Alva Review-Courier -

The Coffee House Philosopher: Faint voices from beyond the Little Bighorn – Part 3


February 23, 2020

In the 19th century, jamming of cartridges in gun breeches of military weapons happened relatively infrequently. But to a harried combatant engaged with an enemy, having a gun jam once in action would be once too often.

Some weapons tended to jam more frequently during periods of continuous firing. And if the cartridge being used contained black powder, jamming was all the more likely to occur.

(In the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, cleaner burning smokeless powder was not yet available to the U.S. Cavalry. But by the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898, smokeless powder was being used by the Spanish army while Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were still using black powder, and thus filling the air with smoke and experiencing the more frequent jamming of guns.)

Individual tragedies are also apparent by studying circumstantial evidence from the Little Bighorn battlefield carefully. One trooper from Last Stand Hill must have been among the last soldiers alive, and made a break from the others in an attempt to survive. His marker (which does not have a name on it, meaning he was not identifiable) is located in a gully several hundred yards to the southwest of Last Stand Hill. There were four different trails of shell casings following him on the gully ridges above him.

Only a shell casing or two was found that had been fired from the trooper’s carbine, and they were found pretty far from the trooper’s final marker. Forensic detectives theorized that the trooper was being pursued by four or more Indians, who were firing at him from above. He then was hit by one or more rounds, and became unable to return fire.

Some Indian reports also tell of tragic mistakes by individual troopers. They tell of one group of Indian warriors that was pursuing a lone trooper on a faster horse, and he was gradually beginning to outdistance them. A cloud of dust was being raised by a different group of frightened horses that were fleeing the noise of battle in the trooper’s general direction. As the horses drew nearer, the trooper evidently was not able to clearly see that the horses had no riders, and suddenly he drew his sidearm, put it to his head, and fired the weapon.

Perhaps now is a bit late, but about now we ought to consider what the cavalry and the Indians were doing at the Little Bighorn in1876 (the Indians prefer to call the location “the Greasy Grass.”). Prior to this date, treaties had been made between Indian tribes and the United States concerning what lands would be reserved for Indians, and which would remain open for white settlement. But many of these treaties were soon broken for various reasons afterwards (mainly by the whites.)

Due to mounting conflicts between the parties, Congress eventually passed a law that required Indians to reside on established reservations, or be regarded as hostile and subject to attack. The law was not widely publicized among Indians residing off reservations, and thus many Indians had no way of knowing what the law required of them.

In 1876 gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and a flood of white settlers and prospectors poured into the area in violation of the latest treaty with the Sioux. In response, large numbers of angry Indians from Sioux and Cheyenne tribes left their reservations, and joined a group of hostiles led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in Montana. Some authorities put the number of residents in the Little Bighorn village where they camped at 6,000 to 10,000 individuals.

Thousands of U. S. troops were mobilized to force the Indians back onto their reservations. And regarding the concentration of Indian (so called) hostiles at Little Bighorn, three separate columns of U. S. forces converged on the site from three different directions.

In the first column, General George Crook, who was considered by some to be greatest Indian fighter in the U. S., approached with a combined force of 1,051 regulars and 261 Crow and Shoshone allies from the south. General John Gibbon and his comparable force came from the west. And General Alfred Terry, with Custer serving as a subordinate officer serving under him, made his approach from the east. The overall military strategy was to have the three forces conduct a coordinated campaign against the Indians, and force them back to reservations.

The Little Bighorn battle took place on Crow territory. Therefore they considered the northern Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Arapaho tribes as trespassers.

In General Terry’s column, Custer’s cavalry force of 655 men was ordered to ride ahead of the main force to scout the Little Bighorn situation. Anxious to prove himself as an Indian fighter, he pressed ahead with all possible speed by having his detachment spend long hours in the saddle.

Consequently, Custer’s force drew near to the Little Bighorn at least a day in advance of Terry’s and Gibbon’s forces. And whatever his motivation, Custer decided to attack the village without waiting for the arrival of any of the three principal converging columns. Given the haste of Custer’s preparations, and rapid deployment of his troops prior to attack, it is readily apparent that Custer had greatly underestimated the number of warriors that were in the village.

In the meantime, General Crook’s force (perhaps forty miles to the south) was suddenly attacked by 1,500 - 1,800 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Crazy Horse. The attack began against Crook’s greatly out-numbered Indian allies, who had been traveling as a separate group prior to what is now known as the Battle of the Rosebud. When Crook’s regular soldiers joined in the fight, the Sioux and Cheyenne were eventually beaten off after six hours of heavy fighting.

The end result of the battle is considered as a Cheyenne and Sioux victory. Crook’s combined force of regular troopers and Crow and Shoshone allies suffered a large number of casualties, and expended much of his command’s supply of ammunition.

As a result of the Rosebud battle, Crook had to attend to the needs of his own command, and turned his column back south, and returned to his post of origin. Further, after the battle, the U. S. forces were left with only Terry’s divided command and Gibbons’ column active in the operation to force the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne tribes back on to designated reservations.


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