Red Horse at The Battle of the Little Bighorn - An Eyewitness Account
The Battle of the Little Bighorn is perhaps the most studied and most argued-over battle in military history. Add to this the complication that the accounts of more than 50 Native combatants were not made known until the 20th century and often contradicted prevailing white beliefs.
Among the most comprehensive and illustrative Native accounts of this battle are the drawings and testimonial of Chief Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior (1822-1907) who not only drew a collection of 42 ledgers of the battle, but also gave a testimonial in his native tongue and sign-language that was translated into English. (See Saturday’s post to view more of Red Horse’s ledger illustrations.)
Several years after the battle, Red Horse and other native warriors who had fought at the Little Bighorn created illustrations with ink and graphite colored pencils on blank
ledger paper that provided spectacular wordless but nevertheless powerful details of the carnage. In 1881, Dr. Charles E. McChesney commissioned the works the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology. He conducted a study of native sign language and “Picture-Writing of the American Indians."
But the pictorial and written accounts were collected, it seems, for artistic and academic purposes and not historic. They were not shared with the public but sequestered away into large drawers in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives and remained quietly moldering for 135 years!
Following is a highly simplified synopsis of the basic circumstances of the Battle of the Little Bighorn to provide some context for the testimonial that follows. Refer to the graphic below of the battleground and Native encampment for context as well.
SYNOPSIS OF BATTLE:
On June 25, 1876, Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes had gathered for their annual sacred Sun Dance on the banks of the Little Big Horn River in southern Montana. The village was massive, about 6,000 warriors and their families had set up hundreds of teepees on the west bank of the river on the Crow Indian Reservation.
Custer planned to attack the village and divided his 12 companies into three battalions: three companies (A, G & M) under Major Reno; three (H,D&K) under Captain Benteen, and Company B under Captain McDougall, was assigned to a slower pack train with provisions and extra ammunition. Custer was in command of five companies: C, E, F, I & L.
Custer was at the far north end of the village and Reno at the south end. (Benteen and McDougall arrived later.) Reno attacked first at about 3 p.m. but was eventually pinned down and retreated up the bluffs for cover. Reno’s battalion was joined by Benteen’s column, then later by McDougall’s company with the pack train. They aided Reno’s badly damaged battalion and a small contingent led by Captain Weir was not sent out until about 5 p.m. to aid Custer.
When Weir and his men arrived within about a mile of Custer’s position, they could see from a distance that Native warriors were shooting white objects on the ground. Weir assumed they were shooting wounded and dead soldiers in the aftermath. Weir rejoined the battalions of Benteen, Reno and McDougall, where they were pinned on the bluff for a day by Indian forces. However, the Indians were unable to breach the high bluffs and eventually abandoned the effort.
The Battle of Little Bighorn: An Eyewitness Account by the Lakota Chief Red Horse recorded in pictographs and text at Cheyenne River Reservation, 1881
Five springs ago I, with many Sioux Indians, took down and packed up our tipis and moved from Cheyenne river to the Rosebud river, where we camped a few days; then took down and packed up our lodges and moved to the Little Bighorn river and pitched our lodges with the large camp of Sioux.
The Sioux were camped on the Little Bighorn river as follows: The lodges of the Uncpapas [Hunkpapas] were pitched highest up the river under a bluff. The Santee lodges were pitched next. The Oglala’s lodges were pitched next. The Brule lodges were pitched next. The Minneconjou lodges were pitched next. The Sans Arcs’ lodges were pitched next. The Blackfeet lodges were pitched next. The Cheyenne lodges were pitched next. A few Arikara Indians were among the Sioux (being without lodges of their own). Two-Kettles, among the other Sioux (without lodges).
I was a Sioux chief in the council lodge. My lodge was pitched in the center of the camp. The day of the attack I and four women were a short distance from the camp digging wild turnips. Suddenly one of the women attracted my attention to a cloud of dust rising a short distance from camp. I soon saw that the soldiers were charging the camp. To the camp I and the women ran. When I arrived a person told me to hurry to the council lodge. The soldiers charged so quickly we could not talk (council). We came out of the council lodge and talked in all directions. The Sioux mount horses, take guns, and go fight the soldiers. Women and children mount horses and go, meaning to get out of the way.
Among the soldiers was an officer who rode a horse with four white feet. [This officer was evidently Capt. Thomas French, Seventh Cavalry.]The Sioux have for a long time fought many brave men of different people, but the Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they had ever fought. I don’t know whether this was Gen. Custer or not. Many of the Sioux men that I hear talking tell me it was. I saw this officer in the fight many times, but did not see his body. It has been told me that he was killed by a Santee Indian, who took his horse. This officer wore a large-brimmed hat and a deerskin coat. This officer saved the lives of many soldiers by turning his horse and covering the retreat. Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they ever fought. I saw two officers looking alike, both having long yellowish hair.
Before the attack the Sioux were camped on the Rosebud river. Sioux moved down a river running into the Little Bighorn river, crossed the Little Bighorn river, and camped on its west bank.
This day [day of attack] a Sioux man started to go to Red Cloud agency, but when he had gone a short distance from camp he saw a cloud of dust rising and turned back and said he thought a herd of buffalo was coming near the village.
The day was hot. In a short time the soldiers charged the camp. [This was Maj. Reno’s battalion of the Seventh Cavalry.] The soldiers came on the trail made by the Sioux camp in moving, and crossed the Little Bighorn river above where the Sioux crossed, and attacked the lodges of the Uncpapas farthest up the river. The women and children ran down the Little Bighorn river a short distance into a ravine. The soldiers set fire to the lodges.
All the Sioux now charged the soldiers and drove them in confusion across the Little Bighorn river, which was very rapid, and several soldiers were drowned in it. On a hill the soldiers stopped and the Sioux surrounded them. A Sioux man came and said that a different party of Soldiers had all the women and children prisoners. Like a whirlwind the word went around, and the Sioux all heard it and left the soldiers on the hill and went quickly to save the women and children.
From the hill that the soldiers were on to the place where the different soldiers [by this term Red-Horse always means the battalion immediately commanded by General Custer, his mode of distinction being that they were a different body from that first encountered] were seen was level ground with the exception of a creek. Sioux thought the soldiers on the hill [i.e., Reno’s battalion] would charge them in rear, but when they did not the Sioux thought the soldiers on the hill were out of cartridges.
As soon as we had killed all the different soldiers the Sioux all went back to kill the soldiers on the hill. All the Sioux watched around the hill on which were the soldiers until a Sioux man came and said many walking soldiers were coming near. [This probably referred to Capt. McDougall’s Company B with the long pack-train and munitions.] The coming of the walking soldiers was the saving of the soldiers on the hill. Sioux can not fight the walking soldiers [infantry], being afraid of them, so the Sioux hurriedly left.
The soldiers charged the Sioux camp about noon. The soldiers were divided, one party charging right into the camp. After driving these soldiers across the river, the Sioux charged the different soldiers [i.e., Custer’s] below, and drive them in confusion; these soldiers became foolish, many throwing away their guns and raising their hands, saying, “Sioux, pity us; take us prisoners.” The Sioux did not take a single soldier prisoner but killed all of them; none were left alive for even a few minutes. These different soldiers discharged their guns but little. I took a gun and two belts off two dead soldiers; out of one belt two cartridges were gone, out of the other five.
The Sioux took the guns and cartridges off the dead soldiers and went to the hill on which the soldiers were, surrounded and fought them with the guns and cartridges of the dead soldiers. Had the soldiers not divided I think they would have killed many Sioux. The different soldiers [i.e., Custer’s battalion] that the Sioux killed made five brave stands. Once the Sioux charged right in the midst of the different soldiers and scattered them all, fighting among the soldiers hand to hand.
One band of soldiers was in rear of the Sioux. When this band of soldiers charged, the Sioux fell back, and the Sioux and the soldiers stood facing each other. Then all the Sioux became brave and charged the soldiers. The Sioux went but a short distance before they separated and surrounded the soldiers. I could see the officers riding in front of the soldiers and hear them shooting. Now the Sioux had many killed. The soldiers killed 136 and wounded 160 Sioux. The Sioux killed all these different soldiers in the ravine.
The soldiers charged the Sioux camp farthest up the river. A short time after the different soldiers charged the village below. While the different soldiers and Sioux were fighting together the Sioux chief said, “Sioux men, go watch soldiers on the hill and prevent their joining the different soldiers.” The Sioux men took the clothing off the dead and dressed themselves in it. Among the soldiers were white men who were not soldiers. The Sioux dressed in the soldiers’ and white men’s clothing fought the soldiers on the hill.
The banks of the Little Bighorn river were high, and the Sioux killed many of the soldiers while crossing. The soldiers on the hill dug up the ground [i.e., made earth-works], and the soldiers and Sioux fought at long range, sometimes the Sioux charging close up. The fight continued at long range until a Sioux man saw the walking soldiers coming. When the walking soldiers came near the Sioux became afraid and ran away. (This may refer to Reno’s badly damaged battalion retreating up the bluffs. Reno was soon joined by Benteen’s battalion, then Capt. McDougall’s Company B with the long pack-train and munitions. The Sioux kept the Army pinned on the bluffs for a day, but could not breach the steep banks and heavily-armed soldiers and abandoned the effort.)
(See last Saturday’s post, RED HORSE'S LEDGERS, for more photos and information about Red Horse’s ledgers.)
© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER