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The Battle of Little Bighorn

Battle of Little Bighorn map.
Map of the Battle of Little Bighorn (c) US National Parks Service.

From the 1860s through the 1870s, the American frontier was filled with conflict.

In 1865, a congressional committee began a study of the Indian uprisings in the West. This study resulted in a Report on the Condition of the Indian Tribes, which was released in 1867.

This study and report by the congressional committee led to an act to establish an Indian Peace Commission to end the wars and prevent future conflicts.

Indian treaties

The United States government set out to establish a series of Indian treaties that would force the Indians to give up their lands and move further west onto reservations.

In the spring of 1868, a conference was held at Fort Laramie - in present day Wyoming - that resulted in a treaty with the Sioux.

This treaty was to bring peace between the whites and the Sioux who agreed to settle within the Black Hills reservation in the Dakota Territory.

In the 1868 Treaty, signed at Fort Laramie and other military posts in Sioux country, the United States recognized the Black Hills as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, set aside for exclusive use by the Sioux people.

This treaty clearly stated that “No white person or persons shall be permitted to settle or occupy any portion of territory within the Black Hills or pass through without the consent of the Indians.”

In return, the Indians were not supposed to oppose the construction of railroad connections.

Black Hills expedition

In 1874, however, General George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills accompanied by miners who were seeking gold.

Once gold was found in the Black Hills, miners were soon moving into the Sioux hunting grounds and demanding protection from the United States Army.

Soon, the Army was ordered to move against wandering bands of Sioux hunting on the range in accordance with their treaty rights.

Black Hills
Black Hills Dakota Territory, 1876

In late 1875, Sioux and Cheyenne Indians defiantly left their reservations, outraged over the continued intrusions of whites into their sacred lands in the Black Hills.

They gathered in Montana with the great warrior Sitting Bull to fight for their lands.

The following spring, two victories over the US Cavalry emboldened them to fight on in the summer of 1876.

To force the large Indian army back to the reservations, the Army dispatched three columns to attack in coordinated fashion, one of which contained Lt. Colonel George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry.

Custer's Last Stand

Spotting the Sioux village about 15 miles away along the Rosebud River on June 25, Custer also found a nearby group of about 40 warriors.

Ignoring orders to wait, he decided to attack before they could alert the main party. He did not realize the number of warriors in the village numbered three times his strength.

Dividing his forces in three, Custer sent troops under Captain Frederick Benteen to prevent their escape through the upper valley of the Little Bighorn River.

Major Marcus Reno was to pursue the group, cross the river and charge the Indian village in a coordinated effort with the remaining troops under his command.

He hoped to strike the Indian encampment at the northern and southern ends simultaneously, but made this decision without knowing what kind of terrain he would have to cross before making his assault.

He belatedly discovered he would have to negotiate a maze of bluffs and ravines to attack.

Reno's squadron of 175 soldiers attacked the southern end.

Quickly finding themselves in a desperate battle with little hope of any relief, Reno halted his charging men before they could be trapped, fought for ten minutes in dismounted formation, and then withdrew into the timber and brush along the river.

When that position proved indefensible, they retreated uphill to the bluffs east of the river, pursued hotly by a mix of Cheyenne and Sioux.

Battle of Little Bighorn
Battle of Little Big Horn, June 25, 1876

Crazy Horse's command

Meanwhile, another force, largely Oglala Sioux under Crazy Horse's command, swiftly moved downstream and then doubled back in a sweeping arc, enveloping Custer and his men in a pincer move. They began pouring in gunfire and arrows.

As the Indians closed in, Custer ordered his men to shoot their horses and stack the carcasses to form a wall, but they provided little protection against bullets.

In less than an hour, Custer and his men were killed in the worst American military disaster ever.

After another day's fighting, Reno and Benteen's now united forces escaped when the Indians broke off the fight. They had learned that the other two columns of soldiers were coming toward them, so they fled.

After the battle, the Indians came through and stripped the bodies and mutilated all the uniformed soldiers, believing that the soul of a mutilated body would be forced to walk the earth for all eternity and could not ascend to heaven.

Inexplicably, they stripped Custer's body and cleaned it, but did not scalp or mutilate it.

He had been wearing buckskins instead of a blue uniform, and some believe that the Indians thought he was not a soldier so they left him alone. Because his hair was cut short for battle, others think that he did not have enough hair to allow for a very good scalping.

Immediately after the battle, the myth emerged that they left him alone out of respect for his fighting ability, but few participating Indians knew who he was to have been so respectful.

To this day, no one knows the real reason.

Little Bighorn was the pinnacle of the Indians' power.

They had achieved their greatest victory yet, but soon their tenuous union fell apart in the face of the white onslaught. Outraged over the death of a popular Civil War hero on the eve of the Centennial, the nation demanded and received harsh retribution.

The Black Hills dispute was quickly settled by redrawing the boundary lines, placing the Black Hills outside the reservation and open to white settlement.

Within a year, the Sioux nation was defeated and broken. "Custer's Last Stand" was their last stand as well.

Prominent Native American Indians in the Battle

Crazy Horse (Oglala Lakota)
Gall (Hunkpapa Lakota)
Rain-in-the-Face (Hunkpapa Lakota)
Lame White Man (Cheyenne), killed
Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa Lakota), Spiritual Leader/non-combatant
He Dog (Oglala Lakota)
Short Bull (Brule’ Lakota)
Two Moons (Cheyenne)
American Horse (Oglala Lakota)
Hump (Minniconjou Lakota), wounded

Michno, Gregory F.; Lakota Noon: The Indian Narratives of Custer's Defeat, Mountain Press Publishing, 1997

Sandoz, Mari; The Battle of the Little Bighorn, University of Nebraska Press, 1978

Utley, Robert; Custer: Cavalier in Buckskin, University of Oklahoma Press; Revised edition, 2001

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