Seven Myths About Custer's Last Stand
Common misconceptions surrounding the famous battle.
On June 25th, 1876, one of the most iconic battles in American history took place in southeastern Montana. On that day, George Custer led his men of the 7th Cavalry into battle against Indian warriors of the Lakota, Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. We’ve all heard of the story, but there are misconceptions associated with it. Following are seven common myths about the battle.
1. The 7th Cavalry was completely massacred at the Little Big Horn Battle. Simply not true. Not every soldier involved in the fighting died at Little Big Horn. Custer actually divided his force into three columns. He led one while Major Marcus Reno and Captain Fredrick Benteen led the other two respectively. Each column would become involved on different parts of the battlefield. The confusion comes over Custer’s column. It was wiped out to the last man, but many men in Reno’s and Benteen’s columns survived.
2. Ever the gallant leader, Custer bravely led his men into battle first. Nope. Custer was not the first to engage the enemy. That distinction goes to Major Reno. He attacked the Indian village that day from the south, while Custer planned to attack from the north. Reno was quickly beaten back and retreated to one of the surrounding hills where he fought defensively.
3. Custer rode into the battle unaware of the size of the Indian war party. In fact, Custer was not mistaken about the size of the Indian camp as many believe. He viewed it from a distance and wrote a hasty note to Benteen, directing him to reinforce at once. “Benteen – Come on. Big Village. Be quick. Bring Packs. P.S. Bring Pacs (sic).” The packs were ammunition. Custer knew he would need them because of the “big village.”
4. Surrounded, Custer and his men fought to the last man, ending the battle. Not quite. The battle involving Custer and his men was not the final fight. Benteen caught up with Reno and reinforced him instead of Custer. Reno and Benteen fought off the Indian advance that day and again the following morning. Custer and his men were roughly three miles away, isolated and involved in a desperate struggle for their lives while Reno and Benteen dug in.
5. At least Custer and his men fought valiantly and in an orderly fashion to the last man. Not really. According to Indian testimony and battlefield archaeology, Custer’s column quickly fragmented and it more or less became every man for himself. Some tried to make a run for it, where they were cut down while others used the last bullet on themselves. However, it is probably true that the rest, including Custer, realized their hopeless fate and fought until killed.
6. The reason for the Custer debacle was because he disobeyed orders and dashed into an attack without waiting on reinforcements, due to his ego and lust for glory. Although Custer was, by many accounts, egotistical and somewhat reckless in battle tactics, he did not disobey orders. His superior, Brigadier General Alfred Terry, advised Custer before his fateful ride to “use your own judgment and do what you think best if you strike the trail.” Custer may not have made the best decisions that day, but technically he did not disobey orders.
7. The lone survivor of the Custer column was a horse named Comanche. In fact, several horses from the Custer column survived, but had to be destroyed after the battle due to their wounds. Comanche’s wounds were not as serious, and he was thus spared. Many of the horses in the 7th Cavalry were shot by the soldiers themselves and used for cover.
For additional information, the reader is invited to consult the following online resources, some of which were used in the compilation of this article:
“Little Bighorn Battlefield,” various articles. http://www.nps.gov/libi/index.htm. A National Park Service website.
“How the Battle of Little Bighorn Was Won”. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-battle-of-little-bighorn-was-won-63880188/?no-ist. A Smithsonian.com website.
“Grim Facts of Custer’s Last Stand: Revelations from the Remains of Battle.” http://articles.philly.com/1986-06-22/news/26043641_1_troopers-douglas-d-scott-human-bones.
“Archaeology of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.” http://www.nps.gov/mwac/libi/excavations.html. A National Park Service Website.