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The headlines screamed from the page:


It was the nation’s centennial, July 4, 1876. Everything was set for the party of the century. The bands were primed, the streamers hung and the speeches ready. Yet, the cold, hard facts that confronted readers of the Bismark, Tribune on that Tuesday morning soon put a dampener on any celebratory spirit. Soon the major dailies picked up the story and within 24 hours the whole nation knew the terrible, unbelievable truth – General Custer, the dashing boy general, and his whole command had been wiped out, yes massacred, by a horde of savages that numbered into the thousands.

A century and a quarter later and Custer’s demise still fascinates people. Yet, like an ancient fable, the story has been told and retold so often, that for many people, what they know of the encounter is little more than a conglomeration of misinformation and exaggeration. Let's take a look, then, at a couple of common Little Big Horn beliefs and see how the perception bears up to the reality.


It was the first thing the folks back East read when they opened their papers. And who can blame the editors – after all, it’s an emotive, attention grabbing word. It is, however, a total distortion of what actually occurred on the rolling hills of Montana on Sunday, June 25, 1876. Let's not forget that Custer was the aggressor here. He, after being advised by his scouts that a massive village lay ahead, divided his strength into three portions and then, with a hearty wave of his campaign hat, charged headlong into a village that contained men, women and children going about their peaceful activities. The intention, of course, was to massacre them, in the true sense of the word. After all, it had worked for him eight years ago on the banks of the Washita river. But, not this time, George. Custer met his match in a head to head battle. But it was no massacre.


More supposed ex-soldiers have come forth as survivors of the battle than there were participants. Nearly all of them have been dismissed out of hand. A few have made their way into the footnotes of the history books as possibles. Yet, there is one survivor account that has withstood the test of time and the scrutiny of experts and that many people are convinced are genuine. It is the story of Frank Finkel. Finkel’s story would have never come out if he hadn’t been annoyed at the authoritarian ramblings about the battle of three of his contemporaries at a horse shoe throwing contest in Dayton,Ohio.
“Ah, a helluva’ lot you fellows know about it.” the aged Finkel scoffed.
When asked what he meant, Finkel replied, “I should know about it. I was there!”

From that point Finkel’s story – reluctantly – made the headlines. He claimed to be a trooper with Tom Custer’s ‘C’ Troop, which was annihilated early on in the battle. Finkel’s horse was hit by several bullets which caused it to charge uncontrollably in a frenzied panic. Finkel held on and the mount had soon broken free from the melee. Several warriors tried to run him down. They managed to severely wound him but he got away. After riding for a day and a night he collapsed by a spring and was found by two trappers who tended him back to health.

Sound like bunkum? Well, the interesting thing is that all of Finkel’s facts appear to stack up. And, even in death Finkel appeared to confirm his case. His autopsy report listed the cause of death as malignancy due to a foreign object that was embedded in his side. What was the foreign object? It was a bullet from an 1873 Springfield single shot .45 calibre breech loader – the standard issue weapon to Custer’s troopers and the very rifle that the Indians were using to mow down Company 'C’ at the Battle of the Little Big Horn!