late 1875, Sioux and Cheyenne Indians defiantly left their reservations,
outraged over the continued intrusions of whites into their sacred lands
in the Black Hills. They gathered in Montana with the great warrior Sitting
Bull to fight for their lands. The following spring, two victories over
the US Cavalry emboldened them to fight on in the summer of 1876.
General George Armstrong CusterTo force the large Indian army back to
the reservations, the Army dispatched three columns to attack in coordinated
fashion, one of which contained Lt. Colonel George Custer and the Seventh
Cavalry. Spotting the Sioux village about fifteen miles away along the
Rosebud River on June 25, Custer also found a nearby group of about forty
warriors. Ignoring orders to wait, he decided to attack before they could
alert the main party. He did not realize that the number of warriors in
the village numbered three times his strength. Dividing his forces in
three, Custer sent troops under Captain Frederick Benteen to prevent their
escape through the upper valley of the Little Bighorn River. Major Marcus
Reno was to pursue the group, cross the river, and charge the Indian village
in a coordinated effort with the remaining troops under his command. He
hoped to strike the Indian encampment at the northern and southern ends
simultaneously, but made this decision without knowing what kind of terrain
he would have to cross before making his assault. He belatedly discovered
that he would have to negotiate a maze of bluffs and ravines to attack.
Reno's squadron of 175 soldiers attacked the southern end. Quickly finding
themselves in a desperate battle with little hope of any relief, Reno
halted his charging men before they could be trapped, fought for ten minutes
in dismounted formation, and then withdrew into the timber and brush along
the river. When that position proved indefensible, they retreated uphill
to the bluffs east of the river, pursued hotly by a mix of Cheyenne and
Just as they finished driving the soldiers out, the Indians found roughly
210 of Custer's men coming towards the other end of the village, taking
the pressure off of Reno's men. Cheyenne and Hunkpapa Sioux together crossed
the river and slammed into the advancing soldiers, forcing them back to
a long high ridge to the north. Meanwhile, another force, largely Oglala
Sioux under Crazy Horse's command, swiftly moved downstream and then doubled
back in a sweeping arc, enveloping Custer and his men in a pincer move.
They began pouring in gunfire and arrows.
As the Indians closed in, Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses
and stack the carcasses to form a wall, but they provided little protection
against bullets. In less than an hour, Custer and his men were killed
in the worst American military disaster ever. After another day's fighting,
Reno and Benteen's now united forces escaped when the Indians broke off
the fight. They had learned that the other two columns of soldiers were
coming towards them, so they fled.
After the battle, the Indians came through and stripped the bodies and
mutilated all the uniformed soldiers, believing that the soul of a mutilated
Sitting Bullbody would be forced to walk the earth for all eternity and
could not ascend to heaven. Inexplicably, they stripped Custer's body
and cleaned it, but did not scalp or mutilate it. He had been wearing
buckskins instead of a blue uniform, and some believe that the Indians
thought he was not a soldier and so, thinking he was an innocent, left
him alone. Because his hair was cut short for battle, others think that
he did not have enough hair to allow for a very good scalping. Immediately
after the battle, the myth emerged that they left him alone out of respect
for his fighting ability, but few participating Indians knew who he was
to have been so respectful. To this day, no one knows the real reason.
Little Bighorn was the pinnacle of the Indians' power. They had achieved
their greatest victory yet, but soon their tenuous union fell apart in
the face of the white onslaught. Outraged over the death of a popular
Civil War hero on the eve of the Centennial, the nation demanded and received
harsh retribution. The Black Hills dispute was quickly settled by redrawing
the boundary lines, placing the Black Hills outside the reservation and
open to white settlement. Within a year, the Sioux nation was defeated
and broken. "Custer's Last Stand" was their last stand as well.
Carnage at the Little Bighorn
George Herendon served as a scout for the Seventh Cavalry - a civilian
under contract with the army and attached to Major Reno's command. Herendon
charged across the Little Bighorn River with Reno as the soldiers met
an overwhelming force of Sioux streaming from their encampment. After
the battle, Herendon told his story to a reporter from the New York Herald:
"Reno took a steady gallop down the creek bottom three miles where
it emptied into the Little Horn, and found a natural ford across the Little
Horn River. He started to cross, when the scouts came back and called
out to him to hold on, that the Sioux were coming in large numbers to
meet him. He crossed over, however, formed his companies on the prairie
in line of battle, and moved forward at a trot but soon took a gallop.
Map of the Battle"The Valley was about three fourth of a mile wide,
on the left a line of low, round hills, and on the right the river bottom
covered with a growth of cottonwood trees and bushes. After scattering
shots were fired from the hills and a few from the river bottom and Reno's
skirmishers returned the shots.
"He advanced about a mile from the ford to a line of timber on the
right and dismounted his men to fight on foot. The horses were sent into
the timber, and the men forward on the prairie and advanced toward the
Indians. The Indians, mounted on ponies, came across the prairie and opened
a heavy fire on the soldiers. After skirmishing for a few minutes Reno
fell back to his horses in the timber. The Indians moved to his left and
rear, evidently with the intention of cutting him off from the ford.
"Reno ordered his men to mount and move through the timber, but as
his men got into the saddle the Sioux, who had advanced in the timber,
fired at close range and killed one soldier. Colonel Reno then commanded
the men to dismount, and they did so, but he soon ordered them to mount
again, and moved out on to the open prairie."
"The command headed
for the ford, pressed closely by Indians in large numbers, and at every
moment the rate of speed was increased, until it became a dead run for
the ford. The Sioux, mounted on their swift ponies, dashed up by the side
of the soldiers and fired at them, killing both men and horses. Little
resistance was offered, and it was complete rout to the ford. I did not
see the men at the ford, and do not know what took place further than
a good many were killed when the command left the timber.
"Just as I got out, my horse stumbled and fell and I was dismounted,
the horse running away after Reno's command. I saw several soldiers who
were dismounted, their horses having been killed or run away. There were
also some soldiers mounted who had remained behind, I should think in
all as many as thirteen soldiers, and seeing no chance of getting away,
I called on them to come into the timber and we would stand off the Indians.
"Three of the soldiers were wounded, and two of them so badly they
could not use their arms. The soldiers wanted to go out, but I said no,
we can't get to the ford, and besides, we have wounded men and must stand
by them. The Officers before the battlesoldiers still wanted to go, but
I told them I was an old frontiers-
man, understood the Indians, and if they would do as I said I would get
them out of the scrape which was no worse than scrapes I had been in before.
About half of the men were mounted, and they wanted to keep their horses
with them, but I told them to let the horses go and fight on foot.
"We stayed in the bush about three hours, and I could hear heavy
firing below in the river, apparently about two miles distant. I did not
know who it was, but knew the Indians were fighting some of our men, and
learned afterward it was Custer's command. Nearly all the Indians in the
upper part of the valley drew off down the river, and the fight with Custer
lasted about one hour, when the heavy firing ceased. When the shooting
below began to die away I said to the boys 'come, now is the time to get
out.' Most of them did not go, but waited for night. I told them the Indians
would come back and we had better be off at once. Eleven of the thirteen
said they would go, but two stayed behind.
"I deployed the men as skirmishers and we moved forward on foot toward
the river. When we had got nearly to the river we met five Indians on
ponies, and they fired on us. I returned the fire and the Indians broke
and we then forded the river, the water being heart deep. We finally got
over, wounded men and all, and headed for Reno's command which I could
see drawn up on the bluffs along the river about a mile off. We reached
Reno in safety.
"We had not been with Reno more than fifteen minutes when I saw the
Indians coming up the valley from Custer's fight. Reno was then moving
his whole command down the ridge toward Custer. The Indians crossed the
river below Reno and swarmed up the bluff on all sides. After skirmishing
with them Reno went back to his old position which was on one of the highest
fronts along the bluffs. It was now about five o'clock, and the fight
lasted until it was too dark to see to shoot.
"As soon as it was dark Reno took the packs and saddles off the mules
and horses and made breast works of them. He also dragged the dead horses
and mules on the line and sheltered the men behind them. Some of the men
dug rifle pits with their butcher knives and all slept on their arms.
The Battlefield"At the peep of day the Indians opened a heavy fire
and a desperate fight ensued, lasting until 10 o'clock. The Indians charged
our position three or four times, coming up close enough to hit our men
with stones, which they threw by hand. Captain Benteen saw a large mass
of Indians gathered on his front to charge, and ordered his men to charge
on foot and scatter them.
"Benteen led the charge and was upon the Indians before they knew
what they were about and killed a great many. They were evidently much
surprised at this offensive movement, and I think in desperate fighting
Benteen is one of the bravest men I ever saw in a fight. All the time
he was going about through the bullets, encouraging the soldiers to stand
up to their work and not let the Indians whip them; he went among the
horses and pack mules and drove out the men who were skulking there, compelling
them to go into the line and do their duty. He never sheltered his own
person once during the battle, and I do not see how he escaped being killed.
The desperate charging and fighting was over at about one o'clock, but
firing was kept up on both sides until late in the afternoon."
Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star (1984); New York Herald (July
1876); Utley, Robert M. Cavalier in Buckskin; George Armstrong Custer
and the Western Frontier (1988).
Resources on the Web:
George Armstrong Custer - biography
Lakota Account of the Battle
"The Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1876," EyeWitness to History,
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