The Lakota Sioux chief earned his reputation as a fierce warrior and tactical genius at Killdeer Mountain, the battles of the Yellowstone, and Little Bighorn. But what role, if any, did he really play in Custer’s final act?
On June 25, 1876, Chief Gall, a Lakota Sioux leader, hurried along the Little Bighorn River, following the sounds of rifle fire and whoops of fear and anger. A ruggedly built 35-year-old known for donning a red blanket in battle, Gall was a favorite of the famed Lakota chief Sitting Bull and was already notorious for his deadly attacks on settlers, surveyors, and soldiers. Indeed, over the course of the previous decade he had become a thorn in the side of the United States as he waged war to defend his tribal lands, clashing with soldiers at Killdeer Mountain, attacking Capt. James L. Fisk’s wagon train, and participating in the battles of the Yellowstone.
But over the next few hours along the Little Bighorn, as—ax in hand, vengeance in his heart—he wheeled his horse around to plunge back toward the melee that would end with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s Last Stand, Gall would ensure that his story, and his place in history, would become a bit murky.
Many historians have set him on as high a pedestal as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, as one of the key architects of Custer’s demise, a tactically astute warrior hero who parlayed his role in the Last Stand into a lifetime of respect and reverence. There is little doubt he was a savvy and courageous commander. But is it possible he was nowhere near the battle at its bloody climax? Might he have only come along after Crazy Horse, Crow King, and others had nearly finished off Custer?
Gall and Sitting Bull, nine years Gall’s senior, grew up on the Dakota plains, where their Hunkpapa Lakota bands roved in search of buffalo and other game. Once white settlers began crossing Lakota lands on the Oregon Trail during the 1840s, it was only a question of time before this way of life changed forever. But the Hunkpapas and their northern Lakota Sioux allies were not disturbed until the mid-1860s.
Hence Gall, who was born in 1840, had almost a quarter of a century to develop as a fighter and a buffalo hunter with no outside disturbances. Rigorous training forged his fighting prowess. Even though Lakota warriors fought together in war parties or while stealing horses, their training emphasized individual combat. From boyhood on, mentors introduced them to games of skill and strength, such as horse racing, javelin throwing, archery, and wrestling, and Gall’s exceptional physical strength made him a leader early in life.
Meanwhile, the Hunkpapas waged war against such tribal enemies as the Crows, Assiniboines, and Arikaras. Gall’s give-noquarter tactics earned him many coups—gained by touching or killing an enemy in battle—for his acts of bravery. He was also strikingly handsome, prompting Custer’s widow many years later to admit, after seeing his photograph, that never in her life had she “dreamed there could be in all the tribes so fine a specimen of a warrior as Gall.” Sitting Bull, recognizing Gall’s charisma and prowess in warfare, made him his chief war lieutenant, probably in the late 1860s.
Gall’s first recorded brush with whites came in 1862 when the Dakotas, or Santee Sioux, the Minnesota brethren of the Lakotas, rebelled against their unfair treatment at the hands of the white settlers. The Dakotas waged a bloody war, killing 644 settlers in the Minnesota Uprising. Nevertheless, these Indians were ultimately defeated and many of them, chased by the army, fled into present-day North Dakota, Gall’s territory.
The military incursion sparked a series of battles between the army and the Lakotas in which Gall and his mentor, Sitting Bull, were major participants. The largest occurred at a wooded area in the western region of North Dakota. In July 1864, a Civil War veteran, Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, led a force of 2,200 men against an Indian village at Killdeer Mountain. Although about 8,000 Lakotas and Dakotas gathered there (including women and children), the better-equipped forces of General Sully drove them north, and burned their tepees and supplies.
Both Sitting Bull and Gall learned a lesson: trade muskets, bows and arrows, and lances were no match for the army’s artillery and long-range rifles.
The war officially ended with the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, which gave the Lakotas the Great Sioux Reservation, comprising the western half of South Dakota. Gall and Sitting Bull were reluctant to sign because they would be forced to give up their way of life, hunting buffalo in Montana and the rest of the Dakota Territory, and they eventually repudiated the treaty.
To solidify their opposition to the Fort Laramie treaty, nontreaty Indians organized. They gathered at Rosebud Creek, probably in 1869, and chose Sitting Bull as their supreme chief, Crazy Horse as his second in command, and Gall and Crow King, another Hunkpapa warrior, as war chiefs. Over the next seven years, Gall engaged in a series of lesser battles before helping sear Little Bighorn into American consciousness.
The resolve of Gall and other nontreaty Lakotas was first tested during the U.S. Army’s Yellowstone expeditions of 1872–1873, and Gall and his guerrilla tactics captured the undivided attention of the army and its commander in chief, President Ulysses S. Grant.
The army launched its expeditions to protect Northern Pacific Railroad surveyors, who were searching for the best route for a northern transcontinental railroad to connect the upper Great Plains with the Pacific Northwest. In mid-August of 1872, Gall was in charge of a small party of warriors roaming one of the last of the Lakota Sioux hunting grounds in Montana Territory. He and his men were astonished when they spotted a railroad survey party along O’Fallon Creek, a branch of the Yellowstone. Of greater concern to Gall was the size of the surveyors’ escort, 33 officers and 553 enlisted men, commanded by Col. David S. Stanley.
Gall decided to test the vulnerability of the survey party and its escort. Leading 20 of his warriors in a pre-dawn raid on August 16, 1872, he tried to stampede the Stanley party’s stock. His attack was marked by shrill war cries and wild gunfire, a tactic that usually worked well for the Lakotas. Although they managed to penetrate the large and unprepared camp and terrify its occupants, he failed to stampede the stock, which had been safely corralled, hemmed in by wagons and tents. Gunfire from the startled soldiers and surveyors, although somewhat tardy and not especially accurate, thwarted Gall’s plans.
More important than this raid was the courier he sent 160 miles west to warn Sitting Bull of the presence of Colonel Stanley’s survey party. Sitting Bull and Gall had evidently been able to coordinate their fighting efforts in battle for some time, as proven by the speed with which Sitting Bull and his warriors decamped and moved east to join Gall’s band.
In the meantime, Gall, who had been following and continually harassing Stanley’s party, decided on another tactical move: He boldly walked down to a riverbed on the east bank of the Powder River and announced his intention to parley with the leader of these men he viewed as trespassers. A surprised Colonel Stanley laid his pistol down and walked to the bank opposite the defiant Gall. He asked the suspicious war chief to meet him on a sandbar in the middle of the shallow river, but Gall refused.
Instead, Gall challenged Stanley’s right to wander so freely on Lakota lands. He also warned the colonel that there were more bands of warriors he could bring to this fight. When Colonel Stanley broke off the talks, it provoked an almost immediate exchange of gunfire in which two of Gall’s warriors were shot.
Sitting Bull arrived soon after this encounter with his larger band of warriors. Both bands followed Stanley’s party back to O’Fallon Creek, where another skirmish occurred on August 22 involving about 200 warriors. Stanley then decided on a more aggressive approach, sending two companies to dislodge Sitting Bull’s force from the bluffs west of his position. During Colonel Stanley’s efforts to deal with Sitting Bull’s force, Gall led an attack on Stanley’s rear, but was driven back when the colonel turned his Gatling guns on Gall and the other Indians, killing one of Sitting Bull’s warriors.
Ironically, the army’s successful counter – attack against Gall helped make the muscular warrior in his signature red garb better known to his white adversaries. A writer for the Sioux City Daily Journal on October 19, 1872, boasted that “If Mr. Big Gaul ever again attacks any party crossing the plains, he will…first look sharply to see if they got any Gatlins with them.” But the soldiers recognized a worthy opponent, dubbing him “The Fighting Cock of the Sioux.”
The remainder of the army’s 1872 Yellowstone expedition was consumed by Colonel Stanley’s return to Fort Rice. Gall and about 100 warriors followed his party, keeping a close eye out for any stragglers they might seize or kill. Lt. Louis Dent Adair was by far the most important of the three members of Stanley’s party killed. Adair, it turned out, was a cousin of President Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant. It was clear who the culprit was: Gall boldly flourished the scalps of at least two of these victims from a hillock near Fort Rice. Gall’s defiance and Lieutenant Adair’s death would cause a reaction that neither Gall nor Sitting Bull anticipated. From this day until he surrendered in 1881, Gall was demonized by much of the press, particularly by newspapers in the West, and became a marked man for the U.S. Army.
Grant’s son, Frederick Dent Grant, also an army officer, was bitter over the death of his relative and joined the Northern Pacific survey expedition scheduled for the following year. Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, keenly aware of the implications of Adair’s death and bent on ensuring the safety of the younger Grant, ordered 1,500 soldiers to protect the 1873 survey party. Perhaps most important of all was President Grant’s change of attitude. The celebrated Peace Policy of his first administration gave way, after his reelection in 1872, to a more hard-line approach toward nontreaty Lakota Indians. Gall’s war tactics had evidently been too successful for the good of his people.
One of the highlights of the second Yellowstone expedition, of 1873, was the arrival of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer on April 13 at Yankton, the capital of the Dakota Territory. The popular Custer, along with 10 of the 12 companies of his Seventh Cavalry, was to join Stanley, who would again be in command, and Thomas L. Rosser, who would again head the survey party, as he had in 1872. Departing from Fort Rice on June 20, this larger and better-equipped military force traveled along the Yellowstone for six weeks before they encountered any unfriendly Indians. On August 4, near present-day Miles City, they were fired upon by a half-dozen warriors intent on stampeding the expedition’s horses. Those warriors drew Custer and his relatively small advance party into a hot pursuit.
Even though he probably knew that he was being drawn into a classic Lakota ambush by a decoy party, Custer chased these Indians for about two miles until some 300 warriors charged from a nearby forest to crush them. At this point, Custer—who had been joined by his brother, Lt. Tom Custer—was probably outnumbered five to one by a force of Indians that undoubtedly included the omnipresent Gall, a master of the ambush, the most successful warfare tactic developed by the Plains tribes.
Custer organized a triangular skirmish line to surround and protect his horses and the troopers assigned to hold them. In formation, the men began a slow retreat toward another protected wooded area. After an exchange of gunfire, which consumed most of the afternoon, the determined warriors set fire to a grassy area that separated them from Custer and his men. There was not enough wind, however, to drive the flames into Custer’s new defensive position. Later that day a large army relief column charged into the smoky fray, forcing the Indians to withdraw. An intense chase by Custer’s cavalrymen failed to catch these bold warriors, who knew the terrain far better than the Seventh Cavalry.
The next battle of the 1873 Yellowstone expedition would not be an ambush but a direct attack on Custer’s troopers. The confrontation, called the Battle of the Yellowstone, was the largest fought during the 1872 and 1873 campaigns. In this August encounter, Sitting Bull and Gall’s Hunkpapas were aided by a large encampment of Oglala, Miniconjou, and Sans Arc Lakotas, along with their Cheyenne allies. These Indians, who had been camping nearby on the lower Bighorn River, were also alarmed by the intrusion of these survey parties and their military escorts. Strengthened by this new infusion of manpower and surprisingly well armed with Henry and Winchester repeating rifles (picked up in earlier battles or through illicit white trade), Sitting Bull and Gall were anxious to take the initiative.
Crossing the Yellowstone, their war party decided to storm Custer’s position on the high ground opposite them. Gall was given nominal direction of two of the three groups of warriors. Because Custer’s flanks were well protected, Gall and his men decided to attack Custer’s center in two waves with about 100 warriors in each. But their confident assault was turned back when troopers from the Seventh Cavalry, led by Capt. Owen Hale and Custer’s brother Tom, charged down a steep ravine and drove the screaming warriors back. New York Tribune correspondent Samuel J. Barrows witnessed this cavalry charge, likening it to a “whirlwind” that caused many Indians “to jump off their horses and flee.”
He noted that “one conspicuous Indian in a red blanket…had his pony shot dead under him, [but] leaped on a fresh horse and got away.” The Indian in the red blanket was undoubtedly Gall; in fact, Gall liked the color red so much that another of his names was Walks-in-Red-Clothing.
The incident reveals similarities between Gall and Custer. Both men could be flamboyant in battle; Custer had worn a red shirt that day, making him a visible target, too. Moreover, during this fight Custer had a horse shot from under him, the 11th in his army career, but he continued to fight.
This last major encounter in the 1873 campaign ended with the Seventh Cavalry pursuing the Indians for eight miles but failing to catch them. Stanley arrived at the battle scene in time to use his Rodman guns to clear Indian sharpshooters from the bluffs on the Indian side of the river. Despite the numbers involved, casualties were light. Custer lost only 3 enlisted men killed, with 3 more and an officer wounded, while 4 Lakotas were killed and 12 were wounded. Lieutenant Colonel Custer returned home from this battle to a new military post, Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Fort Rice, where he was greeted as a conquering hero, substantially eclipsing Colonel Stanley.
The work of both officers, however, was undercut by the news of a national economic downturn, the Panic of 1873. This catastrophic development was triggered by the failure of the banking house behind the Northern Pacific Railroad, Jay Cooke and Co. After the firm closed its doors on September 18, there would be no important effort to lay tracks for another six years. The resistance of Sitting Bull, Gall, and their followers, which had already discouraged important investors from building the Northern Pacific, had helped to bring about a much-welcomed reprieve for these nontreaty tribesmen.
Yet peace between the army and the free-roaming tribes of the north- ern plains did not last. An 1874 expedition led by Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, creating a new crisis, one that involved both reservation and nontreaty Indians. Because the Black Hills were on the Great Sioux Reservation, the Grant administration was faced with a real dilemma: The Treaty of Fort Laramie guaranteed the Lakotas possession of the hills, yet thousands of gold seekers, feeling the effects of the Panic of 1873, were flocking to the Black Hills in violation of this treaty.
In a secret meeting on November 3, 1875, Grant and his advisers decided to continue the federal government’s prohibition against mining in the Black Hills, but not to enforce it. They also decided to force the defiant nontreaty bands to abandon the unceded Indian lands west of the Black Hills and settle on one of the agencies on the Great Sioux Reservation.
To quell Lakota discontent, General Sheridan decided on a winter campaign against the Lakotas and Cheyennes, after most of them had refused to abide by a government ultimatum that they move back to the Great Sioux Reservation by January 31, 1876. And so began the campaign that would lead to the Battle of Little Bighorn, and ensure Gall’s place in history.
The aggressive Sheridan envisioned a three-pronged attack. Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry would lead his troops, including 12 companies of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, west from Fort Abraham Lincoln, while forces under Col. John Gibbon would march east from Fort Ellis to meet them. The veteran Indian fighter Brig. Gen. George Crook would move his men northward from Fort Fetterman in Wyoming Territory in the third prong in this campaign.
On March 1, 1876, Crook set off with a force of 800 men, but the disappointing results of their attack on an Indian encampment on the Powder River indicated how difficult a cold and snowy winter campaign would be. Crook resumed his invasion of Lakota lands in late spring, but was surprised by a large group of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors on June 17, 1876, at the Battle of the Rosebud. Although such leaders as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and the Cheyenne war leader Little Hawk conducted this battle, Gall was either not there or the fighting, which spread for five miles along Rosebud Creek, never reached him and his band.
The fierceness of this Indian attack forced Crook to retreat south, to recoup his losses. This deprived Terry, Custer, and Gibbon of the planned third column of support coming from the south. Nine of Crook’s soldiers and 7 of his Indian scouts were killed; 23 soldiers and an Indian scout were wounded. According to Crazy Horse, 36 Lakotas and Cheyennes were killed and 63 were wounded at Rosebud Creek.
The target of Sheridan’s major offensive was an especially large village composed primarily of Lakotas and Cheyennes. The bands had gathered to defy the federal ultimatum demanding that they return to their agencies. For weeks the members of this village had been forced to move frequently because of their growing numbers; regular migrations were required to keep their pony herds supplied with grass. By June 25, 1876, when this mobile Indian village had reached a point along the Little Bighorn just below its junction with what would become known as Reno Creek, the villagers numbered around 7,000, including 1,500 to 1,800 warriors.
Strung along the west bank of the Little Bighorn for a mile and a half to two miles, these Indians had organized themselves into seven encampments, or tribal circles. Their village was much larger than Custer and his superiors had anticipated. The colorful Indian fighter and his Seventh Cavalry had arrived at the villages well ahead of Sheridan’s other forces. But Custer decided to attack after a long night’s march because he believed the nontreaty Indians were keenly aware of the army presence.
Not having a clear view of the Indian village, Custer divided his troopers into four groups. One, commanded by Capt. Frederick W. Benteen, was to intercept any of those warriors retreating southward to escape capture. Another, under Capt. Thomas McDougall, was in charge of Custer’s pack train. Custer placed a third column under the command of his immediate subordinate, Maj. Marcus A. Reno. Custer himself would be responsible for the largest force of the Seventh’s troopers, the 210 men from companies E, F, C, I, and L.
Reno was ordered to attack first; he crossed the Little Bighorn around 2:30 p.m., leading about 130 men from companies A, G, and M. These troopers reached the southern end of the village, where the Hunkpapas and their close allies, the Blackfoot Lakotas, were encamped. There they began firing on the tepees of both tribal circles. The only warning that Gall and his Hunkpapas had were the cries of some terrified Blackfoot Lakota youngsters. They had seen Reno’s men rapidly approaching the village, with their Crow and Arikara scouts. These scouts included Custer’s favorite, Bloody Knife, an old Gall adversary.
Despite Custer’s expectations, the Indians were unaware of Custer’s presence. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon and many of the warriors, including Gall, were either relaxing in their tepees or up on the benchlands behind them, tending to the village’s large herd of ponies. The ordinarily wary Gall, like most warriors that day, was taken completely by surprise. Presumably, the first thing he did was look around the Hunkpapa camp for members of his family. Finding none of them, he probably concluded that they had joined the panicky rush of families fleeing north in search of refuge in one of the five tribal circles downstream. After this futile search, Gall, consumed with ideas of revenge and retaliation, traveled north to get his horses, which were grazing peacefully on the high ground behind the northern Cheyenne encampment.
As he rounded up his mounts, gunfire and loud whoops of fear and anger reverberated all along the Little Bighorn, or the Greasy Grass, as the Lakotas called the river.
Riding back with his horses, Gall was probably working out some strategy to cope with this new crisis. An Indian counterattack, however, was already developing along the river as other warriors, such as Crazy Horse, charged south to drive Reno’s troopers back across the Little Bighorn. The Indians, better-armed than ever, had already achieved decisive results when Gall finally arrived on the scene. Reno’s men had been forced to retreat into the timber south of the village.
When the troopers’ reliable scout Bloody Knife was shot in the head, his blood and brains splattering all over Major Reno’s face, Reno began a hasty retreat across the river. The experienced Gall had already decided that he would lead as many warriors as he could in a circling maneuver that would cut off any possible escape by these troopers.
The extent of Gall’s participation against the Reno column is still a controversial subject. Gall claimed that his original plan to block Reno’s retreat was altered when one of his comrades, Iron Cedar, informed him that more troopers had been sighted on the other side of the river. Gall, who had always been quick to note new developments in battle, decided to investigate Iron Cedar’s report. He wanted to coordinate the efforts of all the warriors, as he had during the 1872 Yellowstone campaign, when he sent a courier to warn Sitting Bull of Colonel Stanley’s presence along O’Fallon Creek.
After he crossed the Greasy Grass, he and his comrades climbed a nearby hill and observed a line of cavalrymen heading toward the river’s east bank. He was certain that they were not General Crook’s men, because they did not have as many white horses as Crook had with him at the Rosebud. An officer leading the column stopped at the edge of the river to view the other bank with his binoculars. The officer was probably Custer, but Gall did not recognize him, because he had cut the long, golden locks that had won him the Indian nickname Long Hair, and had traded his customary buckskin jacket for a dark blue shirt. Gall later told one army veteran of the battle that the approach of these men was the closest that Custer’s troopers ever got in their effort to cross the Little Bighorn.
When Gall returned to the west bank to warn other tribesmen of the new danger, he learned that a number of warriors, having driven Reno and his surviving troopers across the river, were already heading north to deal with Custer’s large cavalry force. Relieved that the troopers had not surprised those Indian allies encamped at the north end of the village, Gall now focused more intently on the whereabouts of his family. Reaching one area where terrified women and children had gathered after leaving their encampments and fleeing downriver, Gall was once again disappointed; his family was not there. He did encounter Sitting Bull and his nephew One Bull at this site. They were offering protection to many of the demoralized victims of Reno’s attack, but they had no news about Gall’s family. Sitting Bull, now 45 years old, had shared a premonition of the fight’s outcome, but could no longer physically take an active role in the fighting, as he had done for so many years.
Gall raced back to the now devastated Hunkpapa encampment, but once again came up empty. A desperate Gall then rode south of the Hunkpapa and Blackfoot Lakota camps, where he finally found the bodies of two of his wives and three of his children. The veteran war chief was shocked and saddened; he had become more of a victim than a participant at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Yet, on the whole, casualties among the women and children were light; most had been able to flee north for refuge, although one white scout blamed Reno’s Indian scouts for killing six women and four children, whose bodies were later found south of the two camps.
Gall’s despair quickly turned to anger. The sound of increasing gunfire to the north had further whetted his appetite for vengeance. “It made my heart bad,” he later remarked. “After that I killed all my enemies with the hatchet.” In using a hatchet as his main weapon, Gall intended to make his revenge both personal and violent.
Arriving at Medicine Tail Ford sometime before 5 p.m., Gall crossed the river where Crazy Horse and Crow King had crossed earlier. Indians led by these two were already pressing Custer’s troopers, many of whom had been forced to dismount and fight on foot. There was a throng of warriors to greet him at the ford and a number of Cheyenne women eager to gather stray army horses in any attack. The charismatic war chief immediately assumed command of this heterogeneous group of Indians and led them across the Little Bighorn, where they, too, would engage the outnumbered troopers of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry. Gall continued to lead his followers up a ravine called Deep Coulee, heading toward Battle Ridge, the northernmost point of which became known as Custer Hill, where Custer’s Last Stand was unfolding.
While the Cheyenne women were catching the runaway horses of those companies fighting under the command of Capt. Myles W. Keough, who was in charge of Custer’s right flank, Gall was exhorting his heretofore leaderless warriors to stampede the army’s horses. With one of every four troopers assigned to keep their panicked mounts from fleeing, Gall told his newfound comrades to concentrate their fire on the horse holders. This tactic drove Keough’s men toward Custer Hill, where they joined the remnants of Custer’s left flank under the command of Capt. George W. Yates.
Four or five of Yates’s troopers from Company E had already felt the wrath of Gall, when they ran into his arms and were killed at Deep Ravine, according to Charles Kuhlman, one of the early historians of the battle. Although late to join the battle, Gall was also one of the more intense participants to charge across Custer Hill on horseback. There Custer and his immediate party (including his two brothers and one cousin) were crouched behind their horses, using the dead bodies of these animals as breastworks to stave off Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. The odds were truly overwhelming, though, and every last man was soon killed.
After Custer’s command had been overrun, the battle was all but over. Based on their investigations of the battlefield after a prairie fire in 1983, which revealed a trail of spent bullets and cartridges, archaeologists Richard A. Fox Jr. and Douglas Scott have concluded that Custer’s troops in the latter stages of the battle were in more of a rout than a well-disciplined retreat. Their evidence also suggests that the last gasp of the Seventh Cavalry occurred at Deep Ravine, where 28 men, including the army’s half-blood scout Mitch Bouyer, were killed in a vain attempt to hide and avoid Custer’s fate.
On the following day, June 26, Reno and Benteen and their troopers, who had been besieged on Reno Hill for two days, saw a long procession of Indians leaving their village around 7 p.m. and heading toward the Bighorn Mountains. Their curiosity was soon satisfied when the blue-coated soldiers under General Terry and Colonel Gibbon arrived to rescue them.
Because Gall was one of the first major Indian representatives to give the Lakota and Cheyenne version of the battle, many historians have credited him with playing a dominant role at the Little Bighorn; some have even regarded him as the key figure in this bloody struggle. But there has been significant controversy over his role. Because of his futile scouting mission with Iron Cedar and his reaction to the tragic slaying of his family members, it seems clear that Gall was only involved during the latter stages of the fighting along the Greasy Grass.
Historian Gregory F. Michno, author of Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat, believes that several other Indian leaders, such as Crazy Horse and Crow King, played far more dominant roles in the battle. Gall’s biggest contribution, according to Michno, was his role in stampeding the horses held in reserve by the intimidated troopers located north and east of Calhoun Hill at the south end of Battle Ridge.
Joseph M. Marshall III, however, who was born on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and speaks Lakota as a first language, has nothing but praise for Gall in his book, The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn: A Lakota History. Relying on the oral tradition of his people, he has concluded that “Crazy Horse’s act of tremendous courage combined with Gall’s steady leadership contributed to the defeat of Custer and his entire command.” Regardless of these differing opinions, Gall’s name will always be associated with the Little Bighorn.
The greatest victory of the Plains tribes in the Indian wars fought on the northern plains was, ironically, the beginning of the end of Lakota resistance against the U.S. Army. In the 11 months following the Little Bighorn, General Crook and Col. Nelson A. Miles would fight battles and skirmishes against those still-defiant nontreaty Indians in what historians today call the Great Sioux War. Miles was especially tenacious, forcing Crazy Horse to surrender in the spring of 1877 and compelling Sitting Bull and Gall to retreat north into Canada that May for a four-year exile in Saskatchewan.
After his return to the United States, Gall surrendered in 1881 and spent the last 14 years of his life on the Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles the border between North and South Dakota. Sitting Bull joined him at Standing Rock in 1883, but the two men had already had a falling out over the question of surrender and were never as close as they had been during those difficult years of conflict with the U.S. Army. Paradoxically, Gall was able to adjust to reservation life more easily than Sitting Bull. Both men had been leaders in war and peace, but Gall had gained his prominence primarily as a war chief, often excelling in the tactics and strategy of Lakota warfare. Sitting Bull, on the other hand, was both a political leader and a war leader during his prereservation years. Curiously, during the 115 years since Gall’s death in 1894, his historical legacy has been far surpassed by Sitting Bull’s, whose name is known by even the most casual students of American history.
Originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.