Custer’s Last Stand That Wasn’t

By Gregory Myers on Saturday, May 10, 2014
Gen._Phillip_H._Sheridan,_and_Generals_recognized.,_Gen._George_A._Custer,_Gen._Thomas_C._Devin,_Gen._James_W...._-_NARA_-_528308

In A Nutshell

The commonly held belief, largely due to propaganda after his death, states that General George Armstrong Custer (seated at right in the photo above) held a heroic last stand when he was outnumbered by attacking native forces. However, recent investigations have shown that Custer’s men were the aggressors, and still were when they died. There was no brave last stand.

The Whole Bushel

General George Armstrong Custer is a pretty polarizing figure right off the bat, most people either like him or loathe him, but like everyone else he was just a man. Albeit, a very, very eccentric man. Custer was known among his men for having very strange habits. When first starting his military career back during the battle of Gettysburg, Custer had already decided to do things in his own unique way. He fashioned his own uniform entirely out of black velvet and made sure it was all done up with gold lacing so he would really, really stand out. When he started doing battle against the Native Americans in later years, he wore white fringe, which seems like a perfect way to highlight oneself for every archer within range.

However, Custer wasn’t exactly known for having a whole lot of sense either. He was known for being loud, obnoxious, and strange. He liked to make an impression and would himself admit that most of his advancement was due to luck, although he still certainly had a lot of daring to get him there. His fighting and leadership skills were disrespected by some of his own men—he had a reputation for making strange decisions, acting without thinking clearly, and being daring to the point of extreme foolishness.

Recent investigations of the battle have shown there is no evidence of Custer and his men fighting a last stand, or even fighting hand to hand at all. In fact, as far as we have been able to tell, Custer and his men started the fight and got torn down in a hail of bullets afterward when they came up against overwhelming force. Unfortunately, this messes with the romantic notion that General Custer was a great American hero who bravely fought with his last man in defense against an unfair attack.

What historians have struggled with is why Custer chose to go marching down to a battle he had no chance of winning. Some suggest that Custer may have thought that his reputation alone would cause the enemy to flee, while others think he misinterpreted the amount of enemies he would be facing. It has also been suggested that he didn’t understand the lay of the land very well. Sadly for Custer’s reputation, all of these explanations leave him looking inexcusably inept.

While Custer wasn’t necessarily the evil native killer that some make him out to be, he was also far from the heroic, gallivanting warrior he is sometimes portrayed as. He was an eccentric, foolishly daring man who stumbled his way into military service and left us all guessing long after his death.

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: Sunday Book Review: Men on Horseback
The Independent: Custer’s heroic image collapses under investigation
NY Times: Still Pondering the Myth of Custer’s Last Stand

  • Nathaniel A.

    Here is a propaganda photo, released by the US Government, that shows the battle in a different light.

  • Joseph

    That’s an interesting take on it. It’s well worth the read. I enjoyed the article. I wouldn’t call him a hero, but I don’t think the evidence is enough to label him as foolish. The difference between foolishness and bravery is a matter of perspective. Besides, I would find it hard to believe that evidence from about 150 years ago would be definitive. I only saw the conclusions for the evidence in those articles and not much about the methods used to come to them. Still it was a very well written article and that scenario is entirely plausible. Probably more so than the official version.

    • Nathaniel A.

      It is not only plausible, it is true. In the ‘last stand” scenario put forth by the US Government, the bullet casings would be grouped all in one, roughly circular, area. Instead the casings fell along the path of their wild retreat, more of a rout than anything.

      • Joseph

        Well, that’s all I needed. Now that you just tell me that was exactly what happened, I’ll believe that as well. Actually, I wasn’t advocating the scenario put forth by the US government either. I doubt they sealed off the entire area right after the battle just so the recent investigation would be uncompromised. I only meant that no explanation would probably be 100% accurate. I’ve never even heard of a perfect reconstruction of a murder that happened on the same day let alone a battle that took place 150 years ago.

        • Nathaniel A.

          ” I’ve never even heard of a perfect reconstruction of a murder that happened on the same day let alone a battle that took place 150 years ago.”

          There is one key difference between the two. In a murder, one, maybe two bullets are fired, tops. While in a battle, particularly “Custer’s Last Stand,” you have thousands of bullets being fired all leaving their METAL casings, which the majority of are going to be there 138 years later. It doesn’t take a ballistics expert to realize that where there is a concentration of bullets, people were making a “Last Stand”, and where the bullet casings are spread out over their path of retreat, they were retreating.

          • Joseph

            Sure, all murderers collect their casings and most of the METAL casings remained exactly where they fell. There’s no other reason why casings would be in other areas except that people were retreating. Why do ballistics experts even exist when we have the comments sections of websites? How exactly could they tell how many people were in an area? Did they all leave only 1 casing behind? Did they write their names on the ground where they died? Who killed Custer? I’m sure all of the answers can be found in this recent investigation. Did they all retreat? Maybe some of them made a last stand. Oh, wait all the METAL casings were not in one area so they all retreated. This has opened my eyes. Now I can just blindly believe whatever the popular view of history happens to be.

          • Nathaniel A.

            Look, believe in the facts or not, after my original comment I didn’t much care. But don’t waste my time with these useless comments. The facts speak for themselves, whether they are believed by the likes of you or not.

          • Joseph

            You don’t actually have to read my comments. You’re wasting your own time and I’m wasting mine by reading your useless comments.

          • Joseph

            Is that the only sentence you read from my comment? I’ll have to stick to one from now on.

      • Joseph

        As far as I know the official version is just based on guessing and wishful thinking. Maybe they had some evidence. It’s been a long time since I’ve read about Custer (except for this and the sources). Their entire side did die though.

  • Joseph

    I guess in some cases fortune doesn’t favor the bold.

  • Hillyard

    He was also not a actual general. If I recall my history right, his promotion during the Civil War was temporary and he reverted to the rank of Lt. Col. If I’m wrong about that please feel free to correct me.

    • Clyde Barrow

      You’re absolutely correct, sir.

  • Clyde Barrow

    Custer’s wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, spent much of her life after George’s demise staunchly defending her late husband’s legacy. Even if that meant bending the truth, or espousing outright lies. No serious inquiry of the Battle of Little Bighorn could be accomplished without Mrs. Custer’s whitewashing of the facts, at least until after her death in 1933.

    • Joseph

      I wouldn’t really blame his wife for being biased.

      • Clyde Barrow

        No doubt…especially during the Victorian era.

        • Joseph

          Even today too. If she loved him, it’s only natural to try and preserve his memory whether it’s true or not.

  • Tyler Parsons

    Did we consider it distasteful to mention the arrows shoved up his penis?

    • Joseph

      I suppose it’s ok to mention that if it’s true. I’ve never heard of that before.

      • Matthew Messerly

        Its true. Most of Custer’s men were horribly mutilated post mortem. Custer was spared the worst of it, his brother’s skull was smashed flat. The Indians punctured his ear drums with a sewing needle, cut off his trigger finger, jabbed an arrow up his penis.

    • Erique Lamont

      Maybe Libbie Custer is still around and reading this article lol

      Maybe I am a ghoul, but I think it a shame that most of the remains are in a mass grave, I’d like to have a archeological investigation into all of the remains and see if we find evidence of much suicide, and what really was the number one killer of the soldiers…although post-mortem damage would be difficult to ante-mortem damage, I guess.

      My main reason for knowing about suicide is that a more modern theory was that a company -possibly ‘C’- was sent downhill to repel some Indians that were threatening one end of the command, they in turn were repelled quite quickly and routed; this seems to have been the moment that the battle proper began with the whole of Calhoun’s line being overrun, next Keogh’s and then the final devastating moments as what was left of all of the command retreated to Last Stand hill for annihilation. Wooden Leg was at this fight, and said that many warriors were puzzled because so many of the soldiers were killing themselves. I would love to know how true that really was; could suicide by a portion of ‘C’ company have led to the collapse?

      The Indians were puzzled by the behavior of the soldiers and their horses, but it seems that the tiredness of both was what was being observed, tired people make rash decisions, and the mental state isn’t right, not impossible that a tired trooper or two, with low morale, and in fear of the stories of Indian brutality to captives, preferred to end his own life than risk the alternative…this happened with one trooper who rode away and seemed clear, then shot himself…and when we look through history we see the same thing happening, during Roman times Varus, who was leading about 20,000 troops plus realized a battle was lost, and he and his senior officers all killed themselves because they knew the German tribes would torture them to death when they were captured.

      Oops, another long post…

  • Joe Kin

    “Today is a good day to die”-the popular saying from Human being grandfather of Dustin Hoffman in little big man, was the first time it was used in a movie. Known commonly from Die hard and many military movies.

  • Mellow Jessica

    Without inline citations to reliable sources, this article reads like nothing more than a pro-Indian, anti-caucasian warrior propagandistic hit-piece.

    • Erique Lamont

      The truth is the truth, if it offends Caucasians, tough!!

      The team coming to the conclusion mentioned in this article were Caucasians, but IF you bothered to research it, you’d see that it was a very scientific investigation, probably the only real scientific take on the battle, all the rest being hearsay, myth and accounts by the victors -which White people disregarded from the start, because it didn’t suit their belief that they were the cream of evolution.

      I grow up a 100% Custer lover, I hated the ‘savage red-skinned devils” for killing MY hero Custer. Then I grew up, and started looking at things from ALL perspectives, and realized that the only reason Whites had disregarded the eyewitness testimony was because 1) it didn’t support the ‘hero’ Custer model and his Last Stand; 2) the Indian accounts contradicted each other and 3) they were only “Redskins” who cares?

      I loathed everything about Native Americans, their ‘pointless’ existence, the being at the mercy of Mother Nature all the time, no cities, no technology just a waste of oxygen, and this fitted well with my heroic Custer. Then, I realized the reason why Indian accounts differred a lot was because 1) translation errors; 2) length of time from event to recording it; 3) cultural interpretations of what the Indians saw and 4) no one Indian saw the whole event with some kind of omniscient magical power.

      1) translation errors; the Indians mostly couldn’t talk to one another from one tribe to another, in his book Wooden Leg says he acted as an interpreter between the Sioux and Cheyenne a few times in the camp. Many White interviewers in the years following the battle relied solely on Indian interpreters marrying Indian ‘thinking’ to White ‘thinking’, and some interpretations were by hand-signing.

      2) we all know our recollection of even a year ago is not perfect, and in battle your thinking is very much on a personal level, your immediate threat-to-life, no surprise some details got mixed and muddled. Interestingly, this happened with most White eyewitnesses at the Reno/Benteen defense site, where the officers recollections changed over time, yet NO ONE said: “Well, that means none of their testimony is true”.

      3) Indians saw the world differently to Whites, the mutilation of bodies is a classic example in this event. Another example is that at the attempted ford crossing most White historians agree that the 7th just decided they couldn’t cross the river there -either at all, or not in sufficient numbers- so they moved on looking for another spot or to decide what to do next. However, the Indians believed that as they had fired some shots at the soldiers, and the soldiers went away, that they had defeated the soldiers. Also, locations are named differently, heck, Whites call it the Battle of Litle Bighorn and the Indians the Battle of Greasy Grass.

      4) given that it is hard to say which part of the battlefield each Indian account is referring to, wrt to 3) above, and the fact that many of Indians in the Custer fight were on foot they couldn’t cover the whole of the battlefield in the hour or maybe two hours it took to take out Custer and his command. We know that Custer was virtually surrounded by battle’s end, with Indians making their way -stealthily- through sage bushes and ravines, given the number of Native Americans there and the fact that they surrounded Custer, it is no surprise that not all accounts are mutually supporting. In fact, for me, the fact the stories don’t tally 100% in mutual support is a strength -it means that they are not a common oral history -a myth- handed down.

      White people still hold on to the myth of the Last Stand, accounts by braves state that at the end a bunch of soldiers ran away from the hill towards what we know as Deep Ravine today, where they were annihilated, the last soldier deaths in the Custer fight. The investigation of the battlefield by Terry et al after Reno was relieved, states that a number between 20 to 30+ of Whites were found in the ravine, and that they merely threw dirt from the top onto the bodies as a quick burial.

      This doesn’t fit well with the Custerphiles and their heroic Last Stand, the thought of WHite men running away from the battle wasn’t acceptable, and the Indian AND the White accounts of bodies at Deep Ravine are discounted as myth or bullcrap…a view reinforced by there being no markers at Deep Ravine. When the markers went up years after the battle, no one knew where these bodies were, and the team planting the markers made a guess. We know the guy running the show made mistakes, it is accepted that 210 people died fighting with Custer, yet he placed about 240 markers on the Custer battlefield…we certainly know that Benteen and co when they buried Custer put his body and that of his comrades lower down the hill, as the soil on top was to hard to dig and burt -Custer and his brother being the only ones with a reasonably deep grave -about 18 inches; they shared a grave.

      I could go on, but please, do some research, it is a very interesting topic.

  • Matthew Messerly

    Custer’s men shooting their horses indicate that at least for a few minutes there was indeed a last stand. Just because it didn’t last very long doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

    • Erique Lamont

      No, all that means is that a group of soldiers killed their horses at some point as a last defense, it may well have been a last stand, of sorts, but not necessarily the one beloved by Hollywood and White America.

      From the most recent work -and it is the first real scientific work in the field- it seems that at the end there was just a huge rush of warriors at the end, overwhelmingly so, and some soldiers -28 is a favorite figure- ran away in the last moments, with possibly a few on horseback, towards what Whites call Deep Ravine, if they did run away, then there was no classic Last Stand, with each man staying at his station until dead.

      A lot of Last Stand myth defenders say there are no grave markers at the ravine, and that Indians mention a bunch of soldiers fighting hard till the end, but this is cherry picking data, and just because one or two Indians see a bunch of soldiers defiant till the end, doesn’t mean that he was at the site where the last moments of the battle were, if you see what I mean?

      The British had a similar myth about the Battle of Isandlwana, with tales by Zulu warriors about a brave last stand, one account mentioned a small corps of soldiers, maybe a platoon, standing on a hill shooting at command until ammunition was exhausted, then the officer in command shook everyone’s hand and they, as a man charged the Zulus warriors with bayonets and swords. To my mind a very heroic thing to do, but, is it really a stand? I mean, what are the choices, try and plead for your life -without a word of Zulu in your vocabulary- or just determinedly try and kill as many enemy before they got you -make a good account of yourself, your army and your people.

      Likewise I can see this happening at the Custer battlefield, the Indians were known to torture captured soldiers to death, and the old frontier adage was ‘leave the last bullet for yourself’, is it really a last stand when you know the alternative is slowly roasting on a fire; perhaps have bits of flesh slowly cut from your body; or even have the skin taken off and let you die from the sun and the insects -whether such stories were or were not true, if that is in your mind, are you going to try and surrender? [It could also answer why many Indian accounts mention suidice by White soldiers].

      Sorry to go on, but I find this an interesting topic.

  • Gary Hale
  • James Mariani

    From the Indian’s point of view, an arrogant woman and child killer got his just rewards.