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The Battle of Little Bighorn, Part III : the Battle

Updated on January 15, 2011

The Military Campaign

On February 1, 1876 General Sheridan ordered a military expedition to the Indian territories. General Crook would go south from Wyoming, Colonel Gibbon would approach the west from Montana, and General Terry would cover the east from Dakota. Each of the three military units was strong enough to face the Indians by itself.

Sheridan had originally planned that Custer would be in charge of the third Army, but after Custer's arrogant altercation with President Grant, it was decided that Custer and his 7th Cavalry would be part of the troops under General Terry.

In closed military circles the special relationship between Sheridan and Custer was well-known, but as it happened even Sheridan's boss , General Sherman, was not exactly thrilled with Sheridan's choice. He specifically asked General Terry to hold Custer on a leash.

General Crook left first in March with 800 men, but after a failed attack he returned to his starting point for a reorganization of its units, which lasted until May. In April, Colonel Gibbon left with 450 men, and on May 17 General Terry took off with 925 men. Despite the "presidential displeasure" with Custer, it had long since been set up (by Sheridan ?) that the Indians would be vanquished by none other than Wonder Boy Custer...

On May 29, Crook left for the second time, with 1,000 soldiers and 262 Crow Indians, the arch enemies of the Sioux. On June 17, they were unexpectedly attacked by the Sioux, and if it hadn't been for the Crow, his unit would have been cut to pieces. After six hours of fighting, the Sioux broke off their attack. Although Crook considered himself to be the "moral" victor, he prudently decided to halt his expedition and wait for reinforcements. Unlike on previous occasions, this time the Indians didn't run !

When news of the war spread, almost all of the Indian tribes united around the uncrowned king Sitting Bull. On June 18, Sitting Bull made his camp in Little Bighorn with 400 tipis and some 3,000 Indians, including 800 warriors. However, the arrival of more Indians from the reservations increased the camp in six days to one thousand tipis, with 7,000 Lakota (Sioux), Hunkpapa, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Oglala and Arickara, containing between 1,500 and 1,800 warriors !

On June 21, General Terry, after consulting Sheridan (...), ordered Gibbon to march his troops to Bighorn along a detour, to join and reinforce his troops, in order to stop a possible Indian flight to the north. Custer and his 7th Cavalry would ride directly to Bighorn, and attack the Indians. His forces consisted of 645 soldiers, equipped with modern weapons and three Gatling guns, which were the heaviest machine guns of the time.

Custer's troops soldiers however, were mostly brand-new immigrants, attracted by the monthly 13-dollar wage. Most of them had never experienced a military battle, let alone met Indians before. Even shooting exercises had been out of the question, since Congress refused to release additional funds for such trivialities. It was probably too much to ask for mere "cannon fodder"...

The Battle

On June 24, 1876 Custer's scouts found traces of the Indian camp. He had no idea of the enemy's forces and relied on the previous military information of at most 800 warriors. Furthermore, he thought himself invincible, with his better armament and in the knowledge of previous massacres, during which the Indians were killed almost without any resistance. Throughout the whole night he marched his troops toward the Indian camp.

In the morning of June 25, his Crow Indian scouts reported that the enemy's strength was far greater than expected, but Custer didn't believe them and fired them on the spot. His only concern was that the Indians might escape, and so rob him of his glory !

He therefore ordered an immediate attack, without any tactical information and with a bone-tired regiment. He split up his regiment in three battalions, with major Reno and 140 soldiers, Captain Benteen with 150 soldiers, ammunition and supplies, and he kept 225 cavalry for himself.

Major Reno was ordered to attack the Indian village, and the rest of the regiment would support him. However, this time the Indians didn't run away, but instead they responded fiercely. Ten minutes later, his battalion was in trouble.

Major Reno drew back into a nearby forest, but even there he was not safe. He therefore withdrew the remainder of his troops onto a hill. After one hour of fighting, he counted 40 dead and 13 wounded ! The Indians broke off their attack, however, and disappeared suddenly.

Custer learned that the Indians fiercely defended themselves and that they had not run away. Instead of supporting Major Reno, he led his troops further west to another hill, and there he saw the large Indian camp for the first time. Meanwhile Captain Benteen's supplies were stuck in the mud, and Custer sent him a message to come as soon as possible, "because there were many Indians"...

He waited for Benteen's reinforcements on his hill, but soon came under attack himself. Custer's battalion was pinned down on Last Stand Hill, and half an hour later they were exterminated.

We observed that the top of the hill shows a completely unobstructed view of the entire surroundings. So how did the Indians manage to approach Custer's troops unseen ? Well, in 1876, the prairie grass grew so tall that it reached to the underbelly of the horses, which gave the Indians a perfect cover for a stealthy approach. This must also mean that the climate at that time must have been far better than at present.

Benteen rejoined the remainder of Major Reno's troops, and they took positions on top of another hill. Night fell at 21:00 hrs, and the battle ended. The next day they were again attacked by the Indians, but they had been able to build a better defensive position. At 19:00 hrs, the Indians broke off their attack and disappeared.

The following day, General Terry arrived to relieve Custer's regiment. Losses were very high, with 263 dead, including the flamboyant Custer, and 60 wounded. The Indians had lost about 300 warriors.

The Consequences

The news of the lost campaign and Custer's death hit the eastern states as a bombshell. In the media, the "public" number of Indian warriors almost immediately jumped to 3,000, and later even up to 9,000, merely to enhance Custer's "heroic death"...

The American public was deftly manipulated, and responded strongly to the tragic loss of 263 soldiers during a military action. Not surprisingly, never before had there been a corresponding "public outcry" after the many previous bloody massacres, when thousands of Indians had beenĀ  killed ! The deftly presented image of the heroic American soldiers, who were overwhelmed by the hated Indians, made a deep public impression.

Though the Indians had won this battle, the response was exceptionally harsh. General Sheridan was given carte blanche to set up a military regime, and new troops were immediately brought in.

The Black Hills, although fully Indian owned, were instantly "annexed" by the government. Which is a nicer word for "stolen"... All Indian tribes immediately lost all of their "non-allocated territories", (although in full Indian ownership by ratified treaty), and they were directed to reservations by the military.

The Indians didn't agree to these dictates, and continued the fight. Crazy Horse surrendered in 1877, and six months later he was "accidentally" shot. Sitting Bull managed to keep going a little longer until 1881, and in 1890 he was shot just as "accidentally"...


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