Transcribe your podcast

Thank you for listening to the rest is history. For bonus episodes early access ad free listening and access to our chat community, sign up at restish that's hello, everybody. Now, Theo, our producer, has asked me to point out to you that this episode is very, very gory. So if you're listening in the car with small children, consider yourselves warned. Enjoy.


Dead is it possible he, the bold rider Custer, our hero, the first in the fight charming the bullets of yor to fly wider, far from our battle kings, ringlets of light dead, our young chieftain and dead all forsaken no one to tell us the way of his fall slain in the desert and never to waken never, not even to victory's call backward again and again they were driven shrinking to close with the lost little band never a cap that had worn the bright seven bowed till its wearer was dead on the strand closer and closer, the death circle growing ever the leader's voice, clarion clear, rang out, his words of encouragement glowing, we can but die once, boys. We'll sell our lives dear stirring words. Dominic up there with McGonagall.




In the annals of the rest is history. Poetry.


That's actually much better than McGonagall. That is much better. It's very rousing. It's like the sort of Sir Henry Newbolt or something.


Yeah, it is. And it was written by a man who's first becoming a friend of the show, Frederick Whittaker, who wrote the two volume biography of Custer within barely weeks of him being killed.




And it's all very stirring, isn't it? And it kind of creates this image of Custer's last stand, the ringleted young hero. Oh, of course, he didn't have ringlets at the battle of the little bighorn.


Dead. Our young chieftain.




I mean, is he a young chieftain at this point? He's losing his hair.


But this is the poem giving voice to the myth of the last stand. Custer's last stand.


Yeah. The thermopylae. The thermopylae of the plains.


And that is the subject of today's episode, Custer's last Ann, one of the epic moments in american and world history. But what actually happened?


Surely anybody listening to this will have listened to the previous 67 episodes in this series. So you will remember in the 25 June 1876, Custer has found the Sioux, Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne encampment that he was looking for. Enormous village of tbs. He divided his forces. He'd sent Captain Ben, his old enemy, off way to the left on a kind of sweeping move. He had sent Major Reno down by the river and Reno had absolutely disgraced himself, as Theo, our producer, pointed out. You did a great impersonation of Reno as Shaggy from Scooby Doo Tom, which was very moving, so incredibly bloody and chaotic retreat and they end up on a hill. Now Custer has been up on the bluffs on the eastern side of the river. He's been looking down at the scene and at about 330, the last glimpse we have of him, he has sent a message. He sent a trumpeter, Giovanni Martini, to fetch Captain Benteen. Benteen, come quickly, there's a big village. Bring the ammunition packs. And that is, of course, the message that's gone down as his last.


Well, just to read the message because the details are important, I think. Benteen, come on, big village. Be quick. Bring ww Cook. So this is, Cook is a guy with unbelievably huge mutton chops, side whiskers, bring packs. So these are the instructions. Now, it's controversial, isn't it? What then happens? Because Benteen does get this message and a lot of people are very critical of him because of what happens. But just to point out those instructions are contradictory because on the one hand Custer is saying, come quick, but on the other hand he's saying, go and get the ammunition. And the ammunition is quite a long way up the creek because the mules are much slower. So when Benteen gets it, he's got to decide, well, what do I prioritize? Do I prioritize galloping off to join Custer or do I prioritize getting the ammunition first? So you can see why he. He might be in a muddle.


He's also sulking, isn't he? He wasn't happy that he'd been sent off way to the left earlier that day, that morning. He thinks that Custer has sent him there to get him out of the, you know, out of the front line. He's not going to get any glory. Custer will get all the glory himself. So Benteen has just been sort of pottering about with his men in this desultory way. And actually the first person they see is Sergeant Canopy, who we talked about last time, who's been sent to get the ammunition to go to the pack sort of train. And the sergeant says, as he rides past, he gives the impression that the battle is won already, doesn't he? We've got them boys, they're licking the stuffing out of them. He says. Now, I'm guessing this is because the last that Canopy saw was Reno's charge and possibly Reno's men firing. And he thinks all is going swimmingly.


All going very well. Yeah.


Benteen and co. Continue. They're really moving at a fast walk, not a gallop or anything like that. As they approach the river, they see the trumpeter, John Martin, Giovanni Martini, and the trumpeter, who doesn't speak very good English, gives him the scrawled message, and he says in broken English, the Indians are skedaddling. The Indians are running away. So Benteen thinks he is actually cross at this.


He thinks, oh, I've missed my chance.


Custer is going to get all the glory after all. What a shambles. What a disgrace. Now, some writers are very critical of Benteen here, TJ Styles. It was an unequivocal, positive command to join Custer and an insistent demand for ammunition and supplies.


But it wasn't, was it? I mean, we've said it's not clear.


I think, Benteen, come quickly or come on or whatever it was. I mean, that's. I think, okay, sure, he has to go and get the ammunition, but there is a sense of haste. There's an implied urgency there.


Sure, but you've got to go a couple of miles of the wrong way to get the ammunition and then bring it back, and you can go as fast as you like. It's still. I don't think it's clear at all.


But Benteen does not go fast. Benteen dawdles because he's in a strop. Because he's in a strop. And later on, when there was the one investigation they held, which was actually an investigation into Reno's conduct, Benteen was asked multiple times, kind of, you know, on the stand, as it were. Why did you dawdle? And he gave very contradictory answers, as TJ Styles says. He claimed he believed that Custer was perfectly safe and also that he was dead. He claimed he believed that the Lakotas were running away and also that they were smashing the regiment. So who knows what's going through, Ben? Maybe he doesn't know himself, you know, in the heat of battle and the fog of war.


Heat of battle and the fog of war, yeah. Who knows what may happen?


It's a hot fog. That's what it is. Anyway, benteen sort of continues, and after about 15 minutes, he sees these blokes on this hill.


Cause he's coming down the creek, isn't he, that Custer and Reno had ridden down? So if he's going to go up to the bluffs, he's got to come down to where Reno is.


Yeah. So he sees Reno on this Hill, you know, oh, how's it going? Reno is in a terrible state. Remember, he's got his bandana around. He's turned into Christopher Walken. He's kind of sobbing.


They're coming for us.


A total. Yeah, he's dissolved into an absolute wreck. I've lost half my men. And Benteen says, well, where's Custer? Reno, I don't know. He went off downstream and I haven't seen or heard anything of him since. Now there are, of course, there are Lakota around them, but some of them are now disappearing off sort of to the north. Why? Because presumably because they are dealing with Custer or Custer is making a move or something is happening. Benteen shows Reno the note that says come quick and says, should we go and find Custer? And Reno says, madness to move until we've got ammunition. But his men have basically run out of ammunition. So Benteen thinks, yeah, but that's probably quite a good call. Custer, he said later he supposed General Custer could take care of himself.


Well, almost certainly the correct decision because otherwise the whole of the 7th cavalry would have been wiped out. But equally, you can see that there may be personal influences on that as well. I mean, if he really was adored Custer, perhaps he would have been a little bit more anxious about it.


So they stay there on this hill and they stayed there until about 05:20 p.m. so it's still light, still very warm. The pack train arrives, so they get their ammunition and they can hear firing. I think this is for people who are wondering how long Custer lived. I think this is quite a telling detail. They can hear firing away to the, you know, be on the bluffs. They can't see it, what's going on, but they can hear something. And actually numerous troopers said that must be custom.


And he'll come and rescue us soon.




Because all the wild dominate. They're still being fired on.


Yeah, of course. Yes.


So, I mean, even arrows, the arrow, if it goes into the bone, very difficult to get out.


Yeah, of course. I mean, it could kill, you know.


And a bullet in the stomach, that's not good. But then very sinister development, isn't there? Because they've heard this gunfire up on the bluffs and then soon afterwards they start hearing a slightly different sound of gunfire. It's a kind of zing sound came one of the lieutenant Varnum says, and it's the sound of the carbines and the rifles that the 7th Cavalry had been using.


Right. Yeah. They're being used against.


Yeah, it suggests that it's come from Custer's troops.


Yeah. Now, there was a point where some of them tried to break out. There was Captain Weir, who had tried to lead his company off what's called Reno Hill. Benteen and Reno ended up joining him. They can see through their binoculars what they think are Indians firing arrows at something on the ground, people on the ground, possibly. But eventually they are besieged on what's now called Weir point by a huge force of warriors and they withdraw back to Reno's original hill. And there Reno is just absolutely wasted by this point. I mean, he's just sitting there with his bottle like a kind of baby. And they start to create a defensive line from boxes and saddlebags and bits of the pack train and dead animals and stuff.




Actually, Benteen, I have to say, behaved very poorly at first because he said, don't bother. And his company apparently suffered more casualties, twice as many casualties than any other because of his insouciance.


But he does then up his game, doesn't he?


Yeah, he has a game of two halves, doesn't he, Benteen? Yeah, he starts off very poorly, I think it's fair to say, but then distinguishes himself later. I mean, they are facing so many worriers. Nathaniel Philbrick says, actually, the funny thing is, the odd thing is Lakota never charged because if they had charged, they.


Would have overwhelmed them.


That sort of Rorke's drift style. They would undoubtedly have overwhelmed the defenders.


Well, Benteen, I state, but the facts when I say that we had a fairly warm time with those red men, that's quite british, isn't it?


That's very british.


Fairly warm time.


Fairly warm time. Duke of Wellington would approve of such understatement.


So dust comes down and then it's night. And, you know, they can hear the women howling for the dead down in the village, and they can hear drums and they can hear the cries of celebration. And it's horrible. Oh, it is horrible because they're wondering, what will dawn bring? Are we going to be able to hold out? And where is Custer now?


Benteen clearly is going around saying to everybody, I know Custer. I know the way he behaves. He's abandoned us.


He's run off.


Yeah, he's gone off. That's absolutely classic Custer. This is typical.


He's got the victory and he's. Yeah.


So they are stuck up on this hill.


But you don't think that. I mean, the fact that 7th cavalry rifles suddenly have popped up, I suppose they might think that it's been taken by Reno's dead.


I don't know. Yeah, I suppose so. I don't think they're really thinking about it. Yeah, maybe not most of them. I think they're just in such a funk, Tom, and not unreasonably a ballet funk. So they wake up the morning, the 26th, they're still on this hill. To bolster your last point, they can see at this point that some of the native warriors below, the Cheyenne or Lakota, they are wearing 7th cavalry coats. And some of them have hats. They're kind of straw hats. So that would be a bit of a giveaway that something untoward has happened to Custer's men. But actually they just look at them and they say, well, maybe Custer has abandoned us and left some coats behind. I mean, who knows? Anyway, they're just stuck up there being fired at arrows, gunshots.


And they don't have water, do they?


They have no water. It's getting very, very hot, of course, because the morning proceeds. Now, the 40 of these men are badly injured and have lost quite a lot of blood. And when you've lost a lot of blood, you're obviously in serious danger of dehydration. And they are desperate. I mean, one man went mad from thirst. They are chewing grass. They suck pebbles. They gnaw bullets to try and work up saliva.


And there's a terrible story, isn't there, of a man who's been shot in the stomach, Mister McVeigh, who's begging nonstop for water. And he ends up offering $75 for a drink of water. And they said, yeah, fine, okay. A trooper braves the rifle fire of the enemy to go and get the water from the roof, brings it back, gets his $75, the man drinks it and it just trickles out through the hole in his stomach.


Yeah, terrible. But he laid back and died in.


Peace, so not all bad.


So, yeah, depends whether Tom.


And also, of course, the other thing is that when people die, they start to decompose. And this is a particular problem with horses, because if a horse gets hit by a bullet in its stomach, it's kind of swollen with gasses and you get this great explosion of putrefying flesh.


Yes, because they're using the horses bodies.


As the siege wall.


Exactly. Exactly. Now, we have been, or you in particular, you've made some pretty, I think most listeners would agree, cruel and tasteless comparisons between Captain Benteen and your co presenter. That's true.


But you now step forward.


But Captain Benty now absolutely distinguishes himself.


Yes, well done, Dominic.


You could see the bullets throwing up dust as they struck all around him while he, as calmly as if on parade, came down our lines and after his errand returned in the same manner, carrying in his hand a carbine. His insouciance really comes into its own here, doesn't it? What did you compare him? A man playing an aunt in the music hall or something? Yeah, yeah. He looks like a female impersonator. Yeah, that's fair to say. But then he says to his men, he gives them an inspiring speech, now's your time, men. Give them hell. Hip hip, here we go. And everybody cheers and thinks this is tremendous.


Well, but not everybody dominates.


No, I know.


So there is. It would be me.




There's a guy who lies on the floor crying and refuses to go. And there's another bloke who hides behind a tin of cracker boxes and for the rest of his life is known as cracker Box Dan.


Yeah, well, all the rest of them except for the crying person. And there's also a guy who they've had to truss up like a hog because he was whimpering and shouting like a hog anyway.


Oh, it just sounds awful.


Bentin. He says, oh, we've got to go and get water. Loads of them step forward because they're inspired by his insouciance. And they.


Hip, hip, here we go.


And they go down and they get water in their kettles from the river under fire. And they return. Not one of them is hit. And they all got medals of honor.


Yeah, as well they should.


Very good behavior. So the day wears on. It's incredibly hot. They've got a little bit of water. They're still holding out. And eventually, at about 03:00 the firing seems to die down. What's actually happening at this point is the Lakota village is now moving. They are moving off towards the Bighorn mountains.


They've had their fun.


And actually, some of them look out. There's a guy called Charles Windolf who looked out and he says, we saw thousands. We couldn't believe it. Thousands upon thousands of people on foot and on horseback with all the trappings of a great camp moving slowly southward. It was like some biblical exodus, the Israelites moving into Egypt, a mighty tribe on the march. Many of them think at this point, well, custom must now be arriving with reinforcements. And he has scared them off. So they still wait on their hill. They're kind of huddled on their hill. They don't want to take any risks. Of course, it does take the Indians quite a long time to move off. So night falls, dawn comes they look out from the hill and they just see the remnants of some lodges and some debris and then they see a dust cloud coming from the north and they're like, oh, no. Is this more? Is this the Lakota attacking again? But then, no, the Duskow comes closer and they think it's soldiers. It's us army soldiers. Thank goodness. Now, just before the US army arrives, it is quite a rorke's drift style achievement, isn't it, that they have held out on this hill.


They were so close under Reno to complete and utter panic and chaos. And actually Benteen, for all his malignance.


Is the hero of the hour.


He has steadied their nerve. Yeah, 350 of them, I think, is still alive.


It's like when we did our first time doing a live show and I was gibbering.


Were you?


I had to be trussed up like a hog. And you were just. You came into your own. You just stepped out onto the stage, cool, very measured. And you shamed me and I crawled out from behind the cracker box. And that's what it's like. And that's why you've been given the goal hanger medal of honor, the malevolence.


For just that, for just for 90 glorious fleeting moment.


Yeah, it just vanished.


And I thought the cruel cynicism melted away.


This is a new dominic.


Theo has written in the chat. Cynical intelligence. I like that, Theo. Thank you.


Anyway, they say, well done, Benteen.


Yeah, well done, Benteen. So it is actually General Terry who is arriving. He's finished his dinner on the steamboat or whatever it is.


Yes, he's brushed his whiskers with his.


Napkin and he is. He finally deigned to turn up, actually. That's very harsh. They attacked too quickly, didn't they? They should have waited for him. They give three cheers for him and he takes his hat off as he rides up to them. And some of them notice that he has. He's crying, that General Terry is crying. And they actually don't know why. And then Benteen's good behavior.


Bad Benteen.


He says to Terry, where's Custer? And General Terry says, to the best of my knowledge and belief, he lies on this ridge about 4 miles below here with all his command killed. It's an incredibly solemn moment now. Anybody else would perhaps fall silent here. A moment of reflection perhaps.


Does Benteen.


No. Benteen says, no. No way. Custer's not dead. I know Custer's back. He says, I think he's somewhere down the bighorn grazing his horses at the battle of the Washita. He went off and left part of his command. I think he would do it again.




And bad Benti. Terry cuts him off. No, Terry is very cross at this. You are mistaken. You will take your company and go down where the dead are lying and investigate for yourself.


And so this is a horrible journey, isn't it?




Because Benteen takes his men and they go down into the valley, through the village, and up onto the heights, and going down into the village, they find all kinds of remnants of the 7th cavalry. So there's a head of someone and his body parts, and it's clearly been dragged on a rope, and it's just completely disintegrated. So the arms and the legs have all just kind of fallen off. And as they're going across the plane, they start to realize that wherever they see clumps of arrows like cacti coming up from the grass, this is a dead trooper. There are entrails everywhere. There are limbs, heads, whatever. And there's a pole with three charred human heads who are so burned that they can't be recognized. And then they go up onto the slopes and they think that a buffalo has been killed and that there are buffalo skins everywhere and skinned buffalo carcasses. But then they come up closer and they realize that what they had thought were buffalo skins are, in fact, the horses that are dead and that what they thought were the skinned buffalo carcasses are the bodies of Custer's men. And they go round and they count 197 dead soldiers.


Yeah. And often they're. Insofar as the men's faces survive, their expressions are one of terrible agony. Agony, fear, dread.


Eyes bulging. And of course, they're looking for Custer, aren't they?




And it's a private called Jacob Adams who finds Custer. And he calls Benteen over. And Benteen looks down at Custer's corpse and does he bury the hatchet?




Does he come up with a ringing acknowledgement of the heroism of his dead commander, Dominic? Or what does he say?


No, he doesn't. He says, you know, he lets himself down. Does Benteen? He says, there he is. God damn him. He will never fight anymore. So Custer is lying very close to his brother Tom. Tom's skull has been totally smashed in, hasn't it? And his body has been horrifically mutilated. His younger brother, Boston is also there, and his nephew, 18 year old Aughty Reid. Custer himself, oddly, has not particularly been mutilated. He's been hit by two bullets, one in the chest, round about the heart, one in the temple.


He's been stripped naked.


He's been stripped. His thigh has been cut, which was a locota tradition. And there is one more detail which was suppressed, wasn't it, to spare his wife his feelings.




That his penis has been stabbed with an arrow. So an arrow has been inserted into him.


One thing, he has not been scalped.




And so the question hangs over. They would have wanted long hair's scalp, but of course, his hair is not long. And there's no particular reason why they would have recognized him.


No. I think it's generally thought, isn't it? He probably hadn't been recognized.


So we'll maybe discuss this in the second half where we try and work out what actually happened.




And discuss whether there was a last stand and if so, how heroic it was. Okay, so we will see you after the break. Hello. Welcome back to the rest is history and Dominic Custer's last stand. You know, we've said one of the absolutely totemic moments of world history, but what do we actually know about it, and what do we know about the events that preceded it?


Well, you'll recall that the last we saw of Custer was at 330 on the 24 June when that trumpeter rode off with the message for benteen. And I think it's fair to say that probably is the last time that anybody, any survivor sees him alive. So, of course, the thing with Custer and his last stand, Tom, the american thermopylae, is, you know, all those people called it in the sort of late 19th, early 20th century, nobody who was with Custer from that moment on survived. They're all dead. So it's been analyzed, as it were, to death, I mean, in hundreds and hundreds of books by different historians. And ultimately, the only honest answer can be that we can never know that. We will never know that. It is impossible to be certain. I mean, you will read books. We both read them. They give extremely detailed accounts. He turned up the coulee, you know, across the scre.


But no one, they can't possibly, possibly do that, except having said that, there are two sources of information that we're not completely lost in ignorance, because we do have eyewitness accounts, which are those who fought against the 7th Cavalry. Now, obviously, they may be saying what their listeners want them to say.




You know, they may embellish what they saw.


Be boasting.


Be boasting. So that's not reliable. But the other thing is the evidence of archeology.


Yes, of course.


And 1983, there was a fire, wasn't there, that kind of ravaged the battlefield site, and a lot of archeological work was done. So they went in and the archeologists and they kind of found, you know, military kit that had been abandoned. And there's a very good book, Richard Fox's Archeology History and Custer's last battle, which I think has shed a good deal more light on what happened than there was before that fire because it is such a mythic battle. Of course, there are all kinds of myths around it.


Yeah. So there's two really peculiar stories which you should deal with probably straight away. So there is one group of witnesses who are not people who fought against Custer, who are the scouts. There are three crow scouts who have this extraordinary story that they told to a photographer called Edward Curtis in the early 19 hundreds in 1907. And they said they saw Custer watching Reno's troops being routed and running away and all the shambles and all of that stuff, and Custer just watched and did nothing from the bluffs. Now, this is, at the time was an incendiary story. Remember that a lot of the people from that battle were still alive at that point. And Edward Curtis was really shocked by this story because, of course, this would transform the image of Custer that he had knowingly, presumably in an attempt to get all the glory for himself, had knowingly let Reno get into trouble while doing nothing to help him. And actually, Curtis sent this story before publishing it. He sent it to Theodore Roosevelt because he knew Roosevelt was a great enthusiast for stories of the west. And he said to Roosevelt, what do you think?


And Roosevelt said, well, I don't really believe it, but that said, anything is possible in the battle. Anyway, Curtis didn't publish it at first. It only came out much later on. And I think most historians now are suspicious of it. They don't know why the scouts would have made it up or maybe got it wrong or who knows?


It would have been hard for Custer, perhaps. Get down there.


It might.




Now, the other story, even stranger. There was a guy called Private Peter Thompson who was 22. He was part of Custer's company, but he fell behind, part of his battalion, I should say. And then he fell behind. His horse was knackered. He stopped, put on spurs to encourage his horse, and some Lakota warriors came near him. So he went and hid in a ravine. And there's a lot of sort of faffing around. But later on he comes out of his hiding place and he sees. He said he saw a crow scout dragging a bound Lakota woman near the banks of the little Bighorn. That's not impossible that a Crow scout could have captured a hostage or something. And then he says he saw Custer alone on his horse talking to them. And Custer waved and then rode on. And no one knows what to make of this story. I mean, some people say, is it like a hallucination? Was Custer just going off and scouting on his own for a moment and that's what he saw?


I don't think it's true, because I think that in the wake of the death of a famous person in a great disaster.




People are always fabricating stories about how they saw him.


Of course.


Because there are, of course, stories that Custer survived. Little bit.


He's now living with Elvis.


Captain Smith.


Yes, Captain Smith. The Titanic. Right. No, I think. I mean, we just don't know. Of course, the other thing is that from 1876 onwards, as soon as the story reaches the east coast, it is big business to tell custer stories, isn't it?


Of course.


So who knows? Anyway, let's assume that both put those stories to one side because there's no way of proving them. I think we can get a vague sense, can't we, if you sort of put all the different accounts together and sift what they think.


Should we just describe the topography again?


Go on.


Well, it's just. I mean, that is the most important.


Thing in 500 episodes. I've never known you such an enthusiast for the topography.


I'll be honest, I often find it a real struggle to understand battles.




So in front of me I have the Osprey classic battles guide to the little Bighorn.


Love it.


And I think these are excellent books.


I never thought we'd reach this moment.


I know, but they give you wonderful maps with arrows and things, but they also show you the terrain. So I'm looking at it now. So there is a little bighorn river snaking through. You've got the plain, you've got the village on the. What is it? It's the west side, haven't you?


Yes, the west side of the river. And Custer's over on the east side of the river.


So that's the side that Reno is on. He retreats back across the river to the east side and he makes his stand up on the. On the heights. Custer is already up on the bluffs, up on the heights, so he is galloping along the heights. The heights are scored by ravines, by creeks, so it's not a kind of continuous race, but the bluffs that look over the village, it's quite difficult to get down from them.


Yes, it is.


So there is a river, a cule. So you could go down that. But essentially the challenge is how do you get down to the river and from the river into the village? Because I guess the assumption has to be that Custer is looking to take hostages. He's looking to round up women and children. That is, he'd done before at the.


Wish because he'd done it before and because it's a tactic that's proven to work. So I think, and lots of people have written about this, think it is plausible that Custer probably at this point we're talking, what, 334 o'clock led a faint against the village or a move against the village or maybe not a faint.


Maybe he's going down there to go and grab some women.


Right. Could be. Some historians think possibly to draw people off from Reno. He's trying to help Reno, actually. Other people think, no, Reno's beside the point.


Well, he wouldn't know about Reno, would he?


Well, we don't know. We just don't know what he's seen. We don't know that he saw Reno. But it's possible he could later have seen him. Right.


It's about 4 miles away. Yeah, I guess I just don't think you've seen him.


I want to say what probably happened. We have very sort of disorganized and contradictory accounts from Lakota.


Should we do it in order?




Before we get into the details of whether or not he goes down to the ford and whether he dies there or whatever.


Go on then, Tom.


So there's a hill that will come to be called Calhoun hill, isn't there? And this is where a large body of his troops are stationed?


Yes. Under a guy called Captain Keough who had fought against Garibaldi.


And he's a very handsome man. The most handsome, handsomest man in the regiment. Yes. And he also has with him the eponymous lieutenant Calhoun, after whom the hill is named and who had been sent a cake by his wife. And he has ridden into the battle with this cake and nobody knows what happens to it. So presumably the Lakota take it.


Yeah. Did they eat it and then brush their teeth with Custer's toothbrush? That's all right of them.


It's one of the great unknowns, isn't it? So Calhoun Hill is kind of the southern end and Custer is moving northwards of a ridge of hills.


Yes, it is. That's right.


I think it's called Battle Ridge today.


So Custer probably leaves some men, these men, under Keogh on that hill. He further divides his battalion. I mean, Custer cannot stop dividing up.


His troops, but there is a point where they're all on the hill and this is where Boston Custer joins them.




So he's come up with his supplies and things.


It depends which account you read. There are some people who think Custard went down twice to the river. So he probably went initially. This was his plan. He went down to scope it out.


Comes back up or was perhaps driven.


Back up, we don't know, by Lakota. Now, actually, Tom, we should say everything from this point onwards. It's possible, of course, that from this point onwards Custer is dead because there are some Lakota who say, well, the battle didn't take. There was no last stand and no battle. We dealt with Custer and his men straight away. It took 20 minutes, enough time for a hungry man to eat a meal. Or as one person says, it took as long as it takes for the sun to travel the width of a lodge pole. Again, 1520 minutes.


Although the question then is how does Custer's body get up on the well?


Right. So I think it's unlikely that he's killed, as some people suggest, down at the ford, down at the river.


Right. That is a theory, that there was no last stand and that the whole thing just disintegrates because Custer dies early. But I just think that's it. I don't understand how his body would have ended up on top of a hill behind a horse.


I think that's in defiance of some of the archeological evidence, isn't it?




And the fact that there are so many shell casings on the top of this ridge. So it's plausible given that also that his men, Reno's men, heard the firing going on till what, 530 or so, I think. So it's plausible. People think that by about 05:00 Custer is on this Calhoun hill with Keogh. And they are. It's probably. Maybe it's about this point that Custer realized, oh, God, this is actually not, you know, I mean, it's an interesting question, isn't it? When was the point? Because at 330 he thinks he's going to win and he's dead by probably by six. Certainly by six. So at some point during that afternoon, it must suddenly have dawned on him and his men that they were massively outnumbered and they'd made a terrible miscalculation.


But this is when he then thinks, I'll have another crack at the village, maybe again. Or maybe it's the first time, which is so Custer. Yeah, you're outnumbered, you're outgunned, maybe 15 to one. I'll just go down, attack the village, take load of hostages. What's the problem?


There must have been a moment when that gambit of going down to the village to take the hostages changes from being something that you're doing because you're going to win and this will be a way to enable that to being a desperate. This is the only way of preserving your life.


So he does go down there and he never crosses the river and there's all kinds of slaughter.




He's brought along a journalist, obviously, because he wouldn't want to be fighting a battle without a journalist to report it. And this is a guy called Mark Kellogg. And this seems to be when he died because his body is found down there.


Yeah. So there are definitely bodies down by the ford, down by the river, up on the hill. Now at this point, crazy horse, according to some of the Lakota accounts, has joined the fray, is leading people against Captain Keogh.




Oh, you have different accounts, Tom?


Well, no, I mean, he is, but people may be wondering, what are the Lakota doing while Custer is galloping up and down hills and people are getting out their cake and things like that? And the answer is that again, crazy Horse is not rushing immediately into battle. He's communing. He is sprinkling dust over himself. He spends 20 minutes kind of just getting himself in focus and then he's off again. And he seems to have led warriors upper Koolaid.


Do you love Koolaid?


Upper ravine lover, cool and Ghaul, two of whose wives and three of whose children had been killed by the first volley from Reno's men when they attacked the young papa end of the village. He is going the other way. And it does seem that the goal is to surround Calhoun Hill, where Keogh is and Calhoun. And they seem to be doing this quite successfully, even as Custer is riding back up to what will become last hand hill.


One reason they're doing it successfully, by the way. We know from the archeology that the Indians, the Lakota, the Cheyenne are very well armed by comparison with Custer's men. Remember that Custer's men have these terrible carbines. They overheat, and when they overheat, they stop working or they, I don't know, go off in your face or something. But also they're single shot. Now, we know from the archeology that the Native Americans had 43 different types of weapons. And I read a startlingly large number of warriors, perhaps as many as 300 possessed modern repeating rifles manufactured by Henry and Winchester capable of firing 17 rounds without reloading.


So they're outgunned.


I mean, they're massively outgunned.


Crazy horses banned. Gauls banned. They're kind of surrounding Calhoun Hill. They are able to, from behind rocks, shoot. They are hidden. The 7th cavalry are exposed, as you said, many of them have better firearms. And the point comes, I think, when Gaul decides, okay, let's storm it, and they rush up the southern approaches to Calhoun. Hillary. And, you know, they're blazing away, and the 7th cavalry just disintegrate. They're terrified.


Some of them shoot themselves.


One of the braves who takes part says it looked like a stampede of buffalo.


Quite a lot of the codes in their accounts say the american troopers seemed like they were drunk or they acted like they were children, or they became foolish. Some of them tried to surrender, raise their hands. Some of them shot themselves rather than fall into enemy hands or started begging for mercy. Standing bear, somebody fought in this battle, told his son, when we rode into those soldiers, I felt really sorry for them. They looked so frightened. Many of them lay on the ground with their blue eyes open, waiting to be killed.


But there's also iron hawk.




Who later explains why he had pounded a trooper's skull to little smithereens. And he said, these white men wanted it. They called for it, and I let them have it.


Well, it's important to remember that. I mean, this was a war planned in Washington. Yeah, of course, based on sort of, you know, exaggerated reports, and with the pure land grab at its heart for the Black Hills, Custer's plan was to attack, and he would have killed a lot of people if he'd won.


And we've already talked about Ghaul, how he has a kind of personal reason to want to get vengeance. And that seems to be why he launches the attack that ends up overwhelming and destroying the men on Calhoun Hill. Meanwhile, Custer is up on a further height along the ridge, and you can only imagine what he must have been feeling if he's still alive at this point, watching this horror happen and being absolutely powerless to do anything about it. And there are a few men who do manage to get across to him. A few, but not that many.


Yeah. What are we talking about? Maybe 90, surrounded by thousands. No way they could have broken out at that point. And, of course, it might not have happened like this, but lots of accounts think, based on the archeology and based on where the bodies were found, that this is the most plausible. And also, people want to believe. Everyone wants to believe there was a last stand, don't they, Tom? I mean, even we want to believe it, don't you think?


I think that if that's what the archeology suggests, then. Well, because we also know that. I think that this is the point where the banners get taken. The bwaidons, they're called, aren't they? And they're presumably being used to, you know, what is it? Acoustics.


Oh, yes, of course. I had thought of that. So it's on that, the northern bit of the ridge that Custer and his men died.


It's also at this point that they kill their horses and kind of try.


To build a much as Reno's wall out of them people had done, you know, hiding behind those putrefying horses on. On his hill.


But they know they've got no hope. Yeah. I mean, they must be outnumbered, what, 2030 to one by now.


As we said, cluster probably not identified because his body would surely have been singled out for particular.


Well, I mean, interestingly, sitting Bull later gives an interview to a journalist, and he says that he watched Custer fell, and he said he killed a man. When he fell, he laughed.


People love this, you see. This is the great.


I want that to be true. The laughing cavalier.


Yes. Or the norse epic, you know, laughing will I die? That kind of icelandic or viking sense of the sort of hero who laughing falls against overwhelming odds. And that was the idea that Custer had died with a smile on his face.




Became enormously important to the mystique of the last stand.


He died with his boots on.


Yeah, exactly. But actually, it's Custer's brother Tom's fate that gives you more of a sense of what it was really like.


That's hideous.


It's not laughing while you die. It's actually dying in horrible agony and then being horrendously mutilated afterwards.


Yeah. And do you think that's deliberate? Do you think they recognized him?


I can't remember which historian it is. It might be Philbrick. It might be, I don't know, one of the many Peter cousins. One of the many others. They say. Presumably he fought harder than others, and the harder you fought, the more likely you were to have incurred horrific injuries. But certainly it must have been done and dusted by about 530. There was a scout called Gerard who was hiding in the woods, and he heard firing continuing till he said 2 hours, and then no more firing. And it's at that point that the women would have come out of the village, as was absolutely standard procedure. They would pierce people's ears and things with awls. They would strip the dead.


Well, there's a woman, isn't there who, many years later, who says that they got hold of Custer's corpse and recognized it and did this to his ears and stuck an arrow up his penis.




Improbable, I think. Because I think it does seem that they didn't recognize him.


Yeah, I don't think they recognized him.


So are there any survivors? I mean, there is one famous survivor, which is a horse.


Oh, yes, of course.


Which is it? Keogh's horse. Comanche.




Who, I mean, amazingly, does manage to recover and gets tended by the vets. And from that point on, he would walk in processions at the head of Keo's old troop. And as with Kennedy's funeral, where they put the boots on backwards, they do that. And Comanche lives to be 29. And apparently you can still see him because they stuffed him. He's on display in the natural history museum at the University of Kansas.


Crikey. Worth making the trip just for that.




So taxidermy is something of a theme of this series, unexpectedly.


But we love a heroic horse.


We do.


So maybe good to end on a positive. There was one survivor.


So, Benteen, this is the sight that confronts him. Two days later, as he looks down, he makes that extremely disobliging remark. God damn him or whatever he says about poor old Custer.


He'll never fight again.


In total, they had lost 258 men killed and 60 wounded. Lekoto and Cheyenne probably lost about 31 warriors, six women, four children. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose you could say it's not the battle of Kursk or something, but the symbolism could hardly be more powerful under Terry. They got back to the river. Terry went back to a steamer, and he said to the guy who plans the steamer, oh, thank God, white tablecloths. He said to the flies, they had all the wounded. And he said to the guy, the captain, he said, captain, you have on board the most precious cargo that a boat has ever carried. Every soldier here is suffering with wounds. They are the victims of a terrible blunder, a sad and terrible blunder. And they rush back east and they break all speed records to get back to the town of Bismarck. And they get back there on the 5 July, so the day after the nation's hundredth birthday. Now, the celebrations of America's centennial had started at kind of just before midnight on the night of the 3 July in Philadelphia. The following day, the first story appeared, but not in the east coast.


It was in the west coast, in the Helena Herald of Montana. And that was based on the account of a Crow scout but it's not until the 5 July that the story appears in New York. Basically when they got back to Bismarck they told the, you know, there's a local newspaperman called Mister Lounsbury of the Bismarck Tribune and he found out about it. He dictated the story down the line on the telegram to the New York Herald. It took him tom 22 hours.


Oh God.


The story he dictated 40,000 words worth of news. That's supposedly the longest telegram ever sent. I mean 22 hours.




And it appeared in the New York Herald on the morning of the fifth.


And what about Libby? What about misses custer?


Libby didn't find out from that, of course, she's not in New York. She found out the following day the news reaches Fort Lincoln. So just across from Bismarck, the commander of the fort went in to see her at 07:00 in the morning apparently, and said, you know, we have news and she could tell straight away. And to her credit, to her immense credit, she insisted on visiting every bereaved widow in the fort to tell them personally what had happened.


And she will always tend the flame of her husband's memory from that point on, won't she?


So she lived until I think the 1930s. She discovered that Custer had left her enormous debts. She managed to pay them off and she became the guardian of the Custer flame. She wrote, you know, memoirs of him and then she became almost like a sort of. This sounds harsh. I don't mean it to sound harsh. She became professionally Custer's widow. You know, that was her function in life, her job. Yeah. You know, she was very good at it. She tended his, his image. But of course, straight away when the news reaches the east coast, people are looking saying who's to blame?


Well, Terry said, you know, the wounded soldiers on board are the victims of a terrible blunder, a sad and terrible blunder. So shades of the charge of the light brigade. Someone had blundered.


Yeah, someone had blundered.


And so if that is true, so if the disaster is due to a blunder, but of course there is another explanation for it that we'll come to after this. Yeah, who's blundered? And I suppose there are three figures in the frame.


Three figures. General Terry, by the way, you could argue General Terry, who's meant to be the overall commander of the expedition, he doesn't cover himself for glory or crook. Crook. Why didn't he communicate after the rosebud? So I think you can point the finger at those two men accepting that on the day itself mistakes were made. I think it's fair to say, tom, isn't it? So let's start with the most obvious candidate. He's the only person into whom there was an investigation, and that is major Reno. Reno had a terrible life afterwards. He was court martialed for sexual assault.


He kept kind of wandering around, peering into women's, the windows of the women's quarters in force.


He behaves extremely badly generally. He's always getting drunk and getting into fights. He's a very troubled man. So Frederick Whittaker, who you began with the poem, Custer's first biographer, the man who really invents the last stand story, Whittaker basically waged an endless campaign against Reno and said Reno was responsible for Custer's death. And lots of people when they were writing accounts in the twenties and thirties. This one here I found Robert G. Carter. I think it's in the 1920s. Reno showed the white feather from the start and his entire conduct was that of a white livered, yellow streaked cowardly. If there was ever a pusillanimous poltroon in the army whose name should be handed down to future generations as an arrant coward, Marcus a. Reno is the man.


I mean, I think that actually there is a measure of truth to that. If that Lakota woman who we quoted in the previous episode was accurate in saying that had Reno charged as Custer would undoubtedly have charged right at the beginning, then perhaps things might have been different. I think that was the only prospect they had of winning the battle. So it is possible that Reno was the only person who had the opportunity to seize a victory in his hands. And he fluffed it.


Yeah, he did fluff it and he didn't command. Well, there's parts of me that feel sorry for Reno.


Yeah, I feel sorry for him.


He's a very troubled man.


Yeah. But I do think that he was the only person who could have won that battle. But he's not a Custer.




Had Custer been there, he might have won it.


He's the wrong man in the wrong place. He behaves very badly.


But whose task was it to assign him that job? It was Custer's. So ultimately, yeah, if we are spreading blame around, the blame is with Custer.


Historians generally, I would say, treat Reno. They agree that Reno was a coward and he panicked. I think most of us are perhaps less inclined to be too judgmental because we know we've never been a battle ourselves and we don't know how we would react.


I know exactly how I'd react.


Well, anybody who's ever read about, you know, the men in the world wars knows that every man is only brave up until the point when he cracks. I mean, everybody cracks. You know, it's very rare for somebody not to. There's always a point. You never know when it will be. So that point where, you know, bloody knife's head explodes in his face. Can I blame him for panicking at that point? And now, of course, lots of people who will listen to this and say, God, you're making excuses for somebody who is in a position of responsibility. But there's part of me that does feel a little bit sorry for him. Now, Benteen, on the other hand, Benteen did behave very well in the later stages of the battle. He rallies the men on the hill. But historians tend to be very critical of Benteen, don't they?


I think, harshly.


Do you?


I think he behaves well. I think that perhaps his prefarications over.


Prevarications that people point to over what.


He thought about Custer. I mean, it's possible that he thought. I mean, either Custer is dead or he's winning a glorious victory, and either way, there's no point in going to.


But it's his job to go, Tom.


I mean, I understand that had he gone up, he would have been wiped out as well, and Reno's men would have been wiped out.


I agree.


So Benteen is the man who saves a fair proportion of the 7th cavalry, and I think he deserves credit for it.


Thank you, Tom. Well, I hope you remember that next time you confront a similarly outwardly amiable but ultimately malign personality.


Dominic, I see the inner good in you.


Oh, that's nice.


And that, I think, is one of the lessons of studying the little Bighorn campaign.


So we're glad you've got something positive out of it. So finally, of course, Custer. Now, interestingly, at first, the reaction was mixed to Custer. He wasn't immediately the national hero. So republican newspapers, because, of course, they remember that he has attacked Grant and he's been endorsing democratic presidential candidates and all kinds of things. Republican newspapers said, what a fool custer is. Disobedience of orders, a fatal blunder, says the headline in the Chicago Daily News. And it's Democrat papers that say what a brilliant person Custer is, you know, a friend to the white man, an enemy to, you know, everybody else. Terribly hard done by the battle, little bighorn and so on. Actually, over time, that partisan animosity just disappears, doesn't it? And everybody concludes, oh, Custer is brilliant, and he's such a martyr and a hero of the west. Actually, I tell you, the single, the saddest sentence in this whole story, and it comes from not a brilliant man, to be honest. It's Custer's father who's still alive, Emmanuel Custer. And when he read the papers saying that it was Custer's mistake and that had led all these men to their deaths, he said, they wrong my dead boy.


There's something about those words, you know, they wrong my dead boy. That kind of really resonates with me. I don't know why.


Because you're massively sentimental.


Yeah. Because ultimately, a very kindly person, despite.


Beneath your malign, cynical, evil exterior. Yeah, clearly gooey center of sentimentalism.


Definitely. I've got a Disney core.


That's why.


Now, you're generally more critical of Custer than me, aren't you, Tom? Do they wrong his dead boy? Is Custer at fault?


Yeah, I think. I think absolutely. He didn't reconnoiter. He had lots of people telling him he was arrogant, he was complacent, he divided his troops up.


Yeah, he. But that was turned out to be a mistake.


He sent Reno, whose belly was too yellow to cope with the stress of it. I see why he does it. His dash, his self confidence has taken him to incredible heights of achievement. But you only have to be unlucky once. And it's not just bad luck, it's bad judgment as well at this point, I think.


Well, that's the nature with any swashbuckling commander, isn't it? So more conservative commanders are never in that position. They're safety first. On the other hand, they don't win smashing, unexpected victories.


I completely accept that. And I also accept that the nature of Custer's generalship, the nature of his dash, his celerity, his swagger, his charisma, is why we're sitting here talking about him and not talking about all the other generals on the plains who lost men and ended up dead.


Yeah, we're not doing a podcast.


We're not talking about Fetterman.


No. Or Fetterman. Exactly. Just on Custer. Actually, the trend among his biographers, I think, very recently. So there was definitely a turn against Custer, let's say from the bury my heart at wounded Knee.


Yeah. So the sixties. I mean, Custer is not a 1960s person. And the kind of the influence of Vietnam.


Sixties, seventies, eighties, the trend is to be down on Custer, to say a reckless, arrogant, racist commander. But actually, in recent years, there's been a slight swing of the pendulum back. And I think quite a lot of historians say, listen, it takes two sides to win a battle, and actually the story of the little bighorn is not. The Americans lost it by their mistakes.


Right. So it's not the blunder. It's the success.




And the success belongs, I think, preeminently to sitting ball. But I think particularly crazy horse.


Yeah. It's sitting Bull who unites disparate groups into the biggest encampment ever. And he is confident this will protect us. And he's right. It does. If he hadn't done that, I agree. If he hadn't been so successful, skillful in doing that, he'd have been toast.


But I also think that it is crazy Horse's leadership on the battlefield and the rosebud, which is an absolutely crucial because it means the crook is not there overture. But it also gives the warriors the confidence to know that they can take on american soldiers and beat them.




I mean, it does seem that in both cases, when they attack Reno, it's the idea that crazy Horse is coming. And then with the attack on Custer's men on the ridge, it's crazy horse's presence that inspires their destruction.


Yeah. So sheer numbers, if that's the one thing that none of the Americans ever anticipated, even when the scouts said it's very big, you know, when General Sherman was told about the defeat, he couldn't believe it. And he said, I did not think there were enough Indians there to do it.


Right. And the fact that they are there and they're coherent and they're willing to follow something that approximates to orders. I mean, it's not orders. It's the inspiration of a very, very charismatic war leader. But I think that is down to sitting Bull and crazy horse and the courage of the men who fought with.


Them just on the Lakota. Because the great irony is all the talk about the last stand, this is their last stand, actually, isn't it? Yeah.


I mean, because their greatest victory, this makes it inevitable.


There's no way after this that the United States federal government and the US army will just say, as they did after the fetterman massacre, that they'll just say, okay, fine, you win. We'll stay out of the black hills. The scale of the humiliation on the nation's birthday is such. It makes it absolutely inevitable that they will come back for more in a way that will make it absolutely impossible for the Lakota to win out or to survive with the lifestyle. Well, I mean, that world was dying anyway, wasn't it? The world of the bison and roaming across the plains. And that's the. And just on Custer, Tom, now we will tell the story of crazy Horse and sitting Bull and the Lakota, but just on Custer. You love the subject of Custer, don't you? But now that we've finished this whole story of his part in the story, do you feel as favorably inclined to him as you did when you and I were young and we were reading that lady bird book?


Well, so I didn't know all the. The role that he plays in the racial politics that follows the end of the civil war. I didn't know that. And, of course, there's a world of difference between a children's book describing tales of heroism and derring do and then watching, say, little big man, which I remember watching. Quite an impressionable age.


Dustin Hoffman.


Yeah, Dustin Hoffman. In which the washita is cast as a massacre from Vietnam, the my Lai massacre or something. I was very into bury my heart, a wounded knee. I was very into sacred spirit, all that kind of thing. I was very open to seeing the 7th Cavalry as an exterminatory force. Very kind of down on them. But having said all that, there is something almost joyous about Custer's zest for battle and for living that I think is appealing and does explain why he is so vivid as a historical figure in a way that all these other kind of almost identicate generals with their mutton chops and their whiskers and their, you know, their kind of dour behavior just doesn't. I mean, he does dazzle, and this is why we've done this great series on him.


He's like one of those characters, isn't he? Like, I mean, we've done some pretty terrible, you know, by many standards, Hernan Cortez.


I don't think he's like Hernan.


Well, it's much more calculating.


I think the person he reminds me of is Rupert of the Rhine, who likewise was a kind of youthful hero. The dashing cavalier who charges down hills and is swashbuckling, but, of course, who stages all kinds of massacres and who ends up a slaver in the Caribbean and seems to, I mean, essentially not the stuff of a hero, and yet he is heroic. He does have the kind of the dash. He does have the swagger.


The archetype of that is Alexander the great, leading charges, swashbuckling, blonde hair blowing in the breeze.


Yeah, I think. I mean, Alexander is a vastly more significant figure, vastly more resonant figure. I think. I mean, fundamentally, Custer is a slight figure in the kind of the scales of history. But the reason for studying him and the reason, the justification for doing this series in the depth that we have done is that he is a brilliant, brilliant way of looking at this period of american history that is so important and yet relative to other periods of american history, is very little studied. And Custer is the great kind of shining figure from this period, as also, I think, are sitting bull and crazy horse, in very different ways. And it's the fact that it's the fusion, it's the way that these two unbelievably dynamic figures end up meeting. The symmetry of the story is perfect. And there are certain episodes, certainly narratives in history, that do have a quality of symmetry that just makes them kind of perfect for study.


We were talking about the homeric quality of it, weren't we? The fact that it feels. Well, the fact that it feels like it could be a viking epic or whatever. So we will, as we said, end the stories of. We'll tell you what happened to crazy Horse and sitting Bull, and indeed the Lakota, more generally. And that story does end with another really extraordinary and very, very moving set piece, which is the story of the ghost dance and then the massacre at Wounded Knee. And we will be telling that story next time, won't we? So come back next time for the end of this epic adventure. Bye.