Battle of the Little Bighorn

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The basic facts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn are simple. On 25 June 1876 the Seventh Calvary regimental commander Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and approximately 250 U.S. soldiers, scouts, and civilians were killed by what best estimates say were 2,000 Lakota, Hunkpapa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors in the valley of the Little Bighorn River in what is now southeastern Montana. Beyond those sketchy details, however, the story becomes more complicated, in large part because no U.S. military personnel in Custer's party survived the battle and because the reports of those who observed from the margins were colored by various personal interests or linguistic and cultural differences. Almost immediately the story was transformed into an American myth.

Controversy has raged over the years about the major players: whether Custer was a "cavalier in buckskin," a foolhardy "glory hunter," or simply unable to adjust to the complicated war against the native inhabitants of the plains; whether Custer's subordinates, Major Marcus A. Reno and Captain Frederick W. Benteen, were guilty of negligence (or even cowardice) or were merely unable to follow orders in a confusing and life-threatening situation; whether the native combatants were vicious rebels or justified defenders of their homeland. As for the battle itself, there have been allegations of treachery, incompetence, drunkenness on duty, and conspiracies, but there have also been those who say that Custer and his forces were simply outnumbered and outmaneuvered by their foes and undone by their overconfidence.

What remains most interesting, perhaps, is not finding the definitive answer to why Custer was defeated at the Little Bighorn but exploring why so many generations of historians, battle buffs, artists, and writers have continued to care. After all, the number of dead is minuscule compared to the numbers that died in the Civil War (and in many other U.S. conflicts). While the defeat may have contributed to the eventual removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the West, that program was certainly well under way at the time the battle took place, aided by the elimination of traditional hunting grounds and the decimation of the buffalo population. Nevertheless, since 1876 (when the first biography of Custer appeared) the speculation, analysis, revision, and outright fabrications about the battle have continued to grow.


No accounting of this particularly complicated story can be completely free of bias, but some details about George Armstrong Custer's life preceding the battle do remain (somewhat) free from debate. First, Custer was a brevet (honorary) major general in the Civil War, known for his bravery and skills as a tactician, although at times he was criticized for his foolhardiness and self-promotion. He was championed by General Ulysses S. Grant and by General Philip Henry Sheridan, and the term "Custer's luck" became well known throughout the army for his good fortune on and off the battlefield.

After the war, Custer survived various troubles (including being court-martialed for leaving his post without authorization and being drawn, or perhaps drawing himself, into one of the many scandals of Grant's presidential administration) but also added to his fame by serving in campaigns against the Native Americans on the western plains. He scored a decisive victory against the Cheyenne at the Washita River in present-day Oklahoma on 27 November 1868. However, this incident was not without controversy, as many of those killed were noncombatants and much of the Native Americans' food, shelter, and transportation was destroyed in the middle of winter. Some also speculate that Benteen's animosity toward Custer (which may have influenced his later behavior at the Little Bighorn) began during this engagement.

Custer was also plagued by allegations of cruelty toward deserters and insubordinate soldiers and too scrupulous attention to detail. The most charitable analysts say that Custer's temperament and leadership style were not suited to a peacetime army filled with resentful recruits and hapless volunteers. These may seem like irrelevant details in a discussion of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Custer scholars are united in thinking that they contributed to the eventual outcome of the engagement, even as they disagree about exactly how the events unfolded.

The string of events that culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn began when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territories. In fact, the presence of gold in the Black Hills had been confirmed on an expedition Custer had led in 1874. Even though the U.S. government had made a treaty with area tribes promising them the Black Hills (which they considered sacred ground), the news of gold had already brought in prospectors and would-be settlers. Because of the potential for violence between Native Americans and Euro-Americans, the tribes in the area had been ordered to reservations, and the army was sent to round up (or destroy) those who remained outside. These included the warriors fighting alongside the Native American leaders Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Gall.


The U.S. forces dispatched on this mission included troops commanded by Generals Alfred Terry, George Crook, and John Gibbon in addition to Custer's regiment. The commanders planned to come at the renegades from several sides and surround them (although the exact location of the Native Americans and their numbers were not clear). Custer and his regiment were sent to the Little Bighorn from one direction, while the troops commanded by Terry and Gibbon would approach from another. Much ink has been spilled about the final instructions General Terry gave Custer, but the most recent consensus is that while Terry instructed Custer to wait for the other troops before he acted, he also told him to use his own judgment if he found the warriors. For most scholars, this indicates that Custer was later justified in taking the initiative and not waiting for Terry to arrive.

After receiving the somewhat ambiguous instructions from Terry, Custer took his regiment of men and divided them into three battalions, one led by Benteen, one by Reno, and one by Custer himself. (Custer had between 215 and 225 men with him.) Having no clear idea of the number of Native American fighters they would be facing, Custer gave instructions for Reno and Benteen to split off from his group. Custer expected that the three groups would join forces later, but this never happened.

When Reno's troops met the warriors outside of their encampment, the soldiers dismounted and created a skirmish line on foot, which some have seen as a mistake. From there, seriously outnumbered and hamstrung by what appears to have been a failure of nerve on the part of their commander, the troops moved toward the shelter of some trees. Then they made a reckless dash up the bluffs to what is now called, perhaps sarcastically, Reno Hill, with Reno leading the retreat (which is not what one expects of a commanding officer). There they stayed until joined later by Benteen.

Meanwhile, Custer and his men made their way to the valley of the Little Bighorn River, still uncertain about how many Native Americans they were going to encounter and whether or not the warriors would fight or retreat with the women and children encamped with them. The troops suspected that they had been sighted, however, as they saw Native Americans watching them along the trail, and their dust would have been hard to miss. They ended up on a ridge to the north of Reno Hill, known as Last Stand Hill, where they were surrounded by a large force of Native Americans. The battle there was relatively straightforward: outnumbering Custer's men at least ten to one, the warriors (who were armed with bows and rifles) only had to circle Custer's men and pick them off one by one. The firing began in earnest around 4:30 P.M.; by 6:00 P.M. everyone in Custer's party was dead.

Benteen, for his part, seemed to be wandering in the wilderness, unable (he claimed) to see or hear Custer's troops. Even though Custer sent his now-famous message ordering Benteen to come quickly and to bring ammunition packs, Benteen claimed that he did not know how to find Custer. When Benteen arrived on Reno Hill, he was able to see Custer's predicament, but Reno (who was Benteen's superior officer) refused to allow any troops to follow Custer. (Captain Thomas B. Weir and his company did go without authority to Custer's aid, only to be turned back by large numbers of hostile forces.) The Native Americans laid siege to Reno Hill, and the fighting continued there through the evening. The U.S. troops were able to hang on, however, until the Native Americans left en masse the next day.

Custer and his men were discovered by Terry and Gibbon's scouting party, who had come too late to help. There was considerable mutilation of the bodies, but Custer's body was found undisturbed, except for having bullet holes in the chest and temple and being stripped naked. Of course, there has been speculation about whether the fatal blow to the head was self-inflicted, with much discussion of the lack of powder burns, the difficulty of shooting oneself in the left temple if one is right handed, the army's desire to protect Custer's wife Libbie from further distress caused by the accusation of a dishonorable suicide, and the often-stated intention of Custer to save the last bullet for himself. Whatever the means of his death, Custer was consistently reported to have looked peaceful.


The aftermath of Custer's death was certainly not peaceful. Reno and Benteen, anxious to clear their names of any suspicion, concocted a plot to draft a letter from their troops praising their bravery. (Many of the signatures on the letter were forged.) General Terry rewrote his last instructions to Custer to make his suggestions sound more like specific orders. Everyone, from generals to privates, from Native American scouts to hostile warriors, from alleged army survivors of the battle to Monday morning quarterbacks, weighed in on the subject. They talked of Custer's bravery, insubordination, or foolishness; of Reno's drunkenness, cowardice, inexperience, or prudent caution; and of Benteen's resentment, defiance of direct orders, confusion, or powerlessness to defy his superior officer. A court of inquiry that was convened in 1879 exonerated Reno, but it seemed to raise more questions than it answered and gave rise to the suspicion that the army had put pressure on the court to find in Reno's favor.

Even after all the participants died, the Battle of the Little Bighorn lingered in the popular imagination. Custer's wife Elizabeth (better known as Libbie) devoted the rest of her ninety years to celebrating the memory of her husband, writing hundreds of letters (by hand) to men under Custer's command, those claiming to be survivors, and anyone interested in Custer's story. Reno was court-martialed for drunken fighting and voyeurism. Benteen, who engaged in a lifelong crusade to discredit Custer, was court-martialed for drunkenness and failure to perform his duties. He was later allowed to take an honorable discharge and retire for medical reasons and died ten years later, still criticizing Custer publicly and privately.


Perhaps the first to fictionalize (and profit from) the battle was William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, a scout for the U.S. Army during and after the Civil War and a friend of Custer. On 17 July 1876 Cody shot, stabbed, and then allegedly scalped the Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hand (who was rumored to have killed Custer). This event, part fact, part myth, was transformed into the melodrama Buffalo Bill's First Scalp for Custer, which Cody produced and starred in that fall. In 1883 Cody created the stage show Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which, along with Pony Express rides, buffalo hunts, and a staged stagecoach attack, culminated in a presentation of "Custer's Last Stand," featuring Lakota who had actually fought in the battle.

The visual arts certainly have frequently depicted the Battle of the Little Bighorn (usually inaccurately). The most famous of these representations is probably the circa 1884 painting Custer's Last Fight by Cassilly Adams. The painting was bought by Anheuser-Busch beer magnate Adolphus Busch, who had Otto Becker design a print from it in 1896. Over the years, more than a million copies of the print have been distributed to bars and restaurants. Other paintings include Custer's Last Charge (1876) by Feodor Fuchs, possibly the earliest representation; John Mulvany's Custer's Last Rally (1881), said to be Walt Whitman's favorite painting; and the very accurate portrayals of the battle by the twentieth-century artist Nick Eggenhoffer.

Numerous poets have memorialized Custer's Last Stand, using it to further their personal, political, and aesthetic agendas. "From Far Dakota's Cañons" (1876), written by Walt Whitman (1819–1892) shortly after the news of the disaster filtered out, celebrates Custer's "tawny flowing hair in battle" (p. 593) and his heroic death. "The Revenge of Rain-in-the-Face" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) perpetuates the probably mythic account of the Hunkpapa Sioux leader's murder of Custer's brother Tom, who was serving in the Seventh Calvary. Longfellow's version substitutes George Armstrong Custer in place of Tom Custer, however, for dramatic effect. "On the Big Horn" (1887) by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) is a later and more mournful plea for peace and unity between Native Americans and whites, while the epic "Custer" (1896) by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850–1919), which celebrates Custer's heroism and bravery, was written during what is probably America's most nationalistic and imperialistic period.

Critical studies of the Battle of Little Bighorn and Custer's life crowd the library shelves. Everyone from history professors to retired doctors has become obsessed with the story, attempting to clear Custer's name or at least resurrect—once again—the various controversies. Archaeological studies of the site have led to new information about the battle, and military strategists have carefully plotted and replotted the maneuvers. Studies have been done from the perspectives of Native Americans, women, and enlisted men. And, as always, there are many investigations that attempt to portray Custer as a hero or villain.

Why has this particular battle generated so much conversation over the many years since it happened? Many argue that it marked the last stand for native peoples in the American West as well as the last gasp for heroes of the Civil War. Also, it raises questions about the national myth of the United States: Is Custer an American hero who died bravely defending American interests, or is he an unwitting (or perhaps bloodthirsty and racist) villain setting out to destroy a people's legitimate right to their homeland? Even the name of the battlefield partakes of this conflict. First named a national cemetery on 29 January 1879, it became the Custer Battlefield National Monument on 22 March 1946. On 10 December 1991 Congress passed, at the insistence of the Colorado Republican congressperson Ben Nighthorse Campbell, legislation renaming it the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Thirteen years later, Campbell dedicated a statue that commemorates the Native American warriors and their struggles on Last Stand Hill.

Another way to read the continuing interest in the battle is to recognize the elements of tragedy in Custer's story, which seem as if they could have been created for a work of literature. These include his great early triumph, pride going before a fall, possible betrayal by subordinates, and human frailty. According to Vine Deloria, Custer died for our sins, and indeed he has become a sacrifice to the conflicted national position on native peoples and a scapegoat for the nation's guilt over power and strength as well as an enduring reminder of the gallantry and pathos of the human condition. Perhaps more cynically, the story of the Little Bighorn is, like all good stories, full of fascinating characters: a charismatic but overconfident leading man, the attractive and loyal woman who married him, reluctant and envious allies, heroic and menacing foes, a true-blue supporting cast—plus guns, horses, danger, and mystery. Most of all, though, it represents a 100-year-old nation struggling to reconcile Manifest Destiny with moral responsibility.

See alsoIndians; Indian Wars; Wounded Knee


Primary Work

Whitman, Walt. "From Far Dakota's Cañons." 1876. In Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, pp. 592–593. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Secondary Works

Barnett, Louise. Touched by Fire: The Life, Death, and MythicAfterlife of George Armstrong Custer. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Frost, Lawrence A. Custer Legends. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981.

Gray, John S. Custer's Last Campaign: Mitch Boyer and theLittle Bighorn Reconstructed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Leckie, Shirley A. Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Pearson, Roberta E.. "Custer Loses Again: The Contestation over Commodified Public Memory." In Cultural Memory and the Construction of Identity, edited by Dan Ben-Amos and Liliane Weissberg, pp. 176–201. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Sandoz, Mari. The Battle of the Little Bighorn. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966.

Sklenar, Larry: To Hell with Honor: Custer and the LittleBighorn. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Utley, Robert M. Cavalier in Buckskin: George ArmstrongCuster and the Western Military Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Van de Water, Frederic F. Glory-Hunter: A Life of GeneralCuster. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1934.

Wert, Jeffry D. The Controversial Life of George ArmstrongCuster. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Whittaker, Frederick. A Complete Life of Gen. George A.Custer: Major-General of Volunteers; Brevet Major-General, U.S. Army; and Lieutenant-Colonel, Seventh U.S. Cavalry. New York: Sheldon and Company, 1976.

Caren J. Town