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There is considerable controversy surrounding this interesting event.  The following is my personal version of the battle; it reflects my collection of many undisputed facts, as well as some of my own interpretations and theories.  - Tom Williams, webmaster

 

The Battle of the Little Bighorn

 

Some weeks before the soldiers attacked, the great chief Sitting Bull, a holy man, performed the Sun Dance.  50 small pieces of flesh were cut from each of his arms, then he danced all day under the hot sun without food or water.  A vision came to him... many blue soldiers were falling upside down into the Indian village.  And in the vision Sitting Bull was told, "I give you these for they have no ears."

Kitty Belle Deernose, Little Bighorn Battlefield Museum Curator

 

 


 

In 1858 George Armstrong Custer, at the age of 18, began his military career as a cadet at West Point.  The son of a blacksmith, he had lived an obscure childhood in Ohio and Michigan.  He would later say that in his 4 years at West Point he had only managed to set a bad example.  Indeed, he was often in trouble for childish pranks, lack of respect for authority, or lack of study.  While not a favorite among the instructors, Custer’s exuberance and antics endeared him to his classmates, who described him as the most popular man in his class[1].  He graduated 34th in a class of 34 in June 1861.  He missed graduation ceremonies because he was detained in the guard house for misconduct[2]. 

 

Despite his record at West Point, soon after he graduated he began an impressive string of remarkable achievements on the battlefields of the Civil War.  His war record was astonishing.  In less than 4 years he would attain the rank of brevet[3] Major General as a result of his achievements (and undoubtedly some luck) in the Union cavalry.

 

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Custer in 1863, after being wounded in Virginia during the Civil War.

 

Many of his fellow soldiers, and especially older officers, were understandably envious or even jealous of his success.  He seemed to easily make glorious headlines wherever he went.  He was a brazen leader who undoubtedly liked attention.  On the other hand, it was only natural that a phenomenal record of victories and creative tactics would attract headlines.  He fought in well over 100 engagements, including every major battle the Army of the Potomac fought[4].  His red scarf and long flowing hair were not only flamboyant, but seemed to be effective in intimidating the enemy and in rallying his own men.  He often took chances that other officers would never dream of taking.  This may be a key reason that he accomplished so much.  He used supposedly outdated tactics effectively, such as the saber charge, perhaps just to scare the enemy.  And it worked.  Everything he did worked.  He was the golden “Boy General.”

 

After the Civil War, Custer's rank, like virtually all of the officers who chose to remain in the Army, was reduced from his field rank (brevet) to his official rank.  So "General Custer" became Captain Custer, although he was soon promoted to Lt. Colonel.  He was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, to serve with a new cavalry regiment, the 7th, which had been formed in September 1866 to ensure a safe passage for the railroad through hostile Indian country[5].

 


 

Like many of the enlisted men at Fort Riley, Private Archibald McIlhargey was an Irish immigrant.  He had come from County Antrim, was 5'5" tall, with dark complexion, brown eyes and black hair[6].  On November 19, 1867 he enlisted at the age of 22 in New York and was assigned to Company I in the 7th Cavalry.  Including Officers, there were 880 men in the 7th.  They all became Indian fighters, and the 7th became known as the elite among all US cavalry.

 

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One of these troopers, all circa late 1860's at Fort Riley, could be McIlhargey.

 

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In March 1871 the 7th was assigned to Kentucky, like many other units stationed throughout the South, to enforce the Federal Distillery tax and suppress Ku Klux Klan activities.  In 1872 Private McIlhargey's five year commission was completed.  On the day of his discharge he re-enlisted again, in Shelbyville Kentucky, before Lt. James Porter.  Company I, McIlhargey's unit, was stationed in Bagdad and Shelbyville Kentucky, presumably where Archibald met his wife, Josie “Joanna” Lee.  They were married in Louisville on February 19, 1873[7]

 

On June 10, 1873, the 7th Cavalry arrived in Fort Rice, Dakota Territory, and then later went on to Fort Lincoln, Dakota Territory, to fight in the Sioux Indian Wars.  Fort Lincoln was on the Missouri River near present day Bismarck, North Dakota.  The 7th also participated in the Black Hills Expedition in 1874, to find a direct route between Fort Lincoln and Fort Laramie in Wyoming.  Some say there was also the intention of substantiating rumors of gold.  In fact, engineers accompanying the troops soon verified the gold reports.  News got out and white people began to flood into the Black Hills. 

 

This invasion of Sioux sacred land, regardless of the reason, was a clear violation of the Treaty of 1868[8].  At first the Army tried to keep the citizens out, but since the Indians remained peaceful, the Army's effort was half-hearted at best.  In June 1875, the US attempted to purchase the Black Hills from the Sioux for $6 million.  The Reservation Indians counter-offered to sell for $70 million, while other non-reservation Indians refused to sell for any price[9].  The negotiations broke down, the Army pulled out, and the gold rush began without restraint.  "Renegade" Indians illegally went into hiding, away from the reservation agencies, and were considered a grave danger to any white man who might happen to run into them.  War was inevitable.  

 

The Army's strategy in 1876, therefore, was to round up and trap the hostile tribes.  The 7th Cavalry was part of the Dakota Column, in the Department of Dakota, under the command of General Alfred Terry.  There were also armies located at Camp Cloud Peak in Wyoming Territory (General George Crook's Dept. of the Platte) and at Fort Shaw in western Montana Territory (General John Gibbon's Montana Column, Dept. of Dakota).  One of the last and largest remaining hostile tribes was the Sioux, who some believed were massing for resistance in southeast Montana, more-or-less in a central point between these three armies, which were all coming after them. 

 

The Dakota Column moved out of Fort Lincoln toward Montana on May 17, 1876.  Upon reaching the mouth of the Powder River on the Yellowstone on June 22, Terry met with his officers and reiterated the grand strategy for trapping the hostile tribes between the three armies now converging on southeast Montana Territory.  The exact location of the Indians was uncertain, so to ensure that they would be found and not escape, Terry decided to split the Dakota Column.  He sent Custer and his 7th Cavalry on a loop south along the Rosebud River and south of the Little Bighorn Valley, while the main column would continue moving west along the Yellowstone and turn south to follow the Bighorn River, where the two forces should meet up on June 26 or 27, about the time when Gibbon and Crook's columns might be arriving as well. 

 

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Terry's instructions to Custer were not entirely clear, but it is generally thought that he wanted the 7th to prevent the hostile tribes from escaping to the southeast.  After the battle, some opined that Custer disobeyed orders by attacking on his own.  There is no evidence or reasonable argument to support this opinion.  If Custer was to encounter the Indians, Terry probably expected him to attack if he could.  Or, if he were not able to engage the Indians in a battle directly, Custer would at least drive them toward Terry’s main column.  The notion of Custer attacking on his own would not likely have concerned Terry – rather, he would have expected it.  

 

Custer moved his cavalry of about 670[10] men very quickly, some say in hopes of engaging the Sioux on his own in order to win all the glory.  While Custer was never known to shun glory, it may be that he was just eager and confident, as usual, preferring to move fast with his invincible troops.  He turned down Terry's offer of infantry and Gatling guns, saying that he preferred to go without them as they would only slow him down.

 

On June 25 Custer came across fresh signs of the Sioux.  His Indian scouts informed him that there was an enormous Indian camp just ahead, including thousands of braves.  Some of these scouts warned that they would be foolish to attack with just a few hundred men, while others urged Custer to attack immediately, before the enemy could escape. 

 

Custer would have had at least some doubts about the reports of such a large gathering of Indians.  There had never been thousands of warriors gathered in one camp before.  Custer, who thought himself an expert on the Plains Indians, knew that it was not the Indians' way to congregate in such large numbers.  Indians preferred to live in smaller groups, and were just as apt to fight between tribes as fight with white men.  And the scouts could not produce any reliable evidence to convince Custer that their reports could be true.  Nevertheless, whether Custer thought there were a hundred or ten thousand, he believed that any number of Indians was simply no match for the 7th Cavalry.

 

Custer decided to engage the elusive enemy at the first possible moment.  He had reason to believe that the Indians already knew he was close by.  He wanted to ensure that they would not escape his grasp.  About twelve miles from the reported location of the main Indian camp, Custer sent Capt. Benteen on a short loop south with about 150 men.  Benteen might find the enemy and send for Custer, or if he did not find any Indians, he might at least divert them toward Custer's battalion[11].

 

Soon after Benteen's column split off, Custer's battalion came to within a few miles of the southeast end of the main Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn River.  From his vantage point he still could not see much, if any, of the Indian camp, but the scouts knew that it was just around the bend of the river they had been following. 

 

 

Cavalry Crossing a Ford

A line in long array, where they wind betwixt green islands;
They take a serpentine course-- their arms flash in the sun-- hark to the musical clank;
Behold the silvery river-- in it the splashing horses, loitering, stop to drink;
Behold the brown-faced men-- each group, each person, a picture-- the negligent rest on the saddles;
Some emerge on the opposite bank-- others are just entering the ford-- while,
Scarlet, and blue, and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind.

-- Walt Whitman

 

And now it was time for Custer to once again quickly assess a tactical situation and make confident decisions to win the day… but this day would be different.  Custer noted the high ground, a series of bluffs to the northeast of the reported camp.  He instinctively decided upon a classic cavalry maneuver.  He would split his battalion yet again, taking the main force of about 220 men with him to the high ground, staying just out of sight of the camp.  And he would send Major Reno head-on into the camp from the southeast, as a diversion, in a charge across an open plain with about 175 men.  The Indians would easily see this bold charge and would either run away, when Custer's battalion would be in a perfect position to join the attack from the flank, or less likely, the Indians might stand and fight Reno, in which case Custer would again be in perfect position for a surprise attack from an unprotected direction.  And if Reno came under heavy fire, Benteen would be along to support him; he was already past due[12].   

 

It was early afternoon on a hot day[13].  After quickly watering horses, Reno's battalion galloped toward the Indians, then dismounted and began firing into the camp from skirmish lines, while still some distance from the camp[14].  Meanwhile Custer's column climbed the slopes behind the bluffs overlooking the valley and the camp.  Some of Reno's troops later reported seeing some of Custer's column high on the bluffs at this point, waving their hats at them.

 


 

Benteen, proceeding slowly on his loop, encountered no Indians at all and likely suspected that Custer had not encountered any Indians either.

 


 

Just minutes after his men began firing into the village, Reno sent his striker, or orderly, Private Archibald McIlhargey, to Custer with a message that the Indians were in front of him in great number[15].  This was probably intended to inform Custer that he had done as asked, i.e. captured attention from the main body of the Indian camp.  In addition, Reno was probably anxious to have Custer begin his attack, because although he was not aware of any casualties at this point, Reno soon began to sense trouble[16].  Mounted Indians were coming out of the camp toward his troops, and the Indians were beginning to fire back at them now.  As one or two men were hit, Reno saw that the Indians were moving toward them in much greater number.  In fact, he later reported, "the very ground seemed to grow Indians!"  The terrain was full of high grass and shallow gullies, which allowed the Indians who were on foot to stay out of sight until within close range of the soldiers.  As more and more Indians pressured his position, Reno ordered his men to fall back into the trees along the river, where there was better cover. 

 


 

Custer continued northwest across the bluffs[17] until he reached a high point where he could look back upon Reno's situation.  He could now see a great deal of the Indian camp and he was startled by its sheer size[18].  He was likely very pleased to know that he had found nearly all the hostiles.  There is no reason to believe that he was the least bit worried that he could successfully attack such a large population. 

 

Custer looked left (south) for Reno and if he could see through the dust on the field, he may have watched as Reno began his charge, or watched the firing already in progress from skirmish lines.  He would have seen that the Indians were rushing from the camp toward Reno's position in great numbers.  He probably could not see how well Reno’s battalion was faring, but even if he was surprised at all, he was still confident that his plan would work out.  His own position appeared to be undetected and Reno was at least engaging a good portion of the Indians.  Custer looked down to the west, for a good place to rush across the river in a flank attack.  He may have suspected that Benteen had not yet arrived to support Reno, and might have thought that his own battalion's attack would have to wait until Benteen arrived[19].

 

As Custer was on the bluff observing Reno's fight, Private McIlhargey rode up to the General in great haste with a message.  Custer read it without expression.  It only confirmed what he could already see for himself.  He explained to his officers that they would move west down the coulees toward the river, apparently in preparation for an attack on the village.  McIlhargey fell into line with his regular Company I, under Captain Keogh[20].

 


 

Once Reno's men were back in the trees, an Indian scout, Bloody Knife, rode up to Reno quickly and pleaded with him to stand and fight, when suddenly the scout's head was shattered from a gunshot, with gore dripping from Reno's face and mouth.  Now in shock, Reno was an even more ineffective commander[21].  He issued a meager order to mount, then dismount, then mount again. 

 

The confused soldiers eventually began to head for the bluffs.  It was a disorderly "retreat" before a rapidly advancing enemy.  Some would later call it a rout; the Indians likened it to a buffalo hunt.  Descriptions of this part of the battle describe general chaos as some Indians were in among the scrambling troops.  Many of the men were trying to get across the shallow river to the bluffs Custer had crossed less than an hour earlier.  Most were on horseback, but some troops had not managed to remount, or had lost their horses and tried to stay hidden in the trees and reeds near the river.  Some were caught by Indians in the water as they tried to cross and were shot or savagely killed with knives, tomahawks, or clubs.  Others were trying to scamper up the sides of the bluff.  Without the time to choose a good route up the bluffs, some soldiers had to dismount as their particular angle was too steep for an exhausted horse.  Those who made it up this way later reported that they must have been conspicuous targets, as bullets puffed up dirt and dust all around them as they climbed[22].  Reno himself finally managed to re-mount, and among several others, made it across the river and would soon make it up the bluffs.

 

lbighorn.jpg (384146 bytes)

The times indicated here are probably a good estimate, but many conflicting theories exist.   This graphic is from Little Bighorn Battlefield, National Park Handbook 132.

 


 

Custer's battalion had moved into two coulees, which ran roughly parallel to each other from northeast to southwest down into the river valley and toward the Indian camp.  Upon reaching the mouth of the coulees, they would have seen the endless clustered lodges (teepees) just across the shallow river.  This seems to be as close as any of Custer's men came to the camp[23].  They may have hesitated here for as much as 15 minutes, perhaps waiting for a message that Benteen had arrived.  Or such a delay may have occurred before they moved down into the coulees to begin with.

 

This very moment, I believe, was the key to Custer's defeat.  A flank attack from the coulees would have been a good strategy if their approach and resulting attack could be executed as a complete surprise.  If the element of surprise were somehow lost, however, such a strategy could be a complete disaster, mostly because the trench-like coulees allowed them very little mobility.  Custer was confident as usual, he surely never expected his flanking maneuver to be met by serious resistance, or presumably he would have chosen another plan.

 

Some Indians noticed the soldiers approaching the opposite side of the river, and called the alarm.  Only a few dozen warriors were available to respond at first, and then only gradually, because most of the camp’s warriors were still harassing Reno or just beginning to return to the camp after Reno’s battalion reached the bluffs.  One of the Indians took careful aim and put a bullet into the officer leading the soldiers across the ford.  It was Custer, shot in the left breast, which knocked him off his horse.  The stunned officers nearby struggled to get him back onto a horse, but he was barely responsive.  It was a serious injury.  There was chaos now as the confused officers looked to each other for leadership, for which none of them was prepared.  As more Indians arrived and poured shots into the struggling group of soldiers, they turned and tried to get back up into the coulee, but they could barely move as the rest of the column was still proceeding down[24].  Now large groups of warriors were arriving on horseback.  Some of the confused troops tried to regroup upon the slopes above the coulee.  The 7th Cavalry had never retreated before, and the officers knew that retreat in a cavalry battle before a charging enemy was usually disastrous.  Their retreat would be closely followed by the attacking enemy; they would barely have time to get out of the coulees before the Indians would be upon them, firing at them from close behind as the soldiers tried to take up position.

 


 

Reno was faring just a little better.  Only a few of his men were still scrambling up to join them up on the eastern-most bluff.  Perhaps 60 men were dead or missing.  Reno’s troops were now worried that they might be surrounded.  Finally, Benteen's column was spotted back on the trail to the southeast, perhaps 3 miles away and now galloping toward their position on the bluff.  This would mean some support would soon arrive for Reno and his men.

 

Benteen's column came directly up the bluff unscathed by the Indians below, who had now mainly moved off west for some reason, back toward the camp.  Benteen quickly took in the confused situation and the disturbed and barely responsive Reno.  He ordered the men to form a defensive perimeter, and to dig trenches to protect themselves.  A field hospital took shape in the center of the formation.  Benteen was heroic and confidence-inspiring throughout this phase of the battle.  There were some Indians still trying to move in on their position and Benteen himself led small details in charges to turn back these scattered Indians.  The battle on the bluff was now reduced to sporadic gunfire and only a few more of Reno and Benteen's men would be lost.  Soon the slow-moving pack train would arrive with plenty of food and ammunition that might allow them to hold out until relief came.  They could not imagine why the huge number of Indians from the valley floor had broken off their attack.

 

A few of the men on the north and west perimeter, including Captain Weir, near the highest ground (later known as Weir's Point) heard volley fire from the northwest, which could only mean that Custer was also engaged.  Some of these men went to Reno and Benteen, thinking that there would be an order to try to link up with Custer.  Reno and Benteen would later deny that any of the troops had reported hearing volley fire[25].

 


 

Custer's force was under heavy fire.  As soon as they had struggled to gallop back up and out of the coulees, the different companies spread out and upward toward the high ground.  The officers were not able to create a cohesive plan.  Custer was not responsive and his brother and others struggled to keep him leaning over on a horse.  They finally dismounted for skirmish lines and to make a defensive perimeter.  The sat Custer down in the center, but he was useless to them now.  At some point he was finished by another bullet that hit him in the temple.  The officers ordered two companies off toward the highest ground to the northeast, where they hoped they might be able to link up with Reno, Benteen, or at least the pack train[26].  But no relief came.

 

The battalion was gradually being over-run by the immense number of Indian warriors, who seemed to be coming from everywhere.  There was much smoke and dust and the Indians had an easy time getting close in among the soldiers.  They seemed to ride by in almost a continual stream, firing into the soldiers from behind their horses or under their horses' necks[27].  The companies sent toward the higher ground to the southeast had now become isolated and were disintegrating rapidly as the Indians were all over the field.

 

Custer's whole battalion was being destroyed.  Company I, including Private McIlhargey and 37 others, was nearly gone.  Most of the company had held together in a tight group, perhaps 500 yards up the slope to the southeast of Custer's position.  But just a couple of the soldiers were still fighting now, with dead comrades all around them in a group.  McIlhargey was dead at age 31[28].

 

Custer's immediate group was still under heavy fire, mainly from the ravines below to the south and southwest, and from across the slope to the southeast, where the Indians had finished off the other companies already.  The officers ordered the men to shoot several horses for use as defensive barricades.  Behind the prone horses they formed firing lines and began volleying fire.

 

The volley fire was temporarily effective in holding back the main group of Indians to the south, but then a great thundering army of Indians on horseback came at them from over their right shoulder, up and over the small hill directly to the west.  The hill was just steep enough to have kept the attackers out of sight, but was not so steep or long to prevent the Indians' horses from moving in at full speed.  Custer's remaining men turned around in horror.  Most of them were hit by shots immediately.

 

It took some minutes for Crazy Horse's large band of warriors to pass.  It was less than two hours since Reno's charge had begun the battle.  Custer's entire battalion was dead.

 


 

Reno and Benteen held their position through the rest of the afternoon and night, while subject to intermittent fire from scattered small bands of Indians.  Still, they reported later, it never dawned upon them that Custer's battalion had been in trouble, let alone that his whole command had been wiped out.  This is confirmed by some reports of the individual soldiers, and is indicative of the Custer mystique; it was virtually inconceivable that Custer could have been defeated.

 

About noon the next day (June 26) the Indians seemed to retreat entirely.  But the besieged soldiers were still unwilling to venture from their defensive trenches.  Later that day General Terry's advance scouts came from the southwest upon the carcasses of Custer's men, who had been stripped and mutilated by the Indian women and children.  The bodies were sunburned, bloated, and already infested in the hot June sun.  The scouts continued on, in shock, and found Benteen and Reno's entrenched troops just a few miles further, over the first ridge.  The besieged troops were grateful for their lives upon realizing that it was General Terry's column they had spotted many miles distant and not more Indians.  But their relief was shattered upon hearing the fate of Custer and their comrades.

 

Word did not reach America’s newswires until July 6th, two days after the nation's centennial celebration.  Spirits were suddenly dampened and the country was in shock.  The US Army had lost a major battle with the hostile Indians, and the gallant, invincible Custer and 265 of his men were dead.

 



[1] Custer, Jeffrey D. Wert, 1997, p29

 

[2] Little Big Horn, Robert Nightengale, 1996, p36.

 

[3] Brevet commissions were permanent honorary recognition of distinguished service in the field.  An officer could serve and be paid in his brevet rank in some circumstances.  - Custer's 7th Cavalry, E. Lisle Reedstrom, 1992, p3.

 

[4] Nightengale, p37.

 

[5] Reedstrom, p1.

 

[6] They Rode With Custer, John M. Carroll, 1987, p162.  Per Reedstrom, p14, the average cavalry soldier weighed 140 pounds.

 

[7] St. Michael's Church in Louisville, by Father Power (or Powers).

 

[8] Reedstrom, p84.

 

[9] Reedstrom, p98.

 

[10] Includes about 30 scouts (almost all Indians) and 25 civilians (pack train drivers, interpreters, a couple of Custer's family members, and a reporter.)  Figures vary depending on the source.   I have primarily relied upon company rosters as listed in The Little Big Horn, 1876, by Lloyd Overfield, 1971.

 

[11] Others speculate that Custer sent Benteen on this unlikely loop because Custer wanted the lead himself, or meant to snub Benteen.  Benteen and Custer were not friends.  However, General Terry had advised Custer to "feel constantly left."

 

[12]  A Terrible Glory, James Donovan, 2008, p38.  For several decades after the battle, Custer was unfairly characterized as rash and reckless, not just in this battle, but in general.  Yes, he was clearly flamboyant and perhaps even arrogant, but his judgment, while lightening quick, was usually well-considered and proved accurate as measured by his results.  These unfair accusations were mainly the result of self-protection (especially on the part of Reno) and the well-established way in which the military avoids blame for its disasters.   

 

[13] This is a rough median of the surviving soldiers’ widely varied estimates of the time of day that the attack began.  Testimony ranged from as early as 10 a.m. to as late as 4 p.m.  All agreed that it was a long, hot day.

 

[14] Reno's actions would seem to support the theory that his "charge" was meant to be a diversion.  A real charge would typically have been in column-like formation heading right into the Indian camp, and from a less conspicuous point of attack.  It is possible that Custer actually intended for Reno to continue his attack right into or through the camp, but it seems unlikely as indicated by Reno’s order to dismount for skirmishes before his battalion had met any meaningful resistance.

 

[15] The contents of this message are based on Reno’s testimony alone. 

 

[16] This is evidenced by the fact that Reno sent another messenger, Private John Mitchell, to Custer not long after McIlhargey left.  Again, according to Reno, the message was similar.   

 

[17] Custer's actual actions beyond this point will never be fully known; the following, slightly fictionalized account, is my own version, based upon the best evidence and arguments available to date.

 

[18] Some speculate that Custer mistakenly believed he was at the northwest end of the Indian camp, and that he would have continued further northwest before attacking, had he known that the camp continued to sprawl even further northwest, beyond his view from this point.

 

[19] In the 1999 book, Little Bighorn Remembered, by Herman Viola, the eyewitness account of 3 Crow scouts who accompanied Custer is revealed.  White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead, and Hairy Moccasin reported in 1907 to Edward Curtis, a photographer and ethnographer, that Custer not only looked down upon Reno beginning his attack on the south end of the Indian camp, but that he returned to the bluffs a second time, to watch Reno's struggling retreat.  Only then did he continue his northward movement, perhaps thinking that after Reno was defeated or near defeat, he would achieve a dramatic rescue or at least overall victory in the battle.  President Theodore Roosevelt advised Curtis not to reveal this interview.  However, I suspect that Custer was just hoping for more results from Reno’s action, and/or he was waiting for Benteen to arrive.

 

[20] It is just as likely that McIlhargey remained close to Custer in anticipation of a possible response to Reno.  Normal practice for a messenger would be to wait for a reply or a new message.  However, at least one other messenger during the battle was told that he could rejoin his regular Company after delivering his message.  McIlhargey’s body (as well as the body of the other messenger Reno sent, John Mitchell) was never specifically located by any of the burial details or subsequent research and archeology.  Thus, McIlhargey and Mitchell may have stayed near the command and died on Last Stand Hill, or they may have died with their regular companies.  It is even possible that they died on their way back to Reno, maybe even with a message from Custer.  But this last possibility is the least likely, as the different locations of their bodies would probably have been noted by burial details. 

 

[21] Some of Reno's troops would later report on his general incompetence and tendency to be drunk, even in battle.  In A Terrible Glory, citing testimony from troops and officers that Reno was drinking during this battle, Donovan argues that Reno was almost certainly drunk.     

 

[22] With Custer on the Little Big Horn, William O. Taylor, 1996, p44.  This is an eyewitness account completed in 1917.  Taylor himself was one of Reno's troops who climbed the bluffs.

 

[23] Researchers later found considerable evidence that there was a major fight at the mouth of this coulee.  And some Indians later reported that the soldiers had torched a few lodges.   

 

[24] Most of this paragraph is speculation, based on the well-developed theories of others.  However, the scenario described does help to answer several difficult questions.  In particular, it would explain why the flank attack barely gained steam even though most of the Indians were occupied elsewhere.  It is also consistent with the testimony of several Indians, who reported that one of the front officers at the ford was shot off his horse and this greatly confused the soldiers.  The Indians did not know Custer by sight – he had relatively short hair at the time of this battle.

 

[25] Modern acoustic tests indicate they should have heard the firing.  In fact, it is possible that some of the troops at Weir's Point could even see Custer's battalion engaged, or even in peril.  But it is more likely that they just saw battle dust and activity, without being able to make out what was happening.  Reno and Benteen’s later denial was consistent with their self-protective testimony.  They blamed Custer and never admitted any faults of their own.  This is strongly supported by Donovan.

 

[26] If Weir and others actually reached Weir point, perhaps Custer’s battalion would have seen their guidon (flag) and tried to link up with them.

 

[27] Taylor, p41.

 

[28] A few of the Indians later reported that some of the soldiers executed themselves in the final moments, or executed one another.  Indians were known to torture captives, and there are reports (for example, Taylor p42) that troopers had discussed such "last resorts."