The Battle of the Little Bighorn
The Indians’ Story
April 6, 2005
Table of Contents
II. Introduction............................................................................... 2
III. Outline........................................................................................ 3
IV. Report: Battle of the Little Bighorn......................................... 4
V. Bibliography............................................................................ 10
VI. Illustrations/Maps.................................................................... 11
“See, I am against you, O arrogant one,” declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty, “for your day has come, the time for you to be punished.”
Jeremiah 50:31 (New International Version)
I chose The Battle of the Little Bighorn because I like to study the culture of Indians and their battles. This is one of the more famous battles, and many books have been written praising the courage of Custer and his soldiers. I wanted to learn about the Indians’ side of the story. The context of this information will be from the Indians’ perspective but not against the soldiers of the U.S. Army.
The Lakota Indians (also known as Sioux) and the Cheyenne Indians had been sharing the vast central lands of America, along with hundreds of other large tribes, for thousands of years. Together these Indian people fought European advancements from the very beginning of their attempts to move in and stake claim on their piece of the New World. This was not an easy task since the Europeans were very organized and had advanced weaponry; the Indians had determination to beat back these invaders from their lands, but not much else. It also did not help that with the incoming Europeans came new diseases, including small pox, for which the Indians had no immunity.
The Europeans (now calling themselves Americans) tried to show their respect to the Indians by agreeing to sign what became known as the First Treaty of Fort Laramie. This document, signed in 1851, set aside the specific territories belonging to the Lakota and Cheyenne nations. Sitting Bull, Lakota’s Hunkpapa Chief, refused to sign this treaty. He and other Indian leaders did not want their land restricted.
In 1868, a Second Treaty of Fort Laramie was established to end the government attempts to defend the Bozeman Trail, which was a direct route to the gold fields of the Black Hills and the West. This treaty also created the Great Lakota Reservation west of the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota.
Once this Second Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, General William Tecumseh Sherman of the U.S. Army worked long and hard to try to force the Lakota and Cheyenne onto the new reservation. His troops, however, were beaten back time and time again by the great war hero, Crazy Horse of the Lakota, and his band of warriors, through a succession of battles at Powder River.
As tensions mounted U.S. Army General George Crook took his soldiers up to Rosebud Creek where they were attacked by Crazy Horse’s Indian braves before Crook could get to his assigned rendezvous point. Eventually the Indians retreated, and Crook declared victory. Crook then led his men back to the south end of Rosebud Creek and set up camp, but the Indians had already completed their goal, which was to diminish the enemy forces any way they could.
July 25, 1876, was to become a day to remember in American history. The Civil War had ended eleven years previously, but the Indians were fully prepared to defend their families, their friends, and their way of life.
The Indians were led by Chief Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall – all from the Lakota tribe – and Chief Two Moons, Lame White Man, and Dull Knife of the Cheyenne tribe. U.S. forces were led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, Colonel John Gibbon, Captain Frederick Benteen, Major Marcus Reno, General Alfred Terry, Captain George Yates, and Captain Myles Keogh, among others.
Custer, known as an arrogant and aggressive battle hero, was certain that it was time for the U.S. to take the action necessary to finally put the Indians in their place. He enlisted the help of some Crow Indian scouts – longtime enemies of the Lakota and Cheyenne – to locate the Indians’ main camp. Custer arranged for several of the U.S. brigades to converge on the area: Colonel Gibbon’s soldiers came from Western Montana, General Crook’s men came from Fort Fetterman, and General Terry’s troops came from Fort Abraham Lincoln along with Custer’s regiment of the Seventh Cavalry.
Custer split up the forces so that the Indians could not escape. Major Reno’s men rode down the Little Bighorn River and across to where the Indians could not see them. Early in the morning Reno’s soldiers attacked the southern end of the Lakota/Cheyenne camp. There was an initial response of bewilderment and disorientation in the Indian camp as the U.S. shots came at them from every direction. Sitting Bull remembered the occurrence this way:
I was sitting in my lodge. Some young men ran in to me and said, “They are firing into the camp.” I jumped up and stepped out of my lodge. The old men, the women, and the children were hurried away. There was great confusion. The women were like flying birds; the bullets were like humming bees. I said to the men, “Warriors, we have everything to fight for, and if we are defeated we shall have nothing to live for; therefore, let us fight like brave men.” (Viola 34)
Quickly enough the Indians gained their bearings and began fighting back. Reno kept fighting but eventually led his men into retreat.
The soldiers mounted their horses and fled, but the Indians’ horses were faster and eventually caught up to the soldiers. The Indians pulled the soldiers off their horses and fired at them at point-blank range. Reno’s soldiers retreated across the river to some nearby bluffs where reinforcements were waiting.
During this initial attack Custer headed up the Little Bighorn with his army and again divided them into two separate groups, one under Yates’ command and one under Keogh’s. He wanted to ensure that they were in the best possible position to fight against the Indian onslaught. Not only did the Indians have better weapons than the soldiers – the soldiers had one-shot rifles and pistols that were quite accurate; the Indians had repeating rifles that could shoot many times without reloading – but the Indians had more than twice as many warriors, approximately 1,500 to the U.S.’s 600.
Custer attempted a second attack at the northern end of the Lakota/Cheyenne camp, but he, too, was beaten back to what is known today as Battle Ridge on Custer and Calhoun Hills. His men’s horses became spooked and ran off with the guns and munitions, so the soldiers were left with only their pistols. Custer’s army was quickly surrounded. Custer, in his arrogance, shouted for his men to stand tall and fight back, but the Indians remained strong and killed the U.S. soldiers right down to the very last one.
There are varying accounts as to the total number of casualties that day, but it is estimated that about 300 U.S. soldiers died in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The number of Indians that died is unknown because the female relatives carried the dead warriors off the battlefield to bury them with dignity.
Some historians believe that the U.S. defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was due to Custer’s arrogance and erratic leadership; others believe it was Sitting Bull’s cunning. Still others believe in any number of alternate theories, but no one can deny that the Indians were the clear and honorable victors that day.
Through a series of battles that took place in the year after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the U.S. did ultimately defeat the Indians. In 1877, the Cheyenne leader Chief Dull Knife surrendered. Sitting Bull departed the Little Bighorn River Valley and sought refuge in Canada. He returned to the U.S. four years later but was killed while trying to leave Standing Rock Reservation. Crazy Horse was shot and killed while resisting arrest.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn is a significant piece of this nation’s history. Several memorials, monuments, and historic sites exist today that honor the battle’s heroes and tell the story of Custer’s Last Stand.
“Battle of the Little Bighorn.” Wikipedia. January 11, 2005. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Little_Bighorn>
Krehbial, Randy. Little Bighorn. New York: Twenty-First Century Books, 1997.
“Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.” National Park Service. January 11, 2005. <http://nps.gov/libi/index.htm>.
Reece, Bob. “Custer’s Last Stand.” Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. January 8, 2005. January 11, 2005. <http://friendslittlebighorn.com>
Viola, Herman J. It’s a Good Day to Die: Indian Eyewitnesses Tell the Story of the Battle of Little Bighorn. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Viola, Herman J. Little Bighorn Remembered: The Untold Indian Story of Custer’s Last Stand. New York: Times Books, 1999.