American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image

Battle of the Little Bighorn

Title: Battle of the Little Bighorn
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, which took place in southeastern Montana on June 25, 1876, is one the best-known, most studied, and most controversial episodes in American history. The battle, in which a portion of the Seventh Cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer were all killed, was a crushing defeat for the United States Army at the hands of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors. The United States, celebrating its centennial, was caught totally off guard by the defeat of its army. Troops of a western "civilized" nation were not supposed to experience such devastation at the hands of an "uncivilized" foe. What became known as Custer's Last Stand instantly captured the American imagination and continues to do so today. However, following this great victory, the northern Plains tribes soon lost their war against the Americans and were confined to reservations, their equestrian bison-hunting lifestyle shattered.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was one of the final episodes in the American conquest of the Great Plains, which started with the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Louisiana Purchase. According to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, most of the Black Hills belonged to the Great Sioux Reservation, which contained the area of current South Dakota west of the Missouri River. The treaty also gave the Indians a right to hunt in the Powder River area as long as buffalo and other game were plentiful enough to provide subsistence for them. In the 1870s, however, rumors of gold in the Black Hills, further confirmed by government expeditions, led to a stampede of white greed that swept away any indigenous rights to the area. Thousands of white prospectors swarmed the area, and, although the government made some efforts to keep them out for a while, it quickly attempted to buy the land from the Indians. The Sioux, considering the place sacred, declared their unwillingness to sell. The federal government responded by issuing threats, including the use of force. In actuality, it declared war through an ultimatum stating that any groups staying outside the reservation boundaries after the last day of January 1876 were to be considered hostile.

The U.S. Army concentrated large numbers of troops in the area. Following a nearly disastrous late winter campaign, the Army opted for a three-pronged summer offensive. Three converging columns were supposed to circle around the Powder River country and close in on the resisting tribes, crushing anyone they met. One of the columns, which had started from Fort Abraham Lincoln and approached the area from the northeast, was led by General Alfred Terry and included the whole Seventh Cavalry under Custer. From the Yellowstone River, Terry dispatched Custer with approximately 600 soldiers and some indigenous scouts as a strike force to search for the Indians and drive them northward, where Colonel John Gibbon's troops might block their escape. Custer found the Indian trail and followed it into the valley of the Little Bighorn, hoping to strike a decisive blow against the Indians.

Knowing that the Army would come after them, bands of Sioux, northern Cheyennes, and northern Arapahos joined together for an exceptionally large concentration along the stream they called the Greasy Grass. The flood of Indians from the agencies doubled the village size in a few days, from 400 to 1,000 lodges, from 3,000 to 7,000 people, and from 800 to 2,000 warriors. Hunkpapas, Oglalas, Miniconjous, Sans Arcs, Blackfeet, Two Kettles, Brules, and some Yanktonnais and Santees made the five Sioux circles, coexisting with 120 Cheyenne lodges and a handful of Arapahos. This amount of people consumed immense amounts of game, forage, and firewood, and could not remain together for a long period of time. The Indians, angered by the federal government's unscrupulous policies, were ready for a fight. They were strong in number and leadership, extremely confident, and well armed. Just a week earlier, a portion of them had held General George Crook's troops to a stalemate along the nearby Rosebud. Custer was unaware of this battle.

Presuming that the Indians would scatter as soon as they spotted his troops, Custer was eager for a quick charge and divided his command of twelve companies into four groups. One group led by Major Marcus Reno would attack the southern end of the camp, while Captain Frederick Benteen would scout to the south and west and cut off any potential escape routes. Custer himself, with about 200 men, would flank the northern end of the village. In addition, a detachment was left behind to guard the pack train. Custer was clearly more concerned with preventing the Indians from escaping than with their numbers or fighting abilities. This concern was not unusual, because many officers considered that the hardest thing in Indian warfare was to locate the enemy and force them to stand and fight. Thus, Custer had a clear rationale for hurrying.

From the start, the battle was a success for the Indians. Reno's men met heavy opposition and were forced to retreat twice to better positions. Casualties included almost half of his command, and the rest fell under siege. The expected help from Custer never came. Instead, Custer had advanced northward parallel to the river, realizing only then the size of the encampment he had stumbled upon. He sent word for Benteen to join him and rallied his men forward. Warriors charged across the river from the center of the village under Gall, a Hunkpapa leader; more came from the south, leaving the Reno site; and additional force under the leadership of the Oglala Crazy Horse struck from the north. Custer's men were sorely outnumbered, trapped in broken terrain, and fragmented along both sides of the battle ridge. The fight was brutal and short. None of the U.S. troops survived.

The pack train detail and Benteen, whose scout had proven useless, were unable to join Custer but reached Reno's defense position, bringing relief to their distress. Before that, many of the indigenous warriors had fled this battle scene and gone after Custer. Still, shooting at the Reno–Benteen site continued, and on June 26 two assault attempts were driven back by the soldiers. The situation of the troops remained desperate with many wounded, thirsty, and exhausted by the summer heat. Late in the evening the Indians started their retreat, and on the morning of June 27 the soldiers realized they were alone. Now Terry's troops arrived on the scene. All wondered where Custer was. The Reno–Benteen outfit had heard the sounds of fighting on June 25, and some of them had tried to go to Custer's help but were driven back by indigenous fighters. They had not seen Custer's struggles, the smoke and dust having obscured visibility. What they discovered after Terry arrived was total devastation. Custer and all his men lay dead on the slopes above the river. After the soldiers hastily buried the dead, they departed toward the mouth of the Little Bighorn, where a steamer was waiting. Altogether, casualties included half of the Seventh Cavalry; with Custer alone over 200 soldiers had died.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn proved to be, in fact, the last major show of force of the Sioux, Northern Cheyennes, and Northern Arapahos against the invading United States. Stunned and humiliated, the federal government poured men and resources quickly into the northern Plains. Throughout the winter of 1876–1877, regular troops with their Indian allies pursued the free bands continually, striking at their camps and commissary and slowly starving them into submission. The following spring a succession of Indian groups surrendered at various forts and agencies. The war was over. Indians had lost possession of the Black Hills and the Powder River area, and eventually their large reservation was cut to pieces. Most of the surrendering Cheyennes were transported to the Indian Territory, from which they soon made their escape back north. The followers of Sitting Bull fled into Canada, only to return and surrender in 1881. The Battle of the Little Bighorn had been a major show of indigenous power, demonstrating Indians' courage and tactical skills and resulting in triumphant victory. Nevertheless, self-rule and the equestrian bison-hunting life did not survive its aftermath.

Janne Lahti

Further Reading
Gray, John S. 1991. Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Hutton, Paul Andrew, ed. 1992. The Custer Reader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Scott, Douglas D., P. Willey, and Melissa A. Connor. 1998. They Died with Custer: Soldiers’ Bones from the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Utley, Robert M. 2001. Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Viola, Herman J. 1998. It is a Good Day to Die: Indian Eyewitnesses Tell the Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer