History Rewind: Custer’s Last Stand, with Neil Mangum

The Battle of Little Bighorn remains etched in the American psyche as one of the Native Americans’ most successful actions against the U.S. Army—and the melancholic end to one of history’s most flamboyant characters. In advance of BGES’ tour “Death in Montana: The Last Stand of George Armstrong Custer,” slated for June 11–16, 2019, we caught up with tour leader Neil Mangum, one of the nation’s foremost historians and an expert on frontier life, and posed a few questions.

BGES Blog: Give the ten-cent description of what your tour will cover.

Neil Mangum: The Little Bighorn tour will cover the Sioux War campaign of 1876. It offers in-depth study and hands-on experiences with the campaign. It features more than a half-day walking tour over the Rosebud battlefield, the signal event before Little Bighorn. But the most important aspect of the tour is spending two full days on the Little Bighorn Battlefield, walking in the footsteps of both warriors and soldiers contending over the battlefield. Many of the sites visited are not open to the general public, thus offering a rare glimpse of this most controversial battle.

BGES Blog: Why has the Battle of the Little Bighorn compelled so many generations of both military historians and amateur enthusiasts?

Neil Mangum: The battle of the Little Bighorn has widespread appeal, as your question suggests. Everybody seems to like a mystery, and this one has all sorts of turns and plots, heroes and villains. The bottom line, which keeps this battlefield so intriguing, is no one can say with certainty what happened to Custer.

BGES Blog: Some historians consider Custer to be reckless, selfish, and immature. Others praise him for his truth, sincerity, bravery, and temperance. What do you think?

Neil Mangum: My personal opinion is that Custer is neither a hero or fool. Custer is usually firmly entrenched in one of those two categories. Somewhere between those two extremes I think you’ll find the real Custer.

BGES Blog: If Custer rose from the grave, how would he tell his side of the story?

Neil Mangum: If Custer was to rise from the dead and we were to ask him what happened is probably an unfair question. There is so much that we do not know about what happened during the battle that even Custer himself couldn’t supply the answers. I believe he would have more questions about what Reno and Benteen were doing. And he might even be surprised at the determination and tenacity of the Indians to defend their village when he expected them to be running away.

BGES Blog: What is the importance of this study in the greater context of American history?

Neil Mangum: So why study the battle of the Little Bighorn? In reality, it was a small affair deserving nothing more than a passing footnote in history. Yet this battle has seen more ink spilled on pages of history than any other American battle except Gettysburg. Why? It is high drama. And probably not even the best Hollywood scriptwriters could enhance the story. And it begs the question: How could professional trained soldiers under the leadership of one of the nation’s most celebrated cavalry commanders, George A. Custer, be utterly destroyed at the hands of Plains Indians? The public has an insatiable appetite to know what happened. But beyond the acrimonious epithets hurled for and against Custer, it is important to remember that the battle represented the Plains Indians’ Last Stand to preserve their way of life, too. In the end they won this battle but lost the war. Their lives and culture would be impacted forever. That is the most important thing that this study presents