George Armstrong Custer meets Buffalo Calf Road Woman: The Battle of the Greasy Grass (aka The Battle of the Little Bighorn.)
Ah, the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Or the Battle on the Greasy Grass. Or the Battle of Greasy Grass Creek. Or as us white people call it, the Battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand. It’s in the news lately, because a military flag that was carried into the battle by Custer’s forces sold at auction for $2.2 million. I’m retty sure the guy carrying the flag never imagined that was in store for its future. It’s also pretty likely he never imagined the flag would survive in white men’s hands because it was concealed under his body.
Yes, the battle didn’t go well for Custer and his men. That’s common knowledge. Custer and a heroic band of the 7th cavalry are overwhelmed by a horde of Native America savages, and go down fighting to the last man. That’s how the battle was portrayed in the USA for nearly a century, since then it has become a bit more nuanced. And it’s recognized in most circles that the Indians fighting and dying that day were warriors defending their homes and way of life, and as deserving of respect and honour as Custer and his men. In some circles at least.
And that’s pretty much all that is known about this battle. OK, that’s not true. A tremendous amount is known about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Every aspect of the battle and the battlefield has been exhaustively studied, and a large number of eyewitness accounts were recorded. Unfortunately, a lot of this body of knowledge contradicts itself, and worse, there are two huge gaps. For one, Custer and everyone with him died, so historians have absolutely nothing to go on there. Secondly, Custer’s widow ferociously defended his reputation, and was largely successful in preventing any real investigation of the tragedy lest it besmirch his name. And she lived till 1933, a lot of time was lost, and a lot of witnesses died. So we have a hugely important battle, at least symbolically, about which a great deal is known … and about which there are still many important unanswered questions.
So, the battle. Lt Colonel Custer in June of 1876 rode into Montana as part of an attempt to round up Native American Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho and get them back onto a reservation as part of the Black Hills War of 1876-77. There were other forces involved, but Custer’s column had about 650 men. He had refused an offer of more men and Gatling guns, the first primitive machine guns, fearing they would slow him down. And they would have, he made more than thirty miles a day as he pursued the Lakota and Cheyenne.
When Custer caught up with the Indians and saw perhaps the largest Indian encampment he had ever seen, he decided to split his force into three parts and attack the village from multiple directions. As far as anyone can tell, Custer simply didn’t think there were all that many Indian warriors in the village, and apparently ignored warnings there might be more warriors than they could handle. Majors Benteen and Reno each had a force to command, while Custer and his men rode to the other side of the village to attack. The attack was supposed to be simultaneous, but as happenstance would have it, Reno’s men attacked first.
It was 3pm the afternoon of June 25th. It didn’t go well. Usually when the US cavalry attacked an Indian village, most of the Indians ran while the warriors made more or less suicidal charges at the cavalry. This time there were an awful lot of warriors, none of them were running away, and some of them were shooting at the cavalry from concealed positions. Then one of Reno’s top scouts, a man by the name of Bloody Knife, was shot in the head at Reno’s side, blood and brains splattering Reno’s face. Reno more or less panicked at that point and ordered a hasty retreat, most of his force’s casualties occurred when they ran. They got to a better position though, and reinforced by Benteen’s forces, were able to hold the Indians at bay. In the distance they could hear gunfire from Custer’s men, it stopped about 430 pm. Benteen was criticized later for not trying to reinforce Custer as well, but he knew Reno’s men were in great danger, so his decision to reinforce Reno was reasonable at the time. Benteen and Reno’s men were trapped all night on some small hilltops, surrounded by hostile Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.
What had happened to Custer and his men? Well, they were all killed. That’s the only thing really known for sure. The route they took, exactly where and how the battle was fought, and how it ended is still not entirely clear. What is clear is that Custer charged into a situation where he was badly outnumbered and out-gunned by Indian warriors, many of who had been trained by the great Indian War Leader Crazy Horse to shot from cover, move, and shoot again. Repeat. This was not something Custer and his men had ever seen before, and it must have been infuriating. Briefly. The battle didn’t last very long, less than an hour, maybe much less. There was some organized resistance on the part of Custer’s men, and at the end a group of them did try to shoot their way free. They didn’t make it. Custer, his brother, two nephews, and over 200 men were killed, in less time than it takes for a hungry man to eat a meal some accounts say.
What’s to be learnt from this fiasco? Well. it’s almost certainly a wonderful example of a military leader with political ambitions putting caution to the wind in an effort to promote his career. An all to common scenario in war, certainly America’s wars. And it’s a good idea to do reconnaissance before advancing into combat, one would think that this would be obvious, but history is littered with horrible military catastrophes that occurred simply because a few scouts weren’t sent ahead. Or more baffling, the scout’s reports were ignored because the person in charge had contempt for their foe. This last fact alone is strong evidence that humans aren’t really an intelligent species.
There’s all sorts of other points and fascinating tidbits I could relate about this battle. For now I will leave it be, it’s just a fine example of what unholy bedfellows war and politics make. I will be writing more on that in further posts. I’ll end with one final bit of trivia. According to Cheyenne accounts, the person who knocked Custer off his horse at the end was a warrior named … Buffalo Calf Road Woman. Yes, the Cheyenne had no problem with women fighting if they wanted to. She had in fact been a hero in a previous battle, the Battle of the Rosebud. War can be a woman’s place too, who knew?
(The image above is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, is central to illustrating the post, and is only part of the original image. Credit and copyright: Sothebys. This was written from a number of sources, including my memory of numerous documentaries and books. I apologize in advance if there are any egregious errors or omissions. This post is dedicated to all that died that day, both Custer’s men and the unknown number of Indian warriors that fell. God rest their souls.)