Using a tactic widely used during the Civil War by both the Union and the Confederate Armies, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer divided each of the 12 companies of his 7th Cavalry Regiment into companies identifiable by the color of their horses.
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In the heat of combat, he felt his troopers could find their companies easier if all the company's troopers rode matching horses.
This is the tactic he adopted when he led his regiment out of Fort Abraham Lincoln, near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, on May 17, 1876.
Lieutenant Algernon E. Smith, badly wounded in the Civil War, commanded "E" Company, which became known for the color of their mounts as "The Gray Horse Troop."
"E" Company rode with Custer to the Little Big Horn River in present-day Montana. One of the five companies that accompanied Custer into action (some 212 men against at least 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors), none of "E" company's men survived.
Smith and his second-in-command, recent West Point graduate 2nd Lieutenant James Sturgis, died that day. Smith died on the hilltop that Custer and 40 of his men retreated to. Sturgis body was never found, or at least never identified (his bloody clothing was found where the village had been later).
The battle occurred Sunday, June 25, 1876. Seven companies of the 7th Cavalry were isolated four miles from Custer's command, also in combat with the Indians. These survivors found the bodies of Custer's men two days later, buring them the following day.
With more than half the 7th's men dead or wounded, not knowing whether the Indians might come back after leaving the field, the bodies of the dead men were quickly buried by their comrades in a few inches of dirt.
Officers attempted to analyze what had happened to Custer's command. Why was Smith with Custer and not with his troopers? Why did 28 men from "E" Company ride into a ravine that they could not shoot from, only to be killed as the Indians rained arrows down on top of them? What became of Sturgis?
Most of all, how did five companies of U. S. Cavalry get destroyed so easily. Indian accounts later had the fight lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to more than four hours. How long did the battle last?
Analysis of the battlefield over the years has revealed many things. One of the most important is that the Indians had no fewer than 300 repeating rifles (shell casings confirm this), while Custer's men had single-shot carbines which heated up and jammed after three shots (the Indians tell of Custer's men trying to dig melted shells from their carbines with knives under fire).
Custer's men would have lost, no matter what, but having only 12 rounds of pistol ammunition and 100 rounds of carbine ammunition didn't help matters.
Further, most of the extra ammunition (that not used in cartridge belts worn by the men) was in the saddlebags of the troopers' horses. A very effective, brave tactic of the Indians was to blow whistles and wave blankets in the air as they rode toward the men who held the dismounted troopers' horses (every fourth man held four horses).
This made the horses stampede away from the horse holders, taking away both the extra ammunition and the soldiers' means of escape.
Something went wrong with Custer's chain of command. No one has explained why most of his senior officers died by his side while their companies were destroyed elsewhere on the battlefield.
Custer's brother-in-law, Lieutenant James Calhoun, had died with "L" Company and Captain Myles Keogh had died with "I" Company, but the commanders of "C", "E" and "F" Companies and the regiment's adjutant all died with the group on Custer Hill.
The mystery deepens in the 1980s when brush fires made it easy for archaeologists to dig in the area. Based on the historical record, they thought they would find the bodies of 28 men from "The Gray Horse Troop" in a ravine downhill from Custer. There are headstones there to mark where the men supposedly fell.
However, no bodies were found in what's called "Deep Ravine." Even with the best technology available today, not a trace of the men was discovered.
Further, the headstone over Lieutenant Smith's body on Custer Hill was dug around --- the bones beneath were not Smith's (he had one arm shattered in the Civil War; this skeleton showed no such bone trauma).
Author Gregory Michno examines the historical record via soldier and Indian statements. He offers several theories (among them that maybe the bodies were washed away by rain flowing through the ravine into the river, or perhaps the ravine believed to be where the men made their stand is actually not the right ravine --- perhaps they died elsewhere on the battlefield) as to what happened.
One thing for certain, the Indians noticed the gray horse troop because gray horses weren't common in the Indian camp. They also stood out on the battlefield as the company maneuvered.
Foolish Elk noted "The Gray Horse Troop." He said they were mounted and moving forward, followed by soldiers from other companies on foot. They stayed ahead of those men and didn't wait for them, according to Foolish Elk. "The soldiers must have known now that they were all going to die."
Lieutenant Luther Hare buried the men of "E" Company. His impression of the men in "the ravine" ("what ravine was it?" the author wonders of each testimonial) was that "a great many of the men were shot in the back." Curiosly, Hare's comments were to The New York Times, but his official military report said nothing about the men being shot in the back.
Hare and some Cheyenne indicate the soldiers were not killed in Deep Ravine as government reports later said. They indicate that the Indians occupied that ravine, not "E" company.
The suspicion that the correct ravine was Cemetary Ravine pops up in the author's analysis.
Whatever happened, wherever the men died, the men of "The Gray Horse Troop" were found in some ravine where burial parties later reported finding markings on the ravine's walls showing that the men had tried to climb but but couldn't. The horror of knowing the end was near must have been terrible for these men.
For history fans, this is a fine read, full of factual detail and fascinating theories on what may have happened to these men.
As for the gray horses, some were captured, many were killed either by the Indians or by the troopers themselves as breastworks to hide behind. Any that were wounded and found by the burial detail, were shot to death.
Though his body was never identified (and perhaps never found), 2nd Lieutenant Sturgis, son of the 7th Cavalry's Col. Samual Sturgis (the regiment's actual commander, he had never taken the field with his regiment up to that point, leaving battlefield leadership to Custer), was "officially" found.
To calm his bereaved mother, the Army told her that her son's body had been found and properly buried. A cross erected by soldiers at the site, with the name "Sturgis" written across it, was photographed at the time as "proof" and his mother was allowed to believe her son's body had been safely recovered. Since she wished him to lie where he fell, the "myth" about her son was able to be carried out.
The author and the book:
Michno has a B. S. in social science from Michigan State University and a master's degree in history from the University of Northern Colorado. This was his first book. In 1996, he authored a second non-fiction work with "Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer's Defeat."
A full-time employee of the Michigan Department of Social Services, he found time to serve as a volunteer guide for Deep Ravine Trail on the battlefield in the 1980s, using the experience to study the battle and the mystery of "E" Company's men.
A January, 1992, article for the "Research Review: The Journal Of The Little Big Horn Associates (LBHA)" won the Larry Frost Award for best article in the publication. The journal is published by the LBHA, an organization whose members are serious students, scholars and Custer buffs who study Custer's life story.
The late Lawrence A. "Larry" Frost, the man the award was named after, authored "The Custer Album," a pictorial biography of Custer published in 1964. He was also curator of the Custer Museum in Monroe, Michigan.
Michno is also a Michigan native. The state was also Custer's boyhood home (though born in New Rumley, Ohio, his parents sent him to live with his older sister in Monroe at a young age), hence some of Michno's interest in the man as a fellow Wolverine (Custer led The Michigan Brigade at Gettysburg in 1863 shouting, "Come on you Wolverines!").
Michno approaches the Little Big Horn battle via personal observations at the site and by using the testimony of participants. He reaches no firm conclusions, but offers interesting theories on the fate of "E" Company.
He writes much like a police examiner at the scene of the crime trying to find evidence and draw conclusions. The 350-page paperback is well-illustrated and I found it to be a fascinating read.
On the web:
"Custer's Fall" by David Humphreys Miller: http://www.epinions.com/content_349631581828
"Cavalier In Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier" by Robert Utley: http://www.epinions.com/content_64511708804
My review of a wonderful book by Bill and Jan Moeller, "Custer: A Photographic Biography," 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 Little Bighorn Campaign" by Wayne Michael Sarf: http://www.epinions.com/content_115926404740
Little Big Horn Associates: http://www.lbha.org/
Custer Battlefield Museum Association (not connected with the National Park Service, this group maintains the former name of present-day Little Big Horn National Battlefield): http://www.cbhma.org/
National Park Service battlefield site: http://www.nps.gov/libi
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