by Gordon Harper
(Casemate Books, $32.95)
Reviewed by Larry Cox
Gordon Harper was 20 years old and a minor-league baseball player when he mistakenly got off a bus at the Little Horn battlefield instead of his intended destination. That mistake changed the course of his life. He became so captivated by the site that he moved nearby and spent the next 50 years studying every aspect of one of America’s most storied disasters, the defeat of Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians in June 1876 in eastern Montana Territory.
One of the first things Harper noted is that the battle actually occurred along the Little Horn River, not the Big Horn, which was several miles away. The term “Battle of the Little Big Horn” has, consequently, always been a misnomer.
Harper spent countless hours on the battlefield, documenting the event from both sides, white and Indian. As he re-created every aspect of the battle as authoritatively as he could, he began to dispel many myths and falsehoods while establishing a clearer, more accurate account.
By the time of Harper’s death, he had completed a manuscript of more than 1,700 pages. This work featured Indian accounts, an analysis of forensic evidence and even the exact location of where each doomed fighter fell. His 2 million words of research reveal to readers his key findings, and make the exact course of the battle accessible. For example, he traces the mysterious activities of Frederick Benteen’s battalion that fateful day, and why it never came to reinforce Custer’s command.
Harper’s manuscript has been edited to some 380 pages, but it nevertheless provides a rich, well-documented narrative that surely will become one of the definitive sources of this bloody event. It is exceptional historical reporting and as exciting as a well-crafted novel.