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Fatal last stand

He's an American hero. He's been painted, commemorated and acted by Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan. Five American counties are named after him and he was given a celebrity funeral.

Yet, by many accounts, George Custer was a reckless, glory-seeking lieutenant colonel; an erratic soldier, whose famous Last Stand was a terrible blunder.

It was June 1876, the time of the Indian Wars. Sioux and Cheyenne had united to stem the white tide of immigrant settlers flooding their Great Plains. Custer was part of a large detachment of troops sent to Montana to seek out the warriors who had just fought the battle of Rosebud Creek.

The commander of the 7th Cavalry found the camp first, thanks to a forced march through the night of June 24. By the time the sun rose his 700 soldiers were exhausted. Twenty-four kilometres ahead, on the banks of the Little Big Horn river, 4,000 Native Americans waited - probably the largest group ever assembled.

Custer then made some big mistakes. He didn't wait to find out how big the Native American camp was. He didn't wait for the rest of the army to join him. He ignored the fact that his troops were tired and he weakened his force by splitting it up and sending it off in three directions. Then he ordered the first detachment to attack. He assumed the Native Americans, under the command of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, would flee on seeing the US Cavalry. Custer was wrong again. They didn't. Instead the cavalry captain, realising he was grossly outnumbered, retreated in confusion. He was soon joined by the second detachment. They were pinned down and unable to help their foolhardy general despite a plea for help delivered by a messenger: "Come on. Big village. Be quick."

Custer and his 200 men were on their own. The Sioux and Cheyenne warriors spotted them riding along the banks of the Little Big Horn. Three hours later they had all been killed.

President Ulysses Grant, admittedly no friend of the dead hero, summed it up: "I regard Custer's massacre (as) a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary."

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