History, Not from Provo Daily Herald, Patriotic, War

The Custer Legend Still Lives

Click to see original imageWe are the pride of the Army
And a regiment of great renown…

Thus began “Garry Own,” regimental battle song of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, the outfit of Brevet Maj. Gen. George A. Custer in the post-Civil War campaign against the Indians.

And the chorus:
In the Fighting Seventh’s the place for me,
It’s the cream of all the cavalry;
No other regiment even can claim
Its pride, honor, glory and undying fame.

Cuter, a west Point graduate of 1861, distinguished himself for courage and gallantry in the Civil War, especially at Gettysburg and in the Virginia campaigns.

At 23, he became the youngest soldier in army history to receive the wartime ranks of brigadier general and major general – cut back to captain and later lieutenant colonel in the postwar regular army.

But the “undying fame” for which he is best-remembered today stems from the tragic annihilation of over 200 cavalrymen (himself included) in the June 25-26, 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn River with Sioux and Cheyenne Indians.

“Custer’s last Stand” is legendary – and controversial. Not a single member of his immediate fighting force lived to tell the tale. it is known that his soldiers were badly outnumbered, possibly as much as 20 to 1.

But details remain a mystery after 106 years, leaving room for conjecture and more controversy. An old-timer formerly associated with the Custer Battlefield administration once advised: “Never argue about religion, politics or the Custer battle.”

However, many do – and just recently a Navy commander, Jerry Spencer of the Armed Forces Institute of Forensic Pathology in Washington received wide news coverage for his theory that Custer’s troops may have committed mass suicide in the face of overwhelming odds.

He cited indian accounts quoted by Dr. Thomas B. Marquis, a white physician who lived on a Cheyenne reservation in the first quarter of this century. Marquis died in 1935 after completing a manuscript for a small book, “Keep the last Bullet for Yourself,” finally published in 1976 by Reference Publications, Inc. He concluded the soldiers panicked, morale collapsed, and “a general self-extinction followed.”

Spencer was quoted in a Florida speech as saying autopsies would settle the issue once and for all. “A point-blank shot to the head drives a tremendous amount of firearm residue into the skull.”

National Park Service has rejected his request to exhume several bodies at the Custer Battlefield National Monument near Hardin, Mont.

Herman J. Viola, in a forward, said Marquis’ book deserves recognition and consideration but conceded that of all explanations for the Custer rout “none will be as controversial.” He probably is right.

The Battle of the Little Big Horn was one of the military actions which grew out of westward expansion. Indiana resented being restricted to reservations and encroachment upon their lands.

Carrying out government orders to move against indians who refused to stay within reservations, Gen. Alfred H. Terry sent Custer with 600 men to block the easterly escape route of a hostile band. A column led by Gen. John Gibbon (accompanied by Terry) would approach from the west.

Custer, arriving in the general area first, far underestimated the size of the indian encampment in the bluffs and wooded country along the Little Big Horn. Misleading reports from the Indian Office that only small numbers were absent form reservations didn’t help. And there had been no communication from Gen. George Crook on a June 17 defeat of his men by the same Indian force on the upper Rosebud Creek 20 miles away.

Historical accounts say that when scouts disclosed that Indians had discovered the cavalry’s presence, the impetuous Custer feared they would escape and decided to attack on the 25th and not wait for Terry.

He sent a detachment under Capt. Frederick Benteen to explore south of the river bend and a column under Maj. Marcus Reno to attack along the river’s west bank. With the rest of the force, Custer sped to the right to attack the other flank of the Indian camp.

Reno was repelled with losses. Benteen joined him atop the bluff where they held off attacks until the redmen abandoned the camp late the next day.

Several miles distant, Custer and his tired men were overwhelmed by the warriors of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall and other Sioux and Cheyenne luminaries.

As you visit the sprawling Montana battleground, it’s easy to visualize the Custer contingent fighting to the last man on the sagebrush slopes, as numerous paintings depict the “Last Stand.”

Historians generally have told it that way although conceding many facts are missing. Much of the fighting was from prone position. Indians have said there was no final charge, as some paintings show.

Custer, say some accounts, suffered two wounds either of which could have been fatal. His body was re-interred at West Point.

With all due respect for those who still seek explanations, this writer agrees with the Park Service that with all the investigations and inquiries after the massacre stunned the nations, there is no point 108 years “after the fact” to exhume bodies. The folks in Custer’s era were a lot closer to the action and their histories are entitled to stand.

What is needed today is understanding … and appreciation for the hard circumstances in those pioneering days. We like the philosophy expressed by Robert M. Utley, National Park Service assistant director at 100th anniversary ceremonies at the Custer Battlefield in 1976:
”…let us not infuse this battlefield with a modern meaning untrue to the past. Let us not bend it artificially to serve contemporary needs and ends, however laudable.”