It has been said that more books have been written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn than any other battle in our nation’s history. Yet as we approach its 137th anniversary, the fight remains shrouded in mystery and misconceptions. The herofication of Colonel Custer has clouded understanding of a debacle that was clearly understood by the people of the time. Following is a partial transcription of an editorial that was printed in the Chicago Tribune on July 7, 1876, just 13 days after the battle:
“Custer ... was a brave, brilliant soldier, handsome and dashing, but he was reckless, hasty and impulsive, preferring to make a daredevil rush and take risks rather than to move slower and with more certainty. And it was his own mad-cap haste, rashness and love of fame that cost the service the loss of many brave officers and gallant men. No account seems to have been taken of the numbers or leadership of the Sioux ... no account was taken of the fact that General Gibbon was coming to the Little Big Horn with re-enforcements, only a day’s march behind, although General [sic] Custer was aware of it. He preferred to make a reckless dash and take the consequences, in the hope of making a personal victory and adding to the glory of another charge, rather than wait for the sufficiently-powerful force to make the fight successful and share the glory with others. He took the risk, and he lost.”
Yet for all the debate and mystery that surrounds the minute-by-minute events of the battle, there exists a clear historical record to the central figure in this seminal event in America’s Western history, George Armstrong Custer.
After graduating last in his class at West Point and setting a record for demerits and reprimands, Custer quickly proved his willingness to please his superiors and to succeed at any cost. Rising rapidly through the ranks, Custer became the youngest man ever to attain the rank of general. Custer’s fearlessness and aggressiveness resulted in many Civil War victories but at the cost of troops under his command suffering the highest casualty rate in the war.
One specific incident during the Civil War would provide particular insight into Custer’s character. In 1864, General U.S. Grant issued an order that stated any men fighting under the command of Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby that were captured, should be summarily executed. The order, relayed through Union General Phil Sheridan, was ignored by all but one of General Sheridan’s subordinates, and that lone exception was General George A. Custer. Custer captured six of Colonel Mosby’s men in September of 1864 and had them shot to death on the streets of Fort Royal, Va. (http://www.brotherhooddays.com/sources.html]34). Soon after the end of the Civil War, Custer’s ruthless behavior and naked ambition would be brought to bear against the Plains People.
Anxious to prove himself an “Indian Fighter,” Custer was given a command with which he scoured the states of Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, hoping to engage any Indians he might find. During this command, Custer had deserters shot without benefit of hearings — in spite of the fact Custer himself on numerous occasions deserted his command to be in the company of his wife or to go off on hunting expeditions. In September of 1867, Custer was court-martialed and convicted of abandoning his command and having deserters executed. He was sentenced to a one-year suspension without pay for these crimes.
Ten months later, General Phil Sheridan reinstated Custer to command a campaign against the Southern Cheyenne in Oklahoma. Desperate for action that would redeem his honor, Custer came upon a peaceful camp of Southern Cheyenne camped along the Washita River, on Nov. 28, 1868.
This encampment was nearby an U.S. Army outpost and under the leadership of the “peace chief,” Black Kettle. The tipi of Black Kettle flew a large U.S. flag identifying the camp as a “friendly village.” Black Kettle was given this flag by the United States government and told that as long as it flew over his lodge, he and his people would be under the protection of the United States Army.
Custer’s scouts identified this small camp circle as a friendly village and warned the general not to attack. Custer ignored his scouts and ordered any man shot that attempted to prevent his plans for attack the next morning. As Custer planned the attack on the village, he did not conduct reconnaissance of the village and surrounding area.
The next morning, Nov. 29, 1868, marching to his favorite tune “Gary Owen,” Custer and his soldiers attacked the village. The 67-year-old Black Kettle and his wife, Medicine Women Later, walked toward the attacking cavalry, carrying a white flag and calling out for peace. Black Kettle and Medicine Woman Later were shot down and killed. Their bodies and the white flag were trampled under the hooves of the horses and into the bloody mud, as the Calvary advanced on the village.
Black Kettle, always a voice for peace and accommodation with the Whites, was to be betrayed in his trust a second time. First at the Massacre of Sand Creek when his people were butchered by the Methodist preacher, John Chivington, and a second and final time along the banks of the river known as the Washita. One-hundred and three Cheyenne people died there along with Black Kettle and his wife. Ninety-two of the dead were women, children and old people unable to flee the advance of Custer and his troops.
As the Cheyenne warriors fought a rear-guard action to protect the fleeing villagers, Custer ordered a contingent of 18 men under the command of Lt. Joel Elliot to cut off the escape route of the terrified villagers. The Cheyenne were running in the direction of the rest of the strung-out encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho people. There were, unknown to Custer because of his lack of reconnaissance, over 6,000 other Native people camped further downstream on the Washita this day.
Lt. Elliot and his men rode into the face of warriors riding down to investigate the sounds of gunfire coming from Black Kettle’s camp. As the sounds from this ensuing battle made its way to Custer’s position, Custer realized he was in grave danger. He abandoned his position and left Lt. Elliot and his men without support. Lt. Elliot and his men were all killed.
Custer skillfully manipulated the reporting of these facts and escaped responsibility for abandoning Lt. Elliot and his men. Custer was hailed as a hero for his actions. The fact that he had knowingly attacked a peaceful camp of Indian people and slaughtered over 100 Cheyenne men, women and children did little to tarnish the luster of his growing popularity with the American people. After the massacre at the Washita, Custer was mentioned as a possible candidate for president by the press and many prominent politicians.
In 1873, Colonel D.S. Stanley, Custer’s superior officer on a surveying expedition along the Yellowstone, would write to his wife about Custer: “(Custer is) a cold-blooded, untruthful and unprincipled man ... universally despised by all the officers of his regiment.”
Colonel Custer would, three years later confirm Stanley’s assessment of him as he led a hasty attack on a gathering of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne people on June 25, 1876, at the place called the Greasy Grass. Remembering the lessons of Sand Creek and the Washita massacres, the Lakota and Cheyenne fought back rather than retreat. Custer’s actions led 267 soldiers, 34 Lakota and 7 Cheyenne people to their deaths that hot day in June.
Colonel Stanley would eventually rise on his merits to the rank of brigadier general. But history seldom mentions the steady Colonel Stanley and all but forgets his prophetic assessment of Custer’s character. Custer would in defeat, rise to mythic status in Western history and folklore of that of a gallant American hero, and defy in death an accounting of his life.
Elizabeth Bacon Custer, the colonel’s widow, devoted the rest of her life to a largely successful attempt to rehabilitate the image of her late husband. She wrote of her efforts: “There will come a time when tradition and history are so intermingled that no one will be able to separate them.” (http://www.brotherhooddays.com/sources.html)
Mrs. Custer lived until 1933, and died just two days short of her 91st birthday. To quote Robert Paul Jordan, “... she remained George Custer’s greatest admirer, brooking no detractions, singing his praises in three books. She described their military life and adventures simply and clearly and with something less than the whole truth.” (http://www.brotherhooddays.com/sources.html)
Popular culture continues to wrap Colonel Custer and the fallen men of the Seventh Calvary in glory. Yet the fallen men of the Lakota and Cheyenne that fought to protect their women, children and old ones are seldom remembered.
Following is a list of names of the 31 men of the Lakota and Cheyenne People that fell in battle at the place called “The Greasy Grass.”
Wicohan Deeds (14-year-old boy, killed while trying to warn the village)
Mahpiya Wicasa Cloud Man
Mato Hehaka Elk Bear
Canku Hanska Long Road
Sunka Wanjila Lone Dog
Hehaka Wankata Najin Elk Stands Above
Ktepila Kills Him
Pehin Zi Sica Bad light Hair
Wasicun Sapa Black White Man
Hala Ota Many Lice
Wanbli Ska White Eagle
Maka Cincala Young Skunk
Miyapahe Breech Cloth
Sunka Heton Dog with Horns
Sunka Cankohan Dog’s Backbone
Mato Yamni Three Bears
Hinhan Okuwa Chased by Owls
Mato Heton Bear with Horns
Canska Wicasa Hawk Man
Ite Luta Red Face
Mato Ohanko Swift Bear
Tatanka Ska White Buffalo
Hanwi Sapa Cincala Young Black Moon
*Catka Left Hand Noisy Walking
*Sunksa Yuha Has Sorrel Horse Open Belly (Cut Belly)
*Mato Cincala Young Bear Black Bear
*Putinhin Sina Full Beard Lame White Man
*Kinyan Hiyaye Flying By Limber Bones
*Sunkmanitu Sapa Black Coyote Roman Nose
*Maypiya Ohanko Swift Cloud Whirlwind
* Cheyenne warriors. Their Lakota names are listed in bold type in the left-hand column. The English translations of their Cheyenne names are listed on the far right.
Six Lakota women and four infants were also killed in Custer’s assault upon their village. I regret not having their names. After killing the 14-year-old boy, Wicohan, these un-named women and infants were the next victims of Custer’s attack. Before any warriors were confronted and engaged by the Seventh Calvary and their scouts, 11 defenseless women and children were killed. There are many still that defend Colonel Custer’s actions at the Greasy Grass. They seldom mention this crucial part of the story. We should remember.
• “Crazy Horse and Custer” by Stephen Ambrose.
• “Troops With Custer,” by E.A. Brininstool.
• “Kerry Remains A Hero” by Jack Anderson and Douglas Cohen syndicated column May 1, 2001.
• “Killing Custer” by Jack Welch and Paul Stekler.
• “Libbey Custer” History Channel broadcast March 18, 2002.
• “Ghosts on the Little Bighorn.” by Robert Paul Jordan, National Geographic December 1986.
• “Hokahey, A Good Day To Die,” by Richard Harddorff.
• U.S. Army Military Archives.