Key point: The fight was a foolish one. Custer dreamed of glory, but made a fatal error.
We can never know what frantic thoughts raced through George Armstrong Custer’s mind in the last hour of his life. But surely, as ever-growing numbers of angry, well-armed Plains Indians closed in on his 210 troopers of the 7th Cavalry, he must have realized that he had fatally misjudged the size of the hostile force now surrounding him.
His plan to subdue a large Indian village had completely broken down. He had been warned repeatedly by his scouts that his target, an Indian encampment on Montana’s Little Bighorn River, was far larger than he had imagined. Now, on this very hot June day in 1876, he must have known that he was going to die.
Even to the very end of what is now known as Custer’s Last Stand, we can picture the desperate, dust-covered Custer looking hopefully to the southeast for expected help from the rest of his command. He died not knowing why Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen never came up in support.
But we know. It is not a story of great valor, although certain moments of extraordinary bravery shine through. Benteen and Reno spent the rest of their lives defending their leadership and action—or lack of action—that day. An examination of the known facts reveals that they had a lot to defend.
Opposing the Native Nomadic Lifestyle
The growing presence and power of the white man, backed by overwhelming military strength, had gradually forced many of the Plains tribes onto reservations. However, some militant Indians still defied the United States government and chose to continue their nomadic lifestyle in the Unceded Territory. That huge expanse stretched from the Bighorn and Rocky Mountains on the west to the Great Sioux Reservation along the Missouri River to the east. It was there that the final battles of the Indian wars were fought.
On November 3, 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant and a few carefully selected cabinet members and Army generals met in secret session. The decision was made to launch a decisive war against the Indians and cripple their ability to further disrupt western expansion. Although no one knew it at the time, Custer’s fate had been sealed.
On December 6, the government issued an ultimatum. All roaming Indians would have to return to the reservations by January 31, 1876, or risk being considered “hostile.” In early February, Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, commanding the Division of Missouri, ordered his forces to prepare for operations against the hostiles. The military plan was a three-pronged affair. One force under Brig. Gen. George Crook moved out from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming. Colonel John Gibbon marched from Fort Ellis in Montana. The third unit, led by Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, advanced from the Dakota Territory. Terry released Custer and his 7th Cavalry as a mobile strike force to track and locate the Sioux and Cheyenne tribesmen thought to be in Montana Territory in the Little Bighorn Valley.
By late June, however, the plan to link up and trap the hostiles was falling apart. Crook was defeated by an Indian force on the Rosebud River. Terry and Gibbon got temporarily lost. Custer was essentially on his own. In fact, Terry had given Custer unusual freedom. One part of his orders read, “We place too much confidence in your zeal, energy and ability to impose precise orders upon you which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy.” That was all the ambitious, headstrong Custer needed to hear. It triggered the inevitable chain of events that led to his death.
Counting 35 Indian scouts and civilians, Custer led 12 companies, 680 men, seemingly a substantial strike force. But by the time he headed out from Fort Abraham Lincoln on June 22, the number of Indians camped along the Little Bighorn had swelled to 7,000. Between 1,000 and 1,500 of these were warriors. Custer’s scouts found numerous trails leading to the Little Bighorn, and soon discovered the massive encampment that now held seven different Indian bands in a straight line stretching almost three miles. Even then, Custer did not seem to understand how many armed warriors he was facing.
On June 25, as the main cavalry body drew closer, Custer feared that his force had been detected, and instead of waiting for a surprise assault at dawn, he decided to attack that afternoon. Although his scouts continued to offer strong warnings, Custer discounted their advice. Lieutenant Edward Godfrey recalled Ree scout Bloody Knife saying, “We’ll find enough Sioux to keep us fighting for two or three days.” But, Godfrey said, “Custer remarked laughingly that he thought we could get through in one day.” Lieutenant Charles Varnum overheard Custer’s chief scout, the mixed-blood Mitch Boyer, tell Custer, “General, if you don’t find more Indians in that valley than you ever saw before, you can hang me.” Custer testily replied, “Well, a lot of good that would do me.”
Not only did Custer reject the warnings, he divided his force into four groups. He ordered Benteen to take three companies of 120 men, scout a series of ridges to the southeast to spot any Indians trying to flee, and then rejoin him. Private Charles Windolph later reported that he heard Benteen protest, “Hadn’t we better keep the regiment together General? If this is as big a camp as they say, we’ll need every man we have.” Custer curtly replied, “You have your orders.” Custer then ordered Reno to take three companies of 140 troopers and 35 scouts and launch an attack from the south end of the village. The slow pack train, under Captain Thomas McDougall, was given another 175 men. Custer retained five companies with 210 mounted soldiers and civilians. He promised to support Reno in the attack. To say the least, the plan was impulsive and uncoordinated.
A Complete Rout
A few minutes after 3 pm, Reno forded the Little Bighorn River, which the Indians called “Greasy Grass,” and raced his mounted troopers into the southern end of the village. Custer mistakenly believed that the Indians were trying to escape. But the Indians were not fleeing. Instead, Reno quickly rode into a growing number of counterattacking warriors. The troopers halted, dismounted, and formed a skirmish line, then watched in dismay as hundreds of Indians, some mounted and others on foot, began to outflank them. In less than an hour of heavy fighting, the soldiers were in danger of being surrounded. Bloody Knife, standing next to Reno, was struck in the head, spraying the major with blood and brains. In shock, Reno panicked, issued wildly confusing orders, and ran for it. No retreat order was passed to the troopers, but as he desperately mounted his horse to flee, Reno shouted, “Any of you men who wish to live, make your escape—follow me!”
The uncoordinated rush back to the river was total chaos. The soldiers drove their horses into the water, crossed the river, and clawed their way up the steep 100-foot bluffs on the other side. The Indians, riding on their flanks, poured a withering fire into the wildly retreating soldiers. Some 80 troopers, including 13 wounded, managed to get to the top. Seventeen others were left in the woods. Thirty of Reno’s men were killed initially, and another 27 died in the fighting. Reno insisted later that his retreat was actually a charge.
“I’ve Lost Half My Men!”
Custer never crossed the river. Instead, he led his men north on the near or east side along high bluffs above the valley, apparently hoping to block any Indians from getting away in that direction. Although a clear view of the valley bottom was difficult, he briefly spotted Reno fighting and saw for the first time, with his own eyes, the immense size of the enemy encampment. He quickly sent Sergeant Daniel Kanipe to find Benteen. Fifteen minutes later he dispatched trumpeter John Martin to carry another urgent message to the captain. Custer’s famous written order read: “Benteen—Come on—Big village—Be quick—bring packs. PS—Bring [ammunition] packs.”
Historian Walter Camp, who interviewed many of the participants soon after the battle, cited Benteen’s reply upon receiving the message: “After he read the message handed to him by Martin, he was heard to remark, ‘Well, if he wants me to hurry how does he expect that I can bring the packs? If I’m going to be of service to him I think I had better not wait for the packs.’” As Benteen rode closer, he suddenly saw Reno’s men scrambling to the top of the hill as Indian warriors swarmed in front. It was now 4:10 pm. A few minutes later, Benteen’s force joined Reno’s position. Martin, who stayed with Benteen, told historian Colonel W.A. Graham that he heard Reno exclaim, “For God’s sake, Benteen, halt your command and help me. I’ve lost half my men!” Benteen immediately distributed his extra ammunition to Reno’s men.
Could Benteen Have Aided Custer?