Head them of at the pass

I still to this day have a thing for the US cavalry bugle call, this probably stems from when I was a kid living in the North of England and when the snow was 10 foot thick outside the front door, I could not (sorry lets re-phrase that “would not” go to school) I got to watch TV all day, my favourite programmes or movies were the Lone Ranger “Hi Ho silver”, Bonanza and any other cowboy and Indian movie, I was also absolutely fascinated with General Custer, the 7th Cavalry and their last stand at the Big Horn.

Picture the scene: early pioneers are crossing the plain in covered wagons to take them West and on to a better life, up on a distant hill a lone figure on a horse watches over them, soon to be joined by more men on horses and before you know it there is a ‘Whoop Whoop” and the sound of rifle fire as hostile Indians pour into the valley and start attacking the wagon train. At first there is panic and an attempt to outrun the attackers but then the wagons form a circle to fend off the attack, the Indians start circling the wagons and pour gunfire and arrows in to the laager women and children re-load rifles and the situation is getting precarious with Indians starting to breach the defences, just when you think all is lost……………………………..

In the distance you here the bugle calling the charge and a line of US cavalry with sabres held high on the charge, the cavalry flag flying proud and you just know that they will save the day.

I tend to read a lot and came across a book called “The History of the US cavalry” and it gave an interesting insight in to this specific unit, however I have always been fascinated with General Custer so I thought that I would put a piece together about this famous or infamous man. Before I get to that however do you know why American Indians are called Indians? Well it would seem that intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus was on the way to discover the West Indies (or so he thought) and when he landed in what is now America he immediately named the local inhabitants ‘Indians”

General George Custer was born in New Rumley Ohio 5 December 1839 he entered West Point at the beginning of the American civil war and due to the war the whole class was fast tracked (June 1861) to ensure the Union army had competent officers. It would seem that Custer was not the sharpest sabre in the armoury but what he lacked in classroom skills he more than made up in tenacity and bravado.

His first assignment was as a lieutenant in the 5th cavalry and on his arrival at the regiment took part in the first battle of Bull Run. In May 1862 Custer was promoted to Captain and in 1863 appointed brigadier general of volunteers and assigned to duty as commander of the Michigan brigade.

At Gettysburg his brigade together with hat of Gregg and McIntosh defeated General Stuart’s efforts to turn the left flank, for this action he was brevetted major in the US army. Custer continued to take part in battles and for his bravery and tenacity he was made brevet - colonel in September 1864, not a month later he was again promoted, this tine as major-general of volunteers. Mid 1865 he was promoted to brevet brigadier general of the US army. By November 1865 he was chief of cavalry a rank he held until he was mustered out of the volunteer service.

Custer asked for permission from President Johnson to accept a position from President Juarez to train the Mexican cavalry, this permission was denied, so Custer decided to accept a lieutenant colonelcy of the 7th cavalry instead. In November 1866 he joined his regiment at Fort Riley, Kansas and served on the plains until 1871. As a cavalry leader Custer soon earned a reputation of firmness bordering on cruelty – he had soldiers flogged, deserters were shot and miscreants were usually buried up to their necks in the ground.

In November of 1871 Custer and his 7th Cavalry were to inflict a huge defeat against the Cheyenne at the battle of Washita, this forced the Cheyenne to move back to their reservation, Custer was probably the most hated white man by that tribe. Later that year Custer and his men were ordered to Kentucky where they saw active service until 1873. The 7th were again re-assigned this time to Fort Rice in South Dakota, from here they were to accompany a expedition into the Yellowstone mountains, it was here that Custer had his first action against the Sioux and a few days later he engaged them again at the mouth of the Big Horn.

In Mid 1874 he was ordered to reconnoitre the Black Hills, this expedition was to lead to the opening of the hills to miners and frontiersmen, that in turn would lead to more conflict against the Indian tribes living in that area, specifically the Sioux. By 1876 11 tribes (mostly Sioux and Cheyenne) numbering close to 12000 were camped on the Little Big Horn River the government sent a punitive expedition out to subdue these tribes, with Custer and his regiment (some 600 strong) being tasked to pursue a certain trail and engage any enemy that he may encounter. Custer did not know it but he and his men rode out into history. His scouts reported the presence of an Indian village, but he did not know how big, discovering Indian scouts trailing him, he decided to attack and keeping an element of surprise. His experience dictated that the camp should be hot hard and fast from a number of directions and he therefore split up his men to do just that, Major Reno’s detachment were surprised and after the initial rush he was able to extradite himself and the survivors (some 90 of the original 175 men and scouts had been killed) Reno was joined by Captain Benteen who decided that he was going to stay with Reno and left Custer to fend for himself.

So it was that on the 25th of June 1876 Custer and his men rode towards a swarm of Indians whose bloodlust had been ?? with the attack on Reno and his men. Not one man of Custer’s column lived to tell what had happened and all accounts of the battle are either what was passed on by Indians at the battle as well as archaeological evidence. The Indians struck Custer from the rear and his left flank driving him and his men onto a low ridge with no shelter, dead horses were used to shelter behind. From Indian reports it would seem that 5 groups stood there ground against the massive Indian onslaught. Contrary to popular belief and as most painting depict not many Indians were on horseback, it did not take long for the superior numbers to overwhelm the 210 men and the end came very fast.

Crazy horse is reputed to have led an attack on the clump of men that George Custer was part of, who having been badly wounded had barricaded himself behind dead horses. A few men tried to make a dash for the river but were shot down, almost as quickly as the fight had started it ended, with the Indians crawling forward and finishing of any men that may still be alive. The battle had taken less than an hour and for Custer’s name to be carved into history forever more. At that stage Custer had managed to preside over one of the worst defeats in American history and in doing so achieved the immortal fame he craved after so much.

Crazy horse had no idea he had killed Custer and set about attacking Reno and Benteen, for the rest of that day and into the next Reno and Benteen’s scared and tired men, held out against overwhelming odds. At this stage no one was aware as to what had happened to Custer and his men and when a relief column reached the Big Horn some 2 days later they found a scene of horror that was to be burnt into the memory of every man that saw it. Most of the soldiers had been mutilated and scalped, Custer himself was stripped naked but had not been mutilated or scalped, some felt it was because the Indians feared or respected him, many however feel this was more an accident as none of the Indians knew Custer by sight and his famous long golden hair had been cut short prior to the campaign. Most of the dead were buried were they died, the only survivor was a wounded cavalry horse called “Comanche” who lived out his days as the mascot of the 7th cavalry until he died in 1891. Custer who had been buried at the Big Horn was himself re-interred at the West Point cemetery some years later.

The Indian wars were hard and a realistic account of these years do not often resemble the exhilarating Hollywood movies of the cavalryman, for the yellowlegs it was a hard and dangerous job, being called upon to do much of the dirty work, yet it had its moments of heroism, glory and remarkable feats.

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