The Lady Who Won the Battle of The Little Big Horn

I am surprised that most people think the Seventh Cavalry was wiped out at the battle of the Little Big Horn. In truth, of the 650 white officers and enlisted men, scouts and civilians engaged on 25 June, 1876, only some 286 were killed. That was a devastating 44%,  but hardly the entire command.  Most of the men under second in command Major Marcus Reno over three days of intensive combat,  made it out alive.  Whereas, the 210 men directly under the command of “General” George Armstrong Custer were dead within three hours of the first shot being fired. But the results for the U.S. Army were even worse in the Second Battle of the Little Big Horn, when, for fifty-seven years, they were mercilessly attacked by a five foot four inch tall Victorian widow with blue-gray eyes and chestnut hair. Her name was Elizabeth Bacon Custer. And she wiped out the entire U.S. Army. 
Immediately after the battle the military judgments were unanimous. President Grant, who had been elevated to the White House based on his record as a military commander, told a reporter, “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops brought on by Custer himself,…(which) was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.” General Philip Sheridan, the man who had lobbied for Custer’s inclusion on the expedition considered the disaster primarily Custer’s fault. “Had the Seventh Cavalry been held together, it would have been able to handle the Indians on the Little Big Horn."
And finally, General Samuel Davis Sturgis (above), overall commander of the seventh (but who was not in the field with them), and whose son, James, had died on the Little Big Horn, was appalled by the suggestion that a monument be dedicated to the memory of “The American Murat”, General Custer. “For God’s sake", urged Sturgis, "let them hide it in some dark valley, or veil it, or put it anywhere the bleeding hearts of the widows, orphans, fathers and mothers of the men so uselessly sacrificed to Custer’s ambition, can never be wrung at the sight of it.” And the vast majority of professional army officers agreed with General Sturgis.
Having dismissed the dead Custer, at first the army also dismissed his 34 year old widow. Barely a month after her husband had died amid the Montana scrub brush, “Libby” Custer was forced to leave her home at  Fort Abraham Lincoln. As a widow Libby had no right to quarters on any post, and so lost the social support of her Army life and friends. Her income was immediately reduced to the widow’s pension of $30 a month. Her total assets were worth barely $8,000, while the claims against Custer’s estate exceeded $13,000. And then, in her hour of need, Libby spied the perfect weapon to be used in defense of herself and her dead spouse.
His name was Frederick Whittaker, and he scratched out a living as a writer of pulp fiction and non-fiction for magazines of the day. A kind reviewer described his work as, “…about the best of its kind”.  Whittaker had met Custer (above with Libby) during the Civil War, and the General’s death inspired him to write a dramatic eulogy for Galaxy Magazine,  praising the fallen hero. Whittaker also mentioned Custer’s “natural recklessness and vanity”, but Libby was willing to ignore that mistake, and immediately contacted him. Libby provided Whittaker with the couple’s personal letters, access to family and friends, war department correspondence and permission to use large sections from Custer’s own book, “My Life on the Plains” - which Libby had largely written.
What emerged, just six months after Little Big Horn, was “A Complete Life of General George A. Custer”. It was absolute pulp, filled with inaccuracies and excessive praise for Custer, but it was also a best seller. “So fell the brave caviler, the Christian soldier, surrounded by foes, but dying in harness amid the men he loved.” This time there was no hint of faults in Custer. Instead the blame was laid elsewhere. Of Custer, Whittaker wrote; “He could have run like Reno had he wished...It is clear, in the light of Custer’s previous character, that he held on to the last, expecting to be supported, as he had a right to expect. It was only when he clearly saw he had been betrayed, that he resolved to die game, as it was too late to retreat.” (Sheldon and Company, New York, 1876).
Few professional soldiers were willing to admit in public that Whittaker had gotten it wrong,But in private they agreed.  Custer was not a great Indian fighter. In fact one of the most serious charges laid against Custer before his death was that in December of 1868, at the Battle of the Washita, Custer had deserted a junior commander, Major Elliot, and his 21 men, who were all killed. But those experienced officers withheld their criticism of Whittaker to avoid being forced to also criticize Custer's widow. This was, after all, the Victorian age, and women had to be protected. But  the essential truth about what happened on the Little Big Horn was always known, to the professionals. 
On the hot afternoon of 25 June,  1876, Major Marcus Reno was ordered by Custer to advance into the valley of the Little Big Horn River with three companies, about 120 troopers,  and attack the Indian village - which they hadn't even seen yet.  He was also told he would be supported by "the entire outfit".  So Reno had crossed the river and reformed his men in a wooded glade. Then he led  two companies forward, in line abreast with their right flank anchored on the river, and with the third company following in reserve. They rode due north, toward the Indian camps. I say "camps" because it turned out  there were at least two. However, as the river curved away, Reno was forced to throw the third company into line as well, to avoid being outflanked on the river side.  Reno now had no reserve, had been assigned no supplies of ammunition or water except what each trooper carried, and as he trotted across the flat valley floor there was no sign of Custer or the promised support.
The expectation of Custer and Reno was that once confronted, the Sioux and Cheyenne would disperse, and run to escape. This was the way Indians had always reacted to U.S. Army cavalry.  Indian warriors were not soldiers. They were fathers and husbands with families to support  and defend. But three days earlier the Indians had surprised and battered another Army column coming up from the south and forced it to retreat. The Indians thought they were now secure in this camp. They had posted no scouts. And the sudden appearance of Custer with some 650 mounted soldiers, had caught them napping. There was no time to send their women and children to safety. There was no time to save their pony herds, without which they could not hunt, feed their children, or survive. Their backs were against the wall, and confronted, they came swarming out of their camp, desperate to drive off the attackers.
The army had thought there might be 3-500 Indians in the camp. In fact there were closer to 3,000, of which perhaps 1,000 were warriors.  The cavalry was out numbered. And thanks to Custer, they were being out-General-ed. And thanks to their single shot carbines, they were even going to be out-gunned.
Confronted by a growing mass of aggressive warriors in this front, Reno ordered his men to halt and form a skirmish line.  Every fourth trooper became a horse-holder, who withdrew fifty yards. The remaining  three knelt in an evenly spaced line and began firing their carbines. The object was to keep their enemy at least one hundred yards distant. But this also reduced Reno's rifles on the line to less than 100 guns.  Meanwhile, the Indians, armed with less accurate repeating rifles and pistols, as well as bows and arrows, wanted to close to less than 20 yards. Within a few minutes there were an estimated 500 Indians alone in the trees and brush along the river, pouring fire into Reno's open right  flank. One of the men on the skirmish line later said that if they had held that line for a few more minutes, "We would be in that valley, still." And there was still no sign of Custer and the "rest of the outfit", as promised.
Worried he was about to be surrounded, Reno ordered his men to abandon the skirmish line and to fall back into the woods along the Little Big Horn River.  Even though the stream was barely 20 yards wide, Reno's rear and flank would be temporarily secure. He immediately  began to make a new plan. but while Reno was speaking to an Indian scout named Bloody Knife, the man's head virtually exploded from a rifle round.  Reno was coated in the man's brains and blood. The Major lost control of himself. After issuing a dozen contradictory orders, with no warning or planning , Reno's ordered his men to mount and retreat back across the river. The movement became a wild uncoordinated running fight, splashing through the water and followed by a desperate climb up the steep bluff.
At the top of what came to called Reno Hill, the major finally had a stroke of luck. His desperate men were met by Captain Fredrick Benteen and his 110 men. They had been sent off by Custer hours earlier to search for Indians to the south. They had found nothing, and, having heard nothing from Custer, were returning on Benteen's own initiative,....luckily at this exact moment. Shortly there after, Custer's entire ammunition supply, packed on mules, and guarded by a single company, also arrived at Reno's Hill.  There was still no sign of Custer, or of the 225 men under his command. But with the ammunition packs, at least Reno's command could defend themselves
For three days Reno, Benteen and their men, held off Indian snipping and attacks. The wounded suffered under the summer sun, and a few men braved the constant snipping to crawl down to the Little Big Horn for water. (View of LBH valley from Reno Hill). The ordeal came to an end only when another supporting column appeared, from the north. Given a choice of fighting or running, as usual, the Indians retreated. And once they did, Custer's butchered command was discovered, on a rise renamed "Last Stand Hill".
Frederick Whittaker's book, and the public outcry which followed it, shifted blame for the disaster off Custer and lay it on Reno. The criticism mounted day by day. Eventually Reno was forced to ask for, and received a Court of Inquiry (not a Court Martial) on his conduct at Little Big Horn. This cleared his name and revealed the character of the "sketchy" people Whittaker had relied on for his version of the battle. But it made little difference to the general public who declared the inquiry a whitewash. Custer was a hero, the subject of paintings and legends. And that was the way the public saw it, whatever the reality.
Elizabeth Custer went on to support herself comfortably by writing three books; “Tenting on the Plains”,"Following the Guidon” and “Boots and Saddles”. In each her husband was idolized and lionized. In 1901 she managed to squeeze out one more, a children’s book, “The Boy General. Story of the Life of Major-General George A. Custer”: “The true soldier asks no questions; he obeys, and Custer was a true soldier. He gave his life in carrying out the orders of his commanding general… He had trained and exhorted his men and officers to loyalty, and with one exception they stood true to their trust, as was shown by the order in which they fell.”
By the time Libby died, in 1933, at the age of ninety-one, her vision of Little Big Horn was set in the concrete of the printed page, in dozens of books and even a few movies. Among the first who had endorsed Libby's view was Edward S. Godfrey, who had been a junior officer at the Little Big Horn and a Custer “fan” from before the battle. His 1892 “Custer’s Last Battle” was unequivocal. “...had Reno made his charge as ordered,…the Hostiles would have been so engaged… that Custer’s approach…would have broken the moral of the warriors….(Reno’s) faltering ...his halting, his falling back to the defense position in the woods...; his conduct up to and during the siege…was not such as to inspire confidence or even respect,…” .” It was absurd, as anyone who had been in the valley with Reno could have told Godfrey. But Godfrey had been with the ammunition train, And he simply refused to listen anyone who even hinted that Custer might in any way have been at fault. When Reno died, questions were even asked if  he should be buried in a military cemetery. 
These attacks on Reno continued for most of the 20th century. The 1941 movie staring Errol Flynn as Custer displays Libby's view of Reno as well as any tome, and were echoed even by respected historians such as Robert Utley, who in the 1980’s described Reno as "… a besotted, socially inept mediocrity, (who) commanded little respect in the regiment and was the antithesis of the electric Custer in almost every way.”
So for over a century Marcus Reno was reviled and despised as the coward who did not charge as ordered, instead, pleading weasel-like, that Custer had not supported him as promised. It would not be until Ronald Nichols biography of Reno, “In Custer’s Shadow” (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1999) that Reno would receive a fair hearing.
About this same time the Indian accounts of the fight began to finally be given a serious consideration by white historians, including the story told to photographer Edward Curtis back in 1907 by three of Custer’s Crow Indian scouts. The three (now aging) men said they had watched amazed as Custer stood on the bluffs overlooking Reno’s fight in the valley. This Indian version was supported by some soldiers in the valley fight who reported seeing Custer on the bluffs. (Most historians had always assumed they were imagining things.)
One of the scouts, White Man Runs Him, claimed to have scolded Custer; “Why don’t you cross the river and fight too?” To which, the scouts say, Custer replied, “It is early yet and plenty of time. Let them fight. Our turn will come.”
And it did. But General Custer was not ready for it. And that point must remain undisputed.
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