Modern history



The Approach

In 1846, when Crazy Horse was six years old and Sitting Bull was fifteen, a twenty-three-year-old Bostonian named Francis Parkman spent three weeks with an Oglala village in modern Wyoming. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Parkman decided to write the definitive history of England and France’s battle for the New World. To prepare himself for his life’s work, he must go west and see firsthand a Native people unaffected by extended contact with the European invaders. The book he eventually wrote about his experiences in the West, The Oregon Trail, contains some of the best contemporaneous descriptions of Lakota life ever written.

For most of his time with the Oglala, Parkman was desperately sick with a dysentery-like illness that may have been linked to drinking the alkaline water. But this did not prevent him from participating in the exhilarating bedlam of a buffalo hunt. “While we were charging on one side,” Parkman wrote, “our companions attacked the bewildered and panic-stricken herd on the other. The uproar and confusion lasted but a moment. The dust cleared away, and the buffalo could be seen scattering as from a common centre, flying over the plain singly, or in long files and small compact bodies, while behind them followed the Indians riding at furious speed, and yelling as they launched arrow after arrow into their sides.”

Parkman accompanied the village to the southwestern fringe of the Black Hills, where he watched the Oglala women harvest tepee poles from the pine-studded peaks. Just when he feared his illness might be the death of him, he was saved by a restorative handful of pemmican: a nutritious combination of protein and fat made from pounded slices of dried buffalo meat. This allowed him to accompany the village as it made its way across the dusty plains to a new campsite, the old women leading the travois-laden ponies with two or three children clinging to the pack animals’ backs as the elders, “stalking along in their white buffalo-robes,” led the throng beneath the unceasing blue glare of the sky.

Thirty years later, on June 18, 1876, a similar scene was enacted on the banks of the Little Bighorn River as approximately four thousand Lakota and Cheyenne and more than twice that many ponies made their way to a new campsite. Back in 1846, Parkman had believed that traditional Lakota culture was doomed to almost immediate extinction. Already, he noted, whiskey and disease had taken a terrible toll on the Oglala. He would no doubt have been stunned by the size and vibrancy of this village in south-central Montana in 1876.

It was no accident that Sitting Bull and his people had ended up here, beside the Little Bighorn River. This narrow, tree-lined waterway was in the middle of the last buffalo-rich region in the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century, the buffalo had become so rare that when a small herd appeared near the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, several elderly Lakota felt compelled to hug, instead of kill, the animals. In the spring and summer of 1876, however, the buffalo had been remarkably abundant, and as a consequence, Sitting Bull’s people, who ate on average six buffalo per person per year, were flourishing.

In the meantime, conditions at the reservations had never been worse. The previous fall, thousands upon thousands of Lakota had flocked to the agencies to attend councils about the possible sale of the Black Hills. The agencies’ attempts to feed these huge gatherings had completely overwhelmed the already inefficient rationing system, and by the winter there was little food left. In the past, agency Indians had supplemented their meager rations by hunting for game. But on January 18, with war looming, the agents were instructed to stop selling any more ammunition to the Indians.

Rather than starve to death on the reservations and angered by the government’s attempts to purchase the Black Hills, unprecedented numbers of Lakota elected to join Sitting Bull and hunt the buffalo that summer. But before they could set out on the three-hundred-mile journey from the agencies, their ponies must first strengthen themselves on the new spring grass, which did not appear until the end of April. This meant that it wasn’t until mid- to late June that the agency Indians started to reach Sitting Bull’s village in significant numbers.

It began slowly, but by June 18, the day after Crook’s retreat at what became known as the Battle of the Rosebud, the outflow from the reservations was averaging a stunning seven hundred Lakota and Cheyenne per day. In the week ahead, Sitting Bull’s village more than doubled in size to eight thousand men, women, and children, making it one of the largest gatherings of Indians in the history of the northern plains.

The warriors and their leaders had difficulty imagining how anyone could dare attack a village of this immense size. At the center of the camp was the large council lodge painted a distinctive yellow, where the leaders from the many bands met to discuss the issues of the day.

Back in 1846, Parkman had watched the Oglala elders struggle to come to a consensus about when to launch a war party against their enemies, the Snakes. “Characteristic indecision perplexed their councils,” Parkman wrote. “Indians cannot act in large bodies. Though their object be of the highest importance, they cannot combine to attain it by a series of connected efforts.” Three decades later, Parkman was proven wrong. As the challenges to traditional Native culture increased, a leader had emerged whose intelligence, charisma, and connection to the shadowy forces of Wakan Tanka enabled him to unite these disparate bands into a single, albeit loose-jointed, entity.

Not everything had gone Sitting Bull’s way. Despite the council’s decision to wait until Crook’s forces attacked them, the warriors had forced Sitting Bull’s hand. He had accompanied the young men to the Battle of the Rosebud, but this had not deterred him from advocating a policy of restraint in the days ahead. In his vision he had seen soldiers falling into a Lakota camp, and this could happen only if the washichus attacked first. The warriors’ first priority must be the protection of the women and children.

Sitting Bull’s tepee was larger than most and decorated with colorful images of his many accomplishments. Living in his lodge were at least a dozen family members, including his mother, Her Holy Door; his two wives, the sisters Seen by the Nation and Four Blankets Woman; their brother Gray Eagle; Sitting Bull’s two adolescent daughters; and a total of six children, the youngest of whom were twin baby boys born to Four Blankets Woman just two weeks before.

Sitting Bull’s eldest wife, Seen by the Nation, sat to the right of the entryway and was responsible for the family’s food, while her sister was in charge of the cooking utensils. The family’s baggage was carefully lined up against the inner edge of the tepee. When a guest arrived outside, barking dogs inevitably alerted the family that someone wanted to come in. Only after being formally invited could the guest enter the tepee, where he was given the place of honor across from the entryway on the opposite side of the central fire.

In 1846, Francis Parkman spent several nights in the tepee of the village’s chief. “There, wedged close together,” Parkman wrote, “you will see a circle of stout warriors, passing the pipe around, joking, telling stories and making themselves merry after their fashion.” As Parkman sat contentedly in the tepee’s flickering darkness listening to the warriors talk, a woman tossed a hunk of buffalo fat into the lodge’s central fire. The pyrotechnics that followed were, he soon learned, a regular and spectacular part of life in a Lakota tepee. “Instantly a bright flame would leap up,” Parkman recounted, “darting its light to the very apex of the tall, conical structure, where the tips of the slender poles that supported the covering of hide were gathered together. It gilded the features of the Indians as with animated gestures they sat, telling their endless stories of war and hunting. . . . For a moment all would be bright as day; then the flames would die out; fitful flashes from the embers would illuminate the lodge, and then leave it in darkness.” Later that night, Parkman ventured outside and watched in wonder as tepee after tepee momentarily blazed like a “gigantic lantern.”

On a warm night in June of 1876 on the Little Bighorn River, it must have been a magnificent sight. A thousand tepees were assembled in six horseshoe-shaped semicircles, each semicircle facing east, as was each tepee’s entryway. Like stationary fireflies, the lodges intermittently flared with fat-fueled flame, glowing softly through the tepees’ translucent buffalo hides.

Some have claimed that nomads are the happiest people on earth. To be always on the move, to be forever free of the boundaries, schedules, and material goods that circumscribe a sedentary existence, more than offset the dangers and discomforts of rootlessness. Late in life, the Cheyenne Wooden Leg admitted that living on the reservation had its compensations. “It is pleasant to be situated where I can sleep soundly every night, without fear that my horses may be stolen or that myself or my friends may be crept upon and killed.” And yet, when he looked back on his life as a young warrior, “when every man had to be brave,” he knew when he had been the most contented and fulfilled. “I wish I could live again through some of the past days,” he said, “when it was the first thought of every prospering Indian to send out the call: ‘Hoh-ohoh-oh, friends: Come. Come. Come. I have plenty of buffalo meat. I have coffee. I have sugar. I have tobacco. Come, friends, feast and smoke with me.’”

Around sunset on June 22, Custer sat on the cot in his A-frame field tent, waiting for his officers to arrive. Gradually they assembled about him, some squatting, some standing, some chatting in hushed tones in the deepening twilight.

Since leaving the Far West close to noon, they had marched just twelve miles before camping beneath a steep bluff beside the Rosebud River. Given Custer’s earlier warnings about ruthless pursuit of the Indians, it had been an unexpectedly easy day, and now as he spoke to them about the march ahead, there was, Lieutenant Godfrey remembered, an “indefinable something that was not Custer.”

His officers expected him to be, Lieutenant Gibson wrote, “dominant and self reliant.” But on the evening of June 22, with his officers gathered around him, Custer seemed in the grip of what Gibson called “a queer sort of depression”—a depression that dated back just twenty-four hours to his discussions with General Terry aboard the Far West.

At some point during those talks, Terry had halfheartedly floated the possibility that they change the plan. Instead of Custer leading the Seventh up the Rosebud, maybe it would be better if he (Terry) led a column that contained both the Seventh and a battalion of the Second Cavalry. When Custer strenuously objected, Terry quickly backed down. But the damage had been done. In his hesitant and evasive way, Terry had unintentionally planted the seeds of doubt and paranoia in a psyche that not even the president of the United States had been able to crack.

As his striker, John Burkman, could attest, Custer had a tendency to overreact. “That’s the way he always was,” Burkman remembered, “flying off the handle suddenly, maybe sometimes without occasion.” In this instance, Custer leapt to the conclusion that Terry’s eleventh-hour failure of confidence had been instigated by comments made by the hated Marcus Reno. In actuality Major Brisbin of the Second Cavalry had been the one whispering in Terry’s ear, but Custer would never know that. The thought that one of his own officers had been scheming against him seems to have become a major distraction to Custer, and at officer’s call on the evening of June 22 he was not his usual cocksure self.

In the past, Custer had followed the model of Napoleon, telling his subordinates as little as possible about his intentions. That night it seemed as if he needed to justify his every decision. He’d opted against the Gatling guns, he explained, so as not to “hamper our movements.” He’d decided against the offer of an extra battalion from the Second Cavalry because he felt the Seventh “could whip any force” of Indians it was likely to meet. He claimed that he’d done some research that spring at the Indian Bureau in Washington, D.C., and he was confident that even with infusions from the agencies, there were no more than fifteen hundred warriors under Sitting Bull. And besides, if in the unlikely event they should encounter an overwhelming force of Indians, the extra troopers from the Second Cavalry, which would inevitably create “jealousy and friction” between the two regiments, would not, in all probability, be enough to “save us from defeat.” The most important consideration, he insisted, was that there be “sure harmony” within the Seventh.

Custer then made a statement that was certain to destroy whatever harmony did exist among his officers. “I will be glad to listen to suggestions from any officer of the command,” he said, “if made in proper manner. But I want it distinctly understood that I shall allow no grumbling, and shall exact the strictest compliance with orders from everybody—not only mine, but with any order given by an officer to his subordinate. I don’t want it said of this regiment as a neighboring department commander said of another cavalry regiment that ‘It would be a good one if he could get rid of the old captains and let the lieutenants command the companies.’ ”

There were only two officers about whom Custer could be speaking: Major Marcus Reno and the regiment’s senior captain, Frederick Benteen. Never one to back down from an encounter with his commander, Benteen asked Custer “who he meant by that remark about grumbling.” “I want the saddle to go just where it fits,” Custer replied. Benteen then asked if Custer “knew of any criticisms or grumbling from him.” “No, I never have,” Custer insisted, adding for good measure that “none of my remarks have been directed towards you.”

This meant, of course, that Reno was the officer to whom Custer was referring. Before departing from the mouth of the Rosebud, Custer had disbanded the command structure he had established back at Fort Lincoln. Since all the companies were now reporting directly to Custer, Reno—formerly the leader of the Right Wing—no longer had any official responsibilities. Custer was doing everything in his power to ostracize and belittle the officer he had already vilified in his anonymous dispatch to the New York Herald.

If Custer had hoped to build the morale of his junior officers by casting aspersions on Benteen (who had called his bluff) and Reno (who no longer cared enough to try), he had failed miserably. Throughout his speech that night, there had been none of the “brusque and aggressive” manner to which his officers had grown accustomed. “There was something akin to an appeal, as if depressed,” Lieutenant Godfrey wrote, “that made a deep impression on all present.”

Once the meeting had broken up, four officers—Lieutenants Godfrey, McIntosh, Gibson, and George Wallace—walked together to their tents. The four of them proceeded in silence until Wallace, a six-foot four-inch South Carolinian who weighed just 135 pounds, said, “Godfrey, I believe General Custer is going to be killed.”

“Why, Wallace,” Godfrey asked, “what makes you think so?”

“Because I have never heard Custer talk in that way before.”

The next morning, Custer added to Benteen’s already sour mood by putting him in charge of the three companies that were to guard the pack train. General Crook may have perfected the use of mules in transporting provisions and ammunition, but Custer hadn’t a clue as to how to properly train the mules and tie and adjust the packs, and he wasn’t about to learn now. As a result, the pack train was and would continue to be part millstone, part sea anchor: an annoying and ultimately catastrophic drag on a regiment that was supposed to be a nimble and fast-moving attack force.

It seemed as if the pack train could not proceed more than a few steps before sloppily tied packs began to spill from the mules’ sides, requiring that the train halt as the mules were laboriously repacked. After the first day, Custer must have begun to realize that given the realities of traveling with a pack train, at least this pack train, he might as well have brought along the Gatling guns, which could easily have kept up with this group of obstinate and poorly tended mules.

In an attempt to improve the efficiency of the 175-mule pack train, Custer placed Lieutenant Edward Mathey in charge of its operations. Each of the twelve companies had a group of mules it was responsible for, and Custer ordered Mathey to report the three companies whose mules were “the most unmanageable in the regiment.” The next morning, those three companies were given the onerous duty of guarding the pack train, which meant that they must spend the day at the rear of the column, eating the dust of the entire command. On the morning of June 23, Benteen was notified that his company was one of the three worst. “I saluted the General,” Benteen recounted in his typically sardonic manner, “and awaited the opportunity of crossing the Rosebud in rear of the regiment.”

At 5 a.m. sharp, Custer, dressed in his white buckskin suit, followed by two flag bearers, trotted off at the head of the column. As Benteen was well aware, the members of the Custer clique identified themselves by what they wore, and a full-fledged Custer man wore buckskin.

In the old days, trappers and scouts had all worn buckskin. But in the last ten to fifteen years, with the advent of the railroads and the ready availability of cloth garments, most westerners, including the scouts Charley Reynolds and Bloody Knife, had abandoned buckskin, which was slow to dry when wet and didn’t breathe the way cotton and wool did. The advantages of the new clothing were so obvious that even the Lakota traditionalist Sitting Bull had taken to wearing a cotton shirt.

But for Custer, who was all about image and romance, buckskin was the clothing of choice, even if in the eyes of many, including Charley Reynolds, who referred to Custer as “George of the quill and leather breeches,” it was more than a little absurd. All three Custer brothers wore buckskin, as did their brother-in-law Lieutenant James Calhoun and five additional officers—Captain George Yates, Captain Myles Keogh, Lieutenant James Porter, Lieutenant Algernon Smith, and Custer’s adjutant, Lieutenant William Cooke.

Benteen had no patience with such pretentious silliness. Ever since he had first met Custer almost a decade earlier, he had been unimpressed by this frustratingly young and charismatic popinjay. Benteen, a Virginian by birth, had never known the closely knit family unit that had produced the Custer brothers and, by extension, the Custer clique. When Benteen told his father, a former slave owner, that he was going to fight for the Union, the old man told his son that he hoped “the first god damned bullet gets you.”

During the early years of the Civil War, Benteen’s two commanding officers feuded incessantly; the scuffle that killed one of them and sent the other to prison seems to have been a kind of object lesson for Benteen, who, as several officers in the Seventh could attest, instinctively reached for his pistol whenever he felt his honor had been slighted. Benteen loved his wife, Frabbie, intensely and passionately (he sometimes decorated his letters to her with anatomically precise drawings of his erect penis), but they were a couple who had known more than their share of hardship. Benteen’s combative relationship with Custer meant that he was inevitably assigned to the most miserable and primitive posts, and over the course of the last decade, he and Frabbie had lost four out of five children to illness. These were devastating losses, of course, but a part of Benteen seemed to revel in the adversity. “In Russia,” he later wrote, “they’d call me a Nihilist sure!”

Benteen could easily have sought a transfer from the Seventh, but he was not about to give Custer and his minions the pleasure of seeing him leave. “I had far too much pride,” he later wrote, “to permit Custer’s outfit driving me from it.” Benteen took credit for orchestrating Custer’s court-martial back in 1868; but he also took credit for Custer’s early return less than a year later. Benteen claimed that General Sheridan’s adjutant had offered him command of the Seventh in the weeks prior to the Washita campaign. With the two officers who outranked him on leave and with Custer cooling his heels in Monroe, Michigan, Benteen might have led the Seventh in the field. But Benteen “politely declined” the offer. He was full of pride, but he was not, apparently, full of ambition. Instead, he suggested to the adjutant that General Sheridan invite Custer back. Perhaps after his time in Michigan, he had learned his lesson. “So Custer came!” Benteen later remembered.

Why Benteen, who claimed to loathe Custer, would have urged his return is difficult to fathom. But for Benteen, whose greatest joy in life was proving how inadequate his superiors were, there was no better commanding officer than General George Armstrong Custer.

While Benteen watched in disgust as it took an hour and a half to get the pack train across the river, Custer and the rest of the regiment moved effortlessly up the wide green corridor of the Rosebud. With Custer at the head of the column were Mitch Boyer and the six Crow scouts, along with Bloody Knife and his fellow Arikara.

Ever since departing from Fort Lincoln, twenty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Charles Varnum had been in charge of coordinating the activities of the Arikara scouts. Varnum’s prematurely balding head and angular nose had earned him the Arikara nickname of “Peaked Face.” He had first seen action against the Lakota on the Yellowstone River back in 1873. When the bullets started to fly and all the other officers and enlisted men hit the dirt and began firing their rifles, he had stayed on his horse to better direct his men. After the fight, Custer had noted that Varnum was “the only officer that remained mounted during the fight,” a compliment Varnum never forgot, and in the days before leaving Fort Lincoln, he and Custer had shared in the ritualistic act of shaving their heads with a set of clippers.

As leader of the Arikara scouts, Varnum spent much of his time at the head of the column with Custer, and he happened to be near his commander when they came upon the remains of the first sizable Indian village. They rode their horses among the rain-washed and sun-baked ruins of the ephemeral city, counting the circular outlines of about four hundred tepees. All around them were scraps of buffalo hide, broken animal bones, the ashes of extinguished fires, dried pony droppings, and acre upon acre of closely nipped grass. It was the first fresh evidence of hostile Indians Custer had so far seen on this campaign, and it seems to have incited an almost chemical reaction within him. Whether he was pursuing Lee’s army at the end of the Civil War or tracking the Cheyenne warriors through the snow to Black Kettle’s village on the Washita, there was nothing Custer enjoyed more than the chase. Stretching before him to the south was the widest Indian trail he had ever seen.

He called Varnum over to his side. “Here’s where Reno made the mistake of his life,” he said. “He had six companies of Cavalry and rations enough for a number of days. He’d have made a name for himself if he had pushed on after them.”

Custer had expressed a similar sentiment in one of his last letters to Libbie, then added, “Think of the valuable time lost.” Time meant everything to Custer in June of 1876. If he was to rebound from his debacle with Grant in the spectacular fashion he had originally envisioned, the victory had to happen quickly—preferably before the Democratic Convention, which opened in St. Louis on June 27, and at the very latest, before the Fourth of July celebration at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. As he’d told the Arikara, it didn’t matter how big a victory he won (“only five tents of Dakotas” was sufficient, he claimed), the important thing was that “he must turn back as soon as he was victorious.” Already, he knew, it was too late for the Democratic Convention, but as Private Peter Thompson had overheard, he still had hopes for the Centennial. After all, he had a lecture tour to promote.

By the time the last mule made it across the Rosebud at approximately 6:30 a.m. on June 23, Custer and the rest of the regiment were already six miles ahead of Benteen and the pack train. For all intents and purposes, Benteen and the mules were on their own. As they proceeded along the river, the country became increasingly broken into gullies and ravines—just the type of terrain to conceal large numbers of hostile warriors. The pack train was making its way over a steep bluff when one of the more ornery mules, known as Barnum, slipped on the loose rocks and tumbled down the hill. Barnum was loaded with two heavy boxes of ammunition, and as he rolled toward the river, the troopers speculated as to “how much mule would be left” when the ammo exploded. As it turned out, Barnum reached the bottom of the hill in one piece. “He scrambled to his feet again with both boxes undisturbed,” Peter Thompson remembered, “and made his way up the hill again and took his place in line as soberly and quietly as if nothing had happened.”

By about mile six, the pack train had become so strung out that it was impossible for Benteen’s three companies, which had been ordered to remain at the rear of the column, to provide adequate protection. This was typical of Custer. As he and his acolytes galloped ahead of the regiment in search of Indians and glory, Benteen was left to deal with the one element of the column upon which the future success of the campaign ultimately depended: the supplies. If the Indians should attack him now, the entire train might be obliterated before Custer was even aware that there was a problem. It might be in violation of Custer’s original orders, but something must be done.

Benteen sent a bugler galloping to the front of the pack train with orders to halt. Once the mules had been gathered into a single group, Benteen placed one of his companies in advance of the train, another on the right flank—so that the troopers were between the mules and the hills—and the third company at the rear. Once again, Benteen, the self-appointed leader of the “anti-Custer faction,” had in his own eyes saved the day.

It was nearly dark by the time the pack train finally came into camp after a march of thirty-five miles. Custer’s adjutant, Lieutenant Cooke, directed Benteen to where his company should camp for the night. Until he had been lured away by the siren song of Custer, Cooke had served in Benteen’s company. Cooke was debonair and well liked—the Arikara scouts called him “the Handsome Man”—and his decision to transfer to another, more Custer-friendly company still rankled Benteen, especially since Cooke had “never said good-by even.” Now, as Custer’s trusted adjutant, Cooke was in a position to wield a most exasperating power over his former company commander.

That evening, Benteen asked Cooke to inform Custer of his experience with the pack train and how he had rearranged his battalion for better protection from possible attack. “No, I will not tell General Custer anything about it,” Cooke announced. “If you want him to know it, you must tell him of it yourself.” The next morning Benteen did exactly as Cooke suggested. But instead of being offended by what Benteen assumed would be construed as a challenge to his authority, Custer expressed his thanks and promised to “turn over the same order of march for the rear guard to the officer who relieves you.” For Benteen, who had spent the last day and night steeling himself for another epic confrontation, it must have been almost disappointing.

On the morning of June 24, they once again departed promptly at 5 a.m. It was a beautiful day with a brisk headwind blowing out of the south. With each mile the valley became more confined as the dark sandstone hills moved toward them like curious beasts.

By now the entire river valley seemed to be, at least to Lieutenant Varnum, “one continuous village.” Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of travois poles had scribbled their weird hieroglyphics across the bottomlands. The scouts studied the scratches and gouges in the earth, the pony dung, and maggot-filled pieces of buffalo meat and tried to calculate how close they were to the hostiles up ahead.

What they were seeing were the signs of two different migrations. First, there had been the gradual, majestic march of Sitting Bull’s village of about 450 lodges up the Rosebud. Then there was the more recent, and inevitably more confusing, evidence left by the agency Indians. Just as Custer and his men were now following the trail left by the main village, so had the agency Indians made their way to the Rosebud and headed south in search of Sitting Bull.

The previous day, Custer had clearly been impressed by the size of the trail. At some point, he and his orderly, John Burkman, were riding together well ahead of the regiment. “There’s a lot of them,” Custer said, “more than we figured.”

For the last two days, Custer had been, in Burkman’s words, “unusually quiet and stern.” There was none of the buffoonery with his brothers that had typified the march from Fort Lincoln. To have the normally brazen Custer suggesting that the Indians might be in greater numbers than he’d anticipated was troubling. “Not too many to lick, though,” Burkman worriedly responded.

Custer smiled and instantly became, much to his orderly’s relief, the swaggering braggart of old. “What the Seventh can’t lick,” he said, “the whole U.S. army couldn’t lick.”

But by June 24, with the increased number of fresh trails coming in from the east, a new concern began to enter Custer’s mind. From the start, his primary worry had been that the hostile village might scatter before he had the chance to attack it. The village they’d been following up the Rosebud was large, and they all knew large villages could last only as long as the buffalo, grass, and firewood allowed. Even though the scouts realized that the trails had been made by Indians coming from the agencies, Custer seems to have developed a theory of his own. Perhaps the new trails led the other way—to the east. Instead of getting bigger, perhaps the village was already succumbing to the centrifugal forces of “scatteration” and was, in effect, dispersing before his very eyes. Throughout the course of the day, Custer became obsessed with making sure that no Indians had escaped to the east. He instructed Varnum and the Indian scouts “to see that no trail led out of the one we were following.”

At 7:30 a.m. they came upon the site of Sitting Bull’s sun dance. Two weeks earlier, it had been here, tucked beneath the brooding, owl-like presence of the Deer Medicine Rocks, that Sitting Bull had seen his vision of the soldiers—of them—falling into camp. The frame of the sun dance lodge still stood amid the flattened meadow, and hanging from one of the poles was the still-moist scalp of a white man. The bloody piece of flesh and hair was passed around among the officers and men (who decided it had belonged to one of Colonel Gibbon’s soldiers) and eventually ended up inside the saddlebag of Sergeant Jeremiah Finley.

All around them were what Sergeant Daniel Kanipe described as “brush sheds” made out of the branches of cottonwood trees. These were wickiups, temporary dwellings typically used by young warriors in lieu of tepees. This meant that the lodge circles the soldiers had been dutifully counting represented only a portion of the village’s warrior population. The Arikara and Crow scouts were well aware of this, but not the soldiers, who speculated that the structures had housed the Indians’ dogs.

The scouts were also well aware that this abandoned holy ground still radiated an unnerving spiritual power, or medicine. Pictographs on nearby rocks, designs drawn in the sand, piles of painted stones, a stick leaning on a buffalo skull—all these indicated that the Lakota were confident of victory.

Custer prided himself on his knowledge of the Indians’ culture. He knew enough about the Arikara’s customs that when they left out a specific observance from one of their ceremonies, he always insisted that they include it. “Custer had a heart like an Indian,” remembered Red Star.

Custer’s sensitivity to Native ways had its limits, however. Seven years earlier, during his attempts to convince the southern Cheyenne to come into the reservation, he had participated in a ceremony in the lodge of Medicine Arrow. As Custer puffed away on a pipe, Medicine Arrow told him that if he should ever again attack the Cheyenne, he and his men would all be killed. Custer’s own description of the ceremony, in which he failed to mention that the pipe’s ashes were ultimately poured onto the toes of his boots, makes it clear that he was entirely unaware that he was being, in effect, cursed.

Five years later, in 1874, he seems to have been similarly unconcerned about the possible consequences of leading the first U.S. expedition into the Lakota’s holiest of holies, the Black Hills. Just the week before at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers, he had supervised the desecration of a Lakota grave site, an act that shocked several of his officers and men but seems to have made no impression on him. That morning on the Rosebud, he stood among the remnants of the sun dance lodge in which the demise of his regiment had been foretold and, if his officers’ lack of comment is any indication, felt nothing.

The wind was still blowing briskly from the south. Custer had ordered officer’s call, and as they gathered around him, a sudden gust whipped across his red-and-blue headquarters flag and blew it to the ground. Lieutenant Godfrey picked up the flag and stuck the staff back into the hard-packed earth. Once again, however, the wind knocked it flat. This time Godfrey placed the flag beside a supporting clump of sagebrush and, by boring the bottom tip of the staff into the ground, made sure it finally held.

Almost fifty miles to the southwest, Sitting Bull’s village was moving at a leisurely pace down the Little Bighorn River. Large herds of antelope had been sighted in this direction, and after six days at their initial campsite on the Little Bighorn, the villages were in need of fresh grass for the ponies and a new source of firewood. So they moved northwest, following the Little Bighorn toward its confluence with the Bighorn.



They made camp at what may be one of the most hauntingly beautiful valleys in the world. On the east side of the river is a ridge of rolling hills, a miniature mountain range of grass and sagebrush that follows the river for about eight miles. To the south, the hills stand up against the river in precipitous bluffs that loom as high as three hundred feet. Moving downstream to the north, the hills back away from the river and soften into undulating grasslands that look bland enough from a distance but are cut and enfolded in deceptively complex ways. The Lakota called this river the Greasy Grass. Some said this referred to the muddy, alkaline slickness of the surrounding grass after a heavy rain; others said it was because of the milky foam created by the ponies when they chewed a kind of seed pod unique to the grass near the river’s headwaters.

All spring and summer, Wooden Leg’s people, the Cheyenne, had been leading the Lakota to each new campsite, and they were the first to set up their tepees on the west bank of the Little Bighorn, across the river from the northern portion of the ridge. Behind them to the west spread a wide plain where the huge pony herd could graze on the fertile grass while remaining within easy access of the village and the river.

Just upriver from the Cheyenne were the Sans Arcs, followed by the Minneconjou, who made camp directly across from a V-shaped fold in the hillside to the east. This portion of the Little Bighorn, where a beaver dam caused the river to swell into a deep placid pool, came to be known as Minneconjou Ford. The next tribal circle was taken by Crazy Horse’s people, the Oglala, who were located well back from the river, to the south and west of the Minneconjou. Finally, at the southernmost point of the village, were Sitting Bull’s people, the Hunkpapa, whose circle, the largest of the village, was adjacent to a thick stand of timber on the river’s western bank.

Diagonally across the river from the Cheyenne circle, at the northernmost point of a narrow hogback ridge that paralleled the meandering Little Bighorn, was a high, flat-topped hill. That evening, as the sun began to set, Sitting Bull and his nephew One Bull climbed to this tabular peak. Below them, they could see the entire village spread out for almost two miles. Twelve years before, when Sitting Bull was thirty-three years old, he’d witnessed a similar scene from Killdeer Mountain in North Dakota. A huge village, much like this one, had assembled, and on July 28, 1864, it was attacked by an army of twenty-two hundred soldiers.

For Sitting Bull and the Hunkpapa, what became known as the Battle of Killdeer Mountain was their introduction to the washichus’ way of war. When the soldiers began the attack, the Lakota’s confidence was so high that they left their tepees standing as the women, children, and old men climbed into the surrounding hills to watch the fighting.

It soon became clear, however, that the soldiers’ modern weaponry made it impossible for the warriors, who were equipped with bows and arrows and a handful of old muskets, to resist the army’s onslaught. By the end of the day the entire village was in flames, and the Lakota were on the run.

About a week after the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, in the badlands along the Little Missouri River, the Hunkpapa found themselves in another skirmish with the soldiers. During a lull in the fighting, Sitting Bull shouted out an exasperated question to the soldiers’ Indian scouts on the other side of an echoing gorge. “The Indians here have no fight with the whites,” he said. “Why is it the whites come to fight with the Indians?”

Twelve years later, Sitting Bull was still waiting for an answer.

The Lakota believed that the first white man had come from the sea, which they called mniwoncha, meaning “water all over.” The sea was also home to another predator, the shark. The Lakota had a word of warning, “Wamunitu!” that had come to them, the intrepreter Billy Garnett claimed, from the Indians who lived near the Atlantic Ocean, where sharks sometimes threatened their swimming children. There were no sharks in the rivers and lakes of the northern plains, but when it came time for their children to get out of the water, the Lakota nonetheless cried “Wamunitu!”—an admonition that, like the washichus, had worked its inevitable way west.

Now, if the scouts were to be believed, the washichus were working their way up the watery tendrils of both the Rosebud and Bighorn rivers. In addition to the soldiers of the Dakota and Montana columns, there was the steamboat Far West, which after ferrying Gibbon’s troops across the Yellowstone was now pushing against the current toward the mouth of the Little Bighorn.

These armies and what the Indians called the “fireboat” represented an unprecedented threat, but times had changed since the Battle of Killdeer Mountain. Like the soldiers, the Lakota and Cheyenne were armed with pistols and rifles, including repeaters made by Henry and Winchester that gave them an advantage over the soldiers’ single-shot Springfields when the fighting was at close quarters. The Indians were also armed with a renewed sense of outrage over the seizure of the Black Hills. They had already repelled Crook’s army when the camp had been half this size. What these warriors, who had their women and children to defend, would do if attacked once again was frightening to contemplate. As decades of intertribal warfare had taught, too complete a victory was never, in the long run, good for the victor. Nothing inspired the enemy like revenge.

That evening on the hill overlooking the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull brought his pipe, some buckskin-wrapped tobacco tied to sticks of cherry, along with a buffalo robe. He presented the offerings to Wakan Tanka and, standing, began to chant. “Great Spirit,” he said, “pity me. In the name of the tribe I offer this pipe. Wherever the sun, the moon, the earth, the four points of the winds, there you are always. Father, save the tribe, I beg you. Pity me, we wish to live. Guard us against all misfortunes or calamities. Pity me.”

Meanwhile, in the valley below, the Cheyenne Wooden Leg was having what he later remembered as the time of his life. Unlike the week before, he had no interest in sneaking out of the village in search of soldiers. He had other priorities on the night of June 24. “My mind was occupied mostly by such thoughts as are regularly uppermost in the minds of young men,” he remembered. “I was eighteen years old, and I liked girls.”

He soon found himself beside a bonfire, where young people danced around a pole standing in the center of the Cheyenne circle. “It seemed that peace and happiness was prevailing all over the world,” he remembered, “that nowhere was any man planning to lift his hand against his fellow man.”

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