The Battle Of The Little Bighorn

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When Custer’s and Stuart’s forces collided on what is now called East Cavalry Field, the sound reminded one of the participants of the thunderous crash of a giant falling tree. “Many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them,” a cavalryman remembered. The bodies of some of the combatants were later found “pinned to each other by tightly-clenched sabers driven through their bodies.” Custer’s horse was shot out from underneath him, but he quickly found another mount and returned to the fray. Soon the Federals had the enemy on the run. As one Union officer later commented, it had been “the most gallant charge of the war.”

BOTH CUSTER and Sitting Bull were more than the cardboard cutouts they have since become. Instead of stubborn anachronisms, they were cagey manipulators of the media of their day. Custer’s published accounts of his exploits gave him a public reputation out of all proportion to his actual accomplishments—at least that’s what more than a few fellow Army officers claimed. Sitting Bull gave a series of newspaper interviews in the aftermath of the Little Bighorn that helped make him one of the most sought-after celebrities in America. A tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show only heightened his visibility; it also helped engender the jealousy and resentment that ultimately contributed to his death once he returned to the Standing Rock reservation.

Both Custer and Sitting Bull are often portrayed as grimly resolute in their determination to fight. But even as the first bullets were being fired upon his people, Sitting Bull held out hope that peace, not war, might be the ultimate result of the U.S. Army’s appearance at the Little Bighorn River. Prior to his last battle, Custer had demonstrated a remarkable talent for negotiation and diplomacy. The tragedy of both leaders’ lives is that they were not given the opportunity to explore those alternatives. Instead, they died alongside their families (a son and a brother were killed with Sitting Bull; two brothers, a brother-in- law, and a nephew fell with Custer) and gained undying fame.

Act 2: The Battle

ON THE AFTERNOON of June 21, at the confluence of the Rosebud and Yellowstone rivers, Gen. Alfred Terry, the officer in charge of the campaign against the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne, unveiled his plan in the cabin of the river-boat Far West. In attendance were his aide-de-camp, Col. Robert Hughes; Custer; Col. John Gibbon, commander of the 440-man Montana column that had linked up with Custer’s regiment only a few days before; and Gibbon’s commander of cavalry, James Brisbin. Even though he was the source of their latest and best information about the Indians, Maj. Marcus Reno was not invited to the meeting.

On the table they spread out a map based on a partial survey conducted before the Civil War. Hostile Indians had prevented surveyors from reaching many of the areas on the map. For example, the surveyors had not even seen the Little Bighorn River. That and portions of other rivers, including much of the Rosebud, were represented by dotted lines that could only be described as educated guesses.

Based on information gathered during a scout led by Major Reno as well as a recent report from the Crow, Terry believed that the Lakota and Cheyenne were somewhere to the southwest between the Rosebud and Bighorn rivers, probably in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn. If Custer led the 7th Cavalry up the Rosebud, Terry and the Montana column could work their way up the Bighorn to the west. Because Custer had considerably less distance to cover before he reached the projected location of the Indian village, Terry ordered him to continue south up the Rosebud even if the Indians’ trail headed west. Only after he had marched almost to the Wyoming border should he begin to sweep west. Not only would this postpone Custer’s arrival at the Little Bighorn until about the time Terry and the Montana column were in the vicinity, it might prevent the Indians from escaping to the south. Terry, who was nearsighted, used stick pins to indicate Custer’s line of march and then asked Major Brisbin to use a blue pencil to mark Custer’s projected route.

There was one glaring problem with this plan. As the blue pencil line clearly showed, Terry was ordering Custer to march away from where the village was supposed to be. Did Terry really expect Custer to postpone his own attack and wait for the Montana column to arrive? There was an unwritten code in the military: violating an order was accepted—in fact, encouraged—as long as it resulted in victory. Custer, they all knew, was not going to let a blue pencil line prevent him from becoming a hero once again.

Hindsight has a way of corrupting people’s memories, inviting them to view a past event not as it actually occurred but as they wished it had occurred given the ultimate result. After the disaster, Terry, Gibbon, Brisbin, and Hughes all assured one another that the plan would have worked wonderfully well if Custer had simply obeyed his orders and followed the blue pencil line. If he had done so, he would have arrived at the Little Bighorn just as Terry and Gibbon approached from the north, and victory would have been theirs.

But this does not appear to have been what was considered the most likely scenario at the actual time of the meeting. Terry, it seems clear, expected and wanted Custer to attack if he found a fresh Indian trail. The biggest concern on the evening of June 21 was not the size of the village (which was thought to contain as many as 1,500 warriors); it was that the village might scatter before one of the columns reached it.