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February 22: A Survivor of Little Big Horn

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On June 25 and 26, 1876, the Battle of Little Big Horn took place along the Little Big Horn River in Montana Territory. Known to the Plains Indians as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, it is widely remembered as Custer’s Last Stand. The 7th Cavalry Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer faced the combined forces of several tribes including Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. The only survivor of regiment on Last Stand Hill was Captain Keogh’s horse Commanche, but 7th Cavalry troops in other portions of the battlefield did survive.

Major Marcus Reno had launched an attack on the Indian village with three companies, but when his small force was about to be overwhelmed he ordered a retreat to bluffs overlooking the river. Captain Frederick Benteen joined Reno with three companies and the pack train. They remained under heavy fire throughout the night.

John Sauer of Rockford, North Dakota was serving in Benteen’s command. Sauer told of how the soldiers, on what is known today as Reno Hill, could hear gunfire and knew Custer was under attack, but were unable to go to his aid. He talked of how the troops suffered from lack of water. One soldier was wounded when he tried to reach the river to bring back water. Sauer was among a small group who braved enemy fire to retrieve the wounded man. It was for this act that Sauer was awarded the Medal of Honor.

On this date in 1916, the Devils Lake newspaper reported that although survivors of Little Big Horn had been promised a Medal of Honor and a bonus of two dollars per month, Sauer was among those who still had not received the award forty years after the battle. When Senator Hansbrough learned of this, he promised to look into it. A few months later, when Sauer went to a commemoration of the battle, he was wearing the Medal of Honor he was finally given.

As for the heroic acts among Indians in the battle, their stories are mostly unknown. However, a 2018 biography does shed some light. The book is titled Song of Dewey Beard: Last Survivor of the Little Bighorn. It chronicles the remarkable life of Dewey Beard, a Lakota who witnessed the battle as a child and survived the Wounded Knee Massacre 24 years later.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher


  • Devils Lake Inter-Ocean. “Dakotan Unhonored.” Devils Lake ND. 2/22/1916. Page 4.
  • Billings Gazette. “Custer Survivor Comes Thousand Miles to Attend Celebration at Battlefield.” Billings, MT. 6/23/1916. Page 8.
  • National Park Service. “Little Big Horn Battlefield: Reno-Benteen Defense Site.” Accessed 12/26/2023.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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