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The Short, Violent Life of Buffalo Calf Road Woman (Part 2: "The Battle of the Little Bighorn")

January 21, 2017

After her heroic action at The Battle of the Rosebud--galloping, unarmed, through the raging cavalry fight to save her de-horsed brother--Buffalo Calf Road Woman, the only woman who was on that battlefield, was honored by the Cheyenne and Sioux chiefs. She was dubbed 'Brave Woman' and presented with a fine pony and a revolver that was captured during the battle. She was not, however, accepted into the warriors' circle. She was, after all, only a woman. In adherence with Native American practice, she remained in her traditional place, among the non-combatants.


Several days after the combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors had stopped General Crook's advance into Montana at The Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother or The Battle of the Rosebud (June 17, 1876), they moved their village further west, into the valley of the Greasy Grass River (Little Bighorn). Crook's force of about eleven hundred men, which was the southern element of a three pronged offensive by the U.S. Army that intended to encircle the gathered 'hostiles,' was compelled to retreat back into the Wyoming Territory. General Terry (in overall command of the campaign and advancing from the east), and General Gibbon (advancing from the west), were unaware of the circumstances.

Gibbon's and Terry's forces met along the Yellowstone River at the mouth of Rosebud Creek and reviewed their plans. Assuming Crook was still moving north, preventing the Indians from escaping encirclement in that direction, it was decided to send George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry south, up the Rosebud, to prevent escape toward the east. The infantry would continue west and ascend the Bighorn River Valley. Terry hoped his separated forces could then converge and engulf the hostiles by June 26 or 27.

On June 22, Custer, 31 officers, 586 enlisted men, 33 Native American scouts and 20 civilian employees set off to execute a reconnaissance in force. They were given the prerogative to depart from orders (which were to locate the Indian village and report its exact position), if Custer saw "sufficient reason to do so." The cavalry declined to take along a Gatling gun company, convinced it would slow them down too much.

Details of the ensuing Battle of the Little Bighorn, which was fought on June 25 and 26, 1876, have been scrutinized, discussed and speculated about more thoroughly than any other military action in United States History. Any attempt to state exactly what happened will still provoke intense debate. Many 'guesses' can be partially supported by evidence, but most historians and amateur investigators agree that any theory proposed is still just a guess. The frantic confusion which is part of all battles, the fact that the Indians were afraid to talk about it, and the sad reality that none of Custer's immediate command survived the fight assures that the debate will continue.

Custer understood an important weakness of the Natives and endeavored to take advantage of it. In his book, My Life on the Plains (published two years before his death), Custer articulated his philosophy: "Indians contemplating a battle, either offensive or defensive, are always anxious to have their women and children removed from all danger . . . For this reason I [chose to] locate our [military] camps as close as convenient to their village, knowing that the close proximity of their women and children, and their necessary exposure in case of conflict, would operate as a powerful argument in favor of peace . . . ."

Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer

In previous fights, Custer demonstrated a field strategy that was designed to engage non-combatants; to capture the women, children and elderly, and use them as hostages and human shields. If he was able to occupy a village before resistance solidified, the warriors "would be obliged to surrender, because if they started to fight, they would be shooting on their own families," or they'd fear that the soldiers would start killing the hostages. It can be 'guessed' that Custer attempted to use the same strategy at the Little Bighorn.

As the Seventh Cavalry approached the Indian village on June 25, 1876, Custer divided his command. Captain Fredrick Benteen, with three companies, was sent south to prevent the hostiles from escaping upriver (or, speculatively, to deny him the glory of battle for demonstrating recalcitrance). Major Marcus Reno, with three companies, was sent down (what is now called), Reno Creek with orders to attack the village at his first opportunity. Custer retained command of five companies, ascended the bluffs north of Reno Creek and proceeded to the Northwest. Custer knew the village's approximate location but, until he reached the high ground, had not yet seen the huge encampment.

According to Lt. Edward Godfrey of K Company under Benteen, who did extensive research on the battle, including interviews with many Indian survivors: "Custer expected to find the squaws and children fleeing to the bluffs on the north . . . He must have counted upon Reno's success, and fully expected the 'scatteration' of the non-combatants with the pony herds." In line with Custer's preferred strategy, "The probable attack upon the families were, in that event, counted upon to strike consternation in the hearts of the warriors, and were elements for success upon which General Custer* fully counted."

*Custer achieved the brevet (temporary), rank of General during the Civil War, but reverted to his permanent rank after the conflict. At the time of the Battle of the Little Bighorn he was a Lieutenant Colonel, though, out of respect he was referred to as General.

Yates' and Calhoun's Position

When Custer first saw the village, he noted a large cloud of dust at its northern end. He assumed it was the non-combatants trying to escape. His reported exclamation, "Hurrah! We've caught them napping," (considering the, now known, size of the village and the confidence instilled in the warriors by their victory over Crook), suggests a misinterpretation of the situation. Custer's final written orders: "Benteen. Come on. Big Village. Be Quick. Bring [ammunition] packs." hints that he was beginning to realize there might be trouble.

When Custer last saw Reno's troops, allegedly from the bluffs to which those men eventually retreated, they were fully engaged. The Indians had been aware of the 7th Cavalry's approach since early morning and reacted quickly to the attack (at about noon). Reno reported that he soon had five to six hundred mounted warriors massing on his left flank and was forced to pull back to his second position, in the woods along the river. Custer's forces were not in sight, were by then at the head of Medicine Tail Coulee or beyond, and were oblivious to the turn of events.

The Frantic Confusion of Battle

It can only be guessed exactly what Custer did after the last order was sent. Some believe there was a serious effort to attack the village down Medicine Tail Coulee and across Minneconjou Ford (Ford B), with the intent of occuping the Cheyenne encampment. Other historians, referring to the lack of archeological evidence at that crossing, believe the cavalry never approached Ford B, that they stayed back from the river and crossed Nye-Cartwright Ridge. Others believe that Custer, realizing how large the village actually was, again divided his force, sending several troops toward Minneconjou as a feint. He and the rest of the command then continued toward the non-combatants, but a group of warriors delayed his advance for twenty minutes (500 expended cavalry cartridges were found on Nye-Cartwright Ridge).

Logic (and some of the evidence), suggests that Captain George Yates and Lieutenant James Calhoun formed battle lines to engage warriors who had been freed up by Reno's retreat and were now surging across the river and up the hills toward their positions. In the meantime, it is speculated, Custer's companies continued on toward another crossing (Ford D), intent on capturing the fleeing women and children. Had Custer secured the hostages, he could very well have neutralized the enemy's large numerical superiority and earned a victory.

Death on Last Stand Hill

By the time Yates' companies made their feint toward Minneconjou Ford (with the dual intent of occupying the village and reinforcing Reno), Reno had already retreated to his second, defensive position in the woods. Then, Reno was seriously shaken when his face was splattered with the blood and brains of his Arikara scout, Bloody Knife, who took a Sioux bullet through the head. "All those who wish to make their escape follow me," Reno shouted in a panic. Several dozen of his men were killed in the disorderly rout across the river and up the bluffs to "Reno Hill."

During the entire fight, Custer's troops were out of the sight of Reno's men. None could say what happened. However, there are relatively consistent reports from Indians who were willing to talk about it. They claim: Custer got to within striking distance of the non-combatant refugees. He made an attempt to cross the river and capture them but was repulsed by a handful of defenders. Pretty Shield (wife of cavalry scout, Goes-Ahead), said, "... he [Custer] died there, died in the water of the Little Bighorn, with [scout] Two-bodies and the blue soldier carrying his flag." There are additional accounts that agree: A cavalry leader dressed in buckskins (as Custer was), was shot when he attempted to cross the river. He and several other soldiers fell from their horses into the water. The attack immediately ceased and the surviving soldiers recovered the bodies and carried them back to a knoll (Last Stand Hill), where they were surrounded and annihilated.

Custer's Route (?) at The Battle of the Little Bighorn

While Custer was continuing along the ridgelines toward the fleeing non-combatants, Reno was retreating in a panic and Yates and Calhoun were being driven back by an Indian attack up Deep Coulee. It was then, according to many accounts, that Crazy Horse gathered a group of elite warriors and rode through the village with such urgency and recklessness that teepees, drying racks and even some women and children were trampled by the galloping horses. They were racing to the defense of the non-combatants that Custer's companies were bearing down on.

By the time Crazy Horse and his men reached the ford, though, the soldiers had already been turned back (Custer was dead?). The famous war chief, field commander at The Battle of the Rosebud, pursued the withdrawing soldiers across the river and encircled the remnants of the Custer's immediate command (now led by Captain Miles Keogh), on Last Stand Hill. Years later, when he was accused of murdering Custer, Hunkpapa Sioux medicine man, Sitting Bull, shook his head and scoffed, "I did not murder him. Custer was a fool who rode to his death."

Ths Spoils of Victory

Over the ensuing decades several Indians claimed to have personally killed Custer. But, since Custer was not known to them by sight and there is little or no corroborating evidence, those claims are, for the most part, dismissed. According to Cheyenne tribal history (which was not made public until almost 130 years after the battle), Buffalo Calf Road Woman was with the non-combatants along with a handful of armed, elderly men. The Cheyenne insist that it was she who "fired the shot that knocked Custer from his horse on the day he died." As the cavalrymen approached the river ford, she and the others waited in ambush. When the soldiers entered the stream, 'Brave Woman' charged out on her pony to meet them and fired her pistol into the chest of a buckskin clad man. He toppled from his horse and the attack abruptly stopped. The confused soldiers retrieved their comrades' bodies and retreated.

Cheyenne woman, Kate Bighead (Antelope), described 'Brave Woman's' actions during the rest of the battle: "[She] had a six-shooter, with bullets and powder, and she fired many shots at the soldiers. She was the only woman there who had a gun. She stayed on her pony all the time, but she kept not far from her husband, Black Coyote. . . .This same woman was also with the warriors when they went [to fight The Battle of the Rosebud] about a week before. She was the only woman I know of who went with the warriors to that fight."


Buffalo Calf Road Woman at the Little Bighorn

Within a few hours Reno's and Benteen's commands were besieged on Reno Hill and all of Custer's men were dead. Indian women, as was common practice, roamed the battlefield killing the wounded, stripping them, scalping, castrating and in other ways mutilating the bodies. The warriors surrounded Reno's position and kept up fire on the entrenched cavalry for the next day and a half; until General Terry's column approached.

Custer had been shot twice, once in the left chest and once in the left temple (either was fatal). The head shot was an apparent coup de grace delivered by one of his soldiers. Since there was blood only around the chest wound, it's assumed he was dead before the head wound was inflicted. Custer's naked body was found with large, diagonal slashes across his thighs--a common Cheyenne method of mutilation. He was castrated and a finger had been cut off. He also had bone awls shoved into both of his ears, reputedly so he would hear better in the afterlife (the Cheyenne had warned him that if he persisted in his persecution of them, they would kill him). Custer was going bald and had his hair cut short before setting out on the expedition. Because it wasn't much of a trophy, it's believed, he was one of the few dead soldiers not scalped.

On June 27th, as Terry's and Gibbon's infantry made its way up the Little Bighorn Valley toward the Indian village, the tribes packed up and scattered.  They'd won two great victories in the previous ten days, but did not have the energy or inclination to engage the much larger force (which had field cannons and Gatling guns), that was quickly approaching. The tribes retreated south and west into the Big Horn Mountains. Among those fleeing were Black Coyote and Buffalo Calf Road Woman. Many "agency Indians" quickly returned to their reservations, convinced that the government's retaliation would be severe. It was.

'Brave Woman'


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