General Custer’s Last Stand: Annihilation by the Sioux, 25 June 1876

David Graham, in Quora, …. 

On June 25, 1876, after a stumbling night march that exhausted men and horses, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the 7th U.S. Cavalry attacked Sitting Bull’s village on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana.

What happened next: Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors under the war chiefs Crazy Horse, Gall and Two Moon wiped out all 210 officers and men in the five companies of cavalry under Custer’s immediate command. 

  Custer marker on Last Stand Hill | Photo: David Graham


The monument on Last Stand Hill | Photo: David Graham

Among those who died with Custer on Last Stand Hill were his brothers Captain Thomas Ward Custer and Boston Custer, and his nephew Armstrong (Autie) Reed. Custer’s brother-in-law Lieutenant James Calhoun died elsewhere on the battlefield at a location that’s today called Calhoun Hill.

Looking down from Last Stand Hill | Photo: David Graham

Custer had no idea how many of Sitting Bull’s followers he faced that day. Neither do historians. Estimates range from eight hundred to several thousand warriors.

The Sioux Nation was then, as now, comprised of three sub-groups of Plains Indians—the Lakota or Teton Sioux, the Eastern Dakota or Santee Sioux, and the Western Dakota or Yankton Sioux. (The Yanktonais have been called Nakotas. Scholars say this is wrong, and that the name Nakota applies to the Assiniboine people.)

With Sitting Bull that day were members of the seven bands of Lakotas—the Hunkpapa, Oglala, Sans Arc, Brulé, Two Kettle, Miniconjou and Sihasapa or Blackfoot Sioux. Also camped with them were their Northern Cheyenne allies under Two Moon, and a handful of Arapahoes.

Cavalry horse marker | Photo: David Graham

Custer divided his regiment before going into battle.

He kept Captain Thomas Mower McDougall and Company B, reinforced with men from each of the regiment’s other eleven companies, in the rear with the mules of the pack train. Then he formed the rest of his troopers into three battalions.

Giving Major Marcus Albert Reno companies A, G and M and several Ree (Arikara) scouts, Custer put Captain Frederick William Benteen in charge of companies D, H and K. Custer kept companies C, E, F, I and L.

After crossing the divide into the Little Bighorn Valley, Custer sent Benteen’s battalion on a long scout to the left to look for more Indians, effectively taking his ablest subordinate out of the most crucial stage of the coming fight.

Next, Custer ordered Major Reno to charge what turned out to be just the lower end of a vast Indian village, promising to support him with the rest of the outfit.

Then Custer took his headquarters staff and five companies of cavalry, watered his horses at the North Fork of Reno Creek, and went jingling off toward the upper end of Sitting Bull’s village—and into the pages of history.

Meanwhile, Reno crossed a ford to the left bank of the Little Bighorn, halting his battalion to water the horses. Then he began his charge down the river’s left bank.

Reno’s charge was a curious affair. Seeing many more warriors than he’d been led to believe were in the camp, he pulled up short while still some distance from it. Then he ordered his men to dismount, form a skirmish line and fight on foot.

As Reno said in his official report (July 5, 1876):

I assumed command of the companies assigned to me, and, without any definite orders, moved forward with the rest of the column, and well to its left. I saw Benteen moving farther to the left, and, as they passed, he told me he had orders to move well to the left, and sweep everything before him. I did not see him again until about 2.30 p.m. The command moved down to the creek toward the Little Big Horn Valley, Custer with five companies on the right bank, myself and three companies on the left bank, and Benteen farther to the left, and out of sight. As we approached a deserted village, and in which was standing one tepee, about 11 a.m., Custer motioned me to cross to him, which I did, and moved nearer to his column until about 12.30 a.m. [p.m.] when Lieutenant Cook, adjutant, came to me and said the village was only two miles above, and running away; to move forward at as rapid a gait as prudent, and to charge afterward, and that the whole outfit would support me. I think those were his exact words. I at once took a fast trot, and moved down about two miles, when I came to a ford of the river. I crossed immediately, and halted about ten minutes or less to gather the battalion, sending word to Custer that I had everything in front of me, and that they were strong. I deployed, and, with the Ree scouts on my left, charged down the valley, driving the Indians with great ease for about two and a half miles. I, however, soon saw that I was being drawn into some trap, as they would certainly fight harder, and especially as we were nearing their village, which was still standing; besides, I could not see Custer or any other support, and at the same time the very earth seemed to grow Indians, and they were running toward me in swarms, and from all directions. I saw I must defend myself and give up the attack mounted. This I did.

— Lloyd J. Overfield II, The Little Big Horn, 1876: The Official Communications, Documents and Reports, with Rosters of the Officers and Troops of the Campaign (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), pp. 43-45

When warriors flanked him, Reno led his command into a nearby thicket of timber and continued his fight there. That’s when a bullet hit the Ree scout Bloody Knife in the head, splattering his blood and brains on Reno’s face.

Unnerved, Reno led a panicked retreat—he would later insist it was a charge—back the way he’d come along the Little Bighorn River. Not everyone heard his order to mount up, and some troopers and Indian scouts found themselves left behind in the timber.

Among the men left behind was 1st Lieutenant Charles Camillo DeRudio, a theatrical Italian aristocrat and spinner of extravagant yarns. DeRudio listed tossing bombs at Emperor Louis Napoleon at the Paris Opera, escaping from Devil’s Island, and marrying a 15-year-old girl among his previous exploits.

Lieutenant DeRudio was nominally head of E Company and should have been riding to his death with Custer’s battalion. But fate—or rather, one of Custer’s whims—intervened to spare his life.

Custer switched DeRudio to A Company, giving Algernon E. Smith command of E Company instead. (In 1877, Algernon Emory Smith was reburied at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, Kansas, together with Tom Custer of C Company, James Calhoun of L Company, and George Wilhemus Mancius Yates of F Company.)

At any rate, Reno and his men found a barely fordable spot through sheer luck, though they had to goad their reluctant horses to leap into the river off a high dirt bank. Reno lost several men and officers—gunned down or clubbed to death by swarming Sioux warriors—in the melee at the crossing.

Major Reno and his surviving troops scrambled up the steep bluffs overlooking the river.

Among the dead—killed on Reno’s skirmish line, the fight in the timber, the headlong retreat or the river crossing—were 2nd Lieutenant Benjamin Hubert Hodgson (West Point, 1870), 1st Lieutenant Donald McIntosh, Acting Assistant Surgeon James Madison DeWolf, the civilian scout Charley Reynolds and Isaiah Dorman, an interpreter.

Benny Hodgson, Reno’s adjutant, had been one the most popular officers in the regiment. Lieutenant McIntosh, born in Montreal, was from a prominent trading family in Quebec. His father, a descendent of Sir James McIntosh, worked for the Hudson Bay Company, and was killed by Indians when Donald was fourteen. McIntosh’s mother, Charlotte Robinson McIntosh, was a descendant of Red Jacket (Otetiani), chief of the Six Nations (Iroquois Confederacy).

Charles Alexander Reynolds, famously taciturn, was called Lonesome Charley. The Lakota Sioux, who knew Reynolds, called him Lucky Man for his legendary prowess at hunting. Born in Kentucky, Reynolds spent three years at Abingdon College, Illinois, before heading out to seek his fortune in the Colorado gold fields. He served with Company E, 10th Kansas Infantry, in the Civil War, and was at the Battle of Prairie Grove. Mustered out at Fort Leavenworth, Reynolds drifted from job to job—trader, buffalo hunter, trapper, army scout.

Reynolds had developed a felon—a painful fingertip abscess deep in the palm side of the finger—in the days preceding the battle, and had twice asked to be relieved. Some of Reno’s and Benteen’s men later recalled that Reynolds had seemed fatalistic before the battle, giving away his possessions as if he’d had a premonition of his own death.

DeWolf was a 17-year-old farm boy when he enlisted in the 1st Pennsylvania Artillery at the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1865 he enlisted in the regular army and served with the 14th U.S. Infantry. After his discharge James DeWolf studied medicine, and graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1875.

Dr. DeWolf was a contract surgeon serving with the regiment when he and his orderly were shot while climbing the bluffs after Reno’s retreat.

Isaiah Dorman, who was black, had lived with the Lakotas and spoke their language. After the battle Dorman’s body was found with a picket pin pounded through his testicles.

Reno was badly shaken by the time Benteen arrived on the bluffs. He’d lost his hat and wore a bandana around his head to keep his hair out of his eyes. “For God’s sake, Benteen, halt your command and help me,” he cried. “I’ve lost half my men.”

Captain Benteen, despite having received a message from Custer urging him to hurry and bring the packs with him, elected to remain with Reno.

West Point Museum: Trumpeter Giovanni Martini delivered this message (hastily scribbled by Custer’s adjutant, Lt. William Winer Cooke) to Benteen on the afternoon of Sunday, June 25, 1876 | Photo: David Graham

Later that afternoon, at the insistence of Captain Thomas Weir, who chafed at the delay, Reno and Benteen belatedly attempted to link up with Custer. They got as far as the spot now known as Weir Point before they were driven back by warriors, abandoning a Swiss farrier named Vincent Charley, who’d been shot through the hip. Weir ignored the wounded man’s pleas and left him behind. Vincent Charley was later found dead with a stick shoved down his throat.

We have confusing eyewitness accounts of what happened to Custer and his men. In later years Lakota and Northern Cheyenne warriors who survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn described the final moments at Last Stand Hill.

Walter Mason Camp, Thomas B. Marquis, David Humphreys Miller and others interviewed battle participants and recorded their impressions.

Sifting through Indian accounts to form a mental picture of the chaotic last moments is like trying to describe the individual bits of colored glass whirling around inside a kaleidoscope.

Gregory Michno does an outstanding job of this with a chronological account in Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1997).

Battle artifacts tell their own story: In August 1983, a grass fire burned off the ground cover in a remote part of southeastern Montana. The fire scorched hundreds of acres at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, then known as the Custer Battlefield National Monument.

James V. Court, superintendent of this iconic National Park Service facility, invited archaeologists to scour the blackened ground. Would it yield artifacts that would aid the Park Service in its interpretation of the battle?

You bet it would. In 1984-1985 archaeologists and volunteers fanned out across the battlefield’s ridges, draws and coulees. The volunteers brought their own metal detectors and used them to locate battle artifacts.

Therein lay a problem: the sensitivity of metal detectors can vary by brand and model. And where performance is uneven, the results will be, too.

The archaeologists brushed this off and made a virtue of necessity:

We learned, however, that standardization of machines (i.e., all one brand) though perhaps methodologically desirable, was impractical. Like models operate on the same frequency, causing interference at close intervals. We therefore needed to alternate different brands of machines on the line to ensure adequate survey coverage. (1)

Couldn’t they have staggered the timing of the sweeps so there would be no signal interference?

The archaeologists marked the exact locations of recovered artifacts. They then used these artifact distribution patterns to reconstruct the battle and to trace the movements of George Armstrong Custer and his five doomed companies of cavalry until their final moments on Last Stand Hill.

Much of what we think we know about the battle is speculative and conjectural. There is no photographic record of Custer’s last campaign. As Robert M. Utley notes, no photographers accompanied the column that left Fort Abraham Lincoln in May 1876:

“The campaign was to be a fast, hard-hitting drive against the recalcitrant Sioux and Cheyenne, and there was no place for the slow and cumbersome equipment needed by the photographers of the day.” (2)

The battlefield became a tourist attraction. It started with a trickle that turned into the proverbial flood. In 1941, 67,989 people visited the Little Bighorn battlefield. The number of visitors dipped dramatically during World War II, no doubt because of gasoline rationing, and then started rising again in 1946. In 1983, the year of the grass fire, the battlefield had 223,634 visitors. (3)

Visitors arrive in automobiles, trucks and campers. These vehicles often park along the shoulder of the road that connects Last Stand Hill with the Reno-Benteen defense site a little over four miles east of there. Some damage to the soil and scattering of artifacts is inevitable.

The Little Bighorn battlefield and surrounding areas had been scoured by souvenir hunters for over a hundred years before archaeologists started work on the site in the 1980s. Visitors had already carried away tons of cartridge cases, bullet fragments, horseshoes, canteens and other metallic objects.

Visitors also took away human bones. Some appear to have been grave robbers, pure and simple: “Soon after the burials a man was ordered by authorities at Fort Custer (established in 1877 near present-day Hardin, Montana) to return a skull that he had collected from the battlefield. (4)

Don Rickey tells of an old Indian who once offered to show former Superintendent Edward S. Luce the locations of six soldier skeletons for $50 each. Luce declined the offer. (5)

Anyway, the first recorded use of a metal detector on the battlefield was in 1947. So the patterns the archeologists saw (and that now form the basis of ranger interpretation of events at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument) were necessarily sparse and incomplete.

Richard Allan Fox Jr. studied the patterns of artifact distribution and saw in them the movements prescribed in Emory Upton’s 1874 Cavalry Tactics manual. (6)

He could be right. But Dr. Fox also divined Custer’s intentions in the final moments of the battle, basing his conclusions on Indian accounts and artifact distribution patterns.

Fox says Custer went after the fleeing women and children to try and capture them and hold them hostage until the warriors surrendered. I have my doubts about that. This is the only quibble I have with Fox’s brilliant book, among the finest ever written about Custer’s last battle. (7)

I suspect the troop movements Fox saw were a manifestation of pareidolia. It’s the nature of the mind to see patterns in arrangements of objects, as evidenced by early astronomers who named star clusters after a ram, a bull, a goat and other fanciful things.

Shakespeare memorably illustrates this very human tendency:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

—Hamlet, Act III: Scene 2

That said, the archeological evidence does give us a much better idea of what transpired there, and what firearms and other armaments the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne used to wipe out Custer’s command.

The forensic anthropologists who examined the skeletal remains found on the battlefield raised some intriguing possibilities, perhaps chief among these being that the bones interred at the West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877, might not have been those of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. (8)

Custer monument: US Military Academy, West Point, New York | Photo: David Graham

Maybe Sandy Barnard sums it up best: “Digging into the mysteries about the life and legend of Custer leads to endless inquiries but far fewer provable conclusions.” (9)



(1) Douglas D. Scott, Richard A. Fox Jr., Melissa A. Connor and Dick Harmon, with contributions by John R. Bozell, John Fitzpatrick, C. Vance Haynes Jr., Ralph Heinz, Patrick Phillips and Clyde Collins Snow, Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), p. 27

(2) Robert M. Utley, Custer Battlefield National Monument, Historical Handbook Series No. 1 (Washington, DC: Office of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1969), p. 63

(3) Jerome A. Greene, Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn since 1876 (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), Appendix 2, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument Park Visitation Totals, 1940–2003, pp. 257–258

(4) Douglas D. Scott and Richard A. Fox, Jr., with a contribution by Dick Harmon, Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle: An Assessment of the 1984 Field Season (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), p. 15

(5) Don Rickey, Jr., History of Custer Battlefield (Fort Collins, Colorado: Old Army Press, 1998), p. 56

(6) Richard Allan Fox Jr., Archeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), p. 44

(7) Some others are John S. Gray’s Centennial Campaign: the Sioux War of 1876, Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star: General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Shirley Anne Leckie’s Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth, and Frederic Franklyn Van de Water’s Glory-Hunter: A Life of General Custer. And if you have room on your shelf for a few more books, I highly recommend Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence’s His Very Silence Speaks: Comanche, the Horse Who Survived Custer’s Last Stand, William A. Graham’s The Custer Myth: A Source Book of Custeriana, Louise Barnett’s Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and Mythic Afterlife of George Armstrong Custer and Reno Court of Inquiry: Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry in the Case of Major Marcus A. Reno Concerning His Conduct at the Little Big Horn River on June 25–26, 1876 (compiled and edited by Ronald H. Nichols).

(8) Douglas D. Scott, P. Willey and Melissa A. Connor, They Died with Custer: Soldiers’ Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), pp. 221–222

(9) Sandy Barnard, Digging Into Custer’s Last Stand (Terre Haute, Indiana: AST Press, 1998), p. 98



David’s ADDENDUM as AFTERTHOUGHT when THIS ESSAY had appeared in THUPPAHI, 27 June 2022:

One of the advantages of having spent many days there is that one gets to visit several battle-related sites in surrounding areas and that are a few miles outside the park’s perimeter–like the rocks near where Tatanka Iyotake (aka Sitting Bull) performed his sun dance in the days leading up to the battle, the spot in the Wolf Mountains from which Custer’s sharp-eyed scouts first spotted the Indian camp and huge pony herd twelve miles away, the places where the cavalry camped on the nights of June 23 and 24 and so on. I also learned about the incredibly wide range of weapons used in the battle:
As I noted in a comment, those cavalry troopers were poor marksmen: It’s worth mentioning that some senior army officers had reservations about repeating rifles. They thought repeaters would encourage men to waste ammunition.
Cavalry troopers were not great shots. Citing Annual Report of the Chief of Ordnance, 1883 as his source, Larry Don Roberts, a graduate student at Oklahoma State University, noted in a paper submitted May 1981 (The Artillery with the Regular Army in the West from 1866 to 1890):
“Weapons, whether rifles, sabers, or cannons, traditionally have been considered the fundamental resource of the combat soldier. But the weapon is of little value if the soldier is not proficient in its use. Marksmanship training, like other army activities, was seriously impeded by congressional frugality. Rifle instruction for the individual trooper began in 1869. However, the soldier was limited to ten rounds per month of actual practice. The result of such limited practice was poor marksmanship.”
Incidentally, as C. Lee Noyes noted in Wild West (June 2014), Custer declined Gen. Terry’s offer of four companies of Gibbon’s 2nd Cavalry and three Model 1866 .50-caliber, six-barreled Gatling guns manned by a detachment of the 20th Infantry under 2nd Lt. William H. Low. “I won’t want Low,” said Custer. “I’m afraid he will impede my march with his guns.”

Best,  ……………David Graham

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