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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
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By Eric von Schmidt
Webmaster's Note: This article appeared in Smithsonian magazine, June 1976
"There are many little incidents connected with this fight, but I don't recollect them now. I don't like to talk about that fight. If I hear any of my people talk about it, I always move away."
The "fight" that the Sioux warrior Red Horse referred to was the defeat of the 7th Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. George A. Custer, by assembled bands of Sioux and Northern Cheyenne camped along the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876. Red Horse's statement was made to military authorities eight months later. It had already become uncomfortable for an Indian who had fought that battle to remember those "many little incidents."
So subterfuge has clouded the events of that bloody Sunday in the wilds of what is now southern Montana. Indians feared reprisals. Survivors of the elite 7th Cavalry groped painfully for excuses, scapegoats anything to salvage their shattered pride.
It is sometimes assumed that there were no white survivors. There were none in the five companies that rode north with Custer after he divided his command, but though the other seven companies who fought four or five miles south of Custer suffered heavy casualties, most lived to describe what went on in their section and to speculate about what went wrong with the campaign.
Five years after the battle, Red Horse repeated his story to Acting Assistant Surgeon Charles E. McChesney. This time he also made careful drawings, 42 of them done with colored pencils on large sheets of Manila paper. Superficially they resemble the drawing of a talented child, but they are charged with a special power. Lean, emotionless, quantitative, they are a record of the event, making no attempt to interpret it. In 1971, after deciding to do a painting of the fight, I made a special trip to the Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution to view these drawings, some of which are on exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. My hope was that they would provide many details of dress and weapons and possibly some, special insight. They were fascinating, yet I felt I had opened one mysterious box and found another inside. Search for the real Custer battle was just beginning. My very first viewing of the most famous Custer painting was about 1946 in a barroom on the main street of Durango, Colorado. I was underage, skinny and with only the faintest trace of fuzz on my cheeks. My companion looked almost old enough to be there legally. The place was dark as a cave, and the only light shone on a painting of a portly gentleman who seemed to be engaged in fighting off the entire Zulu Nation. Some nasty doings in the right foreground were beginning to reveal themselves just about the time the bartender slid us our dime drafts. Like any tough hombres out on the town, we drained our glasses in a single swallow. Painting, bartender, all Durango soon dissolved in a blur. How fitting that my first glass of beer should coincide with my introduction to "Custer's Last Fight." I realized later that Adolphus Busch had planned it that way.
Millions of parched Americans have slaked their thirst and gazed, with diminishing sobriety, at that harrowing scene: "General" Custer with sword endlessly poised, the killing bullet forever seeking its target. According to Don Russell's informative book, Custer's Last, the Anheuser-Busch brewers have distributed 150,000 copies of this color lithograph since its first printing in 1895.
The original painting, from which this lithograph derived, was made by a Civil War veteran, Cassilly Adams, sometime before 1886. It was financed by others, including John C. Furber, a St. Louis bar owner; a tour with the painting flopped, and all 9 1/2 by 6 1/2 feet of it ended up back in Furber's saloon. Even there, the rather crude, rawboned work proved no match for the opulent celebrations of female anatomy found in most contemporary bars. Furber's saloon failed, the creditors pounced and in 1890 Cassilly Adams' painting of the Little Bighorn was either bought or seized as a creditor's asset by the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association.
In 1895, one E Otto Becker of Milwaukee was hired to paint a smaller version of the Adams work for a color lithograph. It is in Becker's canvas that the strange shields appear and Custer gains something of a beer drinker's paunch. Yet Becker based his background on an actual photograph taken from the ridge where Custer and his men were found by burial parties. The completed painting was cut into sections to allow several lithographers to work at once on preparation of color plates. Becker returned to obscurity; Busch made advertising history; the reality of the Custer fight dimmed to murk. It is tantalizing to speculate about the effect this distorted piece of history has had on all those boozers. It's hard to imagine anyone thinking that Custer died, for his sins. Equally capricious, but hard to resist, are patterns of national stereotypes that seem to influence many depictions of the battle done before 1900. If America was a melting pot, precious little melting had occurred for recent immigrants during this period. Their interpretations tend to reflect this. Irish-born John Mulvany's large painting Custer's Last Rally (1881) was acclaimed as uniquely American. To me, the central figures all look broodingly Irish and could just as well be sulking around a pub as fighting a pitched battle. (Mulvany threw himself in the East River and drowned in 1906.)
Long before O. Becker trimmed Cassilly Adams down to size, only to see his own work chopped into pieces, Feodor Fuchs had given the world its first color lithograph of the event -- in 1876. It is a splendidly Teutonic show, with soldiers all at full gallop, firing a perfect volley at only slightly less disciplined Indians. It's hard to imagine how the cavalry can lose this one, but since the title is Custer's Last Charge we are sure that they'll manage. In General Custer's Death Struggle (1878), artist H. Steinegger has, with vigorous larceny, ripped off the composition of not one, but two earlier prints, one by William de la Montagne Cary, the other by the great Civil War artist and correspondent Alfred R. Waud, who had sketched Custer many times and had even accompanied him on a cavalry raid in 1864.
Edward S. Paxson's large painting, some 20 years later, shows six identifiable officers and virtually every Indian leader in the fight, all miraculously converging in the same place at the same time. Paxson did all later students of the battle a large favor by writing General Edward S. Godfrey, a survivor and member of the burial parties, to ask what arms, uniforms and equipment were actually used in the battle. Godfrey's reply is the best and most concise information on this subject that we will probably ever have.
The earliest paintings place Custer smack-dab in the middle of the scene, often in the foreground. This is naive, poster like treatment is forceful and dramatic, putting a large event on a small stage. Around the turn of the century, as reproduction and printing techniques improved, the old frontal approach began to look out of date. Correspondingly, as the reality of the Custer fight dimmed to legend, its graphic image shifted, too. The gallant figure, with his handful of brave, gore-splattered troops, began to recede into the distance. A more sophisticated, more nostalgic concept of the battle appeared. The wild, swirling Indians became foreground figures, as Custer and his men faded in a soft blue haze.
There are estimates that more than 1,000 depictions of the fight have been made. One was painted by Harold von Schmidt for Esquire in 1950. Being Harold von Schmidt's son, and by that time something of an expert at posing (as a baby, then a small child, then a medium-sized child, then a jockey, then anything), I served in the Custer fight as both trooper and Indian. The painting combines elements of both the early "frontal" and later "nostalgic" styles and it works, I think. There are inaccuracies in the uniforms and equipment of the soldiers, but there are other authentic touches such as Custer's short barreled pistols. My father thought Custer a glory-hunting ass, and it is ironic that his painting is now considered a somewhat romantic interpretation.
It wasn't until 20 years later that I finally caught that damnable fever that rises off the Little Bighorn. I read everything I could lay my hands on, and slowly came to feel there was something about all the paintings that seemed to me discordant. My feeling was indefinable but gut deep. When I tracked it down, finally, it was so simple: In all the pictures the viewer's vantage point was that of an attacking Indian.
Red Horse was one of the attacking Indians, Waud was not, nor were Adams, Becker, Paxson and the rest. Nor am I. I felt it was important to give the viewer a sense of what the troopers were experiencing as their individual deaths pressed in upon them. The Red Horse drawings, so illusive before, became in an unexpected way a revelation. All those drawings of tepees, row after row, page after page, had at first been confusing, annoying. Now, considering the fight from the troopers' viewpoint, their cumulative image filled me with an awesome sense of the size of that village. It had been fully visible to Custer and his men on the ridge, stretching out for more than three miles and in some places bellying more than a half-mile wide – one of the biggest encampments ever assembled.
Details of dress and equipment turned up elsewhere. The first big surprise came in discussions at the Military History Division of the Smithsonian. It turned out that cavalrymen were not issued blue shirts during this period, though virtually every applicable painting and literary work mistakenly assumes that they were. Civilian blue shirts seem to have been worn by nearly all officers of the 7th Cavalry, and "hickory" shirts of fine blue or brown checks were sometimes worn by men of all ranks. The issue shirt, however, was a loose-fitting, light-gray pullover, with three metal buttons.
Uniforms in general were of inferior material, and equipment was outdated. Trousers in those penny-pinching days had suspender buttons but no suspenders. The issue headgear, a bizarre black hat that could be rigged up to present a Napoleonic appearance, was described by one officer as "the most useless, uncouth rag ever put on a man's head." Troops often bought civilian hats, black or gray, of felt or straw, found on the march from traders.
The men altered or improved on basic issue in many ways. They would reinforce the inside and cuff of their pants legs with canvas. They would fashion homemade cartridge belts of canvas-more efficient than the issued leather pouches. Old Civil War gear was also used: jackets, vests, forage caps. Regulations of 1877 at Fort Lincoln, Nebraska, forbade use of civilian clothing for the 7th Cavalry. Before that, just about anything went in the way of clothing.
Regimental officers, right up to Custer, were even more casual in their dress than enlisted men. They were a jaunty, self-confident lot, and favored buckskin suits, often double breasted, or just the jacket alone worn over blue, wide-collared civilian shirts with bibs, white trim and a mess of buttons. The notion that the Indians rode in a huge circle pumping lead into a knot of troopers becomes absurd after a visit to the battlefield. Most Indians must have ridden within a short distance of the ridge, then fought , on foot. Except for occasional individual dashes up the ridge, the Indians said they did not move up it in force until they thought all the troopers were dead.
The terrain offered the Indians excellent concealment, and there is every indication that they used it. The position of Custer and his men, scattered up the slope, was totally indefensible. It is unlikely that anyone would have been standing, except to get somewhere else fast. The troopers' only chance for cover was to shoot their horses for breastworks.
The theory that the soldiers were outgunned does not hold up. The whole Indian village contained only a small number of repeating rifles and little ammunition. That the cavalry's defeat was caused by the malfunction of their Springfield '73 carbines is equally dubious. Some did jam, but these same weapons, taken from fallen troopers, gave the Indians their most effective firepower. But it was here that the arrow, as in the time when the Akkadians first used it to defeat the Sumerians around 2500 B.C.., was again the deciding weapon. This was the last time it won a historic battle. Metal-tipped Indian arrows rained on the desperate men and animals struggling on the ridge.
The soldiers, exhausted from hard marching and little sleep, sweat-stained and covered with alkali dust, looked out at massive clouds of dust and gun smoke rising in the heat. These clouds became so dense that an eerie and unnatural. twilight fell over the field. The Indians swarmed in the distance like stinging ants. They said afterwards that they couldn't see more than ten feet, and several times Indian killed Indian in the smoke and confusion.
Custer was not killed by arrows. According to Lieutenant Godfrey, "He had been shot in the left temple and left breast. "There were no powder marks or signs of mutilation." This emphasis on the lack of powder burns and mutilation was meant to dispel rumors that Custer had committed suicide and had been horribly mangled by the Indians. We'll never know for sure, but it must be kept in mind that the Indians did not know whom they were fighting, and that any mutilation would have been a random thing. Most of the dead troopers, some 212, found with Custer, were mutilated, however, for Plains Indians believed that an enemy arrived in the spirit world in the same physical condition he left this one, and so the dismembering of the freshly killed implied a special vindictiveness.
Aside from scalping and the shooting of bullets and arrows into the bodies by the warriors themselves, most ritual mutilation was done by women who had lost family relatives in recent combat.
Mention of suicide among the troopers is almost as taboo today as 127 years ago. But one old Western cavalryman has said, "It was understood by every soldier, trapper an mountaineer, who knew the habits of the wild Indians that he should save the last shot for himself and take his own life rather than be captured."
Custer's troops did just this, according to several Indian accounts. The Northern Cheyenne warrior, Wooden Leg at first thought it was whiskey found in some canteens that explained why soldiers "went crazy. Instead of shooting us, they turned their guns upon themselves," he noted.
Custer's command was under strength, as were many units in those days. A number of enlisted men were recent recruits, often German and Irish immigrants who had never fought Indians and had trouble staying on a horse. The average age of a private was almost 30, but experience was lacking. Many officers openly despised each other. Some fought bravely right to the end, but they were facing a total force of up to 2,000 Sioux and Northern Cheyenne.
The noise alone must have been overwhelming: shrill blasts of eagle-bone whistles carried by most of the warriors, high-pitched war cries, shouts, the dull roar of horses' hooves, shrieks of wounded men and horses, the rattle of gunfire and the ceaseless deadly whirr of arrows-a dissonant cacophony of death. Custer's fight was probably over in little more than half an hour.
Two days after the death of Custer and his men, burial parties attempted to identify the dead. In my painting I've included only those who were known to have been found near Custer. These are, (left to right, in the painting) Lt. Algernon E. Smith, wearing vest, behind dead horse; crawling, Capt.Thomas W Custer, the Colonel's brother; over his head, down the slope, Capt. George W Yates, wearing buckskin jacket and black hat. These officers commanded three of the five companies with Custer but were not killed with their men. This indicates a breakdown of leadership.
Farther down and to right of the dead white horse is Lt. William Van W Reily. The man holding Custer's personal guidon (made by his wife) is Sgt. Robert Hughes, Irish born. The dead trooper fallen on the clump of sagebrush is Chief Trumpeter Henry Voss. The man falling just above the dead horse's head is Lt. WW Cooke, Custer's adjutant. Cooke was born in Canada, and like nearly all of the officers had fought in the Civil War and had been with the 7th Cavalry since its formation in 1866. One side of his flowing whiskers was scalped by the Cheyenne Wooden Leg.
Wounded and kneeling is Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Most recent paintings portray him without his buckskin jacket. This interpretation is based on a statement by Trumpeter John Martin (Giovanni Martini), the last man to see him alive. This statement, however, refers to Custer's dress before 8:30 A.M., long before the command was in movement. Though it was a hot day, Tom Custer was wearing a jacket when stripped by Indians and there were numerous Indian accounts of having fought men wearing buckskin jackets. Colonel Custer was noted for his lack of regard for physical discomfort (his own, as well as that of his troops) and I've not been able to find a single photograph of him without some kind of a jacket.
According to Lieutenant Godfrey, he carried "a Remington Springfield rifle, octagonal barrel; two Bulldog self-cocking, English, white-handled pistols, with a ring in the butt for a lanyard; a hunting knife in a beaded fringed scabbard; and a canvas cartridge belt." Thus was he equipped 100 years ago, when the famous Custer luck finally ran out.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022