In June of 1876, two battles were fought in the then-Montana Territory between the Army and a coalition of Northern Cheyenne and Lakota warriors. Although separated by only eight days and fifty miles, the outcomes could not have been more dissimilar.
The first battle, on 17 June 1876, lasted most of the day, as the opponents were equally matched in number. The generalship on one side was novel and superb. Although one army claimed a tactical victory, it suffered a strategic defeat, one which indirectly influenced the outcome of the second conflict.
The crux of the latter fight, on 25 to 26 June, lasted only an hour or so. It was a lopsided affair, during which four thousand combatants on one side annihilated two hundred on the other. The name of the losing commander became a byword for gross military incompetence.
This final encounter is a national shrine. Each year, more than three hundred thousand people visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument outside the Crow Agency in Montana. Gravestones of the fallen, both the Indians and the Seventh Cavalry, dot the field, including one for Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer (the boy general’s body is not there, but buried in the cemetery at West Point, New York).
By contrast, the Rosebud Battlefield State Park is off nearly-deserted Route 314. The site offers no memorials or buildings other than a vault toilet. Only five bronze plaques, oxidized by the sunlight, stand forlornly next to a tiny kiosk containing plainly printed brochures. Nobody is around to count whoever might show up so visitation is unknown. The Battle of the Rosebud has become a mere footnote to the more glorious spectacle that occurred up the road.
The Rosebud battle landscape is quite attractive, with a series of grassy ridges, ravines, and pine forests. Birds chirrup and a gusty wind prevails as the distant chug of a tractor floats through the air. Most of the battlefield, which covers ten square miles, is on private farmland and, therefore, off-limits to visitors. You won’t find the sweeping vistas associated with the Upper Plains. Because of the ridgelines, the ability to see more than a few hundred yards in any direction is difficult. Such truncated topography explains how the day unfolded nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.
General George Crook (pictured) led an offensive charge in a fight recorded in Army history as the Battle of the Rosebud. But the Cheyenne know the mêlée as the Fight Where the Girl Saved Her Brother, due to a heroic rescue by Buffalo Calf Road Woman. On the Rosebud battlefield, General George “Three Stars” Crook advanced north to link up with Custer and General John Gibbon as part of a three-pronged master plan to encircle and trap Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse’s lengthy village of Lakota Sioux who had refused confinement on a reservation.
On the morning of 17 June 1876, Crook’s troopers were shocked out of their breakfasts by Cheyenne and Lakota warriors, who attacked them after a fifty-mile night ride from their encampment on Ash Creek along the Little Big Horn River.
While most of the “battles” of the Plains Indian Wars were, in fact, sneak attacks, ambushes and massacres, Rosebud was a rarity; this was a pitched mêlée between two armed mounted forces, not much different than a clash of medieval knights in armor. The furious seesaw affair lasted six hours, as each side used the terrain in an attempt to cut off and encircle the other. Since nobody could see who was in proximity until they galloped over the ridgeline, the Rosebud fight became a series of short-range confrontations, with gains and losses constantly shifting.
Many Old West historians have noted that Rosebud was the premier showcase of Crazy Horse’s leadership qualities. He had learned that charging off in a quest for glory and scalps would not defeat the white soldiers who were more interested in killing than honor. Crazy Horse instructed his warriors to fight as a united force, so they could drive the invaders out of their homeland. Like any great strategist, Crazy Horse massed his forces where the soldiers were the weakest and adopted tactics that corresponded to the battlefield conditions. His presence that day coalesced the spirit of his men and women.
In the middle of the surging fight, Cheyenne Chief Comes-In-Sight had his horse shot out from under him, which left him defenseless. His sister, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, (photo, above) thundered in and scooped him up on her horse, thereby saving his life. A week later, she would fight alongside her husband, Black Coyote, at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Her act of courage at Rosebud so impressed the Cheyenne they graced the battle with a more lyrical title; for them, it will always be known as the Fight Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.
The location of her act of heroism is marked on a crudely drawn map in the state park brochure, directing visitors north to a west-facing hillock. Her rescue must have been a startling vision for the fighters of both armies. Amid the chaos and adrenaline, the deafening cacophony of eagle-bone whistles and gunshots, the whizzing of bullets and arrows, the roar of the wind through the trees, came this brave deed from such an unlikely source that the Indians must have felt their blood pumping, while the cavalry troopers sensed their blood pressure soaring.
Her courageous act stood in contrast to a cowardly act committed by Jack Red Cloud, (photo, above) the teenaged son of the renowned Lakota chief of the same name. The youth, as yet untested in war, had prepared for battle by donning a war bonnet, a serious breach of warrior etiquette, since he had not yet earned the right to wear one. This violation was known to Indian friend and foe alike. During the fray, several of Crook’s Crow scouts surrounded the boy, grabbed away his war bonnet, whipped him with their quirts, and hooted that a child had no right to be on a battlefield with men. The pleading, weeping boy was rescued, some say by Crazy Horse, but slunk away afterwards in shame.
The nation rushed to protect the Custer battle site, with the Secretary of War preserving the Seventh Cavalry troopers’ graves as a National Cemetery in 1879. Curly, a Crow scout who was the first to report the defeat of Custer and his men, was photographed (above) at the battle site sometime before his death in 1923, before the site was re-designated a national monument in 1946.
From the solitary soldier’s perspective, the battle must have been a desperate affair. Overpowered by the stench of horse sweat, cordite, and fear, the weather miserably hot, the troops were run down by “hideous” Indians, as Third Cavalry Captain Anson Mills described: “These Indians, most hideous, everyone being painted in the most hideous colors and designs, stark naked except for moccasins and breech cloths. Their shouting and personal appearance was so hideous that it terrified our horses more than the men.”
To the embattled troopers, Crazy Horse must have been terrible to behold, with his long hair flying and his body painted in a manner alien to them: his chest and arms were covered with white hailstone totems, while a yellow-painted lightning bolt divided his face. This hideous demon stormed defiantly into their midst, fearless in his medicine that no bullet could harm him.
Crazy Horse’s assault was decisive enough to send Crook on a reverse course back to Goose Creek, near the future site of Sheridan, Wyoming Territory. Despite the length and ferocity of the Rosebud fight, during which more than twenty-five thousand rounds of ammunition were expended, the fatalities were fairly light. Only a total of about forty were killed on both sides, out of the twenty-five hundred who fought there, testimony to how hard it is to hit a moving target on a galloping horse. The ratio would be different eight days later.
Had Crook not been surprised at the Rosebud, or had he continued on to link up with Custer, the outcome of the Little Big Horn fight might have been different. The Seventh Cavalry would have been augmented by a thousand more troops, and overall command would have passed to Crook, a more level-headed commander.
Not that the defeat ultimately mattered. Within a year or so, on 5 September 1877, Crazy Horse would be murdered, paving the path to extinguish all Indian resistance to white encroachment on the Northern Plains.
The bronze plaque at Rosebud notes that, in 2008, the National Park Service designated the battlefield a National Historic Landmark. Both the Army and the Cheyenne names for the fight are used. Yet no other visitors are on the field. Not one.
When the government announced that all Indians in the Yellowstone River Valley should report to the reservation by 31 January 1876, or be considered hostiles, Lakota leader Sitting Bull ignored the demand and stayed with his people to fight. Sitting Bull and his followers held out until surrendering on 19 July 1881. Sitting Bull was killed on 15 December 1890, by Indian Agency police on the Standing Rock Reservation.
So why then does the Little Big Horn battle get all the attention? Like the Titanic disaster of 1912, Custer’s Last Stand (beer poster, above) was a spectacular example of hubris and arrogance. The unsinkable luxury liner, and the unsinkable boy general; both served as icons of the indestructible for their respective eras. Both lost, within a few unspeakable hours. The account of the Custer calamity hit the newsstands within days of 4 July 1876, America’s centennial. Not surprisingly, the news spoiled the party.
The Little Big Horn battle would be diminished without the colorful personality exhibited by Custer, a “flamboyant, outrageous figure” who personified the time period, as historian Evan S. Connell describes him. After all, few Americans know or care about the similar Fetterman Massacre of 1866.
Custer’s stature and untimely demise has left the Rosebud fight to forever remain in the popular imagination as just another battle.Rico says it's like Islandlwana and Rorke's Drift, in reverse...