Battle of the Little Bighorn 1876
Battle of the Little Big Horn
Battle of the Little Big Horn
The Battle of the Little Big Horn took place from June 25 to June 27, 1876, along the river of the same name in what is now south-central Montana. The result is well known. Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and a handful from other Northern Great Plains tribes defeated the 7th U.S. Cavalry regiment. The battle included several fights. In a separate engagement, the companies led by Major Marcus Reno (1834–1889; the regiment’s second-in-command) weathered a thirty-six-hour siege after warriors thwarted their attack on the Indian camp.
The Custer fight is historically the most visible event of the Little Big Horn affair. Shortly after Reno retreated, on a river bluff about four miles from Reno’s defense site, warriors wiped out to the man five companies (approximately 210 men) and their acting regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet Major General) George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876).
The event is indelibly fixed in the American social consciousness. It has been a symbol of bravery and spirit, of folly, and of oppression. This symbolism is largely a function of Custer’s presence. Its perception as folly, most visible during socially liberal times, is amply illustrated in the motion picture Little Big Man (1970; Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway), and in various biographies, such as Frederic Van de Water’s Glory Hunter (1934), that portray Custer as an egotist willing to sacrifice others in his pursuit of glory.
Negative conceptions of the Battle of the Little Big Horn have their roots in the attitudes of Custer’s contemporaries. Custer had achieved national prominence for his often daring (and usually highly successful) Civil War exploits (see Urwin’s Custer Victorious ). With success came jealousy, criticism, and accusations. Little Big Horn reinforced such views, ensuring their survival to this day. Conversely, the battle guaranteed Custer and his men symbolic immortality. At a time when the nation was celebrating its centennial, many Americans saw their deaths as noble sacrifices in the service of Manifest Destiny.
Promoters of Custer capitalized on these emotions, especially Custer’s widow, Elizabeth (née Bacon; 1842–1933). Libbie (as Custer affectionately called her) never remarried and spent the rest of her long life, as Shirley Leckie chronicles in Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth (1993), carefully constructing the image of an heroic last stand—a steadfast fight to the final man against hopeless odds.
This image of the Battle of the Little Big Horn as a “last stand” has also been promoted by historians and Custer biographers. Charles Kuhlman’s Legend into History (1951) and Frederick Whittaker’s Complete Life of General George A. Custer (1876) are but two examples from a voluminous literature. Generally “last stand” symbolism assumes prominence during socially conservative periods; the wartime film epic They Died with Their Boots On (1941; Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland) exemplifies this. Here the doomed men fight bravely to the last man, in this case Custer himself.
Whatever the collective social mood of a given period, Custer’s “last stand”—as Brian Dippie argues in Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (1976)—has for the majority of Americans come to symbolize an indomitable American spirit. This is not the case in Native American circles. Rather, the Custer battle symbolizes triumph over oppression, perpetrated against not only Native Americans but also minorities in general (see Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins, 1969). Such symbolism is not confined to the Lakota and Cheyenne; it exists among Native Americans in general, and circulates widely among non-natives as well.
The symbolic value of the Battle of the Little Big Horn dwarfs its military importance. The battle, one of many during the Northern Plains Indian War Period (1862–1877), was a minor event. It had no influence on Indian policy, the foundations of which were formulated over two decades earlier. Nonetheless, followed as it was by the Army’s relentless winter campaign (1876/1877), it did indirectly hasten the surrender of Lakota and Northern Cheyenne bands (spring and summer of 1877). The defeated tribes were confined to reservation tracts, including the Great Sioux Reservation (originally the western half of present South Dakota, then reduced to small tracts in the Dakotas and Montana), established in 1868, and the Northern Cheyenne reserve (in south-central Montana), formed by Congress in 1884.
Custer the man permeates studies of the Little Big Horn battle, typically at great peril to objective analysis. Apologists are driven to absolve Custer of blame, most frequently by constructing events in ways that finger Major Reno. Like apologists, anti-Custer factions sometimes go to absurd lengths—but in order to blame Custer for the debacle, not one of his subalterns. Ultimately, the two sides find common ground in “last stand” imagery—whatever the chain of events, and whoever is blamed, Custer’s battalion fights to the end against impossible odds.
Only comparatively recently has the venerable notion of a “last stand” been challenged, by Douglas Scott, Richard Fox, and others in two books, Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle (1987) and Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1989). Using forensic analysis of firing pin marks on spent cartridges systematically recovered from the Custer battlefield, Fox shows in Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle (1993) that instead of mounting a resolute stand, Custer’s battalion fell apart. Cartridge case patterns show the command maintained tactical order (skirmish lines) initially, but subsequently lost cohesion. Denouement came amid panic and fear. Numerous eyewitness reports by Indian warriors support this interpretation. They speak of soldiers who “acted as if drunk,” “threw down their guns,” and so on. Native testimonies also indicate the end came in half an hour or so.
In the new synthesis, two independent lines of evidence—the material and documentary records—converge, providing interpretive confidence. Before the gathering of archaeological evidence, studies of the Battle of the Little Big Horn relied solely on highly contradictory historical documentation, which was easily manipulated in support of one or another preconceived notion of Custer and his men.
The historical-archaeological synthesis has not ended debate in Custer battle studies—but the case for a “last stand” is now far more difficult to argue. Authors who wish to keep this image of the battle alive—for example, Gregory Michno in Lakota Noon (1997)—are typically compelled to resort to special pleading, circular reasoning, revision, and selective use of evidence.
SEE ALSO Archaeology
Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1969. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan.
Dippie, Brian W. 1976. Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Fox, Richard A., Jr. 1993. Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Kuhlman, Charles. 1951. Legend into History: The Custer Mystery: An Analytical Study of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Harrisburg, PA: Old Army Press.
Leckie, Shirley A. 1993. Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making of a Myth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Michno, Gregory F. 1997. Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press.
Scott, Douglas D., and Richard A. Fox Jr. 1987. Archaeological Insights into the Custer Battle: An Assessment of the 1984 Field Season. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Scott, Douglas D., Richard A. Fox Jr., Melissa A. Connor, and Dick Harmon. 1989. Archaeological Perspectives on the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Van de Water, Frederic. 1934. Glory-Hunter: A Life of General Custer. Indianapolis, IN, and New York: Bobbs-Merrill. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
Whittaker, Frederick. 1876. A Complete Life of General George A. Custer. New York: Sheldon. Reprint, 2 vols., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Richard A. Fox
Custer's Last Stand
Custer's Last Stand
On June 25, 1876, the Seventh U.S. Cavalry rode along the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana in pursuit of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians that had left their reservation. With a regiment numbering about six hundred men, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) attacked an Indian settlement of nearly two thousand warriors from two sides. The Battle on the Little Bighorn River became known as “Custer's Last Stand” because Custer and the two hundred men directly under his personal command were killed within the first hour of battle. It was a significant event in the Great Sioux War of 1876 and a major Indian victory.
By 1875, many Indian tribes had been forced to live on reservation lands defined by treaties with the U.S. government. The Sioux and Cheyenne tribes were among those that had been settled in the Dakota Territory, present-day South Dakota . Conditions on the Indian reservations were failing, due mostly to maladministration by the federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs , so the people faced starvation. As a result, members of both tribes left the reservation to engage in their annual buffalo hunt.
Leaving the reservation was a bold move that contradicted the federal government orders, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs directed all Indians to return to the reservation by January 31. If they failed, they would likely be attacked as rebels and forced to return by the U.S. Army . The improbability of getting word to the hunters, even if they were willing to return, made confrontation probable.
The true cause of the federal government's aggressive tactics stemmed from the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, part of the Great Sioux Reservation. The lands had been guaranteed to the Indians by treaty, but white miners were ignoring the boundaries and settling in to prospect for gold. The government was doing little to discourage the invasion onto Indian lands, but angry tribes were unwilling to sell their land. Using the notion that occasional Indian attacks on white settlements released them from the treaty, the government wanted to reclaim the mineral rich land from the reservation and sell it for profit to white miners. In hopes of destroying the Indians’ independence and weakening their ability to resist the sale of the Black Hills, the government chose to force the Sioux and Cheyenne hunters back onto the reservation.
Early in 1876, General Philip Sheridan (1831–1888) ordered troops on the upper Yellowstone River to capture or disperse numerous bands of Dakota who were hunting there. The army organized an offensive from three directions, one of which was led by General Alfred Terry (1827–1890) and included Colonel Custer. Custer was eventually detached to lead twelve companies of men against the Indians while the rest of the regiment would prevent flight of the Indians as he attacked.
On June 25, Custer located the Indian village. He divided his regiment into three battalions. Though Custer's approach was successful in the beginning, it quickly turned in favor of the Indians when one of the battalions retreated, leaving Custer and his men to bear the brunt of the Indian's counterattack. Within an hour, Custer and all of his men were slain. Over the course of the next day, the rest of the troops arrived and forced the Indians to retreat to the south.
The Battle of Little Bighorn was an empty victory for the Sioux and Cheyenne. News of the death of Custer and his men stunned the American people and led to greatly intensified military efforts. By the spring of 1877, most of the Sioux and Cheyenne had surrendered and resettled on the reservation. The federal government forced them to give up the Black Hills. The Great Sioux War marked the end to major Indian fighting in the American West.
Little Bighorn, Battle of the
The Sioux War of 1876 originated in the Treaty of 1868, which established the Great Sioux Reservation in Dakota Territory. Part of the seven tribes of Lakota Sioux and their Cheyenne allies settled on the reservation, while the rest gathered with Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other “nontreaties” in the “unceded” Powder River country to the west. After discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874, the government sought to buy the hills from the reservation chiefs. The attempt failed in large part because of the opposition of the nontreaty chiefs. To destroy their independence, the government ordered all Indians to their agencies by 31 January 1876 or face military action. The nontreaties did not comply.
Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry marched with one of three columns that converged on the unceded territory. Battlefield reverses turned back Gen. George Crook, but Gen. Alfred H. Terry and Col. John Gibbon united on the Yellowstone River at the mouth of the Rosebud Creek and formed plans to strike the Indians, thought to be in the Little Bighorn Valley. Custer would march up the Rosebud and hit from the south, while Terry and Gibbon would ascend the Yellowstone and Bighorn and position themselves to head off any Indians flushed by Custer.
On 25 June, before Terry and Gibbon were in position, Custer found and attacked the Indian village on the Little Bighorn. It contained about 7,000 people, 2,000 fighting men. Custer's regiment numbered about 600, which he divided into three battalions, one under Maj. Marcus A. Reno, one under Capt. Frederick W. Benteen, and one under his personal command. Benteen departed on a mission to ensure that no Indians camped in the valley above the main village. Custer and Reno approached the village itself, which Custer apparently intended to strike from two directions. While Custer and five companies rode downstream behind masking bluffs, Reno and three companies charged the upper end of the village.
Although surprised, the warriors rallied and threw Reno's small command back across the river with heavy casualties. Reno's retreat freed the Indians to concentrate on Custer at the other end of the village. They caught him in broken terrain east of the river. Within an hour, all five companies, 210 men, had been wiped out. No man survived. Joined by Benteen, Reno held hilltop positions four miles to the south through the next day, when the Indians, discovering Terry's approach from the north, pulled off to the south.
The disaster promptly set off a controversy that still rages. Whether a reckless glory hunter or a capable field commander victimized by bad luck, in defeat Custer gained an immortality that no victory could have conferred.
[See also Plains Indians Wars; Army, U.S.: 1866–99.]
John S. Gray , Centennial Campaign: The Sioux War of 1876, 1976.
John S. Gray , Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed, 1991.
Paul Andrew Hutton, ed., The Custer Reader, 1992.
Robert M. Utley
Custer's Last Stand
Custer's Last Stand
Custer's Last Stand
Custer's Last Stand ★½ 1936
Feature-length version of the Mascot serial recounting the last days of the famous General. 70m/B VHS, DVD . Frank McGlynn, Rex Lease, Nancy Caseell, Lona Andre, William Far-num, Reed Howes, Jack Mulhall, Josef Swickard, Ruth Mix; D: Elmer Clifton.