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The battle of Little Bighorn: what happened at 'Custer's last stand'?

Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse’s defeat of the flamboyant Colonel George Custer at the Little Bighorn has become one of the most famous and controversial episodes in American military victory. Historian Julian Humphrys tells the story…

October 1876: General Nelson Miles talking with Chief Sitting Bull after the army's defeat at Little Bighorn
Published: June 24, 2022 at 3:05 pm
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People in Washington were getting ready for a party. It was 4 July 1876 – the centenary of the birth of the USA – but news arrived that day that brought the celebrations to a halt. The US Army had suffered a devastating defeat in Montana at the hands of the Lakota Sioux and their Cheyenne allies. The Lakota called their victory the Battle of the Greasy Grass, but it would go down in history as the Battle of the Little Bighorn – or simply Custer’s Last Stand.

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Faced with a volatile situation following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, the US authorities decided to force the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne to the reservations set aside for them. Colonel John Gibbon would head east from Fort Ellis in Montana, General George Crook would strike north from Fort Fetterman, Wyoming and General Alfred Terry would head west along the Yellowstone River from Fort Abraham in Dakota. The 7th Cavalry, commanded by Lt Col George Armstrong Custer, made up the bulk of Terry’s 900 men.

Photo of George Custer and his scouts
General George A. Custer and some of his scouts in Montana territory. The man standing by the tent door is thought to be Curly, recorded as the only survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn where Custer's entire command was wiped out by the allied Indian tribes under Sitting Bull on June 26, 1876. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

The government troops only had a sketchy idea of where their enemies were and had also underestimated their strength, which they reckoned to be no more than 1,000 warriors. But they had failed to take into account the fact that large numbers of warriors had left the reservations and joined Sitting Bull and his supporters. In fact, their main concern was that their enemies would scatter before they could be dealt with. But, encouraged by one of Sitting Bull’s visions that foretold the defeat of the white man, the Lakota were ready for a fight. On 17 June, Crook’s men were resting on the banks of Rosebud Creek on the present-day border between Wyoming and Montana when they were suddenly attacked by the Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse with nearly 1,000 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. The fighting went on for some six hours and both sides suffered around 100 casualties before the natives drew off. Crook claimed a victory but he fell back and took no further part.

What was the battle of Little Bighorn about?

In 1874, an expedition led by George Custer confirmed that there were gold deposits in the Black Hills in South Dakota. The problem was that the hills were favoured hunting grounds and sacred territory to the Lakota and Cheyenne, and the ensuing influx of miners and entrepreneurs to the area was a direct violation of the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868.

The government decided that it could only deal with the situation by purchasing the Black Hills, but the Lakota rejected the price that they offered. The US authorities responded by withdrawing their troops from the approaches to the Black Hills, allowing more miners to pour in. Some of the Lakota retaliated by attacking the miners, while others left their reservations and joined Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and their followers in the remaining buffalo hunting grounds in Montana.

At the end of 1875, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered the Lakota and their allies to report to a reservation by 31 January 1876 or be considered hostile. When the deadline passed, the army took action.

Meanwhile Terry and Gibbon’s forces had linked up at the mouth of Rosebud Creek. On 22 June, believing that Crook was still on the move, Terry ordered Custer to take the 7th Cavalry south and west so that the Lakota could be caught between three converging columns. Significantly, Terry wasn’t too detailed in the instructions he gave to Custer, saying he had no wish “to impose precise orders which might hamper your action when nearly in contact with the enemy.” This was music to the ears of the impetuous Custer, who galloped away waving his hat excitedly.

Key players in the battle of Little Bighorn

George Armstrong Custer

A rather unruly West Point cadet who graduated last in his class, Custer displayed a reckless temperament, which meant he was frequently in trouble with his superiors. Yet his personal bravery was never in question, and the American Civil War suited his devil-may-care attitude. He rapidly won promotion, and by the end of the war was the youngest major-general in the Union Army. It was only a wartime appointment, and he was reduced to the rank of captain, but in 1866 he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the newly raised 7th Cavalry. His somewhat cavalier approach to his responsibilities earned him a year’s suspension, but he was soon reinstated, and in 1868 led a brutal attack on a Cheyenne settlement on the Washita River. In 1874, he led the expedition that discovered gold in the Black Hills, and set into motion the chain of events that would conclude with his death at the Little Bighorn. Even then he nearly missed the campaign, as he was temporarily relieved of command after accusing President Grant’s brother of corruption.

Sitting Bull

A holy man and leader of the Hunkpapa division of the Lakota Sioux, Sitting Bull was a courageous and charismatic defender of the Native American way of life and first came into conflict with American soldiers and settlers in 1863. He later supported Red Cloud in his campaign to keep control of the Powder River in Montana, but refused to live in the reservation established by the Treaty of Fort Laramie. This brought him and his followers into conflict with American settlers as well as other tribes. A spiritual rather than military leader during the Little Bighorn campaign, Sitting Bull escaped to Canada following the government backlash. In 1881, he returned to the US, gave himself up and was held as a prisoner of war for nearly two years before being transferred to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. In 1885, he briefly toured with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, where he was an instant hit and became a close friend of Annie Oakley, the famous sharpshooter. In 1890 fears that he might get involved with the subversive Ghost Dance movement led the authorities to attempt to arrest him, and he was shot and killed during the ensuing fracas.

Two days after leaving the main column, Custer’s scouts gave him the news that he’d been itching to hear – they’d found evidence of large-scale movement to the west. Custer immediately set off in pursuit. It appears that his plan was to find where the Native Americans were camped, spend the 25th giving his saddle-sore troopers some rest, and then attack on 26 June, which was the day that Terry and Gibbon were expected to arrive in the area. At dawn on the following day, Custer’s Native American scouts climbed some high ground near the Bighorn River and looked down into the valley below. The encampment was there all right, but it was much larger than anyone had anticipated. Custer was unimpressed by his scouts’ claims that “there are more Sioux than you have bullets,” but what did worry Custer was the fact that it seemed his force had been spotted by a group of natives who had been riding outside the camp. In Custer’s eyes there was no time to be lost. If the news got back to the camp, his enemies would scatter and any chance of rounding them up would be lost.

A photo of Custer's expedition
A wagon train, part of Custer's Expedition into the Black Hills, 1874. (Photo by The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)

So Custer changed his plan. Abandoning the idea of a day’s rest, he resolved to attack as quickly as possible. After sending one group of men south under Captain Benteen to cut off any retreat in that direction, Custer ordered Major Reno to move up the valley along the Little Bighorn River to attack the lower end of the encampment. Custer himself took the rest of his command and moved north of the river to attack the other end.

The 7th Cavalry: how were they armed?

Although the troopers of the 7th Cavalry had been issued with sabres, they had left them behind for the campaign. In battle they were trained to ride into action, then dismount and rely on firepower, with every fifth soldier holding the horses of his comrades. Their standard weapons were the breechloading Springfield carbine and the Colt .45 revolver. The Springfield certainly packed a punch but the standard of marksmanship in the 7th Cavalry wasn’t high. Nor were matters helped by the fact that the Springfield was only a single-shot weapon, and this restricted the rate of fire the soldiers using it could achieve.

Reno’s troops crossed the river about two miles south of the camp and began advancing towards its southern end. Those inside the village were taken completely by surprise (it was a scorching hot day and many had been bathing in the river), but soon hundreds of warriors were pouring out to confront Reno’s men who had dismounted and formed up in a skirmish line. Heavily outnumbered and in danger of being outflanked and surrounded, Reno pulled his men back to a line of trees on the river bank that offered better protection. Even so they were taking casualties.

One of those killed was Reno’s scout, Bloody Knife. He was hit in the head by a bullet and his brains splattered all over Reno’s face and uniform. Before long the warriors were in the trees and Reno ordered his men to retreat again, this time to the bluffs across the river. The retreat turned into a rout as Lakota and Cheyenne warriors rode after the fleeing troopers, shooting them at close range or pulling them to the ground to be finished off by club, knife or lance. Those that made it across the river scraped out holes in the dusty ground for cover and opened fire to hold off their pursuers, but 38 men had been killed outright.

Photo of Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull led his people to victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn. (Photo by Palmquist & Jurgens/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Meanwhile Custer was in sight of the encampment. It appears that his plan had been to attack the rear of the camp where he deduced that the women and children would be gathered. He must have concluded that if the warriors thought that their families were under attack, there was a good chance that they would give up fighting in order to rescue their children or even lay down their arms. But Custer had reckoned without the sheer size of the camp and the numbers of warriors in it. Joined by some of those who had driven back Reno a little earlier, hundreds and hundreds of warriors swarmed out of the camp, intent on wiping out the men who were threatening not only their way of life but also their families. Had they been in a prepared defensive position, the soldiers would probably have had a chance of seeing them off, but caught in the open and hugely outnumbered, their fate was sealed.

Custer's last stand: how did the colonel die?

More words have been written about what happened next than possibly any other American military action in history, but we can only guess at the actual chain of events. None of Custer’s party survived to tell their story, but Native American accounts and archaeological finds do give us some clues. It appears that the five companies of Custer’s force were driven uphill away from the river and annihilated in a running fight that lasted for less than an hour. Eventually Custer and 40-50 of his men, the survivors of the original force of 210, were cornered on the hill where the US Cavalry monument now stands. This was Custer’s famous ‘Last Stand’. Many accounts suggest that their retreat had been blocked by warriors sweeping the battlefield. Some seem to have made a desperate attempt to break out and escape but all were killed in minutes.

Painting depicting the Battle of Little Bighorn
The Battle of Little Bighorn. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

As the men under Custer’s immediate command fought and died, the rest of the 7th Cavalry held out on a hill two miles or so to the east. Reinforced by Benteen’s soldiers, Reno and his men dug in and for two days they repelled every attempt to dislodge them. The battle turned into a long-range sniping contest, and the Lakota were forced to abandon their ponies and rely on their bows and rifles. Finally, as the sun set on 26 June, the fighting petered out. With their supplies running out and little grass left for their ponies to eat, the Lakota and their allies began to disperse, scattering across the Plains in small groups. When Terry and Gibbon arrived on the battlefield a day later, the victors of the Little Bighorn were nowhere to be seen.

What happened after the battle of Little Bighorn?

Custer’s Last Stand was in many ways the last stand of the Lakota Sioux as well. His defeat came as a profound shock to the US authorities, and they responded by pouring troops and resources into the region. Led by Colonel Nelson Miles, the ensuing winter campaign broke the back of Lakota resistance – within a year most of the so-called ‘hostiles’ had either followed Sitting Bull across the border into Canada or given themselves up. One of these was Crazy Horse, who was subsequently killed while under arrest at Fort Robinson. The Black Hills were taken by the government, and the Native Americans received no compensation at all.

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This article was originally published in the October 2016 edition of BBC History Revealed

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