Battle of Little Bighorn
The Army’s coordination and planning began to go awry on June 17, 1876, when Crook’s column retreated after the Battle of the Rosebud, just 30 miles (48 km) to the southeast of the eventual Little Bighorn battlefield. Surprised and according to some accounts astonished by the unusually large numbers of Native Americans, Crook held the field at the end of the battle but felt compelled by his losses to pull back, regroup, and wait for reinforcements. Unaware of Crook’s battle, Gibbon and Terry proceeded, joining forces in early June near the mouth of Rosebud Creek. They reviewed Terry’s plan calling for Custer’s regiment to proceed south along the Rosebud while Terry and Gibbon’s united forces would move in a westerly direction toward the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers. As this was the likely location of Native encampments, all army elements had been instructed to converge there around June 26 or 27 in an attempt to engulf the Native Americans. On June 22, Terry ordered the 7th Cavalry, composed of 31 officers and 566 enlisted men under Custer, to begin a reconnaissance in force and pursuit along the Rosebud, with the prerogative to “depart” from orders if Custer saw “sufficient reason”. Custer had been offered the use of Gatling guns but declined, believing they would slow his rate of march.
While the Terry-Gibbon column was marching toward the mouth of the Little Bighorn, on the evening of June 24, Custer’s Indian scouts arrived at an overlook known as the Crow’s Nest, 14 miles (23 km) east of the Little Bighorn River. At sunrise on June 25, Custer’s scouts reported they could see a massive pony herd and signs of the Native American village roughly 15 miles (24 km) in the distance. After a night’s march, the tired officer who was sent with the scouts could see neither, and when Custer joined them, he was also unable to make the sighting. Custer’s scouts also spotted the regimental cooking fires that could be seen from 10 mi (16 km) away, disclosing the regiment’s position.
Custer contemplated a surprise attack against the encampment the following morning of June 26, but he then received a report informing him several hostiles had discovered the trail left by his troops. Assuming his presence had been exposed, Custer decided to attack the village without further delay. On the morning of June 25, Custer divided his 12 companies into three battalions in anticipation of the forthcoming engagement. Three companies were placed under the command of Major Marcus Reno and three were placed under the command of Captain Frederick Benteen. Five companies remained under Custer’s immediate command. The 12th, Company B under Captain Thomas McDougall, had been assigned to escort the slower pack train carrying provisions and additional ammunition.
Unknown to Custer, the group of Native Americans seen on his trail was actually leaving the encampment and did not alert the rest of the village. Custer’s scouts warned him about the size of the village, with Mitch Bouyer reportedly saying, “General, I have been with these Indians for 30 years, and this is the largest village I have ever heard of.” Custer’s overriding concern was that the Native American group would break up and scatter. The command began its approach to the village at noon and prepared to attack in full daylight.
As the Army moved into the field on its expedition, it was operating with incorrect assumptions as to the number of Indians it would encounter. These assumptions were based on inaccurate information provided by the Indian Agents that no more than 800 “hostiles” were in the area. The Indian Agents based this estimate on the number of Lakota that Sitting Bull and other leaders had reportedly led off the reservation in protest of U.S. government policies. It was in fact a correct estimate until several weeks before the battle when the “reservation Indians” joined Sitting Bull’s ranks for the Summer buffalo hunt. The agents did not consider the many thousands of these “reservation Indians” who had unofficially left the reservation to join their “unco-operative non-reservation cousins led by Sitting Bull”. Thus, Custer unknowingly faced thousands of Indians, including the 800 non-reservation “hostiles”. All Army plans were based on the incorrect numbers. Although Custer was criticized after the battle for not having accepted reinforcements and for dividing his forces, it appears that he had accepted the same official government estimates of hostiles in the area which Terry and Gibbon had also accepted. Historian James Donovan notes, however, that when Custer later asked interpreter Fred Gerard for his opinion on the size of the opposition, he estimated the force at between 1,500 and 2,500 warriors.
Additionally, Custer was more concerned with preventing the escape of the Lakota and Cheyenne than with fighting them. From his observation, as reported by his bugler John Martin, Custer assumed the warriors had been sleeping in on the morning of the battle, to which virtually every native account attested later, giving Custer a false estimate of what he was up against. When he and his scouts first looked down on the village from the Crow’s Nest across the Little Bighorn River, they could only see the herd of ponies. Later, looking from a hill 2+1⁄2 miles (4 km) away after parting with Reno’s command, Custer could observe only women preparing for the day, and young boys taking thousands of horses out to graze south of the village. Custer’s Crow scouts told him it was the largest native village they had ever seen. When the scouts began changing back into their native dress right before the battle, Custer released them from his command. While the village was enormous, Custer still thought there were far fewer warriors to defend the village.
Finally, Custer may have assumed when he encountered the Native Americans that his subordinate Benteen, who was with the pack train, would provide support. Rifle volleys were a standard way of telling supporting units to come to another unit’s aid. In a subsequent official 1879 Army investigation requested by Major Reno, the Reno Board of Inquiry (RCOI), Benteen and Reno’s men testified that they heard distinct rifle volleys as late as 4:30 pm during the battle.
Custer had initially wanted to take a day to scout the village before attacking; however, when men went back looking for supplies accidentally dropped by the pack train, they discovered that their track had already been discovered by Indians. Reports from his scouts also revealed fresh pony tracks from ridges overlooking his formation. It became apparent that the warriors in the village were either aware of or would soon be aware of his approach. Fearing that the village would break up into small bands that he would have to chase, Custer began to prepare for an immediate attack.
The first group to attack was Major Reno’s second detachment after receiving orders from Custer written out by Lt. William W. Cooke, as Custer’s Crow scouts reported Sioux tribe members were alerting the village. Ordered to charge, Reno began that phase of the battle. The orders, made without accurate knowledge of the village’s size, location, or the warriors’ propensity to stand and fight, had been to pursue the Native Americans and “bring them to battle.” Reno’s force crossed the Little Bighorn at the mouth of what is today Reno Creek around 3:00 pm on June 25. They immediately realized that the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne were present “in force and not running away.”
Reno advanced rapidly across the open field towards the northwest, his movements masked by the thick bramble of trees that ran along the southern banks of the Little Bighorn River. The same trees on his front right shielded his movements across the wide field over which his men rapidly rode, first with two approximately forty-man companies abreast and eventually with all three charging abreast. The trees also obscured Reno’s view of the Native American village until his force had passed that bend on his right front and was suddenly within arrow-shot of the village. The tepees in that area were occupied by the Hunkpapa Sioux. Neither Custer nor Reno had much idea of the length, depth and size of the encampment they were attacking, as the village was hidden by the trees. When Reno came into the open in front of the south end of the village, he sent his Arikara/Ree and Crow Indian scouts forward on his exposed left flank. Realizing the full extent of the village’s width, Reno quickly suspected what he would later call “a trap” and stopped a few hundred yards short of the encampment.
He ordered his troopers to dismount and deploy in a skirmish line, according to standard army doctrine. In this formation, every fourth trooper held the horses for the troopers in firing position, with 5 to 10 yards (5 to 9 m) separating each trooper, officers to their rear and troopers with horses behind the officers. This formation reduced Reno’s firepower by 25 percent. As Reno’s men fired into the village and killed, by some accounts, several wives and children of the Sioux leader, Chief Gall, the mounted warriors began streaming out to meet the attack. With Reno’s men anchored on their right by the protection of the tree line and bend in the river, the Indians rode against the center and exposed left end of Reno’s line. After about 20 minutes of long-distance firing, Reno had taken only one casualty, but the odds against him had risen (Reno estimated five to one), and Custer had not reinforced him. Trooper Billy Jackson reported that by then, the Indians had begun massing in the open area shielded by a small hill to the left of Reno’s line and to the right of the Indian village. From this position the Indians mounted an attack of more than 500 warriors against the left and rear of Reno’s line, turning Reno’s exposed left flank. This forced a hasty withdrawal into the timber along the bend in the river. Here the Native Americans pinned Reno and his men down and tried to set fire to the brush to try to drive the soldiers out of their position.
Reno’s Arikara scout, Bloody Knife, was shot in the head, splattering brains and blood onto Reno’s face. The shaken Reno ordered his men to dismount and mount again. He then said, “All those who wish to make their escape follow me.” Abandoning the wounded (dooming them to their deaths), he led a disorderly rout for a mile next to the river. He made no attempt to engage the Indians to prevent them from picking off men in the rear. The retreat was immediately disrupted by Cheyenne attacks at close quarters. A steep bank, some 8 feet (2.4 m) high, awaited the mounted men as they crossed the river; some horses fell back onto others below them. Indians both fired on the soldiers from a distance, and within close quarters, pulled them off their horses and clubbed their heads. Later, Reno reported that three officers and 29 troopers had been killed during the retreat and subsequent fording of the river. Another officer and 13–18 men were missing. Most of these missing men were left behind in the timber, although many eventually rejoined the detachment.
Atop the bluffs, known today as Reno Hill, Reno’s depleted and shaken troops were joined about a half-hour later by Captain Benteen’s column, arriving from the south. This force had been returning from a lateral scouting mission when it had been summoned by Custer’s messenger, Italian bugler John Martin with the handwritten message “Benteen. Come on, Big Village, Be quick, Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” This message made no sense to Benteen, as his men would be needed more in a fight than the packs carried by herd animals. Though both men inferred that Custer was engaged in battle, Reno refused to move until the packs arrived so his men could resupply. The detachments were later reinforced by McDougall’s Company B and the pack train. The 14 officers and 340 troopers on the bluffs organized an all-around defense and dug rifle pits using whatever implements they had among them, including knives. This practice had become standard during the last year of the American Civil War, with both Union and Confederate troops utilizing knives, eating utensils, mess plates and pans to dig effective battlefield fortifications.
Despite hearing heavy gunfire from the north, including distinct volleys at 4:20 pm, Benteen concentrated on reinforcing Reno’s badly wounded and hard-pressed detachment rather than continuing on toward Custer’s position. Benteen’s apparent reluctance to reach Custer prompted later criticism that he had failed to follow orders. Around 5:00 pm, Capt. Thomas Weir and Company D moved out to contact Custer. They advanced a mile, to what is today Weir Ridge or Weir Point. Weir could see that the Indian camps comprised some 1,800 lodges. Behind them he saw through the dust and smoke hills that were oddly red in color; he later learned that this was a massive assemblage of Indian ponies. By this time, roughly 5:25 pm, Custer’s battle may have concluded. From a distance, Weir witnessed many Indians on horseback and on foot shooting at items on the ground-perhaps killing wounded soldiers and firing at dead bodies on the “Last Stand Hill” at the northern end of the Custer battlefield. Some historians have suggested that what Weir witnessed was a fight on what is now called Calhoun Hill, some minutes earlier. The destruction of Keogh’s battalion may have begun with the collapse of L, I and C Company (half of it) following the combined assaults led by Crazy Horse, White Bull, Hump, Chief Gall and others. Other native accounts contradict this understanding, however, and the time element remains a subject of debate. The other entrenched companies eventually left Reno Hill and followed Weir by assigned battalions—first Benteen, then Reno, and finally the pack train. The men on Weir Ridge were attacked by natives, increasingly coming from the apparently concluded Custer engagement, forcing all seven companies to return to the bluff before the pack train had moved even a quarter mile (400 m). The companies remained pinned down on the bluff, fending off the Indians for three hours until night fell. The soldiers dug crude trenches as the Indians performed their war dance.
Benteen was hit in the heel of his boot by an Indian bullet. At one point, he led a counterattack to push back Indians who had continued to crawl through the grass closer to the soldier’s positions.
The precise details of Custer’s fight and his movements before and during the battle are largely conjectural since none of the men who went forward with Custer’s battalion (the five companies under his immediate command) survived the battle. Later accounts from surviving Indians are useful but are sometimes conflicting and unclear.
While the gunfire heard on the bluffs by Reno and Benteen’s men during the afternoon of June 25 was probably from Custer’s fight, the soldiers on Reno Hill were unaware of what had happened to Custer until General Terry’s arrival two days later on June 27. They were reportedly stunned by the news. When the army examined the Custer battle site, soldiers could not determine fully what had transpired. Custer’s force of roughly 210 men had been engaged by the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne about 3.5 miles (5.6 km) to the north of Reno and Benteen’s defensive position. Evidence of organized resistance included an apparent skirmish line on Calhoun Hill and apparent breastworks made of dead horses on Custer Hill. By the time troops came to recover the bodies, the Lakota and Cheyenne had already removed most of their own dead from the field. The troops found most of Custer’s dead men stripped of their clothing, ritually mutilated, and in a state of decomposition, making identification of many impossible. The soldiers identified the 7th Cavalry’s dead as well as they could and hastily buried them where they fell.
Custer’s body was found with two gunshot wounds, one to his left chest and the other to his left temple. Either wound would have been fatal, though he appeared to have bled from only the chest wound; some scholars believe his head wound may have been delivered postmortem. Some Lakota oral histories assert that Custer, having sustained a wound, committed suicide to avoid capture and subsequent torture. This would be inconsistent with his known right-handedness, but that does not rule out assisted suicide (other native accounts note several soldiers committing suicide near the end of the battle). Custer’s body was found near the top of Custer Hill, which also came to be known as “Last Stand Hill”. There the United States erected a tall memorial obelisk inscribed with the names of the 7th Cavalry’s casualties.
The fight was an overwhelming victory for the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, who were led by several major war leaders, including Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, and had been inspired by the visions of Sitting Bull. The U.S. 7th Cavalry, a force of 700 men, suffered a major defeat while commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (formerly a brevetted major general during the American Civil War). Five of the 7th Cavalry’s twelve companies were annihilated and Custer was killed, as were two of his brothers, a nephew, and a brother-in-law. The total U.S. casualty count included 268 dead and 55 severely wounded (six died later from their wounds), including four Crow Indian scouts and at least two Arikara Indian scouts.