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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
Custer's Last Stand
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A History in Photographs
By Bob Reece
On this page we will show you the different parts of the battlefield in the order the battle progressed. This is not a complete picture of everything but, at least, it gives you a good perspective of what happened and where.
All photos © Bob Reece unless otherwise noted
Martin Pate's wayside exhibit paintings add to our narrative. Each wayside, placed along the battlefield road, depict portions of the battle near where the wayside is located. Thanks to Martin Pate for allowing us exclusive use of these paintings.
Below are two maps in pdf format for you to review as you study Custer's Last Stand.
The Wolf Mountains -- Crow's Nest
Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer -- Photos courtesy National Archives
Located in the Wolf Mountains, near the hill called the Crow's Nest, about noon on June 25, 1876, Lt. Col George Armstrong Custer divided 12 companies of the 7th U.S. Cavalry into three battalions. Captain Frederick Benteen would command companies D, H, and K and scout to the south and west looking for possible scattering Indians. Major Marcus Reno would command companies A, G, M and Custer would command companies C, E, F, I, and L. Company B under the command of Captain McDougall would guard the pack train, comprised of mules, carrying the supplies and extra ammunition.
Captain Fredrick Benteen
The Battle Begins -- Reno Charges The Village
Picture 1 looks south-- As with all photos, please click on Picture 1 to enlarge and observe the paths of Custer and Reno taken during this phase of the battle.
After Benteen began his scout, Custer and Reno marched toward the Little Bighorn River along today's Reno Creek, 15 miles to the west from where George Custer divided his troops.
Near the confluence of Reno Creek and the Little Bighorn River, Custer ordered Reno to charge down the valley of the Little Bighorn and attack the village. The village provided a strong and determined fighting force of nearly 2,000 warriors. Some of the principal war leaders were Crazy Horse of the Lakota Sioux; Sitting Bull and Gall from the Hunkpapa Sioux; and Lame White Man of the Southern Cheyenne. The last statement Custer personally gave to Reno was that he would support Reno with the entire outfit.
Sitting Bull -- Photos courtesy National Archives
While Reno's soldiers struggled against the current of the Little Bighorn River in order to cross to its west bank, Custer pointed his horse north to follow the bluffs east of the river. Custer led a battalion of five companies totaling 210 men towards fate: he had witnessed his last sunrise on earth.
Picture 2 looks west--Reno continued his charge down the valley of the LBH. His troops broke formation a bit after passing through a prairie dog village, but then reformed and continued on.
Picture 2a.--Pate's "The Village."
Encampment at Little Bighorn Valley by Big Beaver, Cheyenne, 1930: Click to enlarge map and read key legend accompanying the map (courtesy Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument).
Picture 3 looks west--Reno's charge ended with warriors to his front. Reno's battalion dismounted and formed a skirmish line across the valley firing from there for about 15 minutes until it turned about into the timber. During the opening moments of the Valley Fight soldier shots missed but hit noncombatants in the village. Hunkpapa leader, Gall, would lose two wives and three children from these soldier guns. He would later relate that he was so angered by this that he entered the battle armed only with a war club.
Picture 3a. -- Pate's "Reno's Valley Fight"
Gall -- Photos courtesy National Archives
Picture 4 looks south--Reno held the timber about 10-15 minutes before his command made a quick retreat back in the direction they came from. The Indian pressure was strong forcing the battalion to turn towards the LBH short of Reno Creek. Indians were pulling soldiers from their saddles, shooting and killing them point blank. Reno would lose nearly 30 men during this retreat. When the soldier's reached the LBH it was every man for himself. Either on horseback or foot, the soldiers made their way up these bluffs to what is today the Reno-Benteen Battlefield.
Picture 4a looks east -- Reno's troops crossed the river in this location toward the bluffs on the east side of the river.
Picture 5--Pate's "Retreat Across The Little Bighorn."
Picture 5a looks south--A view of the continued path of retreat, the Reno-Benteen Battlefield Monument and the location of the field hospital June 25-26, 1876.
Picture 6, 6a, and 6b looks west--In 1993, Jason Pitsch found remains on his land of a 7th Cavalry horse. Also discovered in the immediate area of the horse were a pocket watch, pocket knife, and a toothbrush with the initials J.S. carved into it. Archeologists believe the horse and personal items could belong to John Sivertsen, of Company M, who survived the battle.
In 1994, not far from where the horse remains were discovered, Mr. Pitsch found partial remains of two individuals. The human remains were excavated by Melissa Connor and Dick Harmon with assistance from Mr. Pitsch. Later analysis determined one set of remains were of a middle aged or older Indian woman. Her time of death -- before, during, or after the battle -- will forever remain a mystery. She was interred in a cemetery on the Crow Reservation in May 1994.
The other set of remains were of a 7th Cavalry soldier. Analysis for race was inconclusive with evidence supporting both white or black. Can scientists ever identify this cavalryman? Most likely, this lone soldier -- buried in the Custer National Cemetery -- will also remain another mystery of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Dr. Douglas Scott wrote about this soldier in his remarkable book, They Died With Custer: Soldiers' Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn in which he listed six possibilities for identification of this individual:
Corporal James Dalious, CO A
Private Richard Rollins, CO A
Private Benjamin F. Rogers, CO G
Private Edward Stanley, CO G
Corporal Otto Hagemann, CO G
Isaiah Dorman, Interpreter and the only black to die in the battle.
In 1995, the National Park Service placed a granite marker for the unknown soldier as seen within the red circle of photos 6, 6a, and 6b above.
Picture 6b looks SE -- This is the area that Mr. Pitsch found the remains of the 7th Cavalry horse. You can see the bluffs along the Little Bighorn River through the gap in the trees.
Major Marcus Reno
Reno Digs In
Picture 7 looks south-- After Reno reached the defense site, Benteen arrived with his three companies after finding nothing on his scout to the left. Following behind him came the pack train. All seven companies would dig in around this area to form their defense site. The center of this photo is where the field hospital was located.
Picture 7a looks west--Some of the rifle pits dug by Reno's troops can still be seen today along the trails at the Reno-Benteen Defense Site. Photo © Megan Reece
Picture 7b looks north -- More rifle pits with Weir Point in the center of the photo.
Picture 7c. looks north -- Sharpshooter's Ridge is in the center right of the photo. From this vantage point a warrior or group of warriors who were good marksmen did damage to the soldiers on the northern lines, killing or wounding several before the troopers turned their guns with full force upon the ridge. Firing ceased all together from Sharpshooter's Ridge from then on. The white marker seen in the left foreground is the general area of the field hospital.
Picture 7d. The Sharpshooters' wayside exhibit today.
Picture 8 looks north--Not long after the soldiers established themselves, they noticed the Indian fire lessening and warriors riding fast to the north along the valley floor. Soon the soldiers of Reno and Benteen's commands heard firing far to the north. Many of them thought Custer was giving the Indians a good fight. Captain Thomas Weir, commander of Company D led his company north towards Weir Point (seen in this photo) to locate Custer. The remaining companies along with their wounded followed.
Picture 9 looks north--Once the troops reached the top of Weir Point they could view the Custer Battlefield four miles to the north. It is still hotly debated as to what they actually saw. It was about 5:00-5:30 p.m. June 25 when they searched for signs of Custer's command. Men described seeing a lot of dust and smoke. Some saw Indians shooting at objects on the ground. It is probable that they were witnessing the mop-up operations of the Indians at the end of the battle. A view of Last Stand Hill, Calhoun Hill and Henryville--Henryville was so named after finding many Henry repeating carbine cartridges during the archaeological dig of 1984, on a ridge south of Calhoun Hill designating a warrior position.
Picture 9a--Pate's "Weir Point."
Picture 10 looks NE--Reno would deploy the companies on Weir Point and north along these bluffs. About 6:00 p.m. Reno's soldiers were spotted by the Indians at the Custer Battlefield and started to move fast in the direction of Reno's command. Reno would pull his troops back to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield where they would be besieged by the Indians throughout the night of June 25 and most of the day of June 26, 1876.
Picture 10a looks north -- During the retreat from Weir Point, Farrier Vincent Charley was wounded in the hip. He was overcome and killed by warriors before Reno’s men could rescue him.
The Hilltop Fight
Reno lost 34 men during the valley fight and another 18 during the hilltop fight of June 25 - 26th. We cannot say for sure how many warriors fell during the Hilltop Fight.
Photo 10b looks SW -- Pvt. Julian Jones was killed beside Charles Windolph on June 26.
Photo 10c looks west -- Pvt. Thomas Meador was also killed beside Charles Windolph on June 26. Windolph was very lucky for he was wounded in the buttocks during the hilltop fight, but would survive all other battle participants being the last one to die on March 11, 1950 in Lead, South Dakota. Windolph would also receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for bringing water from the river to the wounded.
Dr. Henry Porter would do his best to care for the wounded. He established his field hospital in a slight depression between the soldier lines. He surrounded his patients with dead mules, hard tack boxes, and anything else he could put his hands on to protect the wounded from incoming fire. It was in this place that Dr. Porter would amputate the right leg of Saddler Michael P. Madden.
No clouds, no rain, and temperatures reaching into the high 90s resulted in a desperate need of water for the wounded soldiers. On June 26 the cavalrymen heard their comrades pleas for water from the field hospital. A team of soldiers moved down the steep bluffs, through what is known today as "water carrier's ravine", to retrieve water from the river. Exposing themselves, upon the bluffs, were some of the best sharpshooters from the 7th Cavalry firing their carbines into the brush along the banks of the river providing covering fire for the water carriers.
24 Medals of Honor were awarded for the Battle of the Little Bighorn from the Hilltop Fight. 19 for retrieving water from the river, for the wounded, and as sharpshooters exposing themselves on the bluffs while providing covering fire for the water carriers. Five were awarded for individual actions.
Picture 10d looks east -- Dog’s Back Bone, a Minniconjou warrior, concealed himself under the tall grass while firing on the soldiers from the east. His fellow warriors became carelessly excited in the heat of battle while standing to aim and fire. Bravely exposing himself so as to warn these warriors that the solider guns were powerful, Dog’s Back Bone was shot square in the head and died instantly.
Dog's Back Bone's descendents visit the battlefield every year on the anniversary of his death, June 26, to remember him. His marker can be seen in the center of this photo taken from the east side of Reno's line.
Picture 10e -- Dog's Back Bone marker taken the day of its unveiling, June 26, 2003.
Reno Is Rescued
The Indian village would pull stakes and move south toward the Big Horn Mountains the evening of June 26. They had fought a great battle and did not need to fight to the last man like the white soldier did. The valley could provide resources for such a large village for only a short time and, besides, there were new soldiers marching up the Little Bighorn from the north and the Indians were in no mood to fight them.
Those soldiers were infantry and cavalry under the command of General Terry. Lt. Bradley, Gibbon's Chief of Scouts, would find the Custer dead the morning of June 27. Terry's column then proceeded up the valley of the LBH until they found and rescued Reno and his men.
Picture 11 -- As Terry's column entered the village area they found several Sioux tree burials within the village. This photo was taken near Ft. Laramie of an Oglala tree burial. Photo courtesy National Archives.
Reno's soldiers wondered where Custer was. Terry informed Reno of the disaster that befell Custer's command to the north. No one could believe this could happen. What did happen? Why hadn't Custer supported Reno with the entire outfit? Many of these questions will never be completely answered, but thanks to archaeological evidence, Indian and soldier's accounts during the burial of Custer's men on June 28, 1876 we have a broader understanding of what happened.
Lest We Forget
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022