 1,000 braves for most of a day and lived to tell about it. One of the Indian leaders that day was Crazy Horse, the tactical leader at the Little Bighorn. By the time of the battle, his braves had repeaters of their own, which Custer's men did not.
The other factor is that Custer's men left their sabers
back at their home base to save weight. That means
they had no close in weapon with which to fight from
horseback. A cavalry charge was the armored assault of
its day, depending on audacity, shock, momentum and
violence to carry out its mission. That meant cold
steel and flashing blades at a full gallop. Instead,
Custer's force had to dismount to fight with their single
shot Springfield rifles. The Indians had lances, tomahawks
and war clubs for close in fighting and got better use out
of cavalry tactics than Custer did. If Custer had maintained
the ability to fight close in on horseback, the outcome may
have been very different. Why would an experienced horse
soldier like Custer leave the sabers behind?
Probably the same reason anybody leaves something
behind. They don't think they'll need it.
Custer's regiment had 647 men in 12 companies, which he split into four groups. One company was left behind to guard the pack train. Two columns of three companies each, led by Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, were to attack the Indian encampment from the southeast and cut off escape routes. Custer, with a column of five companies totaling 210 men, would move northwest, cross the river above the village and attack as the main effort from that direction. As he moved along Battle Ridge and the size of the encampment became apparent, he deployed two companies to mutually support each other and protect his rear - Company L commanded by Lt. James Calhoun and Company I commanded by Captain Myles Keogh.
By that time, Custer's plan had already fallen apart. Whether he knew it or not is anybody's guess. Thousands of Native American braves - Lakota, Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Arapaho - swarmed out of the encampment and attacked. Major Reno's attack along the river bottom turned into a panicked every-man-for-himself bug out. His men had dismounted to attack and now found themselves on the receiving end of an Indian cavalry charge. His troopers were literally run down as they desperately clawed their way up the coulees to the high ground. Benteen, watching that disaster from the heights above, never fully deployed. He moved his three companies to the pack train, gathered up Reno's survivors and organized a defense.
Crazy Horse's warriors then turned their fury on Calhoun's Company L and Keogh's Company I. Before Custer's reckoning, they fought ferocious last stands of their own. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, it was over quickly. Their battles have prominent markers on the driving tour of the battlefield. This completely cut off Custer from supplies and reinforcement. Did he realize how bad his situation was? No one knows. Would it have made any difference in his actions if he had known? I suspect not.
At this point in the battle, no one knew Custer's location or his situation, but they could probably tell from the smoke and gunfire in the distance that a major battle was in progress. Earlier, Benteen had received a message from Custer telling him to catch up. Benteen and Reno judged that they couldn't get through to Custer, but Captain Thomas Weir, commanding Company D, decided to give it a try. They reached a spot about three miles from Last Stand Hill, today known as Weir Point, but could go no further and were forced back to the logistic train by overwhelming numbers of enemy.
The Last Stand
The truth is, nobody really knows what happened to Custer and his men, other than they all got killed. We'll never know if Custer realized his predicament until it was too late. He was always on offense, always on the attack. Going on the defense was a sure sign that things had gone completely to Hell. The position on Last Stand Hill suggests a very hasty and desperate defense with the cavalrymen killing their horses to get some cover.
Earlier in the fight, Custer sent his bugler, John Martin, back to Reno and Benteen with a message. It was short and sweet - "Big village. Come quick. Bring packs." Unfortunately, the fog of war reared its head. Martin was an Italian immigrant who spoke very little English. When questioned about Custer's message, his situation, his location and what he needed, Martin couldn't communicate. Custer probably went to his death thinking reinforcements would be here any minute if they could just hold on.
We don't know what time the last stand started or how long it lasted. Custer had been decisively engaged in a running battle for two to three hours pressing his attack across the river and to the outskirts of the village before being turned back by heavy resistance. They were on their way back up Battle Ridge when they found themselves cut off and surrounded. The best historical guess is that it started around 4:00 PM and lasted less than an hour. Some say it was as little as 20 minutes.
Forensic evidence suggests that the Indians low crawled through the grass-filled coulees towards the troopers, popping up to fire then dropping back down. It's quite probable that the only thing Custer's men saw until the final rush was heads bobbing up and down all over the place. One thing both sides seem to agree on - the popular picture of Indians riding wildly in a circle around Custer is a myth.
At the end, a group of men on Last Stand Hill made a run for it on foot in a desperate attempt to reach the cover of the river. Could it be that Custer was already dead? It's hard to imagine Custer's troopers bugging out while he was still fighting. One of those who made the dash was the regimental surgeon. Would the doc have bolted if Custer were still alive?
There is a trail that leads downhill from the Visitor's Center to a large coulee called the Deep Ravine. Headstones along the trail mark where cavalry men were run down and killed, along with their names, if known. Some accounts say they fought their way down, forming a skirmish line along the way. Others say it was a headlong rush. A small group made it to the ravine, thinking it was a covered route to the river. It wasn't. It went to the river alright, but was the main avenue of approach for the Indians from their encampment to the battle area. They lined the top of the ravine and poured fire into it, leaving no survivors. This was the final action of Custer's Last Stand. All 210 men - troopers, civilians, scouts - were killed, 39 of them on Last Stand Hill itself.
As for Custer himself, we don't know the exact circumstances of his death. National Park Service guides say he was killed by a bullet to the left temple on Last Stand Hill. That pretty much rules out suicide ("save the last bullet for yourself") since Custer was right-handed. Other reports say he bled to death from a chest wound received down by the river and may not have even been functional during the Last Stand. So even though Custer's un-mutilated body was recovered two days later and presumably examined, there isn't even a consensus on this topic. So it goes at the Little Bighorn.
The battle didn't end with the Last Stand. In fact, the Indians most likely didn't know who they had just killed. After finishing off Custer and his men, the warriors turned their attention to Major Reno, Custer's second-in-command, and the logistics wagon train about four miles away. Reno had time to prepare a hasty defense and the battle raged until dark, when the Indians withdrew. The troopers spent the night preparing defensive positions. A party of 19 men volunteered for the hair-raising task of going down the bluff to the river to get desperately needed water. They succeeded and all 19 received the Medal of Honor. The battle was joined again at first light. Reno held on until reinforcements arrived. In a logistical marvel of their own, the 7,000 person Native American camp was gone the next morning, ending the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
George Custer was not the only Custer to die at the Little Bighorn. His brothers Thomas and Boston and nephew Henry Reed died on Last Stand Hill, almost wiping out the male bloodline. Another brother, Nevin, suffered from serious health problems and never went west. He did have children though and the Custer line continues today.
Thomas Custer is an interesting person in his own right. During the Civil War, he won the Medal of Honor twice. He had a reputation as a warrior and battle leader, but lived in the shadow of his older brother for his entire career. Most people have never heard of him. Normally the commander of Company C, he had been detailed to Custer's staff for this operation and died on Last Stand Hill. His marker is right next to his brother's, leading to speculation by some that Tom may have reached over and shot his brother in the left temple to prevent his capture. Tom's body was horribly mutilated after the battle and had to be identified by his tattoos. George Custer's body was untouched.
Boston Custer and Henry "Autie" Reed were both civilian teamsters for the Army. Boston left the pack train riding a mule to join his brothers forward, meeting John Martin on the way back with his message to Benteen. Martin had just run a gauntlet of Indian fire to get through and advised Boston to turn back. Boston pressed on and made it. Henry was already there, having convinced his uncles earlier to take him along. When they died, George was 36, Tom was 31, Boston was 28 and Henry Reed was 18.
Lt. James Calhoun, who died in his own last stand, was married to Custer's younger sister, Maggie. Normally Custer's Adjutant, he assumed temporary command of Company L just before the battle. Some Indian accounts of the battle mention the fight on Calhoun Hill as being the fiercest of the day. Of the estimated 100 KIA suffered by the Indians that day, over 30 of them were found on Calhoun Hill.
The only other un-mutilated body on the field of battle was that of Captain Myles Keogh, who was as interesting as the Custer clan. Keogh was an Irish soldier of fortune who fought with the Union during the Civil War. He fought in 80 separate engagements including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Sherman's March to the Sea. In July 1864, he was captured by Confederate forces while leading a cavalry raid attempting to liberate Andersonville. He was released two months later in a prisoner exchange and returned to the fighting. After the war, he stayed in the army, became a US citizen and operated on the plains for 10 years. He never got a scratch on him until the Little Bighorn. Why his body and Custer's body weren't desecrated is unknown.
Bugler John Martin, whose real name was Giovan Martino (or Giovanni Martini according to some), became known as "the last white survivor to see Custer alive." He ran a gauntlet of fire and arrows alone to deliver Custer's message to Benteen. He stayed in the Army, was a key witness at the 1879 Board of Inquiry, saw more action in the plains Indian wars and served during the Spanish-American War. Retiring from the Army in 1904 as a Master Sergeant, he returned to his immigrant roots in New York City. He worked at several jobs, including ticket taker on the new subway system and a worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Along the way, he married and had eight children. For almost 50 years, John Martin was the living bridge between the history books and events at the Little Bighorn. He gave frequent interviews, was the guest of honor at functions and told war stories between acts at Broadway plays. He died of pulmonary failure secondary to an accident a week earlier on Christmas Eve, 1922 at the age of 69. He is buried in plot #8865 at the Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn. This blog does a great job of detailing the life of this fascinating old soldier.
Major Marcus Reno survived the battle but not his own demons. Scapegoated, blamed for the debacle and accused of cowardice and incompetence, he spent the next four years in one scrape after another - drinking, fighting and other assorted "conducts unbecoming". A board of inquiry in 1879 formally absolved him of blame in the battle but the rumors persisted. He was dismissed from the service in 1880 with a general discharge, died in 1889 and was buried with a plain marker at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, DC. In 1967, a military review board changed his discharge to honorable and he was re-interred at the Custer National Cemetery on the battlefield.
Captain Frederick Benteen spent 16 years in the 7th Cavalry. For most of that time, he was the commanding officer of H Troop. He fought at Washita River and survived the Little Bighorn. His decision to fall back and not reinforce Custer was questioned time and again and remains controversial to this day. He steadfastly maintained that it would have been a suicide mission. That may be true but it's also true that John Martin and Boston Custer (on a mule) each made the same dangerous journey alone during the fight. It's also true that Benteen despised Custer. He blamed Custer's glory hunting for the death of his best friend, Major Joel Elliot, at Washita River eight years earlier. Benteen never forgot or forgave Custer and was, at times, openly contemptuous and insubordinate. Nevertheless, Benteen was an experienced fighter and no coward. His actions in the defense of the pack train, now called the Reno-Benteen Defense Site, were commendable and probably saved that position along with the rest of the regiment. He remained in the Army but couldn't allay the rumors that dogged the rest of his career. He retired in 1888 as a Major. Benteen served capably for 28 years, seeing extensive action in the Civil War and the Indian campaigns. He received several brevet promotions for his actions in various engagements, but the stigma of the Little Bighorn overshadowed all of it. He died in 1898 and is buried at Arlington National cemetery.
Crazy Horse, who spent most of his adult life at war and never had his picture taken, surrendered at Camp Robinson, Nebraska in May of 1877. He lived quietly in a nearby tribal village until September 4, when his arrest was ordered. After being transported to the guardhouse, Crazy Horse struggled with the guards and tried to escape. In the fight, he was bayoneted and died later that night. His body was turned over to his parents. His final resting place is unknown.
Under his leadership, the Native American warriors had won decisively at the Little Bighorn but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The public and government both were outraged that this could happen to an army unit led by Custer and only a week before the nation's centennial. They demanded harsh retribution - and they got it. Crazy Horse surrendered 11 months later and was dead three months after that. The Native American federation that won the battle fell apart and the tribes were killed, dispersed or rounded up. In winning at the Little Bighorn, the Plains Indians probably hastened their own end.
There is one last historical footnote. The Battle of the Little Bighorn is often called the greatest loss the U.S. Army ever suffered in the campaigns against the Native Americans. Not true. That dubious distinction belongs to the Battle of the Wabash on November 4, 1791. That battle was fought near present day Fort Recovery, Ohio and resulted in the deaths of almost 1,000 U.S. soldiers. That was close to half of America's standing army at that time, effectively leaving President George Washington with no army. However, it would be a true statement to say the Little Bighorn was the Army's greatest loss in the Plains Indian Wars of the mid to late 19th century.
There are many questions about the Battle of the Little Bighorn that will never be answered. The one that haunts battlefield addicts the most is - "What really happened on Last Stand Hill?" Your guess is as good as anybody else's.
The Little Bighorn Today
The Little Bighorn Battlefield is a fascinating place. We've been there several times and plan to return. It's much bigger than we had envisioned - almost five miles long and two miles wide. The terrain is extremely rugged and boy, is it hot. The ground is pretty much just like it was during the battle, so it's possible to get a good perspective and understanding of what happened. There is a self-guided driving tour that runs the length of the battlefield. Before that, you want to take in the ranger talk about the battle at the Visitor's Center.
If you visit the Little Bighorn on the anniversary of the battle, there are re-enactors and guides at the major sites to answer questions and provide information. The NPS also allows walking around on parts of the battlefield that are normally closed.
Be sure to take the trail down to the Deep Ravine. There's an overlook with information placards.
Where ever you go, watch out for rattlesnakes!
There's only one geocache here. It's a virtual cache called Little Bighorn National Monument. The answers that you need are actually on the Last Stand monument. There's a handful of traditional caches up the road in Hardin and more along the highways. You can pick up literally dozens of caches in Montana by just cruising the Interstates with the highest speed limit in the country. Billings on the other hand is sitting on a sea of geocaches as are most Big Sky cities.
The GPS coordinates of the Visitors Center are N45.5221º, W107.3778º. Click on the coordinates to open an interactive Google map.