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Death and Immortality at the Little BigHorn: Vol I: Custer's Last Standby James Ashley
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The three last-stand battles of history most well known by the general public are the Spartans at Thermopylae, during the Persian wars; the British at Isandlawana, during the Zulu wars; and Custer’s Last Stand at the Little BigHorn, during the plains Indian wars. Even if most people know next to little about the battle at the Little BigHorn, they know that Custer was sent out by the U.S. government to subdue the Indians and when they gathered in overwhelming numbers to fight back, he and the troops under his direct command were wiped out. It is a riveting story of how a doomed command met its end on a hot sunny day in Montana on June 25, 1876.
Had Custer’s Last Stand not occurred, it is likely that Custer and the other participants at the Little BigHorn would have passed into history as little more than a footnote. However, by the very nature of fighting and dying in a battle against overwhelming numbers opposed by what at the time were considered merciless and cruel savages, Custer was elevated to some mythical Wagnerian hero who rode to Valhalla on that fateful day. Today, however, no myth survives without being first torn down and rebuilt and so it has been with Custer’s Last Stand. We now see the battle for what it was, a series of misjudgments, bad luck, and fatal moves which made the end a foregone conclusion. And when that inevitable end came, it was fought by frightened men shaking with fear at the awful death that awaited them, rather than being animated by the glory and immortality that was to be their legacy. What follows is the story of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the command who died to a man fighting with him.
No survivors lived to tell the tale of Custer and those who took that final ride with him at the Little BigHorn, but we can piece together a number of things from the accounts of the Indians would fought him, the Indian scouts who served with his regiment, the soldiers who surveyed the field after the battle, the soldiers who testified at Reno’s court martial, writers who interviewed the participants up to 3 decades after the battle, and current archeological finds. Each source, however, has its limitations and built in distortions. The Indians had imperfect concepts of place and time, had difficulty seeing actions in their proper sequence, and frequently pandered to the white man in telling him what he thought he wanted to hear. The soldiers in the field were not well trained in battlefield analysis, frequently did improper surveys of the battlefield, and drew erroneous conclusions about what they saw. At the Reno court martial trial, many soldiers and officers told outright lies before the court to either cover up their own shortcoming in the battle or to shield the 7th Cavalry from any adverse public criticism. Writers who interviewed participants for decades after the battle asked them loaded or badly phrased questions which were many times not answered truthfully, as to either preserve or enhance reputations or to avoid the rekindling of old animosities. As for the archeological digs made on the site 50 or more years after the battle, their findings were limited by the passage of time and the actions of souvenir hunters who had collected a great number artifacts from the battlefield, thereby distorting archeological findings. The end result, in any event, was that the facts will never be completely known, leaving one to make their best guess on what happened with the circumstantial information available. This is as controversial as trying to figure out exactly what happened in Dealey Plaza on November, 22, 1963. But therein lies the fascination with Custer’s Last Stand, for those missing pieces in the puzzle stokes one’s curiosity and lets imaginations run wild, and the participants in the battle transcend the mythical cardboard cutouts of history to assume living, breathing identities, with all the strengths and weaknesses we know people to have.
It will first be useful to see examine the participants in this great battle, who they were before the battle of the Little BigHorn, and what happened to them after it. The strengths and weaknesses of the fighting men of both sides will then be examined, as well as how well they were led and how effective their weapons were for the battle they fought. A short history of events leading up to the battle will be given, followed by a very quick overview of events occurring on other areas of the battlefield under Reno and Benteen. These will be very cursory overviews designed to acclimate to readers relatively unfamiliar with events of the era, the campaign, and subsequent battle, which are necessary to put Custer’s Last Stand in proper historical perspective. The rest of the book will then be devoted exclusively to those troopers of Yeats’ and Keogh’s battalions that rode directly under Custer’s command.
- James Ashley
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