My wife Mary Anne and I recently visited the Little Big Horn Battlefield in Montana, about 60 miles SE of Billings. In preparation, we both had read Custer’s Fall – the Native American Side of the Story, and I read most of the two other books below.
It was a powerful and moving experience for us both. This was one of the seminal events in the war between whites and Native Americans in the Northern Plains. It was a “last great act of defiance” by Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne trying to protect themselves, their way of life and their families from the onslaught of Americans and American culture from the East. And there was certainly arrogance, chicanery, as well as heroism and sacrifice on the part of the Americans.
There are a number of things about this battle I was surprised to learn as I read about it and visited the battlefield. The Little Big Horn Battle is a really interesting lens through which to look at America at that time. It inspired me enough to want to sit down and summarize my impressions. Here are some of the things that I learned that surprised and fascinated me:
- THE NATIVE AMERICANS: The camp Custer was attacking included nearly 10,000 Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho which were mostly non-combatants (old men, women and children) but included over two thousand warriors. These tribes and others were gathering for their annual Sun Dance ritual, one of the largest gatherings ever to celebrate this important Native American religious event.
- CUSTER’S ARMY; Total of only about 600 or so men. Forty-five percent were born outside the United States. During the battle they were up against thousands of Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho warriors protecting their families and loved ones.
- CUSTER’S INDIANS. Custer had a small contingent of Arakawa Sioux and Crow Indians serving as scouts for him. They were sworn enemies of the Lakota Sioux led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Several of these scouts were killed in the battle but a number survived. They recognized that Custer was making a suicidal mistake in attacking such a large force, and deciding not to be part of it.
- GENERAL CUSTER I had always believed Custer was simply an arrogant, vain, and overly confident glory-hound, who got his just desserts. Though I do still believe that, I’ve learned that he was also fearless, aggressive and relentless fighter and leader. Little Big Horn was the last of many battles Custer fought – some say over a hundred in the Civil War, and supposedly, it was his modus operandi to aggressively charge the enemy against the odds and win, by surprise, speed, and violence of action (my Navy SEAL readers will recognize that phrase.) He did that again and again and had always succeeded, including against JEB Stuart at Gettysburg. He had had 11 horses shot out from under him.
- Custer was awarded the Medal of Honor in the Civil War, as was his brother Tom Custer, who died by his side at Little Big Horn. George Armstrong Custer was regarded as one of the boldest and most successful young Generals of the Union Army, though President Grant didn’t like him at all. At Little Big Horn, Custer was simply using the bold tactic against the Sioux which had worked for him so many times before.
- SITTING BULL – Sitting Bull was the recognized leader of the very large contingent of Lakota and other Sioux tribes, the Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho who were gathered to celebrate the Sun Dance. He was 45 years old on the day of the battle, considered too old to fight, but not to lead. Sitting Bull had had a vision that predicted a great victory prior to the battle – and the Sioux had just a couple of weeks earlier dealt General Crook and his forces a major defeat at the battle of Rosebud. Sitting Bull was sad after the great victory at Little Big Horn, knowing that the whites would retaliate viciously, and his people would suffer badly. As his warriors charged into the cavalry, Sitting Bull was yelling “Hoka Hey” – “it’s a good day to die.”
- WHAT PRECIPITATED THE BATTLE. The Sioux had agreed to a treaty that gave them essentially sovereign rights to their reservation in the Black Hills of Dakota. When a group of prospectors went into the reservation and discovered gold, white settlers seeking gold flooded their territory, and the US Army did little about it. The Sioux realized the treaty was not being taken seriously by the whites, so they felt no obligation to follow it themselves, and left South Dakota and entered areas that were supposed to be off limits to them. Custer was part of a larger force sent to engage and defeat them and force them back onto their reservation.
- THE BATTLE , JUNE 25, 1876. The battle was complicated, and I offer a few more details at the bottom of his post, for those interested. But in summary:
- On the morning of the attack, Custer divided his assault force into 3 groups, one led by Custer himself with 5 companies, one led by Maj Reno with 3 companies, and one led by Capt Banteen with 3 companies – each to assault the Indian village from different directions. Maj Reno’s group initiated the attack, ran into a buzz-saw and retreated in a rout. Capt Banteen eventually joined Reno, where together they formed a defensive perimeter, and were under constant attack, which only lessened when many of the warriors left to join the attack on Custer.
- Custer’s own force attacked separately, was quickly overwhelmed, and forced to retreat, and fought a rear guard battle until the few who were left were all killed. Reno and Banteen were 4 miles away, surrounded and trying to survive, with no contact with Custer. They did not learn of his fate until two days later. The US forces lost approximately 270 men that day, but over 300 men of Custer’s force did survive the battle, though none survived who were with Custer on the battlefield. The Native Americans lost somewhere in the range of 40-60 (figures vary), including 10-20 women and children.
- After Custer’s contingent was wiped out, the young warriors wanted to annihilate Reno’s and Banteen’s companies and finish the job, but Sitting Bull said no, saying that those men were only trying to survive, the great battle was won, and it wasn’t worth losing any more of his warriors to kill the remaining soldiers.
- CUSTER’S DEATH. There is a mythic image of “Custer’s last stand,” with General Custer standing on the hilltop, holding the American flag, dead soldiers all around him, and the hated Indians charging in for the kill. In Custer’s Fall, the Sioux who were interviewed were pretty sure that Custer was shot, and either severely wounded or killed leading the charge in his initial attack on their village. They claimed that his men halted the charge to keep him on his horse and take care of him – which may partially explain why his initial attack faltered. The Sioux did not know it was Custer or “long hair” as they called him, when they shot him, until they found him among the dead after the battle, and one of the Sioux believed he recognized him as one he had shot and seen killed or wounded in the initial attack.
- Apparently Custer’s troops carried him (wounded or dead) on horseback, in their retreat all the way back up to Last Stand hill, where eventually those who were still alive were all killed. His was one of the few bodies that was not mutilated. He had a bullet in the chest and the head, which led some to believe he committed suicide (the Sioux won’t scalp/mutilate a suicide death – no honor there) but most don’t believe Custer committed suicide. It is well known however that at the end, when the outcome of the battle was clear, some of the soldiers did commit suicide rather than be captured and tortured by the Sioux.
- THE BATTLEFIELD The Little Big Horn battlefield is much larger than I expected – 4+ miles from end to end, with tombstones scattered throughout, at the various skirmish sites were soldiers stopped to defend themselves as they were being over-run by the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. The tombstones are all over the hill sides, representing spots where there is evidence that soldiers and Native Americans fell in the battle. The spot of “Custer’s Last Stand” – where at the end of the battle, those of Custer’s men still alive fell, is on top of a hill about a quarter mile from the Battlefield entrance and visitor’s center.
- INDIAN MEMORIAL AT THE BATTLEFIELD This is one of the most impressive parts of the visit – the memorial that is dedicated to the Native Americans who fought and died at Little Big Horn. In 1991, the National Park Service acknowledged that the battlefield has a duel identity – honoring both sides in the conflict. The Indian Memorial was finally completed and dedicated in 2014, and is a circular wall, the interior of which is engraved with stages of the battle and perspectives of the Native Americans, honoring them and their sacrifices for fighting for their own freedom and to defend their families. It served as a big step toward building and sustaining the mutual respect between Western Culture Americans and the Native Americans
- THE AFTERMATH In 1876, Custer’s loss at the Little Big Horn shocked the nation. America was experiencing an economic depression, but was also in the midst of celebrating the American centennial, while holding a Presidential election. The nation believed they had the Indian problem pretty much under control, and then to have a Cavalry force led by one of America’s best generals wiped out, was a blow. Custer was made into a martyr and a national hero.
- Sitting Bull, anticipating severe retribution against his people, led them into Canada where they stayed for nearly 6 years. Later, he returned to US territory to live on a reservation, became friends with Buffalo Bill Cody and travelled with his Wild West Show for a number of years, then returned to the Standing Rock Agency where Lakota Sioux were staying. When in 1890 there was an untrue rumor of another Indian uprising, police were sent to arrest Siting Bull, and in the process they shot and killed him. Several days later, American soldiers attacked a Lakota Sioux village in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and killed between 250 and 300 Native American men, women and children at what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.
BOOKS and OTHER RESOURCES
Custer’s Fall This is a really great book on the battle, based largely on the interviews with the surviving Native Americans years after the battle. In the 1930s and 1940s the author considered himself a friend and adopted son of the Sioux. Over years of contact he earned their trust, and got the usually taciturn and distrusting older warriors to share their stories. He also consulted separate sources and provides a good overview of what happened. The book was first published in 1957 and includes several pages of the names of the informants he interviewed. Mary Anne and I both read and really enjoyed this book.
Custer’s Scouts This book is not as useful as Custer’s Fall – in that it is simply transcripts of interviews with the Warriors who fought with Custer. It is interesting as a back-up source, but much of what I found interesting in this book was also included in Custer’s Fall.
Where Custer Fell details the 140 year long study of the battle and the battlefield, and ongoing attempts to reconstruct what happened, where individual soldiers and Indians fell. It is a fascinating look at years of archeological and forensic studying of evidence to support various theories of what happened during various phases of the battle, and in what sequence. Obviously, no soldiers from Custer’s contingent survived, but many of the native Americans did, and their stories are well documented. The battlefield continues to be combed, and new evidence of different aspects of the battle and different skirmishes during the battle continues to turn up.
This book will be interesting primarily to the serious student of the battle, but not to the general reader. Many pictures of the battlefield taken in the 19th century and with surviving Native Americans who were helping historians reconstruct the battle.
THREE BOOKS I HAVE NOT READ, EACH OF WHICH LOOKS GREAT and about which I’ve heard nothing but good things, on the Life and Times of Custer, Sitting Bull, and the events leading up to and during the Battle at Little Big Horn. I look forward to reading one or two of these.
- SOME MORE DETAILS ON THE BATTLE (for those interested) As Custer approached the Indian village, the Sioux and Cheyenne were not caught completely by surprise as Custer had hoped, but he did get the jump on them. As they approached the Indian camp, Custer had split his assault force into three parts: He directed Maj Reno’s with his 3 companies to initiate the charge into the Indian village; Custer directed Capt Banteen and his 3 companies to recce and secure the southern flank, and cut off an Indian retreat; one company under Capt Thomas McDougall was assigned to escort the slower pack train of supplies and baggage force following in the rear. And Custer kept five companies with himself as the main assault force.
- When Custer directed Maj Reno to lead the charge, he told him that he’d be right behind him to support him. But after Reno broke off from Custer to initiate the assault into the Indian village, Custer decided to break off to the north to execute a flanking movement and attack from the north. When Reno’s attack faltered against overwhelming force and he began their retreat, Reno was expecting Custer’s help, butCuster was a mile away over a hill. Reno’s forces were routed, he took many casualties, and retreated to a defensive perimeter, where he was barely holding on.
- When Capt Banteen found nothing on the southern flank and heard firing, he moved his force to the sound of the guns, and found Reno and his forces in their hasty perimeter fighting for their lives. Though Custer had directed Banteen to bring his men forward to him after his recce, Reno begged Banteen to stay with him, and seeing the desperate situation Reno’s forces were in, chose to stay and reinforce them. They might well have been wiped out as well, but the Sioux and Cheyenne warriors surrounding them realized there was another battle going on back near their camp – which was Custer’s separate attack. Many of those attacking Reno broke off to join in the routing of Custer’s five companies.
- Custer’s separate attack faltered almost immediately, facing an onslaught of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Custer’s forces almost immediately lost the initiative, were on the defensive and retreating for the rest of the battle. When it was over, Custer and all his men were dead, and Major Reno and Capt Banteen were surrounded in a defensive position on a hill about 4 miles away. All of that took about 2 hours.