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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Custer's Last Stand

Monday, January 24, 2011

Interesting things happen as the result of this weekly column. Sometimes people share items in their possessions, which they feel might be of general interest.

Recently, we were given a copy of the Tribune Extra, Bismarck, Dakota Territory, dated July 6, 1876. This paper contained "The First Account of the Custer Massacre." The Tribune had sent its ace reporter, Mark Kellogg to accompany General Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment on its expedition to Montana to squelch an uprising by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and their bands of Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe.

Reporter Kellogg, the only professional reporter with the expedition, sent his last dispatch to his editors, "We leave the Rosebud tomorrow and by the time this reaches you we will have met and fought the red devils, with what result remains to be seen. I go with Custer and will be with him until death." How true were his words. Mark Kellogg was killed during the battle (June 25 and 26). The Extra Edition contained battle casualties, accounts from the few survivors and official reports from Gen. Terry and other high military officials.

George Armstrong Custer was born in New Rumly, Ohio in 1839. After his father's death, George spent much of his early life living with a half-sister and her husband. He graduated from the Hopewell (Ohio) Academy. For a time after his graduation he taught school at Cadiz, Ohio, before gaining an appointment to West Point.

Custer graduated from West Point in 1861, just after the beginning of the Civil War. His class, originally the Class of 1862, graduated after only three years because the need for Army officers was so great. Custer was a poor student, delighted with the uniform, and more concerned with the pomp and ceremony of the Army than with his studies. He graduated last in his class of 34 cadets. He was lucky to have graduated at all. Each of his three years at West Point he earned so many demerits (usually for pranks against his fellow cadets) that he was in danger of expulsion. Ordinarily, his record would have guaranteed him a post in some obscure outpost, but because of the war he had the opportunity to do much better.

When the Civil War began the North was woefully lacking in qualified officers, because of the increased buildup of new Northern troops, and because so many of the Army's trained officers chose to fight for the Confederacy. Custer's less than spectacular Academy record was overlooked and he was assigned to General Winfield Scott's staff, just in time for the first Battle of Bull Run.

Subsequently, Custer served on Gen. McClellen's staff in the Penninsular, Antietem and Chancellorsville campaigns. He served with distinction, even daring. During one battle there was hesitation on McClellen's part as to where the Army might ford a river. Without orders, Custer rode into the river, under enemy fire, locating the best place for the crossing, saving valuable time and saving many lives from drowning.

Custer's love of publicity, attraction to himself, and his showy ways turned off many of his fellow officers and men, but at the same time they were impressed by his coolness under enemy fire. His advancement through the officer ranks was speedy. By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg Custer was a Brigadier General. While others were repulsing Pickett's Charge, Custer was personally leading his Michigan Regiment (which he nicknamed the "Wolverines") in the defeat of J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate Cavalry. Custer was with Grant in his drive on Richmond in 1864.

In the Shenandoah Campaign, he played a major role in the defeat of Gen. Early's Army. By 1865 he was with Grant again at the Battle of Appomatox. He was on hand for Lee's surrender at the village of Appomatox Court House. For its part in the final battle, Custer's Regiment was presented the Confederate Battle Flag, and for his personal gallantry, he was given the desk at which the peace terms were signed by Grant and Lee.

Custer had an exemplary Civil War career. He was wounded, had 11 horses shot from under him, and came out of the war as one of the North's most decorated heroes.

Custer stayed with the Army after the Civil War and was assigned to the 7th Cavalry, fighting in the Indian Wars against the Sioux and Cheyenne. By 1875, the Sioux and the Cheyenne, under the leadership of the great Chief, Sitting Bull, had defied the U.S. Army by leaving their Reservations for a rendezvous in Montana -- because of the white's continued intrusions to the Indian's sacred ground in the Black Hills. By July 1876, they had been emboldened by a series of small victories against the U.S. Cavalry.

Because the nation was celebrating the Centennial Anniversary of the United States (1776-1876), the Army (and especially George Armstrong Custer) was anxious to get the Indians back on the reservations, and to announce a meaningful victory, as a present to the nation on the 4th of July.

However, the Army's plan did not go as expected. Gen. Alfred Terry, the overall commander had units of Cavalry and Infantry coming from Wyoming, Western Montana, and Dakota Territory, planning to converge on the large Indian Village along the Little Big Horn River in Eastern Montana. On the way, some of the units ran into Indians, in large numbers and unexpectedly well armed. Army units were forced to fall back. A concentrated attack on the main village was delayed, communications were disrupted.

George Custer was in charge of units of the 7th Cavalry and was picked to lead the charge on the village of Sioux, Arapahoe and Cheyenne -- reportedly the largest Indian village ever seen. Word came to Custer that he was to wait for the other units of Terry's command, when the concentrated attack would begin.

Custer was anxious to commence the attack and apparently saw this battle as a further chance to gain glory and recognition for the 7th (and himself). He had often said that one U.S. Cavalry man was the equal of 10 Indian warriors. He even passed up the use of a company of Gatlin guns (forerunner of the machine gun), believing that hauling these guns would slow his progress.

News of a huge number of enemy warriors did not deter him. Custer decided to commence the attack on the village without waiting for reinforcements. Then another mistake. He split his force into three parts, one unit, under Maj. Reno, to attack the southern end of the village, one unit, under Capt. Benteen, to attack the northern end -- Custer, with 261 men, would attack the center of the village.

Custer's plans for a surprise attack on the village at dawn were valid, but did not work. Indian scouts discovered Custer's 7th and Indian forces were able to drive off Reno's and Benteen's units and concentrate their full force on Custer and his men.

Custer ordered his men to kill their horses and stack the carcasses as a bulwark against the attack. This was of little protection against 1,000-2,000 warriors using a mixture of arrows and gunfire. In less than one hour of fighting, Custer's entire force was destroyed to the last man. When the massacre was complete, Indians from the village came to the battlefield to strip and mutilate bodies in uniform, believing that these souls would be destined to roam the earth for eternity, rather than finding peace in the afterworld. For whatever reason, Custer, who was dressed in buckskin, was spared this fate. His body was stripped and cleaned, but not mutilated.

This was certainly the high water mark for the Indian Nations. The U.S. giant could not tolerate this worst ever defeat upon its army and the destruction of one of its great war heroes. The nation demanded and received harsh retribution.

The Black Hills War was quickly settled, the Indians were returned to their reservations, and their leaders were rendered powerless. Custer's Last Stand was also the Indian Nations' Last Stand.

Sources: Eye Witness to History, The Battle of the Little Big Horn 1876. Virtuology.com George Armstrong Custer, Bismarck O.T. Tribune 7/6/1876

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By