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The Annihilation of Custer

No man can know with certainty how Custer's battalion, met its fate, for no member of it survived. From the confused and contradictory accounts of the Indian participants and from the placement of the bodies on the battlefield, the movements of the contending forces can be roughly reconstructed. But the details of the action, together with Custer's intentions and the factors which shaped them, must ever remain a mystery.

Major Reno had expected Custer to follow him into battle. Why Custer instead turned north from Reno's trail may only be surmised. He may not have intended to provide support in the way Reno expected, or he may have intended to but changed his mind when Adjutant Cooke brought word that the Indians were advancing to meet Reno. It may only be surmised, too, what Custer hoped to accomplish by his northward march. Did he plan to fall on the enemy's rear as Reno engaged the front? Or was he still obsessed with the fear that the Sioux would escape and took this means to block their route? Or did he entertain both thoughts? It should be borne in mind that, although warned by his scouts of unexpectedly large numbers of Indians in his front, Custer had not yet seen any part of the great village and knew with certainty no more of its size and location than suggested by the dust clouds toward which he now turned.

Shortly after taking the new direction of march, Custer sent Sgt. Daniel Kanipe back on the trail to find Captain McDougall and tell him to hasten forward with the ammunition mules. After a gallop of a mile or so, the battalion paused while Custer rode to the crest of the bluff. Tepees carpeted the valley below—it was his first view of the Indian village—and Reno was probably just going into action. Resuming the march, the column started down a long ravine emptying into Medicine Tail Coulee. During the descent, Custer summoned his orderly, Giovanni Martini, and sent him with another message for Benteen. Adjutant Cooke scrawled it on a page torn from his memorandum book: "Benteen. Come on. Big Village. Be Quick. Bring packs.W.W. Cooke. P.S. Bring pacs."

As Martini galloped back up the trail, he saw the battalion turn toward the river. Martini's glimpse is history's last view of Custer and his 215 cavalrymen in life. Whether part or all of them reached the river at the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee is not known. If Custer intended to cross the river, here was a likely place one in fact that would have placed him right in the center of the Indian camp.

But hordes of Sioux warriors under Chief Gall poured across the stream at this ford and, either near the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee or farther back on the slope dividing it from Deep Coulee, collided with the troops. Deflected to the right, the battalion fought successive rearguard actions toward a long ridge to the north. More warriors forded the river behind Gall. Others crossed still farther down. And Crazy Horse started down the valley with another large force, crossed the river, and swept round in a great arc that brought him ultimately to the battle ridge from the north.

Custer's Last Battle.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Caught in rough terrain unsuited to mounted action and surrounded by overwhelming numbers of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, the battalion swiftly disintegrated. The companies seem to have made individual stands, fighting on foot against the waves of Indians that rolled in from every direction. L Company, commanded by Custer's brother-in-law, Lt. James Calhoun, spread over the south end of the battle ridge. Capt. Myles Keogh and Company I were overrun on the east slope of the ridge. On the west, near the river, C and E Companies, under Capt. Thomas W. Custer and Lt. A. E. Smith, slipped into a deep ravine and were crushed. Company F, Capt. George W. Yates, straddled the center of the ridge, And at the north end, where Crazy Horse cut off further retreat, a knot of about 50 men gathered around Custer and his red and blue personal pennant, shot their horses for breastworks, and made their "last stand."

The fight probably opened shortly after 4 p.m., just as Reno reached the refuge of the bluffs. Probably by 5 p.m. not a man of Custer's battalion remained alive. (Today white marble headstones dot the battle ridge and its slopes. They show where the cavalrymen fell under the irresistible onslaught of the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. How must be left largely to the imagination.)


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Last Modified: Sat, Sep 28 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

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