THE BATTLE OF LITTLE BIGHORN - part 3

part 1 historical background
part 2 Custer and the 1875 Gold Rush
part 3 the Battle

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This is an extract of the article, with small photos. You will find the complete article with full-sized photos in my e-book View America: West Mountain - Part 1

In the travel series View America, West Mountain - Part 1 covers Montana and Wyoming. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 150 full-sized photos.

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the military campaign

On 1 February 1876 General Sheridan ordered a military expedition to the Indian territories. General Crook would go south from Wyoming, Colonel Gibbon would approach the west from Montana, and General Terry would cover the east from Dakota. Each of the three military units was by itself strong enough to face all the Indians.

Sheridan had originally planned that Custer would be in charge of the third Army, but after Custer's arrogant altercation with President Grant, it was decided that Custer and his 7th Cavalry would be part of the troops under General Terry. In closed military circles the special relationship between Sheridan and Custer was well-known, but even Sheridan's boss General Sherman was not exactly thrilled with Sheridan's choice, and specifically asked General Terry to hold Custer on a leash.

General Crook left first in March with 800 men, but after a failed attack he returned to his starting point for a reorganization of its units, which lasted until May. In April Colonel Gibbon left with 450 men, and on May 17 General Terry took off with 925 men. Despite the president's displeasure with Custer, Sheridan had long since set up that the Indians would be vanquished by none other than his protégé Custer.

On 29 May Crook left for the second time with 1,000 soldiers and 262 Crow Indians, the arch-enemies of the Sioux. On 17 June they were unexpectedly attacked by the Sioux, and were it not for the Crow, his unit would have been cut to pieces. After six hours of fighting the Sioux broke off their attack. Although Crook considered himself to be the "moral" victor, he prudently decided to halt his expedition and wait for reinforcements. Unlike on previous occasions, this time the Indians didn't run!

When news of the war spread, almost all of the Indian tribes united around the uncrowned king Sitting Bull. On 18 June Sitting Bull made his camp in Little Bighorn with 400 tipis and some 3,000 Indians, 800 of which were warriors. However, the arrival of more Indians from the reservations increased the camp in six days to 1,000 tipis, with 7,000 Lakota (Sioux), Hunkpapa, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Oglala and Arickara Indians, between 1,500 to 1,800 of which were warriors.

On 21 June General Terry, after consulting Sheridan (?...), ordered Gibbon to march his troops to Bighorn along a detour, to join and reinforce his troops, in order to stop a possible Indian flight to the north. Custer and his 7th Cavalry would ride directly to Bighorn and attack the Indians. His forces consisted of 645 soldiers, equipped with modern weapons and three Gatling guns, which were the heaviest machine guns of the time.

However, Custer's soldiers were mostly brand-new immigrants, attracted by the monthly 13-dollar wage. Most of them had never experienced a military battle, let alone met Indians before. Even shooting exercises had been out of the question, since Congress had refused to release additional funds for such trivialities...

the battle

On 24 June 1876 Custer's scouts found traces of the Indian camp. He had no idea of the enemy's current forces and merely relied on the previous military information of at most 800 warriors. Furthermore he thought himself invincible, given his far better armament, and in his experience of previous massacres, during which the Indians were killed almost without any resistance. Throughout the entire night he marched his troops toward the Indian camp.

In the morning of 25 June his Crow Indian scouts reported that the enemy's strength was far greater than expected. But Custer didn't believe them and fired them on the spot, for his only concern was that the Indians might escape, and in doing so rob him of his glory! Upon arrival he therefore ordered an immediate attack, without any tactical information and with a bone-tired regiment. He split up his regiment in three battalions, with major Reno and 140 soldiers, Captain Benteen with 150 soldiers, ammunition and supplies, and he kept 225 cavalry for himself.

Major Reno was ordered to attack the Indian village, and the rest of the regiment would support him. However, this time the Indians didn't run away but instead they responded fiercely. Ten minutes later, Reno's battalion was in trouble. He drew back into a nearby forest, but even there he was not safe. He therefore withdrew the remainder of his troops onto a hill, but after one hour of fighting he counted 40 dead and 13 wounded. Fortunately the Indians broke off their attack and suddenly disappeared.

battle at Little Bighorn 1 battle at Little Bighorn 2

Custer learned that the Indians fiercely defended themselves and that they had not run away. Instead of supporting Major Reno or waiting for Captain Benteen, he led his troops further west to another hill, and there he saw the large Indian camp for the first time. Meanwhile Captain Benteen's supplies were stuck in the mud, and Custer sent him a message to come as quickly as possible, "because there were many Indians".

He waited for Benteen's reinforcements on the hill, but soon came under attack himself. Custer's battalion was pinned down on Last Stand Hill, and half an hour later they were completely exterminated by superior numbers, although they had a strategically better position. How did the Indians manage to approach Custer's troops unseen? In 1876 the prairie grass grew so tall that it reached to the underbelly of the horses, which gave the Indians a perfect cover for a stealthy approach.

Benteen rejoined the remainder of Major Reno's troops, and together they took position on top of another hill. Night fell at 21:00 hrs and the battle ended. The next day they were again attacked by the Indians, but meanwhile they had been able to set up a better defensive position. At 19:00 hrs the Indians broke off their attack and disappeared.

The next day General Terry arrived to relieve Custer's regiment, but the losses were very high with 263 dead, including the flamboyant Custer, and 60 wounded. The Indians had lost about 300 warriors.

the consequences

The news of the lost campaign and Custer's death hit the eastern states as a bombshell. Adroitly manipulated, in the media the number of Indian warriors almost immediately jumped to 3,000 and later even up to 9,000, merely to enhance Custer's "heroic death".

With just a little more propaganda the American public responded strongly to the tragic loss of 263 soldiers during a military action. The deftly presented image of the heroic American soldiers, who were overwhelmed by the hated Indians, made a deep public impression. Not surprisingly the army's many previous bloody massacres whereby thousands of Indian men, women and children had been killed, were conveniently overlooked and had actually never been able to raise any "public outcry".

battle at Little Bighorn 3

battle at Little Bighorn 4

Though the Indians had won this one battle, the event proved to be a political godsend for Grant, Sherman and Sheridan, and their response was exceptionally harsh. General Sheridan was given carte blanche to set up a military regime and new troops were immediately brought in.

The Black Hills, although fully owned by the Indian tribes under the treaty, were instantly annexed by the government. Furthermore all Indian tribes immediately lost all of their "non-allocated territories" and they were directed to reservations by the military.

Many Indians didn't agree to such unilateral dictates and continued the fight. Crazy Horse surrendered in 1877, but six months later he was "accidentally" shot. Sitting Bull managed to keep going until 1881, but in 1890 he was also "accidentally" shot...

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