In the late spring of 1876, several portents of doom struck the women of the Seventh Cavalry, most of them attached by marriage to the soldiers and scouts based at Fort Lincoln in the Dakotas. One of the most striking portents was witnessed by George Armstrong Custer’s wife Libbie, who watched her husband’s column depart on a misty May morning and saw a mirage of the soldiers in the sky, bouncing off the rising fog.
But her premonition did not receive confirmation until 7 a.m. July 6, when she and her husband’s sister were summoned to their parlor by a delegation of soldiers tasked with reporting the deaths of their husbands. Thoroughly chilled by the news, Libbie needed a wrap that hot July morning, but she insisted on accompanying the soldiers as they made 26 more calls to inform garrison wives of their losses.
The Custer family got hit hardest, with the loss of George, his brothers Tom and Boston, his brother-in-law, and 18-year-old nephew Autie (the same nickname the family gave to George), who was attached as a civilian to the Seventh and died along with everyone else above the reaches of the Little Bighorn.
For Libbie, though, her battle was just beginning: she burnished her husband’s reputation endlessly, for decades, until her death in 1933. She fought so fiercely, and so successfully, that her husband was viewed as a Great American Hero — despite dying and losing every man under his command — for a century, until Americans started to question the way their history was told, wondering if maybe there was more to it than just white men and what they did and thought. It says something about us that this was considered “revisionist” (which is a polite term for “wrong”) until only just about 20-ish years ago.
Today, it’s very difficult to paint any sort of picture where Custer emerges as a “hero.” Or even a martyr. He went into the badlands with assignments that he disregarded; splintered his command; failed to listen to his intelligence reports; and was directly responsible for the deaths of 215 men in five companies under his command.
Figuring out exactly what happened to those five companies is still an on-going process, 143 years later. The last any of them were seen alive, they were headed north. Sounds of a battle drifted southward, and at one point a soldier named Thomas Weir, frustrated by the inaction of Reno and Benteen, attempted to lead a company to them. He made it to a point that still bears his name before being forced back.
Now, there were plenty of eyewitnesses who survived, but none of them were white and America was not interested in hearing from “savages” who had “slaughtered” the “great” Custer. And U.S. soldiers arrived to view the carnage two days after it happened, but this being June on the hot plains, the main objective was burial, not forensics.
But a few fortuitous things have happened in the last century and a half. One was Walter Camp, who defied the norms of the day and sought out Lakota and Cheyenne eyewitnesses and did record their version of events. Another was all the metal the soldiers had: bullets, buckles, buttons, canteens, tack pieces . . . a lot of that just settled into the dust of the Montana landscape, waiting for a future of archaeology. Then a brushfire scoured the coulees in 1983, exposing a lot of this metal.
By now, forensic archaeology has advanced so much that bullets can be matched to the guns that fired them, so troop movements can be tracked far more precisely that one might imagine, and theories can be posited with a reasonable amount of confidence.
But as I caught Custer Fever (more correctly, Little Bighorn Fever), I wanted to know exactly what happened.
I used to watch shows like In Search Of, with Leonard Nimoy presiding over great mysteries of the past. And I have several coffee table books where mysteries are explored but rarely answered. Where was Atlantis? Who drew the Nazca Lines? How did King Tut die? Where on the seabed did the Titanic come to rest and why did it sink so fast? What happened to the inhabitants of Easter Island and why did they make all those giant heads? (Some of these have now been answered, but play along anyway.)
And so I wanted to know: where exactly did Custer go and what happened in what order? I scoured my books, re-reading the same information, hoping light would be shed.
What I really want, and in my head this looks a lot like Willy Wonka’s elevator, is to be able to go back and watch these events myself. Hovering, above the action like Libbie Custer’s mirage. Safely removed and able to watch with detachment.
That doesn’t seem terribly realistic, and somewhere around my fifth trip through Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand, it occurred to me: there is no one eyewitness to everything that happened. I may have been watching something about 9/11 when this occurred to me: because you are down in it, your immediate surroundings are what you observe and become your reality. No one participant ever sees the entire event.
So say Mark Kellogg, the reporter riding with Custer, had survived. He was found farther north than many of the soldiers, so maybe he was working toward a getaway when he was killed. If he had survived, he was in the business of documentation and would likely have provided a fairly accurate accounting — but only of what he saw.
Really, the metal forensics probably give a better overview of who was where. What Kellogg might have been able to provide that spent bullets can’t is a rationale for Custer’s actions.
Philbrick thinks Custer might have been closer to a victory than many imagine. At an earlier encounter on the Washita River in what is now Oklahoma, Custer scored a victory against a much larger native force because he took their women and children hostage, and the natives stopped fighting rather than see their loved ones harmed.
Had he made it across the Greasy Bighorn into the camp, with the Lakota/Cheyenne men off fighting to the south, Custer might have been able to pull off a similar victory. And then he would have deserved, at least in White America, the hero status bestowed upon him by his tireless widow.
Instead, he died on a hill in ignominy. Historians and archaeologists doubt he was the last white man to die, and contrary to popular history, he didn’t even have his long flowing locks in the fierce June heat. He was shot in the chest, a mortal wound that didn’t kill him instantly, and it may be that his brother Tom, found near him, shot him in the temple rather than let him be tortured. Until my time-traveling Wonkavator is invented, we won’t know for sure.
The Cheyenne women, who knew who he was, pierced his eardrums after he died, possibly so that he would hear better in the afterlife. They also — and this information was kept from his widow and the general public — inserted an arrow into his penis, purpose unknown. It still makes a statement, doesn’t it?
At any rate, there lay Custer and all his men, dead above the banks of the Little Bighorn River, on the eve of the nation’s centennial. Ultimately, it was a pyrrhic victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne, who weren’t looking for the fight in the first place, but the largest loss was to young America’s innocence. Still healing from the Civil War, Americans learned that conquering the lands to the West would not be without bloodshed either and that even the best of American heroes could be taken by surprise.