His courageous last stand may be a figment
BY ANDREW CURRY
SPECIAL: Live chat on Custer's Last Stand
With Custer scholar Paul Hutton
Please join us on Wednesday, July 26 at 1 p.m. EST to discuss the Battle of
Little Big Horn and the mystery of Custer's Last Stand.
Our guest will be Paul Hutton, Ph.D. Hutton is the editor of The
Custer Reader. For more information or to enter the chat, click
It was the cavalry that needed rescuing that blistering summer afternoon 124
George Armstrong Custer, the young Civil War hero turned Indian fighter, was
trapped on a desolate ridge overlooking the Little Bighorn River in the territory of
Montana. Swarms of well-armed Indians surrounded him. According to legendand many historiansCuster rallied his vastly outnumbered troops. The desperate
7th Cavalry soldiers shot their horses to make barricades and fought ferociously as
hundreds of Indians, led by famed Sioux war chief Crazy Horse, overran the ridge.
But because Custer's men were wiped out before reinforcements arrived, a definitive account of the Little Bighorn battle has eluded historians. The only eyewitnesses were the Indians, who had conflicting recollections. And so the legend of "Custer's last stand" began to take
shape. "The image of Custer blazing away till the very end with his pistols was an
icon of the American West," says John Dorner, chief historian at the Little Bighorn
Battlefield National Monument.
The lack of reliable accounts has kept the details of the battle a hotly debated
topic, and discoveries in recent years have challenged the heart of the legend. "The
myth is the gallant, heroic last standthat the Indians drove him to the killing
field, where he fought to the last man and last bullet against overwhelming odds,"
says Richard Fox, a professor of anthropology at the University of South Dakota.
Fox, who specializes in archaeology, completed an extensive battlefield survey after a 1983 wildfire and revealed evidence that cut to the core of the Custer legend. "My research says the outcome was a function of panic and fear, a very common thing in battle. There was no last stand
in the gallant, heroic sense."
Cartridge clues. Fox's survey yielded about 2,000 artifacts,
from spent cartridges to human remains, and has created a controversial new version of Custer's
final minutes. By analyzing the distribution of cartridges (which
have unique firing-pin patterns) unearthed on the battlefield, Fox's
team was able to trace the movement of individual guns, and the
soldiers who carried them, during the course of the fight. "A study of
the distribution of certain artifact types indicates that ... the soldiers
resisted but little," Fox wrote in a 1993 article.
Fox dismisses Indian descriptions of the soldiers' bravery recorded just
after the battle, noting that tribal leaders were likely trying to salve white pride during sensitive treaty negotiations. "Later on,
when the fate of the Indians was sealed, they opened up more," he says.
Subsequent accounts describe Custer's men running like "a stampede of buffalo," "[shooting] like drunken men, firing into the ground, into the air, wildly in every way."
Expecting an easy victory, Custer was thrown on the defensive, Fox argues, and
his command collapsed. "I have no doubt they fought, but it was total chaos, no
organization. I'm sure some didn't fight. There was no organization,
and that's disintegration in military terms. Everyone was acting on their
Other scholars disagree, calling the concentration of bodies found
on Custer Hill evidence enough for the idea of a "last stand." "Custer's men were
along a ridgeline, and they were either running along it or trying to control it. But those men shot their horses and made a barricade. The highest number of casualties happened right there,"
says Paul Hutton, a professor of history at the University of New
Mexico and a Custer scholar.
Though the facts about the final minutes of the fight are
lost in time, Custer's life is well documented. When he
died at 36, Custer was one of the most recognized celebrities of
his day. A skilled self-promoter, he cultivated an image that
caught the public's imagination. He wore his blond hair long and
cut a dashing figure in buckskin frontier clothes. Numerous magazine articles and
a memoir, My Life on the Plains: or, Personal Experiences With Indians, secured
him a reputation as the Army's most skilled Indian fighter.
Gold rush. Custer took the field for the last time after the discovery of gold in the
Black Hills of the Dakotas (by an expedition he led). White prospectors flooded onto Sioux land. The Army was ordered to force the Sioux onto reservations
to make way for miners. Pushing west across the Great Plains in June of 1876,
Custer's command was looking for a fight. After marching 72 miles in three
days, they found it on the Little Bighorn.
On June 25, Custer stumbled on one of the largest Indian camps the Plains had
ever seenaround 7,000 strong, made up of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho
bands. Brimming with confidence and afraid the Indians would escape, he split
his troops into three columns to encircle them. Custer led roughly 200 men toward the camp, counting on his two other
columns to encircle the Indian warriors. Instead, he found himself surrounded by
well-armed Indians atop what is today called Custer Hill. Most historians agree
the battle was quickno longer than two hours. Custer was found two days later,
stripped naked and shot in the left temple and chest. Every one of his 210 men
Custer's defeat shook the nation. "It's 1876, the 100th anniversary of the battle
for independence. It's hugely symbolic and a major shock," says Richard White,
a professor of history at Stanford University. "It's impossible for Americans to
imagine a warrior culture defeating a modern army."
According to White, the
creation of the Custer legend, which portrayed the Army as a victim that needed
to be avenged, was a way to justify forcing Plains tribes onto reservations, opening the West for white settlers.
Many have accused Fox of catering to "political correctness." But without any
testimony from the men of the cavalry, Custer's defeat is the only thing we know
for certain about this famous battle.