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On the day of the battle, 6,000 to 7,000 Indians were camped on the flats beside the Little Bighorn River. (Aaron Huey)

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

As Indians arrived they got off their horses, sought cover and began to converge on the soldiers. Taking advantage of brush and every little swale or rise in the ground to hide, the Indians made their way uphill “on hands and knees,” said Red Feather. From one moment to the next, the Indians popped up to shoot before dropping back down again. No man on either side could show himself without drawing fire. In battle the Indians often wore their feathers down flat to help in concealment. The soldiers appear to have taken off their hats for the same reason; a number of Indians noted hatless soldiers, some dead and some still fighting.

From their position on Calhoun Hill the soldiers were making an orderly, concerted defense. When some Indians approached, a detachment of soldiers rose up and charged downhill on foot, driving the Indians back to the lower end of Calhoun Ridge. Now the soldiers established a regulation skirmish line, each man about five yards from the next, kneeling in order to take “deliberate aim,” according to Yellow Nose, a Cheyenne warrior. Some Indians noted a second skirmish line as well, stretching perhaps 100 yards away along the backbone toward Custer Hill. It was in the fighting around Calhoun Hill, many Indians reported later, that the Indians suffered the most fatalities—11 in all.

But almost as soon as the skirmish line was thrown out from Calhoun Hill, some Indians pressed in again, snaking up to shooting distance of the men on Calhoun Ridge; others made their way around to the eastern slope of the hill, where they opened a heavy, deadly fire on soldiers holding the horses. Without horses, Custer’s troops could neither charge nor flee. Loss of the horses also meant loss of the saddlebags with the reserve ammunition, about 50 rounds per man. “As soon as the soldiers on foot had marched over the ridge,” the Yanktonais Daniel White Thunder later told a white missionary, he and the Indians with him “stampeded the horses...by waving their blankets and making a terrible noise.”

“We killed all the men who were holding the horses,” Gall said. When a horse holder was shot, the frightened horses would lunge about. “They tried to hold on to their horses,” said Crow King, “but as we pressed closer, they let go their horses.” Many charged down the hill toward the river, adding to the confusion of battle. Some of the Indians quit fighting to chase them.

The fighting was intense, bloody, at times hand to hand. Men died by knife and club as well as by gunfire. The Cheyenne Brave Bear saw an officer riding a sorrel horse shoot two Indians with his revolver before he was killed himself. Brave Bear managed to seize the horse. At almost the same moment, Yellow Nose wrenched a cavalry guidon from a soldier who had been using it as a weapon. Eagle Elk, in the thick of the fighting at Calhoun Hill, saw many men killed or horribly wounded; an Indian was “shot through the jaw and was all bloody.”

Calhoun Hill was swarming with men, Indian and white. “At this place the soldiers stood in line and made a very good fight,” said Red Hawk. But the soldiers were completely exposed. Many of the men in the skirmish line died where they knelt; when their line collapsed back up the hill, the entire position was rapidly lost. It was at this moment that the Indians won the battle.

In the minutes before, the soldiers had held a single, roughly continuous line along the half-mile backbone from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill. Men had been killed and wounded, but the force had remained largely intact. The Indians heavily outnumbered the whites, but nothing like a rout had begun. What changed everything, according to the Indians, was a sudden and unexpected charge up over the backbone by a large force of Indians on horseback. The central and controlling part Crazy Horse played in this assault was witnessed and later reported by many of his friends and relatives, including He Dog, Red Feather and Flying Hawk.

Recall that as Reno’s men were retreating across the river and up the bluffs on the far side, Crazy Horse had headed back toward the center of camp. He had time to reach the mouth of Muskrat Creek and Medicine Tail Coulee by 4:15, just as the small detachment of soldiers observed by Gall had turned back from the river toward higher ground. Flying Hawk said he had followed Crazy Horse down the river past the center of camp. “We came to a ravine,” Flying Hawk later recalled, “then we followed up the gulch to a place in the rear of the soldiers that were making the stand on the hill.” From his half-protected vantage at the head of the ravine, Flying Hawk said, Crazy Horse “shot them as fast as he could load his gun.”

This was one style of Sioux fighting. Another was the brave run. Typically the change from one to the other was preceded by no long discussion; a warrior simply perceived that the moment was right. He might shout: “I am going!” Or he might yell “Hokahey!” or give the war trill or clench an eagle bone whistle between his teeth and blow the piercing scree sound. Red Feather said Crazy Horse’s moment came when the two sides were keeping low and popping up to shoot at each other—a standoff moment.

“There was a great deal of noise and confusion,” said Waterman, an Arapaho warrior. “The air was heavy with powder smoke, and the Indians were all yelling.” Out of this chaos, said Red Feather, Crazy Horse “came up on horseback” blowing his eagle bone whistle and riding between the length of the two lines of fighters. “Crazy Horse...was the bravest man I ever saw,” said Waterman. “He rode closest to the soldiers, yelling to his warriors. All the soldiers were shooting at him but he was never hit.”

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