The Battle on the Greasy Grass

Indian warriors leave the battleground in this ledger drawing by Red Horse, a Minneconjou Lakota Sioux warrior, Image: Courtesy National Anthropological Archives/Smithsonian Institution

Factions of Native American Indians soundly defeated forces of the U.S. Army during the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In late June 1876, George Armstrong Custer and elements of 7th Calvary were defeated by several Native American Indian tribes during the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Native American Indians referred to the fight as the Battle on the Greasy Grass.

The U.S. Army Advances

As the U.S. government infringed deeper within the Indian territories, the hostilities between the two combatants increased. At the end of 1875, the U.S. Army commanded rogue Indians to report to designated reservations. Many Native Americans failed to comply with this request. They remained deep-rooted within their most valued and sacred lands known as the Black Hills (near the northern border of the current United States).

The 7th Calvary Leads the Way

The following spring, the Army dispatched patrols to penetrate the mysterious Black Hills. At the spearhead of the campaign was the famed 7th Calvary. The Cavalrymen were lead by noted Civil War hero Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The swift traveling elements of the 7th Calvary were ordered to scout for possible fort locations, search for natural resources (such as gold), and locate and monitor rebel Indians. They were told not to engage enemy tribesmen just locate and report the tribe’s locations.

The Tribes

The Native Americans believed the Army’s incursion of the Black Hills was nothing less than an all out invasion of their culture. One Indian elder remarked, “They (whites) have no-ears” referring to the Army’s refusal to acknowledge tribal rights and the white’s continued assault of the sacred Black Hills. Several tribes rendezvoused and encamped near the Rosebud River around present day Montana. Members of Lakota Sioux, Blackfeet, Oglala, Cheyenne, and Santee tribes gathered and decided to make a stand and not be further pressed by the Army’s offensive onslaught.

First Engagement

As Custer and his men moved toward the Indian camp they engaged a small band of native scouts. After a brief fight, the Indians fled eluding the aggressors among the steep slopes and ravines of the Little Big Horn’s terrain. Fearing the Indian scouts would notify the encamped warriors before the Army could mount a sound attack; Custer split his columns into three factions. The Lt. Colonel ordered the first column of approximately 175 Calvary men to move eastward. The second group was commanded to cut off the Indians’ movement and attack from the north. The remaining about 225 horsemen would raid from a southern direction in a coordinated effort with the others.

The Bugles Sounded

Within moments, the 7th Calvary men found themselves desperately overmatched and overwhelmed. The first attackers were immediately cut-off. They shot their horses and used the animals’ bodies as covering shelter. The second attacking faction was stalemated and forced into a defensive position toward the northern bluffs of the river’s valley. The final column lead by Custer himself, was dreadfully alone outnumbered and out-gunned.

In the Time it Take to Smoke a Pipe

Author Alvin Josephy wrote in “500 Nation: An Illustrated History of the North American Indian” In the tradition of a great Sioux warrior, one brave (frequently reported as having been Crazy Horse) exclaimed, “It’s a good day to die” as he galloped off to encounter the horse soldiers. One witness reported, “In the time it takes to smoke a pipe” all the Calvary members lay dead.


Shortly after the battle, the Native Americans split up and fled the approaching infantry and Army’s main force. The desecrated bodies of the 7th Calvary lay scattered along the hills and bluffs of the battle ground. Many soldiers had their ears removed just as the elder Native American suggested.


  1. Josephy, Alvin “500 Nation: An Illustrated History of the North American Indian”