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Inspired by a love of history and its amazing accounts of human endeavor, model making and dramatic representations of the people, places and things that have shaped our culture.How could Custer have known Benteen would not be along- EVER?


Excerpt from E. Lisle Reedstrom, Custer's 7th Cavalry: From Fort Riley to the Little Big
, 1992, pages 140-146; Edited by member,
Jeff Veach.

Excerpt from E. Lisle Reedstrom, Custer's 7th Cavalry: From Fort Riley to the Little Big
, 1992, pages 140-146; Edited by member, Jeff Veach.

"The key to the disaster... was due to the actions, or rather, the lack thereof of Captain Frederick William Benteen..."

   Probably, it was Custer's original intention after sending Reno across the Little Big Horn to march along its bluffs until he found a practicable ford for attacking the hostile's encampment from the flank.
It wasn't until he actually sighted the vast aggregation of tipis that he realized what he was up against. True, he knew from experience a large village was just as apt to disperse as a small one. But, for once in his life, at least, Custer had decided to play it safe. He had send a message back to Benteen (Captain Frederick W. Benteen) ordering him to bring up the regiment's reserve ammunition packs.


    He would wait for them before attacking, fighting a holding action in the meantime. The 7th's senior Captain would be along shortly (Trumpeter John Martini, who rode back to Benteen, carrying Custer's
famous "last message," evidently failed to inform Benteen of Custer's last known position. Instead of moving across country in his direction, Benteen kept on line of Reno's advance).

    Granted, all of this may be considered conjectural. But, it is based upon known facts. With this in mind, we may legitimately conjecture Custer and his battalion did fight a holding action until near the end of the battle, expecting Benteen to appear any minute with the regiment's reserve ammunition. It may well be this was a fatal mistake.
But how could Custer have known Benteen would not be along- EVER?

 But what if Custer had not elected to play it safe? What if he had charged across the river into the hostile encampment? There were then few warriors to contest his crossing. This is one piece of Indian testimony we can safely rely on. Wouldn't there have been confusion compounded among the warriors still in it? The troopers would have been shooting, yelling, blowing bugles, setting fire to every tipi within reach, while women, children and old people would have been running helter-skelter, screaming at the top of their voices, getting in each
others way and that of the few warriors present, dogs barking and howling, ponies rearing and neighing. The warriors streaming back from Reno would only have added to the confusion, dust and smoke obscuring
everything. In short, it would have been one helluva donnybrook, a la GarryOwen! Even if Custer and his battalion had still died with their boots on, to a man.

    Let us try to re-construct the actions at the Little Big Horn, from recent material gathered, basing facts originating from various authentic sources presented.

    Custer turned his battalion away from the river to the prominence now known as Custer Hill, on which the monument stands. Here he dismounted his men, every fourth trooper being a horse-holder. There was little cover, but they wouldn't have to fight a holding action for very long. Benteen would soon be along with the regiment's reserve ammunition. A long range sniping contest then ensued. The hostiles, now gathering in full force, were also dismounted, their cover much better than that of the troopers. Armed mostly with bows and arrows they kept up a continual arcing shower of barbed shafts upon the pony soldiers, causing considerable casualties.

Galling though it was, the troopers stood in manfully. Benteen would be along soon.    As the minutes slowly ticked by Custer was continually scanning with his field glasses, the direction in which he expected Benteen to appear. He hadn't sent him that far on the scout to the left of the 7th's line of march! He was only to find the valley of the Little Big Horn, "which was supposed to be nearby and to pitch into anything" he might find. It was evident he hadn't found anything "to pitch into". Custer had!    

Custer focused his field glasses on what afterward came to be known as Weir Point. Movement could be seen on it even through the dust and smoke on Custer Hill, flashes of blue, of sunlight striking metal. By God! There was one of the 7th's guidons! Benteen at last!

    Swiftly Custer decided he must open a corridor for Benteen. Calling his officers around him, he ordered his brother Captain Tom Custer (Company C) and Lieutenant A.E. Smith (Company E) to take their companies down Custer Hill to the southeast. Then he ordered Captain Myles Keogh (Company I) and his brother-in-law Lieutentant James Calhoun (Company L) to take three companies along what is now known as Battle Ridge to the east of his command post, Calhoun diverging onto a ridge to the southeast.

    Some men, we do not know how many, Custer kept with him at this command post. Taking up their assigned positions, Tom Custer, Smith, Keogh and Calhoun prepared to facilitate Benteen's arrival, expected momentarily. At his command post Custer anxiously scanned Weir Point for movement toward him. There was none! It looked like the troops on Weir Point were retreating instead of coming forward.

    Tom Custer and Smith from their positions below Custer Hill could see nothing of this. They only knew there was no indication of Benteen's coming. They were under a galling fire, men were falling right and left, they couldn't hold their ground any longer. Trying to beat a hasty retreat back to the command post, most of the two companies were lost, a host of warriors under Lame White Man, seeing their chance, engulfing them in a red wave. Tom Custer and Smith and a handful of their men made it back to the comparative safety of the command post. They would live a little while longer.

    Keogh and Calhoun found themselves in the same predicament. Both had dismounted their men upon taking their assigned positions, every fourth man a horse-holder. They, too, had come under a fierce fire with no sign of Benteen. It is evident from the positions of Calhoun and his men, as their bodies were found afterward, they had held a skirmish line to the end, the only such line to be found on Custer Field. Calhoun had once written his brother-in-law if ever the latter had need of him he would no be found wanting. Calhoun certainly kept this promise!

Possibly, seeing Benteen wasn't coming he had determined to give Custer every chance, no matter have slim, to save what was left of the battalion. We do not know whether he advised Keogh of what we presume to have been his decision, or whether he would have been able to do so. In any case, it is evident from hostile testimony and the positions of the bodies of Keogh and his men, the fighting Irishman tried to lead a retreat back to the command post, but they were wiped out en route. Calhoun and his command had probably fallen to the last man before this.

    Custer now had only about 40 officers and men left at the command post, most of them perhaps wounded. Probably, he had seen the slaughter of Keogh's and Calhoun's commands through his field-glasses. For
whatever reason, Benteen had not come. It was all too apparent "Custer's Luck" had run out! He now realized he and the remanent of his battalion were doomed.

All that was left for them was to sell their lives as dearly as possible.    For their part, the hostiles could see this last portion of pony soldiers could also be wiped out to a man with small loss to themselves. All they had to do was to worm their way closer and closer from cover to cover, picking off these enemies by ones, twos and threes, until a
mounted charge could over-run the very few left.

This they proceeded to do. According to hostile testimony, only seven troopers managed to evade the final onslaught, making a futile break for the Little Big Horn. They were swiftly ridden down, being tomahawked, lanced or shot in their tracks. It was all over. "We have killed them all!" Again all of this may be considered as conjecture. But it is logical, being based upon the few new facts we admittedly possess.

We know the terrain of Custer Field, which hasn't changed much since 1876. We know a person using field glasses can easily descry Weir Point from Custer Hill and anything appearing upon it. We know the Indian method of fighting. Some Indian testimony, after the wheat has been separated from the chaff, rings true. The same may be said for much of the 7th's survivors testimony at the Reno Court of Inquiry in 1879.

    There are certain things that are evident of themselves. It is evident from Custer's last order to Benteen, the famous "Bring packs," he had decided to fight a holding action until the 7th's senior captain joined him with the ammunition packs. It is evident he knew Benteen could join him in a short time. It must have been evident to Custer most if not all of the hostiles had concentrated against him.

Therefore, either Reno had been wiped out or his own appearance across the Little Big Horn from their encampment had diverted their attention from the Major to himself. Probably Custer thought the last assumption to be the correct one. Benteen, then, could pick up Reno's battalion and hurry with it and his own and the ammunition packs to join him. As we have pointed out, Custer must had seen the appearance of the rest of the 7th through his field glasses in Weir Point. It is evident Benteen must have though so, since he testified at the Reno Court he had
one of the 7th's guidons planted there so Custer would know where the rest of the regiment was. He could then fight his way through to it. Still, it must also have been evident to Benteen from the "Bring packs" order Custer expected him to do just the opposite. Therefore, Benteen was to join Custer, not the other way 'round.

    In the event, what would have been more logical for Custer than to have ordered the troop dispositions we have conjectured he did in order to facilitate Benteen's arrival. In this we agree with the late Dr. Kuhlman (Custer and the Gall Saga; Billings, Mont., 1940. Legend into History; The Custer Mystery; Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951). In
any case, the positions where the bodies of Tom Custer's, Smith's, Keogh's and Calhoun's men were found bears this out. Unless we accept Benteen's wholly untenable theory it was all "panic-rout."

    Despite the faulty cartridge ejection of most of the 7th's weapons, the troopers were far better armed than the hostiles. Consequently the 7th's firepower was much greater. We may be sure the hostiles were well
aware of this fact, acting accordingly, utilizing every bit of cover available to them, exposing themselves very little. As an inspection of the whole terrain of Custer Field shows, the Custer battalion was for more exposed. But, Custer didn't expect his holding action to last very long. Therefore he expected his casualties to be light.

    It is only logical to assume if he had not seen the rest of the 7th on Weir Point, deducing therefrom the swift arrival of Benteen, he would have sought a better defensive position he could hold for any length of time necessary, or as long as his ammunition held out. It does seem to us this may have been the crux of the matter. From Indian testimony it is evident the hostiles were successful in stampeding most of the 7th's mounts, their saddle-bags carrying most of the troopers ammunition. This happended after Custer had made the troop dispositions we have
recounted. Did Tom Custer's, Smith's, Keogh's and Calhoun's men run out of ammunition after their horses stampeded? How long the Custer battalion's ammunition would have lasted if he had sought a better
defensive position and had simply sat tight with his whole battalion it is impossible to say.

The hostiles would still have tried to stampede the pony soldier's mounts. But it is doubtful if they would then have
been successful, for Custer would have done his utmost to safeguard the precious ammunition reserve he had with him.

 Whether Custer could have held out as long as Reno and Benteen is a good question. However, until he had made the troop dispositions we have recounted, the battle, if it could be so termed, had been a long-drawn-out sniping contest, as was most of the Reno-Benteen engagement on Reno Hill. This did not use up much ammunition. It is possible Custer might have held out until the arrival of Terry and Gibbon. We know Reno and Benteen did.

    We also know the hostiles made no all-out effort to overrun the Reno-Benteen positions. In fact, they didn't even try to wipe out Reno when he made his sauve qui peut (Save himself who can) to the bluffs from his position in the timber. This they could easily have done, incurring very few casualties themselves. They merely seemed content to
have driven Reno away from proximity to their encampment. Of course, at the same time Custer was making his appearance opposite their encampment, which probably drew the hostiles' attention away from Reno and to him. This, together with the arrival of Benteen at about the same time, probably saved Reno.

    While the defensive position Reno and Benteen selected on Reno Hill was better than any Custer would have been able to find where he was, it wasn't all that good. This is, if the hostiles would have been as determined as white troops in a similiar situation, they would have launched a head-long charge en masse on Reno Hill. And that would have been a Reno-Benteen Last Stand. But, this would have meant heavy casualties for them, so they were quite content to keep these pony soldiers effectively corraled away from their encampment. Isn't it possible they would have treated Custer's battalion in the same fashion if he had not made the final troop dispositions he did? Even though he was much closer to their encampment?

    Actually, it is evident the hostiles acted almost throughout as defensively as the commanders of the 7th. Most hostile testimony states unequivocally their intention of not fighting at all. If forced to do so to fight defensively, buying time for their women, children and old people to escape the pony soldiers. While this may be taken with a grain of salt, the evidence strongly suggests it is true.

    In short, the whole Battle of the Little Big Horn was partly a comedy of errors and could have resulted in a draw instead of only that portion of it fought by Reno and Benteen. There simply wouldn't have been a "Custer's Last Stand" and "Custer's Luck" would not have completely run out. Still, the key to the disaster it did become, was
due to the actions, or rather, the lack thereof of Captain Frederick William Benteen; for whatever reason.


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