My Tour of the Little Bighorn Battlefield
September 12, 2003


Contents

The Battle

A description of what happened.

The Tour

My observations and pictures of the battlefield.


The Battle of the Little Bighorn
June 25-27, 1876

    On June 22, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer, with eight hundred and fifty men and Indian scouts and guides started up the Rosebud River. Early in the morning of the twenty-fourth, while the Custer command was passing up the Rosebud, scouts who were well in advance, saw a few Sioux scouts or hunters. Later in the day they reported to Custer that they had seen these men and that the Sioux had crossed over to the valley of the Little Bighorn. Custer seemed a little excited, and instructed the scouts to go first to the mountains forming the divide between the Rosebud an the Little Bighorn. The sun was now very low, and the scouts followed with the command following. In the scouting party were Lieutenant Barnum, Mitch Boyer, the five Crow scouts-White Man Runs Him, Goes Ahead, Hairy Moccasins, White Swan, and Paints Half His Face Yellow-a half-breed, and some Arikara. The scouting party followed up the Rosebud until he reached a small creek that heads in the mountains. They followed this stream, almost reaching the summit of the divide before daylight. Here they lay down to rest. At approaching dawn Boyer and White Man Run Him left the others asleep and went to a high point on the summit, usually referred to as the Crow's Nest. Far below them and to the west spread the Little Bighorn valley, over which hung a mist like cloud-and smoke from large Indian encampment. The Crow called to the others to ascend. Varnum or Boyer sent a note by Red Star, an Arikara scout, to Custer, who by that time had ascended close to the divide between the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn. When Red Star came hurriedly to Custer, he was asked by the latter in sign "Have you seen the Cutthroats (Sioux)?" On receiving the scouts reply, Custer read the note, and then with four or five men road at once to Crow's Nest, from which vantage he studied the distance for some time and viewed the encampment with its great herd of horses on the hills beyond.
    This outlook, which affords a splendid view of the entire region is about fifteen miles at the head of Davis creek, which flows into the Rosebud, and Middle Reno creek, which empties into the Little Bighorn. The creek flowing down to the Little Bighorn stretches clearly before one, and much of the Sioux encampment was plainly in sight.
    ("The writer's (Curtis') party visited this point in mid afternoon when considerable haze hovered over the valley, yet even the small cabins now on the camp site could be discerned with the naked eye, and with the aid of a glass smaller objects could be readily identified. While the party stood on this point two railway trains were seen to pass along the valley. These details are mentioned here because it has been asserted that Custer was not able to see the valley clearly from this outlook. The scouts say that the white tipis were pitched so thickly in the valley that it had the appearance of being covered with a sheet, and that the hills beyond were brown with horses. The outlook afforded such a perfect prospect that with the assistance of the scouts, who were thoroughly familiar with the ground, a commander could easily have formulated a plan of attack and have found no reason for materially changing it.") - Curtis observation
    Custer discussed with his scouts the situation, the nature of the ground and the best route to follow, and then road back to his command, which was just below him to the right. In the early forenoon the command moved down the western slope of Wolf mountains and out of the plain, and thus began the most unfortunate day ever experienced by United States troops in Indian warfare. Before leaving the summit one Crow scout, Hairy Moccasins, was sent ahead to scan the ground and obtain a closer view of the village. Preceding down the valley, past the oft-mentioned death-lodge of the Sioux, he climbed a pine-clad hill near the junction of the middle and north branches of Reno creek, observing the Sioux everywhere across the Little Bighorn, and a few, who were presumably Sioux scouts, in the valley of Reno creek. Hairy Moccasins rode back and reported the size and position of the Sioux encampment, and said that the hostiles were not running away, as had been thought. On receiving this report Custer hurried the command down the valley and halted at the junction of the two forks on a fair-sized flat, now, as it probably was then, a prairie dog village.
    ("At this point White Man Runs Him designated to the author the site where the troops were halted and the spot where Custer stood.")- Curtis observation
    This is where Custer and Reno separated.
    Reno advanced down the valley at its left margin. He had with him as scouts White Swan, Paints Half His Face Yellow, both Crows, and several Arikara. The distance from the point of separation as traveled by Reno to where he began his fight is, by the United States geological Survey, three and one-half miles.
    With Custer were the Crow scouts, White Man Runs Him, Hairy Moccasins, Goes Ahead, and Curly, and Mitch Boyer as interpreter and scout. Custer's command bore off to the right down a sharp bank, across a narrow flat, then across a narrow cut of a dry creek and out on a rising plain, Custer with his staff and scouts in the lead and their horses at a gallop. The course was gradually up and out of Reno creek. Off to the left Reno's command was in full sight, moving down the valley almost within hailing distance. As Custer's command emerged from the valley it passed, for two or three minutes, from the sight of Reno's men, then came up close to the crest of the hill overlooking the valley. Just before reaching this crest-the distance is about a quarter of a mile-the command was halted and the scouts were sent ahead. They appeared at the top of the hill, riding along silhouetted against the sky, and signaling Custer to follow; he and his staff went at once to the summit.
    "This is where Custer was seen to wave a salutation to Reno's command...This statement by Reno's men verifies the scouts story and proves that Custer's route paralleled the river rather than went far back from it, as some have stated and as his line of march is traced on many published maps")- Curtis observation
    When Custer reached this outlook, probably one-half or three-fourths of the Indian encampment was in plain view. Reno had already forded the river and was riding down the valley toward the Sioux camp. The distance from the point of separation to where Custer now stood on the outlook is one mile, and to where Reno was seen across the Little Bighorn beginning his march down the Valley, it was the same distance. From these points either or both commanders could have ridden into the Sioux camp in less than ten minutes. Custer stopped here, as the Indians expressed it, "only as a bird alights and then flies on."
    The ground in general is a sharp ridge sloping abruptly toward the river on one hand and gently to the other, this easy slope ending in a draw, which from here to the point where the attack on Custer began parallels the river. The peculiar topography enabled Custer and his staff to keep close to the crest where they could have a full view of the valley, while at the same time the troops were entirely ignorant of what was in the valley on the other side of the ridge. Within one minute from Custer's starting from this first point of vantage he passed over the ground on which Reno's disordered force was later to make its stand.
    ("This spot is now strewn with the bleached bones of troop-horses and pack-mules.")- Curtis observation
    Hugging the ridge for a time, Custer passed a hill and out in full view of the valley again. This last point is one of the highest in the region and gave a perfect view of the entire Indian encampment and the ground on which Reno made his attack.
    ("It is... a mile and a quarter from the scene of Reno's fight in the valley. The nature of the intervening ground is such that calvary could have covered it in a lope. The distance from here to the point of separation is two and one-half miles.")- Curtis observation
    Custer's route thence practically paralleled the valley for a distance, then turned to the left down a dry creek, by the Indians called Medicine Tail Coulee. Here he rode out close to the river, and probably planned to ford at this point and attack the Sioux. But the Indians had now discovered him and were gathered closely on the opposite side, and if the plan had been to cross, it was given up without an effort, even without going quite to the stream.
    ("It has been said that this was not a good ford-that the river had cut banks and quicksand. On the contrary, there is no better fording place in the river. The ground slopes down without a bank of any sort, and the opposite side is likewise favorable to passage, although a little higher, and there is no sign of a treacherous bottom.")- Curtis observation
    From here Custer turned slightly, led his command back up the valley a short distance, then swung to the left, and with Boyer and some of his staff dismounted and went out on a fairly high point overlooking the entire encampment.
    (" The configuration of the land is, as at the other stopping place, such that the troops now dismounted were back of him and in part, at least, out of the sight of the Indians- Curtis observation
    At this time some Indians were crossing the river here and there, and others were stealthily creeping up in Custer's front. When Custer had reached this point, Reno's fight in the valley had closed, and his men, with those of Benteen, were together on the bluffs, so that the entire Sioux force was free to attack Custer. Lieutenant-Colonel Brown, says:
    "While waiting for the ammunition pack-mules, Major Reno concluded to make an effort to recover and bury the body of Lieutenant Hodgson. At the same time he loaded up a few men with canteens to get water for the command; they were to accompany the rescuing party. The effort was futile; the party was ordered back after being fired upon by some Indians who doubtless were scalping the dead near the foot of the bluffs. At this time there were a large number of horsemen, Indians, in the valley-at least one thousand, says Benteen. Suddenly they all started down the valley, and in a few minutes scarcely one was to be seen." -(Quote)
    According to the testimony of almost innumerable Sioux participants, this rush of warriors down the valley commenced when they had sighted Custer's command, and this was the beginning of their attack on him. Custer personally, while sitting there, shot at Indians who were reckless enough to come within range. Boyer sat at Custer's side and the Crow scouts were behind with the troops. Boyer called White Man Runs Him, who came up to them on his hands and knees, when Boyer said to him "You have done what you agreed to do-brought us to the Sioux camp; now go back to the pack-train and live." The scouts then mounted and rode away, and as they came in sight of the attacking Sioux, many shots were fired at them, but they were soon out of range. They say they did not ride hard very long, but as soon as well out of range proceeded more slowly and watched the fight. Theirs was only a distant view, hence they could give no details of the encounter. Custer mounted at the time the scouts left him and began his retreat, and it was at this point that seven bodies were found by the burying squad. None of these men had empty cartridges, which clearly indicates that they were killed in the first attack, before there had been any considerable firing by the troops.
    "Custer made no attack, the whole movement being a retreat. Whether he thought only of withdrawing far enough back from the river to find a favorable position to make a stand, or had undertaken a long retreat to the mountains, cannot be told. The Sioux thought he was trying to reach the distant hills, and headed him off, forcing the retreat on a line more or less paralleling the river.
    ("A careful study of the ground convinces one that within miles there was no more favorable ground for a stand than that occupied by Custer's troops when the Sioux made the attack. To the west was a circling cut-bank protecting a third of his line; to the east his position commanded all of the immediate points; there were no hills near enough to form a satisfactory commanding position for the Indians, and he was within fifty yards of water.")-Curtis observation
    On June 27, two days after Custer's defeat, Terry arrived with Gibbon's men, forming a junction with Reno's force. They buried Custer's two hundred dead, gathered up Reno's wounded, and withdrew to the mouth of the Bighorn. The wounded were sent to Fort Abraham Lincoln, and Terry applied for reinforcements. Large additional forces were hurried to the front, but no considerable body of the Indians could be found; they were apparently satisfied for the time with their bloody victory, and had scattered, many going back to their reservations. The soldiers now adopted a policy of disarming and dismounting all of the Indians at the agencies. Colonel Miles, in pursuit of the fleeing Sioux north of the Yellowstone, had two parleys with Sitting Bull, Gall, and others. No understanding being reached, the chase was resumed. Five of the chiefs surrendered and were held as hostages, but Sitting Bull and Gall with their immediate bands escaped into Canada.

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Personal Observations of The Battle of the Little Bighorn

   

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