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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At just this moment someone near the timber cried out, “Crazy Horse is coming!” From the Indians circling around behind the soldiers came the charge word—“Hokahey!” Many Indians near the woods said that Crazy Horse repeatedly raced his pony past the soldiers, drawing their fire—an act of daring sometimes called a brave run. Red Feather remembered that “some Indian shouted, ‘Give way; let the soldiers out. We can’t get at them in there.’ Soon the soldiers came out and tried to go to the river.” As they bolted out of the woods, Crazy Horse called to the men near him: “Here are some of the soldiers after us again. Do your best, and let us kill them all off today, that they may not trouble us anymore. All ready! Charge!”

Crazy Horse and all the rest now raced their horses directly into the soldiers. “Right among them we rode,” said Thunder Bear, “shooting them down as in a buffalo drive.” Horses were shot and soldiers tumbled to the ground; a few managed to pull up behind friends, but on foot most were quickly killed. “All mixed up,” said the Cheyenne Two Moons of the melee. “Sioux, then soldiers, then more Sioux, and all shooting.” Flying Hawk, an Oglala, said it was hard to know exactly what was happening: “The dust was thick and we could hardly see. We got right among the soldiers and killed a lot with our bows and arrows and tomahawks. Crazy Horse was ahead of all, and he killed a lot of them with his war club.”

Two Moons said he saw soldiers “drop into the river-bed like buffalo fleeing.” The Minneconjou warrior Red Horse said several troops drowned. Many of the Indians charged across the river after the soldiers and chased them as they raced up the bluffs toward a hill (now known as Reno Hill, for the major who led the soldiers). White Eagle, the son of Oglala chief Horned Horse, was killed in the chase. A soldier stopped just long enough to scalp him—one quick circle-cut with a sharp knife, then a yank on a fistful of hair to rip the skin loose.

The whites had the worst of it. More than 30 were killed before they reached the top of the hill and dismounted to make a stand. Among the bodies of men and horses left on the flat by the river below were two wounded Ree scouts. The Oglala Red Hawk said later that “the Indians [who found the scouts] said these Indians wanted to die—that was what they were scouting with the soldiers for; so they killed them and scalped them.”

The soldiers’ crossing of the river brought a second breathing spell in the fight. Some of the Indians chased them to the top of the hill, but many others, like Black Elk, lingered to pick up guns and ammunition, to pull the clothes off dead soldiers or to catch runaway horses. Crazy Horse promptly turned back with his men toward the center of the great camp. The only Indian to offer an explanation of his abrupt withdrawal was Gall, who speculated that Crazy Horse and Crow King, a leading man of the Hunkpapa, feared a second attack on the camp from some point north. Gall said they had seen soldiers heading that way along the bluffs on the opposite bank.

The fight along the river flat—from the first sighting of soldiers riding toward the Hunkpapa camp until the last of them crossed the river and made their way to the top of the hill—had lasted about an hour. During that time, a second group of soldiers had shown itself at least three times on the eastern heights above the river. The first sighting came only a minute or two after the first group began to ride toward the Hunkpapa camp—about five minutes past 3. Ten minutes later, just before the first group formed a skirmish line, the second group was sighted across the river again, this time on the very hill where the first group would take shelter after their mad retreat across the river. At about half-past 3, the second group was seen yet again on a high point above the river not quite halfway between Reno Hill and the Cheyenne village at the northern end of the big camp. By then the first group was retreating into the timber. It is likely that the second group of soldiers got their first clear view of the long sprawl of the Indian camp from this high bluff, later called Weir Point.

The Yanktonais White Thunder said he saw the second group make a move toward the river south of the ford by the Cheyenne camp, then turn back on reaching “a steep cut bank which they could not get down.” While the soldiers retraced their steps, White Thunder and some of his friends went east up and over the high ground to the other side, where they were soon joined by many other Indians. In effect, White Thunder said, the second group of soldiers had been surrounded even before they began to fight.

From the spot where the first group of soldiers retreated across the river to the next crossing place at the northern end of the big camp was about three miles—roughly a 20-minute ride. Between the two crossings steep bluffs blocked much of the river’s eastern bank, but just beyond the Cheyenne camp was an open stretch of several hundred yards, which later was called Minneconjou Ford. It was here, Indians say, that the second group of soldiers came closest to the river and to the Indian camp. By most Indian accounts it wasn’t very close.

Approaching the ford at an angle from the high ground to the southeast was a dry creek bed in a shallow ravine now known as Medicine Tail Coulee. The exact sequence of events is difficult to establish, but it seems likely that the first sighting of soldiers at the upper end of Medicine Tail Coulee occurred at about 4 o’clock, just as the first group of soldiers was making its dash up the bluffs toward Reno Hill and Crazy Horse and his followers were turning back. Two Moons was in the Cheyenne camp when he spotted soldiers coming over an intervening ridge and descending toward the river.

Gall and three other Indians were watching the same soldiers from a high point on the eastern side of the river. Well out in front were two soldiers. Ten years later, Gall identified them as Custer and his orderly, but more probably it was not. This man he called Custer was in no hurry, Gall said. Off to Gall’s right, on one of the bluffs upriver, some Indians came into sight as Custer approached. Feather Earring, a Minneconjou, said Indians were just then coming up from the south on that side of the river “in great numbers.” When Custer saw them, Gall said, “his pace became slower and his actions more cautious, and finally he paused altogether to await the coming up of his command. This was the nearest point any of Custer’s party ever got to the river.” At that point, Gall went on, Custer “began to suspect he was in a bad scrape. From that time on Custer acted on the defensive.”


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