CAGB BOOK REVIEW

MYSTERY OF E TROOP: CUSTER'S GRAY HORSE COMPANY AT THE LITTLE BIGHORN

By 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:

 

E 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 actually say? 

 What he 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 consulted? 

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!)    

 

The 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