Happy Custer’s Last Stand Day! or Happy Little Big Horn Day! or Happy ‘Wow, This Victory is Going to Destroy Us!’ Day.
June 25, 1876. Custer’s Last Stand . . . has any other piece of our history generated more (a) ‘experts’, i.e. everyone who has seen a movie or read anything on Little Big Horn; (b) books per capita of men engaged in battle – just under 700 troopers with Custer, perhaps as many as 1800 Native American warriors, 4,275 books listed on Amazon today; (c) debates -scholarly and otherwise – over exactly what happened; (d) movies; (e) [really] bad art; (f) [really] bad acting; (g) enduring myths?
My [now previous] favorite bar trivia question: “How many of Custer’s men survived the Last Stand?” The answers – no one ever answered it correctly – ranged from “None, of course,” to “Trick question, I saw the Disney movie, the horse survived, only the horse!” and everything in between.
The Seventh Cavalry’s total casualties for the day were 262 killed, 68 wounded – that’s right, there were wounded: Custer’s command was not wiped out. He split the regiment into three sections, the five companies with him were annihilated, the other two merged and held out on a bluff, surrounded, for 24 hours.
Three hundred and twenty casualties – that represents about six minutes of fighting at Antietam, Marye’s Hill, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg. Only Civil War buffs and historians remember the generals and commanding officers killed at any one of those battles.
I’ve always found it curious (and maybe a distinctly American phenomenon), the veneration of and fascination with what amounted to a nasty skirmish. After all, at the Battle of the Wabash in 1791, Little Turtle and the Native American warriors of the Western Confederacy annihilated General Arthur St. Clair’s army in three hours. St. Clair’s losses still (mercifully) represents the highest casualty rate of any United States Army unit – ever.
And yet, no St. Clair’s Last Stand. Perhaps because he did not have the good grace to die with his men and officers.
Less than three years after Little Big Horn, the British would lose an entire 1,300 man force to 20,000 Zulus at Islandlwana. This generated surprise and disgust in the UK (and the obligatory formal painting) but no sub-culture “Chelsmford’s Last Stand” – although part of that battle was fought during a solar eclipse giving it a glow of eeriness not present at the Little Big Horn. The very next day about 180 British soldiers held off at least 3,000 Zulus for 24 hours at Rorke’s Drift – that was briefly celebrated, then forgotten until the movie Zulu was released in 1964 (on many Top Ten war movie lists, mine included).
Custer’s Last Stand, though, endures. Perhaps it’s due to one of the earliest examples of the cult of personality. Custer was famous out of all due proportion to his accomplishments (though they were many) in the Civil War.
He dressed great, he was flashy, he had friends in high and low places, he never met a reporter he wouldn’t talk to, he never met a wealthy man he didn’t cultivate, he never met an important Democrat he didn’t pander to, his wife was pretty and vivacious, he wrote well and always about himself.
He was a celebrity. His celebrity helped him in the real world and may have doomed him at Little Big Horn – you can read T.J. Stiles Pultizer Prize winning Custer’s Trials for more on that.
On any given day in the middle of the summer there’s probably more people walking the fields than there were combatants, and I’m betting that if the commanding officer that day had been Major Reno or Captain Benteen, there’d be just about no one walking around that hilly, desolate, windswept place.
My oldest and I stopped by the battlefield last October on our cross-country trek. It was cold, it was almost empty, it was haunting, from the positioning of the markers it’s clear most of Custer’s men died alone and horribly.
Glad we stopped, but I still did’t get it. Then. Now though, there’s this: the attack at Little Big Horn was vain, stupid, flashy, planned in the dark without reconnaissance and badly planned at that, abysmally organized, miscommunicated, and against orders in any event. Precisely the kind of thing someone thinking only of their past, present, and – mostly – future celebrity would do.