This Week in History

Battle of Bunker Hill (16 June)

Today visitors enjoy a leisurely walk around a five-acre park on a peaceful hilltop. This is all that remains of the ground that became a raging battlefield and the venue of the first, and arguably the bloodiest, full¬-scale battle of the Revolutionary War. It was at the top of this hill, on the night of 16 June 1775, that the acrimony between the British and many American colonists boiled over into savage fury, while the nearby wooden buildings of Charlestown, Massachusetts, burned from artillery fire by British warships.

This significant Revolutionary War battle, through time, was acknowledged to have been fought on Bunker Hill, but it actually took place on nearby Breed’s Hill. The campaign gained the British a narrow victory, but at the same time it inspired the colonists to continue to fight. The battle served to prove to the American people that the British Army was not invincible. It became a symbol of national pride and a rally point of resistance against British rule.

Extract from Essential Histories Specials 7: Liberty or Death – Wars that forged a nation

Outbreak – Shot heard round the world

The year 1775 marked the formal outbreak of hostilities between the British and Americans. A small skirmish in Lexington led to a larger confrontation in Concord, and the British withdrawal from Concord sparked a savage fight for survival and the beginning of outright conflict. The battle of Breed’s Hill (Bunker Hill), in June, was the first pitched battle of the war. This was followed by a bold American attempt, in December 1775, to seize and conquer Canada. After these events there could be no turning back. It was war.

The armed struggle for America began on 19 April 1775 in the towns of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. It could easily have been sooner. By late 1774, the British government was growing tired of its contentious North American colonists. General Gage, Commander-in-Chief in North America, received orders in December to arrest the instigators, but he considered the number of British troops available locally too small to be effective. Most of the British forces in North America were gathered and sent to Boston, nearly 13 battalions of infantry by the spring of 1775. Gage still considered this inadequate to deal with a possible insurrection.

In early April, Gage received reports that a large cache of weapons and gunpowder was being stored at Concord, 26 km (16 miles) northwest of Boston. The local militia was aware that the British knew about the stores, but not when the British might move against it. Senior members of the Continental Congress, such as John Adams and John Hancock, were in Lexington, and there was fear that the British would move to arrest them.

On 18 April at 8:00 pm the commanding officers of the British regiments in Boston were ordered to send their light and grenadier companies to the beach near the Magazine Guard by 10:00 pm. These troops numbered between 600 and 700 men and were commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Smith of the 10th Foot and Major John Pitcairn of the Marines. The troops were ferried across the Charles river towards Cambridge. All of the troops landed on Cambridge Marsh by midnight, but had to wait till 2:00 am before moving, in order to allow the shipping and unloading of provisions to be completed. Lieutenant Barker noted, “few but the commanding officers knew what expedition we were going upon”. Paul Revere and William Dawes secretly left Boston and rode towards Lexington and Concord to raise the alarm that the British were marching on the stores.

As the British troops marched towards Lexington, they began to receive intelligence that a large group of armed men was forming near the common at Lexington. Lieutenant-Colonel Smith sent a messenger back to Boston for reinforcements. A reinforcement brigade was ordered ready to move from Boston overland to Lexington. Due to orders not being conveyed correctly and time wasted to correct the mistake, the brigade was delayed and did not march until 8:45 am. The Lexington militia formed a company of 70 men on Lexington Green, under the command of Captain John Parker, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War.

Major Pitcairn and his companies arrived at Lexington Green just as the militia was forming up at around 6:00 am. Major Pitcairn called upon the militia to lay down their arms and return to their homes. The American commander, Parker, told his men not to fire; the British moved forward and a shot was fired. There has been extensive debate about who actually fired the first shot. Lieutenant Barker contends that “on our coming near them they [the American militia] fired one or two shots”. The situation was confusing for both sides, and Barker mentions that, after the initial shots, “our men without any orders rushed in upon them, fired and put them to flight”. The firing lasted for 15–20 minutes, when Pitcairn managed to restore order. Eight militiamen lay dead and 10 more were wounded. The British had suffered one wounded man.

Following this engagement, Pitcairn and the light infantry moved on to Concord to destroy the cache of weapons. The militia surrounding Concord was mobilized and moved to intercept the British column. The British seized Concord, and the light infantry was sent to secure bridges north and south of town, while the grenadiers dealt with destroying the weapons and gunpowder in the area. A fight broke out at the North Bridge after the British had occupied both sides. As the militia moved forward, the British withdrew from one side and fired a volley into the militia. An American stated that ‘we were all ordered to load [muskets] and had strick orders not to fire till they fired first then to fire as fast as we could … the British … fired three guns one after another … we then was all ordered to fire … and not to kill our own men’. The Concord militia opened fire and according to a British officer, “the weight of their fire was such that we were obliged to give way”.

The British suffered one killed and 11 wounded, including four officers. They withdrew towards Concord, and orders were received at around midday for all units to fall back towards Boston, the military stores having been destroyed. As the troops left Concord, sniping began from houses along the road to Boston. About 2 km (one mile) outside of Concord, the British column crossed at Meriam’s Corner, where it became bunched up. Militiamen opened up on the large column, inflicting heavy casualties on the flanks and rear.

The relieving brigade from Boston met up with the remainder of the British column at Lexington, bringing the numbers of British troops close to 1,500 men. The combined force marched out towards Boston. As a British officer noted: “we were attacked on all sides from woods, and orchards and from stone walls and from every house on the road side”. The British reaction to this sort of attack was described as follows: “the soldiers were so enraged at suffering from an unseen enemy, that they forced open many a house from which the fire proceeded, and put to death all those found in them”. Militiamen poured in from all the surrounding towns to fight against the withdrawing British column, but the British were able to keep them at a distance with the use of flanking parties and a very good rearguard formation.

When they arrived in Cambridge, the British column decided to head towards Charlestown, as the bridge from Cambridge to Boston had either been destroyed or was heavily defended. The column arrived at Charlestown at 7:00 pm and occupied the area until boats were sent to ferry the troops back over to Boston. The militia did not pursue the British into Charlestown because the area was open terrain. As Barker noted: “the rebels did not chuse [sic] to follow us to the Hill as they must have fought us on open ground and that they did not like”.

The British lost about 70 killed and 170 wounded during the day’s fighting, while the Americans are estimated to have lost 100 men killed and wounded. The British had been successful in extricating themselves from the area and had applied good lightinfantry tactics in clearing the militia from the stone walls and houses that lined the road to Boston.

Bunker Hill

Following this first skirmish, the surrounding colonies sent militia reinforcements to Boston during the remainder of April and May. By the end of May, militia numbers had swelled to about 17,000 men. The British received reinforcements in the shape of Major-Generals (later Lieutenant-Generals) Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and Sir John Burgoyne as well as the 35th, 49th, and 63rd Regiments of Foot over the course of May and June. Gage finally felt equipped to occupy the two dominant heights commanding Boston, Dorchester Heights and Charlestown (Breed’s Hill). The rebels received word of this and began to dig a redoubt on Breed’s Hill on the evening of 16 June 1775.

The British decided to attack the American positions on Breed’s Hill, in an episode that has come down the years of history as the battle of Bunker Hill. Colonel William Prescott was in charge of the American forces on the hill; these were estimated at a few thousand men. Defensive positions had been dug from the redoubt down to the Mystic River in an attempt to rebuff any flanking attack from the British.

The British sent a force of 2,000 men over to Charlestown in the early afternoon of 17 June, under the command of General Howe. Howe, a veteran of the French-Indian War, understood the needs of light infantry and the difficulties of assailing a fixed position frontally, so it is even more surprising that his main attack was a frontal assault. This can perhaps be attributed to the arrogant belief that the rebels would flee once they saw the British regulars advancing.

The British left, under the command of Brigadier Robert Pigott, had marched to within yards of the American lines when a heavy volley was fired into their midst. A second volley followed, forcing the left wing to fall back. The British troops were supported by artillery, but this had no impact on the first attack. One American observer described “the balls flying almost as thick as hailstones from the ships and floating batteries … our people stood the fire some time”. Howe’s troops on the right flank were similarly unable to breach the American defenses. Pigott launched a second frontal attack with no more success. A British officer said, “the oldest soldiers here [Boston] say that it was the hottest fire they ever saw not even the Battle of Minden [1759] … was equal to it”. Howe’s second attempt on the right wing failed as well.

Reinforcements arrived as the decision was made to attempt a third and final attack. The American defenders, meanwhile, were running low on ammunition, and Prescott ordered his men to hold their fire until the last possible moment. The British line advanced, and when they were within 30–60 feet (9–18 m), the Americans fired their last rounds. The British pushed forward with bayonets fixed, driving the Americans from their positions. The Americans managed to retreat over the Charlestown Neck without much opposition, however, as Gage failed to translate the victory into a decisive rout.

The British had seized the hill, but it was a Pyhrric victory. Of the 2,500 British troops involved, 228 had been killed and 800 wounded. The Americans, on the other hand, had lost only 100 killed and 270 wounded. These casualties were the worst the British suffered during the war. As Gage noted in a letter that was published in the London Gazette, “the tryals [sic] we have shew that the Rebels are not the despicable Rabble too many have supposed them to be” (22–25 July 1775). This battle also made clear to the Americans that, though they might be successful in defense, they would require a professional Continental-style army to challenge the British in the open fields of America.

After the casualties suffered at Breed’s Hill, the British decided not to attack Dorchester Heights. While Charlestown was occupied, the British remained holed up in Boston for the rest of the year. General Gage was replaced by General Sir William Howe as Commander-in-Chief of America in October 1775.

Battle of Quebec

The final military campaign of 1775 took place in upstate New York and Canada. American forces had seized the British posts at Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point in May 1775. In June, the Continental Congress created the Separate Army, giving the command to Major-General Philip Schuyler, along with orders to attack Canada. Schuyler’s deputy, Brigadier Richard Montgomery, a former British regular, was given field command of the army. He was ordered to attack towards Montreal and rendezvous with a New England force under the command of Brigadier Benedict Arnold. Arnold’s force followed the Penobscot river (in present-day Maine), intending to arrive outside Quebec City, the principal British garrison in Canada.

Montgomery’s advance went according to plan, but the British and Canadian militiamen at St John’s, Quebec, unexpectedly held out for five weeks. Montreal fell on 13 November 1775, with cold weather setting in. Arnold’s force had underestimated crossing the Maine frontier, and arrived fatigued and hungry outside Quebec in mid-November. Montgomery arrived in early December. The British commander and governor at Quebec, Lieutenant-General Sir Guy Carleton, had only 1,800 troops, nearly all of whom were newly raised militia or recruits. Most of the regulars had been sent to Boston.

The Americans fielded about 1,000 men. They attacked the city on 31 December, one day before many of Arnold’s New England troops’ terms of enlistment ended. A snowstorm began as the attack was launched; an American soldier described the scene:

this morning about 4 AM the time appointed to storm the city our army divided into different parts to attack the city … we got near the walls when a heavy fire of cannon and small arms began from the enemy, they being prepared and expecting us that night … came to the wall cannon roaring like thunder and musket balls flying like hail.

Brigadier Montgomery was killed and General Arnold wounded. The Americans suffered heavy losses, and, though they remained outside the city, the threat to Quebec had passed.

The British strategy of 1775 had been to apply overt military action to try to resolve a problem that was essentially political in origin. Their aim in doing so was to quell the growing dissatisfaction of the colonists and in this they failed. The concentration of British regulars in Boston had not frightened the local population into submission. On the contrary, the population had become more openly hostile in the presence of troops. The attempt to seize and destroy the weapon caches in Concord, while technically successful, had sparked an all-out rebellion. Lack of strategic planning found the bulk of the British North American forces hemmed into Boston, surrounded by a hostile citizenry. The victory at Breed’s Hill, won at such great cost, had left the senior commanders in Boston hesitant to destroy the local American forces surrounding them.

Finally, the Americans had almost succeeded in capturing Canada. While an American victory would almost certainly have provoked a more definitive response from the British, the reality remained that the Americans had successfully invaded as far as Quebec, conclusively demonstrating just how vulnerable the British were in dealing with the insurrection. Senior members of the British government called for a naval blockade of the colonies, but the ultimate decision was to concentrate resources in a land war.

The Americans had been able to achieve great things in 1775. They had forced the British into Boston and kept them trapped there. Some members of the Continental Congress recognized, however, that the British were not going to give in easily and stressed the need for proper military training and force to counter the British regulars.

Further reading

Essential Histories Specials 7: Liberty or Death – Wars that forged a nation
An examination of the wars in North America from the French-Indian War in 1754 until the end of the War of 1812, which brought lasting peace between Britain and the United States. This book places the 1775 rebellion in the broader context of America’s struggle for independence.

Campaign 37: Boston 1775
An exploration of the opposing commanders and forces involved, whilst describing how the sparks at Lexington and Concord ignited the smouldering resentment of the Colonists into the flame of a rebellion. The British assault on Breed’s Hill and the burning of Charlestown were the first major battles of the American Revolution; after the events at Boston there was no turning back.

Campaign 128: Quebec 1775
This title looks at the battle following Breed’s Hill. The American attack on Quebec in 1775 was a key episode in the War of Independence. Capture of the city would give the Americans control of Canada – a disaster for the British. The subsequent campaign involved a 350-mile trek across uninhabited wilderness, and a desperate American attack on the city of Quebec that left one American general dead.

Elite 93: American War of Independence Commanders
The commanders who led the opposing armies of the American War of Independence came from remarkably different backgrounds. They included not only men from Britain and America, but from Germany, France and Spain as well. This title details the appearance, careers and personalities of the commanders on both sides.

Warrior 68: Continental Infantryman of the American Revolution
America raised three distinct forces to win its revolution; untrained, short-service militiamen; state troops; and the regular Continentals. The latter were the backbone of the army, providing a disciplined and effective fighting force. This book takes a close look at the Continental infantryman of the period examining all facets of their daily life

Little Big Horn (25th June)

The battle of Little Big Horn, known to many as ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, was in the words of General Terry ‘a sad and terrible blunder.’ The operation’s aim was to force the Indians back on to the reservations and back under Federal control. The Americans planned to do this by encircling the Indians with three columns of troops, led by Generals Crook and Terry, and Colonel Gibbon. The campaign of Little Big Horn, however, went wrong from the beginning. The column led by General Crook was stopped almost immediately, and after a severe mauling fell back to its supply base. Custer, commanding the 7th US Cavalry Regiment under the leadership of Terry, disobeyed his orders and followed a trail left by a large number of ponies towards the Little Big Horn. On the morning of 25 June he encountered a large camp of Indians. Splitting split his command into three groups and failing to asses the strength of the Indian force Custer attacked; with disastrous consequences. By 6pm 210 troopers of the US 7th Cavalry regiments and Custer were dead. On 26 June the Sioux and their allies followed up their success by travelling upstream and attacking Reno, Custer’s second-in-command. Reno’s command, the remainder of the regiment, suffered a further 47 casualties. General Terry and Colonel Gibbon reached the remains of the camp the following day.

Further reading

Campaign 39: Little Big Horn 1876 Custer's Last Stand (extract below) details the entire campaign, focussing on Custer’s Last Stand, and aims to set aside the myths that have grown up around this famous incident, and retell the events accurately.

Men-at-Arms 63: The American Indian Wars 1860-1890 covers the participants on both sides of this war. For more information on the Indians, Men-at-Arms 163: The American Plains Indians (extract below) is about the plains Indians in general, and Men-at-Arms 344: Tribes of the Sioux Nation (extract below) details the Sioux Indians, who comprised the majority of the warriors who fought the US Cavalry at Little Big Horn. Warrior 4: US Cavalryman 1865-1890 and Men-at-Arms 168: US Cavalry on the Plains 1850-90 are studies of the US army during this period on the plains.

An extract from Campaign 39: Little Big Horn 1876 Custer's Last Stand

Custer’s last stand


Custer’s mission was to force the warriors to return to the reservation. His most effective method of achieving this was to destroy their homes and property, or capture the non-combatants and hold them hostage. The non-combatants were the primary targets. Lt. Godfrey understood Custer’s expected strategy as ‘ … attacks on the families and the capture of the pony herds were in that event counted upon to strike consternation into the hearts of the warriors, and were elements for success.’ According to Trumpeter Martin, Custer had expressed this intention to his subordinates before descending the Medicine Tail Coulee. With Benteen and the pack train present, he would have sufficient numbers to capture them.

Immediately after the two Custer battalion wings converged on Calhoun Hill, the left wing moved north along battle ridge to investigate any northern ford, and confirm the location of the non-combatants. Warriors attempting to interfere with Yates’ movement were suppressed, and Yates’ troopers eventually moved, with little resistance, north-west along the Cemetery Ridge. Custer and his staff probably accompanied Yates’ wing in this reconnaissance. They rode about a mile beyond Custer Hill, within sight of the north ford and Squaw Creek. Across the river, thousands of Indian non-combatants were seeking refuge. Custer would need the additional 300 men from Benteen and the pack train before he could do more. The left wing then retraced its steps, moving along the flats, back toward Cemetery Ridge.

While Custer and the left wing were beyond Cemetery Ridge, Crazy Horse and his mounted following crossed the Little Big Horn River at the mouth of the Deep Ravine, just north of the village. They ascended through the Deep Ravine and crossed the mile-long Battle Ridge far to the north of the right wing, then took a covered position in the ravines along the east side of the ridge and began to infiltrate towards the right wing. With Gall approaching Calhoun Hill from the south, the Cheyenne leader, Lame White Man, to the west, and Crazy Horse now to the east, the encirclement was complete.

It was about this time, 4.50pm, that Capt. Weir departed Reno Hill with D Company. Custer’s left wing returned to Cemetery Ridge and deployed in skirmish formation, with E Company taking up a position near Custer Hill and F Company just below it. Indian aggressiveness intensified as their numbers rapidly increased. They began to close in from all directions. Cheyenne war chief Two Moons and Runs the Enemy attempted to stampede the grey horses (E Company) near Cemetery Ridge, but were deterred by carbine fire. The Custer battalion waited, looking south-east for Benteen. Calhoun and Keogh were on Calhoun Hill, Custer, Yates and Smith on Cemetery Ridge. The skirmishing continued for 20 or more minutes, as the hostiles continued to infiltrate.

Captain Keogh, Custer’s right wing commander, had deployed three companies (L, C and I) on Calhoun Hill in the standard US Cavalry textbook formation. As warriors continued to arrive from the Reno fight, L company became more heavily engaged from the west and south. The horses were in jeopardy, and their holders were taking fire from Calhoun Coulee. Keogh dispatched C Company, led by Lt. Harrington, to charge west into Calhoun Coulee and dislodge a small group of warriors who were threatening the horses and men. The charge failed because the troops were exposed to intense fire when they came into range of Greasy Grass Ridge and other positions. The survivors fled back to Calhoun Hill and were immediately pursued by mounted warriors led by the Cheyenne chief Lame White Man.

Warriors to the south, following Gall, seized the opportunity. They rushed up the southern approaches to Calhoun Hill in an intense blaze of rifle fire. This sudden shock triggered a collapse of the position, since a few troopers panicked and attempted to flee, encouraging many more warriors to surge forward. They charged in, mounted and on foot, from several directions, engaging in ferocious hand-to-hand combat. Some soldiers were cut down fleeing, others grouped together and made easy targets for the warriors with bows. Lt. Calhoun was killed in one of these small groups. Some of the soldiers on horseback fled the 600 yards towards Keogh’s position, but most of those on foot were ridden down.

As Calhoun’s company collapsed, engulfed by Sioux and Cheyenne Warriors, Keogh’s I Company deployed to engage the pursuing warriors. They were unable to react fast enough, and were shaken by the sudden turn of events. When the survivors fled towards I Company, tactical cohesion disintegrated there also. Crazy Horse and his following were encroaching from the ravine north-east of Keogh, in perfect position to attack. They swept in on all three companies from the east, as the other warriors pursued C and L Companies from the south and west. The entire element was surrounded and cut to pieces.

The left wing was also under some pressure as the hostiles closed in. Pinned, and out of supporting fire range, Custer must have watched in horror as events rapidly unfolded before him, less than a mile down the ridge. There was little opportunity to react, for within a matter of minutes the right wing had disintegrated.

Absolute chaos reigned as more frenzied warriors surged forward and terrified troopers tried to flee. More soldiers bunched together and resisted before being killed or forced to run away. Captain Keogh was killed with a small group of his men on the eastern slope of the ridge. The fight moved along the ridge from Calhoun Hill to Custer Hill. Over half the battalion was gone; the remainder were surrounded and outnumbered.

The left wing was able to maintain tactical cohesion as they deployed to receive about 20 left wing fugitives. A skirmish line from E Company opened fire on the pursuing Indians, checking the warriors’ advance along the ridge. With barely more than 100 soldiers left, E and F companies were surrounded near Cemetery Ridge and Custer Hill. They were now outnumbered by as many as 15 or 20 to one and there was no sign of Reno or Benteen.

Both companies made their way towards the top of the hill. It was a poor position, with thousands of warriors moving in for the final attack. Exposed troopers were picked off, while groups of mounted warriors stampeded many of the Army horses. The Sioux managed to concentrate on the weakest points. They continued to attack by fire, to pin and suppress. Other warriors remained mounted and mobile.

The surviving members of Custer’s command hunkered down behind dead horses as Indians further encroached on their position. Ammunition shortages could not have been a critical concern, for most Indian accounts testify that captured cartridge belts had ample rounds still on them. Custer may have been shot at this point, for a mounted foray was attempted without him. With the greater threat coming from the direction of Calhoun Hill to the south, E company mounted what horses were still available, and made a dash toward the west. The E Company commander was left behind, dead or wounded on the hill. Whether to escape or to drive off enfilading snipers, the manoeuvre failed. Thousands of warriors diverted their movements into the Deep ravine.

About 50 men (F Company and right wing survivors) remained on Custer Hill. The numbers dwindled as Indian firepower took its toll. Finally a group of 15-20 dismounted soldiers desperately attempted to flee toward E Company in the Deep Ravine. They were shot or ridden down, and their bodies lay scattered from the hill to the upper portions of the ravine.

The final event was an anti-climax to the battle. Those soldiers on Custer Hill who were wounded or did not attempt to flee were overrun by the victorious Sioux and Cheyenne. It is doubtful that any of Custer’s group were left standing as warriors closed in to finish them off. There was some resistance, as a few warriors were killed in the final hand-to-hand melee.

Custer was either dead or dying by this time. He was found on top of a soldier, and horse, shot in the chest, and then in the left temple. On the ground next to him were 17 shells from his Remmington sporting rifle. Nearby lay his brother Tom, shot full of arrows and his adjutant Lt. Cooke. Capt. Yates and 2nd Lt. Reily, the Company F executive officer, were on the hill with about 20 other F company troopers. Lt. Algernon Smith, E Company commander, was the only man from his company found on Custer Hill. There were 42 bodies on the hill and 39 dead horses. The 210 men of the Custer battalion were all killed. By 6pm the mounted warriors were beginning to attack Weir and Benteen. Custer’s troopers were stripped and mutilated by the warriors and women who stayed behind.



An extract from Men-at-Arms 344: Tribes of the Sioux Nation

The context of Custer’s Last Stand - The 1876 campaign


The US Army strategy for 1876 was to force these Sioux and their Cheyenne allies back to the agencies by encircling the Indians in south central Montana with three columns of troops: one under Col John Gibbon moving east from Fort Ellis at Bozeman, the second under Gen Alfred Terry (with Custer) moving west from Fort Abraham Lincoln near Bismarck, and the other under Gen George Crook moving north from Fort Fetterman on the North Platte. However, each column had only about 1,000 troops, some of dubious quality, who faced long marches to reach the area of the Rosebud, Tongue and Big Horn Rivers where the Indians were ranged. The plan received a major setback on 17 June on the Rosebud when Crook’s 1,300-strong column was defeated by Crazy Horse, forcing him to withdraw to his base near present-day Sheridan, Wyoming; Crook took no further part in the campaign.

Terry and Gibbon met on the Yellowstone at the mouth of the Powder on 8 June, and conferred again on 21 June on the steamer Far West near the mouth of the Rosebud. Custer was despatched thence on 22 June, south down the Rosebud, with orders to swing north-west to the forks of the Big Horn and Little Big Horn, where Terry and Gibbon would be waiting. Custer tracked the pony hoofprints of the Indians west to a point now known as the Crow’s Nest, a ridge about 15 miles from where a huge Indian village stretched along the Little Big Horn River. Custer’s Arikara and Crow scouts reported the village early on 25 June, but they underestimated the numbers of hostiles in the vicinity.

Custer attacked at once, dividing his 7th Cavalry into three parties. Captain Frederick Benteen, with Companies D, H and K, was sent south to scout and report Indian movements; Maj Marcus A.Reno led Cos. A, M and G against the southern edge of the village. Custer himself would advance northwards with Cos. C, E, F, L and I, some say following the line of a ridge running parallel to the village, which was scattered along the wooded valley to his left on the west bank of the Little Big Horn River. He then apparently swung west over the crest of the ridge, intending to cross the river and attack the northern end of the village. All we really know of the Custer attack is from Indian accounts recorded much later, and these are often confused. At what point he crossed the ridge or even if he ever reached the river remains in dispute. His column was certainly repulsed and cut to pieces, some succeeding in retreating to a rise since named Custer Hill, where a monument now stands. Custer was outnumbered and totally overwhelmed by fresh and probably better-armed warriors frantic to defend their women and children.

With him died 214 men, including his brothers Tom and Boston, a nephew and a brother-in-law. Mutilated corpses were found in four groups strewn on Calhoun Ridge, and another about half a mile north. Some 40 men had fallen with Custer on the hill which bears his name, and about 30 bodies were found near the river in a ravine. To the south, Maj Reno hit the village but halted his charge when confronted by an enormous number of warriors; he formed a skirmish line, from which he later retreated across the river, to be rejoined by Benteen’s battalion, ultimately on a site now known as Reno Hill. Here fighting continued until 26 June; no serious attempt was made to break out of this defensive position, although a few made brave dashes to reach water, and one of Benteen’s officers, Thomas B.Weir, moved to a vantage point from where his troops caught glimpses of the Indians through the smoke of battle to the north. After losing 47 killed, Reno was relieved by Terry on the 26th, shortly after the great Indian camp had broken up, setting fire to the grass – the Indians knew retribution was bound to follow.

During the high summer and autumn of 1876 Crook returned to the field, where his subordinates Col Wesley Merritt (5th Cavalry) and Capt Anson Mills (3rd Cavalry) gained victories over the Sioux at Warbonnet Creek, Nebraska, and Slim Buttes, South Dakota, respectively; in the latter fight Chief American Horse was killed. In October Col Nelson Miles held a meeting with Sitting Bull which ended in a running battle. During the following winter Cols Miles and Mackenzie (4th Cavalry) harassed the Cheyennes and Sioux, until by May 1877 most had returned and surrendered to the agencies.

However, the flow of fortune-hunters into the Black Hills did not diminish despite the fighting. Another government commission was charged with the task of obtaining the Black Hills by a treaty change to the western boundary of The Great Sioux Reservation. Although the agency chiefs Red Cloud, Red Leaf, Spotted Tail and John Grass signed, many did not; but the articles of the agreement were passed by Congress in February 1877. Sitting Bull crossed into Canada with High Bear and Gall, but Crazy Horse and his Oglalas and Cheyennes were defeated by Col Mackenzie; Crazy Horse surrendered in the spring of 1877, and was imprisoned and murdered. Gall and Sitting Bull returned to the Standing Rock Agency in 1881.

The decade of the 1880s was a traumatic time for the Western Sioux. The Great Sioux Reservation – all of present-day South Dakota west of the Missouri River – had been set aside for the seven western Sioux bands by the treaty of 1868. It was reduced in size by the Black Hills cession of 1877, and again in 1889 when the Sioux surrendered nine million acres and were forced to accept six separate reservations in place of the single large one. Using the control of rations the Indian agents sought to destroy the old Indian social and religious customs, including discouraging Indian dress and hairstyles. The nomadic warrior-hunter culture had gone, and the Sioux were to become farmers, ranchers and Christians; many were dependent upon agency rations for food, as the last of the buffalo had gone by 1884. The Sioux were no longer in control of their own destiny.

In 1889 the Sioux heard of a new cult which derived from earlier forms amongst the Paiute Indians of Nevada. Sioux pilgrims visited the cult leader Wovoka at Walker River, and on their return described him as Messiah, having returned from heaven with a message of peace and reconciliation. The Sioux, however, added their own interpretations: a new earth, the return of the buffalo, and the belief that wearing ritual clothes painted with symbols would protect the wearer if shot by white soldiers. The Ghost Dance rituals – so-called because it was claimed that the ghosts of ancestors would return – aroused great excitement on the Sioux agencies in 1890, both amongst the Indian converts and the military. The agent at Standing Rock, James McLaughlin, ordered the Indian police to restrict Sitting Bull, whose ardent followers had been Ghost Dancing for weeks. In the confrontation which followed outside Sitting Bull’s cabin on 15 December 1890 the chief was shot dead by Red Tomahawk, an Indian policeman.

A band of Ghost Dancers from Cheyenne River under Big Foot, heading south for the Bad Lands presumably to join Kicking Bear and Short Bull, was intercepted by Maj Whitside and escorted to Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. By a twist of fate the troops who now held Big Foot’s band were from the 7th Cavalry, cut to pieces on the Little Big Horn 14 years earlier. On 29 December 1890 the soldiers, now under the command of Col Forsyth, surrounded the Indian camp; and during the confrontation that followed soldiers using rifles and howitzers killed 300 men, women and children. The dead were buried in a common grave, which remains today a memorial to the long sufferings of the Sioux people over the past three and a half centuries.


 An extract from Men-at-Arms 163: The American Plains Indians

The war costumes of the American Plains Indians

While a certain basic wardrobe was reserved simply for everyday comfort, the Plains warrior also wore highly decorative dress or war costume for ceremonies, parades, burial and battle, with embellishments which served various purposes. Firstly, display costume could denote society or tribal rank, or membership of a visionary cult. Secondly, designs reflected visionary experience and consequently invoked ‘medicine’, providing supernatural guidance and protection. Thirdly, war costume displayed achievement marks, retaining and proclaiming evidence of a warrior’s accomplishments.

The war shirt or ‘scalp’ shirt provides a good example of all three functions. In early years it was almost exclusively worn as a badge of office; this is most clearly illustrated by the leaders of the Sioux, who were called Shirt-Wearers, each being presented with a pained shirt fringed with hair symbolising the people they were responsible for. Prominent warriors, when they wore scalp-shirts as marks of distinction, fringed the neck and sleeves either with hair taken from an enemy or – particularly among the Blackfoot and Crow – with ermine pendants. Bands of beadwork or quillwork along the arms and over the shoulders, or in the form of rosettes, also denoted military excellence; among the Crow, for example, four such bands symbolised a holder of the four main coups.

War shirts were also decorated with painted representations of exploits, the symbols for different coups varying from tribe to tribe. Some commonly used designs were a hand, representing success in hand-to-hand combat; stripes, which could symbolise wounds or coups; pipes, numbering the war-parties led; and hoofmarks, indicating numbers of horses captured.

While a war shirt could therefore provide a pictographic record of the wearer’s coups, it also offered him supernatural protection through other designs and trimmings. Such shirts, which might form a vital part of a man’s war medicine, sometimes offered protection by association with the danger: for example, by depicting black dots or ‘tadpoles’ which supposedly made the wearer immune to bullets. Alternatively, shirts were painted with designs seen by the wearer in a vision, such as the bear or the eagle, which could impart protection from the Sacred Powers.