It is safe to say that no other incident in the history of the Old West has had more words written, spoken, and yelled about it than the events of June 25, 1876 on that little river in south-eastern Montana. There have even been over 100 paintings produced that purport (to various degrees) to depict the final moments of the battle.
George Armstrong Custer is viewed by some as a youthful military genius who was betrayed by his subordinates, by others as an arrogant fool who constantly sought only glory - with very few people taking the middle ground. Historians and military scholars have attempted to analyze every facet of that summer afternoon - the battle plan (or lack thereof), the weaponry, who did what (or what they didn't do), the horses, the mules, the various Indian tribes and leaders, trying to get the big picture while studying the minutiae through forensic investigations. Study after study, book after book, even books about the books about The Battle of the Little Bighorn - still much controversy exists about that day.
For the bare facts of the incident, we can hardly do better than the following paragraph from 'The Custer Myth' by Colonel W. A. Graham.
"On June 25, 1876, General George A. Custer and five troops (C,E,F,I,L) of the Seventh United States Cavalry were completely wiped out by Indians at the Battle of the Little Big Horn (sic) River in Montana. The remainder of the regiment, under Major Reno, after a short engagement in the valley of that river, in which his own battalion of three troops was routed, was besieged throughout the late afternoon and evening of the 25th and during most of the 26th, sustaining very heavy losses. Late on the 26th, the Indians withdrew and the survivors were relieved by forces under Generals Terry and Gibbon during the morning of the 27th."
The overall plan of the 1876 campaign, designed to force the Indians onto their reservations, was for a 'pincer' movement of three expeditions; General Terry's column heading west from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Colonel John Gibbon's column heading east from Fort Ellis, and General George Crook's column heading north from Fort Fetterman. This plan ran into serious trouble when General Crook's expedition suffered a defeat on June 17th, on the Rosebud, at the hands of Sioux warriors. None of the other columns were aware of this defeat before the events of June 25th.
Shortly after noon on the 25th, Custer and his forces reached the valley of the Little Bighorn river. His scouts informed him that a village of hostiles lay not far ahead - Custer was also under the impression (mistaken) that his force had been discovered by the hostiles. Controversy exists over the exact wording of the orders given by Custer, but in general, Benteen was to scout to the left until he encountered the Indians, Reno was to follow the river and 'charge the village', while Custer would go around to the right to support Reno's attack. No one, with the possible exception of some of the scouts, knew just how large of a force the Indians had in the villages along the river.
Reno, after a brief engagement in the trees along the river, was forced to retreat, across the river, to a high bluff. Benteen, and his command, arrived not too long after Reno gained the bluffs. The combined forces, now under the overall command of Reno, fought the Indians for what remained of the 25th, and also on the following day. The approach of Terry's and Gibbon's columns was noted by the Indians who moved away from the battlefield area. On the morning of the 27th, the Custer party, with no survivors, was discovered by Lt. James H. Bradley. The exact number of men in Custer's unit has never been established, although it was slightly in excess of two hundred, including Custer's two brothers, Tom and Boston, Custer's nephew Armstrong Reed, and a civilian newspaper reporter, Mark Kellogg.
Over the years, there have been reports of survivors of Custer's column - the most noted of these is the Frank Finkel story. There is also a relatively new book, recently published, about a purported survivor by the name of Billy Heath.
Questions still remain about the events of that summer afternoon, even more than 130 years after the fact - and it is likely that they will still remain another 100 years from now, as long as there exist aficionados of the Old West.
Connell, Evan S.
Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn
Graham, Colonel W. A.
The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custeriana
To Hell with Honor
Marquis, Thomas B.
Keep the Last Bullet for Yourself: The True Story of Custer's Last Stand
Kammen, Robert; et al
Soldiers Falling into Camp
Genovese, Vincent J.
Billy Heath: The Man Who Survived Custer's Last Stand
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