The story most of us know of the Battle of the Little Big Horn (also known by most of us as Custer's Last Stand), is based on misconception and myth. The battle was not an Indian ambush; it was an Indian defense against a white soldiers attack. The Indian who triumphed was not Sitting Bull as many people think, but a warrior chief of the Sioux known as Crazy Horse and he called the battle field Greasy Grass River, not the Little Big Horn.
As Custer's army moved into the field to prepare for battle, it was operating with the incorrect assumption as to the number of Indians it would encounter. The army's assumptions were based on inaccurate information provided by Indian agents, that being that no more than 800 hostiles were in the area. This was in fact a correct estimate until several weeks before the battle, when the reservation Indians joined Sitting Bull's ranks for the summer buffalo hunt. Also not taken into account were the groups who had indicated they were not going to cooperate with the U.S. government and live on the reservation. Thus, Custer unknowingly faced thousands of Indians instead of the earlier estimated 800. All of the army's plans were based on the incorrect numbers.
Additionally, Custer was more concerned with preventing the escape of the Lakota and Cheyenne than with fighting them. Custer assumed the warriors had been sleeping on the morning of the battle. Looking from a hill 2.5 miles away, Custer could only observe women preparing for the day and young boys taking horses out to graze south of the village, although Crow scouts had advised Custer this was the largest native village they had ever seen. Custer dismissed the scouts from his command, still thinking the warriors were asleep in their teepees.
Custer had wanted to take a day to scout the village before attacking; however it became apparent that from ridges overlooking his formation there were warriors that were aware of his presence. Fearing the village would break up into small bands he would have to chase, Custer then began to prepare for an immediate attack. His field strategy was to capture women, children, and the elderly to serve as hostages and human shields, forcing the warriors to surrender.
The precise details of Custer's fight that June day are largely conjectural, since none of his men survived the battle. When the army examined the battle site, the Lakota and Cheyenne had already removed most of their dead from the field. The soldiers identified the 7th cavalry's dead as best as possible and buried them where they fell. Custer was found with shots to the chest and temple. Either one of these would have been fatal. He also suffered a wound to the arm. His body was found near the top of Custer Hill, which also became known as "Last Stand Hill." By almost all accounts, the Lakota annihilated Custer's force within an hour of engagement.
Native American casualties have never positively been determinate. Estimates vary from as few as 36 dead, to as many as 300. The 7th cavalry lost 16 officers and 242 troopers. Every soldier in the 5 companies that Custer led was killed. Among the dead were Custer's brothers Boston and Thomas, his brother-in-law James Calhoun and his nephew Henry Read.
Crazy Horse's stunning victory over Custer both angered and frightened the army and ultimately led to the killing of the chief a year later.