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Last Ghastly Moments At The Little Bighorn
A Cheyenne historian whose grandfather was in the battle sheds new light on the slaughter of Custer and his troopers
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
One unit, under Colonel John Gibbon, was ordered to go up the Yellowstone to the Bighorn, then march south along that river to the Little Bighorn. Custer was directed to move south along the Rosebud, parallel to Gibbon; the idea was to trap the Indians between them. Custer, it is believed, was to make a leisurely march and not start across from the Rosebud to the Little Bighorn until the evening of June 25, when Gibbon would have had time to arrive opposite him for a joint attack on June 26. The units separated, and at noon on June 22, Glister started up the Rosebud with some six hundred soldiers, forty-four Arikara and Crow Indian scouts, about twenty packers and guides, and a civilian newspaper correspondent named Mark Kellogg.
The Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors who had repulsed Crook on the Rosebud had meanwhile moved their camps to the Little Bighorn. Their villages, set up in five large circles of tepees and several smaller ones, stretched about three miles along the river’s west bank. The northernmost circle was the village of the Northern Cheyennes, while at the south was that of Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapa Sioux. Between them were Oglalas and other Sioux, together with a small number of Arapahoes. There were probably some ten thousand Indians present, of whom at least three thousand were fighting men.
Custer came up the Rosebud, but on learning from scouts that the hostiles were west of him on the Little Bighorn, turned in that direction, and on the morning of June 25 was ready to do battle alone, without waiting for Gibbon. After surveying the valley of the Little Bighorn, but failing to see the Indian camp and thus understand its exact size and population, he divided his men into four tznits. One was left in the rear to protect the slow-moving pack train. A second, under Captain Frederick Benteen, was sent to scout the hills to the southwest and to prevent the escape of the Indians in that direction. The third, under Major Marcus Reno, was ordered to attack the camp at its southern end, while Custer took the remaining unit of about 225 men to strike the northern end and catch the Indians between his troops and Reno’s.
The Indian forces, of course, were much bigger than Custer had suspected. Reno’s men, accompanied by Arikara scouts, had a sharp battle in the valley, mainly with Sitting Bull’s Hunkpapas; after heavy losses, they retreated to a high bluff across the Little Bighorn from the Indian camp, where they were soon joined by the pack train and Benteen. Heavy firing could be heard from Custer’s direction and an attempt was made to reach him, but it failed. Reno and Benteen then stood off the Indians all night and the next day. The rest of the troops from the Yellowstone arrived the morning of the twenty-seventh. The Indian camp had disbanded the evening of the twenty-sixth. No further fighting had seemed necessary to the Indians, and they had all moved away, out of range of the troops.
Custer’s command was discovered entirely destroyed.
With that background, one can now read John Stands in Timber’s account.
“After the suicide boys came in, it did not take long”
THE attack of Colonel Custer on the Northern Cheyennes and Sioux did not surprise the Indians as much as many people think. They knew the soldiers were in the country looking for them, and they expected trouble, though they did not know just when it would come. My grandfather, Lame White Man, told my grandmother, Twin Woman, the morning before the fight that scouts had reported soldiers on the Rosebud, and when they went farther down [the Rosebud] they also saw the steamship that had brought them supplies, there in the Yellowstone River. White Man Bear’s people were on their way to the Black Hills when they saw them. They did not turn back, but kept on their way, but they met other scouts coming this way and gave them the news. It was after that that the word spread.
The Sioux leaders in the villages sent word that they wanted all the chiefs to gather to discuss what to do if the soldiers approached. They had decided not to start anything, but to find out what the soldiers were going to do, and talk to them if they came in peacefully. “It may be something else they want us to do now, other than go back to the reservation,” they said. “We will talk to them. But if they want to fight we will let them have it, so everybody be prepared.”
They also decided that the camp should be guarded by the military bands, to keep individual warriors from riding out to meet the soldiers. It was a great thing for anyone to do that—to go out and meet the enemy ahead of the rest—and the chiefs did not want this to happen. So it was agreed that both the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne military bands would stand guard. Each band called its men, and toward evening they went on duty. Bunches of them rode to ten or fifteen stations on both sides of the Little Bighorn where they could keep good watch. About sundown, they could be seen all along the hills there.