Report from The Moon When the June Berries are Ripe - Saturday, 30 June 2012

 Just over twenty members met in London at the end of June which was somewhat later in the year than would be usual for our Spring Gathering.

Whilst a June meeting might have been expected to enjoy good weather, the reverse was true. Extreme rainfall in the North of England and Scotland caused severe travel disruption and unfortunately prevented some members from joining us.

The first topic might also have proved a stormy one as Neil Gilbert bravely defended Theodore Goldin’s claims to have carried what might have been a critically important message from General Custer to Major Reno. At both the Reno Court of Inquiry and in press articles Major Reno denied ever having received any such communication. Neil’s most interesting analysis, and the discussion it generated at the meeting, was actually very good humoured and has subsequently provoked a substantial e-mail correspondence between himself and several CAGB members. It seems that the likely outcome of both Neil’s presentation and the subsequent correspondence is that one or more articles will be published by CAGB. Neil’s best argument on the day in favour of his thesis was that once General Custer had obtained a better view of the situation from the bluffs he really ought to have sent some further communication to Major Reno explaining his intentions. Neil himself admitted that the weakest parts of his case arose from inconsistencies in Goldin’s various claims with respect to his role and route as a messenger. Part of the fascination with the Battle of the Little Bighorn is that there are plenty of opportunities for knowledgeable individuals to draw different conclusions from the same body of evidence!

Speaking of bodies and evidence the meeting also included a documentary showing results from archaeological research conducted on the battlefield by Douglas Scott and Richard Fox in 1984/85 following a fire. Derek Batten, who had participated in the actual research, noted that the documentary must have involved a degree of reconstruction as he did not recollect it being filmed at the time. The documentary was interesting and thought provoking as it sought to follow the progress of the battle by tracking the locations of shell cases and bullets fired by specific weapons as well as identifying areas where combat might have taken place through the presence of human and other remains. In the ensuing discussion it was pointed out that some of the theories advanced in the programme had subsequently been challenged on the basis that the battlefield itself had been contaminated in the following years not only by the passage of visitors but even a later skirmish involving Crow Indians.

Mike Fox gave a brief update on the status of the CAGB Essay prize aimed at university students. He explained that university tutors had some difficulty in promoting the prize to their students as our areas of interest, General Custer and the Plains’ Indian Wars, only covered a part of their syllabus. They had therefore adopted an approach of waiting to see if topics chosen by students for their main essay submission would qualify for our award.  In view of this and other procedural complications (getting students to apply for the prize after the essay has been submitted to the tutor). Further discussions with universities to revise the 2012/13 process were proposed.

Doggett’s Coat & Badge provided their usual excellent lunch and the weather relented sufficiently so that we could enjoy their balcony terrace with its spectacular views over Blackfriars Bridge.

In the afternoon Kevin Galvin presented a comparison between the qualities of George Armstrong Custer and Ranald S. Mackenzie as Indian fighters. In the subsequent discussion it seemed that members were reluctant to draw too strong a conclusion as to their relative merits in view of the early curtailment of General Custer’s Indian fighting career. However, those present were indebted to Kevin for having outlined the exploits of a man who was not so well known to the audience despite having fought various successful engagements against the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Cheyenne in both the Red River and Black Hills Wars and having been wounded no less than seven times. In many ways Ranald Mackenzie’s fate was more poignant than that of George Custer as his army career was also ended prematurely at the age of only 43 on the basis that he was judged to be insane.

The meeting concluded with the usual quiz which was won by Neil Gilbert.

Report from The Deer Rutting Moon  Gathering - Saturday, 8 November 2012

Sixteen members and three guests met at a new venue for us, the Sedgemere Sports & Social Club in Birmingham.

The venue proved a great success as it had substantial parking, a very large meeting room with its own bar, provided Wi-Fi facilities and served good portions of food for lunch. We were indebted to Birmingham based member, Robert Shaw, for finding such a good location for us.

The Gathering kicked off with the CAGB Annual General Meeting which generated lively discussions. This was followed by Mike Fox setting the scene for discussions of events that occurred along Reno Creek which would be the main topic for the rest of the day. Mike gave practical illustrations of how the images used by Google Earth in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn had been enhanced in quality during 2012 so that you can now effectively zoom in on features such as the Crows Nest and get a really good idea of the terrain. Mike also demonstrated a new Google facility called ‘ground level view’ whereby the Google Earth software uses its knowledge of the terrain’s altitude to create images that simulate the view from any ground location that you choose. This uses the same interface method as Google Earth’s existing street view facility which takes you to real photographic images taken by Google camera cars. Using this technology gives us interesting opportunities to identify, for example, where Reno’s column might have crossed the river at Ford A.

Having set the scene Mike then asked the meeting to consider on a scale of A – F how good the actual outcome of the day had been for both sides compared with realistic alternatives given the situation that pertained at the beginning of 25th June 1876. The general conclusion for the Indians was that the rating would be a B or a C rather than an A. Thus it might well have been better for them if they could have intercepted Custer’s column somewhere on Reno Creek thus forestalling any attack on the village. Again with different actions they might have managed to reduce their own losses and capture more booty and, in particular, the pack train.

The conclusion for the cavalry to some extent was the reverse of that for the Indians in that the day could have had a variety of worse outcomes than that which occurred. Thus Custer’s whole command could have been destroyed leaving Terry’s column also vulnerable – clearly this might have been an F rating. More disastrous than the actual outcome might have been heavier losses plus the pack train having been captured. In the end it seemed as though the actual outcome for the cavalry might have been a C. Some of those present thought that Custer might have achieved an A rating by concentrating his regiment and driving the Indians away from their village and destroying substantial amounts of their property. The purpose of this initial analysis was to assist the meeting in evaluating decisions and events along Reno Creek that might have improved or made worse the actual outcome for both sides.

We then broke for lunch, during which there was an auction of books and CAGB related items which yielded a useful contribution to CAGB reserves. I should note that we are always pleased to receive donated items such as books or artwork that can be auctioned.

The following summary only covers the major topics discussed after lunch in the consideration of events along Reno Creek. The first of these was the extent to which Reno Creek was scouted before Custer’s columns passed along it. Mike Fox presented evidence to support the idea that Hairy Moccasin might have been sent to a viewpoint near the mouth of Reno Creek from which he was able to observe the village very early in the morning. If this had been the case, then he would also have been most likely to have spotted the heavy trail left by warriors who rode up South Reno Creek to fight Crook a week or so before. The meeting concluded that it might not have made all that much difference to Custer’s actions if Hairy Moccasin had reported the actual location of the village and that it was not running away. After all it would still have taken several hours for Custer’s columns to get to the village in which time it could have started to scatter. However, if Hairy Moccasin had reported the heavy trail going up South Reno Creek, then that could have been a reason why Custer sent Benteen to the south west to check out the valleys there for a hostile presence.

The next issue discussed was just how much warning the village might have received.  One group that could have warned the village was the Indian man and the boy (Deeds) seen by Varnum and his party near the Crow’s Nest. However, one consideration was what might they have actually seen and what conclusions would they have drawn from it. Indian accounts seem to indicate that the boy, Deeds, was later killed by Custer’s scouts somewhere near the mouth of Reno Creek.  This would indicate that the Indian pair had not made as much haste as they might have done as this killing probably occurred 6 or more hours later. The general conclusion was that the village did get some warning but not enough to despatch significant forces up Reno Creek to intercept Custer. Clearly this might have been a lost opportunity for the warriors although the meeting thought that Indians might not have had very effective mechanisms for raising an alarm through the separate tribal circles.

Mike Fox then returned to the question of the scouting done by Custer down Reno Creek. Most accounts indicate that Varnum scouted to the left front of the Reno Creek trail with the Rees whilst Hare went to the right front with Bouyer and the Crows. Mike raised the question of where Girard might have been. Girard admitted to being ahead with the scouts at this general time and, as he was employed as a translator for the Rees, surely he would have accompanied Varnum. Varnum could not otherwise communicate with the Rees. Mike reported that in a later letter that Varnum sent to researcher Walter Camp, he reluctantly revealed that when he was quite far ahead of the column he had been abandoned by his Ree scouts who slipped back to the relative safety of Custer’s column. Mike’s conclusion was that Girard himself might have been involved in this withdrawal by the Rees and there is other evidence to support that.

This is a potentially important issue as Girard later claimed at the Reno Court of Inquiry that he rode up a small knoll near one of the ‘lone tepees’, and that from there he spotted the Indian village and hallooed down to Custer saying “there are your Indians running like devils.” It was after this that Custer issued the fatal order for Reno to move ahead in pursuit of the Indians. A careful analysis of the terrain in this area of Reno Creek reveals that it would have been impossible for Girard to have spotted the village from there. However, Varnum clearly states in some of his accounts that he had been able to spot the tops of tepees on his scout to the left. So, Mike asked, why might Girard have made this claim? If he had accompanied Varnum for part of his scout, he might have seen part of the village then. He might have thought that a report of sighting Indians to Custer could possibly cover up his earlier abandonment of Varnum.

The next major issue that the meeting addressed was why Custer chose to go up on the bluffs rather than follow Reno into the valley. An important consideration, for this concerned where Reno’s column might have crossed the Little Big Horn and how far that point might have been from Custer when he paused to water his horses in North Reno Creek. Mike used Google Earth to pinpoint a likely location based on the evidence that there was a knoll or some high ground which Reno moved round in getting to a ford and this high ground obscured any view to Custer’s column. The most likely high ground is about 0.6 miles from North Reno Creek. This is significant because witnesses stated that Custer’s Adjutant, Cooke, and Captain Keogh accompanied Reno to the river and then set off back to Custer. At the crossing some of the scouts had shouted that the Sioux were coming up the valley to oppose Reno rather than running away. Girard had heard this and decided that he personally should take this information to Custer. Mike noted that this was rather similar to his (Mike’s) theory of what Girard might have done if he had accompanied Varnum. As it happened, Girard’s testimony tells us that when he rode around the knoll to go back to Custer he encountered Cooke who asked him what was up. He gave his report of Indians advancing to Cooke who then ordered him to return to Reno.

The issue to consider was how long it might have taken Cooke to return to Custer and what impact Girard’s report might have had on Custer’s decision to go up the bluffs. The meeting also discussed the impact that Cooke’s movements had on Goldin’s claim to have been a messenger but that will be the subject of a forthcoming article for The Crow’s Nest and will not be covered here. Given that the knoll was 0.6 miles from North Reno Creek and that Cooke had a fast horse, it is likely that it would only have taken a few minutes for Custer to have got that report. It is entirely possible therefore that this report caused Custer immediately to take his command up on the bluffs, thereby missing the two official messengers that Reno sent to him with information about the situation in the valley. These two messengers may not have caught up with Custer’s column until later as Martini stated that he encountered two men on the bluffs looking for General Custer on his own ride to Benteen. Some of Reno’s men reported seeing Custer’s column ascending the bluffs whilst Reno was still waiting by the river for a response from Custer concerning the messages that he had sent.

Mike suggested that if all this is correct then it is possible that yet another report from Girard was responsible for a second fatal decision by Custer, i.e. the decision to go up and around the bluffs.

As the time had reached 4.30pm and there was a documentary about Frank Finkel, the possible Custer survivor, on TV that evening Mike closed the discussion at that point although the final movements of the pack train down Reno Creek had not been fully discussed.

Fortunately we had taken a decision to stage our traditional quiz at the tea interval so it would not be squeezed out of the afternoon. Both Mike Fox and Kevin Galvin had produced sets of questions as the winner from the previous meeting (Neil Gilbert) was not able to attend. In the event Mike Fox’s questions were used and Kevin Galvin won and Richard Titley was runner up.


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