Section #10 - Battle of the Little Bighorn

Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn: June 25, 1876

As the United States approaches the celebration of its 100th year of independence the effort to quell the freedoms of the Native Americans is nearing completion.

First are treaties ceding their sacred homelands to the government; then their forced removal from the east to new “reservations” in the “Indian (Oklahoma) Territory:” and finally the round-up of all the remaining tribes who have failed to “come in” to their designated homes. 

Conflict accompanies efforts to subdue and transfer the tribes from the beginning, including the tragic events culminating in the 1830’s known as the “Trail of Tears.” But by the time the Civil War breaks out, most tribes are living west of the Mississippi River.


During the North-South conflict, two particularly memorable clashes occur. The first is in 1862 in eastern Dakota when the cash-strapped U.S. government fails to deliver its promised annual annuity to the Santee Sioux and the supply traders refuse to accept their credit, which leaves them starving. In August Chief Little Crow attacks the Lower Sioux Agency and proceeds on a rampage killing hundreds of settlers along the Mississippi River. 

This continues until September 23 when Colonel Henry Sibley defeats Little Crow at the Battle of Wood Lake. After the fight, a military tribunal is held and 303 prisoners are sentenced to be hanged. President Lincoln has the task of approving the verdicts and he reduces the number to 38 warriors – all of whom are executed in a single gallows drop the day after Christmas 1862 in the town of Mankato. 

A second particularly gruesome event takes place in 1864. It involves the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux people living across the plains states of Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana and Colorado. This territory is critical to the tribes for hunting buffalo, and their nomadic sweeps disrupt efforts of frontiersmen to open their settlements, and of commercial interests to maintain trails to the west coast and advance construction of the transcontinental railroad. 

Sharp fighting ensues between the two sides, often marked by atrocities. One of the worst occurs in November 1864 at the Sand Creek Massacre, where Colonel John Chivington’s troopers destroy a Cheyenne and Arapaho village, murdering several hundred men, women and children. 

After the Civil War ends, then Commanding General of the Army, Ulysses Grant, puts Phil Sheridan in charge of the one million square mile wide Department of Missouri. Sheridan has served as head of the U.S. Cavalry during the Civil War and history has him remarking “the only good Indian I ever saw was a dead Indian.” Sheridan wages a vigorous campaign to bring the renegade tribes to heel, including the brutal action in November 1866 at the Battle of Washita. 

It is there that Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer (nicknamed “Autie”) and his 7th U.S. Cavalry make one of their early appearances. 

Custer is born in 1839 in the small town of New Rumley, Ohio near the eastern border of the state. His father is a blacksmith of German descent and his mother is Scots-Irish and English. He has two younger brothers, Tom and Boston, both of whom will perish alongside him at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Custer moves to Monroe, Michigan, to attend grade school, before entering West Point as a plebe in 1857. He is remembered there in part for graduating last in his class of 75 cadets, but first in demerits. However he also emerges as a well-trained professional soldier just as the Civil War is getting under way. 

His rise in the military is meteoric, owing to his almost reckless courage in battle which draws praise and promotions from two powerful figures. The first is General George McClellan who comes to rely on Custer during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. The second is the U.S. Cavalry Commander, General Alfred Pleasonton, who promotes him to Brigadier General of Volunteers for the “Wolverines” of the Michigan Brigade. 

In 1863, at age 23, he is brevetted Major General Custer, and already exhibits his lifelong flair for striking the image of a dashing southern cavalier. His shoulder length golden locks are topped with a slouch hat worn jauntily on an angle. His uniform shirt is sky blue mounted with a red tie. Swirling braids from wrist to elbow adorn his dark blue uniform jacket highlighted further with velvet collar and cuffs. As such Custer stands out like a beacon on the battlefield, and he leads from the front to the constant delight of his troops. 

Love comes Custer’s way in 1862 in the form of the stunning Elizabeth Bacon of Monroe, well-educated daughter of a wealthy judge and state legislator. Autie meets her while on leave and immediately proposes marriage, but her father refuses his permission, citing the suitor’s lower class roots. But as Custer rises in the war, he relents and the two are married in February 1864.

Theirs will be a tumultuous relationship marked by Custer’s infidelities, but long remembered for Libby’s intense loyalty and her efforts over the last 57 years of her life (1842-1933) to defend her husband’s name after his tragic death. 

Custer ends the Civil War at Appomattox Court House as Sheridan’s go-to cavalry commander. In honor of his service, Sheridan gifts Libby the so-called “surrender table” where Lee and Grant sat to sign the demise of the Army of Northern Virginia. He is 26 years old, the “Boy General” who is as famous nationwide as any of his comrades in arms.

At the end of war Custer’s rank reverts from Brevet Major General of Volunteers to Captain of the US Regulars. He is assigned duties in Texas, where he exhibits the first signs of his inability to organize and lead men outside the realm of combat. The natural popularity he enjoyed with his subordinates during the war is now replaced with an authoritarian style and extraordinary disciplinary measures that produce enduring animosities. 

In July 1866 he is promoted to Lt. Colonel of the new 7th Cavalry Regiment stationed at Ft. Riley, Kansas. In one expedition with General Winfield Hancock he comes upon the gruesome remains of Lt. Lyman Kidder and ten troopers killed and mutilated by a mixed band of Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux warriors. It is a scene he never forgets.

Custer’s reputation for marching to his own drummer surfaces again in August 1868 when he goes AWOL to visit Libby and is arrested and confined at Ft. Leavenworth. General Sheridan steps in and Custer is allowed to return in October after only three months in jail. He is quickly back in action at the infamous Battle of Washita River toward the western border of Oklahoma. 

Chief Black Kettle is encamped there with his Southern Cheyenne tribesmen and their families on November 7, 1866 when they come under attack by the 7th Cavalry. Custer divides his 575 man brigade into four commands, approaching from different angles. One of them is led by Major Joel Elliot, who found the camp in the first place, and is now assigned by Custer to swing north away from the main force and round up warriors fleeing the battle.

At dawn Custer’s troops charge the camp to the rousing tune of Custer’s favorite Garryowen Irish jig. They quickly subdue the village and shoot Black Kettle and his wife in the back as they attempt to flee. His men then begin to pursue the surviving warriors until Custer hears reports that other nearby Cheyenne contingents may be joining the fight. He pulls three of his four commands into defensive positions with the men looting the teepees and shooting hundreds of horses. By nightfall he exits the camp and heads back to protect his supply lines. 

No definitive count on tribal losses at Washita exist, but Custer reports killing 103 warriors, women and children and capturing another 53. His own losses are listed as 21 killed and 13 wounded. The army considers the Washita battle a signal victory in the effort to drive the southern Cheyenne onto their reservations.

But Custer’s troops also remember it as a violation of the soldier’s creed to account for all men who have fought. Their pleas to search for Major Elliot’s company after the battle are ignored by Custer. When they are subsequently found several months later the news is grim.  All 16 men, including Elliot, have been killed and their bodies mutilated, fulfilling tribal beliefs that abusing corpses will prohibit their capacity to fight on in the future.

Six weeks after Washita, on December 21, 1866, the Oglala Sioux Chief Crazy Horse evens the score by ambushing Captain William Fetterman column along the Bozeman Trail four miles north of Ft. Kearney in northeast Wyoming. 

Fetterman is thirty-three years old and a veteran of combat during the Civil War. He is said to have boasted that with 80 soldiers he “could ride through the entire Sioux nation,” and is vocal in his criticism of Ft. Kearney commander, Colonel Henry Carrington, for not being aggressive enough toward the tribes. 

Fetterman is ordered out on December 21 to scout “cautiously” for Indians near the fort. His command consists of 49 infantrymen and 32 mounted cavalry. When Crazy Horse spots the troopers that morning, he sends ten Indian decoys to lure them down a trail to the bank of the Peno Creek. On both sides he has already concealed an estimated 1,000 warriors — Sioux to the east on Peno Head Ridge, Cheyenne and Arapaho to the west. They are armed almost exclusively with bow and arrows and war clubs rather than rifles. 

When the battle cry sounds, the shocked and surrounded infantry attempt to form a circular defense but are quickly overrun. The cavalry, one mile away, seeks shelter among some rock outcroppings, but without success. The entire battle is over in less than a half hour. 

In a possible reprisal for the atrocities committed at Washita, the warriors unleash their own savagery on Fetterman’s wounded and dead soldiers. When a search party locates them on December 22, the report is grisly: eyes torn out and laid on rocks, noses and ears cut off, teeth chopped out, brains taken out and placed on rocks, hands and feet cut off, and private parts severed. It also appears that several men have committed suicide rather than be captured. 

While Fetterman is criticized for his action, he will not be the last U.S. commander to underestimate the fighting capacity of a tribal foe. 

After Washita, the 7th Cavalry continues to police the territories, especially against any Indian interferences with construction of the intercontinental railroad. Custer himself is first engaged with the Lakota Sioux in a mild skirmish in August 1873. But then gold is discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1875-6 on land owned by the Sioux nation. Custer goes there with some 1,000 troops to learn the extent of the find and to oversee the miners rushing in. 

When the Sioux refuse President Grant’s attempt to buy the gold rush land in 1876, he seeks de facto control by ordering them to return to their reservations by January 1876 – an act that will trigger the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 

Grant’s directive requires difficult winter treks for the Indians and many choose to stay behind until the following spring. To remedy this delay, General Alfred Terry, commanding the Department of Dakota, is ordered to round up the stragglers. Custer is assigned to the task and is eager to participate. Before he can go, however, he must appear in Washington to testify in the trial of Secretary of War, William Belknap, for fraudulent sales of lucrative trading posts out west. 

Custer’s testimony helps get Belknap impeached by the U.S. House, before being acquitted in a Senate trial. But the appearance embroils Custer in politics, including charges that President Grant’s brother Orville was complicit in the fraud. 

This is not the first time that Custer has irritated Grant. Earlier on he has arrested Grant’s son Fred for being drunk on duty, and openly criticized the general’s support for black rights and peaceful policies toward the tribes. Custer also joins a political tour in the south with President Andrew Johnson whom Grant regards as an incompetent drunk.

The President also has a long memory, and so when General Terry tries to return him to his 7th Cavalry command, Grant intervenes and asks if another officer could fill the post. Those backing Custer, notably Generals Sherman and Sheridan, tell Custer to meet and reconcile with Grant and he tries, only to be turned down three times. At that point he decides to leave Washington without permission, and Grant responds by having him arrested in Chicago on May 3, 1876. 

Finally the public outcry over Custer’s treatment, plus pleas for leniency from Sheridan, persuade the President to support his return to action. Except with the proviso that overall command of the 7th Cavalry be given to General Terry, not Custer.

In the Spring of 1876 Terry’s focus lies on two tribes of “stragglers:” the Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne. Led by the Hunkpapa Sioux Sitting Bull, they decide to take a stand against the troops of the “Great White Father,” and calls go out for all who would join them to assemble at the Rosebud River. The result is an encampment which reaches some 1400 lodges, with 8,000 tribespeople and upwards of 2,000 warriors. It is located just west of the Little Bighorn River in southern Montana. 

On June 5 the Indians celebrate the annual religious ceremony known as the Sun Dance — after which Sitting Bull reports a prophetic vision of:

Soldiers falling into his camp like grasshoppers from the sky.

In fact, the soldiers are already on their way in the form of the 7th U.S. Cavalry, under the long-distance command of General Samuel Sturgis from his post in St. Louis. The army he has dispatched is divided into three wings:

Sturgis’ Order Of Battle At The Little Bighorn

Colonel John Gibbon  450    10WestFt. Ellis over 200 miles away
General Alfred Terry/Custer  879    12East Ft Lincoln over 800 miles
General George Crook1,000    20North Ft Fetterman some 400 miles

On paper the round-up plan looks straight-forward, with the tribes trapped between the Yellowstone, Rosebud and Bighorn Rivers in South Dakota, and Gibbon’s command coming at them from the east, Terry and Custer from the west, and Crook from the south.

Little Bighorn Maps | NPMaps.com - just free maps, period.

Then, however, come the executional realities. 

Crook is the first to stumble, on June 17, 1876, at the Battle of the Rosebud where his reputation as a savvy Indian fighter runs out. His troops are surprised there by Ogalala Chief Crazy Horse and his 1,000 warriors, who carry the contest to Crook over a six hour exchange. About 20 troopers are killed and another 45 or so are wounded. While the General claims victory, he decides that his troops have been so fought out that they can no longer join Gibbon and Terry. So he reverses course and heads back to Wyoming, without even notifying the other two commanders of his withdrawal.

Unaware of Crook’s defeat, Gibbon and Terry link up on June 21 and agree on a plan to surround whatever tribes remain in the three rivers triangle. Even though they don’t know how many opponents they will face or where they are located. What they do share, however, is a conviction that the tribes will try to flee rather than stand and fight. 

Terry gives nearly 600 of his command over to Custer with orders to descend from the east for some 75 miles along Rosebud Creek in search of the enemy, and then link up with Terry and Gibbon who are coming down the Bighorn from the west. He is given some freedom of movement should he have “sufficient reason” to deviate from the plan.

On June 22 Custer with his 31 officers and 566 enlisted men swing south on the reconnaissance mission. Included here are three senior commanders:

Custer’s Three Commanders At The Little Big Horn

Marcus RenoMajor41Born in Illinois, West Point, CW combat (Antietam, etc,), Brevets Colonel for bravery, judge advocate, 7th Cav in 1871, joins Custer at Ft Lincoln in 1875. 
Frederick BenteenCaptain41Born in Virginia, not West Point, enlists in 1861, western combat (Pea Ridge, Vicksburg), Brevet Lt. Colonel, commands U.S. Colored Troop regiment in 1866, joins Custer in 1871, Indian Wars including Washita, serves 16 years under Custer
Thomas McDougalCaptain30Born in Wisconsin, military family, not West Point, at 17 volunteer aide to Grant at Vicksburg, 2nd Lt in 1864 with Colored Regiment, wounded in Louisiana, 1865 Captain of 5th Infantry, 7th Cav in 1873, Indian Wars

Reno and McDougal are fairly new to Custer’s leadership, but Captain Benteen has been with him for 16 years, and fairly despises him. The animosity probably begins in 1866 at the battle of Washita. Benteen is a part of Major Joel Elliott’s company and is among those outraged when Custer leaves the field without searching for Elliott. After a personal letter written by Benteen criticizing the negligence appears in The St. Louis Democrat, Custer swears to “whip him.” Later, in 1873, as Benteen’s daughter lay dying at Ft. Rice, Custer refuses to grant him leave to visit. 

Like some others, Benteen comes to regard Custer as a part-time soldier and an egotistical blowhard, eager for publicity crediting himself alone for victories such as Washita. To what extent Benteen’s feelings play into his actions at the Little Big Horn remains unknowable. 

In addition to the three commanders, Custer’s unit includes 6 Crow and 3 Arikara scouts and the French-Sioux guide, Mitch Bouyer. He is offered the use of a Gatling gun but declines saying it would slow his advance. 

After traveling for three days, Custer’s advance party of scouts reach an overlook on the evening of June 24 called the Crow’s Nest, roughly 14 miles east of the Little Big Horn. They see a large heard of ponies and tents by the river along with cooking fires. By around 9:00pm they report their findings to Custer who decides that he now has “sufficient reason” to attack the camp on his own rather than wait for Terry and Gibbon. 

Critics of Custer speculate that this decision to go it alone reflects hope for a glorious victory to restore his good standing in the army, and even justify an invitation to attend the 100th anniversary of independence in Philadelphia coming up on the 4th of July. 

Tracing the movements of Custer’s command between 9:00pm on June 24 when he first learns of the Indian camp through 5:25pm on June 25 when he lies dead on Last Stand Hill is both complicated and highly conjectural. But one scholar has set the standard here and that is John S. Gray in his 1993 masterpiece Custer’s Last Campaign. What follows below in regard to times, distances and events is drawn directly from Gray’s analytics and imagination.

According to Gray, Custer first orders a night march toward the Crow’s Nest to assess the Indian camp. It begins around 12:30am and moves due west from the starting point at Camp Busby to Halt #1, arriving there at 3:15am on June 25.

                           Halt #1                         🡨 7 miles                     Camp Busby

              Troops Arrive 3:15am                                            Troops Leave 12:30am

Custer and his scouts leave Halt #1 at 8:00am so he can “see for himself” about the Indian camp from the Crow’s Nest: 

                             Crow’s Nest        🡨  4.75 miles        Halt #1

                   Custer arrives at 9:00am                 Custer party leaves at 8:00am  

Meanwhile the troops nap and eat breakfast at Halt #1 between 3:15am and 8:45am, when they depart on a 3.75 trek to Halt #2 to await further orders.

                                    Halt #2       🡨 3.75 miles     Halt #1              

                       Troops Arrive 10:07am          Troops Leave 8:45am

When Custer himself reaches the Crow’s Nest his first reaction is to dismiss the sighting entirely. As he says, “I’ve got as good eyes as anybody, and I can’t see any Indians.” But as the scouts persist and the dawn light brightens, he spots the village, and announces his plan to attack it on the following night of June 25. He departs from the Crow’s Nest at 10:20 for a 1.0 mile trip back to inform his troops at Halt #2:

                      Crow’s Nest    🡪 1.0 mile     Halt #2   

               Custer leaves 10:20am        Custer arrives 10:35am

Along the way, however, he hears reports that Indian scouts have already spotted his presence, which means that the element of surprise is gone. He interprets this not as a threat to his troops, but as a signal that the Indians may scatter before he can contain them. In turn, he switches away from a night attack to one that should proceed as quickly as possible. 

Hearing of the decision, the lead Crow Scout Half Yellow Face, who has seen the village, is said to have told Custer that his plan would mean…

You and I are going home today by a road we do not know.

But Custer’s battle blood is up, and he ignores the warning. He holds an officer’s meeting at 10:50am, gets organized and moves out at 11:45. After a 1.0 mile journey he stops at Halt #3 at 12:05pm and issues his initial orders:

  • He assigns the main assault to himself and Major Reno, with 346 troops total.
  • Benteen is given 115 men and told to depart west to corral any escaping Indians. 
  • McDougal has 136 men to protect the pack train and guide it to the battlefield.

Custer’s final words are reportedly:

“Thirty days’ furlough to the man who gets the first scalp.”  

After the battle, Benteen will complain that his was a fool’s errand, a two hour waste of time and manpower away from the main action. McDougal recall his regret at being stuck with the pack train. Both probably owe their lives to the lesser roles given them.

At 12:12pm the Custer-Reno companies begin their 8 mile trek to the battlefield, arriving there on a bluff around 2:43pm.

                 Reno Battlefield                  🡨 8 miles                  Halt #3    🡨1 mile    Halt#2    

            Custer/Reno arrive 2:43                             Custer/Reno leaves 12:05pm                                             

Once in sight of the camp, the men see the remarkable terrain ahead. It consists of a series of ridges running above the east side of the Little Bighorn together with undulating gullies, called “coulees,” slashing down from the ridges to the river.

Custer orders Reno to descend from the bluff, cross the river to flat land, and attack the village along the left (or west) bank. In turn, he will ride along the east bank and then swoop down from the right flank to envelop the Indians. 

Reno’s command swings left and begins its tricky descent down the bluff and across the river which takes twenty minutes. Once there, the mounted troops assemble and begin their charge at 3:03pm, firing as they go into the nearby Hunkpapa tents. But instead of the rout they expect, they encounter a large force of warriors coming at them.

Around 3:18pm Reno looks to his right in search of Custer, hoping that he is about to launch the promised flanker attack. Instead he sees Custer’s troops disappearing to the north, apparently confident that Reno’s charge is progressing well without their aid. 

Custer in fact is so sure of Reno’s success that he issues two orders to accelerate the pacing:

  • At 3:13pm, he sends Sgt. Daniel Kanipe to find Captain McDougal and tell him to “come quick, a  big Indian camp and bring the pack train straight across country.” Also if he sees Benteen tell him to come quick.   
  • At 3:34 he sends second messenger, Trumpeter John Martin to reach Benteen with message written by Adjutant WW Cooke saying: “Come on. Big Village. Be quick. Bring packs. P.S. bring packs.” 

Custer assumes that his subordinates are nearby, while in fact they are both 3-4 miles away and in the dark as to what is happening.

Reno is now on his own and feels that he is being drawn into a trap. A bullet strikes his Arikara scout Bloody Knife in the head, splashing brains on Reno and further shaking him up. At 3:33 he orders his skirmish line to fall back to a line of trees, then dismount and take up defensive positions. Their stand in the timber lasts 20 minutes with the Indians filtering in and their ammunition running out. 

At 3:53pm Reno calls for a general retreat. It is poorly executed with no organized rearguard and each man scrambling to save his life. A total of 47 are killed and another 7 wounded during the flight. But at 4:10 the survivors are back on the defensive bluff known later as “Reno Hill.” 

Once Trumpeter Martin is handed the order at 3:34 in Cedar Coulee to find Benteen, the only living witnesses to Custer’s movements are the scout Curley and his Indian opponents. 

But the historian Gray cleverly uses his time and motion analytics to provide a minute by minute reconstruction of what he believes happens between 3:34 and around 5:30pm. 

Custer has 211 troops in total, broken into five companies and two battalions, as Martin leaves and he proceeds north. 

His commanders are a close-knit group. Only Myles Keogh is not considered a part of Custer’s “inner circle.” Two are family members: his brother Tom and brother-in-law James Calhoun. Three have fought alongside him at Washita: Tom, George Yates, and Algernon Smith. All have been in the 7th Cavalry for well over a decade, and all will die with him at the Little Big Horn.

Order of Battle: Custer’s 211 Man Force On June 25, 1876

Custer’s BattalionAgeCo.Profile
Capt Tom Custer31CBorn in Ohio, Custer’s brother, not West Point, enlists at 16 in Union Army, 2 Medals of Honor in war, aide de camp to George in 1864, Brevet Lt. Colonel, after CW with 7th Cav by 1866, wounded at Washita.
1st Lt. Algernon Smith33EBorn in NY, Hamilton College, Union enlistee 1862, aide de camp to General Terry, severe wound at Ft. Fisher, Brevet Major, joins 7th Cav in 1867, member of Custer inner circle, fought at Washita. 
      Capt Myles Keogh36IBorn in Ireland, serves in Papal Army, joins Union army in 1862 under Irish General James Shields, with Buford at Gettysburg, Brevet Lt. Colonel, joins 7th Cav in 1866, with Custer from 1869 on, not at Washita.
Yates Battalion
      Capt George Yates33FBorn in NY, meets Custer early in Monroe, Michigan and becomes an “inner circle” friend, not West Point, combat at Gettysburg and Antietam, 1866 Captain in 7th Cav., fights at Washita with Custer.
1st Lt. James Calhoun  30LBorn in Ohio, wealthy family, Custer’s brother-in-law, “inner circle,” enlists in Union in 1862, reaches Sgt., 1st Lt with Custer in 1872, not at Washita.  

At 3:49 Custer’s brother Tom catches up to him at the mouth of Cedar Coulee with shocking news that Reno’s charge failed and the condition of his remaining troops is unknown.

Custer recognizes the need now to “buy time” before launching his attack so that Benteen, the pack train, and whatever is left of Reno’s command can join him. He crosses north to Medicine Tail Coulee where he and Captain Yates settle on a plan.

It involves dividing the two battalions, with Yate’s two companies launching a diversionary thrust at the Indians to confuse and hold them in place, while Custer’s three companies head up to the ridges to await the reinforcements. 

At 4:04pm Yates Battalion proceeds down Medicine Tail Coulee to launch his feint at the river. Meanwhile Custer’s Battalion continues north to Luce Ridge, arriving there at 4:16pm in sight of Yates’ progress.

Yates begins firing across the river at 4:18. But after fifteen minutes, the warriors have crossed over and are infiltrating his position. At 4:33 the troopers abandon the attack, move to Deep Coulee, and begin a wild scramble north to reunite with Custer. 

From Luce Ridge, Custer sees the Indians chasing Yates and for the first time realizes that his entire command is in mortal danger. No sighting of reinforcements have been made, and it’s clear that the Indians far outnumber his forces and intend to give battle not flee. 

His goal now is to reunite with Yates while holding the warriors at bay. He moves northwest a half mile from Luce Ridge to the Nye-Cartwright Ridge where, at 4:32pm, he begins to exchange fire at the tribesmen coming his way. He then dips down into Deep Coulee, where he finally meets Yates at 4:46.      

       Deep Coulee Reunion         🡨 2 miles         Nye-Cartwright Ridge   🡨 0.5 mile   Luce Ridge

              Arrives at 4:46                                              Leaves at 4:32                Custer leaves at 4:27

Together they ascend from the coulee to the eastern edge of the Last Stand Battlefield at 5:00, with only minutes left to live.

The field rests on a steep hill descending from a series of ridges at the top down about one mile to the Little Big Horn and the main Indian camp. The ground itself is marked by two gullies (X Ravine and Deep Ravine) in the shape of a “V” coming up from the river. Together with the waist high grass, the ravines provide concealment for the attacking Sioux and Cheyenne who are well armed with repeating rifles as well as traditional bows and arrows and war clubs. The tribe’s christen the action as the “Battle of the Greasy grass.” 

      Last Stand Battleground Site

              steep hill & gullies     

           X Ravine   Deep Ravine    🡨1 mile    Deep Coulee  🡨 1 mile    Medicine Tail Coulee 

          _____________________ Little Bighorn River ______________________________

                      ………………………..     Main Indian Camps    …………………………………..   

Once Custer arrives at 5:00pm, he orders his remaining scouts to depart. Included here is Curley, who heads two miles west to a look-out point where he is able to witness the end.

In search of survival, his five companies spread out across the hill. Based on burial markers it appears that members of Calhoun’s C Company try to form a rearguard south of Deep Ravine and that some of Smith’s E and Yates’ F men set up a skirmish line near the X Ravine. I Company troopers are clustered along Keogh Ridge while Custer and several officers reach Last Stand Ridge. 

                Last Stand Ridge                 Keogh Ridge             Calhoun’s Ridge

                      Skirmish Line                                        Rearguard Line

                         Gall & Crazy Horse                                   Lame White Man

                      Ravine X                         Deep Ravine  

  N       ____________________ Little Bighorn River ______________________________ S

Tribal accounts capture the ferocity of the moments, but not details of the locations and timing. So how the final assault actually occurs is conjectural.


A best guess scenario has the Indians attacking along two vectors. To the north come the Oglala Sioux Chief Crazy Horse and the Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Gall. Further south the leader is the Northern Cheyenne Chief, Lame White Man.

Gall has already lost two of his wives and three children during Reno’s original charge and vows to use his hatchet to achieve revenge. Lame White Man is shot to death during his advance.

Speculation has it that the initial breakthrough occurs on the right, with the Cheyenne crashing through the rearguard company before routing Yate’s Battalion on what is denoted as Calhoun’s Ridge. The estimated body count at the Rearguard Line is 14 with 33 more at the Calhoun site.  

But the most devastating mayhem occurs among the I Company troops who flee across the Keogh Ridge (so designated since the Captain’s body is found there) to unite with Custer. Tribal accounts compare the flight to a buffalo hunt. The estimated body count there stands at 83. 

Meanwhile on the left flank, Crazy Horse and Gall penetrate the Skirmish Line, counting coup on another 35 men. They then encircle and dispatch the roughly 37 troopers on Last Stand Ridge, thought to include Custer, his brothers Tom and Boston, nephew Autie Reed, Yates, Smith and Adjutant Cooke.  

Some analysts believe that as many as 28 men make a desperate run downhill along Deep Ravine only to be overrun on the way and buried in the walls of the gully. But modern scientific probes have failed repeatedly to find any remains there. 

Legends abound on “who killed George Custer.” One claimant is Sitting Bull’s nephew, White Bull, who describes in detail his hand to hand combat with “Yellow Hair” before shooting him in the head and chest. Another belongs to a woman, Buffalo Calf Road Warrior, who is said to have grabbed his saber (which she dons for the rest of her life), knocked him off his horse, and joined others in mutilating his body. Truth be told, no one knows for sure. 

Back at Reno Hill, light firing from the Last Stand Hill is heard by the troops around 4:25. It is followed by more intense reports at 5:12 and then silence at 5:25 signaling the end of the battle.    

The reinforcement that Custer hopes for as he reaches the Last Stand Battleground site at 5:00pm remain bogged down 5 miles to the south on the defensive hilltop. Reno’s troops have arrived there at 4:10 after their failed charge, desperate to stave off any ongoing threats. 

A few minutes later, Captain Benteen appears with his men. The scene is one of chaos, with Reno – accused of being drunk by some — focused on searching for the body of his friend, Lt. Benjamin Hodgdon, who had been shot climbing to the peak. Benteen decides that his first priority lies in stabilizing the situation around him, and he exhibits his skill as a professional officer by setting up a solid defense perimeter between 4:15 and 5:00pm. 

It is not until 5:05pm that Captain Thomas Weir moves from the defense site alone to search for Custer. Benteen joins him with three companies (perhaps 200 men total) around 5:20 and Reno appears by 5:40. They gather on a promontory (later called Weir Ridge), still 3.5 miles away from the battlefield but within visual and auditory range. Reports of what they see vary as the time passes. Weir thinks the fight is still on when he arrives; fifteen minutes later, Benteen thinks the Indians have won; when Reno shows up, he concurs with Benteen and together they decide to turn back to further secure their own hilltop. 

When they return, they find that Captain McDougal has appeared as of 5:25 with the crucial pack-train supplies sought by Custer over two hours earlier. 

Once the fighting is over on Last Stand hill the tribes turn their attention to assaulting the soldiers remaining back on Reno Hill. Their attack begins on the night of June 25 and extends for most of the 26th, while inflicting another 40 U.S. casualties. Then word reaches Sitting Bull that a large column under General Terry and Colonel Gibbon is approaching from the northwest, and he calls off the battle and disbands his camp.

The column approaches the battlefield mid-morning on June 27, with the skilled chronicler, Lt. James Bradley, recording the events that follow. Bradley enlists in the Union army at seventeen, fights in battles throughout the Civil War, joins Gibbon’s frontier command in 1871 and also acts as a noted historian of events on the plains. His will be the task of breaking off from the column and finding Custer’s command.

Before departing, Bradley learns from a Crow scout, Little Face, that “all the white men had been killed.” 

Little Face in particular wept with a bitterness of anguish such as I have rarely seen. For 

a while he could not speak, but at last composed himself and told his story in a choking    

voice, broken with frequent sobs.

Terry is skeptical of the story, but dispatches Lt. Bradley to conduct a search. He describes his findings in a letter written to the Helena Weekly Herald:

I was scouting the hills some two or three miles to the left of the column upon the opposite

bank of the river…when the body of a horse attracted our attention to the field of Custer’s   

 fight, and hastening in that direction the appalling sight was revealed to us of his entire 

 command in the embrace of death.

Of the 206 bodies on the field, there were very few that I did not see, and beyond   

scalping, in possibly a majority of cases, there was little mutilation. Many of the bodies 

were not even scalped, and in the comparatively few cases of disfiguration it appeared 

to me rather the result of a blow than of a knife . . .

Another subsequent witness and author, Private Eugene Geant, recalls a more grisly scene:

What we saw on a bluff ahead of us…looked like a mass of horses and men..”mostly

naked and mutilated in a horrible manner.  

The following morning, June 28, a party of Reno’s men are at the field to bury the dead. They lack needed tools and end up with shallow graves that have become uncovered by the time a second internment is completed in 1877. Two years later, a national U.S. Cemetery is built on the site. In 1881 the army erects the granite memorial monument that stands at the top of the hill, and in 1890, Captain Owen Sweet appears to place 255 marble gravesite headstones across the field, some 45 more than were actually killed.

The nation is shocked when it learns of Custer’s demise. The New York Herald scoops its eastern competitors on July 5, 1876 with a front page declaring:

 THE MASSACRE     The Gallant Cavalry Leader’s Death Is Confirmed  

Interview With General Sheridan    The President Deeply Affected

Opinion Of Army Officers                  Autobiography Of Sitting Bull

Soon enough the search is on to place blame for the tragedy and both Reno and Benteen come under scrutiny. Benteen in particular is criticized with accusations that his effort to save Custer was slow, and perhaps even intentionally so. 

The facts show that his command is about 1.5 miles from Reno’s retreat site at 4:00 when he receives the order from Trumpeter Martin to “come quick.” At that point he is following Custer’s path, but about one hour behind him. The challenge posed is whether Benteen could have closed the gap and reached Custer by 5:00 while the fight on Last Stand Hill was still under way. 

To have any chance, Benteen would have had to ignore the chaos he encounters at 4:12 on Reno Hill with Reno off searching for his lost friend, wounded and confused troops all around, and no organized defense should the Indians attack. 

But had he moved right away toward Custer, three other factors argue against a rescue: 

  • First, no more than perhaps 300-400 troopers were available and fit to leave the hill;
  • Second, the crucial pack train supplies he would need do not arrive until 5:25; and 
  • Third, the 5 mile terrain he would have to traverse to reach Custer is nothing short of unknown, confusing and treacherous, and has already been occupied by hordes of Indian warriors. 

Not all agree that those barriers are sufficient to let Benteen and Reno off the hook for abandoning Custer. They say that at the very least they should have assembled whatever troops they could have found and headed directly toward Custer at a gallop by around 4:30. 

Had they done so, it seems very likely that the end would have been a second catastrophe. 

Despite attempts to clear their reputations, both Reno and Benteen endure years of criticism for their actions, led in large part by Libby Custer’s ongoing campaign to defend her husband. While Benteen merely deflects the attacks, Reno finally requests a formal military Court of Inquiry to judge the matter. 

A three man tribunal is chosen to hear the case. The president is Colonel John R. King of the 9th Infantry who is joined by Colonel Wesley Merritt of the 5th Cavalry and Lt. Colonel W. B. Royall of the 3rd Cavalry. The trial lasts for 26 days with testimony from many present at the battle. On February 7, 1879 the verdict is read:

While subordinates in some instances did more for the safety of the command by

brilliant displays of courage than did Major Reno, there is nothing in his conduct 

which requires [adverse criticism] from the Court.

The Court exonerates Major Reno from the charges of cowardice which have been

brought against him, and concludes that no further action is required.

Following the Little Bighorn fiasco, Benteen continues to fight the tribes on the frontier, most notably at the 1877 Battle of Canyon Creek against the Nez Perce tribe. He is suspended briefly for drunk and disorderly conduct in 1877 before retiring in 1888. But a year after his death, he is posthumously brevetted Brigadier General and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Setbacks and irony mark the final years for Reno. He commits a string of military transgressions leading to his dismissal from the service in 1880, and he dies in disgrace in 1889. But in 1967 a distant relative gets his dismissal reviewed and reversed, and later that year he becomes the only officer buried in the Little Bighorn cemetery. 

Fortunately Libby Custer is not alive to hear that ending.  


Overview Of Key Events At The Battle Of The Little Bighorn: June 24-28, 1876

June 24
7:45pmCuster’s command camps at Busby; 28 miles from the Indian village
9:00pmCrows report fresh trail pointing to LBH camp; Custer sends Lt. Charles Varnum to Crow’s Nest to assess the report
9:25pmCuster calls officer’s meeting; McDougal late; calls for night march
June 25
12:30amNight march begins – from 28 miles out
2:50Lt. Varnum arrives at Crow’s nest in the dark
3:15Main column completes 7 mile trek and stops at Halt #1. Men sleep and then awake for breakfast around 7:00am
3:40As light arrives, Crows spot Indian camp and inform Varnum
4:00Varnum & scouts study Indian camp from Crow’s Nest
5:20Varnum sends Ree scouts to inform Custer at Halt 1
6:20Varnum spots Sioux scouts which spoils chance for surprise attack
7:30Custer reads Varnum note (“tremendous village on Little Bighorn”)
8:00Custer leaves Halt 1 for Crow’s Nest to see for himself
8:45Main column leaves Halt 1 trailing behind Custer
9:00Custer arrives at Crow’s Nest. Initially says, “I’ve got as good eyes as anybody, and I can’t see any Indians.” But then agrees with scouts. Custer says he plans to attack the camp on night of June 25.
10:20Main column advances another 3.75 miles to pause at Halt #2. They are still about 2 miles from the Crow’s Nest.
10:35Custer arrives back at Halt # 2; Bouyer tells him: “I have been with these Indians for thirty years and this is the largest village I have ever heard of.” When Custer learns that the Indians have spotted his column, he changes his “night plan” to carry out a daytime attack “before the Indians scatter.”
10:50Custer tells officers that he will lead a daylight assault without waiting for the Terry/Gibbon/Crook support.
11:45The Command leaves Halt #2.
12:00Command pauses after 1 mile at Halt # 3 to get organized. It has traveled almost 13 miles at night but still remains 15 miles from the final battlefield.
12:05Custer announces his 3 Command Wings at Halt # 3: Reno/Custer (main assault) + Benteen (scout run-aways) + McDougal (pack trains)
12:12Benteen splits off from main body heading about 5 miles south and west to scout for possible run-aways. He is 1 hour away from Custer when Reno charges
1:20Benteen sees no Indians and start heading back to main command
2:37Benteen halts move back to water his horses
2:40Reno and Custer units arrive on the east side of the river below the Indian camp, having gone the last 15 miles in roughly 2.5 hours at fast pace of 6.0mp
2:43Custer orders Reno to cross the river and charge the Indian camp
2:53Reno’s troops descend the slope and cross the river
3:03Reno begins charge toward approaching Indians
3:13Custer sees Reno start and sends Sgt. Daniel Kanipe to find Captain McDougal and tell him to “come quick, a big Indian camp and bring the pack train straight across country.” Also if he sees Benteen tell him to come quick.  
3:18Reno dismounts fearing trap and forms skirmish line in trees
3:34Custer sends second messenger, Trumpeter John Martin to reach Benteen with message written by Adjutant WW Cooke saying: “Come on. Big Village. Be quick. Bring packs. P.S. bring packs.”
3:48Kanipe arrives at pack train with Custer’s message, but McDougall is still 3+ miles away from the battlefield
3:49Tom Custer reaches Custer in Cedar Coulee with bad news that Reno stalled
3:53Reno begins desperate retreat
3:58Trumpeter Martin gives “Come quick” message to Benteen who is still 3 miles away
4:04Mitch Bouyer confirms that Reno is beaten
4:06Benteen sees Reno fleeing and heads to reach him
4:10Reno survivors reach defense hill
4:12Benteen arrives at defense hill and takes charge from Reno
4:25Reno searches for lost friend; sounds of firing are heard from the direction of Custer
5:05Captain Thomas Weir of Reno’s D troop heads alone search for Custer; travels 2 miles to “Weir Peak” but still 3 miles from Last Stand Hill
5:12Last heavy firing heard from direction of Custer’s command
5:20Benteen joins Weir at “Weir Peak” with three companies (perhaps 200 troops)
5:40Reno arrives at Weir Peak
5:45After concurring they return to their defense at Reno Hill
EveningIndians attack troops on Reno Hill
June 26
Mid-dayAfter killing another 40+ on Reno Hill, Sitting Bull learns of the Terry/Gibbon reinforcements coming and departs from the battlefield
June 27
MorningLt. Charles Bradley’s party locates the bodies of Custer’s command
June 28Reno’s men complete a hasty burial on the field

July 5
The New York Herald breaks the news of the tragedy in the east