A new book describes how General Custer's reckless ego led his men to needless deaths
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Posted 26 June 2010 - 07:38 AM
To the thousands of indian warriors howling their murderous war cries, it was just like hunting buffalo. Before them, hundreds of American soldiers were retreating in disarray, stumbling and dying on the grassy slope above the Little Bighorn River. These were no longer government troopers but terrified members of a desperate mob.
The indians, on foot and on horseback, riddled them with bullets, pummelled them with stone hammers and shot them down with arrows. One solder was hit in the back of the head with an arrow and kept riding with the shaft rooted in his skull until another arrow hit him in the shoulder and finally he toppled from his horse.
So it was that Custer's famous Last stand turned from a battle into a bloody rout. In retreat, the troopers were being herded to a fording point across the river that was to become the scene of even worse slaughter as they floundered through the fast-flowing current.
There was a 15ft drop down the bank to the river. The slap of the horses' bellies as they hit the water reminded one indian warrior, Brave Bear, of 'cannon going off'.
But the way out of the river on the other side was even more difficult - a V-shaped cut that barely accommodated a single horse. As mounted soldiers leapt lemming-like into the river, the crossing became jammed with a desperate mass of men and horses, all of them easy targets for the warriors now gathered on both banks.
'The indians were shooting the soldiers as they came up out of the water,' Brave Bear later recalled. 'I could see lots of blood in the water.' Private William Meyer was shot in the eye and killed instantly. Private Henry Gordon died when a bullet went through his windpipe. Soon after entering the river, adjutant Benny Hodgson was shot through both legs and fell from his horse.
Like all the other men who followed Custer that day, he perished beneath the burning sun, his consciousness slipping away under the blows of a merciless indian assault...
The carnage of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in the Black Hills of Montana - where 'General' George Armstrong Custer led his 750 men of the 7th U.s. Cavalry into a massacre by more than 3,000 warriors of the sioux and Cheyenne tribes - is etched into America's soul as one of the most iconic events of the romantic old West.
The traditional story has the dashing, golden-haired, buckskin-wearing Custer bravely making his Last Stand, holding out with awesomely courageous men who refused to back down against impossible odds. Cherished as a charismatic hero with an aura of righteous determination, in defeat he achieved the greatest of victories - for he would be remembered for all time.
But the truth, as the riveting new book The Last stand by award-winning historian Nathaniel Philbrick reveals, is rather different.
Philbrick suggests that while Custer may have been brave, he was also reckless - an impetuous and vain romantic with a narrow-minded nostalgia for a vanished past, whose ego meant he ignored orders and took appalling risks with his men's lives.
He was not a general as the legend anointed him; technically, he was a lieutenant colonel, one who at West Point military school had finished bottom of his class.
His career, after some distinction in the American Civil War during the 1860s, was on the slide, so he was desperate for a quick victory to re-establish his reputation and restore his ailing finances.
As for his army, far from being craggy-faced Marlboro men, nearly half were immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany and Italy.
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