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  • James Houser

June 26, 1876 - The Battle of the Little Bighorn

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

June 26, 1876. As the sun rises, 210 troopers of the United States 7th Cavalry lie dead on a hillside in southern Montana. Among them is their commander, Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer. The Battle of the Little Bighorn, the climax of the Plains Indian Wars, is the greatest Native American victory of the century – but this single victory cannot change the inevitable outcome of the war.

In the 1860s, the Sioux tribes of the Great Plains reigned supreme and virtually outside United States control, hunting buffalo in the modern-day Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana. They had been pushed west into this region by white settlement in Minnesota, and had themselves pushed the Crow tribes to the west and north. There are similarities here to the Hunnic migrations near the final days of the Roman Empire, and how their expansion westward forced the Germanic tribes to breach the Roman border and accelerate the Empire’s decline. In this case, the white people would be…the Huns. Not a good look, guys.

By the 1860s, though, rumors of gold in Montana was prompting further white expansion into Sioux territories. This caused the pioneering of the Bozeman Trail, a wagon trail that cut directly across the Sioux’s buffalo lands. To protect the white pioneers from Indian raids, the U.S. Army built several forts along the Bozeman Trail to protect the prospectors and migrants. This encroachment on Sioux territory touched off the first major American-Sioux War.

Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux ended up being the only Native American chief to ever war against the United States and win. In what was known as Red Cloud’s War, from 1866 to 1868, the Sioux cut the Bozeman Trail and cut off the isolated Army forts. Both Red Cloud and his Army opponents won victories, but it was clear the Army could not hold the forts against indefinitely in hostile country, and negotiated a treaty with Red Cloud at Fort Laramie in 1868.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie was at the root of the events that led to Little Bighorn. Red Cloud, as an Indian leader, was no fool; he recognized that the Sioux had been extremely lucky to win this war, and he should take what he could get. The Army abandoned the forts on the Bozeman Trail, and created the Great Sioux Reservation – all of modern South Dakota west of the Missouri, with the Black Hills at their heart. Though these lands would be chipped away over the next century, Red Cloud’s negotiations ensured that the Great Sioux Nation retain large stretches of land to this very day – many other Indian tribes were not so lucky.

Red Cloud himself decided to retire to reservation life, and led many of the Sioux into the control of the United States government in exchange for rations and security. Many Sioux rejected this settlement, however, refusing to give up their nomadic and aggressive way of life. Though this was brave and admirable, it is important to look at it from Red Cloud’s perspective, too – he was doing his best to ensure that the Sioux survived into the modern age.

The “non-treaty” Sioux remained rogue in what was called the “Unceded Territory,” most of modern Montana and Wyoming stretching from the Rockies in the west to the Great Sioux Reservation in the east. Red Cloud’s retirement in 1870 meant that the new central figure of the Sioux Nation would not be a chief, but the medicine man – essentially a priest – Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was a cultural purist, believing in isolation from whites and strict adherence to the traditional cultural and spiritual practice of the Sioux Nation. This contrast to Red Cloud’s stance drew a lot of the most aggressive and uncompromising war leaders, including the charismatic and formidable chief Crazy Horse.

The non-treaty Sioux were a big problem for the United States. Many Sioux left the reservation to join their brethren in the Unceded Territory, and as railroads and white expansion branched out in this direction the Army grew increasingly concerned. In 1874, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry conducted several expeditions through the Black Hills to look for sites for a fort, but one of the surveyors on his expedition confirmed the presence of gold in them thar hills. Soon white settlers were flocking into the Great Sioux Reservation to prospect for gold, further antagonizing the Sioux and driving them into Sitting Bull’s waiting arms.

When the United States government asked the Reservation Sioux to consider selling the suddenly valuable Black Hills, they refused – under pressure from Sitting Bull and his faction. The government came to one conclusion: Sitting Bull and his Sioux had to be brought under Federal control, and the Army would be the ones to do it.

General Philip Sheridan, a Civil War hero, was the Army commander on the Great Plains. With his consent, Indian agents issued a notice that all Sioux had to return to the reservation by January 31, 1876, or face military action. The Sioux received this notice, but Sitting Bull refused to submit, and on February 8 Sheridan informed his two subordinates in the region – Generals George Crook and Alfred Terry – to start a campaign against the Sioux to force their submission and drive them onto the reservation. Thus began the Great Sioux War of 1876.

The Army settled on a three-pronged penetration of the Unceded Territory, starting in late spring 1876, to pin down and destroy Sitting Bull’s force near the Lakota Sioux hunting grounds. General George Crook’s Yellowstone Expedition – 3rd Cavalry and 9th Infantry - would head north from Wyoming. Colonel John Gibbon’s Montana Column – 7th Infantry and 2nd Cavalry - headed east from the Rocky Mountains. From the Great Sioux Reservation itself, General Alfred Terry’s Dakota Column would head west. The main strength of Terry’s column was found in Custer’s 7th Cavalry. All three prongs were set to converge at the likely site of the Sioux camp near the Little Bighorn River.

George Custer was a controversial and polarizing figure, even before his dramatic death. Having graduated dead last in his class at West Point, he was commissioned a Brigadier General at the age of 23 during the Civil War and led Union cavalry forces on numerous campaigns, including the division that blocked Lee’s final retreat at Appomattox. Custer was flamboyant and ambitious, habitually aggressive, reckless, and fearless in battle. He was probably Sheridan’s favorite subordinate. But he was also insubordinate, ruthless, and severe; in 1867 he had been court martialled for going AWOL and having deserters shot without trial. He was his own shameless publicist, and he owes much of his postwar fame to his wife’s equal contributions in that field after his death. He had originally been meant to lead the Dakota Column, but had led his mouth run away with him again – this time to the displeasure of his former commander and now President, Ulysses S. Grant.

Custer had nevertheless made a reputation as a fierce commander, both against the Confederates and the Indians. In all Custer’s previous experiences fighting Indians, he had come to the belief that they were committed to guerrilla tactics, were most vulnerable when attacked in their camps, and were more likely to flee than fight a pitched battle. These preconceived notions would be hard to shake until it was too late.

As the three expeditions set out, the first snag came. Crook’s Yellowstone Column ran into a large force of Sioux under Crazy Horse at the Rosebud on June 17, 1876. Crook held the field, but was shocked by the large number of Indian attackers – vastly more than the Army thought the Sioux could muster. Crook made the decision to withdraw, while Gibbon and Terry proceeded, unaware that one prong of their three-prong plan had already been turned back.

Terry and Gibbon had linked up in early June, and agreed to divide again to try and catch the Sioux between them at the Little Bighorn; they were under the impression that Crook was still on his way, so the Sioux would be distracted. They agreed to rendezvous at the Little Bighorn on June 26 or 27. Terry decided to send Custer ahead with the 7th Cavalry on a reconnaissance in force – essentially, go find out what the enemy are doing, and fight to find out if you have to. He offered Custer the use of several Gatling Guns but Custer turned them down, believing they would only slow him down. Who needed the newfangled things, anyway?

Custer arrived at an overlook near the Little Bighorn, and sent out scouts on the night of June 24. These scouts reported back on the 25th and confirmed that there were signs of a massive pony herd and a Sioux village about 15 miles off. They also confirmed that they had been able to see Custer’s cookfires from the valley below, and believed the Sioux might know they were coming. Custer made up his mind that the Sioux had to already know they were coming, and decided to attack the village without waiting for Terry’s infantry or Gibbon’s force.

Custer’s decision was reckless, but typical Custer. If his information had been correct, he might have even succeeded – but his information was not correct. All the Army estimates pegged the Sioux forces at about 800 fighters, but in fact Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had almost 2500. Custer’s scout warned him about the size of the village, with one telling him that “General, I have been with these Indians for 30 years, and this is the largest village I have ever heard of.” Custer, though, was less afraid the force was too large and more afraid that the Sioux would escape the trap if they knew the Americans were coming. He made a gamble.

By Custer’s plan, a battalion under Major Marcus Reno would advance openly on the camp. This was designed to draw out the main force of the Sioux warriors. While Reno moved out, Custer would lead the bulk of the regiment – five companies – around to the rear of the camp. Another battalion was left under Captain Frederick Benteen in reserve. When the warriors left to confront Reno, Custer would ride into the camp to seize the families and belongings of the Sioux. With these as hostages, Custer hoped to be able to convince the warriors to surrender and comply with federal orders. Throughout the Indian Wars, the overriding Army policy was not of exterminating the Native Americans, but controlling and subduing them. Custer sought to end the campaign as bloodlessly as possible.

Reno’s battalion approached the village, crossing the Little Bighorn River en route around 3:00 pm. They dismounted, formed a skirmish line, and pushed up towards the village. Only then did Reno realize the actual size of the camp, and understood the danger they were in – but he also knew that unless he fulfilled his part of the plan Custer was toast. His men opened a volley into the camp, by some accounts killing several wives of the Sioux leader Gall. With surprising speed, the Sioux came out and quickly flanked Reno on both sides. Realizing that he had just kicked the hornet’s nest, Reno led his men in a fighting retreat which cost him 32 dead as they escaped across the river.

Benteen’s force soon came up to Reno’s rescue, and probably saved Reno’s battalion from destruction. The 354 troopers dug rifle pits on the bluffs and held off multiple Sioux attacks, but they also began to hear heavy firing from the direction in which Custer had gone. Besieged by all sides, it was 5:00 pm before they could send Captain Thomas Weir with a force to try and rescue Custer. At around 5:25 pm, Weir’s force ascended a ridge to see an enormous mass of Sioux on horseback shooting at objects on the ground around a hill. There was no sign of Custer.

No one, of course, knows exactly what happened to Custer. The best conjecture is that Custer’s 210 men were suddenly attacked by the main body of the Sioux, led personally by Crazy Horse. Custer and his men had dismounted to approach the Sioux camp, and tried to escape but were eventually cornered on a hill and were overwhelmed. It was the Sioux warriors executing the wounded that Weir saw from his ridge. Sioux accounts later assembled by ethnologists reveal that Custer never managed to make his attack; he was discovered quickly, cornered by the majority of the Sioux, and went down fighting on top of the hill.

There are as many interpretations of how the Last Stand went down as there are writers. Whether he crossed this or that river first, who went down when, how things played out – the theories and stories are innumerable. The only thing that does not change is the ending.

The Reno-Benteen force held out on their bluff under constant Sioux attack until the next day, June 26, when Terry and Gibbon arrived to save them. Their combined force soon identified the site of Custer’s Last Stand by the mutilated bodies of the 210 troopers. Custer himself was found with two fatal gunshots wounds, one to his chest and the other to his head; Lakota Sioux oral tradition asserted that a wounded Custer committed suicide to avoid torture.

Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn turned this first expedition of the Great Sioux War into a disaster, but the eventual outcome was inevitable. The Army began to crack down on the reservations, confiscating war goods and imposing strict controls, even throwing Red Cloud in prison for “failing to turn in hostile individuals.” Expeditions by Ranald Mackenzie and Nelson Miles met and defeated the Sioux in battle, driving them from their lands. The United States formally annexed the Unceded Territories. Though Crazy Horse was killed before the war was over, Sitting Bull would survive as a public figure on the Wild West Show circuit for years to come.

Custer himself would go down in history for his “gallant” Last Stand, which was a bombshell news story across the nation and became perhaps the most-remembered event of the Indian Wars. Custer’s reputation somehow survived the battle, largely thanks to his widow Elisabeth Custer, who promoted the idea of her fallen husband as a gallant hero and CAME AFTER anyone who said anything slightly negative about him in the press. Custer, then, probably has a much better reputation than he deserves for his stupid and reckless plan that got half his regiment massacred.

Little Bighorn had been a great victory for the Sioux, but there wouldn’t be another one; for the Natives of North America, it was all downhill from here. In a way, it wasn’t Custer’s last stand but theirs.

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