Prelude to Little Bighorn

Sitting Bull, ca. 1883, during transit from Fort Randall to Standing Rock Agency, taken in Pierre, S.D.  Photographer unknown.

Sitting Bull, ca. 1883, during transit from Fort Randall to Standing Rock Agency, taken in Pierre, S.D. Author unknown.

Take time this June 25—the day of the anniversary of the great battle—to memorialize Little Bighorn. The myth is remembered all throughout the Americas, even though the names of the combatants differ and the battle sites of the narrative vary: Custer and Sitting Bull in North America; Cortés and Montezuma in Mexico; Alvarado and Tecún Umán in Guatemala; Pizarro and Atahualpa in South America. The stories syncretize the fateful, violent encounter between Indian and European America. The confrontation still haunts our days, for we have not yet acknowledged that we are the bastard children of that conflict, and that our true American souls belong to one side as well as the other.

Three days before the battle, marching away from the Yellowstone River, Custer called his officers together for a briefing at his bivouac. He communicated that the army would face between 1,000 and 1,500 Indian warriors. Custer’s force totaled approximately 660 men at this point. (James Donovan, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn).

He explained his decision to reject General Terry’s offer of troop reinforcements and Gatling guns: the 7th could “whip” any force that could be mustered against it, and reinforcements would not “save us from defeat.” Uncharacteristically, he told his officers how much he depended on their judgment and loyalty.

Portrait of General George Armstrong Custer the year he died (1876).  Author unknown.

Portrait of General George Armstrong Custer the year he died (1876). Author unknown.

Lieutenant Edward S. Godfrey (Troop K, under Benteen at the Little Bighorn) later wrote that there was something “indefinable” about the general that was “not Custer” on this night. As the officers dispersed after the meeting, Lieutenant George D. Wallace (Troop G, under Reno) confided to Godfrey that he thought Custer would be killed in battle. At the bivouac of Indian scouts that same night, Half Yellow Face (chief of the Crow scouts) urged Mitch Boyer—the half-Sioux, half-French guide and interpreter—to question Godfrey:

            “Have you ever fought against these Sioux?”

            “Yes,” replied Godfrey.

            “Well, I can tell you we are going to have a damned big fight,” said Boyer. (Edward S. Godfrey, “Custer’s Last Battle,” in The Custer Reader, ed. Paul Andrew Hutton)

On Saturday, June 24—the evening before the great battle—the expedition passed an abandoned Indian camp where a Sun Dance had been performed:

In one of the sweat lodges was a long heap or ridge of sand. On this one Red Bear, Red Star, and Soldier saw figures drawn indicating by hoof prints Custer’s men on one side and the Dakota on the other. Between them dead men were drawn lying with their heads toward the Dakotas.”

(O.G. Libby, ed., The Arikara Narrative of the Campaign Against the Hostile Dakotas, June, 1876)

Custer’s favorite guide, Bloody Knife (half Sioux, half Arikara), was heard to remark: “I know what is going to happen to me. I shall not see the sun.” In the camp of the 7th Cavalry, when all had retired in preparation for a forced march that night, a solitary voice was heard singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”[1]


[1] Donovan, 201-203.

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