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by William H. Benson

June 25, 2000

     “The defeat of General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry on June 25, 1876, with a loss of 265 men killed and 52 wounded, was the most sensational battle of the western Indian wars.” So wrote George Bird Grinnell in his chapter “The Custer Battle, 1876” in his classic work, The Fighting Cheyennes.

     Grinnell was most unusual among western historians: he spent time with the Native Americans, interviewed them, especially the Cheyennes, and then recorded their oral histories of what had happened at their battles with the white soldiers between 1856 and 1879. Most historians dismissed the Native Americans’ accounts as untrustworthy, but Grinnell wrote them down as he heard them, “without comment.”

     “Grinnell found among the Cheyennes that their leaders were men of honor and veracity, honest and guarded in their statements, avoiding hearsay.”

     By the mid-1870’s, certain of the Plains Indians tribes resented the Americans’ invasion of their lands, and they refused to accept the white men’s treaties.

     Chief among these “non-treaty” Sioux was the Hunkpapa Sioux medicine man, Sitting Bull, who had witnessed a vision, that the gods had granted him power over the white soldiers. To him in the Rosebud River country of southern Montana in the spring of 1876, he gathered thousands from the tribes of the Sioux nations: the Hunkpapa, Brule, Ogalalla, Minneconjou, Santee, and the Yanktonnais. Joining these Sioux were also the Northern Cheyennes and the Arapahoe.   

       The U.S. government responded to Sitting Bull’s defiance, and dispatched three armies toward the Rosebud, one of which was commanded by General Alfred Terry, along with his Lieutenant Colonel, George Armstrong Custer, from Fort Lincoln near Bismarck, North Dakota. The three armies intended on converging on the Rosebud.

     Early on Sunday morning, June 25, 1876, Custer of the 7th Cavalry was on the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Big Horn River, when he received his scouts’ report that the Plains Indians were situated on the west side of the Little Big Horn, north and west of his current location. Custer decided to attack, and divided his army three units.

       Major Marcus A. Reno attacked the south end of the Indian camp, but when Reno saw the size of the camp, he decided not to continue his attack, when he was only a quarter of a mile from the village. A mistake. He and his troops retreated to a grove of timber, but panic-stricken, his 112 soldiers then bolted from the woods’ protection, crossed the Little Big Horn, and sought refuge upon a bluff.

     The Cheyenne later told Grinnell that they thought the white soldiers’ behavior was bizarre. “We could never understand why the soldiers left the timber, for if they had stayed there, the Indians could not have killed them.” More than 40 soldiers were killed.

     Frederick Benteen, Captain of Custer’s second unit, arrived on the bluffs just as Reno’s men were scaling them. Benteen asked Reno, “Where is Custer?” But Reno did not know. Custer had led the third unit himself, five miles to the north hoping to flank the entire Indian camp in a surprise attack. Suddenly, Custer too saw the immensity of the village, between 10,000 and 12,000 Indians, of which some three thousand were warriors.

     Custer chose not to attack. A mistake. But the Indian warriors, led by the chiefs Gall, Crazy Horse and Two Moon, recognized Custer’s indecision and attacked, while Custer and his soldiers tried to stand them off.

     “Indians and troopers fought in a big tangle. Everyone fired wildly. No one stopped to see who was who. They were so densely packed that the Indians were shooting each other. . . . Many of the Indians hacked away with clubs or hatchets. Soldiers died. It was every man for himself.” The fight was soon over, and Custer’s entire unit was wiped out.

     Years later, the Cheyenne warriors who fought there that day admitted to George Grinnell “that if Reno and Custer had kept on and charged through the village from opposite ends, the Indians would have scattered and there would have been no disaster.”


     That may have been so, but at the age of thirty-six, George Armstrong Custer, the most flamboyant and sensational Civil War general and Indian fighter that America had ever produced, was gone. The Indians had called Custer “Long Hair” or sometimes “Son of the Morning Sun.” The latter was a name filled with homage, for the Native Americans’ revered the sunrise, that eastern sky where the sun is born again and again.