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"We've Caught Them Napping!" ... Custer's Last Stand

Battle Painting
Fairly accurate artist's rendition of the final moments on Custer Hill

It was June 25, 1876 ... a Sunday ... 3:03 PM. It was hot. There were some clouds in the sky. As the stillness of a mid-afternoon, southeastern Montana summer dominated the southern end of the huge encampment, sprawled for 3 miles along the western bank of the Little Bighorn River, the Sioux & Cheyenne people gathered here could not remember there ever having been such a large congregation of their people. Here, at this portion of the village, resided the mighty Hunkpapa division of the Sioux ... the people of Sitting Bull ... given the honor of guarding the rear of the village when on the move. The thunder of horses' hooves, the blaring call of a bugle, broke the stillness. Warriors quickly answered the call, grabbing their weapons and mounts, and rushing to meet the threat on their homes. The few quickly grew to many; racing their ponies back & forth, creating clouds of dust, which served the dual purpose of obscuring the village from view of the onrushing enemy as well as disguising their actual numbers. This enemy was Major Marcus A. Reno, leading a battalion of the 7th U.S. Cavalry, though the Indians recognized them simply as Blue Coats.

Major Reno, with Companies A, G, and M, plus 35 Arikara Indian scouts, had crossed the Little Bighorn River and charged straight into the unknown, with only the promise to be supported "by the whole outfit" as comfort. The Arikara mission was to capture, or drive off, the huge pony herds grazing peacefully to the west of the village. They were to fail miserably. As they approached the unwary village, its immense size was still not apparent, as many of the lodges were nestled among the Cottonwoods growing along the meandering course of the stream. Hunkpapa warriors, bristling at this bold foray against their children, streamed to the fray. Dust, heat, war whoops, gun shots ... Reno called a halt to the charge and had his men form a skirmish line across a portion of the valley, their right flank near the river, every fourth man acting as a horse-holder. In this depleted, post Civil War Army, each company, undermanned as they were, had perhaps 40 officers & men in their ranks. Reduced by the 25% acting as horse holders, it was likely that only 90 soldiers, plus the scouts, strung out thinly on this open ground, to face the might of the Sioux and Cheyenne Nations. A few ponies were taken by the Arikaras, but the mounting pressure of mostly Hunkpapa resistance soon caused these Indians to break and flee, pushing their little trophies along, some never to be seen on the field again. This exposed the left flank of the skirmishers, and as enemy warriors began to encircle from that side, Reno ordered a retreat into the timber along the river.

A half hour after the charge began, the puny battalion found themselves in what some troopers would later say was their very best defensive position. Warriors scurried about and shots continued to be exchanged. Where was the promised support from Custer? How long could they hole up here against what appeared to be hundreds of warriors? And, why weren't they fleeing, anyway? Though Reno was a Civil War veteran, his experience in the Indian Wars was limited. Custer had assigned his favorite scout, the Arikara, Bloody Knife, to Reno ... presumably to stabilize things. A shot rang out. Blood and brains splattered in the Major's face. Bloody Knife, who had been at Reno's side, fell dead. Totally unnerved, Reno ordered a mount ... then a dismount ... then a mount again. He then led a pell-mell retreat, which he later classified as a "charge", out of the timber back towards the ford at which they had crossed the Little Bighorn some 50 minutes earlier. In all the noise and confusion, some never heard the order, and, fortunately for them, were left behind to fend for themselves in the woods. Much later, under the cover of darkness, they were able to rejoin the entrapped command on the bluffs. The fleeing column, further depleted by these stragglers, raced for their lives, warriors pursuing at their rear and hitting their right flank. It became apparent that they would never make it to the ford. The terrified men, following their even more terrified leader, were forced to cross the river where they were and race for the bluffs. Some died in the timber - Isaiah Dorman, a black man serving as interpreter, was brutally disfigured near the timber's edge - some were cut down in the river - Lt. Benjamin Hodgson, wounded, grabbed the stirrup of a fellow horseman, was dragged to the opposite bank only to be killed there - others were killed as they sped towards the bluffs, still others were shot as their horses climbed to the top of the bluffs ... in all, about a quarter of the command lost their lives scurrying for the safety that was not to be theirs. It was a bloody, harrowing affair ... as most of the Arikaras fled, as a dozen or so troopers trembled, hidden in the timber, as 28 or 30 lay strewn along the trail of flight, dead ... the terror-stricken remnants reached the top of the bluffs, prepared to fight for their lives ... or die. It was 4:10 PM. Inexplicably, the Sioux and Cheyenne, at a time when they probably could have wiped out Reno's force to a man, withdrew

Back in 1868, the Sioux, or Lakota, had been ceded these lands by treaty for all time. Then, an 1874 Black Hills expedition, headed by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, discovered gold. The resulting flood of miners and settlers caused a boom in the population of the region. Most Sioux and Cheyenne, by this time, were already beginning the transition to the white man's way. They camped close to the agencies, and were at least partially dependent on the government issues. There were, however, bands still clinging to the old way of life. They shunned the agencies, and even their more domesticated brethren. At all costs, they avoided life on the reservations. They stayed as far away as possible from white encroachment. The U.S. Government, however, issued an order, late in 1875 - after a council had failed to convince the Indians to sell the Black Hills - that any Indian not on the reservation by January 31 would be considered hostile. In the dead of a northern plains winter, to people encumbered by women, children, and all their worldly possessions, with no desire to live in the proximity of the agencies, it was an almost impossible order, and predictably, it was ignored. These "hostiles" would stay in their winter camps.

After a botched winter campaign failed to drive them in, an elaborate 3-pronged pincer campaign was organized for the spring of 1876. Three columns, led by experienced ex-Civil War veterans, would converge on these "wild" bands and forcibly remove them to the reservations. It was, after all, manifest destiny. From the west, a slow moving, even slower acting, column was led by Colonel John Gibbon. Despite locating Indians, they were never able to join the fray. The largest column of the three came from the south, out of Wyoming, and was commanded by General George Crook. Several hundred Crow and Shoshone Indians accompanied this force. Out of Fort Abraham Lincoln, in Dakota Territory - near present-day Bismark, North Dakota - came a column commanded by General Alfred A. Terry. Within this prong, was the Custer-led 7th U. S. Cavalry, acting as its mobile strike force. With virtually no communication between the three isolated forces, it was still expected that they would meet with success. The aim was simple ... to converge on the camps and then to be in position to keep them from their inevitable habit of dissipating into thin air.

Meanwhile, for mutual defense, the scattered bands began to join together as one under the protective hand of the powerful Hunkpapa chief and spiritual leader, Sitting Bull. Joining this great camp were Crazy Horse's Oglalas, Two Moon's northern Cheyenne, Gall, Crow King, American Horse, Lame White Man, Low Dog, remnants of the eastern Sioux, Dakota, under the famous chief, Inkpaduta - veterans of the Minnesota Uprisings in the early 1860's - even a handful of Arapahos. It was to become a massive village, of some 10,000 souls, ably led by some of the tribes' most capable leaders. In any year, young warriors would slip away from the reservations to frolic with their free cousins - hunting buffalo, visiting the old camping sites, participating in the Sun Dance gatherings - but this year, it might be the last such opportunity. Even more than usual headed west. It was unusual, to say the least, for any camp approaching this size to stay together for any amount of time. There were sanitary considerations, hunting complications, and the enormous pony herds would quickly graze the ground bare. This, though, was no ordinary time. The village stayed together and continued to grow in size. Camped near the Rosebud River, just east of Little Bighorn, word spread of an approaching body of Blue Coats. The most renowned war leader of the Lakota Nation, Crazy Horse, rode out with perhaps 800 warriors. It was to be "a good day to die."

It was not Custer, it was Crook, coming up from the south. It was not the 25th of June, but the 17th. Armed with a ferocity borne of desperation, the Crazy Horse-led warriors, though outnumbered, fought with a stubborn tenacity very much unlike normal Plains Indian warfare. For six hours the battle raged. If not for his Crow and Shoshone allies, Crook would have undoubtedly fared much worse. Still, he turned tail and returned to his Wyoming Territory base to resupply and lick his wounds. Though he claimed victory at the time, as the Sioux and Cheyenne left the field first, his "victory" would have a profound effect, felt one week later, on a sluggish little stream the Crow called the Greasy Grass.

During a vision, experienced during a recent Sun Dance, Sitting Bull saw "soldiers falling into camp." Pictographs of the vision show these falling soldiers upside down. The Sioux interpreted this vision to mean an attack on their camp, and, certain victory. The Battle of the Rosebud was a mere tune-up for the main event. Having knocked the largest column in the field from the fray, the allied village merely went on their way, eventually crossing into the valley of the Little Bighorn. They nonchalantly awaited the next blow. They were full of confidence. There would be no running away. Had there been any intelligence at all between the three army columns, Custer might have known of the outcome of the Rosebud battle, and, more importantly, of the temper of these Indians. Crook, however, sent no word. With the Gibbon column marching back and forth aimlessly along the Yellowstone to the north, it was going to be up to Terry's force, and more exactly, Custer's famed 7th Cavalry, to deal with this improbable gathering of "hostiles".

Custer was sent into the field by Terry, alone with the 7th Cavalry, after a detachment of the regiment, led by Reno, had earlier discovered the trail of the moving Indian village during a reconnaissance of the Powder, Tongue, and Rosebud valleys. He was sent out with written instructions that left him the leeway to do as he deemed best based on the circumstances he faced. The main consideration was to prevent the Indians from scattering. When encumbered by their village, warriors would normally fight a defensive rear-guard action while the women, children, and old men made good their escape with the belongings. This was foremost on the mind of not only Custer, but the entire military command structure. A pitched battle was thought to be highly unlikely, even though it was known that this array of Indians was likely to be large. Custer fully expected to be outnumbered. Despite this, he denied an offer to bring along Gatling guns - they would impede his march - and a few companies of the 2nd Cavalry. There was nothing, Custer felt, that the 7th couldn't handle alone. The regiment, taking into account those missing due to being on detached service, as well as those left behind at a supply depot, numbered 647 men, including all enlisted men, officers, civilians, and scouts. They broke off from Terry, on the Yellowstone, the morning of June 22. Terry, who had made a junction with Gibbon's column, would slowly move down the Bighorn River. The steamboat, Far West, was available to move any wounded. Custer, riding at the head of the 7th Cavalry with Bloody Knife, and the half-Sioux, half-French scout, Mitch Bouyer (or, Boyer), and the Crow scouts - the remainder of the Arikaras flanking the column - headed into the unknown; the aim being to engage the hostile Sioux and Cheyenne. It would be a glorious victory, the allied tribes being gift wrapped for delivery to the agencies in time for the Centennial Celebration.

Custer's path through this relatively unknown landscape was uneventful, with the exception of ominous, even dire, warnings from his trackers reading the signs of an extremely large village of Indians, apparently not fleeing, but rather, simply, meandering along. They passed the Sun Dance camp and other camping spots. The trail was fresh, and Custer ordered a night march on the 24th, halting the command for rest behind the divide that separated the Rosebud and Little Bighorn valleys. Meanwhile, scouts climbed to a high point on the divide known as the Crow's Nest. From here, in the early morning light, they could discern smoke from the village situated in the Little Bighorn valley, perhaps fifteen miles distant. On the benchlands to the west, pony herds could be seen, by their squiggling, worm-like movements. They reported back to Custer, who came to see for himself. However, with the heat of the day fast coming on, the haze created caused the lodge smoke to disappear from view. Custer could see nothing. It made no impact on him. He had but the word of his scouts.

The command would rest, behind the divide and out of sight, through the day of the 25th. Then, they would move into position for a dawn strike of the village on the 26th. Certainly, by that time, the scouts would have ascertained the village's exact location. Everything abruptly changed, however, when after Custer returned to his bivouacked regiment, his brother, Captain Tom Custer and brother-in-law Lt. James Calhoun reported to him that Captain George Yates, commander of F Company, had sent a small detail, under Sgt. Curtis, back on the trail to locate a box of hardtack that had come loose and dropped off. Curtis found the box ... he also found several Indians rummaging through it. At his approach, they fled in the direction of the village. This news meant but one thing to Custer ... the village would be warned and flee. He had to change plans. The attack must come now.

Crossing the divide, the command halted. Custer made the decision now that would cost him his life. Fearful that the village would scatter and flee, Custer divided his regiment into battalions. It was 12:12 PM on the 25th of June. Senior Captain Frederick W. Benteen, a long time member of the 7th - and one who was not particularly fond of Custer, to say the least - was to take companies D, H and K, off to the southwest. They were to scour the ridges and prevent escape in that direction, then report back to the main command. The remainder of the force continued on along a small creek the Crows knew as Ash Creek, now seen on maps as Reno Creek. Major Reno, with his 3 companies, A, G, and M, traveled the left bank. Custer with companies C, E, F, I, and L took the right. In the rear would be Pack Train - the slow-moving train of mules laden with food, forage, ammunition, and other supplies. Captain Thomas McDougall's Company B, assigned to accompany this all-important element of the regiment, was now augmented by six members of each of the other 11 companies. The 7th would not be together, as one, again.

About 7 miles, and nearly 2 hours, down the creek, the 8 companies with Custer came upon a lone tepee standing at a previous Indian camping place. Upon investigation, the wrapped body of a warrior, on a burial scaffold, was found within. Unknown at the time, this was a casualty of the Rosebud fight a week earlier. Its effect was to unnerve many of the already uneasy scouts, especially the Arikaras. The troopers coldly set it ablaze. Now, Indians were spotted, in the distance, apparently driving stock and running away. The immediate reaction was that they were fleeing. It was now certain that the village on the Little Bighorn River was aware of their presence, would break camp, and disappear. Action had to be taken. No word yet from Benteen troubled Custer. He ordered Reno ahead towards the dust. He promised support. The two would never again meet.

As Reno engaged in the valley, Custer continued along the right bank of Reno Creek. Maintaining a connection with Reno's advance through couriers, he then veered to the right, at about the place where Reno crossed the Little Bighorn to begin his charge into the village, and climbed the bluffs. From above, he witnessed a part of the action. From the scurrying activity obvious within the village, Custer received the false impression that the villagers were fleeing, when, in fact, only the non-combatants were doing so; the warriors were rushing to the fight. In any event, Custer was quoted as exclaiming, "We've caught them napping, boys!" Sgt. Daniel Kanipe was sent back to locate the pack train and have them move up with all dispatch. The 5 companies then continued on to the north, passing through a narrow defile - called Cedar Coulee - looking for a suitable ford from which to attack the village, thus relieving pressure on Reno while ensuring none of its inhabitants escaped. With the pack train on its way, and Benteen sure to arrive soon, the matter seemed well in hand.

Returning from a brief side trip to a high peak, Custer was aware of Reno's halt to form Cooke's Message skirmishers. He now knew, for certain, that the 7th had a fight on their hands. He gave orders for the Italian immigrant, Giovanni Martini, to have Benteen join up more expediently. Adjutant Lt. W. W. Cooke, uneasy about Martini's poor English, hastily wrote the order down, and handed it to the courier. It read:

Come on. Big Village.
Be quick. Bring packs.
W. W. Cooke
P.S. Bring Packs.

Martini galloped towards the rear to find Benteen ... like Kanipe, his life spared! And, what of Benteen? ...

Following orders, Benteen, having a small detachment up ahead, scanned the valley, from a series of ridges, searching for Indians. He found none. Deciding his mission was futile, he had returned to follow Custer's trail. The General's younger brother, Boston - who had been accompanying the pack train - had decided to join his brothers at the front, and galloped to the fore. On his way, he overtook Benteen and joined him for a short while, leaving to find his brothers at about 2:37, while Benteen was watering his horses. Nearly an hour later, a group of Arikara's approached from the opposite direction, leading a small herd of stolen Sioux ponies. Next, Benteen came upon the courier, Sgt. Kanipe, who passed along his news and sped off to locate the pack train, still well to the rear. Nearly 15 minutes later, Martini arrived, handing Benteen Cooke's written order. It was 3:58. He could hear firing up ahead. Ten minutes earlier, Boston Custer had joined his brothers.

As Custer had done an hour before, Benteen veered to the right and climbed to the top of the bluffs. Reno's mangled men had just arrived, the Sioux having already departed to meet a new threat further up the valley. Seeing the erratic condition Major Reno found himself in, Benteen, for all intents and purposes, assumed command of the 6 combined companies. He ordered a defensive perimeter be set up, and the troopers began to busy themselves in digging meager entrenchments, caring for the wounded in a makeshift hospital at the center, and awaiting the pack train. Reno's men were dangerously low on ammunition from their hard fight in the valley. No effort, whatsoever, was made to effect a junction with Custer. Not even a courier was dispatched.

Neither Reno nor Benteen was particularly fond of Custer, Benteen's intense dislike dating back to the early days of the regiment. In 1868, during the 7th's successful attack on a sleeping Cheyenne village in Indian Territory - present day Oklahoma, at the Battle of the Washita - a detachment of troops, under a Major Joel Elliott, pursued a group of fleeing Indians. Warriors from nearby camps met with Elliott's small group and annihilated them. Custer never went to find out what happened. Benteen never forgave him. There were reasons, of course, for Custer's apparent non-action, but the deep division that would forever haunt the 7th Cavalry had been cut. Its lingering effects would be felt now.

Hearing volley fire down the valley, Captain Thomas Weir, of Company D, requested permission to "ride to the sounds of the firing". Reportedly, he had a heated argument with either Reno or Benteen - maybe both - and permission was denied. He rode out anyway, alone with his aide at first, then followed by his company, to investigate. It was 5:05. Eventually, the entire command straggled behind, even the late arriving pack train, until they were spread out on the ridge for about a mile. Weir, at the van, reached the high ground that now carries his name - the same peak Custer had earlier seen the size of the village from, prompting him to dispatch Martini - and could see and hear the closing phases of the Custer fight, nearly 3 miles distant. Smoke, and Indians firing into the ground, was all he could see at this late hour, 5:25. Spotted by Indians, the strung out command was forced back as the Indians came upon them in force. One man was lost in the retreat to the defensive position on Reno Hill, as Lt. Edward Godfrey's Company K provided an organized cover fire. For the next 24 hours, the united Reno/Benteen commands, together with the pack train, would endure a siege atop these bluffs, without water, all the while wondering, "Where was Custer?" No one, for a minute, despite all the evidence to the contrary, thought that harm had befallen the man. Such was the legend of Custer, even as he now lay dead on a little knoll overlooking the Little Bighorn ...

Cedar Coulee, the passage Custer now found himself in, opened up into the broad drainage that was Medicine Tail Coulee, which provided an easy descent to the river. Conveniently, it afforded an excellent crossing place into the village. Now aware of its immense size, Custer wanted to wait for his reinforcements to come up. He sent Captain Yates with companies E & F down toward Medicine Tail Ford to investigate the possibilities. It was about 4:08 PM. The remaining 3 companies spread out over a low ridge, now known as Luce Ridge, overlooking the detachment below. This approach caused an alarm to quickly spread from here, the approximate center of the village, to parts distant. The warriors poised to eliminate Reno on the bluffs, were, in effect, recalled. There was a much more serious threat elsewhere.

Only a handful of warriors were on hand, at first, to thwart a crossing here at Medicine Tail. Concealed on the opposite bank, they opened fire on Yates. As with Reno's charge, a horse or two may have bolted, with its rider, right into the village. Remains of several troopers were later found within the village confines. Other than that possibility, casualties, if any, were light. Resistance, though, was stiff enough to convince Yates a crossing here was not possible. Covered by the fire of Custer on Luce Ridge, Yates began an orderly withdrawal up another draw, Deep Coulee, which joined with Medicine Tail at the river, and headed northeasterly to the high ground ahead. Increasing numbers of warriors, freed from Reno's aborted charge, began to arrive, and led by an enraged Gall, who had lost several family members from Reno's fire, began crossing the river. Held back by the volleys of Custer - heard distinctly by the troops back on Reno Hill - Yates was able to fully disengage. Then, Custer headed to the same high ground by crossing over another ridge, Nye-Cartwright. All the while, Indians crept along, sniping at the two moving columns and receiving return fire from the troops. By 4:46, the two battalions had effected a junction at that high ground, known today as Calhoun Hill.

Calhoun Hill was the southern terminus of a ridge, running parallel to the Little Bighorn, that carries the name of Battle Ridge. At its northern end, is another high point, Custer Hill. Running from the ridge, down toward the river to the west, were numerous ravines and gullies, some rather deep, others little more than gentle dips. Any recounting of the happenings in the final minutes of Custer's command are, necessarily, somewhat speculative. Theories abound, and one can argue endlessly about the merits of one or another. Archaeological evidence, recently unearthed, provides the framework for which to stretch the testimony of the Indian participants, and we now have a much clearer picture of events. Still, points can be disputed. Was it C or E company that broke? Were bodies in Deep Ravine or Cemetery Ravine? Was the action on Custer Hill the climax or the prelude? The mountains of evidence best seem to paint this picture ... give or take a stroke ...

Indians approached Calhoun Hill from the west and south, their numbers increasing all the while. Custer, ever on the offensive, needed, still, to find a place to cross. He assumed Reno to be holding his own. Benteen and the pack train were surely now on their way. Indian pressure was relatively distant and light. He simply needed to buy some time. Company L, Calhoun's company, was ordered to deploy as skirmishers to keep the Indians at bay. Companies C and I were kept in reserve. Custer, with companies E and F, continued to the north, along the ridge, still determined to find a suitable ford. The young Crow scout, Curley, was dismissed from duty at Calhoun Hill. He moved to a ridge to the east and watched the battle progress. Then, he left the area to find Terry. A possibly wounded Mitch Bouyer, also given the option to leave, chose to stay with the command. The other Crow scouts had left earlier.

All seemed stablized, and Custer, indeed, did find a ford, past the north end of the village, just past where the National Cemetery now stands. Again, light resistance. He pulled back a distance, towards Custer Hill, and waited ... for perhaps as long as 20 minutes. Calhoun was in position to be easily seen by the approaching Benteen. As soon as he came, the 7th Cavalry, united, could attack. Neither Benteen nor Reno would ever arrive.

For the conclusion, go to: Custer's Last Stand ... The Finale!

Custer's Field
Aerial view of the battlefield looking south from Custer Hill (bottom left). The National Cemetery can be seen in the lower right. Calhoun Hill is about 2/3's up the photo along the left edge. You can see Battle Road, which traverses the Ridge, connecting the two hills. Medicine Tail Coulee is visible in the center distance, forming a 'V' with Deep Coulee at the river's edge. Little Bighorn River is towards upper right ... the huge Indian encampment lay on the flats beyond.

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