little bighorn monument

Little Bighorn: Two sides to the story of Custer’s Last Stand

by Michael

The expression that there are two sides to every story is never truer than at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the site of Custer’s famous Last Stand. Even the site has had two names; it was originally named after the vanquished George Armstrong Custer. In 1991, recognizing modern sensibilities, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the name change to its current one: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Custer’s rash decisions that day cost the lives of all 209 men (including two of his brothers and a nephew) under his immediate command. It didn’t really make sense for him to be honored for his actions.

I’m surprised that such an overwhelming defeat hadn’t happened to Custer sooner. He had been a risk taking soldier earlier in his career in both the Civil War and the Indian Wars. His prior actions in battle led to a few close calls. His continued success despite long odds led to a sense of hubris and destiny on his part.

He also had political aspirations and hoped that further success on the battlefield would be a springboard to a successful candidacy. In typical audacious Custer fashion, he had designs on being president someday. His father was almost a century ahead of Joe Kennedy in pushing for one of his boys to occupy the White House.

Battle of Little Bighorn

Last Stand Hill

I spent two days touring the battlefield. Dominating the area is Last Stand Hill. The headstones of Custer’s men are scattered about like a boxer’s broken teeth and enclosed by a Victorian wrought iron fence. The rest of the battlefield looks much as it would have looked on June 25th, 1876; basically a vast windswept prairie. However the devil is in the details. The tours give you the opportunity to listen to the story of the battle from the vantage point of both the winners and the losers.

On the first day I attended a talk by a Park Ranger about the battle. He gave such a vivid presentation that with the presence of a few war whoops and rifle shots you would have thought you were there during the fight. He spoke of how the Indians had been repeatedly pushed off their lands as American expansion led increasingly further west. How they had finally settled in the Black Hills area of eastern Wyoming. Here they were granted a permanent reservation by the government in 1868.

Unfortunately for the natives, gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874. This was all fine and dandy except that the location of the gold strike was also in the middle of the newly formed reservation. Initially the army tried to keep out the hordes of gold fevered settlers but it was just too much. The Indians left their reservation and started raiding the interlopers. In 1876 the Indian Wars resumed in full.

I was at Little Bighorn at the start of the annual motorcycle rally in nearby Sturgis, South Dakota so there were many bikers at the ranger talk. Hearing this tale of constant betrayal by the American government, one biker turned to another and said, “You can only kick a dog so many times before it jumps up and bites you.”

Not to compare the Indians to dogs of course, but to point out the obvious. You bully someone enough and they come back to bite. The evidence of those teeth marks lies all around the battlefield in the form of stone monuments to fallen soldiers.

The next day I returned for a different tour. Native American guides who are students at nearby Little Big Horn College take visitors on a one hour tour of the battlefield. After boarding the van our guide Brian said, “There are many versions of what happened here that day. Today you are going to hear my version.” As the van drove slowly through the battlefield Brian used an arrow (minus the sharp tip) to point out various sites along the way.

This tour was told more from the Indian’s point-of-view. Brian recounted from the oral legend of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho veterans of the battle. Things I learned the day before from the Park Ranger were placed in a different context.

Custer headstone Little BighornThe Park Ranger recounted how the bodies of Custer and his men were mutilated, Custer having an arrow shoved into his private parts. From my readings I knew that this was a delicate way of saying that he had an arrow thrust into his penis.

He also had two knitting needles pushed into his ears. Legend has it that this was done by Indian women because Custer had refused to listen. Pretty gruesome stuff. Without any background it further paints the warriors as savages; lending further credence to the belief that they were a foe who deserved their eventual fate at the hands of the US government.

During the tour the next day Brian addressed this issue and pointed out why the soldiers had been mutilated. The Indians believed that the afterlife would be pretty similar to one’s life on earth. Therefore they needed their body to continue their same lifestyle. They cut off the soldier’s trigger fingers so they would not be able to fire a gun and hunt in the afterlife. The mutilation of his penis was so Custer would be even further hobbled and not be able to create offspring. Okay, it’s still gruesome but at least now I understand it in context.

As famous as the legend of the battle has become to American school children, the main part of it was over in about 45 minutes. Even when it ended, the rest of the American army that was dug in on a nearby hill didn’t know of Custer’s fate until the next day, after the smoke had cleared.

As heartbreaking as the sight of Last Stand Hill is, even more so is the trail leading down to the Deep Ravine. Here 28 soldiers of Company E broke away from the group on the hill. A Lakota Sioux named Respects Nothing stated “The soldiers at Custer Hill were all killed before those down along the ravine.”

The soldiers made a mad dash for the perceived safety of a ravine by the Little Bighorn River. It was a desperate move made by desperate men. At this point in the battle their fate was already sealed.

Another Indian veteran stated that it was like a buffalo hunt as the soldiers frantically ran down the hill, only to be cut down by the Indians circling them on horseback. There was to be no escaping the ferocious onslaught. I think they probably knew that but gave one last valiant effort to save their lives.

Little Bighorn Deep ravine trail

Looking up at Last Stand Hill from Deep Ravine Trail

Little Bighorn is one of the few battlefield sites in the world where the headstones are placed where the soldiers bodies were found, not lined up in neat rows. At the top of Last Stand Hill the soldiers’ headstones are clustered relatively close together. On the Deep Ravine Trail there was no such modest comfort of dying among your comrades in arms. On the trail the headstones are scattered in ones and twos along a half mile stretch; a literal monument to the killing frenzy leading to the deaths of the soldiers of Company E.

Even when touring such bloody battlefields as Normandy, Verdun and Gettysburg, where men died by the thousands, I haven’t been as touched as I was while walking along the Deep Ravine Trail. As I reached the bottom of the trail I saw a grown man in tears as he looked out over the ravine. I was starting to puddle up myself. He gave me a knowing nod and moved on.

While the tribes won the battle, they realized that in the long run they would lose the war.  A year later one of the battle’s heroes, Crazy Horse, was dead; the night he turned himself in to military custody he was killed by an army guard.

Us February 29, 2012 at 12:20 am

I’m not really sure. Thanks for checking in.

Ed Custard June 25, 2012 at 6:43 am

Nice job on this post in general. But there is one very important misstatement.

It is myth that Custer had presidential aspirations.

This is an oft-repeated meme that actually originates from Indians. It appeared in at least a couple of books that sold very well back in their day, Mari Sandoz’s “The Battle of the Little Bighorn” (a terrible book from a very well-known author) and David Humphreys Miller’s “Custer’s Fall: The Indian Side of the Story” (since renamed, substituting “Native American” for Indian.) Somehow this wound up in the mix, a second-hand attribution to one of Custer’s Crow scouts (who spoke no English) years after his death in words that in no way offer convincing evidence in the face of loads of Custer’s actions and words to the contrary and the political realities of the time that in no way meshed with the notion of him as a prospective candidate.

There is virtual if not literal consensus among modern historians that he had no such presidential desires. Custer loved notoriety. Custer loathed the corruption of government and detested Congress, writing extensively about both over the years. He also had little appetite for the behind-kissing and quid-pro-quos of politics that have nothing to do with good government for the collective whole. Check out “My Life on the Plains” for some of his writings in this regard.

Custer wanted to be two things: a warrior, which he was, and affluent, which he never became. He and Libbie had a strong desire to live in NYC and hob-nob with the lions of society and the arts. He invested in a silver mining venture and had decided to contract for a public speaking tour with a lucrative fee schedule to commence after the Sioux Campaign of 1876. This, of course, was not to be.

And the comparison of Custer’s father to Joseph Kennedy is baseless. Emmanuel Custer, a farmer and a very modest man, has never been recorded as “pushing for one of his sons to occupy the White House.” The Custer family bloodline is also my own. I’d be happy to discuss this further if you are so inclined.

Michael June 25, 2012 at 6:50 am

Thanks for checking in. It’s always nice to hear from someone close to a story.

Ed Custard June 25, 2012 at 7:04 am

Much thought has been given to this notion, which first appeared in David Humphreys Miller’s “Custer’s Fall: The Indian Side of the Story,” since renamed to substitute “Native American” for Indian.

Like many other aspects of the Battle, there’s simply no definitive proof or means of confirmation. The Indians did not know they were fighting Custer at the time and several unit commanders were similarly dressed as he was in buckskin on that day. And of course his body was found atop Last Stand Hill. But this theory would explain some of the apparent confusion on the part of a least two of the five companies that were with Custer at the end.

Further adding to the cloud of mystery is that Indian testimony carries with it its own set of problems. Literally not a single Indian present at the Battle spoke any English. The first interviews of Sioux and Cheyenne participants did not occur for around ten years and most took place even far longer removed from June 25, 1876, in the ’20s and ’30s. Some Indians were in their 80s and older when their testimony was cataloged.

There is no aspect of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand that hasn’t been dissected, debated, analyzed, examined, reexamined, rehashed, restated, and repeated. Just take a look around some of the dedicated message boards, such as those of the Little Big Horn History Alliance and the Little Big Horn Associates. You’ll find this topic among every other possible detail of this eternal mystery that can be discussed.

Martin November 4, 2014 at 10:58 pm

The Battle of the Little Bighorn is my favorite battle in American History.

Not because of any affinity for the 7th Calvary, rather because it was a form of Justice.

The Indians were doomed to lose the larger war, but on this one day Justice was served.

Custer was shot from his saddle early in the fight. His body was transported to Last Stand Hill before the remainder of his company was overrun.

Custer was an extremely arrogant and substandard leader and he received precisely what he was due.

Robert Sampier November 25, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Custer’s. whole life was a series of flukes.A fluke that he even got into West Point.Considering the number of demerits which is still an academy record he was allowed to stay.His early graduation due to the Civil War.Promotion from 2nd Lt to Colonel due to a clerical error.He had seen other MILITARY officers become president why not him.Grant was the latest example,why not have political aspirations.One fatal fluke the Little Big Horn.

Michael November 25, 2015 at 6:21 pm

I hadn’t heard that about the clerical error. I always wondered how he got to be Colonel so quickly. I attended West Point and Custer was still legendary for his demerits.

Mike Taylor April 12, 2016 at 10:12 pm

Just a clarification on your last senence. Crazy Horse was killed by a guard; however it was a Native American guard that did it.

Michael April 12, 2016 at 11:08 pm

Hi Mike,

Do you have a source for that? His killing is kind of murky but everything I’ve read says he was being escorted by Indian guards but it was a regular Army guard who killed him. It’s confusing.


bibol June 19, 2016 at 1:56 pm

In my military OBC 2 of my classmates had so many demerits. That they had to stay after everybody else graduated. They were cheered for being last

Norman January 5, 2017 at 8:25 pm

Sitting Bull was killed buy a Native American guard. Most Historian’s say an white soldier killed Crazy Horse .

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