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by William H. Benson
June 25, 2001

     What Custer did not know was that the village of Native Americans–Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho–had swelled in just a week’s time from 3000 to 7000 people, from 800 to at least 2000 fighting warriors.  Strung in a three-mile stretch on the west side of the Little Big Horn stood perhaps 1000 lodges.  Because buffalo were plentiful in that area, the tribes had sufficient food.

     Shortly after noon on June 25, 1876, Custer divided his command of 566 men into three units: Captain Frederick Benteen with 125 men, Major Marcus Reno with 140 men, and Custer himself with 225 men.  Custer ordered Benteen south until he came to the Little Big Horn and then turn north and follow the ridges.  Custer then ordered Reno to cross the river and attack the village coming in from the south.  Meanwhile, Custer would head due north protected from sight by the ridges and then sweep into village coming in from the east.

     As the plan worked out, it was not a good one.  It divided Custer’s men when they should have remained together, backing each other up.

     Reno had never fought Native Americans before, but he soon was alarmed at the rush of enemies pounding at him in growing numbers.  He looked back for support from either Custer or Benteen and found none.  He held up his hand and ordered his troops to dismount and take a defensive position.  Two retreats later, Reno with only half his men by then found themselves high up on a bluff, pinned down.  Fortunately, for Reno Benteen found the attacked men, and together they held off the warriors that day.

     Neither Reno nor Benteen knew where Custer was late that afternoon.  They heard gunfire coming from the north, but did not know what was happening.

     Like Reno, Custer intended on attacking as planned, but then when he realized he was outnumbered, he took a defensive position even before he and his men had a chance to cross the river.  Up on Battle Ridge, Custer and his men stood while waves of warriors beat against them.  Soon those warriors were reinforced by the warriors who had given up attacking Reno.  Chief Two Moons, Crazy Horse, and Chief Gall led those attacks on Custer.

     Because there were no survivors among Custer’s men, no one is quite certain how the battle proceeded.  The Lakota Sioux Black Elk said, “There were so many of us that I think we did not need guns.  Just the hoofs would have been enough.”  A Sioux woman later recalled, “The Indians acted just like they were driving buffalo to a good place where they could be easily slaughtered.”

     We do know that the harrassed men finally shot their horses and used them as protective barriers.  There Custer and his men stood until all were killed or wounded, over 200 men in a little over two hours.  By 5:30 p.m. the warriors swarmed in and killed the wounded, and the women and children worked their way up through the ravines to rob the bodies.

     But there was no victory dance in the village that night because the tribes had lost warriors too.  Many suffered wounds.  Sitting Bull is reported to have said, “My heart is full of sorrow that so many were killed on each side, but when they compel us to fight, we must fight.”

     Early the next day, the 26th, the Indians kept up the attack on Reno and Benteen.  Driven wild with thirst, the soldiers at one point that morning attacked, allowing others to sneak down to the river for water.  But by noon the warriors gave up.  Sitting Bull and the other chiefs had decided to leave.  They dismantled the lodges and headed out of the valley bound for the Big Horn Mountains.  By 7:00 p.m. the valley was deserted.

     The next day, the 27th, Reno and Benteen heard the news that Custer and his men were wiped out and neither could believe it, until they rode north and saw the bodies.


     Custer’s Last Stand is truly the most overworked event in American history and from it, we can conclude that Custer and his troops lost that day because the Sioux and the Cheyenne outnumbered the soldiers three to one, because their families were in immediate danger, and because they were united, sure of themselves, and angry.