Garryowen…. and God speed.


(Editor’s note: The insignia of E Company, Seventh Cavalry Regt., United States Army; of the period but not a Little Big Horn battlefield find– author’s personal collection.)

Each year on this day I pause to remember a brave US Army unit who engaged an overwhelming enemy force and through  a combination of poor intel and costly battlefield over confidence, 209 officers and men fought to the death June 25, 1876… just days before America’s Centennial.

And so died the youngest and most storied cavalry officer in the Civil War and the Far West Command, Lt.Col George A. Custer.

Most of what America “knows” about Custer is bullshit; I hope that “Autie” would appreciate the garrison duty observation.

I’ve ground my teeth through more than my share of  pontifications by expert know-it-alls who got all their research from Little Big Man, bad TV “specials” and the horribly written and sourced “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee”… which was so flawed that the Custer Battlefield Museum refused to sell it in its bookstore.

Pearls before swine…. I long ago stopped bothering to argue with or correct them; like the man said, “given the truth and the myth, people prefer the myth.”  

Custer failed for one simple reason, he underestimated his enemy based on the numbers of braves reported by the the forerunner of the Bureau of Indians Affairs as residing peacefully on the reservation. Why was the estimate wrong? Because, like today’s federal government, the Indian Agents were the most corrupt federal employees east of the Potomac River.

In truth the Indian Agents reported 800 Lakota men women and children led by Sitting Bull on the res; on that fateful day in late June, Custer’s Crow scouts would estimated the enemy force at between 1,500 to 2,500 warriors alone located on the banks of the Little Big Horn River –the largest concentration of Indians from six tribes that history has ever recorded.

Taking the battlefield were the Cheyenne, Sans Arcs (ironically, “Without Bows”), Miniconjoux Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Blackfeet and Hunkpapa Sioux.

Into the valley:

James Donovan in his “A Terrible Glory insists that Custer “…. was unfairly characterized as rash and reckless, not just in this battle, but in general.  Yes, he was clearly flamboyant and perhaps even arrogant, but his judgment, while lightening quick, was usually well-considered and proved accurate as measured by his results.  These unfair accusations were mainly the result of self-protection (especially on the part of [Maj. Marcus] Reno) and the well-established way in which the military avoids blame for its disasters.”

Yes, in modern times Custer has become synonymous with failure…with quips and jokes and worse because he “divided his command” and attacked the Indian encampment midday on the 25th. As so often is the case, the truth is much different.

Custer’s envelopment or pincer maneuver, the “hammer and anvil“, is as old as Sun Tzu and had swerved the cavalry officer well in the Civil War during which he distinguished himself as (still) the youngest general in the history of the American military. At  promotion he was just 23 and just a few years out of West Point (USMA class of 1858).

Custer sent Maj. Marcus Reno left in a flanking movement; he personally took the right flank along a ridge and down into the valley while Capt. Frederick Benteen brought up the middle. Taking Companies C, E, F, I, and L, Custer intended to crush the Indians between his attacking troopers, left and right, with Benteen as the “anvil”.

But Benteen’s column was held up by the wagons and supplies and Reno’s attack was blunted by the an unexpected forceful charge from the numerically superior enemy; Custer’s second in command panicked, lost control of his men and all ran through the timber essentially indicating every man for himself.… the command disintegrated was cut down before it could reach the Little Big Horn; the survivors fled to the high ground where they combined forces with Benteen’s command, three miles from where Custer was making his so-called last stand.

In addition to the 209 killed at the Custer position,  69 were killed and 55 wounded in the battle for the Reno-Benteen position which went on  the rest of the 25th and most of the 26th.

In all the 7th Cav suffered 52 percent casualties: 16 officers and 242 troopers killed or died of wounds, 1 officer and 51 troopers wounded.

Every soldier in the five companies with Custer was killed (three Indian scouts and several troopers had left that column before the battle; an Indian scout, Curley, was the only survivor to leave after the battle had begun), although for years rumors persisted of survivors.

The sole surviving animal reportedly discovered on the battlefield later by General Terry’s troops was Captain Keogh’s horse Comanche, above. (Though other horses were believed to have been captured by the Indians.)

It was a devastating day for the Custer family.

Among the dead were Custer’s brothers Boston and Thomas, (a double Recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Civil War) and Custer brother-in-law James Calhoun, and his nephew Henry Reed.

In 1878, the army awarded 24 Medals of Honor to participants in the fight on the Reno-Benteen bluffs position for bravery, most for risking their lives to carry water from the river up the hill to the wounded.

Sitting Bull, contrary to public belief did not fight at the Little Big Horn and the credit for Sioux leadership over June 25-26 is rightly attributed to Gall and Crazy Horse, the latter who was unarmed throughout the battle, contuinuing to lead from the front . Most people have very little understanding of the Indians wars especially the Great Plains.

Far from being a wise, shaman “healers” along the lines of  fake enviro-Indian “Iron Eye” Cody here’s some of Sioux handy work:

Sioux

This is the body of Sgt. Frederick Wyllyams, Troop G, Seventh U.S. Cavalry. He was killed and mutilated by a mixed band of Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians near Fort Wallace, Kansas, 1867.

The ritual slashes on Wyllyams’ body were done after he was killed to indicate the tribal affiliation of the killer.

Robert McGee, was a civilian who survived a Sioux attack thought wounded and scalped by Chief Little Turtle, 1864.

The leading cause of Indians deaths was…. Indians. The modern day equivalent lives on in the ‘hood where the leading cause of death of young, black males is young, black males.

What is history?

Today much is made of the “oral history” Sioux account of the Custer fight; demanding historians regard such accounts speculative… the Plains Indians had no written language and it must be remembered that the warriors who participated in the massacre were understandable reluctant to talk and talk straight about having just dealt the Army its worst defeat in the Indian Wars.

Now political correctness has turned the Custer National Battlefield National Monument (after more than 100 years) into the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument by a law signed by President George H.W. Bush.

The bill also authorized the creation of a cartoonish and inappropriate  Indian memorial to be located on Last Stand Hill near the mass grave of more than 150 U.S. troopers.

Sometime in the 90s I ended my membership in the CBHMA as the group continued to kowtow  to the Indians.

Below is another PC slap in the face of the Army–markers for the enemy- in this case a Cheyenne.

Soon an Indian was named superintendent of the battlefield; once in office he ordered the association’s historical plaque and name plate removed from Ralston’s “Call of the Bugle” painting located in the battlefield visitor’s center.

This terminated the 40-year partnership between the Association and the Park Service; the Indian superintendent’s attitude and arrogance almost destroyed the association’s support of the battlefield and often the Crow Nation’s attempts to a casino or a hotel/ restaurant/mobile home park or some other dignified project.

Because if it’s one thing Indians really care about is honoring the memory of American soldiers who died doing their duty, and lie buried under the hard Montana prairie.

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About Gary Alexander

Volunteer coordinator for veterans support network in North Texas. Now retired from his private psychotherapy practice, I specialized in the diagnosis and treatment posttraumatic stress, working with victim assistance programs, veterans and the Veterans Administration for over 20 years. After being wounded in action in Vietnam, I was medically retired from the Marine Corps and know first hand many of the readjustment difficulties and psychological stresses experienced by today's OIF and OEF veterans. I am available, at minimal cost, to speak at your functions on several subjects including veterans issues, Vietnam, the Medal of Honor, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and critical incident debriefings.
This entry was posted in Medal of Honor, Military, Politics, Veterans, War. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Garryowen…. and God speed.

  1. Bob Mack says:

    Great article, GA. I made my trek over the Bighorn Mountains about 35 years ago & thence onto the Greasy Grass battlefield. Not so PC back then. The thing that struck me the most was the cover the Indians had coming up those deep ravines from the river, also just how far in the middle of nowhere the battlefield is/was –especially 136 years ago. Custer, I’m not sure about. I’ve read so many conflicting stories. Was he a martinet or just a hard disciplinarian? Was he a reckless or just a highly aggressive commander? I know he made enemies in the Washington bureaucracy of the time, so that’s a point in his favor. On the other hand, it’s pretty conclusive that his men killed a lot of women and children during the attack on the Washita (probably with Sheridan’s tacit approval); but, as you say, the Indians Wars are seriously misunderstood these days, as are the Plains tribes, who spent much of their time slaughtering each other during territorial and other squabbles. I always remember the words of the fictional Jack Crabbe in Little Big Man, captured by the Cheyenne as a boy, upon his first sight of an Indian encampment:
    “Well, I see the dump, but where’s the village?”

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  3. Jim Anderson says:

    Just as Gen Custer, thanks to the PC rewriting of our history is viewed as a stupid, arrogant clown, the Indians and Sioux in particular are viewed as nature worshiping, benevolent and the peaceful, rightful heirs of the Dakotas. Yet it was the Sioux, just 125 years prior to Little Bighorn who had drove out, after a series of bloody wars of aggression the Dakota’s (more) original occupants the Arikara (Ree) and Mandan tribes. Wonder if the Sioux pay the survivors of those tribes for their housing/food/alcohol/tobacco/drug rehab??

    No one knows the facts about the Indians or Gen Custer I think because the truth doesn’t fit the liberal/hollywierd agenda. I’m no expert but I too enjoyed Donovan’s “A Terrible Glory”. For a good even handed look at the Frontier Army and the Indians it both fought AND protected I recommend about any work by Robert M. Utley, in about 60 years of writing about it he has around 20 good books.

    Thanks for another good blog Gary. Custer’s Last Stand was a a greatly misunderstood chapter in US history, but the anniversary deserves recognition for the sacrifice of the troops involved.

    • Jim,
      A very good summation.
      Well, we entitled (conservative) white folks just have to struggle alon g the best we can… hampered as we are by not having “high cheekbones”.

      GA

  4. Ken says:

    If this isn’t the most delusional blog on the Internet, It’s a finalist, at least.

  5. KKK says:

    Hi GA! Which chapter of the KKK do you belong to? I’d like to join!

  6. Mark Loucks says:

    The thing to remember is that there is plenty of blame to go around. I think you are a little too far biased against the native Americans. And your slant is a little negative. Native Americans had a way of life which could not survive its collision with Western Civilization. They were carrying on with their life style and traditions, their family relationships and warring ways. American troops never had a shortage of native guides as the Sioux, Comanche, Cheyenne and others we warred against made plenty of enemies amongst the various tribes. They willingly scouted for the US army often to exact vengeance. Too much blame is heaped on Custer. He was a flawed, complex and competent man. His subordinates let him down at the Little Big Horn. History is written by the survivors. The Army and the surviving officers of the 7th from that day wanted Custer to take all the blame. The real truth is a little more complicated.

    • Mark,
      All your comments about Custer are absolutely true and therefore I have nothing to disagree with; my thrust was to set right the reality of the Plains Indians Wars and Custer’s role in them.

      Both sides of my family roots lie in Indian Territory, and courtesy of my great-grandma, a Cherokee lineage. So I disagree with your assertion that I was unfair, I was trying to balance what seems to be the common meme among the historically-challenged that simplistically Custer was a Nazi and the NA’s were “victims”.

      Had I been among the Sioux in those days I too would have tried to protect my nation as best I could.

      I was trying to get across that every man serving in the Far West Command was a United States soldiers and must be respected as such, despite the political spin of the 20th century’s history revisionists. People like Russel Means and others have convinced a lot of the less literate that the truth of this period needs to be rewritten from a left-wing radical view; they have largely succeeded.

      Indigenous peoples always suffer and lose when the “outsiders” arrive, I saw it in Vietnam.

      I truly appreciate your comments,

      “Wado”,
      GA

  7. Sonny Hand says:

    Gary, thank you for an interesting article. (Don’t let the lefties who comment on here get your goose, just consider the source.) I started getting interested in Custer during the writing of “One Good Regiment,” and I have always wanted to get to the Custer Battlefield, which is what I will ALWAYS call it, even when I visit for the first time in May 2014. And you are right to say that the current political correctness is wrong, because it is the soldiers who were doing what their country asked of them whose legacies are being misaligned. Armchair warriors writing in hindsight will always be wrong.

  8. Boni says:

    Yet another brainwashed nazi wannabe littering internet with his biased view of history. Way to go moron! I pity the men you help with your ‘psychotherapy’… or should I say brainwash-therapy?

    • Boni-Maroni….

      Haven’t you trashed up my comments section before?

      I make it a policy to only respond to a comment from those with an IQ over 100.

      But thanks for playing along… you’ll be in our annual drawing for the Home Game version of LeatherneckM31 Commentary.

      GA

  9. Carlos Sabido (UK) says:

    Hello GA.
    Firstly i would just like to let you know that i am not a Native American; even though my email address appears to imply it. I am Mohawke named because of my great liking for James Fenimore Coopers book, Last of the Mohicans, that i have loved since childhood days.

    Anyway to my original reason for this reply. After reading your very interesting piece i can only say to you that you, imho, failed miserably in depicting your point to the reader…..
    quote, “I was trying to get across that every man serving in the Far West Command was a United States soldiers and must be respected as such, despite the political spin of the 20th century’s history revisionists. People like Russel Means and others have convinced a lot of the less literate that the truth of this period needs to be rewritten from a left-wing radical view; they have largely succeeded”, unquote.
    I perused it a few times to see if i was missing the point etc. but i finally came to the conclusion that i was not. To me, this article came/comes across as a complete racist slur on a peoples who treated their own kind in the same way as the white/hispanic/black people of the time (and still to this day) also acted to their own kind.

    As for the sad image of, Sgt. Frederick Wyllyams (may he rest in peace), this kind of behaviour was introduced to Indian tribes by the early white Colonial British and the latter day frontiersmen. Scalping was not the practice of the indian nations…..it was the practice of the white man!
    Thankyou for reading. Respectfully your’s, Gary.
    Mohawke2012.

    • Carlos,

      From an 10-second wikipedia grab, that’s all it took (here’s the link—- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scalping:

      “Certain tribes of Native Americans practiced scalping, in some instances up until the end of the 19th century. Of the approximately 500 bodies at the Crow Creek massacre site, 90 percent of the skulls show evidence of scalping. The event took place around 1325 AD.

      “While scalping was used in the Pequot War in the 1630s, scalping did not appear in the laws of the American colonies until the mid-1660s.

      “The Jesuit Relations of 1642-1643, states, in regard to an Iroquois attack on Hurons and French near Montreal, “Three of these they beat to death, — scalping them, and carrying away their hair, — and take the two others captive”.

      “In the 1710s and ’20s, New France engaged in frontier warfare with the Natchez people and the Meskwaki people, during which both sides would employ the practice.”

      I’d say that 1325 AD was way long before the “discovery” of America and the exploration by Western Europeans, wouldn’t you?

      You need to spend less time calling your opponent a “racist” and learn to cobble together all the facts that are available; you win by defeating arguments, not ad hominem attacks.

      My point was very simple…. the US forces are American soldiers and anyone else on the battle field is an enemy.

      Clearly most of what you know about “Indians” is left wing propaganda…. do your own research and make your own conclusions….
      Regards,
      GA

    • Karen Quilty says:

      Hear hear i couldn’t agree more

  10. John Poulos says:

    Thank you for your commentary. You helped clear up a few things, that laid in the back of my mind. In 2012, my wife and I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. We looked forward to spending a day at the monument, and for the most part were enthralled by the fact that we were actually walking on the same grounds, that saw this battle occur. (Of course, sticking to the laid out pathways) After walking from the visitor center to the national cemetery, site overlook, mass grave, and then coming up, onto the Indian modern art thing, our solemness was broken up with a sense of: political correctness?? So tired of it.
    Thanks again,
    John

    • Thanks for the comments….

      Back in the 90s I cancelled my membership to the then Custer Battlefield and Museum Assn. after it changed its name to the Little Big Horn blah blah which occurred after Congress changed the battlefield and cemetery from Custer Battlefield Historical & Museum Association

      Soon thereafter a far left Indian was named Park Superintendent there and basically everything went to hell as far as I’m concerned. (Here’s some background… I disagreed with Neil, but have the utmost respect for his work; we just agreed to disagree…..http://www.friendslittlebighorn.com/neilmangum.htm)

      More people would have a better understanding of the battle of you entered the park south of the Reno-Benteen Hill…. that way everything would flow chronically as you follow basically Custer’s path to culminate at Last Stan Hill and the monument.

      I wrote several letters to various officials to no available… probably would have problems with individual land owners and $$. Anyway, if I take people there I always drive to Reno-Benteen first.

      Every time I’m there I experience a feeling I get only there. There’s lots of documented and unexplained sightings by staff and visitors over the years.

      Thanks for dropping by…
      Garryowen,
      GA

  11. Pete lovell says:

    As for the monument of the fallen Cheyenne warrior, Seems to me he was defending his country . Not the other way round. Again it’s proven that the victor writes the history as well as being the recipient of any booty. Just sayin.

    • Thanks for dropping by…

      First, this is what always happens to indigenous people since the Neanderthals were overwhelmed by modern humans; I think the Plains Indians were defending a way of life, that nomadic life was counter to the settlers’ concept of property, land, boundaries, fences and which doomed the natives from the start.

      Indian “history” cannot be trusted in the sense that we trust ours which is written contemporaneously (in a first draft sense) with the events, and is then refined, added tgo , studied and challengers with other known facts to produce what was most likely to have happened. (An apropos example is The Custer Fight–we know a thousand times more now than did anyone living in 1876).

      Indians, having no written language, photography, science, or formal education, produced a history which was part religious, part lore, tradition, and myth which we would certainly expect from nomads… it was the same the world over.

      It was true to their belief, but it was not objective history as we know it. So in a way you’re correct, the winners got to write the history but it doesn’t mean it was wrong or slanted; it fact we might say that the people of Gall, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, el al, get a far better treatment in American history today than they ever did in the 1800s when their POV, their story-telling, was essentially ignored by whites.

      Yep, the spoils do go to the victor… by that’s just the better mousetrap isn’t it? War is the final solution when worlds collide; “we” won because we were the more advanced civilization. “We” invented gunpowder, guns and the implements of war which will almost invariably win out over an opponent whose armament lags far behind. Once again the events of June 25-26 prove it…while the troopers were armed with the single-shot Springfield carbine Model 1873 and the Colt Single Action Army revolver Model 1873 which was infamous for jamming.

      Ironically, the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors had a number of Henry and Spencer repeating rifles, which provided a higher rate of fire than the single-shot Springfield Model 1873 carbines carried by the cavalry. Plus the Plains Indians’ were renowned for their accuracy, distance and rapid-fire power of the long bow. And as elements of Custer’s and Reno-Benteen’s forces were overwhelmed, their firearms were turned against the surviving cavalry.

      Technology usually wins the day… even when it’s stolen.

      The Plains Indian (like the Confederacy) was doomed from the start and the Little Big Horn was a huge but Pyrrhic victory, but as the village separated and headed for the Black Hills, they knew their way of life would soon be over and many more would die.

      Pete, I’m sure I’ve over-written with this lengthy response to your direct observation, but I have a real passion for this particular corner of Western history and I welcome and appreciate each and everyone who takes time to read my posts. As you can see, I don’t get back here much… after seven years of writing almost daily I burned out, but anytime someone makes a comment, pro or con, I am encouraged to get back in the saddle… so, thanks.

      Garryowen,
      GA

      • W. Asichu says:

        “We” invented gunpowder”? … are you including the Chinese as “We”? Doesn’t do much for the credibility of your diatribe.

      • Had you noticed, “we” was in quotation marks…. doesn’t say much for you comprehension of reading at a college level, now does it? You observe… “diatribe”, yet not a single word of rebuttal… why waste your no doubt very valuable time?

  12. Pete lovell says:

    Thanks Gary, I didn’t expect a reply. I saw a documentary several years ago about a forensic dig at the little big horn battle site. What was interesting about it was that they totally rewrote the account about a last stand by Custer. They pinpointed the site of bullets and I believe shell casings , as well as arrowheads at the site. What it showed was an army in absolute disarray. It showed an army not cohesive and rallying together but an army that was chased down to almost the last man.
    Obviously to appease the uneasy populous it became necessary to get some kind of victory out of a massive defeat. With no one to dispute the history, but a gang of savages with no written account . The white Americans history became folklore and legendary both militarily and within the movie industry later on .
    Yes you are 100% correct I think when you say that sitting bull et al get a better press now than then. Is that because as a race we feel more pain for the plight of native peoples world wide or is it because we are racist if we don’t conform .
    Pleasure reading your posts Gary , I will continue to follow and digest. Whether I agree or disagree is irrelevant. What is relevant is that people should be able to have different views without being seen as a threat to society.
    Get back in that saddle bud .
    Pete lovell

  13. Pete… here are a couple of links to a news story and the books that was produced after the massive digs the followed the wild fires in 1984.

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-05-23/news/8502010973_1_custer-battlefield-national-monument-custer-buffs-george-armstrong-custer

    “The major finding to date, he said, is that the Indians who attacked Custer had more modern weapons than did the troopers who lost the battle.

    “While the cavalry wielded outdated single-shot Springfield rifles, the Indians had at least 60 repeating Henry, Winchester and Spencer models, Scott said.

    “Computer displays on a television screen also confirmed another battle legend: that while the majority of Indians with rifles attacked Custer at the top of the hill, a party of Sioux armed with bows and arrows wiped out a company led by Custer`s brother-in-law, Capt. Thomas Calhoun, lower on the hill.”

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-05-23/news/8502010973_1_custer-battlefield-national-monument-custer-buffs-george-armstrong-custer

    Regards,
    GA

  14. Keith Patton says:

    Just finished the book “Lakota Noon”, it is the first book that honestly tries to tell what took place on the Battlefield based on the Survivor’s telling. The Author took great pains to unravel the difference in orientation of the battle field from the White and Indian perspective, something that has caused great contradictions and hence discarding of the Indian accounts by White historians. He also puts the Indian accounts into a tightly controlled timeline, something that also caused consternation in the past and called into question what the Indians said. He takes issue with some of Fox’s conclusions based on the first forensic study of the battlefield, as well as debunking some of the Indian “leaders” contributions. He shows that some of the actions attributed to some of the central Indian characters like Crazy Horse, just could not have happened due to the distances, and timing. I have read most of the respectable histories, and a few of the revisionist garbage variety and I have to say that Lakota Noon does a pretty good job detailing a middle ground. He shows a picture that was not quite as heroic as Errol Flynn’s version, but not an out and out route like Fox depicts based on forensics and gives a very reasoned account of why. In most cases the Indians themselves say Custer’s men gave a pretty good accounting of themselves, especially at Last Stand Hill, where most of the Indian casualties took place. Well worth the read.

  15. Keith Patton says:

    The comments posted in opposition to your honesty shows just how far our educational system has taken historical revisionism to heart. I recall the wave of revisionism in the 1970’s with respect to Native Americans and the Indian wars. As stated by another commenter, it is doubtful if the Whites would have subdued the Native American Tribes as rapidly as they did if not for the help of other Tribes who were sworn enemies of the hostile tribes. It may need to be pointed out to those suffering from historical myopia, but the Crow, owners of the reservation surrounding the battlefield, were fighting FOR the cavalry and AGAINST the Sioux and Cheyenne. Funny how things work out. I have walked the battlefield numerous times, once in the early 80’s right after Fox’s study, and again in the late 80’s and in 2002. I could see the changes coming driven by PC. I live in Texas, and the Indian wars down here are all but forgotten, all the Indians having been pushed up into Oklahoma. That the Indian wars against the Comanche by the Anglo settlers started here in the 1820’s, a full fifty years before the Bighorn has gotten lost. The Sioux and Cheyenne didn’t amount of a pimple on the ass of a Comanche. The Comanche owned the other tribes and went from a small offshoot of the Shoshone from the Wind Rivers to dominating an area comprising parts of five states, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas, says something. They were totally and unceasingly ruthless to both whites and other tribes. Even after they were relegated to their reservation in OK, they still continued to raid into Texas till 1876.

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