“Custer’s Last Stand” is one of those unresolved controversies of the American West that drive history aficionados to distraction for years. No one knows exactly what happened on June 25, 1876, since none of the 225 men in George Armstrong Custer’s detachment lived to tell about it. However, common themes run through the haze of scholarly research, Sioux tradition, archaeological discoveries, and fabrications perpetuated by dime novels, and from these a fairly clear reconstruction of the facts can be pieced together.
The Sioux Indians were promised a permanent reservation in Dakota Territory and all the supplies they would need to start life in their new home, but were soon sorely disappointed with what they received. Their food was spoiled, their blankets were moth-eaten, and nothing came in the quantities agreed upon. Furthermore, the young men found life on the reservations dull, since they had no way to distinguish themselves by acts of warlike valor as was expected of all Sioux braves. They had a bit of a grievance with Custer, as well. It was he who guided the Northern Pacific Railroad survey into land that was supposed to belong to the Indians. It was also he who led a military expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 to investigate a rumor of gold in the area. His success in locating the gold brought swarms of prospectors to the reservations.
But there was still hope. The great medicine chief Sitting Bull had neither surrendered to the government nor submitted to reservation life. Angry young men accepted the ammunition the Indian agencies persisted in giving them, then gathered around Sitting Bull in his hideout in the Little Bighorn Valley until by 1876 he had collected at least 1,500 followers, perhaps even as many as 5,000. Together they defied government orders to return to the reservation, occasionally sallying forth to raid the white man. The United States government realized that something had to be done.
Accordingly, Colonel John Gibbon was sent eastward from Fort Ellis in Montana Territory, and Brigadier General Alfred Terry, with Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his 7th Cavalry, was sent westward from Fort Abraham Lincoln on the Missouri. They met on the Yellowstone River in what is now southern Montana, Gibbon reporting that there were definitely Indians in the vicinity. After some scouting which verified that Sitting Bull was on the Little Bighorn River, a tributary of the Bighorn River which in turn flows roughly northward into the Yellowstone, Terry formulated a plan. He and Gibbon would take boats further up the Yellowstone, then march southward until they were in a position to attack the Indian village. Custer was to cut off the eastern escape from Little Bighorn Valley. Terry would meet him on June 26, when the battle would begin.
The Battle of Little Bighorn
Custer, however, had ideas of his own. He galloped off toward the Indian camp and, by riding all day and all night, arrived on the 25th instead of the 26th. When he finally caught sight of the edge of Sitting Bull’s village, both men and horses were exhausted. Nevertheless, he divided his 650 men into four detachments and prepared for battle without waiting for support from Terry. Captain McDougal was to guard the pack train and the rear, Captain Benteen was to scout on the left, Major Reno was to attack the village, and Custer himself was to support Reno.
Reno approached the camp as ordered, but when he came into full view of the village, he realized what he had gotten himself into. There before him was the fighting force of the Sioux Nation, preparing for battle. Some have speculated that had he charged, all might not have been lost. This is possibly true, for although the Indians saw Custer approaching the other side of the village, no one saw Reno until he was upon them. His appearance created considerable confusion. Sitting Bull fled in panic, leaving another chief, Crazy Horse, to carry out most of the fighting. Daring charges, however, were not Reno’s forte. He hesitated, uncertain as to what to do. While he was alternately ordering his men to dismount and remount, the warriors came tearing to the attack. Reno, afraid that his only escape route would be cut off, galloped back the way he had come, hotly pursued by the Sioux. His men quickly scaled the nearby bluffs.
Custer, meanwhile, attempted to throw himself into the center of the Indian village and failed. Having easily repulsed Reno, the Sioux were free to concentrate their attack on Custer, and quickly drove him into broken ground unsafe for horses. Once forced to fight on foot, he was no match for the Indians. His detachment was wiped out in little more than an hour. The only survivors were a horse named Comanche and a Crow scout who had prudently wrapped himself up in a Sioux blanket.
In the meantime, Benteen and McDougal joined Reno on the bluffs, and all were wondering what had become of Custer. They had heard heavy firing downstream a short time before. Some of the men began to think that something was amiss and proposed sallying forth. Reno, however, refused to budge, fully convinced that Custer would soon be coming to rescue him. Some of the officers started off anyway, but the Indians began swarming up the bluffs on all sides, driving them back to their hiding place.
All that day, all night, and all the next day, the Indians surrounded the bluffs, occasionally climbing near enough to throw rocks at the men. However, they drew back on the evening of the 26th, possibly having caught wind of Terry’s approach. On the 27th, Terry’s forces rescued the worn-out remnants of the 7th Cavalry, which had lost some 266 officers and men, most of them in Custer’s detachment. The bodies were hastily buried on the battlefield the next day.
Once the story of the Battle of Little Bighorn became public, the dime novelists of the era quickly pounced on the tale and erected fabrications that have lingered into the present, thus contributing to the somewhat confused notion of what actually took place. However, modern historians have been aided by archaeological findings made after a 1983 grass fire cleared the area of underbrush. These, combined with the accounts of the Indians who participated in the battle and the locations of the graves of the soldiers, provide a fairly clear picture of what must have happened. Custer’s thought process, however, is still a mystery. Was he misinformed? Perhaps. Was he reckless? Quite possibly. Was he personally ambitious? Probably. But we will never know for certain what Custer’s motives were, and for this reason the story of the Battle of Little Bighorn will forever remain shrouded in legend.
George Armstrong Custer
Biography from the History Channel.
The Little Horn Massacre
New-York Times article of July 6, 1876, detailing the event.
The Battle of Little Bighorn
Eyewitness to History account using primary sources.
The Battle of Little Bighorn
Eyewitness account of Lakota Chief Red Horse.
The Custer Battlefield
Photo from the Denver Public Library.
The Military Decision-Making Process and the Battle of the Little Bighorn
A Master’s Degree thesis by a U.S. Army Major at West Point that views Custer’s battle decisions in light of current decision-making processes rather than hindsight. Easy read and great background information.
Senate Executive Document #81
General Sheridan’s report to the President.
Little Bighorn Battlefield
A discussion of the current-day monument and grounds specifically for kids.
Indian Tribes, Cultures, and Languages
Presentation from the Library of Congress.
NPS Historical Handbook: Custer Battlefield
Detailed account with old photos from the National Park Service. (Use the “Next” arrow at the bottom to navigate.)
The Boy General by Elizabeth B. Custer
This is a condensed version of several books written by Major General George Custer’s wife and edited by Mary Burt (Poems Every Child Should Know) for younger readers. The last two chapters cover the battle of Little Bighorn — the first from Mrs. Custer’s point of view and the second prepared from the work of the wife of Captain George Yates, who also died at Little Bighorn, and edited by Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles, who participated in the Indian campaign following Custer’s defeat.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Great map for notebook.
Custer’s Last Battle
Another map for notebook.
Custer’s Little Bighorn Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.