Wild West

THE COLONEL WHO BLAMED CUSTER

Colonel Samuel Sturgis was a hard-luck soldier—though his hardest luck fell on his regiment during the ill-fated June 1876 battle on Montana Territory’s Little Bighorn River while he was on detached duty at a recruiting depot 1,000 miles away in St. Louis. Seventh U.S. Cavalry Second Lieutenant James Garland “Jack” Sturgis of Company E, the colonel’s firstborn son, was one of three regimental officers whose bodies were never identified after Custer’s Last Stand that June 25. A pair of bloodied underdrawers found in the Indian village after the battle were tentatively identified as having belonged to the lieutenant. One of four severed heads found in the village suggested to some officers that 22-year-old Sturgis may have been captured, tortured and mutilated. Most accounts from Indian participants deny they took any prisoners into the village—though after a battle in which upward of 10 Indian women and children were killed in a surprise attack, ritual mutilation was positively rampant.

Lieutenant Sturgis’ death came little more than a year after that of his 4-year-old brother, Thomas Glenn Sturgis, who died of natural causes at Jefferson Barracks, Mo. Thus their father was doubly devastated.

In his anguish Sturgis touched off what came to be a leading alternative version of the Last Stand—that Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the “Custer Clan” of loyal officers were to blame for the catastrophe, elsewhere widely attributed to the purported cowardice of Major Marcus Reno and the deliberate dawdling of Captain Frederick Benteen. Custer’s admirers argued that had Reno attacked his assigned flank of the Indian village with greater force, the Indians would have been routed, and had Benteen led his men to Custer’s relief, they could have saved some of the men from the colonel’s otherwise surrounded and doomed five companies. In the end, 267 men died with Custer on the Little Bighorn, including two of his brothers,

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