An hour or so earlier, as the Seventh Cavalry marched down out of the Wolf Mountains, Wooden Leg and his brother Yellow Hair had been lingering sleepily over the meal their mother had prepared for them. Like many other young people in Sitting Bull’s village, they’d enjoyed a long night of dancing and were not yet fully awake.
There had been talk about the possibility of an attack, but on the morning of June 25 it was generally assumed the soldiers were still at least a day away. Once Wooden Leg and Yellow Hair had finished their meal, they decided to head to the river for a swim.
The sun had already edged into the western portion of the sky by the time they began the walk from their family’s tepee at the north end of the village to the Little Bighorn to the east. The surrounding plain was relatively flat, but there were portions of the valley, particularly near the river, that dipped and rose in unexpected ways. Every spring, the rain-swollen river wandered in a new direction, and the accumulated loops and swirls of old riverbeds had carved the surrounding bottomland into a complex mosaic of alternating levels known as benches. This meant that anyone traveling up or down the valley must navigate the often sharply chiseled troughs left by these ancient waterways, some of which had created terracelike depressions as many as twenty feet below the surface of the valley.
To Wooden Leg’s right, on the flats beyond these desiccated riverbeds, boys raced horses and played games. Among the outlying hills on either side of the river, groups of women, children, and old men dug wild turnips with ash sticks.
That afternoon the river was alive with splashing swimmers; others sat fishing in the shade of the cottonwood trees. One of these was the famed Santee chief Inkpaduta, over sixty years old and nearly blind. More than twenty years before, he had led his people in a bloody uprising in Minnesota before fleeing west to join the Lakota. Inkpaduta had been there with Sitting Bull at Killdeer Mountain when the soldiers had first attacked the Hunkpapa. After years of self-imposed exile in Canada, he was back with Sitting Bull’s people, fishing beside the crystal waters of the Little Bighorn with his grandsons.
A village of this size—almost two miles long and more than a quarter mile wide with as many as eight thousand people living in approximately a thousand lodges—could exist only beside a water source like the Little Bighorn. In addition to the village’s human occupants, the seemingly numberless pony herd needed vast quantities of water, as did the herds of buffalo, antelope, and other game on which the Lakota and Cheyenne depended.
Water provided the Indians with the essentials of life, but it was also the source of great spiritual power. Crazy Horse had experienced his life-changing vision beside a lake. Roman Nose, the greatest warrior of Wooden Leg’s youth, had once built a raft of logs and floated out into the middle of Medicine Water Lake in northern Wyoming. After four days and four nights of fasting and exposure to the sun, during which his raft was pummeled by a series of horrendous storms, Roman Nose finally returned to shore. His prayers, he said, had protected him. “The water had been angry, crazy . . . ,” Wooden Leg recalled, “but not a drop of it had touched him.”
That afternoon on the Little Bighorn, Wooden Leg and his brother enjoyed a brief swim. “The sun was high,” he remembered, “the weather was hot. The cool water felt good to my skin.” The boys climbed up onto the grassy bank and talked about their adventures at the dances the night before. The conversation petered out until both of them closed their eyes and gradually drifted off to sleep.
Some three miles to the south, Major Marcus Reno and his battalion of about 150 soldiers and scouts had just crossed the Little Bighorn. Ahead of them extended a narrow plain covered with three to four inches of ashlike dust. A group of about fifty or so Indians—refugees from the abandoned village at the Lone Tepee—had already churned the valley into tawny billows as they rode toward the encampment ahead. To the right was the weaving timberline of the river’s western bank; beyond that, on the other side of the river, rose the crumbling, clifflike bluffs over which Custer’s battalion was beginning to march. To the left was a series of low foothills. Still out of sight, incredibly enough, was Sitting Bull’s village. About two and a half miles downriver, the Little Bighorn looped dramatically to the west, and the accompanying fringe of trees and brush screened the encampment from Reno’s view.
As his earlier words to DeRudio might suggest, Reno had had misgivings about his assignment from the start. Despite having pretended to ignore Gerard’s warning, he’d already sent back one messenger telling Custer the Indians were “all in front of me . . . and were strong.” Another messenger was soon to follow.
Reno’s three companies paused for at least ten minutes to prepare for the attack. They cinched the dark blue woolen webbing of their saddle girths, checked their Colt .45 six-shooters and single-shot Springfield carbines, and took their proper places. Before leaving the divide, the men in each company had counted off by fours. When it came time to fire their weapons, common procedure was for the Number Ones, Twos, and Threes to dismount and form a skirmish line while the Number Fours remained mounted in the rear with the other men’s horses.
The soldiers swung into their saddles, and with the orders “Left front into line! Forward guide right!” they were soon moving down the valley at a slow gallop. Already well ahead of them were Custer’s favorite Indian scout, Bloody Knife, and about twenty-five fellow Arikara. There were also two Crow scouts, Half Yellow Face and White Swan. Their instructions were simple. Instead of fighting the Lakota, they were to cripple the enemy’s warriors by stealing their horses.
For Bloody Knife, who wore the black handkerchief with blue stars that Custer had brought back with him from Washington, this was a very personal battle. His mother was an Arikara, but his father was a Hunkpapa, and Bloody Knife had grown up with Gall, Sitting Bull, and many of the other warriors gathered here today on the Little Bighorn. Whether it was because of his Arikara parentage or his sullen personality, Bloody Knife had been tormented by the other Hunkpapa boys, with Gall—barrel-chested, outgoing, and easy to like—leading in the abuse. Bloody Knife eventually left to live with his mother’s people, but in 1860, at the age of twenty, he returned to visit his father on the mouth of the Rosebud, only to be once again beaten up and humiliated by his old nemesis, Gall.
Finally in 1868, when Gall came to trade at Fort Berthold on the Missouri River, Bloody Knife saw his chance for revenge. He led some soldiers to his enemy’s tepee, and in the melee that followed, Gall was stabbed three times with a bayonet and left for dead. Just to make sure, Bloody Knife was about to finish him off with a shotgun blast to the head when one of the soldiers pushed the barrel aside and led the infuriated scout away.
As Bloody Knife had suspected, Gall had somehow survived his encounter with the soldiers and eventually managed to escape. When Father DeSmet visited the Hunkpapa later that year, Gall proudly showed him his scars and claimed to have already killed seven white people in revenge.
That afternoon on the Little Bighorn, Bloody Knife knew that in any Lakota village the Hunkpapa (which means “people of the end”) always camped last. This meant that there was at least a fifty-fifty chance that the first tepee circle they encountered would be that of his old tormentors, the Hunkpapa.
Custer had told them to steal the Lakota’s horses, but Bloody Knife and the other Indian scouts were alert to additional possibilities. Already the Crows accompanying Custer’s battalion had come upon the ten-year-old boy Deeds, whom they’d first seen that morning near the divide with his father, Crawler. Deeds and his father had spent the last few hours on the run, desperately trying to stay ahead of the galloping soldiers and their scouts. Finally, in the timber on the east side of the Little Bighorn, at least one of the Crows had caught up with the boy and killed him. His father, however, had escaped and was now on his way to warn the village.
In the meantime, the Arikara had infiltrated the timber along the river; some had even recrossed the Little Bighorn, and in the flats to the east they discovered not only a herd of horses but a group of Hunkpapa women and children digging turnips. There are conflicting accounts of what happened next, but this much is certain: Six women and four children were killed early in the battle, most probably before any of the soldiers had fired a shot. Among this group were Gall’s two wives and three children.
For many of the soldiers in Reno’s battalion, this was their first time in combat. Their horsemanship skills were rudimentary at best. They were fine sitting on a walking or even trotting horse, but galloping among 130 mounted troopers over uneven, deceptive ground was a new experience.
Horses are extremely sensitive animals, and like humans, they can panic. Fueled by adrenaline and fear, a horse can become dangerously intoxicated with its own speed. Not until astride a runaway horse, it has been said, does a rider become aware of the creature’s true physical power.
Private Roman Rutten’s horse had started acting up at the fording place on the Little Bighorn. By the time the battalion had begun galloping down the plain, Rutten’s horse had become completely unmanageable and had rocketed ahead in a crazed rush. A trooper typically attempted to slow or stop his horse by tugging on the reins, which were attached to the metal bit in the horse’s mouth. The bit was placed into the gap between a horse’s front and back teeth. A horse that didn’t want to be restrained might pop the bit up with its tongue and clench the bit with its teeth, hence the phrase “take the bit between your teeth.”
Unable to stop or even slow his horse, Rutten apparently did what another trooper in the Seventh had done three years earlier when his horse bolted in an engagement during the Yellowstone campaign. “I, in desperation, wound the [reins] in one hand as far ahead as I could reach,” the trooper remembered, “and pulled with all my might and pulled his head around . . . and got him turned.” Rutten’s horse kept running, but at least he was now running in a circle. Over the course of the next two and a half miles, Rutten’s horse literally ran circles around the troopers, circumnavigating the battalion no fewer than three times.
They were charging through an ever-thickening cloud of dust. Ahead of them the ghostlike figures of mounted warriors could only dimly be perceived, “running back and forth across the prairie . . . in every direction,” Lieutenant Varnum remembered, “apparently trying to kick up all the dust they could.” Since the encampment was still hidden behind the river, there was nothing tangible for Reno and his men to see: only that dizzying cloud of dust filled with the distant specters of warriors and horses. Ironically, it was Custer’s battalion—separated from them by more than a mile of impassable terrain—that now had the best view of the village, even if, unknown to Custer, not even he had yet seen all of it.
Reno peered into the swirling enigmatic haze and saw the makings of an ambush. “I soon saw,” he wrote, “that I was being drawn into some trap.” Eight years earlier, Reno’s predecessor Major Joel Elliott had followed some fleeing Cheyenne warriors and never returned. There was also the example of Captain William Fetterman, who ten years before had died with all eighty of his officers and men after being lured beyond the safety of Fort Phil Kearny by a small decoy party that included Crazy Horse. Earlier that year in New York, Custer had ominously said, “It will take another Phil Kearny massacre to bring Congress up to a generous support of the army.” Reno was not about to fall victim to such a debacle, especially since Custer—the originator of this dubious scheme—was nowhere to be seen.
Not far from Reno was Captain Thomas French, the commander of M Company. French had a high squeaky voice, an expansive gut, and an inordinate love of booze. In the years to come his demons would make a mess of his life, but when in battle he was, according to Private William Slaper, “cool as a cucumber.” Amidst the chaos that was to come, Slaper would look to French for some assurance. “I searched his face carefully for any sign of fear,” he remembered; “it was not there.”
French looked into the dusty cloud and saw not an ambush, but a cavalry officer’s dream. “Military life consists simply in waiting for opportunities . . . ,” he later wrote. “Sometimes one minute is of far more value than years afterward. . . . I thought that we were to charge headlong through them all—that was the only chance.”
Reno was well aware that this was, potentially at least, an unmatched chance for advancement. “Never in my life,” he later testified, “did I feel more interested in the success of an engagement . . . because it was essentially my own regiment.” By leaving him out here without the promised support, Custer almost seemed to be taunting him with one last chance to seize the glory he had elected not to pursue during his first scout up the Rosebud.
A cavalry charge, especially a charge involving a tiny battalion and what is presumed to be a vast Indian village, makes no logical sense. But cavalry charges are not about logic; they are about audacity, about using panic and fear to convince the enemy that you are stronger than they are, even if that is not even close to being the case.
Between 1868 and 1878, there were eighteen cavalry attacks on Indian villages of two hundred tepees or fewer, and every one of these attacks proved successful. No U.S. cavalry officer before or since had what Reno now faced: the chance to see if a mounted battalion could push the collective psyche of a thousand-tepee village past the breaking point and transform this giant seething organism of men, women, children, horses, and dogs into a stampeding mob. The question was who, besides possibly Captain Thomas French, wanted to be the guinea pig in this particular experiment.
General Sheridan had observed that Custer was the only married cavalry officer he knew who had not been “spoiled” by having a wife. As Sheridan’s remark suggests, it was not normal for a happily married man to be completely unmindful of his own personal safety, and Sheridan later ascribed Custer’s eventual defeat to, in part, “a superabundance of courage.” Reno, the widower, no longer had a wife, but he did have a young son who would be an orphan without him. He, along with all his officers and men, had everything to live for.
But Reno had demons of his own. Ever since the death of his wife, he’d been beset by a corrosive, soul-consuming sadness that he tried to neutralize with whiskey. It also didn’t help that even sober he was without a jot of the charisma that made Custer and, in a very different way, Benteen so appealing. But Reno was not, as has been so often insisted, a coward. As he’d demonstrated during the scout on the Rosebud, he could combine pluck with a sensible amount of caution. The problem on the afternoon of June 25 was that he was drunk.
Even before crossing the river, the major had made a most unorthodox offer to Dr. Henry Porter, one of the two surgeons accompanying the battalion. Reno asked if Porter wanted his carbine. His horse was giving him trouble, he said, and “the gun was in the way.” Porter didn’t say as much, but the implication was clear: Reno was not acting in a manner consistent with a sober, clear-thinking commander.
As the battalion drew closer to the shadowy warriors in the dust cloud up ahead, many of the soldiers began to cheer—a laudable sentiment to be sure given the circumstances. But Reno wanted none of it. “Stop that noise,” he shouted peevishly, then gave the order, “Chaaarrrrrge!”
Something about the way he said it—a sloppy slurring—caused Private William Taylor to glance over to his commanding officer. He saw Reno in the midst of drinking from a bottle of “amber colored liquid,” which he then passed to his adjutant, Lieutenant Benny Hodgson. Although Reno had expressed worries about his ability to manage his Springfield carbine while galloping on a horse, he apparently had no problems handling a bottle of whiskey.
Drinking before and during a battle was not unusual in the nineteenth century. Many of Wellington’s officers and men indulged at the Battle of Waterloo. Fred Gerard had his own bottle of whiskey. Several of the Cheyenne warriors who fought in the battle later claimed that many of Custer’s soldiers had whiskey in their canteens. The hoped-for jolt of “Dutch courage” is proverbial, but in reality, alcohol is a depressant, a particularly powerful one when a person is hungry and dehydrated on a hot summer afternoon. If his conduct over the course of the next half hour is any indication, whiskey had a most deleterious effect on Reno, making him appear hesitant and fearful at a time when his officers and men needed a strong, decisive leader.
On they galloped into the swirling cloud. Up ahead to the left, the Arikara were chasing after an inviting herd of horses. Reno later claimed that “the very earth seemed to grow Indians” as they approached the village, but the truth is that the mounted warriors they could see were still out of effective range of their Springfield carbines. Even now the village was not yet fully visible, although the tops of some of the tepees were just beginning to emerge over the timber to the right. Fearing a trap, fearing the size of the village up ahead, Reno decided that “I must defend myself and give up the attack mounted.”
When the true size of the Indian village was later revealed, his decision to abort the attack seemed more than justified. But Reno didn’t know the size of the village when he gave the order to halt. That the reality ultimately justified his suspicions does not justify his conduct during the charge. According to Reno’s own testimony, he did not trust Custer’s judgment; as a result, he’d had qualms about the wisdom of the charge from the beginning—qualms that were amplified, it seems certain, by the insidious workings of alcohol.
“Halt! Prepare to fight on foot—dismount!”
The Number Ones, Twos, and Threes leapt off their horses while the Number Fours remained mounted to their left. On the side of each horse’s bridle was a leather strap with a buckle at one end and a snap hook at the other. Each of the three dismounted soldiers unhooked the link from his horse’s bridle and snapped it into the halter ring of the horse to the left. With the four horses linked together, the horse holder began to lead the three other horses toward the safety of a crescent-shaped grove of scrubby timber to the immediate right of the emerging skirmish line.
The maneuver was executed with surprising crispness, one sergeant later testified, given the poor quality of the horsemanship throughout the battalion. There were, however, several soldiers, including poor Private Rutten, whose panicked mounts carried them to where Reno had refused to go. As he galloped wildly past the skirmish line, Rutten continued to yank the reins to the right and was finally able to turn his horse before becoming lost in the terrifying maze of tepees up ahead. Rutten saved himself, but two others were carried into the village and never seen alive again.
The remaining ninety or so men, each separated by approximately five yards, formed a skirmish line and marched ahead on foot. After proceeding about a hundred yards, they halted. Each company’s flag bearer plunged the brass end of his nine-foot lance into the earth, and with the battalion’s three swallow-tailed guidons fluttering in the northerly breeze, the soldiers—some standing, some kneeling, others lying down—began firing their carbines. Ahead of them, about a quarter mile away, was the village of Sitting Bull.
By the time Reno’s battalion was halfway down the valley, many of the Hunkpapa at the southern end of the camp were aware that they were about to be attacked. They could see a battalion of soldiers approaching, the glittering barrels of their Springfield carbines looking to some of them like sabers. But the soldiers they were watching weren’t Reno’s; they were Custer’s, working their way north along the bluff on the eastern side of the river.
Pretty White Buffalo Woman was packing up her tepee in the Hunkpapa circle for an anticipated move downriver when she saw Custer’s battalion, “more than a rifle-shot,” she remembered, “from the river.” In anticipation of an attack, warriors had already begun to rush for the horse herd to the west, confident that it would take the soldiers up there on the ridge at least another fifteen minutes to reach the fording place about a mile downriver from the Hunkpapa circle.
Suddenly Pretty White Buffalo Woman heard firing—not from the east, but frighteningly near her to the south. Due to the same loop of timber that had hidden the village from Reno’s view, the Hunkpapa had not been able to see the soldiers charging toward them down the valley. Portions of the timber on the west side of the river had been set on fire, and the smoke had also helped screen Reno’s advance. “Like that,” she remembered, “the soldiers were upon us.”
The shock of Reno’s unexpected advance had a devastating effect on the noncombatants in the village. “The camp was in the wildest commotion,” Pretty White Buffalo Woman remembered, “and women and children shrieked with terror. More than half the men were absent after the pony herd.” Now it was the Lakota’s turn to assume they’d fallen victim to an artfully laid trap. “Long Hair had planned cunningly,” Pretty White Buffalo Woman later insisted, “that Reno should attack in the rear while he rode down and gave battle from the front of the village looking on the river.”
Terror swept through the six circles of the village like a great keening wave. “Women would call to children,” Little Soldier later told an interviewer, “and children would recognize mothers’ voices.” The Cheyenne Kate Bighead saw a mother “jumping up and down and screaming, because she could not find their little son.” The twelve-year-old Oglala Black Elk had been swimming in the Little Bighorn when he’d heard about the soldiers. “I could see the little ones all naked running from the river,” he remembered. The cumulative sounds of the village—the cries, the shrieks, the shouts—rose up into one wild, disembodied din. “It seemed that all the people’s voices were on top of the village,” Little Soldier reported.
To Pretty White Buffalo Woman, it seemed as if this huge, rambling village was about to dissolve in a chaotic fury of panic and fear. If Reno’s battalion had “brought their horses and rode into camp . . . ,” she claimed, “the power of the Lakota nation might have been broken.” But then something miraculous happened. The soldiers to the south, she gradually realized, had stopped. Instead of charging into the village, Re-no’s troops, for reasons that Pretty White Buffalo Woman never fathomed, had formed into a stationary skirmish line. Even though almost all the women and children were running for the hills to the west and many of the warriors were away retrieving their horses, the soldiers had chosen not to attack the village. Reno, she later contended, “had the camp at his mercy, and could have killed us all or driven us away naked on the prairie.”
Sitting Bull appears to have interpreted Reno’s sudden pause as the prelude to possible negotiations. “I don’t want my children fighting until I tell them to,” he said. “That army may be com[ing] to make peace, or be officials bringing rations to us.” He turned to his nephew One Bull, who stood beside him with his friend Good Bear Boy. Taking the gun out of One Bull’s hand, Sitting Bull gave his nephew one of his most cherished possessions, his shield. Sitting Bull’s father had made it out of the thick rawhide from a buffalo’s hump. On its front he’d reproduced the vision he’d seen in a dream: a birdlike human figure in red with a blue-green background and yellow border. A Lakota shield provided physical protection, but it was the shield’s spiritual power that made it special. In fact, this was the same shield Sitting Bull had held when he’d killed the Crow chief twenty years ago.
Sitting Bull uttered a brief prayer “to keep me from doing something rash,” One Bull remembered, then said, “You and Good Bear Boy go up and make peace.”
They mounted their horses and began to approach the skirmish line. They’d gotten to within thirty feet of the soldiers when a bullet smashed through both of Good Bear Boy’s legs. “I got so angry at the soldiers,” One Bull remembered, “that I couldn’t make peace.” One Bull took his lariat and looped it around Good Bear Boy’s chest and pulled him to safety. “I could hear his bones rubbing together,” he remembered.
By this time, Sitting Bull had mounted his favorite horse, a handsome gray that is depicted in doting detail in the sequence of drawings he created for his adopted brother Jumping Bull. When two bullets felled his beloved horse, the Hunkpapa leader quickly abandoned all hopes for peace. “Now my best horse is shot,” he shouted. “It is like they have shot me; attack them.”
Reno’s soldiers were lined up along the edges of a large prairie dog village, and some of the men tried to use these honeycombed mounds as a breastwork. The Indians were still far enough away that the troopers did not feel particularly threatened. “The men were in good spirits, talking and laughing,” Private Thomas O’Neill remembered, “and not apprehensive . . . the Sioux toward the village were riding around kicking up a big dust but keeping well out of range.”
Some of the officers used the lull to follow their leader’s example. Soon after the deployment of the skirmish line, Sergeant Charles White watched in disgust as several officers passed around a bottle. “With my own eyes, I saw these officers . . . drinking enough to make any ordinary man drunk. I then witnessed the greatest excitement among intoxicated officers I ever saw.”
Left without adequate supervision, the soldiers on the skirmish line began blasting eagerly away—what Captain Myles Moylan described as a “wild and random” fire. Lieutenant Varnum even reported seeing “a good many men shooting right up in the air.” Since a Springfield carbine was accurate to within about 250 yards and the Indians were all well beyond that, there really was no reason to be firing. Each trooper had been given a total of a hundred rounds of carbine ammunition—half of which he carried with him, often in the loops of a waist belt, the other half in his saddlebags. With only fifty rounds on his person and an ever-growing number of warriors ahead, it was essential that each soldier make every bullet count. Since it was possible to fire as many as seventeen rounds a minute, it could take only a few minutes for an overenthusiastic soldier to blast away every available round.
Although the Springfield carbine’s accuracy was limited to about 250 yards, it was capable of hurling a bullet as many as 1,000 yards, and as the Hunkpapa were already aware, some of the soldiers’ bullets had managed to splinter the tops of their tepee poles and had wounded at least one noncombatant. There were two members of M Company who had rifles with a much longer range than the shorter-barreled carbines. Captain French had the infantry version of the Springfield, known as a “Long Tom,” while Sergeant John Ryan, who claimed to be the first soldier in Reno’s battalion to fire his weapon that day, was the proud owner of a fifteen-pound Sharps rifle equipped with a telescopic sight. These two members of M Company managed to score several “hits,” including, it seems, Good Bear Boy and Sitting Bull’s favorite horse.
At some point, one of the soldiers looked to the bluff on the other side of the river. “There goes Custer,” he said. “He is up to something, for he is waving his hat.” Several other officers and men, including Lieutenants Varnum and DeRudio, also claimed to have seen Custer’s battalion on the ridge that afternoon.
Reno later insisted that he never saw any sign of Custer and that no one in his command reported his presence on the ridge. The mutual fogs of war and alcohol had apparently made it impossible for him to focus on anything beyond the building bedlam ahead.
As Custer’s officers had suspected, many of the village’s warriors were away hunting. Of the warriors in the Hunkpapa circle who had not gone after buffalo, almost half were now retrieving their horses in the flats to the west. Only the boys who had been racing their ponies prior to the attack were mounted and ready to fight. “Warriors,” Sitting Bull exhorted, “we have everything to fight for, and if we are defeated we shall have nothing to live for; therefore let us fight like brave men.” Little Soldier was just fourteen years old that day. “Old men sang death songs for [us],” he remembered. “Sweethearts, young Indian mothers, and children all wailing and crying.”
The twenty-three-year-old Hunkpapa Moving Robe Woman had been digging turnips when she, like Pretty White Buffalo Woman, had seen Custer’s soldiers stirring up an ominous cloud of dust above the hills to the east. She immediately ran to her parents’ tepee, where her mother informed her that her ten-year-old brother Deeds was dead. Like Gall, who soon learned that he’d lost his wives and children, Moving Robe Woman was immediately filled with a volatile mixture of sorrow and anger. “My heart was bad,” she remembered. “Revenge!”
She dried her eyes the way all Lakota women did, placing the lower portion of her palms into the sockets of her eyes and wiping away the tears. She braided her hair and painted her face bright red. “I was a woman,” she remembered, “but I was not afraid.” Her father, Crawler, appeared outside the family tepee with her black horse. Crawler had been one of the first, if not the very first, Lakota to see Custer’s regiment that morning on the divide. He’d already lost his son, and now he and his daughter were preparing to avenge the boy’s death. Moving Robe Woman mounted her horse, and together father and daughter joined the warriors galloping toward the skirmish line. The warrior Rain in the Face later remembered that Moving Robe Woman looked as “pretty as a bird” as she leaned forward on her pony. “Always when there is a woman in the charge,” he added, “it causes the warriors to vie with one another in displaying their valor.”
The warriors charged into Reno’s soldiers. Sergeant Ryan estimated there were about five hundred Indians in the first wave, which emerged from a ravinelike section of benchland about midway between the skirmish line and the village’s edge. “They tried to cut through our skirmish line,” Ryan wrote. “We poured volleys into them, repulsing their charge . . . and emptying a number of saddles.”
Those warriors who survived the first onslaught swung to the right toward the foothills to the west, “lying low upon their horses and firing rapidly,” remembered the scout Billy Jackson. A choking cloud of dust followed in the warriors’ wake and rolled over the skirmish line. “It drifted upon us like a thick fog,” Jackson remembered, “and obscured the sun.” More than half a dozen warriors had been killed or wounded in the charge. Included in the dead that day was Young Black Moon, son of the elder who had announced Sitting Bull’s sun dance vision.
After the repulse, the warriors paused beside a hill near a dry creek just beyond the carbines’ range. By this time, many of the older warriors had retrieved their horses. Some joined the nucleus of impetuous young warriors gathered on the hill; others worked their way around the end of the skirmish line to the south. To the east, warriors, many of them on foot, infiltrated the timber; still others crossed the river and began to work their way south along the eastern bank. Instead of a wall of defense, the skirmish line, which reached only 250 yards into the valley, was in danger of becoming surrounded.
In the beginning, the momentum had all been on Reno’s side. He had been completely oblivious to it, but his sudden arrival had sent the village reeling. Just ten to fifteen minutes later, however, everything had changed. By hesitating, Reno had given the village’s warriors the time they needed to collect themselves for a decisive attack. The bolt of fear that had sizzled across the Hunkpapa circle like an electric shock had begun to flow back toward the soldiers as they came to realize the growing danger of their situation.
Captain Myles Moylan of A Company turned to the Indian scout Billy Jackson. It was important they get a message to Custer, Moylan said; did Jackson think he could deliver it? Jackson looked behind them to the south. “No man can get through there alive,” he said.
At least some of Reno’s men had seen Custer on the ridge, waving his hat. Soon after, Custer descended from the hill and joined the rest of his battalion waiting behind the bluffs. Hidden from Reno’s battalion by the intervening bluff, Custer and his men proceeded north. Up ahead, the Crow scouts assured him, was a winding series of seasonal riverbeds, known as coulees, that would take them down to a ford at the north end of the village.
Contrary to what Pretty White Buffalo Woman had assumed, Custer had had no concrete plan when he’d sent Reno’s battalion charging toward the village. It was only after seeing the encampment that he could begin to devise a strategy based on any solid information. Already he had sent back a messenger to McDougall and the pack train urging them to hurry up with the ammunition. But as he was soon to realize, his first glimpse of the village had been deceptive. Instead of seeing the entire encampment from the hill, he had seen only a portion of it. Once again, the bluffs had found a way to block his view.
It may have been Mitch Boyer who revealed the truth to Custer. He along with the four Crow scouts had remained on the higher ground to Custer’s left, where, unlike Custer down in the coulee, they could see the valley below. As they worked north, they gradually came to realize that the village was close to twice the size they had originally thought. They also saw that instead of charging into the village, Reno had decided to throw out a skirmish line.
Once he became apprised of the true dimensions of the village and the fact that Reno’s charge had stalled at its edge, Custer must have realized that he should have kept the two battalions together and led the charge himself. But there was nothing he could do about that now. He was separated from Reno’s battalion by a mile-wide stretch of valley, but if he had seen Reno from the bluff, Reno had also seen him. Surely the major must know by now that Custer intended to support him not from the rear, as originally planned, but from the right. As long as Reno kept the Indians occupied to the south, Custer still had a chance of doing some damage from the east.
Given the size of the village, Custer knew he needed not only the pack train; he needed every fighting man he could get. He hated to admit it, but he needed Frederick Benteen.
He called over the trumpeter John Martin. “Orderly,” Custer said, “I want you to take a message to Colonel Benteen. Ride as fast as you can and tell him to hurry. Tell him it’s a big village and I want him to be quick and to bring the ammunitions packs.” When excited, Custer had a tendency to talk too rapidly. “[He] rattled off his order so fast,” Libbie remembered, “that it was almost impossible for one unacquainted with his voice to understand.” Adding to the potential confusion was that John Martin, an Italian by birth, was still fairly new to the English language. Before Martin could gallop off, Custer’s adjutant, Lieutenant Cooke, said, “Wait, orderly, I’ll give you a message.”
From his pocket, Cooke pulled out the same notebook upon which he and Custer had worked out the fateful division of the regiment into three different battalions. On a fresh piece of paper he wrote out the order with which Custer hoped to reunite the regiment. It read: “Benteen, Come on, Big Village, Be Quick, bring packs, W. W. Cooke. P.S. Bring pac[k]s.”
Cooke handed the message to Martin. “Ride as fast as you can to Colonel Benteen,” he instructed. “Take the same trail we came down. If you have time, and there is no danger, come back; but otherwise stay with your company.”
Martin turned his horse and started back up the coulee. “The last I saw of the command,” he said, “they were going down the ravine. The Gray Horse Troop was in the center and they were galloping.”
From the beginning of the battle, Crazy Horse, the greatest of the Lakota warriors, had been in no particular hurry. The Oglala circle was to the north of the Hunkpapa, well back from the river. After learning of the soldiers’ approach, he had paused to pray with a holy man and then carefully painted his face, drawing a red zigzag from the top of his forehead to one side of his nose and back to the cleft of his chin. “This he did very coolly,” Standing Bear remembered. “He delayed so long that many of his warriors became impatient.” When he finally began to gallop toward the foothills beside the dry creek, a cry went up that could be heard throughout the village: “Crazy Horse is coming!”
Like Custer’s brother Tom, Crazy Horse had suffered a gunshot to the face that had left him with a permanent scar across his cheek. Unlike Tom, who’d been wounded in battle, the Oglala warrior had been shot by the jealous husband of the woman he’d run away with. For having placed his own interests ahead of the greater good of the tribe, Crazy Horse had lost the prestigious position of Shirt Wearer.
In the years since that scandalous incident, he had rededicated himself to what he did best. “Crazy Horse considered himself cut out for warfare,” the interpreter Billy Garnett remembered, “and he therefore would have nothing to do with affairs political or social or otherwise.” Sitting Bull had guided the northern Lakota through the tumultuous events of the last few months and days. Now it was Crazy Horse’s turn to lead them in battle.
By the time he reached the hill to the west of the soldiers’ skirmish line, the growing throng of warriors was, according to Garnett, “almost uncontrollable.” What they needed more than anything else, Crazy Horse realized, was some composure. “[He] rode up and down in front of his men talking calmly to them,” Garnett said, “telling them to restrain their ardor till the time he should give the word.” Native warriors were known for their independence and lack of discipline in battle. But in this instance, the Lakota had the advantage over the washichus of a strong and forceful leader.
They must wait, Crazy Horse said, for the soldiers’ guns to heat up “so they would not work so well.” So they sat upon their horses as the soldiers on the skirmish line continued to blast ineffectually away.
Compared with modern-day brass shell casings, which remain remarkably stable when heated, the copper shell casings of the .45-caliber ammunition used by Reno’s men were more malleable. After about half a dozen quickly fired shots, the extractor mechanism had an unfortunate tendency to rip through the flange at the bottom of the heat-softened shell, leaving the barrel clogged with the remnants of the expended casing. The soldier’s only recourse was to try to dislodge the mangled shell with a knife—a laborious and increasingly nerve-racking procedure, especially when the enemy was massing for a charge.
Having successfully slowed the tempo of the battle, Crazy Horse once again addressed the warriors gathered on the hill. It was now time to attack, he said. “Do your best, and let us kill them all off today that they may not trouble us any more. All ready! Charge!”
Twelve-year-old Black Elk lay hidden in the timber near the river. “Just then,” he remembered, “I heard the bunch on the hillside to the west crying: ‘Hokahe!’ and make the tremolo. We heard also the eagle bone whistles. I knew from this shouting that the Indians were coming, for I could hear the thunder of the ponies charging.”
By this time, the soldiers’ skirmish line had pivoted to the left so as to face the growing threat to the west. Reno had been warned that the Indians were also threatening the horses in the timber to the east. He’d already sent Lieutenant McIntosh’s G Company into the woods to provide the animals with some protection; as a result, the ranks of the skirmish line had become distressingly thin. Fred Gerard watched as Reno, too, left the line for the timber. “I saw him put a bottle of whiskey to his mouth,” he remembered, “and drink the whole contents.”
It was time, Reno decided, to bring everyone into the timber. As Crazy Horse’s warriors charged toward them and the soldiers began to run for cover, Captain French, angered by the fact that no effort was being made to withdraw the battalion in a coordinated fashion, shouted, “Steady men! I will shoot the first man that turns his back to the enemy—fall back slowly. Keep up your fire!”
But it was little use. “The men ran into the timber pell mell,” remembered Fred Gerard, “and all resistance to the Sioux had ceased.”
Out in the middle of the skirmish line, about forty to fifty yards from the edge of the timber, Sergeant Miles O’Hara crumpled to the ground. He’d been hit and needed assistance. But no one was willing to go back for him. Private Edward Pigford never forgot the sergeant’s final words. “For God’s sake, don’t leave me,” O’Hara cried as the rest of the command ran for the safety of the trees.
Bordering the western edge of the timber was a four-foot-deep trench carved out by one of the river’s divergences. It was ready-made for defense, and several of the scouts, including George Herendeen, planted themselves there along with the soldiers and began firing at the Indians out on the plain. “The Sioux would gallop in bunches,” Private Newell remembered, “and deliver their fire and then retreat, their places to be filled instantly by another bunch.”
—THE VALLEY FIGHT, June 25, 1876—
Captain Moylan turned to Lieutenant Varnum and said the men were beginning to run out of ammunition. It was time to bring up the horses so the soldiers could get the extra fifty rounds from their saddlebags. Varnum entered the timber, and after a strange encounter with Reno’s adjutant, Lieutenant Hodgson, who urgently asked him to check his horse for a nonexistent wound, Varnum brought A Company’s horses up to the trench’s edge. He’d just settled in beside the scout Charley Reynolds when the interpreter Fred Gerard offered Reynolds a sip from his flask. Reynolds had already experienced unsettling premonitions about the battle; he was also suffering from a painful infection on his hand. Varnum could not help but stare as the scout, famed for his quiet courage, struggled with trembling hands to drink from the flask. “I was paying more attention to that,” he later admitted, “than to the Indians.”
Varnum heard some men shouting behind him in the woods and went to investigate. Others quickly followed until only one man was left on the firing line—the scout George Herendeen.
Two years before, Herendeen had been part of what was called the Yellowstone Wagon Road and Prospecting Expedition: 150 men, most of them experienced Indian fighters, equipped with repeating rifles and even a few cannons, who ranged the Rosebud, Little Bighorn, and Bighorn river basins, looking for gold. It was an outrageous affront to Lakota sovereignty, and Sitting Bull had led several hundred warriors, including at one point Crazy Horse, against this cocksure group of frontiersmen.
Compared with the regiments of infantry and cavalry they had confronted before, this was a tiny group of washichus, and Sitting Bull had expected to send them quickly back to their home in Bozeman, Montana. However, in three different battles, one of them fought only a few miles from where they were now, the Lakota saw for the first time what a cadre of brave, experienced, and well-equipped gunfighters could do. “They appeared to go just where they wanted,” reported Johnnie Brughiere, who heard about the expedition from the Lakota. “[The Indians] could get nowhere near them without losing men or horses. . . . They could not understand it except on the theory that some new race of strangers had come into the country.”
On the afternoon of June 25, 1876, on the Little Bighorn, Herendeen saw that this patch of timber beside the river was an excellent place for Reno’s battalion to make a stand. With this trench to the west, the river to the east, and with soldiers strategically positioned around the timber’s periphery, they could hold out here for hours. But it was also becoming clear that the hundred or so men in the battalion “appeared to be without experience as soldiers.” Unless someone rose to the occasion and organized the three companies into a fighting unit, they would be overrun by the warriors.
Herendeen had just brought down a warrior and his horse when he realized that he was all by himself at the edge of the timber. “I then wondered,” he remembered, “where the men could be and why they did not come in and help stand off these Indians.” He soon found out where they were. In the middle of this crescent of cottonwoods, willows, and elders was a grassy clearing of approximately two to three acres. Instead of fighting off the Indians, Reno and his officers and men were apparently preparing to flee. Reno and Captain Moylan sat on their horses at the front of the emerging column as the soldiers scurried frantically through the timber in search of their horses. “All was confusion,” Gerard remembered, “and in trying to pick out their horses the language of the men was hasty and vigorous to say the least.”
Even though they were deep within the sun-dappled shade of these little woods, the sounds of the battle were terrific—“one continuous roar,” Private Newell remembered, as hundreds of warriors blew on their eagle-bone whistles and galloped on their whinnying, hoof-pounding ponies and either fired their rifles or shot arrows that cut through the leaves of the cottonwoods and sent puffy white seedpods raining down on them like snow. By this point, Reno had lost his straw hat and had tied a red bandanna around his head.
He was talking in sign language to the Arikara scout Bloody Knife, asking him if he knew “where the Indians were going.” Now that the Lakota and Cheyenne were unopposed, it was fairly obvious where they were going: They were steadily drawing toward them through the trees. “The Indians were using the woods as much as I was,” Reno remembered, “sheltering themselves and creeping up on me. . . . I knew I could not stay there unless I stayed forever.”
After helping the other Arikara capture as many horses as possible, Bloody Knife had rejoined the soldiers. Whether or not he was responsible for the deaths of Gall’s wives and children, he knew for a certainty that many of the warriors now approaching through the timber were Hunkpapa who knew him by sight.
There was a momentary lull in the Indians’ firing. Then, from about fifty yards away, a volley erupted from the trees. A bullet hit Bloody Knife in the back of the head, and with his arms thrown up into the sky, he toppled from his horse. At that moment, a soldier was shot through the stomach and cried out, “Oh! My God I have got it!”
The death of Bloody Knife seems to have badly flustered Reno, who later told Herendeen that the scout’s “blood and brains spattered over me.”
“Dismount!” he shouted before quickly countermanding the order: “Mount!”
By now, Reno’s horse was plunging wildly. Waving his six-shooter in his hand, his face smeared with blood and brains, Reno shouted, “Any of you men who wish to make your escape, follow me.”