Battle of Little Bighorn: 54 – Guess How Many Hostiles are Out There

"The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side.

General Alfred Terry

On June 21, General Terry moved his command up the Yellowstone and set up a base camp at the mouth of the Rosebud. He established his headquarters on the steamboat Far West. Then he held a council with Gibbon and Custer. Terry and Gibbon’s guess of how many hostiles awaited them stood between 800 and 1,000. Custer thought the number reached closer to 1,500. All three men were far wrong. They had only estimated the number of hostiles at about half the actual amount. In reality, the Army would come up against some 3,000 warriors.

These three military giants were later warned by Lonesome Charley Reynolds, as well as Bloody Knife and other Indian scouts, that there were too many Sioux and Cheyenne for the Army to handle. Of course these officers did not listen. The voice from Wakantanka that spoke to Sitting Bull in his vision at the sun dance may have been correct when it said:

These soldiers do not possess ears.

Lt. Col. George Custer

During Terry, Gibbon, and Custer’s council of war aboard the Far West, the main concern was not how many hostiles there were or how to defeat them. The major problem was how to prevent the hostiles from escaping the three-prong attack. Smoke had been seen and reported by their scouts coming from the direction of the Little Bighorn. Reno had found their trail leading in that direction also. One big kink in their plans was that no one had yet heard from General Crook. Was he on his way? If so, when would he reach them? Had he been attacked and wiped out? These unknown factors, due to a lack of communications, was the biggest fault in a divided command. Dividing a command was a factor that one of the three military officers at the war council should have learned from, but shortly would prove that he hadn’t.

So now new plans were made, or old ones rearranged. The current plan was that Custer would lead the 7th Cavalry up the Rosebud to its head. This would block the hostiles’ escape route to the east. Custer would then cross the divide and enter the valley of the Little Bighorn.

Libbie Custer

General Gibbon would go back up the Yellowstone for a way, then come down the Bighorn River and enter the Little Bighorn Valley from the north. Terry would go with Gibbon. His reasoning may have been that he was exhausted from the recent march. Gibbon, Terry knew, would not be in such an all-fired rush as he was certain the energetic Custer would be. Besides, being with Gibbon allowed Terry the opportunity to ride aboard the Far Westmuch of the way. In addition, Terry felt that Gibbon had the best chance of locating the hostiles.

Mark Kellogg, the newspaper reporter, disagreed with Terry. He was betting on Custer to find the Indians and chose to go with him.

All that was left for General Terry to do now was to compose written orders for Gibbon and for Custer to insure each knew exactly, in writing, what was expected of them.