Native American leaders: Sitting Bull (1831-1890) [centre right], and Gall (c.1840-1894) [right].

The Battle of the Little Bighorn

25 June 1876. Fred Chiaventone reassesses that most-famous collision between US and Native American forces.


It happened 140 years ago and was, in essence, a remarkably small engagement. Yet, despite its size and relative insignificance, this clash of arms has been endlessly written about, discussed, and debated.

On the afternoon of 25 June 1876, George Armstrong Custer led his 7th Cavalry into a disastrous engagement against the combined forces of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes on the sun-baked plains of what is today southern Montana. The clash is alternatively referred to as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Battle of the Greasy Grass, or Custer’s Last Stand, and its ghosts are with us still.

What is it about this particular engagement that has so ensnared readers, researchers, historians, and archaeologists? A brief survey of the literature soon shows that more has been written about this one small affair than any other single battle in American history.

Some of the interest is prompted by the uncertainty about what transpired in the last phase of the fight on Last Stand Hill, more perhaps by curiosity concerning the best known casualty of the fight: George Armstrong Custer.

LEFT Lieutenant-Colonel (Brevet Major-General) George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) strikes a classic pose. Flamboyant, aggressive, opinionated, hot-headed: his fate at the Little Bighorn was in keeping with the character of the man.
Lieutenant-Colonel (Brevet Major-General) George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) strikes a classic pose. Flamboyant, aggressive, opinionated, hot-headed: his fate at the Little Bighorn was in keeping with the character of the man.

Custer: the backstory

Making a reputation

Custer was a larger than life personality. A less than stellar cadet at West Point, he was an indifferent scholar given to pranks and causing mischief. He acquired more disciplinary demerits than any previous cadet.

This was forgotten, however, when in 1861 his class received their commissions early with the outbreak of the Civil War. Eager to earn his spurs, the energetic young man plunged into the maelstrom of war with enthusiasm and unbridled daring.

Custer relished the thrill of combat. It was a recipe for early success, and with his adroit handling of troops in battle he quickly won accolades and promotion. By the end of the Civil War, he was the youngest major-general in the Army, and his division had acquired more battle honours and captured more enemy guns than any other Federal unit.

When Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Union General Phil Sheridan purchased the small table on which the instruments of surrender had been signed and presented it to the ‘Boy General’ – as he had come to be called by the newspapers and the public – intending it as a gift for Custer’s wife Libbie.

He included a note which read: ‘There is scarcely an individual in our service who has contributed more to bring about this desirable result than your gallant husband.’ Custer was delighted and rode off with the general’s gift balanced on his head.

After the Civil War

The years following the Civil War were less demanding but probably more challenging for the exuberant young cavalry officer who had flourished in combat. As with the bulk of the officer corps, Custer’s rank as a major-general of volunteers was a brevet, or temporary rank, necessitated, so the government said, by the exigencies of a national emergency.

Thus he soon found himself reduced to his permanent rank of captain. He promptly applied for an extended leave, most of which he spent in New York City.

In New York, a popular public figure from his wartime exploits, he was wined and dined by the elite, and eagerly explored life options, including an unwise investment in a silver-mining scheme, possibilities of employment with the railroads, and even an offer to serve as adjutant to a Mexican revolutionary.

This last was an opportunity quickly scotched by the Army leadership, who wanted no involvement in Mexico’s internal troubles.

Custer, though enamoured of the bright lights and scintillating nightlife of New York, was hopelessly inept at managing any endeavour that did not involve a revolver, a sabre, and a sound horse. All his enterprises came to naught.

Going West

Returning to active army life, he was assigned to what we would now refer to as ‘peace- keeping duty’ in the occupied southern states. Although soon promoted to lieutenant-colonel, he found post-war army life dull.

He turned down an offer to command a regiment of all-black cavalry troopers. For all of his success in fighting to preserve the Union, he had never embraced the idea of black men as soldiers, despite the fact that one of his closest associates was his black cook, Eliza. It was an attitude not uncommon among soldiers at the time.

It was a transfer to the plains and the prospect of action against Native American warriors that made army life appealing again.

Assigned to command the newly formed 7th Cavalry in 1868, he accompanied Major-General Hancock’s abortive attempt to subdue the Cheyenne.

It was a terribly mismanaged affair that sputtered to an inconclusive end. This frustrating episode was followed by an exhibition of very bad judgment.

Two contemporary images of the Sioux, one [above] a painting by Karl Bodmer from 1833; the other [below] a photograph of Chief Bone Necklace taken on a reservation in 1899.
THIS PAGE Two contemporary images of the Sioux, one [below] a painting by Karl Bodmer from 1833; the other [left] a photograph of Chief Bone Necklace taken on a reservation in 1899.

Custer left his command at Fort Wallace in Western Kansas, taking 75 troopers with him to Fort Harker, some 225 miles distant. While Custer protested that this flying column had gone for supplies for troops at the under-supplied and cholera-ridden post at Fort Wallace, his superiors were not convinced.

The fact that en route he had ordered his command to shoot several men who had deserted, and had also failed to retrieve the bodies of two soldiers killed by Native Americans complicated the issue. The additional fact that his wife Libbie was waiting for him at Fort Harker made this foray even more questionable.

Custer was ordered to Fort Leavenworth to face a court martial for, among other things, being ‘absent without leave’ (AWOL) from his command. The former beau sabreur of the Civil War was found guilty of five charges amounting to dereliction of duty.

While in today’s army that would have finished his career, the frontier army had a different approach, and he found himself merely suspended from rank and pay for one year.

Return to command

It was not an unpleasant sentence. The Custers lived in the spacious quarters assigned to General Phil Sheridan, who was serving in Washington DC at the time. After a brief stay, however, the Custers moved to a home in Monroe, Michigan, where George was free to hunt, fish, boat, and socialise.

The exile was short-lived. Another military campaign against hostile Indians was brewing. A telegram from Sheridan arrived saying: ‘Generals Sherman, Sully, and myself, and nearly all the officers of your regiment, have asked for you… Can you come at once?’

Delighted to be back in the saddle and in command of troops in the field, Custer soon distinguished himself in action against Native Americans at the Washita, Tongue, and Yellowstone Rivers.

ABOVE One of Red Horse’s drawings of his own people at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881.
One of Red Horse’s drawings of his own people at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881. Image: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology. Accession no. 08570700

Custer, as he had throughout the Civil War, invariably led from the front, but this was a different kind of war against an elusive foe reluctant to fight except when favoured by overwhelming odds.

It was a far cry from brutal encounters with Confederate divisions. Such were their intensity that at Spotsylvania, for example, a tree measuring three feet in circumference had been cut down entirely by rifle fire.

Out on the plains, Cheyenne and Lakota warriors were unlikely to stand and fight unless absolutely necessary. In the face of strong forces, they were apt to melt into the countryside. For the flamboyant and aggressive Custer, this was frustrating in the extreme.

Frontier routine

It is easy to imagine the American West as one long Indian war. The struggle between white expansion and the indigenous tribes did indeed last for nearly a century, but was punctuated by long periods of relative tranquillity.

The Army, which after the Civil War had been reduced to about 10,000 regulars, was thinly spread over a vast territory. Military posts were small, the garrisons frequently no larger than company size, and scattered in remote locations across the West. The duties of soldiers included escorting the mail services, exploration and mapping, assisting surveyors and work crews laying out a system of transcontinental railroads, and providing security for ranchers, farmers, hunters, prospectors, and emigrant wagon-trains.

There were advantages to life on the frontier. Social gatherings, outings, and picnics were common diversions. Some units had a regimental band. There were amateur theatricals, impromptu minstrel shows, card parties, even costume balls. Hunting parties were a natural pastime with game so plentiful in the form of deer, elk, antelope, bear, and buffalo.

There was, however, a down side. When not engaged on active duty, a soldier’s free time was often spent improving his living conditions by planting and maintaining large gardens to supplement dismal rations. Healthcare was frequently poor to non-existent. Troops were also subject to the vagaries of blistering heat, dust storms, and ferocious snow storms.

Frontier soldiers, both officers and enlisted, suffered from rotting teeth, arthritis, rheumatism, and compressed vertebrae from endless hours in the saddle. Far too many succumbed to the bottle. Many enlisted men deserted.

ABOVE Red Horse’s drawing of mounted 7th Cavalry troopers on the move at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881.
Red Horse’s drawing of mounted 7th Cavalry troopers on the move at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881. Image: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology. Accession no. 08568000.

The Black Hills

The crisis came unexpectedly, as crises sometimes do. Custer led an expedition to survey the Black Hills. Some accompanying scientists confirmed the presence of gold in the area. When reports reached the eastern newspapers, eager prospectors and fortune-seekers swarmed into the area.

The United States was in the midst of an economic depression, and this encouraged the flood of poor men seeking to make their fortunes. But the region wherein lay the highest concentration of gold happened to be the favored hunting grounds and sacred territory of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.

Washington, far removed from the frontier and desperate to find some way of relieving economic distress, did not discourage the gold-seekers. On the contrary, the US Government rebutted the protests of the native tribes, ordering them to return to designated reservation areas before January 1876.

The problem was that winter had already closed in on the western plains, and the tribes had neither the ability nor inclination to move their families in the dead of winter.

The spurious deadline came and went: the tribes were unmoved. Thus the die was cast. Orders were issued to the Army to mount an expedition to corral the renegade Indians. The 7th Cavalry was one of the units assigned the task. Custer was delighted by the prospect of an active campaign. Once again he would be in his element.

Career in the balance

Custer’s plans were disrupted by political developments in Washington, however. The sitting President was Ulysses S Grant, the great Civil War general, who had never been a fan of Custer.

Custer’s column on the move on the plains of Dakota in the 1876 campaign.

A diligent and serious man, Grant was also too trusting of his associates, and his administration, unbeknownst to him, was rife with corruption. Congress had convened a committee to investigate some of the more egregious charges of dishonesty in government at the War Department, and Custer, having established a reputation for bluff honesty and familiarity with conditions on the frontier, was called to Washington to testify.

While he had little of import to add to official testimony, Custer made the tactical blunder of naming Grant’s brother Orville as one of those benefiting from the corrupt practices of Secretary of War Belknap.

Belknap had been selling interests in the trading posts established for the Army and had profited enormously from kickbacks. These trading posts were frequently the only places where soldiers could purchase such things as soap or needles and thread. Everything was offered at exorbitant prices, and most of the goods and foodstuffs available were of the worst quality.

The fact that Custer had revealed that Grant’s brother had been part of the scheme enraged the President. He further suspected that Custer had been writing the damning articles which had appeared in the New York Herald denouncing corruption in the Indian Department.

Grant immediately stripped Custer of command of the Army’s punitive expedition in the West and ordered him to remain in Washington. Once again, Custer’s volatility had landed him in hot water.

He was distraught. He waited for hours in the anterooms of the White House, where President Grant refused to see him. He implored old army friends and politicians to intercede on his behalf: to no avail.

In frustration, he left Washington for Army headquarters in Chicago, only to be arrested and ordered back to Washington. But Custer instead rushed to St Paul, Minnesota, to appeal to Brigadier-General Alfred Terry, who had replaced Custer as commander of the punitive expedition.

ABOVE The US column commanders (left to right) Brigadier-General Alfred Terry (1827-1890), Colonel John Gibbon (1827-1896), and Brigadier-General George Crook (1830-1890).
The US column commanders: Brigadier-General Alfred Terry (1827-1890)
Colonel John Gibbon (1827-1896)
Brigadier-General George Crook (1830-1890).

Terry was a former lawyer who had decided to remain in the Army after the Civil War, and whose sole exposure to the West had been as a participant in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. He was eager to have the experienced and aggressive Custer in his command, and added his entreaties to those of Generals Sheridan and Sherman. Grant finally relented, but only on condition that Custer remain subordinate to Terry.

Custer at the Little Bighorn

Back in the saddle

Overjoyed to be back in the saddle, Custer lost no time in rejoining the 7th Cavalry. It was a relieved homecoming where he was surrounded by friends and family. Also in the regiment were his brother Tom, a captain twice awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in the Civil War; his brother Boston, working as a civilian packer for the outfit; a young cousin ‘Autie’ Reed, visiting for the summer; and Lieutenant Thomas Calhoun, Custer’s brother-in-law.

But Custer’s overpowering personality was not universally appreciated, and the officer corps of the 7th Cavalry was divided into pro- and anti-Custer factions. Leading the anti-Custer faction was Captain Frederick Benteen, who had disliked his commanding officer from their first meeting.

It was a dislike which had, over a period of 16 years, grown into a bitter hatred on Benteen’s part. The captain’s intense resentment of his commanding officer may well have played a role in the final act of their relationship.

The column which marched west from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Nebraska, was part of a three-pronged assault on the renegade tribes. The ‘Centennial Campaign’ – as it was now known – was to comprise three columns. That from Fort Abraham Lincoln, the ‘Dakota Column’, was led west by General Terry and included Custer and the 7th Cavalry. Another from Fort Ellis, the ‘Montana Column’, headed east, was led by Colonel John Gibbon. The third, departing from Fort Fetterman and moving north, was led by General George Crook.

Native American leaders: Sitting Bull (1831-1890) [centre right], and Gall (c.1840-1894) [right].
Native American leaders: Sitting Bull (1831-1890) [ABOVE], and Gall (c.1840-1894) [BELOW].
Image: US National Archives and Records Administration

The plan was for the three units to converge on the consolidated Lakota groups, which were under the influence of the taciturn but pugnacious Sitting Bull. The US commanders were supremely confident of their ability to subdue the tribes, with Crook commanding over 1,300 men, Gibbon 723 men, and Terry/Custer 652 men. The men were well mounted and provided with abundant rations and ammunition. All were certain they would prevail.

Divided forces

The major drawback was, of course, the distance that separated the three forces. With hundreds of miles between them, the columns were subject to sketchy communications, and they had only a general idea of when and where they would be converging.

Their intelligence, though tentative at best, estimated the strength of the opposition at no more than 800 to 1,000 effective warriors.

Knowing the tendency of the Indians to decline battle unless cornered, the American forces’ main concern was that the hostiles would break into disparate bands and scatter, making them far harder to corral. This could prove to be a long and frustrating summer.

Crook’s column would be the first to make contact, in a fierce battle along Rosebud Creek near the present-day border between Wyoming and Montana. On 17 June 1876, Crook’s 1,300 men had halted their movement north and were resting along the banks of the creek when nearly 1,000 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors fell on the unsuspecting whites.

LEFT Map showing the three-pronged convergence on the Black Hills during the Little Bighorn campaign of 1876. BELOW LEFT Plan showing the principal movements and deployments in relation to the Sioux encampment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 25 June 1876.
Map showing the three-pronged convergence on the Black Hills during the Little Bighorn campaign of 1876. Map: Ian Bull

It was only through the valiant efforts of Crook’s Shoshone and Crow Indian scouts that the soldiers were afforded enough time to respond to the unexpected attack. A brutal conflict ensued, see-sawing across the battlefield for six hours.

The Cheyenne and Lakota eventually withdrew, leaving the field to Crook, who claimed a victory – though this was little more than an effort at saving face.

Each side lost fewer than three dozen men, though exact numbers, especially for the Indians, remain elusive. The main significance of the combat is that Crook elected to remain in place, resting and regrouping his battered command. Surprisingly, he made no effort to inform Terry’s other converging columns of the willingness of the Cheyenne and Lakota to take on regular troops in a prolonged pitched battle.

Plan showing the principal movements and deployments in relation to the Sioux encampment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 25 June 1876. Map: Ian Bull

A fatal decision

A week after Crook’s setback on the Rosebud, somewhere to the north, Custer’s column was moving inexorably towards its date with destiny. In early June, Terry’s column effectively linked up with that of Gibbon at the mouth of Rosebud Creek, and, believing Crook to be moving north towards them, proceeded west, hoping to catch the hostiles between the two forces.

Terry detached Custer and his 7th Cavalry as a ‘reconnaissance in force’, instructing them to move south and west, thereby catching the unwary Lakota between three converging columns.

In Terry’s mind, the three columns would probably converge on the Little Bighorn on the 26 or 27 June. Custer’s mission was such that he was allowed considerable latitude in his movements. While outlining his proposed course of action, Terry was somewhat vague in his written orders to Custer, saying in part:

It is, of course, impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this move-ment, and were it not impossible to do so, the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy, and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy.

This was a most unfortunate choice of words, for Custer, delighted to be cut loose with an independent command, quickly dashed off with the probable intention of being the first on the scene of action. As Custer rode off waving his hat, Gibbon laughingly called after him, ‘Now, Custer, don’t be greedy! Wait for us!’, to which Custer, also laughing, replied, ‘No, I will not!’

‘More Sioux than you have bullets!’

Two days after leaving the main column, Custer’s scouts reported to him that they had discovered evidence of a large trail made by the movement of a hostile camp. This was exactly the evidence for which they had been searching.

below Red Horse’s depiction of a Sioux attack at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881.
Red Horse’s depiction of a Sioux attack at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881. Image: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology. Accession no. 08570700

Custer turned his column and began moving due west. His command now consisted of roughly 600 men, and he had never known the Indians to voluntarily stand up in a fight against a determined enemy, especially when their numbers were roughly equal.

From the accounts of those who survived the coming engagement we have learned that Custer’s intention was to locate and reconnoitre the enemy village and launch his attack on 26 June, which was the date on which Terry and Gibbon expected to be in the valley of the Little Bighorn.

As we now know, events did not allow this plan to come to fruition. Custer pushed his troops hard, and by the evening of 24 June they were exhausted and saddle-sore. They halted with the intention of doing their reconnaissance the next day, while the bulk of the force rested and prepared for the coming fight.

At dawn on the following morning, Custer’s Crow and Arikara Indian scouts climbed a rocky promontory known as the Crow’s Nest and spied on the valley below. They were shocked. Custer climbed up to them, but neither he nor his chief of scouts, Lieutenant Varnum, could see what the Indian scouts claimed when they pointed up the valley and said, ‘There are more Sioux than you have bullets!’

At about the same time, the Indian scouts spotted a group of Indians who had departed their camp and were moving in the distance. The scouts attempted, without luck, to intercept them, and Custer feared that his column’s movement had been spotted by the enemy.

There was no time to be lost. For, if the past was any indicator, the hostiles would quickly break camp and scatter in hundreds of directions. The campaign would then drag out interminably.

Despite the fact that his men were still tired and travel-weary, Custer changed his plans. This would not be a day of rest and reconnaissance as originally envisioned. They would close with and engage the enemy as quickly as possible. If things went well, they could isolate the non-combatants and force the warriors to lay down their arms before Terry and Gibbon appeared.

Custer’s attack

The 7th Cavalry was immediately divided into three separate columns. Three companies were placed under Major Reno, three under Captain Benteen, while five were retained under Custer’s immediate command.Reno was ordered to move up the valley along the Little Bighorn River to attack the lower end of the village, while Benteen screened the valley to the south to ensure none of the hostiles were able to escape.

ABOVE Charles Marrion Russell’s 1903 painting of Sioux warriors at the Little Bighorn.
Charles Marrion Russell’s 1903 painting of Sioux warriors at the Little Bighorn. Image: Library of Congress

Custer took the remaining companies and skirted to the north of the Little Bighorn, apparently intending to encircle the Indians. Before the units separated, Custer was approached by his favourite Indian scout, an Arikara named Bloody Knife. The scout was overcome by a sense of foreboding on the coming engagement. Looking at Custer, he pronounced solemnly, ‘You and I are going home tonight by a road we do not know.’

Major Reno’s squadron rode up the valley, where it spread out and dismounted to begin firing into the lower end of the village. The reaction was immediate and savage, as the Indians boiled out of their lodges in a spirited counterattack.

As the engagement developed, Reno’s men could see Custer’s squadron on the bluffs above the river galloping towards the upper end of the village. Sitting on his horse next to Major Reno, Arikara scout Bloody Knife was struck in the head by a Lakota bullet. His brains scattered all over Reno’s face and uniform.

Meanwhile, Captain Benteen had abandoned what he termed ‘valley hunting’, and started back towards the river.

Unnerved by Bloody Knife’s death, Major Reno was unsure what his next action should be.

In the village, resistance had stiffened and a major counterattack developed, urged on by Sitting Bull and led by ferocious war-chiefs Crazy Horse and Gall. As the Indian attack intensified, Reno decided he was outmatched and ordered a hasty withdrawal under fire, crossing the river and scrambling up the bluffs on the other side.

Bloody Knife, Custer’s scout, during the Yellowstone Expedition, 1873. Image: US National Archives and Records Administration

While the unit had to this point sustained few casualties, the decision to retreat was disastrous, with 38 men killed outright and more wounded and missing. Desperate, and still besieged by outraged Cheyenne and Lakota, Reno’s command dug shallow holes and fired as rapidly as possible into the attacking hordes.


Various weapons were deployed at the Little Bighorn. Many US officers had personal weapons such as preferred sporting rifles and revolvers, and some of the scouts carried shotguns. But the 7th Cavalry’s standard armament was the Trapdoor Springfield .45 calibre carbine and the .45 calibre Colt revolver.

The Trapdoor was single-shot, but had a long range of up to 800 yards, with significant stopping-power. Similarly, the Colt revolver packed a powerful punch at close range.

Ammunition, however, was problematic in that the average trooper was allotted 100 rounds of carbine ammunition and 24 rounds for the revolver. This was carried on a canvas looped belt holding 36 rounds, with the remainder in saddle-bags. Theoretically, an additional 50 rounds per man were carried in boxes strapped to pack-mules.

The usual method of engagement called for troopers to dismount, with every fifth soldier designated to stand behind the firing-line holding the horses for four of his comrades. With the tactics necessitated at Little Bighorn, the noise, dust, gunfire, and confusion of close combat unnerved the horses and made them virtually uncontrollable. Thus many mounts bolted, taking with them much of the available ammunition.

Further complicating our understanding of the engagement is the issue of marks-manship and fire discipline – or the lack thereof. In consolidated positions and operating from shallow scrapes or from behind dead horses, the troops under Reno and Benteen were able to discourage the attackers from closing in, and avoided being overrun.

Custer’s immediate command did not have these advantages. Based on their previous experiences with fighting Indians, Custer and his officers were not expecting the fierce resistance they met. Assuming that offensive action was the ideal way of taking on their adversaries, they opted to continue the attack.

ABOVE Many of Red Horse’s drawings show Sioux warriors carrying firearms as well as bows, spears, and tomahawks. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881.
Many of Red Horse’s drawings show Sioux warriors carrying firearms as well as bows, spears, and tomahawks. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881. Image: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology. Accession no. 08571100

As a result, the five companies of this wing remained spread out over a wider area, and in terrain that did not lend itself to providing mutual support. Thus, as the native warriors swarmed up the slopes, the individual fighting positions, widely separated and isolated by clouds of dust and gunsmoke, were quickly overrun.

Indian firearms

It might be assumed that the Lakota and Cheyenne were limited to their traditional weapons of bows, arrows, lances, war clubs, tomahawks, and skinning knives; and these were, in fact, in general use. However, many of the warriors were certainly better equipped and, as revealed by archaeological investigation, were armed with a number of firearms, some of them quite advanced.

We now know that, in addition to primitive trade muskets and cap-and-ball rifles, the Lakota and Cheyenne carried a wide variety of sophisticated weapons, including Spencer repeating rifles, Henry repeating rifles, Winchester Model 1866 repeaters, and Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers.

Archaeologists have positively identified over 370 individual firearms, in addition to the Cavalry’s standard-issue weapons. It appears that the 7th Cavalry was not only outnumbered but outgunned as well.

What might be an interesting counterpoint to the US Army’s experience at Little Bighorn is the British Army’s experience in South Africa only three years later. In January 1879, a British expeditionary force under Lord Chelmsford was surprised by a massive assault by Zulu impis at Isandlwana. Utilising their hallmark tactic of head, horns, and loins formation, the estimated 15,000 Zulu warriors attacked a British column of over 1,800 men, putting them to rout and killing more than 1,300.

However, at the nearby outpost of Rorke’s Drift, a mere 139 British troops held out successfully against successive assaults by a force of approximately 4,500 Zulu warriors, inflicting severe casualties on the native attackers. In this engagement, the 24th Foot suffered but 17 men killed in action and ten wounded, while the Zulu attackers are believed to have lost more than 500 men.

Thus Reno’s Hill and Rorke’s Drift may provide instructive counterpoints to Last Stand Hill and Isandlwana. In combat, discipline, firepower, and intelligent leadership proved to be the trump card.


The five companies that accompanied Custer to Last Stand Hill were indeed wiped out. Among the soldiers, 16 officers and 252 enlisted men were killed in action. But there were other casualties not counted in this number.

These include Custer’s brother Boston and nephew ‘Autie’ Reed; there was also scout Charley Reynolds, black scout Isaiah Dorman, reporter Mark Kellogg, half-breed scout Mitch Bouyer, as well as Arikara Indian scouts Bloody Knife, Bob-Tailed Bull, and Little Brave.

In addition, there were a number of Indian scouts who were declared ‘missing in action’, and it is impossible to know if they were killed in the fight, badly wounded and left to die, or simply went home. These would include White Cloud, White Eagle, Good Face, Bear-Come-Out, and Bear-Running-in-Timber.

ABOVE One of Red Horse’s drawings showing the dead of Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881.
One of Red Horse’s drawings showing the dead of Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881. Image: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology. Accession no. 08570400

It is more difficult to determine the numbers of Lakota and Cheyenne killed in action or died of wounds. The Native American participants did not keep records as we would understand them. Events and participants were more likely to be recorded on lodge skins, as ‘winter counts’, or related to interviewers after the fact or on the pages of ‘ledger books’, which were sketches done in pencil, ink, and watercolour on the pages of blank accounting books.

Thus our appreciation of specific casualties among the Lakota and Cheyenne is sketchy at best. We know, for example, that some individuals, such as Cheyenne warriors Lame White Man, Hump, Cut, Noisy Walking, and Whirlwind, were killed in action. Similarly, we have reports by Lakota participants noting the deaths of Swift Bear, Bear-with-Horns, Chased-by-Owl, Deeds, One Dog, Swift Bear, and White Bull. Our best estimates thus far indicate that Indian casualties were approximately 38 killed in action.

This seems a fairly low figure given the weapons of the 7th Cavalry – weapons liable to inflict catastrophic wounds on impact with human flesh and bone. An impact on a shoulder or thigh, for instance, would frequently inflict a wound which would ultimately prove fatal, especially given the Native Americans’ rudimentary medical care, and the fact they had to evacuate the area, taking their wounded with them, over rough country on horse-drawn travois.

Given the nature of the terrain and the wide dispersion of the tribes, there is no way of knowing how many warriors later succumbed to wounds. It is quite likely, however, that the figure is fairly low. Judging from the accounts of Indian survivors of the fight, a great many of the soldiers’ bullets were fired high – a natural tendency of soldiers in combat, especially when under heavy pressure. Several Indians later recounted how volleys of the troopers’ carbines ripped open the tops of the teepees. Unnerving, but hardly dangerous to the inhabitants.

The last stand

We can only surmise that it was at about this time that Custer had his first view of the village, which was immense. His command was vastly outnumbered and already decisively engaged. With Reno under fire, there was no option but to continue the attack.

Custer sent a hurried message off to his third squadron: ‘Benteen, come on. Big village. Be quick. Bring packs.’ The packs he referred to were boxes of extra ammunition, which were loaded on the pack train of mules.

As best we can determine, Custer hoped to hit the rear of the Indian encampment, threatening the area in which he supposed the women and children would be gathered. If they felt their families threatened, the warriors would very likely call off their attack in favour of moving their families out of the way or negotiating a settlement.

What Custer had not anticipated was the size of the encampment. He had not managed to encircle the village as intended, but hit the centre of it, and thousands of enraged Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho surged across the river in a fierce counterattack.

Meanwhile, Benteen had finally come up with Reno, to find his companies dug in on the hills above the river and fighting to survive. Reno pleaded with the new arrivals saying, ‘Benteen, for God’s sake help me. I’ve lost half my command.’

Disregarding his commander’s hastily scrawled entreaty to ‘come quick’, Benteen ordered his troops to halt and dig in alongside Reno’s beleaguered force. A desperate fight ensued, with the troopers holding their positions against repeated assaults.

We will never know exactly what happened to Custer’s five companies, but thanks to the work of archaeologists and forensic anthropologists we now have a better understanding of where the remaining companies of the 7th Cavalry moved and how they defended themselves.

It appears that Companies E and F under Captain Yates swung down the slopes of the bluffs to block Indian attempts to use a ford in the river. At the same time, Lieutenant Calhoun and Captain Myles Keogh established skirmish lines to block Indian charges while Custer attempted to close with the fleeing non-combatants. He needed just a little space and time to change the dynamic of the battlefield, and Keogh, Calhoun, and Yates tried to buy him that time.

But all came to naught as hordes of warriors swarmed up the slopes and the soldiers’ positions collapsed on themselves. There were no survivors. Custer died, very probably on top of Last Stand Hill, surrounded by the remnants of his command.

ABOVE Red Horse’s depiction of the destruction of Custer’s command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881.
Red Horse’s depiction of the destruction of Custer’s command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Graphite, coloured pencil, and ink; 1881. Image: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology. Accession no. 08570400


As the last of Custer’s immediate command died in the swirling dust and gunsmoke, the rest of the 7th Cavalry remained on a hilltop several hundred yards distant. Again and again, furious warriors assaulted the entrenched positions, approaching on foot as mounted charges were not possible in the face of stiff resistance.

Dug in and hunkered down, the soldiers forced their assailants to abandon their war ponies and rely on bows, arrows, and firearms. With the Sioux unable to get to close quarters, the fight degenerated into a desultory affair of long-range sniping.

Meanwhile, the collected villages hurriedly packed up and moved away, scattering into small bands and family groups. As the sun set on the 26 June, the largest gathering of Native Americans in 19th-century history dissolved into the surrounding countryside.

News of the disaster on Little Bighorn did not reach Washington until the 4 July, in the midst of the nation’s celebrations of independence. People were stunned.

The Government responded with a vengeance, and by May 1877 the Lakota and Cheyenne had been crushed. Sitting Bull had fled to Canada, and Crazy Horse was in custody. The great Sioux war was over, and George Armstrong Custer had passed into legend. .

Fred Chiaventone is a retired US cavalry officer who now works as a military historian and writer.

The ledger drawings by Red Horse featured in this article are on show at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University until 9 May 2016.

Further information
James Donovan, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn – the last great battle of the American West, Little, Brown & Company, 2008.
John S Gray, The Centennial Campaign: the Sioux War of 1876, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
Robert Utley, Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier, University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
Douglas Scott, Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.