Custer of the West: Hollywood fact or fiction?

CUSTER OF THE WEST starred Robert Shaw in the lead role in 1967 and was a vague representation of the facts of the ‘Battle’ of the Little Big Horn and Custer’s last stand. There was also a rather less factual Errol Flynn version in 1941 called They Died with Their Boots on.  What the 1967 version sadly lacked, which the 1941 version seemed very proud of, was the tune ‘Gary Owen’ which was taken up by Custer as the 7th Cavalry’s march – to hear it  Click here (need sound of course).

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George Armstrong Custer was born in December 1839 in New Rumley, Ohio. He went to West Point in 1857 and graduated last in his class in 1861 just in time for the commencement of the American Civil War in April of that year. He performed courageously under the command of General George McClellan who saw to his promotion to acting captain but when McClellan was relieved of his command, Custer was reverted back to lieutenant.  General Alfred Pleasonton took over from McClellan and under him came Custer’s introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering, and the young lieutenant became his protégé and soon regained his rank of (full) captain. Custer distinguished himself by fearless and aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements and he was rewarded (and so not by mistake as in the Errol Flynn film!) with promotion as the youngest brevet [1] brigadier of the volunteers at the age of 23.

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Cadet George Custer at West Point, c 1859 – to be last in his class on graduation in 1861

Whilst on leave during the Civil war he married Elizabeth ‘Libbie’ Bacon in February 1864. Her father was Judge Daniel Bacon who, initially, had not approved of Custer as a match for his daughter as he (Custer) was the son of a blacksmith. Well, this all changed when Custer had become a hero of the Civil War ….. oh,  and a brigadier general.

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Brevet Brigadier General Custer, 1865

When the war ended, Custer was returned to his rank of captain but it was not long before he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and assigned to the newly formed 7th Cavalry based at Fort Riley in Kansas where he joined the General Winifred Scott Hancock campaign against the Cheyenne ‘Indians’/Native Americans (see last post –  I need to call them ‘Indians’ for context purposes). However after the Hancock campaign, Custer was court martialled for going absent without leave (AWOL) – he had become indifferent and frustrated with the campaign and abandoned his post to go and see his wife – and he was suspended from duty for one year. He returned to duty before the suspension had expired at the request of General Philip Sheridan who wanted Custer for the Indian campaign.

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Libbie Custer (1842-1933)

Now the Indian campaign took a bit of a turn when gold was found in the Black Hills of Dakota. These hills were owned by the Lakota Sioux Indians headed by Chief Sitting Bull as a result of the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. The government needed to control them because of the gold and the fact that 15,000 miners had moved into the Hills setting up towns such as Custer and  Deadwood (remember that place from Wild Bill Hickok post August 23, 2014). So, in the autumn of 1875, the government offered Sitting Bull $6 million for the land but the sum was turned down.  President Ulysses Grant then made two fateful decisions: (1) he would not stop miners flooding into the Black Hills; and (2) all Lakota and Cheyenne Indians must report to the reservations by January 1876 or be treated as hostiles (thus reneging on the Fort Laramie Treaty). The Indian tribes refused to comply.

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Sitting Bull portrait

This seemed to be a great opportunity for more glory for Custer. By now he had been gambling and making bad business decisions and was in severe financial difficulties and needed a ‘way out’. A campaign against the Lakota Indians was a good option. Unfortunately he was called to Washington to give evidence at the Congressional Committee trying to discredit President Grant’s Administration’s handling of contracts with the Indian Agencies on the frontier. Custer managed to try and implicate the President’s brother, Orvil, which was a mistake. The President was furious and decided to keep Custer on the sidelines of the Indian war and ignored all requests from Custer to see him to apologise.  Eventually, General Alfred Terry, who needed Custer, eventually got him re-instated. So, in 1876, he headed to the Back hills in search of redemption and glory.

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President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85)

By January 1876 the Lakota Indians under Sitting Bull had not moved to the reservation and General Terry had orders to force him and his followers to do so or destroy them in the process. The plan was a three pronged assault on the Indian village of Sitting Bull’s alliance of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne around Yellowstone River and four of its close tributaries, the Bighorn, Rosebud, Tongue and Powder (see map below). Terry (and Custer), with 1200 men, would approach from the east from Fort Lincoln; Colonel Gibbon, with 440 men, from the west from Montana; and General Crook, with 1100 men, from the south from Wyoming.  Terry and Custer left via separate routes to clear up any Indian stragglers. Apparently Terry had said to Custer that if he (Custer) got there before him to leave him some action. Custer allegedly replied, simply, “No” (but I have no source for that…).  Custer was a ‘dog off the leash’.

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Plan of assault on the Indian camp at Little Big Horn

On the 25th June 1876, Custer, indeed, arrived about a day before Terry. Crook had arrived first and camped by the Rosebud River only to be attacked by a large force of alliance Indians under Crazy Horse and only just managed to avoid total defeat and retreated south. He reported this disaster to General Sheridan but made no effort to notify Terry.  Custer wanted glory for himself alone and, despite the tiredness of his soldiers who had been on the move all day, he insisted on going into action immediately.  As a result he split his force into three battalions, one under himself, another under Major Marcus Reno and the other under Captain  Frederick Benteen. Neither of these officers liked Custer and the feeling was mutual, particularly as Reno was an alcoholic.  Benteen was sent south and west, to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians; Reno was sent to charge the southern end of the encampment; and Custer rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs, planning to circle around and attack from the north.  This split was to prove fatal.

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Major Reno (1834-89)

Custer had 208 officers and men under his command (including his two brothers, Tom and Boston, his nephew, Henry ‘Autie’ Reed, and his brother-in-law, Lt Calhoun), with an additional 142 under Reno, just over 100 under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall’s rearguard, and 84 soldiers under 1st Lieutenant Edward Gustave Mathey with the pack train. The Lakota/Cheyenne coalition may have fielded over 1800 warriors (although reports on this number vary).

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Capt. Benteen, c1865 

Reno was the first to encounter resistance when he was attacked some 500 yards from the village. He was forced to retreat back up into the hills having lost a quarter of his battalion.  Here he met up with Benteen who asked where Custer was. By this time Benteen had received a note from Custer to come quick (see below) but he did nothing. In fact he and Reno sat and talked for about one hour and a half.  A Capt. Thomas Weir, a friend of Custer, was so frustrated with Reno and Benteen’s inaction, particularly as they could all hear gunfire in the distance, that he rode off to investigate. Benteen was shamed into following him.

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Capt. Thomas Weir (1838-76)

In the meantime Custer had arrived on the hill north of the Indian camp and saw it for the first time and realised how mistaken he had been about the number of hostiles involved. He sent the above mentioned note to Benteen, “Benteen, come on. Big village. Come quick. Bring packs.” He then waved hist hat and shouted, “Hurrah boys, we’ve got them. We’ll finish them up and then home to our stations” (bearing in mind there were no survivors I’m not sure of the source of this alleged quote – although one source suggests that a couple of Custer’s Indian scouts were sent away before the final battle). What followed was a complete massacre of Custer’s force. The precise details of Custer’s fight are largely conjectural since none of his men (the five companies under his immediate command) survived the battle. The accounts of surviving Indians are conflicting and unclear.  Custer, himself, died with bullet wounds to the chest and head. With him on the hill were both his brothers, his nephew and his brother-in-law as mentioned above). This was indeed Custer’s last stand on ‘Last Stand Hill’ (as it is known today) as depicted in both Hollywood films, but not the last stand of his whole force.

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Custer’s note to Benteen

Archaeology

There has been an archaeological survey of the battlefield which has produced some interesting results, including around 5,000 artifacts. The finds consist mainly of spent cartridges. It is known that the soldiers used the 1873 Springfield breach-loading ‘trapdoor’ carbine (a point the 1967 film fails to accept as, in the last stand, its soldiers use repeating Henrys/Winchesters), so finds of cartridges belonging to this gun indicate positions of Custer’s soldiers. Any other rifle cartridges indicate the positions of the Indians. It was discovered that the Indians were using 47 different types of guns from muzzle-loading ‘antiques’ to the modern repeating Henry rifle (similar to the famous Winchester). From such finds it is believed that at least 800 Indians were armed with a rifle of some description. Henry rifles had been given to the Indians by the government to shoot buffalo – there’s irony for you!

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Above and below: the 1873 Springfield single-shot breach-loading ‘trapdoor’ carbine

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It was these rifles that gave an idea as to why Custer failed in his encounter – other than being hopelessly outnumbered that is. Simply he allowed the Indians to get too close. The Springfield carbine is great at a long distance skirmish as it has an accurate range of around 600-700 yards, whereas the Henry repeater has an effective range of only 200 yards. However, once close-in the advantage reverses. The Henry can fire 13 rounds in 30 seconds compared with only 4 rounds from the single-shot Springfield. It doesn’t take  rocket science to work out who the odds are against at short range affrays.

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The 1860 Henry repeating rifle

The distribution of the cartridges indicated that something like a third (or more) of Custer’s men had been separated from Custer and killed before being able to join him on ‘Last Stand Hill’ (where Custer was found), about a third were killed on the hill and a third (perhaps less) killed trying to escape down the hill to Deep Ravine near the river Bighorn.

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On top of Last Stand Hill near where Custer fell (see his marker) looking to Deep Ravine in the distance

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In the distance from Last Stand Hill can be seen more markers of those who fell trying to escape to the river through Deep Ravine

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Footnote

[1] A brevet was a warrant giving a commissioned officer a higher rank title as a reward for gallantry or meritorious conduct, but without receiving the authority, precedence, or pay of real rank.


POSTSCRIPT

One year after the battle, Custer’s remains and those of many of his officers were recovered and sent back east for reinternment in more formal burials. Custer was buried again with full military honours at West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877 – a great honour for someone who finished last in his graduation class! The battle site was designated a National Cemetery in 1876.

Major Reno was dismissed from the army in 1880 due to alcoholism and died 9 years later. Benteen lasted a little longer but was suspended from duty due to being drunk and disorderly. He retired in 1888 but his inactivity at Bighorn continually hung over him.

Sitting Bull did not take a direct military role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn; instead he acted as a spiritual chief. He escaped to Canada but later found himself working for Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show. He died in 1890 aged 58/59.

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Sitting Bull (1831-90)

You can visit the site of the battle and it has a Visitors Centre (of course). But I did read a guide to the site which said, ‘Where ever you go, watch out for rattlesnakes!’

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P.P.S.  Finally, I always find these topics difficult because I love the Wild West and it’s ‘heroic’ characters.  They are part of the ‘Great American Way’,  However, the the more I read about Custer, the more I dislike him.  Accepted, he was very courageous but that was part of his ego, arrogance and flamboyance – which got him the nickname ‘Lucky’ (he should never have lasted as long a she did with his crazy military antics).  But that luck was to run out. I’m an avid supporter of the Native Americans and believe they were treated very badly by the US government and this leaves an imbalance with the ‘heroic romanticism’ of How the West Was Won. But that’s just my opinion.

 

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Kit Carson in the Wild West

I WAS RUMMAGING though some of my books the other day and came across my Kit Carson’s Cowboy Annual of 1958 which had somehow survived my childhood. This particular volume includes a couple of tales of Davy Crockett. Great ‘Boys Own Adventure’ stuff! Of course in those days I assumed these were real characters until one of my ‘friends’ ruined it all by telling me they were only heroic fellows of some writer’s vivid imagination. Bit like hearing Santa Claus is not …… no, I can’t say it. Well, just how wrong was my friend! But I think it took me several years to find out.

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My 1958 Annual – Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, and friendly Native-American (I think he’s Chief Bear Paw from one of the the Davy Crockett yarns in the annual)

If you want more on Davy Crockett, see my Alamo post, August 16, 2014.  As for Kit Carson, or to be more precise, Christopher ‘Kit’ Houston Carson, he was born in Madison County, Kentucky in December 1809. He began his working life as a saddler but that was not for him. He lasted two years at that and then, at the age of sixteen, he joined a group of traders bound for Santa Fe, New Mexico. He learnt (and interpreted) Spanish, worked at a variety of tasks including cook, wagon driver, and in a copper mine, before linking up with a fur trapping party heading for California. He spent a year trapping along the rivers of Arizona and southern California before returning to New Mexico, in 1831, to join the trapper, Thomas Fitzpatrick. With his band of men he headed for the Rocky Mountains.  He spent ten years travelling around Western America learning of all the routes and passages through the territories.

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Early photo of Kit Carson in beaver hat

During this period he came in contact with the Indians (I know we must call them Native Americans but I have to use the old phrase for context). Then in 1836, he married an Arapaho woman named Waanibe (Singing Grass), and had two children of which only one survived (Adeline). His wife also died in about 1841 giving birth to the second child. He married again, this time to a Cheyenne woman named Making-Out-Road (don’t ask), but it did not last. He then split the next eight years between his daughter who was being educated in St Louis (and staying with Carson’s sister) and trapping in Taos, New Mexico.

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In case you didn’t know the whereabouts of New Mexico 

In 1842 he met a traveller/explorer, John C. Frémont, in St Louis. Frémont was planning to survey a route to the west – to be known as the Oregon Trail – and Carson was to be his guide. Three expeditions took place between 1842 and 1845 and both Frémont and Carson had their reputations sealed – Frémont as an explorer and Carson as a frontiersman guide. The American public was fascinated by tales from the Wild West, of Indians and trail blazers, and of unsettled land ‘there for the taking’.  In 1843 Carson married his third wife, a Mexican, Josefa Jaramillo. She was 14 years old and they were to have eight children (not sure where he found the time).

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John C. Frémont                                                                                     Josefa and son

Both Frémont and Carson found themselves caught up in the Mexican War of 1846-48 when the Mexicans demanded that Americans leave California. Needless to say they refused and the Mexicans lost the war and California. Carson spent most of his time as a courier carrying messages/dispatches between command posts and to Washington. It was quite a dangerous task but Carson survived it.

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Billy Williams as Kit Carson in 1950s TV series, Adventures of Kit Carson  (no, I don’t remember it either)

It was around this time (1847) that the first ‘dime novel’ story about Carson’s adventures was produced. It was called An Adventure of Kit Carson: A Tale of the Sacramento. It was printed in Holden’s Dollar Magazine. Many followed.  As with Wild Bill Hickok (see my post, August 23, 2014), Carson’s fame was boosted by these dime novels which bore no relation to his actual activities. Not that it mattered too much to Carson because he was illiterate so couldn’t read them anyway!  Some of Carson’s actual accomplishments were made famous in Dr De Witt C. Peters’ book, The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson published in 1858.  Exactly 100 years later my Kit Carson’s Annual was published!

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One the the dime novels of Kit Carson

In 1849 Carson settled near Taos and became an agent in the Office of Indian Affairs trying to keep peace and to ensure fair treatment with the Native Americans. Quite often Carson did not see eye-to-eye with his Territorial Governor, David Meriwether, and they often fell-out over the treatment of the Native Americans. Although Carson was in favour of good treatment to them he did find himself fighting hostile tribes and this got him repudiation as an Indian-fighter (sorry, Native American-fighter just doesn’t sound right).

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Kit Carson from De Witt C. Peters’ The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson (1858)

The Civil War broke out in 1861 (to 1865) and Carson was appointed lieutenant colonel commanding the First New Mexico Volunteers Regiment for the Union. He fought (on the losing side) against the Confederates at the Battle of Val Verde, but also found himself involved in successful campaigns against the Apache and Navajo  Indian tribes between 1862 to 1864. In fact, he was very tired by this time (aged only 54) and did not want to fight the Indians and asked his commanding officer, Major James Carlton, if he could resign. Carlton said no and told Carson that he was to completely wipe out all the male adult Navajo Indians and capture all women and children. Carson did not often disobey orders but this was one time when he planned to do so. He had no intention of killing a whole tribe of male Indians (actually he couldn’t find them, but that’s not the point!). However, he destroyed their food supplies and crops forcing them to surrender to avoid starvation. There followed the ‘Long Walk of the Navajos’ to Bosque Redondo (a disastrous ‘reservation’ in its own right).  It consisted of some 9,000 Indians and many died on route – the military figures differ greatly from those given by the Native Americans.

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Lt Col Kit Carson

Carson was then involved in a large battle against Comanches and Apaches at Adobe Walls, an abandoned trading post. The battle raged on but proved indecisive. In fact, Carson retreated to New Mexico.  He remained in the army until 1867, retiring as a brigadier general.  Then, in May 1868, eight days before the signing of the treaty allowing the Navajo Indians to return to their homeland, Carson died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm at the age of 58.

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Last photo of Carson taken around March 1868, two months before his death

Travels in Crete 7: the Greek Epiphany

I KNOW I SAID last week that it would be Kit Carson this week, but just back from Crete where I witnessed the Epiphany celebration in the village of Mochlos on Wednesday January 6th. The Epiphany is the twelth night after Christmas and marks the end of that festivity. This is why one of the old wives’ tales has it that it is bad luck to have Christmas decorations up after the twelfth night. Also Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night was written to be performed as a Twelfth Night entertainment. The earliest known performance took place at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court, on Candlemas night (festival celebrating Jesus being represented at the Temple), 2nd February 1602 (just thought I’d mention that in case you  have read my post on Middle Temple – December 27, 2014).

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Setting up the table on the small quay by the water (centre right) in Mochlos

The Twelfth Night/Epiphany also marks a visit to the baby Jesus by three Kings, or Wise Men, (Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – representing Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively). The word ‘Epiphany’ comes from Greek and means to show, referring to Jesus being revealed to the world.

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Getting ready to roll …..

The Baptism of Christ symbolizes the rebirth of man which is why, until the fourth century, Christians celebrated the New Year in with the Baptism of Christ on January 6.  In Greece (and other Western Christian Churches) that day is the feast of the Epiphany, called the Theophany, and customs revolve around the Great Blessing of the Waters. It marks the end of the traditional ban on sailing as the heavy winter seas are cleansed of ‘mischief’.  At this ceremony, a cross is thrown into the water, and (sometimes) the men dive into the sea to retrieve it for good luck.

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The Priest blessing the Cross before throwing it into the water – no one dived in after it (well, he had tied a ribbon to it and so it was not going very far!!)

This year the day was sunny and hot (as can be seen from the photos) and a delightful experience. We were all given free raki and cake by the youngsters of the village after the blessing.

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Blessing ends – time for free raki!

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Just to show I was really there – and enjoying the sun after the blessing

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Okay, next week Kit Carson

 

The Romans and the Space Shuttle

WHAT HAVE THE ROMANS DONE FOR … the Space Shuttle?  Well, does the statement, “We’ve always done it that way” ring any bells?

Back in the Victorian days in England, engineers built train tracks a standard 4 feet, 8.5 inches (143.5 centimetres) apart – called the gauge.  They were simply following the pattern of the previous tramway tracks, which, in turn, were following the old wagon width spacing between wheels. Why? Because they were all using the same old tooling that had existed back in the days of wagon transportation.

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Old British tram (on 4 ft 8.5 ins track)

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English railway track – 4 feet, 8.5 inches (143.5 centimetres) apart

So why were these wagon measurement so odd? Well, wagons used that particular wheel spacing because it fitted already existing ruts in the roads and any other size could cause damage to the wagons and discomfort to any passengers .

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Wagon chassis (4 ft 8.5 ins wheel track)

So where did those existing ruts come from,  I hear you ask?  Ancient Rome, I answer. The Romans built very good roads to assist the movement of their legions which used chariots and wagons. These roads were not limited to Rome but spread throughout the Empire, including Great Britain. Some of these road were still being used in Victorian England along with their Roman wheel ruts. And what was that wheel spacing of these ancient ruts?   4 feet, 8.5 inches, of course.

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Roman chariot road tracks (4 ft 8.5 ins apart) 

Now in the United States of America it was the English who designed the railways and they use their own ‘tried and tested’ system involving the 4 feet, 8.5 inch gauge of track. So the United States standard railroad track is also based on the original specifications for an Ancient Roman chariot.

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And bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse’s ass came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the  Roman chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the backsides of two horses – which happens to be 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

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One half of the factor

What has this got to do with the Space Shuttle, you are wondering?

A Space Shuttle has two big solid rocket boosters (SRBs) attached to the sides of the main fuel tank.  These SRBs are made in Utah, USA, and had to be transported by rail to the launch site in Florida. The railroad line runs through several tunnels in the mountains over this route and, of course, the SRBs had to fit through those tunnels.  As the tunnels are only slightly wider than the railroad track, the SRBs have to be the size of the track, which is ….. as wide as two horses’ backsides.

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SRBs ether side of the Space Shuttle main fuel tank

So, there you have it – part of one of the most advanced means of transport in the world today has a design factor based on Ancient Roman travel several hundred years ago and featuring a consideration of two horses’ backsides.

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Next week: Kit Carson in the Wild West