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Custer's Last Stand

as provided by the US Forestry dept.

The 7'th Cavalry's noon meal stop on June 24, the day before the battle, stretched into four hours as the new and troubling Indian signs preoccupied everyone. Scouts rode out in advance to gather more information. Probably worried that the signs meant that the village was breaking up and scattering, Custer apparently did not guess the true explanation: the old trail had suddenly become overlaid by numerous groups of agency Indians converging to unite with Sitting Bull.

After sending out his Crow scouts to gain information, Custer than determined that the camp had to be on the lower portion of The Little Bighorn. Custer than made a crucial decision to follow the trail across the divide under the cover of night, spending the next day resting the command and fixing the location of the Indian camp, then hit it with a dawn attack on June 26th, the date appointed for Gibbon to reach the mouth of the Little Bighorn. Despite warnings that there were sufficient Indians to stretch the battle to several days, Custer smiled and stated" I guess we'll get through with them in one day."

Estimates of Indian strength figured critically in military calculations only in hindsight, after disaster demanded an explanation. No matter how many Indians gathered, the planners assumed, they could not remain together in large numbers for more than a few days. Their ponies quickly stripped the surrounding grass and fouled the water sources, their hunters decimated and frightened away nearby game, and their campfires consumed available fuel. As General Sheridan told a congressional committee in 1874, even though the Sioux might field 3,000 or 4,000 fighting men, "we cannot have any war with Indians because they cannot maintain five hundred men together for three days; they cannot feed them." The fact is that no officer of the three columns doubted the ability of the troops to whip any number of Indians that they could find.

On the morning of June 25th, one day before the main action had been planned, the Crow scouts spotted several bands of Sioux in the vicinity of the soldier's morning camp. Fearing that these bands of Indians would warn the village, and that the camp would than break up, Custer decided to attack at as soon as possible, possibly disregarding his orders as to the timing of the attack for the next day. For this decision, Custer has both been attacked and defended. His defenders felt that once the regiment had been discovered there was no proper decision other than to attack, for the Indians could hardly have been expected to remain in place waiting until the soldiers found it convenient to attack.

At noon on June 25th, Custer decided to split his regiment into three battalions, one commanded by Major Reno, consisting of 140 officers and enlisted men, one by Captain Benteen, consisting of 125 officers and men, and the third by himself with about 225 horsemen.

As a group of ridges blocked the view to the Little Bighorn Valley, Custer ordered Benteen to lead his battalion to these ridges to scout more effectively the exact location of the camp. The remaining two battalions rode side by side down the narrow valley of what became Reno Creek.

Here the troops flushed out a small party of Sioux. Thinking that the warriors were fleeing, Custer ordered Reno's battalion to attack from the ridge where they were located down into the valley where the Sioux were expected to be. After seeing much dust and assuming that the Indians were going to retreat, Reno dismounted his troops and led his men closer to the circle of what was the Hunkpapa camp. However, despite the changing of his maneuvers and formations, Reno soon realized that the Indians were going to attack rather than flee. Although they had come close to surprising the body of warriors while hunting, they recovered and began to encircle Reno, as he was unprotected in his position in the valley. The promised support of troops from Custer's command did not come, as promised.

Reno decided that his position could no longer be defended and led his men to a strand of cottonwood groves on his right flank. He was soon engaged with numerous warriors, but he could not maintain coherent formation. He than decided that this position could not be held and mounted his men and started a retreat back up the valley. The battle became a rout, not a charge, as the Indians picked off the fleeing troops and intermingled among them.

Despite numerous obstacles and the death of about a third of their force, the remainder, including Major Reno, reached the bluffs above the valley form where they originally charged.

Benteen coming back from his position and seeing the battle in the valley below rejoined Reno. Reno and Benteen were continuously besieged on Reno Hill for the remainder of that day, including attacks from Indians who came up from the Custer site. The battle continued early the next day after a hiatus during darkness, where the Indians went back to their camp. The Indians came close several times to overrunning the positions , but were beaten back by the combined forces. In the afternoon the battle slackened, and the Indians were seen breaking camp.

Why they did so was a mystery. The Crow guide, who gave me my tour, stated that the cease fire was a gift from Sitting Bull, for the white soldiers who had fought so well.

Meanwhile, Custer and his men had turned north, rather than supporting Reno. No one knows why Custer did this. Was it his fear that the Indians would flee unless cut off, was he trying to encircle them, or both, or neither? He still had little idea of the Indian's strength, as the dust obscured that information. After continuing along the bluffs for some time, Custer had his first view of the objective (This is referred to in Curtis' version). Down in the valley, recalled one of the Crow Scouts, who were discharged prior to the battle, were "camps, and camps, and camps". Below they could see Reno fighting.

Custer continued along the bluffs in a single column, due to the narrow nature of the ground until he came to a broad coulee named Medicine Tail, where he turned his troops left. Custer sent a messenger to try to bring Benteen into the battle. The messenger, while spurring his horse up the back trail glanced over his shoulder. "The last thing I saw of the command they were going down into the ravine. The gray horse troop was in the center and they were galloping." The messenger later saw Indians firing and waving buffalo robes.

What happened next to Custer's troops is reasonably well established by battlefield finds (the position of the dead bodies) and Indian testimony (sketchy, at best). Why Custer attacked such a large force can only be surmised, not theorized. At the river, the two attacking columns under Yates ran into hot fire from warriors in the brush at the other side. Sitting Bull later described this action succinctly, "Our young braves rained lead across the river and drove the white braves back."

The other three columns under Keogh had strong positions on the slope, but they were only able to hold back the Indian warriors, led by Gall, a major chief, for less than a hour. The retreating troops under Yates were decimated and lost most of their horses and ammunition. Afraid of being attacked also from the rear, Keogh dismounted his troops and formed a line, but lost more horses and ammunition in doing so, and at, last both Keogh and Yates reunited on Calhoun Hill, named for the commander of the L Troop, at the top of the valley.

What Custer intended by sending Yates down first with Keogh in support is subject to conjecture of many types. It didn't matter as the size and ferocity of Gall's troops was too much for any strategy.

Besides the Indians crossing The Little Bighorn to attack Yates at Medicine Tail Ford, many Indians crossed lower down the valley, at the mouth of a deep ravine draining western slope of Battle Ridge, a little to the North of Calhoun Hill. From this cover they fired on Custer's flank on Calhoun Ridge. Custer sent troops down the ridge to counter this threat, but they were quickly overrun by a group of warriors, lead by Lame White Man, a Cheyenne chief. The remainder retreated back up Calhoun Hill.

The final desperate stage of the fighting occurred along Battle Ridge. While Keogh held Calhoun Hill against the warriors crossing at the mouth of Medicine Tail, Yates' two companies moved northward on the ridge, possibly to get a better defense position, but the Indians converged in overpowering force from all directions. The Indians did not make a mounted attack, but mostly fired from concealment, striking down cavalry men with rifles, some of which were taken from Reno's dead in the valley.

The fatal blow came from the North, or behind, as Crazy Horse led a large force of warriors down the Little Bighorn Valley to a crossing below the village, forded the river, and swept in in a large arc to climb Battle Ridge from the north. Yates men were crushed against Gall's forces ahead.

Although each of the companies made a last stand, the "Last Stand" of history and legend occurred on the western slope of the northern end of Battle Ridge, now known as Custer's Hill. All perished.

While Custer's body was found on Battle Ridge, there is some conjecture as to where he actually died. Some students believe that he fell, killed or wounded, with Yates at the river and was carried to the hill where his body was later found. Some believe that he remained in command to the very end. Three of Custer's brothers and a nephew died with him. Yates, Keogh, and Calhoun died with their men. Custer was originally buried at the site, but was later moved to a final burial at West Point. Strangely, Reno, who survived, is buried in  the cemetery at the Custer Memorial site



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