june 25, 1876 custer's big screw up--aka "battle of little big horn"
A professor in college who was also a Jesuit priest told us that gold had been discovered on Black Hills land the Us government had promised the Indians would be theirs forever. Custer himself had explored and marked a way into the Black Hills region, a road that the Indians nicknamed "The Thieves Trail." he then reported that there were gold nuggets on that Indian land the size of a baby's skull...The number of illegal white prospectors pouring into the Black Hills region became a flood. They demanded , as treaty violators characteristically did , protection from "hostile" Indians by the Us government.
The government called up the army and cavalry , demanded Indians "renegotiate" treaties and sell --basically at threat of gunpoint-- the Indians' sacred Paha Sapa /Black Hills region to the Us government . of course because the region was viewed as sacred to Indian nations , the Indians did not wish to sell it. the Us government , intimidated and forced selected 'leaders' to sign away the multi-billion dollar Black Hills for a steal at only $7 million.
the government quickly issued a demand that all Indians in the region report to the local Indian agencies within a specified time period --by January 31,1876-- or be declared "hostiles" and subject to attack by the Us military.
of course the Indian agencies were usually conveniently based at the nearest US army fortress--where the Indian males would be required to surrender their arms and their horses --their means to resist and their means of mobility--become "tame" Indians and draw often rotted government welfare "rations" for their families to eat instead of continuing to be free to roam the plains to feed their families by hunting buffalo, wild game and harvesting wild plants.
Interesting that the Us government and Americans WHO NEVER TIRE OF PROCLAIMING THEIR GOD GIVEN FREEDOMS, once again were telling another people of color at gunpoint "Give up your freedom or die."
At college our professor was always quick to remind us that AMERICANS AND THE WESTERN WORLD got MUCH OF its ideas of freedom as well as democracy FROM OBSERVING HOW INDIANS LIVED AND GOVERNED THEMSELVES...YET IN EVERY INSTANCE OF ENCOUNTER, Americans TOOK AWAY AT GUNPOINT THE INDIANS' FREEDOM AS WELL AS THEIR LANDS.
and as one british observer commented "These Americans who never cease proclaiming their own "freedoms" DRIVE NEGROES IN THE FIELDS LIKE BEASTS."
the Lakota/Sioux , the northern Cheyenne and some northern Arapaho refused to surrender to the new Us government demands of January 31,1876 and under the leadership of Sitting Bull /Tatonka Yotanka a highly spiritual political leader and Crazy Horse /Tashunka Witko a highly spiritual military leader, these "hostiles" went to what was still left of their lands and called on other Indians to join them for what many felt would be their last days of freedom--their last chance to practice their ways of life. "One does not sell the land on which the people walk"--Tashunka Witko
now with "war" imminent ---the Us government determined to take the last of the plains Indian lands and Indians determined to hold on to their land and their way of life , Custer saw his best opportunity since the Civil war to advance his own prospects. Custer, ever ambitious, was looking for a "great victory" on the plains that would eventually propel him into the white house. conscious of image and media attention well before the success of his book "My Life on the Plains" , he carefully plotted his appearance for this "last great Indian war". he cut his long blonde hair and instead of his blue military uniform wore Indian-like, frontier buckskins--which had to be horribly hot in the late June summer weather where the battle took place...
when the "hostiles" camp was located Custer, oddly divided his command in hostile territory against a still unknown enemy---something not taught to young officers in military training academies and something in fact, they are strongly warned against.
as this attack commenced, Custer had completely failed to reconnoiter , completely failed to realize the actual size of the Indian village he was attacking that day. also it was afternoon and he failed to attack at dawn as had been his previous practice in the plains wars--a tactic which forced the Indian men to stand and fight and take casualties they could not replace in order to buy time for their women children and old people to escape the ensuing slaughter of noncombatants THAT THE US ARMED FORCES ALWAYS REPRESENTED IN THE INDIAN WARS.
in fair cavalry contests on the plains, the Indians would be too quick and too mobile for Custer and attack and then scatter in every direction before they could be surrounded by the Americans. this tactic left the "bluecoats" frustrated, confused with their primary advantage -- their always superior fire power and ammunition supplies--- effectively neutralized BY THE INDIANS GREATER MOBILITY on the battlefield of the open plains.
this is why the American forces historically devoted themselves to sneak attacks on plains Indian villages at dawn and especially in winter as Custer had done against the southern Cheyenne because snow made quick escape almost impossible. Surrounding an Indian village for a sneak attack at dawn ,made escape impossible and slaughter of warriors and noncombatants inevitable...and what better way to clear Indian lands for white settlement?
But in the "Big Horn" fight in 1876, Custer followed up his failure to reconnoiter with a failure at surrounding the village to cut off potential escape when his subordinate, major Reno and his soldiers not only, could not carry out his commander's orders to attack the village from the south while Custer expected to attack from the north-- pinning the unfortunates "hostiles" between two forces.
That particular group of "hostile" Indians under a commander known as "Gall", rallied the Indians in that area to counter attack. Reno standing next to his personal Crow Indian scout Bloody Knife, got his face splattered with blood and brains when a bullet from a hostile suddenly ended the battle for Reno's Indian scout. Reno reportedly then lost his nerve, panicked and his forces were beaten back... routed and driven back across the river and up a hill where they were easily pinned down by a force made up largely of a few old men and boys. This freed up many of the warriors for the fight with Custer that was beginning...
"Yellow hair" Custer quickly realized after his attack against the "village" had begun that he was hopelessly out numbered. rather than just run for his life--which perhaps he should have done --he chose the much slower option of "a fighting retreat."
He was likely still mistakenly expecting help from a now pinned-down major Reno and help from his other subordinate, captain Benteen whom "Yellow Hair" had recently sent orders to--orders to advance with his soldiers , his supply packs and extra ammunition he, his soldiers and his mules were carrying, and join the battle.
Custer and his men began a "fighting retreat" against the now fully alerted "village" ...a fully alerted and outraged village which contained at least a thousand warriors and perhaps as many as two to three thousand warriors.
This huge village and its possibly thousands of warriors, were not only ENRAGED over being 'sneak attacked' while in their own country and bothering no one , they were also enraged over being sneak attacked WITH THEIR WOMEN AND CHILDREN AND OLD PEOPLE present....This huge village was also well armed --in some ways better armed than Custer --with many new repeating rifles the Indian men had traded for before leaving their local agencies...Custer had single shot army carbines and inferior ammunition that when heated from firing the weapon, the empty cartridge casings tended to melt, expand and get stuck in the rifle chamber...USUALLY INDIANS WERE ONLY SOLD OBSOLETE FIREARMS REFERRED TO AS "TRADE GUNS" but this time they had the advantage in modern weaponry over the 7th cavalry.
Yet of course though, ammunition for their rifles was always in scarce and short supply for the Indians. This was characteristically true throughout the four hundred years between 1492 and the arrival of Columbus, to 1890 and the final massacre at Wounded Knee which is regarded as the official end of the plains wars between whites and Indians--firearms were ALWAYS very difficult and costly to obtain for Indians and once obtained, ammunition, shot, powder and later cartridges, always scarce.
But major Reno and captain Benteen and all the soldiers they still commanded as well as the supplies and extra ammunition they carried were all in short supply as far as Custer would be concerned. None and nothing came to his rescue that day ...his last day... an ending he well deserved, but had not yet arrived as he and his 200 to 300 men struggled to make "a fighting retreat" up that ridge after being repulsed in their first encounter with Tatonka Yotanka/Sitting Bull's huge village.
If lieutenant colonel Custer and his portion of the Seventh cavalry could only reach the top of the ridge overlooking the village-- the ridge that when they charged down to attack, was behind them-- they had a chance at survival.
They could kill some of the remaining horses, use the carcasses as protection to crouch behind, dig rifle pits into the ground from behind the shield of the dead horses, to form a rapid and makeshift fortress from which to hide in while avoiding bullets and arrows and safely shoot back to pick off the hostiles and perhaps hold out until Benteen and Reno arrived, or perhaps even General Crook himself arrived with his 1000 cavalry and mounted infantry...But Yellow Hair , on the last day of his 36 year old life, had no way of knowing that general Crook had been defeated by Crazy Horse, the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne only a week earlier...In fact, had it not been for the bravery and battle skills of General Crook's Shoshoni and Crow Indian scouts, it is commonly believed today that Crook would have suffered a crushing defeat by Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Rosebud.
But first Yellow Hair and what remained of his command, had to finish their fighting retreat and successfully battle their way to reach the ridge top...With the advantage of the high ground, shooting down at an enemy from behind dead horse carcasses while concealed in rifle pits-- there was a chance for survival of his command until Reno, or Benteen, or Maybe even General Crook could save them... Yellow Hair must have thought this with the desperation of a drowning man eyeing a floating straw in hopes of deliverance...And then suddenly, as if it were possible in battle to read an opponent's mind... there he was ...Tashunka Witko the mystic Oglala warrior who as a young boy nicknamed "Curly", had in a vision ... seen his own horse behave in battle as if it were "crazy" during this vision...this lifelong quest for power... this mission in life he accepted as a young boy to save his people and their way of life...save them all from certain destruction at the hands of the whites...There he was... Crazy Horse...suddenly at the top of the ridge with his warriors ...Custer must have turned around ...turned from fighting the Indians in front of him, just in time to see the "hostiles" were not only in front of him, but had also circled around behind him... reached the hill top before him AND CUT OFF HIS RETREAT.
Surrounded. Custer was doomed. There was no way of denying it now ...no hope left. His two soon-to-die brothers and nephew in his command there with him that day must have seen it on his face ...observed it unmistakably in his eyes...surrounded and no way out ...No hope of rescue ...The moment every warrior-- no matter how great--no matter how successful -- knows must some day come. Will you throw down your weapons and disgracefully run, crying like children --like the Indians say some with Custer did that day? Or will you be Hector charging Achilles... sword drawn... vowing to give your best despite knowing you surely will die? Vowing to go out in a way so noble that it will cause generations after you to share your story around their camp fires at night.