Friday, August 21, 2020

George Custer Accidentally Shoots His Horse

In 1874, George Armstrong Custer published My Life on the Plains, an account of his career as an Indian fighter to that time.  One story that Custer relates about his hunting a buffalo tells us much about his military skills.

“Determined to end the chase and bring down my game, I again placed the muzzle of the revolver close to the body of the buffalo, when, as if diving my intention, and feeling his inability to escape by flight, he suddenly determined to fight and at once wheeled, as only a buffalo can, to gore my horse.  So sudden was this movement, and so sudden was the corresponding veering of my horse to avoid the attack, that to retain my control over him I hastily brought up my pistol hand to the assistance of the other.  Unfortunately as I did so my finger, in the excitement of the occasion, pressed the trigger, discharged the pistol, and sent the fatal ball into the very brain of the noble animal I rode…. (I) found myself whirling through the air over and beyond the head of my horse.”

Custer now faced the buffalo on foot, but the animal wandered off without further ado.

Custer continues, “In a moment the danger I had unluckily brought myself stood out in bold relief before me….Here I was, alone in the heart of the Indian country, with warlike Indians known to be in the vicinity.  I was not familiar with the country.  How far I had travelled, or in what direction from the column, I was at a loss to know.  In the excitement of the chase I had lost all reckoning.  Indians were liable to pounce upon me at any moment.  My command would not note my absence probably for hours.  Two of my dogs overtook me, and with mute glances first at the dead steed, then at me, seemed to inquire the cause of this strange condition of affairs.  Their instinct appeared to tell them that were in misfortune.”

After wandering aimlessly “about three or four miles,” Custer saw a column of dust that he knew had one of three causes, “...white men, Indians, or buffaloes.”  Fortunately for him, on this occasion, Custer had stumbled on his own cavalry.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Custer and the Inadequate Seventh Cavalry

Sioux representation of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

In his book, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn - the Last Great Battle of the American West, James Donovan details some of the glaring inadequacies of the Seventh Cavalry as a fighting force at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Donovan states that the relative merits of Custer’s, Reno’s and Benteen’s military judgments cannot be properly understood without an understanding of these inadequacies. 

The frontier army was small, ill-trained and badly equipped by a miserly Congress. The quality of the troops was appalling, “only the malingerers, the bounty-jumpers, the draft-sneaks and the worthless remained” in the army after the Civil War.  “These, with the scum of the cities and frontier settlements, constituted more than half the rank and file on the plains.” (Donovan, 37)  Donovan continues, “Training in marksmanship, horsemanship, skirmishing, any practical lessons that Indian fighting might actually involve, was virtually nonexistent.  Formal military training of recruits consisted mostly of elementary drill aimed at making a grand appearance at dress parade.” (Donovan, 121)

On June 25, 1876, the actual day of battle, the five companies that Custer took with him to personally administer the coup de grace to the Sioux were inadequately led.  “Company C was led by Second Lieutenant Henry Harrington, who had no combat experience…. F Company was led by Second Lieutenant William Van Wyck Reily, who had been in the army less than eight months and had only recently mastered the fundamentals of horsemanship.” Donovan continues, “Of the thirty sergeants authorized to the five companies, fully half were absent, either with the pack train or on detached duty.” (Donovan, 218-219)

Custer over-estimated the offensive capabilities of the Seventh Cavalry.  When Custer finally viewed the village in its vastness, the view revealed the daunting size of the task required for victory, “…on the other side of the river were thousands of Indians, probably women, children, and older men, streaming into the hills and ravines….Custer had corralled only fifty-three of them on the Washita….” (Donovan, 267)

Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer. Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Captain Thomas Weir

In his book, A Terrible Glory:Custer and the Little Bighorn - the Last Great Battle of the American West, James Donovan details what are clearly manifestations of Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among the survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  The case of Captain Thomas Weir is illustrative.  Weir died less than six months after the battle, “rapidly destroying himself with alcohol (Weir) spent most of his days in a state of depression and nervous exhaustion.”  Donovan attributes Weir’s condition to “battle fatigue, the traumatic loss of so many close friends, the method of their destruction, (and) the slander of Custer’s good name….”(Donovan, 348)

Captain Thomas French appears to have suffered a similar fate.  In 1879 French was found guilty of three counts of drunkenness and one count of conduct unbecoming an officer.  He was suspended at half pay for a year.  In 1880, he was determined to be “mentally unfit and physically incapable to perform any military duties.”  He died two years later.  “Like Weir, his breakdown was likely brought on by ‘soldier’s heart,’ the era’s phrase for combat fatigue or shell shock.”(Donovan, 365) 

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

A Timeline of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

Custer's Last Battle

     William A. Graham published TheStory of the Little Big Horn: Custer's Last Fight, the first authoritative book on the battle of the Little Bighorn, in 1926.  Graham, a lawyer, was commissioned as a first lieutenant in 1912.  In 1919 Graham began a five year tour of duty with the office of the judge advocate in Washington, D.C.  It was during this period that he began to study the battle of the Little Bighorn.

      One of the interesting aspects of Graham’s book is that he effectively provides a timeline of the events of June 25, 1876.  (1) 12:07 PM, Custer divides his command, Benteen marches south; (2) 2:30 PM Reno crosses the river and commences offensive operations; (3) 3:00 PM Reno retreats to the timbers; (4) 4:00 PM Reno retreats to the bluffs; (5) 4:00 PM Benteen receives the “Come quick” order from Custer; (5) 4:30 PM Benteen joins Reno. Firing is heard downriver. Captain Weir marches to the sound of the guns; (5) 5:00 PM the last of the pack train joins Reno and Benteen; (6) 6:00 PM Reno and Benteen join Weir and are engaged by the Sioux; (7) 7:00 PM Reno and Benteen complete a fighting withdrawal and take up the command’s original defensive positions.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

A Survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn


When General Alfred Terry and his column arrived at the Little Bighorn on June 27, 1876, George Armstrong Custer and over two hundred men of the Seventh Cavalry were dead on the field.  All of the horses that survived had been taken by the Indians, except the mount of Captain Myles Keogh, a medium sized brown horse named Comanche.

Comanche had been with the Seventh Cavalry since its organization in 1866.  Sergeant Milton J. DeLacey found the horse in a ravine where it had gone to die.  Comanche’s wounds were serious but not fatal if properly attended.  The horse had seven bullet wounds.  Four wounds back of the foureshoulder, one in the hoof, and one in each hind leg.

Comanche was transported to Fort Lincoln, North Dakota, where he was nursed back to health. . In April 1878, Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis issued the following order:
Headquarters Seventh United States Cavalry, Fort A. Lincoln, D. T., April 10th, 1878. General Orders No. 7.
(1.) The horse known as 'Comanche,' being the only living representative of the bloody tragedy of the Little Big Horn, June 25th, 1876, his kind treatment and comfort shall be a matter of special pride and solicitude on the part of every member of the Seventh Cavalry to the end that his life be preserved to the utmost limit. Wounded and scarred as he is, his very existence speaks in terms more eloquent than words, of the desperate struggle against overwhelming numbers of the hopeless conflict and the heroic manner in which all went down on that fatal day.
(2.) The commanding officer of Company I will see that a special and comfortable stable is fitted up for him, and he will not be ridden by any person whatsoever, under any circumstances, nor will he be put to any kind of work.
(3.) Hereafter, upon all occasions of ceremony of mounted regimental formation, 'Comanche,' saddled, bridled, and draped in mourning, and led by a mounted trooper of Company I, will be paraded with the regiment.

When Comanche died in 1890, a taxidermist from the University of Kansas Natural History Museum prepared the horse for permanent exhibit. Other than being exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Comanche has been on permanent exhibit, in a glass case, at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, wearing his cavalry blanket and saddle.