Report From The Planting Moon Gathering - Saturday, 21 May 2011

Our Spring Gathering took place on Saturday 21 May in Kendal where a local clock tower attempts to ring out the tune of Gary Owen on Fridays. We had 30 people attending the meeting including a few guests from the local U3A American History Group. Sadly this was before most members arrived in Kendal but those that heard the chimes reported the tune as just about recognisable.

We were particularly pleased to welcome a contingent of CAGB members from Scotland who find it difficult to attend our more southerly venues. Tea, coffee and biscuits were laid on for us by Mary and Mike Christian to whom we were very grateful for handling all the local logistics.

Sadly an apology was noted from our Chairman Gary Leonard. He had been unable to attend as his wife had been injured in a cycling accident. Lawrence Sherrington proved an able deputy in the Chair.

The presentations were kicked off by Derek Batten with his talk about The Battle of the Alamo which took place in 1836. The quality of Derek’s slides was excellent and it was interesting that he used 35mm slides rather than the now more common PowerPoint.  Derek pointed out a number of parallels with the Battle of the Little Bighorn including the somewhat endearing trait of Americans to give great prominence to the defeats that they have suffered as well as the victories.  Although, strictly speaking, Texas was not actually part of the United States at the time of this battle. We were interested to hear of the origin of the expression “drawing a line in the sand” which came from the actions of Colonel Travis when he asked garrison members to indicate by stepping across the line whether they would stay and fight or leave. We saw another parallel with the Little Big Horn in terms of the continuing dispute in various accounts and theories as to how Davy Crockett finally met his end. 

Derek’s session was followed with one by Mike Christian who told the story of a British or more specifically Welsh participant in the Texan war against Mexico.  John Rees had participated in the action when the Texans first took the Alamo. He had moved on before the Mexican siege developed but only to be involved in another equally perilous fight at Coleto Creek. On this occasion a Texan force surrendered after a fight with a superior Mexican detachment and all prisoners were subsequently ordered to be executed. John Rees was one of a handful who managed to escape and avoid the massacre. After the Texans broke free of Mexico he profited in somewhat dubious circumstances from various land grants made by Texan officials to those who had fought. He returned to Wales and took a violent part in the Chartist riots of 1839 and became a wanted man. He had to leave Britain and returned to the US, ending his days in 1893 in relative poverty.       

During any other business Mike Fox updated the meeting with progress on the proposed CAGB Essay Prize. At least one University interested in having its students participate. We then adjourned for lunch in a local pub which all enjoyed.

The afternoon kicked off with Francis Taunton’s talk on the Yellowstone Campaign of 1873. The army, with 19 companies of infantry, ten troops of cavalry and two Rodman guns, was tasked with escorting a surveying party from the Northern Pacific Railroad. Overall command was vested in General David Stanley whilst George Custer led the cavalry component.

Francis compared and contrasted the campaign’s two significant engagements against the Sioux with what happened 3 years later at the Little Big Horn. General Stanley had something of a drink problem so, after some initial disputes, General Custer took an increasingly independent approach with his cavalry units. It became his custom to scout some way ahead of the main column with a small cavalry force. On 4th August he was ahead of the column with just two troops of cavalry, having a noon break, when a small party of Indian warriors tried to run off their horses. Custer pursued them with about 20 men for 2 miles. It soon became apparent that the warriors were acting as decoys when more than a hundred or so additional Sioux burst from concealment. Custer acting with great coolness formed a dismounted skirmish line to protect his horses and gradually withdrew into some timber where his small command held the warriors back until the rest of the cavalry came up and chased them off. It transpired that the relieving troops had no idea Custer's command was in the timber as there was no sound of firing. Francis contrasted this action with that of Major Reno at the Little Big Horn where his panicky withdrawal from protective timber might have been a major factor in the disaster that engulfed the regiment. This engagement is also known as the Battle of Honsinger Bluff as the expedition’s chief Veterinarian, John Honsinger, together with his small escort were killed nearby whilst Custer was engaged in his own skirmish.  

The second engagement of the campaign took place after the column had discovered signs of the village whose warriors had attacked them on 4 August. Stanley gave Custer orders to pursue them and he did this undertaking a night march with 8 troops of the 7th Cavalry plus Arikara scouts. Eventually he came up with the hostiles whose village was upstream on the far bank of the Yellowstone River but the cavalry were unable to cross. On 11 August it soon became apparent that several hundred Indians had crossed and were in force on the same side as the cavalry both up and down stream from them as well as keeping up a sharp fire from the opposite bank. Custer astutely despatched small detachments to counter the warriors who had already crossed and prevent others from continuing to do so. He initiated several charges with his main force whilst the band played ‘Gary Owen’. The Indians were eventually dispersed when Stanley came up and used his Rodman guns to drive off the warriors on the far bank whilst Custer’s cavalry hounded those that had crossed for several miles. 

Francis suggested that the successful outcome of both these battles, using aggressive tactics against superior numbers, illustrated that defeat at Little Big Horn was not necessarily inevitable and that Custer may well have attempted similar tactics in 1876 when deploying his five companies.

Mike Fox followed Francis with a session describing how the web can be used to research the Battle of the Little Big Horn – this is the subject of a separate article. As the lunch break had been rather longer than anticipated and some attendees had long journeys home, it was decided to hold over the Quiz set by Gary Leonard until next time.

Report From The Deer Rutting Moon Gathering - Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Deer Rutting Moon Gathering took place on Saturday, 5 November at Doggett’s Coat & Badge, London. The Annual General Meeting part of the meeting took place first and managed to avoid too many fireworks despite being the day that marks Guy Fawkes Day. It was followed by a short DVD.

The first presentation of the day was by Mike Fox and examined the life of Frederick Francis Gerard also known as Girard who was employed as an interpreter during the fateful campaign that culminated in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Mike described Gerard as a man of contrasts, contradictions and controversy. He was a devoted family man who arranged a good education for his daughters but apparently abandoned his son by an Indian wife. He was a staunch Roman Catholic and helped Father de Smet (also known as the Black Robe) to baptize over 200 Arikara children but he apparently went through 3 marriage ceremonies whilst previous wives were still living. He was known as a friend to the Indians but let them starve outside his trading post when they had no money or goods to exchange for the food he was selling.  He had demonstrated extreme courage when defending his trading post single handed against a Sioux war party but indicated a lack of desire to participate in the fight on the valley floor at Little Big Horn. More recent analysis indicates that he may also have run away with the Arikara scouts who abandoned Lieutenant Varnum whilst he was scouting ahead of General. Custer’s column along Reno Creek.

Gerard gave very important testimony at the Reno Court of Inquiry which was not at all sympathetic to Major Reno. As a consequence the Major’s attorney attempted to blacken Gerard’s name by alluding to his Indian wife. Gerard stood up for himself robustly but somewhat spoilt his own credibility when he had to admit that he had been an hour out with some of the times he had given for key events in the battle. Major Reno waited until after Gerard had completed his testimony and had left town before making further allegations of dishonesty against Gerard. These allegations were apparently quite false and subsequently caused Gerard to publish a letter of condemnation about the Major.

Despite his role at the Reno Court, possibly the greatest controversy in the life of Gerard was a lingering suspicion that he had connived at the murder and theft of gold from a party of miners a dozen or so years before the death of General Custer. This party of men and women had visited his post whilst travelling down river in a mackinaw boat. Gerard had apparently urged them to stay with him as hostile Indians were in the vicinity but they grew suspicious of his motives and most of them decided to continue their journey. Their boat and bodies were subsequently found further down the river apparently killed by Indians. Their gold was never found but the local Indians had no understanding of its real value at that time.

Gerard lived to the ripe old age of 84 but in poor health during his later years. Ironically he was supported towards the end by the son whom he had previously abandoned.

Despite many questionable acts during his long life, Gerard is one of the most interesting sources that we have for trying to understand events at the Little Big Horn. In addition to his evidence at the Reno Court he also gave important interviews and answers to questions from researchers such as Walter Camp.

We were very pleased to welcome Sandy Barnard as our main speaker for the day. Sandy is one of our many members residing in the United States as well as being Honorary Vice President of our Association.

The title for Sandy’s talk was initially somewhat puzzling “Custer, Elliott and Benteen and Vietnam?” It soon transpired that Sandy’s purpose was to use some of his experience of service in Vietnam and subsequent conversations with old comrades to illustrate how the passage of time can play tricks with memory. Sandy felt this was particularly true when the events concerned were associated with danger from some form of hostile action. Thus memories of the layout of a road known as “grenade alley” had turned out to be quite different to contemporaneous photographs that he had found of it. He wondered if a similar confusion of memory might have influenced Captain Benteen’s harsh criticism of General Custer. The criticism was concerning General Custer’s decision to withdraw from the Washita Battle area without first determining the fate of Major Elliott who had earlier pursued a party of Indians with a small detail.

Sandy described Major Elliott’s early life to us, born in 1860 and enlisted as a private in the Union Army during the Civil War convinced by the anti-slavery cause in 1861. He had become Captain and Company Commander in the 7th Indiana Cavalry by October 1863. He was seriously wounded at the Battle of Brice’s Cross Roads in 1864 but returned to active service later that year and distinguished himself leading a charge on Christmas Day at Verona Station capturing many men, a train and supplies.  In 1865 he served under Major General Custer variously commanding a regiment and serving on the General’s staff. Custer attempted to get Elliott accepted into the regular army at the war’s end but did not succeed. However, his family had political pull in Indiana and he was appointed as Major in the 7th Cavalry in 1867 despite his relative lack of seniority as compared with other officers. Major Elliott assumed command of the 7th in the field whilst General Custer was facing his court marital for having abandoned his post to visit his wife. During the winter of 1867-8 Major Elliott commanded Fort Harker and formed a close friendship during this time with Captain Benteen.

In the fall of 1868 Custer had returned from his suspension in command, rank and pay, his punishment for being found guilty in his court martial twelve months earlier, to once more take control of the Seventh. Less 2 of its 12 companies, the regiment was sent on an expedition to punish Indians for various raids and atrocities that they had perpetrated. Sandy reminded us that we should judge the behaviour of both sides by the standards of the time and recognise that both were effectively waging total war. General Custer’s orders were to kill or hang all the warriors he encountered, to destroy their villages and to take their women and children into captivity.

An Indian village was located and attacked on 27 November 1868. As it turned out this was the village of Black Kettle one of the more peaceable leaders. Custer’s troops attacked from four directions, killing Black Kettle, his wife and many others both male and female including some children. The camp was rapidly subdued and 100 or so women and children taken prisoner but various parties from the village fled to other camps along the river. Major Elliott went in pursuit of one of these parties with a detail of 18 men and apparently on his own initiative. Some reports indicate that he shouted “here goes for a brevet or a coffin”. Sandy wondered if that was really correct. Word soon reached Custer that warriors from the other camps were arriving in considerable strength. Sandy indicated that Custer had sent a scouting party to look for Elliott but when it failed to find him he determined that he must withdraw with the captives for the safety of the rest of his command.

The bodies of Major Elliott and his command were found some two weeks later.  Sandy has examined the site of Major Elliott’s last battle and in his opinion Elliott had apparently made a mistake in stopping to fight the Indians he encountered but was overwhelmed as more came up. His last stand was not too far from Custer’s command and a more experienced officer could probably have saved the bulk of his men. He also felt that Custer took a correct military decision to withdraw when he did.

Captain Benteen later wrote to the press criticising the fact that Major Elliott had been left behind claiming that insufficient attempt had been made to find him. This led to bad blood between Custer and Benteen. However, in Sandy’s opinion ill-feeling about the fate of Major Elliott did not seriously impact the fighting efficiency of the 7th Cavalry and the story only gained greater currency when the Custer met a fate that bore some similarity to that of Major Elliott. Sandy also concluded that was almost certainly dead long before the combined forces of Major Reno and Captain Benteen could have intervened to save him. A point some may debate.

Returning to the earlier part of his talk Sandy ended by concluding that adverse comments made by Benteen in his later years concerning Custer were a product of both memory failings and Benteen’s personal bitterness towards the General.

Mike Fox returned to give a brief update on the progress that had been made with CAGB’s plans for an essay prize aimed at undergraduates.

A very enjoyable day concluded with the quiz, which our chairman had set for the May meeting but which had been held over, and the sale of many interesting books that had been donated to CAGB.


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