Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Prelude to Little Bighorn

Prelude to Little Bighorn

Deadly attack on Indian village reveals Army bungling

  • Updated

“Soldiers are coming to fight you,” Last Bull, a chief of the Fox warrior society, announced when he reached Old Bear’s band of Northern Cheyenne camped on the west side of the Powder River on a bitterly cold day in February 1876.

No one believed him, Wooden Leg, an 18-year-old warrior during that turbulent year, remembered decades later in interviews with his biographer, Thomas Marquis.

The Cheyenne had a treaty that allowed them to hunt where they wished in the unoccupied lands of what became Eastern Montana and Wyoming as long as they did not make war.

And they hadn’t, Wooden Leg said. They avoided white men whenever possible.

Times were good for bands of Sioux and Cheyenne hunting far from reservations established for them in the Dakotas and Nebraska. Buffalo in the thousands grazed on the upper Powder and Tongue rivers, and deer, elk and antelope were easy to find.

“Lots of colts were being born in our horse herds this spring. We were rich, contented, at peace with the whites so far as we knew,” Wooden Leg said.

In a council the next day, the chiefs decided to stay put, reasoning, “If soldiers come we shall steal their horses. Then they cannot fight us.”

They did not understand then that these would be their last carefree days — that soldiers were coming. Or that events already set in motion in Washington, D.C., would take the tribes to victory at the Little Bighorn a few months later and, within a few years, to the demise of their way of life.

Three months earlier, on Nov. 6, 1875, an ultimatum had been issued to non-reservation Indians: If they did not surrender peacefully at the agencies by Jan. 31, the government would use force to bring them in.

Even if word got to all the scattered bands on the Northern Plains, including those of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and even if they had been inclined to comply, it was an impossible deadline.

Gen. George Crook was already assembling a strike force for a winter campaign, hoping to hit the roaming bands before warmer weather brought reinforcements from the agencies.


March northward


On March 1, Crook left Fort Fetterman, near present-day Douglas, Wyo., headed for the Powder River Country, where Sioux bands under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were believed to be hunting.

Into the frigid plain marched 10 companies of cavalry, two of infantry and 62 civilian packers, along with staff, scouts and at least two newspaper reporters for a total of nearly 900 men. They moved with a wagon train and a herd of cattle to feed them on their way through the calorie-sapping, sub-zero march up the old Bozeman Trail to Fort Reno and then north into Montana Territory.

The troops were outfitted from head to toe with layers of wool, hide and fur, including overcoats of buffalo, bear or beaver.

Even that wasn’t enough in temperatures so cold the mercury froze in thermometers. (Mercury freezes at 37.9 degrees below zero.)

Indians jealously guarded the Bozeman Trail, which the Sioux and Cheyenne had forced the government to abandon eight years earlier.

Warriors harassed Crook’s long military column trailing toward the ruins of Fort Reno, one of three forts abandoned in 1868 after treaty negotiations at Fort Laramie closed the trail in the heart of traditional Indian hunting grounds.

On the second night out, Indians stampeded the cattle herd, which turned back toward the fort. By March 7, when the column was already north of Fort Reno, Crook devised a subterfuge to convince the Indians that he was leaving the field.

He ordered the infantry companies back to the abandoned post with the wagon train. His 10 companies of cavalry, equipped with just 15 days of provisions, continued northeast away from the Bozeman Trail to pursue their quarry undetected.

They brought no tents and just two blankets each against temperatures that stayed below 20 degrees below for more than a week.

Later, Crook said that his plan was to move secretly and quickly through the Indian camps, capturing their horses in the process. His men could take fresh mounts from the herds and subsist off captured supplies.

But it didn’t work that way — nothing worked as planned through that terrible spring and uneasy summer that culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25.

Crook would be out of play by then, his forces battered first on Powder River by the Cheyenne on March 17 and then at the Battle of the Rosebud by a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne on June 17.

Before all that, Crook continued his northward march, prowling the Tongue River before turning east and south toward the Powder.

They’d used up nine days of rations and still hadn’t found their quarry when, on March 16, scouts reported spotting two Sioux hunters.

Crook divided his command, placing Col. Joseph J. Reynolds, 54, in charge of a contingent of about 400 men to follow the tracks of the hunters.

Scout Frank Grouard, Sitting Bull’s adopted brother, guided the command through the night up the north fork of Otter Creek across broken country covered in deep snow and ice.

Just before dawn on the 17th, from the bluffs above the Powder, Reynolds found Old Bear’s sleeping village on the left bank of the river 30 miles south of present-day Broadus.

Troopers counted 105 lodges — a big village that Reynolds assumed was filled with Sioux under the leadership of Crazy Horse.

Sioux were camping in Old Bear’s village, but Crazy Horse’s village was 60 miles away along the Little Powder River. Later estimates put about 200 warriors and 500 others in Old Bear’s winter camp.

Reynolds made a plan, a plan that should have worked.

Troops would take positions on three sides of village. The river was on the fourth. Capt. James Egan with two companies would charge into the village at first light.

With the temperature somewhere between 40 below and 45 below, the cavalry approached the encampment obscured by a freezing fog.


‘Soldiers are … here’


The Cheyenne and Sioux allies camping with them were aware that soldiers were in the area, Wooden Leg said.

Ten young men were assigned to follow the movement of the troops that night, and others were out scouting. None had reported any danger.

The first to stir that morning was an old man who had gone to the top of a knoll to pray, Wooden Leg said.

After a few minutes, he started shouting, “The soldiers are right here. The soldiers are right here.”

Part of the command was already at the pony herd capturing between 700 and 1,000 animals.

“Women screamed,” Wooden Leg remembered. “Children cried for their mothers. Old people tottered and hobbled away to get out of reach of the bullets singing among the lodges.”

He tried to return to his lodge to retrieve his shield and saw that “women were struggling along burdened with packs of precious belongings. Some were dragging or carrying their children. All were shrieking in fright.”

Wooden Leg managed to rope one of Old Bear’s horses, when he saw Last Bull’s wife crying and trying to escape with her two daughters.

The older girl, Walks At Night, was boosted up behind him on the horse.

“A little further on I picked up also an 8-year-old boy who was trudging along behind a mother carrying on her back a baby and under her arms two other children.”

He took them to a place of safety then rode back to fight alongside Two Moon and Bear Walks On A Ridge.


Failed intentions


Egan’s charge had not gone smoothly.

In testimony later, he said, “My intention was to go through the village and form on the other side of it, but when I went though I found timber cut down — slashed timber. It was so thick that some of the men and horses fell and could not get any farther.”

He changed plans and dismounted his troops to form a line perpendicular to his initial attack route and moved back into the village.

Other troops were expected to support him, but none arrived until 20 to 25 minutes later, he complained.

They did manage to clear the village, with the exception of an old, blind woman, who had been hit in the thigh. She was spared further harm and her lodge left standing, the only one not destroyed by Reynolds’ men.

When she was found by Cheyenne who returned to the village that night, Wooden Leg said, the warriors “talked about this matter, all agreeing that the act showed the soldiers had good hearts.”

They may have changed their minds had they known Reynolds told his troops that he wanted “buckets full of blood.”


Loss of advantage


Reynolds’ men could not seem to hold the advantage gained once the village was taken.

Stories on what went wrong varied as Reynolds faced court-martial for his bungled operation.

Most vocal was Maj. T. H. Stanton, who, in addition to his duties as chief of scouts, was acting as correspondent for the New York Tribune.

His ire was aimed at Capt. Alexander Moore, who had been assigned to take a position north of the village to cut off the Indians’ escape. But Moore’s forces weren’t where they were supposed to be.

“While Capt. Egan’s Company was engaged, Capt. Moore’s company was lying on a ridge 1,200 to 1,500 yards from the position it was assigned to,” Stanton claimed.

“Capt. Moore did not obey the command — he failed to go to the rear of the village. He did not get within 1,000 feet of it.”

As a result, Stanton maintained, warriors took refuge on the bluffs above the village, firing at the troops from about 9 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. when Reynolds gave orders for the troops to withdraw.

Capt. Egan was joined in the village by Capt. Anson Mills, who attacked from another direction while the Indians escaped to the north where Moore was supposed to have blocked them.

Mills testified that the village was a rich one and estimated that the Sioux and Cheyenne had left behind 20,000 pounds of meat, thousands of robes and uncounted numbers of pack saddles.

“My idea is we ought to camp here and wait till General Crook comes and select all that is valuable to use, carry it away on a pack train and destroy the balance,” Mills said.

Mills said he told Reynolds that he thought they could hold the village.

Reynolds initially agreed, but a messenger arrived later with orders to burn everything and leave. Lt. J.G. Bourke was clearly irked when the order came.

“I was gathering up robes and meat for the troops,” he testified. “We had no rations and nothing but the clothes on our backs and the temperature must have been 30 below, at least.”

“We could have saddled some of the captured animals and carried away this meat,” Stanton charged. “A detail of 25 men could have saddled and packed some of these horses.”

Capt. Egan lamented that “the meat could have been taken away either on packs or travois that we found in the village.”

Mills warned that destroying the village would be time-consuming work. The leather tepees did not burn easily, and some of them were filled with caps and powder.

“We were four hours working at the destruction of the village, burning and destroying it,” Stanton said. “All this time the Indians were up in the bluffs shooting at us.”

Bourke reported that “I kept the men burning, or rather exploding the tepees. They were so full of powder, caps and fixed ammunition that they all exploded.”

In his defense, Reynolds said he did not see large amounts of meat, robes or saddles as his officers reported. Further, he said, “Even if there had not been an Indian to annoy us, it would have been a lengthy task to capture and load the ponies, providing there have been everything necessary to saddle them and that there was a sufficient number of pack animals for that purpose, and then it would have taken the entire command to have caught them.”

Indian bullets picked off troopers pillaging the village, killing three outright and wounding seven. One of the seven, Pvt. Ayers, died later after he was apparently abandoned by troops as they fought their way out of the village.

Ayers was among a group of men who had stopped to plunder, Mills, his commanding officer, testified.

“Four or five of us were about a quarter-mile behind the troops when 10 or 15 Indians approached us, firing as they came,” Pvt. George H. Mailland testified.

The troopers fired back, but Ayers was wounded in the hand and leg and could not walk.

“The Indians were within 40 or 50 yards of us and we have to save ourselves,” Mailland remembered. “He (Ayers) said ‘For God’s sake, don’t leave me.’ The Indians followed until they came to the wounded man.”

Pvt. Jeremiah Murphy testified that he stayed with Ayers as long as he could and heard the wounded man call for help. He saw the Indians closing around Ayers and ran to Mills.

Mills testified that he sent word to Reynolds that there was a wounded man in the village.

Reynolds came back and told him, “You can do nothing. If you go back you will renew the engagement and lose 20 men. You must move on.”

Mills said he later learned that Ayers had been scalped.


The destruction


From a distance, the Cheyenne watched as their village was destroyed.

“The Cheyennes were rendered very poor,” Wooden Leg said. “I had nothing left but the clothing I had on. My eagle wing bone flute, my medicine pipe, my rifle, everything else of mine was gone.”

Hundreds of Sioux and Cheyenne in the camp escaped with only what they had worn to sleep that night. They had no food, clothing or shelter to face what remained of a long, bitter winter.

Wooden Leg reported one Cheyenne killed and another wounded, a bullet shattering his arm.


Hasty departure


The troops left the village with Stanton driving the captured pony herd in the rear. In the hurry to leave, the dead were left unburied.

Cold, exhausted and hungry after a day and a half without rest and with just one meager meal they brought with them, Reynolds’ six companies plodded 22 miles across the snowy landscape to a pre-arranged rendezvous with Crook and the remaining four companies at Clear Creek just south of the Montana line.

But Crook wasn’t there. He’d gone into camp some distance away along with his command’s remaining supplies.

Temperatures had again sunk to 40 below and only a few had managed to carry away meat from the village for a meal.

There was no medicine for the wounded, and many were suffering badly from the cold. Reynolds did not ask them to secure the pony herd that night.




After dark, Cheyenne warriors who had managed to grab horses as the fighting began searched for the soldier camp, determined to get their horses back.

“We crept toward the herd, out a little distance from the camp,” Wooden Leg said. “I got my own favorite animal.

“We made some effort then to steal some of the horses of the white men. But they shot at us, so we went away with the part of our horse herd that we could manage.”

By morning, the pony herd had disappeared. Much to the consternation of some of his officers, Reynolds decided not to go after the horses. It was one of a series of decisions that led Crook to bring charges against Reynolds — charges that resulted in a lengthy and nasty court-martial.

Reynolds, in turn, filed charges against Capt. Moore and another officer.

There was plenty of blame to go around, and ugly accusations flew from within the command.

Crook was incensed that Reynolds, who was worried for his troops’ survival when Crook wasn’t on Clear Creek, had considered returning to Fort Reno without him. Just as Reynolds’ troops were getting ready to move out, Crook came into camp, explaining his late arrival was due to underestimating the distance to Clear Creek.

Together, Reynolds and Crook returned to Fort Fetterman, where Crook prepared charges maintaining that the colonel had destroyed provisions in the village badly needed by the troops, abandoned the wounded in the village and lost the captured horse herd.

Loss of the horse herd seemed the most grievous offense, and Reynolds responded by rounding on Crook.

“Had General Crook pushed on on the evening of March 17 we would have camped together,” he said.

“If he had performed his part of the agreement to meet at the mouth of Lodge Pole (Clear Creek) as faithfully as I did mine, he would never have had to complain that my neglect to recapture the ponies prevented further operations against the Indians.”

Reynolds also claimed that, by the time he heard that Ayers had been left in the village, “I felt certain he must have been dead for some time.”

Reynolds was convicted of “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline” and received a one-year suspension from rank and command.

The court found that the attack on the village had been so bungled that all its inhabitants save the blind woman escaped; that dead soldiers had been left unburied in the village; that the contents of the village had been only partially destroyed, leaving supplies the Indians could use; and that he could have sent one his scouts to Crook for reinforcements and held the village.

President Grant, however, recognizing Reynolds’ “long, distinguished and faithful service,” remitted the sentence. Reynolds’ career, however, was ruined, and he resigned in 1877.


War clouds gather


Crook’s winter campaign was a failure.

Now the war against the Sioux and Cheyenne would enter its most deadly phase. Forces were gathering on both sides.

The now destitute Cheyenne trudged three days to the northeast into the Ogallala Sioux camp of Crazy Horse, where they were sheltered and fed.

“At night a council was held by the chiefs of the two bands,” Wooden Leg said. “At the council our people told about the soldier attack.

“It was decided that the Ogallalas and the Cheyennes should go together to the Uncpapa (Hunkpapa) Sioux located northeastward from us.”

Sitting Bull was principal chief of the Uncpapa village. Sitting Bull threw open the village to the Cheyenne, providing them with food, shelter and clothing.

“Whoever needed any kind of clothing, they got it immediately,” Wooden Leg said. “They flooded us with gifts of everything needful. Oh what good hearts they had.

“I never can forget the generosity of Sitting Bull’s Uncpapa Sioux on that day.”

Minneconjou Sioux also joined the camp.

Over the course of the next three months, many others filtered into the combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne, including many who came from the reservations. By the time they arrived at the Little Bighorn late in June, their numbers had swelled to thousands.

They knew then that soldiers were coming.

Contact Lorna Thackeray at or 657-1314.


Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News