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Battle of the Little Bighorn

Battle of the Little Bighorn


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On June 25, 1876, Native American forces led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull defeat the U.S. Army troops of General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn near southern Montana’s Little Bighorn River.

Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, leaders of the Sioux tribe on the Great Plains, strongly resisted the mid-19th-century efforts of the U.S. government to confine their people to reservations. In 1875, after gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills, the U.S. Army ignored previous treaty agreements and invaded the region. This betrayal led many Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen to leave their reservations and join Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana. By the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans had gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River–which they called the Greasy Grass–in defiance of a U.S. War Department order to return to their reservations or risk being attacked.

In mid-June, three columns of U.S. soldiers lined up against the camp and prepared to march. A force of 1,200 Native Americans turned back the first column on June 17. Five days later, General Alfred Terry ordered Custer’s 7th Cavalry to scout ahead for enemy troops. On the morning of June 25, Custer drew near the camp and decided to press on ahead rather than wait for reinforcements.

At mid-day, Custer’s 600 men entered the Little Bighorn Valley. Among the Native Americans, word quickly spread of the impending attack. The older Sitting Bull rallied the warriors and saw to the safety of the women and children, while Crazy Horse set off with a large force to meet the attackers head on. Despite Custer’s desperate attempts to regroup his men, they were quickly overwhelmed. Custer and some 200 men in his battalion were attacked by as many as 3,000 Native Americans; within an hour, Custer and every last one of his soldier were dead.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn—also called Custer’s Last Stand—marked the most decisive Native American victory and the worst U.S. Army defeat in the long Plains Indian War. The gruesome fate of Custer and his men outraged many white Americans and confirmed their image of the Native Americans as "wild." Meanwhile, the U.S. government increased its efforts to subdue the tribes. Within five years, almost all of the Sioux and Cheyenne would be confined to reservations.

READ MORE: What Really Happened at the Battle of the Little Bighorn?


Little Bighorn, A Place of Reflection

This area memorializes the US Army's 7th Cavalry and the Lakotas and Cheyennes in one of the Indian's last armed efforts to preserve their way of life. Here on June 25 and 26 of 1876, 263 soldiers, including Lt. Col. George A. Custer and attached personnel of the US Army, died fighting several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Read More

7th Cavalry Monument & Indian Memorial

Read about the epic encounter between U.S. Cavalry soldiers and Northern Plains Indian tribes.

Photo Galleries

Explore the historic images related to the battlefield, as well as photographs of modern-day events and reenactments.

Explore the Battlefield

From the Visitor Center drive the tour road to retrace the steps of the Battle through multiple audio tour stops and exhibits.

Drones Prohibited in the Park

Launching, landing or operating or remote controlled aircraft within Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is prohibited. 36 CFR 1.5


Battle of the Little Bighorn

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Battle of the Little Bighorn, also called Custer’s Last Stand, (June 25, 1876), battle at the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, U.S., between federal troops led by Lieut. Col. George A. Custer and Northern Plains Indians (Lakota [Teton or Western Sioux] and Northern Cheyenne) led by Sitting Bull. Custer and all the men under his immediate command were slain. There were about 50 known deaths among Sitting Bull’s followers.

Where was the Battle of the Little Bighorn fought?

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought at the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana Territory, U.S.

Why did the Battle of the Little Bighorn happen?

The Battle of the Little Bighorn happened because the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie, in which the U.S. government guaranteed to the Lakota and Dakota (Yankton) as well as the Arapaho exclusive possession of the Dakota Territory west of the Missouri River, had been broken.

Why is the Battle of the Little Bighorn significant?

The Battle of the Little Bighorn is significant because it proved to be the height of Native American power during the 19th century. It was also the worst U.S. Army defeat during the Plains Wars.

Who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn?

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought between U.S. federal troops, led by George Armstrong Custer, and Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors, led by Sitting Bull.

How many people died in the Battle of the Little Bighorn?

All 210 U.S. soldiers who followed George Armstrong Custer into the Battle of the Little Bighorn were killed Custer also died. There were about 50 known deaths among Sitting Bull’s followers.

Events leading up to the confrontation were typical of the irresolute and confusing policy of the U.S. government toward Native Americans. Although the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), in effect, had guaranteed to the Lakota and Dakota (Yankton) Sioux as well as the Arapaho Indians exclusive possession of the Dakota territory west of the Missouri River, white miners in search of gold were settling in lands sacred especially to the Lakota. Unwilling to remove the settlers and unable to persuade the Lakota to sell the territory, the U.S. government issued an order to the Indian agencies that all Indians return to the designated reservations by January 31, 1876, or be deemed hostile. The improbability of getting that message to the hunters, coupled with its rejection by many of the Plains Indians, made confrontation inevitable.

In defiance of the government’s threats, bands of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Indians (along with a smaller number of Arapaho) who had refused to be confined by reservation boundaries came together under the leadership of Sitting Bull, a charismatic Lakota who called for resistance to U.S. expansion. With the arrival of spring 1876 and the start of the hunting seasons, many more Indians left their reservations to join Sitting Bull, whose growing numbers of followers were camped on the Little Bighorn River (a branch of the Bighorn River) in southern Montana Territory at the end of June. Earlier in the spring, many of those Native Americans had congregated to celebrate the annual Sun Dance ceremony, at which Sitting Bull experienced a prophetic vision of soldiers toppling upside down in his camp, which he interpreted as a harbinger of a great victory for his people.

That spring, under the orders of Lieut. Gen. Philip Sheridan, three army columns converged on Lakota country in an attempt to corral the rebellious bands. Moving east, from Fort Ellis (near Bozeman, Montana), was a column led by Col. John Gibbon. From the south and Fort Fetterman in Wyoming Territory came a column under the command of Gen. George Cook. On May 17 Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry headed west from Fort Abraham Lincoln in charge of the Dakota Column, the bulk of which constituted Custer’s 7th Cavalry. On June 22 Terry sent Custer and the 7th Cavalry in pursuit of Sitting Bull’s trail, which led into the Little Bighorn Valley. Terry’s plan was for Custer to attack the Lakota and Cheyenne from the south, forcing them toward a smaller force that he intended to deploy farther upstream on the Little Bighorn River. By the morning of June 25, Custer’s scouts had discovered the location of Sitting Bull’s village. Custer intended to move the 7th Cavalry to a position that would allow his force to attack the village at dawn the next day. When some stray Indian warriors sighted a few 7th Cavalrymen, Custer assumed that they would rush to warn their village, causing the residents to scatter.

Custer chose to attack immediately. At noon on June 25, in an attempt to prevent Sitting Bull’s followers from escaping, he split his regiment into three battalions. He sent three companies under the command of Maj. Marcus A. Reno to charge straight into the village, dispatched three companies under Capt. Frederick W. Benteen to the south to cut off the flight of any Indians in that direction, and took five companies under his personal command to attack the village from the north. That tactic proved to be disastrous. In fragmenting his regiment, Custer had left its three main components unable to provide each other support.

As the Battle of the Little Bighorn unfolded, Custer and the 7th Cavalry fell victim to a series of surprises, not the least of which was the number of warriors that they encountered. Army intelligence had estimated Sitting Bull’s force at 800 fighting men in fact, some 2,000 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors took part in the battle. Many of them were armed with superior repeating rifles, and all of them were quick to defend their families. Native American accounts of the battle are especially laudatory of the courageous actions of Crazy Horse, leader of the Oglala band of Lakota. Other Indian leaders displayed equal courage and tactical skill.

Cut off by the Indians, all 210 of the soldiers who had followed Custer toward the northern reaches of the village were killed in a desperate fight that may have lasted nearly two hours and culminated in the defense of high ground beyond the village that became known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” The details of the movements of the components of Custer’s contingent have been much hypothesized. Reconstructions of their actions have been formulated using both the accounts of Native American eyewitnesses and sophisticated analysis of archaeological evidence (cartridge cases, bullets, arrowheads, gun fragments, buttons, human bones, etc.), Ultimately, however, much of the understanding of this most famous portion of the battle is the product of conjecture, and the popular perception of it remains shrouded in myth.

Atop a hill on the other end of the valley, Reno’s battalion, which had been reinforced by Benteen’s contingent, held out against a prolonged assault until the next evening, when the Indians broke off their attack and departed. Only a single badly wounded horse remained from Custer’s annihilated battalion (the victorious Lakota and Cheyenne had captured 80 to 90 of the battalion’s mounts). That horse, Comanche, managed to survive, and for many years it would appear in 7th Cavalry parades, saddled but riderless.

The outcome of the battle, though it proved to be the height of Indian power, so stunned and enraged white Americans that government troops flooded the area, forcing the Indians to surrender. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (1946) and Indian Memorial (2003) commemorate the battle.


About the Course

Living History: Little Bighorn from a Cheyenne Perspective was developed to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn and the return of a battle dress to the battlefield. SUNY Empire staff was on hand during this commemorative event, videotaping events, council meetings, and oral history for students.

This is an interdisciplinary course being offered in the September and January terms. It is available to both undergraduate (4 cr.) and graduate (3 cr. – arrange as an independent study with your advisor) level students, as well as non-degree seeking students.

  • Take part in an orientation in Indigenous Studies, with a focus on Cheyenne culture.
  • Be introduced to historiography and oral history as a lens for examining and remembering Little Bighorn.
  • Receive an orientation in archaeological concerns specific to indigenous studies that will frame exploration of the battleground and the importance of material culture such as the dress.
  • Hear oral history recordings by Clifford Eaglefeathers and other members of the Cheyenne Nation.
  • Come to understand and address the historical trauma and the potential of both museums and artifacts in facilitating a healing process.
  • Faculty for the course is Mentor Menoukha Case , who co-convenes the college’s Interdisciplinary Studies area of study. Clifford Eaglefeathers and Rhianna C. Rogers are a co-developers of the course.

Required Materials

*Graduate students will be expected to discuss commodification of indigenous knowledge and address the question: Who interprets Cheyenne history and culture and by what authority do they do so? With this question in mind, students will be expected to critically analyze and exchange scholarly information on holistic, theoretical, and practical issues related to the interpretations of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Watch an interview with faculty member and member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, Clifford Eaglefeathers:

About the Battle at Little Bighorn

For many years after its conclusion, the battle was referred to as Custer’s Last Stand. Custer and his troops were enforcing a presidential ultimatum, which was ignored by off-reservation Cheyenne and Sioux roaming in the unceded territory. The Native American nations were defending their way of life. Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry ordered Custer down Rosebud Creek. By the time they were located by Custer, the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne were trespassing on the land of the Crow Nation, their enemies.

Photo/Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Dean Davis, Spokane, Washington

In all, the U.S. broke more than 40 treaties with Native American nations. After the Battle of Washita River in Oklahoma in 1868, Long Hair (Custer) claimed he would never again attack the Cheyenne. After they smoked together to seal the promise, Stone Forehead, a Cheyenne chief and keeper of the medicine arrows, "loosened the ashes in the pipe bowl and poured them out on the toes of Long Hair's boots. As he did so he declared, "Thus will Maheo destroy the soldier chief if he ever walks contrary to the peace pipe again." Stone Forehead added, "If you are acting treacherously towards us, sometime you and your whole command will be killed "(Powell, People of the Sacred Mountain, 710, 719).

Although the elements of 7th Cavalry were defeated at Little Bighorn in 1876, and Custer was killed, the victory proved short-lived for the Native Americans. While some remained in the unceded territory, many others either followed Sitting Bull into Canada or returned to the Great Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

Responding in part to growing interest in a balanced, unvarnished view of American history, and the fact that in our diverse society, indigenous peoples played a historically unsung role, SUNY Empire State College will examine the Battle of Little Bighorn, acknowledging the contributions of indigenous peoples to our understanding of American history.

The dress, on loan from the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, Washington, was exhibited at the museum and visitor center at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument as part of the 140th anniversary of the battle.

Registration

See MyESC, Registrar's Office for registration information.

Call the Service Desk if you are unable to register: 888-435-7009.

About the Faculty

Menoukha R. Case is an associate professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at SUNY Empire State College. Her publications are both creative and academic. Her most recent work, &ldquoWeaving the Legacy: Remembering Paula Gunn Allen,&rdquo co-edited with Stephanie Sellers, is forthcoming from West End Press.

Rhianna C. Rogers is an assistant professor of Cultural Studies and also teaches in the college&rsquos School for Graduate Studies. Trained as both an anthropological archaeologist and historian, she specializes in Mesoamerica and native cultures of the United States. She is a Registered Professional Archaeologist with more than eight years of field and museum experience.

Clifford Eaglefeathers
Clifford Eaglefeathers, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, holds a Montana State Education Department Teacher&rsquos Certificate, with a specialty in Northern Cheyenne language and culture. He has taught classes such as Native American Nation Rebuilding, Endangered Languages, Cheyenne History and Culture, and Cheyenne Language at SUNY Empire State College.

John Hughes
John Hughes, the videographer for the course, received his Bachelor of Arts from SUNY Empire State College and his Master of Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has been director of media production and resources at the college for the past 11 years. Previously he worked at Rensselaer Polytechnic as the associate director of production of the Rensselaer Satellite Video Program, and at Excelsior College as an instructional designer.


Another Perspective On The Battle Of Little Big Horn, ‘Custer’s Last Stand’

One of the most controversial stories of American history, and American military history, is that event known as the Battle of the Little Big Horn, or “Custer’s Last Stand” from the perspective of the Americans and the American military at that time. For the Lakota, Cheyenne peoples that were forced to defend themselves that day, the event is known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

As is always true, every battle, every war is seen through two very different lenses. In this case, from one perspective, Custer and the events of that day have been painted as a tragic loss. From the moment the news was heard about the loss, a great deal of myth has been draped over the events of that day and over the person of Col. Armstrong Custer. From the perspective of the Lakota and Cheyenne peoples who were attacked there, along with some of their Arapaho and Arikara allies, who saw their world and their lifestyles slowly and often aggressively being taken away, it was seen as a matter of desperate defense of their families in the immediate sense of the battle, and of their homelands and ways of life.

Source: YouTube/Raechel Donahue
Ernie LaPointe is the great-grandson of Sitting Bull.

The great Lakota leader of the Hunkpapa band at the Little Big Horn was Tatanka Iyoke, or as we know him, Sitting Bull. In this video, you will see Ernie LaPointe, a great-grandson of Sitting Bull, telling of the battle from the Lakota perspective.

In a great irony of our history, LaPointe is himself served in the U. S. Army and is a Vietnam veteran. He joined the Army in the late 60s and was stationed in places like Korea, Turkey and Germany over his military career. His tour in Vietnam was from 1970-1971.

Source: YouTube/Raechel Donahue
The Battle of Little Big Horn is also known as Custer’s Last Stand, or the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

And therein lies one of the great paradoxes of our American history with the Native American peoples. Our efforts to open up the West were rooted in the philosophy of Manifest Destiny and were driven by economic interests seen as being for the good and the well-being of our growing and expanding nation. But there were whole peoples and ancient cultures that were in the way of that progress, who would suffer the loss of almost everything they knew and loved during what we call the Indian Wars. And for all of that history, the great irony is that there is no other ethnic group in our great and hugely diverse country that has offered more of its young men and women per capita to serve in our military.

Ernie LaPointe’s historical perspective on the Battle of the Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn comes from the oral traditions passed on by his own family and other Lakotas whose family members were there, camped in what may have been the largest Indian encampment in the history of the plains Indians, stretching out over two miles along the Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn River on July 25, 1876. You will hear some of those stories, but this time they will be from the perspective of those who were being attacked and responding to the attack on that fateful day.

Source: YouTube/Raechel Donahue
Custer’s men were surrounded and decimated by Native American warriors in the battle.

History, it is said, has always been told by the victors. While the Lakota and Cheyenne were the victors that day, it was really the beginning of the end of the traditional life for them. Within a very short period of time Crazy Horse and his Lakota band of Oglalas who had fought at the Greasy Grass/Little Big Horn battle, and eventually, even Sitting Bull and his band of Hunkpapas would be confined to reservations. Both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull would eventually be assassinated after they had gone to the reservations. The so-called Indian Wars would all come to a bloody and tragic end with the massacre at Wounded Knee in the winter of 1890, conducted by the same 7th Cavalry that was led by Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

It is also true that history is full of paradox. This is yet another way to look at the common history we share as Americans and Native Americans. That those who suffered the loss of everything but their lives would serve the nation in the very military that took away their former homelands and ways of life to such a degree as they do today, is something we should all contemplate. Knowing the fullness of our history is important to the well-being of all of us who proudly call ourselves Americans. Reconciliation and healing is what makes us stronger as individuals and as a nation.

Source: YouTube/Raechel Donahue
The battle resulted in a number of reactionary and bloody responses from the U.S. military.

The great-grandson of Sitting Bull, Ernie LaPointe, has served the nation in uniform and in war. His great-grandfather served and led his nation in peace and in war. Now, we serve together in the same uniforms. The past is real. Its greatest value to us is to look at it with an humble and objective eye, and to learn its lessons. The future does not yet exist. It is shaped by the educated decisions and actions we do now in the present.

This video, told from the reality of another perspective is a powerful tool to understand who we were and to dream about who we can be in the future if we have the courage to be honest about our past and courageous enough to learn and grow into the best version of ourselves as individuals and as a nation.


Last Ghastly Moments At The Little Bighorn

So much has been written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn that it would seem that everything that can be said about it is already known. But interest in the slaughter of some 225 soldiers and civilians under Lieutenant Colonel George Custer by Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors in June of 1876 has remained high, and the search for new scraps of information about it continues unabated. At the heart of this interest is a mystery which has never been fully solved. It is this: How was it that Custer and all his men were killed?

Some students of Indian warfare have speculated that the warriors simply wore down the surrounded troopers of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry from a distance until casualties were so severe that they could ride in on the survivors. But, in direct contradiction to this, others point to many notable Indian fights of the Plains (Beecher Island, the Wagon Box, the Big Hole, and even another sector of the Little Bighorn battle itself—the attack on Custer’s subordinates, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen) to show that such tactics woidd have been contrary to Indian custom. In all of these cases the Indians encircled troops for long periods of time, riding around the besieged whites at a safe distance, potshotting at them, dashing at them from time to time, and finally breaking off the engagement and riclina away.

Such tactics were traditional with the Plains Indians. Once the warriors were satisfied that they had acquitted themselves well and gained honors, had halted the enemy and rendered him powerless, or had secured their camps and enabled their women and children to get safely away, they saw no sense in risking further the lives of their brave men. This was especially true when the Indians began to suffer casualties then the chiefs would usually counsel their men to end the fight quickly and withdraw.

The following document suggests a hitherto unsuspected factor in the battle: a group of warriors who formed a kind of suicide squad. Their example may provide an explanation of why Glister’s detachment was slaughtered to the last man. Nothing resembling this story has appeared in any previous account of the fight. The question naturally arises, Why not? One answer is that only a comparatively few individuals in the two tribes knew enough about the event to talk about it, and white questioners never happened to talk to these individuals. Another and more likely answer is that those who did know about it considered it too revered a rite to discuss with the race that had conquered them.

It should be remembered that Indians were the only surviving witnesses to the Last Stand and that everything written about Custer’s final moments stems from these Indian informants. The value of many of these accounts is questionable. Most were collected, under extreme pressure, soon afier the battle. The Indians who did talk feared, on the one hand, punishment by the whites, and on the other, contempt from their own people for being informers. Under these circumstances, they often said what they thought their questioners wanted them to say, and concealed information which they thought might bring trouble upon the Indians. They also withheld information concerning tribal customs and beliefs which they felt they had no right to impart to white men, or which white men might have misunderstood. Thus it is not surprising that a number of events at the Little Bighorn went unrecorded except in the oral traditions of the tribes who fought there.

The story that follows is based entirely on the traditions of the Northern Cheyennes, who today live in Montana close to the field on which their forebears fought Custer. The battle accounts were gathered with care and devotion over many years by John Stands in Timber, a Northern Cheyenne who some fifty years ago dedicated himself to the task of being the historian of his people. He decided then that when the time was right he would tell the white man the history of his tribe as his own people knew it. Stands in Timber, a grandson of Lame White Man, who was killed at the Little Bighorn, was educated at the Haskell Institute, a school for Indians in Lawrence, Kansas, and part of his dedication to the history of his people is the result of hearing white men’s versions of events that contradicted what the Indians knew. After returning to the reservation from Haskell, he began to collect tribal stories, gathering them, when possible, from eyewitnesses to and participants in important events. The fear of punishment by whites and the reluctance to reveal many aspects of Indian history persisted among his people for decades. But the old people of the tribe who might be hurt or who might resent the recording of their actions for the whites are now dead. Today, with John Stands in Timber in his eighties, his document can at last be made public.

It will be helped by a brief summation of what is already known of the battle. The command led by Colonel Custer had been an element in a threepronged drive designed to trap a large group of Sioux and Northern Cheyennes who had refused to go onto their reservations. One prong, commanded by General George Crook, moving north into Montana from the North Platte River, had been mauled and turned back by Sioux and Northern Cheyennes at the Rosebud River on June 17, 1876. The second prong, troops from western Montana, and the third prong, a force moving west from the Missouri River, had met on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Rosebud. In the third prong was Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. Unaware of Crook’s withdrawal, the troops on the Yellowstone now planned to turn south and catch the hostile Indians between themselves and Crook’s force.

One unit, under Colonel John Gibbon, was ordered to go up the Yellowstone to the Bighorn, then march south along that river to the Little Bighorn. Custer was directed to move south along the Rosebud, parallel to Gibbon the idea was to trap the Indians between them. Custer, it is believed, was to make a leisurely march and not start across from the Rosebud to the Little Bighorn until the evening of June 25, when Gibbon would have had time to arrive opposite him for a joint attack on June 26. The units separated, and at noon on June 22, Glister started up the Rosebud with some six hundred soldiers, forty-four Arikara and Crow Indian scouts, about twenty packers and guides, and a civilian newspaper correspondent named Mark Kellogg.

The Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors who had repulsed Crook on the Rosebud had meanwhile moved their camps to the Little Bighorn. Their villages, set up in five large circles of tepees and several smaller ones, stretched about three miles along the river’s west bank. The northernmost circle was the village of the Northern Cheyennes, while at the south was that of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa Sioux. Between them were Oglalas and other Sioux, together with a small number of Arapahoes. There were probably some ten thousand Indians present, of whom at least three thousand were fighting men.

Custer came up the Rosebud, but on learning from scouts that the hostiles were west of him on the Little Bighorn, turned in that direction, and on the morning of June 25 was ready to do battle alone, without waiting for Gibbon. After surveying the valley of the Little Bighorn, but failing to see the Indian camp and thus understand its exact size and population, he divided his men into four tznits. One was left in the rear to protect the slow-moving pack train. A second, under Captain Frederick Benteen, was sent to scout the hills to the southwest and to prevent the escape of the Indians in that direction. The third, under Major Marcus Reno, was ordered to attack the camp at its southern end, while Custer took the remaining unit of about 225 men to strike the northern end and catch the Indians between his troops and Reno’s.

The Indian forces, of course, were much bigger than Custer had suspected. Reno’s men, accompanied by Arikara scouts, had a sharp battle in the valley, mainly with Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapas after heavy losses, they retreated to a high bluff across the Little Bighorn from the Indian camp, where they were soon joined by the pack train and Benteen. Heavy firing could be heard from Custer’s direction and an attempt was made to reach him, but it failed. Reno and Benteen then stood off the Indians all night and the next day. The rest of the troops from the Yellowstone arrived the morning of the twenty-seventh. The Indian camp had disbanded the evening of the twenty-sixth. No further fighting had seemed necessary to the Indians, and they had all moved away, out of range of the troops.

Custer’s command was discovered entirely destroyed.

With that background, one can now read John Stands in Timber’s account.

THE attack of Colonel Custer on the Northern Cheyennes and Sioux did not surprise the Indians as much as many people think. They knew the soldiers were in the country looking for them, and they expected trouble, though they did not know just when it would come. My grandfather, Lame White Man, told my grandmother, Twin Woman, the morning before the fight that scouts had reported soldiers on the Rosebud, and when they went farther down [the Rosebud] they also saw the steamship that had brought them supplies, there in the Yellowstone River. White Man Bear’s people were on their way to the Black Hills when they saw them. They did not turn back, but kept on their way, but they met other scouts coming this way and gave them the news. It was after that that the word spread.

The Sioux leaders in the villages sent word that they wanted all the chiefs to gather to discuss what to do if the soldiers approached. They had decided not to start anything, but to find out what the soldiers were going to do, and talk to them if they came in peacefully. “It may be something else they want us to do now, other than go back to the reservation,” they said. “We will talk to them. But if they want to fight we will let them have it, so everybody be prepared.”

They also decided that the camp should be guarded by the military bands, to keep individual warriors from riding out to meet the soldiers. It was a great thing for anyone to do that—to go out and meet the enemy ahead of the rest—and the chiefs did not want this to happen. So it was agreed that both the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne military bands would stand guard. Each band called its men, and toward evening they went on duty. Bunches of them rode to ten or fifteen stations on both sides of the Little Bighorn where they could keep good watch. About sundown, they could be seen all along the hills there.

There was good reason for them to watch well. The people usually obeyed the orders of the military bands. Punishment [ranging from a beating to destruction of horses, tepees, or other property] was too severe if they did not. But that night young men [who had not yet gained war honors, and in their eagerness to achieve them often put personal goals above tribal welfare] were determined to slip through. Soon after the bands had begun patrolling, my stepgrandfather’s friend, Bigfoot, came to him. “Wolftooth,” he said, “we could get away and go on through. Maybe some others will too, and meet the enemy over on the Rosebud.”

They began watching to see what the military bands were doing, and to make plans. They saw a bunch of them start across to the east side of the river and another bunch on the hill between what became the Reno and Custer battlefields. Many more were on the high hills at the mouth of Medicine Tail Creek. So they decided what to do. After sundown they took their horses way up on the west side of the river and hobbled them, pretending to be putting them there so they could get them easily in the morning. Then they returned to camp. But when it was dark, they walked back out there and got the horses, and went back down to the river. When they did, they heard horses crossing and were afraid to go ahead. But the noise died away, and they went on into the river slowly, so even the water would splash more quietly. They got safely to the other side and hid in the brush all night there so they would not be discovered.

In the meantime, there was some excitement in the camp. Some of the Sioux boys had just announced that they were taking the suicide vow, and others were putting on a dance for them at their end of the camp. This meant that they were throwing their lives away. In the next battle they would fight till they were killed. The Northern Cheyennes claimed that they had originated the suicide vow then the Sioux learned it from them, and they called this dance they put on to announce it “Dying Dancing.”

A few Northern Cheyenne boys had announced their decision to take the vow at the same time, so a lot of Northern Cheyennes were up there in the crowd watching. Spotted Elk and Crooked Nose are two that remembered that night and told me about it. They said the people were already gathering, early in the evening. By the time they got to the upper end there, a big place had been cleared and they were already dancing. When those boys came in, they could not hear themselves talk, there was so much noise, with the crowd packed around and both the men and women singing.

They did not remember how many took part, and never thought of counting them, but Spotted Elk said later there were not more than twenty. They remembered the Northern Cheyenne boys that were dancing: Little Whirlwind, Cut Belly, Closed Hand, and Noisy Walking. They were all killed the next day. But none of them knew that night that the soldiers were coming next day for sure they were just suspicious.

The next morning the Indians held a parade for the boys who had been in the suicide dance the night before. Different ones told me about it one was my grandmother, Twin Woman, the wife of Lame White Man, the only Northern Cheyenne chief who was killed in the battle. It was customary to put on such a parade after a suicide dance. The boys went in front, with an old man on either side announcing to the public to look at these boys well they would never come back after the next battle.

They paraded down through the Northern Cheyenne camp on the inside and back on the outside, and then returned to their own village.

While the parade was still going on, three boys went down to the river to swim: William Yellowrobe, Charles Headswift, and Wandering Medicine. They were down there in the water when they heard a lot of noise, and thought the parade had just broken up. Some riders in war clothes came along the bank yelling and shooting. Then somebody hollered at them, “The camp is attacked by soldiers!” So they never thought about swimming any more. They jumped out and ran back to their families’ camps. Headswift’s people had already run away toward the hills at the west, but his older brother came back after him. They had to run quite a distance to get his brother’s horse. Then they rode double to join the women and children where they were watching the beginning of the fight.

Meanwhile, after the parade had ended, my grandmother said a man named Tall Sioux had put up a sweat lodge, and Lame White Man went over to take part in his sweat bath there. It was just a little way from the tepees. She said they had closed the cover down a couple of times—they usually did it four times in all, pouring water over the hot stones to make steam —and the second or third time, the excitement started in the valley above the village [where Reno was attacking the Hunkpapas]. She did not see which way the soldiers came, but there were some above the village. And some more [Glister’s troops] came from straight across the river.

The men in the sweat tepee crawled out and ran to help their families get on horses and get away. Lame White Man did not have time to get war clothes on. He just wrapped a blanket around his waist and grabbed his moccasins and belt and a gun. He went with Grandmother a little way to the west of some small hills there. Then he turned down below and crossed after the rest of the warriors.

Of course, Wolftooth and Bigfoot had come out of the brush long before then. At daylight they could see the Indian military patrols still on the hills, so they waited for some time. They moved along, keeping under cover, until they ran into more warriors and then some more. Close to fifty men had succeeded in slipping through the military bands and crossing the river that way. They got together and were about halfway up a wooded hill [about four miles east of where the battle was to occur] when they heard someone hollering. Wolftooth looked back and saw a rider on a ridge a mile below them, calling and signalling them to come back.

They turned and galloped back, and when they drew near, the rider began talking in Sioux. Bigfoot could understand it. The soldiers had already ridden down toward the village. Then this party raced back up the creek again to where they could follow one of the ridges to the top, and when they got up there, they saw the last few soldiers going down out of sight toward the river—Glister’s men. Reno’s men had attacked the other end already, but they did not know it.

As the soldiers disappeared, Wolftooth’s band split up. Some followed the soldiers, and the rest went on around a point to cut them off. They caught up there with some that were still going down, and came around them on both sides. The soldiers started shooting it was the first skirmish of the Custer part of the battle, and it did not last very long. The Indians said they did not try to go in close. After some shooting, both bunches of Indians retreated back to the hills, and the soldiers crossed the south end of the ridge.

The soldiers followed the ridge down to the present cemetery site. Then this bunch of forty or fifty Indians came after them again and started shooting down at them a second time. But the soldiers were moving on down toward the river, across from the Northern Cheyenne camp. Some of the warriors there had come across, and they began firing at the soldiers from the brush in the river bottom. This made the soldiers turn north, but then they went back in the direction they had come from, and stopped when they got to where the cemetery is now. And they waited there—twenty minutes or more. [It may be noted that this Cheyenne version places Glister’s farthest advance a mile or so beyond and west of the ridge where he died and has him retreat to that final position. The most generally accepted story up to now is that he was cut down along the ridge as he moved from the southeast toward the site of his final stand.] The Indians have a joke about his long wait. Beaver Heart said that when the scouts warned Custer about the village, he laughed and said, “When we get to that village, I’m going to find the Sioux girl with the most elk teeth on her dress and take her along with me.” So that is what he was doing those twenty minutes. Looking.

Wolftooth and his band of warriors moved in meanwhile along the ridge above the soldiers. Custer went into the center of a big basin below where the monument is now, and the soldiers of the Gray Horse Company [Company E, under Lieutenant Algernon Smith] got off their horses and moved up on foot. If there had not been so many Indians on the ridge above, they might have retreated over that way, either then or later when the fighting got bad, and gone to join Reno. But there were too many up above, and the firing was getting heavy from the other side now.

Most of the Northern Cheyennes were down at the Custer end of the fight, but one or two were up at the Reno fight with the Sioux. Beaver Heart saw Reno’s men come in close to the Sioux village and make a stand there in some trees after they had crossed the river. But they were almost wiped out. They got on their horses and galloped along the edge of the cottonwood trees on the bank and turned across the river, but it was a bad crossing. The bank on the other side was higher, and the horses had to jump to get on top. So’me fell back when it got wet and slick from the first ones coming out, and many soldiers were killed trying to get away. Some finally made it up onto the hill where they took their stand.

It was about that time that Custer was going in at the lower end, toward the Cheyenne camp. It was hard to keep track of everything at the two battles. A number of Indians went back and forth between the two, but none of them saw everything. Most of them went toward the fight with Custer, once Reno was up on the hill. Wolftooth said they were all shooting at the Custer men from the ridge, but they were careful all the time, taking cover.

Before long, some Sioux criers came along behind the line, and began calling in the Sioux language to get ready and watch for the suicide boys. They said they were getting ready down below to charge together from the river, and when they came in, all the Indians up above should jump up for hand-to-hand fighting. That way the soldiers would not have a chance to shoot, but would be crowded from both sides. The idea was that they had been firing both ways. When the suicide boys came up, they would turn to them and give those behind a chance to come in close. The criers called out those instructions twice. Most of the Cheyennes could not understand them, but the Sioux there told them what had been said.

So the suicide boys were the last Indians to enter the fight. Wolftooth said they were really watching for them, and at last they rode out down below. They galloped up to the level ground near where the museum is now some turned and stampeded the gray horses of the soldiers. By then they were mostly loose, the ones that had not been shot. The rest of the boys charged right in at the place where the soldiers were making their stand, and the others followed them as soon as they got the horses away.

The suicide boys started the hand-to-hand fighting, and all of them were killed there or were wounded and died later. When the soldiers started shooting at them, the Indians above with Wolftooth came in from the other side. Then there was no time for the soldiers to take aim or anything. The Indians were right behind and among them. Some soldiers started to run along the edge under the top of the ridge, and for a distance they scattered, some going on one side and some the other. But they were all killed before they got far.

At the end it was quite a mess. They could not tell which was this man or that man, they were so mixed up. Horses were running over the soldiers and over each other. The fighting was really close, and they were shooting almost any way without taking aim. Some said it made it less dangerous than fighting at a distance then the soldiers would aim carefully and be more likely to hit you. After they emptied their pistols this way, there was no time to reload. Neither side did. But most of the Indians had clubs or hatchets, while the soldiers just had guns they were using those to hit with and knock the enemy down. A Sioux, Stinking Bear, saw one Indian charge a soldier who had his gun by the barrel, and he swung it so hard he knocked the Indian over and fell over himself.

Yellow Nose was in there close. He saw two Indian horses run right into each other—the horses both fell down and rolled, and he nearly ran into them himself, but managed to turn aside. The dust was so thick he could hardly see. He swung his horse out and turned to charge back in again, close to the end of the fight, and suddenly the dust lifted away. He saw a troop flag [guidon] not far in front of him. Over on the other side some soldiers were still fighting, so he galloped past and picked the flag up and rode into the fight, and he used it to count coup on a soldier.

After the suicide boys came in, it did not take long: half an hour perhaps. Many have agreed with what Wolftooth said, that if it had not been for the suicide boys, it might have ended the way it did at the Reno fight. The Indians all stayed back and fought there no suicide boys jumped in to begin the hand-to-hand fight. The Custer fight was different because these boys went in that way, and it was their rule to be killed.

Another thing many of the Northern Cheyennes said was that if Custer had kept going—if he had not waited there on the ridge so long—he could have made it back to Reno. But he probably thought he could stand off the Indians and win.

Everyone always wanted to know who killed Custer. I have interpreted twice for people asking about this, and whether anyone ever saw a certain Indian take a shot and kill him. But all the Indians say too many people were shooting nobody could tell whose bullet killed a certain man. There were rumors some knew but would not say anything for fear of trouble. But it was more like Spotted Blackbird said: “If we could have seen where each bullet landed, we might have known. But hundreds of bullets were flying that day.”

After the Indians had killed every soldier, my grandmother’s brother, Tall Bull, came across the river and said, “Get a travois fixed. One of the dead is my brother-in-law, and we will have to go over and get his body.” It was my grandfather, Lame White Man. So they went across to where he was lying. He did not have his war clothes on as I said, he had not had time. And some Sioux had made a mistake on him. They thought he was an Indian scout with Custer—they often fought undressed that way. And his scalp was gone from the top of his head. Nearby was the body of another Cheyenne, one of the suicide boys.

I heard the Sioux lost sixty-six men and the Northern Cheyennes just seven, but there might have been more. The Indian dead were all moved from the battlefield right away.

Many Indians were up on the battlefield after it was over, getting the dead or taking things from the soldiers. I asked Grandmother if she went. Women were up there as well as men. But she said the fight was still going on up above with Reno, and many women were afraid to go near the field. They thought the soldiers might break away and come in their direction.

White Wolf (also called Shot in the Head), who was in this fight, said that afterwards a lot of young men searched the soldiers’ pockets. That square green paper money was in them, so they took some. Later when they were making mud horses, they used the money for saddle blankets. Silver money was found too. The Northern Cheyennes made buckles out of it.

The camp broke up the next day after the battle. Some people even left that evening to move up near Lodge Grass. Some of the warriors stayed behind to go on fighting with Reno, but they did not stay more than a day. They knew other soldiers were in the country, and they were out of meat and firewood. They split into many groups, some following the river, and others going up Reno Creek and to other places.

By the time the other soldiers [Terry’s men] got to the battlefield, the Indians were gone. A Cheyenne named Lost Leg rode back a few days later looking for horses. A lot had strayed away and he thought he might be able to get some of them. He said he could smell the battlefield a long way off. He had planned to go in and look at it, but he could not even come close, it was so strong. So he gave up and returned.


Battle of the Little Bighorn - HISTORY

Marcus Reno's Story of the Battle
A 7th Cavalry survivor's account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

From the New York Herald, Thursday, August 8, 1876.
Here are the findings of the Marcus Reno Court of Inquiry.

"[AFTER RECEIVING orders from Gen. Custer to attack the Indian village, my] whole command moved forward, proceeding about a mile and a half. During this time chopping shots were heard. So numerous were the masses of Indians encountered that the command was obliged to dismount and fight on foot, retiring to the point which had first been selected. It was a crest of hills which formed a depression, in which the pack mules and horses were herded, and men were put in these crests, sheltering themselves as best they could behind a growth of sage brush. This was about half past five P.M. and we had just taken up position when the Indians came on us in thousands. The fight was maintained in this position until night. About nine P.M. the Indians withdrew, and immediately the command was put to work making such rifle pits as the scanty implements at our command enabled us to do-mostly hunting knives, plates and canteens, a few axes, and three spades. We were left undisturbed until half past two in the morning of the 26th, when two sharp rifle cracks opened one of the heaviest fires I have ever witnessed, and which continued until half past nine A.M., when the fury of the attack subsided. In the meantime they fired into the herd through the opening of the valley from a hill which was beyond range of my carbines. About eight A.M. the Indians made a charge on the front defended by Colonel Benteen, one of the Indians reaching near enough to his line to touch a dead soldier with his coup stick. He will never touch another. The question of obtaining water was then becoming vital for the wounded, and the water being on the front of Company H, about 600 yards distant, a skirmish line was formed under command of Colonel Benteen to protect the volunteers who went for water. Of these one was killed and six wounded. [Note: here is Mrs. Spotted Horn Bull's cheerful recollection of the water brigade slaughter, as well as Peter Thompson's account of his experience, for which he won the Medal of Honor.] Water was obtained, and though the Indians remained annoyingly about us during the rest of the day, evidently they had been disturbed, for I saw them making a big fire in the valley, raising great clouds of dust and smoke. The fire was evidently encouraged by the Indians, and about six o'clock we saw their column come out from behind these clouds of smoke and dust on to the bluffs, moving in regular military order in the direction of the Bighorn Mountains, which were about thirty miles distant. I first thought it was the return of Custer which had started the Indians. We could not conceive the awful fate which had befallen him and his command. The question was settled next morning by General Terry riding into camp, who brought the first news of Custer's disaster. Colonel Benteen, with his company, was at once dispatched to the battlefield, and brought us the fact of Custer's annihilation and that he had recognized the bodies of the officers whose names have been published and who fell with Custer.

I was given the command of Companies M, A and G, and was ordered [by Gen. Custer ] to proceed at as rapid a gait as I thought prudent and afterward to charge, and that I would be supported by the whole outfit. This order was brought to me by Colonel Cooke , adjutant of the regiment. I never saw Custer again living, and the instructions embodied in these words were received from him. After Colonel Cooke gave me these instructions he rode with me for some time, as also Captain Keogh , and said, in his laughing, smiling, way, "We are all going with the advance and Miles Keogh is coming too." [Note: Here is William Slaper 's description of this same moment after this, Slaper recalled, "things began to liven up."] My attention was then taken up with the ford which I was to cross with the companies, and I never saw either alive again. After crossing the ford I sent word to Custer that the Indians were in front and very strong, but charged on down, supposing that I was being followed by him. As I neared the village I saw Indians passing from the hill behind my left flank. I knew no support could be coming, so I dismounted and took possession of a point of woods about a half mile upstream from the village, sheltered my horses and advanced to the attack, reaching within 200 yards of the village. The Indians then came out in overwhelming numbers, and it was plain to me that the salvation of my command depended on reaching a defensive position, which was accomplished by charging through the Indians to the bluffs, where I was joined by the other companies commanded by Colonel Benteen and Captain McDougall . The ford we crossed in getting to the bluff was not the same we had passed in going to attack the village. It was in front of the bluff, and it was partially by accident that we found it. When I went into action I had only 112 men and officers of the Seventh with me and some twenty-five scouts. If I had not made the charge for the bluffs my command would undoubtedly have been annihilated as Custer's was. The great mistake in the beginning was that we underestimated the Indian strength. The lowest computation puts the Indian strength at about 2,500, and some think there were 5,000 warriors present. The Indians are the best light cavalry in the world. I have seen pretty nearly all of them, and I do not except even the Cossacks. [Note: Capt. Anson Mills agreed, calling the Sioux and Cheyenne "the best cavalry soldiers on earth" after being whipped by Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Rosebud. For more info, see Indian Battlefield Tactics.]

Among the gallant deeds in the Custer fight the splendid conduct of Lieutenant Cooke deserves special mention. He was the last officer to fall, and he remained mounted to the last after Custer 's death. The command of the survivors fell on him, and with his small band he repeatedly charged the Indians. The Crow scout [this was Curley], who was the only known survivor, says that the Sioux warriors scattered time and time again before the desperate onslaught of Cooke and his handful of men, who fell at last, overwhelmed by innumerable enemies." [Note here is Wooden Leg 's account of scalping Cooke's distinctive muttonchop whiskers.]

The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custerania, written and compiled by Colonel W.A. Graham, The Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, PA 1953, p 228 - 229

Major Marcus Reno commanded one of Custer's three wings, and led the attack on the giant Indian village on the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. This account of the battle was written six weeks later, and published in the New York Herald on August 8, 1876.

Reno survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but actually the real battle for him didn't begin until the shooting was over. Custer's friends made Reno the scapegoat for Custer's debacle and forced him to spend the rest of his life fighting to clear his name.

As the Custer clique saw it, Reno (who charged into the huge Indian village) was somehow a coward, and Custer (who hung back and never provided Reno the support he promised) was somehow a brave heart. Custer apologists saw Reno (who managed to save a portion of his men) as incompetent, and Custer (who divided his troops and then lost his entire command) as a military paragon.

These arguments still echo faintly in the 21st century, but today no one seriously suggests that the responsibility for the American defeat at the Little Bighorn rests with anyone but George A. Custer. He must take the blame, and to try to shift it off on Reno as Custer loyalists like Seventh Cavalry survivor John Burkman does, merely diminishes Custer more.

The truth is that on June 25, 1876, Custer and the U.S. Army's Seventh Cavalry (a mercinary force largely made up of recent immigrants and the sort of disadvantaged individuals who have long populated America's volunteer armies) met a combined Sioux / Cheyenne army under Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, Crow King, Rain In The Face, Lame White Man, Two Moon and others that was superior in every way -- superior leadership, superior numbers, superior corps motivation, superior individual soldiers, superior horses and quite frankly, a superior cause. The Sioux were fighting to protect their families and their rightful homeland, while Custer's soldiers were an illegal invader force whose very presence on the landscape violated the Treaty of 1868, as does the continued presence of American invaders in the territory of the Sioux Nation today.

Furthermore, the charges against Reno (cowardice, drunkeness, etc.) were all aired at his subsequent Court of Inquiry, and he was found innocent on all counts, although that didn't undo the damage Custer's friends did to him and his reputation, or stop their attacks on him. As late as 1934, John Burkman branded Reno a "coward," but others like William Slaper painted a different picture. Slaper recalled how "I observed Reno several times during the fighting on the bluffs, and can well remember his walking about among the men through the night. I know it encouraged his fellow-officers as well as the troopers."

Perhaps the highest praise for Reno came from the Sioux. Even though Reno's men murdered Sioux women and children on Reno's initial charge at the Little Bighorn, Two Kettle Sioux war chief Runs The Enemy praised Reno's bravery, saying, "he only had a few soldiers and our camp was a great camp, and he came rushing into the camp with his few soldiers. In all the history of my great-grandfathers I have never known of such an attack in daylight."

For a somewhat candid glimpse of what Reno thought of Custer's performance at the Little Bighorn, see the conversation John Burkman overheard on the night of June 26, 1876 during the Seige of the Greasy Grass.


The Brutality of Little Bighorn, as Seen by Someone Who Was There

TULSA, Okla. — Decades after the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, Stephen Standing Bear, who participated in the tumultuous engagement, recalled its chaos: “I could see Indians charging all around me. Then I could see the soldiers and Indians all mixed up and there were so many guns going off that I couldn’t hear them.” He also illustrated the battlefield as he saw it in large-scale muslin pictographs, with the largest surviving example currently on view in First Person: Remembering Little Bighorn at the Philbrook Museum of Art’s downtown branch in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“The number one question I’m asked about this muslin is: ‘which one is Custer?’ And you don’t see Custer on the muslin,” Christina Burke, Philbrook’s curator of Native American and non-Western art, told Hyperallergic. “If you look closely at the figures, all of the soldiers look exactly the same, and that’s from the Lakota perspective. The details were in identifying the warriors, their shields, their headdresses, the paraphernalia, all of those are real three-dimensional people. The enemies all look the same because it didn’t matter which one Custer was, they were all enemies encroaching on Lakota territory and their way of life.”

The online interactive for ‘First Person: Remembering Little Bighorn’ (screenshot by the author via firstperson.philbrook.org) (click to enlarge)

For those who can’t make it to Tulsa, an online interactive allows users to scroll through the muslin and click on points of interest, which highlight this detail of individual warriors involved in the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it is often called by indigenous people. Two Lakota members of the Stokà Yuhà (Bare Lance) Society hold crooked lances in their right hands, while a member of the Miwátani Society has his red sash staked in the earth, a sign that he was going to stay and fight to the death. A member of the Brave Heart Society is “counting coup” with his eagle feather lance, an act of bravery that required a person to get close enough to hit an enemy by hand.

Installation view of ‘First Person: Remembering Little Bighorn’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The fall of George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry to the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, was depicted as a romantic tragedy in 19th-century art like Edgar Samuel Paxson’s “Custer’s Last Stand,” where the commanding officer appears spotlit amid the battle. In that painting, like many others from non-indigenous artists, the cavalry soldiers are surrounded by faceless warriors. However, as it was such as crushing defeat (and the most famous Army survivor was the horse Comanche), these were second or third-hand interpretations. Standing Bear, and artists like Red Horse whose ledger drawings were recently on view at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, were portraying their first-hand experience with the bloody clash.

“I think you get a sense of the chaos that was the battlefield, with people on horseback, and some on their feet, arrows and bullets flying everywhere,” Burke said of the muslin. The work had long been in storage at the Philbrook, one of three known Little Bighorn muslins by Standing Bear. In First Person, its return is joined by prints from negatives of drawings by Amos Bad Heart Bull, who was also at Little Bighorn. He drawings were lost, and the glass negatives of them were also believed gone, until they turned up in 2012 at a garage sale. This is the first exhibition to display prints from the negatives, which are now at the Smithsonian Institution. They portray details of Lakota life, particularly the warrior societies highlighted in the muslin panel.

Installation view of ‘First Person: Remembering Little Bighorn’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

But Standing Bear’s panorama isn’t all conflict. In the bottom right corner are lines of teepees and women and children taking shelter from the fray, and this moment is what makes his perspective stand out from many of the images of the fateful battle.

“What the encampment does, is it reinforces the fact that these people had come together in midsummer for their annual communal buffalo hunt and the Sun Dance,” Burke said. “They were just living their life and participating in this ritual tradition, when Custer and the 7th Cavalry invaded their territory yet again.”

Standing Bear recognized the way of life that was under attack, still remembering to include this haunting detail when he created the muslin in the 1920s. His life would involve a stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, illustrating the influential 1932 book Black Elk Speaks, falling in love with a Viennese woman, and returning to live on a South Dakota reservation, but his art would always recall the traditional life of the Lakota.

Stephen Standing Bear, “Battle of the Little Bighorn” (detail) (1920s), pencil and ink on muslin (courtesy Philbrook Museum of Art)

Installation view of ‘First Person: Remembering Little Bighorn’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A 1932 edition of ‘Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux,’ with illustrations by Stephen Standing Bear (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Images of drawings by Amos Bad Heart Bull (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Image of a drawing by Amos Bad Heart Bull (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Installation view of ‘First Person: Remembering Little Bighorn’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

First Person: Remembering Little Bighorn continues through December 31 at the Philbrook Downtown (116 E. M. B. Brady Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma). Stephen Standing Bear’s 1920s Battle of the Little Bighorn muslin pictograph is available to explore online.


This Week in Little Bighorn History

Daniel Carroll died in Chicago on May 2, 1910, and was buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery there. He was a Sergeant with Company B at the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but he was not present there due to detached service at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory.

May 5, 1877 – Sitting Bull (left) led his people into Canada.

John C. Wagoner died on May 5, 1899, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was Chief Packer with the pack train and was wounded in the hilltop fight during the battle.

Frederick William Myers died in Washington, D.C. on May 5, 1900, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. He was a Private in Company I who was not present at the battle due to detached service. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1891 for his actions at White River, South Dakota, while with the 6th Cavalry.

James E. Moore was born on May 6, 1849, in Hebron, Ohio. He was a Farrier with Company B who was with the pack train and later participated in the hilltop fight.

Charles Clinton Barnett was born on May 7, 1857, in Camden, Ohio. He was a Private in Company G who was not present at the battle due to detached service at Powder River, Montana.

May 7, 1868 – The Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Crow was concluded.

John Fitzgerald died in New York City on May 7, 1900, and was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens County, New York. He was the Farrier for Company C who participated in the hilltop fight.

Soldier, an Arikara Scout, died on May 7, 1921, and was buried in the Indian Scout Cemetery in McLean County, North Dakota. His gravestone states, “Served his country as an Indian Scout.” He was with Reno’s Column, but he did not cross the river.

Good Elk (Wah-nee), an Arikara Scout who was also known as Red Bear, died in Nishu, North Dakota, on May 7, 1934, and was buried in the Indian Scout Cemetery in McLean County, North Dakota, where he is listed as Handsome Elk. He participated in the valley fight.

Charles Sanders was born on May 8, 1842, in Altenberg, Germany. He was a Private in Company D who served as the Orderly for Lt. Edgerly and participated in the hilltop fight.

Edward Garlick (left) was born in Chertsey, England, on May 8, 1846. He was the First Sergeant for Company G who was on furlough at the time of the battle.

Jeremiah Campbell died on May 8, 1884, in Decatur, Illinois, and was buried in Westside Cemetery in Moweaqua, Shelby County, Illinois. He was a Sergeant in Company K who participated in the hilltop fight.


Controversies Surrounding the Battle of the Little Bighorn

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

The Battle of the Little Big Horn itself took place during the Plain Wars that eventually witnessed the defeat of the Native American tribes that lived on the American Plains.

The Ineptness of Custer

There were certainly controversies surrounding the Battle of the Little Big Horn whilst the Plains War was actually still being fought. Not everybody had approved of General George Armstrong Custer being given the command of the detachment that he led so disastrously at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the first place.

Some of the senior military officers within the United States Army did not trust the judgement of General George Armstrong Custer, citing his indifferent military record. The critics of General Custer argued that his poor performance and record during the American Civil War should have excluded him from holding a military commission at all after the Plains War had started in earnest during 1874.

Custer’s Critics Proved Correct

The many critics ended up being proved right about Custer’s inability to hold a command started the controversy about the appointment after his overwhelming defeat. For example Custer’s battle plan for the Little Big Horn was a straightforward one, straightforwardly suicidal in fact. Thus the only problem with General Custer’s straightforward battle plan for the Little Big Horn was that it was fatally flawed.

Custer chose to fight at the Little Big Horn because he believed that he could win the engagement despite his small force being heavily outnumbered by his Native American opponents. He underestimated the strength and the fighting quality of his enemies whilst they quickly worked out the flaws in his tactics.

Custer could have had a better battle plan for his final battle that fateful at the Little Big Horn, and let us be honest he could not have adopted a worse plan than the one he actually followed that day. The arrogant and rash Custer could certainly have decided not to have to fight his Native American opponents on that day.

Alternatively General Custer could have waited for further reinforcements before fighting at the Little Big Horn against determined enemies with superior numbers and sound strategy even if they could not match his firepower. However his overconfidence combined with his impatience meant that he decided to fight the Battle of the Little Big Horn in circumstances astutely picked and controlled by his Native American opponents.


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Throughout the 19th century, the federal government hounded down American Indians, trying to sequester them in the special areas called reservations. The tribespeople were henceforth barred from engaging in their traditional activities, such as angling and hunting, in the Great Plains, because the territory beckoned white people. As cowboys were reclaiming the hitherto Native American lands, tribespeople had to give up their centuries-long ways of life and take up farming in reservations (Buchholtz, 2013). Initially, many Native American Indians did not want accept the authority of a white man and challenged it wherever possible. Disgruntled Native American warriors ambushed and killed White buffalo hunters and otherwise tried to maintain control over their territories. However, the onset of the white man was inexorable and all attempts to stop it were abortive. After the decades of forlorn resistance, many tribes opted to cede to the demands of the federal government and signed accords with it. In 1868, the Sioux Indians concluded a treaty with the federal authorities. They established a vast reservation in the territory of Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota (Connor, Scott, Harmon, & Fox, 2013). The part of the reservation, the Black Hills in South Dakota had remained a spiritual site for the Sioux for many generations. Yet, with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1873, the place became important to white men too. An economic downturn of 1873 fueled by the speculations of gold discovery in the Black Hills sent many white Americans scurrying to pan out this precious metal in the area (Connor et al., 2013). White men flouted the existing treaties, and the federal government only connived at the gold rush. At the outset of the conflict, the government set about mending forces with the Sioux, but countenanced a military campaign against them later. The Great Sioux War of 1976 erupted.

Outraged by incessant incursions of white men into the holy lands of the Black Hills, spates of Plains Indians refused to obey the authority of the federal government and move to reservations. The recalcitrant Lakota and Cheyenne Indians congregated in Montana to stand against the life in reservations and fight for their territories. Prior to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the US cavalrymen were pummeled in a string of ferocious, albeit insignificant, defeats (Buchholtz, 2013). Emboldened by a series of easy victories, the Sioux Indians decided to continue their struggle in the summer of 1876. They did not return to the reservations, thereby giving the federal troops a pretext for waging war. Overall, the Grand Sioux War developed with the varied success, for the federal troops also scored several victories (Lawson, 2009).

Guided by the goal of frustrating the indomitable spirit of the native Indian Americans, the federal troops launched a large military campaign in the spring of 1876. Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, who was in charge of the Division of the Missouri, employed the tactics that proved successful during the campaign on the Southern Plains (Lawson, 2009). The federal troops were supposed to force the Indian tribes into a deathtrap salient and, thus, prevent their escape. Thus, the army splintered into three different columns, which marching into different directions to later encircle and destroy the enemy. The bulk of Custer’s 7th Cavalry marched west from Fort Abraham Lincoln together with Brigadier General Alfred Terry and the 20th infantry Gatling gun detachment (Lawson, 2009). They intended two rendezvous with other two columns at the mouth of the Powder River. However, the column spearheaded by Brigadier General George Crook fell behind a schedule. Crook’s detachment engaged with the Native American forces on the Rosebud River on June 17 and could not move further (Lawson, 2009). The three-pronged invasion halted, but the remaining forces continued the campaign.

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The Battle of the Little Bighorn: The Outbreak

On June 22, Colonel Gibbon and General Terry made a joint decision that Custer’s 7th Cavalry should try to circle around the American Indian forces. Meanwhile the other two columns would close in on them directly (Connor et al., 2013). The plan was to reunite with Custer on June 27. Gibbon and Terry offered Custer reinforcements in the form of the Gatling guns, but Lieutenant Colonel declined the offer on the ground that reinforcements would trammel his traveling foot (Connell, 1997). Moreover, being as haughty as he was, Custer thought the 7th Cavalry was strong enough to repel the enemy single-handedly. On June 24, Custer reached a vantage point, which offered an unbroken panorama of the Little Bighorn River. Nestled in the lee of riverbanks, Custer’s Crow scouts spotted a large encampment of Native Americans. According to the historical estimates, the gathering consisted of as much as 1,900 warriors and their relatives from different tribes (Connor et al., 2013). However, Custer received the faulty data from his intelligence officers, who adduced much smaller numbers. Persuaded that the belligerent had no more than 800 people, both warriors and civilians, Carter advanced to the encampment (Connor et al., 2013).

The 7th Cavalry was poised for an assault early next morning, but fears crept over Custer that the tribespeople became aware of his presence in the area. As a corollary of this, the 7th Cavalry sallied forth on June 26. It is necessary to note in this context that Lieutenant Colonel Custer had a force of 700 men under his command (Buchholtz, 2013). Major Marcus Reno, one of Cutler’s bravest officers, was saddled with the task of leading three groups to the Little Bighorn Valley and attacking the encampment from the south (Buchholtz, 2013). Captain Frederick Benteen led three another companies to the west to forestall the possibility of Native Americans escaping the battlefield (Lawson, 2009). Captain Thomas McDougald with his single company had to remain near the wagon train to guard it (Lawson, 2009). Custer planned to descend with remaining forces from the mountain range in the east and, thus, charge forward toward the camp of Native Americans from the north. Reno crossed the Little Bighorn River long after midnight and approached the camp. To the astonishment of Reno and his troops, the encampment was significantly bigger than reported. Similarly, Reno was haunted by fears that the Indian warriors were luring him into a trap (Connor et al., 2013). Reno’s soldiers formed a skirmish line several hundred meters short of the encampment and ordered the scouts to cover the company’s exposed left.

As uncertain as he was, Reno ultimately fired at the camp, but he failed to catch the enemy unawares. The Native American warriors launched a counterattack from a small elevation to Major Reno’s left (Lawson, 2009). The Lakota and Northern Cheyenne tribes instantly put Reno’s force in disarray and very soon to rout. Reno retreated into the woods along the Little Bighorn River and escaped the Native American warriors in a disorganized way when they set the brush ablaze. Describing the atmosphere on the battlefield, Panzeri (1995) says the following:
Absolute chaos reigned as more frenzied warriors surged forward and terrified troopers tried to flee. More soldiers bunched together and resisted before being killed or forced to run away. Captain Keogh was killed with a small group of his men on the eastern slope of the ridge. The fight moved along the ridge from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill. (p. 77)

On the opposite side of the river, Reno’s soldiers met with Benteen’s detachment, which was on its way to reunite with Custer. Shortly thereafter, the combined force encountered McDougald and formed a defensive position together. They managed to repel the attacks of the enemy for a few consecutive hours. Interestingly, fighting around the perimeter did not abate with the approach of dawn, as Custer expected (Connor et al., 2013). It was not until General Terry’s soldiers closed in on the battlefield from the north that Native Americans began to pull back.


Watch the video: Sitting Bull 1954 movie clip The Battle of Little Big Horn (May 2022).