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Out of Time: Frank Stratton and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

21 September 20 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Natalie Owen

It was an event that sent shockwaves ringing through the country, and remains the most devastating military defeat the United States had ever suffered against the Native Americans. Not only was the Battle of Little Bighorn one of the most significant moments in the story of America, but the massacre of General George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry at the hands of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse remains amongst the most controversial and definitive military actions in U.S. history. And witness to it all was Frank Stratton, a 28-year-old former printer from Nottingham…

As the unique events of 25-26 June 1876 began to unfold, Frank Stratton found himself caught between the iron-wills of two goliaths of history. The first was a belligerent warmonger and loose cannon, motivated by pride, arrogance and an unquenchable thirst for fame and glory that would ultimately cost him his life. The other couldn’t have differed more: striving for peace at every opportunity, desperate to provide a meaningful life for his people away from the restraints of U.S. Government policy. But as the mid-Summer sun rose on those vast, rolling plains of Montana, the die had already been cast, and the battle between George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull was about to reach its bloody, violent conclusion. 

It’s impossible to imagine what thoughts would have been racing through the mind of 28-year-old Stratton. Born and raised in Nottingham, the former printer had, like so many looking for an escape from the entrenched class system of Europe, ventured to the New World for a fresh beginning. Standing at just over five-and-a-half feet tall, with hazel eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion, you wonder whether it was regret that clouded his thoughts. Regret at ever leaving Nottingham. Regret at enlisting in St. Louis, Missouri less than two years before. Regret at ever putting on the blue uniform of the 7th Cavalry. Regret at following a madman like Custer into that bleak Western wilderness. 

But it was too late for misgivings. Stratton was part of a war machine that had ruthlessly expanded the American frontier Westward like an unstoppable flood of red, white and blue, establishing forts, farms and towns in what had been Native territory just months before. In 1876, Montana was for all practical, legal and military purposes still Indian Territory, but one small, isolated mountain range would change everything.

The Black Hills had become integral to Lakota culture since they were captured from the Cheyenne in 1776. Rising out of the Great Plains like a colossal, cragged onyx, they were subject to an expedition by Custer two years before the events of the Little Bighorn. The discovery of gold meant only one thing and, as prospectors flooded into the region, the U.S. Government became resolute in its decision to acquire the hills one way or another. What followed became known as the Great Sioux War, or the Black Hills War, culminating in a series of legal and military battles, the most infamous of which would take place over two days in June 1876, as General Custer and a force of 750 men of the 7th Cavalry marched deep into Indian Territory.

There was nothing extraordinary about Stratton’s non-American roots. A glance at the 7th Cavalry’s roster demonstrates the international make-up of Custer’s force: surnames like Deihle and Schlieper from Germany, O’Brien and Murphy from Ireland, Martino and DeRudio from Italy, Boren from Sweden. Stratton was even joined by Scott Sterland from Chesterfield in Derbyshire. In fact, only half of the men at Custer’s disposal had been born in the U.S. It wasn’t simply a case of being a fight between white men and Native Americans, either. Custer had thirty Native scouts and interpreters, mostly Arikara, at his disposal, as well as a black interpreter named Isaiah Dorman, who was married to a Sioux woman. 

Sitting at the head of this eclectic, multi-national army was a man to whom fame and notoriety were as essential as food and water. With flowing golden ringlets of hair dripping down to his shoulders, topped by a floppy, sombrero-like hat and finished with a bright-red neckerchief and flashy buckskin gloves, there was nothing conventional about George Armstrong Custer. Having finished bottom of his class at West Point in 1861, he was spared a life of mediocrity by a Civil War that tore his country asunder. For it was on the fields of some of that war’s bloodiest battles that Custer discovered his true calling. Fighting for the Union at Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg, he developed a peerless reputation as a ferociously brave, tactically astute cavalry commander and a born leader of men. As the Civil War reached its bitter conclusion, and attention turned once more toward Westward expansion, he was a national celebrity. 

It was a role Custer relished, and journalists followed his every move. Despite being against military regulations, he frequently invited press men onto his campaigns, sending them back East armed with favourable reports of daring raids and memorable victories. It’s testament to the importance of the Black Hills that, after an unsuccessful attempt to purchase them from the Sioux, it would be Custer that was chosen to lead the subsequent expedition of federal troops tasked to take the territory by force. 

His penis was cut off and stuffed in his mouth, his testicles pinned to the ground and his canteen and kettle filled to the brim with his own blood

Born eight years before Custer, Sitting Bull was known as Jumping Badger in his earlier years, owing to his careful and unhurried nature. It was during a raid to take horses from a camp of Crow warriors that he, aged just fourteen, displayed his bravery by counting coup – the act of touching an enemy with a hand, bow or stick and escaping unharmed – on one of the surprised Crow. He led raiding parties in Red Cloud’s War and continued to grow as a military and political leader until, at some point between 1866-68, he was made Supreme Chief of the whole Sioux Nation. 

The U.S. strategy at the time involved persuading tribes, either by policy or by force, onto reservations in which they’d become reliant on government supplies. The Treaty of Fort Laramie saw the creation of the Great Sioux Reservation in 1868, and included ownership of the Black Hills. Many traditional Sioux leaders succumbed to reservation life, so depleted were the buffalo herds which had been hunted to almost extinction by white settlers, that their traditional way of life was almost impossible to sustain without government help. 

But Sitting Bull refused to be dependent on his would-be conquerors. Continuing to live life on the Plains, men, women and children flocked to his camp until it numbered over 10,000 people. Whereas pockets of Native resistance had been easy to pick off and subdue, Sitting Bull was preparing for safety in numbers. Together, they were an enormous, nomadic village, constantly on the move, rendering them almost impossible to capture.  By the time Custer and his troops had tracked the moving village West across the Wolf Mountains, it had settled on the banks of a slender river, known to the Sioux as the Greasy Grass. To the men of the 7th Cavalry, it was the Little Bighorn. 

The sun was only just starting to rise on that Sunday morning of 25 June 1876, and those who were waking up did so in the knowledge that they were part of an encampment larger than any in their lifetime, split into six or seven separate camps, huddled closer together than usual owing to reports of U.S. soldiers in the vicinity. 

Custer was oblivious to the size of the camp, and suspected somewhere in the region of 800 hostiles – less than 10% of the real number. In a pattern of arrogant behaviour that would ultimately lead to his downfall, he was already making plans for the aftermath of his inevitable victory, with thoughts turned toward how to prevent too many of their number from escaping. Scouting from two-and-a-half miles away, Custer devised a plan to engage noncombatants in the village. By capturing the women, children, elderly and disabled Indians as hostages, he’d force the warriors to surrender and comply with government orders to relocate to reservations.

His next mistake came in the separation of his forces into three groups. Of his eleven companies, five remained under his command, three were given to Captain Frederick Benteen, and three went to Major Marcus Reno, including Frank Stratton’s M Company. Half Yellow Face, a Crow scout serving under Custer, warned that it was the largest Native village he had ever seen, but his caution fell on deaf ears. Custer, it seemed, always knew best. Silenced but not satisfied, Half Yellow Face prophetically remarked to Custer, “You and I are going home today by a road we do not know.”

With the size of the village still unknown, it was Reno’s three companies that were first to engage. Fully expecting the enemy to turn and flee, Reno, Stratton and the men of A, G and M companies crossed the Little Bighorn at around 3pm. With his view obscured by trees and brush, he ordered his men to advance blind until, all of a sudden, the full size of the village came into view. Quickly realising that he was inadvertently ordering his men to certain death, he frantically ordered a skirmish line. Frank Stratton did as ordered. Dismounting from his horse and loading his Springfield carbine, Stratton waited, the afternoon sun beating down onto his face, panic slowly starting to creep into his thoughts. Nottingham had never seemed so far away.

From humble beginnings as a printer in Nottingham, Frank Stratton walked amongst giants of history, living through the most infamous event in the story of America

Suddenly, the order came to fire. Stratton and his fellow troopers discharged several rounds at the village, killing scores of Indians, including several wives and children of Sioux leader Chief Gall. The Native warriors raced out to meet their attackers, and Reno soon found himself overwhelmed and outnumbered 5-to-1. The 7th Cavalry were fighting for a cause that wasn’t their own, whereas the Sioux and Cheyenne were fighting tooth and nail for their very survival, with men, women and children joining the defense. It wasn’t even close. Reno could only hope Custer was faring better. 

Stratton had survived the early counter-attack, but things were reaching crisis point. Warriors pinned Reno’s men against the banks of the river, setting fire to the brush in an attempt to flush them out. The panic that was doubtlessly paralyzing his men suddenly struck Reno. He gave the order to mount, only to follow it immediately with another order to dismount, and then a third to re-mount yet again. Looking to his commanding officer for leadership, Stratton could only feel an impending sense of doom. As he choked on the dust, smoke and deafening gunfire, death must have felt like a grim inevitability.

Letting out a cry of “All those wish to make their escape follow me!” Reno led his men in a chaotic retreat back across the river, which was constantly disrupted by Cheyenne attacks at close quarter. Stratton was seeing friends drop dead all around him – some to arrow wounds, some to bullets, many to the vicious clubs that they’d all grown to fear. They lived in terror not just of the finality of death, but of the ritual mutilation that followed. Body parts were taken as trophies, and all had heard tales of scalping – the practice of removing part or the entire scalp with hair still attached, often while the victim was still alive. Isaiah Dorman, Custer’s black scout who married a Sioux woman, was found dead with his penis cut off and stuffed in his mouth, his testicles pinned to the ground and his canteen and kettle filled to the brim with his own blood. Almost half of Reno’s men were dead, wounded or missing, but Stratton remained unharmed. 

The scattered men, depleted and shaken, made their way to the top of a bluff, where they were joined by Captain Benteen and his three companies. Due to nothing but sheer luck, their reunion was the only thing that saved Reno, Stratton and the rest of their men from total annihilation. A messenger from Custer arrived, carrying the hastily written note, “Benteen. Come on, Big Village. Be quick, Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” They had heard intense gunfire from the North, but they were in dire circumstances themselves, and in no position to launch another attack, even if it was to help their charismatic leader. 

In the rolling, disjointed Montana plains, confusion reigned supreme, and fighting was constricted to pockets of skirmishes, retreats and counter-attacks. Crests and hills rendered clear lines of sight almost impossible, and it wasn’t until 5pm that D Company were able to move out and attempt to make contact with Custer. Even the ferocity of their earlier fight couldn’t have prepared them for what they were to discover.

The precise details of Custer’s fight remain lost to history, as only verbal Native accounts survive which, though useful, are conflicting and often unclear. It wasn’t until June 27, two days after their own battle, that the men under Reno and Benteen’s command would see Custer’s fate for themselves. The darling of the U.S. military and the five companies under his command had been utterly wiped out, without a single survivor. 

As they approached the site of Custer’s Last Stand, scores of bodies, stripped of their uniforms, ritually mutilated and in various states of decomposition, lay strewn across the battlefield. Custer had two gunshot wounds, one in his left chest and one in his temple. Lakota testimonies would later attest that, in order to avoid being captured, a mortally-wounded Custer had committed suicide at the last, a theory supported by the fact that his body lay unmolested – it was considered taboo to claim trophies from the body of a coward.

For all the prestige that came with forcing Custer to make his last stand, Sitting Bull had inadvertently caused a last stand of his own

This final stand had lasted less than an hour, and among the dead were two of Custer’s brothers, his brother-in-law and his nephew. Whereas many facts of the final moments in the life of George Armstrong Custer remain unclear, several accounts agree on one thing: when his body was discovered, his face was locked in a wide-mouthed, maniacal grin. Maybe this was the death he’d been craving his entire life. 

It was a stunning, unprecedented victory for Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who had led much of the fighting on the day. As news eventually made its way East, it brought an abrupt end to the United States’ centenary celebrations. Disbelief gripped the nation, temporarily shattering the notion of Manifest Destiny. It was the news story of the century, with papers lamenting the loss of a true patriot and martyr in Custer, and stirring levels of anti-Indian sentiment the likes of which had never been seen before.

For Sitting Bull and his mighty village, victory was wildly celebrated and short-lived. For all the prestige that came with forcing Custer to make his last stand, Sitting Bull had inadvertently caused a last stand of his own. With game too sparse to support their huge numbers, the Native Americans were forced to separate into smaller groups. The U.S. military response was swift and merciless, and in less than a year the war was over. Sitting Bull escaped to Canada in May 1877, and Crazy Horse surrendered just days later. Four years later, starving and desperate, Sitting Bull returned to the United States to surrender too. The greatest Native leader of them all had been worn down by years of facing odds that would have broken a lesser man. After being moved to the Standing Rock Reservation, he was murdered by police on December 14, 1890. 

The aptly named Manypenny Commission determined the ownership of the Black Hills in favour of the U.S. Government. Since then, the land has gone on to become the most profitable mine in U.S. history, producing over $1 billion worth of gold and silver. It might seem like another world connected to ours only by films and stories, but the last survivor of the Little Bighorn saw the end of World War II, and a 1951 legal battle over true ownership of the Black Hills ruled that the Sioux were owed compensation. The money they were offered was refused, and the legal case rumbles on to this day. 

The events of the Little Bighorn shaped legacies. Custer and his famous last stand may have been remembered heroically at the time, but history has rightly condemned him as an arrogant, over-confident glory-hunter who blindly led his men to their deaths. Sitting Bull, conversely, is remembered as the man who never sought war but, once it arrived, seized the opportunity for a victory that made him immortal.

And what of Frank Stratton, the former printer from Nottingham turned trooper in the 7th Cavalry? Miraculously, he escaped the Little Bighorn uninjured, but the brutality of what he survived clearly left its mark in other ways. Soon after the battle, he deserted from Fort Abraham Lincoln. He’d seen enough of fighting, enough of dying and enough of what men could do to one-another in the name of greed. Unfortunately for us, that’s where Stratton’s story ends. Men matching his name and rough age appear in several places; perhaps he’s the Frank Stratton who was peacefully breeding horses in Iowa in 1906, the Frank Stratton that left for Canada, dying peacefully in Ontario in 1934, or maybe even the Frank Stratton that returned to live in Britain, disillusioned by life in the United States. 

From humble beginnings as a printer in Nottingham, Frank Stratton walked amongst giants of history, living through the most infamous event in the story of America. He witnessed the mighty village of Sitting Bull, fought off countless charges from Crazy Horse and saw the mangled corpses of Custer and the men who died by his side. And what’s more, he survived.

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