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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • LV Times columnist: 'Boy General' made big mistake at Little Big Horn

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  • Choosing a topic for today’s column was a piece of cake, as it’s the exact date for one of the most famous events in U.S. military history.
    Although it happened 138 years ago today in the far off steppes of Montana, it’s a virtual shrine for lovers of military history.
    On June 25, 1876, an impetuous Army lieutenant colonel defied orders from his commander to link up for an expedition against Sioux Indians who had left their reservation. He charged.
    The headline of a contemporary news release, dateline June 25, Dakota Territory, stated in the lead sentence, “Custer is dead!” Yes, the legendary “Boy General” of the Civil War led some 265 troopers of the famed 7th Cavalry Regiment into the Little Big Horn valley of southern Montana in search of Sitting Bull and his unknown number of Sioux.
    The bad news for Custer was that when the number of Sioux was determined, it turned out to be an estimated 2,500 braves, placing the odds at about 10:1. Such odds have always favored the force with the higher number.
    Ah, George Armstrong Custer, 37, the legend from Michigan, who finished dead last in his class at West Point in 1861, just in time to march hurriedly off to the Civil War where, in just two years, he went from last in his class to the youngest brigadier general in the history of the U.S. Army.
    According to an internationally recognized expert on the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Dr. Doug Scott, of Lincoln, Neb., only the three-day Battle of Gettysburg has had more books written about it than the Little Big Horn, which lasted less than an hour.
    Scott came to Fort Leavenworth for many years to present a fascinating one-hour program on the battle for the Fort Leavenworth Historical Society. In the society’s more than 60-year history, it was the second-highest attended program of all, surpassed only by the 20-year run of the October Haunted Houses of Fort Leavenworth program.
    Scott became an expert on the battle when he headed the U.S. Park Service archaeological operation following a prairie fire at the battlefield 20 years ago. He’s written at least two books about the archaeological findings and his talk is about some of the discoveries.
    He also wrote a smaller book about Medal of Honor recipients of the battle. I couldn’t put my finger on my copy to verify, but I think there were 14 recipients for that less-than-one-hour battle.
    Many years ago, when money was available, historians at the Command and General Staff College developed a three-day “staff ride” to Little Big Horn. I was fortunate to have gone on two of them, with different leaders, and they are among the most interesting six days of my life.
    Page 2 of 2 - But, you don’t have to go all the way to Little Big Horn to see a part of it. The only survivor of the U.S. Army side was a horse, Commanche, owned and ridden at the battle by Capt. Miles Keough. He had so many Indian arrows in him the Indians left him to die.
    But he didn’t, and for many more years he was treated almost as royalty in retirement at Fort Riley. When he died in the 1890s, he was taken to a taxidermist at the University of Kansas to be preserved for the ages.
    He was, but when the soldiers at the fort couldn’t come up with the money to pay the taxidermist, the horse’s remains were kept at KU.
    The old boy is still there today, in the KU museum, to be seen and admired by all who know about him. A visit is certainly worth a trip from this area. Haven’t been myself in quite a few years, so I’m overdue.
    Even closer to home, at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, are the graves of four officers killed at the Little Big Horn, including Capt. Tom Custer, George’s little brother, and the first recipient of two Medals of Honor in history.
    Both of his were for actions during the Civil War.
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