Military History blog

Battle of the Little Bighorn and the death of General Custer

The Battle of Little Bighorn is enrolled in the annals of history as the clash between the American cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and the North American Indians under the command of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. This was a significant defeat of the US Army, which ended with death of Custer and entirely of his soldiers.

Bighorn’s background

At the end of the nineteenth century, the boundaries of the United States reached from the west to the east coast, but without some of the mid-western states, such as Montana, either Dakota or Wyoming –  the land still inhabited by the last free Indians. These areas were called the Great Plains and were inhabited by about 30 Indian tribes: mainly Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne, Crow, Blackfeet and Sioux.

The continuing expansion caused a series of conflicts, many of which were armed clashes, pushing the Indians to the west, or closing them on reservations. For most of them, abandoning their nomadic life of hunting and loss of land it was unacceptable, but usually they had to bow to the military power of the modern industrial culture of the United States.

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Alfred Jacob Miller’s painting called “Hunting Buffalo” which shows the traditional buffalo hunting on the Great Plains
Source: Walters Art Museum

In 1868 the leaders of the tribes of the Lakota (Sioux) signed an agreement with the US government, which agreed to place their people in the reservation in South Dakota. Lakota had not to leave the designated area, and their life became dependent on government assistance. This did not sit well with some Indians, including chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse – later heroes of the Little Bighorn. Their hunting expeditions outside the designated Sioux area led to conflicts between them and the American settlers and other Indian tribes.

Gold rush in Black Hills

In 1874 an American expedition by the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment under the command of Lt. Col. George Custer found gold in the mountains of the Black Hills, which were on the reserve inhabited by a Lakota tribe. This resulted in an invasion of engineers, geologists, prospectors, as well as ordinary settlers. All this was a clear violation of the agreement between the US government and the Indians. The Americans tried to buy the Black Hills from the Sioux, but they did not agree. The result of all of this was leaving  the boundaries of the reservation by many Indians.

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American cavalrymen from XIX century fighting with Indians
Graphics from 1899
War against the Indians

The Missouri Division Commander, General Philip Sheridan ordered the attack on the Indians, who left the Great Sioux Reservation, to compel them to return. He this mission to two commanders – General George Crook, who led federal forces from the south and General Alfred Terry, who was to attack the Indians from the east and west. The greater part of Terry ‘s branch was the famous 7th Cavalry Regiment commanded by Lt. Col. Custer. The first troops left their bases in March 1876 of the year and started to march towards their destinies.

It was expected that the Sioux and Cheyenne would be camped in the valley of the Bighorn River, and it was the place where all of Sheridan’s troops were to meet and attack the Indians. General Terry had 750 riders of 7th Cavalry Regiment, in addition to his column of 150 infantry, various camp personnel and cowboys to drive the cattle. The US Army also cooperated with the Indian tribes in conflict with Cheyenne and Sioux. General Terry had 39 Indian scouts of the tribes Crow and Arikara under his command. A large part of the federal troops were veterans of the Civil War, the battle-hardened troopers armed with mostly Springfield guns – having good coverage, but easily overheated and impossible to reload while riding. Officers willingly used their swords, so that they could effectively take up the fight in close quarters against the enemy armed with tomahawk, knife, club or spear. A large part of the Indians were in possession of firearms (even modern Winchesters); however, the weapon which gave them a big advantage in the Little Bighorn was the bow, because in the undulating mountain region, the arrow could be used to great effect.

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George Armstrong Custer on May 23, 1865
Source: the Library of Congress
The massacre at the Little Bighorn

Cheyenne and Sioux indeed gathered in the valley of the rivers Bighorn and Yellowstone, as predicted by the US commanders. This region was the hunting area of many tribes, which were also drawn there by the desire to participate in the annual ceremony known as the Sun Dance. It was a religious and initiation ceremony, very important for the Indians of the Northern Plains. During the Sun Dance, Chief Sitting Bull had a vision in which he saw soldiers attack on his village and a great victory of his warriors.

The indians were not going to wait for US troops to link up their columns, so on 17 June, warriors led by Crazy Horse attacked General Crook by the river Rosebud. The American general, also supported by 270 Crow and Shoshone warriors, clashed all day, but eventually Crook had to withdraw from the battle and did not participate in the subsequent Battle of the Little Bighorn. The problem was that, regardless of Custer finding the evidence of the battle, General Terry did not know about the Crook’s withdrawal and expected to meet him on the Bighorn.

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Chief Sitting Bull (left) and Chief Crazy Horse (right)
Photos on the Public Domain license

Custer was sent to the front and on June 24 reached the vicinity of the great Indian camp on the Little Bighorn River. As it turned out, the camp held about 8,000 people of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes,with 1500 to 1800 warriors. The Indian scouts sent by Custer told him that “they found enough of the Sioux, who have to fight for three days.” Custer told them then that a win will take them only one day. The Americans had already been convinced that the sight of so many cavalry will take from Indians the willingness to fight and a contest of arms would not be necessary – but they were wrong.

Custer decided not to wait for support and hit the Indian camp alone. First, he divided his forces into 4 parts – the first, under the command of Major Marcus Reno, was to hit the Indian camp from of the south, another, under the command of the Custer, was to attack at about the same time from the north. In the rearguard was a battalion, under Captain Frederick Benteen‘s control, and the convoys were entrusted to Captain McDougall.

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Custer’s last charge
Author: Seifert Gugler & Co., Public Domain

At sunrise on June 25, Reno attacked the Indian camp, falling into a trap, because Sioux and Cheyenne warriors did not defend their tents, but quickly outflanked Reno’s forces. At the beginning of the clash, Reno ordered his men to dismount and fire at the enemy from what cover they could find; when things got dire, he was compelled to order a retreat. At the beginning of organized, then chaotic, when the next major Reno shot dead Custer’s favorite Indian scout, Bloody Knife.  The arrival of Benteen and McDougall saved Reno from being massacred; they went there with the intention to stop the fleeing Indians, but were suddenly supporting Reno’s retreating cavalry. The combined forces stopped the warriors, but they neglected to send Custer news of the failed attack, thus Custer continued his part of the plan going – as it turned out – to his death.

Custer’s death

By the lack of good reconnaissance Custer’s attack was delayed and its impact was only when lasting longer escape Major Reno. Cheyenne and the Sioux very quickly noticed the arrival of the new enemy and launched an attack that pushed the Americans back to the north. At the same time, Crazy Horse, along with other Sioux warriors, brilliantly enveloped the cavalry, which took away their ability to retreat. In this hopeless situation, Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and make them a protective wall against the Indian arrows and bullets. Unfortunately, it was the end for the troopers of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, US Army; within an hour, Custer and his 210 men lay dead on the field at the Little Bighorn.

After defeating Custer, Indians attacked with all the power against Benteen and Reno’s positions, but ultimately General Terry‘s arrival turned the tide of the battle; the combined forces pushed the Cheyenne and Sioux south. In the meantime, the Indians took from the battlefield all of their dead and wounded warriors and mutilated the Americans, including scalping the bodies. Double shot of Lt Col George Custer’s body was found on top of a hill. The Commander’s body was untouched, possibly explained by the fact that before the battle, he had cut his long blonde hair and enemies did not recognize him. Custer and his 210 men (plus Reno’s 52), as well as civilians and allied Indians were buried together on the battlefield at Little Bighorn. During the battle, Cheyenne and Sioux lost 60 to 100 warriors.

“Custer’s Last Stand” 
Edgar Samuela Paxson’s painting, Public Domain

The Battle of Little Bighorn ushered in a wave of resentment against the native Indians and increased the number of troops deployed on the border of Montana and Wyoming. The Great Plains, including the Black Hills, were conquered by the Americans, and Indian tribes were forced into reservations.

After the battle, Chief Sitting Bull and his tribe had to flee to Canada from pursuing US Cavalry. The US authorities deprived the tribes of the Sioux food by burning the prairie near the Canadian – American border and killing bison herds. In 1881, Sitting Bull was forced to return to the United States, where he was compelled to remain on the reservation. In 1885 he even performed in the famous rodeo of Buffalo Bill. In 1890, accused of involvement in the Ghost Dance, he was shot dead while being arrested by Indian police in the service of the US government.

Chief Crazy Horse was killed in 1877 after arresting him by General Crook.

4 years after the Battle of the Little Bighorn River, the 7th Cavalry Regiment brutally “avenged” their fallen by slaughtering 250 Indian men, women and children at the Wounded Knee Massacre, which  occurred on December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the U.S. state of South Dakota.

Bonus facts:
  • After the battle, Americans killed most of the wounded horses of dead cavalrymen of the 7th Regiment, but spared one of them – a horse named Comanche, ridden by Captain Keogh. Comanche appeared later in many military parades: always saddled, always riderless
  • After the Little Bighorn, General Terry gave chase after Sioux, later known as the “Horsemeat March”. For faster marching the army left most supplies behind at camps, taking mostly ammunition. After a while, they ran out of food, and hungry soldiers killed their horses for meat. Many of them started to suffer from mental illness.
  • On the expedition against Sioux, Lt.-Col. George Custer took with him four members of his own family. Captain Tom Custer (31) was a company commander, Boston Custer (27), a guide, a 18-year-old nephew Custer: Harry Armstrong Reed was a herdsman. In addition, there was also the Custer’s brother-in-law, James Calhoun, whose name was called from one of the hills, where the battle was fought. All four died at Little Bighorn.
  • Before the battle, General Terry offered Custer the use of two Gatling guns. He, however, refused, saying that the “7th Regiment will cope with everything encounters” to mean that it does not need such inventions. Historians debated whether taking these weapons would have changed the outcome of the battle.
  • George Custer took part in the Civil War, where he commanded the troops of volunteers on the Union side. The war ended for him with the general’s rank, but as a result of a significant reduction in jobs in the army, his rank was restored to captain, having de facto two parallel military ranks. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed to the 7th Regiment with the rank of Lt.-Col.
  • To this day, we cannot be sure who actually killed George Custer. One of the participants of the battle was White Bull, who on his deathbed testified that he killed the enemy commander. This act was attributed to the Dakotas Chief named Rain in the Face, but he denied this, admitting, however, to taking the life of Tom Custer.
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U.S. Army Memorial on Last Stand Hill
Photo: Durwood Brandon via Wikimedia Commons
Source History.com Smithsonian Britannica

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