Reno’s Charge

The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place on June 25, 1876, and was one of the most significant clashes between the United States Army and Plains tribes in Old West history. In the following excerpt from The Summer of 1876 by Chris Wimmer, the battle is about to begin as Major Marcus Reno prepares […]

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The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place on June 25, 1876, and was one of the most significant clashes between the United States Army and Plains tribes in Old West history. In the following excerpt from The Summer of 1876 by Chris Wimmer, the battle is about to begin as Major Marcus Reno prepares his troops to sweep into the village of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

The Custer Fight by Charles Marion Russell (1903). This image is in the public domain.

As Reno readied his men for a charge on the west side of the Little Bighorn, Custer led his men into the bluffs on the east side. Custer’s scouts told him about the warriors who were riding out to meet Reno’s battalion, but Custer believed the warriors were executing a defensive maneuver. He thought it was a blocking tactic that was designed to allow the women and children to flee to safety. Following that logic, the camp should be vulnerable to an attack from a different direction.

While Reno occupied the warriors south of the village, Custer intended to swoop in from the north or the east. He led his five companies through the bluffs and allowed them to briefly water their horses in a creek. During the pause, a sergeant informed Custer of a group of fifty to seventy-five warriors on a hill to the north. Custer rallied his men and pushed them forward at a trot. Below Custer and to his left, Reno’s soldiers rode across an open plain toward a village and a swarm of warriors whom they still couldn’t see.

Reno knew that an enemy force of undetermined size was riding toward him. As his battalion rode at a northwest angle up the valley of the Little Bighorn, the village was still hidden by the switchback loops of the river and the timber that lined the water. That same geography concealed the warriors who were rushing forward. The soldiers knew they were getting close: they were following the small group of warriors who had fled the campsite on Sun Dance Creek, and the pony herds of the village were visible in the hills to the left. The main village had to be somewhere in front of them, but it was impossible to know the distance to it.

Reno sent messengers with updates to Custer, but Reno and his men could see Custer’s companies riding higher into the bluffs on the other side of the river. If Reno wondered how Custer planned to support him by disappearing into the hills, he didn’t have long to ponder the question. Reno’s battalion picked up its pace. It moved from a fast walk to a trot to a slow gallop. As the horses increased their speed to a full gallop, Reno shouted, “Charge!”

For a few moments, it looked like an epic scene from a Hollywood movie was about to play out on the plain next to the Little Bighorn. A cavalry unit of 150 soldiers galloped straight at a force of hundreds of screaming warriors. In the movie, they would have slammed into each other in a melee of flying bullets, arrows, and lances. The crash would have been bone-crunching. The viewers would have felt it in their guts. Many would have asked: Is that what it was like in real life?

In real life, it didn’t happen. Reno began the ride with about 175 men, but the number dwindled as they moved deeper into the valley. Groups of Arikara split off to chase the pony herds, as they had been instructed to do by Custer. Others, both troopers and scouts, had trouble crossing the river and were stuck back at the ford. As a result, the charging battalion was down to about 150 men, and new obstacles began to develop.

The Little Bighorn, with its thick blanket of timber, was generally on the battalion’s right. It still blocked the view of most of the village. But the troopers began to see part of a village in the distance on their left, and it contained roughly four hundred lodges. If that was only part of the village, then the size of the full camp must be truly enormous. And that meant the estimates about the number of warriors could actually be true: there could be 1,500 to 2,000 fighters in the village . . .  and Reno was charging with 150 inexperienced troopers. 

Copyright © 2023 by Chris Wimmer


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Chris Wimmer is the creator, host, and lead writer of “Legends of the Old West,” a long-form, narrative podcast that tells true stories of the American West. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and has won numerous local, state, and national awards for his writing. The Summer of 1876 is his first book.

The post Reno’s Charge appeared first on The History Reader.

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