George Armstrong Custer, U.S. Army major gener...

Lt. Col. George Custer with his long hair  Photo by Wikipedia

This is the last posting related to the recent Western Swing that Patti and I made through some Western states in April and May.

I saved this one for last because I have been fascinated with the Custer myth and the westward expansion through the Plains since I was a child. Plus, there is just something about the death of this mythic character that continues to stir the imagination generation after generation. While I will not attempt to regale you with the entire story here (there are scores and scores of detailed books on the subject that are much better than this posting), I will try to cover some of the background that set up this battle, some little-known facts about the battle and some little-known facts that have arisen over the years about the battle.

If this short piece teases you enough to want to read more, I will share some titles of the books that are notably known for telling the Custer story.

The clash of cultures

The stage was set for the Battle of the Little Bighorn centuries earlier with the burgeoning arrival of the first Europeans to North America. The contact between Indian and Euro-American cultures continued relentlessly, sometimes around the campfire, sometimes at treaty grounds, but more often around battlefields. This contact reached its peak following the Civil War when settlers resumed a vigorous westward movement. These westward emigrants had little or no knowledge of the Indian way of life, showed very slight regard for the sanctity of hunting grounds or the terms of existing treaties. Indian resistance to this westward expansion, or manifest destiny, only served to intensify hostilities.

Note: One thing to keep in mind about this westward expansion is that it occurred simultaneously with the shrinking of the Union army following the war. For the period of five to seven years after the Civil War there were fewer soldiers than at any time in the history of the U.S. military. Consequently, to handle the rapid westward expansion, the military had to swiftly recruit, bringing in soldiers to tackle the West who had little or no training, and no knowledge of Indian culture or life on the Plains.

In 1868, the government signed a treaty with the Lakota, Cheyenne and other tribes of the Great Plains to designate a large area of eastern Wyoming to be a permanent Indian reservation to “protect” the Indians against the people of the U.S. Peace did not last because in 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the heart of the reservation, and soon thousands of gold seekers swarmed the area in violation of the treaty.

The government attempted to buy land from the Indians, but chiefs, such as Crazy Horse, and other chiefs, refused to sell. In growing defiance, Lakota and Cheyenne left the reservation and resumed raids on settlements and travelers. In 1875, the government ordered the Indians to return to the reservation by January 31, 1876 or be treated as “hostiles” by the military force. When various tribes refused to return to the reservation, the army (with very green troops) was called in to enforce the order. Consequently, the need for military protection was paramount to the settlers, and to the Indians, it was a repudiation of an honorable agreement.

Markers showing where U.S. troops fell on Calhoun Hill, near Last Stand Hill
Unmarked photos by Dorock

The Battle of the Little Bighorn (or Battle of the Greasy Grass)

Major players: Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, Maj. Marcus Reno, Capt. Frederick Benteen, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall

When: June 25-26, 1876

Where: East/west banks of the Little Bighorn River, southeast Montana Territory

Soldiers: Approximately 600 troops of the 7th Cavalry under Lt. Col. Custer command, including Arikara and Crow scouts

Indians: Approximately 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Hunkpapa encamped along the Little Bighorn River, of which 1,500-2,000 are warriors

Little-known fact: Custer’s brother, Tom, who died with him on Last Stand Hill was twice awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor for his valor during the Civil War. I believe it is still true that he is the only two-time awardee of this distinguished medal in U.S. history.

Bluffs on east side of river Reno and troops had to scale to flee attacking Lakota and Cheyenne Indians

The basics of what happened: From approximately 14 miles away on Lone Mountain, Custer Arikara and Crow scouts report there is a sizable Indian encampment up ahead on the Little Bighorn River. Custer and his 600+ troops approach the river from south and east of the river. Thinking they have been discovered by the Indians, Custer divides his companies into three (one set of troops each commanded by him, Maj. Reno and Capt. Benteen). He orders Reno and his 225 troops to cross the river well south of the Indian encampment and charge the encampment. Custer and Benteen advance east of the river along the ridge (the high ground looking down on the Indian encampment).

Reno charges the encampment from south and west of the river. Convinced he is outnumbered, Reno dismounts and forms a skirmish line. Warriors charge the troops and flank Reno’s troops, forcing Reno and his troops into the timber along the river. Reno’s trusted scout is shot/killed right in front of him, spraying blood and other debris onto Reno’s face. Reno gets flustered and orders his troops to retreat back across the river; warriors pick off troops as they retreat. Approximately 40 troops are killed and very few Indians are harmed.

This photo shows the ridgeline above the Little Bighorn that Custer used to move north, parallel to the Indian encampment

The retreating Reno is joined by Benteen atop Sharpshooter Ridge on the east side of the river. Custer has already left Benteen and moved forward along the ridge, again maintaining the high ground along Nye-Cartwright Ridge. By this time, Indian warriors are charging across the river at various points, including chasing Reno across the bluffs south and east of the river, at Medicine Tail Ford at the Indian encampment and near Greasy Grass Ridge, north of the Indian encampment. Certainly, by this point, all three company commanders realize just how dramatically they misjudged the size of the enemy.

Two of Custer’s companies leave Nye-Cartwright Ridge as the entire squadron moves forward to explore Medicine Tail Coulee and whether Indians are coming across the river at this point. They are met with stiff resistance and retreat back to the ridge where they join Custer’s troops on Calhoun Hill.

Trees run along the curvy Little Bighorn. Approximately 7,000 Indians were living along the flat plain just west of the river, in and beyond these trees

Custer’s command is briefly rejoined at Calhoun Hill where Company L, under Lt. James Calhoun fights with Gall, Crow King, Lame White Man, Two Moons and other warriors. Lakota and Cheyenne quickly overrun the hill. Nearby soldiers retreat from charging Indians to rejoin Custer near Last Stand Hill. A devastating charge by Crazy Horse and White Bull cut down the retreating soldiers who are trying to rejoin Custer’s forces.

At this point, Custer and his remaining troops had moved along Battle Ridge and were hoping to approach the river and charge the encampment from the north. They are met with stiff resistance and troops retreat to Last Stand Hill. Some troops  charge or flee toward the Deep Ravine but are quickly overwhelmed and killed.

Last Stand Hill, where Custer and at least 40 troops died. Markers show where most of the troops fell

At Last Stand Hill, Custer and approximately 41 men shoot their horses for cover and make a stand. Approximately 10 men, including Custer, and his brother, Tom, are found in the vicinity of the present 7th Cavalry memorial. The remaining soldiers are found within the currently fenced area sloping down the knoll.

Two days later when troops arrived on the scene, they discovered that Custer had a wound to the chest and to his temple. Much has been speculated about the wound to the temple, however, autopsy analysis determined the temple wound was administered after he was already dead.

Aftermath: After the battle, female Lakota and Cheyenne Indians mutilated the trooper bodies so their spirits would no longer wander the earth. Indian families removed their dead, estimated to be between 60-100, and placed them in tipis and on scaffolds and hillsides. On June 28, 1876, Custer and his command are hastily buried in shallow graves at or near where they fell. In 1877, the remains of 11 officers and two civilians are transferred to eastern cemeteries. The remains of Custer and his wife, Libby, are interred at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Memorial atop Last Stand Hill that identifies troops, scouts and civilians who died in the last Indian conflict

Fallen Indian marker

In 1881, the remains of the rest of the command are buried in a mass grave around the base of the current memorial shaft bearing the names of the soldiers, scouts and civilians killed in the battle. In 1890, the Army erects 249 headstone markers across the battlefield to show where Custer’s men had fallen. In 1999, the National Park Service began erecting red granite markers at known Cheyenne and Lakota warrior casualty sites throughout the battlefield. These unique markers are an important addition to the historic cultural landscape, providing visitors with a balanced interpretive perspective of the fierce fighting that occurred on the battlefield in 1876.

Typical marker at the battlefield of a fallen U.S. soldier

Within two days of the end of the battle, all 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe and other Indians had completely dismantled the camp and left for new locations to the south and west. Other than trampled down grass and firepits, there were very little signs a robust encampment of Indians had ever existed along the Little Bighorn.

Also, while this may have been the last great Indian war battles, within a year after the battle, all Plains Indians were on reservations.

Myths about the battle

  • Custer’s hair:At the time of the battle, Custer no longer had his long-flowing blonde locks. He had cut them short at Fort Lincoln before he began his last campaign
  • Custer was well known to the Indians:Indians at the Little Bighorn didn’t know a Custer from a Napolean — it was truly inconsequential whom they were fighting; they were defending their way of life

    One of two sites at battlefield where Custer reportedly fell. This is on Last Stand Hill within the fenced area. Another placard claims that Custer fell at the base of what is now the Memorial at the top of Last Stand Hill. Confused?

  • Custer and all his men were killed: On June 25th, 1876, the 7th Cavalry consisted of about 31 officers, 586 soldiers, 33 Indian scouts and 20 civilian employees. When the smoke cleared, 262 men died in the total battle, 68 wounded and six later died of their wounds.
  • Weapons were a factor: While numerous paintings and other historical interpretations show soldiers using sabers, actually troops left their sabers, under orders, back at the base. Some historians maintain that the Indians had better repeating rifles than the troops had. Also, troops used shells of copper in their bullets, and the copper casings stuck in the barrels, while Indians used brass in their casings
  • The last stand was a lengthy battle: In fact, most historians believe the battle at Last Stand Hill took less than two hours for the Indians to defeat and kill Custer’s troops and move toward fighting Reno and Benteen, more than three miles away along the ridges above the river
  • How the story has changed over the years: Initially, the story of the battle, particularly the fighting at Last Stand Hill, will never be known because all the participants were killed. This is characteristic of a repeated arrogance associated with the Custer myth. None of the U.S. troops lived to tell the story, but there were certainly many Lakota and Cheyenne directly involved in the battle, who have told their stories to confirm or clarify what happened on Last Stand Hill. Some historians, continuing to disregard Indian testimonials, will not include Indian versions to provide a complete, well-rounded account. However, in recent years. more historians who truly want to provide as accurate a story as can be had after all these years, include and verify Indian accounts of the battle.

Here is where scouts for Custer died. Even though they were Arikara or Crow Indian scouts, they were awarded white markers instead of the red granite markers designated for the fallen Indians

There are so many accounts of the Bighorn battle that if one chooses to research them all, a reader could get very confused. I tend to try to read the “latest” version, particularly since historians now are using more and more Indian accounts of the story in their writing. The latest book, which I found fascinating, was Nathaniel Philbrick’s “The Last Stand.”  Other good reads of the Custer story include James Donovan’s “A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn The Last Great Battle of the American West” and Stephen Ambrose’s “Crazy Horse and Custer.” Amazon or iBookstore should be good sources of additional reading material, if you are so inclined.

For a good understanding of the struggles of the Plains Indians and the Indian Wars, check out Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

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