Monday, January 16, 2012

Custer's Last Stand on American Experience

In addition to my love of the Wild West, I'm also a big fan of classic films and Western movies. I've watched quite a few movies on General George Armstrong Custer over the years, including my favorite, the 1991 film Son of the Morning Star. The script for Son of the Morning Star was written by Melissa Mathison, actor Harrison Ford's wife, who attempted to show the story from the perspective of the people who were closely involved in Custer's life, including his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, or Libby.

However, in order to fully understand the many fictional portrayals, I believe it is important to study the historical facts, which is one of the many reasons why I am recommending the American Experience episode Custer's Last Stand, premiering January 17, 2012 at 8/7c on PBS. American Experience has a tradition of providing detailed, factual information on historical events. They also provide essays, videos, and other resources on the America Experience website.

For those of you unfamiliar with his story, General George Armstrong Custer was the son of an Ohio blacksmith. Many historians have stated that Custer was embarrassed by his humble origins. My own ancestors are from Ohio and they played various roles in the function of small Ohio towns. I would hope that they were proud of their contributions to their communities. They were not wealthy, but their jobs were vital to the success of the town, as was that of a blacksmith.

Custer, however, seemed to view his father's job the way many view the job of an auto repairmen--hard, dirty work with low pay--without understanding the importance of transportation to the rest of the community. His personal opinion of his family's "station" in the community contributed to his own ambitious approach to life. Custer was determined to become famous, and at this, he did succeed.

Custer attended the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York and fought bravely during the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. When the building of the railroads created conflicts with the Cheyenne and Arapaho, the now-famous Custer was commanded to follow the Indians through their territory. At one point, he became so frustrated by this task that he left his soldiers and dashed home to spend one day alone with his true love, his wife, Libby. He was court martialed and suspended, but redeemed himself--in the eyes of the Army--with the brutal attack on the Cheyenne in 1868 and the slaughter of over 100 women and children. In 1874, he was sent into the Black Hills on a survey expedition. The beginning of the end of Custer's story.

On June 26, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer and 261 soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry were killed by Cheyenne and Lakota warriors. The battle took place along the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. There is no beauty in war, and sadly, this horrific moment, his moment of death, known as Custer's Last Stand, would secure General George Armstrong Custer's name in the history books. The details of this event are still a mystery, disputed to this day.

Custer's Last Stand is a two hour American Experience biography of General George Armstrong Custer, exploring every aspect of his life, from his early years in Ohio to his heroism during the American Civil War, his controversial, brutal treatment of Indians of the American southern plains, and his exploits in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

For more information on Custer's Last Stand visit these education resources:

An Introduction to Custer's Last Stand on the American Experience website.
Preview of Custer's Last Stand.
Timeline of Custer's Last Stand.
Photo gallery of Custer's Last Stand.
Visit American Experience on Facebook.


pondlife said...

I was always interested in the Wild West and American Civil War as any other English kid back in the dark ages of the 50's & 60's.

Many years later I read that a form of photography from the air was used to map part of the Roman wall near and around Carlisle in Northern England (stay with me on this...) and the exceptionally dry conditions showed evidence previously went on to say this technique was (then) used around the Battle of Little Big Horn which showed evidence that was dug up and found to be bullets and cartridge cases showing for the first time that the Indians had firearms in this battle whereas the Indians' own accounts as painted on their teepee's showed only traditional weapons; hachets, axes, clubs, spears and of course, arrows.

As there were no Cavalry survivors the Indian account could not be contested.

Do you know anything about that? I still find it a fascinating subject and story. Who knows, may get to visit the site one day?

Best wishes...

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Although there were no survivors from the battle itself, there were soldiers who observed the battle and did not engage. With my huge personal "library" I would think I could find something that has personal accounts from these soldiers. I also have many other resources I could contact. I'm going to try to find out if there has been any new information on this subject. Surely someone has continued to explore this situation. Interesting comment! Thank you!

Tim Shey said...

I took a journalism class at Iowa State University and we watched a documentary on the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In the documentary, it said that the Indians had repeating rifles and that the cavalry had single shot rifles.

I have hitchhiked a lot through Montana over the years. I have visited the museum of the Battle of the Little Big Horn; it is a really nice place--a lot of good information there.

One time I was hitchhiking in Montana and this Indian picked me up--I forget what tribe he was from. He told me that Custer was one of the first white guys to be killed because the Indians were going after him first. After the battle was over, they took Custer's body and dragged it for a week through Indian villages to show everyone that he was dead. Also, I believe the Indians liked to degrade the bodies of their dead enemies.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

That's interesting, Tim. I received a similar response from another Old West history fan when I contacted him about the rifle question. He can recall reading that there was evidence that the Indians had rifles, but he cannot find the source now.

Indigo Red said...

An excellent source for weapons used during the Custer engagement at the far end of the village is "Archaeology, History, and Custer's Last Battle" by Richard Allen Fox, Jr., Univ of Oklahoma Press, 1988, but really, REALLY dry. He tracks bullets and shell casings buried in the soil.

Through extensive dig research, Fox has counted a minimum of 215 different firearm types used by the Indian forces ranging from ancient muzzle loaders to the modern Winchester 1873. The most common firearms were the Springfield model 1873 .45 caliber carbine (69 each), Henry repeating rifle .44 cal (62 ea.), Sharps .50 cal (27 ea.), Colt model 1873 pistol .45 cal (12ea.), with the other firearms in the 1 to 7 each range.

Obviously, that means the vast majority of Indian weaponry was traditional bows and arrows, lances, and war clubs. Since the standard cavalry weapons were the Springfield carbine and Colt revolver, many of those used by the Indians were picked up during the battle from dead soldiers.

Sioux and Cheyenne stories say that the Custer detachment entered the Little Big Horn River at Medicine Tail Coulee and halted in the shallow water. A young brave in the tree line shot the soldier out front who was wearing buckskin pants and jacket and a blue shirt in the left breast. Custer, his brother Tom, and LT Keogh were all wearing the buckskin outfit, but Custer stopped on the ridge approach to change from his red flannel shirt to a standard cavalry blue blouse. It is possible it was Custer who was shot which could explain much of the confusion and lack of command structure in the following hour.

It is unlikely Custer's body was dragged around for a week because as the Indians have repeatedly said, they didn't know it was Custer before and during the attack and, despite our need to have Custer be historically feared, most Indians had never heard of him; he had also cut his hair very short before leaving Libby as she expressed fear Indians would target him because of his long hair, which was, of course, one of the names Indians called him - Long Hair. Besides, Gen. Terry's forces arrived the following day and Custer's body was still on the field relatively unmolested. The Cheyenne claim that Custer's purported Indian female relatives recognized his body and guarded against the typical desecration except for the puncturing of the eardrums. Now, those warriors who had heard of Custer did find a soldier with long hair, wearing buckskins, and an eagle tattoo they took for GA Custer because only a great warrior would carry an eagle image, but was really his brother Tom and his body was horribly mutilated, so much so that it was the eagle and the initials T.C. that Terry's men used to recognize the body.

Of course, this is mostly my interpretation of what little anyone knows about the battle, which is precious little. What really happened remains a mystery.

Symdaddy said...

I remember seeing a documentary about Custer's demise. Historians managed (so they claim) to follow the path of the fighting using metal detectors to chart the position of spent ammunition, arrowheads and other miscellaneous items.

If true, it would appear that Custer and his men fought a running battle after an abortive assault on an Indian encampment.

Blissfully unaware of the number of Indians facing him, Custer's strategy seemed to have been simple: Split his forces to contain the Indians then ride in and give 'em Hell!

Sadly, as we know know, he over estimated and misjudged his own abilities and skills.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

He cut his hair? Now that is new to me! I love learning about all the little details in this story, and yet, we still don't know what happened! Another great Old West mystery...

Indigo Red said...

I really like the Old West and your blog. I've added you to my Google page so I won't miss anything. This is good stuff.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...