Scottish Memories - May 2007
The One WhoGot Away Iain Grayrecalls a Scottish cavalryman who chose not to die with his boots on
His violent death became the stuff of legend, immortalised through extravagantly inaccurate Wild West shows,lurid comic book yarns and epic Hollywood films: but it is not commonly known that one of the main contributors to the action-packed life story of George Armstrong Custer was a Scot who fought under his command and witnessed the egocentric general’s famous Last Stand,yet lived to tell the tale. Controversy still surrounds the flamboyant exploits of Custer;and the detailed account of his final moments as penned by Peter Thompson,a trooper in the 7th Cavalry. Born in Markinch,Fife,in 1854,Thompson was aged only 11 when his family emigrated to the New World, settling in the steel town of Pittsburgh. In their adopted country,the Civil War had finally ground to its destructive conclusion:but different hostilities threatened in the contested frontiers of the nation’s Wild West which was now being widely and zealously opened up to hasty settlers. The relationship between the Native Americans (or ‘Red Indians’as they were then fearfully and often disparagingly called) had always been uneasy,to say the least,but matters worsened considerably by the 1870s with increasing encroachments on the natives’tribal homelands by hordes of homesteaders and prospectors,many in long wagon trains. The Black Hills of Dakota in eastern Montana had from time immemorial been sacred to the proud Sioux nation; and this timeless fact had been officially recognised and accepted by the American government in a treaty which promised to grant these lands in perpetuity to the natives.This signed document later proved as worthless as many other agreements, however, with the progress ever westwards of the white race proving relentless. Railroads were constructed across the plains, making them more accessible to all sorts of incomers, while the slaughter of the buffalo herds, on which the tribes depended for the basics of life,went on apace. 12
Pressure mounted for the authorities to allow gold prospecting in the hallowed Black Hills and the result was open warfare as the frontier ignited and hostilities spread like a prairie fire with the tribes seeking to defend their homelands and way of life from belligerent interlopers. Matters came to a head when an exasperated and cowardly Department of the Interior, ostensibly in charge of ‘Indian Affairs’, passed the buck to the military with the vague and broad instruction to pacify ‘the hostiles’by any means they chose. This is why Thompson found himself stuck in the valley of the Little Big Horn River on the fateful day of June 25th,1876. Bored with life in a mining town to which he had moved and seeking fresh adventures, Thompson had enlisted in the U.S.army for a year before transferring to the more glamorous cavalry. His commander,Custer,was already one of the most famous military heroes of his time, having fortuitously graduated from the academy at West Point just in time for the outbreak of the Civil War when headstrong types like him were in demand. He was promoted to major general after a mere two years and quickly became renowned for his dash and daring:but it was courage of a distinctly reckless kind which meant his commands often suffered heavy casualties because of his simplistic battle tactic of seeing (or sometimes distantly hearing) the enemy and then charging hell for leather in that often lethal direction. This was a military philosophy based on the equally naive (if not downright foolish) ethos of that equestrian,dandified hero Marshall Murat,the vainglorious son of an innkeeper and a special favourite of Napoleon’s,whose reckless dictum declared ‘just make for the sound of the guns!’ By the end of the war,Custer had become the darling of the press,always on the lookout for glory, greatly helped by this particular celebrity’s unashamed gift for self publicity;and a year later he was a lieutenant colonel in charge
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of the 7th Cavalry which,to his credit,he did transform into a renowned, disciplined and combative outfit with its own esprit de corps and carefree flair,rhythmically emphasised by its famous Irish marching tune ‘Garry Owen’. However,on the down side,an infamous confrontation with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes occurred when Custer and his mounted men unleashed an unprovoked dawn attack on a sleeping encampment by the Washita River, indiscriminately slaughtering men, women, children and even ponies in the gory process. It was this massacre which earned Custer his name among the Indians as ‘Son of the Morning Star’. On this dishonourable occasion and against all the textbook rules of strategy,Custer had not even bothered to carry out a proper reconnaissance of his supposed foes and had split his command into four columns, regardless of what he was up against. The word cavalier could have been invented to describe his devilmay-care style and he had an obvious contempt for the prowess of his Indian foes. Although the majority of his 700 troopers emerged unscathed from this one way fight,19 cavalrymen were brutally killed two miles away after setting off in pursuit of fleeing Indians. Despite hearing the sound of rifle fire in the distance, Custer decided not to investigate, no doubt arrogantly thinking his men could take care of a few stray Indians, and he rode out victoriously from the devastated camp. It was left to another column to find the mutilated remains of the ambushed troopers. Custer’s negligent and disdainful actions on that bloodstained morning were to prove fatally prophetic for what lay in store ten years away. A redoubtable alliance of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse,two charismatic and courageous warriors not prepared to succumb meekly to the treachery of the white man,were now locked in a bitter conflict with the U.S.military in what became known as the Black Hills War. Another Civil War icon, General Phil Sheridan, whose most infamous remark was “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”, planned a three pronged assault against this confederation which included an approach westward from Fort Lincoln by a force under the overall command of General Alfred Terry. Included in this force was the 7th Cavalry whose commander successfully argued should come under his own independent authority. With Private Thompson cantering along in the ranks behind,Custer duly set off on the long trail of a hundred miles up the Rosebud River and then into the valley of the Little Big Horn, scornfully refusing an offer of two Gatling guns and 180 extra troopers which,of course,would have made all the difference to events about to unfold. In the account he was to pen later of his heart pounding experiences,Thompson told of how Custer set a demanding pace,so that the cavalry arrived exhausted at the Little Big Horn.
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Dressed in his trademark fringed buckskin jacket,blue trousers,scarlet scarf and with his shoulder-length flaxen hair flowing from beneath his dark,broad brimmed hat (he knew all about standing out in a crowd),Custer yet again defied military logic by splitting his command into three columns. His Indian scouts had reported a very large enemy encampment ahead and the plan,such as it was, entailed Major Marcus Reno’s force attacking from the southern end,while Captain Frederick Benteen was to charge from the south west. Meanwhile,the ammunition and pack trains were to stay in the rear and Custer with 225 men,including Thompson,was to gallop down from the north under the cover of overhanging bluffs. The vague concept was to catch the Indians by surprise from the rear (regardless of how many there were) and,as they rushed to meet Reno’s attack, decimate them from other, separate directions:but Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse simply did not oblige. A force of two thousand Indians clashed with Custer as he attempted to overcome them, while Reno was forced to retreat in disarray for cover further down the bluffs,suffering heavy casualties on the way and narrowly avoiding being wiped out himself. According to the scouts,Custer’s final known words, as he unsheathed his sabre in typically flashy form to lead the charge down into the valley,were,“Hurrah,boys,we have them now!” This was the crucial moment when fate played a decisive hand in the destiny of Trooper Thompson whose exhausted horse had given out just as his comrades prepared to charge. As a result of his mount’s condition,the lucky Scot was left behind on the rim of the valley, hiding behind some rocks,and could only watch helplessly as, in less than an hour, the vastly outnumbered troopers and their distinctive blond leader were massacred after becoming encircled and trapped on a small hillock that rose gently from the river banks. Custer did not even have time to form a proper defensive ring,as he should have done, and soon ended up mortally wounded, shot through the left lung and chest. It is also possible that some of his command suicidally despatched themselves with their last bullet rather than be taken alive,as was later depicted on Indian drawings recording the battle. Unlike his men, Custer’s body was never mutilated or dishonoured in any way. The legend arose that this was because he was such a brave leader and the enemy were scared to desecrate his corpse:but in fact it was probably because he was regarded by the Indians as,in a blood sense, one of them since it was widely believed he had fathered a child by a Cheyenne woman he had taken as his mistress after the destruction at Washita. It is even possible he may at some stage have gone through a kind of native marriage ceremony with this woman, even though it
would never have been recognised by the American civil authorities (he was already married). The only survivor of this ferocious encounter was a cavalry horse called Comanche (which ended up stuffed on a stand at Kansas University’s museum), while just a small number of attacking braves were killed. Thompson somehow managed to make his way to Reno’s beleaguered force nearby,despite the landscape being thick with Indians whose blood was up (being literally on the war path): and the surrounded, terrified troopers successfully managed to hold out that day and most of the next under repeated assaults.At one stage in the moonlight they thought a relieving force had come to their rescue until they realised with horror that it was in fact gleeful Indians wearing the uniforms of their slaughtered comrades. Thompson volunteered to carry out the possibly lethal chore of creeping down from the defensive line to the river bank to fetch water for the parched and wounded troopers;and,in recognition of this,was one of the 24 survivors who was later awarded the prestigious Medal of Honour whose citation read in part, ‘After having voluntarily brought water to the wounded,in which effort he was shot through the hand,he made two more successful trips for the same purpose, notwithstanding the remonstrations of his sergeant,’ Eventually, relieving columns came to the rescue and Thompson was later honourably discharged and worked for a time in a mine in south Dakota before moving to Montana where he raised sheep and horses. He did not marry until he was 50 but then fathered a son and daughter. Thompson’s 26,000 word account of the Last Stand caused controversy when it was first published in a local paper. Other veterans disputed his version: but, more recently, evidence has come to light, including archaeological remnants from the battlefield, which support his version of the debacle and he probably was indeed the last and only white man left alive who witnessed Custer’s spectacular demise. The Scot himself died in 1928,aged a robust 75, and lies buried in a Masonic section of a Dakota cemetery. He had lived for 53 years after that dreadful day of the Last Stand where, by any military logic,he too should have fallen. The Indians paid dearly for their victory.The tribes trekked northwards and surrendered to the British in Canada where Sitting Bull ended up in exile,while Crazy Horse was bayoneted to death after allegedly trying to escape from custody in a fort. What Custer’s grandiose legend ignored for more than a century was that he put lives at risk for personal glory,while his Indian victims had fought for the much nobler ideals of freedom, religious beliefs and a form of independence in what had once been their native land.
The public perception of General Custer as hero Errol Flynn in the 1941 Warner Brothers film ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ which made up in artistry what it lacked in accuracy.