Main      Photographs    Poetry     Travels     Trails      Music     Readings


Last Stand Monument

Large Picture Page  see all the original photographs in large format


Indian Memorial 

at sunset





Last Stand Monument 


Little Bighorn, Montana

August 3, 2005 trip date


Battle of the Greasy Grass

Large Picture Page  see all the original photographs in large format


Last Stand Hill: 

Sioux and Cheyenne said to be firing from grass hill below up to fortressed Cavalry

Custer in middle of other solder's dying spots

Large Picture Page  see all the original photographs in large format


My Thoughts on Last Stand

The name is oddly appropriate, but not because it was Custer's Last Stand.  This was the last stand for the Indian nation and the "victory" meant certain defeat for all the tribes in the nation.

The Blackfeet, who fought at the Little Bighorn June 25, 1876, were were placed on a reservation near Browning, Montana, in 1878, with the promise of rations during the winter.  500 Blackfeet starved (more than all the soldiers killed) when rations were not provided as expected.  There is a wood sign and historical marker on the Highway into Browning today.  Browning is a dying Indian town today in sharp contrast to the towns on the other side of Glacier National Park.

Custer made the last stand on the tactical highest ground in the area.  His troops were just below the top of the hill facing down to the attack.  It is my speculation that the spot chosen on the side of the hill was too sharply angled allowing the Indian fire an angle over the breastwork barricade of horses.   Had he made the barricade slightly higher, the firing lines would have been altered dramatically.


Custer's Last Stand   Battle of the Little Big Horn

     Located in Southern Montana Territory on the banks of the Little Big Horn River, the Battle of the Little Big Horn also known as Custer's Last Stand took place on June 25,1876

      Historians generally agree that Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer disobeyed General Alfred Terry's orders and split his command of the 7th Regiment of the U. S. Cavalry which numbered over 650 men total into three battalions: A, M, and G were commanded by Major Reno, D, H, and K were under Captain Benteen's command and C, E, F, I and L Cavalry were under Custer's leadership

     Lieutenant Colonel Custer chose to ignore his scouts' reports about the size of the Indian encampment

     Located on the banks of the Little Big Horn River was the largest concentration of Indians from six tribes that history has ever recorded

     Present were the Cheyenne, Sans Arcs, Miniconjoux Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Blackfeet and Hunkpapa Sioux.   It has been estimated that there were anywhere between ten to fifteen thousand Indians with over 2,500 warriors

     Captain Benteen and his Cavalry were sent to the west to scour the southern bluffs for Indians, Major Reno was to cross the river and attack the southern end of the Indian camp and Lieutenant Colonel Custer was originally going to support Major Reno but later decided to attack the middle of the encampment with his Cavalry

     Major Reno never succeeded in attacking the village as he realized an Indian trap was set for him.   Major Reno ordered his Cavalry dismounted and went immediately into a defensive formation  instead of an offensive attack as ordered by Lieutenant Colonel Custer.    Losing a third of his Cavalry in the timber and in a running fighting river crossing struggled for survival.   The Indians waged an outstanding battle  

    Major Reno did not regain control of his resources until reaching a bluff on the other side of the river.   Major Reno's Cavalry were able to regroup and fight a pitched battle.   Survival was being held by together by a thread

     Captain Benteen realizing that he had been sent on a fool's mission returned and found Major Reno's men in  desperate straits.   Regrouping and sharing information  neither Captain Benteen or Major Reno understood why Major Reno had not been supported by Custer's Cavalry as had originally been planned.   Satisfied just to hold the bluff for the next three hours Major Reno and Captain Benteen Cavalry held off the Indians until nightfall

     No one knows for sure the actual events that took place with Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his Cavalry. Four miles upstream from Major Reno, Lieutenant Colonel Custer took his men toward the central ford of the Little Big Horn River

     The Indians swarmed from everywhere, coming across the river and up into the gullies. Lieutenant Colonel Custer never reached the river but was forced to higher ground downstream by the Indians.   Offensive position in the front with a defensive rear guard was assumed in the high open ground

     Sioux chief, Gall attacked and over ran the rear guard, L and I Companies while Crazy Horse attacked the offensive commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Custer himself. In the end all 197 men on the hill were killed that day in less than 20 minutes

     The next day, Captain Benteen and Major Reno Cavalry were hammered again by the Indians.   The time was midday when suddenly all was quiet and the Indians were gone.   On June 27th , General Terry and his Cavalry found Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his Cavalry men on the hill.    Captain Keogh's horse Comanche severely wounded, was the only survivor

     In all the final totals not including civilians and scouts were estimated to be as follows: Lieutenant Colonel Custer's Cavalry battalion of 197 men killed, Major Reno's Cavalry battalion of 134 had 36 men killed and 26 wounded, Captain Benteen's Cavalry battalion of 125 had 11 men killed and 29 wounded

     Numerous reports on the Indians' fatalities are questionable as the Indians removed their dead and wounded before breaking camp

     Although this was the biggest defeat of the U. S. Army by the Plains Indians, it was also the beginning of the end for the Indians

     With the massacre occurring right before the nation's centennial birthday, the mood changed against the Indian in Washington.       Now the effort was to crush the Indians as if to personally seek revenge for the death of the soldiers at the Battle of the Little Big Horn   


Large Picture Page  see all the original photographs in large format

In 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 Sioux.

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.

Last Stand Cemetery
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."

Large Picture Page  see all the original photographs in large format


The Battle of Little Bighorn
An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse
recorded in pictographs and text
at the Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881

Battle of the Greasy Grass


Five springs ago I, with many Sioux Indians, took down and packed up our tipis and moved from Cheyenne river to the Rosebud river, where we camped a few days; then took down and packed up our lodges and moved to the Little Bighorn river and pitched our lodges with the large camp of Sioux.

The Sioux were camped on the Little Bighorn river as follows: The lodges of the Uncpapas were pitched highest up the river under a bluff. The Santee lodges were pitched next. The Oglala's lodges were pitched next. The Brule lodges were pitched next. The Minneconjou lodges were pitched next. The Sans Arcs' lodges were pitched next. The Blackfeet lodges were pitched next. The Cheyenne lodges were pitched next. A few Arikara Indians were among the Sioux (being without lodges of their own). Two-Kettles, among the other Sioux (without lodges).

I was a Sioux chief in the council lodge. My lodge was pitched in the center of the camp. The day of the attack I and four women were a short distance from the camp digging wild turnips. Suddenly one of the women attracted my attention to a cloud of dust rising a short distance from camp. I soon saw that the soldiers were charging the camp. To the camp I and the women ran. When I arrived a person told me to hurry to the council lodge. The soldiers charged so quickly we could not talk (council). We came out of the council lodge and talked in all directions. The Sioux mount horses, take guns, and go fight the soldiers. Women and children mount horses and go, meaning to get out of the way.

Among the soldiers was an officer who rode a horse with four white feet. [This officer was evidently Capt. French, Seventh Cavalry.] The Sioux have for a long time fought many brave men of different people, but the Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they had ever fought. I don't know whether this was Gen. Custer or not. Many of the Sioux men that I hear talking tell me it was. I saw this officer in the fight many times, but did not see his body. It has been told me that he was killed by a Santee Indian, who took his horse. This officer wore a large-brimmed hat and a deerskin coat. This officer saved the lives of many soldiers by turning his horse and covering the retreat. Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they ever fought. I saw two officers looking alike, both having long yellowish hair.

Before the attack the Sioux were camped on the Rosebud river. Sioux moved down a river running into the Little Bighorn river, crossed the Little Bighorn river, and camped on its west bank.

This day [day of attack] a Sioux man started to go to Red Cloud agency, but when he had gone a short distance from camp he saw a cloud of dust rising and turned back and said he thought a herd of buffalo was coming near the village.

The day was hot. In a short time the soldiers charged the camp. [This was Maj. Reno's battalion of the Seventh Cavalry.] The soldiers came on the trail made by the Sioux camp in moving, and crossed the Little Bighorn river above where the Sioux crossed, and attacked the lodges of the Uncpapas, farthest up the river. The women and children ran down the Little Bighorn river a short distance into a ravine. The soldiers set fire to the lodges. All the Sioux now charged the soldiers and drove them in confusion across the Little Bighorn river, which was very rapid, and several soldiers were drowned in it. On a hill the soldiers stopped and the Sioux surrounded them. A Sioux man came and said that a different party of Soldiers had all the women and children prisoners. Like a whirlwind the word went around, and the Sioux all heard it and left the soldiers on the hill and went quickly to save the women and children.

From the hill that the soldiers were on to the place where the different soldiers [by this term Red-Horse always means the battalion immediately commanded by General Custer, his mode of distinction being that they were a different body from that first encountered] were seen was level ground with the exception of a creek. Sioux thought the soldiers on the hill [i.e., Reno's battalion] would charge them in rear, but when they did not the Sioux thought the soldiers on the hill were out of cartridges. As soon as we had killed all the different soldiers the Sioux all went back to kill the soldiers on the hill. All the Sioux watched around the hill on which were the soldiers until a Sioux man came and said many walking soldiers were coming near. The coming of the walking soldiers was the saving of the soldiers on the hill. Sioux can not fight the walking soldiers [infantry], being afraid of them, so the Sioux hurriedly left.

The soldiers charged the Sioux camp about noon. The soldiers were divided, one party charging right into the camp. After driving these soldiers across the river, the Sioux charged the different soldiers [i.e., Custer's] below, and drive them in confusion; these soldiers became foolish, many throwing away their guns and raising their hands, saying, "Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners." The Sioux did not take a single soldier prisoner, but killed all of them; none were left alive for even a few minutes. These different soldiers discharged their guns but little. I took a gun and two belts off two dead soldiers; out of one belt two cartridges were gone, out of the other five.

The Sioux took the guns and cartridges off the dead soldiers and went to the hill on which the soldiers were, surrounded and fought them with the guns and cartridges of the dead soldiers. Had the soldiers not divided I think they would have killed many Sioux. The different soldiers [i.e., Custer's battalion] that the Sioux killed made five brave stands. Once the Sioux charged right in the midst of the different soldiers and scattered them all, fighting among the soldiers hand to hand.

One band of soldiers was in rear of the Sioux. When this band of soldiers charged, the Sioux fell back, and the Sioux and the soldiers stood facing each other. Then all the Sioux became brave and charged the soldiers. The Sioux went but a short distance before they separated and surrounded the soldiers. I could see the officers riding in front of the soldiers and hear them shooting. Now the Sioux had many killed. The soldiers killed 136 and wounded 160 Sioux. The Sioux killed all these different soldiers in the ravine.

The soldiers charged the Sioux camp farthest up the river. A short time after the different soldiers charged the village below. While the different soldiers and Sioux were fighting together the Sioux chief said, "Sioux men, go watch soldiers on the hill and prevent their joining the different soldiers." The Sioux men took the clothing off the dead and dressed themselves in it. Among the soldiers were white men who were not soldiers. The Sioux dressed in the soldiers' and white men's clothing fought the soldiers on the hill.

The banks of the Little Bighorn river were high, and the Sioux killed many of the soldiers while crossing. The soldiers on the hill dug up the ground [i.e., made earth-works], and the soldiers and Sioux fought at long range, sometimes the Sioux charging close up. The fight continued at long range until a Sioux man saw the walking soldiers coming. When the walking soldiers came near the Sioux became afraid and ran away.

George Armstrong Custer


Flamboyant in life, George Armstrong Custer has remained one of the best-known figures in American history and popular mythology long after his death at the hands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, and spent much of his childhood with a half-sister in Monroe, Michigan. Immediately after high school he enrolled in West Point, where he utterly failed to distinguish himself in any positive way. Several days after graduating last in his class, he failed in his duty as officer of the guard to stop a fight between two cadets. He was court-martialed and saved from punishment only by the huge need for officers with the outbreak of the Civil War.

Custer did unexpectedly well in the Civil War. He fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, and served with panache and distinction in the Virginia and Gettysburg campaigns. Although his units suffered enormously high casualty rates -- even by the standards of the bloody Civil War -- his fearless aggression in battle earned him the respect of his commanding generals and increasingly put him in the public eye. His cavalry units played a critical role in forcing the retreat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's forces; in gratitude, General Philip Sheridan purchased and made a gift of the Appomatox surrender table to Custer and his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

In July of 1866 Custer was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the Seventh Cavalry. The next year he led the cavalry in a muddled campaign against the Southern Cheyenne. In late 1867 Custer was court-martialed and suspended from duty for a year for being absent from duty during the campaign. Custer maintained that he was simply being made a scapegoat for a failed campaign, and his old friend General Phil Sheridan agreed, calling Custer back to duty in 1868. In the eyes of the army, Custer redeemed himself by his November 1868 attack on Black Kettle's band on the banks of the Washita River.

Custer was sent to the Northern Plains in 1873, where he soon participated in a few small skirmishes with the Lakota in the Yellowstone area. The following year, he lead a 1,200 person expedition to the Black Hills, whose possession the United States had guaranteed the Lakota just six years before.

In 1876, Custer was scheduled to lead part of the anti-Lakota expedition, along with Generals John Gibbon and George Crook. He almost didn't make it, however, because his March testimony about Indian Service corruption so infuriated President Ulysses S. Grant that he relieved Custer of his command and replaced him with General Alfred Terry. Popular disgust, however, forced Grant to reverse his decision. Custer went West to meet his destiny.

The original United States plan for defeating the Lakota called for the three forces under the command of Crook, Gibbon, and Custer to trap the bulk of the Lakota and Cheyenne population between them and deal them a crushing defeat. Custer, however, advanced much more quickly than he had been ordered to do, and neared what he thought was a large Indian village on the morning of June 25, 1876. Custer's rapid advance had put him far ahead of Gibbon's slower-moving infantry brigades, and unbeknownst to him, General Crook's forces had been turned back by Crazy Horse and his band at Rosebud Creek.

On the verge of what seemed to him a certain and glorious victory for both the United States and himself, Custer ordered an immediate attack on the Indian village. Contemptuous of Indian military prowess, he split his forces into three parts to ensure that fewer Indians would escape. The attack was one the greatest fiascos of the United States Army, as thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors forced Custer's unit back onto a long, dusty ridge parallel to the Little Bighorn, surrounded them, and killed all 210 of them.

Custer's blunders cost him his life but gained him everlasting fame. His defeat at the Little Bighorn made the life of what would have been an obscure 19th century military figure into the subject of countless songs, books and paintings. His widow, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, did what she could to further his reputation, writing laudatory accounts of his life that portrayed him as not only a military genius but also a refined and cultivated man, a patron of the arts, and a budding statesman.

Countless paintings of "Custer's Last Stand" were made, including one mass-distributed by the Anheuser-Busch brewing company. All of these paintings -- as did the misnomer "the Custer massacre" -- depicted Custer as a gallant victim, surrounded by bloodthirsty savages intent upon his annihilation. Forgotten were the facts that he had started the battle by attacking the Indian village, and that most of Indians present were forced to surrender within a year of their greatest battlefield triumph.





Prelude to battle

Forces from the Army were sent to attack the Native Americans based on Indian Inspector E.C. Watkins' report (issued on November 9, 1875) that claimed that hundreds of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne associated with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were hostile to the United States. Federal interest in Indian lands (including the gold-rich Black Hills) also played an important role.

Thousands of Indians had slipped away from their reservations. Military officials planned a three-pronged expedition to corral them and force them back to the reservations. Brig. Gen. George Crook moved north from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming toward the Powder River area. Col. John Gibbon's infantry and a battery of Gatling guns marched east from Fort Ellis in western Montana. The third column under Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, including Custer's 7th Cavalry, departed westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln in the Dakota Territory.

As the larger wing of Terry's troops, Custer's force arrived at an overlook 14 miles (23 km) east of the Little Bighorn River in what is now the state of Montana, on the night of June 24. The rest of Terry's column was marching toward the mouth of the Little Bighorn, to provide a blocking action by the 26th.


Reno's attack

Crow Indian scouts reported to Custer the presence of what was judged a very large encampment of Indians. Despite this warning, on June 25, Custer divided his regiment into four commands and moved forward to attack the encamped Indians, who were expected to flee at the first sign of attack. The first battalion to attack was commanded by Major Marcus Reno and preceded by about a dozen Arikara and friendly Sioux scouts. His orders, given by Custer without accurate knowledge of the village's size, location, or propensity to stand and fight, were to pursue the Indians and "bring them to battle." However, Custer did promise to "support...[Reno] with the whole outfit." Reno's force crossed the Little Bighorn at the mouth of what is today called Reno Creek, and immediately realized that the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne were present "in force and ...not running away."

Sending a message to Custer, but hearing nothing in return, Reno launched its offensive northward. He stopped a few hundred yards short of the village, however, and dismounted, unwilling to attack the enormous village with his roughly 125 men. In about 20 minutes of long distance firing, he had taken only one casualty, but the odds against him had become more obvious, and Custer had not reinforced him. Reno ordered a retreat to nearby woods, and then made a disorderly withdrawal to the river and up to the top of the bluffs on the other side, suffering heavy casualties along the way. Reno was at the head of this movement and called it a charge; however, no bugle calls were heard, and a number of men were left in the woods. The river crossing was unguarded, and a number of men died there.

At the top of the bluffs, Reno's shaken troops soon were met by a battalion commanded by Captain Frederick Benteen This force had been on a lateral scouting mission, and had been summoned by Custer to "Come on...big village, be quick...bring pacs..." Benteen's coincidental arrival on the bluffs was just in time to save Reno's men from annihilation. This combined force was then reinforced by a smaller command escorting the expedition's pack train. Benteen did not continue on towards Custer for at least an hour, in spite of the fact that heavy gunfire was heard from the north. Benteen's inactivity prompted later criticism that he had failed to follow orders to "march to the sound of the guns."

Custer's fight

The gunfire heard on the bluffs (by everyone except Reno and Benteen) was from Custer's fight. His 210 men engaged the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne (or had been engaged by them) some 3.5 miles (6 km) to the north. Having driven Reno's force, if not into oblivion, at least into chaos, the warriors were free to pursue Custer. The route taken by Custer to his "Last Stand" has been a subject of debate. It does seem clear that after ordering Reno to charge, Custer continued down Reno Creek to within about a half mile (800 m) of the Little Bighorn, but then turned north, and climbed up the bluffs, reaching the same spot to which Reno would soon retreat. From this point, he could see Reno, on the other side of the river, charging the village.

Custer then rode north along the bluffs, and descended into a drainage called Medicine Tail Coulee, which led to the river. Some historians believe that part of Custer's force descended the coulee, going west to the river and attempting unsuccessfully to cross into the village. Other authorities believe that Custer never approached the river, but rather continued north across the coulee and up the other side, where he gradually came under attack. By the time Custer realized he was badly outnumbered by the Indians who came from the Reno fight, according to this theory, it was too late to break through back to the south, where Reno and Benteen could have provided reinforcement.

Within about 3 hours (end of the battle : 6.30 p.m., or 18h30), Custer's battalion was annihilated to the last man. Only two men from the U.S. side later claimed to have seen Custer engage the Indians: a young Crow whose name translated as Curley, and a trooper named Peter Thompson, who had fallen behind Custer's column. Accounts of the last moments of Custer's forces vary, but all agree that Crazy Horse personally led one of the large groups of Lakota who overwhelmed the cavalrymen. While exact numbers are difficult to determine, it is clear that the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota outnumbered the U.S. force by approximately 3:1, a ratio which was extended to 5:1 during the piecemeal parts of the battle. In addition, some of the Indians were armed with repeating Sharps and Winchester rifles, while the U.S. forces carried single-shot carbines, which had a slow rate of fire, tended to jam, and were difficult to operate from horseback.


After their fight with Custer was finished, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne came back to attack the remaining military forces under Benteen and Reno, who had finally ventured toward the audible firing of the Custer fight. For 24 hours, the outcome of this struggle was in doubt, but Benteen's leadership secured the U.S. lines. At this point, the U.S. forces under Terry approached from the north, and the Indians drew off to the south.

The Indian dead had mostly been removed from the field. The cavalry dead were given hasty burials, and the wounded were given what treatment was available at that time; six would later die of their wounds. Custer was found to have been shot in the temple and in the left chest; either wound would have been fatal. He may also have been shot in the arm. He was found near the top of the hill where the large obelisk now stands, inscribed with the names of the U.S. dead. Most of the dead had been stripped of their clothing, mutilated, and were in an advanced state of deterioration, such that identification of many of the bodies was impossible. From the evidence, it was impossible to determine what exactly had transpired, but there was not much evidence of prolonged organized resistance. Several days after the battle, the young Crow scout Curley gave an account of the battle which indicated that Custer had attacked the village after crossing the river at the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee and had been driven back across the river, retreating up the slope to the hill where his body was later found. This scenario seemed compatible with Custer's aggressive style of warfare, and with some of the evidence found on the ground, and formed the basis for many of the popular accounts of the battle.

Of the U.S. forces killed at Little Bighorn, 210 died with Custer while another 52 died serving under Reno. Six men died later as a result of wounds. Among the casualties were several members of Custer's family, including his younger brothers Boston and Thomas, nephew Harry Armstrong "Autie" Reed, and brother-in-law James Calhoun. Bismarck Tribune newspaperman Mark Kellogg, who accompanied Custer's command to provide periodic reports on the expedition to his editor, also perished. Casualty figures on the Indian side included perhaps 40 killed.

Scene of Custer's last stand, looking in the direction of the ford and the Indian village, 1877.


Scene of Custer's last stand, looking in the direction of the ford and the Indian village, 1877.


Inquiries into the causes for the defeat

The battle was the subject of an army Court of Inquiry in 1879 in Chicago, Illinois in which Reno's conduct was scrutinized. Some testimony was presented suggesting that he was drunk and a coward, but since none of this came from army officers, Reno was not officially condemned. Other factors have been identified which may have contributed to the outcome of the fight: it is apparent that a number of the cavalry troopers were inexperienced and poorly trained. Benteen has been criticized for "dawdling" on the first day of the fight, and disobeying Custer's order. Both Reno and Benteen were heavy drinkers whose subsequent careers were truncated. Terry has been criticized for his tardy arrival on the scene.

For years a debate raged as to whether Custer himself had disobeyed Terry's order not to attack the village until reinforcements arrived. Finally, almost a hundred years after the fight, a document surfaced which indicated that Terry actually had given Custer considerable freedom to do as he saw fit. Custer's widow Libby actively affected the historiography of the battle by suppressing criticism of her husband. A number of participants decided to wait for her death before disclosing what they knew; however, she outlived almost all of them. As a result, the event was recreated along tragic Victorian lines in numerous books, films and other media. The story of Custer's purported heroic attack across the river, however, was undermined by the account of participant Gall, who told Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey that Custer never came near the river. Godfrey incorporated this into his important publication in 1892 in The Century Magazine. In spite of this, however, Custer's legend was embedded in the American imagination as a heroic officer fighting valiantly against savage forces, an image popularized in "Wild West" extravaganzas hosted by showman "Buffalo Bill" Cody.

By the end of the 20th Century, the general recognition of the mistreatment of the various Native American nations in the conquest of the American West, and the perception of Custer's role in it, have changed the image of the battle and of Custer. The Little Bighorn is now popularly viewed as a confrontation between relentless U.S. westward expansion and warriors defending their land and way of life.

(c) Copyright 2006 Action Matrix, Inc.