Little Bighorn Battle Winning History

Little Bighorn

The Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the most studied works in American military history, and the vast literature on the subject is devoted primarily to answering questions about Custer’s generalship during the battle. But neither he nor the 209 men in his immediate command survived, and an Indian counterattack knocked down seven companies of his fellow 7th Cavalryman on top of a hill four miles away. (Out of about 400 soldiers at the top of the hill, 53 were killed and 60 wounded, before the Indians ended their siege the next day.) The experience of Custer and his men can only be reconstructed by conjecture. is.

This is not true of the Indian version of the fight. Long neglected accounts given by more than 50 Indian participants or witnesses provide a means of tracking the battle from the first warning to the killing of Custer’s last soldiers – a duration of approximately two hours and 15 minutes. In his new book, The Killing of Crazy Horses, veteran reporter Thomas Powers lays out a comprehensive narrative account of the war as the Indians experienced on these accounts. Crazy Horse’s surprise victory over Custer, which angered and intimidated the army, killing the chief a year later. “My purpose in telling the story as I did it,” Powers says, “was to let the Indians know what happened, and to identify the moment when Custer’s men disintegrated as a fighting unit and their defeat was inevitable. happened.”

The sun was knocking on the horizon that Sunday, June 25, 1876, when men and boys began to take the horses out to graze. The first light was also a time for the women to extinguish the previous night’s cooking fire. The Hunkpapa woman, known as the Good White Buffalo Woman, later said she often stayed in the camps when the war was in the air, but that was not the case this day. “That morning the Sioux did not think of fighting,” she said. “We didn’t expect an attack.”

Those who saw the assembled cantonment said that they had never seen a bigger one. According to Ogla warrior Hey Dog, it came together in March or April even before the plains turned green. Indians arriving from distant reservations on the Missouri River had reported that soldiers were coming out to fight, so the different camps made it a point to stay together. At least six, perhaps seven, cheek by jowl, with the Cheyennes to the north, or downriver, end near the broad ford where Medicine Tell Cowley and Muscat Creek empty into the Little Bighorn River. In Sioux, the Hunkpapa was at the southern end. Between them were Sans Arcs, Brule, Minnekonzu, Santi and Ogla, with the bends and ends of the river. Some said that the Ogla were the largest group, the next Hunkpapa, among whom there were probably 700 lodges. Other circles may have a total of 500 to 600 lodges. This would suggest a total of 6,000 to 7,000 people, a third of them men or boys of fighting age. Confusing the question of numbers was the frequent coming and going of people from the reservation. Those travelers—as well as camp hunters, root and herb gatherers, and searchers for lost horses—were part of an informal early-warning system.

There were many late risers this morning as last night’s dances only ended at first light. A very large tent near the center of the village—perhaps two lodges raised together—was filled with elders, called chiefs by the Whites, but “small hairs,” “silent eaters” or “big stomachs” by the Indians. “. As the morning turned hot and humid, large numbers of adults and children started swimming in the river. The water was cold; Black Elk, the future Ogla holy man, then 12, would remember that the river was high as the snow melted from the mountains.

It was nearing noon when a report came that American soldiers had been seen near the camp. “We could hardly believe the soldiers were so close,” Ogla the Elder Runs the Enemy said later. It didn’t matter to him or the others in the big lodge. For one thing, whites never attacked in the middle of the day. For several moments, Runs the Enemy recalled, “We sat there smoking.”

Other reports followed. White Bull, a Minnecanjo, was watching the horses near the camp when scouts descended from Ash Creek with news that soldiers had shot and killed an Indian boy at the fork of the creek two or three miles earlier. The women, who were digging turnips across the river a few miles to the east, said Ogla chief Thunder Bear, “came out in breath and told that the soldiers were coming.” “The country, he said, looked like it was filled with smoke, there was so much dust.” A woman was shot dead by the soldiers. Fast Horn, an Ogla, came to say that he had been shot by soldiers he had seen near the high division en route to the Rosebud Valley.

But the first warning of the escape of the warriors probably came at the Hunkpapa camp around 3 a.m., when some cavalry—arikara (or ri) working for the Indian soldiers, as it turned out—saw the animals making a dash. Gone. Grazing in a ravine away from the camp. Within moments shooting could be heard at the southern end of the camp. The peace quickly took the form of an epidemic – the screams and cries of women and children, men calling for horses or guns, boys sent to find mothers or sisters, swimmers fleeing the river, trying to organize resistance. Remain men, looking at their weapons, depicting themselves tying their horses’ tails.

As the warriors ran to confront the horse thieves, people at the southern end of the Hunkpapa camp sounded the alarm as the soldiers approached, appearing for the first time in a row on horseback a mile or two away. By 3:10 or 15 minutes, Indians had left the hotels to meet him. Now came the first shot heard for the first time at the Council Lodge, persuading Run the Enemy to put its pipe aside. The Hunkpapa warrior, Little Soldier, said, “The gunshots sounded like hailstones on tepees and tree tops.” Chief Gall’s family – two wives and their three children – were shot and killed near their lodge on the edge of the camp.

But now the Indians were running out swiftly and shooting back, making enough show to stop the attack. White landed. Every fourth man took the reins of three other horses and took them with him to the trees near the river. Other soldiers were stationed in a skirmish line of perhaps 100 men. It was all happening very quickly.

As the Indians set out to meet the line of skirmish, straight ahead, the river was on their left, covered with thick wood and underground. On the right were open valleys rising to the west, and beyond the end of the line, a force of mounted Indians rapidly gathered. These warriors swung widely around the end of the line. Some of the Indians, Hey Dog and Brave Hart, went even further, rounding a small hill behind the soldiers.

By then the soldiers had started leaning back to face the retreating Indians. In fact the line had stopped; The firing was heavy and fast, but it was difficult to hit the Indians running their ponies. Men continued to flock to meet the soldiers, while women and children fled. No more than 15 or 20 minutes into the fight, the Indians were gaining control of the field; The soldiers were pulling back in the trees along the river.

The pattern of Little Bighorn’s fighting was already established – moments of intense fighting, rapid pace, close engagement with men who were dead or wounded, followed by a sudden relative calm as both sides organized, took stock and fought the next. prepared for. As the soldiers disappeared into the trees, one by one the Indians carefully followed them while others gathered nearby. Shooting missed, but did not stop.

Two large movements were unfolding at once—mostly women and children headed north down the river, leaving the Hunkpapa camp behind, while a growing stream of men led them on the battle path—”where The excitement was going on,” said Eagle Elk, Red Feather’s friend, Crazy Horse’s brother-in-law. Crazy Horse itself, already renowned for its fighting prowess among the Ogla, was approaching the battle scene at about the same time.

Crazy Horse was swimming in the river with his friend Yellow Nose when they heard gunshots. Moments later, without a horse, he reined in his pony and met Red Feather. “Take any horse,” said Red Feather as he prepared to dash, but Crazy Horse was waiting for his own mount. Red Feather did not see him again until 10 or 15 minutes later, when the Indians had gathered in the army near the forest where the soldiers had taken refuge.

Perhaps it was during those very minutes that Crazy Horse prepared itself for battle. In this time of emergency many people grabbed their weapons and ran towards the shooting, but not all. The war was too dangerous to be treated carelessly; A man wanted to dress and paint properly before accusing the enemy. Without his medicine and time for prayer or song, he would be weak. A 17-year-old Oglaa named Standing Bear reported that after the first warnings Crazy Horse called a vikasva wakan (medicine man) to summon the spirits and then spent so much time in his preparation that “many of his warriors became impatient. . ”

Ten young men who had sworn to follow Crazy Horse “anywhere in the war” stood nearby. He dusted himself and his companions with a handful of dry earth, gathered from a hill left by a mole or gopher, a young Oglaa named Spider would remember. According to the spider, some long stems of Crazy Horse grass were weaved in his hair. Then he opened the medicine bag around his neck, took a pinch of it “and burned it as a sacrifice on the fire of buffalo chips, which had been prepared by another warrior.” They believed that a gust of smoke carried their prayers to heaven. (Others reported that Crazy Horse painted his face with hailstones and covered his horse with dry earth.) Now, according to Spider and Standing Bear, he was ready to fight.

By the time Crazy Horse caught up with his cousins ​​Kicking Bear and Red Feather, the soldiers were hard to see in the woods, but a lot of shooting had happened; The bullets hit the tree limbs and fluttered the leaves and dropped them on the ground. Many Indians had already been killed, and others were wounded. There was shouting and singing; Some of the women who were left behind were crying out loud, disorderly, called tremolo. Iron Hawk, a leading figure in Ogalala’s Crazy Horse band, said that his aunt was urging the warriors to come up with a song:

Brother-in-law, now your friends have arrived.
take courage.
Will you see me being held captive?

At this moment someone near the wood called out, “The crazy horse is coming!” The words of charge came from the Indians circling behind the soldiers – “HOKAHE!” Several Indians near the forest said that Crazy Horse repeatedly ran his ponies from behind the soldiers, drawing their fire—a daring act sometimes called a brave race. Red Feather remembered that “some Indians shouted, ‘Give way, let the soldiers out. We can’t reach them there.’ Soon the soldiers came out and tried to go to the river.” As they left the woods, Crazy Horse called out to the men nearby: “Here’s some soldiers behind us again. Try your best, and let’s kill them all today, so that they don’t bother us anymore. All ready! Charge!”

Crazy Horse and everyone else now race their horses straight into the troops. “Among them we rode,” said the Thunder Bear, “tossing them down like a buffalo drive.” The horses were shot and the soldiers fell to the ground; Some managed to pull behind friends, but most were killed on foot. “All mixed up,” said Scramble’s Cheyenne Two Moons. “Sioux, then soldiers, then more Sioux, and all shooting.” The Flying Hawk, an ogla, said that it was hard to know exactly what was going on: “The dust was thick and we could barely see. We turned right between the troopers and much of our bow-and-arrows and frills Killed. Crazy Horse was at the fore, and he killed a lot of them with his war club.”

Two Moons said it saw soldiers “running like buffaloes and falling to the bottom of the river.” Minekonju warrior Red Horse said that many soldiers drowned. Several Indians charged and chased after the soldiers across the river as they headed toward a hill (now known as Reno Hill, for the chief leading the troops). The White Eagle, the son of the Ogla chief Horned Horse, was killed in pursuit. A soldier paused long enough to scalp him—a quick circle-cut with a sharp knife, then a blow over a handful of hairs to loosen the skin.

The whites had the worst of it. More than 30 people died before reaching the top of the hill and descending to make a stand. Among the bodies of men and horses left on the flat by the river below were two wounded Re Scouts. The Ogla Red Hawk later said that “the Indians [who found the scouts] said these Indians wanted to die – that’s what they were looking for with the soldiers; so they killed them, and dispersed them.”

The second breathing spell in the battle came as the soldiers crossed the river. Some Indians followed them to the top of the hill, but many others, such as the black elk, stayed to collect guns and ammunition, to pull the clothes of dead soldiers or to capture the fledgling horses. Crazy Horse immediately turned with his men towards the center of the great camp. The only Indian to explain his sudden withdrawal was Gal, who speculated that the Crazy Horse and Crow King, a prominent figure in the Hunkpapa, was anticipating a second attack on the camp from the north. Gaul said he had seen soldiers bluffing to the opposite shore.

The battle along the river – from the first sighting of the soldiers marching towards the Hunkpapa camp to the last of them crossing the river and going to the top of the hill – lasted about an hour. During that time, a second group of soldiers had shown themselves at least three times on the eastern heights above the river. The first group was seen for the first time only a minute or two after heading to the Hunkpapa camp. After three o’clock five minutes. Ten minutes later, just before the first group formed the skirmish line, the second group was again seen across the river, this time on the very hill where the first group would take refuge after their insane retreat across the river. At about 3:30, the second group was again spotted at a high point above the river, not halfway between Reno Hill and Cheyenne Village, at the northern end of the larger camp. By then the first group was retreating into the woods. It is likely that the second group of soldiers got the first clear view of the long stretch of Indian camp from this high bluff, later called Wear Point.

The Yanktonese White Thunder said they saw the second group heading towards the river south of the ford by Cheyenne Camp, then turning back upon reaching “a steep cut bank they could not descend”. When the soldiers withdrew, White Thunder and some of his friends headed east and to the other side on higher ground, where they were soon joined by several other Indians. In fact, said White Thunder, the second group of soldiers was surrounded before the battle even began.

From the spot where the first group of soldiers retreated across the river to the next crossing location at the northern end of the large camp, it was about three miles—about a 20-minute ride. Steep bluffs between the two crossings blocked much of the east bank of the river, but there was an open stretch of several hundred yards just outside Cheyenne Camp, later known as Minnekonjoo Ford. Indians say that it was here that the second group of soldiers came closest to the river and the Indian camp. According to most Indian accounts it was not very close.

At an angle to the southeast from the high ground, the ford had a dry creek in a shallow ravine now known as Medicine Tale Coulee. The exact sequence of events is difficult to establish, but it seems likely that the first sightings of soldiers occurred at the upper end of Medicine Tale Coulee at around 4 p.m., just as the first group of soldiers were dashing the bluffs toward Reno Hill and crossing Crazy Horse and its The followers were turning back. Two Moons were at Cheyenne Camp when they saw soldiers approaching a beach ridge and descending toward the river.

Gall and three other Indians were watching the same soldiers from a high place on the eastern bank of the river. Right in front were two soldiers. Ten years later, Gal recognized him as Custer and his orderly, but that was probably not the case. The man she called Custer was in no hurry, Gall said. On one of the bluffs upriver to the right of Gaul, some Indians appeared as Custer approached. Feather Earing, a Minnekonju, said that Indians were coming to that side of the river in “large numbers” from the south at that time. When Custer saw them, Gall said, “His pace slowed down and his actions became more alert, and at last he stopped completely to await the arrival of his command. This could not affect any of Custer’s parties.” was the closest point to reach the river. At that point, Gall went, Custer “began to suspect he was in a bad position. From that time on, Custer worked on the defensive.

Others, including Iron Hawk and Feather Earring, confirmed that Custer and his men were no closer to the river—several hundred yards back. Most of the soldiers were still on the hill ahead. Some soldiers opened fire on the Indian camp, which was almost deserted. Some Indians retaliated in Minneconjou Ford.

The earlier pattern repeated itself. At first little stood in the way of the soldiers, but in a few moments more Indians began to arrive, and they kept on coming – some crossing the river, others riding from the south on the east side of the river. By the time 15 or 20 Indians had gathered near the ford, the troops had hesitated, then began to exit Medicine Tell Coulee, marching to higher ground, where they were joined by the rest of Custer’s command.

The battle known as the Custer Fight began when the small, leading contingent of soldiers approaching the river retreated to higher ground at around 4:15 p.m. This was the last step the soldiers would independently take; All he did from this moment was in response to an Indian attack growing in intensity.

As described by Indian participants, the battle followed the contour of the field, and its pace was determined by the amount of time it took the Indians to assemble a force, and by the time each group of soldiers was comparatively killed or driven back. In the few minutes it takes. The route of the battle follows a broad arc out of Medicine Tell Coulee, into a depression known as Deep Coulee, which in turn opens into a rising slope on Calhoun Ridge, which leads to Calhoun Hill. Rises, and then proceeds, still rising, to a second elevation known as Custer Hill after a depression in the ground identified as the Keogh site. The high ground from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill was called the “backbone” of the plains. The point where the soldiers retreat away from the river to the lower end of Calhoun Ridge is about three-quarters of a mile—a difficult, 20-minute climb for a person on foot. Shave Elk, an ogla in Crazy Horse’s band who ran far after his horse was shot at the fight outlet, remembered “how exhausted he was before he got up there.” There is another climb of about a quarter mile from the bottom of Calhoun Ridge to Calhoun Hill.

But it would be a mistake to assume that all of Custer’s command—210 men—moved from point to point, down one coil, over another cowl, and so on. Only a small detachment had reached near the river. By the time this group had joined the rest, the troops occupied a line along the spine from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill, a distance of a little over half a mile.

The climb route from Medicine Tell Couli to Deep Couli and up the Ridge towards Custer Hill would have been about a mile and a half or a little more. Red Horse later said that Custer’s troops “made five different stands.” In each case, the bout began and ended in about ten minutes. Think of it as an on-going battle, as the survivors of each different conflict eventually make their way along the spine toward Custer; In fact the order collapsed back on itself. As described by the Indians, this phase of the fighting began with a scattering of shots near Minnecanzo Ford, then briefly, disastrous clashes at Calhoun Ridge, Calhoun Hill and the Keogh site, killing Custer and his crew at Custer. The climax ended with the discovery and killing of about 30 soldiers who marched down Custer Hill into a deep valley overlooking the river.

Back on Reno Hill, four miles to the south, soldiers preparing for their defense heard three episodes of heavy gunfire—one at 4:25 in the afternoon, almost as Custer’s troops had returned from their approach to Minnekonzu Ford. ten minutes later; one second after about 30 minutes; And about 15 minutes after that there was a final explosion, which died before 5:15. Distances were great, but the wind was still there, and the mounted carbine’s .45/55 caliber round blew through a thunderstorm.

At 5:25 a few Reno officers, who had set out to shoot with their men, were catching a glimpse of a herd of Indians climbing a distant hill from Wear Point, shooting at things on the ground. These Indians were not fighting; More likely they were killing the wounded, or following the Indian practice of injecting an extra bullet or arrow into the enemy’s body as a sign of victory. It never died once the fighting began, with the last scattering shots continuing through the night.

The officers at Wear Point also witnessed a general movement of Indians—more Indians leading their way than any of them. Soon the front elements of Reno’s command were exchanging fire with them, and the troops quickly returned to Reno Hill.

As Custer’s troops made their way from the river to the higher ground, the country on three sides was rapidly filling up with Indians, actually pushing the soldiers upstream as well as chasing them. “We followed the soldiers in a direction away from the river and up a long, gradual slope or hill to the top of the ridge, where the battle was well started,” said the shaved elk. By the time the troops made a stand on the “ridge”—apparently the spine connecting the Calhoun and Custer hills—the Indians had begun filling coupes to the south and east. “The officers did their best to keep the troops together at this point,” said Red Hawk, “but the horses were unbearable; they would fall behind with their riders; few would get away.” “When they saw that they were surrounded, they took off,” said the Crow King. This was cavalry tactics by the book. There was no other way to make a stand or maintain a strong defense. Deliberate foot fighting after a brief period.

As soon as the Indians arrived they got off their horses, asked for cover and started gathering on the troops. The Indians marched “on hands and knees”, Red Feather said, taking advantage of the brush and every little swell or hide raised in the ground. From moment to moment, the Indians came up to shoot before falling down again. No man on either side could show himself without setting fire. In battle Indians often kept their wings flat to help with hiding. The soldiers seem to have taken off their hats for the same reason; Many Indians mentioned soldiers without caps, some dead and some still fighting.

From their position on Calhoun Hill the soldiers were putting up an orderly, solid defense. When some of the Indians approached, a detachment of soldiers stood up and, on foot, took the Indians back to the lower end of Calhoun Ridge. According to the Yellow Nose, a Cheyenne warrior, the soldiers now established a regulation skirmish line, each one approximately five yards from the next, kneeling to “deliberately take aim”. Some Indians also observed the line of the second skirmish, which extended perhaps 100 yards along the spine towards Custer Hill. It was in the battles around Calhoun Hill, many Indians later reported, that the Indians suffered the most deaths—11 in all.

But almost as soon as the line of confrontation was drawn out from Calhoun Hill, some Indians again came under pressure, reaching the men’s shooting distance on Calhoun Ridge; Others made their way to the eastern slope of the hill, where they opened heavy, deadly fire on soldiers holding horses. Without the horses, Custer’s army could neither charge nor flee. The loss of horses also meant the loss of saddlebags with reserve ammunition, approximately 50 rounds per person. “As the foot soldiers had marched up the ridge,” Yanktonese Daniel White Thunder later told a white missionary, he and the Indians with him “stamped the horses … waving their blankets and making a terrifying noise.” ”

“We killed all the men who were holding the horses,” said Gall. When a horse-holder was shot, the frightened horses ran here and there. “They tried to hold their horses,” said the Crow King, “but as we pressed closer, they let their horses go.” Many climbed up the hill to the river, adding to the confusion of the battle. Some Indians gave up fighting to pursue them.

The fighting was intense, bloody, sometimes hand-to-hand. The men died from knives and clubs as well as bullets. Cheyenne Brave Bear saw an officer riding a sorrel horse shoot two Indians with his revolver, before killing himself. The brave bear managed to catch the horse. Around the same moment, the Yellow Nose snatched a cavalry guiden from a soldier, who was using it as a weapon. The Eagle Elk, during the fighting on Calhoun Hill, saw many people killed or badly injured; One Indian was “shot in the jaw and was completely bleeding.”

Calhoun Hill was full of Indian and white men. “At this point the soldiers stood in line and fought very well,” Red Hawk said. But the soldiers were completely exposed. Many men on the line of struggle died where they had knelt; When his line fell back down the hill, the entire position was rapidly lost. It was at this time that the Indians won the battle.

Within minutes, the troops had organized a single, almost continuous line along a half-mile spine from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill. Men were killed and wounded, but the force remained largely intact. Indians outnumbered whites, but nothing like the route had begun. According to the Indians, what changed everything was a sudden and unexpected charge on the spine by a great force of Indians riding on horses. The central and controlled portion of Crazy Horse that played in this attack was observed and later reported by many of his friends and relatives, including Hay Dog, Red Feather and Flying Hawk.

Recall that while the men of Reno were retreating across the river and peeping away, Crazy Horse went back to the center of the camp. He had time to reach Muscat Creek and the mouth of Medicine Tell Cowley by 4:15, just as the small contingent of soldiers watched by Gall had retreated from the river to higher ground. Flying Hawk said he had followed Crazy Horse down the river past the center of the camp. “We came into a ravine,” the Flying Hawk later recalled, “then we went to a spot behind the soldiers who were making a stand on the hill.” From his half-safe vantage at the head of the ravine, Flying Hawk said, Crazy Horse “shot them as fast as he could load his gun.”

It was a style of Sioux fighting. Had another brave run. There was usually no lengthy discussion before the transition from one to the other; One warrior only believed that the moment was right. He may shout: “I’m leaving!” Or he may shout “Hokahe!” Or give a war trill or whistle an eagle bone between his teeth and blow out a piercing crackling sound. Red Feather said the Crazy Horse moment came when both sides were laying low and popping up to shoot at each other—a standoff moment.

“There was a lot of noise and confusion,” said the Arapaho warrior Waterman. “The air was heavy with powder smoke, and all the Indians were screaming.” Out of this chaos, Red Feather said, Crazy Horse “came on horseback” whistling his eagle bone and riding between the length of two lines of fighters. “Crazy Horse…was the bravest man I had ever seen,” Waterman said. “He rode closest to the soldiers shouting for his warriors. All the soldiers were firing at him but he was never killed.”

After firing their rifles at Crazy Horse, the soldiers had to reload. It was then that the Indians rose up and charged. Panic spread among the soldiers; The people gathered around Calhoun Hill were suddenly cut off from those stretching along the spine towards Custer Hill, leaving each herd vulnerable to charging Indians on foot and on horseback.

The way the soldiers fought was to try to keep the enemy away, to kill him from a distance. The instinct of Sioux fighters was the opposite – to surround the enemy, charge and engage with a bow or naked hand. There’s no terror in a fight for equal physical contact—the yelling, the hot breath, the hand-holding from a man so close he can smell. The Crazy Horse charge brought the Indians among the soldiers, whom they captured and put to death.

The soldiers who were still alive at the southern end of the spine ran for it, holding horses if they could, and running if they could not. “Everyone was heading to the higher ground at the end of the ridge,” said the Braley fool elk.

The lines of confrontation are gone. The men crowded each other for safety. Iron Hawk said that the Indians followed the fledgling soldiers. “By this time the Indians were taking and using the guns and cartridges of the dead soldiers,” Red Hawk said. The springfield carbine boom was coming from Indian and white fighters alike. But the killing was mostly one-sided.

In the rush of Calhoun Hill survivors to rejoin the rest of command, the soldiers fell in no more pattern than scattered corn. The depression in which Captain Miles Keogh’s body was found contained the bodies of about 20 people crowded around him. But the Indians describe that there is no real fighting, just an unstoppable mob with backbones, who are utterly slain; The body line continued along the spine. “We circled around them,” said the two moons, “swirling like water around a stone.”

Another group of dead, ten or more, were left on the slopes up to Custer Hill. No body was found about 200 yards between this group and the hill. The cavalrymen ran forward, leaving them to defend themselves on foot. Perhaps the ten who died on the slopes were all foot soldiers; Perhaps no bodies were found on that part of the ground as organized firing from Custer Hill stopped the Indians while the soldiers fled down the slopes. Whatever the reason, Indian accounts mostly agree that there was a pause in the fight – a moment of position, a moment of closure, a moment of creep.

The pause was brief; This did not give the soldiers time to count the survivors. By now half of Custer’s men were dead, the Indians were pushing from all sides, the horses were injured, died or fled. There was nowhere to hide. “When the horses reached the top of the ridge, Gray and Bey joined together, and the soldiers with them were all in confusion,” said the foolish elk. Then he added that no white soldier was alive to tell: “The Indians were so numerous that the soldiers could not go further, and they knew they had to die.”

The Indians surrounding the troops on Custer Hill were now from every part of the field, from downriver where they were chasing horses, to the edge of the ridge where they had unloaded the dead of guns and ammunition, where Reno people had joined. Could hear the start of the last heavy volley in the last few minutes. “There were a large number of us,” said the Oglala Eagle Bear, “some on horseback, some on foot. We passed back and forth in front of Custer, firing all the time.”

The Blackfeet Sioux, Kill Eagle, said the firing took place in waves. His interviewer noted that he clapped “the palms of his hands together very rapidly for several minutes” to demonstrate the intensity of the firing at his height, then clapping at a slower tempo, then faster, then slower, then again. Stopped.

In the final stages of the fighting, the soldiers killed or injured very few Indians. As Brave Bear later recalled: “I think Custer saw that he was stuck in [a] bad place and wanted to get out of it if he could, but he was surrounded by and could do nothing only to die.”

Exactly when Custer died is unknown; His body was found in a pile of soldiers near the top of Custer Hill surrounded by others in a circle of dead horses. It is possible that he fell during the second, brief and final charge of the Indians. Before the start, Low Dog, an ogla, called out to his followers: “It’s a good day to die: follow me.” The Indians raced together, a solid mass, enough to beat each other’s horses with their crunches so that none of the men stopped. The Crow King said, “Then all the chiefs mounted their horses on the white soldiers, and so did all our warriors.”

In their terror some soldiers threw down their guns, put their hands in the air and begged to be taken prisoner. But the Sioux only took women as prisoners. Red Horse said that they “did not take a single soldier, but killed them all.”

The last 40 or so soldiers on foot, with only a few cavalry, dashed down towards the river. One of the mounted men wore a deer skin; The Indians said that he fought with a big knife. “All his men were covered with white dust,” said Two Moons.

These soldiers met Indians coming from the river, including Black Elk. He said the soldiers were moving strangely. “They were moving their arms as if they were running, but they were only walking.” They were probably wounded—hobbing, lurching, throwing themselves forward hoping to escape.

Indians hunted them all. Ogla Brings Plenty and Iron Hawk kill two soldiers while running over a creek bed and think they are the last whites to die. Others said that the last man rode a speeding horse toward Reno Hill, and then inexplicably shot himself in the head with his own revolver. Yet another last man, it was reported, was killed by the sons of the famous Santi warrior chief Red Top. Two Moons said no, the last survivor had a ponytail on his shirt (i.e., a sergeant) and rode on one of the remaining horses in the final race to the river. He dodged his pursuers by circumambulating a hill and making his way back up. But just as Two Moons thought this man might survive, a Sioux shot and killed him. Of course none of these “last man”s were the last to die. That distinction went to an unknown soldier lying wounded on the field.

Soon the hill was full of Indians—warriors giving the enemy the final shot, and women and boys who had climbed the long slope from the village. They joined the warriors who came down to empty the pockets of the dead soldiers and take off their clothes. There was panic. Many bodies were mutilated, but in later years Indians did not like to talk about it. Some said they had seen it but did not know who did it.

But soldiers going to the field in the days following the war recorded detailed descriptions of the dissections, and the drawings made by the Red Horse leave no room for doubt that they took place. The Red Horse provided one of the earliest Indian accounts of the war and, a few years later, produced an extraordinary series of over 40 large portraits of the dead in battle and on the field. Several pages were dedicated to the fallen Indians, each lying in their distinctive dress and cap. Additional pages showed dead soldiers, some naked, some half-baked. Each page depicting the White Dead shows severed hands, arms, legs, heads. These deformities reflected the Indians’ belief that a man was condemned had he brought the body with him.

Acts of revenge were integral to the Indians’ notion of justice, and they had long memories. The Cheyenne White Necklace, then in her mid-50s, and Wolf Chief’s wife carried bitter memories of the death of a niece killed in the Sand Creek massacre in 1864. “When they found him there, he was beheaded,” she later said. Coming up the hill just after the battle had ended, the white necklace lay upon the naked body of a dead soldier. The ax was there. “I jumped off my horse and did the same to him,” he recalled.

Most Indians claimed that no one really knew who was the leader of the troops until long after the war. Others said no, Custer was in talks on day one. Ogla Little Killer, then 24, remembered that the Warriors sang Custer’s name during a dance at the big camp that night. Little Killer said, no one knew which body Custer had, but they knew it was there. Sixty years later, in 1937, he remembered a song:

Long Hair
I lacked guns,
And you brought a lot to us.
Long Hair
I lacked horses,
And you brought a lot to us.

In the late 1920s, elderly Cheyennes said that two Southern Cheyenne women had come over Custer’s body. He was shot in the head and side. He recognized Custer from the Battle of Washita in 1868, and had seen him close to the following spring when he came to make peace with the Stone Forehead and smoked with the chiefs at the Arrow Keeper’s Lodge. There Custer had promised to fight the Cheyennes, and Stone Forehead, to keep him on his promise, emptied the ashes from the pipe onto Custer’s shoes, while the general, all unbeknownst, sat directly under the sacred arrow that had hit him. He had promised to tell the truth.

It was said that these two women were relatives of Mo-na-se-tah, a Cheyenne girl whose father was murdered in Washita by Custer’s men. Many believed that Mo-na-se-tah was Custer’s boyfriend for some time. However brief, it was considered a marriage according to Indian customs. On Little Bighorn’s Hill, it was reported, two Southern Cheyenne women stopped some Sioux men who were going to cut Custer’s body. “He is a relative of ours,” he said. The Sioux men left.

Every Cheyenne woman regularly worked a stitch in a leather sheath decorated with beads or porcupine feathers. The awl was used daily, for sewing cloth or lodge covers, and perhaps most often for keeping moccasins in repair. Now Southern Cheyenne women took their awls and pushed them deep into the ears of the man they believed to be Custer. He didn’t listen to Stone Forehead, he said. He had broken his promise not to fight Cheyenne anymore. Now, he said, his hearing will improve.

Thomas Powers is the author of eight previous books. Aaron Huey has spent six years documenting life among the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

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