Others, including Iron Hawk and Feather Earring, confirmed that Custer and his men got no closer to the river than that—several hundred yards back up the coulee. Most of the soldiers were still farther back up the hill. Some soldiers fired into the Indian camp, which was almost deserted. The few Indians at Minneconjou Ford fired back.
The earlier pattern repeated itself. Little stood in the soldiers’ way at first, but within moments more Indians began to arrive, and they kept coming—some crossing the river, others riding up from the south on the east side of the river. By the time 15 or 20 Indians had gathered near the ford, the soldiers had hesitated, then begun to ride up out of Medicine Tail Coulee, heading toward high ground, where they were joined by the rest of Custer’s command.
The battle known as the Custer Fight began when the small, leading detachment of soldiers approaching the river retreated toward higher ground at about 4:15. This was the last move the soldiers would take freely; from this moment on everything they did was in response to an Indian attack growing rapidly in intensity.
As described by Indian participants, the fighting followed the contour of the ground, and its pace was determined by the time it took for Indians to gather in force and the comparatively few minutes it took for each successive group of soldiers to be killed or driven back. The path of the battle follows a sweeping arc up out of Medicine Tail Coulee across another swale into a depression known as Deep Coulee, which in turn opens up and out into a rising slope cresting at Calhoun Ridge, rising to Calhoun Hill, and then proceeds, still rising, past a depression in the ground identified as the Keogh site to a second elevation known as Custer Hill. The high ground from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill was what men on the plains called “a backbone.” From the point where the soldiers recoiled away from the river to the lower end of Calhoun Ridge is about three-quarters of a mile—a hard, 20-minute uphill slog for a man on foot. Shave Elk, an Oglala in Crazy Horse’s band, who ran the distance after his horse was shot at the outset of the fight, remembered “how tired he became before he got up there.” From the bottom of Calhoun Ridge to Calhoun Hill is another uphill climb of about a quarter-mile.
But it would be a mistake to assume that all of Custer’s command—210 men—advanced in line from one point to another, down one coulee, up the other coulee and so on. Only a small detachment had approached the river. By the time this group rejoined the rest, the soldiers occupied a line from Calhoun Hill along the backbone to Custer Hill, a distance of a little over half a mile.
The uphill route from Medicine Tail Coulee over to Deep Coulee and up the ridge toward Custer Hill would have been about a mile and a half or a little more. Red Horse would later say that Custer’s troops “made five different stands.” In each case, combat began and ended in about ten minutes. Think of it as a running fight, as the survivors of each separate clash made their way along the backbone toward Custer at the end; in effect the command collapsed back in on itself. As described by the Indians, this phase of the battle began with the scattering of shots near Minneconjou Ford, unfolding then in brief, devastating clashes at Calhoun Ridge, Calhoun Hill and the Keogh site, climaxing in the killing of Custer and his entourage on Custer Hill and ending with the pursuit and killing of about 30 soldiers who raced on foot from Custer Hill toward the river down a deep ravine.
Back at Reno Hill, just over four miles to the south, the soldiers preparing their defenses heard three episodes of heavy firing—one at 4:25 in the afternoon, about ten minutes after Custer’s soldiers turned back from their approach to Minneconjou Ford; a second about 30 minutes later; and a final burst about 15 minutes after that, dying off before 5:15. Distances were great, but the air was still, and the .45/55 caliber round of the cavalry carbine made a thunderous boom.
At 5:25 some of Reno’s officers, who had ridden out with their men toward the shooting, glimpsed from Weir Point a distant hillside swarming with mounted Indians who seemed to be shooting at things on the ground. These Indians were not fighting; more likely they were finishing off the wounded, or just following the Indian custom of putting an extra bullet or arrow into an enemy’s body in a gesture of triumph. Once the fighting began it never died away, the last scattering shots continuing until night fell.
The officers at Weir Point also saw a general movement of Indians—more Indians than any of them had ever encountered before—heading their way. Soon the forward elements of Reno’s command were exchanging fire with them, and the soldiers quickly returned to Reno Hill.
As Custer’s soldiers made their way from the river toward higher ground, the country on three sides was rapidly filling with Indians, in effect pushing as well as following the soldiers uphill. “We chased the soldiers up a long, gradual slope or hill in a direction away from the river and over the ridge where the battle began in good earnest,” said Shave Elk. By the time the soldiers made a stand on “the ridge”—evidently the backbone connecting Calhoun and Custer hills—the Indians had begun to fill the coulees to the south and east. “The officers tried their utmost to keep the soldiers together at this point,” said Red Hawk, “but the horses were unmanageable; they would rear up and fall backward with their riders; some would get away.” Crow King said, “When they saw that they were surrounded they dismounted.” This was cavalry tactics by the book. There was no other way to make a stand or maintain a stout defense. A brief period followed of deliberate fighting on foot.