THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY
FEBRUARY 2012 BOOK REVIEW
This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Summer 2009, Volume 55, Number 3)
THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN AND CUSTER’S LAST FIGHT Remembered by Participants at the Tenth Anniversary June 25, 1886 and the Fiftieth Anniversary June 25, 1926.
Introduced, Compiled and Edited by Richard Upton. Upton & Son, Publishers, El Sequndo, Calif. 2007. Volume Six in the Battle of the Little Big Horn Series. Large format. 218pp. Illus. Maps. Index. ISBN 0- 912783-41-9 $55.00.
No engagement in the Indian Wars has attracted as much attention as this one, and the plethora of literature never ceases to grow. This volume looks at two anniversaries of the battle and the coverage each received.
It may be asked why these anniversaries in particular have been covered and not others – for example, the 25th in 1901. The answer appears to be that whilst there was an attempt to observe the 20th Anniversary there seems to have been little enthusiasm for the project, with scant coverage of any events that did take place and efforts were to be concentrated on the 25th Anniversary instead. In the event, even less happened in 1901, though this may in part be explained by the fact that the Seventh Cavalry was stationed in Cuba at that time. (The 75th Anniversary was also relatively muted when compared with the centennial; the regiment was then serving in Korea.)
The second comment concerns the relative paucity of the coverage of the 10th Anniversary: only 40 pages are devoted to this. But in many ways this is explained by the relative isolation of the battlefield in 1886, with the troops from nearby Fort Custer providing the bulk of the white participants. Several participants attended both the 10th and 50th anniversaries; most had, however, already passed on by 1926.
It was at the 1886 reunion on the battlefield that Godfrey obtained Gall’s account, much of which was reproduced in Colonel Graham’s The Custer Myth, but which is reproduced here in full. Godfrey related his own account of the battle which formed the basis of his later, more extensive paper, published a few years later. This early account contains details not appearing later. Although survivors of the battle, McDougall, Dr. Porter, Edgerly and Benteen also attended they seem to have made no contribution to events, though Porter and Benteen did provide some reminiscences. Much of the material consists of newspaper coverage and here there is an unusual feature.
On 29 June 1886 an anonymous reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press had a piece published, alleging that Custer disobeyed Terry’s orders, citing an informant “occupying a high position in the expedition.” This informant, dead by 1886, stated that on the evening prior to the departure of the 7th from the mouth of the Rosebud, “Custer was summoned to the tent of Genl. Terry. There were present my informant Gen. Terry, my informant, Custer and, I think, no-one else but possibly a fourth.” The account goes on to state that the 7th was to move early on the 22nd and a map is reproduced showing the various designated camp sites for each column. The assumption was that the 7th ascended to the headwaters of the Rosebud, crossed to the headwaters of the Little Bighorn and descended that stream. The map suggested that the two columns would re-unite by the night of the 25th. The article includes a version of the conversation Custer had with Carland, which Brisbin later quoted in his later letter to Godfrey.
One is tempted to dismiss the entire article as a fabrication. But this is the only independent account in any way corroborating the alleged discussion overhead by Mary Adams. Bearing in mind that the reporter was quoting from memory and could not check with his own informant, some discrepancies are explicable. Terry almost certainly was staying on the boat and had no tent. Custer did have one. So who was the informant? It cannot have been Terry’s ADC, Colonel Hughes as he was still alive in 1886, and from later comments appears to have no knowledge of a meeting in a tent. The only possible officer who could have attended was Terry’s adjutant, Captain Edward W. Smith who had died a few years earlier. The fourth person present could have been Mary Adams. But what a completely different version of the conference!
An analysis of this conference is outside the scope of this review but this contribution bears close examination. The reviewer has never felt entirely comfortable about the Mary Adams affidavit, which seemed to record only part of the alleged conversation between Terry and Custer. This newspaper article does confirm, however, that there was a meeting in a tent.
The proceedings for the 50th Anniversary differed significantly from those forty years earlier. In the first place, it was estimated that some 40,000 people attended, compared with a few dozen in 1886. Secondly, the 7th Cavalry was represented some 250 officers and men from the five companies that perished with Custer. Some had been reading Colonel Graham’s The Story of the Little Big Horn, published earlier that year, whilst on the train from Fort Bliss, Texas, where the regiment was stationed. Whilst several enlisted men including Goldin and Slaper, and Indian warriors, who had fought for both sides in the battle attended, only one of the four surviving officers, General Godfrey, did so. Edgerly was in poor health, but Varnum and Hare were expected to attend but did not do so. Even military aircraft flew over the battlefield. This was a far more imposing spectacle than any that preceded it. This section of the volume is heavily illustrated and those of the cavalrymen on the battlefield are of especial interest, giving the reader a visual impression of how the troops might have appeared in 1876, discounting the changes in uniform, etc. Articles by authorities such as Bates, Downey and Bowen are reproduced, together with a letter from Mrs Custer urging that no memorial should be raised to Major Reno. Earl A Brininstool also attended and there are photographs of him with Private Slaper whose account he had published in A Trooper With Custer.
The book is well presented but the subject matter will appeal mostly to the Custeriana specialist, rather than to the general reader. There is much of interest here, with a limited amount of unpublished information on the battle itself; but with a battle that has received such attention, this book fills a niche in the Custer enthusiast’s library.
Francis B Taunton
English Westerners' Society
Copyright © 2012 English Westerners' Society