A few years ago, my new bride and I took a coach tour of the western National Parks. We left Las Vegas and headed northeast, visiting Bryce Canyon NP and Zion NP in Utah, Grand Teton and Yellowstone NPs in Wyoming, Custer Nation Battlefield at Little Big Horn in Montana, Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills in South Dakota and ended up at Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Being a history buff, my favorite stop was the shortest. One the windswept prairie of eastern Montana was the Little Big Horn Memorial. The headstones of the troopers of the the 7th US Cavalry were in a small cemetery. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s headstone was prominent among them, but his remains had been reinterred at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. Our tour guide was a Park Ranger, a member of Crow Nation. It was an excellent presentation and all that was lacking was “Garryowen” being played in the background.
The 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment’s command tent was pitched on a hill overlooking the Rosebud River. The commander was Lt. Col. George A. Custer, a nationally known Indian fighter, and a hero of the War Between the States. A camp table was set up in the tent and the officers and senior NCOs of the regiment were assembled around the table. The regiment had marched westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory earlier and had orders to engage the Lakota-Cheyenne Indians in eastern Montana Territory.
There were three full battalions of cavalrymen, with all their associated support elements: supply, horses, gunners, armorers and the newest weapon in the cavalry’s arsenal, the radio. Earlier, Custer’s personal dispatch rider, Corporal Murtaugh, an Irish immigrant had hand-picked two troopers from each battalion to return with him to Fort Abraham Lincoln to be trained in the use of the new weapon and to bring back a supply to the Regiment.
Lt. Col. Custer had a hand-written Order of Battle on the table, with all of the Regiment’s companies and called the roll. “A” Company’s commander, Captain Miles Maylon reported that all of his men were accounted for and ready to ride. “B” Company’s commander, Captain Thomas MacDougall reported that two of his troopers were laid up in the infirmary but otherwise was fit to fight. Lt. Col. Custer’s younger brother, Thomas, was the commander of “C” Company. His company was cobbled together with replacements recently arrived from occupation duty in Mississippi and was untrained for fighting the Indians. The other companies, down to “M” Company were essentially ready for combat.
“Gentlemen,” Custer said, “we are about to enter a new dimension of warfare. We will be able to keep each other informed of our locations, ammuntion situations, and anything else which will affect our mission. Corporal Murtaugh has assured me that each Company’s telegraphers – I guess that’s what they’ll be called – is checked out and has practiced their news skill.” The radios were boxes built of wood and telegraph wire, and powered by the newly-developed devices called batteries. The batteries had a life of about an hour, and required replacement after that. The batteries were manufactured near St. Louis and delivered by rail to Fort Abraham Lincoln; they required their own boxcar. The batteries could not be discarded, as their cases were quite scarce, and had to be returned to St. Louis for refurbishing. Each cavalryman-telegrapher had an additional mule assigned to him to carry enough batteries for a day’s communicating.
Custer was to command one battalion composed of companies C, E, F and I. His second-in-command was Captain Myles Keough, an Irish soldier of fortune; the First Battalion’s troop strength was 13 Officers and 198 troopers. The Second Battalion was commanded by Major Marcus Reno and was composed of companies A, G and M; it carried 11 Officers, 131 troopers and 35 Crow scouts. Captain Frederick Benteen commanded the five Officers and 110 men of companies D, H and K which made up the Third Battalion.
Custer turned to a lieutenant, the Regiment’s band master and nodded. The Regiment’s band then struck up “Garryowen,” the Regiment’s signature tune, based on an old Irish drinking song.
Captain Benteen was dispatched to find the major encampment of the Indians, but after ranging for ten miles around the regimental HQS. Neither the scouts nor the troopers found any evidence of Crazy Horse’s 2,000 warriors. Major Reno’s scouts located the warriors and reported their location to him. Reno called his telegrapher and told him to contact regiment. Each telegrapher had a hand-written aid from Murtaugh which had phonetics for each letter so that the companies’ designations would be heard correctly: “a” sounds like “j” and “b” sounds like “d.” “A” became “Able,” “B” became “Baker,” and so on. Custer was “Seven Actual,” Reno was “Seven Two,” and Benteen was “Seven Three.” Reno’s man called “seven actual, this is seven two calling.” Corporal Murtaugh answered, acknowledging that he heard Reno’s man. Reno’s report was a warning to Custer not to attack, as the Indian warriors clearly had no intention of running away. The were doing their traditional war dances at the lodge and were whipping themselves into a fighting frenzy. Upon receiving this intelligence, Custer was forced to reevaluate his plan to confront Crazy Horse’s dog soldiers head on, and wait to see what developed. Benteen’s telegrapher reported that his scouts had located the main body. All in all, Benteen said, the enemy outnumbers us by about three to one. At Custer’s side was Major Bennington, the regiment’s chief gunnery officer. Bennington had half of his cannon with him at the HQS, and the other half was deployed to each battalion’s HQS. All of the companies reported to their respective HQS. Custer’s new order to all of his troops was to unleash an artillery barrage on all the warriors’ lodges and inflict as much damage as they could, before charging them from three directions.
At the warriors’ lodge, cannonballs began falling around them. Crazy Horse, He Dog, Spotted Owl and Rutting Newt began to panic. They were unable to process what was happening. With widespread pandemonium reigning, over 400 U.S. Cavalrymen charged and cut the warriors to shreds with their cavalry sabers and sorted the rest of them out with their pistols and new repeating rifles.
At the end of the day, the warriors’ lodges were tattered ruins and the survivors retreated over the plains, leaving their squaws and papooses to the tender mercies of the cavalrymen.
And that’s how it might have been had field radios been developed fifty years earlier.