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At the Little Bighorn, the camera doesn’t lie. Nor does it banish all illusions
The 12 companies—more than 600 men—making up Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh U.S. Cavalry were part of a military campaign whose purpose was to subdue the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne of the northern plains and force them onto reservations. Having marched six weeks from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory, the Seventh was in pursuit of an estimated 800 Indian warriors headed west toward the Little Bighorn River in the Montana Territory, on June 22, 1876. As the cavalry neared the river, Custer divided his troops into four battalions: He ordered three companies to ford the river and charge an Indian village in the valley, three to scout to the southwest, and one to remain on the back trail guarding the pack train. He kept five companies with him and headed north on the high bluffs above the river, perhaps seeking to flank the village from that direction. He didn’t know that the Indian forces in the area had more than doubled since the last report. On June 25, all of the Seventh’s battalions engaged in fierce fighting and took heavy casualties; of the 210 men who rode with Custer, none survived.
As James S. Brust, Brian C. Pohanka, and Sandy Barnard ’65 observe in their recent book, Where Custer Fell: Photographs of the Little Bighorn Battlefield Then and Now, “The dust had hardly settled on the field when ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ assumed the status of legend . . . heavily mantled in mythology, recrimination, and dispute.” For more than 10 years the authors made frequent trips to the battlefield, seeking to align what exists there today with the images found in old photographs. Excerpts from their close comparison of the historical and archaeological record with period photographs follow. The images do not lay bare what happened on Custer’s Ridge, or why, the authors say, “but they do elaborate upon it, and perhaps they can guide us a little closer to the unknowable truth.”
When photographer Edward S. Curtis visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield in 1907, three of the Crow Indians who served as scouts for Colonel Custer accompanied him (above). In all, six Crow scouts had guided the Seventh Cavalry to the Little Bighorn River. Two of them, White Swan and Half Yellow Face, went into battle with Major Marcus A. Reno when he crossed the river and attacked the Indian village on the western side. The other four were with Custer’s battalion until shortly before he engaged the Sioux and Cheyenne on the eastern side. One of them, Curley, became well known after the battle. Word spread that he was the only survivor of Custer’s ill-fated command, a claim he never actually made, and he was photographed and interviewed repeatedly. Curley’s fellow Custer scouts—White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead, and Hairy Moccasin—received scant attention until Curtis invited them to show him around the field and tell him about the battle.
The three scouts’ narrative differed sharply from the accepted story, most markedly in their assertion that Custer had paused for 45 minutes on a high point on the bluffs, where he watched Reno’s defeat and declined to go to the major’s aid. Troubled by this account, Curtis consulted with President Theodore Roosevelt, who advised him not to print it. Curtis agreed and published instead a vague description of the fight, a confusingly marked map, and a few photographs, attracting little attention.
For the rest of his life, Curtis quietly continued to believe that Custer had witnessed the rout of Reno’s troops and done nothing. His original manuscript describing the scouts’ story was entrusted to his son, with instructions to eventually donate it to a museum. The Smithsonian Institution received the Curtis papers in 1988. A short time later, a group of previously unknown Curtis glass-plate negatives surfaced.
This photo was made from one of those. Here White Man Runs Him, mounted in the central foreground, along with Goes Ahead (standing) and Hairy Moccasin (mounted on the right), pose looking in the direction where the Indian village, site of Reno’s valley fight, had been. Few if any scholars of the battle accept the story of Custer’s idle wait, but this photograph, taken on the northern hump of the western side of Weir Point, is the historical document that most accurately tells us where the three Crow scouts said it took place.
Calhoun and Crittenden’s last stand
As the burial parties made their way across Custer’s field on June 28, 1876, those whose course took them over the elevation at the southern end of Custer’s Ridge, known today as Calhoun Hill (above), were impressed that the soldiers who perished there had put up a considerable fight. The amount of expended ammunition, evidenced by the shell cases from Springfield carbines, the patterns of those cases on the ground, and the locations of the bodies indicated a degree of tactical cohesion not apparent elsewhere on the battlefield. Most of the dead were men of Company L, commanded by First Lieutenant James Calhoun, the husband of Custer’s sister, Margaret (whose other brothers, Tom and Boston, also perished in the fight). Calhoun’s body was found at the northern edge of his company’s position, and nearby lay the corpse of his junior officer, Second Lieutenant John J. Crittenden.
“We found Lieutenant Calhoun . . . in the rear of the first platoon of his company,” reported Lieutenant Winfield Scott Edgerly. “About 20 or 30 feet from there was Lieutenant Crittenden lying in the rear of the second platoon, both about 15 or 20 feet in [the] rear of their platoons.” This would seem to indicate not only that the officers of Company L had died in their proper places, but also that the two platoons had been fighting back to back, in a defensive perimeter.
Captain Myles Moylan, Calhoun’s brother-in-law and a member of the burial party, said that he counted 40 shell cases by one of the corpses. If fired by a single individual, that number would indicate that the trooper in question had exhausted the available rounds in his cartridge belt. Lieutenant Calhoun’s body was found surrounded by shell casings from his revolver, indicating close-range fighting.
The bodies of all the soldiers received a hasty burial. A year later, in the spring of 1877, the army sent an expedition to the Little Bighorn to recover the remains of the officers. Crittenden’s father, General Thomas Leonidas Crittenden, wrote to General Philip Sheridan of the Western command, “I respectfully request that the body of my son . . . be left in the grave in which he was buried, and on the field where he fell.” Thus Crittenden was left the only officer buried on the battlefield. His marker, with footstone, is seen on the left of this 1912 photograph taken by Elsa Spear. Spear captioned it “Lieut. Crittenden’s grave”; beneath Calhoun’s stone, at right, she wrote “Lieut. Calhoun marker.” In 1931, Crittenden’s remains were moved to the battlefield cemetery and reburied.
A mother’s comfort
In 1876, George Armstrong Custer was actually the second-ranking officer of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Command of the regiment belonged to Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis. However, the 54-year-old Sturgis was on detached service as commander of the Cavalry Depot in St. Louis for almost two years prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, placing Custer in field command. But another Sturgis fought and died with the Seventh Cavalry—the colonel’s son, Second Lieutenant James G. Sturgis, who on the day of the battle was riding with Custer in Company E.
Lieutenant Sturgis’s body was never identified, but his bloody clothing and perhaps his decapitated head were found in the nearby Indian village. Troubled that her son’s body had not been located, the grieving Mrs. Jerusha Sturgis was allowed to visit the battlefield in June 1878 (no doubt aided by the fact that she was the wife of a high-ranking officer) to learn what she could of her son’s fate. Escorted to the Little Bighorn by Colonel Nelson A. Miles and a contingent of Fifth U.S. Infantry soldiers, Mrs. Sturgis found a well-marked grave for her son. The grave was spurious, set up by unknown compassionate hands to relieve her at least of the anguish of thinking that her son had been buried as an unknown.
When photographer Stanley J. Morrow traveled to the battlefield in the spring of 1879, the grave was still in place. It consisted of a mound of stones and earth, with a crude wooden cross lettered “Lt. Sturgis 7th Cav June 25, 76.” In Morrow’s stereophotograph (above), the landscape falls away toward the Little Bighorn River, a loop of which can be seen in the distance. Morrow’s title, “Supposed grave of Lieut. Sturgis,” indicates that he knew the grave was not real. The historical record leaves no doubt that Sturgis’s body was never identified, and the fictitious grave would eventually disappear, leaving Lieutenant Sturgis again unmarked on the field. In 1910, the superintendent of the battlefield, Oscar Wright, set a stone for him, a couple of yards to the left of where the spurious grave had stood. Wright may have used the Morrow photograph as a guide.
The haunting view above, taken most likely on July 7, 1877, one year and 12 days after the battle, is the earliest photograph of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Both the photograph and the man who made it were virtually unknown for more than a century; the image did not surface until 1990.
At the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, no permanent settlements existed on the plains of eastern Montana Territory. Only the nomadic encampments of native tribes dotted the countryside. That changed quickly after the battle, with the establishment of military bases in the area. The first of these was Cantonment Tongue River, the forerunner of Fort Keogh, which was set up at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Tongue rivers in late August 1876, two months after Custer’s defeat.
John H. Fouch arrived at Cantonment Tongue River from Minnesota in December 1876 and would become Fort Keogh’s first photographer. That he ever reached and photographed the battlefield remained unclear until James S. Brust, MD, a collector of historical photographs, obtained this image at a swap meet in Long Beach, California, 113 years later.
Fouch’s view, looking west toward the Little Bighorn River, was taken from the top of Custer Hill (also known as Last Stand Hill), where a large granite monument now rests. Horse bones fill the immediate foreground, most prominently two skulls, one with the mane still attached—bespeaking the early date of this picture. A boot top can be seen, as well. Just beyond the first group of bones is another, marked by a wooden burial stake and clustered around what seems to be a shallow pit. Some of the bones appear human, but in fact, all are from animals.
Post-battle eyewitnesses described the top of Custer Hill as a small knoll, some 30 feet in diameter: About 10 bodies were found there, including that of Colonel Custer near the southwestern rim of the elevation; six horses lay in a convex perimeter on the east side. Fouch’s photograph matches these accounts. The horse bones in the foreground were the eastern convex perimeter. Just beyond the wooden burial stakes, the terrain falls off down the steep slope of the hill, and the view continues through the relatively flat drainage below. On the right, the landscape slopes up toward the present cemetery area, and on the left border of the picture, Deep Ravine can just be seen. There some 28 soldiers reportedly met a dreadful end, though their bodies were never recovered and the site remains without death markers. The tree-lined river horizontally crosses the landscape, with the distant horizon beyond.
Fouch titled this photograph “The place where Custer Fell.” A second photo of the battle site, “View Down the Ravine on the Custer field,” is listed among the preprinted titles on the reverse of Fouch’s stereo cards, kept by his descendants. That photo, potentially of great historical importance if it shows Deep Ravine a year after the battle, remains undiscovered.
Sandy Barnard ’65 taught journalism at Indiana State University before retiring at the end of the past academic year. He is the editor of Greasy Grass, a magazine devoted to the Indian Wars. James S. Brust is a physician and collector of historical photographs. The late Brian C. Pohanka was a military historian and senior researcher, writer, and advisor for Time-Life Books’ 27-volume series on the Civil War. Their article is adapted from Where Custer Fell: Photographs of the Little Bighorn Battlefield Then and Now, by permission of the University of Oklahoma Press. Copyright © 2005 by James S. Brust, Brian C. Pohanka, and Sandy Barnard.