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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Witnessing Custer’s Folly Survivor’s Account Of Little Bighorn Battle Gives New Details, Insights On The Final Moments Of George Custer’s Charge

M.R. Montgomery The Boston Globe

“With Custer on the Little Bighorn: A Newly Discovered First-Person Account” By William O. Taylor (Viking, 207 pp., $27.95)

There are very few personal accounts of the great Sioux War of 1875-76 or any of the Western Indian campaigns, and there is next to nothing by enlisted troops. Compared to the endless stream of Civil War memoirs, the eyewitnesses to our own ethnic cleansing of the West are as nothing, a few relics, scarce as arrowheads scattered in the sagebrush.

Officers provide most of the small literature of firsthand accounts; Generals Crook, Sheridan, Kearney, Miles and Howard wrote memoirs. Before his timely death, Brevet General of Volunteers George Armstrong Custer, with editorial support, committed “My Life on the Plains” to the shelf. Add Lt. John G. Burke’s “On the Border with Crook,” and you have almost filled your library.

That said, William O. Taylor’s modest memoir, “With Custer on the Little Bighorn,” is a substantial addition, but to a scant genre. Taylor participated in various expeditions against “renegade” Sioux, culminating in the great three-pronged search-and-destroy mission in the summer campaign of 1876.

He survived mostly through two strokes of good luck: He was with Maj. Marcus Reno’s flanking units while Custer charged ahead to certain death and glory, and he was by chance designated a horse holder. Three of four cavalry men would dismount and charge on foot while the fourth held their horses, to be brought up in victory, to be desperately sought in retreat or defeat.

There was not a boastful bone in Taylor: “I can not say that I did much execution,” he wrote of his flight from the surrounding Sioux, “but I tried to by firing at an Indian directly opposite who I thought was paying special attention to myself.”

Taylor, recently reassigned to his troop, got the bottom pick of horses. He was in peril of his life and his horse simply quit. Taylor dismounted and made it to the sanctuary of Reno’s hilltop rendezvous on foot.

Reno’s three companies would survive with heavy casualties; Capt. William Frederick Benteen’s companies, bringing up the rear, would help them defend their position; and Custer’s three troops would die to a man, a few miles farther along the bluffs above the Little Bighorn. Taylor, who worked on the manuscript for years, writing it out in a perfect copy-book hand, corresponded with survivors, read other writers’ accounts and modestly adds some important details of his own.

He was convinced, and convincingly argues, that Custer might have survived, except that the few thousand Sioux who had pinned Reno’s command to the ground were allowed to move in mass toward Custer, pinching the foolhardy one-time general between converging masses.

He also makes a strong case that it was Benteen, Reno’s subordinate, who made their defense possible, and that Benteen would have tried to keep the forces against them engaged, giving Custer some prayer of a chance. Primitive warriors do not like sieges, or close combat, or charging defenses. But, it was to be as it seems it had to be, and Custer was dead within half an hour of the time Reno’s troops had scrambled to their defensive position.

Taylor, long before political correctness, understood that he was engaged in a truly immoral war: “They seemed to us,” he wrote, “in all their hideousness of paint and feathers… like fiends incarnate, but were they?”

No. The Indians were, he realized, fighting men defending their wives and children against a foe who had violated every treaty and wreaked every cruelty on them. He admired Custer and regretted the manner of his death, but he knew that he was a lucky survivor who had been on the wrong side of a fatal argument.