by Eric von Schmidt
"There are many little incidents connected with
this fight, but I don't recollect them now. I don't like to talk about
that fight. If I hear any of my people talk about it, I always move
The "fight" that the Sioux warrior Red Horse
referred to was the defeat of the 7th Cavalry, led by Lt. Col.
George A. Custer, by assembled bands of Sioux and Northern Cheyenne
camped along the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876. Red Horse's
statement was made to military authorities eight months later. It
had already become uncomfortable for an Indian who had fought that
battle to remember those "many little incidents."
So subterfuge has clouded the events of that
bloody Sunday in the
wilds of what is now southern Montana. Indians feared reprisals.
Survivors of the elite 7th Cavalry groped painfully for excuses,
scapegoats anything to salvage their shattered pride.
It is sometimes assumed that there were no
white survivors. There were none in the five companies that rode
north with Custer after he divided his command, but though the other
seven companies who fought four or five miles south of Custer
suffered heavy casualties, most lived to describe what went on in
their section and to speculate about what went wrong with the
The Drawings of Red Horse
Five years after the battle, Red Horse repeated
his story to Acting Assistant Surgeon Charles E. McChesney. This
time he also made careful drawings, 42 of them done with colored
pencils on large sheets of Manila paper. Superficially they resemble
the drawing of a talented child, but they are charged with a special
power. Lean, emotionless, quantitative, they are a record of the
event, making no attempt to interpret it. In 1971, after deciding to
do a painting of the fight, I made a special trip to the
Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution to view
these drawings, some of which are on exhibit at the National
Portrait Gallery. My hope was that they would provide many details
of dress and weapons and possibly some, special insight. They were
fascinating, yet I felt I had opened one mysterious box and found
another inside. Search for the real Custer battle was just
beginning. My very first viewing of the most famous Custer painting
was about 1946 in a barroom on the main street of Durango, Colorado.
I was underage, skinny and with only the faintest trace of fuzz on
my cheeks. My companion looked almost old enough to be there
legally. The place was dark as a cave, and the only light shone on a
painting of a portly gentleman who seemed to be engaged in fighting
off the entire Zulu Nation. Some nasty doings in the right
foreground were beginning to reveal themselves just about the time
the bartender slid us our dime drafts. Like any tough hombres out
on the town, we drained our glasses in a single swallow. Painting,
bartender, all Durango soon dissolved in a blur. How fitting that
my first glass of beer should coincide with my introduction to
"Custer's Last Fight." I realized later that Adolphus Busch had
planned it that way.
Millions of parched Americans have slaked their
thirst and gazed, with diminishing sobriety, at that harrowing
scene: "General" Custer with sword endlessly poised, the killing
bullet forever seeking its target. According to Don Russell's
informative book, Custer's Last, the Anheuser-Busch
brewers have distributed 150,000 copies of this color lithograph
since its first printing in 1895.
The Paintings of Cassilly Adams & E. Otto Becker
The original painting, from which this
lithograph derived, was made by a Civil War veteran, Cassilly
Adams, sometime before 1886. It was financed by others, including
John C. Furber, a St. Louis bar owner; a tour with the painting
flopped, and all 9 1/2 by 6 1/2 feet of it ended up back in
Furber's saloon. Even there, the rather crude, rawboned work proved
no match for the opulent celebrations of female anatomy found in
most contemporary bars. Furber's saloon failed, the creditors
pounced and in 1890 Cassilly Adams' painting of the Little Bighorn
was either bought or seized as a creditor's asset by the
Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association.
In 1895, one E Otto Becker of Milwaukee was
hired to paint a smaller version of the Adams work for a color
lithograph. It is in Becker's canvas that the strange shields
appear and Custer gains something of a beer drinker's paunch. Yet
Becker based his background on an actual photograph taken from the
ridge where Custer and his men were found by burial parties. The
completed painting was cut into sections to allow several
lithographers to work at once on preparation of color plates.
Becker returned to obscurity; Busch made advertising history; the
reality of the Custer fight dimmed to murk. It is tantalizing to
speculate about the effect this distorted piece of history has had
on all those boozers. It's hard to imagine anyone thinking that
Custer died, for his sins. Equally capricious, but hard to resist,
are patterns of national stereotypes that seem to influence many
depictions of the battle done before 1900. If America was a melting
pot, precious little melting had occurred for recent immigrants
during this period. Their interpretations tend to reflect this.
Irish-born John Mulvany's large painting Custer's Last Rally
(1881) was acclaimed as uniquely American. To me, the central
figures all look broodingly Irish and could just as well be sulking
around a pub as fighting a pitched battle. (Mulvany threw himself
in the East River and drowned in 1906.)
The Painting of Feodor Fuchs
Long before O. Becker trimmed Cassilly Adams
down to size, only to see his own work chopped into pieces, Feodor
Fuchs had given the world its first color lithograph of the event
-- in 1876. It is a splendidly Teutonic show, with soldiers all at
full gallop, firing a perfect volley at only slightly less
disciplined Indians. It's hard to imagine how the cavalry can lose
this one, but since the title is Custer's Last Charge
we are sure that they'll manage. In General Custer's Death
Struggle (1878), artist H. Steinegger has, with vigorous
larceny, ripped off the composition of not one, but two earlier
prints, one by William de la Montagne Cary, the other by the
great Civil War artist and correspondent Alfred R. Waud, who had
sketched Custer many times and had even accompanied him on a cavalry
raid in 1864.
Edward S. Paxson's large painting, some 20
years later, shows six identifiable officers and virtually every
Indian leader in the fight, all miraculously converging in the same
place at the same time. Paxson did all later students of the battle
a large favor by writing General Edward S. Godfrey, a survivor and
member of the burial parties, to ask what arms, uniforms and
equipment were actually used in the battle. Godfrey's reply is the
best and most concise information on this subject that we will
probably ever have.
Custer Stands Tall and Brave
The earliest paintings place Custer smack-dab
in the middle of the scene, often in the foreground. This is naive,
poster like treatment is forceful and dramatic, putting a large event
on a small stage. Around the turn of the century, as reproduction
and printing techniques improved, the old frontal approach began to
look out of date. Correspondingly, as the reality of the Custer
fight dimmed to legend, its graphic image shifted, too. The gallant
figure, with his handful of brave, gore-splattered troops, began to
recede into the distance. A more sophisticated, more nostalgic
concept of the battle appeared. The wild, swirling Indians became
foreground figures, as Custer and his men faded in a soft blue haze.
There are estimates that more than 1,000
depictions of the fight have been made. One was painted by Harold
von Schmidt for Esquire in 1950. Being Harold von
Schmidt's son, and by that time something of an expert at posing (as
a baby, then a small child, then a medium-sized child, then a
jockey, then anything), I served in the Custer fight as both trooper
and Indian. The painting combines elements of both the early
"frontal" and later "nostalgic" styles and it works, I think. There
are inaccuracies in the uniforms and equipment of the soldiers, but
there are other authentic touches such as Custer's short barreled
pistols. My father thought Custer a glory-hunting ass, and it is
ironic that his painting is now considered a somewhat romantic
artist -- Harold
It wasn't until 20 years later that I finally
caught that damnable fever that rises off the Little Bighorn. I read
everything I could lay my hands on, and slowly came to feel there
was something about all the paintings that seemed to me discordant.
My feeling was undefinable but gut deep. When I tracked it down,
finally, it was so simple: In all the pictures the viewer's vantage
point was that of an attacking Indian.
Red Horse was one of the attacking Indians,
Waud was not, nor were Adams, Becker, Paxson and the rest. Nor am I.
I felt it was important to give the viewer a sense of what the
troopers were experiencing as their individual deaths pressed in
upon them. The Red Horse drawings, so illusive before, became in an
unexpected way a revelation. All those drawings of tepees, row after
row, page after page, had at first been confusing, annoying. Now,
considering the fight from the troopers' viewpoint, their cumulative
image filled me with an awesome sense of the size of that village.
It had been fully visible to Custer and his men on the ridge,
stretching out for more than three miles and in some places bellying
more than a half-mile wide – one of the biggest encampments ever
Details of dress and equipment turned up
elsewhere. The first big surprise came in discussions at the
Military History Division of the Smithsonian. It turned out that
cavalrymen were not issued blue shirts during this period, though
virtually every applicable painting and literary work mistakenly
assumes that they were. Civilian blue shirts seem to have been worn
by nearly all officers of the 7th Cavalry, and "hickory" shirts of
fine blue or brown checks were sometimes worn by men of all ranks.
The issue shirt, however, was a loose-fitting, light-gray pullover,
with three metal buttons.
Uniforms in general were of inferior material,
and equipment was outdated. Trousers in those penny-pinching days
had suspender buttons but no suspenders. The issue headgear, a
bizarre black hat that could be rigged up to present a Napoleonic
appearance, was described by one officer as "the most useless,
uncouth rag ever put on a man's head." Troops often bought civilian
hats, black or gray, of felt or straw, found on the march from
The men altered or improved on basic issue in
many ways. They would reinforce the inside and cuff of their pants
legs with canvas. They would fashion homemade cartridge belts of
canvas-more efficient than the issued leather pouches. Old Civil War
gear was also used: jackets, vests, forage caps. Regulations of 1877
at Fort Lincoln, Nebraska, forbade use of civilian clothing for the
7th Cavalry. Before that, just about anything went in the way of
Regimental officers, right up to Custer, were
even more casual in their dress than enlisted men. They were a
jaunty, self-confident lot, and favored buckskin suits, often double
breasted, or just the jacket alone worn over blue, wide-collared
civilian shirts with bibs, white trim and a mess of buttons. The
notion that the Indians rode in a huge circle pumping lead into a
knot of troopers becomes absurd after a visit to the battlefield.
Most Indians must have ridden within a short distance of the ridge,
then fought , on foot. Except for occasional individual dashes up
the ridge, the Indians said they did not move up it in force until
they thought all the troopers were dead.
It's the Terrain, Stupid
The terrain offered the Indians excellent
concealment, and there is every indication that they used it. The
position of Custer and his men, scattered up the slope, was totally
indefensible. It is unlikely that anyone would have been standing,
except to get somewhere else fast. The troopers' only chance for
cover was to shoot their horses for breastworks.
The theory that the soldiers were outgunned
does not hold up. The whole Indian village contained only a small
number of repeating rifles and little ammunition. That the cavalry's
defeat was caused by the malfunction of their Springfield '73
carbines is equally dubious. Some did jam, but these same weapons,
taken from fallen troopers, gave the Indians their most effective
firepower. But it was here that the arrow, as in the time when the
Akkadians first used it to defeat the Sumerians around 2500 B.C..,
was again the deciding weapon. This was the last time it won a
historic battle. Metal-tipped Indian arrows rained on the desperate
men and animals struggling on the ridge.
The soldiers, exhausted from hard marching and
little sleep, sweat-stained and covered with alkali dust, looked out
at massive clouds of dust and gun smoke rising in the heat. These
clouds became so dense that an eerie and unnatural. twilight fell
over the field. The Indians swarmed in the distance like stinging
ants. They said afterwards that they couldn't see more than ten
feet, and several times Indian killed Indian in the smoke and
How Did Custer Die?
Custer was not killed by arrows. According to
Lieutenant Godfrey, "He had been shot in the left temple and left
breast. "There were no powder marks or signs of mutilation." This
emphasis on the lack of powder burns and mutilation was meant to
dispel rumors that Custer had committed suicide and had been
horribly mangled by the Indians. We'll never know for sure, but it
must be kept in mind that the Indians did not know whom they were
fighting, and that any mutilation would have been a random thing.
Most of the dead troopers, some 212, found with Custer, were
mutilated, however, for Plains Indians believed that an enemy
arrived in the spirit world in the same physical condition he left
this one, and so the dismembering of the freshly killed implied a
Aside from scalping and the shooting of bullets
and arrows into the bodies by the warriors themselves, most ritual
mutilation was done by women who had lost family relatives in recent
Mention of suicide among the troopers is almost
as taboo today as 127 years ago. But one old Western cavalryman has
said, "It was understood by every soldier, trapper an mountaineer,
who knew the habits of the wild Indians that he should save the last
shot for himself and take his own life rather than be captured."
Custer's troops did just this, according to
several Indian accounts. The Northern Cheyenne warrior, Wooden Leg
at first thought it was whiskey found in some canteens that
explained why soldiers "went crazy. Instead of shooting us, they
turned their guns upon themselves," he noted.
Custer's command was under strength, as were
many units in those days. A number of enlisted men were recent
recruits, often German and Irish immigrants who had never fought
Indians and had trouble staying on a horse. The average age of a
private was almost 30, but experience was lacking. Many officers
openly despised each other. Some fought bravely right to the end,
but they were facing a total force of up to 2,000 Sioux and Northern
Chaos, Confusion, Death
The noise alone must have been overwhelming:
shrill blasts of eagle-bone whistles carried by most of the
warriors, high-pitched war cries, shouts, the dull roar of horses'
hooves, shrieks of wounded men and horses, the rattle of gunfire and
the ceaseless deadly whirr of arrows-a dissonant cacophony of death.
Custer's fight was probably over in little more than half an hour.
Two days after the death of Custer and his men,
burial parties attempted to identify the dead. In my painting I've
included only those who were known to have been found near Custer.
These are, (left to right, in the painting) Lt. Algernon E. Smith,
wearing vest, behind dead horse; crawling, Capt.Thomas W Custer, the
Colonel's brother; over his head, down the slope, Capt. George W
Yates, wearing buckskin jacket and black hat. These officers
commanded three of the five companies with Custer but were not
killed with their men. This indicates a breakdown of leadership.
Farther down and to right of the dead white
horse is Lt. William Van W Reily. The man holding Custer's personal
guidon (made by his wife) is Sgt. Robert Hughes, Irish born. The
dead trooper fallen on the clump of sagebrush is Chief Trumpeter
Henry Voss. The man falling just above the dead horse's head is Lt.
WW Cooke, Custer's adjutant. Cooke was born in Canada, and like
nearly all of the officers had fought in the Civil War and had been
with the 7th Cavalry since its formation in 1866. One side of his
flowing whiskers was scalped by the Cheyenne Wooden Leg.
Wounded and kneeling is Lt. Col. George
Armstrong Custer. Most recent paintings portray him without his
buckskin jacket. This interpretation is based on a statement by
Trumpeter John Martin (Giovanni Martini), the last man to see him
alive. This statement, however, refers to Custer's dress before 8:30
A.M., long before the command was in movement. Though it was a hot
day, Tom Custer was wearing a jacket when stripped by Indians and
there were numerous Indian accounts of having fought men wearing
buckskin jackets. Colonel Custer was noted for his lack of regard
for physical discomfort (his own, as well as that of his troops) and
I've not been able to find a single photograph of him without some
kind of a jacket.
According to Lieutenant Godfrey, he carried "a
Remington Springfield rifle, octagonal barrel; two Bulldog
self-cocking, English, white-handled pistols, with a ring in the
butt for a lanyard; a hunting knife in a beaded fringed scabbard;
and a canvas cartridge belt." Thus was he equipped 100 years ago,
when the famous Custer luck finally ran out.
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