June 25-26, 1876: Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn
In the mid-nineteenth century, the providential idea of Manifest Destiny drove Americans to move west. They traveled along various overland trails and railroads to Oregon, California, Colorado, and the Dakota Territory in search of land and gold. Native Americans who lived and hunted in the West were alarmed at white encroachment on their lands, which were usually protected by treaties. The conflict led to several violent clashes throughout the West.
Tensions with Native Americans simmered in the early 1870s. The Transcontinental Railroad contributed to western development and the integration of national markets, but it also intruded on Native American lands. Two military expeditions were dispatched to Montana to protect the railroad and its workers in 1872. In 1874, gold was reportedly discovered in the Black Hills in modern-day South Dakota within the Great Sioux Reservation. By the end of 1875, 15,000 prospectors and miners were in the Black Hills searching for gold.
Some Indians resisted. Sitting Bull was an elite Lakota Sioux war leader who had visions and dreams. Moreover, Oglala Lakota supreme war chief Crazy Horse had a reputation as a fierce warrior. They resisted the reservations and American encroachment on their lands and were willing to unite and fight against it.
In early November 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant met with General Philip Sheridan and others on Indian policy at the White House. They issued an ultimatum for all Sioux outside the reservation to go there by January 31, 1876 or be considered hostile. The Sioux ignored it. Sitting Bull said, “I will not go to the reservation. I have no land to sell. There is plenty of game for us. We have enough ammunition. We don’t want any white men here.”
That spring, the Cheyenne, Oglala, and Sioux tribes in the area decided to unite through the summer and fight the Americans. In the spring, Sitting Bull called for warriors to assemble at his village for war. Nearly two thousand warriors assembled, many were armed with the latest repeating Springfield rifles.
That spring, Sitting Bull had visions of victory over the white man. In mid-May, he fasted and purified himself in a ritual called the Sun Dance. After 50 small strips of flesh had been cut from each arm, he had a vision of whites coming into their camp and suffering a great defeat.
After discovering the approximate location of Sitting Bull’s village, General Alfred Terry met with Colonel George Custer and Colonel John Gibbon on the Yellowstone River to formulate a plan. They agreed upon a classic hammer and anvil attack in which Custer would proceed down the Rosebud River and attack the village, while Terry and Gibbon went down the Yellowstone and Little Bighorn Rivers to block any escape. Custer had 40 Arikara scouts with him to find the enemy.
On June 23 and 24, the Arikara scouts found evidence that Sitting Bull’s village had recently occupied the area. The exhausted Seventh Cavalry stopped for the night at 2 a.m. on June 25. The scouts meanwhile sighted a massive herd of ponies and sent a message to wake Custer. When a frightened scout, Bloody Knife, warned they would “find enough Sioux to keep us fighting two or three days,” Custer arrogantly replied, “I guess we’ll get through them in one day.” His greater fear was that the village would escape his clutches. He ordered his men to form up for battle.
Around noon, Custer led the Seventh into the valley and divided his men as he had during the Battle of Washita. He sent Captain Frederick Benteen to the left with 120 men to block any escape, while Custer and Major Marcus Reno advanced on the right along the Sun Dance Creek.
Custer and Reno spotted 40 to 50 warriors fleeing toward the main village. Custer further divided his army, sending Reno in pursuit and himself continuing along the right flank. Prodding his men with some bluster, Custer told them, “Boys, hold your horses. There are plenty of them down there for all of us.”
Reno’s men crossed the Little Bighorn and fired at noncombatants. Hundreds of Indian warriors started arriving to face Reno. Reno downed a great deal of whiskey and ordered his soldiers to dismount and form a skirmish line. They were outnumbered and were quickly overwhelmed by the Native Americans’ onslaught and running low on ammunition.
Reno’s men retreated to some woods along the bank of the river to find cover but were soon flushed out, though fifteen men remained there, hidden and frightened. The warriors routed Reno’s troops and killed several during their retreat back across the river. Reno finally organized eighty men on a hill and fought off several charges.
Benteen soon reinforced Reno as did the fifteen men from the thicket who also made it to what is now called Reno Hill, and the pack train with ammunition and supplies arrived as well. No one knew where Custer was. The men built entrenchments made of ammunition and hardtack boxes, saddles, and even dead horses. For more than three hours in the 100-degree heat, they fought off a continuous stream of attacking warriors by the hundreds and were saved only by the arrival of darkness. Reno’s exhausted and thirsty men continued to dig in and fortify their barricades.
The attacks resumed around that night and lasted all morning. Benteen and Reno organized charges that momentarily pushed back the Sioux and Cheyenne, and a few men sneaked down to the Little Bighorn for water. The fighting lasted until mid-afternoon when the warriors broke off to follow the large dust cloud of the departing village. The soldiers on the hill feared a trick and kept watch all night for the enemy’s return.
General Terry’s army was camped to the north when his Crow scouts reported to him at sunrise on June 26 that they had found the battlefield where two hundred men of the Seventh Regiment had been overwhelmed and killed making a last stand on a hill. The next day, Terry arrived at Last Stand Hill and morosely confirmed that Custer and his men were dead. The bad news sobered the celebration of the United States’ centennial when it arrived in the East.
Despite the destruction of Custer and his men at Little Bighorn, the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century were devastating for Native American tribes and their cultures. Their populations suffered heavy losses, and they lost their tribal grounds for hunting and agriculture. In the early twentieth century, the U.S. government restricted most Indians to reservations as Americans settled the West. Many Americans saw the reservation system as a more humane alternative to war, but it wrought continued damage to Native American cultures.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
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