History for the Rest of Us

Battle of Little Bighorn

Battle of Little Bighorn

Jun 26, 2012

The Battle of Little Bighorn (Custer’s Last Stand, or the Battle of the Greasy Grass) took place on June 25-26, 1876. The battle was the most famous of the Great Sioux War of 1876. Over 250 U.S. soldiers died in the battle and 55 were injured.

Premonition’s of Sitting Bull
In 1875 Sitting Bull, a Lakota Sioux holy man, entered camp with a brilliantly painted horse given him by the Cheyenne holy man White Bull, and said, “The Great Spirit has given our enemies to us. We are to destroy them. We do not know who they are. They may be soldiers.” The following year, after emerging from a trance induced by self-torture, he would have a second vision in which he saw soldiers falling into his camp like grasshoppers from the sky.

Sitting Bull

Tribal Chief and Lakota Sioux Holy Man Sitting Bull

Conflicting Interests
The Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne Indians had formed an alliance and defiantly left their reservations in protest of the continued intrusions of the white men into the Black Hills. Wishing to force the Indians back to their reservations, the U.S. Army devised an approach with three columns converging on June 26th or 27th somewhere near the Bighorn and Little Bighorn rivers where the Indian encampments were most likely to be.

Battle Plans
The plans began to unravel when Brigadier General George Crook’s column was defeated in the Battle of Rosebud and were forced to regroup. Unaware of that battle, the other two columns continued forward with their part of the plan. Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer was to begin a reconnaissance and pursuit along the Rosebud River, and he was given the prerogative to ‘depart’ from orders if there was ‘sufficient reason’. Custer’s scouts reported seeing an extensive herd of ponies and signs of a village on the morning of June 25th. Custer considered making a surprise attack the following day, but after receiving a report that hostile Indians had discovered the trail of his troops, he was fearful of losing the element of surprise. Custer determined that an attack on the village needed to be made without delay. Custer divided the 31 officers and 566 enlisted men under his command into three battalions. One was led by Major Marcus Reno, one by Captain Frederick Benteen, and the third was under Custer’s direct command. The Battalions commenced their approach at noon on the 25th.

Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer

Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer

Battle of Little Bighorn Day One
The original plan was to attack the Indians from the north and south simultaneously, but more difficult terrain delayed Custer’s men, and Reno’s men would attack first. Crossing the Little Bighorn River at about 3:00 pm, they quickly discovered that the Indians were ‘in force and not running away’. The Indians set fire to the brush in an attempt to drive Reno’s soldiers out of their positions. After a brief skirmish, and seeing he was outnumbered nearly five to one, Reno told his men, ‘those who wish to make their escape, follow me”. Three officers and 29 troopers were killed during the retreat and crossing of the river. Reno’s men arrived at the top of the bluffs east of the river and were reinforced by Captain Benteen’s column, saving them from complete destruction. Benteen continued to support Reno’s badly wounded troops notwithstanding the sound of heavy gunfire to the north. At approximately 4:00 p.m. Captain Thomas Weir and Company D moved, against orders, to go to the aid of Custer. After reaching Wier Point, they could see a large group of Indians on horseback shooting at objects on the ground at ‘Last Stand Hill’. Most likely they were witnessing the killing of wounded soldiers and shooting at the dead bodies of Custer’s men, none of whom survived. Evidence from the sight led soldiers to believe that Custer and his men, though outnumbered significantly, made a valiant effort to protect themselves by killing their horses to make a wall behind which they could protect themselves from the onslaught. Custer was found with wounds in the arm, left chest, and left temple. The chest wound appeared to have been the fatal wound, since there wasn’t evidence of bleeding from the shot to the temple. Indian oral tradition consists of conflicting stories, some indicating that Custer committed suicide along with many of his soldiers, and other traditions crediting Buffalo Calf Road Woman with the fatal blow. Many rule out the suicide stories since the evidence appeared to conflict with the right-handedness of Custer.

Battle of Little Bighorn Day Two
The Indians regrouped after defeating Custer to focus their attention on Reno and Benteen. Fighting continued until dark on June 25, and for most of the following day. When General Terry’s column finally approached from the north on June 26, the Indians fled in the opposite direction, and the Battle of Little Bighorn would be over.

Great Sioux War Ends
In October 1876 General Nelson A. Miles took command of the effort to force the remaining free Indians on to reservations. Sitting Bull escaped to Canada in May of the following year and Crazy Horse surrendered shortly afterward. General Miles’ defeated a band of Miniconjou Sioux on May 7 1877 and the Great Sioux War was over.