Five companies of the 7th U. S. Cavalry Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer died with their leader on the afternoon of Sunday, June 25, 1876, near the Little Bighorn (sometimes listed in various books, including this one, as "Little Big Horn") River in present-day Montana.
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The 7th Cavalry wasn't wiped out that day, as some arm-chair historians may think --- seven other companies of the regiment dug in on a hilltop four miles from Custer's battlefield were able to hold off repeated Indian assaults for two days, June 25-26, 1876, before being rescued by additional Army units on June 27th of that year.
Those survivors found the bodies of Custer's men, mutilated, most stripped of their clothing, and laying in the hot Montana sun where they had died two days earlier. Since none of the men who rode with Custer escaped, those who found their bodies tried to figure out how the Civil War's "Boy General" and his men could have met such a fate.
The Army, and much of the white man's press corps, interpreted what had happened as a "massacre" of U. S. troopers who had made a "heroic last stand" --- some 200 men against thousands of hostile Native Americans (the figure was probably between 2,000 and 4,000 warriors in a village of perhaps 12,000 people).
The Army and the press had a lot of theories about how a West Point trained officer like Custer could have lost to a bunch of "savages." For some reason, the white man couldn't accept that the better than 10-to-1 odds against Custer's men, or the fact that the Indians were armed with repeating rifles against the soldiers' single-shot carbines, had anything to do with Custer's defeat. The old "how could uncivilized natives defeat a modern Army" way of thinking.
Soon books and Hollywood directors started portraying a gallant Custer and his surrounded little band making a brave stand and dying "with their boots on," Custer the last man to fall.
Well, it may not have happened exactly that way, at least according to Custer's Fall by David Humphreys Miller
In Custer's Fall, first published in 1957, author David Humphreys Miller published an account of the battle and Custer's death based on interviews he did with 71 (he says "71" in the book, while some other sources have him claiming "72") Indian survivors of the Custer fight.
Miller, an artist known for painting murals at The Citadel and Mount Rushmore, also painted those Indian survivors he interviewed. In addition to Custer's Fall, Miller also wrote the book Ghost Dance. He was also a consultant on such films as Cheyenne Autumn and How The West Was Won.
Among those Indians Miller interviewed for Custer's Fall were two of Indian leader Sitting Bull's nephews who had fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Miller, who spoke the Sioux language, was able to gather details and information first-hand that other authors had not been able to get due to language differences. He did so by earning the trust of the Indians, who rewarded him by making him an "adopted member" of the Sioux tribe.
In Custer's Fall, Miller says he spoke to 54 Sioux, 16 Cheyennes and one Arapaho Indian in their own spoken languages or by Indian sign language since none of the Indians spoke English. He was able to interview the legendary Sioux medicine man Black Elk as well. Whenever possible, he interviewed several Indians in little conferences that provided for fact-checking of aging warrior memories.
Miller conducted his many interviews with the Indians over a 20 year period that ran from 1935 through 1955. He talked to many of the participants more than once, forming friendships with many of the aging warriors. He was a man on a mission, as he says:
"...the Battle of the Little Big Horn presented the most challenging opportunity, for much of it could be told only by the Sioux and Cheyennes who had taken part in the fight. No white man had survived to tell of Custer's final hour..."
A different history
Miller's Custer's Fall also presents a very different account of the battle. As told here, Custer may have died as the battle began, not at the battle's end as portrayed in countless paintings and Hollywood films.
In the book, the Indians tell of a handful of warriors, initially four and growing to ten, who appear on the right side of the huge village, which is largely unprotected as Custer's five companies advance.
Elsewhere, Major Reno's three companies have been repulsed in an attack on the center of the village, and saved by reinforcements from the regiments four other companies. These seven companies have dug in four miles upriver and the Indian warriors are trying to destroy them.
Custer, with his five companies, has moved down river to attack the area where the Indian women and children have run from the fight. If Custer could have captured this end of the village and these non-combatants, he may have believed he could draw pressure off of Reno's men, end the battle, and turn defeat into victory.
As the Indians tell Miller in Custer's Fall, a handful of warriors are all that Custer faces in attempting to cross the river to attack the village. Perhaps 10 Indians fire from cover and slow Custer's advance. Afraid of an ambush, the normally reckless Custer uses caution that takes away his immediate advantage in numbers.
Soon, Custer realizes he has been tricked and starts to cross the river with his command. Here's where Indian history differs from the white man's history:
"Just then, at midstream, the unbelievable happened.
Custer - the great invincible soldier-chief, golden-haired hero of the effete East, self-styled swashbuckler of the Plains, Son-of-the-Morning-Star to the Crows, Long Hair to other tribes - fell, a hostile bullet through his left breast..."
In Custer's Fall, Custer, mortally wounded --- perhaps already dead --- falls from the saddle into the river, troopers dive in to save him, and the 7th Cavalry, in a panic, falls back from the river, some on foot fighting a delaying action as other troopers on horseback rush their stricken leader's body to a hilltop where it was later found.
This is what the Indians tell the author happened.
Miller tells Custer's Fall in a galloping, narrative style. Using Indian testimony, he recreates what was happening in the village and what was happening on the field of battle, all from the Indians' point of view.
It's a fascinating story told by aging Indian veterans of the fight, who often admit they didn't know they were fighting Custer at the time (they thought they were fighting General George Crook's troops, whom they had defeated at the Battle of the Rosebud River eight days before).
Miller also ties in recorded testimony by Custer's four Crow Indian scouts, who rode with Custer to the battlefield only to have Custer, as he prepares to attack the village, tell them:
"You are not to fight in this battle. Go back and save your lives."
The bewildered scouts lingered a bit, watching part of the fight from a hilltop, before leaving the battlefield. The Crows apparently witnessed something happen in the river, followed by the sudden retreat of Custer's troops, and they decided "not to wait to see more."
Miller proceeds to use Indian battle testimony obtained in his two decades of interviews to tell of the destruction of Custer's five companies in fascinating detail. He tells of a battle described as lasting no more than 20 minutes, with each company trying to hold its ground, only to be crushed.
He tells of Indians riding back and forth to the village to exchange worn out ponies for fresh mounts, then riding back into the battle. He writes of Indians with no guns taking guns from dead soldiers to use against live soldiers.
Miller's eyewitnesses tell of hiding in gullies and behind ridges, using bows and arrows from these concealed, protected places to fire arrows into the air at an angle from their hiding places, the arrows arching high into the sky and falling among Custer's exposed troopers.
Miller tells of a woman from the village, whose brother has died in the battle, riding with the male warriors to fight Custer, impressing an Indian leader named Rain-in-the-Face, who shouts encouragement to his warriors:
"Behold, a brave young woman rides with us! Let no warrior hide behind her!"
Besides many tales of Indian heroics and unidentified soldier bravery, there are tales of Indians killed by "friendly fire" from other Indians, of unarmed soldiers pleading to surrender only to be killed, and of suicides by soldiers trying to avoid capture. Some of the tales are fascinating; other stories are terrifying and not for the timid reader.
Miller tells of events leading up to the battle, of the battle's aftermath, of the two days of fighting with Reno's companies four miles from Custer's hilltop. He provides the names of the 32 Indian dead (if accurate, an amazingly small figure considering the 7th Cavalry's losses that day).
By the time Miller finished 22 years of research and published Custer's Fall in 1957, all the Indians he had gathered testimony from had passed away. Though the book was a Book Of The Month Club selection, sadly, Miller's work hasn't gathered the amount of attention it deserves, in my opinion, and Hollywood still seems unwilling to film a movie about the battle in which Custer isn't portrayed as the last man standing.
One must read such books with the eye of a skeptic, of course. Custer's place was normally at the head of his troops, but is he the man in buckskin the Indians say fell from his horse into the river? Maybe, maybe not, since most of Custer's regimental officers that day also wore buckskin jackets to help their soldiers in blue uniforms identify them on the battlefield.
I think some of Miller's conclusions may be considered biased toward the Indian point of view, but I also find his book to be very honest at the same time --- an attempt to tell a truth not told before. Prior to this book, the American Indian side of the story wasn't being told.
Custer's Fall is available from various publishers in hardcover and paperback. The paperback edition I'm reviewing was published in 1972 by Bantam Books, contains no photos and no index, and is 210-plus pages in length.
If you're looking for a fact-based alternative history to the ones you may have read about "Custer's Last Stand," I think this book may be of interest to you. My life-long interest in the American West was very well-satisfied by Custer's Fall and I recommend it to you because I believe one must study all sides of the story to understand any event in history.
On the web:
A photo of author David Humphreys Miller, a brief biography and some examples of his western art: http://www.snowwowl.com/featartistsDHM.html
Related book reviews:
Crazy Horse And Custer: The Parallel Lives Of Two American Warriors by Stephen E. Ambrose, Jr.: http://www.epinions.com/book-review-361F-969DBEF-38A5411E-bd3
Cavalier In Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier by Robert Utley: http://www.epinions.com/content_64511708804
Wild Life On The Plains And The Horrors Of Indian Warfare is a book that contains George Custer's 1874 autobiography, My Life On The Plains, and additional material: http://www.epinions.com/content_137314733700
The Custer Album: A Pictorial History Of General George A. Custer by Dr. Lawrence A. Frost: http://www.epinions.com/book-review-2A66-2208941-389299D0-bd3
Custer: A Photographic Biography by Bill and Jan Moellerin, in which the authors take you to the important sites of Custer's life via 125 full color photographs and a well-written biography: http://www.epinions.com/content_172491902596
The Mystery Of E Troop: Custer's Gray Horse Company At The Little Bighorn by Gregory Michno: http://www.epinions.com/content_57614634628
Boots And Saddles, Or, Life In Dakota With General Custer by Elizabeth Bacon Custer (the general's wife is the author): http://www.epinions.com/content_185859411588
The Little Bighorn Campaign by Wayne Michael Sarf: http://www.epinions.com/content_115926404740
In Custer's Shadow: Major Marcus Reno by Ronald Nichols: http://www.epinions.com/content_244441386628
Reno Court of Inquiry: Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry In The Case Of Major Marcus A. Reno by Ronald H. Nichols: http://www.epinions.com/book-review-6ACB-776051D-38A45379-prod4
Tom Custer: Ride To Glory by Carl F. Day, the story of the general's brother, who was awarded the Medal of Honor twice: http://www.epinions.com/content_238532333188
Bugles, Banners, And War Bonnets by Ernest L. Reedstrom, the story of the 7th Cavalry: http://www.epinions.com/content_59344785028
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