It's been 146 years since the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Today, that day remains one of the most hotly contested events in our history by scholars and armchair historians. But, new discoveries bring new light. Visit that day through the eyes of a Lakota warrior who was there!
One hundred and forty-four years ago, George Armstrong Custer rode into battle against Native Americans and never rode out again. We don’t have photography of the 1876 Little Bighorn Battle, famously called “Custer’s Last Stand.” But we do have eye-witness accounts in spectacular drawings by Native Americans who fought there. These drawings, called “ledgers,” provide amazing clues to the many mysteries military scholars and frontier lovers have argued over for nearly a century and a half.
Among the most comprehensive and illustrative of these drawings is the work of Chief Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior and chief (1822-1907) who drew a collection of 42 ledgers in 1881 at the Cheyenne River Reservation, just south of Standing Rock Indian Reservation in north central South Dakota.
It turns out Red Horse was not only a great warrior, adept at handling a bow and a rifle. He was a darn good artist, too, adept with pen and ink and colored pencils. After the battle, he began drawing his memories of the battle, full of minute details and tantalizing clues to what might have really happened at the event the Sioux called the Battle of Greasy Grass.
But, the age-old adage, “To the victor go the spoils” did not apply to the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe who won the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Nor were they able to write—or draw—their accounts of their victory for mass consumption. The Native American versions of the battle did not come out until much later, trickling out in bits of quiet truth-telling. (In Red Horse’s case, 135 years later!) They were overpowered largely by the blaring narratives of the U.S. military and white press, who sought to mythologize the vaunted golden-haired general and his 7th Cavalry and painted glorious battle scenes of Custer at the center of the battle, killing dozens of native warriors until his courageous end. Because the battle took place almost exactly midpoint in the year of the nation’s Centennial 1876 100th anniversary, the defeat was especially shocking. It was supposed to be a year of celebration of American greatness and military power.
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.
Drawing colored pictures on animal hides, plant materials and stone had long been a popular artform among most Native American tribes. But the reservation era supplanted animal hides with ledger paper as a new medium for Indian artists.
The Bureau collected 42 drawings from Red Horse himself, as well as other art depictions from other warriors, of their eyewitness accounts of the battle. In addition, the Smithsonian recorded written accounts of their sign-language and spoken testimonials that were translated into English.
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!
Due in part to the digging of student research assistant, Stanford University senior Sarah Sadlier, and her professor, Scott D. Sagan, the ledgers from 1881 were rediscovered in the drawers, as well as the written testimonials. The ledgers began to be displayed at various art museums and art and history scholars pounced on the new and tantalizing information.
Red Horse’s 42 drawings provide dramatic and detailed portrayals of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. They diverge from the ledgers of later Native works that often assumed the standard white narrative about the battle. According to Sarah Sadlier, the Stanford student research assistant: “The ledger art produced about the Battle of the Little Bighorn was often Custer-centric. Many [Native] artists didn’t want to draw what they saw because they feared retribution. There are no ledger art drawings I’ve seen that are so violent and true to the face of battle” [as Red Horse’s art].”
A popular portrayal of Custer following the military debacle at the Little Bighorn was one of nearly operatic glory: America’s greatest Indian fighter with tawny flowing locks (Custer had in fact cut his famous hair before the battle) wielding saber and gun, mounted in full regalia on his fiery charger, killing dozens of Native warriors at his feet before he finally fell in gallant splendor. In fact, the most popular writer at the time, Walt Whitman, lionized Custer in a celebratory poem of Custer’s fall that was published in newspapers across the country: “Now ending well in death the splendid fever of thy deeds, (I bring no dirge for it or thee, I bring a glad triumphal sonnet).”
The vainglorious narrative of Custer in picturesque and triumphant stances upon the battlefield were continued beginning in 1888 in Buffalo Bill Cody’s “West West Shows” that featured Native Americans and actors dressed as cavalry soldiers on horseback, reenacting “Custer’s Last Stand.” That same story line continued well into the 20thcentury in film. Among the most dramatic Hollywood versions was Errol Flynn playing the dashing Custer in the 1941 hit, “They Died With Their Boots On.”
Such heroic portrayals are far from what most probably happened, although the facts will no doubt remain forever shrouded in emotion-charged mythology of the hero and legend of the great American West. Debates about nearly every aspect of the Little Bighorn and Custer’s demise are hotly contested yet today, including if his body was mutilated or not, who killed him, how he died and even if he killed himself rather than be taken prisoner and tortured.
There seems to be some consensus that Custer was shot two times, once in the left temple and once in the left chest near his heart. There is also consensus that he was later found naked on the battlefield. But from there, theories diverge wildly.
The “official” version was that Custer was found sitting up placidly on the battlefield between the corpses of his men, shot twice, but not mutilated at all and not scalped. (Many scholars have questioned this claim when so many soldiers, including Custer’s own brother, were mutilated beyond recognition. Tom Custer had to be identified through his tattoo.) Other accounts and private letters of soldiers recounted that his left thigh had been slashed to the bone (some tribes practiced this mutilation to impede an enemy from mounting a horse in the afterlife), a finger had been severed, and an arrow shaft had been shoved into his penis. There were also many Native American claims that Cheyenne women had ran awls into his ears after he was dead, to improve his hearing in the afterlife because he had not heeded warnings of their chiefs on earth. There were even soldiers’ accounts that Custer had shot himself. It is likely the truth will never be known.
“The portrayal of him [Custer] has been one of gallantry, charging in a heroic last stand,” Sadlier continues. “What people need to understand is the impact of his devastating tactics against women and children, completely against the rules of war. I think it’s very important people be aware of that. This is one little crack in the facade that’s been created around Lt Col Custer.”
When Red Horse’s drawings are presented chronologically (according to the unfolding events of the battle), they present a rare, retroactive eye-witness narrative that often contradicts the white narrative long depicted as the truth about the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The chronology of the drawings presents first uniformed cavalry soldiers advancing on horseback from right to left. Then three rows of tipis, then Native combatants and a stampede of horse tracks. The bloody carnage that follows includes scene-after-scene of chaotic and horrific violence. Both horses and men fall to the ground, some catapulted in twisting frenzy.
The final drawings, the victorious Native warriors riding their horses bareback, carry what were once cavalry rifles and lead ammunition, galloping with riderless cavalry horses (identified by their saddles and generally darker horses, bays and chestnuts) from right to left across the page.
“What’s particularly fascinating about [Red Horse’s drawings] is they’re so honest in the brutal depictions of warfare,” says Sadlier. “In many ways Red Horse’s work is the most trustworthy sort of visual depiction we have of the Battle of Little Bighorn, a Little Bighorn that’s not Custer-centric, one that nativizes from a participant who is a very respected person among the Lakota.” Red Horse’s depictions show the heroism of his fellow warriors, the brutal morass of war, and Native fighters in hand-to-hand combat against invaders of their land and killers of their people.
What is also notable in Red Horse’s drawings is the complete absence of Lieutenant Colonel Custer. On that day, Custer was riding his sorrel Thoroughbred, Vic (short for “victory”), that had a blaze and three white stockings. Nowhere in Red Horse’s drawing does such a horse appear, although his drawing are excruciatingly detailed, especially regarding the coloring of the horses and the different styles of facial hair of cavalry soldiers.
In one drawing, a white man in civilian clothes lies dead beside an upside-down American flag. Red Horse differentiates garb and decoration. He also does not shrink from showing the gory aspect of battle; fallen men slashed, scalped, dismembered, and mutilated. He devotes an entire page to fallen horses.
Make no mistake, Custer WAS brave, very brave. And, his own writings indicate he was a far more complicated man than depicted in his one-dimensional warmongering, popular persona. But, as the British writer, John Le Carre, once wrote: “The sacrifice of a brave man cannot be justified by the pursuit of an unjust war.” Red Horse’s drawings show the flipside of the war against Native Americans and focus on the bravery and valor of Native warriors defending their land, their people and their way of life.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
-Part 2: The Eyewitness Account of Red Horse at the Battle of the Little Bighorn
"The Amazing Little Bighorn Drawings of Red Horse" was originally posted on the Notes from the Frontier.com and Facebook on January 11, 2020.
235,362 views / 6,832 likes / 7,365 shares / 274 comments
© 2022 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER