1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn
The Battle

"On June 25, 1876, General George A. Custer and five troops (C,E,F,I,L) of the Seventh United States Cavalry were complexly wiped out by Indians at the Battle of the Little Big Horn River in Montana. The remainder of the regiment, under Major Reno, after a short engagement in the valley of that river, in which his own battalion of three troops was routed, was besieged throughout the late afternoon and evening of the 25th and during most of the 26th, sustaining very heavy losses. Late on the 26th, the Indians withdrew and the survivors were relieved by forces under Generals Terry and Gibbon during the morning of the 27th."
The Custer Myth, Colonel W. A. Graham p xi

The Battle of the Little Big Horn by Kicking Bear, Lakota 1898

The Battle of the Little Big Horn

1. Reno repulsed
2. Reno retreats across river and defends hill
3. Captain Yates ordered to cross river and attack village with companies E & F
4. Yates repulsed at ford, retreats
5. Captain Keogh and companies C & L offer stiff resistance
6. Company I and survivors of C & L die
7. The famous Last Stand lasts for a matter of minutes
8. 28 desperate troopers attempt to flee
9. Benteen sets off to try to reach Custer but returns to Reno Hill

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1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn

1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn


.25 June, 9am Custer arrived at the Crow’s nest, a natural lookout point over the valley of the Little Big Horn to which he had been summoned. Earlier his scouts, led by Lt Charles Varnum and including Charley Reynolds, Mich Bouyer, and Arikara and Crow auxiliaries, had seen a large pony herd and smoke from cooking fires in the distance. By the time Custer arrived a mist had come down and nothing was visible. Custer was told, however, that there were 'More Indians than soldiers have bullets'

On returning to camp, Custer was dismayed to be informed that the presence of the troops was known to the ‘hostiles’, although it is unclear in what circumstances this knowledge had been gained. Astonishingly it seems most likely that this was as a result of carelessness of soldiers lighting fires while they rested up, actions which made the Crow and Arikara scouts angry.

10.30am the regiment reached the ascent to the dividing ridge between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn rivers.

About Noon they reached Reno Creek. Custer divided his regiment into three; the first, of five companies, he commanded himself, the others, of three companies each, were commanded by Reno and Benteen. A further company under Captain Thomas McDougall was to guard the supply train of pack animals.


Reno was ordered "to move forward at as rapid a gait as he thought prudent, and charge the village afterwards, and the whole outfit would support him." Benteen was to move off to the left (south west) and south until he could see the valley of the Little Big Horn—to attack anything he found, and to send him word.

When about three-quarters of a mile from the Little Big Horn Custer swung off the trail to his right, evidently intending to support Reno's attack by striking the Indians from the side.

At about 3pm Reno moved forward and crossed the river. He continued his advance down the valley for two miles, when he was in sight of the village, about a quarter of a mile further on. Instead of charging as ordered, he dismounted his squadron to fight on foot, possibly because the native Americans in their village did not appear to be fleeing in disarray as anticipated. A large mounted force of warriors formed ahead of them. Either under Reno’s orders or on their own volition: it is unclear, the line fell back to the timber. This position was an excellent defensive position, and up to this point casualties seem to have been limited to one man being wounded.

The second position was probably held for about twenty minutes, during which time a number of Lakota women and children, including two of Gall’s were killed by stray bullets which were overshot as a result of troopers not adjusting the sights on their Springfield rifles. It seems likely that women were also killed by Arikara scouts who went further into a valley after the Lakota ponies. When Reno ordered the squadron to "mount and get to the hills”, in the confusion of battle only those troops near Reno heard the command, and the result was an indisciplined flight in which some soldiers were left behind. As soon as the retreat began the warriors charged the soldiers and picked them off in their frenzy to get away. Unable to reach their original crossing point the soldiers desperately crossed the river at a less accessible place and on the other side the precipitous bank was hazardous in itself, never mind trying to scale it in panic on a frantic mount while under enemy fire. With no organized covering fire losses were heavy: about thirty five killed and a dozen wounded. Eventually they regrouped under Reno’s control at the top of a bluff now called the Reno – Benteen Defense Site.

As near as the time can be fixed, it was now about four o'clock. To the relief of the troopers with Reno, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors rode off instead of launching an assault. They were soon joining in the attack on Custer’s beleaguered forces.

Before moving into battle Custer had despatched Trooper Giovanni Martini with the now famous message for Benteen: "Benteen, come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring pacs. Sgd. Cooke. P. S.-Bring packs."

Martini was the last one to see Custer’s troops alive. He said that Custer had split his force of five companies into two. Custer, with E and F companies rode off down Medicine Tail Coulee, while Captain Myles Keogh, with the remaining three companies was heading towards the far end of the village, but it is unclear about the details of what occurred afterwards. When Benteen received the message he was near to the position to which Reno had retreated, and it seems that he was ordered by Reno to reinforce the emplacement with his men.


The Fight

Having despatched Benteen and Reno Custer climbed what was to become known as Reno Hill. He then struck north, entering Cedar Coulee, running parallel to the river behind the bluffs. At the end of this coulee Custer climbed Luce Ridge. Here Custer divided his five companies, sending two down Medicine Tail Coulee under Captain George Yates to ford the river and attack the village. Custer waited with the remaining three companies on a ridge to the north with Captain Myles Keogh in command, presumably in the expectation of Benteen’s arrival. But Benteen did not come, instead, with Reno in disarray, the warriors could turn their attention to Custer’s detachments. The one in Medicine Coulee was forced back up another small valley onto Calhoun Ridge. Both wings came under attack. It seems that Custer sent Keogh’s battalion to reinforce Calhoun Hill, and when the defence disintegrated he withdrew northwards to Custer Hill. Keogh valiantly rallied the troops in a strong resistance, but once Calhoun Hill fell, the survivors “ran like frightened deer”, according to Lieutenant Bourne, who visited the battlefield in 1877 with former “hostiles” who were by now enlisted in the US army as scouts. The spread of cartridge shells and bullets found by the archaeologists supports this testimony, pointing towards more of a running fight than a co-ordinated defence. Oglala Foolish Elk added that those who were mounted galloped madly to Custer Hill, leaving those on foot to follow, shooting revolvers to defend themselves as they went. It seems that Custer's men were outnumbered and outgunned. Custer himself was killed by two bullet wounds. When Custer Hill fell 28 troopers fled into a dry gulley called Deep Ravine, where they were finished off by the delirious and victorious native Americans.

The Sources

Some historians choose to ignore native American accounts of the Custer battle, but this is unreasonable, unless one takes a simplistic view of the reliability of historical sources. Native American accounts are, per se, no less or more reliable than any other source. One needs to evaluate each source on its own merits and to utilize each source accordingly. Many Native American accounts were recorded by military stenographers so they are likely to be less than candid in details which they judged might lead them into “trouble”, for example in cases where they seem to suggest that the troopers did anything less than covering themselves in glory. Rain in the Face, for example, is at pains to justify himself "I have lived peaceably ever since we came upon the reservation. No one can say that Rain-in-the-Face has broken the rules of the Great Father. I fought for my people and my country” Nevertheless, his testimony to Charles Eastman, himself a Dakota has a ring of truth to it, and likewise that of Wooden Leg, recorded by Thomas Marquis, although it seems Marquis may have included extraneous details gleaned from other interviewees in his book “Wooden Leg”. As long as these sources are used carefully, with discernment, they are very instructive, especially since much of the events which occurred in the Reno fight are corroborated by army sources, so why should the Custer Fight be any different?

The secondary sources I have found which best co-ordinate the native American accounts are Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Robert Utley The Lance and the Shield, the Life and Times of Sitting Bull, and Hoka Hey it’s a Good Day to Die by Richard Hardorff. The latter is the clearest and most detailed as the whole book ‘s purpose is to establish “The Indian Casualties of the Custer Fight”. However the gloss is taken off Hardorff’s excellent analysis by this astonishing assertion:

“It should be noted that (the Indian combatants) frame of mind differs psychologically from that of the whites. Indian recollections are basically recountings of personal incidents which rarely present an overall view. Based on a series of impressions, these statements reflect only that which the narrator had experienced.” Hardorff gives this as the reason why it is “so difficult to reconstruct the phase known as “Custer’s Last Stand”, and for the study of Indian casualties” because “we are confronted by insufficient data.”

This statement is astonishing because Hardorff’s whole (excellent) work is founded upon the judicious use of native American testimony. How such an analyst can fall prey to such a crass piece of racist nonsense is difficult to contemplate. It is difficult to take seriously the implication gained by turning his argument on its head, namely that accounts by US troopers would present an “overall view” rather than “recounting personal incidents. “ Such an idea is laughable.

One of Hardorff’s sources for native American accounts: W A Graham, The Custer Myth, 1953 gives a much more measured and realistic evaluation of the reliability of native American sources. First there were problems of translation, particularly but not exclusively if sign language was used, for the translated words do not necessarily convey their intended meaning. Second the cultural significance of a statement may well differ and only authentically convey meaning within the cultural context. Third the conditions under which a statement was given and the motivation of the interviewee (as with all sources) affected the status one could give the source as evidence. Graham concluded, with sagacity:

“The reader will find in these Indian statements discrepancies and contradictions and inconsistencies……………one finds as many, if not more contradictions, discrepancies and inconsistencies and even easily identifiable falsehoods in the tales told by white men.” Page 4

Graham heads this introductory chapter “A Word to the Wise”. It offers a clear reason why native American accounts need to be evaluated carefully, something which Hardorff does to excellent effect to draw out a clear view of what happened, probably as close from the sources as is possible. Why he should denigrate the very sources which give his book such substance is beyond me.

The native American accounts of the Custer fight contain conflicting evidence about the degree of bravery shown by the troops. To put it bluntly, some accounts suggest that the troops performed with valour, while others suggest that they tried to surrender or even took their own lives. One possible reason for this apparent discrepancy could be in the veracity of the source, perhaps the positive statements came from native Americans eager to present their foes in an heroic manner which would be more readily received by the interviewer. Far more likely, however, to which Hardorff not only subscribes but in great degree substantiates, is that different sections of the troops behaved in different ways. In other words the apparent discrepancies in the sources are reconciled by referring to separate events within the whole. Since Custer split his original force and subsequently split his own command it is logically consistent that some of these sections fought like demons while others behaved in a cowardly fashion. Despite his unaccountable reservations about the sources Hardorff uses them to clearly show that, beyond reasonable doubt that this was the case. I think that Hardorff id prejudiced against Marquis’s evidence from Wooden Leg, namely that some troopers took their own lives. As Hardorff shows, this does not mean that they all did, and, most likely the suicides or suicide pacts took place mainly in one area of the conflict.

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1876 The Battle of the Little Big Horn

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© Chris Smallbone July 2007