Skip to main content

Of Arms And Men

July 2024
2min read

After reading the article on Ouster’s Last Stand (“Echoes of the Little Bighorn”) in our June issue, Colonel Alfred B. Johnson, of Alexandria, Virginia, questioned two points made by the author, David Humphreys Miller. The colonel said that, contrary to a footnote in the story of Joseph White Cow Bull, the Indians could not have captured repeating rifles during the battle, because the troopers were armed only with singleshot, breech-loading arms. He also expressed doubt about a footnote in the story of Dewey Beard that said thirty-one soldiers were killed during the massacre at Wounded Knee.

The following is Mr. Miller’s reply:
It is true that issue weapons of the 71 h Cavalry, as noted in an ordnance inventory dated March 31, 1876, on deposit with the National Archives, were the Springfield .45 carbine and the Colt .45 revolver. Also noted were two Springfield .50 carbines issued to F Company, a part of Custer’s immediate command; four Sharps .50 carbines issued to A Company and five to G Company, both under Reno’s command; and five Sharps .50 carbines issued to B Company, under Captain McDougall, which guarded the pack train.

Although none but regulation arms were mentioned in later testimony regarding the battle at the Reno court of inquiry, where the orthodoxy of the weapons was apparently taken for granted by the military, it is possible, if not probable, that officers of the 7th followed Custer’s own preference for unorthodox firearms. It is documented that he carried a Remington sporting rifle, octagonal barrel; two Bulldog, self-cocking, white-handled English pistols; a hunting knife in a beaded fringed scabbard, and a canvas cartridge belt. Mark Kellogg, accompanying the expedition as a newspaper reporter, carried a Spencer carbine, a repeating weapon; and the “Ankara Narrative” indicates that Custer’s Indian scouts (at least the Arikaras) were armed with Colt’s single-action army revolvers, and Spencer carbines had been substituted for the Springfield rifles first issued them. It is likely that the six Crow scouts, as well as other mixedblood scouts and interpreters, were similarly armed. … That some repeating weapons were carried by members of the expedition is substantiated by many of my Indian informants. …

Regarding Colonel Johnson’s statement that I have created an erroneous picture of the Wounded Knee fight, I refer him to my book Ghost Dance (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1959), in which my reconstruction of the massacre at Wounded Knee is based on the testimony of twentyone Indian survivors of the engagement in addition to that of Dewey Beard. On page 233 it states: “Yellow Bird and a few others who had guns put up a brief running fight.” On the following page it states: “Within minutes all active resistance on the part of the I ndians was over. Yet the troopers kept firing. Twenty-nine soldiers were killed outright in their own deadly crossfire. About the same number were wounded—two of them mortally.” And on page 235: “Only one soldier was actually killed at Wounded Knee by an Indian. Captain George D. Wallace, commander of K Troop and a veteran of Little Big Horn, was struck down by a warrior brandishing a stone-headed war club. His skull crushed, Wallace was found dead near the council circle with four stray bullets in his body.” As an officer, Wallace was not included in the death list of thirty-one troopers. Maps and description in the book show how the troops were disposed on three sides of the council area with additional troops dismounted as sentries completely surrounding it. Lack of discipline displayed by the troopers, by the way, so dismayed a young lieutenant in the campaign that he later instituted a new disciplinary code that was to last in the armed services for many years. The lieutenant’s name was John J. “Blackjack” Pershing.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.