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Book Review: The Fights on the Little Horn

By (April 30, 2014) No Comment

The Fights on the Little Horn:fights on the little horn cover

Unveiling the Mysteries of Custer’s Last Stand

By Gordon Clinton Harper (with help from Gordon Richard & Monte Akers)

Casemate, 2014


New from our greatest publisher of military history, Casemate, is a pretty little green-jacketed book called The Fights on the Little Horn by Gordon Harper, and it has a melancholy genesis. Gordon Harper was passionate about determining the exact sequence of events that took place on June 25, 1876 between George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry and the large assemblage of Northern Cheyenne warriors it encountered near the Little Big Horn River in the Montana Territory. Harper spent decades walking the ground in question and combing through a great mass of primary documents like newspaper stories and Cheyenne and Lakota sources, and he spent decades assembling his material and writing up his account at mind-boggling length.

Then, in 2009, he died. We can imagine reams of notes on yellow legal pads, filing cabinets full of print-outs and yellowing clippings, word-files on various computer desktops – some chunks of it finished and reader-ready, other chunks of it still scattershot in bulleted points. A life’s work, in other words, suddenly arrested. To put it mildly, such sad and suggestive incomplete endeavors litter the history of scholarship. The boxes of documents and files gather dust in the attic or go to the local historical society, and that’s the end of the story.

Not in this case, however. “I loved the author of this book,” Tori Harper writes simply in her very touching Foreward to this pretty green book, “but then he was my dad, a sometime guitarist, song lyricist, minor league baseball player, cowboy and solider, who also spent over two-thirds of his life seeking out every last piece of information he could find about the battle of June 25, 1876, commonly known as Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of Little Big Horn.”

Readers of American history and military history are therefore in Tori Harper’s debt, and in the debt of her collaborators Gordon Richard (whose chapter in this book, “Death of the Valiant,” is absolutely superb), Gordon Clinton Harper, and Monte Akers. Thanks to this team, we get the gift of this book:

What you have in your hands, then, is what Gordon Harper believed that the available, reliable primary sources reveal as what really happened; unadorned with speculation and theories from other experts, but filtered through the mind and knowledge of a man who literally devoted half a century to studying what occurred on one particular day in history.

The sheer breadth of Gordon Harper’s research is amazing; I’ve read every major account of George Custer’s last battle and the various imbecilities leading up to it (and a good many of the primary sources on which accounts are based), and I was stunned to find that The Fights on the Little Horn is, in its slightly ramshackle way, the best of them all. Care is taken throughout to keep the broader narrative moving forward, but the array of detailed excurses is positively joyful to the historically inquisitive. Gordon Harper spent all those years combing through old newspaper accounts and courtroom testimonies, and he rests the huge preponderance of his chapters on those primary sources. More so than in any previous account of Custer, Reno, Benteen & Co, this one lets these brave, flawed men speak for themselves. When we reach the critical moment, when Custer’s detachment under Major Reno was drawing near to the Indian encampment whose warriors are expected to flee obediently from the approaching white men, we get on-the-ground reportage rather than the more standard summarizing:

Fred Gerard, the interpreter for the Arikara scouts, was hailed by some of them, who signaled to him that the Sioux were not running, as had been thought, but were coming up the bottom lands on the west side of the Little Horn to meet the troops. Gerard, who was very near to Reno, passed this information to the Major. “The scouts were to my left, and called my attention to the fact that all the Indians were coming up from the valley. I called Major Reno’s attention to the fact that the Indians were all coming up the valley,” Gerard recalled in his inquiry testimony. He repeated this statement in both The Arikara Narrative and in a 1909 letter to Walter Camp. Reno, for his part, denied that the incident ever occurred, testified that he would not have allowed Gerard to speak to him and would have believed nothing he said anyway.

Actually, Reno comes across fairly poorly in the course of this book. His disdain for the man Gerard is so snobbish that during his later courtroom testimony, he stubbornly said, “I would not let General Custer send an order to me through such a channel.” And he fares no better in direct examination:

Any information that Girard may have had about the Indians, or what some scout may have told him, would you have considered it improper for him to report to you?

As I say, I should have listened to it, and as I say again, I should not have believed it.

And when the narrative needs to, it can pull back quite expertly and give us a broader view, always thrilling in its pacing:

Whatever hope Armstrong Custer entertained of being reunited with Keogh’s battalion was even now being destroyed by Crazy Horse and the host of other warriors in the swale to the east of Battle Ridge. Of course he did not know that, but in any case he was faced with pressing problems of his own. Warriors were flooding through Deep Ravine and the coulees around his position, as well as using every piece of cover on the terrain leading up from the river.

The Custer disaster is one of those odd little irreducible kernels of American history that exercise perennial fascination. Anybody who feels the pull of that fascination should make sure not to miss this deep-digging book.