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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Exactly when custer died is unknown; his body was found in a pile of soldiers near the top of Custer Hill surrounded by others within a circle of dead horses. It is probable he fell during the Indians’ second, brief and final charge. Before it began, Low Dog, an Oglala, had called to his followers: “This is a good day to die: follow me.” The Indians raced up together, a solid mass, close enough to whip each other’s horses with their quirts so no man would linger. “Then every chief rushed his horse on the white soldiers, and all our warriors did the same,” said Crow King.

In their terror some soldiers threw down their guns, put their hands in the air and begged to be taken prisoner. But the Sioux took only women as prisoners. Red Horse said they “did not take a single soldier, but killed all of them.”

The last 40 or more of the soldiers on foot, with only a few on horseback, dashed downhill toward the river. One of the mounted men wore buckskins; Indians said he fought with a big knife. “His men were all covered with white dust,” said Two Moons.

These soldiers were met by Indians coming up from the river, including Black Elk. He noted that the soldiers were moving oddly. “They were making their arms go as though they were running, but they were only walking.” They were likely wounded—hobbling, lurching, throwing themselves forward in the hope of escape.

The Indians hunted them all down. The Oglala Brings Plenty and Iron Hawk killed two soldiers running up a creek bed and figured they were the last white men to die. Others said the last man dashed away on a fast horse upriver toward Reno Hill, and then inexplicably shot himself in the head with his own revolver. Still another last man, it was reported, was killed by the sons of the noted Santee warrior chief Red Top. Two Moons said no, the last man alive had braids on his shirt (i.e., a sergeant) and rode one of the remaining horses in the final rush for the river. He eluded his pursuers by rounding a hill and making his way back upriver. But just as Two Moons thought this man might escape, a Sioux shot and killed him. Of course none of these “last men” was the last to die. That distinction went to an unknown soldier lying wounded on the field.

Soon the hill was swarming with Indians—warriors putting a final bullet into enemies, and women and boys who had climbed the long slopes from the village. They joined the warriors who had dismounted to empty the pockets of the dead soldiers and strip them of their clothes. It was a scene of horror. Many of the bodies were mutilated, but in later years Indians did not like to talk about that. Some said they had seen it but did not know who had done it.

But soldiers going over the field in the days following the battle recorded detailed descriptions of the mutilations, and drawings made by Red Horse leave no room for doubt that they took place. Red Horse provided one of the earliest Indian accounts of the battle and, a few years later, made an extraordinary series of more than 40 large drawings of the fighting and of the dead on the field. Many pages were devoted to fallen Indians, each lying in his distinctive dress and headgear. Additional pages showed the dead soldiers, some naked, some half-stripped. Each page depicting the white dead showed severed arms, hands, legs, heads. These mutilations reflected the Indians’ belief that an individual was condemned to have the body he brought with him to the afterlife.

Acts of revenge were integral to the Indians’ notion of justice, and they had long memories. The Cheyenne White Necklace, then in her middle 50s and wife of Wolf Chief, had carried in her heart bitter memories of the death of a niece killed in a massacre whites committed at Sand Creek in 1864. “When they found her there, her head was cut off,” she said later. Coming up the hill just after the fighting had ended, White Necklace came upon the naked body of a dead soldier. She had a hand ax in her belt. “I jumped off my horse and did the same to him,” she recalled.

Most Indians claimed that no one really knew who the leader of the soldiers was until long after the battle. Others said no, there was talk of Custer the very first day. The Oglala Little Killer, 24 years old at the time, remembered that warriors sang Custer’s name during the dancing in the big camp that night. Nobody knew which body was Custer’s, Little Killer said, but they knew he was there. Sixty years later, in 1937, he remembered a song:

Long Hair, Long Hair,
I was short of guns,
and you brought us many.
Long Hair, Long Hair,
I was short of horses,
and you brought us many.


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