The Battle of the Little Bighorn, fought on June 25, 1876, near the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, was a tremendous catastrophe for the U.S. Army. There, the troops of the 7th Cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer attacked a much larger band of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.
Ever since the discovery of gold on Native American lands, the U.S.was increasingly infringing on Indian territory. President Grant tried to buy the land from the Indians, but they considered that land sacred and refused. Thus Grant dispatched the troops and ordered the tribes to reservations. When the Indian tribes balked, Custer and other units were dispatched to confront them. Custer and the 7th Cav. unaware of the number of Indians fighting under Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Gall at the Little Bighorn, was annihilated in what became known as Custer’s Last Stand.
Background: In 1875 gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Although that was Native American land, as the valley of the Little Bighorn rests in the middle of the Crow Indian Reservation that was given to the Indians on May 7, 1868, the U.S. government repeatedly made attempts to take it.
The Plains Indians called the area “Greasy Grass” and would forever call the upcoming fight, the Battle of Greasy Grass.
While the Plains Indians were gathering for the traditional annual Sun Dance ceremony where they pray and make personal vows, the Army was deploying troops in what they described as a three-pronged approach to force the Indians back to a reservation. Unbeknownst to the troopers, there were 6000-7000 Indians encamped.
The Army troops consisted of six companies of the 7th Infantry and four companies of the 2nd Cavalry under the command of Colonel John Gibbon. They were traveling east from western Montana with orders to patrol the Yellowstone River.
Brigadier General George Crook commanded 10 companies of the 3rd Cavalry, five companies of the 2nd Cavalry, two companies of the 4th Infantry, as well as three companies of the 9th Infantry. His troops moved north from Fort Fetterman in the Wyoming Territory and marched toward the Powder River area.
Brigadier General Alfred Terry commanded a column, including 12 companies of the 7th Cavalry under LTC George Custer, two companies of the 17th U.S. Infantry, and the Gatling gun detachment of the 20th Infantry. They moved westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory.
Terry’s column was accompanied by teamsters and packers with 150 wagons and a large contingent of pack mules that reinforced Custer. Three companies of the 6th U.S. Infantry moved along the Yellowstone River from Fort Buford on the Missouri River to set up a supply depot and joined Terry at the mouth of the Powder River. A further 200 tons of supplies were sent up the river by steamboat from Fort Lincoln.
Of Custer’s 718 men, about 139 were raw recruits with little training, mainly immigrants from Europe. Few had any combat or plains experience. Archaeologists later uncovered evidence that many of these new troopers were malnourished and in poor physical condition, despite being the best-equipped and supplied regiment in the Army at that time.
When Crook’s column reached the Rosebud, they were surprised at the sheer number of the Indians present. And although Crook held the field at the end of the day, he felt it necessary to pull his men back, regroup and wait for reinforcements.
The troops of Gibbon and Terry were unaware of what transpired with Crook and they affected a linkup and were proceeding with the plan to converge on the Little Bighorn between 26-27 June with the aim of surrounding the camped Native Americans.
Terry ordered Custer and his 600 men to conduct a reconnaissance in force along the Rosebud and was given leeway to depart from orders if the situation warranted it. He was offered the use of the Gatling guns but declined, believing it would slow down his command.
Movement to the Little Bighorn: Custer met with his Indian scouts on the early morning of the 25th and they reported a massive pony herd that signified a major Indian encampment, although they couldn’t find it. Custer joined them in a reconnaissance but once again that proved fruitless.
It was then the scouts found evidence that Indians had come across the cavalry’s trail. Assuming his presence had been discovered and unaware that the Indians who found his trail were leaving the encampment and did not alert the remainder, Custer decided to forego the planned attack on the 26th and attack immediately.
Custer divided his command into three small battalions, with three companies (A, G, M) put under the command of Major Marcus Reno, three others (H, D, and K) under Captain Frederick Benteen while company B under Captain Thomas McDougall was ordered to accompany the pack train. The remaining five companies, (C, E, F, I, and L) remained under Custer’s command.
Custer’s scouts, especially Mitch Bouyer, whom Custer requested for by name prior to the battle tried to warn him of the size of the Indian encampment. Bouyer told him, “General, I have been with these Indians for 30 years, and this is the largest village I have ever heard of.” But his complaints fell on deaf ears. Bouyer then reportedly gave away his possessions, convinced he would die that day. Sitting Bull reportedly offered 100 ponies for the head of Bouyer.
Custer was operating under the assumption that the Indians would have no more than 800 braves in the fight, but their numbers were close to three times that, around 2000. And contrary to the myth, he was more concerned with the Indians scattering into small groups than he was in fighting them.
His plan was to engage the non-combatants in the Indian village and take them, prisoner, therefore compelling the braves to surrender rather than fire on their own people. It was a strategy that Custer himself wrote in his book, “My Life on the Plains”, published just two years before his death at the Little Bighorn.
Indians contemplating a battle, either offensive or defensive, are always anxious to have their women and children removed from all danger…For this reason I decided to locate our camp as close as convenient to [Chief Black Kettle’s Cheyenne] village, knowing that the close proximity of their women and children, and their necessary exposure in case of conflict, would operate as a powerful argument in favor of peace, when the question of peace or war came to be discussed.
Custer attempted to do just that and cross the river to a point where he could move among the women and children to capture them but a strong force of braves cut off his advance and pushed him back to what has been called, “Custer’s Ridge.”
Battle and Massacre: The entire battle was over in less than two hours. By 3:15 in the afternoon, Major Reno was given the order to attack. His troops crossed the Little Bighorn at the mouth of a creek (Reno Creek) and found to his surprise that the Sioux and Cheyenne braves weren’t running away.
His troops dashed across an open field and skirted a woodline that hid the Indian encampment. When they arrived in the open, the scope of what lay before them startled him and he ordered the men to halt and form a skirmish line which was standard cavalry doctrine. Every 4th trooper would hold the horses for the first three which cut Renos firepower by 25 percent. They began to fire into the village killing several villagers including the family of the Chief Gall.
But about 500 braves massed and attacked his exposed flank which quickly forced him back to a position in the woods along a bend of the river. The Indians set fire to the brush to force the troopers out. Reno then led a disorganized rout across the river and onto the bluffs there. He left behind about 50 men either dead or missing.
Reno’s men were quickly joined by CPT Benteen’s three companies who were summoned by Custer who scribbled a quick note, “Benteen. Come on, Big Village, Be quick, Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” They were also joined by CPT McDougal and the pack train. Their timely arrival saved Reno and the remnants of his troopers from certain annihilation. The 354 officers and men began digging in and preparing a defense at the top of the bluffs.
At around 4:20 p.m. they heard large volumes of fire emanating from where Custer was located. Benteen opted to remain with Reno’s men than make his way to Custer which he was later highly criticized for. Around 5:00 p.m. a single company, (Co. D) under CPT Thomas Weir was sent to make contact with Custer.
They had only gone a short distance when they observed Indians shooting at objects on the ground. This was around 5:25 p.m. and this was a standard Indian practice of shooting the dead and wounded, finishing them off.
Custer’s troops had engaged the Indians about 3.5 miles from Reno’s position. That was about 4:15 p.m. The pattern that emerged was that Custer and his men attacked and were then were stopped cold by the Indian braves. Once the warriors amassed enough men, the Army troopers would beat a hasty retreat and attempt to hold a defensive position.
Custer’s men held a line from Calhoun Hill along the backbone to Custer Hill, a distance of a little over half a mile. They didn’t make one stand but several, Indian survivors would say the number was five. It was a running fight where the cavalry troopers collapsed along the ridgeline back to the hill where Custer was located.
As the Indians swarmed up the hill, they were bolstered by the arrival of Crazy Horse and his mounted warriors who it seemed was impervious to bullets. Custer’s men attempted a final stand and used dead horses as breastworks.
A few troopers made a break for the river and a few others threw up their hands attempting to surrender. None made it. The Indians didn’t take prisoners other than women and children. “We circled all round them,” one Indian survivor named Two Moons said, “swirling like water round a stone.”
The warriors were joined by women and children from the village. There they stripped the dead of all their clothes and mutilated the bodies, cutting off arms, legs, and heads. In the Sioux beliefs, the dead would be forced to walk the afterlife as they died.
Custer had suffered two fatal wounds, one rifle shot to his left chest and another to his left temple. One Indian legend has it that he was not mutilated and the Sioux were stopped from doing so by Cheyenne women. From the Smithsonian magazine:
They recognized Custer from the Battle of the Washita in 1868, and had seen him up close the following spring when he had come to make peace with Stone Forehead and smoked with the chiefs in the lodge of the Arrow Keeper. There Custer had promised never again to fight the Cheyennes, and Stone Forehead, to hold him to his promise, had emptied the ashes from the pipe onto Custer’s boots while the general, all unknowing, sat directly beneath the Sacred Arrows that pledged him to tell the truth.
It was said that these two women were relatives of Mo-nah-se-tah, a Cheyenne girl whose father Custer’s men had killed at the Washita. Many believed that Mo-nah-se-tah had been Custer’s lover for a time. No matter how brief, this would have been considered a marriage according to Indian custom. On the hill at the Little Bighorn, it was told, the two southern Cheyenne women stopped some Sioux men who were going to cut up Custer’s body. “He is a relative of ours,” they said. The Sioux men went away.
Every Cheyenne woman routinely carried a sewing awl in a leather sheath decorated with beads or porcupine quills. The awl was used daily, for sewing clothing or lodge covers, and perhaps most frequently for keeping moccasins in repair. Now the southern Cheyenne women took their awls and pushed them deep into the ears of the man they believed to be Custer. He had not listened to Stone Forehead, they said. He had broken his promise not to fight the Cheyenne anymore. Now, they said, his hearing would be improved.
The remaining Indians attacked the combined forces of Reno and Benteen until around 9:00 p.m. that night and most of the next day. The troopers held but lost another 50 men dead and about 60 wounded. The arrival on the 27th of General Terry forced the Indians to withdraw.
Aftermath: There have been numerous accounts of the battle since 1876. None of Custer’s men survived but surviving Indian accounts of the battle state that the troopers fared well and maintained their unit integrity until the arrival of Crazy Horses mounted warriors and then panic broke out among the troopers.
Custer has been both lionized and criticized for his actions that day as has been Major Reno and Captain Benteen. Custer’s widow Elizabeth Bacon Custer, “Libby” remained a widow and never remarried. She lived until 1933 and was fiercely protective of her husband’s legacy.