A Contrarian View of the Little Bighorn

I’ve been re-reading P.T. Tucker’s Death at the Little Bighorn, which challenges the popular consensus on the grand finale of that most iconic fight. I find myself persuaded by the psychology underlying Tucker’s thesis rather than the facts he advances in support. The argument revolves around the events in the dry gulch known as Medicine Tail Coulee on the fateful afternoon of June 25, 1876.

Certain facts can be considered settled. Soon after he crossed into the valley of the Little Big Horn, Custer divided his 12 companies into four elements. He sent three companies under Captain Benteen to the left to sweep the broken country upstream in search of other possible Indian encampments — a precaution he had failed to take on the Washita 8 years’ before. He left one company behind with the slow moving mule pack train. He gave Major Reno three companies with orders to cross the river in pursuit of Indians glimpsed fleeing some miles ahead of the main column. The regiment’s Arickaree scouts rode with Reno, aiming at the huge horse herd west of the village.

Custer and his headquarters staff led the largest force of five companies north along the bluffs on the east side of the river, obviously intending to cross further downstream. either into or above the huge village to the west. Most historians I have read (and I’ve only read a handful in an incredibly prolific field) believe he aimed to round up enough of the fleeing women and children to use as hostages, forcing the warriors to draw off and negotiate a surrender.

Custer himself never said, so far as I know. He “followed the model of Napoleon, telling his subordinates as little as possible about his intentions.” In his final officers’ call he defended declining cavalry reinforcements and leaving behind the wheeled Gatling guns. He warned that they might face as many as 1,500 warriors. but declared the 7th could whip them unassisted. Nobody in the little group gathered in his tent had the temerity to ask “How?”


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