History What-If: Could Custer Have Survived the Battle of Little Big Horn?

History What-If: Could Custer Have Survived the Battle of Little Big Horn?

A different fate?

It has long been maintained that the Reno-Benteen forces were trapped on the hilltop by hundreds of Indians. In fact, Benteen told the court of inquiry, “The 900 Indians I saw in the valley remained there perhaps a half an hour then most of them went down the river.” In truth, the Indians were gone within minutes of Benteen’s arrival. Letters, memoirs, and subsequent interviews with both Indians and army troopers refute his sworn testimony.

Godfrey, in an 1892 interview, said, “At this time [4:20] there were a large number of mounted Indians in the valley. Heavy firing was heard down river. Suddenly, they all started down the valley and in a few minutes scarcely a horseman was to be seen. During this time questions were being asked. ‘What are we staying here for?’” William Taylor, a private with Benteen at the time, in a first-person narrative published after his death, wrote, “We heard firing off in the direction Custer was supposed to have gone. ‘Why don’t we move?’ was a question asked by more than one. The troops that were engaged in the valley were somewhat demoralized but that was no excuse for the whole command to remain inactive.”

“None but Squaws and Children in Front of Them”

In an interview with Camp, Martin said, “We heard a lot of firing down the river. It kept up for half an hour. It sounded like a big fight was going on. We wanted to hurry and join them but they wouldn’t let us go.” The great Sioux medicine man Sitting Bull was asked in an 1887 interview, “Did your war chiefs not think it necessary to keep some of the young men there to fight the troops in the entrenchments?” He answered, “No, only a few soldiers were left on those bluffs. There were none but squaws and children in front of them.” Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg, in an interview when he was 70, said, “In the hills to the north there was another force of soldiers. The Indians shooting at the first soldiers began to leave and ride toward those on the northward hills.”

Lieutenant Charles DeRudio, one of those who remained hiding below in the valley, said, “Soon after Major Reno left the timber, firing commenced at the other end of the village. I heard immense volleys and more than half the Indians left.” In a 1916 interview, Crow scout Hairy Moccasin said he saw Reno’s fight in the valley, which he described as “a big scramble with lots of Sioux.” Later, Custer asked him, “How is it going?” He replied, “Reno’s men are fighting hard.” Boyer then sent him back south, where he met Benteen on the hilltop. Hairy Moccasin said to him, “Do you hear that shooting back where we came from? They’re fighting Custer there now.” This was specific information on Custer’s location that Benteen later denied knowing.

Similar information was given to Reno. At the Chicago court of inquiry, McDougall testified, “The firing I heard was to the north on my right as I went toward the Little Big Horn. It was just two volleys. I told Major Reno about it.”

At 5:05 pm, Captain Thomas Weir, who had been seen arguing strongly with Reno and pointing excitedly downstream, took his company, on his own, in that direction. From what is now known as Weir’s Point, he saw the end of the Custer battle, then returned to the top of the hill. He reported that he had seen Indians firing at troopers’ bodies already inert on the ground.

A Calculated Decision to Not Engage

The critical 10 to 15 minutes after Benteen joined Reno was the time in which a more determined leader might have taken charge. Admittedly, trying to mount an immediate relief force would have been difficult; the slow pack train with more ammunition had not yet come up. Perhaps it wouldn’t have made a difference and would have only resulted in more dead soldiers, but to refuse to try violated Custer’s order to “Come on—Come quick.”

Perhaps the most revealing testimony came from Benteen himself. He told the Chicago court, “A movement could have been made down the river in the direction Custer had gone upon my arrival on the hill, but we would have all been there yet.” Apparently, Benteen didn’t like the odds and figured that any soldiers who went that way also would have been killed. His sworn testimony that he and Reno heard no shooting, that they were tied down by 900 Indians, and that they didn’t really know where Custer was is not convincing.

Through the years, both Reno and Benteen tried to improve their version of what happened. They wrote letters and gave interviews in which they maintained that shortly after linking up on the hilltop, the ammunition pack train arrived and a movement was made in Custer’s direction. However, John Gray, in his 1991 book, Custer’s Last Campaign, convincingly shows that it was at least an hour before any such movement was launched, and that was only after continued prodding by Weir and others. Even then, it was a half-hearted advance. Benteen and Reno took only three companies down toward Custer’s position. By then, the window of opportunity had closed. Custer’s 220 men had been annihilated in a little less than an hour, and the victorious Sioux and Cheyenne were now coming back upstream. Quickly, the companies were forced to retreat to their position on the hilltop with the rest of the survivors.

Over the next several hours the Indians made repeated charges against the soldiers’ line. By all accounts, Benteen rallied the men, took control of the defense, and was responsible for preventing a rout. In later years, even his critics—and there were many—admitted that Benteen had held the force together. By evening, the shooting diminished and the companies remained through the night, listening to the shouts and loud victory whoops coming from the Indian encampment below.

In fairness, some participants believed that an attempted linkup would have been doomed. Varnum, Custer’s chief of scouts, told Camp that he never thought Benteen and Reno had any real chance of rescuing Custer. The same opinion was expressed later in a 1923 letter from General W.S. Edgerly, who had been a lieutenant with Benteen on the hilltop. Edgerly wrote, “In my opinion there was no chance to have saved Custer’s command or any considerable part of it from destruction [even] if Reno had advanced at once upon Benteen’s junction with him and without waiting for the ammunition.” He told Camp the same thing, adding significantly, “With the information they had at the time there was no reason not to have tried it.”

Sitting Bull Decides to Spare Reno and Benteen’s Force

After a nervous night on the bluff, the troopers strengthened their position for an expected attack in the morning. Although the Indians resumed sniping and harassing, they made no serious attempt to drive the soldiers off the hill. Writer David Humphreys Miller, who in the 1930s interviewed aged Indian participants, said that Sitting Bull told him that he believed the issue was settled, that the white soldiers had taken a drubbing, and he was willing to let it go at that. Numerous Native American accounts contend that it was only after a direct order from Sitting Bull that they were not allowed to attack and overwhelm the Reno-Benteen force as they had done earlier with Custer.

To the relief of the surviving troopers, in the late afternoon of the 26th the huge Indian camp began to pack up and move out. They had been warned by their scouts of the approach of Terry’s force. Fewer than 100 of their warriors had been killed in the fighting on the bluff and in action against Custer’s force to the north.

Retribution for Custer’s Last Stand

The next day Terry’s column arrived. Fighting at the Little Bighorn was over. Terry found the bodies of Custer and his men scattered above the river in various separate places where different companies had tried to make a stand. The dead bodies had been stripped and mutilated. Custer’s body was one of the few that had not been scalped. Grisly newspaper accounts of the battle and its aftermath outraged Americans across the country. They demanded retribution. From that time on, the Indians’ freedom to migrate, hunt buffalo, and celebrate their spirited lifestyle was running out. The military stepped up efforts to bring any still-roaming Indians under control. Western migration increased, new train tracks were laid, fortune seekers poured in for gold, and the traditional world of the Plains Indians soon disappeared. Custer’s Last Stand was also theirs.

The question remains: Could at least part of Custer’s five companies have been saved? Whether Reno and Benteen might have pulled it off can never be known. That they didn’t even try, and then grossly misrepresented the reasons why they didn’t, is no longer open to dispute.

Originally Published November 18, 2018.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.