- The Battle of the Little Big Horn 25-26 June 1876 by Geoff Topliss
The Great Sioux War of 1876-1877 was a war of aggression. The engagement immortalised in public memory as Custer’s Last Stand, itself an element of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, was but one sanguinary and retrospectively iconic part of it. The United States Government’s objective in the campaign of 1876 was to drive ‘hostile Indians,’ factions of the Lakota-Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes, onto the reservations they had been granted by treaty. Originally conceived as a winter campaign, it finally began late in the spring when three columns of the United States Army took to the field.
A column under Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry left Fort Abraham Lincoln on the Missouri River, heading west on the 17th of May. It was comprised of all twelve companies of the 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, (universally known by his brevet rank as ‘General’), six companies of infantry and a battery of Gatling guns. A second column under Brigadier General George Crook followed suit on 29 May, heading north from Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory, with 15 companies of cavalry and five of infantry. The third expeditionary force, the Montana column commanded by Colonel John Gibbon and comprising of four companies of cavalry and six of infantry, was also already in the field.
The overall plan was for the three columns to converge on the Yellowstone River, the area where it was believed the hostiles would be located; beyond that convergence, the plan, like the river, was fluid. Each of the three expeditionary forces was deemed large enough to defeat the ‘enemy’ if they were ‘caught’: the campaign was viewed by the Army as a policing exercise and the language of military authority reflected that it was not a war per se and the ‘hostiles’ were criminals who would be apprehended. Gibbon was under Terry’s command, but Crook and Terry, both general officers of equal rank, were independent of each other.
On 17 June 1876, Crook’s column was checked by hostile warriors at the Battle of the Rosebud and neutralised as a fighting force. Contrary to the US Army’s expectations, Crook did not ‘catch’ the Indians; instead they came out and attacked him. In the ensuing engagement Crook’s men expended around 25,000 rounds of ammunition to inflict an estimated 100 hostile casualties. It was not a good omen.
Four days later and ignorant of Crook’s repulse, Terry and Gibbon met on the south bank of the Yellowstone River at the mouth of Rosebud Creek, where Terry’s column was encamped. That afternoon, on board the paddle steamer Far West, Terry assembled his subordinate commanders; Gibbon and Custer included, and explained his plan.
It was based on the best intelligence available, which had established that the hostiles had by then left the area of the lower Rosebud Valley and would be found between the Rosebud and Big Horn rivers and more than likely on the Little Big Horn River. Terry envisaged the two columns of his command striking the hostiles’ encampment in a pincer movement. Custer, with the 7th Cavalry, would advance up the valley of the Rosebud, whilst Gibbon’s Montana column, accompanied by Terry and his staff, would advance up the Big Horn. The two forces would then converge on the valley of the Little Big Horn, ensnaring the hostiles between them.
Terry’s only requirement of Custer was that he should not arrive at what he initially incorrectly called the ‘Little Horn’ too early, that is to say before Gibbon’s column arrived at the confluence of the Big Horn and Little Big Horn Rivers, sealing of the hostiles’ avenue of escape in that direction. Terry’s orders to Custer were couched in the words of the lawyer he’d once been. By inference, and by necessity, Custer was being given a free hand, but if things went wrong, the fault would be his.
The 7th Cavalry moved out at noon on 22 June, with rations for 15 days, twelve pounds of oats for each horse on the regimental strength, 150 rounds for each trooper’s single-shot Springfield carbine and 24 rounds of Colt .45 pistol ammunition per man. The regiment had left their sabres behind at the Powder River Depot and if the Seventh were to fight, it would do so as mounted infantry, not as cavalry. So equipped, Custer and his regiment headed up the valley of the Rosebud and soon struck a large hostile lodge-pole trail that they would follow for the next two days.
On their first night out from the Yellowstone, Custer briefed his officers that the regiment might encounter as many as fifteen hundred Indian warriors. Including attached civilians, Custer had just over six hundred men. The General, as he also explained to his officers that night, felt so confident enough of the abilities of his 7th Cavalry, as to have refused the offer Terry had made at the conference on the Far West of an additional four companies of cavalry and a Gatling gun. Most experts now believe that the number of warriors the 7th Cavalry actually faced was a minimum of 2,000.
By 24 June, all the signs indicated that the 7th Cavalry was closing on the enemy. That evening Crow scouts reported to Custer that the trail they were following led over the divide that separated the valley of the Rosebud from that of the Little Big Horn. Custer assembled his officers, in the dark of that night, just after 9.30 p.m. He told them the march already planned for 11.30 p.m. would be brought forward. They would move out at once, heading for the divide, and the valley of the Little Big Horn that lay beyond it.
Custer’s objective was to get the regiment as near to the divide as possible before daylight. Once there, they would hole up in a place of concealment during the course of the next day, whilst the scouts located the exact position of the hostile village in preparation for an attack at dawn on 26 June. The plan Custer had in mind would mean that the Indians would be caught literally napping. If the regiment was effectively deployed the only place the hostiles could have ‘scattered’ to would have been into the welcoming embrace of Gibbon’s column who, accompanied by Terry and his staff, should by then have been in position.
The night march ended just before sunrise, on the morning of 25 June, and the Seventh went into concealment in some timber. Further ahead, on the divide between the Rosebud and Little Big Horn rivers, lay Custer’s Chief of Scouts, 2nd Lt. Charles Varnum and a party of Arikara and Crow auxiliaries. In the cold light of dawn the Crow, who knew the area, told Varnum that they could see an enormous Indian village some twelve to fifteen miles distant and its massive pony herd. The Lieutenant despatched a written message to Custer at 5 a.m., telling him that the hostiles had been found.
Custer received the news at around 7.30 a.m. and thirty minutes later the regiment moved out, heading for the divide. About two miles from the summit Custer left the regiment, concealed in a ravine and set off to find Varnum and spy out what lay in the valley of the Little Big Horn for himself. The General’s personal reconnaissance mission ended in failure; even with the aid of binoculars he could see nothing of the Indian village. He did, however, receive some alarming information from Varnum. The scouts had seen two separate parties of hostiles heading towards the divide from the valley of the Little Big Horn, who they believed must have seen the dust cloud the regiment had kicked up whilst advancing to the ravine.
The Crow scouts urged Custer to act quickly, and to strike out and over the divide whilst some element of surprise still remained. After scanning the topography once more, Custer finally concurred and then led the way back to the regiment. More bad news awaited him. A five-man detail looking for gear lost on the night march had encountered three hostiles, who had swiftly disappeared into the hills. Then the civilian scout, George Herendeen, who had been patrolling around the ravine where the regiment lay concealed, brought some equally disturbing news. He had seen two Indians not far from the column, who also had fled.
Custer immediately assembled his officers and told them that as the presence of the regiment was known to the hostiles, they would have to attack at once. He also instructed each company commander to inspect their troops and to detail men to the packs. The first officer to report back to him would be given the advance and the last the rearguard.
The detailing of men from each company to the pack train refers to the NCO and approximately six men, from each of the regiment’s 12 companies, who would now be assigned to Lt. Mathey, in charge of the pack train and the half-dozen or so citizen mule packers… The pack train was also joined by a ragtag assortment of headquarters detail personnel, mostly soldier-servants, or strikers, leading the spare horses.
Captain Thomas McDougall, commanding Company B, was the last officer to report back to Custer and consequently his company was detailed to ride with the pack train as rearguard. Over 150 men were now consigned to lag far behind the rest of the regiment, at a rate of advance set by the mules’ top speed of around three miles an hour. On 25 June 1876, not far short of 25% of Custer’s entire command would be swallowed up by his slow moving supply train of between 165-185 mules, each laden with c. 300lb loads, the twelve strongest of which carried the regiment’s reserve ammunition supply.
The command pulled out of the ravine well before midday and headed west in column of fours, following the lodge-pole trail that led to the divide. The scouts were already ranging ahead. Their instructions, once the village had been sighted, were to steal as many of the Indian ponies as they could; the scouts were not expected to fight, that was the soldiers’ job. The column crossed the divide and headed downhill, following an Indian trail alongside a creek.
The series of engagements that subsequently ensued, collectively known as the Battle of the Little Big Horn, unfolded in three distinct but related actions: Reno’s valley fight, the Custer fight, or Custer’s Last Stand, and the two-day siege of Reno Hill, known as the hilltop fight.
Custer’s plan would appear to have been to ensure that any escape routes for the hostiles to the west, the south or the east were sealed off. If they were successful in fleeing to the north, they would run into Gibbon’s column, which accompanied by Terry, and as per the agreed plan, would be in place with a four-gun Gatling battery to meet them. In anticipation of that he had assigned 11 of the regiment’s 12 companies into four battalions around the time the regiment had crossed the divide a little before noon. Captain Frederick Benteen had then been immediately ordered to take a three-company battalion to a line of bluffs, three or four miles distant; his objective being to intercept any of the hostiles who, having become aware of the Army’s presence, it was feared would have already started ‘scattering’ up the valley of the Little Big Horn to the west. If this were the case, Benteen was ordered to ‘pitch into them,’ and drive them back towards the village that the rest of the regiment would by then be engaging. If Benteen found no hostiles, he was to return to the Indian trail and link up with the regiment.
After Benteen had set off, Custer’s column, which comprised the battalions assigned to captains Myles Keogh and George Yates, accompanied by the three-company battalion assigned to Major Marcus Reno, continued along the Indian trail; the two columns riding in parallel whilst the regiment’s pack train, and McDougall’s rearguard, quickly fell further away behind them.
As Custer and Reno’s battalions reached a point two to three miles from the Indian village, where a tributary camp had until very recently stood (now known as the Lone Tepee) Custer put in place his plan for sealing off the south of the village. It was a simple one, Reno and his battalion would charge straight into it.
If the hostiles hadn’t already scattered, that, as Custer knew, would draw the attention of the village’s warriors, who would attempt to hold Reno at bay whilst their women and children fled away to the north. Custer with two battalions would swing northeast, one battalion cutting into the Indian village to strike the hostile warriors in the rear, in effect sandwiching them against Reno’s battalion to their front.
Custer’s other battalion would take hostage as many of the Indian women and children fleeing northwards, as possible. Terry would ultimately take the rest. A similar approach had won the day for Custer at the battle of the Washita seven years earlier. The taking of hostages would have neutralized the warriors, allowing the Seventh to secure the bulk of the hostiles until Terry and Gibbon arrived at which point the hostiles would have been forced onto the reservations. The campaign’s objective would then have been achieved, and much praise heaped on Custer and his regiment.
At the Lone Tepee, Custer gave the order for Reno’s battalion to advance towards the hostile village, promising that the rest of the regiment would support them. Reno and his battalion subsequently moved out at a trot, accompanied by most of the regiment’s Indian scouts, en route for their pony-stealing mission. It was around 2.15, on a boiling hot, Sunday afternoon.
Reno pushed his battalion forward. The scouts, riding ahead, arrived at a natural ford on the Little Big Horn first and had just finished watering their ponies when the rest of the battalion arrived. The Arikara and Crow crossed the stream and continued with the advance as the cavalrymen paused to water their horses. It was at this point that the interpreter Gerard and the scout George Herendeen, who had both crossed over the river, heard reports from some of the scouts that the enemy, in large numbers, were moving up to meet Reno. Gerard crossed back over the river, so as to appraise Custer himself of this, but ultimately relayed the message to the General’s adjutant, Lt. William Cooke, who had accompanied Reno’s battalion to the river.
Reno’s battalion had by then crossed over the Little Big Horn and had begun to advance down the valley, towards the massive Indian village that lay approximately two miles further on. The valley bottom the battalion was riding down was filled with clouds of fine, white dust kicked up by Indian pony hooves, through which hostiles could be seen, who soon opened up a long-range fire on the soldiers. More and more Indians quickly appeared pouring across Reno’s front and moving towards the bluffs to the left of his battalion. Contrary to his orders, the major, concerned and alarmed, halted his three companies and gave the order to prepare to fight on foot.
The decision immediately reduced the carbine strength of his command by 25%, as one man in every four acted as a horse-holder when cavalry fought dismounted, who fell back to a patch of timber to the rear of Reno’s skirmish line with the led horses. Halting the advance and dismounting his men lost Reno the psychological advantage his mounted, menacing and rapidly advancing battalion of cavalry had possessed. The three companies formed a skirmish line, one deep and at intervals and initially advanced for a 100 yards or so towards the Indian village, before falling back to the shelter of the timber where the horses had been placed. The fight in the valley lasted for a matter of minutes, half an hour at the most. In the course of the engagement many of the officers and men of Reno’s battalion clearly saw Custer’s command moving to the north on the bluffs to the east of the Little Big Horn River.
Reno’s subsequent retreat from the valley, rapidly turned into a near rout, led by the major himself, in which the wounded were abandoned to their fate and no rearguard organised. Those of the battalion who managed to find a horse headed for the high ground on the other side of the river. Reno lost over 30 men killed in the withdrawal and so many others were left behind to fend for themselves in the timber that his command had taken fifty per cent casualties, killed, wounded or missing in action by the time his ‘charge to rear’ finally ended. By then Reno’s battalion was effectively destroyed as a fighting force.
The retreat terminated on the bluffs, near the current Reno-Benteen Defense Site, where the survivors were quickly joined by Benteen, who had abandoned his scouting mission, and rejoined the trail just above the Lone Tepee. As Benteen’s battalion had advanced towards the river, two separate messengers, despatched from Custer’s headquarters detail, had met it in rapid succession. Each bore a similar message, although only the second and final message had been jotted down on a piece of paper, hurriedly torn from Cooke’s pocket book, which reads:
- ‘Benteen Come on, Big village be quick bring pack W W, Cooke ps bring pacs.’
The precise meaning of the message continues to be much debated. Was Benteen, the third senior officer present in the field with the 7th Cavalry that day being instructed to race his three companies and the 12 mules carrying the entire regiment’s reserve ammunition supply to Custer? The answer to that question remains uncertain but in any event Benteen, a man who openly despised his commanding officer, made no attempt to comply with the order and later excused his apparent dereliction of duty in ignoring it by stating he believed that Custer and his command with him were already dead by the time the written message was received.
When the two battalions linked up, Benteen presented the note scribbled down by Cooke to Reno, the senior officer present, and by doing so also handed the decision of how to act on it. By all accounts Reno was at that point at best shocked by the galling punishment his battalion had received in the valley. Many would later add that the major was also ‘worse for drink.’ Reno at first appeared to rally himself a little and sent Lt. Luther Hare back to the pack train with orders to rush forward two of the very same ammunition mules that Custer’s final message may have been ordering up to join his command.
At roughly the same time, firing was heard, coming from downriver and most surmised it was from Custer’s command who were being engaged; everyone that is apart from Reno and Benteen, who would later state under oath that they had heard no such gunfire. Reno became seemingly obsessed with recovering the body of his adjutant, Lt. Benjamin Hodgson from the valley where he’d been killed in the retreat. Even after the pack train and McDougall had joined up with Reno and Benteen, no effort was made to advance towards the sound of gunfire for over thirty minutes.
Captain Thomas Weir, appalled at the inaction and acting ‘on his own hook,’ led his Company D out towards the sound of the firing approximately 35 minutes after he had arrived to link up with Reno as part of Benteen’s battalion. Weir’s act would ultimately force Reno’s hand and Companies H, K and M were finally ordered forward to follow Weir’s line of advance. The three companies made contact with Weir’s Company D on a high point (which may have been the feature now known as Weir Point) along the bluffs heading towards Custer, with the rest of Reno’s by then enlarged command struggling along behind them, but only for half a mile or so.
By the time the other companies had began to link up with Weir, the Captain in question and many others of his company had already made out figures in the far distance, who Weir at first had assumed to be elements of Custer’s command conducting a rear guard action. It was only a second examination of the scene using field glasses that revealed the truth that the horsemen in question were in fact hostiles, some carrying 7th Cavalry guidons, and others firing down from the saddle at objects lying on the ground. Weir had in fact just observed the end of part of Custer’s command.
The units on Weir Point were ordered back from, or abandoned, their positions after the massive Indian host that had just eliminated the men with Custer advanced rapidly towards them. The withdrawal, which could quite easily have turned into the second rout of the day, was only prevented from becoming a disaster by the prompt action of Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey, who on his own authority, dismounted his Company K and covered the retreat. Reno’s command took up the best defensive position they could find, the last soldiers arriving only minutes before the enormous force of hostiles.
Reno’s defensive lines were formed roughly in the shape of a horseshoe, with the open-end facing upriver. The intense fire the Indians poured down on the cavalrymen lasted from around 6 or 7 p.m. until sunset during which period eleven more soldiers were killed and others wounded. A field- hospital was set up in a swale, and the horses and mules positioned at its open side to give the wounded a degree of protection. After darkness fell most of the men worked on the defences; some dug rifle-pits; others dragged packs, boxes and dead animals up to form barricades.
The following morning, 26 June, the battle re-commenced at sunrise. The troopers were under constant long-range fire, particularly Benteen’s Company H who incurred the most casualties and who had made no attempt to improve their positions overnight. Hostiles at one point appeared to be massing in front of Benteen’s lines in preparation for an assault, only to be driven back by a charge that cleared them from the knolls and ravines that led down to the river. This helped to clear a route for small groups of volunteers to later make their way, under fire, down to the Little Big Horn to fetch water for the wounded.
That afternoon, with the regiment’s entire reserve of ammunition all but expended, the massive Indian village that lay below the survivors of the 7th Cavalry began to pack up and to withdraw, heading upstream. The siege of Reno’s hill had finally ended. The Seventh shifted its positions that night and watered its horses and mules for the first time in days. As the men worked, there was but one topic of conversation on many of their lips. Where was Custer?
The next morning, 27 June 1876, the reason for the hostiles’ sudden withdrawal became clear when an outrider from the Montana column heralded the arrival of Terry with Gibbon’s column at the 7th Cavalry’s lines. They had camped two miles downstream from the site of the Indian village the night before. Early on the morning of the 27th a patrol of the 7th Infantry, mounted on mules, had discovered the bodies of 197 US soldiers on the hills to the east, stripped, mutilated and already bloated by the sun. Even after the news had been relayed to the Seventh’s surviving officers, Benteen, for one, found it hard to believe, or so it was reported.
Approximately 208 of the bodies of Custer’s command were given a hurried burial the following day by men of their own regiment. The dead of Reno’s valley fight were interred where they had fallen and those whose lives had ended during the two-day siege were buried on the bluffs; some in the rifle pits the men had dug out on the night of 25 June. All told the 7th Cavalry and its supporting civilian personnel lost 268 men killed or died of wounds received at the Little Big Horn, with a further 62 being wounded, a casualty rate of over 50% of those of the regiment who were present.
The news shocked the whole nation. It also ensured that the debate that had begun amongst the 7th Cavalry on the night of 25 June 1876 would continue to the present day. What actually did happen to Custer and the men of his command? The answer to that question is to a certain extent unknown.
After Frederick Gerard conveyed his message that the Indians were advancing to meet Reno’s battalion to Custer’s adjutant, W.W. Cooke, two subsequent messages to the same effect were also despatched from Reno to Custer. The huge cloud of dust in the valley below the General would have added impetus to the warnings. It would also have alerted Custer to the fact that the hostile non-combatants were fleeing to the north. The time for his planned flanking manoeuvre to get to the women and children and, at the same time, place the warriors between him and Reno must have seemed right and ready for the taking. Custer and the two battalions with him immediately headed north.
The last soldiers to see the men of his command alive were, according to some accounts, the two messengers sent to Benteen. Sergeant Daniel Kanipe, who was allegedly sent back when Custer first reached a bluff overlooking the river and Trumpeter John Martin, whose point of departure from the command is disputed. Some locate it in Cedar Coulee and others at the junction of Custer’s northward approach and Medicine Tail Coulee. Did Custer’s command move along the bluffs next to the river or behind Sharpshooter’s Ridge, a prominence north of the future Reno-Benteen Defense Site? Similarly, did Custer personally travel to Weir Point, the piece of high ground nearest to the river, or were some of the scouts who accompanied his column despatched there instead?
The location of the dead of the battalions with Custer and archaeological evidence provide some clues. Passing Sharpshooter’s Ridge and proceeding down Cedar Coulee, Custer and his men arrived and halted at the junction of Cedar and South Medicine Tail Coulees. One part of Custer’s command, probably Keogh’s battalion, with three companies, moved north and occupied areas of what is now known as Nye- Cartwright Ridge. This ridge divides South Medicine Tail Coulee and North Medicine Tail Coulee, sometimes called Deep Coulee. The latter is the deep ravine at the base of the ridge and runs from Calhoun Hill toward the Little Big Horn to where it joins the mouth of South Medicine Tail Coulee. Cartridge casing finds clearly indicate troops firing from that point, and any theory of how the Custer fight unfolded must factor that in.
One version of events has the second part of Custer’s command, probably Yates’ battalion with two companies, advanced down Medicine Tail Coulee, where it was either met by overwhelming force and driven to Battle Ridge, or fell back after hearing the gunfire from Keogh’s battalion on Nye-Cartwright Ridge. The two battalions reunited near Battle Ridge, continued north into the present area of the national cemetery, and were finally driven back to Battle Ridge. On the ridge, Lt. Calhoun with Company L was positioned in an area on the south end of the ridge (now called Calhoun Hill) where the men of the company fell in skirmish line formation. The bodies of Keogh and many soldiers of Company I were found on the eastern slope of the Ridge “in a bunch” which ties in with Indian accounts.
This theory further places Companies E and C in skirmish line below the Last Stand area and Company F with Custer and his headquarters detail on Last Stand Hill. The markers below the Calhoun position allegedly represent troopers shot down, or cut off, as the battalion made its way to its final destruction.
Another theory has Yates’ battalion reconnoitring the ford at the mouth of Medicine Tail Coulee whilst Keogh’s battalion took up a position on Nye-Cartwright Ridge, waiting for Benteen to come up with the packs. Both commands then reunited on Calhoun Hill. From there Yates’ battalion moved northward as far as the flat land north and west of the Battle Ridge while Keogh’s battalion remained on Calhoun Hill to await the arrival of Benteen and to cover the Medicine Tail approaches. These two battalions were then separately engaged by large numbers of hostiles. Keogh’s battalion falling first: Company C on the lower slopes of the ridge in the Greasy Grass Ridge area; Company L on Calhoun Hill; and Company I on the eastern slope where it had been held in reserve. Yates’s battalion with Custer made it to the Last Stand position, before succumbing to the over-powering firepower of the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. Modifications on, and combinations of, both theories also exist.
Archaeological studies conducted on the battlefield make it clear that the Sioux and Cheyenne possessed far more firearms than for many years was thought to be the case. The cartridge casings found also demonstrate that the hostiles had a far larger number of state of the art repeating rifles than once considered likely. These casings also indicate that the flow of battle moved from the Calhoun position to the Last Stand area. Furthermore, the Indians would have quickly acquired even more firearms as carbines and pistols were taken from dead cavalrymen.
Custer’s command went down out-gunned, massively out-numbered and finally out-manoeuvred; un-supported and abandoned by the rest of the regiment, but according to some, within minutes of taking the hostile women and children fleeing to the north hostage and securing a victory. Custer has, and continues, to be damned by some as a vainglorious fool and the architect of the spectacular defeat. Others place the blame for what the press initially dubbed the Custer Massacre on the shoulders of Reno, or Benteen, or both of them, whilst some aim higher and blame the United States Government and its generals.
Somewhere within this heady mix of emotive and variable theories and factors lies the truth.