No one had ever been able to figure out what Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer had in mind that day when he attacked a peaceful gathering of tribes numbered in the thousands. They were well-armed; they were where the Treaty of 1868 allowed them to be; and they had gathered together for a brief time to celebrate life as their ancestors had known it for thousands of years.
Only the week before, Crazy Horse, together with about 1,000 warriors, had headed to the Rosebud, about 20 miles south of their camp, to meet the forces of General Crook. They wanted to stop Crook and his 1,200-man force before he got too close to their families. And on June 17th they did just that. Crook retreated, claiming victory, but it was two months before he was ready to resume the pursuit of the "hostiles."
Custer knew nothing of the defeat and retreat of General Crook and his panic to attack may have been fed by his desire to score a great victory before any competition showed up especially competition that outranked him. His ego did not want to share the glory with anyone.
The Indians at the Little Big Horn knew of the presence of bluecoats in the area but after sending Crook packing they thought that no one would be stupid enough to attack such a huge gathering of warriors.
Into this gathering, Custer sent Major Reno with 150 men to attack in the south of the village while he and about 207 men went off to attack the other end, about four miles away. Captain Benteen, with about 120 men, was a few miles to the south and west, sent by Custer to keep any strays from escaping. Another 100 or so men were following Benteen with the supplies.
Major Reno and his men, having roused the fury of the south end of the encampment, quickly retreated into the woods and across the river to a hilltop where they hoped to defend themselves. About 50 men had been lost in their initial battle. The rest found hope in the arrival of Captain Benteen and the supply train.
Meanwhile, Custer and his forces were being wiped out four miles to the north. It was probably all over in less than an hour.
How many warriors were there? Estimates vary between 2,000 and 5,000, depending upon who you ask. One of the survivors was asked the question and, taking a stick, he riled an ant hill. Turning to the questioner, he said, "Now count 'em!"
Some warriors were in favor of finishing off the bluecoats on the hill but most of the people agreed with their spiritual leader, Sitting Bull. He felt that enough blood had been shed.
Other, lesser battles would follow, but the Little Big Horn was the last great hurrah for the Plains Indians. On that day, they had fought for their way of life, the freedom to be who they are, and they had won.
That is why, for many Sioux and Cheyenne, June 25th is the real Independence Day.