Remembering the Battle of the Little Big Horn

June 25 and 26, 1876 witnessed one of the most decisive battles in U.S. history.

The 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army led by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer along with an estimated 800 Native warriors from the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes engaged in this merciless battle along the Big Horn River.

This was known as the Battle of Little Big Horn to many, but to some Native Americans, it is remembered as the Battle of Greasy Grass.

There have been many recorded accounts of this legendary battle, and although they vary on many details according to which side the account came from, certain elements have remained constant...

  • Custer divided his forces believing that he would be able to surround the encampment and prevent their escape rather than fighting the warriors head on.
  • Custer attempted to approach what he believed to be a sleeping village from the North while the second part of his force, led by Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen, planned to approach along the river from the Southeast.
  • The scouts under-estimated the size of the camp (it was much larger than their first estimation).
  • The scouts tried to warn Custer about the possibility of overwhelming forces, but their warnings fell on deaf ears.

In the end, Custer continued his advance and (according to Native American accounts) his forces were destroyed within an hour.

Testimony of the survivors from Reno and Benteen’s forces (just a few miles to the south of the battlefield) described hearing the sounds of the battle assumed that Custer was engaged with hostile forces. Many of the men also said they heard several rifle vollies (a standard signal for help at the time), but as they were engaged in their own skirmish with Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, they were unable to help.

Historians have debated whether there would have been any survivors from Custer’s five companies had Captain Benteen rode to his aid. They do however agree that had he not chosen to remain with Reno’s forces, the chances are both his companies and Reno’s would have been lost as well.

The aftermath of the battle has also left historians guessing based on what little physical evidence could be found. Upon return to the site of Custer’s battle, it was discovered that there were no survivors - dead horses were found lying in skirmish lines, the soldiers’ bodies had been stripped and mutilated (as was the custom at the time), Custer himself was found with wounds to the chest and head.

To this day, it is unclear exactly what transpired in the portion of the battle involving Custer and his men. By the time the battlefield was discovered, decomposition had set in and most of the remains were beyond recognition, so bodies were quickly buried.

Native American survivors also told many different stories - some witnessed soldiers committing suicide to avoid capture, others told of counting coup on men who ran when their ranks were broken and confusion set in. They also told of Lakota leaders such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall, and the major role they played in the Battle of Greasy Grass, which is why each of them are forever linked to the stories of Custer’s fate, as well as those of 267 other men who died under his command.

To visit the site now, amongst the rolling hills full of tall grass and heavily treed river bottoms, one would find it hard to imagine that such a serene place was ever scarred by war.

More about the Battle of Little Big Horn