- Historic Sites
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
Of course, Wolftooth and Bigfoot had come out of the brush long before then. At daylight they could see the Indian military patrols still on the hills, so they waited for some time. They moved along, keeping under cover, until they ran into more warriors and then some more. Close to fifty men had succeeded in slipping through the military bands and crossing the river that way. They got together and were about halfway up a wooded hill [about four miles east of where the battle was to occur] when they heard someone hollering. Wolftooth looked back and saw a rider on a ridge a mile below them, calling and signalling them to come back.
They turned and galloped back, and when they drew near, the rider began talking in Sioux. Bigfoot could understand it. The soldiers had already ridden down toward the village. Then this party raced back up the creek again to where they could follow one of the ridges to the top, and when they got up there, they saw the last few soldiers going down out of sight toward the river—Glister’s men. Reno’s men had attacked the other end already, but they did not know it.
As the soldiers disappeared, Wolftooth’s band split up. Some followed the soldiers, and the rest went on around a point to cut them off. They caught up there with some that were still going down, and came around them on both sides. The soldiers started shooting; it was the first skirmish of the Custer part of the battle, and it did not last very long. The Indians said they did not try to go in close. After some shooting, both bunches of Indians retreated back to the hills, and the soldiers crossed the south end of the ridge.
The soldiers followed the ridge down to the present cemetery site. Then this bunch of forty or fifty Indians came after them again and started shooting down at them a second time. But the soldiers were moving on down toward the river, across from the Northern Cheyenne camp. Some of the warriors there had come across, and they began firing at the soldiers from the brush in the river bottom. This made the soldiers turn north, but then they went back in the direction they had come from, and stopped when they got to where the cemetery is now. And they waited there—twenty minutes or more. [It may be noted that this Cheyenne version places Glister’s farthest advance a mile or so beyond and west of the ridge where he died and has him retreat to that final position. The most generally accepted story up to now is that he was cut down along the ridge as he moved from the southeast toward the site of his final stand.] The Indians have a joke about his long wait. Beaver Heart said that when the scouts warned Custer about the village, he laughed and said, “When we get to that village, I’m going to find the Sioux girl with the most elk teeth on her dress and take her along with me.” So that is what he was doing those twenty minutes. Looking.
Wolftooth and his band of warriors moved in meanwhile along the ridge above the soldiers. Custer went into the center of a big basin below where the monument is now, and the soldiers of the Gray Horse Company [Company E, under Lieutenant Algernon Smith] got off their horses and moved up on foot. If there had not been so many Indians on the ridge above, they might have retreated over that way, either then or later when the fighting got bad, and gone to join Reno. But there were too many up above, and the firing was getting heavy from the other side now.
Most of the Northern Cheyennes were down at the Custer end of the fight, but one or two were up at the Reno fight with the Sioux. Beaver Heart saw Reno’s men come in close to the Sioux village and make a stand there in some trees after they had crossed the river. But they were almost wiped out. They got on their horses and galloped along the edge of the cottonwood trees on the bank and turned across the river, but it was a bad crossing. The bank on the other side was higher, and the horses had to jump to get on top. So’me fell back when it got wet and slick from the first ones coming out, and many soldiers were killed trying to get away. Some finally made it up onto the hill where they took their stand.
It was about that time that Custer was going in at the lower end, toward the Cheyenne camp. It was hard to keep track of everything at the two battles. A number of Indians went back and forth between the two, but none of them saw everything. Most of them went toward the fight with Custer, once Reno was up on the hill. Wolftooth said they were all shooting at the Custer men from the ridge, but they were careful all the time, taking cover.
Before long, some Sioux criers came along behind the line, and began calling in the Sioux language to get ready and watch for the suicide boys. They said they were getting ready down below to charge together from the river, and when they came in, all the Indians up above should jump up for hand-to-hand fighting. That way the soldiers would not have a chance to shoot, but would be crowded from both sides. The idea was that they had been firing both ways. When the suicide boys came up, they would turn to them and give those behind a chance to come in close. The criers called out those instructions twice. Most of the Cheyennes could not understand them, but the Sioux there told them what had been said.