Scottish Memories MAY2007
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.