2 Medal of Honor Tales from the Battle of the Little Bighorn

By Katie Lange
Defense Media Activity

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

Today we’re honoring two Army soldiers who earned Medals of Honor for their bravery in the Battle of the Little Bighorn during campaigns waged in the west during the late 1800s.

Army sergeants Banjamin Criswell (left) and Richard Hanley

Army sergeants Banjamin Criswell and Richard Hanley were soldiers in the Army’s 7th U.S. Cavalry, commanded by the infamous Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Both earned their medals on June 25, 1876.

Before we get to their actions, though, I’m betting not many of you remember what the Battle of the Little Bighorn was about. If you’ve heard of Custer’s Last Stand, you’re on the right track.

The battle was part of a much larger strategic campaign by the U.S. government to force the nomadic Native American Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to live on reservations created in the western half of present-day South Dakota.

But many Native Americans rejected the reservation life, and tensions grew over the years until the U.S. government issued an ultimatum requiring all tribes to report to a reservation. Many never responded, so the U.S. got its military involved.

Army Lt. Col. George Custer circa 1864. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought along the steep bluffs, ridges and ravines of the Little Bighorn River in south-central Montana over two days in late June 1876. Army leaders thought they could easily surround the Native Americans, who were encamped at a village in the valley bottom. But they were wrong. Led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, the Native American warriors drove back several Army battalions before a woefully unprepared Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer made what he’ll always be known for – his last stand.

Custer, who led the 7th Cavalry division, didn’t believe there were as many Native Americans in the village as had been reported. So, he split the cavalry into a few battalions and took about 215 soldiers to a ridge, where warriors overwhelmed and killed them all. The soldiers from the other battalions who managed to survive the onslaught were held under siege for more than 24 hours until village leaders decided to move their tribes south.

Criswell and Hanley were some of the few men of the 7th Cavalry to survive the battle.

Criswell rescued Lt. Benjamin Hodgson from the banks of the river. He noticed Hodgson had been shot, so Criswell rode his horse over to him, had Hodgson grab his stirrup and then dragged him to the opposite side of the river. Unfortunately, Hodgson got hit by a bullet on the way and died. Criswell picked his body up and kept riding, collecting ammunition on the ground along the way and delivering it to other soldiers. He also encouraged the men in the most exposed positions to continue fighting, despite being heavily outnumbered.

Hanley was part of the same retreating battalion, and he noticed that a pack mule carrying lots of ammunition had gotten frightened, broke free from his handler and was running toward the advancing warriors. Without being ordered, Hanley singlehandedly recaptured the mule, despite it dodging him for more than 20 minutes, leaving him exposed in the open during heavy fire.

For their bravery, both men received Medals of Honor on Oct 5, 1878. Twenty-two other men received the nation’s highest honor for valor for actions taken during the battle. Many of them had volunteered to take water to the wounded.

A photo of the 7th Cavalry on the historic battlefield on June 25, 1926, 40 years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The ridge where Custer and his soldiers died was designated a national monument in 1946. In 1991, the area was renamed by Congress as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was a massive victory for the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne, but they inevitably lost. The Army sent more powerful forces to pacify the area, and within a few years, they forced American Indian tribes in the area to surrender themselves to the reservations. The area in which they originally lived, known as the Black Hills, was taken without compensation.

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