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Never, perhaps, has there been a more perfect example of the completeness of good fortune.


From his first appearance on the field of battle to his final and heroic death. To Custer alone, it was reserved to join a romantic life of perfect success to a death of perfect heroism. To unite the splendors of Austerlitz and Thermopoli, to charge like Murat, to die like Leonidas. Throughout all time and the whole civilized world, wherever the accounts of war are read in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the daring deeds of George A.




Ohio is proud to claim him as her son and to exalt in his name. But he was the representative of the nation and defended her flag, and the nation enrolls him among her heroes. But her limits are too circumcribed to bound his Fame. The time in which he lived claims him as the new Leonidas, with his noble kin slain in that wild thermopoli of the West.


So, stirring words, Dominic.Incredibly.


Stirring, Tom.And.


They featured in an article written by Judge Richard Verheys in the Ohio Archeological and Historical Cultury in 1906. But the good judge was actually ripping off.


Oh, no.


Almost word for word, Frederick Whittaker, because I actually quoted a bit of this way back in episode one, a long time ago.


So long ago that I've forgotten.


Yeah. So Frederick Whittaker, a writer who Custer had met in 1875 when he was in New York, dabbling in the Stock Exchange and all that, in the New Offices of the Galaxy, which was the magazine that Custer was writing right the way up to his departure for the Little Bighorn. And after his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Frederick Whittaker pumped this out, a two volume biography of him. So it came out while the coyotes were feast still on the carrier in that Little Bighorn. Oh, no. And Whittaker thought Custer was brilliant. Yeah, clearly. He was a great man, one of the few really great men that America has produced. But you can see why O'Hays would be all over that, because Ohio is Custer's home state. Custer's home state.


Yeah. And Voorheys, interestingly, is a Democratic Party hack who had served in the Civil War as Custer had, But then had backed President Andrew Johnson over reconstruction, basically against reconstruction, as Custer had. So it's an example of the way in which Custer's Fame is politicized. But actually, Custer then transcends that, doesn't he? He does. At first, he's a political figure, but actually, quite soon after that, he becomes a genuine national folk hero. And all that stuff about an American thermopoly and the new Lyonidas and stuff, that is the image of the little bighorn, even when we were growing up, Tom, in the '70s.


Absolutely. I can't remember. We've done so many episodes. Did we mention the Lady Bird book?


We did six years ago when we first started this.


Which on the cover has a long-haired custer surrounded by blue-coated members of the seventh Cavalry, crowded on a hill with the stars and stripes flying overhead.


Fighting manfully.


All of which, as we will probably see over the course of the next two episodes, that's probably not what happened at all. But I think the comparison of Lennidas is fair to the extent that Custer's Fame is due to the fact that he and all his men die. It's not very often that that happens. No. Generally, people who fight battles are famous because they win it, and certainly not because they die and everyone with them. This is what we're looking at today. It's the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Does it deserve the mythic status that it has? More importantly, I suppose, to what extent can the myth be mapped onto what we know about what might actually have happened?


Well, that's the fascinating thing because so often in this podcast, we come up against the unknowability of the past. But this has a real sense of mystery because, of course, at the climactic moment, everybody dies.


Everybody survives.




Well, certainly on the American side, of course, there are a lot of Lakota or Cheyenne warriors who are fighting at it and who do give reports. But again, the question of how far they are to be trusted. It's a fascinating topic that we will explore.


Exactly. So we ended last time on the 22nd of June. Custer had marched out, and he was in preoccupied form, I think it's fair to say. And if you remember from last time, his orders are vague. They are to drive the natives, if he finds them, to drive them up towards General Terry, who will be advancing from the south. But if he has the chance, he basically has carte blanche to go for it and to attack, and everybody expects that he will. General Terry's men think, When we get there, Custer will have won the day. And the only real question is whether any Indians will escape ape. We keep saying Indians, actually, Tom, have degenerated.


I just think it's easier because... I mean, our perspective is, of course, that of the Americans, because it's the Americans who generally write the accounts.


Yeah, who tell the story.


So although, as we said, we do have Native American oral accounts, by and large, our sources are American. Yes. And so it seems sensible, I think, rather than say Lakota or Cheyenne or whatever, over and over again, to say Indians. I mean, obviously, let people understand that we- Yeah, we know they're not from India.


We do understand. We're conscious of the political connotations we're using the term. They raise their TBs. They've been moving around, as we said last time. They're always looking for water. They're always looking for bison. They raise their TBs on the west bank of a river that they know as the Greasy Grass, but that we call the Little Bighorn in the afternoon of the 24th of June. About a thousand TBs there in semicircles. Everybody says this is the most gorgeous spot. Nathaniel Philbrook in his book with the, shall we say, the slight hyperbole for which works of American non-fiction are renowned, one of the most hauntingly beautiful valleys in the world, he says. Do you think that's true, Tom? You've been there.


It is very beautiful, but it's also quite hard to get a handle on it. It's full of ravines and bluffs and things as well. So should I just give a... I think it's really, really difficult, even when you have a book in front of you with a map or a video, let alone a podcast.


You're going to give us a little geography lesson, are you?


No, I'm not. But I'm just the setting where the village is, that it's by the Bighorn River. And the village is on the side where the plain is, obviously. So they're open flats. There are trees and undergrowth that run along the side of the river. And on the opposite side of the river, there are bluffs. And it's quite difficult to get down from those bluffs to the river. And there are certain forwarding points. And those bluffs are scoured by ravines.




So it is possible if you are, say, a Lakota warrior to climb up that ravine and not be seen. Equally, it is quite difficult if you're on a horse to come down it. There are only certain approaches down to the river, so that's important. And also to say that the little big horn is fed by a creek and that the seventh cavalry, as it is approaching the big horn, is coming down that creek.


Yeah, exactly right, Tom.


So just try and keep that in your head.


So it's a beautiful spot on the banks of the river, as you say. There are now about 7,000 to 8,000 Native Americans in the village. Of them, there are obviously lots of women and children, so about 1,800 of them, maybe 2,000 are warriors.


But obviously, the presence of women and children is very, very important. Of course. As it was at the Sheeta.


Which people remember, yeah.


Where Custer rounded up women and children, and that played a huge part in his victory there. Exactly.


Now, The interesting thing is that it's not just non-treaty, anti-treaty Indians who are in the village. There are lots of Lakota who have actually come from the reservation. Here is another sign of the unanticipated consequences of President Grant's It was almost a plan to force a war on the Lakota. When they had tried to buy the Black Hills, loads of people had flocked into these big meetings to discuss, to put pressure on them not to sell. And the chiefs not to sell. So the population in the reservation had really swollen, as it would anyway over the winter. And there's enormous pressure for food and resources, and there's not enough food to go around. Now, normally, what would happen is that as soon as it was possible, warriors would go out and hunt Buffalo to make up for the shortfall, and they would use guns from the agency. But because Grant's administration know that war is coming, they have banned the agents on the reservation from giving out guns. So they can't go hunting. And that is why, almost in desperation, they flocked a Sitting Bulls village, which means that in due course, Custer and co.


Will be facing far greater numbers than they had possible relatively envisaged.


But also the victory at the Rosebud, which Crazy Horse had won over General Crook's army, which we talked about in the previous episode, that also will have had an immense resonance, won't it? Totally. I mean, basically the sense, if If you want to have fun, come and join us.


Of course. And a sense of invulnerability. This spring, uniquely, it's all happening. We're going to be in a great position. Everybody is going. It's such a large village now. Most historians say this is one of the largest gatherings of Native Americans in the entire history of the Great Plains. Because normally, of course, they're so nomadic, so scattered, 8,000 people in one place. And the warriors think no one would attack such a large village. Because, of course, the American units are not enormous. There are like a thousand people here, a thousand people there. We outnumber them by such a big margin. There's no way they're going to attack us. They're still celebrating their victory at the Rosebud. They've been holding victory feasts and dances and storytelling sessions and having a great laugh for days. There's a wonderful account by a guy called Wooden Leg. Wooden Leg died in 1940. So that It gives you a sense of it's amazing, isn't it? Yeah, incredible. He died during the Second World War. He gave his recollections in 1903. I think he was very young at the time. He said, My friends and I were just interested in basically chasing girls.


Chasing the girls, all that thing. Oh, my God, Tom. That was one of the most terrifying things that's ever happened in the history. The rest is history. Yeah.


What was it? The guys who went in the pickup truck. Dukes of Hazzard.


I was about to say it's the Dukes of Hazzard. It's the Dukes of Hazzard. I can't believe the Dukes of Hazzard have appeared in this story. Yes. And the general sense is, we're out of the white man's country. No one can touch us. We're going to have a great laugh. There are lots of games for the children. The only person who really has a sense of foreboding is, of course, Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull goes up that evening, sunset, the 24th of June. He goes up a a null, and he leaves gifts for the great spirit Wackintanka, a Buffalo robe pipe and some tobacco. And he does this prayer, and he says, please look after the tribe, guard us against calamities. Maybe because he's been around a bit, he knows the Americans are not going away.


Well, also, he's been given a vision, hasn't he?


He has been given a vision, of course, Tom. I was discounting the vision.


Well, also, he's in a good deal of pain because he's had bits of his arms removed.


God, oh my dear. So there's a description of him at the Battle of the Rosebud, and it's basically his arm. He can't use his arms because they're covered in blood.


Yeah, he's not really That's exciting.


Now, meanwhile, of course, that very day, Custer is coming. Custer has about 660 men. 30 of them or so are officers. About 40 of them, 45 of them are guides of various kinds or scouts. The majority of the enlisted men who are actually, without being mean to them, pretty useless.


Well, so about 30% have never once fired a carbine, is the estimate.


Yeah, I mean, bonkers. He is dressed, of course, in his finery, in his buckskin jacket, in his big hat. He wears the red scarf and his neck, the red cravate that he had worn in the Civil War.


Quite a lot of them are wearing straw hats. So there's a guy on the Yellowstone who's been selling them straw hats. And one of the guys who's wearing a straw hat is Major Reno.


Straw hats is not the look, is it, really?


So they're not wearing blue coats? No. By and large, too hot. Most of them, unless you're wearing buckskin like Custer and Tom Custer and so on, are wearing white shirts.


Yeah. Now, he is in a hurry, Custer, as we said last time. He now knows he's not really going to get back before the Democratic Convention because that actually opens in, I think, three days time. But with luck, He might just be able to get back before the fourth of July celebration in Philadelphia. At the very least, if he's quick, the news of his victory will be able to get back, and he will be the star. He will be the talk of the centennial exhibition, and that would be a very big thing for him with his political career and his financial hopes. And of course, he needs to go on that lecture tour to pay off the debts that he has to these various financiers. So he's pushing his men that June the 24th, so the day that the Lakota established their camp, Costa has pushed his men 28 miles through the dust. The sun is beating down now. They are very bedraggled and knackered. They have great problems with the pack train, so stuff keeps falling off the back of the mules.


But also mules don't go as fast as horses.


No. I tell you one thing, he's probably thinking, thank God we didn't bring those Gattling guns because they would really have slowed us down. They are now following what they think of the trails through the Rosebud Valley. It is obvious that there are lots of different trails Of course, there are because so many people are joining the village. And some of the scouts, we talked in a previous episode about Bloody Knife, the guy who'd been bullied by the Lakota, Tom.


Yeah, by Gaul, wasn't he?


Yeah, by Gaul, the flashman.


The The flashman of the Lakota.


Yeah. And he is among the scouts. So bloody knife says to Custer that evening, it looks like there are going to be a lot of... This is a big group of people. And word of this gets around. So at one point, Custer's orderly, John Bertman, who we've mentioned a few times, hears Custer say, there are a lot of them. There are more of them than we figured. And Bertman says slightly anxiously, not too many of them to lick, though. And Custer That immediately smiles. Well, we'll get them. Yee-hah. Yeah. What the seventh can't lick the US Army couldn't lick. Yeah. And he absolutely... Now, whether he's just saying that or whether he believes it.


I'm sure he believes it. I think he believes it. But bloody knife, he thinks he's going to die, doesn't he?


I shall not see the sun, he says. Exactly as you would expect somebody to say in a Western. And he does say it. Or somebody in a homeric epic, Tom.




It has some of those qualities, doesn't it?


Well, as we will see, there is an element of Greek tragedy to bloody knife's fate.


Definitely. So that evening, they rest. Some of the lieutenants, this is a very buried detail, Tom. I don't know if you've spotted this, but they are singing the doxology. I did. I don't actually know what the doxology is. What is the doxology? It's him. It's hims. Yeah.


I mean, you sing it in a hymnic form.


Right. So Custer is just staring into space. He's just exhausted and worried, anxious in a hurry.


But probably not about the battle. No. I mean, just to reiterate that, he's worried about his financial and political prospects. Yeah.


And at nine o'clock that night, 24th, so this is only a few hours after Sitting Bull has gone up and done that prayer, some Crow scouts gallop into the camp and say, Amazing news. We have found what we are certain is the principles Lakota Trail, and it is leading out of the Rosebud Valley to the west towards the Little Big Horn. So brilliant. Now, Custer, of course, doesn't have to attack. He could just shadow them and push them up towards General Terry. But there's no doubt in anybody's mind that when he comes to the crunch, he's going to go for it. He's a striker in on goal, Tom. He's going to take the shot.


Yeah, he's a goalhanger.


Very good. That's what he does. So it takes him 20 minutes to make up his mind. At 9:20, he says to the head of the scouts, who's a guy called Lieutenant Varnum, or Lieutenant Varnum, as he would be called in the wilds of the West. Of the Old West. He says, go back with the scouts. There's a prominent position you should be able to see. We will follow. I will bring up the troops. Let's do this. So we're on the evening the 24th. His plan is he will march overnight. Then on the 25th They will rest and they will attack just before dawn on the 26th.


And from various angles, as they had done at the Washita.


Exactly. He will do his old trick that worked before. It worked before at the Washita, the very controversial battle or massacre, depending on your viewpoint. And so his troops will be very well-rested because although they will have done the Midnight March, they will have the whole of the day and the night to rest, and then they'll attack the following day at dawn. That is the plan.


But obviously, that requires the Indians not to realize that the seventh Cavalry are approaching.


Of course. So he pushes them overnight on the Midnight March. I mean, And the details of it are pretty, I mean, they're pretty crawling even to read. They do 12 miles, then they stop, they have coffee, then they do five more miles, then they stop again, then they do another 12 miles to get down to the river. And they halt just before daylight on the 25th. So thank goodness, they are knackered, but they should be able to rest for the day and for the evening and then attack the following day. So it's dawn now on the 25th of June. At that point, Lieutenant Varnum, the head of the Scout, sent some scouts back. He says, The crows have seen a massive village, a tremendous village on the little big horn. Custer goes ahead, leaving his men behind. He goes up to a spot called the Crow's Nest. So it's about nine o'clock now on the Sunday morning, the 25th. Then he looks out, and he actually can't see the village. He's squinting, partly because the spurs of the bluffs are sticking out. In the way, exactly. But the scouts say, no, no, no, it's absolutely there.


I think it's important that he can't see it because he doesn't really have a sense of the size, how big it Yeah. One of the chief scouts is a guy called Mitch Boya, or Boya, I don't know how he pronounced his name. He says to him, General, if you don't find more Indians in that valley than you ever saw together, then you can hang me. And Custer, who's feeling a bit of pressure, the pressure of the hast, he snaps at him and he says, It would do a damn side of good to hang you now, wouldn't it? And other people are surprised because Custer never swears. It's the first time they heard him use the word damn, actually. It's not because he's worried that he's going be beaten, that there are too many of them for him, because in fact, bloody knife says to him, there may be enough sue there to keep us fighting two or three days. And Custer says, dismissively, struggles and says, I guess we'll have to get through them in one day. Yeah. You know, Custer is in a hurry. He thinks it can be done. His only anxiety is that they'll scatter.


He'll miss out on his victory.


Totally. Now, of course, at that point, he's planning to wait so everyone can rest. But first of all, the crows say, we've seen Lakotas on the horizon. We think they may have spotted us. We should attack right away. We can't afford to wait. They will know. But then Tom Custer, his brother, says, There's been a bit of a mishap. One of the mules dropped the load The load fell off, and the biscuits hard tack fell on the ground. And when we went back to get it, we found some Cheyenne crabbling around eating the biscuits. And we've scared them off. But clearly, they're going to go back to this big camp and say that there are soldiers in the vicinity. And at that point, Custer makes up his mind, we're not going to rest.


Crack on.


We just have to do it now. Now, I think this is actually... It's one thing that I think most of the books that I've read don't probably bring out enough. How tired they are. They must be shattered. Yeah. Of course, adrenaline will later course through their veins. They'll be all excited. But they must feel... Their legs must feel led off to walking for- Well, Dominic, as an old Great Plains hand, I can tell you, you don't want to be scrabbling over the scree and the scrub.


Not for all hours.


Even a hardy veteran of night time walks like me.


Right. Is that what Great Plains veterans say? Yeah, it's tough. Okay. Crikey. Well, it's great to have somebody on the show who really understands the... You've walked the terrain, though, haven't you, Tom? I've walked the terrain. You know the ground.


I've walked the bluffs. I've walked the gulches.


Rattler Creek. Surely they're all called Gobbler's gulch or something like that, aren't they?


Yeah, that thing.


Okay. Some of the scouts say to Custer, Hold on. Just hold on a second before you rush in. Just have a quick think. It's a very big village. Are you sure you want to do this? This guy, Mitch Boyer, says it. And Custer is, I've got this. I know what I'm doing.


There's also a very enigmatic scout, isn't there? Who I think was, along with Bloody Knife, Custer's favorite, Charlie Reynolds, who was known as Lonesome Charlie. Yeah. Because he was always on his own. And he'd been born a gentleman, and he confessed this to Libby Custer, and then got embarrassed about it, didn't say anything. He said, Very tacitern, very solitary. And he says, It's the biggest bunch of Indians I've ever seen. He's nervous.


Yeah. You see, I don't think Custer is... I think he has such self-confidence, but also confidence in the US Army against Native Americans.


He's got confidence in himself, hasn't he?


It does. I think the combination of those two things, in enormous self-confidence in battle, but also it just doesn't enter his head.


They're savages.


That they could possibly be beaten.


Seventh cavalry of the Representatives of industrial civilization.


Yeah, exactly. I think it's that racial arrogance that we talked about.


It's Islandwana in the British context. Totally is.


It's the British in South Africa or something. So just before midday, about 11:45, they start down the divide between the Creek and the Little Big Horn River, the seventh Cavalry. And after about half a mile, Custer calls the two very disputatious officers that he has with him, Major Reno and Captain Benteen. And he says, Right, we're going to divide up now because we obviously cannot allow anyone to get away. The last thing we want is to lose Sitting Bull, lose Crazy Horse, whoever, because they've scattered.


And this remains his consideration. Totally. So not, oh, my God, there are thousands and thousands. We better concentrate our force. It's still We need to divide our forces so that we can cast as wide a net as possible.


Even though his force is... I mean, his force is going to be massively outnumbered, but he divides it up into four parts. First of all, there is going to be a group of about 130 men with the pack train, with the mules and stuff.


And they're in the rear, and they're already starting to fall behind at this point.


They are, exactly. So forget them. They're being too slow. Leave them. The rest will be divided into three parts, about 175 men will be with Major Reno, about 150 men will be with Captain Benteen, and about 200 or 220 men will be with Custer. And Custer says, Reno and I will take our two groups down this creek to the Little Bighorn. Benteen, I want you to go and scout off to the left. I mean, it seems pretty clear. Ben Tine claims, because he hated Custer, he said, Custer was doing this to get me out of action. He didn't want me to have any of the glory. Custer I never liked me and I never liked him. What a bad man Custer was. I don't think that's right at all. I think clearly what Custer is doing is he wants Ben Tine to be off to the left so that if the natives try to escape to the southwest, Ben 10 will be there to round them up so that Ben 10 will not quite encircle them, but it'll be lurking in that area, sweeping them up.


Yeah, blocking off their flank.


Exactly. Meanwhile, he and Reno are going to go down to the river or thereabouts, and then he will make his dispositions when he sees the village and whatnot. Now, at that point, a crow says to Custer, Hold on, do not divide your men. There are too many of the enemy for us, even if we stay together. If you're going to fight, you must keep us all together. And Custer snaps again at him and says, You do the scouting, I do the fighting. And there's this story. Again, is it one of the folk myths, Tom, that springs up?


I like to think not.


That the crow starts painting his your face. Custer says, Why are you painting your face? And the crow says, It's actually too good to be true, isn't it? Because the crow says, You and I are going home today and by a trail that is strange to us both. But Custer's soldiers don't think that.


They're full of fun, aren't they?


Custer's soldiers are in great spirits. And as they move off, they are joking. They will soon be looking at a captured sitting bull.


Take him to the centennial.


Yeah, they say, Can't wait. We'll be back in time for the centennial, we will be able to take Sitting Bull with us as our prisoner.


But will they? Let's find out after the break. Hello. Welcome back to The Rest is History. We are approaching the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Dominic, should we just give a sketch of the strategic situation? Okay. It's midday. The seventh Cavalry are some 12, maybe 15 miles from the great Indian village. They are going to approach the village by going down a creek.




And that creek will join with the Bighorn River. That's right. And then riding up the Bighorn River, there's this plane. The village is obviously on the plain. And then on the other side of the Bighorn River, there are these bluffs, these raised stretches.


So if you're riding along the riverbank, the village is on your left, on the left-hand side in the distance. And then on the right-hand side are the bluffs, the hills on the right overlooking the river.


So Custer has divided his men up. He's preparing a three-pronged advance, basically. So Custer is going to ride on the right-hand side of the creek. Reno is going to be in the middle, and he'll be riding down on the left-hand side of the creek. Of the river, yeah. And then, Ben Tine is going to be on the left, and he will be sweeping outwards across the heights that stretch to check that there aren't any villages there, to check that people aren't fleeing, to try and cut them off if they are. And this is the state of play, and off they go. And already, they are starting to leave the pack animals with the ammunition behind, which is important.


So that's exactly right.


But at this point, the four groups of the seventh Cavalry can all see each other.


They can indeed. And Costa and Reno are moving together at this point, by the way. They will divide up completely later on. So they are moving at a brisk pace, brisk walk. It's hot. It's very hot, in fact. So a lot of men are dropping gear, are taking off their overshirts and things.


It's not a day to be wearing buckskin.


No, it's definitely not. They see in the distance, they start to see groups of warriors, very small groups who are riding off.


Yeah, but it's like approaching a hornet's nest, isn't it? And starting to see the odd hornet drifting around you. Yeah, exactly.


Actually, at one point, they say a group of about 50 who turn and seem to ride back. And there's a dust cloud. And it's at that point that one of the translators seeing the dust cloud, he rides up to a nolle and looks at and he shouts to Custer. He says, There are your Indians running like devils. Now that's important because Custer doesn't want them to run. He really, ideally, would have loved to attack the following day at dawn because he would have the element of surprise. So at that point, he thinks, okay, if they're running, this is the point now with Tom, in which he divides with Reno because he wants to basically spread out as much as possible. So it's now about 2:30, and he He says to Reno, right, you go ahead now on that left-hand side of the river. I'm going to go up higher on the right-hand side. Now, we don't know exactly what he's planning at this point. Is he planning to come back down to support Reno? Is he planning to circle around and attack the village from the other side?


I think probably that.


Attack the village, yeah.


I think the two jaws closing in.


Yeah, I think that's very plausible.


But he hasn't told Reno this.


No, it's not quite clear.


Because obviously, it does depend on the topography, and it depends on the state of play with the village. So he's not yet able to decide, but I'm guessing that would be his hope.


So at that point, at the point that he makes that decision to split up, the core of the seventh Calvary is now split into three parts, none of which really knows what the others are planning.


And also it's starting to separate because by this point, Ben Tini is galloping off into rugged terrain, quite a long way to the left of the rest of the cavalry. But also because Custer has gone up on the heights, it's harder for him. And so Reno, who is down by the creek, can advance faster.


Yes. So Reno now pushes ahead. Now, we talked about Reno before in the last episode. What did they call him? The scouts called him the Man with a Dark Face or something like that, didn't they? Yes.


Because everything always goes wrong.


And he's miserable and he's a drinker. He is undoubtedly drinking. Yeah.


I mean, he's got his hip flask.


So as they splash push across the Ford to get onto that left-hand side of the little big horn, he takes a long draft from his whiskey flask and he snaps at one of his troopers. And from this point on, whenever troopers are being interviewed later on, they'd say, Reno, becomes increasingly erascible, erratic, slurring his words. He's feeling the pressure.


And it's very, very hot. Yeah. And necking whiskey.


And they've been up all night. They've been marching.


When I was out in the bluffs, I I shouldn't have done that.


Well, that's the comparison that hangs over this whole story, isn't it? Between you and major Reno. So Reno advances. It's just after three o'clock.


And three o'clock is about when they reach the big horn. So the creek joins with the big horn. And Reno's men splash across the river, don't they? Yes. And there ahead of them is this great expanse of grassland, fringed with trees. Well, so this vast village, which is two 2 miles long is to the left of the trees that run along the side of the river. And then on the far side of the river are the bluffs that Custer is starting to approach.


Yes. Reno says to his men, Right, ahead is the village. They've been going as a trot. They start to accelerate now into a gallop. They're getting greater speed. And he says to them, Charge, charge at the This is our chance. This is our moment. Now, again, one of his privates says, he delivered this order. A very slurred voice taking another swig from his flask. Now, this is the first How many of them have done this? They are very in experience.


Well, including, of course, Reno. But Reno had had this experience of charging in the Civil War and then discovering that he'd been suckered into an ambush. Yeah.


They begin to charge. As they approach, as they come a little bit closer, Reno starts to make out through the dust the extent of this village.


Just how vast it is.


It is clear, the seconds go by, they're charging, they're charging, they're galloping. It's there in the distance. And he starts to think, There are hundreds of these teefees. This is a big deal. Now, he had thought, probably, that they were scattering even at this this point. Remember what that scout had said? There are Indians running like devils.


Yeah. And he sent his scouts to his left to try and round up the ponies as they had done at the Washita. But there are so many horses. Just countless numbers of them.


Yeah, hundreds and hundreds. So at that point, now, 600 yards short of the beginning of the village, which is the Hunkpapa tee piece.


So that is Sitting Bull's People.


Sitting Bull's People. Reno clearly loses his confidence in the charge.


Well, he doesn't lose his bottle, does he? Because he still got that.


No, he still got his bottle.


But he loses his courage.


Yes, he does. He says, okay, hold, slow down, stop. Right. We will actually take the horses into the trees. We will dismount and we will form what's called a skirmish line across the grassland. So there's about 95 troopers. We'll form this line and we will open fire on the village.


And just to say that that line, one One side is guarded by the river, but the other one is open. Yes, exactly. So it can be at flank. Now, Dominic, this is the question, should he have continued to charge? Because Custer would undoubtedly have charged.


That's a good question, Tom. I hadn't thought of that.


Custer would have expected him in that situation that he should charge. It's intriguing that there is a hung papa woman who was interviewed in 1883, and she said that if Reno had carried on, if he had smashed in, if he'd taken them by surprise, because If they are taking them by surprise, then perhaps everyone would have been put into flight. And that, I think, is the great imponderable. I mean, I wouldn't have done it. I would have turned tail. No question about that.


You'd have panicked.


But I think Custer would have done it. And it may be that it's a failure of Custer's generalship- To entrust it to Reno. That maybe he should have been on the other side.


That's a really good point, Tom. I hadn't thought of that because, of course, although Reno and his men, if there are fewer than 200 of them against thousands upon thousands of warriors, they're outnumbered. But the sheer shock and momentum- Panic breeds its own momentum, doesn't it? And, of course, charging at the women and children would create even more panic.


Which is what they wanted. Yes. Because the women are right in front of them.


Well, here's your answer. It couldn't have gone worse for them. And it did. So it might have been worth a try. Because actually, the funny thing is, when they dismount and they form this skirmish line and they start aiming their weapons, their carbines, all the accounts are that at that stage, none of them have lost I mean, maybe Reno has, but the others have not lost confidence. They are joking and laughing. They're exchanging banter about their shooting. There is no sense that they're in a mess at this point. And they're actually firing away, very incompetently. They are wasting their bullets because as you said, the ammunition packs are miles back. They are drinking while they're shooting.


Madness. But also, I mean, lots of these people, we said, have never fired their carbines before, and now they are, and it seems to be going well.


They're having a great time.


And then is this the point where it is said some of them turn around and see Custer on the far side of the river, up on the heights, and he supposedly takes his hat off and waves it and then rides. I mean, it's debated, and I've read various accounts about whether it was possible to have seen someone.


Reno said he didn't see Custer and denied that anyone could have seen him. But some of them say, I definitely saw Custer waving his hat at us. It's plausible, right? Yeah. It's plausible that he would have seen them and waved his hat to encourage them. And where he just had to encourage them, great, they're getting stuck in. This is what I want to see. We will never know. I mean, as with so much of this, it's a bit of a mystery. Now, meanwhile, people might be wondering, what on earth are the natives doing? The answer is that they have actually been having a lovely day in the sunshine, children playing and all that thing. They've heard rumors of troops, but they haven't really taken it terribly seriously. Actually, it's only when suddenly a hunkpapa guy, a village cryer, shouts out, They're coming, they're coming, they're beginning to charge. The charges are coming. That they wake up and then they hear gunshots, gunfire. Some of the poles of the T EPs shatter, splinters flying everywhere.


And women and children get killed, and among them are wives of Gaul. Yeah.


Gaul loses two wives and three children in the first volley of gunfire. So suddenly, people are running for their weapons, they have to put on their war paint. Now, of course, the war paint is not just for show. They want to have tokens of their power, of their medicine. So they have to get their stuff, they have to get ready, and they're all rushing around. Crazy He, of course, takes his time, doesn't he, Tom?


He really does. Rather than rushing, he communes. He's communing with the spirits, all that stuff. All his men, his warriors, his followers are waiting for him him. He keeps them waiting. Then he comes out. He's as unadorned as ever, maybe even more so. He's making a point of his simplicity. Hair is loose. His signature spots on his face and his lightning bolt.


Harry Potter style lightning bolt, I imagine.


Yeah. Then he gets on his horse and the cry starts to go up, first among his men, and then throughout the entire expanse of the village, Crazy Horse is Coming, and Crazy Horse is Coming.


Yeah. What a Now, by this point, some of the warriors have already charged Reno's soldiers. Some people estimate as many as 500 had charged out of the camp. Actually, Reno's soldiers just standing there still drinking and thinking this is a great lark.


Like a duck shoot.


Kind of fire at them and actually repulsed them, drove them back, that first wave.


Because at this point, I think they've only lost one person, haven't they? And he's just been wounded. Yeah.


At this point, they still have this sense of invulnerability.


So about 3:30 now.


Yeah. So at about this point, more people come out of that, flooding out of the village. Crazy horse, of course, among them. And Reno, I think you can argue sensibly, Tom, thinks, actually, there's only 95 of us there because as you rightly said, they can be outflanked on one side. He says, We should retreat into, all the American books call it the timber. I think in English, we would call it a copse or a little wood or something. They retreat into trees. Now, some of Reno's men are baffled by this at this point because as they say, they've only lost one guy wounded, and they are quite worried now that he's drunk a lot. So they retreat into the wood in quite a shambolic, disorganized way.


But still all right. I mean, they're still holding the line, and they get into the wood, and they hold it for about 20 minutes.


They do. There are arrows flying into the wood. There are bullets flying into the wood. The question is, could they have held out in that wood. Custer, of course, in his earlier campaigns, I think we talked about in the Yellowstone River campaign, he had held out against far greater- But then he had had people coming to his rescue, I suppose. Yeah, but they don't know that they won't have people coming to their rescue. Right. Venting could come, Custer could come. Anyway, it's the usual stuff. So individual Lakota are crawling forward rather to set fire to the grass, to smoke them out. More and more hours are flying in. Not that long after they've entered the wood, Reno seems to have thought, Okay, I'm not going to be able to sustain this. We have to get back across the river and maybe up towards where Custer is or something of that ilk.


Find a more defensible position, basically.


And he says to his men, we need to mount up. Now, from this point on, the chronology is a little bit uncertain, the order of events. But I think it seems plausible. It's about that moment.


It's the fog of war, Dominic.


It is the fog of war. That's very profound, Tom. Thank you. We've had a lot of storm clouds, but not the fog of Now we got the fog.


Because he doesn't have a trumpeter, does he? He doesn't. This is the huge problem.


So he shouts. He's shouting orders to his men. Of course, in the chaos, not all of them can hear him. And in a very disorganized way, some of them stop shooting and start to hit on their horses. And of course, that makes them very vulnerable. And it's at that point that a group of warriors under a guide called Iron Hawk seem to have broken into the wood and fired at them at point-blank range. And it's at that point that one of those shots hit It's the scout bloody knife in the head, and effectively, part of his head explodes.


So brain, blood, and skull.


In Reno's face. Yeah. So Reno is temporarily blinded by and covered in bloody knife's brain.


And he's already lost it before this, hasn't he? Because he's saying, Round up. Get off your horses. No, get back on them. Oh, God. And then bloody knife His head explodes all over him. And at that point, he's like... He just goes, Oh. He does.


You've basically done him as Kingsley Amos, which is not what I was expecting at all, anyway.


And his hat falls off, his straw hat.


He just starts strouting. Run for your lives. Get out of here. Scrambles the hills. That's terrible.


We got to get out of here.


It's a terrible scene. It's a shocking scene. Everyone panics. Oh, shit. Everybody panics. He's panicked. And somebody literally shouts every man for himself. It is like something from a film.


So the Anpapa woman who was interviewed in 1883, she, again, is very, very contentious of this. So this is the one who said that he should have charged. And she says, this is pathetic. She was disgusted by the conduct of these Whites saying that they must have been seized with panic worse than that which seized her own people. And she's speaking as a woman, and it's fine for women to run, but she thinks that they-They behave in an unmanly manner. Well, they're behaving worse than the women who'd been running in the camp. Yeah.


I mean, there was then this utterly chaotic nightmare, it must have been nightmarish flight. They just are running or riding out of the woods, back to the Ford, sobbing, screaming in total desperation.


And there's a problem with the Ford. Getting on the other side, there are heights. So one side, you can go in, okay, but on the far bank, there are heights. Essentially, there is one quite narrow place where you can climb up onto the other side. And so, of course, everyone starts bunching there. And although over the process of scrambling, the access point widens, it obviously provides a focus. It's a choke point. A choke point for the young papa marksman to take people out. So that's hideous. And meanwhile, people are being left behind. And there are some really terrible accounts.


Oh, terrible. There's this boy called Black Elk. He's 13 years old, and this is a great moment for him. We talked when we introduced Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, of those rituals of entering manhood, counting coup, scalping, getting your kill, and all that thing. So there are some soldiers that have clearly been hit and are down on the ground, injured, writhing around. Black Elk, who's been riding behind the grown up warriors, he sees this one guy writhing on the ground and a warrior shouts and says, boy, get off your horse and scalp him. And Black Elk gets down and he starts to scalp this bloke, starts to cut into his hair and his skin.


And it doesn't come off easily, does it? Because it's quite closely cropped.


No, it doesn't come off easily. But also because the guy is still alive. So the guy, he says he began to grind his teeth at him. And Black Elk finds this very annoying. So he gets out his pistol and shoots this bloke in the head and then continues his work of scalping him.


There's another story that Black Elk tells. Again, after he's done this, he joins with a band of warriors again. And there's this soldier who's hidden in a clump of Ulbury bushes, and he's trying to escape, going this way and that, trying to find a way out. And the boys are all running behind him, shooting arrows into the the bushes. Black Elk says it was like hunting a rabbit. And they know that he's in there because occasionally they hear him go, Oh. He gets hit by an arrow. And finally, they get bored of this, even though they've been quite enjoying it. And so they set fire to the grass and the bushes. And he comes running out and then they will kill him. So that's not a nice way to go.


It's pretty terrifying. Those men who do get across the river, they're scrambling up the bank. It's eight feet high. I mean, imagine the desperation is just trying to scrabble your way up. And then it's made of clay, so it's bits of coming off and you're sinking backwards.


And as the blood spills, it's going gooey.


Anyway, so Reno, of course, is at the top. He has led the flight because he's full of panic. He gets to the top of this hill, which ends up being called Reno Hill, doesn't it? And he looks like someone from Apocalypse Now or something.


Yeah, he's put a bandana on.


He's got a red bandana. His eyes are wild.


Well, people say that he's frothing at the mouth.


And he's running around in a frenzy, not knowing where to go.


Yeah, I mean, just terrible.


Loads of men, as soon as they get to the top of the hill, they're crying. They're in a terrible mess. And there's one guy who's actually just two years out of West Point, second Lieutenant Luther hair.


He did not bring shame on the stars and stripes. He did not. The battle flag of liberty flew over his head.


He did not stain it.


He was not necking whiskey.


Ken Burns joins us now. Brilliant.


If we've got to die, let's die here like men. Don't run off like a pack of whipped curves.


You see, in another context, Tom, in the context of the Titanic, we would take sentiments like that very seriously.


I'm taking it seriously because this is awful, awful stuff. So many people are dying. So what? About 80 are left.


From 150 or something? I don't know. Yeah, 120.


I mean, some of them are dead, but some of them are just wounded. And so they're all lying out in the river on the banks or on the plane. And of course, there are warriors whose job it is essentially to- Yeah, to mutilate them. Not just kill, but to mutilate and torture them. Yes. And Reno does not go back.


Reno really disgraces himself at this point, because some of his men say, We can hear them moaning and crying down below. We should go and try and at least get them some of them out. And Reno says, unbelievably, If you care so much about them, go and do it yourself. And Sergeant White said afterwards, This had a discouraging effect on the men.


Right, because they're looking down and they are seeing the mutilation of-They're friends.


They're drinking buddies.


They're comrade. We talked earlier about how there's a quality of Greek tragedy about the fate of bloody knife. So His face has been half blown up, bit like President Kennedy at Dallas. And these two young girls, on Papa's Sisters, they find this body and they saw the head off. And because he's got his hair in braids, and one of the girls takes one braid and one of them takes the other, and they walk with this head up to the village and they show, mommy, look mommy, look what we've got. And the mother looks off the head, and she recognizes it as bloody knives, even though it's been maimed because of the sentiments and stuff. And she can do this because she is his sister. And so the little girls have picked up and severed off the head of their own uncle. Golly. So that's very Escalus, isn't it?


Yeah, it is.


And the other terrible stories are told about this scout called Isaiah Dorman.


Oh, this is a shocking story, Tom. Yeah.


He's the only black man in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. And I think he's a freed slave, isn't he? He ends up living-He married a Lakota woman. With a Lakota. He marries a Lakota woman. And he is said once to have done Sitting Bull a favor. What happens in the battle is that he's fighting. His horse gets shot, rolls, traps him underneath it, breaks his leg so he can't escape. Warriors start gathering around him, and among them is Sitting Bull. And he's supposed to have called out to Sitting Bull saying, Look, I'm going to die. Could you just get me some water before I die? And Sitting Bull goes and gets him water and gives it to him and then walks off.


But Sitting Bull is supposed to have said, Don't kill that man. He's a friend of mine, to some of the others.


Well, that is one account, but there are other equally plausible accounts that he doesn't say anything. And he leaves poor dormen to the administrations of the women who have gathered round him. He's supposed to have had a coffee pot and a mug with him. I'm not quite sure how he had that. Anyway.


Well, Custer's got a toothbrush with him, remember?


I suppose that's true. And Reno's got his hip flask. But the women get hold of them and they squeeze blood into the coffee pot and mug. They're supposed to have shot his legs, so stabbed his legs, smashed him with stone hammers, cut him open with knives, tortured him really, really horribly. The reason for this is that he's seen as a traitor because he had lived in the village. So he'd done sitting bull of favor, but he deserved all the horrors that were visited on him. And there's a twist to this, that three years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, his wife, the Lakota woman, who was called Xiow, turned up at a military depot and asked for his back wages, and they gave her $91.


Yeah, his fate is really, really horrific, isn't it? I mean, you actually spared us, unusually for you. You spared us some of the gaurious details, probably just as well. So Reno and his guys are on the hill in a panic. The injured men have been hideously mutilated. But it's about that point that Sitting Bull says to some of the others, There are more soldiers coming. We need to get back to the village. We should be telling the squads to pack up the lodges because we're going to have to get away because there are more soldiers. And this, of course, raises the issue of Custer. So we should just finish by talking about, while this has been going on, of course, Custer has been on the other side of the river. Now, Custer had said vaguely to Reno, I will support you, but nobody knows what that means. Even perhaps they didn't know what it meant because they had to see how the situation developed. Probably Custer was going to, as we talked about, was he going to perhaps go down to the village and attack the village from another angle while Reno was doing his charge?


I think that must have been his plan. Yeah.


So at about three o'clock, at the point where Reno shouts, Charge for the first time, Custer at that point seems to have got his first proper look at the village to have gone up onto the high ground of the bluffs. And some of his men who were with him say that they could see this big village. Custer must, at this point, have been delighted. The village isn't scattering. Yeah.


I mean, this is going to be brilliant.


It's all there, thousands of them. He'll get them.


His luck has held.


Custer's luck has held yet again. As one account, one of the many biographies of Custer says, it was the Washita times 10, perhaps even times 100. It would be the greatest victory of his career. And he's been cheered. We know that they cheered when they saw the size of this village. And Custer actually said, Hold your horses in. There will be plenty of them there for all of us. So he takes off his hat. He waves his hat. This may be what people had seen.


So Reno's men down on the plane.


Yeah. And he says to the men who are up there on the top with him, Hurrah, boys, we have them. We will finish them up, and then we will go home to our station. Now, he needs probably more men to be able to accomplish this.


And he needs more ammunition, doesn't he? Yeah.


So he's looking down. And at that point, Reno's men have dismounted. They have formed their skirmish line, and they have not yet done their panic-stricken run to the trees and then back across the fort. So at that point, he thinks all is going well. But what he needs is Benteen's men. And as you said, Tom, he needs the ammunition pack. So first of all, he gets Tom, his brother. He calls a sergeant called your Daniel Canipay. And he says to Canipay, Go back to Captain McDougal with the pack train. Tell him to bring the pack train. If the pack train, as it's been happening all the time, they fall off the backs of the mules, forget it. Just come on. And if you see Ben 10 on the way, tell him, We've got them. It's a big Indian camp. So off goes the sergeant. And then Custer calls to his trumpeter. He is a guy who's often described in the accounts as being John Martin. Actually, his name is Giovanni Martini.


He doesn't speak very good English, does he?


No, he doesn't. And so Custer says, Ride to Benthine, get Ben 10, tell him it's a big village, be quick, and bring all the ammunition packs you can. But because Giovanni Martini does not speak good English, Custer's adjunt, William Cooke, writes the message down, which is how we have it. It's the source that is always brought out with the Battle of the Big Horn. You'll see photos of it. It's the great relic of the battle. These words, Benteen, come on, big village, be quick, bring packs, W. W. Cooke, that's the name of the adjunt. Basically, PS, bring packs. No hint in that of anxiety, of panic, of of trepidation, just, We need you. We need more bullets. Let's do this. Let's finish the job. So Giovanni Martini, John Martin, as he's called, gets on his horse. He turns round, he spurs his horse.


Dominic, as he goes and Custer says, Good luck, that is the last time that a white person who survives the battle hears him speak.




He turns around and he He's Custer. There he is. He's got his shirt on. He's got his buckskin uniform pants. He's got his big hat. He's full of beans, full of excitement. Then Martini rides off and Custer rides off. And the question is, what then happens? What happens to Custer?


That is the great mystery. And we will resolve that mystery, Tom, in our next episode.


Well, I think fair to say we will try to resolve Tom, don't do yourself down.


Don't let the podcast down. We will definitely resolve it.


We will definitely resolve it. But this is part of what is so interesting about this story is that actually there is mystery about it. And we're not averse to mystery.


And we love a mystery.


We do love a mystery, but we do also love a solution.


So we will tell you what happens in the rest of the battle in the next episode. Of course, if you want to hear that, why wouldn't you? You'd want to hear that right now, wouldn't you? You want to find out what happens when that guy, the trumpeter, rides out of sight What happened to Costa? Actually, what happened to Reno on his hill? And where on earth has Ben Tine got to? And we will explain all next time. You can listen to that right now. You just need to click very quickly. Subscribe at therestishistory. Com. Not only will you get the episode, but you'll get an absolutely unbelievable dazzling, some people might say, host of benefits.


Thanks very much for listening to this. We'll see you very soon. 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 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 a special live performance of The Rest is History, which we will be doing on the Tuesday, weren't we? Tuesday, the 25th of 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 www. Chalkfestival. Com. And that's C-H-A-L-K-E. So chalk with an E on it, festival. Com. It'd be wonderful to see you there.