John Poland: Indian Wars


An Account of the Battle of the Little Bighorn

"The Indians about Reno had not before this shown the slightest inclination of fighting at any other point."

This letter from Captain John S. Poland to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of Dakota in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which gives an account from seven Sioux Indians of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

Headquarters USA Military Station Landing Rock Dakota Territory July 24, 1876 To the Assistant Adjutant General Department of Dakota Saint Paul Minnesota


I respectfully report the following as having been derived from seven Sioux Indians just returned from the hostile camp (July 21st) some of whom were engaged in the battle of June 25th with the Seventh cavalry.

The agent of course makes no distinction between them and the other Indians at the agency. He sent them word to keep quiet and say nothing. To the other Indians he sent or delivered personally the instruction that they must not tell the military of the return of Indians from the hostile camp, nor circulate reports of the operations in the late fight.

The Indian account follows: The hostile were celebrating their greatest of religious festivals – the Sun dance – when rumors brought news of the approach of cavalry. The dance was suspended and a general rush, mistaken by Custer, perhaps, for a retreat – for horses equipment and arrows followed. Major Reno first attacked the village at the south end and across the Little BigHorn. Their narrative of Reno’s operations coincide with the published accounts how his men were quickly confronted, surrounded, how he dismounted, rallied on the timber, remounted and cut his way back over the ford and up the bluffs suffering considerable loss, and the continuation of the fight for some little time, when runners arrived from the north of the village, or camp with the news that the cavalry had attacked the north end of the river, three or four miles distance.

The Indians about Reno had not before this shown the slightest inclination of fighting at any other point. A force large enough to prevent Reno from assuming the offensive was left and the remaining available force flew to the other end of the camp where finding the Indians there successfully driving Custer before them, instead of uniting with them they separated into ten parties and moved around the flanks of his cavalry. They report that he crossed the river but only succeeded in reaching the edge of the Indian camp. After he was driven to the bluffs the fight lasted perhaps an hour. Indians have no hours of the day, and the time cannot be given approximately.

They report that a small number of cavalry broke through the line of Indians in their rear escaped, but was overtaken, within a distance of five or six miles and killed. I infer from this that this body of retreating cavalry was probably led by the missing officers and that they tried to escape only after Custer fell.

The last man that was killed by two sons of a Santee Indian "Red Top" whom was a leader in the Minnesota massacre of ’62 and ‘63.

After the battle the squaws entered the field to plunder and mutilate the dead.

A general rejoicing was indulged in and a distribution of arms and ammunition hurriedly made. Then the attack on Major Reno was vigorously renewed.

Up to this attack the Indians had lost comparatively few men, but now they say their most serious loss took place. They give no ideal of numbers but say there was a great great many. Sitting Bull was neither killed nor personally engaged in the fight. He remained in the counsel tent directing operations. Crazy Horse (with a large band) and Black Moon were the principal leaders on the 20th June. Kill Eagle, Chief of the Blackfeet at the head of some twenty lodges left the agency about the last of May. He was prominently engaged in the battle of June 25 and afterwards upbraided Sitting Bull for not taking an active personal part in the engagement. Kill Eagle has sent me word that he was forced into this fight, that he desires to return to the agency and that he will return to the agency if he is killed fir it. He is reported actually on the way back to get his father. The agent and make confession to receive absolution for his defiant actions against the hand that has gratuitously fed him for three years. He is truly a shrewd chief, who must have discovered that he who fights and runs away may live to fight another day.

The Indians were not all engaged at one time, he says reserves were held to replace loses and renew attacks unsuccessfully. The fight continued until the end of day when runners, kept on the look out for other units reported a great body of troops (General Terry’s column) advancing up the river.

Lodges having been previously prepared for a move retreated in a southerly direction followed towards and along the base of the mountains. They marched about fifty miles, went into camp and held a consultation where it was determined to send to all the agencies reports of this success and to call upon them to come out and share the glories that were expected in the future. Therefore we may expect an influx of overbearing and imprudent Indians to wage by force perhaps, a succession to Sitting Bulls demands.

There is a general gathering in the hostels camp from each of the agencies on the Missouri River, Red Cloud and Spotted Tails, as also a great many northern Cheyenne and Arapahos.

They report for the benefit of their relatives here that in the three (3) fights they have had with the whites they have captured over 400 stand of arms, carbines and rifles (revolvers not counted) and ammunition without end, sugar, coffee, bacon. And hard bread. They claim to have captured from the whites this summer, over 900 horses and mules. I suppose this includes operations against soldiers, crow Indians and Black Hills miners.

The general outline of this Indian report coincides with the published reports. The first attack of Reno began well on the day say the Indians. They report about 300 whites killed. They do not say how many Indians killed.

A report from another source says the Indians obtained from Custer’s command 592 carbines and revolvers.

I have since writing the above heard the following from the returned hostile. They communicated as a secret to their friends here the information that a large party of Sioux and Cheyenne were to leave Rosebud reservation, or the hostile camp for this agency, to intimidate and compel the Indians here to join Sitting Bull and if they refused, they are ordered kill soldiers there and steal there ponies. Of course any attempts by the military or whites will provoke an attack upon the post, although that secret, or so much of it has not been revealed to friends of the hostile.

I shall report any additional news received from reliable Indian sources as soon as obtained.

Very respectfully

Your obedient servant

J. L. Poland Captain 6th Infantry Brevt. Lieut. Col. USA Commanding

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