The Battle at Greasy Grass

There are a few things we know for certain about the events of June 25, 1876. We know that Custer led the 7th Cavalry (566 enlisted soldiers and 31 officers) that was accompanied by as many as 40 scouts  many from the Crow, Arikara and Pawnee tribes and a number of civilians (including Isaiah Dorman who served as an interpreter and was the only black man attached to the otherwise segregated unit) into a battle with a group of Lakota Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors who were led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall. We know that 268 Americans died on the battlefield including all of those who were with Custer. We know another six would die later of wounds suffered during the battle. We know that the Indians repulsed Major Marcus Reno’s surprise attack on their village and that Captain Frederick Benteen chose to aid Reno’s retreat rather than coming to Custer’s aid. We also know that the battle was nothing like the one portrayed in the Erroll Flynn movie They Died With Their Boots On. Beyond this, much is lost in the fog of war.

Recall that the broad plan developed by General Alfred Terry was to subdue the “hostile” plains tribes with a three pronged attack. (They knew the general movements of the tribes through southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming but weren’t aware of a specific location.)

The force under Colonel John Gibbon would march east and south from Fort Ellis while the second group led by General George Crook marched north from Fort Fetterman and the third group under Custer’s leadership, the 7th Cavalry, would march west and south from Fort Lincoln. The assault was planned to begin in early spring but was derailed when Custer was called east to testify in the Trading Post Scandal delaying the beginning of the march for several weeks.

This delay allowed the three so-called hostile tribes to gain several advantages. From a military standpoint, both Crazy Horse (Tȟašúŋke Witkó) and Chief Gall (Phizí) were able acquire more arms and more warriors. Psychologically, the tribes received an immense morale boost from Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake)  who, in the late spring performed the Sun Dance  –  a ritual that required him to fast and sacrifice over 100 pieces of flesh from his arms – and had a vision in which he saw many soldiers, “as thick as grasshoppers,” falling upside down into the Lakota camp.

One more important battle before Little Bighorn

Once it finally got underway, Terry’s plan hit its first snag on June 17 in the Battle of the Rosebud (also referred to as the Battle of Rosebud Creek) or, as the Cheyenne would call it, the Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.

(Crook had, perhaps mistakenly, encountered the Cheyenne before. Certainly, forces under his command had. On March 17, 1876, the Second and Third Cavalry regiments led  by Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds as part of the Bighorn Expedition (another U.S. Army military operation  against the Sioux “hostiles” in the Wyoming and Montana territories) attacked a village along the Powder River that they believed to be a camp of Oglala Sioux under Crazy Horse. As it turns out, this was a group of Northern Cheyennes. The mistaken attack prompted the Cheyennes, who now saw themselves as targets to become enthusiastic allies of Crazy Horse and the Sioux and, with Terry’s plan delayed by Custer’s time in Washington, bolstered Crazy Horse’s ability to build an ever larger force.)

Leading a force of 993 cavalry and mule-mounted infantry, 197 civilian packers and teamsters, 65 Montana miners (one of whom is said to have been Calamity Jane who we’ll meet in more detail when I visit Deadwood tomorrow), three scouts, and five journalists, Crook (seen below) left Fort Fetterman in early June along the now abandoned Bozeman Trail.

On June 8, Crook’s forces reached its base camp at Goose Creek (near present day Sheridan, Wyoming). Crazy Horse, inspired by Sitting Bull’s vision and who had assembled an army of more than 1,000 warriors of his own, had threatened to bring the fight to Crook (whom he called “Three Stars”) if he crossed the Tongue River. After a late night foray by the Cheyenne on June 9th that killed two of his soldiers, Crook’s inaction made it appear that he had some concern about Crazy Horse’s claim. In truth, he was awaiting the arrival of an additional 260 Crow and Shoshone warriors who, no doubt, happily anticipated inflicting punishment on their long time enemies.

A confident Crook allotted four days rations and 100 rounds of ammunition to each soldier and left his civilians behind to guard the wagons and pack train. He then headed north on a march of 35 miles toward the headwaters of the Rosebud on June 16. At the same time, Crazy Horse set out with his band of warriors. Crook stopped to rest his men along the south banks of the Rosebud. Although he made no special provisions to defend his position, he sent several Crow and Shoshone to act as scouts and lookouts on the bluffs above the river.

Fortunately for Crook, it was on these Bluffs that Crazy Horse began his attack at about 08:30 and while the Crow and Shoshone were substantially outnumbered, they were able to hold off the Sioux long enough for Crook to deploy his forces. The battle, which lasted approximately six hours devolved into a series of retreats and advances on both sides.

(Atlas of the Sioux Wars)

At the end of the day, the Lakota retreated to the northwest (as shown by the red arrows) Crook’s cavalry initially pursued them but soon gave up the chase allowing the Indians to safely regroup. With his supplies and ammunition depleted, Crook chose not to continue north. It’s unclear why but he failed to notify General Terry or Lt. Colonel Custer that his expected support wouldn’t be forthcoming. Gibbon’s force, the 7th Infantry of Montana, then met the column led by Custer and Terry on June 21 near present day Rosewood, Montana.

At the battle’s end, Crook claimed only 10 dead and 21 wounded. However, one of his top aides reported total casualties of 57 and one of his interpreters, Frank Grouard, reported 28 dead and 56 wounded. Estimates of Lakota and Cheyenne casualties are equally vague ranging from as few as 10 to as many as 100.

Though Crook claimed a victory because he held the field after Crazy Horse’s retreat, in truth, his actions belied those assertions and the battle was a standoff at best. He withdrew his largely incapacitated column back to its base camp at Goose Creek where it would spend nearly two months. Crazy Horse’s attack and Crook’s withdrawal ended Terry’s planned three pronged attack. With Gibbon’s slow pace, by the time Custer arrived at Greasy Grass, though he didn’t know it, reinforcements were not nearby. He was on his own.

Having stopped Crook’s advance, the Lakota felt that Sitting Bull’s vision was being realized. Nine days later, a newly invigorated Crazy Horse and many of those same warriors would fight in a battle some 40 miles to the north. That battle, the last Indian victory in the Great Sioux War, would have a much more decisive outcome.

With no knowledge of what had happened to General Crook’s forces five days earlier, Custer’s forces started south more or less following Rosebud Creek toward Little Bighorn. Gibbon turned his forces around and marched with Terry toward the Little Bighorn River approximately 50 miles west before turning south toward the Indian Village. They wouldn’t arrive at the battle site until June 27.


 (The blue line approximates the route of Terry and Gibbon. Custer turned south following what appears as a green line on the unenlarged map. If you enlarge the map, you can estimate Custer’s path by locating Jimtown, Muddy and Busby.)

(There is some controversy regarding Terry’s final orders to Custer and whether Custer disobeyed those orders. Here’s a partial text of the final written orders.

The Brigadier-General Commanding directs that, as soon as your regiment can be made ready for the march, you will proceed up the Rosebud in pursuit of the Indians whose trail was discovered by Major Reno a few days since. It is, impossible to give you any definite instructions in regard to this movement, and were it not impossible to do so the Department Commander places too much confidence in your zeal, energy, and ability to wish to impose upon you precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy. He will, however, indicate to you his own views of what your action should be, and he desires that you should conform to them unless you shall see sufficient reason for departing from them.

In addition, there was testimony that Terry entered Custer’s tent the night before his departure and told him, “Use your own judgment and do what you think best if you strike the trail.” Though I think this evidence should have put the alleged controversy to rest, it still persists.)


Custer’s Last Stand – the battle that shocked America

I don’t recall the source of the aerial photo below but keep it close because it highlights most of the important positions that I’ll mention in my description of the battle and the battlefield.

As you can see, today, the Indian Village and the battlefield are just north of an interstate highway (in this case I-90). As I made the short drive from the highway to the Visitor Center, my first impression was that had a battle that made a near mythic imprint on the American psyche not occurred in this place, it would be little more than an ordinary field that travelers along the interstate would ignore.

Certainly, I claim no military acumen but, given its location in the plains of Montana and looking at the battlefield itself regardless of my view point whether from near Last Stand Hill

or this one of the Deep Ravine

or this one from the Reno-Benteen Line

or any of the others, I couldn’t see any strategic importance to the place. The battle happened here because this is where the Sioux and their allies happened to make their camp.

So What Happened?

Much of the historical picture we have of what occurred in the actual battle at Little Bighorn comes from manipulated testimony made at a military hearing, a willing press that sometimes tacitly and sometimes actively portrayed Custer in the way his widow promoted his image and the reticence of many of the surviving Native Americans to speak ill of the man because they feared government reprisals.

When we last saw Custer on June 22, 1876, he was taking his troops south along Rosebud Creek while Terry and Gibbon marched west toward the Bighorn River. All three expected that Gerneral Crook’s column would provide support from the south at a place on the river where there were reports of a large Indian village. On June 25, Custer and his troops arrived at a spot known as the Crow’s Nest about 15 miles east of the Greasy Grass Valley.

Initially, the scouts saw no village. However, they did see smoke rising from behind the bluffs to the west. They proceeded west to investigate and, even at this point, events become a bit obscured. Some accounts say that the scouts reported seeing an enormous pony herd and signs of a huge village with one scout reportedly telling him that it was the largest village he’d ever heard of. Other scouts are said to have reported a large village but not overwhelmingly so.

When Custer, even with the aid of binoculars tried to see the village, he saw little or nothing. That’s understandable. He and his men had marched all night, they were tired and, from their vantage point, the area looked like this:

(photo from Looking back from the battlefield you have this view.

In this photo from the National Park Service, the Crow’s Nest is marked (1.) and the Little Bighorn River is (2.). The spot marked (3.) is where Custer ordered Reno to march forward to attack the village which is out of the frame. So, it’s little wonder that Custer didn’t see the village – particularly since accounts provided by various tribesmen confirm that the village was considerably smaller than it grew to be in building the myth of the battle. In some accounts the village grew to a length of six miles and a width of a mile. (Here’s one source on how the size of the village increased.)

James E. Dean, Jr.’s hand drawn map (reproduced in the Asheville Mountain Xpress) perhaps provides a better perspective

It was certainly a large village and, preferring rested troops and the element of surprise, Custer wanted to wait until the morning of June 26 to launch his attack as he had at Washita. However, one of his Crow scouts, Half Yellow Face, warned that the Sioux had seen the smoke from the camp at the Crow’s Nest and asserted that they should attack immediately. Custer remained unconvinced until soldiers discovered Indians rummaging through some supplies they had dropped on the back trail. At that point, Custer decided he had to attack.

Dividing the Force

You may recall that in his successful battle at Washita, Custer employed a tactic where he used one force to draw warriors away from the village while he circled behind and captured non-combatants (women, children and the elderly) and used them as human shields to force the Indians to surrender. There’s some speculation that he intended to use a similar tactic at Greasy Grass.

Whether or not this is the case, by ordering Major Reno to attack (in this instance from the south) Custer employed a fairly standard military tactic of dividing his forces to engage the enemy on one front while sending another group to envelop the flank – support that Reno expected. Reno took three companies (A, G and M) totaling about 125 men and crossed the river at what is known today as Reno’s Creek.

Was this a tactical error on Custer’s part? Perhaps. There’s certainly reason to believe that while the Indian Village wasn’t as large as subsequent legend made it, it was larger than Custer suspected (since he hadn’t actually seen it) and that had he known its size he would have realized that dividing the regiment couldn’t be successful against so large a force and would have chosen a different plan of attack. On the other hand, it’s possible that his recent humilation at the hand of President Grant and in front of General Terry might have combined with his daring and reckless tendencies and lack of respect for his tribal foes to spur him to an action that he though would gain him a great victory. (Recall that in the Civil War Custer had usually studied the battlefield in considerable detail before planning an attack.)

Although Reno later testified to the court of inquiry that when he saw the size of the village he suspected a trap and that, “So numerous were the masses of Indians encountered that the command was obliged to dismount and fight on foot…”, it’s equally likely that Reno and his supporters (who also testified) were trying to restore his reputation which had been considerably sullied by the campaign to lionize Custer.

All the reports from the Indians belie the notion that Custer and his forces had walked into an ambush. In fact, despite attacking in the middle of the morning, it appears from their later testimony that Custer was successful in surprising the village. One strong piece of evidence supporting the notion that Reno’s attack was, indeed, a surprise is the name Abandoned One given to a young child of Sitting Bull’s. The name reflected the fact that the attack had so frightened his wife, Four Robes, that in her panic, she grabbed only one of her infant twins and ran to the hills. When asked where the second child was, she realized she had left it behind, and raced back to the lodge to retrieve it. Sitting Bull himself was said to have been bathing at the time.

Though his attack surprised the village, the warriors responded within an hour at most. Again, using standard tactics, Reno had most of his men dismount and form a skirmish line while some remained on horseback and rode into the trees to provide cover. As the Indians pushed back, Reno withdrew to his second position waiting for Custer’s troops to arrive with the expected support.  This video (though the audio is sometimes difficult to hear because of wind and vehicles passing by on I-90) provides a succinct nine minute recap.

Recall that Custer had a force of nearly 600 soldiers and officers and sent only 125 with Reno but we also know that 210 rode into the final battle with Custer at Last Stand Hill. So where are the remaining 260?  Custer assigned three companies (D, H and K) to the command of Captain Frederick Benteen to embark on a lateral scouting mission and to protect the supply train and packs.

Reno was beside his scout, Bloody Knife, when the latter was shot in the head. Understandably, this disoriented him and as the blood-spattered and panicked Reno sought safety on the bluffs, Benteen was responding to a handwritten message from Custer, “Benteen. Come on, Big Village, Be quick, Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” This dual mention of bringing packs would have certainly underscored Custer’s sense that he was already facing a dire situation. As Benteen was driving his troops and train north to respond to Custer’s message, he arrived at what is marked on the aerial view at the top of this post as  “Reno-Benteen Defense”.

Reno still hadn’t recovered from the shock of being splattered with the skull fragments of his Arikara scout and Benteen likely saw the troops reflecting the disorientation of their commander. It’s possible that he also had some sense that the warriors of Crazy Horse and Chief Gall were closing in on Custer although that fight was some five miles distant. Effectively, he was caught Ben-tween a rock and a hard place. He could continue on across the field in response to Custer’s orders which would have almost certainly sealed Reno’s fate and possibly that of his own men or he could, as he chose to do, organize the defenses for both his battalion and what remained of Reno’s.

We certainly will never know the degree to which Benteen’s decision was influenced by the personal animosity between him and Custer or whether he made what he believed was a sound military decision. Custer’s defenders and promoters would unquestionably want everyone to believe the former. Of this we can be sure, nearly all of Benteen’s men as well as those under Reno’s command who reached the defense line that Benteen created survived. Only one person under Custer’s command, his Crow scout Curly survived. No one else, including the Lt. Colonel himself, did. (You can read Curly’s account of the battle here.)

Was there really a last stand?

As nearly as I can tell, the first scholarly work that asserted that Custer did not make a last stand at the battle of Little Bighorn appeared in 1993 in Dr. Richard A. Fox’s book Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle. In the quarter century since its publication, Fox’s book has stirred renewed debate about the battle at Greasy Grass. His book (of which I have only read reviews) concludes that the 210 men under Custer’s command “simply disintegrated under fire.”

Combing the battlefield, Fox used evidence from several hundred bullets and cartridge cases, nine iron arrowheads, three pieces of guns, scores of buttons and quantities of human bone belonging to at least 33 people to support his conclusion. Fox used a multi-disciplinary approach that included techniques from forensics as well as archaeology and deduced that Custer’s men were engaged in offensive, not defensive action.

He asserts that the disintegration started in Company C while it was trying to clear Indians out of what is called the Deep Ravine about half a mile from Last Stand Hill.

 Even enlarged, this marker is difficult to read but it states that 40 soldiers broke out from Last Stand Hill near the end of the fighting and that the bodies of 28 soldiers (mainly from Company E) were found near the head of the ravine. This is supported by a letter written Lt. Charles Roe who arrived a with General Terry two days after the battle and returned to the field in 1881 to rebury the bodies on the ridge and place the stone monument above them. “I put up the markers near the deep ravine you speak of. There never was twenty-eight dead men in the ravine, but near the head of said ravine, and only two or three in it.”

Another source claims that while battle relics and bones have been found virtually on every part of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, they have not been found in the trench of the Deep Ravine. All of  this comports with the statements of a number of surviving warriors who stated that no more than four of the soldiers died in the ravine.

Fox continues his portrayal of the disintegration of Custer’s Troops stating that the Lt. Colonel sent troops toward the ravine in an attempt to distract the Indians while he sent five mounted troopers south in an attempt to get help. These actions reduced the men on Last Stand Hill to no more than 60.

Markers such as these

 for 7th Cavalry fatalities and these in red granite

 for the Native Americans dot the entire battlefield and are intended to mark the spot where that person died. From my vantage point and memory, the area at the 7th Cavalry memorial

contains 60 or fewer markers making this aspect of Fox’s conclusion unremarkable – at least to me. The one that stands out with the brown marker is Lt. Col. Custer’s. (Custer’s youngest brother Boston also has a marker on the hill.)

Many of the warriors who survived the battle spoke of the last stand, Chief Gall, standing near the ridge not far from the hill said, “They were fighting good.”

Red Hawk said, “The bluecoats were falling back steadily to the hill where another stand was made. Here the soldiers made a desperate fight.” There are many similar Native American accounts.

Perhaps all Fox claims is that there was no great last stand like the one portrayed in legend or even in the movies. To me, it seems clear that be it 100, 60 or even only 40 men, there was a last stand on that hill.

With the battle over, I urge those of you interested in its history not to take mine as a final or definitive word. While I’ve tried to present a balanced view, my research is far from thorough and any conclusions are my own and affected by my world view.

Aftermath and the Indian Memorial

The victory by the combined forces of the Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahos in the Battle at Greasy Grass on June 25, 1876 was the most decisive victory won by the Native Americans in their fight to carry on their lives on their traditional lands and in their traditional ways. It was also their last.

New of Custer’s defeat reached a disbelieving nation as people in the east prepared to celebrate the country’s centennial. The Army’s response was swift, relentless and almost unprecedented. Less than a year later, on May 5, 1877, Crazy Horse surrendered at the Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson, Nebraska.

Later that month, Sitting Bull and Chief Gall led a band of people across the border into Canada. Despite maintaining reasonably good relations with the Canadian Mounties, an aging population and dwindling bison herds prompted Chief Gall to return to the United States some time in 1880 where he, too surrendered and, in May 1881 he was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation with the other Hunkpapa Lakota hundreds of miles to the north and east of his sacred Black Hills.

On July 19th of the same year, Sitting Bull, followed by 186 of his followers and family also returned to the United States where he surrendered at Fort Buford (in present day North Dakota at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers). Sitting Bull was also transferred to the area near Standing Rock but was kept apart from the other Hunkpapa. The Army eventually transferred Sitting Bull and most of his band to Fort Randall (near today’s Pickstown, South Dakota) where he was held as a prisoner of war for 20 months before being returned to the Standing Rock Reservation.

Over that same four year period, troops garrisoned at nearby Fort Custer (modern-day town of Hardin, Montana) regularly gathered remains for reburial, recovered graves, and policed the battlefield for exposed bones. In 1879, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued General Order No. 78 that designated part of what was then called the Custer Battlefield as a National Cemetery.

By 1881, a memorial was erected in honor of the Seventh U.S. Cavalrymen who perished on the battlefield. Prior to installing the monument, soldiers dug a trench around the base and placed  into it bodies that had been found to that date.

 It took just five years for the men of the 7th Cavalry who died on the field at Little Bighorn to receive their memorial. It required an additional 137 years  before President George H.W. Bush authorized a memorial for the Native Americans warriors who died at Greasy Grass to be similarly honored.

Just 75 yards northeast of the 7th Cavalry monument, the Indian Memorial was dedicated in 2003 and completed in 2013. The monument is a circular, earthwork design carved into the prairie. For many Native Americans, the circle is symbolically sacred. It represents the sun, the moon, the cycles of the seasons, and the cycle of life to death to rebirth.

Native Americans constructed stone circles for astronomical, ritual, healing, and teaching purposes.  These sacred hoops are symbols of harmony, balance, and peaceful interaction among all living beings on Earth. Built to follow a specific, basic pattern, – a stone center surrounded by an outer ring of stones with lines of rocks, or “spokes,” radiating from the center in the four cardinal directions, they serve as connecting points for Mother Earth and Father Sky with the center representing the individual’s connection to all of this.

The theme of the memorial is “Peace Through Unity” and  view of the Cavalry Memorial obelisk

 is intended as a spirit gate that welcomes the slain Cavalry soldiers into the memorial circle and symbolizes the mutual understanding of the infinite that all the dead possess. This is how the Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield organization describes it:

The Indian Memorial will surprise you. ….. If you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t know it’s there. From the visitor center it appears to be a mound, slightly lifted above the ground. There is already prairie grass sprouting from the outside walls blending it beautifully within its environment.

You cross the street from Last Stand Hill and the first thing you come to is the wayside for Wooden Leg Hill and the Unknown Warrior marker on a distant ridge. Wooden Leg witnessed the death of an unknown warrior wearing a warbonnet when he was shot through the head.

From there you turn northwest and pass by the Horse Cemetery with the new marble marker including a 7th Cavalry Horse drawn by Park Historian, John Doerner. There is a wayside exhibit explaining the archeological dig that was conducted there. From there you follow the sidewalk to where it forks going east and west. The proper way to enter the Memorial is from the east entrance and exit from the west. As you approach the memorial it begins to swallow you into its power. It becomes taller and more mysterious. As you approach the east entrance of the Memorial you can see just above the mound the very tops of the Spirit Warriors….

When you enter the Memorial, you enter another world — somber, deep, retrospective, and sacred. The Memorial is in the shape of a perfect circle. In the center is a circle of red dirt. Around it is a circled stone walkway. On the inner walls sit panels for each tribe that fought in the battle (Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara). Each tribe lists their dead and there are some pictographs.

You are immediately taken by the Spirit Warriors standing high above you to the north. The area is wide open so the Montana prairie shines through. If you turn around from the Spirit Warriors you look through a gap in the mound called the Weeping Wall. It is here that water continually trickles down into a pool representing tears for the fallen warriors and soldiers. And, centered perfectly within the Weeping Wall can be seen the 7th Cavalry Monument. This Spirit Gate welcomes the fallen soldiers to enter the Memorial and join the fallen warriors in friendship; “peace through unity.” Its symbolism is powerful in so many ways to say the least.

It is peaceful in this place, within this circle……

Some final thoughts

Manassas. Antietam. Vicksburg. Gettysburg. Little Bighorn. These places, battlefields all, cast long shadows over American history. For many, these are sacred places. Many consider the ground itself hallowed by the blood of the people who fought and died on these fields. I have visited all of them and never in those visits did I hear the sound of gun or cannon fire. Never did I hear a whoop of victory, a howl of agony or see the recognition of death in a ghostly soldier’s eyes.

Remove the markers and monuments and you remove the scars of battle. Remove the scars of battle and the field at Greasy Grass returns to a rolling prairie divided at some point by a small meandering river. It becomes the place it had always been and might have always remained. That is where I find healing.


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