As a cavalry commander, George Armstrong Custer was active, impatient and aggressive past the point of recklessness. It’s impossible to imagine him sitting on a hill waiting for a lagging subordinate as his tactical position steadily deteriorated, the villagers drawing away to the north while the warriors closed from the south. Why the prolonged and ultimately fatal pause on Calhoun Hill? Perhaps the answer lies at the Medicine Tail Coulee ford.
The last glimpse Trooper Giovanni Martini, bearer of Custer’s famous last message, had of his commander was as Custer led his five companies down into Medicine Tail Coulee, headed west toward the Bighorn River. Martini had no doubt his colonel was on the front foot, leading a full-out assault on the Indian village beyond. Tactically, it was the best option Custer had. The broad and shallow ford at Medicine Tail Coulee was the key terrain feature on the battlefield. It was the best crossing for miles in either direction, where the stream was bounded by steep bluffs and high cut-banks that made a swift and organized crossing impossible.
Reno’s “anvil” had dissolved but Custer could still strike a hard blow with his hammer. Charging into the heart of the village would put him between the warriors coming up from the south, their horse herd to the west and their families fleeing to the north. As a Marine very much in the Custer mold once said, “We’re surrounded. That makes it simpler. They can’t get away from us now.” And in any given situation, Custer’s first instinct was to attack, He had won his greatest victory by a headlong charge against odds, leading his 400 Wolverines against Jeb Stuart’s cavalry brigade. More than half the 400 were killed, wounded or unhorsed that day, but they cost Lee the battle of Gettysburg.
Benteen, Reno and others who walked or rode the ground after the battle shared the view that Custer had charged the ford but been repulsed, although there were few dead horses and no bodies at the crossing. Later Indian testimony varied in detail but agreed that a small force of Cheyenne and Sioux warriors held the ford against the soldiers. Several accounts described a white man in a buckskin jacket who was hit and escorted off the field by his companions, after which the whites had retreated in some confusion, dismounted, remounted and finally left the field..
Taylor argues the man in the buckskin jacket was George Armstrong Custer. In his distinctive light-colored buckskin jacket, wide-brimmed white hat and trademark red scarf, he would have been a natural target for the handful of Indians defending the ford, some of whom carried Winchester and Henry repeaters.
“A showy uniform for Custer was one of command presence on the battlefield: he wanted to be readily distinguishable at first glance from all other soldiers. He intended to lead from the front, and to him it was a crucial issue of unit morale that his men be able to look up in the middle of a charge, or at any other time on the battlefield, and instantly see him leading the way into danger.” according to Tom Carhart,
The downside of embodying the unit’s elan in one charismatic leader is if that individual falls, morale collapses with him. (One example is the death of the invulnerable Cheyenne war chief Roman Nose at Beecher Island in 1868.) That would explain the paucity of evidence of a serious clash at the ford. If Custer had been hit in the first volley from the defenders on the opposite bank, the charge across the stream would have lost momentum at the outset. Exhausted horses, half crazed with thirst and suddenly checked at the bank of the stream would have added to the confusion.
As senior officer, Captain Keogh would would have assumed command if Custer were incapacitated, although he likely would have faced a challenge to his authority from Tom Custer, who was serving as his brother’s aide-de-camp. Rash as his brother, Tom might have argued for reforming the ranks and resuming the charge. If so, Keogh over-ruled him and led all five companies north to the high ground at Calhoun Hill. The two wings took separate routes away from the river, leaving the impression only two companies had been involved in the brief fire fight at the ford.
While the surgeon treated Custer and the other wounded, Keogh might have dispatched one or two companies in a reconnaissance in force with orders to find and seize an undefended ford until he could come up with the main body. His goal at this point was not to capture villagers but to open an escape route that would enable him to join up with Terry, who was moving up the Bighorn from the north.
If that was his plan, it failed. With the recon force repulsed at the northern ford and more Indians pouring in from that direction, burdened by a growing number of wounded and hampered by the loss of an increasing number of horses, the five companies were pinned in place.