December 21, 2012 - CISAC, FSI Stanford News
Custer makes last stand in Stanford T-shirts and Ray-Bans
Overlooking the golden prairie beneath the big Montana sky, a young man turned to address his followers, cocking his head and squinting into the sun.
“For those of you who haven’t already heard of me with great admiration, yeah, I’m the real deal: the greatest, biggest, baddest Indian fighter in the West. But for you, well, you can call me General George Armstrong Custer. I fully believe the battle that we will have here today will be the biggest, best, crowning achievement of my life.”
One hundred and thirty-six years later, the Battle of Little Bighorn remains one of the most contentious in American history, and Custer’s so-called “last stand” has become the stuff of legend and debate. Did Custer’s oversized ego lead his men to a certain death? Or did cowardly 7th Cavalry comrades abandon him to die?
Those are among the dozens of questions recently posed and played out by a group of Stanford sophomores along the banks of the Little Bighorn River about an hour outside Billings. Jeffrey Abidor played the first of four Custers as they walked the famous battlefield points: Medicine Tail Coulee, Weir Ridge, Reno’s Retreat and Last Stand Hill, where simple white grave markers still pepper the prairie where Custer, his younger brother Tom, other cavalry comrades and Native American opponents fell.
“No matter how many times you read about it, you have to be here,” said Abidor, who also played Custer’s Crow scout, Curley. “To see it and to see the land they had to fight on and visualize where they were, what they had to face – that makes all the difference.”
As I led my warriors into battle, I said, `Come on, die with me. It’s a good day to die; cowards to the rear!” -- Jacob Winkelman as Crazy Horse.
The Face of Battle class is part of the university’s Sophomore College, designed to take a small group of incoming sophomores and throw them together for three weeks before the academic year begins. They live together and travel together, digging deep into an issue such as the important American battles, U.S. foreign policy, Darwin and the Galapagos or hip hop as a universal language. They get to know their professors well and bond with one another in ways they hope will make them lifelong friends.
“I think the best part is that we all found people who have similar interests,” said Katie Jarve, who portrayed Native American Bloody Knife and Capt. Thomas Weir on the staff ride in September. “There are people going into public policy and political science and it will be really nice to have that connection with them by taking the same class.”
The Face of Battle focused on Gettysburg and Little Bighorn, as well as the Korengal Valley campaign in Afghanistan. The college was co-taught by CISAC’s senior fellow Scott Sagan and senior research scholar Joseph Felter.
The students visited Pentagon officials in Washington before heading out to the battlefields, and then back at Stanford attended seminars on the ethics of war in historical and contemporary conflicts, such as in Afghanistan.
“The battle of the Little Bighorn is particularly valuable to study for insights into counter-insurgency doctrine, in which combat often takes place in villages rather than on isolated battlefields,” said Sagan, an international security expert whose distant relative, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, led the final Confederate charge at Gettysburg.
Sophomore College students from the Face of Battle class gather at the national monument to the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The 16 Face of Battle sophomores – some of whom aspire to be CISAC honors students their senior year – were required to investigate the battlefield characters they would portray and be prepared to defend their actions on that day in 1876. The students, wearing Stanford garb and sunglasses, had five minutes to make their characters come to life on the same land where they had once fought for their lives.
“Walking this terrain and recounting the many individual decisions and actions the led to Custer's famous defeat – on the very ground they occurred – provides unique context for the students,” said Felter, a counterinsurgency specialist and recently retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer who had combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The challenges faced by the members of General Custer's 7th Cavalry are in many ways similar to those faced by modern counterinsurgency forces, including those in Afghanistan today,” he said. “The difference between overwhelming success and utter defeat in this type of conflict can turn on seemingly small and trivial decisions and actions, not only by senior leaders but down to the very lowest levels of command.”
In 1876, Lakota Chief Sitting Bull had called thousands of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne off their reservations to a large encampment on the banks of the Little Bighorn. He had hoped to create an alliance to deal with the white gold miners encroaching on the Black Hills, which had been given to the Sioux by the U.S. government.
I’m the real deal: the greatest, biggest, baddest Indian fighter in the West. But for you, well, you can call me General George Armstrong Custer. I fully believe the battle that we will have here today will be the biggest, best, crowning achievement of my life.” -- Jeffrey Abidor as Custer
President Ulysses S. Grant had sent Custer and the 7th Cavalry out West to force Native Americans back onto their reservations. Grant despised Custer, as the Civil War hero had testified against his administration about alleged corruption in the Indian affairs office.
“Our tribe, the Lakota, were at the very height of power,” said Uttara Sivaram, playing Lakota war chief Crazy Horse. “We interacted with the white man rarely; they fought among themselves. They seem to naturally assume that we were weak and this put them at a fatal disadvantage. As long as these men would continue to think this way, my strategy and timing would always catch them off guard – which would lead them to their greatest defeat against the Indians at the Battle of Little Bighorn.”
On June 25, 1876, Custer and his battalion of some 260 men charged against Sitting Bull’s encampment along the river.
Jacob Winkelman, another student playing Crazy Horse, spoke about the warrior’s confidence and patience going into battle. He fastened a hawk feather in his hair and prepared his Winchester carbine and war clubs. He raised his hands to the sun and called on the Lakota’s great spirit, Wakan Tanka, to protect him in battle.
“My own patience in the face of attack allowed me to outmaneuver General Custer, whose rash decisions led to the demise of him and his followers,” Winkelman’s Crazy Horse said. “I told my soldiers: Do your best and let us kill them all off today, that they may not trouble us anymore. As I led my warriors into battle, I said, `Come on, die with me. It’s a good day to die; cowards to the rear!”
Custer had been ordered to wait for reinforcements at the mouth of the Little Bighorn. But when he saw the size of the Native American encampment, he immediately planned an attack from three sides. What he didn’t know was that Sitting Bull had already forced the 7th’s Capt. Frederick Benteen and Maj. Marcus Reno into retreat. Custer and his men were eventually surrounded, outmanned and killed.
Face of Battle students walking the trails through the national Little Bighorn battlefield.
The defeat led to national debate about whether Custer had died a tragic military hero or an arrogant hothead. Reno – who hated Custer and survived the battle – demanded a military court of inquiry to clear his name of allegations of dereliction of duties and Benteen fought charges that he neglected Custer’s plea for more ammunition packs.
“Not two years after joining Custer’s 7th, I saw what made him truly despicable,” said Allen Xu said, playing Benteen. “But as they say – karma turned out to be a harsher mistress than Libby Custer.”
Chase Basich, who portrayed Reno and Crazy Horse, said it was chilling to walk the trails the soldiers took, to see the rocks they hid behind and where they finally fell.
“By thoroughly researching our assigned persons, we became intimate with them,” Basich said. “It really drove home one of the main focuses of the class: looking through battle from the eyes of individuals, to see that battle was not something simply to be viewed from the point of view of generals and policy makers, and was not colored dots moving around a map. The battle was a collection of individuals making their own choices and decisions, each exerting their own influence on the outcome of the battle.
Reed Jobs, a junior who was a course assistant, played the final Custer by posthumously defending his decisions of that day.
“I regret that I could not have testified against that drunken lollard Marcus Reno,” Jobs said as Custer. “For it was his retreat which was out of cowardice, not out of strategy, which cost us valuable time. But it was Benteen who I would have liked to seen hanged for cowardice that day. I knew that even as we were being shot at and the bullets were raining down on us, as we stood trying to hold our position in futility, that I was still – and Tom was still – more man than Benteen could ever be.
“Soon I felt a bullet lodge deep in my left shoulder, near my heart,” he continued. “I knew I had only a few moments before I perished here on this hill. Had we had more time, had Benteen shown up, I believe we would have … finally ended this Indian scourge on our great nation.”
Though the Native Americans won the battle, the deaths of Custer and his men reinforced the U.S. government efforts to subdue the indigenous tribes. Within five years, nearly all the Sioux and Cheyenne would be confined to reservations.
Face of Battle course assistant Reed Jobs acts out the role of General Custer with the Little Bighorn national monument reflected in his sunglasses.
» Large photo gallery
- Scott D. Sagan
Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science; FSI and CISAC Senior Fellow
- Joseph Felter
Senior Research Scholar, CISAC; Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
- Little Bighorn Battlefield
- Sophomore College