The Battle Of The Little Bighorn


FOUR DAYS LATER, around noon on Sunday, June 25, after three days and a night of marching, spirits were high as Custer’s regiment prepared to mount up. Instead of adhering to the blue pencil line, they had followed the Indian trail up to the brow of the Wolf Mountains. That morning the Crow scouts reported seeing smoke from a huge village concealed in the valley of the Little Bighorn, about 15 miles to the west.

A soldier in C Company claimed that it would all be over “as soon as we catch Sitting Bull.” Another laughingly responded that Custer would then “take us with him” to the nation’s centennial celebration in Philadelphia. “And we will take Sitting Bull with us!” added another.

For the next three hours Custer and his men marched toward the valley of the Little Bighorn. Custer was anxious for information about what lay ahead, but his view of the village remained hidden behind a series of bluffs. By that time he’d divided the regiment into three battalions commanded by himself and his subordinates, Major Reno and Capt. Frederick Benteen. As Benteen scouted the bluffs to the left and Reno crossed the Little Bighorn and began to approach the unseen village from the south, Custer and his battalion of five companies veered right and climbed out of the valley and onto the bluffs.

Suddenly, they saw it: two miles to the northwest, nestled into the wooded meanders of the Little Bighorn, was the largest Indian village any of them had ever seen: hundreds of gleaming white tepees. Custer had done it. He had somehow managed to catch Sitting Bull’s village by complete surprise in the middle of the day. That in itself was an extraordinary achievement—a stroke of Custer luck that not even he could have dared hope for.

Some of the mounts, exhausted after four days of almost continual marching, began to lag behind; others, spurred on by their enthusiastic riders, began to edge past the regiment’s commander. “Boys, hold your horses,” Custer cautioned, “there are plenty of them down there for us all.”

Up ahead was a prominent hill. Custer ordered the battalion to halt at its base while he and his staff climbed to the top. He surveyed the village with a pair of field glasses. He saw women, children, and dogs lounging tranquilly around the lodges, but no warriors. Where were they? Were they asleep in their tepees? Some of Custer’s officers speculated that they must be off hunting buffalo.

By that time, Reno was already approaching the village from the other side of the Little Bighorn. As Reno’s battalion galloped down the valley from the south, Custer would swoop down out of the hills to the east, and hundreds, if not thousands, of noncombatants would be theirs. When their husbands, fathers, and sons returned to the village, they’d have no choice but to surrender and follow the soldiers back to the reservation.

Custer pulled the binoculars from his eyes and turned toward the five companies waiting expectantly at the bottom of the hill. Beside him were his brother Tom and his adjutant, William Cooke. If all went well, the 7th was about to win its most stunning victory yet. Around 3:30 p.m. on June 25, Custer took off his wide gray hat and waved it exultantly in the clear blue air. “Hurrah boys, we’ve got them!” he shouted. “We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”

UNLIKE CUSTER, RENO could not yet see the village. A loop in the Little Bighorn concealed the tepees behind a line of cottonwood trees. There was also an ever-thickening cloud of dust. As Reno’s battalion drew closer to the shadowy warriors in the dust up ahead, many of the soldiers began to cheer—a laudable sentiment given the circumstances. But Reno wanted none of it. “Stop that noise,” he shouted peevishly. Then he gave the order: “Chaarrrrge!”

Something about the way he said it—a sloppy slurring—caused Pvt. William Taylor to glance over at his commanding officer. He saw Reno in the midst of drinking from a bottle of “amber colored liquid,” which he then passed to his adjutant, Lt. Benny Hodgson. Although just a few minutes before, Reno had expressed worries about his ability to manage his Springfield carbine while galloping on a horse, he apparently had no problems handling a bottle of whiskey.

Drinking before and during a battle was not unusual in the 19th century. If Reno’s conduct over the course of the next half hour is any indication, however, whiskey had a most deleterious effect on his performance as a commanding officer, making him appear hesitant and fearful at a time when his officers and men needed a strong, decisive leader.

On they galloped into the swirling cloud. Unknown to Reno, the shock of his battalion’s unexpected advance had a devastating effect on the noncombatants in the village. “The camp was in the wildest commotion,” Pretty White Buffalo Woman remembered, “and women and children shrieked with terror. More than half the men were absent after the pony herd.” If Reno’s battalion had “brought their horses and rode into camp,” she claimed, “the power of the Lakota nation might have been broken.”

But then something miraculous happened. The soldiers to the south, she gradually realized, had stopped . Instead of charging into the village, Reno’s troops had formed into a stationary skirmish line. Even though almost all the women and children were running for the hills to the amplified, it seems certain, by the insidious workings of alcohol.