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Guns and Bravery: Is This What Really Happened at the Little Bighorn?

By: Warren Gray

“They never fought us with swords, but with guns and revolvers...
We were better-armed than the (soldiers)...it was just like killing sheep.”

— Rain-in-the-Face interview, 1894.

“They fired with needle guns (single-shot carbines). We replied with
magazine guns, repeating rifles...They could not stand up under such a fire.”

— Sioux Chief Sitting Bull.

“The Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they had ever fought.”

— Sioux Chief Red Horse, 1881.

We’ve all heard the official government version of the tragic story of Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. What is known, beyond any doubt, is that Lieutenant Colonel (brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer, age 36, entered the Little Bighorn Valley of south-central Montana on June 25, 1876, with approximately 657 soldiers of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, expecting to find no more than 800 hostile Indians. But they swiftly encountered a massive encampment of approximately 8,000 to 12,000 Sioux and Cheyenne natives, of whom at least 2,500 to 3,000 (according to Chief Crazy Horse) were young warriors between the ages of 15 and 37. But because of the tall, leafy, cottonwood trees along the winding banks of the Little Bighorn River, Custer’s isolated regiment could only see one-sixth of the assembled Indian village in advance.

George Custer then made the serious, tactical error of dividing his own forces not once, but four times, first leaving Company B, his slow-moving, pack train of supplies, behind, as he advanced into the valley with three large battalions, totaling more than 512 cavalrymen. Then, he sent Captain Fredrick Benteen south with 115 men on a reconnaissance mission, and eventually dispatched Major Marcus Reno to lead the attack on the village from the southeast at 3:03 PM with 177 men.

Custer himself proceeded along the ridgeline east of the river with five remaining companies and divided them once again at the head of Medicine Tail Coulee at approximately 4:00 PM, sending C, I, and L Troops forward along the ridge, while E and F Troops rode down the coulee to attack the hostile village directly across the river. Sioux Chief Rain-in-the Face later remarked that, “We knew they made a mistake when they separated.” The old expression, “Divide and conquer,” refers to dividing the enemy’s force, never your own, and even the Indians clearly understood that.

Reno’s ill-fated attack was repulsed by the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, who outnumbered his battalion by 14 to one, and he re-crossed the Little Bighorn River at 4:00 PM, wisely taking the high ground there, where he was joined by Benteen’s battalion at 4:20 PM. At virtually the same time, Troops E and F were two-and-a-half miles away, about to cross the river to attack the huge Indian camp from the east. And this is where the official version of the story, as told by the National Park Service and the U.S. Army, differs substantially from the Army’s own initial reports, and the direct, eyewitness testimony of countless witnesses on both sides of the battle.

As Colonel W.A. Graham expertly explained in his ground-breaking book, “The Custer Myth,” in 1953, “It began in controversy and dispute, but because a devoted wife (Libbie Custer) so skillfully and forcefully painted her hero (George Custer) as a plumed knight in shining armor...and because her hero went out in a blaze of glory that became the setting for propaganda which caught and held, and still holds, the imagination of the American people, what began in controversy and dispute has ended in myth... magnified, distorted, and disproportioned by fiction, invention, imagination, and speculation. The Custer known to the average American is a myth...There is a Custer mystery...and out of this very fact grew the fictions, inventions, and fantastic legends that together form the Custer Myth.”

To snatch some semblance of victory from the jaws of a stunning defeat during the nation’s joyous centennial celebrations just two weeks after the horrific battle, the Army and most of the U.S. government literally abandoned their own after-action reports, assessments, and eyewitness testimony, in favor of perpetuating Libbie Custer’s fanciful myth that her flamboyant husband, George, “died with his boots on,” his long, blonde hair waving in the wind (even though he had cut it short before the battle), with a pistol in one hand and a saber (although no sabers were carried that day) in the other, heroically standing tall atop Last Stand Hill until the final bullet of the battle was fired.

It was a wonderful, inspiring story, a grandiose fairy tale, but totally at odds with the actual eyewitness testimony and the Army’s own reports. To foster this dazzling myth of revisionist history, Custer had to ride along the upper ridgeline with Troops C, I, and L, to eventually reach Custer Hill alive. That’s the U.S. government’s official story, and they’re stubbornly sticking to it, even today.

But before we learn what really happened, we need to take an in-depth look at the guns of the Little Bighorn, because Custer’s remaining battalion of approximately 225 men, including C, E, F, I, and L Troops, was not only severely outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the Indians, but was hopelessly outgunned, as well. The enlisted cavalrymen were mostly armed with Springfield 1873, single-shot carbines in .45-55 or .45-70-calibers, prone to jamming with soft, copper-cased ammo, with 100 rounds of ammunition per man, including 50 rounds at the ready, and a further 50 in the pack train, which had been left far behind.

Each man also carried a Colt 1873 Single-Action Army revolver, a fine weapon, with six rounds loaded, and 18 more rounds on their ammo belts. These revolvers were zeroed for 25 yards before the battle, but the Army later zeroed their Colts for 50 yards, as a result of lessons learned at the Little Bighorn. Large hunting knives were also plentiful, mainly for skinning wild game.

To travel quickly and lightly across the rough prairie, Custer had left behind three, six-barrel Colt 1866 Gatling guns in .50-70 at Fort Abraham Lincoln, North Dakota. While it would have been nice to have these rapid-fire (each averaging six rounds per second) weapons available for the battle, their loss ultimately would not have changed the inevitable outcome. Even General Nelson A. Miles, a veteran Indian-fighter, later remarked that, “I’m not surprised that poor Custer declined. They are worthless for Indian fighting.” All sabers were likewise left behind at the fort, as they were deemed too noisy, rattling and clanking during travel, and might alert the Indians to their presence.

The cavalry officers were permitted to acquire their own weapons, which were usually more expensive, and far superior in quality, to the enlisted troops’ weapons. For example, George Custer carried an 1875 Remington No. 1 Sporting Rifle in .50-70, literally a “buffalo gun,” and according to most descriptions, he wore a pair of nickel-plated, British-made, 1867 Webley RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) double-action revolvers, probably in .442-caliber, and carried an 1863 National Arms Company single-shot derringer in .41 Rimfire. He also wore a very large hunting knife, and French-manufactured, brass, Lemaire binoculars.

His brother, Captain (brevet Lieutenant Colonel) Thomas Ward (“Tom”) Custer, age 31, a two-time winner of the highly-prestigious Medal of Honor during the Civil War, has been variously described as carrying either a 15-shot, 1873 Winchester repeating rifle in .44-40, a Springfield 1873 Officer’s Model in .45-70, or a Springfield 1873 sporting rifle in .45-70. There is no absolute certainly here, but if he indeed owned the Winchester, it would have been virtually the only lever-action repeating rifle in the entire regiment. The Rain-in-the-Face, 1873 Winchester rifle may support this scenario, and I’ll describe it later.

Tom also owned three revolvers: a French Galand-Sommerville in .442-caliber, a captured, 5-shot, Confederate (British) Kerr in .44-caliber, and a double-action, Webley RIC in .442-caliber, just like George’s famous pair. The first two guns were left behind at Fort Lincoln, and he apparently took the Webley into battle with him. He also carried a large hunting knife, as did most of the officers and men.

Captain Myles Walter Keogh, an Irishman decorated for valor in the Papal War of 1861 in Italy, was armed with an 1874 Sharps Sporting Rifle in .45-70, a Webley RIC revolver in .442, engraved with his initials, “MWK,” and a very large hunting knife. First Lieutenant James Ezekiel Porter, commanding I Troop under Myles Keogh, carried a nickel-plated, Smith and Wesson Model 3 in .44-caliber.

In addition, at least five enlisted men under Major Reno’s command were armed as long-range sharpshooters with scoped rifles, most likely 1874 Sharps buffalo guns in .45-70, and four of these surviving men, Sergeant George Geiger and Privates Henry Mechlin, Otto Voit, and Charles Windolph, were each subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for their expert covering sniper fire over a 20-minute period, while 15 more soldiers braved intense, enemy gunfire to retrieve water from the river for the wounded. All 15 troopers also earned the Medal of Honor, which was the only available award for bravery at that time in U.S. history.

In contrast, the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors were far better-armed. From 1984 to 1985, excavations at the Little Bighorn Battlefield by archeologists Douglas D. Scott and Richard Fox, Jr., unearthed 2,361 bullets and shell casings, representing at least 371 different guns of 45 different types, including 69 Springfield rifles, and numerous Colt revolvers, Henry repeaters, Sharps hunting rifles, Winchesters, Remingtons, Smith and Wessons, Ballards, Starrs, and other types of firearms.

The Indians had at least 192 repeating rifles, including 124 Winchester 1866s in .44 Rimfire, favored by Sioux Chief Crazy Horse himself (who also sported a Remington .44 revolver), at least six Winchester 1873s in .44-40, and 62 or more lever-action, 15-shot, 1860 Henry rifles in .44 Henry Rimfire, whereas Custer’s men had, at most, one Winchester repeater.

In addition, the Indian warriors had countless single-shot rifles, including 27 Sharps 1874 “Buffalo Rifles” in .50-70, various carbines, bows and arrows, tomahawks, revolvers, shotguns, muskets, knives, lances, and war clubs. The cavalrymen never stood a chance against such intense and overwhelming firepower. The Indians say that Crazy Horse alone killed 16 soldiers on Custer Hill, and 15 more on Reno Hill, which may be only a slight exaggeration, but is entirely plausible.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn thus rapidly devolved into two actual engagements more than four miles apart, the Battle of Custer Hill and the Battle of Reno Hill. What is truly astonishing is that George Custer and 220 more soldiers were virtually wiped out to the last man within the brief span of 55 minutes, whereas Major Reno’s 292 men father south relentlessly fought the very same Indians for at least 14 total hours over two days, and sustained only 11-percent casualties; yet it was Reno who was scorned, maligned, and severely admonished afterward, although he was very clearly the more successful, battlefield commander.

The archeological excavations further revealed that the soldiers on Custer Hill fired only 1,000 to 1,800 rounds of ammunition during the entire, 55-minute battle there, averaging only about six rounds per man. Why were so few rounds fired over the course of nearly an hour? For one thing, numerous Indian eyewitnesses reported a large number of cavalry suicides atop Custer Hill as the situation grew more desperate with each passing minute, and many of the wounded, probably including George Custer himself were killed by their own comrades.

An after-action assessment of the positioning of the bodies and the number of shell casings around each man revealed that apparently only four soldiers truly put up a sustained and determined defense, men whose utterly heroic actions that day were more than worthy of recognition with the Medal of Honor, which they would never receive, in order to perpetuate Libbie Custer’s highly-aggrandized version of the story.

We must now return to the myth versus the reality of the battle, and discover what really transpired that fateful day. According the General Alfred H. Terry’s (Custer’s immediate commander) official report, Custer personally led Troops E and F down Medicine Tail Coulee toward the Indian village with about 90 men, boldly attacking across the Little Bighorn River, but “had unsuccessfully attempted to cross.”

This was later verified by the testimony of at least 15 Indian eyewitnesses, three of whom were Custer’s own Crow scouts, paid employees of the U.S. Army, and two cavalrymen farther downstream, Privates Peter Thompson and James Watson, all of whom saw Custer himself at the river. Thompson was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Reno Hill the next day. Conversely to these 17 eyewitnesses who personally saw Custer at the river, there were absolutely zero battlefield witnesses who saw George Custer standing, or even alive, at any time after the failed river crossing.

Major Marcus Reno himself, an actual participant in the battle, accurately confirmed this incident just four years later, writing that, “We now know that Custer headed down to the river at Medicine Tail Coulee...(and) came face-to-face with 10 Sioux warriors (actually, four Cheyenne and six Sioux), all of whom fired on him. One of the 10...claimed to have killed Custer himself. Custer, shot through the chest, was carried away on horseback by one of his men, and his brother, Tom Custer took command.”

Pretty Shield, age 20, the wife of Custer’s Crow scout, Goes Ahead, further confirmed that, “(Custer) went ahead, rode into the water of the Little Bighorn...and he died there, died in the water...the other blue soldiers ran back up the hill...the general fell in the water...The monument that white men have set up to mark the spot where Son-of-the-Morning Star (George Custer) fell down is a lie. He fell in the water.”

Indeed, White Cow Bull, aged 28, a Cheyenne Warrior, said that he killed or badly wounded an officer in buckskin clothing with a “big hat,” a “moustache,” and a “heavy rifle,” who was riding a “sorrel horse with...four white stockings.” This detailed, physical description perfectly matches only one cavalry officer and one horse on the entire battlefield, George Armstrong Custer and his Kentucky, thoroughbred, sorrel stallion, “Vic” (short for “Victory.”) “The man who seemed to be the soldier chief was firing his heavy rifle fast. I aimed my repeater at him and fired. I saw him fall out of his saddle and hit the water.” At the end of the battle, White Cow Bull climbed Custer Hill and positively identified the body of officer that he shot. It was, indeed, George A. Custer.

Colonel W.A. Graham noted in “The Custer Myth” in 1953 that, “Custer charged and was repulsed on the north bank of the Little Bighorn.”

Author David Humphries Miller, who wrote “Custer’s Fall” in 1957, personally interviewed 72 Indian eyewitnesses to the battle between 1935 and 1955 in their own, Lakota language, including White Cow Bull, age 91 in 1939, writing what was probably the best-researched book ever published about the Little Bighorn. Miller described it this way: “Just then, at midstream, the unbelievable happened. Custer, the great, invincible, soldier-chief, golden-haired hero of the effete East, self-styled swashbuckler of the Plains, Son-of-the-Morning-Star to the Crows, Long Hair to the other tribes, fell, a hostile bullet through his left breast.”

Doctor Thomas B. Marquis added in his 1976 Custer book, “Keep the Last Bullet for Yourself,” that, “General Custer was killed rather early in the battle...he was not one of the final, surviving group...The presence of Tom Custer’s body intimates that he was the final commander, after both General Custer and Captain Yates had been killed...it may be that Keogh also had been killed.”

Nathaniel Philbrick’s, “The Last Stand,” published in 2010, was glowingly described by the Los Angeles Times as “an engrossing, thoughtfully-researched and tautly-written account of a critical chapter in American history. With strong, narrative skill, offering broad context and narrow detail, Philbrick recounts a story and, in the process, dismantles old myths piece by piece.” Philbrick concluded that George Custer was shot very early in the battle, that Tom Custer probably shot his mortally-wounded brother in the head at the last minute to prevent his capture alive by the Indians, and that Tom Custer was the last soldier to die.

More recently, Phillip Thomas Tucker, Ph.D., a noted, Department of Defense historian, published “Death at the Little Bighorn” in January 2017, stating that, “A number of reliable and collaborating, Indian accounts...have revealed that (George) Custer was hit...while leading the charge across the ford.”

The overwhelming mountain of evidence clearly shows that George A. Custer bravely led the cavalry charge at Medicine Tail Coulee, but, as so often happens to soldiers at the very front of any formation in battle, he was, in fact, shot out of his saddle and mortally wounded in the chest, just below the heart, at approximately 4:21 PM, while in the middle of the Little Bighorn River.

His bugler, Corporal Henry C. Dose, and his half-Santee-Sioux, half-French-Canadian scout, Michel “Mitch” Bouyer, were also hit in the initial volley fired by four Cheyenne warriors, including White Cow Bull, who shot Custer, and Bobtailed Horse, who shot Dose. Ironically, all three men apparently lived until near the end of the battle, when Dose was killed by an Indian woman, the wife of Sioux Chief Crow Dog, at the edge of the village, Bouyer was killed near the river’s edge by Sioux warriors, although his body was never actually found (a skull believed to be his was recovered in 1984), and George Custer was shot in the left temple with a .44 or .45-caliber revolver, probably a cavalry weapon, according to the Army. George was right-handed, however, and there were no powder burns on his skin, so this was not considered a suicide.

Accurately describing the rest of the battle would take at least an entire book, but the most frequently asked question would be, “If George Custer wasn’t the last soldier standing, then who was?” There were actually two very courageous men, both of them captains, standing 430 yards apart, one atop Custer Hill and one down its southern slope, whom the Indian eyewitnesses described separately as the very last to fall.

Wooden Leg of the Northern Cheyenne said that “the last man killed” had “a big, strong body” and a “long, black moustache,” and was “down the hills, toward the river.” Two Moon added that, “One man rides up and down the line, shouting all the time...He was a brave man...He wore a buckskin shirt, and had long, black hair and moustache...He fought hard with a big knife.” This description exactly and exclusively matches that of Captain Myles Keogh, age 36, who was found with five dead, Indian ponies around his position.

Interestingly enough, Wooden Leg also saw the dead body of George Custer’s favorite, female, Scottish staghound, “Tuck,” atop Custer Hill after the battle. She apparently got away from Private (Orderly) John W. Burkman, who was left behind with the pack train before the battle began, and loyally followed Custer to the bitter end.

Keogh was the only cavalryman whose body was not mutilated at all after the battle, a clear indication of reverence and respect for his amazing courage. His famous horse, Comanche, was not killed or captured by the Indians for the same reasons, and was later found alive, literally the only surviving, cavalry eyewitness to the battle at Custer Hill. Sitting Bull called Myles Keogh “the bravest of the brave,” and incredibly, when Sitting Bull was later killed by Indian police at the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, he was wearing one of Myles Keogh’s Papal medals (the Pro Petri Sede, or Medal for the See of Saint Peter) around his neck as a talisman of extraordinary courage and sacrifice.

But, at almost exactly the same instant that Keogh was killed, at approximately 5:16 PM, another captain in buckskins was about to meet his own fate. In 1881, Chief Red Horse of the Sioux told Colonel Garrick Mallory that, “Among the soldiers was an officer who rode a horse with four white feet (only George Custer’s personal horse, ‘Vic,’ met this description)...the Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they had ever fought...I saw this officer in the fight many times, but I did not see his body (which was likely mutilated beyond recognition)...This officer wore a large-brimmed hat and a deerskin coat (matching Tom Custer’s description perfectly.) This officer saved the lives of many soldiers by turning his horse and covering the retreat. (The) Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they ever fought.”

Wooden Leg noted that, “One wounded officer, a captain, still lived...He raised himself upon an elbow, glaring wildly at the Indians, who shrank from him, believing him returned from the spirit world. A Sioux warrior (probably Rain-in-the-Face) wrested the revolver from his nerveless hand and shot him through the head. Thus died the last of Custer’s battalion, his identity unknown.”

Captain Frederick Benteen, an actual participant in the battle, cited for bravery, observed upon finding the bodies on Custer Hill that, “Only where General Custer was found was there evidence of a stand.” This was Tom Custer’s position as acting commander, and it was here that the Indians sustained their heaviest casualties.

We must remember that, after George was seriously wounded at the river and carried to the top of the hill, Tom now had full access to George’s horse, Vic, and all of George’s weapons, giving Tom, the valiant, two-time, Medal of Honor winner, a total of two rifles, one of which was likely a rapid-fire, Winchester repeater, three fast-firing, double action, Webley revolvers, two large knives, and perhaps the best and fastest steed in the whole regiment. David Michlovitz concluded for Warfare History Network on August 27, 2015, that, “At the end, Tom fought like a demon possessed.”

Rain-in-the-Face, who had been captured, imprisoned, and beaten by Tom Custer in December 1874, before escaping in April 1875, was virtually the only Sioux warrior who actually recognized both of the Custer brothers on sight. At the very end of the Little Bighorn battle, he definitely attacked the top of Custer Hill, and saw Tom Custer, known as Little Hair to the Indians, still alive. In 1894, he confessed that, “I saw Little Hair...He knew me. I laughed at him and yelled at him...I shot him with my revolver. My gun (rifle) was gone, I don’t know where...That’s all there is to tell.”

Then, in 1905, Rain-in-the-Face made a deathbed confession, “Yes, I killed him. I was so close that the powder from my gun (revolver) blackened his face.” The famous, Sioux warrior admitted to using a revolver at the Little Bighorn, but was later photographed (about 1880 to 1883) in possession of an 1873 Winchester repeating rifle, serial number 487, manufactured in 1874, in .44-40, with the capital letter “C” crudely engraved on an oval, metal plate on the stock. Was this, in fact, Tom Custer’s gun?

Based upon a mountain of physical evidence and compelling, eyewitness testimony, on March 11, 2011, I officially and posthumously nominated Captains Tom Custer and Myles Keogh, as well as First Lieutenant James Calhoun and First Sergeant James Butler, for the Medal of Honor through formal, U.S. Army channels. Over the next two years of back-and-forth correspondence, instead of earnestly cooperating, the Army inexplicably threw every possible impediment in my way, holding these four true, American heroes to the exceptionally-stringent standards of the 1942-to-present-day version of the Medal of Honor, instead of the original, simple standards of the 1876 Medal of Honor, which was previously earned by 24 surviving, cavalry recipients under Major Reno’s command, for the very same battle.

The Army demanded “incontestable and verifiable, first-hand knowledge regarding their individual actions,” which Chief Red Horse and many others had certainly provided in the past, but the 1876 version of the medal, according to the Army’s own written criteria, was for soldiers “as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action,” which was virtually the only requirement at that time. In 1876, there was no requirement for nomination through the military chain of command, no requirement for any testimony or witnesses, and no limit on the number of medals that could be awarded to each soldier. The four men that I nominated all certainly met this official standard.

It was readily apparent that in order for the Army to award these prestigious medals, they would have to tell the truth about what really happened at the Little Bighorn, officially dispelling the enduring, Custer Myth once and for all. In the end, they declined, not once but twice (in February 2012 and January 2013), and the revisionist, fantasy history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is still the U.S. government’s final word on the subject, despite the incredible wealth of evidence to the contrary.

President Abraham Lincoln, the commander in chief for George Custer, Tom Custer, and Myles Keogh, who all fought bravely for the Union in the Civil War, once said that, “A nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.” A full century later, President John F. Kennedy stated that, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” How will this nation honor and remember “the bravest man the Sioux ever fought,” and what does that say about us as Americans?

So, let’s take just a moment to honor the greatest, unrecognized hero of the Battle of the Little Bighorn by reading the official, proposed, U.S. Army citation for Captain Tom Custer’s unprecedented, third Medal of Honor nomination: “After his regimental commander was mortally wounded, Captain Custer took command and relocated his five companies to higher ground in the face of an overwhelming, enemy onslaught. Encircled by well over 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, he boldly issued orders for the defense of the regiment, assessed his commander’s medical condition, and fought heroically until the very end of the battle under a most-galling fire, most likely the last cavalryman to fall in action.

“As the best-armed soldier in the field that day, he inflicted the greatest volume of casualties upon the surrounding Indians, making by far the most fierce and stubborn, last stand on the entire battlefield, according to the sheer volume of empty shell casings near his body, cavalry after-action assessments, and the later admissions of enemy leaders. Indian warriors described him as ‘the bravest man...the last to die,’ courageously fighting to the very end, and rising up to fire one final shot before being killed in action while valiantly defending the regimental headquarters staff at the cost of his own life. Chief Red Horse vividly described Captain Custer as ‘the bravest man the Sioux ever fought.’”

Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, eight more military qualification badges, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.