How the Battle of Little Bighorn Was Won

Accounts of the 1876 battle have focused on Custer’s ill-fated cavalry. But a new book offers a take from the Indian’s point of view

On the day of the battle, 6,000 to 7,000 Indians were camped on the flats beside the Little Bighorn River. (Aaron Huey)
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After firing their rifles at Crazy Horse, the soldiers had to reload. It was then that the Indians rose up and charged. Among the soldiers, panic ensued; those gathered around Calhoun Hill were suddenly cut off from those stretching along the backbone toward Custer Hill, leaving each bunch vulnerable to the Indians charging them on foot and horseback.

The soldiers’ way of fighting was to try to keep an enemy at bay, to kill him from a distance. The instinct of Sioux fighters was the opposite—to charge in and engage the enemy with a quirt, bow or naked hand. There is no terror in battle to equal physical contact—shouting, hot breath, the grip of a hand from a man close enough to smell. The charge of Crazy Horse brought the Indians in among the soldiers, whom they clubbed and stabbed to death.

Those soldiers still alive at the southern end of the backbone now made a run for it, grabbing horses if they could, running if they couldn’t. “All were going toward the high ground at end of ridge,” the Brulé Foolish Elk said.

The skirmish lines were gone. Men crowded in on each other for safety. Iron Hawk said the Indians followed close behind the fleeing soldiers. “By this time the Indians were taking the guns and cartridges of the dead soldiers and putting these to use,” said Red Hawk. The boom of the Springfield carbines was coming from Indian and white fighters alike. But the killing was mostly one-sided.

In the rush of the Calhoun Hill survivors to rejoin the rest of the command, the soldiers fell in no more pattern than scattered corn. In the depression in which the body of Capt. Myles Keogh was found lay the bodies of some 20 men crowded tight around him. But the Indians describe no real fight there, just a rush without letup along the backbone, killing all the way; the line of bodies continued along the backbone. “We circled all round them,” Two Moons said, “swirling like water round a stone.”

Another group of the dead, ten or more, was left on the slope rising up to Custer Hill. Between this group and the hill, a distance of about 200 yards, no bodies were found. The mounted soldiers had dashed ahead, leaving the men on foot to fend for themselves. Perhaps the ten who died on the slope were all that remained of the foot soldiers; perhaps no bodies were found on that stretch of ground because organized firing from Custer Hill held the Indians at bay while soldiers ran up the slope. Whatever the cause, Indian accounts mostly agree that there was a pause in the fighting—a moment of positioning, closing in, creeping up.

The pause was brief; it offered no time for the soldiers to count survivors. By now, half of Custer’s men were dead, Indians were pressing in from all sides, the horses were wounded, dead or had run off. There was nowhere to hide. “When the horses got to the top of the ridge the gray ones and bays became mingled, and the soldiers with them were all in confusion,” said Foolish Elk. Then he added what no white soldier lived to tell: “The Indians were so numerous that the soldiers could not go any further, and they knew that they had to die.”

The Indians surrounding the soldiers on Custer Hill were now joined by others from every section of the field, from downriver where they had been chasing horses, from along the ridge where they had stripped the dead of guns and ammunition, from upriver, where Reno’s men could hear the beginning of the last heavy volley a few minutes past 5. “There were great numbers of us,” said Eagle Bear, an Oglala, “some on horseback, others on foot. Back and forth in front of Custer we passed, firing all of the time.”

Kill Eagle, a Blackfeet Sioux, said the firing came in waves. His interviewer noted that he clapped “the palms of his hands together very fast for several minutes” to demonstrate the intensity of the firing at its height, then clapped slower, then faster, then slower, then stopped.

In the fight’s final stage, the soldiers killed or wounded very few Indians. As Brave Bear later recalled: “I think Custer saw he was caught in [a] bad place and would like to have gotten out of it if he could, but he was hemmed in all around and could do nothing only to die then.”


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