CAGB BOOK REVIEW
MYSTERY OF E TROOP: CUSTER'S GRAY HORSE COMPANY AT THE LITTLE BIGHORN
Gregory Michno. Mountain Press Publishing Company 1994.
349pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Soft cover. $18.00.
Several years ago I saw this book in a catalogue and,
noting its length, thought that there must be a typing error somewhere. For how
on earth could anyone devote 350 pages
to such an obscure event as the final moments of just one
of Custer’s five cavalry companies especially
when no-one knows what happened to it!
The summer of 2001 found us back in Wyoming and
Montana and, in one of the bookstores I noticed this volume and browsing through
its contents, added it to the ever-growing number of books that accompanied me
on the return flight to Britain. Even at first sight it seemed a remarkably
convoluted work with equally remarkably radical conclusions.
So what is it all
about? As those who have studied this over-studied battle to any extent will
know, Company E, at the time of the battle under command of First Lieutenant
Algernon E Smith, rode gray [grey] horses and formed part of the Custer
battalion or wing under his command. On 27 and 28 June when General Terry and
members of the Montana Column arrived and examined the battlefield in
conjunction with members of the surviving companies of the Seventh Cavalry. They
tried, in addition to burying the dead and trying to identify them, to work out
what had happened on that field. In the cases of Calhoun’s Company L and
Keogh’s Company I their locations seemed well established. The group on Custer
Hill representing regimental headquarters, half of the officers present with
Custer, the surgeon and a platoon of Company F also seem to be firmly located.
Down in Deep Ravine, some in the bottom of the ravine and some outside, possibly
in skirmish formation, were apparently found between 18 and 28 soldiers, mostly
from Company E.
Until Greg Michno’s book appeared students of this battle were convinced that they knew where the “Gray Horse Ravine” might be. It is long; it is deep; it is distinctive. However, when the area was excavated during the archaeological surveys following the Great Fire of 1983, no trace of any of the remains of Company E could be found. Greg Michno came up with a radical solution: everyone was looking in the wrong ravine! The ravine where the E Company dead were located was in fact Cemetery Ravine.
Cemetery Ravine from the divide with Deep Ravine. Ranger quarters in background
This book represents a painstaking attempt to support
this contention. However, to get the reader in the right mood, Michno opens the
work with a fictional account of the fate of Custer’s five companies and in
this may be the conceptual flaw: the analysis would subsequently subconsciously
support the fictional depiction. His is certainly a fast-flowing tale of excitement and
action. All of which is a little strange for in a later work by Michno (Lakota
Noon) he posited the theory that the battle lasted more than two hours! His
fictional engagement could scarcely have lasted 45 minutes! The essence of his
theory is that having retreated from Medicine Tail Coulee up to Battle Ridge,
Custer found warriors confronting him from the direction of the present day
cemetery and deployed two of his companies as dismounted skirmishers: E to the
left and F to the right, the right of F resting on Monument Hill, the left of E
resting on the north-eastern side of Deep Ravine. The hostiles swarm out of Deep
Ravine and outflank E many of whose men were shot in the back and the survivors
fall back onto the final stand area.
Literary licence is fine but here we have the crux of
the problem. Accounts of Custer’s defeat tend to concentrate on movement,
predicated on the belief that Custer retreated from the Medicine Tail Coulee
area at high speed, pursued by the savage hordes for two miles, until he is
engulfed by them in a spectacular engagement with swirling swarms of mounted
warriors tearing themselves onto little knots of desperate troopers. We know
this happened. We saw it in the films They
Died with Their Boots On and Sitting
Bull, not to mention in hundreds of paintings. This is not the place to
dwell upon the possible fate of Custer’s command other than to remark that
this reconstruction somehow jarred. Still,
every writer on this battle is entitled to his (or her) pet theory.
So let us on to his analysis of the problem.
Into this analysis at an early stage we find mention
of the South Skirmish Line. The South Skirmish Line was essentially the
invention of Dr. Charles Kuhlman. In his excellent volume Legend into History, published in 1951, he developed a theory that
Custer despatched two companies (C and E) under the command of their respective
second-in-commands (Harrington and Sturgis) and deployed them as dismounted
skirmishers facing northwest. The left flank rested on the edge of Deep Ravine;
the right flank 200 yards from the present Visitor Centre, a line approximately
440 yards long. Before 1951 it is undoubtedly safe to say that no one had heard
of the South Skirmish Line. Equally, no one has really assessed the military
likelihood of a single line of skirmishers with probably no more than 48 men
deployed trying to hold undulating ground at 5-yard intervals. The interval
required would be 9 yards – a possibility if deployed as mounted skirmishers
but not if dismounted.
Michno devotes a chapter to the Indian accounts. But
Indian accounts are notoriously imprecise.
They are full of unidentifiable hills, fords, gullies etc. They can help
to support other sources but in themselves they cannot really be relied upon to
endeavour to locate a specific area of ground.
The white accounts, however, are a different matter. The first account is
that of Benteen who referred to the dead in the ravine as those “that had gone
into that ravine to hide.” And in fairness to Michno he is reasonably
objective in his analysis. But unfortunately he does not always fully present
the accounts he cites. Referring to Godfrey’s Century article, for example, he omitted to state that Godfrey
believed that Smith’s company deployed along Battle Ridge as mounted
skirmishers with the left of E resting on Keogh and the right on Custer Hill.
The account of Lieutenant Hare, on the other hand, is different. He testified in
1879 that he definitely identified 28 men 300 yards from Monument Hill as
Smith’s E Company and stated that they died in skirmish formation. But Michno,
who relies heavily on Hare in support of his theory, does not explain how Hare
identified the men of E. The company commander of E was found on Custer Hill;
the body of the second in command was never located; the company first sergeant
was recognised in the ravine by his sock. How
did Hare identify the 28 members of E Company? He was an officer in K Company. K
Company had served in the Department of the South in the 18 months prior to the
commencement of the campaign, a thousand miles from E Company.
Besides, his own company commander, Godfrey, did not see what Hare
describes. But it is Hare’s account that principally supports Michno’s
underlying theory. Hare testified that the E Company men were shot in the back.
Whilst this might suggest a surprise attack from the rear, Michno might also
have noted that there is an account that Custer’s troops fired on the men of E
Company as they tried to flee down the slope. Besides if the dismounted Indians
had surprised the left of E Company in the manner depicted by Michno the
majority of the troops would have been able to fall back. But returning to
Hare’s definite identification: the most likely explanation is that the horses
near the men he saw were grey in colour. But the
horses of the band were grey and so did
non-commissioned officers ride animals of that colour. If E Company had deployed
dismounted the horses may have been taken up to the rear for protection. The
evidence from Hare is unsupported by others and it is unclear what he could have
known. One important witness was Captain Moylan.
Referring to the men of E Company that he found in the ravine he
testified: “I could see where they had passed down the edge and attempted to
scramble up on the other side, which was almost perpendicular.” The most
fascinating interpretation, however, is that of the testimony of Lieutenant
Edward Maguire: Maguire’s 1879 map shows one ravine, and one ravine only
between Custer Hill and the river: according to Michno, it was not the ravine
visible to any visitor to the battlefield today but one that few ever notice! It is at this point that credulity begins to stretch. Early
in July 1876, Maguire had sent a written report to his commanding officer,
Brigadier General Humphreys. “Leading from this crest to the ravine marked H
was a regular line of bodies there evidently having been a line of skirmishers
on this line as they fell at skirmish distance from each other. The ravine
marked H contained 28 dead bodies as if in the retreat the men had taken to it
for shelter.” This tends to support Benteen’s view that the 28 had entered
the ravine to hide. But there is nowhere to hide in Cemetery Ravine.
Sergeant Kanipe, who accompanied Walter Mason Camp, showed Camp where the
28 dead were found and they are clearly shown in Deep Ravine in Camp’s map!
Maguire’s first map made in 1876 is reproduced in part here:
is Custer Hill; D is Calhoun Hill. H shows the location of the E dead. If H is
in Cemetery Ravine – where is Deep Ravine on Maguire’s map?
The other white accounts Michno refers to can be
interpreted in the way he states but with McClernand he has slightly distorted
his account. What Michno claims that McClernand said was this: “Then he
[Custer] had skirmishers dismount along the ridge running from the knoll toward
the river and possibly placed some of Smith’s troop on the higher ground
toward Keogh." Later he
returns to McClernand’s narrative and correctly quotes him as saying: “At
the lower end of the line – toward the river – in a deep coulee slightly to
the front and right of the line of skirmishers a number of bodies…were
found.” But where was this? According to Michno, McClernand envisaged a
skirmish line from the lower left of the Cemetery Ravine-Deep Ravine divide,
diagonally across his field of vision, and to the nearer right under the slopes
of Cemetery Hill. Thus, claims Michno, McClernand supports his theory that the
28 were found on the southern slopes of Cemetery Ravine. But what did McClernand
said was that Custer deployed “the major part of what remained of his command,
as skirmishers along the ridge from the knoll to the river…Possibly at the
same time some of Smith’s troop on the higher ground extended towards
Keogh’s position. Those skirmishers towards the river were evidently told to
turn their horses loose, as no dead animals were lying along this line, although
there were dead horses on their left toward Custer
Hill [emphasis added] … At the lower end of the line – toward the river
– in a deep coulee, slightly to the front and right of the line of
skirmishers, a number of bodies – twenty eight I believe – were found; these
belonged to Smith’s and other troops originally placed farther to the left. I
am of the opinion that they were at one time at the right of the skirmish line,
having been sent there as they drifted to Custer’s knoll from Smith’s and
other troops to the left; and when the end was approaching, as they were
farthest from Custer, the controlling force on the knoll, they broke from the
skirmish line in the hope of avoiding observation and into the deep coulee.”
Godfrey’s 1892 account, which Michno emasculates,
is broadly similar: “Smith’s troops deployed as skirmishers, mounted and
took position on a ridge, which, on Smith’s left, ended on Keogh’s position,
and on Smith’s right ended at the hill on which Custer took position with
Yates’ and Tom Custer’s troops.” McClernand has elements of Smith’s
company extending towards Keogh at the upper end of the line. The lower end,
farthest from the knoll, was the right of the line. What does this tell us? That the line envisaged by McClernand faced southwest, not north.
Let us consider another point: in Camp’s map of the
battlefield point H is shown (p.102)) as the point to which Camp believed the
Gray Horse Troop retreated. On page 239, Michno says that “H” is where Tall
Bull witnessed the fight! But it is well established that Camp used his capital
letters to show key areas – Calhoun Hill; Custer Hill; the Finley area. Why
would Tall Bull be singled out among the dozens of informants that Camp
The strongest support for Michno’s theory lies in
the fact that no bodies have been located in Deep Ravine. The weakness, on the
other hand, is that no large numbers of bodies have been found in Cemetery
Ravine itself either. The bodies to which he refers are on the upper slopes of
the divide between the two ravines. So
will the matter forever remain a mystery?
Possibly. But it seems highly unlikely that the
excavation to establish the precise location of the Deep Ravine dead will ever
be authorised. This reviewer was shown it by one of the Ranger Historians last
summer. (Strangely, it is very close to the location appearing in the 1979
photograph in the first version of A Scene
of Sickening Ghastly Horror!)
remains of the missing dead MAY be many feet under the mound in the right-hand
corner of the photograph.
This is a rather confusing, and perhaps confused,
analysis of the evidence. The chief weakness of this book is that there is
little military rationalisation for the deployment of the troops on Custer’s
field. There is also an absence of any reference to the theories put forward by
officers such as Godfrey. Did E Company operate as independent platoons? Godfrey
thought so. But Michno makes no mention of this. As for the South Skirmish Line:
the Kuhlman theory (which Michno seems to accept) of a lengthy dismounted
skirmish line may look very pretty on paper it does not seem to be tenable from
a military standpoint – certainly not Dr. Kuhlman’s projection which has the
line traversing the Deep Ravine. A line of troops must have flank protection.
Either the flank rests on a natural feature such as a river, or
alternatively the flank must be refused or there must be adequate reserves
available to support the flank if threatened. The Kuhlman-Michno left flank is
“in the air” to be rolled up by the savage hordes at will. This did happen
in the Indian Wars – at White Bird Canyon for example in the following year.
But McClernand said that he thought that Custer showed great skill in his final
deployments. It is thus unlikely that he would, I suggest, have deployed the
troops from C and E (or F and E) in
the manner currently suggested by Kuhlman and Michno.
For the ardent specialist this work is a valuable
dissection of the evidence. The general reader will probably retire with a large
brandy to alleviate the migraine!
FRANCIS B TAUNTON
Custer Association of Great Britain
Copyright © 2003 CAGB