The great village sat peacefully, under the bluffs that skirted the eastern bank of the Little Big Horn River. Above, the sky was clear, save the occasional bird and the blinding white-hot sun. Despite the heat, the village was alive with activity as the people went about their day with few worries. Scouts from the village had not seen any soldiers since “Three Stars” (Crook) had led his army away from the Rosebud following the battle with Crazy Horse eight days earlier.
No one realized the danger that approached. Few of the villagers paid attention to the faint sound of thundering hooves and the dust cloud rolling toward them. In fact, those who noticed them thought buffalo were stampeding through the valley. Suddenly, a group of panicked women ran through the village shouting, “The chargers are coming. . . . The chargers are coming!”
The horrified words swept throughout the village like fire through dry prairie grass. Moments later, a rider dashed into camp shouting that soldiers were not too far behind him. Soon others streamed into the various camp circles with additional warnings of approaching soldiers.
Women began to search frantically for their children, scooping them up as they were found, and racing downstream toward the pony herd. Boys on horseback drove their mounts out to gather their pony herds, kicking up dust and adding to the confusion in the village. With the soldiers approaching so quickly, the warriors had little time to dress for battle, paint their faces, call upon their spirit powers, or gather their horses. Instead, they raced into their lodges, grabbing whatever weapons they had, and charged out of their camps, most of them on foot, to meet the approaching enemy. Old men, whose fighting days were long behind them, shouted, “Soldiers are here! Young men, go out and fight them.” Then the first volley exploded from the soldier guns, tearing through the Hunkpapa camp at the southern edge of the village, claiming the first victims of the day.
Yet in a section of the Ogalala camp, a group of warriors sat anxiously on their mounts waiting for their leader to emerge from his lodge. Their animals pawed at the ground, excited by the sound of human terror and gunfire, dancing back and forth as if to show they were as impatient to enter the fray as the men sitting on their backs. The wait was becoming unbearable. Still, they remained outside of the Ogalala war leader’s tepee waiting for him to appear.
In a society that praised the individual exploits of its men in combat, it is difficult to imagine a group of young Lakota warriors waiting to follow a single man into battle. Yet Crazy Horse was no ordinary man among his people. At 34 years of age, he was the greatest living warrior among the Ogalalas and was recognized as the “head” war chief of the Lakota bands that refused to submit to life on the Great Sioux Reservation. Since coming of age in the late 1850s he had become his people’s fiercest champion, leading the struggle to preserve their buffalo ranges and way of life against the relentless assault from American invaders. After the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was signed, Crazy Horse rejected the offer to learn the white man’s ways at the new Great Sioux Reservation. Instead, he chose to continue living free and fighting the enemies that would strip his people of their liberty. Those who knew Crazy Horse said he was quiet, never drawing attention to himself, except in battle. In a fight he was regarded as fearless and aggressive, always in front of his warriors during a charge, but never reckless with his life or the lives of those who followed him. According to He Dog, a fellow chief and life-long friend, Crazy Horse “didn’t like to start a battle unless he had it all planned out in his head and knew he was going to win. He always used judgment and played safe.” These characteristics inspired warriors to follow Crazy Horse. Although he would be late entering the Battle of the Little Big Horn, his ability to lead and inspire those around him to great deeds would ensure that Crazy Horse would have a profound impact on the battle’s outcome.
When Crazy Horse finally emerged from his lodge it had been almost an hour since his brother-in-law, Red Feather, urged him to “take any horse” and join the fighting. But the Ogalala war chief had refused. It would be foolish to enter battle on a strange horse, especially without the protection of his war medicine. Instead, Crazy Horse had ordered his war pony brought into camp and returned to his lodge to “consult the medicine man and invoke the spirits.” Now, after much delay, he stood before the members of his soldier society ready for battle. His hair hung loose to his belt, with an eagle feather resting on the back of his head pointing to the ground. Across his face was the familiar red lightening streak that extended from the left side of his forehead to his chin. White dots representing hail stones were also painted over his face and chest to evoke the power and fury of this phenomenon of nature. Behind his left ear hung the little stone that his medicine man, Chips, had given him years ago to make him bulletproof in battle. He wore only his breech cloth and moccasins. “Hokahey,” shouted his warriors—today would be a good day to die.
Crazy Horse’s warriors erupted in a chorus of screams and shouts as they whirled their mounts about and struck out of their village behind their leader. The war party streaked through the shattered remains of the Hunkpapa village, the sound of the eagle bone whistles they blew pierced the air, causing all within earshot to gaze upon them. The sight gave the villagers a renewed sense of hope and a great cry followed, “Crazy Horse is coming! Crazy Horse is coming!”
By the time Crazy Horse reached the scene of the fighting it had reached a furious pitch, but neither side seemed capable of driving the other from the field. The Indians had stopped Major Marcus Reno and his three companies of the Seventh Cavalry several hundred yards short of the Hunkpapa camp and, after a series of charges, managed to drive the bulk of the cavalry force into a grove of timbers nearly a mile from the great village. Gunfire resonated through the valley and a haze of black powder smoke and dust hung thick in the air. As he left the village, his attention, was drawn to the hills southwest of camp where a large gathering of warriors had congregated. There, hundreds of men sat on their horses watching the battle develop, waiting for the right moment to attack.
Crossing the valley toward the hills, Crazy Horse saw a group of warriors break from the assembly on the bluffs and charge the soldiers still exposed on the valley floor. Red Feather led the charge. He feared the soldiers might make another move against the village if something was not done quickly. “Why wait for the women and children to get tired? Come on,” he shouted and bolted away from the pack. Crazy Horse watched as Red Feather’s party crossed the open ground and fanned out to begin their assault. Dust kicked up by their sprinting ponies soon filled the air, obscuring the size of the war party, and frightening the men who stood in their path across the valley. Little
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effort was made to resist the Indian advance and the cavalrymen quickly broke for the safety of their comrades in the timbers. The Indians, however, continued to drive upon the soldiers, striking down one carrying a company guidon before he reached the woods.
Red Feather’s party was forced to break off its attack after a blistering volley of carbine fire opened on them from the woods and, while they had killed only one soldier, their charge had succeeded. Moreover, it had drawn the attention of the soldiers away from Crazy Horse, giving him the opportunity to reach the western hills without taking fire. Once on the summit, the Ogalala war chief quickly evaluated the situation and rallied the warriors Red Feather had left behind. According to He Dog, the others had remained on the hill waiting for Crazy Horse to arrive. When he crested the hill, Crazy Horse watched his kinsman’s charge enter its final stage. He then turned to He Dog and the others and shouted, “Here are some of the soldiers after us again. Do your best, and let us kill them all off today, that they may not trouble us anymore.” When he finished, he turned his war pony around and raced toward the trees across the valley with his legion of warriors following.
As the gap narrowed between Crazy Horse and the soldiers in the timbers, fate smiled upon the Indians. The warriors Crazy Horse saw infiltrating the timbers near the Hunkpapa camp circle had finally found their way through the thick underbrush, and opened fire on Major Reno’s command from point-blank range. Iron Hawk, a Hunkpapa warrior in this group, stated that when they saw Crazy Horse begin his charge, the warriors fighting alongside him “advanced furiously with great yelling, coming down on the flank [of Reno’s command].” Stunned by the sudden appearance of the warriors, the military command fell into disarray. Reno had been speaking with one of his scouts, Bloody Knife, trying to decide the next course of action when the attack came. In the midst of the hurried conversation, a bullet struck the scout in the head. The wound splattered the major’s face with blood and fragments of brain and skull tissue, stripping the officer of his composure. Terrified, Reno shouted a rapid series of nonsensical orders directing his command to first dismount and then remount their horses. After a few more men were killed within close proximity, Reno decided to abandon his position altogether and gave the word to “charge” the hills east of the river. Unfortunately for the soldiers under his command, the major did not remain in the timber long enough to ensure his orders were heard by all. Unable to suppress his overwhelming fears, Reno shouted his final order after putting spurs to his horse and racing out of the woods. Those closest to Reno immediately followed, but the majority of the command learned of the retreat by watching their comrades strike out in pursuit of their commanding officer.
Racing across the valley with Crazy Horse, He Dog saw the command straggle out of the trees: “Just as we charged, the soldiers left the timber in two bunches on their horses as fast as they could ride up the river.” To the warriors following Crazy Horse this was a welcome sight. In his panic, Reno broke a cardinal rule of plains warfare: he turned his back on the enemy. The demoralized troopers ran their horses back up the valley along the treeline, following their commanding officer as he frantically searched for a place to cross the river. A Cheyenne warrior named American Horse likened the action that followed to the hunt: “It was like chasing buffalo—a grand chase.”
Crazy Horse and his warriors raced their ponies into the last ranks of Reno’s retreating command. As they would do during a buffalo hunt, many of the warriors rode in among the soldiers and, with only a few feet between them and their target, they drew back on their bow strings to drive arrows deeply into soldier flesh. Wooden Leg, an 18-year-old Northern Cheyenne, remembered, “I saw a Sioux put an arrow into the back of a soldier’s head. Another arrow went into his shoulder. He tumbled from his horse to the ground.” Other warriors struck the retreating troopers with war clubs or heavy riding quirts, dispatching the troopers before they reached the river. “The dust was thick and we could hardly see,” observed Flying Hawk, “Crazy Horse was ahead of all, and he killed a lot of them with his war club; he pulled them off their horses when they tried to get across the river where the bank was steep.” The soldiers could do little to defend themselves. Their sabers had been taken from them at the outset of the campaign and their single-shot Springfield carbines were of little use in close-quarter combat. Although each had a six-shot Colt revolver, few thought to use it and, instead, focused their attention on saving their lives by outdistancing the warriors.
The warriors chased the soldiers for nearly a mile before the column found a break in the trees leading to the river. In desperation, the surviving troopers drove their mounts over the drop into the rushing water below. Few of the soldiers, however, managed to escape. A bottleneck quickly formed on the opposite bank, as the troopers bunched together at the only location where their horses could find the footing to climb out of the current. Soon Lakota and Cheyenne warriors plunged their animals into the stream after the troopers. Brutal hand-to-hand combat ensued across the width of the stream. Warriors brought their war clubs and tomahawks to bear on soldiers swinging carbines and revolvers for defense. Crazy Horse and several other Indians witnessing the sight drew their rifles and began pouring a deadly fire into the packed mass of blue-coated bodies across the river. “Men and horses were all mixed up and fighting in the water,” remembered a boy named Black Elk, who watched the clash from down stream, “it was like hail falling in the river.”
When the fighting at the water ended, Crazy Horse rode up the elevation across the river to where the Indians were engaging the survivors of Reno’s command. The major had opened the battle with 125 officers and enlisted men but now, after losing nearly 50 troopers in the valley, only slightly more than half the command remained with him on the bluff. The Ogalala war chief rode his pony around the perimeter, regrouping his warriors, and watching Reno’s men dig breastworks. “Too late! you’ve missed the fight,” Short Bull called out to Crazy Horse as he rode past. In response, Crazy Horse laughed at the remarks and pointed down the valley. He told his friend that he was indeed sorry for missing the fight, but noted there was another “good fight coming over the hill.” From a rise northeast of where the cavalry was digging in, Crazy Horse could see the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, “Long Hair,” advancing down Medicine Tail Coulee toward the village. The battle was not over. With warriors in tow, Crazy Horse returned to the village, gathering his dead and wounded along the way. As had been the case when the battle began, Crazy Horse would miss the start of the fighting in the battle’s second phase.
After making a brief stop in the village, Crazy Horse and Flying Hawk crossed the ford at Medicine Tail Coulee with a throng of warriors in their wake. Many of those who had fought with him in the valley, however, had not stopped in the village and were already fighting the soldiers across the river. The battle had progressed up the adjoining deep coulee to the ridges, resting a mile northeast of the crossing. Crazy Horse easily found where the soldiers were. They stood in a line shrouded in gun smoke on a high ridge with a commanding view of the hills rising directly from the river. As Crazy Horse advanced up the coulee, he could see that concentrations of warriors occupied the terrain on both sides of the gulch, surrounding the soldiers in an arch that swept west to east on the south side of the field. Groups of mounted warriors poised here and there looked as if they were studying the soldier line, trying to find a weakness to attack. Elsewhere, he saw warriors crawling over the landscape seeking better vantage points from which to fire on the soldiers. Red Feather, who again went into battle ahead of his brother-in-law, stated: “The soldiers halted and dismounted and got on a hill; the Indians dismounted, too, and followed on hands and knees. . . . The Indians sneaked up the hill in the ravine and [took cover] behind sagebrush.” The soldiers and the Indians were shooting rapidly at each other over a great distance, and Crazy Horse saw that neither group was preparing to make a charge. Red Feather remembered that “if either side showed a head, the other side would shoot him down.”
Cautious to stay out of the range of the soldier carbines, Crazy Horse circled his party around the ridge, traveling to a series of hills northeast of the soldiers. Flying Hawk, who remained at the war chief’s side, said, “We followed up the gulch to a place in the rear of the soldiers that were making the stand on the hill.” Here the two Ogalalas joined a large force of warriors engaging the soldiers less than two hundred yards out. The soldiers were clustered in four groups. Lieutenant James Calhoun’s L Company occupied the high position on the hill in front of Crazy Horse and his company accounted for the first two groups of soldiers. Calhoun had dismounted his command, sending three out of every four troopers forward to fight on the skirmish line and the balance to the rear to hold the company’s mounts. In a hollow to their rear were companies C and I, respectively, serving as reserve units under the command of Captain Myles Keogh. Custer, with companies E and F, had continued beyond this location and was not visible to Crazy Horse at this time. Seeing the soldiers stretched out in front of him, Crazy Horse began to fire his rifle as fast as he could load it. Flying Hawk relates that Crazy Horse killed several soldiers from this position. The long-range fighting continued for a considerable time, when Crazy Horse noticed a group of soldiers moving out of the ravine behind Calhoun’s position. A detachment from C Company crested the ridge on their right and began moving toward the river. Unbeknownst to Crazy Horse, Hunkpapa warriors had worked their way up a deep ravine and were threatening L Company’s right flank. The soldiers were going to drive these Indians back toward the river.
By now several additional groups of warriors had found their way to Crazy Horse’s location. Many of the younger ones were growing anxious to charge the soldiers. The stalemated contest did not offer much of an opportunity for them to win honors for themselves by counting coup or stealing the soldiers’ horses. Finally, a Minneconjou warrior named White Bull could restrain himself no longer. He put the lash to his horse, sprinting away from the other warriors toward the soldiers. It was a daring, but brief charge. Seeing the lone rider coming at them, members of L Company opened fire on White Bull, turning him back. He returned unharmed and undaunted by his setback. Reining in his pony, the young warrior sternly announced, “This time I will not turn back!”
Racing for the gap between the soldiers at the southern end of the ridge, White Bull leaned forward, and hugged the neck of his mount. As he started between two of the companies, he looked over his shoulder and saw several warriors following his lead. Breaking through the gap, White Bull saw the soldiers lowering their weapons to open fire, but none hit him or his swiftly moving pony. The warriors followed White Bull through the hole in the soldier lines, ex-changing fire with the troopers, and trying to move in close enough to touch a few of them with their riding quirts. Cros-sing over to the river side of the battlefield, White Bull turned his horse and rode along the ridge skirting the reserve company’s right flank. The soldiers in the ravine continued firing their weapons wildly at the young warriors as they rode contempt-uously by.
During this run, the young Minneconjou saw one of the soldiers fall wounded from his horse. White Bull stopped and leaped to the ground to count first coup. After taking the dying man’s pistol and cartridge belt, he remounted his horse and continued down the ridge. When White Bull saw the gap between C and I company, he again turned his mount, and raced through the opening followed by the other warriors back to the hills from where he had started.
When White Bull returned, he began taunting Crazy Horse to lead the next charge. The war chief modestly declined. Crazy Horse realized White Bull’s dare was an attempt by the younger man to increase his stature by challenging the great chief to duplicate the act. Ignoring the cautious example of Crazy Horse, and feeling himself living a charmed life, White Bull remounted his horse to make a third charge.
White Bull had gone but a short distance when Crazy Horse saw soldiers racing toward the top of the ridge from the river side of the field; they were members of the C Company detachment sent to reinforce Calhoun’s flank. A great number of mounted warriors closely followed their retreat. The soldiers had been overwhelmed in the deep ravine by a group of warriors led by the Hunkpapa, Crow King. The Indians had ensnared the cavalry detachment at the base of a ridge angling toward the river away from Calhoun Hill. Seeing the routed detachment sprinting toward his position, Calhoun deployed his skirmish line in an effort to hold the hill. Crazy Horse recognized the weakness in the soldier formation and seized the opportunity to exploit it. He mounted his pony and led a mob of warriors in a race to overtake White Bull. As he drove his force toward the collapsing line of soldiers, Crazy Horse blew his eagle bone whistle to draw attention to himself, and encourage other warriors to join the charge. The warriors on the south of Calhoun’s position saw Crazy Horse spring from his position and rushed forward.
Crazy Horse followed White Bull through the gap between L Company’s smashed position and the now-retreating remnants of C Company. Small pockets of soldier resistance developed, as a few fought desperately for their lives, but the battalion was in full retreat to the north. “The soldiers all fired at once, but didn’t hit him [Crazy Horse],” remembered Red Feather. “The Indians got the idea the soldiers’ guns were empty and charged immediately on the soldiers,” he added. From all parts of the battlefield, Lakota and Cheyenne warriors rushed from their concealment into the crumbling soldier ranks. Horned Horse, an Ogalala riding with Crazy Horse, later described the fighting by forcefully bringing his hands together and intertwining his fingers, saying, “The fighting was just like this, Indians and whites.” The Hunkpapa chief, Gall, joined the fighting in the ravine after charging over Calhoun’s position from the south. He remembered the soldiers fought until they got “shells stuck in their guns and had to throw them away. They then fought with little guns.” The air was again choked with powder smoke and dust kicked up by horses racing away from the sounds of human carnage. Foolish Elk, an Ogalala participant, did not think the soldiers made any attempt to hold their ground once the attack began. He later recalled, “The men on the horses did not stop to fight, but went ahead as fast as they could go.”
Crazy Horse turned north and raced along the ridge. Ahead of him, he saw White Bull charge a retreating soldier and throw the man from his saddle. The war chief directed his mount at the fallen white man and struck him with his war club, counting second coup after the young upstart. “When they found they were being killed so fast, the ones that were left broke and ran as fast as their horses could go to some other soldiers that were further along the ridge,” noted Flying Hawk, “but we rushed them on along the ridge to where Custer was.” When Crazy Horse reached a shallow gap in the ridge, he turned his mount away from the river, and led his warriors back into the ravine. Overtaken by Crazy Horse, White Bull now followed the great war chief. The force smashed into the fleeing soldiers, cutting their ranks in two, and sealing the fate of every white man from that point back to what is known today as Calhoun Hill. “The soldiers were entirely surrounded, and the whole country was alive with Indians,” recalled Water Man, one of the few Arapahoes fighting in the battle. “Crazy Horse, the Sioux Chief, was the bravest man I ever saw,” remembered the Arapaho, “he rode closest to the soldiers, yelling to his warriors.”
A handful of soldiers did manage to escape encirclement in the ravine, but found no comfort at the northern end of the ridge. As Crazy Horse and his warriors busied themselves destroying Keogh’s battalion in the ravine, Cheyenne suicide warriors led by the Southern Cheyenne chief, Lame White Man, overran one of Long Hair’s (Custer’s) companies on a flat to the northwest. Crazy Horse had undoubtedly seen Long Hair’s two troops deployed on the river side of the ridge as he led his charge north around Keogh’s position. A company on gray horses were near the deep ravine and the other was battling the Cheyennes from the flat. By the time the fighting ended in the Keogh sector, these troops, along with the ravine survivors, were atop what is known today as Custer Hill.
The fight at Last Stand Hill ended quickly. There were less than 100 soldiers with Long Hair. “When the horses got to the top of the ridge the gray ones and bays became mingled, and the soldiers with them were all in confusion,” observed Foolish Elk. “The Indians were so numerous that the soldiers could not go any further, and they knew that they had to die,” he continued. In desperation, the soldiers killed their horses and used the carcasses as breastworks. They lay behind the fallen animals and fired their weapons as rapidly as possible through the black cloud hovering over the hill. For a few moments, the strategy worked, but hundreds of warriors crept through the sagebrush until they were in range to use their rifles or bow and arrows. When the warriors found their ranges, they would rise quickly and fire at the hidden soldiers. Those with bows pointed their arrows toward the heavens and let them fly. The steel-tipped missiles shot through the air, stalling at their zenith, and then fell, tip down, into Custer’s ranks. Repeated thousands of times during the waning moments of the battle, the sky appeared to be raining arrows down upon Last Stand Hill.
When the gunfire from the soldier position quieted, the warriors ringing the hill rushed the crest to finish off the survivors. Some warriors were met by soldiers determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible, fighting gallantly to the bitter end. The circling horde of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors continued to move in when, suddenly, a group of some 40 troopers sprang from the defensive site and raced down the ridge toward the river. The troopers followed the terrain leading down the slope from Last Stand Hill toward the deep ravine below Calhoun Hill. A group of warriors in the lower part of the field quickly recovered their horses and rode to intercept the fleeing column of men. The soldiers entered the ravine and followed its course, but their luck had run out. The warriors raced their ponies to the lip of the ravine, opening fire on the troopers as they continued to run, and cutting them down as they went.
Crazy Horse did not see the final exodus of the troopers toward the deep ravine. As that group of soldiers ran for the river, Crazy Horse saw a soldier grab a horse and race away from the battlefield to the east. The Ogalala war chief pursued the lone rider for a half mile before overtaking the soldier and killing him with a war club. When Crazy Horse returned, the warriors were walking the battlefield, dispatching the few wounded soldiers left alive, and stripping the soldiers of weapons. Women from the village were also wandering the field. They relieved the dead of their clothing and leather goods. Those who had lost loved ones during the battle, took their revenge on soldier corpses using trader knives to dismember the bodies. According to Lakota custom, by severing the limbs of the enemy’s body in this world, their enemies could not enter the next world intact and harm the spirits of their loved ones. Looking over the field, Crazy Horse knew his people had won a great victory. The only soldiers still alive were those left on the bluffs several miles back up the valley (Reno’s men). Crazy Horse would do nothing more to these men, they should be allowed to live, so they could tell the other white men to leave his people alone.
For Crazy Horse’s people, however, there would be no peace. News of the crushing defeat suffered by Custer at the Little Big Horn horrified and enraged the nation as it celebrated its centennial anniversary. Troop strengths of companies serving on the frontier were increased, and funding for additional military posts was approved by congress for the first time since the Civil War. In defending their families and culture, the warriors who fought with Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn brought the full wrath of the United States government down upon their people.
On May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse surrendered at Camp Robinson, Nebraska. Within three months he was dead, killed while “resisting arrest.” Flying Hawk said of his death—”they murdered him because they could not conquer him.”
JEFF PEARSON is a graduate student at the University of New Mexico