Editor’s note: In 1874, an Army expedition led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer found gold in the Black Hills, in present-day South Dakota. At the time, the United States recognized the hills as property of the Sioux Nation, under a treaty the two parties had signed six years before. The Grant administration tried to buy the hills, but the Sioux, considering them sacred ground, refused to sell; in 1876, federal troops were dispatched to force the Sioux onto reservations and pacify the Great Plains. That June, Custer attacked an encampment of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho on the Little Bighorn River, in what is now Montana.
From This Story
The Battle of the Little Bighorn is one of the most studied actions in U.S. military history, and the immense literature on the subject is devoted primarily to answering questions about Custer’s generalship during the fighting. But neither he nor the 209 men in his immediate command survived the day, and an Indian counterattack would pin down seven companies of their fellow 7th Cavalrymen on a hilltop over four miles away. (Of about 400 soldiers on the hilltop, 53 were killed and 60 were wounded before the Indians ended their siege the next day.) The experience of Custer and his men can be reconstructed only by inference.
This is not true of the Indian version of the battle. Long-neglected accounts given by more than 50 Indian participants or witnesses provide a means of tracking the fight from the first warning to the killing of the last of Custer’s troopers—a period of about two hours and 15 minutes. In his new book, The Killing of Crazy Horse, veteran reporter Thomas Powers draws on these accounts to present a comprehensive narrative account of the battle as the Indians experienced it. Crazy Horse’s stunning victory over Custer, which both angered and frightened the Army, led to the killing of the chief a year later. “My purpose in telling the story as I did,” Powers says, “was to let the Indians describe what happened, and to identify the moment when Custer’s men disintegrated as a fighting unit and their defeat became inevitable.”
The sun was just cracking over the horizon that Sunday, June 25, 1876, as men and boys began taking the horses out to graze. First light was also the time for the women to poke up last night’s cooking fire. The Hunkpapa woman known as Good White Buffalo Woman said later she had often been in camps when war was in the air, but this day was not like that. “The Sioux that morning had no thought of fighting,” she said. “We expected no attack.”
Those who saw the assembled encampment said they had never seen one larger. It had come together in March or April, even before the plains started to green up, according to the Oglala warrior He Dog. Indians arriving from distant reservations on the Missouri River had reported that soldiers were coming out to fight, so the various camps made a point of keeping close together. There were at least six, perhaps seven, cheek by jowl, with the Cheyennes at the northern, or downriver, end near the broad ford where Medicine Tail Coulee and Muskrat Creek emptied into the Little Bighorn River. Among the Sioux, the Hunkpapas were at the southern end. Between them along the river’s bends and loops were the Sans Arc, Brulé, Minneconjou, Santee and Oglala. Some said the Oglala were the biggest group, the Hunkpapa next, with perhaps 700 lodges between them. The other circles might have totaled 500 to 600 lodges. That would suggest as many as 6,000 to 7,000 people in all, a third of them men or boys of fighting age. Confusing the question of numbers was the constant arrival and departure of people from the reservations. Those travelers—plus hunters from the camps, women out gathering roots and herbs and seekers of lost horses—were part of an informal early-warning system.
There were many late risers this morning because dances the previous night had ended only at first light. One very large tent near the center of the village—probably two lodges raised side by side—was filled with the elders, called chiefs by the whites but “short hairs,” “silent eaters” or “big bellies” by the Indians. As the morning turned hot and sultry, large numbers of adults and children went swimming in the river. The water would have been cold; Black Elk, the future Oglala holy man, then 12, would remember that the river was high with snowmelt from the mountains.
It was approaching midafternoon when a report arrived that U.S. troops had been spotted approaching the camp. “We could hardly believe that soldiers were so near,” the Oglala elder Runs the Enemy said later. It made no sense to him or the other men in the big lodge. For one thing, whites never attacked in the middle of the day. For several moments more, Runs the Enemy recalled, “We sat there smoking.”
Other reports followed. White Bull, a Minneconjou, was watching over horses near camp when scouts rode down from Ash Creek with news that soldiers had shot and killed an Indian boy at the fork of the creek two or three miles back. Women who had been digging turnips across the river some miles to the east “came riding in all out of breath and reported that soldiers were coming,” said the Oglala chief Thunder Bear. “The country, they said, looked as if filled with smoke, so much dust was there.” The soldiers had shot and killed one of the women. Fast Horn, an Oglala, came in to say he had been shot at by soldiers he saw near the high divide on the way over into the Rosebud valley.
But the first warning to bring warriors on the run probably occurred at the Hunkpapa camp around 3 o’clock, when some horse raiders—Arikara (or Ree) Indians working for the soldiers, as it turned out—were seen making a dash for animals grazing in a ravine not far from the camp. Within moments shooting could be heard at the south end of camp. Peace quickly gave way to pandemonium—shouts and cries of women and children, men calling for horses or guns, boys sent to find mothers or sisters, swimmers rushing from the river, men trying to organize resistance, looking to their weapons, painting themselves or tying up their horses’ tails.
As warriors rushed out to confront the horse thieves, people at the southernmost end of the Hunkpapa camp were shouting alarm at the sight of approaching soldiers, first glimpsed in a line on horseback a mile or two away. By 10 or 15 minutes past 3 o’clock, Indians had boiled out of the lodges to meet them. Now came the first shots heard back at the council lodge, convincing Runs the Enemy to put his pipe aside at last. “Bullets sounded like hail on tepees and tree tops,” said Little Soldier, a Hunkpapa warrior. The family of chief Gall—two wives and their three children—were shot to death near their lodge at the edge of the camp.