During his inspection of the battlefield, Benteen decided that there was no pattern to how the more than two hundred bodies of Custer’s battalion were positioned. “I arrived at the conclusion then that I have now,” he testified two and a half years later, “that it was a rout, a panic, till the last man was killed. There was no line on the battlefield; you can take a handful of corn and scatter it over the floor and make just such lines.” Today many of the descendants of the warriors who fought in the battle believe the rout started at the river.
According to these Native accounts, Custer’s portion of the battle began with a charge down Medicine Tail Coulee to the Little Bighorn. The troopers had started to cross the river when the warriors concealed on the west bank opened fire. The grandmother of Sylvester Knows Gun, a northern Cheyenne, was there. The troopers were led, she told her grandson, by an officer in a buckskin coat, and he was “the first one to get hit.” As the officer slumped in his saddle, three soldiers quickly converged around the horse of their wounded leader. “They got one on each side of him,” she said, “and the other one got in front of him, and grabbed the horse’s reins . . . , and they quickly turned around and went back across the river.” Sylvester Knows Gun maintained that this was Custer and that he was dead by the time he reached Last Stand Hill.
The wounding, if not death, of Custer at the early stages of the battle would explain much. Suddenly leaderless, the battalion dissolved in panic. According to Sylvester Knows Gun, the battle was over in just twenty minutes.
There is evidence, however, that Custer was very much alive by the time he reached Last Stand Hill. Unlike almost all the other weapons fired that day, Custer’s Remington sporting rifle used brass instead of copper cartridge casings, and a pile of these distinctive casings was found near his body. There is also evidence that Custer’s battalion, instead of being on the defensive almost from the start, remained on the offensive for almost two hours before it succumbed to the rapid disintegration described by Sylvester Knows Gun and others.
It may very well be that the warriors’ descendants have it right. But given the evidence found on and in the ground, along with the recorded testimony of many of the battle participants, it seems likely that Custer lived long enough to try to repeat his success at the Washita by capturing the village’s women and children. What follows is a necessarily speculative account of how this desperate attempt to secure hostages ultimately led to Custer’s Last Stand.
Runs the Enemy had just helped drive Reno’s battalion across the river on the afternoon of June 25. He was returning to the village when he saw two Indians up on the ridge to the right, each one waving a blanket. They were shouting, he remembered, that “the genuine stuff was coming.”
He immediately crossed the river and rode to the top of the hill. He couldn’t believe what he saw: troopers, many more troopers than he and the others had just chased to the bluffs behind them. “They seemed to fill the whole hill,” he said. “It looked as if there were thousands of them, and I thought we would surely be beaten.” In the valley to the north, in precisely the same direction the troopers were riding, were thousands of noncombatants, some of them moving down the river toward a hollow beside a small creek, others gathered at the edge of the hills to the west, but all within easy reach of a swiftly moving regiment of cavalry. While Runs the Enemy and the others had been battling the first group of soldiers, this other, larger group of washichus had found a way around them and were now about to capture their women and children.
He rushed down to the encampment where the Lakota warriors returning from the battle with Reno’s battalion had started to gather. “I looked into their eyes,” he remembered, “and they looked different—they were filled with fear.” At that moment Sitting Bull appeared. Riding a buckskin horse back and forth, he addressed the warriors along the river’s edge. “A bird, when it is on its nest, spreads its wings to cover the nest and eggs and protect them,” Sitting Bull said. “It cannot use its wings for defense, but it can cackle and try to drive away the enemy. We are here to protect our wives and children, and we must not let the soldiers get them. Make a brave fight!”
As the warriors splashed across the river and climbed into the hills, Sitting Bull and his nephew One Bull headed down the valley. They must prepare the women and children to move quickly. As Sitting Bull admitted to a newspaper reporter a year and a half later, “[W]e thought we were whipped.”
In the vicinity of a hill topped by a circular hollow that was later named for his brother-in-law Lieutenant James Calhoun, Custer convened his final conference with the officers of his battalion. The Left Wing had just returned from its trip to the river. The Right Wing had marched up from a ridge to the south where it had been waiting for the imminent arrival of Frederick Benteen. The white-haired captain and his battalion were still nowhere in sight, but Custer could take solace in knowing that even though Benteen had dawdled at the Washita, he had come through splendidly in the end.
Ever since the Crow’s Nest, Custer had been pushing as hard as he possibly could. His scouts had told him it was a big village, but they had also told him the Indians were on the run. So he had divided his command rather than let the Indians slip away. To send Benteen off to the left was one thing; to veer suddenly to the right and climb to the bluffs while Reno charged a village of unconfirmed size was quite another. That had been a mistake, he could now see, but there was still a way to win this battle. If he could cross the river to the north and secure hostages, he’d have the key to victory. But to accomplish this, he needed more men.
Given the large size of the village, the prudent thing to do was to backtrack to Reno and Benteen and reunite the regiment. But to do that was to give up any hope of securing hostages. The only option, to Custer’s mind, was to prepare for a decisive thrust to the north. As Captain Myles Keogh and the Right Wing continued to wait for Benteen, he and Yates’s Left Wing would scout out a ford. The plan required Custer to divide his already divided command once again, but only temporarily. Even before he’d found the crossing, Keogh and Benteen should be on their way to join him for the attack.
The risks, of course, were considerable. But Custer’s all-or-nothing approach was not new. At the Washita, he might have attacked the huge village to the east if the scout Ben Clark had not talked him out of it. As recently as the Yellowstone campaign of 1873, Custer had launched into a much larger force of well-armed Lakota warriors and might have been wiped out if not for the arrival of General Stanley’s artillery. Soon after that engagement, Captain Yates had been sitting on a log with two other officers. “Gentlemen,” one of them said, “it is only a question of time until Custer will get us into a hole from which we will not escape.”
The Crow interpreter and scout Mitch Boyer had never served with Custer prior to this campaign. He had undoubtedly heard of the general’s reputation for aggressiveness, but this last-minute push for hostages seems to have struck him as doomed from the start. The other battalions, Boyer told Curley, had been “scared out” and were not about to respond to Custer’s summons. “That man,” Boyer said, “will stop at nothing. He is going to take us right into the village, where there are many more warriors than we are. We have no chance at all.”
Eight years before, at the Battle of the Washita, a scout had somehow managed to persuade Custer to relent. Not this time. Boyer advised Curley to escape to the east before it was too late. For his part, Boyer elected to remain with Custer to the end.
Hindsight makes Custer look like an egomaniacal fool. But as Sitting Bull, Runs the Enemy, and many other Lakota and Cheyenne realized that day, he came frighteningly close to winning the most spectacular victory of his career.
From a distance the surrounding hills of grass and sagebrush seemed to be smooth and rolling; in actuality, they were crisscrossed with hidden coulees, gulches, and ravines. As Custer and the Left Wing marched north and Keogh’s Right Wing awaited Benteen in the vicinity of Calhoun Hill to the south, hundreds of warriors streamed up from the Little Bighorn through this vast, virtually invisible network of dry watercourses.
From earliest childhood, a warrior was taught how to stalk game without being detected, and this was exactly what was happening now. The Cheyenne and Lakota could see the soldiers, Wooden Leg remembered, but “the soldiers could not see our warriors, as they had left their ponies and were crawling in the gullies through the sagebrush.” The Cheyenne Kate Bighead had been at the Washita when Custer had attacked eight years before. After hiding in the brush during Reno’s attack, she was now on a pony, well back from the soldiers on the hill, and not even she could see the warriors creeping toward Keogh’s battalion. The only evidence she could detect of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Indians infiltrating the hills was the many ponies left tied to the sagebrush.
Every now and then one of the warriors leapt up, fired his rifle, and disappeared once again into the grass as he continued to work his way toward the soldiers. Arrows were even more effective in harassing the troopers and especially their horses. The arrow could be launched in a high, arching curve without betraying the location of the warrior with a telltale cloud of black powder smoke. “The arrows falling upon the horses stuck in their backs,” Wooden Leg remembered, “and caused them to go plunging here and there, knocking down the soldiers.”
Some of the warriors grew impatient with the slow creep toward the enemy. Remaining mounted, they rode back and forth in front of the soldiers, inviting them to fire. One of these was Sitting Bull’s nephew White Bull. Leaning over the side of his bareback pony while he clung to the mane with both hands, White Bull set out on a daring bravery run that elicited a crackling shower of carbine fire. There were others, Wooden Leg remembered, who challenged the soldiers to shoot at them. Several times Keogh’s soldiers attempted to check the rising tide of warriors with a volley or two, but for the most part the firing on both sides remained haphazard and ineffective. According to Kate Bighead, this period of “fighting slowly, with not much harm to either side” lasted for close to an hour and a half.
—THE LAST STAND, June 25, 1876—
As anyone who has ridden a horse across the Little Bighorn Battlefield knows, once you are down within the smothering embrace of this grassy landscape, you have no way of knowing what is happening around you. It is quite likely that as the troopers of the Left Wing worked their way north, they found themselves in a surprisingly quiet, self-contained world, almost completely insulated from the growing sense of alarm gripping the officers and men of the Right Wing to the south.
About a mile to the north, Custer, Yates, and the Left Wing found a buffalo trail that led down from the ridge to the river. As they approached the Little Bighorn, a group of young Cheyenne warriors fired on them from the hills behind. Ahead of them, on the south side of a wide loop in the river, was what they were looking for: a ford that provided access to the noncombatants gathered a short distance to the west.
Concealed in the brush beside the river was a group of Cheyenne warriors. As had occurred earlier at Medicine Tail Coulee, the warriors opened fire as soon as the Left Wing approached the river. “[The warriors] hit one horse down there,” Hanging Wolf remembered, “and it bucked off a soldier, but the rest took him along when they retreated north.” As had also been true during Custer’s earlier venture to the river, this was a reconnaissance mission, and the troopers quickly turned back.
Whether it was fired by the Indians stationed at the ford or by those in the hills to the east, one of the warriors’ bullets struck and killed the newspaper reporter Mark Kellogg. Three days later, the reporter’s body, all by itself along the remote reaches of the river, was one of the last to be discovered.
Having found a place to cross the river, Custer and the Left Wing rode up to a nearby ridge, where they awaited the arrival of Keogh and Benteen. They waited for twenty minutes, according to John Stands in Timber, who received his information from Wolf’s Tooth, one of the young Cheyenne warriors who had been following Custer’s command since it left the Right Wing to the south. By this point, Custer must have been seething with impatience and indignation. The collapse of Reno’s battalion had been unfortunate, but it had also prepared the way for a masterstroke to the north—a masterstroke that depended, unfortunately, on the arrival of Benteen. Just as Reno and Benteen were sitting on their hill to the south raging against Custer, Custer and his staff were, no doubt, raging against Reno and Benteen.
After twenty minutes had passed, the soldiers of the Left Wing finally began to retrace their steps. A messenger from Keogh may have alerted Custer to the presence of a potentially overwhelming number of Indians to the south, not to mention the fact that there was no sign of Benteen. Custer could have rejoined Keogh and the Right Wing. Calhoun Hill was the best piece of ground they had so far seen for a defensive stand. But that would have required Custer to give up all hope of attacking the Indians to the north. Instead of rejoining Keogh, Custer redeployed the Left Wing in the vicinity of a flat-topped hill about three-quarters of a mile to the north of the Right Wing. Custer’s battalion was still stretched dangerously thin, but now the two wings were close enough to be consolidated, if necessary, without eliminating entirely the possibility of a final push to the north.
Years later Wolf’s Tooth described how one portion of the Left Wing (probably Yates’s troop) positioned itself with the horses in a basin on the river side of the flat-topped hill while another group of troopers, probably Lieutenant Algernon Smith’s E Company, moved on foot to a ridge to the north. As had been occurring down to the south around Calhoun Hill, warriors had been streaming across the river and working their way up into the hills, and it was now necessary to address the growing threat to the north. Even now, at this late stage, the enemy fire was more of a nuisance than a threat. But that was about to change.
Much as Yates had just done with the Left Wing, Keogh had kept his own I Company, as well as Lieutenant Henry Harrington’s C Company, in reserve in a section of low ground where the horses could be protected from potential attack. He positioned the company of Custer’s brother-in-law Lieutenant James Calhoun around the shallow basin at the top of the rise known today as Calhoun Hill.
It had been an excruciating hour of waiting. They knew the Indians were out there; they just couldn’t see them as the warriors wriggled and squirmed their way through the grassy coulees and ravines. The troopers’ biggest concern was to the southwest. A prominent ridge that overlooked the eastern banks of the Little Bighorn, known today as Greasy Grass Ridge, was brimming with hundreds of warriors, who were beginning to spill over in their direction. Keogh directed Lieutenant Harrington and C Company to charge these Indians and drive them back to the river.
Wooden Leg watched as the forty or so soldiers galloped about five hundred yards toward a group of warriors assembled on a low ridge. As Keogh had hoped, the warriors fled for the safety of a nearby gulch and C Company took the ridge. Initially, the soldiers remained mounted. But as they came to realize that the Indians were, in the words of the Cheyenne Yellow Nose, “not intimidated,” the troopers got off their horses and formed a skirmish line. Some of the warriors later told Sitting Bull how the troopers’ legs trembled when they dismounted from their horses. “They could not stand firmly on their feet,” Sitting Bull told a reporter. “They swayed to and fro . . . like the limbs of cypresses in a great wind. Some of them staggered under the weight of their guns.” The soldiers were certainly exhausted, but they were also trembling with fear.
They soon realized that the warriors who’d fled from the ridge were not the only Indians in the vicinity. “The soldiers evidently supposed [the warriors] were few in number . . . ,” Yellow Nose recalled. “Their mistake was soon apparent as the Indians seemed really to be springing from the ground.” One of the older warriors in the battle was the thirty-seven-year-old Cheyenne Lame White Man. He’d been in a sweat lodge beside the Little Bighorn when Reno’s battalion first attacked. He had not had time to properly dress before he took after Custer’s battalion in the hills to the east. He now sat astride his pony with his loose hair unbraided and just a blanket wrapped around his waist, exhorting the young warriors “to come back and fight.”
“All around,” Wooden Leg remembered, “the Indians began jumping up, running forward, dodging down, jumping up again, down again, all the time going toward the soldiers.” “There were hundreds of warriors,” Kate Bighead recalled, “many more than one might have thought could hide themselves in those small gullies.” The troopers of C Company suddenly realized that they were outnumbered by more than twenty to one.
Lame White Man was one of the warriors leading the charge against C Company, but there was also the diminutive Cheyenne Yellow Nose. Actually, Yellow Nose was a Ute who’d been captured along with his mother when he was just four years old, and that afternoon he distinguished himself as one of the bravest warriors in the battle. Three times he attempted to convince the young warriors to follow him after the soldiers. It was only on the fourth attempt that he was successful, and as he and Lame White Man and their hundreds of followers rushed toward the skirmish line of C Company, he saw a soldier riding toward him with a flagstaff in his hand. Instead of holding the guidon upright in the usual fashion, the flag bearer, who may not have had time to reload his carbine, was attempting to spear Yellow Nose with the brass ferule at the end of the staff. Thinking it was some kind of gun, Yellow Nose yanked the guidon out of the soldier’s hands.
Custer’s brother Tom had been awarded two Medals of Honor for capturing the enemy’s flag during the Civil War. Yellow Nose not only accomplished this largely ceremonial feat, he gave it a decidedly Native twist by audaciously tapping the color-bearer with his own guidon. Of all the many acts of bravery during the Custer battle, none was more remarked upon by the Indians than when Yellow Nose counted coup with a Seventh Cavalry flagstaff.
A billowing pall of black powder smoke followed the warriors’ advance. “A great roll of smoke seemed to go down the ravine,” Runs the Enemy remembered. Those soldiers who were not killed within this murderous cloud retreated back to Calhoun’s troop on the hill. Two days later, when the survivors of the siege on Reno Hill came to bury the dead, some of the first bodies they recognized were those of Sergeants Jeremiah Finley and George Finckle of C Company. Of the original forty soldiers of the company, just half made it back to Calhoun Hill.
Several of the warriors commented on a mounted officer whom they regarded as “the bravest man they had ever seen.” “He alone saved his command a number of times,” Red Horse insisted, “by turning on his horse in the rear in the retreat. In speaking of him, the Indians call him, ‘The man who rode the horse with four white feet.’ ” Red Horse remembered this officer as having long yellow hair, but that detail may have been inspired by the belated realization that the famed Long Hair had led the attack. The Cheyenne Two Moons, on the other hand, claimed that this particular officer had “long black hair and a mustache.” C Company’s Lieutenant Harrington fit that description, and since his company was the first to be attacked that afternoon, he had more opportunities than any other officer to distinguish himself by courageously covering the retreat of his men.
But as Harrington, whose body was never identified, and the other survivors of C Company soon learned, the refuge of Calhoun Hill was no refuge at all.
In 1983 fire ravaged the Little Bighorn Battlefield. This provided a team of archaeologists and volunteers with the chance to sweep the denuded site with metal detectors and analyze what they found. In addition to buttons, picket pins, bones, bits of clothing, and other assorted objects, the archaeologists found dozens upon dozens of shell casings.
The casings were analyzed by weapons experts who determined that in addition to the Springfield carbines and Colt revolvers fired by the soldiers, there were forty-three additional types of weapons used by the Indians. Some of these were old-style muzzle loaders and single-shot rifles, but a startlingly large number of warriors, perhaps as many as three hundred, possessed modern repeating rifles manufactured by Henry and Winchester capable of firing seventeen rounds without reloading. One ridge just to the southwest of Calhoun Hill possessed so many cartridges from the Indians’ repeaters that the archaeologists dubbed the site Henryville. Custer’s battalion, with its single-shot carbines, was overwhelmingly outgunned.
By all accounts, the rapidity of fire was extraordinary. “The shooting was quick, quick,” Two Moons told an interpreter. “Pop—pop—pop, very fast.” The Crow scout Curley, who had left the battalion by this point and was observing the battle from a distant hill to the east, likened the sound to “the snapping of the threads in the tearing of a blanket.” Answering as best they could with their carbines, Calhoun’s troopers, who were deployed in a semicircle with Calhoun and his second lieutenant, John Crittenden, exhorting them from behind, fired off round after round. “The soldiers stood in line,” Red Hawk remembered, “and made a very good fight. The soldiers delivered volley after volley into the dense ranks of the Indians without any perceptible effect on account of their great numbers.” When he inspected the hill two days later, Captain Moylan, who was married to Calhoun’s sister, reported finding as many as forty cartridge casings beside one dead soldier and twenty-eight beside another. It was, most probably, the firing at Calhoun Hill that attracted the attention of the officers and men of Reno’s battalion.
Just as devastating as the Henry and Winchester repeating rifles were the Indians’ arrows. If half of the two thousand warriors fired ten arrows each during the engagement, that would have been a total of ten thousand arrows, or about forty arrows per soldier. When combined with the roar of guns and the acrid clouds of black powder smoke, this deadly rain of steel-tipped arrows did much to harry both the soldiers and the horses, many of which were gathered in a draw behind Calhoun Hill and were becoming increasingly difficult to manage.
Since every fourth soldier was required to remain mounted and hold the horses for the other three, the company’s firepower was reduced by 25 percent. In order to better the odds against the daunting number of Indians, Keogh had apparently directed the horse holders to take on twice the usual number of horses so that additional soldiers could join the skirmish line. The Hunkpapa Moving Robe Woman, who was still intent on avenging the death of her brother Deeds, noticed that some of the mounted soldiers were “holding the reins of eight or ten horses.”
The Hunkpapa warrior Gall had made the troopers’ horses his personal priority. Like Moving Robe Woman, he had already suffered a terrible personal loss when he learned of the deaths of his two wives and three children. By taking the soldiers’ horses, he was not only taking something of vital importance to the enemy but also securing something of great value to his tribe, especially since the saddlebags on each horse contained the soldiers’ reserves of ammunition.
Gall and his warriors were working up a ravine toward Calhoun’s and Keogh’s troops when they came upon the mother lode: dozens of horses hidden in a ravine “without any other guard than the horse-holders.” As some of Gall’s warriors waved their blankets and others fired on the soldiers, the horses leapt and whinnied and, after yanking free from the holders, stampeded for the river. So many horses poured out of the hollow that many of the Indians to the west assumed they were being charged by the enemy. Only later did they realize that the horses they’d fired upon had been without any riders.
After this catastrophic loss, Calhoun’s and Keogh’s troopers started to hold on jealously to what horses remained. “They held their horses’ reins on one arm while they were shooting,” Low Dog remembered, “but their horses were so frightened that they pulled the men all around, and a great many of their shots went up in the air.”
As pressures mounted to the south, Crazy Horse struck to the north. Extending between Calhoun Hill and the flat-topped knob where Custer and the Left Wing had deployed was a hogback that came to be known as Battle Ridge. For Keogh’s Right Wing, this narrow ridge, which extended north like the sharp-edged spine of a gigantic and partially buried beast, was both a bulwark against the Indians and a potential pathway to Custer and the Left Wing. By riding his pony through a slight gap in the forty-yard-wide ridge, Crazy Horse managed singlehandedly to break the Right Wing in half. “Crazy Horse was the bravest man I ever saw . . . ,” marveled the Arapaho Waterman. “All the soldiers were shooting at him, but he was never hit.”
While Crazy Horse smashed through the line of troopers, the Cheyenne leader Lame White Man, dressed in a newly acquired blue trooper’s coat, prepared to mount a fierce northern thrust along the western edge of Battle Ridge. To the north a group of young warriors that John Stands in Timber called “the Suicide Boys” also charged into the soldiers, purposely drawing their fire so that other warriors could attack the troopers as they struggled to reload. Stands in Timber went so far as to insist that if not for the reckless abandon of the Suicide Boys, who transformed what had been a largely long-distance fight into a hand-to-hand struggle, the battle might have degenerated into an unsatisfactory siege similar to what later occurred on Reno Hill.
To the south the warriors realized that the time was right to charge Calhoun Hill. “The dust created from the stampeding horses and powder smoke made everything dark and black,” Moving Robe Woman remembered. “Flashes from carbines could be seen. . . . I never heard such whooping and shouting. ‘There is never a better time to die,’ shouted Red Horse.”
With the cry of “Hi-Yi-Yi,” the war chiefs plunged ahead as their warriors whipped one another’s horses and followed them into the maelstrom. “The Indians kept coming like an increasing flood which could not be checked,” Red Hawk recalled. “The soldiers were swept off their feet; they could not stay; the Indians were overwhelming.”
Gall remembered that the soldiers were “shot down in line where they stood.” Lieutenants Calhoun and Crittenden both died in the rear of their platoons, fighting back to back to the very end. Shell casings from Calhoun’s revolver were found around his body, which was identified by the distinctive fillings in his teeth. Crittenden was easier to identify. Eight months before his death, he’d lost his left eye in a hunting accident. On June 25, an arrow sliced into the upper portion of his face and shattered his glass eye.
The survivors from Calhoun Hill fled north through what has since been called Horse Holders’ Ravine, toward Captain Keogh’s I Company. The collapse to the south came so suddenly that Keogh’s soldiers had little time to mount an effective defense. Inevitably adding to the panic and confusion was the immobilization of the company’s commander when a gunshot shattered Keogh’s left leg and severely injured his horse, Comanche. As the company’s sergeants gathered around their fallen leader, the warriors pounced, and I Company’s soldiers “were all,” Gall remembered, “killed in a bunch.”
Today the cluster of a dozen and a half marble headstones, all of them grouped in a hollow on the eastern side of Battle Ridge, testifies to the terrifying swiftness of the slaughter. Included in that group was C Company’s First Sergeant Edwin Bobo, who had just survived two devastating Indian charges only to die with Keogh and his men in what was later described as a buffalo wallow. Unlike every other body in the group, Keogh’s was left untouched. Hanging from his neck was a medallion with the image of the Lamb of God known as an Agnus Dei. Some have speculated that it was out of respect for this sacred object that the warriors chose not to mutilate Keogh’s body.
The melee that resulted from the multipronged dissection of the Right Wing was unlike anything the warriors had ever experienced in their encounters with army soldiers. Two Moons told of how difficult it was to see amid the impenetrable black smoke and how the bullets made “a noise like bees.” Others spoke of the earsplitting shriek of the eagle-bone whistles. Each warrior depended on his own medicine for protection, and in the dizzying swirl of dust and noise a blanket could become bulletproof and a stuffed bird, often worn as a headdress, might start to sing. Gall claimed that “the Great Spirit was present riding over the field, mounted on a coal black pony and urging the braves on.”
Many of the troopers were so confounded by the intensity of the fighting that they simply gave up. “These soldiers became foolish,” Red Horse remembered, “many throwing away their guns and raising their hands saying, ‘Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners. . . .’ None were left alive.” Many of the warriors became convinced that the soldiers must have been drunk, “firing into the ground, into the air, wildly in every way.” Shoots Walking, who was just sixteen during the battle, told of killing two soldiers who stood dumbly by with their carbines in their hands. “They did not know enough to shoot,” he said. For 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.”
Inevitably, given the excitement and poor visibility, several warriors fell to friendly fire. “The Indians were knocking each other from their steeds,” Horned Horse remembered, “and it is an absolute fact that the young [warriors] in their . . . fury killed each other, several dead Indians being found killed by arrows.” Waterman’s Arapaho friend Left Hand mistakenly lanced a young Lakota warrior to death. Kate Bighead’s teenage cousin Noisy Walking was mortally wounded by a Lakota. Yet another Lakota killed the Cheyenne chief Lame White Man, perhaps because his new soldier’s coat fooled the warrior into thinking he was an Arikara scout.
Yellow Nose watched as two mounted warriors smashed into each other. “Both fell down and rolled,” he told an interpreter, “and he nearly ran into them himself.” Wooden Leg saw a warrior stagger, fall, then woozily rise to a stand. When the cloud of smoke and dust parted slightly, he realized that the warrior’s entire lower jaw had been shot away. Wooden Leg turned and vomited into a nearby clump of sagebrush.
There was at least one warrior who found the terrible chaos of that day to his liking. White Bull enjoyed a good-natured rivalry with Crazy Horse, and he later claimed that his bravery run had been what had inspired the Oglala warrior to cut the Right Wing in half. Whatever the case may be, White Bull plunged into the resultant pandemonium with a will. He accumulated seven coups that day, but his most memorable encounter occurred on the west side of Battle Ridge soon after his horse was shot out from underneath him. Ahead was a soldier with his carbine raised. Unlike so many troopers that day, this soldier wanted to fight. When White Bull charged at him, the trooper threw aside his weapon and wrestled White Bull to the ground.
The Lakota warrior soon found himself in the midst of a death struggle. The soldier tried to rip the rifle out of his hands, and when that didn’t work, punched White Bull in the face and shoulders, then grabbing him by his braids, pulled his face toward him, and attempted to bite off his nose. “Hey, hey, come over and help me!” White Bull cried out to the other warriors. But when Crow Boy and Bear Lice began punching and kicking, it was White Bull who received most of the abuse. In desperation, he screamed into the trooper’s face at the top of his lungs. When the trooper’s grip relaxed, White Bull pulled out his revolver and finally managed to pistol whip the soldier to death.
“It was a glorious battle,” he recalled. “I enjoyed it.”
As the Right Wing collapsed, the surviving soldiers attempted to make their way north along the narrow ridge toward Custer and the Left Wing. “The men on horses did not stop to fight,” Foolish Elk remembered, “but went ahead as fast as they could go. The men on foot, however, were shooting as they passed along.” Of the approximately 115 troopers of Keogh’s Right Wing, only about 20 made it to Custer and the Left Wing.
At the northern extreme of Battle Ridge was a flat-topped hill. Here Custer, his staff, and Yates’s F Company welcomed the refugees from the Right Wing. To their north, the soldiers of Smith’s E Company remained deployed in a skirmish line. All around these two groups of soldiers the 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. One Bull remembered that his uncle was dressed in buckskin, with a shirt decorated with green quillwork. Instead of a war bonnet, he wore a single feather and was without war paint.
During the sun dance on the Rosebud, he had foreseen exactly what was happening now. The soldiers were, as he predicted, 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 (as the young warriors had forced him to do at the Rosebud Fight), 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 proven a brilliant strategy.
As a child, Sitting Bull had been known as “Slow” because of his unusually methodical manner. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, this lifelong habit of carefully studying a situation before he acted had contributed to one of his people’s greatest victories.
As the battle reached its terrible climax, the fighting moved north to the knoll where just the night before he and One Bull had appealed to Wakan Tanka. The hill was at the edge of a huge cloud of smoke and dust, similar to the one he had seen in his first vision of the soldiers. But instead of lightning, the immense and brooding cloud was filled with flashes from the muzzles of hundreds of blazing guns.
Two Moons claimed that as Custer and the Left Wing assembled around what came to be known as Last Stand Hill, “not a shot was fired.” “They were,” he said, “making preparations.” Five or six dead horses were later found on the hill’s thirty-foot-wide plateau as part of an apparent attempt to provide the survivors with a barricade. Adjutant Cooke may have busied himself with scribbling several messages that were never delivered. Dr. George Lord, who had been so ill that morning that Custer had attempted to persuade him to let Dr. Porter go in his stead, probably tended to the wounded. Carbines and pistols were reloaded, and plans were made for the soldiers of E Company, who at some point abandoned their skirmish line to the north and temporarily reunited with the rest of the battalion, to make one last run for the river.
The body of the troop’s commander, Lieutenant Algernon Smith, was later found on Last Stand Hill. This would suggest that he was either wounded or already dead before the company’s final charge toward the river. Two Moons spoke of a wounded officer dressed in buckskin seen staggering from the vicinity of E Company’s skirmish line toward Last Stand Hill. If this was Lieutenant Smith, leadership of the Gray Horse Troop then went to Smith’s second lieutenant, James Sturgis, son of the Seventh Cavalry’s putative commander, Colonel Samuel Sturgis. At twenty-two, Lieutenant Sturgis was the youngest officer in the regiment. His father and Custer had always had a prickly relationship, and the young lieutenant was now about to lead his company in Custer’s final attempt to break through to the Little Bighorn. Custer appears to have given Sturgis the assistance of the interpreter and scout Mitch Boyer.
When the fighting resumed, it was, once again, at long range. Kate Bighead was watching from the sidelines along with a large audience of old men and boys and could see that the warriors were following the same stratagem that had proven so successful against the Right Wing. There were, Kate remembered, “hundreds of warriors for every white soldier left alive,” and the Indians were “creeping closer and closer.”
Suddenly, a large number of riderless horses, most of them grays, bolted from the hill. “They are gone!” the Indians shouted. It seems to have been an attempt on the soldiers’ part at a diversion. As the warriors scrambled to catch the horses, about forty troopers, most of them on foot, bounded down from the hill and charged for the river. Once again the warriors cried out, “They are gone!”
“When this band of soldiers charged,” Red Horse remembered, “the Sioux fell back and the Sioux and the soldiers stood . . . facing each other.” But not for long. “Then all the Sioux became brave and charged the soldiers.” One of the warriors was Iron Hawk, who drew back his bow and shot an arrow through a soldier’s rib cage. “I heard him scream,” he remembered. Soon Iron Hawk was on top of another soldier and pounding him over the head with his wooden bow. “I was very mad,” he told an interpreter, “because the women and children had run away scared and I was thinking about this when I did this killing.”
It’s about three-quarters of a mile from Last Stand Hill to the river, and those soldiers who hadn’t already been killed realized they’d never make it to the Little Bighorn. So they swerved to the left toward a steep-sided gulch known as Deep Ravine. Close to thirty of them dove into this dark and bushy cleft in the ground only to be shot with rifles and arrows and battered to death with stone clubs. Two days later, the walls of the ravine were still etched by the soldiers’ frantic attempts to climb out; a year later, Lieutenant John Bourke looked down into this grassy pocket and saw seven skulls, four of them clustered together like eggs in a nest.
After the fire of 1983, archaeologists discovered some facial bones near Deep Ravine. The bones were later determined to be from a man in his midthirties whose teeth displayed the wear pattern of a pipe smoker. Since it was also established that the man was of French-Lakota ancestry, this could only have been Mitch Boyer.
Boyer had been philosophical about his chances of surviving the campaign. Even if he was destined to die, he said, he could take consolation in knowing that he’d already killed so many Lakota that they could never even the score. Apparently, not even Boyer had anticipated this terrible a result. After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, his debt in Lakota lives had been paid in full.
Lieutenant Sturgis’s body was never officially identified. Several decapitated corpses were found near the river at the mouth of Deep Ravine, and one soldier later claimed he recognized Sturgis’s scorched head along with several others in a Lakota fire pit. Out of respect for Sturgis’s mother, who visited the battlefield several years later, a grave marker was placed in the vicinity of Last Stand Hill. The possibility exists, however, that the young lieutenant came as close as anyone in the Gray Horse Troop to reaching Sitting Bull’s village.
Back on Last Stand Hill, the relentless rifle and bow-and-arrow fire had winnowed the washichus to only a handful. By this point Custer may already have suffered his first of 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, America’s most famous Indian fighter could no longer fight.
That evening on Last Stand Hill, as he lay on the ground with a gunshot wound to the chest, it may have been his brother Tom who came to his aid. Two days later the brothers were found within fifteen 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 left temple.
Captain Yates and most of his Bandbox Troop were also found in the vicinity of Last Stand Hill, as was Custer’s adjutant, William Cooke. Tom Custer appears to have been one of the last to die. If the intense mutilation inflicted on Tom’s body is any indication, he fought with an unmatched fury, and it may have been the Cheyenne Yellow Nose who killed him.
By this late stage in the battle, Yellow Nose had lost his rifle. He was fighting with the old saber he’d been given by a Shoshone boy who, like him, had grown up as a captive among the Cheyenne. One of the soldiers in the final group was “so striking and gallant” that Yellow Nose decided that “to kill him would be a feat of more than ordinary prowess.” Already the soldier had fired at him at such close range that Yellow Nose’s face was scorched with black powder and his eyes were awash in blood.
Once again Yellow Nose charged, and this time, the soldier’s revolver was out of bullets. The soldier was dressed in a buckskin jacket and had a red and yellow bandanna around his neck. There were tears in the soldier’s eyes, Yellow Nose remembered, “but no sign of fear.” The Cheyenne walloped the soldier on the back of his head with the broad side of the sword’s blade and he sank to the ground. When Tom’s body was discovered two days later, his skull had been pounded to the thickness of a man’s hand. If not for the tattoo marks on his arm, his eviscerated body would never have been identified.
Tom may have been attempting to occupy the warriors’ attention as two family members, his brother Boston and his nephew Autie Reed, fled toward the river. Boston’s and Autie’s bodies were later found a hundred yards to the west of Last Stand Hill, and the two relatives may have held out hope of joining the soldiers still fighting for their lives in Deep Ravine.
Eight years before, during the weeks prior to the Washita campaign, Custer had written Libbie asking whether she might consider adopting Autie, who was then ten years old. Nothing had come of it, but now the nephew who might have become the son Custer never had lay dead beside Custer’s brother Boston.
Almost all Native accounts of the battle claim that there was one soldier who almost escaped. The details vary but the essential story is this: A soldier on a powerful horse suddenly bolts from the hill and miraculously breaks through the Indians and makes for open ground. Several warriors take off in pursuit, but the soldier’s horse is strong, and it begins to look as if he might actually get away. Then, just as the Indians give up the chase, the soldier pulls out his pistol and shoots himself in the head.
The identity of this soldier will never be definitively known. However, some recent forensic analysis of a skull found in a remote portion of the battlefield offers evidence that the lone rider may have been Lieutenant Henry Harrington, the commander of C Company. If this is true, Harrington, who would have led the first charge from Calhoun Hill toward Greasy Grass Ridge and who may have been the officer several warriors heralded as “the bravest man,” had survived several overwhelming warrior onslaughts only to die, possibly by his own hand, at the very end of the battle.
Once the soldiers’ fire had dwindled to nothing, a warrior cried out, “All of the white men are dead.” This unleashed a mad scramble for the hilltop. “The air was full of dust and smoke . . . ,” Wooden Leg remembered. “It looked like thousands of dogs might look if all of them were mixed together in a fight.”
Instead of fighting the soldiers, the warriors were fighting with one another over plunder. “There was lots of fussing and quarreling . . . over the horses and guns that were captured,” Brave Bear remembered. “Indians were saying to each other: ‘I got some tobacco.’ ‘I got coffee.’ ‘I got two horses.’ ‘I got a soldier saddle.’ ‘I got a good gun.’ ”
As the warriors fought over plunder, the women, many of whom had lost loved ones that day, took a leading role in mutilating the dead. “The women used sheath-knives and hatchets,” remembered Wooden Leg, who used his own knife to scalp one of Lieutenant Cooke’s shaggy sideburns.
Twelve years before, a village of 125 lodges of Cheyenne and Arapaho had been attacked by 675 soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington. Chivington’s soldiers had mercilessly killed and mutilated the women and children and later displayed their lurid trophies of war at a parade in Denver. For the Native women who’d survived what was known as the Battle of Sand Creek, the mutilation of Custer’s troops provided at least a modicum of revenge.
In Sitting Bull’s sun dance vision of the falling soldiers, a voice had announced that the Lakota and Cheyenne must not touch the bodies of their enemies or take the spoils. As the smoke and dust cloud over the battlefield thinned in the northerly breeze, Sitting Bull could see that the warriors were ignoring the pronouncement. “The dead soldiers were quite plain,” remembered the Brulé woman Julia Face, who was also watching from a distance, “as the Indians would strip them and their skins would shine in the sunlight.”
Ever since he’d been named the leader of the northern Lakota, Sitting Bull had instructed his people to have as little to do with the washichus as possible. To become dependent on the white man’s material goods was to abandon their old ways without any alternative prospect for the future.
Sitting Bull, One Bull claimed, insisted that the Hunkpapa stay away from the dead on Last Stand Hill. One Bull also said his uncle predicted that for failure to comply with the wishes of the Great Spirit Wakan Tanka, the Lakota would forever “covet white people’s belongings” and ultimately “starve at [the] white man’s door.” This victory, great as it was, had simply been the prelude to a crushing and irresistible defeat.
The Cheyenne had recognized what Custer was up to in his final push to the north. Just as he’d done at the Washita, he was trying to secure female captives. Beaver Heart told John Stands in Timber that when the Crow scouts warned Custer about the size of the encampment, he laughed and said, “When we get to the village I’m going to find the Sioux girl with the most elk teeth on her dress and take her along with me.” Beaver Heart joked that after identifying the ford to the north, Custer spent the subsequent twenty-minute pause scanning the group of noncombatants on the other side of the river for just such a girl.
In the story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, the Lakota told of the young man whose lustful thoughts unleashed a dark and enveloping cloud that reduced him to a gleaming skeleton. Custer had also succumbed to the perils of ruinous temptation. Whether it was the Cheyenne captive Monahsetah, military glory, or gold in the Black Hills, Custer had been, like the country he represented, unabashed in his greed.
Kate Bighead claimed that after the battle, two southern Cheyenne women recognized Custer. Since they knew the white general was still beloved by their relative Monahsetah, they told the Lakota warriors not to mutilate the body. But this did not prevent the two women from performing mutilations of their own. Custer, they knew, had ignored his earlier promise never to attack their tribe. So they took out an awl and pierced his eardrums so that he might hear better in the afterlife.
Yet another mutilation, it turns out, was performed that day, a mutilation that was revealed only recently when an interview with Custer’s former lieutenant Edward Godfrey came to light. Out of respect for his widow, the soldiers who viewed Custer’s remains had neglected to mention that an arrow had been jammed up the general’s penis.
Two and a half days after the battle, a detail of troopers buried Custer and his brother Tom in the same grave. To protect the bodies from predators, the troopers placed the basket from an Indian travois over them and held it down with rocks. A year later, a party led by General Sheridan’s brother Michael traveled to the battlefield to retrieve the officers’ bodies. They discovered that coyotes had managed to get at the grave of the Custer brothers and spread their bones across the grassy hill.