13. Calhoun Hill

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

"The whites provoked the war; their injustices, their indignities to our families, the cruel, unheard of and wholly unprovoked massacre at Fort Lyon … shook all the veins which bind and support me. I rose, tomahawk in hand, and I have done all the hurt to the whites that I could."  -- Sitting Bull


"There are not enough Indians in the world to defeat the Seventh Cavalry."

-- George Armstrong Custer


The morning of June 25, 1876 dawned sunny and hot over the rolling plains of southern Montana Territory. Through this landscape the waters of the Little Bighorn River were flowing fast and cool, still swollen from winter snowmelt. Typically the domain of the buffalo, pronghorn, and mule deer, on this particular day the valley was awash in a sea of humanity. Stretching for three miles along the east side of the river were the dwellings of 8,000+ Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe tribespeople…quite possibly the largest such village of Native Americans to ever populate the northern plains. They had gathered here, primarily, after the U.S. Government declared the previous winter that all native peoples in the western Dakotas report to reservations. Led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, most tribes had refused the proclamation and moved west to avoid the repercussions which were sure to follow. The reaction of the United States was swift and predictable. Now dubbed “hostiles” for refusing to comply, the cavalry was dispatched to force the natives’ submission. The Great Sioux War of 1876-1877 had begun. Thus it was that by June of 1876, in addition to the thousands of women, children, and elders gathered at the camp, Sitting Bull also had nearly 2,000 warriors. One Oglala Lakota later recalled, “I did not think anyone would come and attack us so strong as we were." In fact, plans were already in motion to do just that.

Three days prior the 7th Cavalry, under command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was dispatched to make a reconnaissance-in-force in the direction of the native encampment. Custer’s force amounted to about 700 men. Plenty, it was assumed, to deal with the 800 or so warriors they were likely to encounter. Confidence was high throughout the 7th Cavalry as is began its advance. After two days of marching Custer and his men set up camp, still about 25-miles from the Sioux and Cheyenne camp. It was on that evening, June 24, that scouts returned with new and concerning information regarding the force ahead. Two details concerned Custer most…one was that the force he was facing was much larger than what was anticipated, the second was that the native camp was likely already aware of his presence. With the loss of surprise, and now knowing he was vastly outnumbered, the prudent thing for Custer to do would likely have been to hold back and reconsider his options. That, however, was not how George Armstrong Custer liked to operate. Instead he was concerned the enemy, in fear of his force, might flee before they arrived. In Custer’s mind there was only one thing to do…advance, and quickly. In all fairness Custer did have one thing right, the Sioux and Cheyenne were certainly aware of his presence. What they had no intention of doing, however, was to flee.

Custer’s plan was simple…he would break his force into three commands, which would surround and force the surrender of the Sioux and Cheyenne village. Captain Frederick Benteen and his 125 men would sweep to the west of the village. Major Marcus Reno and his force of 140 men would approach the village from the south. Finally, Custer and his 210 men would also approach from the south but along the hills on the east side of the river. Of the three, Major Reno’s force was the first to make contact. The arrival of Reno’s battle line caused momentary surprise to the warriors encamped there but it didn’t take long for the alarm to be raised, and with it the wrath of remaining warriors in the village. Suddenly Reno’s 140 men were facing five times their number, with predictable results. Quickly realizing his position in the open was untenable, Reno ordered his troops to the relative safety of the trees along the shore of the Little Bighorn. The cover provided by the woods helped, but only delayed the inevitable. Barely twenty minutes after the fighting began Reno ordered his troops to withdraw across the river and to the high ground beyond. The result was disastrous. Almost immediately the retreat became a rout as lines dissolved and men scattered as they tried to reach the perceived safety of the hilltops. A full quarter of Reno’s command was killed. The only thing which saved those that remained was the return of Captain Benteen’s force, which arrived in time to form a defensive perimeter atop what would become known as Reno Hill. The question now turned to the condition of Custer’s command. All that was known was a cryptic message, sent from Custer to Benteen a short time earlier, which read…” Come on. Big Village. Be Quick. Bring Packs. P.S. Bring Packs.”

To this day the final moments of Custer and his men are shrouded in a degree of mystery. A small contingent of men under a Captain Weir made it about a mile-and-a-half north but could see nothing but dust and smoke in the direction Custer was assumed to be. Warriors soon forced them back to Reno Hill. We now know that Custer continued to move his men northward along the hillsides to the east of the river as Reno’s attack commenced. At first, it seems, Custer met little resistance. At some point, however, he was discovered and warriors began to break off from the fight with Reno in his direction. Skirmishing took place just outside the village at a place called Medicine Tail Ford. This is when the communique to Benteen was presumably sent out. It’s not clear what happened at this point but we do know that, as more and more warriors poured in, Custer’s men were forced to higher ground, presently known as Battle Ridge. Unbeknownst to Custer, by now Reno’s command had collapsed…and the warriors from that fight were now converging on him as well. Soldiers who attempted to break through the warrior lines were quickly pushed back and killed. A defensive line was attempted atop Calhoun Hill but that was also quickly overrun. Another open hilltop, just to the north, became the new rally point…what we now know as Last Stand Hill. The chaos and horrors experienced on that hill cannot be understated. Custer and 40-50 surviving men shot their horses for breastworks as the sea of 1,500+ warriors engulfed them. In a half-hour it was over. To a man, Custer’s command had been destroyed.

The battle was not over, however. Lakota and Cheyenne warriors now rushed back from Last Stand Hill to once again focus on Reno and Benteen, who had by now formed a complete defensive ring around the top of Reno Hill. Fighting continued until dark, and resumed the following morning. It wasn’t until another large force of cavalry, under General Terry, arrived from the north which forced the warriors to withdraw. With that the entire Sioux and Cheyenne village to begin moving away to the south. As troops now began to scour the field for survivors the full scope of the disaster began to materialize. Nearly 300 soldiers lay dead, with another 50 wounded…representing nearly 50% of the men Custer had started out with. The price the warriors paid was also high, losing an estimated 135 dead and an equal number wounded, but as a percent of their fighting force it was a much lower cost. Unfortunately for the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe the victory was short-lived. Custer became a national hero as word of the “Custer Massacre” swept the nation. It allowed the U.S. to redouble its efforts to subdue the tribes of the northern plains. Within a year nearly all had surrendered. In many ways the Battle of Little Bighorn was a “last stand” for the tribes of the plains as well.

By 1879 the site of the battle had been set aside as a National Cemetery. In 1890 the familiar marble headstones, placed where U.S soldiers fell during the battle, were added to the site. Custer Battlefield National Monument was established in 1946, whose name was thankfully changed to the more culturally inclusive Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1991. Today a memorial to the tribes who fought here has been added, as have red marble headstones marking the locations of warriors who fell during the battle. The landscape in this remote part of the country remains today much as it was in 1876. The hand of man is certainly more prevalent but the Little Bighorn flows as it always has, winding through groves of cottonwood beneath hills adorned with prairie grass. Here and there…in small clusters and in solitary isolation…the headstones of the fallen tell a terrible story, where for two days chaos and blood flowed across the northern plains. This is a difficult place to make peace with. It exists as a result of one of the most unforgivable and evil policies ever carried out by our people and government. In that it is a symbol of hope as well…hope that we can recognize the mistakes of the past and move towards a better future, one not based in the dominance of one culture over another. What was lost cannot be recovered, but it can be honored. That is the purpose of Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.


“I see a time of Seven Generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the Sacred Tree of Life and the whole earth will become One Circle again.” – Crazy Horse (1890)


Battle Statistics

United States of America

Units Engaged:  7th Cavalry Regiment

Commanding Officer:  Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer

Strength:  ~700

Casualties:  323 or 46.1%  (274 killed, 49 wounded)


Native American Tribes

Tribes Engaged:  Arapahoe, Dakota, Lakota, Northern Cheyenne

Leaders:  Chief Gall, Crazy Horse, Lame White Man, Sitting Bull, Two Moon

Strength:  ~1,500 to 2,500

Casualties:  ~295 or 11.8%-19.7%  (up to 135 killed, 160 wounded)


  • No Comments