After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, there were mixed versions as to what happened. Custer and the men under his charge were dead; the government wanted to portray him as a hero and the Sioux as villains. John Finerty spent some time researching what probably happened, interviewing both Sioux warriors who fought at the battle and men of the 7th Cavalry. The following is a summary of his findings.
Between June 22nd and June 24th, Custer and the 7th Cavalry had marched about 140 km. On the 24th, Custer ordered his men to stop and wait for the reports from scouts. That night his scouts informed Custer that the Sioux were camped in the valley of the Little Big Horn River.
To get to the Big Horn River, the cavalry would have to cross the Rosebud Creek, to the east of the Sioux’s camp. Custer's scouts told him that this could only be done during the day despite the fact that Custer wanted a night time crossing to catch the Sioux unawares early on the 25th June.
The 7th cavalry continued their march at 5 a.m. and crossed the Rosebud Creek at 8.00 a.m. Some Sioux warriors saw the unit and any chance of a surprise attack was lost. Custer's desire to march at night was so that an early surprise attack could be launched before any of the Sioux had woken.
Now that they were seen, Custer decided that his only option was to attack. Custer divided the 7th Cavalry into four sections. He commanded Troops C, E, F, I and L. The other commanding officers were Reno, Benteen and McDougall.
Reno attacked but found that he faced much larger odds that he at first anticipated. He had to retreat back across the Big Horn River.
Benteen was originally detailed to hunt out Sioux warriors several miles from where the bulk of the 7th Cavalry were. However, he got an urgent message to return to the main battle zone and assisted Reno’s section. On route, he met up with McDougall who joined him and the besieged Reno. Fighting with the Sioux lasted until the 27th June. However, Custer and his four troop were now isolated.
No member of the 5 troops under Custer's command survived. Men in Reno’s section claimed that when Custer saw the size of the Sioux camp, he took off his hat and waved it in the air shouting "Hurrah! Custer's luck!"
Horned Horse, an elderly Sioux chief, watched what happened next from a hillside. Horned Horse claimed that the Sioux camp was so large that it stretched for nearly 8 km. As Custer and his men descended to the Big Horn River, they were met with rifle fire from the Sioux. Custer tried to get his men to join Reno, Benteen and McDougall who were on higher ground above the river.
However, the Sioux had crossed the river by foot and had all but surrounded Custer. The soldiers dismounted and returned fire. Horned Horse claimed that the firefight went on for some time and that the soldiers put up great resistance. But they were overwhelmed. Horned Horse had seen many massacres but nothing like this. He claimed that the Big Horn River was red with the blood of the dead.
Reno and the men on higher ground lasted out until reinforcements lead by General Gibbon arrived on the 27th June. On seeing the arrival of fresh troops, the Sioux withdrew. Gibbon then went to see where Custer had been fighting. He was shocked by what he saw. All the dead soldiers had been stripped naked and many had been mutilated. Custer's body was untouched though as if out of respect for his courage.
Was Custer foolish to attempt to do what he did?
Even today, opinion is divided.
"I have never met a more enterprising, gallant or dangerous enemy during those four years of terrible war (American Civil War)" T L Rosser, Major-General in the Confederate Army.
"A cold-blooded, untruthful, unprincipled man. He is universally despised by all the officers of his regiment." General Stanley, Custer's commanding officer in 1872.
"The honour of his country weighed lightly in the scale against the glorious name of ‘Geo. A Custer’. The hardship and danger to his men were worthy of little consideration when dim visions of a star (promotion) floated before the excited mind of our Lieutenant-Colonel." T Ewert, Private 7th Cavalry
"He was too hard on his men and horses. He changed his mind too often. He was always right. He never conferred enough (asked others their opinions) with his officers. When he got a notion, we had to go." J Horner, Corporal, 7th Cavalry
After the battle, inquests heard evidence from those involved in the whole campaign as opposed to the one incident involving Custer and his men.
One commander of the army sent out to attack the Sioux, General Gibbon, had met with Custer and his men before the final attack on the Sioux. Gibbon claims that he told Custer not to be greedy and to wait for unit. Custer is said to have replied "No, I won’t". However, he was not alive to defend himself against this charge.
General Terry, in his report to General Sheridan, claimed that Custer had disobeyed orders and that if Custer had done what was required of him – to wait for the other units to arrive, especially Gibbon’s – the attack would have been successful. Terry also claimed to have offered Custer Gatling guns but Custer is said to have refused them as they would "embarrass him" – presumably a reference to his belief that the fighting qualities of the 7th Cavalry were sufficient to warrant not taking modern machine guns with him.
In the subsequent inquiry, Benteen claimed that he believed that Custer did not have a plan for the attack and basically made it up as he went along. Again, Custer was not alive to defend himself against this charge.
Fifty years later in 1926, a judge came to the following conclusion using the evidence he had; that General Terry had wanted a plan to encircle the Sioux and capture them whereas all Custer knew was how to make a surprise attack before the Sioux retreated. Such a difference of approaches probably lead to a breakdown in communication and the final defeat at the Big Horn River.
The Sioux won a famous battle but lost the war. The government played on the heroics of Custer and the brave stand of the troops from part of the 7th Cavalry. Custer was buried at West Point. The post-battle inquiries and the questions about Custer's competence were kept very quiet. The public needed a hero and Custer provided them with one.
However, the Sioux had to be punished for what they did. Many young men joined the army as "Custer’s Avengers". A huge military force was prepared to attack the Sioux and force them into reservations.
But the campaign took four years - it was only in 1880 that all the Sioux had been forced into reservations. But with new rifles and the attack on the bison, the campaign against the Sioux had to end in triumph for the army and government. In 1888, the reservations into which the Sioux had been forced to live, were reduced in size and the extra land that this created was sold off to white settlers.
The defeat of the Sioux culminated in the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890 when the 7th Cavalry killed 200 Sioux.
The Battle of Little Big Horn has been referred to as Custer’s Last Stand. Historians now also view it as the Native Americans last stand as well.