Warrior's Quill

The Author Blog of Ethan E. Harris

Custer Survivors 101: Preface from volume one (1st Post)

The section below is the first installment in the Custer Survivors 101 series.

Preface to Custer Survivors 101: 11 Lone Survivors of the Little Bighorn (v1)

Custer was one of the most effective battlefield commanders in the Civil War. He was a successful leader in the first battle of the Civil War, featured prominently in the pivotal cavalry fight at Gettysburg, and was so esteemed at Appomattox that he was given the very table upon which General Lee surrendered. Equally legendary in his own right, his brother Tom was the only person to receive two Medals of Honor during the War Between the States.

Until about the time of the First World War, the US Army would honor Soldiers with a brevet rank similar to awards of commendation or in recognition of heroism. The Army honorary rank was a commission without a raise in pay, but it was normal practice to be addressed with one’s brevet rank and any officer could hold up to four different ranks: Regular Army brevet grade, Volunteer Army brevet grade, or regular ranks in both Armies. George Armstrong Custer held the rank of Major General in the Regular and the Volunteer Armies. Many of his Soldiers and even General Sheridan referred to Custer as General and many scholars to continue to do so as an honorific and in recognition for his gallantry in service during the Civil War. I will refer to him as “General Custer,” the highest title he was recognized with by the US Army and the government.

During the end of Reconstruction in the South, many Americans probably believed they had entered an era of heightened civility. It had been 12 years since the close of the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan had largely been shut down, due in part to General Custer’s efforts, and would stay out of the limelight for another generation. Although there were rumors of war to the West, a period of calm had entered over the North and South. That calm was shattered by the destruction of more than 200 Soldiers under General Custer’s command. Perhaps Custer’s Last Stand would have passed more quietly into history if not for the loss of many well-loved characters from the North’s victory during the recent war. Those feelings of peace, if they existed at all, were destroyed by the news. This was not a Soldier on Soldier kind of war where the enemy also has a uniform. It was not brother against brother. It was the US Army against the Plains Indians.

In the writings on Custer, there seems to be two groups of contemporaries: those who loved him and those who hated him. Much of the fallout from the battle at Little Bighorn was significantly influenced by a cult of personality which shaped reports of the battle, testimony in government inquiries, and print accounts (sometimes in deference to the sensitivities of Custer’s wife, Libby).

Popular fiction long ago embraced Custerology. In Will Henry’s No Survivors, footnotes are provided in such detail that readers are misled to believe that fiction is fact. One author has this to say:

Whether as Will Henry or as Clay Fisher, Allen has often made use of a simple but effective device that makes the reader believe he is reading history. In I, Tom Horn it is the discovery of Horn’s handwritten autobiography in a Wyoming cabin; in Pillars of the Sky it is a monument to a forgotten battle; and in No Survivors it is the footnote that explains that what follows is the journal of John Buell Clayton, from the papers of the Clayton family of La Grange, Georgia. In each case the reader is given enough detail to enhance the credibility of the story.[1]

The work of Will Henry joins the ranks of almost 4,000 other books forming a body of highly focused historical work concentrating on just one single battle in 19th century America.[2] It is arguably one of the most popular subjects for any genre available in print form throughout American history.

There is a degree of integrity given to survivor accounts when they originate from historically-confirmed veterans of the battle. Rain-in-the-Face, the Indian reputed to have been responsible for killing Captain Thomas Custer once stated:

One long sword escaped, though; his pony ran off with him and went past our lodges. They told me about it at Chicago. I saw the man there, and I remembered hearing the squaws tell about it after the fight.[3]

Rain in the Face

It is plain in Rain-in-the-Face’s account that “they told me about it at Chicago” and Rain saw the man, too. He also remembered the “squaws” talking about the man after the fight. With this one statement, he drew a direct link between the fleeing Soldier from the battle and the man that he and others saw in Chicago. At the onset of the attack on the village from the south, some of MAJ Reno’s cavalrymen lost control of their horses. These men were unwillingly carried far beyond their comrades, some even being swallowed up in the village itself.

But since the site is not identified by Rain-in-the-Face, it’s possible that he was referring to survivor of the Custer column.

There has never been any doubt that some Soldiers, scouts and civilians with the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The mystery enters in when stories surface involving a person who claimed they had directly participated in the Custer column fight or its immediate aftermath.

This first volume details eleven people with unique claims to survivorship of the battle.


[1] The Western Literary Association. Ed. A Literary History of the American West. For Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987 113. http://www.prs.tcu.edu/lit_west_full.pdf

[2] This list tallies the number of print materials (books, dissertations and encyclopedias) published, by year, with the genre including “George Armstrong Custer.” Data sets are from http://www.worldcat.org.

[3] Cited in Koster, John. Custer Survivor. New York: Chronology Books, 2009

Or get it here: 11 Lone Survivors of the Last Stand (Custer Survivors 101: The Impostor Roster)



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This entry was posted on January 7, 2013 by in Books, Custer, Kindle, LinkedIn, Little Bighorn.
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