The Battle of Greasy Grass

Road tour through the site of Little Bighorn battlefield National Monument or Custer’s Last Stand. We didn’t come to Montana just to see this, but once I saw we were in the area, I suggested that we visit.

July 10, 2020.

The two Cheyenne women, relatives of Moh-na-se-tah, said that Custer should have listened better to Medicine Arrows.

The Cheyenne considered Moh-na-se-tah to be Custer’s wife. She was the daughter of chief Little Rock until the battle (arguably a massacre) at Washita in the Oklahoma territory eight years before. Her parents had been shot from behind while running away. Seven months pregnant, with Custer’s child, she was taken hostage at Washita along with 52 other non-combatants. During the Washita fight, Custer had used hostages as human shields.

The two Cheyenne women claimed to be present after Washita when Custer listened to Medicine Arrows (aka Stone Forehead) and promised that he would no longer fight the Cheyenne.

Eight years later Custer’s men approached a village camped on the Little Bighorn River. In addition to Cheyenne, the village had Arapaho and many Sioux tribes: Oglala, Hunkpapa, Lakota, Sans Arc, Brulé, Minneconjou, and Santee. There may have been 7,000 people, with a third of them fighters, but no one had a count. There was no single person in command, and people were constantly arriving and leaving.

The tribes called the area Greasy Grass. They had left their government reservations to gather here. For them, Sunday, June 5th, 1876, was just another day. People swam in the river, took horses to graze, gathered roots, and traveled between hunt camps. One eyewitness, Good White Buffalo Woman, said there was “no thought of fighting” and that they “expected no attack”.

Elders were smoking in a central lodge mid-afternoon when reports of a cavalry raid started coming in. A boy and a woman had been shot. The elders were puzzled. Soldiers wouldn’t attack such a large village, especially mid-day. Runs the Enemy later said “We could hardly believe that the soldiers were so near. We sat there smoking.”

Most other people in the camp reacted quickly. Non-combatants started beating a retreat upriver, while the young fighters rushed to meet troop formations. One exception was Crazy Horse. While waiting for his mount, he took so much time to prepare for battle Standing Bear claimed, “that many of his warriors became impatient”. According to Standing Bear, Spider and others, he called a medicine man for prayer and song, wove grass into his hair, burnt a sacrificial pinch of snuff, painted his face, and dusted himself, his horse, and his companions with dry earth before he was ready to do battle.

The Sioux didn’t take male prisoners. After the battle, they did take out their vengeance on dead soldiers. Our two Cheyenne women, relatives of Moh-na-se-tah, stopped some Sioux men before they got to Custer’s body, saying “He is a relative of ours”. They got out their sewing kits. Then, since he hadn’t listened better to Medicine Arrows, they pushed needles deep into his ears so he could hear better in the afterlife.

Much has been written about Custer’s role in this battle. The Smithsonian Magazine’s article “How the Battle of Little Bighorn Was Won” has many details from Native American eyewitnesses, though. I’ll share some more of these below. After all, as Churchill said, “History is written by victors”.

* Pics are click to enlarge.

The natives were off the res. The 7th Cavalry, led by Colonel Custer*, with about 700 soldiers and scouts was sent out to deal with them. Their approach led them over these mountains to the east of the Greasy Grass area. From the Crow’s Nest to the left of the big gap, the encampment could be seen. Assuming he had been spotted, Custer split his forces, sending Major Reno to the south side of the village, and having Captain McDougall follow with supplies. Custer and his men rode to the north of the village. *In the Civil War, Custer held the rank of brevet general over volunteer soldiers. After the war, he was returned to his regular army rank of lieutenant colonel.
Reno’s soldiers arrived at the camp near the woods across the river below, catching many first Americans by surprise. The village’s reaction was sudden and dramatic. The soldiers dropped back into the woods, where they were pinned down. Shouts of “Hokahey” rang out when Crazy Horse finally arrived. He executed a “brave run”, racing back and forth in front of the soldiers to draw fire. According to Red Feather, there was a call to let the soldiers escape from the woods so they’d be more exposed.
The cavalry made a dash from the woods to the hilltop we’re standing on. Thunder Bear said the Sioux chased them down shooting “as in a buffalo drive”. Two Moons saw many drop into the river bed. Red Horse said some soldiers drowned. Reno and most of his men made it to the hilltop, where they took a stand. During the one hour engagement, Custer’s men had been seen passing behind this hill. Crazy Horse and Crow King of the Hunkpapa left to deal with Custer. Reno held his position through the night and the next day until reinforcements arrived and his men could leave. From here they could hear the sounds of Custer’s engagement.
The picture of Custer’s movements is less clear, but he obviously rode into a hornet’s nest of activity. First Americans ended up surrounding his 210 men and driving them up a hill. According to Flying Hawk, Crazy Horse was part of a group that worked it’s way up this ravine, which offered more cover than just about anything else around. Crazy Horse fired “as fast as he could load his gun”.
View up the hill to where Custer’s men made their last stand.
Another view up the hill. Custer’s men shot their horses and used them for cover. According to Red Feather, the Native Americans approached from here “on hands and knees”.
White headstones scattered throughout the battlefield show where soldiers were believed to have fallen. There are also red headstones commemorating the spots where First Americans were known to fall.
Markers at the site of the “last stand”. The one with black on it is Custer’s.
The red headstone of Black White Man. This may have been where Isaiah Dorman, a Sioux interpreter for Custer, fell.
The “taming of the west” was really a war between two different cultures. This battle was one of the few victories for the losing side. The “Peace Through Unity” memorial was unveiled on the 127th anniversary of the battle to recognize those who fought for the losing culture.
The winning culture grew to be leaders of the free world, welcomed by all their neighboring countries. (At this writing, though, the winners are not free to travel to neighboring Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, or Cuba.)
More of the “Peace Through Unity” memorial. In the background is the memorial for the fallen US soldiers. Initially, their bodies were recovered from the battlefield and buried where the monument stands. Later the bodies were relocated.
The Little Bighorn National Monument is home to Custer National Cemetery. US Soldiers who fought in many different conflicts are buried here.

6 thoughts on “The Battle of Greasy Grass

  1. Such a fascinating account, Greg! Thanks for sharing. Initially, I didn’t quite understand what had happened by the end of your post – as most battles between Native Americans and settles ended in bloodbaths for the natives and this one seemed different… But, after reading the captions to all your photos, I had a better picture of the event. I hope these history lessons will never disappear!

    1. So glad you like the history lessons. Greg enjoys writing them. I will have to remind him that not all our readers grew up learning about these bits of American history.

    1. We love ranger talks. But like every park we’ve been to this summer, the visitor center was closed and no talks.

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