AT THE GREASY GRASS
by Gregory F. Michno, member of custerwest.org, who received a bachelor of science degree at Michigan State University and a master's in history at the University of Northern Colorado, is employed by the Michigan State Department of Social Services. His first book, The Mystery of E Troop: Custer's Gray Horse Company at the Little Bighorn, came out in 1994. His book Lakota Noon, which includes much more on the Indians' points of view, was published by Mountain Press in 1996.
MOVING ROBE dropped the sharp stick she used to dig up prairie turnips, her attention drawn to a dust cloud rising in the east. The 23-year-old daughter of a Hunkpapa Lakota named Crawler had only a few seconds to ponder its meaning. As she stood in the open valley 1 on this hot, sultry day, a mounted warrior dashed by, calling out the alarm: Soldiers were coming! Women and children should run to the hills! Moving Robe, however, did nothing of the kind. She dropped her gathered turnips and ran for her tepee. It was June 25, 1876, on the white man's calendar. Elements of Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer's 7th Cavalry were rapidly approaching. For his soldiers, whose watches were set on Chicago time, it was about 3 o'clock. For the Lakota (or Sioux) and Cheyenne Indians, it was high noon.
Back in the village the news caused havoc. Other women were caught unaware in the middle of their chores. Pretty White Buffalo, Hunkpapa wife of Spotted Horn Bull, was preparing a buffalo meat stew for her brother and had no thoughts of a fight that day. The 13-year-old Oglala Lakota Black Elk was with some other boys, swimming and playing in the waters of the Greasy Grass, when he heard the criers run by with the news. Even the warriors, usually so alert, were caught unprepared. Eagle Elk, 25-year-old nephew of the Oglala warrior Crazy Horse, had been out all night dancing. He was finally on his way home when he heard far-off shooting. The Minneconjou Lakota White Bull, already a famous warrior at 26, was watering his horses north of the village. With a belly full of breakfast, he was about to settle into another long, lazy day when he heard the alarm. He jumped on his fastest horse, a bay mare, and drove the ponies back to camp. The 40-year-old Hunkpapa Rain in the Face was caught with a mouthful of food. "When I was eating my meat, we heard the war cry," Rain said. He dropped the meat and rushed to get ready for battle.
The story was nearly the same throughout the camp, which was on the west side of the river. The Cheyenne Wooden Leg was asleep under a cottonwood by the river. One Bull was in his tepee, combing his hair. Low Dog still slept in his lodge, as did Turtle Rib and Red Feather. Even after the shock wore off, Low Dog thought it was a false alarm. "I did not believe it possible," he declared, "that the whites would attack us, so strong as we were."
There was no trap. There was no preparation. Even in a broad daylight attack, Colonel Custer managed to surprise the Indians in their village.
The soldiers that first attacked were in a battalion commanded by Major Marcus A. Reno. That they caused much confusion in the upper village (the southern end of the Indians' camp) is evident from the predicament of the great Hunkpapa medicine man Sitting Bull. He did not know whether to go out and fight, help rally the warriors, ride his mother to safety, or try to arrange a truce. Sitting Bull grabbed his rawhide shield and pogamoggan, a stone war club, and handed them to his nephew, One Bull. 2 "Take my place and go out and meet the soldiers," he ordered. "Try and parley with them."
In the meantime, Sitting Bull's wife, Four Robes, was so frightened that she grabbed one of her infant twins and ran. When she got to the hills she realized she had left the other baby behind, a child that came to be known as Abandoned One. This was not the household of a leader who had set a trap for his enemies. Shortly after he sent One Bull out on his mission, Sitting Bull's gray horse was hit by two bullets. "Now my best horse is shot," he called out. "It is like they have shot me. Attack them!"
The warriors needed no further encouragement. Already they flanked the soldiers who had halted and dismounted in the valley south of the Hunkpapa camp. Moving Robe ran back to her lodge, only to be greeted with the news that her young brother Deeds had been killed in the initial charge. "Revenge!" she cried. She hurriedly braided her hair, painted her face crimson, and rushed to get her horse. "I was in mourning," she said. "I was a woman, but I was not afraid." As for One Bull, he found his mission abruptly terminated. When he raised his shield in a peace gesture, it served only to draw more fire. One Bull prayed, "Wakantanka, help me so I do not sin but fight my battle." But the outcome would be settled by bullets, not talk.
As the Indians increased the pressure, the bluecoats fell back and formed a line in the timber near the river, where they were harder to reach. The Indians took casualties. Three Bears and Hawkman went down near the Hunkpapa tepees. The Minneconjou Feather Earring, who got his name from the bright, knee-length plumage he wore at social gatherings, arrived at the fight early, but his brother Dog With Horns was cut down in front of Reno's men. Feather Earring dropped out of the fight to look for a place to hide his brother's body.
Riding next to One Bull, Good Bear Boy was badly wounded. One Bull tied a lariat around him and dragged him out of harm's way. 3 When he tried to secure Good Bear Boy to his horse, the pony was hit. One Bull walked them both to the rear and became covered with the blood of Good Bear Boy and the pony. One Bull grimaced when he heard the scraping sounds of his friend's broken bones rubbing together.
There was a brief stalemate. A leader was needed to organize the assault into the timber. Out of the north, another party of warriors arrived, having ridden up from the village. As teenagers Black Elk and Iron Hawk crept through the woods, they heard the warriors approach. From the distance came the shrill sound of eagle bone whistles. "Hokahey!" men began calling. "Crazy Horse is coming."
There was a great yell as Crazy Horse led the assault. But before the Indians could come to grips, the soldiers burst out of the woods, frenziedly spurring their mounts up the valley. Wooden Leg spun his horse around to flee, but soon realized that the soldiers were galloping past him in fear. It was grand. The fight had turned into a buffalo chase. Wooden Leg heard the Lakota calling out to the wasichu (white men): "You are only boys. You ought not to be fighting. You should have brought more Crow or Shoshone with you to do your fighting." Wooden Leg rode his pony up to a fleeing trooper and crashed the handle of his elkhorn whip onto the man's head, then seized his carbine and wrenched it from him. 4 Finally, he had a good rifle.
One Bull also got back into the chase after dropping off Good Bear Boy. He managed to kill two soldiers on horseback as they fled up the valley. A Two Kettle Lakota named Runs The Enemy noticed a black man (the interpreter Isaiah Dorman) fall from his horse as the soldiers ran from the woods. Eagle Elk rode by to see an Indian woman, whose name he thought was Her Eagle Robe, standing over the dark-skinned man, who was begging for his life. 5 He heard her call out, "If you did not want to be killed, why did you not stay home where you belong and not come to attack us?"
The running battle continued, and the troops floundered in the river as they frantically made their way to temporary safety on the east bank. Many bluecoats were killed, yet the Indians, too, had suffered. Young Black Moon and Chased By Owls were dead, as were Swift Bear and White Buffalo, the two young brothers of the Hunkpapa leader Crow King.
An Indian woman moved away from the mutilated body of the black man. He had been shot in the knees, his skin stripped off, his blood drained into a bucket, and an iron picket pin driven through his testicles. Years after the battle, Moving Robe stated, "I have not boasted of my conquests." But if she was the Indian woman seen hovering over the black man, she had certainly slaked her thirst for revenge for the death of her brother Deeds.
As the soldiers spilled across the river and up the bluffs, some Indians followed them while others remained in the valley to loot the bodies. Near the riverbank, 6 One Bull met up with Uncle Sitting Bull. The medicine man saw blood all over One Bull and said: "Nephew, you are wounded. Go to the women and have your wounds treated." One Bull laughed and explained that the blood was from Good Bear Boy and his pony. He would go back, but first he would go to the hilltop to see if the soldiers were really defeated. On the bluffs, One Bull received an unpleasant surprise. There were more troops coming from the south, leading pack trains. But worse, there were troops (Custer's five companies) to the north, already between the warriors and the lower village.
Other Indians on the bluffs also saw this new danger. "It looked as if there were thousands of them," Runs The Enemy said. "I thought we would surely be beaten." The Oglala Short Bull was on the bluffs exulting in victory when Crazy Horse rode up. "Too late! You've missed the fight!" Short Bull exclaimed. "Sorry to miss this fight," Crazy Horse said with a laugh. "But there's a good fight coming over the hill." He pointed north, and for the first time Short Bull saw the new threat. 7 "I thought there were a million of them," Short Bull said. The Indians all turned their ponies around, leaving the one group of soldiers on what would become known as Reno Hill and heading toward the second group of soldiers. Custer had surprised the Indians not once, but twice.
Down in the valley at the fringe of the timber, Black Elk stared at the body of a white soldier. An older warrior rode by and said, "Boy, get off and scalp him." Black Elk nervously slid off his pony's back. He had never done this before. He unsheathed his knife, knelt down and began to cut. The wasichu squirmed and ground his teeth in pain. He was still alive! Black Elk swallowed hard, finished the cut and popped off the hair. He raised it high, but did not know whether to exult or feel sadness for the life he took. He rode back to his mother to show her his prize.
Indians still in the lower village also became aware of the second group of soldiers advancing on the other side of the river. The Oglala White Cow Bull was with his Cheyenne friends, Roan Bear and Bobtail Horse, as they stood near the lodge where Esevone, the sacred Buffalo Hat, was kept. They were guarding the tepee during the early action when Bobtail Horse saw more soldiers approaching from a high hill in the east. "They are coming this way!" he cried. "Across the ford! We must stop them!" The three rode toward a ford at the northern end of the village, where they met up with the Cheyenne Lame White Man. 8 The latter, older and wiser in the ways of battle, urged caution. The soldiers were too many for them to fight, he said. Bobtail Horse replied: "Uncle, only the earth and Heavens last long. If we four can stop the soldiers from capturing our camp, our lives would be well spent."
The warriors were joined by White Shield, Calf, Two Eagles, He Dog, Eagle Elk, Yellow Nose and others. They all rode across the river to the east bank. Among the first to charge into the approaching troopers was the Ute-Cheyenne Yellow Nose, closely followed by Contrary Belly and Comes In Sight.
A color-bearer rode at Yellow Nose, his guidon poised like a spear. On the top of the flagstaff was a brass ferrule that Yellow Nose mistook for a rifle. With a nimble dodge and a quick lunge, Yellow Nose wrested the "rifle" from the trooper's hands. 9 Then, with a shrill whoop, he held the captured guidon high for all to see.
The clash of arms forced the soldiers, who never made it to the river, back up the same high ridge they had come from. More Indians arrived after the repulse of Reno in the south. Crazy Horse was there with his followers, among them Flying Hawk, Fears Nothing and Red Feather. As the Indians crossed the river in force and streamed up the gulches, 10 the soldiers moved north.
In the village, a Cheyenne woman named Antelope ran up to her elder brother, the medicine man Ice. "Let me have a horse," she begged him. Her nephew (Ice's son), 18-year-old Noisy Walking, had already gone out to fight. Antelope had no sons of her own, so she felt she must go out and encourage him by singing strongheart songs. Reluctantly, Ice agreed, and Antelope rode off for the river crossing.
As the soldiers moved downriver (north) along what became known as Nye-Cartwright Ridge and on to Calhoun Hill, the old Hunkpapa warrior Gall was still in the valley, unable to get into the fight. He had missed the Reno action when he went with Iron Cedar to the bluffs to check on the report of a second group of soldiers. He returned to the village to find it abandoned and his family missing. Gall went to find them. He met Sitting Bull and One Bull, who guarded the refugee women and children, but still he could not locate his family. Gall rode back to the village, where he finally found his two wives and children. Dead. Killed by the wasichus. Gall grieved. He looked back to the hills where the bluecoats were still fighting his people. "It made my heart bad," he said. "After that I killed all my enemies with the hatchet." At last, Gall rode for the river crossing.
The soldiers spread out on a long narrow ridge. On the southern end, the pursuing Indians were checked. They could not break the soldiers on the hill, said Runs The Enemy, so they rode north around their flank, looking for another approach. White Bull joined the charge on the position, but he, too, fell back. Eagle Elk saw an Indian walk dizzily to the rear, his jaw nearly shot off and blood dripping from his mouth. Red Feather's horse was shot from under him, and he had to continue to fight on foot. The Minneconjou Hump charged forward, with the "Hi-yi-yi," the shooting, and the thunder of the horses almost deafening. Bullets ripped the air, and Hump and his pony went down. 11 Almost senseless, Hump examined his wound. A bullet had torn a path from his knee, up his leg and out at the hip. He lay in the dirt and watched the strangely serene sky. The charge had failed.
Although the Indians had suffered a temporary setback, they had lost relatively few men--as yet. The fight settled into a long-range contest--for an hour or more, thought Wooden Leg. The Indians crept closer to the soldiers' positions and lofted high-arc arrows down onto the backs and heads of the wasichu and their horses, while they remained in comparative safety behind hill and gully. Although the majority fought at long-range, a number of braves dashed forward to wave blankets to spook the held cavalry horses. Frightened mounts stampeded. Two Minneconjou warriors, Standing Bear and Flying By, caught some horses as they ran toward the river. Eagle Elk managed to run down a bay and a sorrel. Near the soldiers on a hill in the north, Runs The Enemy and about 30 braves rode across the ridge, cut out a number of horses, and ran them to the river. While the horses drank their fill, Bobtail Horse rounded up two grays and drove them back to camp.
A stalemate occurred between the braves and the troopers holding the ridgeline. One company then rode down nearer to the river. 12 Wooden Leg, creeping up through a deep ravine, was forced back by their sortie. Antelope saw the troop come down, dismount, and take up a new position. Red Horse saw the Indians fall back--but only temporarily. They stopped and turned, he said, "and the Sioux and the soldiers stood facing each other."
Now was the time. Perhaps stung by Bobtail Horse's earlier words about being overly cautious, Lame White Man rode forward. 13 He raised his arm and called out for all to hear: "Come. We can kill all of them." Antelope, still in the area searching for her nephew, Noisy Walking, saw Lame White Man rally the Indians, as did an Arapaho named Waterman. The warriors followed Lame White Man back up the ravine. They struck the exposed troop and forced it to fall back to the hilltop. Many bluecoats fell, but now so did many Indians. Red Horse and Wooden Leg said that this assault was the most costly of all that day. Riding through the soldiers, Lame White Man almost reached the ridgetop. Then a bullet knocked him to the ground.
To the east, on the other side of the ridge, White Bull engaged in bravery displays of his own. He rode directly into the surprised troops, circled beyond them, and with bullets kicking up dust all around, dashed back unscathed. He was having a grand time. "I thought I would do it again," White Bull declared. He rode up to Crazy Horse and dared the great Oglala to join him. "Hokahey, brother!" cried White Bull. "This life will not last forever!" When he sprang forward again, his reckless courage was infectious, and Crazy Horse and the other Lakota warriors swept forward with him. 14 Red Feather, He Dog, Two Moon, Lone Bear and others joined in the charge. They cut the ridge in two. White Bull saw one soldier take a bullet and go down. He jumped off his pony, struck the man with his quirt, and grabbed the man's pistol and cartridges. On his horse again, White Bull saw a soldier on a played-out horse. He rushed up, grabbed the soldier by his blue coat and jerked him off his horse. Again he rode on, this time spying a trooper wielding his carbine. White Bull charged him. The soldier fired and missed, and White Bull struck him with his quirt. Three coups within a few minutes! Then his own pony went down. White Bull stood dazed in the midst of a chaotic battle raging around him.
The disintegration of the line along the three-quarter-mile ridge between Custer Hill and Calhoun Hill led to the collapse of the soldiers' position on Calhoun Hill. Yellow Nose, Contrary Belly and Comes In Sight made bravery raids up the hill. Yellow Nose had taunted the soldiers three times without effect. Finally, he called out, "Let us charge," and the Indians mounted and followed him. As he rode through the fleeing troopers, Yellow Nose struck them left and right, making good use of his captured guidon. Here, Gall finally got into the action as the mass of warriors swirled up the hill, but the soldiers melted away before them. There was no one left to kill. If Gall got to hatchet anything, it was the flotsam left behind after the tide had swept on. In this battle, he led no one but himself.
Along the ridge, 15 the fight degenerated into a second rout, much as during Reno's disorganized retreat from the valley. "It looked like a stampede of buffalo," said Runs The Enemy. The Cheyenne Little Hawk said the Indians there "chased them like buffalo," as long as the soldiers had their backs toward them.
White Bull was still in the fight. After Bear Lice rode up and gave him a captured bay pony, White Bull was off. This time he saw a wounded trooper firing a revolver. White Bull circled around and rode him down from the back side. Again he found another soldier, tall and blond, bluffing the Indians with his rifle. White Bull dove at him. They grabbed each other and fell to the ground, wrestling in the dirt. The soldier was very strong. He punched White Bull in the jaw, grabbed his long braids in his hands and pulled their heads together. Then he tried to bite White Bull's nose off. "Hey, Hey," White Bull called out. "Come over and help me!" Bear Lice and Crow Boy ran over, but they pummeled White Bull as much as his adversary. Finally, White Bull grabbed the man's revolver out of his hand and struck him with it two, three, four times. He stepped back and fired a bullet into the soldier's head. 16 "Ho hechetu!" he said. "That was a fight, a hard fight. But it was a glorious battle, I enjoyed it. I was picking up head-feathers right and left that day."
The remaining soldiers ran north to the far end of the ridge, joining the remnants of the Gray Horse Company. They had nowhere else to run. Although these soldiers were cornered, a young Cheyenne named Big Beaver found that they were still dangerous. He crept up the northern knoll and stopped behind a war-bonneted Lakota who poked his head up above the sagebrush to fire. A soldier's bullet crashed square into the middle of the Lakota's forehead. Big Beaver squirmed back downhill toward safer pastures. He was making his way along the gully east of the ridge when he saw a lone soldier make a run for it. Two Cheyenne cut him off, killed him and left his hair dangling on a branch of sage like a grisly trophy. Big Beaver searched the dead man's pockets, then took his carbine. He held it up proudly and admired it. It was the first one he had ever had. 17 When the soldiers congregated on the hill that would become known as Custer Hill or Last Stand Hill, Two Moon called his followers together for another charge. The attack carried north along the ridge, but was deflected by the soldiers' fire. "I could not break the line at the bunch of gray horses," Two Moon said. He wheeled left down the valley, with the soldiers firing as the warriors sped past. 18 "The White Horse Troops fought with signal desperation," he declared. "If the others had not given up, but had fought with equal stubbornness...Custer would have driven the Indians from the field."
There they were, the last soldiers on the hilltop. They stood and fought well, said Gall, Wooden Leg, Brave Wolf and Lone Bear. The most stubborn stand of the day was made on Custer Hill, declared Two Eagles. Red Hawk, too, said it was on Custer Hill that "the soldiers made a desperate fight." Suddenly, in a last forlorn effort, the troopers released their remaining horses, possibly to draw the Indians away in a chase. Standing Bear saw them run, as did Little Hawk. Iron Hawk looked up when he heard the yell, "Now they are going," as the last of Company E's gray horses ran toward the river. But still, there were too many Indians to make the ruse work.
Moments after releasing the horses, a number of the remaining troopers abandoned the hill. "Some of the soldiers broke through the Indians and ran for the ravine," said Red Hawk, "but all were killed without getting into it." The Oglala Fears Nothing saw them make a break through a narrow gap in the Indian line, but the warriors ran them down and killed them with war clubs. 19 Rain in the Face saw some flee, while another group stayed together at the head of a little ravine, where they fought bravely before they were cut to pieces. Rain had always thought the white men were cowards, but this fight changed his mind. "I had great respect for them after this day," he said.
Standing Bear was directly in the path of the soldiers when they made their run. Enemies mixed together, but there were four or five braves for every soldier. One trooper tried to dodge past Standing Bear, but the Indian managed to crash his revolver onto the soldier's head, then shot him as he fell. Several other soldiers got by Standing Bear and dove into a draw, where they tried to hide in the tall grass. It was hopeless. The warriors converged on them.
Nearby was Iron Hawk, who, at age 14, was fighting in his first real battle. When a soldier ran directly at him, he nocked an arrow and stretched his bow to its fullest. The arrow tore right through the man's ribs, and Iron Hawk heard his piercing scream. More soldiers approached. Iron Hawk caught up to one. "These white men wanted it," he said. "They called for it, and I let them have it." He swung his bow like a club and struck the soldier crosswise over the shoulders. Iron Hawk hit him again and again, growling "Hownh!" like a bear every time he connected. Even after the bluecoat fell to the ground, Iron Hawk continued to beat him.
White Bull, as always, was in the thick of the action. Two fleeing troopers ran close by, and he drew a bead on one. Down he went, and White Bull ran forward to count another coup--his seventh of the day.
The soldiers had shot their bolt. The warriors closed in on the last of them on the hilltop--men too wounded, too exhausted, or too game to leave their comrades behind. The Brulé Lakota Hollow Horn Bear saw no one run. "They were all brave men," he said. The last fighting was at close quarters, where he was able to wield his war club. In the last rush, amid the chaos of arrows, bullets, dust and smoke, Turtle Rib's nephew was killed on the hilltop. Nearby, Waterman killed his only soldier. He rushed up and shot him, but did not scalp him, he said, "because the Arapaho do not scalp a man with short hair, only long hair."
Runs The Enemy said the soldiers and Indians were so mixed up you could not tell one from the other. When the last one was killed, he said, "the smoke rolled up like a mountain above our heads, and the soldiers were piled one on top of another, dead." Wooden Leg compared the scene to what 1,000 dogs might have looked like if they were mixed together in a fight. He came upon a big soldier with plump cheeks and a stubby black beard. Suddenly the man rose up on one elbow and frightened some Indians, since he appeared to come back from the dead. Another Lakota jumped forward and shot him through the head. 20 "I think he must have been the last man killed in this great battle," said Wooden Leg.
The rattle of bullets subsided to an occasional scattered popping. Suddenly there were no more soldiers to fight.
If a man called George Custer died on the field, no Indian knew of it. He was another dead, stripped wasichu. One out of many.
Black Elk returned to the scene. Inured to the suffering, a boy who had become a warrior in one day, he took out his bow and drove his last blunt arrow into a wounded man's forehead. Nearby, Black Elk's father and another man were so angry about the terrible wounding of the man's son that they went up to a white man and butchered him. He was plenty fat, said Black Elk, and "the meat looked so good that they felt like eating it."
Wooden Leg walked along the hill and discovered a soldier with enormous side whiskers (Lieutenant W.W. Cooke). "Here is a new kind of scalp," he said, as he skinned off the man's long, light-yellow mutton chops. When Wooden Leg moved downhill, he came upon the body of Lame White Man. The Southern Cheyenne had paid for his pride and courage with a bullet hole through his breast, several stab wounds and a missing scalp. Evidently, Wooden Leg thought, Lame White Man had been mistaken for one of the soldiers' Indian scouts.
Antelope had given up on finding her nephew when she got word that he was in the deep ravine running down from Custer Hill. Her two-hour search was over. Noisy Walking had been shot and stabbed, but was still clinging to life. He was carried back to the village. Later that night, Wooden Leg visited him. "You were very brave," he said. The powerful holy man, so strong in blessing and healing others, could do nothing for his only son. They all kept vigil, but late that night Noisy Walking died.
There was joy in the village after the battle, explained Pretty White Buffalo, for a great victory had been won. Yet there was sorrow, too, for what wife, mother, or sister gives thought to victory when she finds her own family among the killed? The women, she said, "would not be comforted in knowing that their dead had gone to join the ghosts of the brave."
Too many had gone to the spirit land. As Moving Robe rode back to the village, she thought about her dead little brother. And she thought about the big fight, which she considered a hotly contested battle, not a massacre. Brave men who came to punish the Indians had been met by equally brave warriors, and the soldiers had been defeated. But it was all to no avail. Most of the Indian survivors surrendered within a year of the battle near the Greasy Grass. In the end, Moving Robe realized, the Indians had still lost.