Little Bighorn, Battle of

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LITTLE BIGHORN, BATTLE OF (25 June 1876). The Sioux Indians in Dakota Territory bitterly resented the opening of the Black Hills to settlers, which occurred in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868. Owing also to official graft and negligence, they faced starvation in the fall of 1875. They began to leave their reservations contrary to orders, to engage in their annual buffalo hunt. They were joined by tribespeople from other reservations until the movement took on the proportions of a serious revolt. The situation was one that called for the utmost tact and discretion, for the Sioux were ably led, and the treatment they had received had stirred the bitterest resentment among them. But an order originating with the Bureau of Indian Affairs was sent to all reservation officials early in December, directing them to notify the Indians to return by 31 January under penalty of being attacked by the U.S. Army. This belated order could not have been carried out in the dead of winter even if the Indians had been inclined to obey it.

Early in 1876 Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, from his headquarters at Chicago, ordered a concentration of troops on the upper Yellowstone River to capture or disperse the numerous bands of Dakotas who hunted there. In June, Gen. Alfred H. Terry, department commander, and Col. George A. Custer, with his regiment from Fort Abraham Lincoln, marched overland to the Yellowstone, where they were met by the steamboat Far West with ammunition and supplies. At the mouth of Rosebud Creek,

a tributary of the Yellowstone, Custer received his final orders from Terry—to locate and disperse the Indians. Terry gave Custer absolutely free hand in dealing with the situation, relying on his well-known experience in such warfare.

With twelve companies of the Seventh Cavalry, Custer set out on his march and soon discovered the Sioux camped on the south bank of the Little Bighorn River. He sent Maj. Marcus Reno with three companies of cavalry and all the Arikara scouts across the upper ford of the river to attack the southern end of the Sioux camp. Capt. Frederick Benteen, with three companies, was sent to the left of Reno's line of march. Custer himself led five companies of the Seventh Cavalry down the river to the lower ford for an attack on the upper part of the camp. One company was detailed to bring up the pack train.

This plan of battle, typical of Custer, was in the beginning completely successful. Suddenly faced by a vigorous double offensive, the Indians at first thought only of retreat. At this critical juncture, and for reasons still not fully explained, Reno became utterly confused and ordered his men to fall back across the river. Thereupon the whole force of the Indian attack was concentrated upon Custer's command, compelling him to retreat from the river to a position at which his force was later annihilated. The soldiers under Reno rallied at the top of a high hill overlooking the river where they were joined by Benteen's troops and, two hours later, by the company guarding the pack train.

In 1879 an official inquiry into Reno's conduct in the battle cleared him of all responsibility for the disaster. Since that time the judgment of military experts has tended to reverse this conclusion and to hold both Reno and Benteen gravely at fault. In Sheridan's Memoirs it is stated: "Reno's head failed him utterly at the critical moment." He abandoned in a panic the perfectly defensible and highly important position on the Little Bighorn River. Reno's unpopularity after the battle was one of the reasons he was brought up on charges of drunkenness and "peeping tomism" and court-martialed. Reno was found guilty and dishonorably discharged. However, in December 1966 Reno's grandnephew, Charles Reno, asked the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records to review the court-martial verdict, citing disclosures in G. Walton's book Faint the Trumpet Sounds. In June 1967 the secretary of the army restored Reno to the rank of major and the dishonorable discharge was changed to an honorable one. The action was taken on the grounds that the discharge had been "excessive and therefore unjust." However, the guilty verdict still stands. In September 1967 Reno was reburied in Custer Battlefield National Cemetery in Montana.

As to Benteen, he admitted at the military inquiry following the battle that he had been twice ordered by Custer to break out the ammunition and come on with his men. Later, at 2:30 p.m., when he had joined Reno, there was no attacking force of Indians in the vicinity, and he had at his disposal two-thirds of Custer's entire regiment, as well as the easily accessible reserve ammunition. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, in his Personal Recollections, found no reason for Benteen's failure to go to Custer's relief. He asserted, after an examination of the battlefield, that a gallop of fifteen minutes would have brought reinforcements to Custer. Miles's opinion contributes to the mystery of why, for more than an hour—while Custer's command was being overwhelmed—Reno and Benteen remained inactive.


Ambrose, Stephen. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975; New York: New American Library, 1986; New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

Connell, Evan S. Son of the Morning Star. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984; New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

McMurtry, Larry. Crazy Horse. New York: Lipper/Viking Books, 1999.

Sajna, Mike. Crazy Horse: The Life Behind the Legend. New York: Wiley, 2000.

Welch, James. Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

O. G.Libby/a. g.

See alsoArmy, United States ; Black Hills War ; Cavalry, Horse ; Frontier Defense ; Indian Claims Commission ; Literature: Native American Literature ; andvol. 9:Account of the Battle at Little Bighorn .

Little Bighorn, Battle of

views updated May 23 2018

Little Bighorn, Battle of (June 25, 1876) Victory of Sioux and Cheyenne Native Americans against the US cavalry led by Colonel George Custer. Sometimes known as ‘Custer's Last Stand’, it was the last major victory of Native Americans against the US Army. The cavalry regiment of 225 men was annihilated by the Sioux, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, near the Little Bighorn River, Montana.

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