Sunday, December 1, 2019

Custer's Last Battle

By Allan B. Colombo, WMD AuthorEditor’s Note: The study of George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn is not an easy one by any means. No amount of work done by WMD writers could ever equal the thousands and thousands of pages written concerning Custer’s last battle at the Little Bighorn. We can, however, provide some interesting facts, some of which I had never heard before. --Al ColomboThe American Indian once lived a simple life. The "White Man" began to push westward, encroaching on their lands. The buffalo, perhaps the most cherished and necessary requirement for life by the "Red Man," became a highly monetized and sought after commodity among Whites as well. This caused the various Indian tribes to fight for what they believed to be their people’s most prized possession, aside from their religious beliefs and customs. Between a dwindling buffalo population, Whites trampling on their sacred burial grounds, and the loss of land, the table was set for violence between Red and White men of that era.

What investigators have found is that the official story of Custer's Last Stand and that which actually took place are not the same.

The consequence of this was a clash between the White Man and Indian--between two culturally diverse societies, if you will. The Indian sought retribution by attacking civilian settlers. As we know from history, the United States government sought to solve this problem by establishing Indian Reservations on which the various tribes were expected to live. When Native Americans resisted, the United States Cavalry was sent to intervene by forcing them onto assigned reservations.

In June of 1876, less than a month from the centennial celebration of the United States as a nation, Brevet Major-General George Armstrong Custer was ordered to locate the villages of the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux who had fought General Crook at Rosebud Creek, Montana. It was in the bluffs near the Little Bighorn River that Custer fought his last and final battle.

Custer’s Early Childhood and Education

George Armstrong Custer, born on December 5, 1839, was raised in New Rumley, Ohio. Here he had two younger brothers, two sisters, and three older half-siblings. His father, Emanuel Custer (1806 - 1892), a middle class farmer and blacksmith, taught Custer and the rest of his brood about the reality of politics when he and his siblings were fairly young.

In the words of one historical writer, “Emanuel Custer was an outspoken Democrat who taught his children politics and toughness at an early age” (George Armstrong Custer” (

Thanks to the fact that one of George’s half sisters married a wealthy man, he lived with her in Monroe, Michigan, which is where he attended McNeely Normal School, which later became Hopedale Normal College. To help pay for his room and board, George carried coal for people. His first job after his graduation in 1856, was that of a teaching job in Cadiz, Ohio.

On July 1, 1857, George became a cadet in the class of 1862 at West Point. After four out of five years, he graduated on June 24, 1861. The 5-year program he participated in was cut short because of the Civil War. Although he was considered to have traits natural to commanding officers, his performance at West Point was anything but stellar. In fact, in a graduating class of 34 (there were 79 when they began), George finished dead last. According to historical accounts, 23 of his fellow students dropped out for academic reasons where 22 joined the Confederate Army.

Interesting enough, despite the fact that he had amassed 726 demerits over the course of his four years at West Point, he was accepted as an officer and cavalry commander. Some of his commanding officers recognized his leadership qualities, and so he was brevetted brigadier general at the age of 23.

Custer’s Meeting With Fate at the Little Bighorn

It was because the Sioux and Cheyenne’s altercation with General George Crook near the headwaters of Rosebud Creek that Custer was ordered by General Terry to locate the enemy’s encampments. The famous Chief Crazy Horse led the Sioux and Chiefs Two Moon, Spotted Wolf, and Young Two Moon led the Cheyenne.

General Terry had actually offered four additional companies to accompany him and his 655 men. But Custer declined, stating that he and his men “could whip any Indian village on the Plains.” By some accounts Custer had 750 men of which 261 men perished under his direct command.

Custer drove his men more than 70 miles to an overlook that was approximately 15 miles distant from the Indian encampment. Despite the fact that his men's horses were tired after a speedy 70-mile ride, and despite the fact that his regiment left behind a battery of Gatling guns and boxes of his officer's sabres, he made the order to engage the enemy.

Custer divided the 655 men under his command into three groups, sending them in three different directions with the intent of attacking the Indians from multiple directions, which could have worked if all had gone according to plan. The first group, containing 175 soldiers, was placed under the command of Major Reno; the second was placed under the care of Captain Benteen.

Reno's contingency was prepared to attack the southern end of the Indian encampment but came to realize that number of Indian warrior was far in excess of what was originally expected. What's more, these Indians did not turn tail and run when they caught sight of Reno's group. According to accounts, General Reno then sent a message to Custer. When he did not receive a reply, he decided to launch his attack in a northerly direction.

Movie: Custer's Last Stand, 1991

Reno quickly came to the conclusion that his decision might lead them into a trap, so he decided to fire on the Indian village. However, after nearly 20 minutes, there was only one causality, and yet the reinforcements that Custer had promised had yet to show up. Because Reno and Benteen were unable to join Custer at the assigned time, and perhaps because General Terry was late to arrive, Custer ultimately found himself face to face with more than 4,000 angry Indian warriors.

The End But Not the Conclusion

It was there that Brevet Major-General George Armstrong Custer lost his life, along with his two brothers, a brother-in-law, and a nephew.

Here's where the story gets sketchy and difficult to understand. Evidently Custer was later found among the dead shot in the chest and a bullet hole in the temple of his head. Where most if not all of the other men were mutilated and many left unrecognizable, Custer's body was left intact. Some say that Custer actually took his own life.

Accounts collected later from the Indian warriors who fought on the battlefield said that there were more than one Custer present. According to Steve Busch, author of History Revisited -- Digging for the truth, "Beard told my grandfather that there were many “Custers” on the battlefield that day. Beard claimed that several Calvary officers were wearing buckskins and big hats, and some had even donned blonde wigs" (

According to historic accounts, Major Reno and Captain Benteen were saved by General Terry. President Grant issued a statement regarding the loss, "I regard Custer's Massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary."

After Custer's defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn, General Terry allowed himself to receive unmerited criticism of the tragic event. He chose this course of action in order to maintain Custer’s reputation. In the end, he ordered the court-martial of Major Reno. As a result, Terry did not engage in battle ever again.

" In 1886, he was promoted to major general and was given command of the Division of the Missouri, headquartered in Chicago.Terry became seriously ill in 1888, retired from the army, and died two years later in 1890 in New Haven, Connecticut, where he is buried in Grove Street Cemetery" (Alfred Terry – Fighting the South and the Indians, Legends of America, Legends of America).

Custer's Last Stand | The Wild West | BBC Documentary

In conclusion, because the Battle of Little Bighorn is one of the most studied and written about military campaign of its time, WMD has assembled a variety of information resources for your own personal use. Many are in depth while others not so. We'll visit the issue of General George Custer again in the future, but for now, you have plenty of reading materials to keep you busy.

Additionally, read: Grant’s Indian Wars & the Little Bighorn.
Editor's Note: As always, we welcome you to visit our Weblog on a routine basis ( as well as share your thoughts, comments, and recommendations on how to make WMD even better. You can use the comment box at the end of each story or I welcome you to send us an email: I look forward to hearing from you! --Al ColomboAdditional Reading:

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  1. In 1991, I was driving alone cross-country from Virginia to Seattle, Washington. Having been driving so long and being bored, I made a snap decision to take a detour to visit the Little Big Horn and I am so glad I did. The site is preserved as a National Park and appears like it was was on that fateful day. Prior to taking the tour, I visited the small museum, watched a presentation by the descendants of the Native Americans who took part in the battle, and then took the self-guided tour. As I walked alone up the road, I took in the vastness and isolation of the battlefield. Seeing the small, white stone markers (and the black and white marker for Custer) where the bodies were found and the monument, it couldn't help but make one think of the helplessness and terror the troops must have experienced. No book, picture, or video can properly portray that site. I wish everyone could visit that historic site.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. Even though you are anonymous, I know who you are. You stopped by to pay me a visit in Chicago along the way. I appreciate you stopping by to read our Custer article and to make a comment or two regarding your experience. You are always welcome to do so again, and even more so, you are invited to participate in WMD in any way you wish. Thank you!!

    2. Any photos of your trip, Dusty?


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