Day of the Greasy Grass - The Great Sioux War and Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn

26 June 1876, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Battle of the Greasy Grass to the Lakota, finally ended after the death of Lt Colonel George Armstrong Custer on the previous day and the attacks on Benteen’s and Reno’s position ceased with the confederation of Lakota, Cherokee and Arapaho leaving the area.

“Directly below us the placid river wound in great loops between fine groves of trees in a broad valley bottom. On our side the valley was enclosed by the bluffs on which we stood, although to our right the bluffs became a ridge, running away for a couple of miles into the hazy distance. From the bluffs to the river the ground fell pretty steeply, but from the crest of the long ridge the slope was much more gentle, a few hundred yards of hillside down to the river with a few gullies and dry courses here and there. It’s like any other hillside, very peaceful and quite pretty, all clothed in pale yellow grass like thin short wheat, with a few bright flowers and thistles. All ordinary enough, but I suppose there are a few old Indians now who think of it now as others may think of Waterloo or Hastings or Bannockburn. They call it the Greasy Grass.” (George MacDonald Fraser: “Flashman and the Redskins”)

Charles Marion Russell (1864 - 1926): "The Custer Fight" (1903)

It is not quite without irony that General Phil Sheridan became one of the foremost promoters of establishing the Yellowstone National Park. He even used the army to protect the area and its wildlife from encroaching settlers, hunters and prospectors about the same time he ordered flamboyant Custer to lead an expedition into the Black Hills to direct as much public attention on the rich local mineral deposits as he could. And gold was found, in August 1873 in the soil near French Creek and with the close newspaper coverage of the Black Hills Expedition, there was no holding back in the east. Gold seekers flocked in droves to Bismarck, North Dakota Territory, to try their luck in a region that was actually given to the Lakota under the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. Said agreement was grudgingly concluded when protecting the Bozeman Trail to the recently discovered gold fields in Montana from the raids of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho became simply too costly. Ending what was known as Red Cloud’s War, named after a prominent Oglala chief, the treaty gave the Lakota and their allies legal control over the Powder River country and most of the Black Hills. At least to those “good Injuns” who would give up their traditional way of life and cooperate with the agencies established in the region. Those who didn’t were dubbed “hostiles”, but General Sheridan, Head of the Department of the Missouri, was of the opinion that the only “good Injuns” he ever saw were the dead ones, the distinction didn’t make much of a difference anyway. And since the US Army was obviously powerless to stop Americans from going to where they damned well pleased on American soil, settlers and prospectors soaked into the Black Hills in droves. A calculated provocation, since the Powder River country was not only one of the last areas, where still herds of buffalo roamed after Sheridan encouraged hunters to exterminate them in their millions on the Great Plains. To feed railway workers, for sport and to systematically destroy the livelihood of the Native American Plains Nations. Ȟe Sápa, the Black Hills, had become hallowed ground for the Lakota ever since they wrested the region from the Cheyenne about a hundred years earlier and Sheridan was dead certain the mass incursion of gold seekers would drive more and more of the Treaty Lakota under basically cooperative chiefs like Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, rather miffed over the desolate combination of corruption and general incompetence of the agencies anyway, into the arms of the Hostiles around the Hunkpapa holy man Sitting Bull. And that they would fight, providing Sheridan with the opportunity to eradicate the last free nations on the Great Plains that stood in the way of progress, the Northern Pacific Railroad and America’s Manifest Destiny. An eleventh hour attempt of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail in May 1875 to persuade President Grant to honour the existing treaty failed, the governmental counter-offer to pay the Lakota a compensation for quitting the Black Hills, far below any reasonable economic worth of the region, almost drove them to hysterics and in the winter of the year, the Department of the Missouri issued the order to all Lakota and Cheyenne to report to the nearest agency until the end of January or else.

W.H. Illingworth's (1842 - 1893) photograph of the wagon train of Custer's 1873 Black Hills Expedition passing through Castle Creek Valley

"Or else” began in the spring of 1876, when no one came, unsurprisingly in the middle of a harsh Montana and Wyoming winter. In a so-called “three-pronged approach”, the army was supposed to pin down the hostile Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho, eradicate any resistance and drive the survivors back to the reservations. The Great Sioux War had begun. And since all US Army commanders involved occupied themselves with how to catch the Injuns, expecting anything but a stiff resistance, the first real contact with the enemy on Rosebud Creek in Montana on 17 June came as a bit of a surprise to General Crook’s northbound column. A more or less equally strong contingent of Lakota and Cheyenne braves under the Oglala war chief Tȟašúŋke Witkó, Crazy Horse, had fought the advance of Crook’s 1,000 army regulars and Crow and Shoshoni allies to a standstill, putting his column out of action. The commanders of the Dakota and Montana column, General Alfred Terry, Colonel Gibbon and Terry’s cavalry leader Lt. Colonel Custer met on 21 June on board of the supply ship “Far West” on the banks of the Yellowstone River and discussed their further proceedings. And, basically, Terry let his subordinate Custer off the leash. The ex-“boy general” of the Civil War certainly had the most experience of the the three as an “Indian Fighter”, if massacring the inhabitants of Cheyenne Villages and fighting fruitless skirmishes was taken into account. However, Custer had served on the Plains for ten years and saw the campaign as his last chance to win fame, glory and promotion. He opted for leaving infantry support behind, along with a battery of Gatling machine guns, and headed his 7th Cavalry straight for the Bighorn River where scouts had located a large Indian encampment. Just how large nobody could say for certain, but Custer was anxious they might still escape him and pressed ahead into the Powder River Country. Terry basically had given him permission to act and, if necessary, fight on his own initiative and that was exactly what Custer was about to do, basically to get at the non-combatants in the village to force the supposedly retreating braves to come back and either fight it out or surrender. Unfortunately for Custer, the up to 2,500 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors opposing the 647 men of his unsupported cavalry regiment had no intention to withdraw.

Oglala veteran of the Greasy Grass Chief Matȟó Wanáȟtake's (Kicking Bear, 1846 - 1904) recollection of Custer's Last Stand (1898)

In the morning of 25 June his scouts reported to Custer the arguably largest assembly of Indians that had ever gathered on the plains. Still unperturbed, Custer split his regiment into three parts, one under Major Marcus Reno, one under Captain Frederick Benteen and one to be lead by himself. Reno’s three companies charged around 3 pm into the southern part of the Lacota village and Chief Gall promptly answered with a fierce counter charge, forcing Reno to retreat and the retreat was turned into a rout. With what was left of his command, Reno managed to reach a hillock and dug in. Joined by Benteen’s three companies, the two decided to hold out there instead of joining up with Custer, who was about to get cut up farther north. What happened there up on the banks of the Little Bighorn River became the stuff of legends, for both sides. In all probability, Custer charged with his roughly 200 men across the river at Minneconjou Ford right towards the middle of the Cheyenne encampment, probably believing it was the northern end of the whole village, was pushed back, again the retreat became a running battle, then a rout until the last survivors were killed on what is now known as “Last Stand Hill” and no man of Custer’s detachment lived to tell the tale. Reno and Benteen held out in their position and watched the thousands on the river banks strike their tents and withdraw. The day after, on 27 June, Terry and Gibbon arrived on the scene, finally relieved Reno and Benteen and began to take account of what was the US Army’s greatest defeat in the Indian Wars. The news reached the East Coast a few days after the grand United States Centennial Celebration and caused a major shock, the Battle of the Little Bighorn became an American myth, especially with Custer’s outspoken widow, by fingerpointing at Reno and Benteen, trying to preserve the memory of her husband as a hero and not as the rash, glory-seeking self-promoter that he was, traits that had caused his death and that of his men on the Day of the Greasy Grass. The Great Sioux War was over within a year, most bands surrendered, joined the agencies or fled to Canada. The offer of recompensating the Lakota for giving up the Black Hills still stands, though. The money wasn’t touched to this day.

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