Last Ghastly Moments At The Little Bighorn

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So much has been written about the Battle of the Little Bighorn that it would seem that everything that can be said about it is already known. But interest in the slaughter of some 225 soldiers and civilians under Lieutenant Colonel George Custer by Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors in June of 1876 has remained high, and the search for new scraps of information about it continues unabated. At the heart of this interest is a mystery which has never been fully solved. It is this: How was it that Custer and all his men were killed?

Some students of Indian warfare have speculated that the warriors simply wore down the surrounded troopers of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry from a distance until casualties were so severe that they could ride in on the survivors. But, in direct contradiction to this, others point to many notable Indian fights of the Plains (Beecher Island, the Wagon Box, the Big Hole, and even another sector of the Little Bighorn battle itself—the attack on Custer’s subordinates, Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen) to show that such tactics woidd have been contrary to Indian custom. In all of these cases the Indians encircled troops for long periods of time, riding around the besieged whites at a safe distance, potshotting at them, dashing at them from time to time, and finally breaking off the engagement and riclina; away.

Such tactics were traditional with the Plains Indians. Once the warriors were satisfied that they had acquitted themselves well and gained honors, had halted the enemy and rendered him powerless, or had secured their camps and enabled their women and children to get safely away, they saw no sense in risking further the lives of their brave men. This was especially true when the Indians began to suffer casualties; then the chiefs would usually counsel their men to end the fight quickly and withdraw.

The following document suggests a hitherto unsuspected factor in the battle: a group of warriors who formed a kind of suicide squad. Their example may provide an explanation of why Glister’s detachment was slaughtered to the last man. Nothing resembling this story has appeared in any previous account of the fight. The question naturally arises, Why not? One answer is that only a comparatively few individuals in the two tribes knew enough about the event to talk about it, and white questioners never happened to talk to these individuals. Another and more likely answer is that those who did know about it considered it too revered a rite to discuss with the race that had conquered them.

It should be remembered that Indians were the only surviving witnesses to the Last Stand and that everything written about Custer’s final moments stems from these Indian informants. The value of many of these accounts is questionable. Most were collected, under extreme pressure, soon afier the battle. The Indians who did talk feared, on the one hand, punishment by the whites, and on the other, contempt from their own people for being informers. Under these circumstances, they often said what they thought their questioners wanted them to say, and concealed information which they thought might bring trouble upon the Indians. They also withheld information concerning tribal customs and beliefs which they felt they had no right to impart to white men, or which white men might have misunderstood. Thus it is not surprising that a number of events at the Little Bighorn went unrecorded except in the oral traditions of the tribes who fought there.

The story that follows is based entirely on the traditions of the Northern Cheyennes, who today live in Montana close to the field on which their forebears fought Custer. The battle accounts were gathered with care and devotion over many years by John Stands in Timber, a Northern Cheyenne who some fifty years ago dedicated himself to the task of being the historian of his people. He decided then that when the time was right he would tell the white man the history of his tribe as his own people knew it. Stands in Timber, a grandson of Lame White Man, who was killed at the Little Bighorn, was educated at the Haskell Institute, a school for Indians in Lawrence, Kansas, and part of his dedication to the history of his people is the result of hearing white men’s versions of events that contradicted what the Indians knew. After returning to the reservation from Haskell, he began to collect tribal stories, gathering them, when possible, from eyewitnesses to and participants in important events. The fear of punishment by whites and the reluctance to reveal many aspects of Indian history persisted among his people for decades. But the old people of the tribe who might be hurt or who might resent the recording of their actions for the whites are now dead. Today, with John Stands in Timber in his eighties, his document can at last be made public.

It will be helped by a brief summation of what is already known of the battle. The command led by Colonel Custer had been an element in a threepronged drive designed to trap a large group of Sioux and Northern Cheyennes who had refused to go onto their reservations. One prong, commanded by General George Crook, moving north into Montana from the North Platte River, had been mauled and turned back by Sioux and Northern Cheyennes at the Rosebud River on June 17, 1876. The second prong, troops from western Montana, and the third prong, a force moving west from the Missouri River, had met on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Rosebud. In the third prong was Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. Unaware of Crook’s withdrawal, the troops on the Yellowstone now planned to turn south and catch the hostile Indians between themselves and Crook’s force.