On this day June 25, 1876

United States Army Colonel George Armstrong Custer was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in present-day Big Horn County, Montana.

George Armstrong Custer

George Armstrong Custer

On June 25, some of Custer’s Crow Indian scouts identified what they claimed was a large Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn River.

Custer divided his forces into three battalions: one led by Major Marcus Reno, one by Captain Frederick Benteen, and one by himself.

Captain Thomas M. McDougall and Company B were with the pack train. Benteen was sent south and west, to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians, Reno was sent north to charge the southern end of the encampment, and Custer rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs, and planning to circle around and attack from the north.

Reno began a charge on the southern end of the village, but halted some 500-600 yards short of the camp, and had his men dismount and form a skirmish line.

They were soon overcome by mounted Lakota and Cheyenne warriors who counterattacked en masse against Reno’s exposed left flank forcing Reno and his men to take cover in the trees along the river. Eventually, however, this position became untenable and the troopers were forced into a bloody retreat up onto the bluffs above the river, where they made their own stand. This, the opening action of the battle, cost Reno a quarter of his command.

Custer may have seen Reno stop and form a skirmish line as Custer led his command to the northern end of the main encampment, where he apparently planned to sandwich the Indians between his attacking troopers and Reno’s command in a “hammer-and-anvil” maneuver. According to Grinnell’s account, based on the testimony of the Cheyenne warriors who survived the fight, at least part of Custer’s command attempted to ford the river at the north end of the camp but were driven off by stiff resistance from Indian sharpshooters firing from the brush along the west bank of the river.

From that point the soldiers were pursued by hundreds of warriors onto a ridge north of the encampment. Custer and his command were prevented from digging in by Crazy Horse, however, whose warriors had outflanked him and were now to his north, at the crest of the ridge. Traditional white accounts attribute to Gall the attack that drove Custer up onto the ridge, but Indian witnesses have disputed that account.

For a time, Custer’s men were deployed by company, in standard cavalry fighting formation—the skirmish line, with every fourth man holding the horses. Yet this arrangement robbed Custer of a quarter of his firepower. Worse, as the fight intensified, many soldiers took to holding their own horses or hobbling them, further reducing the 7th’s effective fire.

When Crazy Horse and White Bull mounted the charge that broke through the center of Custer’s lines, pandemonium broke out among the men of Calhoun’s command, though Myles Keogh’s men seem to have fought and died where they stood. Many of the panicking soldiers threw down their weapons and either rode or ran towards the knoll where Custer, the other officers and about 40 men were making a stand. Along the way, the Indians rode them down, counting coup by whacking the fleeing troopers with their quirts or lances.

Initially, Custer had 208 officers and men under his command, with an additional 142 under Reno, just over a hundred under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall’s rearguard, and 84 soldiers under Lieutenant Mathey with the pack train. The Indians may have fielded over 1800 warriors.

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