General Custer and the Battle of Thermopylae
300 Comes To Little BighornBy Dakota Wind
LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD, M.T. - In Chapter 2 of Warpath and Bivouac, or Conquest of the Sioux, by John F. Finerty, Finerty compares the Battle of the Little Bighorn to the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece over two thousand years ago. While comparing an ancient “Last Stand” where 300 Spartans died to a man defending their way of life to an overwhelming invasion of Persians sounds heroic, there is a major difference between the reasons behind the two last stands: General Custer and the 7th Cavalry weren’t defending the United States from an invasion of the Sioux, and the Greeks weren’t interested in treating with the Persians and colonizing Asia. In retrospect, were Finerty alive in this age, he may have saved his comparison of Thermopylae to Wounded Knee. Or compared the Fall of Constantinople in A.D. 1453, when Basil Constantine XI stripped off his royal insignia and fought and died alongside the common soldier; a comparison more akin to the “fall” of General Custer in A.D. 1876 and all the soldiers under his immediate command. Then again, Constantine XI did beg his own soldiers to kill him, rather than fall to hand of the enemy.
Here follows an excerpt of Finerty’s Warpath and Bivouac, or Conquest of the Sioux, Chapter XIV. Finerty writes of Curly’s account of the battle.
The official story of the Custer disaster was put into a few words, but no account that I have heard of or read, either on or off the plains, equal in clearness and succinctness the story of the Crow Indian scout, Curly, who alone of the immediate command of General Custer survived the memorable disaster of June 25, 1876. The following is the gist of Curly’s statement:
“Custer, with his five companies, after separating from Reno and his seven companies, moved to the right around the base of the high hill overlooking the valley of the Little Horn, through a ravine just wide enough to admit his column of fours. There were no signs of the presence of Indiansin the hills on that side (the right) of the Little Horn, and the column moved steadily on until it rounded the hill and came in sight of the village lying in the valley below them. Custer appeared very much elated, and ordered he bugles to sound a charge, and moved on at the head of his column, waving his hat to encourage his men. When they neared the river, the Indians, concealed in the undergrowth on the opposite side of the stream, opened fire on the troops, which checked the advance. Here a portion of the command were dismounted and thrown forward to the river, and returned the fire of the Indians. During this time the warriors were seen riding out of the village by hundreds, and deploying across Custer’s front and to his left, as if with the intention of crossing the stream on his right, while the women and children were seen hastening out of the village in large numbers in the opposite direction.”
During the fight at this point, Curly saw two of Custer’s men killed who fell into the stream. After fighting a few moments here, Custer seemed to be convinced that it was impractical to cross, as it only could be done in column of fours exposed during the movement to a heavy fire from the front and both flanks. He therefore ordered the head of the column to the left, and bore diagonally into the hills, down stream, his men on foot, leading their horses. In the meantime the Indians had crossed the river (below) in immense numbers, and began to appear on his right flank and in his rear; and he proceeded but a few hundred yards in the new direction the column had taken, when it became necessary to renew the fight with the Indians who had crossed the stream. At first the command remained together, but after some minutes’ fighting it was divided, a portion of deploying circularly to the left, and the remainder similarly to the right, so that when the line was formed, it bore a rude resemblance to a circle, advantage being taken, as far as possible, of the protection afforded ground. The horses were in the rear, the men on the line being dismounted, fighting on foot. Of the incidents of the fight in other parts of the field than his own, Curly was not well informed, as he was himself concealed in a deep ravine, from which but a small part of the field was visible.
The fight appeared to have begun, from Curly’s description of the situation of the sun, about 2:30 or 3 o’clock P.M., and continued without intermission until nearly sunset. The Indians had completely surrounded the command, leaving their horses in ravines well to the rear, themselves pressing forward to the attack on foot. Confident in the great superiority of their numbers, they made several charges on all points of Custer’s line; but the troops held their position firmly, and delivered a heavy fire, which every time drove them back. Curly said the firings were more rapid than anything he had ever conceived of, being a continuous roll, or, as he expressed it, “like the snapping of the threads in the tearing of a blanket.” The troops expended all the ammunition in their belts, and then sought their horses for the reserve ammunition carried in their saddle pockets.
White Bird, a Northern Cheyenne, rendered this pictographic record of the Little Bighorn.
As long as their ammunition held out, the troops, though losing considerably in the fight, maintained their position in spite of all the efforts of the Sioux. From the weakening of their own fire toward the close of the afternoon, the Indians appeared to believe that their ammunition was about exhausted, and they made a grand final charge, in the course of which the last of the command was destroyed, the men being shot, where they lay in their positions in the line, at such close quarters that many were killed with arrows. Curly said that Custer remained alive throughout the greater part of the engagement, animating his men to determined resistance, but about an hour before the close of the fight he received a mortal wound.
The Crow said, further, that the field was thickly strewn with the dead bodies of the Sioux who fell in the attack - in number considerably more than the force of soldiers engaged. He was satisfied that their loss exceeded 200 killed, besides an immense number wounded. Curly accomplished his escape by drawing his blanket around him in the manner of the Sioux, and passing through an interval which had been made in their lines as they scattered over the field in their final charge. He thought they must have seen him, for he was in plain view, but was probably mistaken by the Sioux for one of their own number, or one of the their allied Arapahoes or Cheyennes.
In most particulars the account given by Curly of the fight is confirmed by the position of the trail made by Custer in his movements and the general evidences of the battle-field. Only one discrepancy is noted, which relates to the time when the fight came to an end. Officers of Reno’s battalion, who, late in the afternoon, from high points surveyed the country in anxious expectation of Custer’s appearance, and who commanded a view of the field where he had fought, say that no fighting was going on at that time - between 5 and 6 o’clock. It is evident, therefore, that the last of Custer’s command was destroyed at an earlier hour in the day than Curly relates.
Much doubt was expressed at the time to the truth of Curly’s tale, but the famous Sioux chief, Gall, who had an important command among the hostiles during the battle, confirmed the statement of the Crow scout. Custer, according to Gall, did not succeed in crossing the river. He saw at a glance that he was overpowered, and did the only thing proper under the circumstances, in leading his command to higher ground where it could defend itself to some advantage. Even in that dread extremity, his soldier spirit and noble bearing held the men under control, and the dead bodies of the troopers of Calhoun’s and Keogh’s companies, found by General Gibbon’s command lying in ranks as they fell, attested the cool generalship exhibited by the heroic leader in the midst of the deadly peril. It had always been General Custer’s habit to divide his command when attacking Indian villages. His victory over Black Kettle on the Washita was obtained in that manner, but the experiment proved fatal to Major Elliott and a considerable squad of soldiers. It was the general opinion in Crook’s command at the time, that had an officer of more resolution been in Major Reno’s place, he would have attempted to join Custer at any cost. Reno was, no doubt, imposed upon by Indian strategy, and his retreat to the bluffs was, to say the least of it, premature. But, in the light of after events, it does not seem probable that he could have reached the fatal heights upon which Custer and his men perished. Had Custer taken his entire regiment into the fight he might still have sustained a repulse, but would have escaped annihilation. It is always a tactical error to divide a small command in the face of the enemy. This was Custer’s error. Applying the same principle on a larger scale, Napolean erred when he detached Grouchy after Ligny. That fault cost him his crown and liberty. Reno, at the Little Big Horn, was Custer’s Grouchy.
Some prominent army officers, and others, have held that Custer did not obey the order of General Terry. This point has given rise to controversy, and I think it only fair to reproduce the commanding officer’s instructions to General Custer, issued on the day that he marched from Rosebud landing. The order was as follows:
“The Brigadier-general commanding directs that as soon as your regiment (the 7th Cavalry) can be made ready for the march, you proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians whose trail was discovered by Major Reno a few days since. It is, of course, impossible to give any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and, were it not impossible to do so, the department commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy. He will, however, indicate to you his own views of what your action should be, and he desires that you should conform to them, unless you shall see sufficient reason for departing from them. He thinks you should proceed up the Rosebud until you ascertain definitely the direction in which the trail above spoken of leads. Should it be found, as it appears to be almost certain that it will be, to turn toward the Little Big Horn, he thinks that you should still proceed southward, perhaps as far as the head waters of the Tongue river, and then turn toward the Little Big Horn, feeling constantly, however, toward your left flank. The columns of Colonel [General] Gibbon is now in motion for the mouth of the Big Horn. As soon as it reaches that point, it will cross the Yellowstone and move up at least as far as the forks of the Big and Little Big Horn. Of course its future movements must be controlled by circumstances as they arise; but it is hoped that the Indians, if upon the Little Big Horn, may be so nearly enclosed by the two columns that their escape will be impossible. The department commander desires that on your way up the Rosebud you should thoroughly examine the upper part of Tulloch’s creek, and that you should endeavor to send a scout through to Colonel Gibbon column with information of the result of your examination. The lower part of that creek will be examined by a detachment of Colonel Gibbon’s command. The supply steamer will be pushed up the Big Horn as far as the forks of the river are found to be navigable for that space, and the department commander, who will accompany the column of Colonel Gibbon, desires you to report to him there, not later than the expiration of the time for which your troops are rationed, unless, in the meantime, you receive further orders.”
Custer marched only twelve miles up the Rosebud on June 22nd. On the succeeding day he made thirtythree [sic] miles. Then Indian signs began to show themselves, and the trail became hot. On June 24th Custer marched twenty-eight miles, halted and waited for reports from his scouts. At 9:25 o’clock that night, according to Reno’s report, Custer called his officers together, and told them that, beyond a doubt, the village of the hostiles had been located by the scouts in the valley of the Little Big Horn. It would, therefore, he said, be necessary to cross the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn, and, in order to effect this without being discovered by the Indians, a night march would be necessary. The command resumed its march, and began crossing the divide at 11:00 o’clock P.M. Three hours later the scouts informed Custer that the divide could not be crossed before daylight, so the command halted and made coffee. The march was resumed at 5:00 A.M. The divide was crossed at 8 o’clock, and the command was in the valley of one of the branches of the Little Big Horn. Some Indians had been seen, and, as all chance of surprising the village was, therefore, at an end, Custer resolved to march at once to the attack. Custer didn’t immediately resolve to march to the attack, he all but ignored the insistence of the scouts to attack as soon as the element of surprise was lost, and instead waited three hours before resuming the march.
Not only does Finerty omit the snowfall that Custer’s column faced on June 23rd, the scene at the Crow’s Nest is not mentioned either. Custer’s column had to have been exhausted from the snow, the lack of sleep, and the blazing heat of midsummer, not to mention a month and a week of riding westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln.
Commands were assigned on the march, and Reno had Troops M, A and G placed under his orders; Colonel Benteen received command of Troops H, D and K; Captain McDougall with Troop B escorted the pack train, and Custer took with himself the fated Troops C, E, F, I and L.
Reno claimed that he received no definite orders from Custer, but moved with the companies assigned to him along with the rest of the column, and well to its left. He saw Benteen moving with this battalion still further to the left, and the latter officer told Reno that he had orders to sweep everything before him. He did not see Benteen again until 2:30 o'clock, when the survivors of both battalions, together with Captain McDougalls's troop, rallied on the bluffs above the Little Big Horn river.
Custer carried his battalion to the right, and in this order all moved down the tributary creek to the Little Big Horn valley. When Custer saw all the signs of the presence of a large village, previous to the division of his command, he became greatly elated, and, waving his hat above his head, he, according to the statements of some of the soldiers who were detached with Reno and Benteen, shouted: “Hurrah ! Custer's luck!” But luck turned its back on the hero of sixty successful charges that bloody day. His long, yellow locks had been cut shorter than was his wont, for the sake of convenience, and, after the tragedy, some of the officers who survived likened the dead hero to Samson. Both were invincible while their locks remained unshorn.