The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn
1. The Greasy Grass Fight, or the Battle of the Little Bighorn, June 1876
“Soldiers falling into camp . . .”
In formation, they charged across a broad and open floodplain just west of the river called the Little Bighorn. A line of men on horses headed directly for the southern end of the encampment of nearly a thousand lodges and eight thousand people. At some point in the headlong gallop, the attacking soldiers opened fire. Blasts of gunfire shattered the relative stillness of the hot afternoon.
Bullets from the first scattered volleys easily reached the camp. Their first kills were not combatants, however. Two women and a girl were the first casualties of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. They happened to be the wives and a daughter of a capable and respected battle leader among the Hunkpapa Lakota. Their deaths would motivate him to fight “like a wounded bear,” and he would have a decisive role in the second engagement that was yet to come.
On the Lakota calendar, this pivotal day was toward the end of the month called Wipazuke Waste Wi, or the Month When Berries Are Good. On the calendar used by the attackers, it was June 25, 1876.
The soldiers did not achieve total surprise, however, as had been their intent. A lone Lakota, traveling east, crossed a ridge southeast of the river and saw the dust column raised by hundreds of moving horses. He raced back to the camp with a warning, reaching it moments before the advancing cavalry fired their first shots.
Spurred by the warning and the firing, the people in the encampment reacted swiftly. Fighting men grabbed their weapons and caught their horses or any horse that was close, while their women and children and elderly fled north and west away from the gunfire.
The defenders hurried toward the south end, where the Hunkpapa Lakota had pitched their lodges. Some were on foot and many others were mounted, but they all hurried toward the gunfire. Initially, less than a hundred men emerged from the brush and trees to meet the broad front of soldiers moving toward the encampment, but more and more arrived until their numbers at least equaled the attackers’, somewhere between 120 and 175. Those with firearms opened fire immediately.
Inexplicably, it seemed to the Lakota fighters, the soldiers stopped and dismounted. The horses of two soldiers, however, became uncontrollable and carried their riders on a mad dash through the outer line of defenders, and then to the outer edges of the encampment. Angry people, including a number of women, surrounded and pulled the hapless riders from their horses, and quickly dispatched them. Thus, the vision received weeks earlier by Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull during the Sun Dance—the most holy of Lakota ceremonies—was, in part, literally fulfilled. He had seen dying soldiers and their horses falling headfirst from the sky into a Lakota camp. Soldiers falling into camp became a watchword for victory.
The other soldiers in the skirmish line were now essentially foot soldiers. Meanwhile, more and more mounted fighters emerged from the encampment. All the while, the exchange of gunfire was steady. Several battle leaders arrived and conferred, among them Gall of the Hunkpapa Lakota and Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota. It was Gall whose wives and daughter had been killed. He decided to lead a charge—probably stemming from outrage at his loss—against the western end of the skirmish line, where most of the cavalry’s Indian scouts were deployed. The line collapsed quickly and a rout ensued.
In the face of the mounted charge, some of the soldiers ran, and others remounted and fled south and then east toward the river, and took shelter in a thick grove of trees. The Lakota and Cheyenne infiltrated the soldiers’ disorganized lines as they retreated, exacting casualties with a point blank shot or the deadly swing of a war club. Once the soldiers gained the shelter of the trees, they were immediately surrounded and intense fighting ensued. Using brush fires and arrows in addition to concentrated gunfire, the Lakota drove the soldiers out of the trees, forcing them to flee east and across the river. In that action, the soldiers suffered more casualties. The Lakota and Cheyenne were in their element as mounted fighters in close combat, and by now their numbers had increased to two or three hundred.
There was no respite for the soldiers as they were relentlessly pursued up the opposite slope. Gaining a grassy ridge a few hundred yards above the river, they were able to establish a defensible position and put up hasty barricades of equipment. A few o the soldiers managed to dig rifle pits. The attackers had now become defenders.
Messengers reached the battle leaders among the Lakota now more fighting men had joined the fray, and many were surrounding the beleaguered soldiers, preparing to overrun them. A new threat had come from the north.
Scores of Lakota and Cheyenne fighters left the ridge. Enough were left to keep the soldiers pinned down behind their barricades as others raced north, some along the ridges and some through the encampment.
Thus ended the Valley Fight, as it would come to be known, the first engagement of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, with heavy losses for the soldiers and an outcome probably none of them had expected.
“As long as it takes the sun to move between two lodge poles”
By the time the encampment’s fighting men had chased the soldiers up to the ridge above the river, many of the noncombatants—women, children, and elderly—had gotten away to the west and north of camp. Some found hiding places, such as a thicket, and waited, prepared to flee again at a moment’s notice. A few had even managed to take down lodges and load them on drag poles behind horses. Up and down the wide, shallow valley, the sound of gunfire was nearly continuous.
Upstream from the north end of the encampment, a broad gully opened to the east, following a dry creek. It was known as Dry Creek and Medicine Tail Coulee. There was a river crossing known to many, including the Crow and Ankara scouts who rode with the soldiers. As the fighting continued to the south, a few old men and teenage boys took up positions in shrubs and sandbar willows on the western side of the river and watched the crossing. And it was at that crossing where the second engagement of the battle began.
As some of the old men had anticipated, soldiers did come to the crossing. A line of them approached the water and paused, perhaps because the stream was deep because of the mountain snow runoff. Then one in the lead urged his horse into the water, followed by a few others. The old men and boys in the willows opened fire, hitting the lead soldier. Other soldiers immediately went to his aid, some returned fire, and all effected a hasty retreat back to the far bank and beyond. Shortly thereafter, the entire column of soldiers—at least as many as had attacked from the south—turned north and went at a gallop up a long slope.
No sooner had the echo of the muzzle-loading rifles from the small band of ambushers in the willows faded away than mounted Lakota and Cheyenne splashed across the river in pursuit of the soldiers. Many of them had come from routing the first group of attackers. Some had weapons and ammunition captured from the Valley Fight. Led by Gall, they followed the soldiers up the slope.
Frenzied activity still gripped the encampment from one end to the other. Someone had seen soldiers on the ridge above the river to the east, and word spread quickly, prompting more women and children to flee northward. To add to the noise and confusion, many of the Lakota and Cheyenne fighters were galloping north through the camp to meet the newest attack.
Even as Gall led the pursuit of the second group of soldiers, Crazy Horse was in the camp gathering warriors to him. He led them north toward an old crossing farther downstream, joined by Two Moons and a contingent of his Cheyenne fighters. They intended to provide a buffer between the soldiers and the fleeing women and children at the very least, and drive the soldiers farther away, if possible.
As Crazy Horse and Two Moons pushed north, Gall and his warriors separated into three columns, one to the right flank of the running soldiers, one to the left, and another behind. Somewhere past the top of the ridge, which stretched for a mile or so and would become known as Battle Ridge, several soldiers stopped and formed a skirmish line to face the oncoming Lakota and Cheyenne. Their firing was effective and slowed the determined pursuit, but they could not stop it entirely. At Gall’s bidding, several warriors dismounted, formed their own skirmish line and traded shot for shot with the soldiers in the skirmish line, while a mounted charge bore down on their left flank. The soldier’s line collapsed after only a few minutes.
Farther north along the ridge, another soldier commander attempted the same action. But the result was the same. Incoming fire from the pursuing Lakota and Cheyenne was relentless, and their marksmanship was superior to that of the soldiers. The second skirmish line fell back in disarray, and the column of soldiers on the ridge became disorganized, having to fight the advancing Lakota and Cheyenne on two flanks as well as the rear.
At this time in this particular engagement, the only course left to the soldiers was to flee north along the ridge, and all the while they suffered heavy casualties. Crazy Horse, meanwhile, swept farther east and then turned south, and almost immediately encountered a small group of soldiers, forcing them back toward the main body. Then Crazy Horse proceeded south and flanked the now decimated main body of soldiers from the east, or the soldiers’ right flank. He led a charge against a particularly determined group, inflicting more casualties.
Near the end of the north-south ridge, a number of soldiers—perhaps forty—broke from the main body and headed west down the slope toward the river. A smaller group continued to the end of the ridge, now known as Last Stand Hill, and stopped because there was nowhere else to go. Several in the breakoff group were hit and fell as they went down the slope, but most managed to find cover in a ravine near the river, east of a crossing. Warriors using the crossing to flank the main body of soldiers from the west surrounded those in the ravine, and killed them all.
Simultaneously, the small group at the end of the ridge was silenced by incoming warrior fire. There is some debate, however, about whether the soldiers on Last Stand Hill or those in the ravine were the last to die. But the end for both groups probably came less than a minute apart.
From the first clash with this second column of soldiers as they were pursued up the first slope, the gunfire from both sides was continuous, although the gunfire from the soldiers became less consistent as the battle progressed. By the time the last shots were fired at the groups in the ravine and on the end of the ridge, five hundred to six hundred Lakota fighters had become involved. Thus the second engagement of the Battle of the Little Bighorn ended in the same manner as it had begun—with a few sporadic shots.
Many years later a Lakota veteran of the battle was asked by a white interviewer how long the second engagement had lasted. ‘As long as it takes for the sun to move between two lodge poles,” was his reply. Long slender poles form the conical support frame for the hide covering of the lodge, and in the average lodge they are spaced about three to four feet apart at the base.
As the earth rotates and causes the sun to “move” across the sky, a linear shadow cast by the sun would take about thirty to forty minutes to cross the space between two lodge poles.
“Soldiers on a hill . . .”
Sitting Bull’s vision had indeed come to pass. Soldiers had attacked a Lakota encampment and were utterly defeated. On the grass- and brush-covered slopes east of the river, the bodies of soldiers and horses dotted the landscape. Every soldier in the second column had been killed. The victorious fighters began claiming the spoils of battle soon after the last angry shot had been fired. People still in the encampment heard shouts of victory punctuated by erratic gunfire and crossed the river to join the celebration.
Among the celebrants were Cheyenne women. One or two of them recognized the braided insignia on the soldiers’ uniforms, the same insignia worn by the soldiers who had attacked the camp of the Cheyenne leader Black Kettle at dawn on the Washita River (in 1868) and killed women and children, and captured many as well. Further, some of the Cheyenne women had relatives at Sand Creek (in 1864), where soldiers horribly mutilated women and children after they killed them. Such indelible memories fueled anger and revenge, and many (but not all) of the dead soldiers on the ridges and slopes above the Little Bighorn were mutilated.
As the victors celebrated, treated the wounded, and gathered up their dead (which were less than forty overall), warning shots and the shrill call of eagle-bone whistles came from the south. The soldiers left on the hill to the south, apparently, were attempting to attack again.
Flush with victory and brimming with confidence, many warriors responded. Nearly two miles south of Battle Ridge, they encountered a mounted column along the sharp, broken hills above the river. A determined charge and sharp exchange of gunfire stopped the attack and drove the soldiers back to their position on the ridge. The warriors watching the soldiers on the hill reported that yet a third column of soldiers had come from the southeast. But even with the new arrivals, the soldiers were still outnumbered by the Lakota and Cheyenne fighters. Other attempts to attack were easily beaten back.
It was late afternoon, though the sun was still high. Lakota and Cheyenne warriors dispersed around the soldiers’ position, working their way through what little cover there was in the form of sagebrush and the occasional depressions and mounds. The soldiers seemed to have plenty of ammunition. In any case, except for a few half-hearted attempts to drive the warriors back, they kept to their position.
The warrior leaders conferred, and scouts were sent out to learn if other soldiers were in the vicinity of the Little Bighorn valley. As the afternoon wore on, the confrontation became flurries of shot-for-shot exchanges, followed by intervals of eerie silence. Only now and then did the wails of wounded soldiers drift from the ridge.
By now the long ridge to the north was deserted, except for turkey buzzards around the dead soldiers. People from the encampment had departed, carrying their wounded and the spoils of victory. In the camp there was excitement as the situation on the ridge across the river settled into a standoff. A few people could not help but celebrate outright, but many did not because many men had been wounded, and some had been killed. But an overall feeling of strength was unmistakable because they had prevailed over their enemy.
As sundown neared, warriors on the outer perimeters of the siege left and returned to the camp for a brief rest, sometimes for water or a quick bite of food, or to reassure their worried families. Throughout the night there would be a somewhat steady flow of men from the siege on the ridge to the camp and back. The old men leaders gathered in the council lodge to talk about what had happened, and what they should do because of it. Many of the battle leaders went to listen, or sent someone to listen for them.
As night fell, scouts began to return. One by one they reported that no other soldier columns had been seen. On the ridge above the river, the heat of the day finally began to dissipate, and cries of the wounded soldiers and telltale noises of movement could be heard. Sometime during the night, a few soldiers sneaked down through the gullies to the river, carrying canteens and other containers for water. Sporadic exchanges of gunfire occurred, but all of the water haulers were able to return to the barricade. Thereafter, the night passed without any further intense or prolonged fighting.
After sunrise, the Lakota and Cheyenne fighters, with a good view of the soldiers’ position, could see that they had built a ring of breastworks, made mainly of boxes, saddles, packs, and dead horses. Gunfire disrupted the morning stillness, and the battle was joined once again, and continued into midmorning. A group of young warriors had been gathering to the east of the barricade. A few of them charged close enough to throw stones. To their surprise, a large group of soldiers jumped over the barricade after them, firing their rifles and pistols and inflicting casualties. The warriors fell back, hoping to draw the soldiers farther out into the open, but the soldiers seemed to realize their predicament and retreated to their position.
Small groups of warriors charged the barricade here and there throughout the morning until about the middle of the day, and each time they were met with determined resistance. But the Lakota and Cheyenne were just as determined to wipe out the soldiers. Sometime in the early afternoon, the warrior leaders passed the word that scouts returning from the north had reported yet another soldier column, a large one, coming south. The plan was to strike the camp and take the women and children to safety into the Shining Mountains to the south. News of more soldiers coming underscored the sentiment that prevailed in the council lodge among the older leaders. Many felt it would be best to withdraw and leave the valley, and let the soldiers on the hill live to tell the story of their defeat at the hands of the Lakota and Cheyenne.
Camp criers (heralds) carried the decision throughout the camp, and a flurry of activity ensued once again. By late afternoon the entire encampment of a thousand households and thousands of horses were ready to move.
Perhaps a hundred or so fighters were left to harass the soldiers and deter any possible pursuit. It seemed, however, that the soldiers were in no condition to do anything but defend themselves behind their breastworks. Thus ended the Greasy Grass Fight, also known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
So the people departed the valley in a long, seemingly endless column, across the very ground where the soldiers had first attacked the day before. The Lakota had come together in the Month When the Horses Shed (May), pitching their first camps near the Chalk Buttes to the east. Sitting Bull had issued a call to gather so that they could talk and discuss what to do to stop the invasion of the whites. They had moved their camps several times until they had come to Ash Creek, not far from the Little Bighorn. A Sun Dance was conducted there to strengthen the people. Later, when their horse herds grazed down the already sparse grass in the Ash Creek drainage, they moved northeast to the Little Bighorn valley. Shortly thereafter, on a hot afternoon, the soldiers had come.
The Lakota claimed the victory and would sing songs of it for generations to come. But as they went away from the Little Bighorn, uneasiness settled in the minds of many of the old ones. In their lifetimes, the whites had gone from annoying and persistent interlopers, like fleas that could not be dislodged, to land-hungry enemies bent on killing the Lakota. That knowledge was the basis for a nagging question that some asked one another, or simply wrestled with alone.
What would this victory bring?
2. To and From
Sadly, however, not many people today know the true story of the Greasy Grass Fight, more popularly known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, any more than they know that the story of Lakota and Euro-American interaction began as early as the 1720s.
To Euro-Americans of the day, the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a horrific loss for the U.S. Army. News of the soldiers’ defeat came just as the United States was celebrating its centennial. The outrage it sparked was swift and intense.
MASSACRE! screamed the headlines of the Bismarck Tribune on July 6, 1876, giving the impression that the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry were hapless victims. As the story of the battle swept across the nation, the public perception was that a group of savages had inexplicably managed to wipe out the U.S. Army’s most elite group of soldiers. That perception remained uncontested for over a hundred years, finding its way into history books, novels, documentaries, and even feature films. Debate still exists today about the outcome of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The event has been discussed and analyzed from numerous perspectives, and it probably will continue to be. The sad truth is that most people across America and across the world have had access only to the white military version of events, and the assumption is that that is the only version.