The annihilation of George Custer’s force at the the Little Big Horn in June 1876 is one of the most analyzed military actions in US history. Volumes have been written about the events leading up to the disaster and about the battle itself, as well as the Army's later attempts to assess the actions of Custer and his fellow officers and to assign blame for the debacle. Much less has been written about the immediate aftermath concerning the survivors in the field. Although Custer and his detachment were all killed, he had unwisely divided his forces for the attack, and two other groups, under Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen were also engaged. Their detachments survived, with casualties, both dead and wounded. The battle took place in a remote area in what is now southeastern Montana, over 700 miles from an Army hospital.
In her new book, Deliverance From the Little Big Horn: Doctor Henry Porter and Custer's Seventh Cavalry, Joan Nabseth Stevenson has told the engaging story of how a young surgeon, attached to Reno's command, survived the battle and provided medical care to the wounded , both during the battle itself and during the days immediately following. Reno's command managed to establish a defensive position about a mile from Custer's detachment, and Dr. Porter, while the battle still raged, set up a small field hospital station in a small depression in the ground, surrounded by dead horses and breastworks made of saddles, ammunition boxes, and whatever else was available. After 24 hours, the Indians suddenly departed, aware that another large Army force was approaching from the north.
Stevenson focuses her story on Dr. Porter and how, with limited resources and under severe environmental circumstances, he managed to treat nearly 50 wounded soldiers. While still in the field, Dr. Porter performed two amputations (a leg and and a hand), and did his best to comfort soldiers suffering not only battle wounds but also heat and thirst, and the inevitable infections that resulted. Stevenson details the efforts undertaken by Porter and the survivors to move the wounded from the battlefield to a steamboat, waiting days away on the Yellowstone River. Lacking wagons or Army ambulances, the most seriously wounded were placed on litters mounted between two mules or laid on travois dragged behind a horse, traveling several days over rough ground. Aboard the steamboat, the wounded still had to survive a 4-day, 710 mile voyage down the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers to Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismark in what is now north Dakota.
While the survival story alone is noteworthy, Stevenson also provides insights into the dismal medical knowledge at the time of the causes of infection, the precarious financing and organization of the Army medical staff, and the proceedings of a court of inquiry held several years after the Custer massacre to determine whether Reno and other officers should be court-martialed for failing to support Custer's detachment.
Stevenson has produced a valuable addition to the Custer literature, and the book addresses an often overlooked aspect to the story.
Review by Carl Caton