The Battle Of The Little Bighorn
Fate brought Custer and Sitting Bull together one bloody June evening at the Little Bighorn—and marked the end of the Wild West
Spring 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 1
Sitting Bull appears to have interpreted Reno’s sudden pause as the prelude to possible negotiations. “I don’t want my children fighting until tell them to,” he said. “That army may be com[ing] to make peace, or be officials bringing rations to us.” Sitting Bull had mounted his favorite horse, a handsome gray that is depicted in doting detail in the sequence of drawings he created for his adopted brother, Jumping Bull. When two bullets felled his beloved horse, the Lakota leader quickly abandoned all hopes for peace. “Now my best horse is shot,” he shouted. “It is like they have shot me; attack them.”
The warriors charged into Reno’s soldiers. Sgt. John M. Ryan estimated that there were about 500 Indians in the first wave, which emerged from a ravine-like section of bench land about midway between the skirmish line and the village’s edge. “They tried to cut through our skirmish line,” Ryan wrote. “We poured volleys into them, repulsing their charge . . . and emptying a number of saddles.”
In the beginning, the momentum had all been on Reno’s side, but by hesitating, he had given the village’s warriors the time they needed to collect themselves for a decisive attack. The bolt of fear that had once sizzled across the village like an electric shock had begun to flow back toward the soldiers as they came to realize the growing danger of their situation.
Reno soon ordered his men to fall back into a nearby stand of trees. Instead of attempting to hold off the warriors, he decided to bolt for the bluffs on the other side of the river. The retreat quickly devolved into a rout, and close to half the battalion was either wounded, killed, or missing by the time the soldiers reached what came to be known as Reno Hill, where they were soon joined by Benteen’s battalion and the slow-moving pack train. The whereabouts of Custer, whose battalion had last been seen galloping along the bluffs to the north, was anybody’s guess.
ONCE CUSTER BECAME apprised of the true dimensions of the village and the fact that Reno’s charge had stalled at its edge, he must have realized that he should have kept the two battalions together and led the charge himself. But there was nothing he could do about that now.
In the vicinity of a hill topped by a circular hollow that was later named for his brother-in-law, Lt. James Calhoun, Custer convened his final conference with the officers of his battalion. The prudent thing to do was to backtrack to Reno and reunite the regiment. But to do that was to give up any hope of securing hostages. The only option, in Custer’s mind, was to prepare for a decisive thrust to the north.
Hindsight makes Custer look like an egomaniacal fool.
Within less than an hour, Custer’s bid to secure hostages had been thwarted by an overwhelming display of native firepower, as close to 2,000 warriors surrounded his battalion of approximately 210 officers and men. It began with an attack on the right wing of Custer’s battalion, clustered around Calhoun Hill.
The melee that resulted from the multipronged dissection of the right wing was unlike anything the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors had ever experienced. Cheyenne chief Two Moons later described how difficult it was to see amid the impenetrable black smoke, and how the bullets made the “noise of bees.” Others spoke of the ear-splitting shriek of the Indians’ eagle-bone whistles. Many of the Army troopers were so confounded by the intensity of the fighting that they simply gave up. For Miniconjou warrior Standing Bear, there was little joy in killing such a helpless enemy. “When we rode into these soldiers,” he later told his son, “I really felt sorry for them, they looked so frightened. . . . Many of them lay on the ground, with their blue eyes open, waiting to be killed.”
At the northern extreme of Battle Ridge was a flat-topped hill. Here Custer, his staff, and George W. Yates’s F Company welcomed the refugees from the right wing. To their north, the soldiers of Algernon Smith’s E Company remained deployed in a skirmish line. All around these two groups of soldiers an ever-growing sea of Indians was moving in, “swirling,” Two Moons remembered, “like water round a stone.”
Two miles away, on the flats beside the low hills to the west of the river, Sitting Bull watched with the women and children. The soldiers were, as he’d seen in a second vision two weeks before, falling into their camp. Whereas Custer had frantically divided his regiment—first in an effort to surround a supposedly dispersing village, then in an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain the offensive by securing hostages—Sitting Bull had sought to consolidate his forces from the start. Rather than seek out the enemy, his intention all along had been to let the soldiers come to him. In
the face of Custer’s hyperactive need to do too much, it had proved a brilliant strategy.
Back on Last Stand Hill, the relentless rifle and bow-and-arrow fire had winnowed the white men to only a handful. By this point Custer may have already suffered the first of his two gunshot wounds—a bullet just below the heart. The blast would have knocked him to the ground but not necessarily killed him. Alive but mortally wounded, the Army’s most famous Indian fighter could no longer fight.
That evening on Last Stand Hill, as Custer lay on the ground with a gunshot wound beneath the heart, it may have been his brother Tom who came to his aid. Two days later the brothers were found within 15 feet of each other, and the possibility exists that, rather than see his wounded brother tortured to death, Tom shot Custer through the head. Whatever the case may be, Custer’s second bullet wound was through the temple, just above the left ear.