Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On to Medicine Tail Coulee and Medicine Tail Ford

So, continuing my battlefield photo tour...

While Reno's attack started down the valley, Custer and his battalion (Command element, C, E, F, I, and L troops) moved to their right (to the North, heading west in Medicine Tail Coulee) to gain a position to attack the (they hoped) rear of the village. 

This photo shows Medicine Tail Coulee.  Custer's battalion moved from right to left.

Another photo of Medicine Tail Coulee.

As Medicine Tail Coulee opened up as it opened to the LBH river, Custer broke up E troop into its two constituent platoons.   The first platoon, E troop (under Smith) was originally diverted a bit to the North in the coulee to drive off a small group of warriors. 2nd platoon, E troop (under a very new Lt. Sturgis) was directed toward the Medicine Tail Ford.   Sturgis stopped a couple of times as his command (only around 20 men) neared the ford.  It seems obvious to me that Sturgis was a little taken aback by what he was hearing in the direction of Reno's fight, and as he neared the ford it was obvious that he was nowhere near the end of the village.   But, orders being orders, he eventually started to cross at the ford.  It seems around 15 to 20 warriors had gathered on the village side of the ford, and started firing as 2nd platoon started to cross.  One of the first to get hit was Sturgis, and warrior accounts seemed to focus on another leader also getting hit (the platoon sgt?).  At this point, the remaining troopers gathered the wounded/dead and fell back.   This is surely evidence that Custer was still dictating the flow of the battle, and retained command initiative.  E troop's "assault" was clearly an attempt to determine the extent of the village.  If successful, I have no doubt that Custer would have pitched in with the rest of his command.   From his remaining troop's position in the Coulee, Custer would have been observing the failure of Sturgis' attack.   I think this lead to his decision to continue up the ridge and find the extent of the village and find the next best place to attack.

A view towards the LBH river, and Medicine Tail Ford.  E troop, 2nd platoon, would have approached the ford directly away from the viewer's perspective.   Custer would have been located a bit further back (behind this marker), observing the flow of battle.

Another view.

A zoomed in shot towards Medicine Tail Ford.  E troop, 2nd platoon approached the river through here, attempted to cross, and fell into disorder and confusion when its command element was eliminated.   After some inconclusive skirmishing from 2nd platoon and 1st platoon (which moved toward the ford for support), action here faded away as the reconstitued E troop moved back toward the rest of the battalion.

Next post:  We continue with the battalion as it makes its way up and along the ridge.

I should point out that the battle "narrative" is my interpretation, based on reading, but more importantly what my eyes told me looking at the ground.   I make no claims for consistency with any single source, nor do I claim ultimate accuracy.   Most of this just seems like common sense.....to me!


  1. Ah, yes, the Medicine Tail coulee. A great source of mystery and what if. Some say Custer was hit here, who knows, personally I like to think he wasn't because I dig the "romantic" version of events - going down fighting on last stand hill and all...

    Regardless, the battalion does seem to have functioned in a military manner following this episode - which I would expect given the professional leadership structure. But, if Custer had been hit, maybe the command's movements afterward would have been more timid including falling back to fight another day?

    1. According to Crazy Horse family . Custer fought to the bitter end . The Indians wanted to keep Custer alive so as to humiliate him and to bring back a message . Thats according to the Clown family

  2. The more I read about Custer and the Little Bighorn, the less I know.

    Your interpretation makes as much sense as anything else I have read. Keep it up!

    Do you have any indications as to how the platoons were formed? Were they adhoc formations, or actual formed tactical units? I have the muster rolls for the 7th, but no indication of where individual people were assigned other than Company or adhoc Battalion HQs.

  3. I suspect that Custer was still physically in command and unwounded during the time in/through the Medicine Tail Coulee. It seems to me that the battalion was still acting in a somewhat orderly fashion for some time further in the battle still.

  4. I think the mystery of the LBH battle is what makes it so interesting - there are sooooo many interpretations. The archaeological finds, coupled with more recent interpretations of the Indian testimonies has certainly changed some interpretations.

    A Troop had 2 Platoons, commanded by a Lt and Sgt. I believe that the 7th was running a bit light on NCO's, due to some sickness and other losses prior to the battle. Given that a Platoon was around 20 men, if you lost two key leaders, it wouldn't take much to lose control and turn into a mob. I don't think of them as ad hoc; they were recognized formations. I think the next smaller grouping was a "team" (not sure of the correct terminology...shame on me) of 4 troopers. Why 4? Convenience and practical sense. 2 guys shared a tent - 2 tents was 4 guys. 4 guys fought as a team - 3 dismounted to skirmish, the 4th held the other 3 horses.

  5. Further on the discussion of "ad hoc" formations - a battalion was definitely an ad hoc formation. Battalions were formed of Troops, of varying numbers of Troops depending on the tactical plan and need. Custer broke his Regiment into 3 "Battalions", with his Battalion being the largest, Reno's the next largest, and Benteen's the smallest. I tend to think of the term "brigade" - a gathering of smaller constituent parts under a single command. Essentially a task force grouping.

  6. IIRC, they were running light on officers, not necessarily NCOs. Most troops had their CO and maybe one LT of the two assigned.

    For example, C Troop had one officer, 2nd Lt. Harrington, but the 1st Sgt, three Sgts, and three corporals. E Troop had 2 officers, the 1st Sgt, 2 Sgts, and three corporals.

    It didn't help that Custer would pull company COs out to serve on the staff (Tom Custer), nor that he was so short of field-grade officers that company commanders had to take over battalions (Benteen, Keogh and Yates were all commanding battalions by the end).

    I'm still not sure about the platoon organizations as formal ones, but none of the books I have at hand address anything below company level in an easily-accessed way.

  7. Brent, I think the battallions were pretty standard - three per regiment. 2 company's made up a squadron and 4 company's /2 squadrons a battalion.

    This article says the squadrons were dropped, but it is common to find 2 company's operating together. It also indicates each troop had 8 sargeants, so likely just the officers were in short supply.