Thursday, June 25, 2009


. . . also known as The Battle of Little Bighorn, or Custer’s Last Stand.

June 25, 1876 marks the date in history when the Lakota Souix and Northern Cheyenne defended their way of life against the US Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn River near what is now Crow Agency, Montana. General George Armstrong Custer and 267 soldiers and civilians were wiped out to a man by a force of approximately 2000 braves of the Lakota and Cheyenne Nations, led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.SITTING BULL. No known photograph or drawing of Crazy Horse exists - he was very sensitive about the issue of having "his soul captured".

George Armstrong Custer was a vain, arrogant man.Famous for his fearlessness in the Civil War, his courage had a dark side. In battle, he gambled recklessly with his men's lives, and he was capable of great cruelty. In 1868, Custer had attacked a peaceful Cheyenne village and slaughtered most of its inhabitants. He later claimed to have killed 103 warriors, but most of the dead were women, children, and old men. This was not the only atrocity committed by US soldiers during the course of the Indian wars, unfortunately.Custer’s courage, combined with keen political instinct, resulted in his promotion to Brigadier General, at 23 the youngest in the Union Army. Reverted to his regular Army rank of Captain after the war, Custer finagled assignment as Lieutenant Colonel of the newly created U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment. A plea by his patron General Philip Sheridan resulted in an appointment as Brevet Major General. The marker where Custer is believed to have fallen at Little Bighorn battlefield indicates the confusing status of his rank: “BVT. MAJ. GEN. LT. COL.”It has been estimated that in the overall battle the warriors outnumbered Custer’s 7th Cavalry forces by as many as nine to one. By almost all accounts, within less than an hour Custer's force was completely annihilated. Interviews with the Indian survivors of the battle indicate that the Custer fight lasted less than one-half hour.

My personal fascination with the Battle of the Greasy Grass stems from an event where myself and my entire Operational Detachment Alpha were made honorary members of the Lakota Souix, during a funeral for one of our own in Milwaukee, in 2001. The ritual involved a Four Winds ceremony, after which I was told “they don’t do that for the tourists”.

Furthermore, a full-blooded Lakota I served with once shared with me that there were several white survivors of the Little Bighorn engagement. He claimed they fought on the Indian side. When you think about it, this makes absolute sense; by 1876 whites had been interacting with the Plains Indians for over one hundred years. There were bound to be scores of trappers and mountain men, Civil War deserters and other adventurers who’d “gone native”. What would you do if one day a bunch of soldiers in blue uniforms showed up and burned your village, killed your women and children? I know what I’d do: I’d go to war against the US Army.

At the onset of the engagement, Custer divided his troops into two groups, one led by Colonel George W. Yates. Meanwhile, Crazy Horse's warriors charged in from another direction. Custer's men were now surrounded. The braves pounded the trapped bluecoats with bullets and arrows.

Most contemporary depictions of this battle depict Custer in a heroic light. I consider these depictions wanton propaganda, and as such have chosen not to display them here. The soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry were terrified, apparently, firing wildly and sometimes hitting each other. They also shot their horses in an effort to set up barricades. Two Moons, a Cheyenne chief, later said, "We circled around them, swirling like water 'round a stone." In less than an hour, the battle was over. "It took about as long as it takes for a hungry man to eat his dinner," Two Moons observed. There is evidence that some of the soldiers committed suicide rather than face torture and mutilation at the hands of their Indian foes.

A Bitter Victory

The Indians won the battle, but they somehow sensed it signaled the beginning of the end of the war. Furious after Custer’s humiliating defeat, U.S. officials stopped negotiating with the Indians and simply took away most of the land promised to them. Army troops hunted down the Sioux and forced them onto ever-shrinking reservations. After surrendering, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse both were murdered.

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