Battle of Little Bighorn

In the summer of 1876, a large group of Native Americans gathered along the Little Big Horn River. It was estimated that there were 10,000 Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Lakota peoples, an intimidating force indeed. On June 25, 1876, this group of Native Americans was responsible for Custer’s last stand.

The United States government had received a report from Inspector Watkins in 1875. In this report, Watkins claimed that the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota peoples who were associating with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull were enemies of the United States. This, combined with the interest in gold-rich Indian land, led to the decision to attack.

On June 24, 1876, Custer’s army arrived at a location approximately 14 miles east of the river. Custer had split his forces, and the remainder of the force continued towards the mouth of the Little Big Horn River, preventing the Natives from blocking the attack.

General Custer was warned of the large encampment of native warriors; he didn’t heed the warning. Instead, on June 25 Custer prepared to attack. He expected that the natives would be so intimidated that they would flee immediately. Custer ordered Major Reno to lead the attack.

Major Reno began to advance. Much to his surprise, the too-numerous Lakota and Northern Cheyenne were not retreating. He sent a message to General Custer requesting more information, but was unwilling to attack the village with only 125 men. Instead, Major Reno attacked from a distance – after firing many shots, there was only one casualty. However, it was becoming obvious that Custer would not provide assistance.

Major Reno retreated, chased by the Indians. His group suffered heavy casualties in the woods, at the river crossing, and more. Finally arriving at the top of the bluffs, Major Reno met with Captain Benteen’s battalion. The captain arrived just in time to save Reno and his remaining men from complete annihilation. This new group also met a smaller group guarding Custer’s pack train and supplies. Although heavy gunfire could be heard coming from the north, Benteen and Reno did not move in that direction.

The gunfire was coming from Custer’s battle. He led a force of 210 men, and engaged the Indians to the north. With Major Reno’s force in chaos and ruins, the Indians turned the full force of their rage on to Custer and his troops. The battle took a meandering path through the area.

Custer was badly outnumbered and in trouble. Within two hours, his entire battalion had been eliminated. Crazy Horse led one group of Lakota into battle, although it is not known who was responsible for which deaths. Custer himself was shot twice, once in the chest and once in the temple. Either wound would have been fatal.

Whence Custer and his group had been eliminated, the Indians returned to attack Reno and Benteen’s forces. Under Benteen’s leadership, the battle lasted another 24 hours before US reinforcements approached from the North, causing the natives to retreat southwards.

American forces were almost crippled at the Battle of Little Big Horn. All 210 men that accompanied Custer died, as did their leader. Another 52 men died under Reno’s leadership, while six men died later from wounds incurred during the battle. By contrast, the Native Americans saw only about 40 deaths.

A number of factors led to the colossal defeat. Many of the US troopers had no experience and very little training. In addition, Reno and Benteen were heavy drinkers. While the natives were armed with bows and arrows, spears, and repeating rifles, the US military only carried single-shot carbines. These carbines jammed easily, fired slowly, and were almost impossible to use while on horseback.

Despite the defeat, the US army continued its efforts to capture Native Americans and drive them to reservations.

Foreground: Model of Crazy Horse Memorial. In background: the partly-carved largest sculpture in the world. Courtesy Wikipedia.