Brigadier General Terry and Colonel were unaware of the Battle of the Rosebud and Crook’s retiring back to Goose Creek. Gibbon and Terry joined forces in early June at the mouth of Rosebud Creek, where they reviewed the plan calling for Custer’s regiment to move south along the Rosebud, while Gibbon and Terry moved west towards the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers. On the 22nd June 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 command.
While the Terry–Gibbon column was marching toward the mouth of the Little Bighorn, on the evening of June 24th, Custer’s Indian scouts arrived at an overlook known as the Crow’s Nest, 14 miles east of the Little Bighorn River. At sunrise on June 25th, Custer’s scouts reported they could see a massive pony herd and signs of the Indian village roughly 15 miles 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 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. 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. This decision has been criticised over the years, as Custer was effectively weakening his force. 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 under Captain Thomas McDougall, had been assigned to escort the slower pack train carrying provisions and additional ammunition.
Unknown to Custer, the group of Indians seen on his trail were 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 a French Canadian trapper and scout 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 Indian group would break up and scatter, forcing his force to be further split in tracking them. The command began its approach to the village at noon and prepared to attack in full daylight.
The columns that approached the Little Bighorn valley were operating under the same, flawed assumptions that had affected Crook’s decision making. Firstly, inaccurate information provided by the Indian Agents maintained that no more than 800 hostiles were in the area. The Indian Agents had based this estimate on the number of Lakota that Sitting Bull and other leaders had reportedly led off the reservation in protest of US government policies. It was 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 take into account the many thousands of these “reservation Indians” who had unofficially left the reservation to join their “uncooperative non-reservation cousins led by Sitting Bull”. Therefore, Custer’s force unknowingly faced around 1,500 Indians, including the 800 non-reservation “hostiles”. All of the Army plans were based on these incorrect numbers. Although Custer was severely criticised after the battle for not having accepted reinforcements and for dividing his forces, he had accepted the same official government estimates of hostiles in the area which Crook, Terry and Gibbon had also accepted.
Custer was more concerned with preventing the escape of the Lakota and Cheyenne than with fighting them. From his own observation, as reported by his bugler John Martin (Martini), Custer had 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. Looking from a hill two-and-a-half miles 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 in size, Custer thought there were far fewer warriors to defend the village. He assumed most of the warriors were still asleep in their tepees.
Custer’s strategy was to attack the village from the higher ground to the north of the Little Bighorn, in order to capture the tribes’ squaws, children and elderly. This was to force the cooperation of the braves and it was a long-established tactic of the Indian Wars. Lieutenant Edward Godfrey of Company K surmised:
(Custer) expected to find the squaws and children fleeing to the bluffs on the north, for in no other way do I account for his wide detour. He must have counted upon Reno’s success, and fully expected the “scatteration” of the non-combatants with the pony herds. The probable attack upon the families and capture of the herds were in that event counted upon to strike consternation in the hearts of the warriors, and were elements for success upon which General Custer fully counted.
Major Reno’s detachment of three companies was the first US force in contact. Reno’s vague orders gave him no indication of the village’s size, accurate location or the willingness of the warriors to stand and fight. His orders were to “pursue the Indians and bring them to battle.” Reno’s force crossed the Little Bighorn at the mouth of what is today Reno Creek around 15:00 on June 25th. 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 north-west, his movements covered 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 Indian 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 of an 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, Reno quickly suspected what he would later call “a trap” and stopped a few hundred yards short of the encampment.
He ordered his troops to dismount and form a skirmish line, as per standard army doctrine. As with all dragoons, his force was immediately reduced by one quarter as every fourth man had to hold the horses. The skirmish line formed with around five to ten yards between troopers and opened fire on the village, killing several squaws and children. The warriors streamed out and mounted to meet the attack. Reno’s right flank was protected by the trees and river, so the braves concentrated the attack on the troopers’ left flank.
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. They forced a hasty withdrawal into the trees along the bend in the river. Here the Indians pinned Reno and his men down and set fire to the brush to try to drive the soldiers out of their position.
After giving orders to mount, dismount and mount again, Reno told his men, “All those who wish to make their escape follow me,” and led a disorderly rout across the river toward the bluffs on the other side. The retreat was immediately disrupted by Cheyenne attacks at close quarters. 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 woods, although many eventually re-joined the detachment. Reno’s hasty retreat may have been precipitated by the death of Reno’s Arikara scout Bloody Knife, who had been shot in the head as he sat on his horse next to Reno. His blood and brains splattering the side of Reno’s face.
Reno and his shaken command made it to the bluffs above the river, an area that is now known as “Reno Hill.” Here they were joined by Benteen’s column arriving from the south. Benteen’s troops had been scouting when it had been summoned by Custer’s bugler with the message: “Benteen. Come on, Big Village, Be quick, Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” Benteen’s arrival probably prevented Reno’s command from being annihilated and the detachment was reinforced by McDougall’s Company B and the pack train. The 14 officers and 340 troopers went into all round defence and dug rifle pits with whatever tools and implements they could find.
From their defensive positions on the bluffs Reno and Benteen heard heavy gunfire from the north at around 16:20. Benteen would be criticised for staying with Reno’s detachment in contradiction of his orders. At approximately 17:00 Captain Wier and Company D moved out to make contact with Custer. They advanced a mile, to what is today Weir Ridge or Weir Point, and could see in the distance Indian warriors on horseback shooting at objects on the ground. By this time, roughly 17:25 pm, Custer’s battle may well have been over. The other entrenched companies eventually followed Weir by assigned battalions, first Benteen, then Reno, and finally the pack train. Growing native attacks around Weir Ridge forced all seven companies to return to the bluff before the pack train, with the ammunition, had moved even a quarter mile. The companies remained pinned down on the bluff for another day, but the Indian warriors were unable to breach the tightly held position.
Custer’s Attack and Last Stand
Once Reno’s force had been driven from the Indian encampment, the main force of warriors went in pursuit of Custer. There is no certainty to the route of advance that Custer took to his “Last Stand” but some accounts say his force continued down Reno Creek and then turned north to climb the bluffs, from where he could see Reno charging the village. It is theorised that some or all of his force descended into Medicine Trail Coulee, in an attempt to cross the river into the village, but were beaten back by sharpshooters. This made tactical sense as the Indian village would be in the pincers of Reno and Custer’s force.
Other historians claim Custer never approached the river, but continued north where his force came under attack. By this time, Custer may have known that he was heavily outnumbered, but it was too late to break back south towards Reno and Benteen. At this point he may have dispatched his bugler towards Benteen with the request for assistance. Archaeological evidence and reassessment of Indian testimony has led to a new interpretation of the battle. In the 1920s, battlefield investigators discovered hundreds of .45–55 shell cases along the ridge line known today as Nye-Cartwright Ridge, between South Medicine Tail Coulee and the next drainage at North Medicine Tail. Some historians believe Custer divided his detachment into two or possibly three battalions, retaining personal command of one while presumably delegating Captain George W. Yates to command the second. The intent may have been to relieve pressure on Reno’s detachment.
After his second attempt to cross the Little Bighorn River, Custer’s roughly 210 troops were trapped in Minneconjou Ford, a series of ridges, bluffs, and ravines north of the Indian encampment. The Indians then performed the “hammer and anvil” manoeuvre on Custer’s position. Warriors on foot, from both the village and returning from Reno’s advance, attacked Custer from the south and east. Mounted Indians under Crazy Horse then attacked Custer from the north. Companies I and L on the eastern side were immediately run over by Gall, a Lakota war commander, staging their own individual “last stand”. Company C was trapped in the Deep Ravine, with only half of the company reuniting with Custer on Last Stand Hill. The battered Companies E and F also reached Last Stand Hill, but had little effect on the inevitable outcome of the battle.
In the end, the hilltop Custer chose to make his last stand was too small to accommodate the survivors and the wounded. Here was the most dogged resistance and according to the Lakota, last stand hill was where they received the most casualties. It’s probable that the command structure broke down and small groups of troopers made individual last stands, presumably after letting loose their horses.
Evidence of organised resistance included 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 dead from the field. The troops found most of Custer’s dead stripped of their clothing, ritually mutilated, and in an advanced state of decomposition, making identification of many impossible. The soldiers identified the 7th Cavalry’s dead as best as they could and hastily buried them where they fell. Custer was found with shots to the left chest and left temple. Either wounds would have been fatal, though he appeared to have bled from only the chest wound, meaning his head wound may have been delivered post-mortem. Sometime later, Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey described Custer’s mutilation, telling Charles F. Bates that an arrow “had been forced up his penis.”
Captain Benteen recalled his observations on the Custer battlefield on June 27, 1876:
I went over the battlefield carefully with a view to determine how the battle was fought. I arrived at the conclusion I hold now – that it was a rout, a panic, until the last man was killed…
There was no line formed on the battlefield. You can take a handful of corn and scatter [the kernels] over the floor, and make just such lines. There were none…The only approach to a line was where 5 or 6 dead horses found at equal distances, like skirmishers. That was the only approach to a line on the field. There were more than 20 [troopers] killed [in one group]; there were [more often] four or five at one place, all within a space of 20 to 30 yards [of each other]…I counted 70 dead cavalry horses and 2 Indian ponies.
I think, in all probability, that the men turned their horses loose without any orders to do so. Many orders might have been given, but few obeyed. I think that they were panic stricken; it was a rout, as I said before.
Modern theories suggest that there may not have been a “Last Stand” as traditionally portrayed in popular culture. Instead, archaeologists suggest that, in the end, Custer’s troops were not surrounded but rather overwhelmed by a single charge. This corresponds to several Indian accounts stating Crazy Horse’s charge swarmed the resistance, with the surviving soldiers fleeing in panic. Many of these troopers may have ended up in a deep ravine 300–400 yards away from what is known today as Custer Hill. At least 28 bodies (the most common number associated with burial witness testimony), including that of scout Mitch Bouyer, were discovered in or near that gulch, their deaths possibly the battle’s final actions.
Of the 7th cavalry numbering 700, 268 were killed and 55 wounded. The Plains Indians lost 130-300 killed depending on accounts. Part 4 – Outnumbered, outmanoeuvred and outgunned.
© Blown Periphery 2019