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Put yourself in his place and let the white man ask himself this, what would I do if threatened, as the indian has been and is? Suppose a race superior to mine were to land upon the shores of this great continent, trade, or cheat us out of our land foot by foot, gradually encroach upon our domain until we were finally driven a degraded, demoralized band into a small corner of the continent. Were to live at all, it was necessary to steal, perhaps to do worse, what would we do? I have seen one who hates an indian as he does a snake and thinks there is no good indian but a dead one. On having the proposition put to him in this way, grind his teeth in rage, and I would cut the heart out of every one I could lay my hand on. And so he would, and so we all would. Dominic, that was Colonel John Gibbon.




Who was the commander of Fort Ellis, which was the army base in Montana on the Bozeman Trail, indisputably the top trail. And he was writing to the army and Navy Journal in December 1875. So that is a few short months before the Battle of the Little Bighorn.




And he himself, John Gibbon, will be playing a part in that campaign. So again, it's this kind of something that we've highlighted several times in this series, the way in which those soldiers who are taking the lead in the war against the Plains Indians are entirely cognizant of why they are fighting, of why the peoples that they are being told to go and pen into a reservation, why they might not want to be penned into a reservation.


Yeah, absolutely. The sort of dark irony of it. So Colonel John Gibbon, from that reading, has the voice of Leonard Nimoy. Is that what you were aiming for?


Yes. I mean, I think that there is something very Captain Kirk about Custer.


Do you?


Don't you think?


I think Captain Kirk is a more decent man than Custer deep down. Don't you?


Yeah, possibly. But there is very much, you know, the. You mustn't intrude into alien planets. And Kirk immediately goes down and intrudes.


Yeah, exactly. Exactly.


So there's a slight quality of that. So I like to think of John Gibbon as the. The rational, cool, measured sidekick.


Right. Okay.


That was the thinking that I brought. Obviously, I have no idea what he sounded like.


Yeah, I imagine surely an enormous beard at the very least, Tom would.


Yeah, well, he did have a big.


Beard, so you're absolutely right. At that very moment that he's writing those words, his superiors are drawing up a secret plan to strike at the Plains Indians, the indigenous people who have now moved onto the plains, the Lakota and so on. And Gibbon, as the commander of Montana, will be at the heart of that operation. So for those people who are actually still with us on this series, who began 84 episodes ago on the great.


Bozeman trail, that is our series, you.


Will recall that in the last episode, Custer had gone on an expedition to the Black Hills and there, there had been great exaggerated claims that they had found gold. And in the aftermath of the expedition, loads of miners and settlers and adventurers and kind of rogues and entrepreneurs have their eyes on the black hills and are keen to move in and indeed have started to move in, impelled not least by the fact that the United States has entered a depression after the panic of 1873. Now, meanwhile, you'll also remember that last time we talked about how for sitting Bull, for crazy horse and the other non treaty Lakota. So who've not agreed to go on a reservation, they feel that the storm clouds are gathering for them. Tom, aren't they in the east? Yes. Stormclouds always gather to the east. That's the way history works. They are alarmed by the advance of the railroads, by the advance of these settlers, but also the pressures on the bison, because all the time, of course, hundreds of thousands of buffalo are being massacred, so their lifestyle is coming under great pressure. Sitting Bull has had a sun dance with the Cheyenne to bring them into alliance, and he ended that by saying, if you remember, the great spirit has given our enemy into our power.


So there's a kind of expectation, I think.


Would you go so far as to say that? The drumbeat of war is sounding.


Drums are pounding. The battle rhythm is being pounded out.


Tom, starting to pulse.


It is pulsing. It absolutely is, because we entered the last episode with a tremendous cliffhanger of Ulysses S Grant, the president calling a secret meeting at the White House to decide what they're going to do on the 3 November 1875. And he has General Sheridan there, Philip Sheridan, 2ft tall, very pugnacious. General Crook, indian fighter, an old indian.


Hand, kind of two pronged beard.


Yeah, with peculiar beard.


Angry badger.


Exactly. They're there. And there's the guy from the Bureau of Indian affairs. There is the interior secretary, Zechariah Chandler. There is the secretary of war, William Belknap. So these are kind of Grant's intimates and at this meeting they draw up an extremely cold blooded plan. The plan is, first of all, we will not enforce anymore the edicts against stopping settlers coming to the Black Hills. So we won't repeal them, we won't cancel them, but we just won't enforce them anymore. Let them go in. And in fact, if the Lakota retaliate against the white trespassers, as they are likely to do, brilliant. That's what we want.


That's the casus belli.


Exactly. We want a provocation and secondly, to make sure we absolutely get a provocation, we will give the Lakota the non treaty Lakota. So sitting Bull and co, the people who have not gone to the reservation, we will give them an ultimatum. Effectively, we will give them a deadline. They must report to their agencies on the reservation. When is it, Tom?


It's in the dead of winter, isn't it?


The 31 January? Yes, yes.


And so the whole point is that, you know, the Great Plains are buried in snow at this point, so they won't be able to get there.


Yeah. You don't move in winter, you hunker down. So they believe that this will provide them the pretext that they want for war so that they can move in and take the black hills. Now, what is more, Tom, they leak a few days later a report, a sexed up intelligence report by an inspector from the indian bureau called EC Watkins. Nathaniel Philbrick says of Watkins, a former Republican Party hack from Michigan who had served under Sheridan during the civil war, in other words, somebody who can be absolutely guaranteed to give the administration what it wants.


So there is a lot of speaking with forked tongues going on. It would be fair to say.


Absolutely, Tom. So this inspector, he says in his report, sitting bull is causing havoc. He and his friends are roaming around killing white people. They richly merit punishment for their incessant warfare. They should be whipped into subjection. The government owes it to civilization and the common cause of humanity to strike back.


And, Dominic, just to reiterate, this is not true. No, they are not going around inflicting.


I mean, I don't want us to fall into the trap of idealizing the indigenous people.


No. But I think we've been very upfront about the whole testicle slashing and eye gouging tendencies that some of the Lakota and the Cheyenne have. But they've behaved well. I mean, they do not want war.


No, they don't. They absolutely don't.


They just want to be left alone.


And this is a trumped up charge. It is a mendacious report with a trumped up charge. There is no doubt about that at all. So now that they've got the report, they send Zakaria Channa, the interior secretary. I mean, the funny thing is, you know, I remember reading about this bloke when I was a student because of reconstruction. He was an abolitionist. He was one of the founders of the Republican Party in the books about reconstruction.


He's a hero.


He's a good guy. He's one of the good guys. But in this context, that's what makes it so morally interesting. In this context, he's unequivocally a snake. A snake. Yeah. So he sends the message, come to the agencies. They obviously are not going to do that. And funnily enough, they say, well, we'll maybe come in the spring. And of course the administration says, no good. And they give the green light to General sheridan. Okay, great. They're not going to turn up. Let's do this. Let's prepare for war.


And Sheridan loves the winter campaign, doesn't he?


He does. Winter campaigns are really his thing. So sheridan, like his boss, General sherman, as people will remember they made their name in the civil war when they'd been famous for these really, really ruthless scorched earth campaigns.


Demonstrations of total war.


Total war, exactly. So sheridan says, what I want to do is I want to get this guy, General Terry to march westwards from the Dakotas.


So General Terry. Yeah, he has a good beard. He looks like dickens.


An extraordinary beard. Yeah. Very impressive beard. I struggle with General Terry because when I first came across him, when I first read Nathaniel Philbrick's book, which was about 15 years ago the only Terry I really knew was John Terry.


Oh, yes.


He was very much in his pomp.


Yes. The personally charming. Yeah, former Chelsea captain.


Incredibly amiable man. By all account, John Terry.


Always popping up in photographs, photobombing, wasn't he?


Yeah. Lifted the European cup in full kit despite having not played in the match. Anyway, that's by the by. But I struggle with General Terry because he seems to have been a very smooth, affable, intelligent man. And those are not things that have ever been applied to John Terry.


Well, I think of him as being.


Called Terry as his christian name.


Yeah. Do you know Terry? Oh, hello, Terry.


Like Terry and June. Like Terry Scott.


Let's have Terry and June round for Sherry.


This is meaningless. There may be some Americans. Listen to this, Tom. Who knows what they're thinking.




Never has John Terry made it into a podcast about.


Yeah, but I mean, Terry is a name, an american name. It's just that, you know, General Bob.


I guess so you could be General Keith, couldn't you?


General Jim? Anyway, listen, yes, he's a smart, intelligent, kind of. He's not like Custer, he's a desk.


General, isn't he, really? General Terry?


Yeah, he's us, let's be honest.


Yeah, he likes doing a bit of paperwork.


He likes hanging out on paddle steamers, doesn't he? Rather than getting in the saddle, he.


Does having fine wines, I imagine him having. He has like white tablecloths on his paddle steamer and.


Yeah, all that, which I think is much more our vibe than rushing around in buckskin, going, to be honest.


So actually, as soon as he sets out, he says, the weather's terrible, lots of snow, awful temperature. I'm not going to bother doing this. And he goes back to his fort. The guy you started with, gibbon, Colonel Gibbon. He's meant to be coming the other way, so from Montana, east. And he says, yeah, a lot of snow, no good. So that leaves just one guy, General crook, with his tremendous forked beard, he sort of struggles through the snow. His campaign is a complete disaster. They basically just. All they do is they attack a Cheyenne village, powder river, that achieves nothing at all. But what it does do has a.


Chain effect, doesn't it? Because they go and meet crazy horse.


Correct. It pushes the Cheyenne. They're sort of refugees. Their village has been burned. They go to crazy horses village. Crazy horses village is not big enough to accommodate them.


But he's still incredibly generous because crazy horse, as well as being a great warrior, is a man of immense generosity.


Dominic, you love crazy horse, don't you, Tom?


I do love crazy horse.


So they all move now to Sitting Bulls village. So at this point, sitting Bull's village has swollen well beyond the level that it was at the beginning of the year because of this shambolic winter campaign fought by General Crook and Sitting Bull. They have a big council. Sitting Bull welcomes the newcomers and he says to them, look, we are not going to go out and fight the Americans. That's madness. We'll fight if they attack us. But for the moment, we will bide our time. We will just sort of hunker down and wait to see what the spring brings. And by sort of spring comes. The numbers have really swollen in this village. They're now up to about 3000 people, which is far more than is the norm and that any of the Americans are expecting. And this is of course, their own winter campaign that has done this.


It's like dropping a snowball down the side of a mountain, isn't it? And watching it slowly get larger and larger.


It is. Although, of course, they're not watching it. I think that's a really key point, that their intelligence throughout, either it's not very good or when it is good, they don't listen to it.


I think that they just don't think it's possible. I think that they're operating under kind of an assumption, oh, they're all savages. We don't need to worry about them.


Yes, I totally agree.


You know, we can whop them whenever we want. We just don't even need to keep an eye on them.


They do. I totally agree with you. I think running through this whole thing, and it's familiar to us, I think, because we have grown up reading so many stories about british imperial failures that were born of massively underestimating huge complacency, total complacency and racial arrogance. And this is exactly the same kind of thing. So meanwhile, General Sheridan, who is based in Chicago, he says, oh, the winter campaign hasn't worked out well. I suppose we'll have to have a summer campaign. And now you may say, why isn't this guy, who is an extremely practiced and experienced general, one of the great stars of the civil war, why doesn't he lead it himself? And there's an interesting reason here, which is actually, I love these examples of the way in which one issue kind of has a knock on effect on another. So the reason that he doesn't go is because his boss, General Sherman, says to him, listen, I may need you, because all of the time that they've been telling this story, the argument about reconstruction has been going on in the former confederate south, the former slave states. And at this point in the 1870s, the south is, to use the language of the time, is being inadvertent, redeemed, meaning that the old southern kind of white supremacists are very close to recapturing control of the south.


There is a big upsurge 18, 74, 75 in paramilitary violence. The Klan itself has been suppressed, but its groups, very like the Klan, they are carrying out all this terrorist violence against Republicans, against the black freedmen and so on and so forth. And Sheridan and Sherman, who are very much opposed to this kind of behavior, are thinking, you know, we need some army strength and we need some of our best commanders in case they have to go down to Louisiana or Mississippi to restore order. So Sheridan can't go himself. But he says, that's fine. I have total confidence in my subordinates.


Among whom is Custer. So what is Custer's role in all this? It's complicated, isn't it?


Yeah. Because Custer has actually been back in New York and Custer tomorrow. Well, Custer has been disgracing himself because, of course, Custer is on the wrong side of that political argument. Custer has always been a Democrat. Custer is a very outspoken critic of the grant administration and of reconstruction. And I think he is emboldened a bit because he thinks the grant administration is coming to an end and the Democrats are on the way back.


Yeah. And so this is a political equivalent of charging a line and hoping that he will smash into it at just the time as it's kind of ready to collapse.


Yeah. And he needs what Custer wants, I think, is that Custer thinks the last few years there have been highs and lows, but there's been a lot of drift, and I haven't really got the position that I want. But maybe if I get through to the end of 1876 with a new administration and so on that are friendly to me, and if I could make myself a star with some know great coup on the frontier, things could look up for me. So he still dreams of becoming a kind of New York bigwig, and he's doing an awful lot of speculating.


Right. So he's hoping for military success. He's hoping for political success so that if he takes on the grant administration now and that then gets replaced, then the new administration might be grateful to him.




And he's looking for ways to get rich.


Yeah, he is.


It's a three pronged kind of.


He's doing this thing called short selling. You borrow a share from somebody, you sell it, you hope the price goes down, then you buy it back and you give it back to the person you borrowed it from, but you hope you've made a profit in the meantime.


It's very risky shorting you short things, don't you?


Exactly. You short things. It's very risky. He loses a lot of money. He carries out Tom, $400,000 worth of trades in this period, which is an extraordinary figure.


Which is a lot of money then, isn't it?


Yes. So the way you do it is you try to make sure you're not going to lose too much. He still loses almost $10,000, which is the annual salary of the head of a big railroad corporation. I think that's the analogy that's given.


Well, he's a gambler, and he's promised Libby he won't gamble his wife, but basically that's what he's been doing.


He's lost a lot of money. He has to make out ious to people. And his solution is he registers with the biggest lecture agency in the country and he wants to go on tours like PT Barnum and like civil war stars and things, and he will go on tours and give paid lectures. But to do that, his currency needs to be really high. So he really needs to make his name, whether it be in politics or whether it be on the frontier, but he needs to do something.


And all the time, I mean, he's signed up, hasn't he, to write for magazines and the galaxy.


Yeah, exactly.


The galaxy in New York. So that's also presumably aimed at raising his profile. I mean, he's a very modern figure.


Oh, he is. Absolutely. The weird thing about Custer, TJ Styles book, I have to say, is absolutely wonderful on this is the way in which the perception of him is always that kind of Walter Scott Cavalier, you know, dashing. And he trades on that, obviously.


But that's what he's selling.


Yeah, he sells that, but the act of selling it is itself very modern. And actually, his end point, basically, I always think with Custer, his end game is that he's on the Titanic in the first class cabins.


Yeah, that's what he wants with the astors.


That's where he wants to get to.


Where I suspect he would behave very well.


Do you think he would?


Yeah, he would escort Libby onto the lifeboats.


He'd never be seen again, Tom. Just a few strands of hair drifting.


On the waves, his wig, his toupee, which by that point, he definitely have invested in.


And he'd still be wearing, wouldn't he? Would he still be wearing a buckskin.


Coat, very tight buckskin trousers? Anyway, listen, Dominican. We've got to crack on.


We have.


Because, you know, we want to get to the fighting.


But Custer doesn't get to the fighting. That's the thing. Custer at this point makes a mad decision. The grant administration is absolutely embroiled in accusations of corruption. Historians have written loads of stuff about this. Is this a new thing? I mean, is it a genuine thing? I mean, partly it is a new and a genuine thing because they are quite corrupt. There are more opportunities for corruption than ever before because of the development of kind of gilded age politics and finance. Yeah, and because the state is bigger and it's doing more things. But at the same time, the Democrats, they're basically quite racist. Politicians want to use this as a way to hit at the grant administration over reconstruction, to say they're also corrupt and they're giving all this money to their friends. Get back to Washington. We don't need you in the states. And Custer decides. He throws in his lot completely with the Democrats. There are hearings against the secretary of war, William Belknap. The guy who's running the hearings, unbelievably, had been Belknaps Princeton roommate. He's a Democrat with the bizarre name of heister climber.


That's a wholly implausible name.


So he's got these big hearings in Washington, like show trials of Belknap, and he says they've been selling trading post positions to their friends, which they kind of have, actually. And on the 29 march, he produces his star witness. And almost unbelievably, the star witness who has clearly volunteered to do it, is Custer. So Custer goes to Washington to testify against the secretary of war of the grant administration, the administration that he's hoping.


Will appoint him to the indian command.


Right? Mad. I mean, well, how Custer thinks he can get away with this. But also in Washington, he behaves in a ludicrously partisan way. He writes letters to Libby, literally, from the desk of this guy, Clymer, who's running the hearings on his stationery. He has lunch with him in the restaurant at the capital. He goes for dinner with a load of Democrats.


I mean, he's charging an enemy position without having done reconnaissance. Dominic.


Yeah, he's behaving in a demented way, I think, Tom. So reckless. And actually, Grant and the administration are absolutely stunned by this. They can't believe that Custer would do this so flagrantly. Custer then clearly gets cold feet in roughly April. So about two weeks after he's been in Washington. We don't know, maybe somebody said something to him.


Yeah, he's probably, you know, the abyss has opened up before him, I would guess.




Even Custer can't think. Oh, well, brilliant. Let's jump into an abyss.


And actually, he decides he's going to go and see Grant, you know, maybe apologize that he's testified publicly against his administration. Again, demented for Gustav, because he actually goes to the White House and Grant refuses to see him. He just sits outside all the time in an anteroom.


Yeah, of course.


Not surprised Custer decides, well, I'll just go back to the frontier anyway. I don't need to see Grant. I'll just go and I'll take up my command. So he actually makes an unauthorized trip to Chicago there. General Sheridan, who is in Chicago, receives a message from Grant that says, arrest Custer. I'm getting rid of him. He's out. So they literally pull Custer off the train. But then Custer leaks this to the newspapers, effectively.


It's all so modern, isn't it?


He leaks it to the New York democratic supporting newspapers. They print the story and they say, custer, you know, great hero, the best man for fighting Indians. And Grant, an american caesar, Tom, that's what they call him. You know, a dictator pulling off decorated.


War heroes from trains.


Exactly. Disgraceful behavior.




And Grant relents and Custer sends all these telegrams to Sherman and all these people saying, please, you know, I've made a terrible mistake. Don't let my men go without me. I mean, he does the same thing that he has done all his career. Do you remember back in episode one, he was court martialed at the beginning of the American Civil War, wasn't he?


Yeah. And he says, do not deny me the honor of fighting with my men.


Right. He does it yet again, and as so often, he gets away with it. And actually, all his biographers say Ulysses S. Grant. I mean, he should have had custard tarred and feathered like Custer had been so disloyal to him.


But it is this enduring theme. I mean, clearly Sheridan still really rates him.




And the sense that the boldness, the dash. I mean, the impetuosity, you might say. They value it.


I was going to say, tom, it's a great example of how charisma. You can get away with a lot of sins with a bit of charisma. Custer has a lot of charisma. And people will forgive things that, had he been less dashing and swashbuckling, he would never have got away with. So off he goes to the frontier on the 10 May, 1876, two things happen. Number one, President Grant opens the centennial exhibition at Philadelphia. So this is going to be the great celebration of the United States's birthday, 100th birthday, and, of course, victory against the Sioux and the conquest of the Black Hills. Would be a tremendous feather in his cap.


Yeah. Happy birthday, America.


It'd be a perfect birthday present, actually, when he opens that exhibition at which they have all these examples of modernity. Heinz Ketchup, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, Edison has electric light. They have a Remington typewriter. They have all these things that are harbingers of the future. And at that exhibition, Grant has a very, very muted reception from the crowd.


Well, they can't hear him, can they?


They can't hear him.


There's kind of terrible wiring or whatever.


Yes, exactly. The acoustics are dreadful.


And so he mumbles for ten minutes.


But the political momentum is moving against him and the Republicans. He's enmeshed in scandal.


And so in that sense, politically, things are looking up for Custer.


They are, which is the gamble that Custer is making.


So he's signaled his opposition to Grant and he's got away with it.


And I think this is on Custer's mind the whole time. It'll be on his mind. I think it was on his mind on the last day of his life that he's making this great political gamble. And it's not just that he's hoping that the tide will finally turn in his favor politically, but also there is a haste.


Yeah. He's got to crack on.


Ideally, he would like to be back before the 4 July back having won the war. But definitely, I think he wants to be back before the presidential election in November, having won a victory so that he can play a part in that campaign.




And if the Democrats win, say thank you very much.


He loves speed. I mean, Dash is his natural state.




Kind of wandering off, charging away. And now he's got an absolute incentive to operate as fast as he possibly can.


He does, indeed. So he gets to Fort Lincoln. He goes to Fort Lincoln. Libby is there. The 7th cavalry are there. His brother Tom is there, his younger brother, Boston, who he employs as a forage master.


Right. So he's not in the army, is he?


No. And his nephew, his 18 year old nephew, who is called Aughty, Harry Armstrong Reed, his sister's son. And Custer employs him as a herder as well. He wants the family around him for what will hopefully be the crowning victory of his career. He's under General Terry. Terry has about 1000 men. They have gatling guns. Again, a good example of the kind of modernity of it all. So they're getting ready. It's raining the whole time, the weather is terrible. And actually the mood. Custer is quite jolly, isn't he? There's lots of accounts of him being in very good form, very optimistic.


He kind of comes back. He meets Libby. He whisks around the room holding her kind of waltzing and things. Yeah, it's all great fun.


As happy as a boy with a new sled, people said when he arrived, because he's, you know, Grant has allowed him to go.


And would that sled be called Rosebud?


Rosebud. Very good, Tom. Very good. He's got a new suit for the occasion, of course, hasn't he? He's got a white buckskin suit and the members of his clique. So his brothers and their friends, they put on buckskin as well, despite the.


Fact that it's awful to wear in bad weather.


Yeah. Gets wet and doesn't dry properly.


Yeah. And kind of cracks up against your skin. But the image is more important, of course. The branding matters more than kind of practical clothes for a happy campaign.


Throughout this whole thing, customers thinking, I think of the brand, and he is thinking, what will my image be when I return victorious? You know, my political image. I want to appeal to investors. I want to appeal to the lecture audiences. The whole thing is very carefully calculated, I think.


Although Dominic, right from the beginning, part of his brand has been his long, flowing locks. He's called long hair by the native Americans.


This is very sad, Tom, very sad story.


But he is, as we've suggested already in this episode, male pattern baldness is setting in. His hair is thinning.


Here's Samson losing his hair.


It's that unfortunate look of being a balding man with a mullet. And he knows this is not a good look, and so he basically shaves it off, doesn't he? He does. A Prince William.


He does. He does. Well, I think it's harsh when you're a man who's, you know, prided yourself on your hair. The hair is part of the image. To be losing that hair, that's a terrible blow for him, I think.


I mean, obviously, getting a scalp would be the obvious solution, but wearing it, well, you know, have a toupee made.


Up, that would be. I mean, that would be a tremendous thing, wouldn't it, if you had a toupee made up of your enemies, your defeated enemies. So a kind of constant.


Every time you got up in the morning.


Yeah. A constant reminder to audiences of your prowess.


Yeah. Anyway, he doesn't do that. He has it shaved off.


He doesn't end up in a position to do it, does he? Tomorrow, let's be honest. So the 17 may, a very rainy, foggy, miserable day. The regiment mount their horses. The band strikes up Garry Owen, which is the irish tune they always play that's associated with the 7th cavalry. Libby is allowed to go with them for the first evening. So Libby and his sister come with them that first night to the Hart RIver that's about 15 miles away. 17th, 18 May. And Custer has a sort of manservant called John Berkman, who describes the. This scene of Libby with her arms around Custer, kind of clinging to his neck in floods of tears. And then she says farewell, doesn't she.


Note a kind of weird climactic phenomenon where as they ride off, they're reflected in the clouds?


Yes, that's right. There's a lot of this stuff about, you know, it was very overcast and there were sort of bad omens and there was a bad feeling among the wives, which I suspect is backwards projection. I mean, Custer had ridden off to war so many times as so many of them had. I think they're conscious of this after they know the results.


Yeah. Okay.


But I do think Berkman says when she finally rides off on the 18th, she looks so little and yet so young. She was leaning way over with her head bent, and we knew she was crying. And we watched until she was just a speck far off on the plains. And that, of course, is the last time, Tom, that Custer ever sees her.


She ever sees Custer. So let's take a break there, and when we come back, let's track the opening stages of the campaign that will reach its spectacular climax at the Battle of the little Bighorn. Hello. Welcome back to the rest is history, and the bighorn campaign is about to begin. Dominic.




And before we go into the details, shall we just try and give listeners a sense of the overall strategic situation? Because we do love an overall strategic situation on the rest of history, do we not?


This must run in the Holland family.


Yes. So if we imagine the quarry of the army, the Lakota, the Cheyenne, the hostiles, they're in the middle of this vast expanse of the great plains.




And Custer and Terry are marching out from Fort Abraham Lincoln.




Which is in Dakota. So it's east of this great kind of mass.


Exactly. They're coming from the right.


Effectively they're coming from the right. And so marching out, you have the 7th cavalry, all twelve companies of it. So it's unusual for that to happen. You also have five infantry companies, the three Gatling guns that you mentioned. So they're kind of terrifying proto machine guns, aren't they?




You've got 39 indian scouts. You've got several white scouts. You've got lots of wagons, mules, all that. So they are heading westwards simultaneously. Our old friend Leonard Nimoy, Colonel Gibbon, who is in Fort Ellis, he is heading eastwards.


He is. He's going from left to right.


He's going from left to right along the line of the Yellowstone river.




So the Yellowstone river again is kind of flowing from the west to the east. And there are various tributaries that feed into this that are rising from the south. And in order, these are the little bighorn, the Rosebud and the powder.




So as you go along from Fort Ellis along the Yellowstone, you will pass these various rivers.


Yes. And the Indians are probably up one of those rivers. That's the thinking. But no one knows where.


Yes. So Gibbon is heading out. He has got nine companies of infantry, so that's about 450 men in all. And he sets out on the 1 April, which is before Custer and the 7th Cavalry and Terry and his Gatling guns and everything have left. And he is advancing along the Yellowstone and he passes the little bighorn and he heads towards the Rosebud, which is the next river heading south. And as he's doing that he meets with Lakota Warbands. So he now knows for sure that they are somewhere to the south. So you've got the 7th Cavalry and you've got gibbons men kind of slowly moving towards each other and the plan is that they will rendezvous. Meanwhile, right south you've got the little bighorn heading down south from the Yellowstone and the Rosebud. Then you've got the Bighorn mountains and further south you have crook. General Crook.




Forked beard with his forked beard. And he is based in Fort Fetterman in Wyoming, as it now is. Wyoming territory, as it was then. And his aim is to start moving northwards. So it's kind of like a t, isn't it?




And the hope is that they will all rendezvous somewhere in the middle, find out where the hostiles are and wipe them out.




The drawback with that will these three columns be able to meet is that they have no way of communicating with each other. No, because obviously it's very, very rough terrain and it's very dangerous because there are hostile Indians out to grab you.


Exactly. And not only that, Tom, even if they could communicate with each other, they're disinclined to do so because they generally.


They will hate each other and jealous and resentful.


Yeah, they don't really like each other.


Also, I think, worth saying that Terry's force, so the Dakota column have the toughest job because Gibbon can just go along the Yellowstone so he knows his way. As crook is going up. He has the bighorn mountains on his left. So again, it's quite easy for him to orient himself. Custer and everybody. I mean, it's just big sky, big planes. They've got no real idea where they are except that Custer does because Custer is very, very good at this. So I think that's another reason why his superiors wanted Custer to be there. He probably is the one person who can get them across.


Yeah. And the 7th Cavalry, so they are proceeding, as you say, very slowly. It's pouring with rain every day. It's very muddy. It's generally very miserable. And the other thing is, the 7th Cavalry are very inexperienced, by and large. So most of them have not seen action for years. And, I mean, that's the veterans. But about a quarter of them have never seen any action because they are very raw recruits. So the people who tend to be the most experienced, the best, most useful are the kind of Germans and the Irish and the Italians and whatnot who might have seen action in Europe, but a lot of them have basically never fired a shot, a single shot in anger.




So that's another reason why it helps to have Custer. And, of course, there's another issue. It's not just that their experience, but it's that the other officers are perhaps not the ideal men to have beside you in a fight.


So there are two in particular, aren't there? So the first of these, Captain Benteen.


We'Ve met before, our old friend Captain Benteen.




I mean, I think we agreed before Tom that he was a very. His personality seemed very admirable and interesting.


Yeah. Very reminiscent of a certain presenter on this podcast. So he's been with Custer a long time. He was at the Washita.




You know, he's a seasoned indian fighter, but he blames Custer for having behaved badly at the Washita.


If Custer was bleeding to death on the other side of the pavement, Benteen would walk the other way. Right. Benzene is ultimately an affable yet malignant man. That's fair, isn't it?


It's Benteen, affable yet malignant. Yeah. A strange combination that one never comes across.


But he's also incredibly brave. I just want to put that on the record.


Yeah, he is.


So. He is tremendously brave. And actually, in a pinch, although he will try to betray you and get you killed at first, when it comes to it, he will probably save your life.


But also, weirdly, I mean, he has the look of a male musical performer playing a duchess, which is also quite odd.


He does. He does. Yeah, he does.


Anyway, so that's Captain Benteen.




But then his immediate superior and Custer's second in command is a guy called Major Marcus Reno.




And he's a decorated officer from the civil war.


He is, yeah.


But he's never really engaged with Native Americans either. I mean, he's not an indian fighter either.


He's a character, isn't he? He was at West Point with the painter Whistler.


James McNeil whistler.






And Reno made a great joke with Whistler, didn't he? So Whistler did abysmally in his exams at West Point.


Well, he was like you. He didn't have any time for science.


Right. What's the thing he got wrong? Something about silicon.


He said that silicon was a gas. And Whistler is supposed to have said to Reno some years later that if silicon truly had been a gas, as Whistler had claimed, then he probably would have stayed in the army and become a major general. And Reno said, yes, but then nobody would ever have heard of your mother, because, of course, Whistler's famous painting is of his mother. So he got failed. He got flung out of West Point because he failed his science and went off and painted his mother. That is Reno's joke. It is the one joke that he makes in his entire life, in the course of his entire career, because he's an unbelievably miserable, somber man. So the scouts call him the man with the dark face. If anything can go wrong for him, it will.


But he's had terrible luck. He was orphaned as a teenager, both his parents died and then he was happily married. But then his wife died.




Leaving him with a ten year old boy who's brought up by her family. So he's just. His life's in ruins.


But this is an example of it, that every time something looks as if it's going well, it doesn't.




And he is a man who's naturally suspicious. So although he was decorated in the civil war, he did have a very traumatic experience where he led a troop of men into an ambush.


All right. He's never recovered from that, so that.


Might have had a scarring effect on him. That may have a role to play in it.


There's a lot of drinking going on with.


Yes, exactly. He drinks very heavily.


Yeah. He's a man who basically feels incredibly sorry for himself because fate has dealt him some terrible cards.


He's a Jonah.


He is a total Jonah, isn't he?


If he was on a ship, he would be a Jonah.


You'd throw him off, wouldn't you? Yeah, he'd bring you bad luck. That's what they should have done. I feel sorry for Reno, but they should have shot him before they.


But Custer, meanwhile. Yeah, he's full of larks. He's gadding around. He's got his brothers with him.




He's got four hunting dogs. It's all great larks.


Yeah. And at first he annoys Terry, doesn't he? Because he keeps going off with his brothers and the dogs.


Well, because Terry's dependent on him to show the way.




And so they all get lost. And then Custer comes back and Terry bollocks him and.




But Terry still likes him.


Yeah. Because eventually Custer gets them through the Badlands of the Dakota territory.


And so they reached the powder river.


To the powder river. And from there, Terry is able to go down to the confluence of the powder river and the Yellowstone. And there we did say he loved a steamer. A steamship. A paddle steamer.


Yeah. So he's on his steamship.


So the far west steamer is waiting for him, which Nathaniel Philbrick says is not just a boat, but a movable island of american culture where Terry could enjoy a gaslit dinner on china plates and a clean tablecloth.


Because that is how we would want to wage a war.


It is. If I was benteen, like, I'd be busy betraying my fellow officers and glorying in their downfall. But. So Terry gets on the boat. He goes along the Yellowstone River. Colonel Gibbon has come on ahead of his troops coming from the other side, from the west. They get together, they have a conference, and Gibbon says, you know, my scouts think that there definitely is an indian village, and it's probably somewhere along the rosebud.


So just to remind listeners. So it's south.


Yeah, south of where we are.


And it's the bighorn furthest west, then the rosebud and then the powder.




And he's saying, yeah, it's either the bighorn or it's the rose bud. Somewhere around there.


It's somewhere around there. We don't know where. It seems quite large. They seem to be traveling away.


Well, because they have to, don't they? Because the larger it is, the more they need game and water and grass to feed everyone.


They need to keep finding buffalo, the Lakota. That's why they're always on the move.


And of course, they need water, which is why you can assume that they're on a river.


Yeah. So Terry finally says to gibbon, right, you go back to your men. Keep coming. We'll keep coming. We'll eventually somehow trap them between us. So we'll be able to maybe turn south or maybe general crook is coming up, you know, northwards, as we hope.


Because they're not sure of that, are they?


No, they don't know because they're not communicating with crook at all. Because, of course, Terry and Crook despise each other and refuse to communicate. So Terry goes back to Custer. Custer's been waiting, just sitting in his tent writing his articles for the galaxy. And Terry says, right, they're definitely there somewhere. What we're going to do is I'm actually going to send out Reno with some scouts on a reconnaissance mission. Custer doesn't like this idea at all. Custer is furious at this and he.


Lets everyone know he doesn't like it, doesn't he?


Sends an anonymous letter to the New York Herald. That is such Custer behavior.


But he's not wrong, is he? Because it's basically, it's going to kind of hold everybody up.


Yeah. It's massive dithering and delay.


And Custer's in a hurry.


He's in a hurry, yeah. So Reno is going to go off and Reno's under very clear instructions. You don't go and fight these Lakota. What you should do is find out where they are, then come straight back and tell us. Of course Reno is going to, as everyone will expect, to completely ignore this and to go way beyond his remit and he's meant to stick really to the rosebud, but he goes beyond that, doesn't he? Now meanwhile, you may be thinking, what about that third army under General Crook? Well, they are kind of trudging north. There's about 1000 of them. And they will come up against the Lakota first, won't they? Because the Lakota, their numbers have swollen. They are moving all the time. There are about 460 lodges by the beginning of June 1876.


I mean, this is probably larger than any assembly maybe in the entire history of the plains.




Maybe in that big agreement they had at Laramie.


Possibly, yeah, one of the Fort Laramie. Exactly. When they signed one of those treaties.


But otherwise, I mean, this is on an unprecedented scale.


So by the end of May, that village has camped near the mouth of the Rosebud, hasn't it? Rosebud Creek and sitting Bull scouts have told him there are american troops somewhere.


They are coming.


And the younger warriors in particular are very keen for a fight. Of course they are. There are so many of them. For the first time in their history they have a genuine chance of actually attacking us army. Normally the US army attacked them, but this is a chance to attack a sizable american force and they actually have quite good odds of winning. So they're really keen.


And they have never done that before.




And so this also will be a factor that takes certainly crooks column by surprise.


Totally surprise.


Because when the attack comes, he's not expecting it at all. And I think the two leaders that we've been talking about throughout this series, first of all, sitting Bull, so he has a vision and he does a sun dance. So that's, you know, sticking hooks through his flesh and blowing on a whistle.


They gouge out 50 pieces of flesh out of his arms.


Yeah. And he dances for two days and two nights. They gouge those little kind of divots of flesh, 50 of them on each arm. So he is plunged into this kind of extreme of pain and exhaustion. And he has this vision that an army will be coming from the east and that it will be destroyed. But I think by this point, it's clear they know that crook's army is also coming from the south. And this encourages the braves to think, let's go and have a crack. And there's no question that the person who's behind that strategy is crazy horse.


Yeah. Crook is useless, isn't he? I mean, crook, this experienced indian hand, you know, the great frontiersman and whatnot, he is brooding. He's very unhappy about this whole expedition. And he actually just spends all his time playing whist with. With some of the other officers. At one point, a group of allies, american allies, arrive. And these are the Shoshone people and the crows. Crows, of course, the great enemies of.


The Dakota, with a fondness for bare grease hair pomade.


They're greased hair. Yeah. And they have an amazing fellow with them called Frank Greuard, who is Sir Harry Flashman's illegitimate son. Tom.


Yes, that's right. Yes. Or is he.


But in reality is a South Sea islander. He's from Polynesia. His father had been a mormon missionary. He'd been born in Polynesia. He'd then come back, various mad adventures. He'd been adopted by some Mormons, then captured by the Sioux. Adopted by sitting Bull as his brother.


Yeah. Amazing.


And ends up as a scout for the US army.


Yeah. And he's saying, look, there are enormous numbers out there. Enormous numbers.


Be careful.


But crook ignores it because he despises them.


Yeah. Mad.


He doesn't think it's going to happen. But what both Sitting Bull and I think, especially crazy horse, their genius at this point, is that they hold back. You know, they wait for the opportunity, because under normal circumstances, there wouldn't be that kind of coherence, would there? No, you just have braes rushing off and attacking willy nilly.


They picked their moments and they're a whole.


They're a kind of massive, massive entity. So that when finally on the 17 June, the attack comes. It is devastating for crook's men.


It is the battle of the Rosebud. I mean, crook has begun that day playing cards. The crows come tearing over the ridge and they say the Lakota are coming in vast numbers. Crook, unbelievably carries on playing cards, says, oh, this is obviously tosh. They would never do that. And it's only when the bullets start flying that he's like, oh, my God, they are coming. And then this battle goes on for 6 hours, which never happens.


For 6 hours. It's never happened before.


Never happens. Normally it's just a lightning attack. And then the Indians are gone.


So there's a journalist at the battle, and he says so closely did the Indians approach our skirmishers at times that they inflicted several wounds from battle axes, lances and arrows. And in one or two instances, they closed in upon a brave soldier and got his scalp before comrades could rush forward to the rescue. You imagine 6 hours of that. Yeah, it's going to have quite a demoralizing effect, isn't it?


Utterly grueling. Even though Krook doesn't lose that many men, his morale is completely shattered. He loses the support of the allies, the Shoshone and the crows. They just think, well, Crook is totally useless. I mean, I have no respect for him at all.


The squaw chief, they call him.


Yes, and then the squaw chief. And then he says to his men, well, we obviously can't continue with this. I mean, let's just stay where we are. So he stops advancing. Now, this is important because if you go back to your strategic picture, there were meant to be like three arrows moving in from different directions. But now one of them is defunct because it's stopped. Crook gives up and he basically has a massive holiday. He goes fishing, he collects birds, he plays more cards. He actually goes on the sort of a glamping trip.


I mean, Dominic, I've been there.


It's nice.


The bighorn, you know, the vicinity of the Bighorn mountains. Gorgeous.




You know, if I was given the choice between being scalped or kind of hanging out by the big horn mountains, I know what I'd go for.


Well, that's what General Crook. And he was an experienced frontiersman, so you're in very good company. Well, yeah, but crucially, the absolute folly. He doesn't tell anybody. He could have sent a horseman to look for General Terry and to say, I've stopped coming. And by the way, there are clearly far more of them and they're much more aggressive than any sort of plains natives that we've ever encountered, and much.


More coordinated, but he doesn't do that.


So actually, in the meantime, Reno's been doing his scouting. He's gone roaming around the country for much longer than was planned because he's ignored his orders. Custer is just sort of hanging around with his dogs in his tent, writing for the galaxy, writing for the press.




I mean, Custer at one point, doesn't he just. He finds an abandoned lakota camp, doesn't he? He's sort of roaming around a little bit. He finds an abandoned camp, and there's a burial ground there. He and his brothers and some of their friends desecrate the graves.




They take moccasins and trinkets.


I mean, you'd never want to do that to an indian burial ground.


Well, some of his men say this is. This is a very bad behavior, but.


B, it risks a curse.


Yeah. This is the kind of thing that you do shortly before you're massacred. Never do this. So even at the time, some people think, oh, this is. This is foolish. Anyway, Reno finally comes back on the 21 June. They all get together on General Terry's steamer. He's still on his steamer, Tom, eating.


Like, you know, with his tablecloths and.


Croissants, crab cocktail, like, rack of lamb, champagne. They get together on the. On the steamer, and there is some talk there. Well, there are rumors that this is a very, very large indian encampment. But of course, they've heard nothing about Crook's defeat on the rosebud. They think he's still coming, and they think he's still out there. And the thing that obsesses them all is the fear that the native encampment will break up and they will get away.


Yeah. Because that's the crucial thing, isn't it? They want to find as large a group of people as possible.




The larger it is, the better.


It never occurs to them. It's extraordinary. It literally never occurs to them until.


I would guess, Custer is gazing down at this two mile long village.


I don't even think at that point, Tom. I think it's, you know, it's like an hour before he dies that it occurs to them they might actually lose. Up to that point, there are so few hints of self doubt or fear. It's extraordinary. I mean, they're talking all the time about exactly how we'll get rid of all these people, how we'll round them all up, how we'll smash them. But it never occurs to them that they're actually any sporting encounter, there's another team that might win.


And of course, the person who is the embodiment of that attitude is Custer. And it is decided that Custer should be unleashed. So essentially the 7th Cavalry. So leave the infantry behind. Custer turns down the chance to take the Gatling guns because he says they'll slow him down.


Well, they will. They are very heavy.


Yeah, of course they will, you know, and for him, speed is of the essence because he wants his victory in time for the centennial.




He is also offered four extra cavalry companies who are commanded by an officer called James Sanks Brisbane. And he really doesn't want to go with Custer. And he says to Terry, general, you have more sense in your little finger than Custer in his whole body. Basically, you should be leading it. You're much better than Custer would be. And Terry says, wow, you don't seem to rate Custer at all. And he says, I don't rate him at all. I think he's terrible. Yeah, but Terry loves Custer's swash, his buckle.


Yeah. Also Terry loves that steamer Tom.


Of course, of course.


Yeah, but that's the point of Custer. There's no point in taking him and not unleashing him.


Right, exactly.


I mean, that's what he's for.


What's the point of having him otherwise? Yeah, and so Terry says, I'm going to send Custer and he'll take all of the 7th cavalry, but obviously I need to give him orders and I need to give him orders that no matter what happens, I won't look bad.


Yeah, but I think. We think that's about General Terry's orders because it all went badly wrong and we think that he was trying to cover himself. But also you could argue the orders have a sufficient degree of flexibility in them that he can allow Custer to react as he sees fit.


Well, but the thing is, Dominic, I mean, basically he's saying, you know, don't be headstrong, but at the same time, he knows what Custer's going to do.




And the rule is, the rule of engagement throughout this period, if you're in the US army, is that if you find a village, you attack it, because always the risk is that it will go off. You know, it's kind of pinning something that is always buzzing around.


Exactly. So the plan basically is that Custer will march south up the valley of the Rosebud, he will find the trail of the Lakota and Cheyenne camp, he'll push them west and then he'll drive them up to the north and meanwhile, Terry will eventually, once he's finished his dinner, be coming down south. So they will trap them between them. That's the plan, isn't it? But Terry leaves enough ambiguity in the orders. As one lieutenant, Lieutenant Bradley, put it in his diary, it's understood that if Custer arrives first, he is at liberty to attack at once, if he deems it prudent. And I think everybody expects that Custer will do that, because they know Custer. Bradley says, we have little hope of being in at the death, as Custer will undoubtedly exert himself to the utmost to get there first and to win all the laurels for himself and his regiment.


There's a kind of exchange between him and Gibbon.




The gibbon says, you know, give us a chance to do something.




And Custer kind of gives an enigmatic reply where it's not clear whether he's saying, yeah, I will leave you to do it or no. I'm definitely going to have a crowd.


That's right. Don't be greedy, but wait for us. And Custer says, no, I will not. What does that mean?


And what's he referring to?


You're not going to wait or you're not going to be greedy? And he kind of chuckles. The weird thing is that that night before he leaves, so he leaves, they have their last party. The soldiers all get drunk. The officers are playing poker on the steamer. But Custer, his very servant, John Berkman, said he was very subdued. He sat up writing, just sort of staring out at the river. He wasn't the life and soul of the party as he often was. And I wonder whether some people say.


Did Custer have a foreboding?


I don't think he did have a foreboding. I think he's under a lot of pressure.


He's got money problems, he's got political problems.


He's got massive money problems. Exactly. He's got to get this right. And actually getting it right means it's not a question of not losing. It doesn't ever occur to anybody that he's going to lose. It's a question of not letting any of them get away. Sitting ball, crazy horse. They can't get away.


And not letting anyone else share in the spoils of victory.


Yes, exactly. Exactly. So at midday on the 22 June, Custer says farewell to the other officers. He has that exchange with Gibbon that we described, and then off he goes. And they march for 12 miles. His officers are struck that evening when they camp, that he seems very preoccupied. He's almost humble in the way he talks to them. He says, now, listen, if you have ideas, I will want to hear them. I trust your judgment. I trust your discretion. Please don't squabble with each other. I mean, this is obviously directed at Benteen. We don't want backbiting. We don't want sniping. We've got to work together on this. And some of his lieutenants say, this isn't like Custer at all. Like, why is he so, is he depressed? Is he anxious? And one of them actually says, Lieutenant George Wallace says to his friend, Lieutenant Godfrey, you know, it's like Custer's luck is going to run out again.


But, I mean, you don't think this is kind of backdated?


Well, that hangs over all these exchanges and all these so called omens and premonitions and foreshadowings, doesn't it, Tom? Did this really happen? I think it's plausible. The customers preoccupied. There are enough accounts of him, sure.


But I think you're right. I don't think that's because he thinks he's going to die. No, he's just worried about, you know, he's got a lot of irons in the fire and he wants to make sure that they're all lined up. But, I mean, one thing that we can absolutely date is a letter that Libby Custer writes to Custer, who she calls Orty, like all his family do. Oh, Orty, how I feel about your going away so long without our hearing. Your safety is ever in my mind. My thoughts, my dreams, my prayers are all for you. God bless and keep my darling ever your own.


Libby, in other circumstances, that would be a very moving letter, but not read like that. But it is a very moving letter because, of course, she writes that on the 22 June. And at that point, Tom, her husband, has just three days left to live. Right?


And in our next episode, the battle of the little Bighorn will be joined. So if you want to find out what happens, whether Custer gets his victory, who knows what's going to happen? You can get that immediately by joining us at the restish and signing up there where you get a whole host of additional benefits, don't you, Dominic? A whole host.


Unbelievable host. Yeah.


Or you can just wait. You'll still get it. But you might just have to wait a bit and listen to some of our wonderfully produced adverts as well.


Madness to aid there, wouldn't it? As Custer would tell you, speed is all. Speed is all, Tom. You wouldn't want to wait.


Yeah, it is speed and dash. Although, I mean, spoiler alert didn't entirely work out for him. So either way, we'll see you very soon for the climactic battle of this extraordinary story. Bye bye.


Bye bye. Tom, I've just learned some absolutely extraordinary and exciting news. And anybody who's a history lover, anybody who, like me, loves spending their summer at festivals, will delight and rejoice at this news, won't they?


They absolutely will. And the news is that in June, it is the chalk history festival in Broadchalk in the Chalk Valley, the very village in which I grew up. My brother James and I, we talked about this the other day on a restless history bonus episode. But for all of you who didn't hear that, I can't recommend the festival enough. There's an unbelievable array of talks from top historians and others beside. Plus a mass of other things to see and do. Live music every day, living history performances and of course, lots of food, drink, camping, all historically themed. And an absolutely stunning setting.


It's an amazing setting, Tom, and it's a real highlight of my year. I've had it inked into my diary for months. Really looking forward to it. And the highlight of the week, I have to say, has to be our special live performance of the rest is history, which we will be doing on the Tuesday, won't we? Tuesday the 25 June. Yes.


So that's the day you'll be there, Dominic, I know you've got to head off after that, but I will be still there doing a host of other things. And basically I'll be there for most of the week. So please do join us. Tickets are on sale now and you can get them at And that's c h a l k e. So chalk with an e on it. Festival. It'll be wonderful to see you there.