A haunting and dark reveal into the Battle of the Little Bighorn on its 144th Anniversary. Writer and Historian, George Hruby, takes you on a journey into the secrets and mysteries still surrounding this iconic battle. He shares his own opinions and conclusions based on existing evidence in addition, to sharing with the reader the true set of dynamics that were in place with both opposing forces that faithful day.
In his own words ….
Have you ever heard a man’s chest cracked open? The cracking sounds of the ribs as the chest is pulled wide open. The sound of a man’s heart as it is cut out of him? The chopping sounds into necks as bodies are decapitated. The sounds of arrows as they are shot into a body? The sound of a scalp being cut to the bone and then peeled back off of a man’s skull.
The sounds of skulls as they are cracked open. As the eyes, nose, and mouth are bashed into the skull.
Some of the sounds with the men dead and, some not.
Have you ever heard a man as he screams in terror of being killed? It is a sound you never forget.
The sounds of bullets as they impact into the ground all around you. A loud cracking noise as each one impacts the earth. Each hit marked with a huge flume of dirt shooting up into the air, five-to-six feet up. Or, the sound that bullets make as they whiz by your head … looking for their targets … trying to find you.
The sounds of your own guns going off, men yelling things out loud and the crackling of a nearby fire upon a prairie?
Do you know of these sounds? Have you ever heard any of them?
To have to stand up in order to see above all the dust and dirt being kicked up by so many horses, gun-smoke, and smoke blowing your way from an oncoming fire. Your nostrils filled with the strong smell of gun powder, horse sweat, and leather.
Hugging the earth, trying to stay as low as possible as bullets fly around everywhere. Your teeth crunching bits of dirt in your mouth. To have sweat pouring off of your forehead and dirt-streaked face in the so dry and humid air. Your heart pumping so fast. Adrenalin glands opened full. Hard to breathe.
Prairie grass in your face as you try to wonder how in God’s name you came from Europe to this now nightmare. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere in America, …. in a place called ‘Little Bighorn’.
Then, … it is your turn to die.
* * *
The Beginning of the Journey
This story is woven across a lifetime and involves a battlefield known all over the world. It is the Battlefield of the Little Bighorn. It is where the infamous General George Armstrong Custer made his “Last Stand” against the American Indian Nation on June 25, 1876.
This story is also about a little boy and how his life journey would not only bring him to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, but to one special night on that battlefield, captured on film underneath the light of a full moon.
That little boy … was me.
Its connection to me is strange although many throughout the United States and even across the world feel some sort of connection to this battlefield. A connection to the event itself.
It is today as it once was then. A high ridge-line running along a section of the Little Bighorn River in what today is in Crow Agency, Montana. A large tree line running along the river obscures one’s view of the large, flat grass-covered landscape below. It is where an estimated 7,000 Indians, from various tribes and nations had gathered in June of 1876. Some said that number was even higher, maybe as many as 10,000. It was during the time of the American Indian War. When America had declared war on its own indigenous Americans in an attempt to take their lands from them.
The very top of this ridge is skirted on both sides with soft flowing prairie grass that always moves so softly in the wind. Not much has changed at all here except the now white stone markers showing where Custer and his soldiers fell that day in battle. New stone markers now erected also showing where great Indian warriors that day fell in battle. This is …. a place of death.
It is where Custer, his officers, and nearly 300 men were brutally killed that day. Many of them, with their bodies mutilated, some while they were still alive, had all laid right here. The screams of men as they were being killed, tortured, scalped and mutilated alive, have all fallen silent here.
The largest Indian village ever amassed had disappeared into legend by the next day after the battle. The Indians had fled yet again from arriving reinforcements. When the U.S. Cavalry arrived just two days later, they found the remains of Custer and his men strewn across the battlefield, down both sides of a ridge-line. Their mutilated bodies had been left in the hot and humid Montana summer to rot. Coyotes and crows had been feasting. The stench could be smelled far downwind from the battlefield.
As an adult, I became a self-made student of this battle. A battle that is known all over the globe. An icon in modern history. Everyone seems to have heard of “Custer’s Last Stand.” But, to get to that battlefield was a long journey with many twists and turns.
I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. I grew up completely absorbed with the Battle of the Alamo. It was perhaps considered the most sacred spot in all of Texas. It was revered soil to all Texans. Where in March of 1836, approximately 200-300 Texans, held up in the remains of an old Spanish mission, defended themselves against the Mexican Army. After 13 days, the Mexicans overran the Alamo and massacred every living Texan there including the famous Davy Crockett.
I was only eighteen years old then when I spent 6 months researching the battle. A student of Central Catholic High School, I was walking distance from the Alamo. After school and before my parents picked me up a couple of hours later when they got off from their jobs, I studied inside the Alamo Archives located on the actual grounds itself.
I spent many years later in my adult life following the latest archaeological digs there and new recreations of the battle based on the most updated discoveries including the diary from one of the Mexican Officers who witnessed the entire event.
My first knowledge of General George Armstrong Custer and his “Last Stand” came to me as a young child.
No more than eight or nine years old when one day, I saw a magazine laying on our coffee table. I remember the cover showing a prairie field against a blue sky. It may have shown the image of a grave and held a caption eluding to a story about the remains of a soldier recently discovered on a battlefield. It instantly attracted my attention. I picked it up and asked my mother about it who was standing nearby. She explained that it was “Custer’s Battlefield” as it was called in-the-day. She said they had discovered the skeleton of one of his soldiers. A farmer had found it, she said. She then explained to me the battle as she knew it. I remember being amazed at how they had not found and buried him with the rest of the soldiers killed there. I remember feeling sad for this one lone soldier.
Growing up in Texas, boys grew up often playing ‘Cowboys and Indians.’ The Indians were always the ‘bad guys’ when we played of course. Texas had many locations where Indians had massacred ‘White Settlers.’ We grew up watching many John Wayne movies, and other Hollywood movies in the days of ‘black-and-white’ television, showing soldiers and cowboys often fighting the Indians. We always cheered the soldiers and cowboys when they killed and beat the Indians. The Indians were always the bad guys as they were only shown attacking innocent and defenseless settlers headed west in wagon trains and living on their homesteads.
I also spent many of my teenage years visiting and even staying at an old Frontier Fort in Brackettville, Texas. Founded as early as 1849, it was named Fort Clark and would house the U.S. Army Cavalry, starting with the 4th Cavalry in 1873. One of its primary duties was to protect both settlers and wagon trains passing by on their way to California from marauding Indians. It has seen many military inhabitants such as both young lieutenants, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, in addition to WWII Generals such as Jonathan M. Wainwright and George S. Patton.
I remember one day, watching a black-and-white episode from the Twilight-Zone T.V. series featuring Rod Sterling. It was a series featuring a genre of the supernatural and science-fiction. This particular episode featured a supernatural tale involving a modern army platoon of tanks doing maneuvers during a training exercise. They were training somewhere in Montana when one tank crew becomes lost from the rest of their unit. Somehow, some way, they go back in time and are suddenly at the Battle of the Little Big Horn witnessing Custer and his soldiers make their last stand. I was amazed that this battle involving Custer seemed to keep reemerging in magazines, books, movies, and T.V. shows in the 1960’s.
Growing up, I followed some of the history of Indian related skirmishes throughout New Mexico and Arizona, to California where I would eventually live. But I remained somewhat obsessed with Custer’s last stand and the battlefield too. Growing up in my adult life, I followed any new discoveries made there.
I remembered in 1989, watching yet another remarkable story of a man walking along the riverbank of the Little Big Horn River at the Battlefield. He had slipped and fallen down along a sandy portion of the riverbed leading into the river itself. When he fell downward, he threw his arms outward to brace his fall. The fingers from one hand went right through the eye-sockets of a human skull that he found looking right up at him. It turned out to be the skull of one of Custer’s soldiers. With modern forensic sciences, they were able to not only reconstruct his face and what he looked like but were able to eventually narrow down exactly who this soldier was. It was Sgt. Edward Botzer. Once again, I thought this was amazing.
By 1991, I was living in Escondido, California, just north of San Diego. Now married and with children, I had discovered another battlefield where I lived, right in Escondido. It was called the San Pasqual Battlefield. It involved the Americans fighting the Mexicans. This time, it was the Mexican War in 1846. The U.S. had gone to war with Mexico and the first official battle between the U.S. Army and Mexico, on California soil, occurred at the southern edge of Escondio at a place called San Pasqual.
I would eventually head the San Pasqual Battlefield Site Location Project for about the next twelve years, rewriting much of the history of the battle including exactly where it had occurred at and how. [http://sanpasqual.org/]
It was during my research at San Pasqual that finally led me to the Little Bighorn Battlefield and Custer’s Last Stand. During years of research at San Pasqual, I began to study other battlefields that had conflicts involving two mounted forces against each other on horseback. This was because the Battle of San Pasqual had involved both Americans and Mexicans battling each other on horseback. This produces a different artifact debris field because to some degree, the battle is a moving one vs. one involving two armies marching on foot at each other.
This led me to tremendous research into the Battle of Little Big Horn.
To understand the movement of opposing forces at San Pasqual, I had to acquire a tremendous understanding of the tactics employed by both sides and understand why those tactics were being employed.
Thus, I dove into the study of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. To do this, I did not rely on as much from Historians as I did, archaeologists. This led me to spend over a year studying the data from the first and most extensive archaeological survey and dig ever performed at the Little Big Horn Battlefield. This was started in 1984 and under the direction of two key and noted archaeologists, Douglas D. Scott and Richard A. Fox. Upon hearing of this project, volunteers poured in from all over the world to participate in this study.
After nearly a year of intense studying of their reports and findings, I traveled for the first time to the Little Bighorn Battlefield in the mid-1990’s. After meeting with noted Battlefield Chief Historian Douglas C. McChristian and his associate, Battlefield Historian John August Doerner, I spent two days just walking and surveying the battlefield. Taking the scientific data and then applying it physically and in person at the actual site itself was powerful. In addition to having been in law enforcement as an investigator and experienced in crime-scene reconstruction, coupled with my training and experience in the United States Marines with warfare tactics, I began to apply my own studies into the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I left the battlefield with a very intimate understanding of what really occurred there on that faithful day of June 25th, 1876.
Years later, I changed careers. Being an avid photographer, the creation of the digital age forced me back to school. I had to now learn cameras all over again. Film was now on its way to becoming obsolete and I had to learn the use of digital cameras. I took this even a step further and went to a digital-video school. Upon completion, I opened up my own production company in California – Manorge Productions.
Manorge Productions contracted to clientele to shoot promo-videos for their companies and events. It was during this time that I took my past history as a published poet and avid book writer and went to school for screen-play writing. I later wrote the screen play for a full-length movie entitled “The Returning.” It was a love story involving a case of reincarnation. The story involved a young soldier killed on a battlefield in the 1800’s. I took my knowledge of the Little Bighorn battle and its notoriety and used it in the screenplay. By 2003, we began filming. The project was shot over 3-4 months, involved nearly 85 actors, and 30 other production crew members working at various capacities. The movie involved shooting at locations throughout California and Montana.
For a start-up production company and independent film project, it was a huge undertaking when it came to shooting at the locations desired in the movie. However, Manorge Productions was successful in shooting runway scenes at a San Diego airport, helicopter landings aboard the USS Midway, inside the private apartment of Wyatt Earp and his common-law wife, Josie, and last but not least, the Little Big Horn Battlefield.
First of all, the Little Bighorn National Monument is a National Park. It is also considered a very sacred site to many of all backgrounds. I was told as a Film Director and Producer that there was going to be very little chance that I would get a film permit to shoot at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. I had been told that even Director and Actor, Robert Redford, had been turned down when he applied for a permit to shoot there during the filming of “The Horse Whisperer.” Whether or not that is true I don’t know but it was what I had been told by park officials at the time. However, as I am with everything else in life, I tried anyway. The worse they could say was ‘no’ so I had nothing to lose in trying.
The application for the film permit went to the Federal Government’s National Park Service. The process went on for a while and included written correspondences going back and forth as well as phone calls discussing the project. One of the issues was that a film permit might be considered for a documentary but most assuredly, not for a fictionalized movie.
Everything then went quiet for a while as I waited to hear either ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on the film permit request to shoot at the battlefield.
Then, one day in the mail, there it was. The film permit to shoot at Little Bighorn was signed and approved. We had 24 hours to shoot all the daytime and nighttime scenes required in the movie. It was both humbling and exciting to receive the permit and have the opportunity to shoot on-location at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. But now the work began in trying to cram three days’ worth of shooting into just 24 hours which is all that we were given. Plus, now the logistics began in having to move actors and production crew and equipment from Southern California up to Montana where the battlefield was located.
* * *
The Three-Pronged Attack
In 1876, the U.S. Army had launch yet another ambitious military operation against the American Indians in the northwestern part of the United States. Its goal was to either contain numerous tribes and force them onto newly created “Indian Reservations” or, eradicate them from the land by any means necessary. This often led to massacres of Indians by the U.S. Government in order to obtain compliance and their lands.
By June of 1876, a three-pronged attacked was to occur by the U.S. Army at an Indian Village located off the Little Bighorn River in what is today, Montana. Three separate contingents of soldiers were all to converge on June 26th-27th, attacking the Indians from three different directions.
One was to be led by Colonel John Gibbon who led a column of 6 companies of the 7th Infantry and 4 companies of the 2nd Cavalry.
The second was led by Brig. General George Crook who led 10 companies of the 3rd Cavalry, 2 companies of the 4th Infantry, and 3 companies of the 9th Infantry.
The 3rd prong of the attack was led by Brig. General Alfred Terry who led 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry consisting of approximately 700 men, 2 companies of the 17th Infantry regiment, and a Gatling gun detachment.
It was in Brig. General Terry’s group that upon word of hostiles operating in the area, that on Thursday, June 22nd, he gave a young 36-year-old, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry, to go and hunt the enemy. Terry made it clear to Custer that if the situation arose, Custer could “depart” from the original orders and engage the hostiles there if “sufficient reason” was found. However, the plan was that all three columns would meet at the Little Bighorn on June 26-27th for a combined attack from all three columns. The General and his remaining men then joined Lieutenant Colonel Gibbon’s unit.
The 12 Companies the General gave Custer included a supply train of approximately 150 wagons and pack-mules to help resupply him if needed. Custer, though reluctant, took them along. He did not want to be weighed down, preferring to be a lightweight and fast moving military unit capable of engaging the Indians in their own style of warfare.
Custer also refused from General Terry the taking of Gatling Guns. He felt they would slow him down and only get in the way of his fast-moving tactics against the Indians.
With that said, Custer then broke off from Brig. General Terry’s main force and started out with 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry comprising of 31 officers and 566 enlisted men.
* * *
Night Before Destiny
On the night of Saturday, June 24th, 1876, Custer and his men sat around their evening campfires while the band played songs for the troops. Approximately 15 miles away however, his Indian scouts had located the “hostiles” and their village located off of the Little Bighorn River.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, Custer had a favorite song which he had his regimental band play for him at every chance that he could. The name of this song was “Garryowen.” It was a very popular Irish song then in America. By today’s standards, it would have been in the top-ten-hits of its day. Alcohol flowed among the troops this night.
Custer enjoyed the evening with his younger brothers. Army Captain and two-time Medal-of-Honor recipient, Thomas (Tom) and, Boston, the civilian Forage Master for the 7th Regiment. His young eighteen-year-old nephew, Henry Reed, was also there. A brother-in-law and other friends of his were present too.
This night, Custer and his men continued to listen and sing to ‘Garryowen’ as the band played on. I have often thought of how haunting that song is now to me when I hear it. Custer and his men would never hear it again after this night.
From an overlook located approximately 14 miles (23km) east of the Little Bighorn River, at sunrise on the morning of Sunday, June 25th, Custer’s Scouts could see a large pony herd along the river. There were thousands of horses. One Indian scout described it saying, “They look like worms in the grass.”
Beyond it another mile, they could see an Indian village. The Army Officer with them could not see it, however. Custer was summoned and upon arrival, was shown by the scouts where the Indian Village was located. Like the other Army Officer present, Custer could not see it either. All then returned back to camp.
Custer began to immediately formulate battle plans to attack the Indian Village on the morning of the 26th. He had originally wanted to take this day of June 25th and use it to scout out the village itself. But later in the morning, some of his soldiers had gone back to pick up some supplies that had fallen from the pack train. When they did, they discovered fresh pony tracks from Indians in the area. Further, fresh Indian tracks were discovered up on the ridges above where the soldiers were traveling. When word of this got back to Custer, he feared that their element of surprise would be blown and that that the Indians would pack up their teepees and encampment and, flee the area before General Crook and Terry’s Columns could arrive on the 26th-27th. Even worse, they could break up and flee in different directions making it much more difficult to contain and engage them all. Fearing the element of surprise would be lost, Custer made a faithful decision to launch an immediate attack upon the Indian Village at the Little Bighorn River.
When this was announced, several of Custer’s Indian Scouts tried to tell him of the size of the Indian encampment. Indian Scout, Mitch Bouyer told Custer, “General, I have been with these Indians for 30 years, and this is the largest village I have ever heard of.” Half Yellow Face told him “You and I are going home today by a road we do not know”. Several tried to explain to Custer that this was the largest Indian encampment they had ever seen.
To understand this better, Custer and his 7th Cavalry were used to attacking Indian Villages that averaged 250-300 Indians inside the village during attack. In many cases, the warriors were often away, and most inhabitants were women, children, and seniors.
However, Indian agents had told the Army that this was a large gathering of Indians numbering approximately 800. So, it was this number that Custer assumed they would be encountering. If the warriors were out of the village as was usually the case, it would be even fewer inhabitants. The stark reality was that historians have since estimated that somewhere between 5000-7000 Indians were encamped at the village on the little Bighorn this day. Indians present that day stated as many as 10,000 Indians were amassed at this village.
While for centuries, Indian tribes had often been at war with each other, it was the first time in American history when so many different American Indian Tribes had actually banded together. They all now fought one common enemy, the U.S. Government. The U.S. Government was breaking its treaties with them and stealing their land. They were killing their food source which were the buffalo. Never in U.S. history had the U.S. Army witnessed such a gathering of so many different Indian tribes exceeding 800 inhabitants. As a result, the Army believed the information given to them by acting Indian Agents.
Even at 5000 Indians in one encampment, this would have resulted in a minimum of 2000-2500 active Indian braves (warriors) against Custer’s 7th Cavalry. Many were armed with better firearms too, sold to them by arms dealers. Repeating rifles held by Indian warriors were far better than the standard Army issued rifles at the time.
Custer had no knowledge of this. Thinking he had no more than 800 total Indians and only half would be male braves, he was not worried. He thought he out-manned and out gunned whatever he was going to encounter at Little Bighorn.
So, on the morning of June 25, 1876, Custer decided not to wait until June 26-27th when Generals Crook and Terry would arrive to join forces. Instead, Custer made a decision to attack the Indian Village at the Little Bighorn with his 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry.
He placed three companies under the Command of Major Marcus Reno with orders to attack the front of the village. These were Companies A,G, and M. Custer would take five companies (C,E,F,I,L) and attack the village from the rear as was standard tactics.
Captain Fredrick Benteen was placed in command of three companies and ordered to scout the area south of the Little Bighorn while shadowing their huge pack train of food and ammunition supplies involving wagons and pack-mules. These were Companies H,D, and K. One company had been assigned directly to the pack train itself. This was Company B.
By noon, Custer and his 7th Cavalry were moving into range of the Indian Village. With Captain Benteen and his three companies moving off to begin a scouting mission and the pack train moving in their direction, Major Reno moved with his three companies toward the river. He crossed it with his men and prepared a frontal attack of the Indian Village on the valley floor.
Custer now rode with his five companies of men high above Reno along a high ridge-line. The plan was basic standard operating procedure … attack the Indian village from both the front and rear simultaneously. The women, children, and seniors would flee from the frontal attack, right into the arms of the cavalry unit attacking from the rear. Once the women and children were captured, there was a bargaining chip for the cavalry to get the Indian warriors to lay down their weapons and surrender. Then all would be escorted to their perspective Indian Reservation.
* * *
The Battle Starts
It was approximately at 3:00 p.m. when Major Reno sounded his attack towards the front of the Indian Village on the Little Bighorn. With the river to his right and a border of trees running along its bank, he charged towards the village with two companies (approximately 40 men each) and a 3rd coming up. As Reno quickly tried to wrap his left flank around the perimeter of the village, he desperately began to realize the true and massive size of the village. His sighting of the village was obscured by a tree line extending towards it front. It just kept going … for miles. Neither he nor any in the 7th Cavalry could have even begun to imagine an Indian Village this massive.
Fearing a possible trap, Reno brought his company to a halt just a few hundred yards from the village. He ordered his soldiers to dismount and form a skirmish line. They then began firing into the village and according to witnesses, immediately killed 6 women and 4 children. The women and children were now trying to flee.
Protecting their woman and children, Indian Braves inside the village began to empty out in an all-out effort to attack Reno’s unit. Reno’s skirmish line went across an open field facing the village, going all the way to a cluster of trees on his right that bordered the river. The Indians were attacking the soldiers at midway while also trying to come around on his left flank.
This attack went on for approximately 20 minutes. Above the valley, a couple of miles away, up on the high ridge-line on the opposite side of the river and moving away from Reno’s unit was Custer and his 5 companies. Custer and his men could hear all the gunfire coming from the attack. While Reno was hoping that Custer and his men would come to his aid, Custer was trying desperately to circle around the backside of the village and enter from the rear.
Rather than go back to help Reno and his men, Custer pushed as quickly as he could to come around the backside of the massive village.
Custer, atop the Ridge at Weir’s Point, had begun to assess the size of the Indian village. While he would has seen a good portion of it, it is of debate between historians as to how much Custer actually saw regarding its true size and direction. The river had a tall tree-line falling along its banks and between that and the topography, it is not really clear as to what Custer assessed other than it was indeed a very large Indian village.
At the head of Medicine Tail Coulee (leading down to the river from the ridge-line), Custer sent a messenger who was an Italian immigrant, barely off the boat from Europe and, immediately into the Army. He spoke but little English. He rode as fast as he could with his message, locating Benteen and his men already headed toward Custer’s position, returning from the south on their scouting mission.
The messenger handed Benteen a handwritten note from Custer reading, “Benteen. Come on, Big Village, Be quick, Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” Custer had given the order to the messenger verbally but his Adjutant, Lt. W.W. Cooke, sensing that the messenger may not know enough English to accurately convey the message and its urgency, wrote out a handwritten note.
While historians debate as to exactly where, what is known is that the 7th Cavalry under Custer did attempt to cross the Little Bighorn River. Maybe even twice. The general concession among historians of the battle is that Custer himself never attempted to cross.
With that said, eyewitness accounts clearly describe an attempt by the 7th Cavalry to cross the river at a crossing called Medicine Trail Coulee. As soldiers tried to cross the river and enter the Indian Village at its mid-point, a sea of warriors emptied out to engage the soldiers. This included Indian sharpshooters who opened fire and witnesses described a man wearing a buckskin jacket and leading the soldiers, shot severely while atop his horse. It is known that Custer was not the only individual wearing a buckskin jacket that day. A soldier carrying a guidon was also apparently shot out of his saddle. While taking fire from the Indians now flocking to the river crossing site, the soldiers managed to pick up their wounded and retreat back up the coulee (or ravine) and back up to the ridge. It is believed that soldiers under the command of Capt. Yates,’ E and F Companies, made the attempt to cross at this site in order to reinforce Reno’s charge from the rear of the village. However, they were faraway from the end of the village. The village, as massive as it was, had been crossed only at its mid-point.
For sure, a second site confirmed by archaeological debris recovered there, is where the 7th Cavalry also tried to cross. Referred to as Ford-D, it is much further down the river and more accurately towards the rear of the Indian Village. Ford-D is below where the National Cemetery is now located.
After both attempts to cross the Little Bighorn River into the village, Custer then stops mid-attack and sits for 20-30 minutes at a site where today, the National Cemetery is located on the battlefield. Custer, not coming to Reno’s aid is striking. To stop mid-attack and kill time for 20-30 minutes during this battle is also striking. Historians can only speculate and opinionate as to why Custer took this long pause in the middle of the battle.
Back at Reno’s position, still holding a skirmish line and with only one casualty, over 500 Indian Braves had massed behind a small hill just beyond his left flank. With Reno and his men outnumbered five-to-one, the Indians charged. As his entire left end was suddenly under attack, he sounded a retreat to mount and move to their right towards the tree line adjacent the river. With soldiers firing from the trees at the Indians, the Braves then set fire to the tree line.
During a very chaotic and terrorizing situation, Reno ordered his men to mount, dismount, and then mount again.
Then, sitting mounted next to his Indian Scout, Bloody Knife, Reno looked away but for a brief second. Amid all the ongoing gunfire, Bloody Knife’s head exploded from a single gunshot with debris splattering onto Reno. Visibly shaken, Reno ordered a final retreat across the river and towards the high bluffs that looked down upon the Little Bighorn River. It became a turkey-shoot for the Indians who came down upon them in brutal close-combat with the soldiers as they tried to make their way across the river. Three Officers and 29 enlisted soldiers were killed trying to cross the river. Thirteen to eighteen more went missing. Presumed left behind in the tree line during the retreat.
Once across the river, Reno and the rest of his men made a desperate attempt to ride up onto the high bluffs overlooking the river. Once on top, he and his men were in a state of shock and chaos as they tried to regroup and formulate their next course of action. It was by sheer luck that Captain Benteen, moving towards Custer’s position nearly 4.1 miles away, ran into Reno and his men atop the bluff. The Pack Train and its company of soldiers soon joined them too.
The combined group atop the bluff of over 350 soldiers quickly began to find themselves under attack. They quickly formed a major defensive position in a large circular formation. Reno’s men especially, knew of the hugely large Indian force they were facing and with many of their comrades already dead or wounded, they began to frantically dig rifle pits (shallow trenches) around the large circle. Digging into the hard earth with anything they had, many dug frantically with only their hands. Bullets were hitting the earth all around them, sending large flumes of dirt up in the air and to be blown along in the wind.
Captain Benteen then made a very history-making decision. Seeing Reno’s tattered unit as it was, and also now beginning to come under attack themselves, Benteen decided to not continue on to Custer’s aid. Instead, he decided that he and Reno, along with the Supply Train, would hunker down into a defensive position until reinforcements arrived on the 26th and 27th in the way of Generals’ Crook and Terry and their advancing columns.
One soldier described Major Reno,sitting, broken down, and crying.
It was now approximately 4:20 p.m. when Reno and Benteen could hear massive weapons fire coming from Custer’s position slightly less-than-four miles away. They also heard distinctive rifle volleys which were used as a signal for help. Neither Reno or Benteen would break their position or send any men to respond.
Thinking this was not right, one company commander, Captain Thomas Weir, broke his company loose from the defensive position and started in route towards Custer and his men at around 5:00 p.m.. Barely a mile away at a lookout point now known as Weir Point, Weir could see lots of Indians riding everywhere on horseback with many shooting into objects on the ground. The objects were thought to be what was left of Custer’s men.
In a change-of-heart, Benteen and Reno then began to break off their men, battalion by battalion and head towards Weir Point. The pack train being the last to move out towards Custer’s position.
* * *
Of five companies, the last to go was the one that now surrounded Custer on what is today known as “Last Stand Hill.” The Indians had lit a fire to the prairie in hopes of getting Custer and his men to flee so they could be easily attacked in the melee. Between the smoke from the fire, dust and dirt from horses and, hundreds of impacting bullets into the hillside, plus powder from discharging weapons, witnesses said that the smoke rose high up into the sky in a huge flume, visible all the way back to Reno and Benteen several miles away.
In the middle of it all was Custer himself, still upon his horse. He was higher upwards on the hill and to the rear of his company which was normal for commanding officers. Custer and this last company fought for a long time. Organized volleys of fire continued, inflicting but few causalities on the Indians. At the same time, Indian sharpshooters in fixed positions managed to snipe and kill soldiers off, one at a time.
As historical and archaeological research would support, most of Custer’s men (nearly 80%) were immigrants just off the boat. Little training before the campaign, most had no experience at all on the open prairie. They also lacked any combat experience. Most were from the U.K., Germany, and Ireland.
Archaeological study of the soldier’s remains would also show they were malnourished and in poor physical condition. Some controversy between historians is that Custer, maybe out of disciplinary reasons, may have reduced rations to his men considerably because their pack train showed they were well supplied.
Later archaeological studies at the battlefield would show that Lt. Calhoun and his company of men, on a hill next to Custer’s Company, maintained a very organized skirmish line held against the Indians frontal attack from the river. Custer’s remaining Company on Last Stand Hill would show a completed set of breastworks using their dead horses for cover.
Observations of this moment from several Indians involved were …. “The Indians pressed and crowded right in around Custer Hill. But the soldiers weren’t ready to die. We stood there a long time.” [Iron Hawk]. “It was a hotly contested battle” [Moving Robe]. “Here [Last Stand Hill] the soldiers made a desperate fight.” [Red Horse]. “In fact, Hollow Horn Bear believed that the troops were in good order at the start of the fight, and kept their organization even while moving from point to point.” [Brulé Sioux Warrior]
When enough Braves had amassed on one side, Crazy Horse launched a final and fatal charge against Custer and his remaining men from the northeast or backside. This resulted in many soldiers breaking ranks and running for their lives. The Indians later referred to this as “ … a buffalo run.”
With both on horseback, it would be a 32-year-old Northern Cheyenne Indian woman named Buffalo Calf Road Woman who would take Custer out of his saddle. Welding a tomahawk type club, she rode up to him and swung it full bore into his body. The impact took him right out of his saddle.
Crazy Horse’s charge was in one direction and the warriors overran Custer’s remaining men. After almost an hour, in minutes, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was over.
A group of soldiers which also included the well-known Indian Scout Mitch Bouyer, had broken ranks and ran down towards the river, trying to escape the onslaught of over a thousand Indians. The group ran for a nearby deep ravine located down the hill towards their left, about 300-400 yards. Bouyer was one of those that didn’t make it. He was cut down just 65 yards short of the ravine. Killed, he was found with his skull bashed in by the Indians. Approximately 35 soldiers made it down into the deep ravine and just as some started up onto the other side of it, scores of mounted Indian Braves arrived and began shooting them all.
It was like shooting ‘pigs-in-a-barrel’ where the poor soldiers caught down at the bottom of the deep ravine had no cover and nowhere to go. Most, probably with no firearms or else out of bullets were simply executed down in the ravine by the Indians above. Those that had struggled to get out of the ravine and begin running up the other side were either clubbed to death, or shot by arrows or guns. None of them survived. This ravine would forever be known as “Deep Ravine.”
Twenty-eight bodies were later found and buried in Deep Ravine. These bodies were never seen again as natural erosion from the earth buried them so deep into the earth forever.
Slowly, the gunfire stopped. The dust began to settle, and light began to once again permeate the dark battlefield. Smoke from the nearby fire that had been started had begun to die out. Now sounds of people running and walking about were heard. There were sounds of bodies as they were being stripped and skulls cracked open. Occasionally, a gunshot would be heard somewhere. A yell here or there. People talking and chanting. No more English language heard on the battlefield.
Some watched as a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Nose rode around the battlefield with the guidon (Company Flag) he had captured from ‘F’ Company under the Command of Captain George Yates. With the metal spearhead at its top, Yellow Nose rode around the field “counting coup” with it, spearing the bodies of 7th Cavalry soldiers that laid across the battlefield. Some dead and some not.
Custer’s body laid on the battlefield on the side of a hill, nearly at the top. Just six-feet below where the monument today now stands. His blond locks had been cut before the battle. He was recognizable to a few but unrecognizable to many more. He was shot in the chest just below his heart. He was also shot in his left temple, but it showed no bleeding from either entry or exit point thus, was probably done after death.
Just a few feet away laid the body of his younger brother Tom. His body laid there so mutilated that it would later only be able to be identified from a tattoo found on an arm. It was said that his heart had been cut out, supposedly by a Lakota Chief named Rain-in-the-Face. Although the Chief would later deny it, it became famous folklore of the day, even written about in a poem entitled, “The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
George Armstrong Custer’s body, as was almost all of the dead of the 7th Cavalry that day, was stripped and left naked where he died. However, unlike others, he was not scalped nor was his head or any limbs cut off. Only two mutilations were reported done to his body of which some historians believe and some not. Both were symbolically significant.
One was said to be from two Cheyenne Indian women who ran their sewing awls through his skull, into one ear and out the other. The Indian women did this as it was believed to let him hear better in the next life since in his parting one, he had broken his word he had made to a certain Chief. It was hoped that he would hear the word of the Indians better in his next life.
The other mutilation reported was that an arrow had been ran up into his penis. This came from Lt. Edward S. Godfrey, who had accompanied Major Reno and Capt. Benteen to the battlefield after being met by General Terry’s Column two days later. In later years, Godfrey, now a Brig. General, later reported to a Colonel Bates (retired) that concerning Custer’s body, an arrow “had been forced up his penis.” It was said that this was never mentioned out of respect to Custer’s widow, Elizabeth Custer.
* * *
This is where however, the story gets interesting. The question is, who, and why, did somebody make such a symbolic gesture, referencing what would be in Custer’s afterlife, by shoving an arrow up into his penis?
My educated guess is that it was a 26-year-old Cheyenne woman, single mom, named Monahsetah. Her nickname was “Meotzi.” I studied numerous historians and their research on this very interesting woman and her connection to Custer. Many of the historians either left out important details in their slanting of the story or, embellished other details to help substantiate their educated opinions on the matter.
I did find one historian, different from the rest. His name was Peter Harrison. This very accomplished historian on other matters of history, for whatever reason, decided to dive into the mystery of this young Cheyenne woman and her relationship with Custer. He wrote a small but powerful book on the subject, entitled “Yellow Swallow.” It chronicled all of his tremendous research efforts into this topic. His book, edited by Gary Leonard, is available on Amazon. I use a number of his source documents in relating the facts of this matter.
It is from his ‘facts’ as documented, as well as from a few from other historians, that I have drawn my conclusion on who committed the mutilation on Custer’s penis on the battlefield and why? I leave you, the reader, to your own opinion.
In November of 1868, Monahsetah was nineteen years old. She was the daughter of a sixty-two-year-old Cheyenne Chief named “Little Rock”, who was most probably a Medicine Man. She had been married off to a man named “Little Eagle,” the son of another Chief. They had only been married for a year when she had already left him. In what was described as an abusive relationship, one confrontation between her and her husband resulted in her shooting him in his knee with a pistol inside the teepee. She unknowingly left him, impregnated with his child.
She had four siblings which consisted of two younger brothers and two younger sisters.
A few years before, at the age of sixteen, Monahsetah had already survived her first attack by U.S. soldiers at a place called “Sand Creek,” in Colorado. Later described as a “massacre” of the Indians there, Monahsetah had managed to survive although she had been shot in the leg, breaking the bone in the process.
Several years later, Monahsetah was now living with her family in a village of approximately 51 teepees just off the Washita River in present-day Oklahoma. It was the village of Cheyenne Chief, Black Kettle. She was now approximately eight months pregnant with her first child.
At sunrise on the morning of November 29th, Monahsetah would wake up to experience once again, the fear and terror of another attack by the U.S. Army. This time, the attack was led by the 7th U.S. Cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.
By the end of the day, over a hundred in her village laid dead including some women and children. Also killed that day was Chief Black Kettle, and Monahsetah’s father, Chief Little Rock, as well as her younger brother, Hawk. By late afternoon, Monahsetah found herself starting out as part of a three-day prisoner caravan, being herded back to nearby “Camp Supply” on horseback by Custer’s soldiers. She would be one of 53 women and children prisoners taken that day from her village.
Most modern day Americans have no idea what the American Indians endured at the hands of the White Euro-American Army. And borne in their likeness, were now the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the first all-Black Army Regiment. They too got good at atrocities against the Indians.
For 19-year-old Monahsetah, she was to discover the routine consequences of being an Indian woman taken prisoner by the U.S. Army.
As described by Captain Myles Keogh a few years earlier (who will be killed at Little Bighorn along with Custer) in a letter to his brother,
“I shall I expect be able to provide myself with a squaw, the necessary article to an officer’s full equipment out on the plains.”
Chief Magpie of the Cheyenne would later state,
“It was Red Dress [grandson of Mahwissa] who related how, when troops had returned to Camp Supply with the women prisoners taken on the Washita, Custer and his officers approached the cowering group to select companions for a convivial night. Her story of this occurrence has been corroborated by Big Horse, a Cheyenne Chief whose wife was one of those subjected to these indignities.”
A Chief scout named Ben Clark, also later reported,
“Many of the squaws captured at Washita were used by the officers. Romero [Interpreter] was put in charge of them and on the march, Romero would send squaws around to the officers every night. Says Custer picked out a fine looking one and had her in his tent every night, with old Mrs. ??? for a guise.”
The Indian known as Red Dress [also known as Little Beaver], was later questioned specifically on this matter by writer Charles J. Brill. He was an author who wrote on this subject and had a published work of it in 1938. He wrote,
“Little Beaver was interrogated regarding his mother’s account of mistreatment of Indian women prisoners the first night after they arrived in Camp Supply. His mother, Little Beaver said, asserted this girl was Custer’s selection on that occasion and that a mutual friendship seemed to spring up between them immediately.”
The “girl” in question was Monahsetah.
In early December, the women prisoners and children were moved from Camp Supply to nearby Fort Hayes in Kansas. There, Custer’s wife, nicknamed “Libby,” saw Monahsetah for the first time and observes that she is pregnant and just shy of giving birth.
Despite this, in early December, Custer takes Monahsetah along as a Scout-Interpreter with General Sheridan on a trip back to the Washita Village site. This, despite she could not speak any English nor had any known background as an Indian Scout. By mid-December, Custer now takes off again on a detachment to Fort Cobb in Oklahoma, again, with Monahsetah. They arrived there by late December.
Around January 5th, Custer again sets out with a detachment. This time, to the present-day location of Fort Sill, also in Oklahoma.
What becomes a mystery is exactly when and where Monahsetah delivered her baby that Libby Custer clearly sees she is pregnant with. If Libby, also a woman, cites that in December, that Monahsetah is a month or so from delivering, then that places the baby’s birth in January of 1869. Then, how can Monahsetah travel all around with Custer on these detachments and still be pregnant? A possible clue is given to us in the investigative work of Historian Peter Harrison. He writes,
“One of the accompanying troopers, David Spotts, kept a diary and noted a glimpse of Monahsetah in his entry for 7 January, saying that “[t]he Seventh still has the Indian squaw. She rides with the driver in an ambulance, although she sits on the floor.” Spotts had previously suggested in his diary that the woman referred to was Mahwissa, but she had left the troops and was now located in the distant village of Stone Forehead. The young soldier does not mention anyone answering the description of the other Indian-Scout Squaw named‘Sioux Woman’ but we do know from a reference by one of Custer’s sergeants, John Ryan, that Monahsetah traveled in the cook’s ambulance, which was the Lieutenant Colonel’s personal wagon, “fitted out with a camp stove.”
That Lieutenant Colonel was Custer! And indeed, a woman about to deliver a baby would be transported in a wagon vs. riding horseback. Especially if she were to start contractions or break her water. If Custer was indeed being partial to Monahsetah under such conditions, having her transported in his wagon would have been understood.
Other historians believe that Monahsetah gave birth to Little Eagle’s baby in early December of 1869.
Regardless, it was somewhere during this time that Monahsetah gave birth to her first child, a baby girl later named “Little Bird Girl.” The sex of the baby has also been drawn into debate as both Libby and Captain Fredrick Benteen reference Monahsetah giving birth to a baby boy. What is known for sure is that she had a baby. With her grandmother also with her at Fort Hays, Monahsetah was able to leave the child in her care while she traveled about with Custer.
By May of this same year, Captain Keogh writes,
“We have here ninety squaws from our last fight – some of them are pretty. I have one that is quite intelligent. It is usual for officers to have two or three lounging around.”
Statements from Capt. Fredrick Benteen himself as well as others, confirm the unique liaison between Custer and Monahsetah. After the Battle of Little Bighorn, he writes to a former trooper,
“Of course you have heard of an informal invitation from Custer for officers desiring to avail themselves of the services of a captured squaw, to come to the squaw round-up corral and select one! Custer took first choice and lived with her during winter and spring of 1868 and 69.”
In another letter, Benteen writes,
“Dr. Renick has seen him [Custer] ‘not only’ sleeping with the Indian girl all winter long but has seen him many times in the very act of copulating with her.”
Elizabeth “Libby” Custer joins her husband, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, in April of 1869. During this time, she visited the stockade holding all of the captured Cheyenne women. She writes of her first observation of Monahsetah:
“ … young and attractive, perfectly contented, and trustful of the white man’s promises, and the acknowledged belle among all other Indian maidens.”
Her husband however, is much more admiring of Monahsetah in his book, “My Life on the Plains,” where he writes several years later,
“Little Rock’s daughter was an exceedingly comely squaw, possessing a bright, cheery face, a countenance beaming with intelligence, and a disposition more inclined to be merry than one usually finds among the Indians. She was probably rather under than over 20 years of age. Added to bright, laughing eyes, a set of pearly teeth, and a rich complexion, her well-shaped head was crowned with a luxuriant growth of the most beautiful silken tresses, rivaling in color the blackness of the raven and extending, when allowed to fall loosely over her shoulders, to below her waist….Mo-nah-se-tah being the daughter of a chief high in rank, was justly considered as belonging to the cream of the aristocracy, if not to royalty itself.”
Continuing about Monahsetah, Custer wrote,
“Mo-nah-se-tah, although yet a maiden in years and appearance, had been given in marriage … In addition to her handsome appearance, both in form and feature, and to any other personal attraction which might be considered particularly her own, Mo-nah-se-tah being the daughter of a chief high in rank, was justly considered as belonging to the cream of the aristocracy, if not to royalty itself.”
“Libby” Custer later writes of Monahsetah,
“When the soft eyes smiled on me, I instantly remembered how they must have flashed in anger when she suddenly, and to her husband’s surprise, drew the pistol from under her blanket and did him the greatest injury, next to death, that can happen to an active warrior. How could I help feeling that with a swift movement she would produce a hidden weapon, and by stabbing the wife, hurt the white chief who had captured her, in what she believed would be the most cruel way.”
Libbie’s physical description of Monahsetah turns far less relishing than her original description,
“Her face was not pretty in repose, except with the beauty of youth, whose dimples and curves and rounded outlines are always charming.”
Eyewitness accounts say that Monahsetah had remained very loyal to Custer during that year as his personal scout and interpreter. However, by the end of the year, all the captured Indians were allowed to leave back to their people. For reasons not immediately known, Custer released Monahsetah as his Scout-Interpreter and she leaves the fort with the rest of the Indians, and with one baby on her back. Libby wrote of Monahsetah’s departure, writing,
“[She] walked out of the gate, her papoose on her back, smiling and shy, and showing some regret at departure, for she had thriven in the idle life, … [She] came over to where we waited to say a special good-bye to us…and raised her liquid eyes coyly to smile and bid adieu.”
Of Monahsetah’s departure, Custer himself wrote that Monahsetah …
“… exhibited marked feelings of regret when the time for her departure arrived.”
Historian John Koster writes, “Custer appears to have had other flings after Monahsetah, but no paternity ever transpired”
It is after this, that the story between Monahsetah and Custer continues to get more interesting.
Not long after leaving the fort, two major events happen to Monohsetah in her life. The first is that her newborn baby tragically dies. It is not known how or why the infant died. At the same time, she is again pregnant and carrying a second child on-the-way.
A historian from the early 20th century, Charles J. Brill, wrote about “Monahseetah” saying that she,
“ … gave birth to a second child during the following summer  whilst still a captive at Fort Hayes.” From interviews from first-hand witnesses who were there, he went on to describe the child as “ … yellow-haired and fair skinned. Monahseetah named him ‘Yellow Swallow’” and that she “… knew Custer as ‘Yellow Hair.’”
Chief Wolf Tooth, upon being interviewed, said of Monahsetah, “You will recognize her as the young squaw (daughter of Little Rock) who accompanied Custer to the Sweet Water in Texas and who later gave birth to a yellow headed baby boy.”
Monahsetah had always expressed that the child’s father was George Armstrong Custer, whom she considered her husband. The Cheyenne had witnessed it firsthand and always accepted this fact.
However, one has to understand that basic American ideology in the late 1800’s was that all American Indians were liars and all of them were stupid.
This has always been carried by many White American Historians as well for over a century when it has come to the Indian’s account of things. It was not until the 1984 Archaeological sweep that began of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, that science began to bear out most of what the Indians had been saying all along. This included their brilliant military style tactics of battle that took out almost all of the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
In this essence, many historians loyal to the honor of Custer, maintain this ‘Protect Custer’s Honor’ way of thinking when it comes to Monahsetah. No child existed with blond or streaks of blond hair, nor did she and Custer ever have relations with each other. They profess that Monahsetah had no child at all by Custer. Of this train of thought, I disagree.
Although there are historians who still attempt to defend Custer’s honor by saying they doubt he ever “raped” the teenager, it is highly doubtful that as a POW; and after just killing her father, brother; that any woman under such circumstances, would have suddenly desired consensual sex with him. This being said, there are multiple witnesses that seem to infer that indeed, a mutual respect and relationship maintained itself between both Custer and Monahsetah. Is there a possibility that Monahsetah suffered from what is today called Stockholm Syndrome … where feelings of trust or affection are felt in cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking, by a victim towards their captor? We will never know.
If one knew of what had been done to the Indian women in the Sand Creek Massacre (which Monahsetah had survived), they would understand the survival mentality of most Indian women taken prisoners by the U.S. Army after that. Even at Washita, Indian women had been killed. And as always, rape was very real, common, and prevalent. To placate the soldiers meant to … stay alive.
For Monahsetah and the other women taken prisoner at Washita, upon arriving at Camp Supply, they thought they were to be executed. It appears that two things happened at this point. General Sheridan assured the women that they were not going to be executed of which they were very happy to hear. The other thing to happen involved an Interpreter named Rafael Romero, who the historian Peter Harrison lets us know was “humorously referred to by Custer and other officers as ‘Romeo”,”. It appears that Romero was placed in charge of the Indian women and acted as the ‘go-between’ between the women and the officers, including Custer.
With most of their men dead or on the run, and with a completely unknown future; and knowing the word of the White Man was worthless which meant that death could always be coming their way in the form of execution, it is understandable that the women did whatever they had to, to stay alive. Some of them had children to care for as well. So, when Romero propositioned them to be sexually available for the Army officers, they complied for no more reason than to stay alive. And, if the officers were kept ‘happy,’ then more the possibility of favors done for them in return while in captivity.
Most modern historians today accept that s suspected sexual relationship occurred between Custer and Monahsetah. However, even with that said, many will still attempt to protect Custer’s name contending that Custer never had a child with the Indian Princess. Their only main argument given is that he and his wife, Libby, never conceived a child across 12 years of marriage because Custer was not able to physically conceive one.
These same historians argue that Custer was sterile due to contracting gonorrhea at an earlier age.
The only evidence presented is Custer’s medical record at West Point documenting his contracting of gonorrhea in 1859. Therefore, some historians have assumed that Custer became sterile after contracting the disease and thus, was physically unable to have children. However, upon studying the medical journals of doctors treating gonorrhea during the Civil War, it was treatable based largely on the physical condition of the patient and the stage at which the disease was at, at time of treatment.
At the time that Custer contracted the disease, he was not in war at all. He was in fine physical shape, only 19 years old and a student at WestPoint. Suspected to have been caught from a prostitute in New York while the young Custer was on furlough, the gonorrhea was treated in its early stages. There is absolutely no evidence on record attesting that Custer was “sterile.” This is part of the Custer Myths designed to protect him as an outstanding American hero and icon which sadly in the end, he was not. This is where reality meets folklore.
In late 1869, Monahsetah gave birth to a second baby. She not only considered Custer her lover and the father of the child, but her husband. My suspicion is that once Libby arrived at the fort, she became very aware of the affair between her husband and Monahsetah and, had her sent away forever by Custer. Whereupon, shortly thereafter, she gave birth to his son whom she named ‘Yellow Swallow.’ This was supposedly due to the yellow streaks of hair he had.
It was general knowledge to all the Indians that knew of her that she was Custer’s wife and they had a child together. Despite Custer was their enemy, Monahsetah was given much respect and recognition as being the wife of “Long Hair.” Her cousin, Kate Bighead in later years said,
“All of the Cheyennes liked her, and all were glad she had so important a place in life. After Long Hair [Custer] went away, different ones of the Cheyenne young men wanted to marry her. But she would not have any of them. She said that Long Hair was her husband, that he had promised to come back to her, and that she would wait for him. She waited seven years. Then he was killed.”
How ironic that now, seven years later, on this very Sunday of June 25th, 1876, Monahsetah now resided in this very Indian Village on the Little Bighorn, with his son. They were just below the hill where his suspected paternal father would die this day.
Chief Scout Ben Clark, whom General Philip Sheridan once wrote, was “the most reliable and accomplished man of his class on the plains,” himself wrote about Custer’s death, writing that Custer had left behind “a Cheyenne widow.”
Joseph White Cow Bull, an Indian that fought in the battle of the Little Bighorn against Custer, later recalled of Monahsetah,
“While we were together in this village [on the Little Bighorn River], I spent most of my time with the Shahiyela [Cheyenne] since I knew their tongue and their ways almost as well as my own. In all those years I had never taken a wife, although I had had many women. One woman I wanted was a pretty young Shahiyela named Monahseetah, or Meotxi as I called her. She was in her middle twenties but had never married any man of her tribe. Some of my Shahiyela friends said she was from the southern branch of their tribe, just visiting up north, and they said no Shahiyela could marry her because she had a seven-year-old son born out of wedlock and that tribal law forbade her getting married. They said the boy’s father had been a white soldier chief named Long Hair; he had killed her father, Chief Black Kettle [sic], in a battle in the south [Battle of the Washita] eight winters before, they said, and captured her. He had told her he wanted to make her his second wife, and so he had her. But after a while his first wife, a white woman, found her out and made him let her go.”
The interviewer then specifically asked Joseph White Cow Bull, “Was this boy still with her here?” He replied,
“Yes, I saw him often around the Shahiyela camp. He was named Yellow Bird and he had light streaks in his hair. He was always with his mother in the daytime, so I would have to wait until night to try to talk to her alone. She knew I wanted to walk with her under a courting blanket and make her my wife. But she would only talk with me through the tepee cover and never came outside.”
As one historian pointed out, unlike all the other soldiers whose bodies were grossly mutilated, Custer’s was spared by the Cheyenne Indian women who regarded him as the husband of Monahsetah and father to her son, Yellow Bird [Swallow].
Once again, given the fact that Monahsetah may have fathered a “Custer” child, now White historians have suggested that if so, it was not George Armstrong Custer’s but rather, his brother, Thomas. There is absolutely no evidence to support this.
I do not believe that Monahsetah ever lied or was so stupid as to not know who the father of her child was. And many male, White historians like to look down on women and especially Indians in this aspect. I suspect that Monahsetah was always telling the truth of Custer and was always loyal to him as her own true husband.
On the day that Custer died on that battlefield, Monahsetah was down below in the village. I have no doubt that she was given word of her husband’s death. Also, as it would have been with any wife, I suspect she was brought up to view his body and pay her respects one last time. We know that the two other Cheyenne women there at Custer’s body that day were her relatives. I do not believe this to be a coincidence. It was said that as was Cheyenne custom for a wife, Monahsetah cut off her “beautiful silken tresses” as Custer had described them. She then slashed both her arms and her legs in mourning of his death. I find such loyal and extreme actions by this woman upon mourning Custer’s death, that she saw him as her husband and knew him to be the father of her child.
This brought me back to the mutilation of Custer’s penis. Who did this and why?
Ironically, the Cheyenne women who ran their sewing awls through Custer’s ears, actually many decades later, identified themselves and admitted their actions in an interview. But not one mentioned any involvement with the mutilations of his penis. So, who then did ‘that’ mutilation to his body?
Most modern day law enforcement investigators and psychologists know that in homicide cases where the body has had its sexual organs mutilated, there is a sexually related and intimate motivation by the killer to his or her victim as cause for such a type mutilation. In the case of Custer, who had an intimate and important message or motivation, of a sexual nature, to send to Custer? That was when suddenly, Monahsetah came to my mind.
I realized that in the end, this teenager, upon being taken captive by Custer, … and her father, brother, and so many others from her village killed by him, had left her little choice but to do what she had to do in order to survive. In Custer’s desires for her, he helped take care of her and her baby daughter as well possibly granting favors for her people. Afterall, she was an Indian Princess. In Custer wanting her sexually, she gave all of herself to him, including giving him a child. By Cheyenne custom, she became his wife and he, her husband. At least this was how she would have viewed it culturally.
Custer sent her on her way however, in 1869. This, with one child already born and, another one on the way. He had made it apparent to her that this was at his wife’s (Libby) urging. And, he promised that he would come back for her.
Monahsetah waited seven years for Custer to return. He never did. He left her to fend for herself with two children in tow. During this time, Custer was said to have had sexual relations with other Indian women he had come in contact with. The Indian nation was a small place. The women talked and I feel confident in saying that Monahsetah no doubt had heard these stories. And despite these improprieties, and his broken promise to come back to get her, she still saw him as her husband.
Now, as Custer laid dead on that battlefield this late afternoon of June 25, 1876, someone mutilated his penis so as to send a clear message.
It is in my most humble opinion that the person who mutilated Custer’s penis was his Indian wife, Monahsetah. If any one single person fits the modern-day profile of who would have had cause, motive, and reason, along with cultural ramifications, to inflict that mutilation onto Custer’s body that day, it was Monahsetah. Indeed, Monahsetah had shared both a sexual and intimate relationship with Custer and definitely would have had motive for such a type of mutilation. She was also present in the village adjacent the battlefield and in the accompaniment of two of her relatives who admitted to doing the other mutilation to his body. I do not believe this is a coincidence. Her presence would have also stopped Custer’s body from being greatly mutilated as were most of the 7th Cavalry dead.
I tried to imagine this very intimate scene being played out that day on the battlefield between this man and woman. Former lovers. Affections shown to each other at one time. A child born between the two. And how Custer threw her out to the wind to fend on her own and with a false promise that he would never keep. How ironic that this particular day, seven years later, their paths were brought back to each other once again on the side of this hill. Karma? Who can say but a tragedy for all nevertheless!
According to historian Peter Harrison, after leaving Custer in 1869, Monahsetah, upon returning back to her people, reconciled with her original Indian husband, “Little Eagle.” By 1871, they had another child together, a son named ‘Wolf Belly’. ‘Little Eagle’ then dies several years later under unknown circumstances and through circumstance, Monahsetah finds herself with her son, ‘Yellow Swallow,’ at the Little Bighorn on June 25th, 1876.
Yellow Swallow died at the age of twenty in 1889 and is believed buried in a cemetery in the Cacho Indian Cemetery in Oklahoma which served the Darlington Agency Indian Reservation. Monahsetah died in 1921. Although there are false photographs proclaiming to be that of Monahsetah, there is no actual photograph known to exist of the Indian Princess and mother to Custer’s son.
Upon Custer’s death, Libby Custer found herself destitute. Custer had many unpaid debts and loans at the time of his death. Libby was left with nothing. Soldiers had “passed the hat around” to collect funds to help her out as a widow. She later became a successful writer, writing several books based on her memoirs. She died in 1933. A time in America when such gangsters as John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde predominated the newspaper headlines.
* * *
Eyewitness accounts report in the final moments of Custer’s last company, some men committed suicide by shooting themselves rather than be taken prisoner by the Indians. To date, there has been no archaeological evidence to support this but that does not mean it did not happen.
Many of the men had their skulls bashed in as also supported by archaeological data. Interestingly, it was the Indian women whose task it was, to go over the battlefield and killed any of the wounded soldiers still living, ensuring that all of them were dead. This was mostly done using a stone mallet. Many were found left at the scene. The mallets found consisted of a round cobblestone taken from the river weighing about 8-10 pounds and attached to a rawhide handle.
It would appear that the Indians vanquished their enemy’s wounded on the field in this fashion. Many were found with multiple knife wounds and arrows shot through their bodies.
Soldiers were also found decapitated along with sometimes arms and legs missing. Most scalps were removed from the soldiers. All were stripped and left as such under the hot scorching summer sun that was to set soon that day.
The main battle had lasted approximately an hour. When it was over, the 7th Cavalry had suffered 268 dead and 55 severely wounded which would include 2 Arikara and 4 Crow Indian Scouts. Six of the wounded would later die from their injuries.
For the Indians, approximately 36 were killed in the battle. Some White Historians have tried to place the number higher to approximately 120, some to even 300.
The pack train following Reno and Benteen towards Weir’s Point had barely gotten a quarter-of-a-mile when Reno, Benteen, Weir, and their men all began retreating back to the high bluffs they had just left. It seemed that upon the annihilation of all of Custer and his five companies, several thousand Indian Braves now began to notice Reno and Benteen’s men and started heading their way.
Upon arriving back at the defensive position on the Bluffs, the Indians set upon Reno and Benteen’s men. The men now returned to digging rifle pits with their bare hands into the hard earth. Bullets were striking the ground all around them sending flumes of dirt up into the air and reminding them all of their own mortality.
Nearly a thousand Indians descended upon them from all sides now. The fighting was intense as they began taking fire from all around. Indian Braves were moving along with their stomachs to the ground, staying below the height of the prairie grass standing about a foot tall.
The soldiers were also taking fire from Indian snipers set into shooting positions from a higher elevation at Weir’s Point which they had just rode back from. Indians moving through the grass took opportunities to snipe the soldiers as their heads came up from the rifle pits. The fight sustained until about an hour after sunset, at around 9:00 p.m.
The next day, on Monday, June 26th, Reno and Benteen’s men sustained continued Indian attacks from sunup into the night. The attacks mostly came in the form of sleuth whereupon the Indians slithered along on their bellies, below the grass line. Once close enough, they would snipe the soldiers. Soldiers stated of incidents, especially at night, where they could hear an Indian in the grass just a few feet away, almost able to touch them but not able to see them. It was terrifying.
One soldier later recounted being in the middle of a conversation with the soldier right beside him in a rifle pit during an attack during the day. After saying something to him and he not replying, looked back over at him. He was dead. He had been shot in the head.
At one point during the day, a large group of Indians had massed just off of a corner of the defensive position when Captain Benteen led a counterattack, breaking them up and sending them fleeing. Some thought this may have saved them from being overrun like Custer’s men had.
The night grew quiet for Reno and Benteen’s men. They were unaware that the nearly 7000 Indians massed at Little Bighorn had pack up their things and were slowing moving out of the area.
The next day, Tuesday, June 27th, General Terry’s Column approached the battlefield from the north and discovered Custer and his entire five Companies of the 7th Cavalry massacred on the battlefield.
The sight and smell of the stripped and mutilated bodies, baking in the hot Montana sun for two days, with some torn apart and partially eaten by scavengers, was indeed a terrifying scene for the reinforcing soldiers.
Terry’s Column discovered Reno and Benteen’s units nearly four miles away still holding their defensive position. It was said that Reno and Benteen were genuinely shocked upon hearing of Custer and his men’s demise. They had thought that like them, Custer and his men had hunkered down into a defensive position while waiting for reinforcements. Both officers rode over to the battlefield to examine what had happened to Custer and his men.
Benteen later said, “I went over the battlefield carefully with a view to determine how the battle was fought. I arrived at the conclusion I [hold] now – that it was a rout, a panic, until the last man was killed …”
“There was no line formed on the battlefield. You can take a handful of corn and scatter [the kernels] over the floor, and make just such lines. There were none … The only approach to a line was where 5 or 6 [dead] horses found at equal distances, like skirmishers [part of Lt. Calhoun’s Company L]. That was the only approach to a line on the field. There were more than 20 [troopers] killed [in one group]; there were [more often] four or five at one place, all within a space of 20 to 30 yards [of each other] … I counted 70 dead [cavalry] horses and 2 Indian ponies.”
“I think, in all probability, that the men turned their horses loose without any orders to do so. Many orders might have been given, but few obeyed. I think that they were panic stricken; it was a rout, as I said before.”
* * *
As the soldiers looked across the battlefield, it seemed that everywhere they looked, even into the distance, laid the grayish-white, stripped bodies of soldiers everywhere. Almost every one of them, mutilated in horrific ways. A horrible stench hung in the air. The smell of death.
The field had been stripped of any objects from the 7th Cavalry. Not a stick of clothing, boot, hat, sword, gun, bullet, guidon, … nothing. Anything that the Indians could take as a souvenir or for use was taken away. Just mutilated bodies of American soldiers littered the hillsides and ravines.
The 1st Lieutenant of Company K, Edward S. Godfrey, described the scene that laid before the soldiers assigned to the burial detail:
“Everything of value was taken away: arms, ammunition, equipment and clothing. Occasionally there was a body with a bloody undershirt or trousers, or socks, but the name was invariably cut off. The naked, mutilated bodies with their bloody, fatal wounds were nearly unrecognizable and presented a scene of sickening, ghastly horror.”
However, one item was found.
An orderly, Corporal John Foley, of Company ‘C,’ in the heat of the battle, had managed to run-for-it. He ran, carrying with him the guidon (Company Flag) for Captain Tom Custer’s Company. He had managed to make it several hundred yards away from “Last Stand Hill” when he was killed.
The burial detail, under the command of Captain Myles Moylan, had a huge task of burying over 260 members of the 7th Cavalry.
On one of the many burial details working that day on the Little Bighorn Battlefield came across the body of Cpl. John Foley. When they turned his body over, underneath the soldier was found the Company guidon flag.
The small, red, white, and blue, and weathered silk flag was picked up by one of the burial detail and handed to their Sergeant from Company ‘A’. One of the Companies that had been assigned to Captain Benteen’s Command.
Sergeant Ferdinand A. Culbertson looked over the torn, tattered, faded, and bloodied flag. Though America now had 37 States, the flag only showed 35. A leftover from the Civil War era. He folded it up and put it in his pocket.
Ironically, Culbertson would later become the principle witness in the court-martial held against Major Marcus Reno for not coming to Custer’s aid that faithful day. He shared the flag with others that day and got permission from his Commanding Officer to keep it.
Culbertson retired and kept the flag to himself before a few years later, presenting it to a friend and his wife. The man, a retired Sergeant, later died leaving the flag to his wife. From there, the flag didn’t become known publicly until an article was written about it in the Free Press newspaper in 1895. It was the only surviving flag of five that day in Custer’s Command.
In 2010, the flag would sell at Sotheby’s Auction for $2,210,500.
* * *
Battlefield Turned into Cemetery
Indeed, General Terry’s men must have been greatly traumatized by what they saw. No real ‘graves’ could be truly dug for the dead. They were buried in shallow graves which in most cases were nothing more than handfuls of dirt thrown on top of the bodies. A few years later, markers were placed at where the bodies laid while all the remains were removed. The remains of the enlisted were placed in a large box and buried at the top of Last Stand Hill while the officers had already been shipped back east for burial just a year after the battle. Custer’s remains were laid to rest at West Point Academy in New York, while Major Reno, as requested, was buried at the Little Bighorn National Cemetery. He wanted to be laid to rest with his men who had died there.
General Terry’s men then moved on from Little Bighorn, connecting with General Crook’s Column. Both refused to engage the Indians now fleeing. Though the Indians had now broken down into small groups and tribes, Crook and Terry stood down for seven weeks. They refused to reengage the Indians until they had at least 2000 soldiers.
* * *
The Mysterious Pause
In the most simplest of terms, the 7th Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, initiated a frontal attack upon the Little Bighorn Indian Village utilizing Major Marcus Reno and 3 Companies of men (Companies A,G,M), while Custer and his five Companies (Companies C,E,F.I,L) attempted to wrap around the rear of the village.
As Custer left Reno and continued with his men high atop the ridge-line, he still remained on the opposite side of the river from the Indian village. It was critical that as soon as Reno started his attack, that Custer’s force wrap around from the rear as soon as possible and begin working their way back towards Reno. The concept being that Reno’s frontal attack, would send all the women and children fleeing toward the opposite direction.
Accordingly, Custer and his men would take the women and children as prisoners and engage any warriors in the process.
With Reno already having initiated the attack that day at the Little Bighorn Village, Custer was moving as quickly as possible to comedown off the ridgeline and cross the river into the rear of the village and begin working his way back towards Reno.
Multiple first-hand witnesses corroborate that the soldiers came down a cross-point on the river called Medicine Tail Coulee. It is also referred to as the Minneconjou Ford. The soldiers attempted to cross the river there but were met with an effective barrage of gunfire from warriors inside the village including sharpshooters. Many inside the village witnessed this engagement.
A detailed eyewitness account of this engagement describes two soldiers shot out of their saddles and onto the ground. One is a soldier carrying the Company guidon (flag) and the other, is a soldier wearing a buckskin shirt or jacket, and yelling out orders to the other soldiers.
Other soldiers then dismounted under fire and got both wounded soldiers remounted. They then retreated from the crossing under continued fire, heading back up towards the ridge. There was speculation as to whether the man shot out of the saddle, wearing a buckskin shirt or jacket, and giving orders, was Custer himself?
In the end, most historians tended to agree that it was not Custer, citing other officers and individuals in Custer’s force were also wearing a buckskin shirt or jacket. With that said, no one has ever been able to identify who the man in the ‘buckskin’ shirt/jacket, yelling out orders before being shot, ….. was?
Once back up upon the ridge-line, the solders then traveled further down river and attempted a second crossing at what is today, known as Ford-D. It is located just below the site of the National Cemetery on the park grounds. While there were a few warriors that had met them here too, the 7th Cavalry again retreated almost immediately after a brief skirmish.
At least two are killed in the attempt, one being a newspaper reporter identified as Mark Kellogg. It is at this point that Custer and his men then ride up to a position above the river, now just below where the present-day Staff-Housing is located at on the National Park grounds.
With Major Reno and his men fighting for their lives at the front of the village, and during the heat of a full-out attack by the 7th Cavalry on the Indian encampment on the Little Bighorn River, Custer and his men now simply sit and do nothing for approximately 20-30 minutes.
I was completely amazed by this action of the 7th Cavalry. In the middle of an attack, and while three other companies are busy engaging the enemy, Custer and his five Companies sit idle in the middle of it all and do nothing. This is an absolutely shocking action being done during an attack of the Little Bighorn Indian Village. ‘Why’ becomes the million-dollar question. What was happening with Custer at this point? Why stop your attack midstream? He was not under any major attack at at this point.
It seemed unfathomable to me that this highly decorated Officer, who aggressively wanted to go after this village, would now stop mid-attack, and sit and do nothing for 20-30 minutes. Especially, at the risk of his other men in mid-attack at the front end of the village.
My mentors since 1991 of this battle, Archaeologists Douglas D. Scott and Richard A. Fox Jr., gave their own theories of this mystery in addition to Custer-Battlefield Historian Michael N. Donahue. Not all agreed with the other.
Historians do not understand why Custer stopped his attempt to cross Ford-D. However, as far as why he then sat for 20-30 minutes, Fox makes this attempt to answer this question.
Fox suggests that from that location, it gave Custer an overall view of the plain and northern part of the Indian Village across the river. Using this to his advantage, Custer made a decision to wait for reinforcements to arrive in the form of Captain Benteen and the pack train. There are other historians who agree with this theory.
What is also noted is that this position was very dangerous to remain in and do nothing. Warriors were already crossing the Ford-D and taunting the soldiers from a distance. Soon, other Warriors were beginning to lay down sporadic fire from the position of where the present-day “Stone House” is located.
After 20-30 minutes, Custer’s men then moved to take higher ground towards where the National Cemetery is now located. To do this, they pushed off the few warriors that were shooting at them near where the Stone House is at today.
From this point on, Custer and his men begin to spiral into the final hour of the battle.
But, what was happening during this 20-30 minute delay? And ‘why’?
On this note, I digress from the theory presented by Fox and other historians concerning this 20-30 minute delay by Custer during the middle of an attack. Respectfully, I do not believe that this pause was for the purpose of waiting for reinforcements in the form of Captain Benteen and the pack train.
It is all about connecting the dots. Then the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. And once that happens, a clearer picture emerges.
For me, the dots started emerging backwards. And as I started following them backwards, all the other dots began connecting. And soon, things started to make sense.
What first bothered me was that the Indians identified a Northern Cheyenne Indian woman, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, as having taken Custer right out of the saddle with a blow from her tomahawk-type- club. I had a real problem with that fact.
I do believe the Indians’ account of that happening as much of what they told us about the battle has since proven true. However, I had a problem trying to understand ‘how’ Custer, a very seasoned cavalryman-in-the-saddle, and no stranger to war, got knocked out of his saddle by an Indian squaw riding up on her horse?
A cavalryman is trained to do everything from the saddle of his horse. He is trained to do about anything and everything without ever having to leave the saddle. You learn to wheel your horse left or right to clear crowds or combatants. Draw a sword if needed for close combat situations. And of course, shoot your weapon, pistol or rifle, from out of the saddle. You never let the enemy get close to you without being prepared to engage or evade.
We know that the soldiers who were out-of-the-saddle and standing, were visible only from the chest and up. This was due to a high volume of dirt and smoke in the air. This is seen in Indian depictions of the battle. Custer atop his horse was clearly visible and so was the Indian squaw atop hers.
Whether or not Custer’s men had already dismounted at this point is unknown but we know for sure that Custer is mounted atop his horse. And, somehow, for some reason, this seasoned cavalryman does not see Buffalo Calf Road Woman coming at him on her horse. Why not?
Was Custer preoccupied with firing at targets with his rifle or pistol? Did the Indian squaw ride at him from his rear, side, front?
Even if firing to your front, atop a horse, you would be aware of an approaching horse coming at full gallop. In the least to take evasive action of some sort or shoot her. Yet, Custer did none of this. He allowed her to get close enough to strike him with an object. How did that happen and why? What was wrong with Custer at this point?
Was he wounded? Was he even alive? How was he sitting atop his horse when Buffalo Calf Road Woman struck him out of his saddle? Sitting upright? Hunched over on the neck of his horse? We don’t know.
It was at this point that I remembered the man wearing the buckskin shirt/jacket, back at Medicine Tail Coulee. The one observed yelling orders out to the soldiers as they were about to cross the river. The man that historians were quick to denounce could be Custer.
So, I had to ask, … what if it had been Custer shot at the Medicine Tail Coulee? What would have happened next? I could only imagine panic and indecision among the command.
That was what then brought me to the mystery of the 20-30-minute pause above Ford-D. If Custer had in fact been shot coming down Medicine Tail Coulee and then placed back into his saddle, he would have been ridden to safety and his wound assessed.
We know that Custer received two non-mutilation wounds. One below his heart and the other in the left side of his temple. Since no blood was reported seen from the entry or exit would in his temple, it has been generally accepted that this was a postmortem wound.
This leaves the wound below his heart as the suspected cause of death. From my own lifetime career of being a first-responder in situations where victims have been shot, I will say this. Bullets are funny things. Once they enter the body, they can sometimes take some very crazy paths and outcomes. There are people who can receive what would be perceived as a superficial wound and end up dying. And yet others who receive what would appear to be fatal wounds and yet survive. Wounds are funny things.
The only thing we know about Custer’s wound below the heart was that … it was below the heart. Beyond that, soldiers are not doctors. We have no medical evaluation to base any exact conclusions on.
The truth is, we do not know where or how exactly Custer received the wound below his heart. One historian wrote, “The fact that either of the non-mutilation wounds to Custer’s body (a bullet wound below the heart and a shot to the left temple) would have been instantly fatal casts doubt on his being wounded and remounted.” (Wert)
On this, I disagree. I know from first-hand-experience that the body can receive unbelievable wounds and still survive. In the least, this might have been a survivable wound if trauma response were given within the first hour. Death would otherwise be expected within an hour. We are left to historians making conclusions on things they do not know about.
When I first confronted the mystery of the 20-30-minute pause in Custer’s attack on the village, I had never contemplated the reason was to wait for Captain Benteen and the pack-train. The reason is that it would still not thwart or stop in any way, a full-on attack of the Little Bighorn Indian Village. Again, especially with three other Companies already in full attack (and later retreat) of the same village. You do not stop an attack once it is started. Custer and his soldiers could have easily overcome any of the minor resistance it encountered either at the Medicine Tail Coulee or Ford-D crossings. They were not being majorly attacked as they sat. They were not taking any defensive action against aggressors.
When I first came across this long pause by Custer, I knew that something had happened. I knew that the long pause during the middle of an attack on a village was because there was ‘indecision’. I carried this sense from my experience as a U.S. Marine Infantryman, as a policeman, and having spent over two years in the War in Afghanistan.
Something had happened. Indecision causes debate and re-planning. Something you cannot have during a military attack. Something had happened that the Command had no contingency plan for. My guess is that Custer was indeed the man in the buckskin shirt/jacket, shot while trying to cross Medicine Tail Coulee.
This answered why the soldiers did not push their way across the river and into the village. It answered why they made an immediate reversal back up to the ridgeline. There was panic.
It answered why Custer’s force did not punch through the Ford-D crossing as well. This despite, it was where so many squaws and children had gathered.
It answered why the soldiers sat for 20-30 minutes during their attack on the Indian Village. There was indecision among the Command.
Indeed, if Custer was the man in the buckskin shirt/jacket at the Medicine Tail Coulee that got shot, it would have turned the remaining 7th Cavalry into disarray. If Custer could not lead, then who would? And how? And what would they now do for plans of attack?
The 20-30 minutes also worked against the 7th Cavalry as the Indians took advantage of their fixed position and formulated what would eventually be a two pronged attack between Chief Gall’s group and that of Crazy Horse.
I respectfully submit that Custer was indeed the man that was shot in the buckskin shirt/jacket at Medicine Tail Coulee, early on in the battle. I believe that he was severely wounded but alive. I suggest that the soldiers then tried to continue their attack into the village by their next attempt to cross the Little Bighorn River at Ford-D.
The decision to not cross at Ford-D and to pull back, as well as to remain stationary, was not because of waiting for the pack-train as some have suggested but rather, because Custer was incapacitated due to being severely shot. New order of Command would have had to be issued. Some historians have suggested under these circumstances that Captain George Yates took charge. However, it must be remembered that Captain Myles Keogh was by rank, the senior Captain present. This also makes it more understandable with those that attribute confusion and breakdown within the Companies themselves in the final hour.
I suggest that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, atop Last Stand Hill, may have sat atop his horse severely wounded. Understanding the severity of this type of wound, the response from blood loss and shock setting in, would have incapacitated Custer at the time that he was knocked out of his saddle by Buffalo Calf Road Woman.
If so, Custer would have died on Last Stand Hill less-than-an-hour after being shot at Medicine Tail Coulee from injuries sustained in battle. This timeline is consistent with this type of wound/injury sustained.
* * *
Shooting on Location at the Little Bighorn Battlefield
The day of the movie shoot at the Little Bighorn Battlefield started during the early morning hours of darkness, long before sunrise there. This was so we could have time to set up equipment and coordinate scenes inside the museum before it opened for the day.
Escorted by National Park Rangers; by sunrise, we were setting up to shoot a scene at the large white battlefield monument before the crowds arrived. This effort dragged on after the park was opened and rangers were forced to keep spectators away from the monument while we finished shooting the scene. I felt bad about this as I felt the crowds should be able to access this sacred and solemn monument, placed above the remains of the dead soldiers from this battle.
We eventually cleared this site and prepared to shoot scenes next at the Reno Benteen site nearly 4 miles away, along the same ridge that Custer had ridden into infamy on in 1876. Since the battlefield had just opened for the day, the crowds were still at the opposite end of the battlefield. This gave us the freedom to shoot necessary scenes there and be cleared out before the public eventually made it there.
The summer day was incredibly hot. Not a cloud against the deep blue Montana sky. Lots of water was passed out all day long to production crew and actors in trying to prevent heat exhaustion. There was simply nowhere for shade on the battlefield. Not a tree to be seen anywhere.
By afternoon, Park Rangers had closed off the Deep Ravine Trail where a Company of Custer’s soldiers had broken and ran. They were all chased down and horrifically killed in this very ravine.
Racing against the sunset, we ended up at Deep Ravine. Crossing the actual ravine to the other side, we had set up to use a particular marker there to shoot a dramatic scene in the movie. We managed well to get the scene shot with the last sunlight of the day. We then left to return back to town for a dinner break.
It was late at night when we found ourselves back out at the battlefield. A Ranger was waiting for us and unlocked the big gates to the park and let our crew inside. From there we had to pack equipment such as lights, reflectors, etc. by foot to the Deep Ravine site we had been at earlier. The script called for a night scene at this same marker.
Ironically, the script focused the story-line on Marker-174. It was a marker so far away from the battlefield and where a one lone soldier from Custer’s unit had almost got away the day of the battle. But, unfortunately, some Indian Braves chased him down nearly a mile away from the battlefield and killed him. He had been shot in the back and fell out of the saddle. He rolled over when he took a second shot and was killed.
It was Marker-174 that was featured on the magazine cover I had seen as a child. This marker had always intrigued me. More specifically, this one soldier had always intrigued me. Why? Perhaps because he almost made it. He almost got away from the massacre. Had he made it; he would have been the only known survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. I always tried to imagine his adrenalin, his heartrate; trying to race his horse so fast and make a break for it. But the Indian or Indians who stayed on him no matter what, finally caught up to him and killed him too. Taken out of the saddle, and rolled over facing his attacker(s), I tried to imagine if he begged for his life? What he tried to say, yell out, trying to save his life. And upon his death, left there all by himself on the side of a hill while all his comrades had been located and buried together on Monument Hill. A long time to lay on the side of a hill all alone for over a century … through all the heat of so many summers to the rain and snow of so many winters.
Since Marker-174 was so far away, due to the distance, we substituted another marker at Deep Ravine instead. Indeed, like the soldier at Marker-174, the soldier that was brutally killed here at the substituted marker where we were now filming, had also made a desperate attempt to escape the massacre.
The soldier at this marker was most likely part of the approximately 35-40 soldiers that had broken and ran from Last Stand Hill just before it finally fell from Crazy Horse’s charge. It appeared that like the rest of them that had made a break and ran for Deep Ravine, he was one of a few that didn’t stay trapped down in the ravine when Indians came from everywhere to its top. He had managed to run up and out of the Deep Ravine onto the other side.
So, it was this particular marker that made the movie scene.
Camera and lighting people were busy this night setting up equipment to shoot the scene when it was realized that a particular piece of equipment was needed from back in the vehicles. I volunteered to go get it and so walked from the site at Deep Ravine back to the main parking lot area near the museum.
With it in hand, I started back from the museum, walking along a dirt path across the battlefield towards Deep Ravine. It was as I began this walk that I realized how surreal this moment was.
I was all alone, walking through this battlefield , markers all around me, …. death all around me, and looking up to the sky, all under a huge full moon. It was nearly midnight. Its brightness gave a hue over the area. I looked up above me towards Custer’s Hill and the large monument just beyond it. Custer’s marker and all the ones that surrounded his were silhouetted against the prairie grass, all lit underneath the light of the full moon. I stopped along the trail I was on and just stood there taking it all in. A small breeze gently moved the grass across the field.
I suddenly realized that I was standing in front of Mitch Bouyer‘s marker. I was standing right in the path of where 35-40 soldiers had made a break for the nearby Deep Ravine. I could not even imagine their fear and terror as they made this desperate attempt to survive the battle. And looking up at where Custer’s group was at, I could only imagine the scene that had played out that faithful afternoon in June of 1876. One hour that would make history forever.
It was while standing there that I could only imagine the horror of the battle. The mutilation of the bodies that had followed, the wounded laying across the battlefield waiting for their moment when their skull would be crushed in. All the sounds that were occurring across this very spot that day. Sounds of horses everywhere, gunfire, crackling of fire as the nearby prairie grass burned, Indian Braves yelling, and soldiers screaming. People walking through the grass, running, crawling …. and, it was at this very moment as I looked up at the full moon this night, that I was suddenly overcome by one thing. The silence. It was the deathly stillness that now permeated the battlefield all around me.
I looked across the battlefield in the moonlight. So many markers showing where so many had been killed that day. With the park closed and the public long gone for the day, I felt like now, the dead that had been killed here could finally reclaim the field for themselves. Couldn’t help think if a few of them were still walking around at that moment.
Then I looked at Mitch Bouyer’s marker and speaking out loud, I said to him …. “You almost made it.”
I then walked on towards Deep Ravine. I took in the ferocity of this battle that had occurred where I was now at. It was the climax of years of the Indian Wars in America.
* * *
The Tragic Truth of it All
The White Euro-American of the United States, including the government itself, had lied many times and taken so much from the American Indians. They had killed and massacred their people for years. This included their women and children. Stories of rape, scalping’s, and beheading’s done to them by the American soldiers that had been attacking them for so long. Even their food source, the buffalo, were killed off to near extinction. Treaties broken. According to Indian Oral History, even Custer himself had fathered a child from one of their captured Indian Women (Monahsetah).
So, on this one day, Sunday, June 25th, of 1876, the American soldiers attempted but once again to attack the Indians that were not bothering them at all. Unfortunately for Custer and his 7th Cavlary, it would prove to be the wrong place and time.
All the years of broken treaties and atrocities committed by the White Man against the American Indian all came to a head … on this one day … and where I was now at this midnight.
It is said that the brutal killings of the wounded soldiers by the Indians that day, and the mutilations that followed of their bodies, was a cultural thing. “Counting Coup” committed by the Indians to affect the soldiers in their afterlife. However, it is in my most humbled opinion that theory is pure propaganda. Perhaps to make us feel better about ourselves.
I believe that the Indians took true revenge that day on Custer’s 7th Cavalry and rightfully so. A true killing frenzy was enjoyed by all. All the years of amassed hatred of the Euro-American was taken out this day against the 7th Cavalry. Many of the participants had been victims or witnesses to the military’s atrocities against their people for so many decades. So, yes, I believe much of the mutilations were done out of pure hatred and revenge against the soldiers and I could not blame them at all. I believe if any of us had endured all that the Indians had, and for so long, that any of us would have reached that breaking point. And indeed, June 25th, 1876, on this hillside where I was now at, that breaking point was reached.
While most of the soldiers were killed in battle with arrows, knives, and clubs, others were scalped, decapitated, and dismembered. And for the most part in my opinion, not for Indian spiritual reasons involving the afterlife of their enemy but out of pure hatred, and vengeance. Out of rage.
“The Indians always insisted that they took no prisoners. If they did—a thing I firmly believe—they were tortured and killed the night of the 25th. As an evidence of this I recall the three charred and burned heads we picked up in the village near the scene of the big war dance, when we visited the village with Capt. Benteen and Lieut. Wallace on the morning of the 27th…”
Theodore W. Goldin – 7th Cavalryman
Hunkpapa Lakota Chief, ‘Gall’, said of the day of the battle, “My heart was bad.” He had lost multiple family members that day alone from Custer’s attack. He was alluding to the fact that the Indians had indeed taken out so much rage against the U.S. Army that day.
Of all the battlefields in America and of all battles on American soil, the Battlefield of the Little Bighorn was different. It was not the conventional and traditional style of battle seen in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars involving military armies.
The Indian War was part of a mass extermination of an entire race of people or, their sequester onto “reservations.” In basic, it was about the White Euro-American taking away lands of the American Indian by force. Lands that had always belonged to the Indians. Done without any provocation.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn involved the rage and vengeance of the American Indians who had endured so much suffering at the hands of the “White People.”
I was that little boy, raised in Texas to look down on Indians for what they had done to the White Man. That they were primitive, stupid, and barbaric in their ways. I grew up to discover that this was not so. It was not the truth. A truth that White Americans still have a problem dealing with. Facing about themselves and their long and tragic history that they bear.
You see, I wanted to understand the rage that the Indians felt that day at the battle of the Little Bighorn. I knew that many of them had themselves been victims to the U.S. Army. Many of them ‘survivors.’ And, many of them, almost all of them, had lost loved ones killed by the Army. They too had endured their women raped, mutilated, and humiliated. They had suffered horrific atrocities committed against them by the U.S. Army, State Armies, and Volunteer Armies.
For example, one Indian woman at the battle, decapitated a soldier with her belt-ax. Her name was White Necklace and she was approximately 30 years of age at the time. She was the wife of Wolf Chief. I wanted to understand … what brought this woman on that very hot summer day to this hill, in a sea of dead bodies strewn everywhere, to pull a hand-ax from her belt and getting down, and chopping this man’s head off? What would bring a woman to do this? She didn’t even know him. So why? And to do ‘what’ exactly with his head once it was finally chopped off?
So, I followed White Necklace and her past hoping to find the answers I was seeking. You see, I felt if I could understand just one Indian’s emotions that day, then I could understand not only the battle, not only the Indian Wars themselves but; I could understand the truth of the whole thing. The truth that I had never been told as a child, or as a student growing up in school learning America’s official version of ‘White’ history. The truth I had never been told as an American, … as a White man in the U.S. The truth of what my country, my government, had done to these people. What White people did towards the American Indians. What the Indians had suffered and endured for so long. And, what led to the powerful amount of hatred and vengeance demonstrated on the Little Bighorn Battlefield this day against the American soldiers?
I found out that years later, White Necklace had been interviewed and asked about the Battle of the Little Bighorn since she had participated in it. In that interview, she had admitted to decapitating the head off one of the dead soldiers. She explained to her interviewer that she had done it in retaliation for the Sand Creek Massacre done to her people in 1864 by the U.S. military. This was the same attack that Monahsetah had been in as a child and shot in her leg. In that attack, shortly afterwards, White Necklace had found her niece decapitated by the soldiers. I had heard of so many “massacres” of Indians by the U.S. Army but that was largely attributed to being shot done during attacks. I had never heard of “mutilations” being done by members of the Army against the Indians.
In fact, all my life, all I had ever heard as a White American, was the mutilations done by Indians against the White settlers. And even more so, cause to look upon the Indians as so “barbaric” and “primitive.” In all the years of schooling as an American, never even once had I ever heard it taught of the American Army mutilating the bodies of the Indians. Never.
* * *
What ‘White Men’ were Really Doing to the American Indians
It was said that day of the Cheyenne Indian Village set up at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado, that an estimated 150-500 Cheyenne and Arapaho people were slaughtered and mutilated by the U.S. Army led by a 43 year-old Colonel John Milton Chivington.
So, I decided to understand what exactly White Necklace had witnessed and experienced at Sand Creek, as an Indian at the hands of the U.S. military. I knew if I could understand the experience of just one Indian that was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, then I could understand the nearly 7,000-to-10,000 that were there that day.
For White Necklace, that experience had occurred nearly 12 years earlier on November 29, 1864. Abraham Lincoln was President and the Civil War was still raging. The Sand Creek Indian Encampment was again under the control of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle. He and his camp had settled there under the orders of U.S. Government.
The attack on the Sand Creek encampment had been preceded by an earlier attack of a White family on their ranch and as a result, the Governor ordered the military to attack all Cheyenne Indians despite there was no evidence that they had been directly involved at all in the attack.
In fact, the encampment at Sand Creek had nothing at all to do with the attack on the white family’s ranch. To make matters worse, as instructed by the Army, Black Kettle made sure the village flew the U.S. flag along with a white flag to show complete compliance to the U.S. Government’s orders. The Indians at Sand Creek had been cooperative and not involved at all with any hostilities against the White settlers.
Despite this, a 675-man force comprised mostly of the Colorado Cavalry and a Volunteer Regiment from New Mexico, all under the command of Colonel Chivington, attacked the village anyway on November 29, 1864. Black Kettle and almost all of the warriors were away, leaving behind some old men and nearly two-thirds of the village made up of nothing but women and children.
Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.
Col. John Milton Chivington
To understand nearly a quarter of a century worth of massacres, broken treaties, and the false word of the U.S. Government against the American Indians, one only needed to look at one example though tragically, there were so many. The Cheyenne Village at Sand Creek in November of 1864 would be one such perfect example.
If you want to know why White Necklace took her hand-ax out of her waist belt and hacked away at a man’s neck, chopping his head off on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, I suggest you take a moment and read what happened that day nearly 12 years earlier to her and her people at Sand Creek.
Here are some eye-witness accounts in their own words:
“There was one little child, probably three years old, just big enough to walk through the sand. The Indians had gone ahead, and this little child was behind, following after them. The little fellow was perfectly naked, travelling in the sand. I saw one man get off his horse at a distance of about seventy-five yards and draw up his rifle and fire. He missed the child. Another man came up and said, ‘let me try the son of a b-. I can hit him.’ He got down off his horse, kneeled down, and fired at the little child, but he missed him. A third man came up, and made a similar remark, and fired, and the little fellow dropped.”
The below account is from famous Scout Kit Carson whom I know well from prior research at the San Pasqual Battlefield (circa 1846) in California.
“Jis’ to think of that dog Chivington and his dirty hounds, up thar at Sand Creek. His men shot down squaws, and blew the brains out of little innocent children. You call sich soldiers Christians, do ye? And Indians savages? What der yer s’pose our Heavenly Father, who made both them and us, thinks of these things? I tell you what, I don’t like a hostile red skin any more than you do. And when they are hostile, I’ve fought ’em, hard as any man. But I never yet drew a bead on a squaw or papoose, and I despise the man who would.”
“Fingers and ears were cut off the bodies for the jewelry they carried. The body of White Antelope, lying solitarily in the creek bed, was a prime target. Besides scalping him the soldiers cut off his nose, ears, and testicles-the last for a tobacco pouch …”
“I saw one squaw lying on the bank, whose leg had been broken. A soldier came up to her with a drawn sabre. She raised her arm to protect herself; he struck, breaking her arm. She rolled over, and raised her other arm; he struck, breaking that, and then left her without killing her. I saw one squaw cut open, with an unborn child lying by her side.”
“I saw the bodies of those lying there cut all to pieces, worse mutilated than any I ever saw before; the women cut all to pieces … With knives; scalped; their brains knocked out; children two or three months old; all ages lying there, from sucking infants up to warriors … By whom were they mutilated? By the United States troops …”
John S. Smith
A Congressional investigation was later held on the Sand Creek Massacre. In the United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War Report(1865), it stated that after Colonel Chivington and his soldiers had completed their initial attack of the village, they then ransacked the teepees and took all the horses. After that, they began a sweep of the village executing all the wounded. They scalped the dead including women, children, and even infants. The colonel and his men decorated their hats, weapons, and other pieces of equipment with various body parts from the Indians which included scalps, male and female genitalia, and even fetuses. They even displayed such war trophies at a local Denver Theater at the time called the Apollo.
” … men, women, and children’s privates cut out. I heard one man say that he had cut a woman’s private parts out and had them for exhibition on a stick. I heard of one instance of a child, a few months old, being thrown into the feed-box of a wagon, and after being carried some distance, left on the ground to perish; I also heard of numerous instances in which men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over their saddle-bows, and some of them over their hats.”
Lieutenant James D. Cannon
“I refused to fire, and swore that none but a coward would, for by this time hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. … I saw two Indians hold one of another’s hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and were both shot together. They were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. One woman was cut open and a child taken out of her, and scalped. … Squaw’s snatches were cut out for trophies. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there.”
Capt. Silas Soule
In suspected retaliation for his testifying at the trial, Capt. Silas Soule was murdered just two weeks later in Denver, Colorado. He had just gotten married 22 days earlier.
Even Col. Chivington’s own Scout, a man named John Smith, had his son (by his Indian wife) in the Sand Creek Village at the time of the attack. The child had survived the attack but was later executed.
It was not the Indians on the Little Bighorn Battlefield who had shown themselves to be “barbaric” and “primitive” as newspaper accounts referred to them afterwards but rather, the White Euro-Americans who had for decades, been showing such barbaric and primitive actions towards the Indian people to begin with. On June 25th, 1876, at the Little Bighorn, the Indians gave back to the White people what they had been given by them for such a long time. Just that the Whites made sure nothing that they did made it into the newspapers or history books.
The American Indian however had always known the truth about the White Euro-American.
And so, during the early morning hours as I stood atop Deep Ravine on this deathly quiet battlefield, looking down at one of its many markers under the light of a full moon, all these many thoughts were swirling through my head.
In the end, the Battle of the Little Big Horn was simply about this …. it was a day of reckoning.
The Indian Wars finally came to its end nearly fourteen years later with the 7th Cavalry committing its final and most famous massacre yet in its history against the American Indians – at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. But that is another story for another time.